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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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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

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

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

The first of the two-part finale of the hunger games series is a difficult one to review. Much like the Harry Potter films this series has taken the popular approach of splitting one book into two films. So right off the bat we have the screenwriters trying to split a 3 act structure into six to flesh out two films and still have build-up and payoff in both. For the most part here they are successful, though not nearly as much as the first and second films were. When you get to the ending you’re painfully aware that you spent two hours just setting up for next years conclusion and it can be a bit frustrating to get no real resolution and just more questions.

Cards on the table I am one of the many, many people who read the books so I did know where it was heading and where it will end eventually but i was still able to enjoy the ride though with maybe a slightly different outlook than i would have going in cold. One thing that struck me and even now I struggle to decide whether it was intentional or not is the staging and set design in the film. I found many of the shots and scenes to come off as false, almost like watching a play rather than a film. Why I struggle with the intention is because, and some small spoilers here, the film is mostly about, at its core, propaganda. How it’s used and to what ends. In this installment we aren’t just seeing how the Capitol uses propaganda to sew fear and obedience, we also see how the rebels use propaganda to spur on people’s passions to rise up and risk their lives for a cause. A big part of propaganda of course is manufacturing moments. Trying to make something false, or planned, appear to be a real spontaneous moment. There is even a point in which the rebels see a beautiful moment that is real and when we see the resulting video they produce you can’t help but think it looks a little cheesy and if we hadn’t seen it happen in the narrative you’d assume it was manufactured.

Similarly the sets and some of the dramatic scenes of the film come off as made, not true. One moment that especially sticks out is when Katniss and her group are at the aftermath of a bombing and they enter through what appears to be a tunnel of rubble the tunnel just being large enough for people to fit through single file. All I could think is there is no way in hell I would walk through the remains of a blown up building, within hours of it happening mind you, with such a small and dangerous path. This is one of many reasons  I was never not aware that I was watching a movie, I enjoyed it but i never crossed that threshold of watching to experiencing it. A part of me thinks that a film so about propaganda that comes off almost as propaganda itself couldn’t be a coincidence. If that is what the Director, Francis Lawrence, is going for, I can respect that. In fact if that turns out to be the case it would encourage me to revisit the film to examine where else I might find these  themes woven through.

Another issue with the film is the love triangle. Through all the films they’ve teased a Katniss, Peeta, and Gale love triangle and all they ever have done is tease. It’s never been fleshed out and it’s certainly never been the most interesting past of the films and that still holds true in this installment. There’s the hint of a love story here but nothing to really sink your teeth into or get invested in.

Taking it as a straight forward film it comes off as a fun but flawed setup for what is most likely a much larger and more eventful film to come. Probably the weakest narrative of the hunger games films so far but still head and shoulders over all the other YA novel adaptations of the last few years.

Pros

– Story is interesting, deals with more complex themes than last films.

– Katniss is still and engaging and likeable.

– Well choreographed action.

Cons

– Set Design and writing feels false.

– No real conclusion, all setup.

– Uninteresting love story

5_Star_Rating_System_3_stars

Big Hero 6

Before I get to our main feature I’d quickly like to address the opening animated short Feast. Feast is the latest in a line of fantastic animated shorts attached to Disney theatrical releases. These have been, and with this entry, continue to be fantastic little films that convey a wide spectrum of emotion and great original stories in a small window of time. This entry follows a dog from life as a puppy on the streets to being taken in by a kind passerby and onward through his life. To tell anymore would do you a disservice, this short is one to experience firsthand. All I will say is that its well done and if you’re one prone to tear up bring your tissues.

Now on to the main event.

Big Hero 6 is the story of a young super genius named Hiro with his group of super science proficient friends, Go-Go, Wasabi, Honeylemon, the not super intelligent Fred, and the robot every kid will love by this Christmas, Baymax. Along  with his Friends Hiro uses his incredible intellect and tech building skill to turn his friends into a team of tech outfitted superheroes.

This film continues the new golden age of Disney produced films ( Disney proper, not Pixar), that being said Big Hero 6, while a whole lot of fun, is not particularly as memorable as the past few years releases  have been.  Whether that’s a strike against the film or just a result of the last few years productions being so well done and memorable you’ll have to decide for yourself.

The film has all of the familiar tropes of a classic superhero story. A young smart kid who has lost someone close to him driven to take matters into his own hands, nothing new here. Where the film takes a unique stance is the emphasis on technology, intelligence, and education. A great message for kids today, there are no radioactive spiders, industrial accidents, or giant inheritances that give our protagonist his abilities, its his mind that gives him his power.

