Henry Golding

The Gentlemen

01/01/20

When Guy Ritchie first burst onto cinema screens in 1998 with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, his felt like a genuinely fresh voice and, two years later, Snatch served to consolidate his reputation. But his output over the intervening years has not been as assured. (Anybody who had the misfortune to witness his attempt to reinvent King Arthur as a diamond geezer will know where I’m coming from here.) While his recent box office crowd pleaser Aladdin doubtlessly put him back into the black, it could have been directed by just about anybody. So, perhaps it’s no surprise that The Gentlemen is an all too-obvious attempt by Ritchie to return to his glory days. It’s all here, complete with an 18 certificate and enough C bombs for ten films. Take that, Walt Disney!

The lead ‘gentleman’ of the story is Rhodes scholar turned pot dealer, Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey), who is the top drug baron of the realm. He mingles with the aristocracy, who cheerfully help him to grow his crop, and is rich beyond the dreams of Croesus. But he’s looking to get out and spend quality time with his wife, Roz (Michelle Dockery), so he offers to sell his business to Mathew (Jeremy Strong) for a cool 200 million dollars. As you do. But of course, other ‘gentlemen’ are sniffing around, including Dry Eye (Henry Golding) and, naturally, there are various attempts by various others to muscle in on the deal. On reflection, maybe the film should have been entitled The Scumbags, because there’s nobody here to root for, each successive character as nasty and depraved as the previous one. McConaughey, by the way,  has very little to do here except wander listlessly around in a tuxedo.

The story is related by seedy private eye, Fletcher (Hugh Grant, entertainingly playing against type) to Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), Mickey’s right hand man. Fletcher, it seems, has blackmail on his mind, and has written a ‘screenplay’ about the whole thing. He pitches it to Raymond (and the audience) as if trying to get us on side. A convoluted shaggy dog story ensues…

Sadly, Ritchie’s attempt to get back to his former strengths misfires horribly. Despite a pleasing turn from Grant and another from Colin Farrell as ‘Coach,’ this comes across as one of the most unpleasant and racist films of recent years. ‘I’m an equal opportunities offender,’ boasts one character and sure enough, all the non-caucasian characters in the film – black, Jewish, Asian – are treated with the same insulting, tone-deaf approach. Furthermore, poor Michelle Dockery, who has pretty much the only speaking role for a woman in the entire film, is horribly served, her one scene of any consequence marred by a spurious and gratuitous sexual assault. The main problem, of course, is that Ritchie is doubtless blissfully unaware of these shortcomings, a privileged white man still trying to prove his ‘street’ credentials.

Society has moved on considerably since the 1990s, but Ritchie, it seems, has not. He’s still stuck in that decade. And this is not a promising start to 2020.

Philip Caveney

2.6 stars

Last Christmas

23/11/19

Last Christmas is a strange film, with an identity crisis every bit as troublesome as the one its protagonist is dealing with.

Said protagonist is Kate (Emilia Clarke) – formerly known as Katarina, but currently in the process of rejecting her Yugoslavian parents and heritage. She’s been critically ill and is recovering from surgery, but she’s struggling to accept the new version of herself, refusing to follow her doctor’s orders, desperate to pursue her singing dreams but unable to perform as well as she used to. It’s a lot for a young woman to cope with, and she’s worn her friends’ patience thin. Her boss (Michelle Yeoh) is wearying of her too: Kate is lazy, inattentive and unreliable, not qualities Santa needs from an elf-assistant in her Covent Garden Christmas shop.

Just as things seem to be spiralling out of control, up pops Tom (Henry Golding), a charming but mysterious stranger, who helps Kate to negotiate her way through the thorny issues she’s entangled in. He’s elusive, though, not relationship material, he tells her. But will her heart heed what he says?

I quite like the schmaltzy plot, but the telling (writing by Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings; direction by Paul Feig) is pretty artless, with huge signposts to the so-called twist, which you can spot from about the twenty-minute mark. And so many interesting ideas are set up and then abandoned, the running time taken up instead with not-quite-there comedic sequences, and characters interacting in ways that don’t convince.

For example, what about George Michael? Kate has a sticker on her suitcase and posters on her bedroom wall; she says she ‘loves’ his music, and it makes a decent backing track. But – so what? Her relationship with her idol is never explored; we don’t learn a single thing about what he means to her. Except, of course, for a queasily literal interpretation of the titular song. And, um, why no gay men – not a solitary one! – in a movie supposedly inspired by Michael? That seems a shocking omission, given his outspoken views on gay rights and representation.

I’m interested in Kate’s rejection of her roots in the former Yugoslavia too. This is a tantalising thread, her frustration with her mother (Emma Thompson) tied up with her desire not to be an outsider, not to worry like her mum about Brexit and hate crimes. But it’s not taken anywhere. True, as she begins to get herself together, we see her speaking her parents’ language to help some strangers on a bus, but there’s a lot more to unravel here.

It’s not all bad. It’s good to see a London rom-com where the characters’ accommodation is credible, for example: all sweet-but-very-cramped apartments or long-commute-away-small-terraces. This makes a change from the usual run of things, where we’re often expected to suspend our disbelief and accept that ordinary working people can live in mansions in zones 1 and 2.

But that’s not enough, is it? Last Christmas can’t quite decide what it wants to be: a knockabout comedy, a heartwarming tale of redemption, or a political satire. Sadly, it misses all three targets. This is an over-stuffed turkey of a film, all promise and no prize.

