Friday, 6 October 2017

The Boys Are Back in Town!

When their headquarters are destroyed and the world is held hostage, the Kingsman's journey leads them to the discovery of an allied spy organization in the US. These two elite secret organizations must band together to defeat a common enemy. 

Matthew Vaughn clearly had too much fun making Kingsman to leave his Savile Row secret service hanging in the wardrobe. James who? While 007 has been on extended annual leave because of Daniel Craig’s contract “issues”, Taron Egerton has thoroughly managed to outdo himself, with Matthew Vaughn’s sequel doubling down on the qualities that marked its predecessor: star-filled, more gleefully grisly, and reaching new heights of skyscraping silliness. It is a film so cartoonishly outsized that it almost renders the first one restrained by comparison. “Kill Elton John!” is a line you’re unlikely to hear in the average spy film, but Kingsman: The Golden Circle definitely aims far above average.

This is a sequel that clearly does what sequels are supposed to do: bigger stars, bigger set pieces and with some characters from the past returning. Taron Egerton is a young actor with a huge career ahead of him and having a franchise to rely on will do that career no harm. He is the perfect balance of cheeky and unsure, possessing a subtle physicality, to the point that it is tough to imagine another actor playing Eggsy now. Plus, Mark Strong is excellent, effortlessly imposing and commanding while doing a flawless Scottish accent. Moreover, of course, if you have glimpsed even the slightest bit of the promotional material for this sequel you will know that Harry’s demise was not as permanent as first assumed.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to the American contingent, flirting with cliché. Where the Kingsman front is a tailor, the Statesman crew are hidden away in a Kentucky bourbon distillery. Where the Kingsman codenames are based on Arthurian legend, the Statesman’s are all booze-related. So, we have Tequila played by Channing Tatum with tobacco-spitting brio (until he is weirdly and frustratingly side-lined for most of the movie), Ginger Ale played by Halle Berry (not doing much as the Yankee equivalent of Mark Strong’s chair guy Merlin), Whiskey played by Pedro Pascal (coming on like Burt Reynolds playing Indiana Jones) and big boss Champagne - or ‘Champ’-  played by Jeff Bridges (doing his best Jeff Bridges impression). As you may have guessed by now women do not really have an important part in the film. As far as Kingsman cocky masculinity is concerned: this is, after all, a man’s world. And women had better get behind or beneath them if they want to survive. Except for Sir Elton, he will make it just fine on his own. 

There are a lot of toys for Vaughn to play with, and he plays well with them. Crucially, the visual wit that made the original feel so refreshing is maintained. Indeed, a manic opening fight scene in a black cab, between Eggsy and his old school nemesis Charlie, set the tone immediately: kicks, jabs and gravity-upending camerawork. And that is The Golden Circle in a nutshell. Every kick-ass moment is matched by a wonderfully funny one-liner or razor-sharp satire.

The action is brilliant. From this opening black-cab chase through the streets of London to the climactic assault on the villains’ secret base, Vaughn keeps things impressively kinetic, choreographed and focused. Presented in seemingly single takes, each brutal fight sequence involves a single camera fluidly whirling, pivoting and zooming through the carnage, usually to an effectively ironic pop-song backing. Then there is the gleeful incorporation of the kind of outlandish elements you would expect from this universe: a giant mincing machine, a laser lasso, a bubbling pot of molten gold, a wildly spinning cable car on Monte Bianco’s Skyway, an actual Elton John, and killer robot dogs with drill-bit teeth.

Finally, it is a film that is utterly maximalist, stuffed to the brim with gadgets, gimmicks and ideas both good and bad. An exhilarating watch. Vaughn clearly can’t get enough of his Kingsmen. After all, he’s having too much fun.

Overall, when you buy into Matthew Vaughn's world you accept that characters will return from the dead and that the gadgets will get more outlandish. That said, this is very, very funny at points.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Let’s Get Through It Again!

