Kingsman: The Golden Circle


Being a superspy can go right to your head.

(2017) Spy Action (20th Century Fox) Taron Egerton, Julianne Moore, Mark Strong, Channing Tatum, Colin Firth, Michael Gambon, Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, Thomas Turgoose, Sophie Cookson, Elton John, Pedro Pascal, Poppy Delevingne, Bruce Greenwood, Emily Watson, Hanna Alström, Edward Holcroft, Keith Allen, Tom Benedict Knight, Samantha Coughlan. Directed by Mathew Vaughn

 

The first film in this nascent franchise, Kingsman: The Secret Service was a thinly veiled satire on spy film tropes and class warfare that included some fairly spectacular action set pieces and a notorious denouement in which a beautiful Swedish princess rewards the hero for saving her life by consenting to butt sex.

Critics of course took great umbrage to the latter and labeled it crass (which it was) and sexist (which it clearly wasn’t; women should be allowed to enjoy sex – even in the posterior – without it being some sort of political statement). There were some issues  revolving around an overabundance of gadgets and gimmicks but it was a solidly entertaining film that left the viewer anticipating a sequel.

So here it is; now that Vaughn has gone to the trouble of setting up his world of gentlemen spies, he decides to tear it all down by having the Kingsmen wiped out in the first act, leaving surviving hero Eggsy (Egerton) and gadget guru Merlin (Strong) asking the American counterpart – the Statesmen – for help (read into that what you want, politically inclined viewer). The agency works out of a Kentucky bourbon distillery and has agents with names like Whiskey (Pascal) who has a way with a whip, Champagne (Bridges) who is the agency head, and Tequila (Tatum) who has suspicions about the Brits. There’s also Merlin’s counterpart Ginger Ale (Berry) who suspects not all is morning in America.

They are up against a vicious, ruthless drug lord with a lavish jungle base. Now, you might have a vision in your head of a Latin hacienda but what Vaughn came up with is Poppy (Moore) who has a fixation on Happy Days-era America and has a bit of an inferiority complex. Lonely and bored in her jungle Main Street lair, she fills her days with vicious robotic dogs and Elton John (playing himself) whom she kidnapped to put on nightly concerts exclusively for her.

Vaughn has always excelled at action set pieces and he does so again here, but the camera work is highly kinetic and as a result many of the sequences are vertigo inducing and may work better for viewers susceptible to such things on the small screen. Still, he has no compunction about going way over the top and so he does here.

In my review of The Secret Service I maintained that the journey was out on Egerton who was lost among the gadgets a bit and here that is not so much the case. He comes off as smarmy and a bit superficial, a change from his cockney street kid turned gentleman spy in the first. It is not, I should say, a welcome change. Here Eggsy is trying to balance his relationship with the Swedish princess with his job as suave superspy. We rarely get a glimpse of his good heart that made him more palatable in the first film. This is what I would call a mistake in direction.

Moore is a talented actress but even she can’t elevate this role above the cookie cutter villain that Poppy turns out to be; all gimmick and no growl. She has her own plan for taking over the world and it’s a fairly clever one but it’s been done before both in Bond and in other imitations. While she has some fun interactions with the most venal President (Greenwood) ever, at the end of the day she lacks the spice to make her a truly interesting villain.

Most of the fun here comes from the supporting performances; Strong makes Merlin the heart of the Kingsmen and he gives the role more nuances than it probably deserves. Berry also shines as Merlin’s counterpart. I loved Elton John here as a kind of venomous caricature of himself, turning out to have some surprising ninja skills in the climactic fight. Never underestimate a gay pop star who has spent a career fighting for the lives of his fellow gay men during the AIDS crisis.

This simply isn’t as good as the first movie. While there are plans for a third film in the franchise and possibly a Statesmen spin-off film, I’m not looking forward to them as eagerly as I did this one. Once bitten twice shy when it comes to movie franchises and I suspect a lot of you out there feel the same way.

