Kingsman: The Secret Service

The best way to describe the latest collaboration between filmmaker Mathew Vaughn and comic book wunderkind Mark Millar would best be described by the title of their last collaboration, Kickass! Vaughn and Co. have done it again. Turning another Mark Millar work into a bloody good time, literally.

The Kingsman are a super secret society of spies based in London whose activities and existence are known only to themselves. We meet Harry Hart, played by Oscar winner Colin Firth, a respected member of the Kingsman who believes it’s time to open their ranks to a more modern type of gentleman. This is how we meet our protagonist, Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin played by Taron Egerton, a punkish british youth, from the wrong side of the tracks and the son of Harry Harts former fellow Kingsman. After some brief world building scenes to establish these two distinct colorful sides of British society Eggsy is brought into the Kingsman’s recruitment program and our story takes off from there.

It’s obvious that this film is a love letter to classic spy movies of old, one character even professes his love of the fun sixties style spy flick, before they became all grim and gritty. Vaughn and Millar successfully find a brilliant blend of everything you know and love of old spy properties, guns, gadgets, gin, and girls, as well as  modern, frenetically paced action sequences. There are multiple shout outs to classic Bond films, a little Get Smart, a dash of Austin Powers, plus nods to Bourne and Bauer. Kingsman picks and chooses the best bits from spy films both old and new to give us something familiar yet fresh simultaneously. Colin Firth’s Harry would be right at home sitting across from Connery’s Bond.The action scenes in this film are where things feel really new though, while still taking the handheld shaky style of Bourne or any number of action movies today, the blocking and staging of these scenes never becomes the motion sickness inducing blur of so many modern films. Even during gigantic fights, you never lose sight of whats happening and to whom. The only negative things you could say about the action in this movie is that it’s almost certainly going to offend some audiences, and that the best set piece by far happens two-thirds of the way into the film. Don’t misunderstand me here, the rest of the film is great, but personally the scene I’m talking about (I’m just going to say church and you’ll figure it out) is the biggest, baddest thing in this movie, the kind of scene that people talk about for years after. It’s hard to follow-up something like that but the filmmakers do a great job of coming close. Sam Jackson also gets kudos here for bringing us a new take on an old idea. His version of a Bond villain is smart, hip, relevant, and funny as hell. To say more about his role would ruin the fun.

The other area Vaughn seems focus on is class warfare. The struggle of the middle class and poor in contrast with an uppercrust of high society snobs who see themselves as better, smarter, and more important to humanity.  There are some nods to other films that have dealt with the transformation of low-born to high-class, both in subtle story/ dialogue beats as well as outright being name checked. This part of the film is fairly by the book, if you’ve seen any number of other “poor boy introduced into rich mans world” type stories you can guess some of what will happen. There will be bullies who look down and underestimate our lead, he will have to work harder than anyone else and try to gain their begrudging respect. Pretty paint by numbers here, a few nice twists and gags along the way but nothing we haven’t seen variations on before.

Now that’s a whole lot of good there and while Kingsman: The Secret Service is a great movie it does have its flaws. The most glaring of which is a few prominent moments of very spotty CG work in the film. Namely, to my recollection, an opening shot of a giant building  where we zoom in through a window looks painfully fake, a couple of elevator rides are obvious greenscreen effects, large aerial group shots suffer from World War Z’s rubber people syndrome, and a terribly bad face mapping on a stunt double during a  scene that is in the trailer and was panned by several sites when the trailer came out. It’s amazing that when the film got pushed back from November they didn’t utilize that extra time to clean up the effects a bit.

There are also a few plot points that feel tacked on and a bit unnecessary but none of these bring the film down, they’re fun and harmless. There are a few story beats that have a certain crude or even mean edge to them. Writer Mark Millar is known to use extreme violence and sexual elements for shock value, and while most of that here is cartoonish and fun, a couple of moments, however fleeting, feel out of synch with the rest of the film and one specific part seems oddly politically motivated.

When it’s all said and done Kingsman The Secret Service is an amazing movie. It’s smart wit and fast action should be the model for any modern action movie. While still having stakes it doesn’t forget to have fun, and it realizes that not every movie has to be gritty and realistic. Also going forward from here if we don’t see more Colin Firth action movies I will be quite sad as he officially became a badass with this film. Sure to become a classic Kingsman is a must see.