A group of bullied kids band together when a shapeshifting demon, taking the appearance of a clown, begins hunting children. 

In 1986 Stephen King wrote It, a seminal 1,138-page horror epic about a clown-demon terrorising a small New England town called Derry. This is definitely not the Tim Curry-starring TV adaptation from 1990. There are various little nods here and there, maybe even a likeness of Curry’s costume can be glimpsed, and the iconic opening sequence, with the paper boat of doom, seems nearly identical. Though the new movie is a skilful blend of nostalgic sentiment and hair-raising effects. With the visual punch of a big-screen digital hocus-pocus, the liberties of the R-rating but It still has the soothing charm of familiarity.  

Like many real kids — even in 1989 and in Maine — they have filthy mouths. They also experience the freedom of growing up in the days before cell phones, bicycle helmets and helicopter parenting. What is scary about It, for them and for the audience, is also fun in a way. The group ranges freely through the forests and fields around Derry, playing detective until the forces of darkness reveal themselves with slimy tentacles and multiple rows of sharp, ravenous teeth. Their story evokes both the middle school environment of the recent TV series Stranger Things, there is even some overlap in the cast; but also, the intrepid brotherhood from Stand by Me, surely one of the all-time top five Stephen King movie adaptations.

Devoting precious screen time to establish each member of the Losers’ Club and their respective dysfunctional lives is a smart move. Even though there is a lot of exposition to get through, each of the seven losers gets their due, and the result is a truly well-rounded ensemble. As awkward and romantic as they are foul-mouthed and funny. Credit MUST go to the young cast, among whom there is no single weak link; it is as authentic a portrayal of children staring down the barrel of adolescence as you are ever likely to see. Eventually, the personal strives that each of the Losers faces, from hypochondriac mothers to sexually abusive fathers, are filmed with just as much menace and horror as the supernatural scenes and are arguably more disturbing. This is It’s great strength. It wants you to care about these loser kids, invites you to share in their deep anxiety, and burst into the facing-your-fears allegory by being, fundamentally, a human drama first and a supernatural horror second.

Like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Pennywise is generally used carefully and sparingly and is even more powerful for it. With his cracked porcelain forehead, mucky Victorian scruff and giant protruding bottom lip, this Pennywise is a triumph of make-up and design as much as anything else. But despite his minimal screen time shared with prosthetic artists and CGI compositors, Bill Skarsgård leaves a hell of an impression. His performance is full of strange nuance and wit, with subtle touches, like a fine trickle of drool hanging forebodingly from his mouth, making this interpretation more fascinatingly entertaining than truly disturbing.

Moreover, the kids here are in their various ways on the verge of adulthood: the story clearly is a metaphor for the fears and vulnerabilities of childhood, combined with the equal and opposite fear of growing up: fear of sex, fear of social failure, fear of menstruation. So much then there is an actual scene involving a blood-explosion that might put you in mind of other King extravaganzas such as The Shining or Carrie.

Finally, if you saw the movie you would know that It ends with the title and the phrase “Chapter One” appearing just beneath. Plus, after the credits, those who stick around are treated to a disembodied giggle from Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise the Dancing Clown. He’s down, but he’s not out. The plan all along was to cleave Stephen King’s 1,000-plus page novel in half. Separating the story of the kids in the Losers Club from the parallel tale of their adult selves, returning to the town of Derry to confront the shapeshifting evil presence they thought they defeated as children.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Outlander (Season 3) Premiere

Against all odds, Jamie Alexander Malcolm Mackenzie Fraser survived the Battle of Culloden and made it home. His life was hanging by a thread - and not for lack of trying to die - but when Episode 2 airs, Jamie has moved out of Lallybroch and into a cave in the hills above his home to keep his family safe and now known as the Dun Bonnet.