REASONS TO GO: Elton John is terrific in an extended cameo and Strong is equally so as Merlin. The fight scenes are hyperkinetic.
REASONS TO STAY: This is really not as good as the first movie. Egerton is too smarmy and Moore too generic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of violence, some drug use, a bit of sexuality and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are five Oscar winners in front of the camera: Moore, Firth, Bridges, Berry and Elton John, who won for Best Song.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers in Goldmember
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blade Runner 2049

Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Her Legacy


There is nothing more beautiful than a mother and her children at play.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Princess Diana, Prince William, Prince Harry Windsor, Elton John, Rihanna, Harry Herbert, Earl Charles Spencer, William van Staubenzee, Lady Carolyn Warren, Anne Beckwith-Smith, Lord Victor Adebowale, Anna Harvey, Gerald McGrath, Graham Dillamore, Professor Jerry Wright, Mark Smith, Ian Walker, Jayne Fincher, Amanda Redman (narrator).  Directed by Ashley Gething

 

She was “The People’s Princess” and she caught the imagination of the world. A singular English beauty from a patrician background but a very real sense of compassion and social justice, Diana fought for a variety of causes including homelessness in Britain, the AIDS epidemic and the proliferation of land mines in Bosnia and elsewhere. Ironically enough, she also supported a charitable organization that deals with childhood bereavement, a cause her son William continues to lend his own support to.

Aside from her position as a royal, a tireless worker for a variety of charities, the target of scandal sheets for her high-profile divorce from the Prince of Wales and at the end of the day, a victim of our society’s obsession with celebrity, she was also a mother. William and Harry knew her from that perspective; 20 years after her untimely death in a Paris tunnel, they open up for the first time about their mother in this HBO documentary.

In the best (and worst) British tradition, the princes have kept mum regarding their emotions about their mum and to a certain extent, they remain so. The film does chronicle the events of her life but much of it through the eyes of her sons, who were witness to the media circus as much as Diana tried to shield them from it (she is heard asking a paparazzi to give her children some privacy during a skiing holiday and he flat out tells her no). In that sense, there are other documentaries which give a much more detailed accounting of her public life than this one does.

What other documentaries don’t have are the reminiscences of the two sons who are 35 and 32 now (15 and 12 at the time of their mother’s death) and the rawness of her loss is still there. While they speak about their mother in glowing terms it is no more so than any son would speak about his own mother. However, there are glimpses of the pain from time to time; Harry candidly admits he really hasn’t dealt with his grief and William confesses that he misses her every day. The two boys recount the final phone call from their mother hours before her death; William is asked if he remembers what she said. “Yes,” he says tersely and leaves it at that. Their last conversation is something that is clearly still his, that belongs only to mother and son and is something he doesn’t want to share with the world. Considering that she gave so much to the public’s insatiable need to know every little detail about his mother, one can hardly blame him.

Diana would be 56 had she lived and William breezily describes his belief that she would be a “nightmare grandmother,” spoiling the two grandchildren (to date) and leaving a mess behind for her son and daughter-in-law to clean up. He almost cackles when he refers to her as “Granny Diana” and clearly he inherited his mother’s impish sense of humor.

There are also interviews with members of Diana’s inner circle including her lady-in-waiting at court, her photographer and her brother, one of the more outspoken critics of the media in the wake of her passing. Conspicuous by their absence is Prince Charles, who one might think would support his sons in this endeavor but I suppose that his late wife, who grew to be much more popular than he, is still something of a sore spot with the Prince of Wales. Queen Elizabeth, always intensely private about family matters, was never likely to participate in a venture like this.

The home movies of Diana as a child and a teen are precious but render little insight into her as a person. Much of what we are told here we could have read on her Wikipedia page and there lies my issue with the film. It’s really hard to ask William and Harry to reveal anything about their mother when so much of her private life was made public against her wishes but I kind of wish they had.