2.4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

A Simple Favour

23/09/18

After the hysterical social media mauling that Paul Feig received over his all-woman remake of Ghostbusters, I fully expected him to navigate back towards the safer waters of his earlier material, but with A Simple Favour, he’s attempted something altogether trickier than the ‘women being outrageous’ comedies that made his reputation. It’s evident from the very start, as vintage French jazz oozes over the credits, that he’s trying to emulate one of those twisty-turny Gallic neo-noir thrillers of the 1950s – indeed, one of the characters even mentions Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, without so much as raising an ironic eyebrow.

A Simple Favour is the story of Stephanie (Anna Kendrick), an endlessly sparky single mother, trying to be positive after the death of her husband and half-brother (in the same car crash), and channeling most of her spare time into the Vlogs she does, which offer cookery tips to hard-pressed ‘moms.’ As a result, she is soundly patronised by the other parents at the school and doesn’t really have any close friends.

Her life changes dramatically, however,  when she encounters Emily (Blake Lively), a mysterious mover and shaker in the fashion industry, who lives in the kind of dream home that Stephanie has always fantasised about, and who has the dreamboat husband to go with it. Sean (Henry Golding) is a failed-novelist-turned-college-lecturer, a man who is clearly putty in his wife’s manipulative hands.

One day, Emily asks Stephanie for the titular favour. Could she pick up her son from school and look after him until Emily comes for him? Stephanie readily accepts, seeing a way for the two of them to develop their friendship, but as the days pass by and there is not so much as a text message from Emily, Stephanie begins to realise that something is wrong. She decides to do a little digging… and discovers that her new friend has several dark and troubling secrets.

Of course, this being Paul Feig, he keeps the tone comic throughout, something which works well enough for the first two thirds of the film, as Kendrick and Lively strike verbal sparks off each other – but, in the final third, when the storyline strikes out into darker territory, he might have been better advised to ease off on the chuckles. The problem with this lightness of tone is that nothing ever feel convincingly threatening. The various revelations, as they drop, lose much of their power and, instead of suspending my disbelief – as I need to – I start to notice how wildly implausible much of the storyline is. I also can’t help thinking of an alternative twist, that I’m convinced, would work better.

Look, this isn’t by any means a terrible film. Kendrick is as delightful as ever, Lively is convincingly seductive and, as for Golding, he clearly has a huge future ahead of him. But this doesn’t quite come off. Nice try, but no cigar.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Crazy Rich Asians

19/09/18

I’m conflicted about this movie before I even enter the cinema.

On the one hand, I’ve been reading a lot about representation, and how stupidly rare it is for mainstream American movies to feature Asian characters in lead roles, despite Asian-Americans making up a sizeable minority (5.6%) of the population there. So Crazy Rich Asians, with its Asian cast, writer and director, is a welcome reminder that the US is a diverse place, and that there are different cultural perspectives from those we’re offered time and time again.

On the other hand, the trailer has alarmed me. It seems to be wealth porn, revelling in images of lavish houses and designer clothes, first class this and diamond that – not so much aspirational as simple showing off. I’m alarmed rather than impressed by the excesses showcased here.

True, the film makes some attempt to comment on the over-abundance of everything, to dismiss as shallow the trappings of the 1%. But it’s never very convincing in its condemnation, luxuriating as it does in expensive frippery.

Based on Kevin Kwam’s novel of the same name and directed by Jon M Chu, Crazy Rich Asians is a romantic comedy. Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) is an economics professor at NYU. When her boyfriend, Nick (Henry Golding), invites her to Singapore – to attend his best friend’s wedding and meet his family – she’s excited: she’s never travelled before, and she’s keen to see the world beyond America. What she hasn’t realised, however, is that Nick is super-rich: his family are property magnates, the wealthiest in Singapore. And they have very definite ideas about the kind of girl that Nick should marry: American is bad enough, but working-class and fatherless? That’s too far beyond the pale.

Characterisation is this movie’s major strength: the actors are all accomplished and the roles are distinct and largely believable. Wu and Golding make an appealing central pair, and there are some delightful supporting characters, notably Rachel’s college friend, Peik Lin Got (played with relish by the charismatic Awkwafina), and Nick’s fashion-forward cousin, Oliver T’sien (Nico Santos).

But the storyline is clichéd and – dare I say it? – dull. It’s also very American-centric, despite its Asian credentials. The underlying message seems to be that the American way  (the pursuit of individual happiness, following individual passions) is right, and that the Singaporean ideal (at least as espoused in this movie) – of destiny, of family ties and responsibility – is wrong. Rachel has nothing to learn from the people of Singapore, but they have much to learn from her. And this makes me quite uncomfortable.

I’m also bored by all the depictions of excess wealth, and irritated that this movie tries to have its cake and eat it, mocking the vulgarity of Charlie (Harry Shum Jr)’s stag do, whilst revelling in his ludicrously OTT wedding. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to make of Nick’s cousin, Astrid (Gemma Chan), whose defining moment seems to be the ’empowering’ realisation that she doesn’t have to hide her million dollar earrings from her husband, nor of the final, celebratory party – complete with rooftop synchronised swimmers, because what’s a party without them? – which seems to contradict entirely the sentiments preceding it.

All in all, I’m frustrated by Crazy Rich Asians. I don’t know how it can appeal to anyone who’s even slightly socialist. In its favour, it has showcased a plethora of Asian actors, and I hope that we’ll see them again – in better films than this.

2.7 stars

Susan Singfield