Kingsman: The Secret Service


Accessories are important for the true gentleman.

Accessories are important for the true gentleman.

(2015) Spy Action (20th Century Fox) Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Sophie Cookson, Sofia Boutella, Mark Hamill, Jack Davenport, Geoff Bell, Samantha Womack, Jordan Long, Tobi Bakare, Nicholas Banks, Edward Holcroft, Morgan Watkins, Jack Cutmore-Scott, Hanna Alstrom, Fiona Hampton, Lily Travers. Directed by Matthew Vaughn

The spy movies of the late 60s and onward have a certain place in the cultural psyche. They represent a particular era, sure, but they also represent the fight between good and evil, our fascination with technology and a certain sense of humor about life in the modern age. Our attitudes towards women, patriotism, freedom and what constitutes a gentleman have been largely shaped by these films.

Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Egerton) is growing up aimlessly in a working class London neighborhood. His dad died when he was a baby and his mom (Womack) has taken up with a local thug (Bell) named Dean. Dean abuses his mom but Gary isn’t strong enough to stand up for her or for himself. Dean despises him and ridicules him for it.

But Eggsy has a good heart to go along with his Cockney accent and when he gets arrested for stealing the car of one of Dean’s underlings and leading the police on a merry chase, he knows he can’t call home. Therefore, he calls the number on the back of an amulet once given to his mother by a gentlemen who came to inform her of the death of Eggsy’s father, remembering that if he called that number and read a certain phrase, help of whatever nature was needed would be forthcoming.

It comes in the form of Harry Hart (Firth), a debonair and well-dressed gentleman who tells Eggsy that in fact, his father once saved Harry’s life and that Harry wanted to repay that debt by offering his son the opportunity to try out for a position in the same super secret organization that his father served in and that Harry in fact serves in now – the Kingsmen. No, not the “Louie, Louie” bunch.

The Kingsmen are a secret, non-government affiliated group of highly trained, highly skilled gentlemen. They aren’t spies particularly; what they do is prevent bad things from happening. They have a seemingly unlimited budget and there are only a set number of them; when one dies they are replaced. This is the group that Eggsy is about to join – if he can survive the process of selecting the winning applicant, that is and it is a brutal one, focusing on teamwork, thinking on one’s feet and assessing dangerous situations. Most of the applicants are upper class snobs, although Eggsy befriends Roxy (Cookson), a female applicant (who gets her share of grief from the snobs, as does Eggsy) and Merlin (Strong), the tech wizard of the Kingsmen and the right hand of Arthur (Caine), head of the organization.

In the meantime, a tech billionaire named Valentine has big, bad plans. See, he’s a little bit concerned about climate change. Okay, he’s a lot concerned about climate change. He’s given up on the government doing anything about it and has decided that to make humankind’s carbon footprint smaller he needs to make the population smaller. His plan is to use a special cell phone signal through special SIM cards in free cell phones he’s given away to nearly everyone trigger a violent, murderous rage in those who hear it. Only those wealthy, beautiful few who he’s personally approached and implanted a microchip that cancels out the signal in their heads will be immune to the carnage, especially after they all are safely ensconced in bunkers around the world.

It’s a mad plan, certainly but Valentine is deadly serious about it. He’s even hired himself a mercenary army and constructed a lair within a mountain. You know he’s got to be a villain with a mountain lair. In any case, with Valentine’s powerful connections, getting to him won’t be easy and preventing an anarchic Armageddon even less so but that’s what the Kingsmen are there for, after all – to save the day.

Vaughn has made films based on Mark Millar comic series before (as this film is) and the collaborations between the two have been fruitful, producing the fine superhero film Kick-Ass for example. Vaughn has become one of my favorite directors of late with some excellent genre films to his credit. He knows how to make a film visually spectacular and hit all the right buttons in the fanboy psyche while not taking the movies so seriously that they become ponderous. His movies are almost always deeply entertaining.

And this one is no exception. Colin Firth as an action hero seems like a pretty unlikely casting, but it works here. Firth actually performed a surprising amount of his own stunts, but handles the role well, keeping a Bond-like facade of cool while kicking the butts of a group of Dean’s thugs, or some of Valentine’s flunkies, or a church full of homicidal fundamentalists.