Still, the woman gave enough and should be allowed to rest in peace and her sons seem content to allow her to do so and I can respect that. For those who are under the age of 35 and may not remember the princess well, this will be a useful introduction to her. Those of us who were of an age and watched her shine in the public eye until that light was extinguished far too soon will not find anything particularly revelatory here but there is a kind of comfort to be had that she was as good a mother as we all kind of figured she’d be. Motherhood was something that the late princess seemed to be particularly suited for which is not at all a given and certainly worthy of honoring.

REASONS TO GO: The two princes open up about their mother more so than any interview with them I’ve ever seen. Some of the home video footage is truly wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie doesn’t really add much insight into Diana as a person other than most of the broad strokes we already know. It’s an interesting documentary but not essential other than to those who are unaware of Diana’s place in history.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes dealing with the loss of a parent.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: William and Harry have continued to support many of the charities that Diana was involved during her lifetime. Diana didn’t live to see her legacy of all the landmines in Bosnia finally being removed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Diana – Her Story
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Lady Bird

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records


Russ Solomon welcomes all and sundry to the Manhattan Tower Records.

Russ Solomon welcomes all and sundry to the Manhattan Tower Records.

(2015) Documentary (Gravitas) Russ Solomon, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Mark Viducich, David Geffen, Michael Solomon, Steve Knepper, Heidi Cotler, Dave Grohl, Mike Farrace, Rudy Danzinger, Paul Brown, Steve Knopper, Steve Nikkel, Stan Goman, Ken Sockolov, Chris Hopson, Bob Delanoy. Directed by Colin Hanks

To people of a certain age, a visit to a record store was akin to a spa day; we would spend literally hours browsing the bins of records, cassettes and later compact discs. We’d pour through the bargain and used bins, sweaty palmed and wide-eyed until our breath would catch in our throats as the one record, that one record that made the time and effort worth it appeared out of the stacks. There were no finer moments in my life.

Those days are gone; most of us, myself included, get our music digitally downloaded through iTunes, eMusic, Amazon or some other service, or stream our music through Pandora, RDIO or Band Camp. Music is so easily accessible that it has lost much of its magic to many of us. Why bother spending that kind of time haunting a record store when you can just Google the name of your treasure and it will be located in seconds? Who among us of a certain age can remember the thrill of first entering a Tower Records, a record store that dwarfed anything we’d known before and had just about anything and everything that was available – and if they didn’t have it by God they could get it for you in a week, tops.

In 1999, as a title card at the very beginning of the documentary All Things Must Pass which chronicles the story of what is perhaps the most iconic record chain in history, Tower Records had over a billion dollars in sales. Five years later, they filed for bankruptcy. How did that happen?

Well, the Internet happened. Music suddenly was being file shared and downloaded. Who needed to go inside an old-fashioned brick and mortar emporium? Who had the time? Besides, you could find anything on Napster for free. Why pay twenty bucks for a CD when you could get the very same quality for free? You can’t compete with free, says one talking head ruefully during the course of the film.

Competition happened. Big box stores like Wal*Mart and Target began stocking CDs in comparable qualities and sold them at cost. Tower couldn’t compete with that either. But this wasn’t all Tower’s doing; the music business itself made some incompetent decisions, focusing on music piracy. They may have won the battle against Napster but they lost the war; the major labels these days are shadows of their former selves and making a living as a musician is way harder than it used to be – and it was never easy.

&Tower grew because it was a family store, a neighborhood store. It began as a few bins in a drug store located in the Tower Theater building in Sacramento. When the proprietor’s son, Russ Solomon, decided to get in the record retail business, his father sold the bins to him and soon Russ had a couple of stores in Sacramento. Then one in San Francisco. Then another in Los Angeles.

Russ believed in expansion but he also believed in having more stock than anyone else. He believed in putting people as clerks who were people you’d want to hang out with and talk music with for a couple of hours. I remember going into the Tower Records in Mountain View, California and when the clerks found out I was the rock critic for the San Jose Metro ended up spending nearly three hours just chatting with nearly all of them in between them ringing up customers. They grilled me on various groups and styles; about some I would plead ignorance but others I knew well. When I left the store, the manager told me that I was “Tower Records clerk material.” I don’t ever recall being as thrilled about a compliment in all my life.