Great love stories live or die by their timing. When you meet the person. Are they already in a relationship? Is it the right moment for either of you to commit? And that is just the beginning of the story. Timing continues to play a huge role in whether two people can actually make things work, long-term. So, it is no wonder that Outlander, one of TV’s most intriguing love stories, is also obsessed with time, and especially in Season 3. This is, of course, a literal obsession, given that this adventure began with Claire time-travelling to the late 18th century Scotland. Plus, the show is always smartly engaged with the fact that the best characters are those who are changed by events and time, just like real people.

As we enter Season 3, it is the only thing we – the viewers - have from now on, is the characters to anchor ourselves. Everything else is new. As romantic as Outlander can be, it has always been most fascinated by who people become when they are suffering; and let me tell you that only in those two first episodes, there is a lot of suffering for both Claire and Jamie. It is one of the show’s most interesting threads.

An arc makes Claire feel the cost of her divided heart; Frank’s wrecked life deserves our tears: Balfe and Menzies earn them. The real weight of these episodes, however, is in the way Claire and Frank experience their new distance. Claire’s relationship with Jamie has always been overwhelming. Their special connection makes for real feeling, but it can also tip over into self-mythologizing. At their worst, they’re the “No, you hang up first” of the 18th century. Having that triangle constantly there is such an interesting reminder of why she can’t put her past to the side, and just fully embrace this good marriage. In fact, having experienced all-encompassing love, Claire is practically gasping for air in that little Boston house with a man she once loved, and might never love again. Much of this is quite painful. Claire and Frank have mutually set themselves up to fail, and the is whether their marriage will ever be anything but a prison. Balfe and Menzies work beautifully as two people in purgatory. Their mounting frustrations and the smiling agony of forced normality give way to moments that suggest a mutual desire to have someone else, anyone else, to love. Even worse for Claire is having to live with the post-war attitude toward women, from Frank’s work gatherings to the delivery room. In case you are not sure if this is bad, he tells her, “Don’t worry your pretty little head.” Some of it is just a reminder that women have always had it rough; the obstetrician blithely ignoring her wishes is horrifying and not nearly as removed from today as we would like to think. Some slights are clearly set up so Claire can fight back against yet another group of men who have underestimated her.

Now on to the battle we have all been waiting for. It doesn’t tell you exactly what happened, the logistics of it, but, what it does do beautifully is weaved this tales of the end of the people that we have grown to love, this race of Scots, and the end of their culture. It weaves in beautifully with what is happening at the same time in Boston. Jamie and Black Jack finally face to face. There is something in the exhaustion and it goes heightened as they die in this embrace. There is a lot more hugging involved than I ever expected. Most likely, because of their past, I find it very interesting when Black Jack almost says: “Claire” as the last stroke.

While things, of course, have been changed in minor ways, readers have known that certain events from the third book Voyager will take place during season 3; just say the words “the print shop” to any fan and see how they react. Outlander is still deliberately a love story but audiences can go in with the expectation that the show’s central couple will see eventually each others’ faces again. But what keeps Outlander forever thrilling is that nothing ever happens easy. And nothing ever happens the way you would expect, or when you might think.

Finally, I am really excited for this new season as it is going to new places. The show started in Scotland and it is about these particular people and this particular place. Now, it is really going somewhere else. This is a show that has grown and matured since its initial premiere in ways that defied our initial expectations. We did not know back then how much both romance, and time, could make us feel.

Overall, the end result is a brilliant experience: a blend of fairy tale and real life that defines the best, most authentic love stories, the ones that keep us on the edge of our seats.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Dress To Kill and Fight Like A Girl

An undercover MI6 agent is sent to Berlin during the Cold War to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and recover a missing list of double agents. 

Movies like Atomic Blonde, with this type of spy thriller, are a bit of a throwback. Plus, setting this story at the very beginning of a new era, of technological modernity where spycraft is more about computers and digital surveillance, gives it a sense of nostalgia that Bond or Bourne could never achieve today. Atomic Blonde keeps its plot as simple as possible. This film is based on The Coldest City graphic novel by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart.