5_Star_Rating_System_4_stars

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Jupiter Ascending

There’s one thing you can say about the Wachowski sibling’s new film Jupiter Ascending, it is a movie that exists containing both audio and visual elements. But enough about the positives lets talk about the bad… namely everything else. Whew what a stinker! After the brilliant but polarizing Cloud Atlas the Wachowskis seemed poised to make a comeback, if not financially at least creatively. Sadly Jupiter Ascending is not going to be that comeback film for them.

The film is a mess from beginning to end. The performances, the writing, the direction, even the score never gels to be anything  other than laughably bad. If someone took the time to measure the amount of script dedicated to exposition I would bet anything that at least forty percent of the dialogue in this film was straight up expository drivel. Which makes the fact that the film is so hard to follow that much more criminal. The filmmakers really swung for the fences in terms of world building, they unfortunately struck out, but it’s still commendable that they tried to build a complete new universe from the ground up. A universe where people are spliced with animals for hilarious effect, we get to see rat people, people with giant animal ears, Channing Tatum as a dog person, even an elephant man. All for no real discernible reason.  Theres also a race of lizard-like dragon creatures, whether they too are a human hybrid or some other race all together we don’t know because the film is too busy explaining the other five thousand names for things and rules they made up. More than once we are given several different names for things with the explanation that “this is known by many names such as…”. Yes, we understand that in any culture some things can be known by several names, but for the love of god why does this movie need to provide all these alternate names for the movies macguffins? Especially since they then pick one name  to refer to for the rest of the film.

Another area where the film feels especially clunky is in its transitions from scene to scene. The film is so overstuffed that every three minutes we see another sequence of a random ship flying through space and/or portals to new destinations. There is no flow to these transitions we just find ourselves moved from location to location. Quite often the change of location is only to give us another long-winded scene of exposition, why couldn’t we have just stayed in the last location to receive this new information? Cause reasons that’s why!

There is a future for this film despite all its flaws though. You can put money on the fact that people will be watching this movie for years to come for one very good reason, it’s so bad it’s almost good. Like The Room or Birdemic and countless MST3K movies Jupiter Ascending is such a mess, so ridiculous, so terribly written and badly acted that once you can watch it with a group of friends and a lot of alcohol there will be many things to enjoy. Moments like Mila Kunis getting horny over a blonde haired dog man, or the time we learned that “Bees are genetically engineered to recognize and respect royalty, and BEEs DO NOT LIE!”, and lest we forget the time a man with an elephant’s trunk for a nose trumpets into battle. Oh and every scene with Eddie Redmayne is like Nicholas Cage and Riff Raff from Rocky Horror had some drug addled psycho love child. It’s amazing that at the same time he could very well win an Oscar, Eddie might also be in a movie that will likely win him a Razzie next year. Take all of these wonderful things along with some creepy incestuous moments in the film and you have a perfect mix for the next cult classic. I look forward to online shows like “How Did this Get Made?” and “Nostalgia Critic” tearing the film apart in the next few years for our enjoyment.

Now most films have at least one thing they did right and Jupiter Ascending is no exception. Most of the effects work is exceptional, while the scenarios might be ridiculous and nonsensical, at least the visuals are achieved in a beautiful technically proficient way. It’s part of the reason that the lack of any real tension or drama is such a shame. We get these gorgeous action scenes but the staging is so boring and the characters so two-dimensional that we never feel anything for them. There is one scene that probably would have to be the high point of the film, we basically get a Terry Gilliam inspired DMV in space. Fittingly Gilliam makes a cameo in this sequence and it’s actually a pretty funny bit, although it retreads the same ground as Brazil and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but unfortunately this section is all too short and not nearly enough to save the film.

Now if you still insist on seeing the movie there is one way to get some enjoyment out of it. We have Channing Tatum with gravity boots leaping all over the place with his friend Sean Bean, trying to save Mila Kunis a girl of royal descent who is constantly being abducted by strange animal creatures including giant dragon men. While you watch the film just pretend that Sean Bean is Mario, Tatum is Luigi, and Mila Kunis is Princess Peach being kidnapped by Bowser, yes the Wachowskis have made their Version of the Super Mario Brothers Movie!

super-mario-monster

5_Star_Rating_System_1_and_a_half_stars

Checked Out: Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer is an interesting mix from beginning to end. A South Korean produced film, based on the french graphic novel “Le Transperceneige”, and starring American leading man Chris Evans, Snowpiercer is a uniquely international production and is all the better for it. The film is a look at a dystopian scifi world with a twist, the world has become so cold and frozen that life on the planet is all but extinct. The last remnants of humanity reside on a train which stays constantly in motion, circling the planet one cycle every year. The train is a self-contained ecosystem designed to support the last of humanity. Unfortunately, even in the apocalypse money talks and there is a class system on the train, the rich live near the front and the poor live in the back. One group has an easy albeit somewhat pointless life while the other lives in cramped, filthy squalor.