Samuel L. Jackson makes a fine villain. Given several personality quirks (he gets violently ill at the sight of blood for example) by the writers, Jackson gives the character a lisp that makes him all the more memorable which is in the grand tradition of Bond villains. While the lisp does occasionally fall off, Jackson gives the character the right amount of menace to make for a formidable foe but enough goofiness to give the film a lighter tone. He also gets a nifty assassin in Gazelle (Boutella), who has no legs but on her Pistorius-like artificial limbs is fast, graceful and deadly as she is able to unfold sword blades from those artificial legs while in mid-air. Tres cool.

There are a lot of asides to the spy movies and television series of history; a reference to the Get Smart! shoe phone for example, or the glasses worn by super-spy Harry Palmer in films like The Billion Dollar Baby and The Ipcress Files. Clearly there are several Bond references although many are turned on their ear; Valentine at one point has a speech in which he says “This is the part where I reveal to you all my plans, and then come up with a slow and convoluted way for you to die, and you come up with a convoluted way to escape and stop me. Except this isn’t that kind of movie” at which point he shoots his nemesis in the head, much like Indiana Jones once shot a swordsman making fancy moves before he could attack.

Egerton shows a lot of potential, although I can’t say he’s a slam-dunk future star. He’s got charisma but he wasn’t really asked to carry this movie (as well he shouldn’t have been) and so I’m not certain he can rise above the gimmicks and gadgets, of which there are plenty here. The jury is out on him for me, although I can see him eventually ascending to a leading man status.

The humor here is mostly dry although there are some broad physical jokes here from time to time. Those who find the English wit not to their liking may consider this not their cup of tea, although I enjoyed this a great deal. In fact, this is the most entertaining movie I’ve seen thus far this year (which isn’t saying much) and one of the most entertaining I’ve seen in the first quarter of any year (which is saying a lot) ever. For those looking for a fun time at the movies, this is your best bet at least until some of the more anticipated movies of the spring start appearing next month. I certainly wouldn’t complain if this became the start of a new Fox franchise.

REASONS TO GO: Highly entertaining. Great action sequences. Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies a bit on gimmickry and gadgetry. May be too droll for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and mayhem, some pretty crude language and some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The menswear shop on Savile Row which is the entrance to the Kingsman headquarters is based on Huntsman, a real store in the area. Because shooting in the actual shop would have been impractical, a set was built copying many of the characteristics of the original although production designer Paul Kirby added his own touches to give the set its own personality.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Means War
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Hot Tub Time Machine 2

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X-Men: First Class


X-Men: First Class

You can tell it's the 60s: they're playing chess on an actual chessboard.

(2011) Superhero (20th Century Fox) James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Oliver Platt, Jason Flemyng, Alex Gonzalez, Zoe Kravitz, Matt Craven, Lucas Till, Caleb Landry Jones, Edi Gathegi, James Remar, Rade Serbedzija, Ray Wise, M. Ironside, Bill Milner, Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Romijn. Directed by Matthew Vaughn

It is a failing of humanity that the things we don’t understand, we tend to fear and the things we fear we tend to destroy. This is what leads to genocide, and that kind of hatred and malevolence can have unintended consequences.

Erik Lensherr (Milner) is the son of Jews who have been taken to a concentration camp, displaying great power over magnetism when angered. A Nazi scientist (Bacon) notices this and determines to find out how he can use Lensherr as a weapon for the Third Reich. In order to force Lensherr’s co-operation, he executes his mother in front of him.

After the war, the adult Lensherr (Fassbender) goes on a rampage, hunting down Nazis who had anything to do with his torture, with emphasis in particular on the scientist who now goes by the name of Sebastian Shaw. His powers still only manifest when he’s angry but he’s not yet grown into the powerful mutant he will become.

Charles Xavier (McAvoy) is graduating from Oxford and has become an expert on human mutation, o much so that he is approached by Agent Moira MacTaggert (Byrne) of the Central Intelligence Agency to give expert testimony to the higher-ups of the CIA, including a skeptical agency chief (Craven). It seems that MacTaggert has been chasing Sebastian Shaw as well, and witnessed the telepathic powers of his associate Emma Frost (J. Jones) and the teleportation powers of Azazel (Flemyng), one of the associates of the Hellfire Club that Shaw runs. Xavier brings along Raven Darkholme (Lawrence), a young orphan his family adopted. When Xavier’s scientific presentation fails to impress, he reveals that both he and Raven are mutants; he a powerful telepath and she a shape-shifter.