Atomic Blonde is an excuse to watch a beautiful, deviously clever female avatar as she is stripped naked, dolled up and repeatedly beaten down only to rise again. Dress her up, dress her down, smack her around and wait for payback. This sort of spectacle isn’t new, even if moviemakers like to insist otherwise. What is moderately different here is the sexed-up packaging of the violence in combination with Ms. Theron physicality. Like James Bond, her character, Lorraine shoots to kill while remaining fabulously dressed to kill. This means she gets slammed around a lot and takes almost as much punishment as she gives. She is a punching bag, but she is also a fantasist’s dream girl, a sort of avenging goddess, a destroyer of men. Indeed, for her part, Ms. Theron looks hot and color coordinated. With black-and-white outfits that suit her character’s ambiguity. Lorraine smokes and drinks and likes cold baths, preferably filled with ice cubes that do wonders for bruises and nipples. When she isn’t moodily bathing or staring, she does a surprising amount of walking. She goes here, promenades there, strolls down halls and mean streets that the director David Leitch turns into fashion runways. 

Though, building off of her previous work in films like Mad Max: Fury Road, Theron continues to prove herself to be one of the most talented action stars of her generation. She is given the difficult task of switching between two very different gears when playing Lorraine: the slick and calculated MI6 agent who must keep a low profile whenever she can, and the savage, ruthless killer all of her enemies face the moment the first shot is fired or fist is thrown. She pulls both sides of the character off with ease and throws herself into the action sequences with a tenacity and dedication that makes her one of the most believable action heroes in recent memory. Ms. Theron truly is ready to play Bond. However, James McAvoy sidles into the story looking all cool or something and wearing a smirk he needs to employ more cautiously.

You should have understood by now that what this ‘80s style spy thriller does very well is its fight scenes. Not surprising with John Wick co-director and former stuntman David Leitch literally calling the shots. In terms of action technicality, it is a very different film, replacing Keanu Reeves quick, precise gun shots with a more brutal weight and physicality. John Wick clearly is a model of economic genre filmmaking, and David Leitch gives this movie’s action scenes the same pummelling, visceral quality. Lorraine punches and is punched, and her body is soon mapped by bruises and abrasions. It’s a lot of abuse for such little returns, even if the fights are the best parts of Atomic Blonde Mr. Leitch understands the expressivity of hand-to-hand fights and he frames them accordingly, pushing in when it counts and pulling back to show entire bodies in whirling motion. The stunts truly are breathtaking, with one brutal fight shot in a long hand-held sequence that roams down stairs, through an apartment and into a car chase.

While it is not a first to see, a woman battered about to this extent on screen, it is unusual. Most of Lorraine’s opponents are male, and none hold back. It would be deeply disturbing was it almost anyone but Theron; she projects such formidable badassitude that it does not for a moment read like victimisation. Broughton uses whatever is to hand, and leverages her enemies’ own momentum against them, so you believe she could hold her own. Moreover, there is no talking about Atomic Blonde without giving a shout-out to its soundtrack. Composed by Tyler Bates, who also did the two Guardians of the Galaxy films, the electric score pumps through the film. But more than that are the song choices. Prepare to download the soundtrack as soon as you walk out of the cinema. Don’t fight it, it’s an inevitability.

Overall, Atomic Blonde is an action spy thriller, that leans more heavily into being a John Wick film than it does a John le Carré-esque espionage tale. The battle between those two tones can be occasionally distracting throughout the runtime though. But Atomic Blonde has plenty of attitude and the fervent style of its execution is so exciting to watch that it made it one of the best times I have had in the theatre this year.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Valerian and the City Of A Thousand Planets

A dark force threatens Alpha, a vast metropolis and home to species from a thousand planets. Special operatives Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe.