Led by Chris Evans and John Hurt the cast is fantastic in this film. Tilda Swinton does a wonderfully bizarre take on the train’s official mouthpiece “Mason”, a role which was originally written for a man and was unchanged once Swinton signed on. Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer are great supporting characters along with Korean actor Kang-ho Song, they’re used just enough to keep us interested without taking attention away from Chris Evans’ lead performance.

The South Korean production shows through whenever action is on screen. The fight choreography has the raw, mad feel of fellow Korean film Oldboy (the original not that remade garbage). Fights are fast and furious, close quarters fighting is all you can do in a train after all. The choreographers managed to make each action scene feel like a different experience even with the handicap of an enclosed and simple location (Just gonna say Torch scene here, once you’ve seen the movie you’ll understand). A film set entirely in a train could get incredibly repetitive but the production design does a great job of making each train car, while still similar in basic size and dimensions, a unique setting from car to car. Whether it be the housing of the poor, to a school car, all the way to the engine, you will believe that a small city’s population could live on this train.

When it comes right down to it Snowpiercer is not an especially unique film. It boils down to a story about class warfare, the have-nots Vs the haves. There are some interesting turns it takes along the way but for the most part we’re seeing an allegory for what the world is and what it should be. Some of its messages are a bit heavy-handed at times but that seems to follow most dystopic science fiction. Where the main subtext might be the poor vs rich a more interesting subject that gets brought up in the film is balance. Not the balance of 1:1 ration of every person is as worth while as the next like most stories would normally present but a balance where lives are weighed based on status and numbers. How many people can an ecosystem support? Of those people how many should be the “elite” and how many the “gutter trash”? If the choice is between only a few living or everyone dying are we right to make those decisions? Are we monsters for weighing the worth of human life so frankly and callously? Most people will probably have a knee jerk reaction and answer what they feel the most “PC” answer, but if you give yourself a moment and really think about the decisions and scenarios that are presented in the film, in the context they are shown in, while your answers may not be the same as the characters in Snowpiercer you just might be surprised at what you would say when the truly hard questions are asked…

5_Star_Rating_System_4_stars

Into the Woods

In the immortal words of doctor Samuel Beckett, ” Oh boy”.

scott-bakula-oh-boy-chuck

Going into this film I had no point of reference. Having never seen the stage show or even hearing any of the songs before seeing the film. Usually I’m a fan of musicals, so long as there are some good catchy songs and it’s not too ridiculous I would be on board ninety percent of the time. Well Into the Woods is part of that ten percent. The film isn’t without its enjoyable moments but overall it’s a mess. You can hear Stephen Sondheim’s musical style here, one song in particular made me think of Sweeney Todd, but none of the songs are particularly memorable. The style of singing in this film is much less pop/ top 40 and more singing exposition repeatedly.

The Direction feels all over the place. The first big musical number,the titular Into the Woods Prologue, sets up all of our characters in their respective stories but the way in which it ping pongs back and forth both in the editing and the singing became grating. The cast has fine singing voices, not great, not bad, just fine. Fine is good for a solo here or there but putting several singers together in a number without a real standout great feels more like a karaoke night rather than a major musical motion picture. The film also suffers from the same problems many people had with Les Miserables, when the camera isn’t constantly moving (because hey! every shot should be done hand-held nowadays right?) it’s in extreme close-ups of the cast. I began to think Into the Woods was a reference to the nose hair they were trying to show. These closeups were especially frustrating when there was dancing or other choreography going on but we can’t appreciate it because for one example we can only see Meryl Streep’s head and shoulders on-screen during her big number.

Speaking of Meryl Streep, she has gotten a lot of buzz going into this film. Well about the same level of buzz she always gets, but here its undeserved. She is fine as a not so much evil but pragmatic witch, that’s all though, fine. There are some scenes where shes very good and fun to watch and some that are so over the top and hammy you get pulled right out of the movie.

Another element that will pull you out is the narration. James Corden, future host of The Late Late Show, plays the baker and narrates throughout the story. While i’m sure in the stage play this would feel more natural, something about his delivery made me feel like I was watching a made for TV movie, or something you would see on Netflix. A recent film I saw on Netflix, Odd Thomas starring Anton Yelchin, had a similarly odd self-aware narration by the protagonist. It didn’t work there either.