That family feeling carried through to the executives of the company, nearly all of whom started out working at the cash register. As we listen to their interviews, particularly Mark Viducich (he of the walrus-like moustache in the photo above) and Heidi Cotler, we get the sense that these are people who are used to speaking what’s on their mind and would be a hoot to hang out with for a few beers after work. These guys knew their market because they were their market.

Solomon’s aggressive expansion phase made Tower a global presence, particularly in Japan which was rabid about American culture (the Japanese expansion was Viducich’s call). Music being such a personal thing, they understood that it had to be treated almost as therapeutic and so it was. If music was the catalyst for change in the latter half of the 20th century, Tower Records was the company that provided the chemicals for the reaction.

Times did change and despite their best efforts Tower Records is no more. Now Colin Hanks, the actor and son of Tom, has fashioned a documentary that is a very good idea – it is going to inspire a ton of nostalgia for a lot of people ranging from the baby boomers to Gen X; in other words, the people that Millennials roll their eyes at these days. That can’t be a bad thing for the box office.

If I have one complaint with the film it’s just that the format is pretty tried and true – lots of talking heads with archival film footage interspersed with it. The soundtrack is pretty good but not as great as that which accompanied The Wrecking Crew or Muscle Shoals. That’s a bit of a problem, but one that isn’t a deal killer at least.

There are some record collectors left but most of us have reverted to digital storage. Ironically the CDs which prompted the golden era for Tower in terms of profits were also the vehicle for the doom of big record chains including Tower. Once music was digital, the obsolescence of brick and mortar record stores was assured.

Still, one can look back fondly on hours spent at Tower, Amoeba and Park City CDs and the money spent and not one dime of it do I regret. Music is as essential to life as breathing (the Japanese Tower continues to use the old Tower slogan “No music, no life”) and I can’t imagine life without it. We all have our own soundtracks and Tower was the place where many of us acquired ours.

REASONS TO GO: Classic nostalgia for aging music geeks. Engaging interviews.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedestrian format.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Tower Records no longer exists in the United States, they still thrive in Japan under separate ownership.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Homemakers

Gnomeo and Juliet


Gnomeo & Juliet

Featherstone engages in a little light bondage with Gnomeo and Juliet.

(2011) Animated Feature (Touchstone) Starring the voices of James McAvoy, Emily Blunt, Michael Caine, Maggie Smith, Jason Statham, Patrick Stewart, Ashley Jensen, Matt Lucas, Jim Cummings, Ozzy Osbourne, Hulk Hogan, Julie Walters, Dolly Parton, Stephen Merchant, Richard Wilson. Directed by Kelly Asbury

If the play’s the thing, then Romeo and Juliet may just be THE thing. Perhaps the most famous play ever written, it has been told and re-told in all sorts of cinematic methods, from musicals (West Side Story) to epics (Zeffirelli’s 1968 version) to mistakes (Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 MTV-hip version). However, I can’t think of any version that is quite as bizarro as this one.

Mr. Montague (Wilson) and Miss Capulet (Waters) live at 2B and Not 2B Verona Avenue. They have had a petty rivalry going on over the years stemming from their gardens. This resentment has carried over to their garden furniture, particularly the garden gnomes that populate their yards. On the Montague side, Lord Redbrick (Caine) rules the red gnomes; on the Capulet, Lady Bluebury (Smith) is the boss.

Gnomeo (McAvoy) is son of Lady Bluebury; Juliet (Blunt) daughter of Lord Redbrick. The endless rivalry that goes on, largely in the form of lawnmower races between Gnomeo and Tybalt (Statham) which Tybalt cheats in order to win, has been escalating. Juliet, tired of being cooped up on a pedestal watched over by Nanette (Jensen), a frog fountain at the behest of Juliet’s overprotective dad, wants to contribute and be productive; she spies a rare orchid in the hothouse of a neighboring yard whose house has fallen into disrepair. She means to nab it for the Reds in order to put the red yard ahead of the blue.