Big Hero 6 is a very easy film to like, its quirky, has a unique style, and its lots of fun but its not without its problems. The movie centers around Hiro and his robot pal Baymax. Baymax is by far the highlight of the film, the interactions between Hiro and him range from sweet to hysterical. The film wisely centers the story around the growth of their relationship. The drawback to this is the rest of the film feels rushed, an afterthought.  I found the villains motives and reasoning seemed like the biggest stretch, and those that check out the cast list prior to seeing the film will probably be able to pick out the bad guy if you’ve been paying attention to movies the last 15 years. Not only does the villains turn seemed forced but the supporting players get very little time to really flesh out their characters. We take so much time focusing on Hiro and Baymax that the final scenes feel like two thirds of the way through someone realized they didn’t have an ending and just tacked on some cliche scenario to drive the plot forward.

Big Hero 6 started as a comic,  as a comic reader I had never even heard of it before the advertising started for this film. From what I’ve been told the source material is so vastly different having no knowledge of it won’t affect your experience. Overall I would say the film is an enjoyable way to kill a couple hours but leaves no real lasting impact. You probably wont think about it much after viewing until the trailer for the inevitable sequel hits.

Also like any other Marvel film don’t leave until the post credits scene hits, its one of the funniest yet.

Pros:

– Baymax!!!

– A story that encourages kids to get educated without seeming preachy.

– Unique setting and characters.

Cons:

-Two dimensional Villain

– Rushed third act.

– Supporting characters not fleshed out.

Total score  3.5/5

5_Star_Rating_System_3_and_a_half_stars

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman is the kind of film that will divide audiences. There will be those that get it, and they will love it. Then there will be a vast segment of the public that will see it as plodding and boring. The film centers around a washed up actor, famous for having played an iconic superhero in the early 90’s, trying to mount a comeback by staging an extremely self-indulgent stage play. As he struggles with the idea of whether  he wants respect or fame and what that means in today’s social media savvy world. While at the same time struggling with a strained relationship with his daughter, a brilliant but self-destructive costar, and his own inner demon.

Your first thought will probably be what a perfect project for Michael Keaton to be a part of. What I wondered as I sat watching the film is would the premise still be as fascinating without the real life subtext in the back of our minds? Would the audience still relate to the Main character in the same way or would we be looking at this film in a completely different way?

Regardless of this though, the movie is a film nerds  dream. Actors, not huge stars, but well-respected and familiar actors giving amazing performances with a backdrop of one of if not the most meta of scripts I can recall seeing in the last 10 years. Every performer here is giving their A game Edward Norton and Keaton especially come off well in their roles, bouncing off each other in scene after scene. Zach Galifianakis is surprisingly good in one of the more serious roles he’s taken. If one was looking for a weakest link you’d have to probably look to Emma Stone, Not a weak performance by any means but she doesn’t get much here when compared to the great material the rest of the cast has.

On top of this we have the shooting style of the film, Designed to appear as almost all one long continuous take, While some of the transitions between takes come of as a bit obvious the overall effect is still extremely successful, putting us right there with our characters like a fly on the wall, witness to gripping human drama.

Where the film comes up short is  pacing and in its ending. The film comes to a  halt several times hanging for long periods of time on certain shots, while these are almost all for the purpose of stitching together scenes to achieve the seamless one take approach  but the long awkward pauses can tear you out of the movie and considering its odd subject matter and weird tone many people may not “get” what Birdman is trying to be.

What Birdman has is an Actor playing a character who greatly mirrors his own life, that character is putting on a play about a character who he also sees as a fractured mirror of his own situation, While the events and conversations in the film surrounding the production of said play are laid out in the same style and format of a stage production of  a John Steinbeck work  or any other similar writer of his time.

Confused yet?

On top of that, without spoiling it there are some elements that are left vague as to whether they are fantasy or reality including the ending which has divided a lot of audiences

If you can embrace the concept and see how beautifully laid out all the connections are, Birdman is one film you’re going to remember for a long time.

 

 

Pros:

– Amazing Acting

– Great cinematography

– Unique take on a traditional story

 

Cons

– Probably too meta for some audiences

– Pacing issues

– Vague ending trying to be too clever

 

Score: 4 out of 5

5_Star_Rating_System_4_stars