The strengths of the film lie in its comedy and there are moments where its damn funny. Standout moments include Johnny Depp’s funny and uncomfortably creepy turn as the big bad wolf, though his screen time was incredibly short considering the ad campaign built up around him. As well as what has to be hands down, bar none, the best part of the entire film (as well as the funniest) the musical number “Agony” performed by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen. Without spoiling it I would have to say that this scene is almost worth the admission alone. There are other laughs to be had sprinkled throughout. Red Riding Hood goes back and forth from humorous to annoying, and Jack’s mom (played by the always dependable Tracy Ullman) has a few good laughs but doesnt get nearly enough to do considering her talent.

Overall there’s just enough to like here that some people are sure to come out having a good time. While at the same there’s enough to pick apart that a number of people will fall anywhere from “meh” to the hate column. Either way nothing sticks out as particularly memorable or iconic to make this a classic musical for years to come. A small diversion if youre bored this holiday but Into the Woods will fade from your mind as quickly as it arrived.

5_Star_Rating_System_2_and_a_half_stars

Interstellar

Once in a while a film comes along in every generation that is life changing, a piece of artwork that will stand the test of time as a shining example of what film-making can be. Interstellar is not one of these films, but damn does it want to be. Interstellar is a movie about a lot of things. Our place in the world, our future on or off of that world, respect for science ( namely the space program), our duty to our race and our love of our families are all subjects this film concerns itself with. That’s a great many directions for one movie to go and it shows.

With a bloated run time of just under three hours Interstellar is Christopher Nolan’s longest and possibly most uneven film. It’s pacing is awkward and abrupt with an overly long first act it takes forever for us to get to what we all came here for, space travel. While the scenes on earth aren’t completely terrible there are easily fifteen minutes of them that could be truncated or cut entirely. John Lithgow and Mackenzie Foy are a bright spot of these scenes as McConaughey’s Father in law and daughter respectively. The early scenes on earth are well grounded, a very believable future version of earth, it sprinkles some details about this earths history without hitting us over the head or talking down to the audience.

However these scenes are drawn out and can seem a bit cliché at times. Also certain plot points that come about, mostly how McConaughey’s “Cooper” gets involved with the expedition comes off as overly simplified and then we jump straight to the mission, no training is shown or spoken of at all. I suppose in the future space travel is liking riding a bike, plus where are we going to fit any training in a three-hour movie? We might have to miss one of the several Dust storms we get to see, heaven forbid!

That being said the Dust storms are done fantastically, the effects here, like the whole film, are top notch. It’s also a very interesting direction to go for a pre-apocalyptic earth, rather than nuclear war or the normal reasons we get a much more likely and for me that much more frightening scenario of falling food production and dust storms ravaging as our foe. No bad guy here, just lack of human foresight and unalterable mother nature.

Once we get to the actual mission the film really takes off ( pun intended). The visuals are incredible, a definite must in IMAX if you have the option. The sound design has gotten a great deal of press coverage and its easy to hear why. Parts of the film sound muddled or drowned out by the mix of  sound effects and vocals. I however did not have any issue with this, the scenes where the actors are hard to hear seems to me completely intentional. The dialogue they are delivering in these moments is not really important, whats going on in the rest of the scene is the real focus. It also illustrates what the characters are hearing in those moments as well, sometimes when a rocket is going off yes it is hard to hear people and that makes things for pilots that much more difficult and frightening. I found one particular moment amazing as engines were throttled up the bass was beating so hard I could feel it in my chest almost like experiencing G-force speeds, it was almost difficult to breathe.

Moments like that through the film are part of why when taken as a whole its a tragedy things don’t come together more even and cohesive. The middle two-thirds of the film are by and large amazing, but the beginning and end of the film don’t really reach the same heights. The last fifteen minutes or so feel rushed, like Nolan didn’t have an ending and then had to make something up on the day. While not the worst ending you’ll ever see there are plenty of questions and plot holes left glaring at us when the dust settles (see what I did there?).

If you have the desire to see this film, seeing it in the theater is definitely the way to go, as the experience of the large and loud makes up a lot of the wonder.  We go from Armageddon to 2001: A Space Odyssey and back again in terms of narrative and artistic quality, luckily we spend the bulk of our time in 2001. While its great to see a big Hollywood film be so pro science and pro exploration, their reach, no matter how altruistic, certainly exceeded their grasp.

5_Star_Rating_System_3_and_a_half_stars

Checked Out: Nebraska

This is the first Checked Out article of this Blog. Checked out is where I visit films that got a lot of attention when they came out and I finally got around to seeing. Being that they are older than most of the things I’ll review there will be some lite spoilers but no major plot points will be revealed.