In the meantime, Gnomeo means to exact revenge for Tybalt’s destruction of the Blue lawnmower. He and his cousin Benny (Lucas) go on a stealth mission to the Red yard, meaning to lay down some graffiti but Benny gets a bit carried away and the two are discovered. They flee and Gnomeo is forced to take shelter in the abandoned yard.

It is of course at that moment that Juliet, dressed as a ninja (okay, wearing one of Mr. Montague’s old socks) enters the abandoned yard to nab the orchid. Gnomeo sees her go after it and in the way of guys everywhere, once he sees somebody wants something he wants it too. The two of them compete for the flower in a series of martial arts-like moves until they get a gander at each other’s faces. That’s it – instant love. However, they fall into a convenient pond, washing off Gnomeo’s camouflage and washing away Juliet’s sock and they realize that they are from opposing sides.

That doesn’t mean much to true love however and they arrange a meeting in the neutral yard the next day. There they meet Featherstone (Cummings), a plastic pink flamingo who has languished in the storage shed since the owners of the house divorced and went their separate ways years ago. He is pleased to see them, particularly when they discover his missing leg. He is all about love, particularly since his own love was taken away from him in the divorce.

The two are definitely in love and life could certainly be idyllic, particularly if they follow through with their plans to run away and start a new garden in the dilapidated old yard. However, Tybalt is getting out of control and the war between red and blue is escalating and frankly, red is winning. However, the blue side looks to even things out with something called the Terrafirminator. The more out of control things get, the more likely that a tragic ending is  inevitable.

This is one of those nice occasions where my expectations were exceeded. I didn’t think much of the trailer; the animation isn’t really ground-breaking and while the whole concept is different to say the least, it is sufficiently out there that sight unseen it left me with a kind of wait-and-see attitude. Quite frankly, Da Queen was far more jazzed to see this than I was. I’m very glad that she insisted we go see it.

This is more than pretty good. There are many sly Shakespearean references (“Out! Damn spot!” refers not to a bloodstain but to a wayward hound) as well as some amazing stunt casting, like metal god Ozzie Osbourne as a sweet porcelain deer, and Patrick Stewart as a grumpy William Shakespeare. Hulk Hogan narrates an online ad for the Terrafirminator and Dolly Parton adds a turn as the starter at the lawnmower race (with an appropriately blonde and large-breasted gnome as her onscreen alter ego).  

Director Kelly Asbury previously worked on such disparate projects as Shrek 2 and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron.  He shows a deft hand here and despite an army of writers, lends a Monty Python-esque air to the proceedings.

Elton John was the executive producer of the project and most of the incidental music is themes from his hit songs done with an orchestra. That does make for a nice trip down memory lane, not to mention he contributes two new original songs (one a duet with Lady Gaga) but I would have preferred a little more original music – maybe another song or two – to balance the retreads.  

There aren’t nearly the pop culture references so prevalent in most animated features in the post-Shrek era which is kind of refreshing. It has a decidedly English feel, like the Aardman films (like Chicken Run and Flushed Away). In short, this is something completely different from the animated ranks, so much so that Disney chose to release it through their Touchstone imprint rather than the parent company where they usually place their animated features. That may backfire on them – I suspect that the film might have benefitted from the Disney marketing and brand name, but still in all don’t let its lack stop you – this is a fine animated feature that will delight children and adults alike.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful Shakespeare in-jokes replace pop culture references. Nicely cast (and drawn) cameos.

REASONS TO STAY: Music recycles Elton John themes ad infinitum – some more original music and songs would have been welcome.

FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart have both played Professor Charles Xavier in the X-Men movies; Stewart in the first three (and the Wolverine spin-off) and McAvoy in the upcoming X-Men: First Class.

HOME OR THEATER: Certainly the 3D aspect may work better in the theater, but this one looks just as good at home methinks.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Other End of the Line