A long time ago in our very own galaxy, Luc Besson dreamed of directing a movie version of a French comic book series. Some movie buffs even consider the source to have been an influence on George Lucas’ original Star Wars movie. This equation clearly works the other way around in Besson’s hands, as Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets finds the director doing his best Star Wars impression. Trying to do something like this is bold in a marketplace that has not traditionally been very welcoming to Star Wars imitators, and even less so, to French imitators. Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is the most ambitious and colossally risky cinematic endeavour since James Cameron made Avatar.

Written as a kind of cocky intergalactic soldier, Valerian ought to be as sexy and charismatic as a young Han Solo, though Dane DeHaan, so good in brooding-emo mode, seems incapable of playing the kind of goofy insouciance that made Harrison Ford so irresistible. Despite holding the rank of major, Valerian looks like an overgrown kid. Fortunately, his co-star is cool enough for the both of them. As played by British fashion model Cara Delevingne, a revelation here: sassy, sarcastic and spontaneous. Laureline holds true to one of Besson’s core beliefs: that nothing is sexier than an assertive, empowered leading lady. Sure, she needs rescuing at times, but more often than not, she’s the one getting Valerian out of trouble. She’s just a sergeant, but every bit as capable as her commanding officer, and the film is considerably more fun when following her character. Indeed, the chemistry between the two may be odd, but they make a good team, constantly trying to prove themselves to one another while each pretending not to care.

Most of the time, Valerian is too busy following orders to question what his superiors are asking, but such blind obedience has its bounds, since the plot of Valerian concerns a vast military coverup for a cataclysm that Besson depicts in the film’s opening minutes: the near-annihilation of a seemingly primitive, yet peaceful species known as Pearls. Tall and slender, like Avatar’s Na’vi, with bald heads and iridescent opaline skin, the Pearls are the most elegant and expressive of the movie’s many computer-generated aliens. Their long limbs give them a graceful form, while their faces are nuanced enough to convey even subtle emotions. These people are a testament to just how sophisticated performance capture technology has become, even in someone other than Andy Serkis’ hands.

Luc Besson is one of the few living directors with both the ambition and the ability to establish his own universe. At a time when Star Wars itself has gone corporate, Valerian manages to be both cutting-edge and delightfully old-school; featuring a mind-blowing range of environments and stunning computer-generated alien characters. The kind of wild, endlessly creative thrill ride that only the director of The Fifth Element could deliver. The technologies used here enabled him to let loose with digital techniques he wished he'd had back on The Fifth Element. Such innovations make it possible for Besson to build upon the multiculturalism of the Star Wars series in a big way, taking the intermingling of species in a classic scene and expanding it to a vast city named Alpha, where a seemingly infinite number of aliens happily stick to their roles, while humans of all colours run the show. No doubt, there are dark and sordid Blade Runner-esque corners to this hyper-modern megalopolis, but Besson never lingers long enough for us to play more than fly-by tourist as he follows Valerian and Laureline through these various realms.

Generally speaking, Besson works at a fast pace, using dynamic framing and tight editing to convey loads of visual information. The movie is designed to propel us from one sequence to the next, and it’s remarkably effective at doing so without providing a clear notion of what the duo’s mission is supposed to be. Early on, they’re sent to Big Market, a massive virtual-reality bazaar where Valerian manages to retrieve an adorable, ultra-rare creature known as a Mül Converter, which can make copies of anything it ingests, from a Jabba the Hutt-like black trader voiced by John Goodman. This is when the movie kicks in, which is where audiences first feel like we are discovering a truly visionary new environment for the first time. Though Luc Besson manages to sustain that effect throughout the film’s time on Alpha.

Finally, the promises are faithfully kept, but there is so much more going on. To say that Valerian is a science-fiction epic doesn’t quite do it justice. Imagine crushing a DVD of The Phantom Menace into a fine powder, tossing in some Ecstasy and a pinch of pepper for the colour and snorting the resulting mixture while wearing a virtual reality helmet in a Las Vegas karaoke bar. That sounds like too much fun, but you get the idea.

Overall, you should applaud Luc Besson as this is a world-building where not even the sky is the limit and every frame is stuffed with a mad-genius invention.