Nebraska is the 2013 film starring Will Forte and Bruce Dern as Woody and David Grant, Father and son. The film was nominated for 6 academy awards and rightly so. It’s funny to say that the film is completely deserving of all its nominations but not deserving of actually receiving any awards its nominated for. This probably sounds ridiculous but let me explain. The film is a story about a father, a salt of the earth, old-fashioned type man, who is in the early stages of dementia or Alzheimers. Basically he’s in that point that we all have seen where at moments he’s there and the next he’s talking about nonsense or just staring into space. This particular man receives a letter that we all have gotten, a sweepstakes winning ticket… IF your number has been drawn and if you come in person to pick it up etc.

Bruce Dern is fantastic as an aging and ailing father, if you’re someone who grew up around that type of old school hard-shelled quiet type of man you will have a lot to connect to.  Will Forte also does an excellent job as a son who is seeing a shell of what his father was and balancing the empathy he feels with the frustration of taking care of a parent. The father son dynamic is really where the film shines. The two leads feel like a real father and son, you can see a lifetime of love and resentment just under the surface all the time. Bob Odenkirk does an adequate job as Will Forte’s older brother though at times his scenes feel a bit forced not quite as natural as Forte’s.

The film feels a bit unfocused though and while the performances elevate the material some, when it comes right down to it there’s not a whole lot going on here. We get some allusions to regrets by both father and sons about paths not taken or dreams not followed. We also get a hint at what their father was and why he became what he is now but there’s no singular focus to the narrative. The prize money is just a macguffin here, just there to put our characters into different situations than normal. The rest of the movie is scatter-shot, while pleasant enough it’s fairly forgettable and feels more like a great student film than a studio release.

The strongest element of the production would have to be the cinematography. The film is presented in black and white and while there is a version of the movie available in color you’d be doing yourself a disservice to not watch it in its intended format. The contrast in the shadows is gorgeous and there are some great shots of a battered and broken mid-west of yesteryear.

If you’re bored one night and come across it on cable it’s a fine way to kill two hours but I doubt it’s a film you’ll be talking about in 2 months much less two years down the road.

 

 

5_Star_Rating_System_3_stars

Agents of Shield S2E8: The Things We Bury

Wow. No really, wow. This exact time last year I was trying to decide whether to keep watching Agents of Shield and now… Wow. Ever since last years game changing events in Captain America: Winter Soldier this show has taken off and not slowed down. Every episode this season has been fun, action packed, and constantly setting up and answering questions. No more filler episodes and dragging the same questions out until we’re sick of them, yes there are overarching plotlines but generally they answer and ask new questions every week now.

 

This week the team is dealing with the new information that Agent Coulson’s drawings are of a hidden city that could hold some great and terrible power. Add to that some flashbacks to World War II Nazis, along with Agent Peggy Carter (nicely setting up her miniseries starting up soon), as well as a lot more from the Skye’s mysterious father “The Doctor”, played by Kyle Maclachlan with obvious glee.

 

Just about everyone on the team got their moment to shine in this episode without it feeling overstuffed. We got some great moments from Grant Ward finally confronting his brother, though you’ll still be wondering how much can you believe a confession given under the threat of death. Coulson and Fitz get a confrontation with Skye’s dad where we got the line of the night when Coulson asks The Doctor if the obelisk is as powerful as the tesseract and with the best madman smile “The Doctor” replies “Sure… I don’t know what that is”. Little moments of humor like this have been a welcome surprise this season after season one’s humor fell flat most of the time. We also got to find out who Skye’s mother is and why The Doctor is so angry. The source of his anger and the target of his retribution was still not completely clear by the end of the episode but for the best reason, the writers are allowing things to be a bit murkier this season, not just black and white but shades of grey. I’m still guessing where things are heading and how everything is going to shake out and I love it

 

Plus for the real Marvel geeks in the audience we got teases to several elements from the comics that all seem to be leading up to the announced Inhumans movie slated for November 2018. Marvel seems to be focusing this season on pointing us in this direction, the alien Kree(featured in Guardians of the Galaxy) humans with hidden potential to be superpowered, and the obelisk all point that direction. Whether they can keep this momentum up without being able to have their big reveal four years from now will be the real test. Unless of course they decide to introduce their new team of superpowered heroes through the show rather than wait for the film to come out. Marvel has shown they have the guts to do the unexpected and that would certainly surprise a lot of people. All I know is in the span of a year this show has gone from dud to must watch and I can’t wait to see where the next year takes us.

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