They are taken charge of by an eager, jovial section chief (Platt) who has built a facility for the study of mutants, only without any mutants. That changes when one of the scientists working for them, Hank McCoy (Hoult) turns out to have hands for feet and has animal-like powers. He discovers a kindred spirit in Raven, who like Hank longs to be normal-looking (Raven in her natural appearance has blue skin, golden eyes and brick-red hair).

During a government attack on Shaw’s boat, the government is foiled by Azazel and Riptide (Gonzalez), a mutant who can generate tornado-like windstorms. Shaw, Frost, Azazel and Riptide escape on a submarine that Shaw had built inside his boat despite the efforts of Lensherr who arrives mid-fight in an attempt to murder Shaw, who recognizes his old pupil.

Xavier rescues Lensherr from drowning and recruits him to be part of the government team. Lensherr really isn’t much of a team player, but his growing friendship and respect for Xavier keeps him around. They realize that since Shaw has a mutant team that can easily wipe out even a military attack, a mutant team of their own will be needed. Using Cerebro, a computer that enhances Xavier’s telepathic abilities and allows him to “find” mutants, he and Lensherr go on a recruiting drive, allowing him to find Angel Salvadore (Kravitz) – a stripper with wings, Darwin (Gathegi) who can adapt to any survival situation, Banshee (C.L. Jones) who can project sonic blasts that allow him to fly and also act as sonar, and Havoc (Till) who fires lethal blasts out of his chest.

Shaw finds out what Xavier and Lensherr, who are now going as Professor X and Magneto (suggested by Raven who’s going by Mystique, while McCoy is Beast), are up to and orchestrates an attack on his new recruits, killing one and recruiting Angel to his cause. Shaw, who sees the mutants as the next step in evolution, is up to no good – he is the one who has through subtle and not-so-subtle influence in both the Soviet Union and the United States, created the Cuban Missile Crisis in hopes of starting World War III, from which he and his fellow mutants would rise from the ashes to rule the world. Xavier and his X-Men (a play on G-Men bestowed on the group by MacTaggert who is their CIA liaison), must stop it despite the group’s youth and inexperience.

Vaughn, who has done the superhero thing before with Kick-Ass (he was originally supposed to direct the third X-Men movie but dropped out because he didn’t think he could finish it in the time allotted by the studio) and is also the man behind Stardust, one of my favorite movies of recent years, does a pretty spiffy job here. He has a great visual eye and has done this as essentially a James Bond movie from the 60s with superheroes. It’s a brilliant concept that he doesn’t always pull off but manages to enough to make the movie interesting.

One of the main reasons the movie works is the chemistry between McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence. These are three talents rising in the industry – Lawrence already has an Oscar nomination for her stellar work in Winter’s Bone – and all have enormous potential to be stars. McAvoy plays the contemplative Xavier with an even keel, rarely raising his voice or seemingly getting excited but that doesn’t mean he isn’t emotional; it is amusing to watch him trying to pick up girls with his line about mutations at various Oxford pubs.

Fassbender is much more intense as Magneto, making the pain of his childhood palpable but well-covered by layers of anger. His need for revenge has driven him to hate all humans, wanting to forestall another Holocaust-like fate for his fellow mutants. The leadership of the CIA and the military will certainly not assuage his paranoia much.

Lawrence does Mystique as a troubled soul, whose power is wrapped up in deception but yet yearns to be perceived as normal. She develops an attraction for Magneto despite Beast’s obvious crush on her, and she is very much attached in a sisterly way to Xavier.

The movie goes a long way into showing how Xavier and Magneto went from the best of friends to the most implacable of foes. It also depicts how Xavier was paralyzed and shows the founding of his school where the X-Men would eventually be based. While Wolverine and an adult Mystique make cameos (both very playfully done I might add), the mutants from the first trilogy of the X-movies largely are absent.

Fox has made no secret that they plan to make a new trilogy starting with this one. The question is, will I want to see the next one? The answer is a resounding yes. While the 60s atmosphere that was created was rife with anachronisms (the miniskirt, which is clearly worn by several characters and extras during the film, wasn’t introduced until a few years after the Crisis for example and the soundtrack is rife with music that wasn’t recorded until afterwards either), the feel of the Bond movies is retained and that makes the movie special.

The action sequences (particularly the battle with the Russian and American fleets with the mutants that ends the film) are well done. As summer superhero movies go, this is definitely a cut above, although lacking the epic scope of Thor earlier this year. It certainly is a promising reboot of the franchise and continues the run of quality Marvel films that we’ve been getting over the past five years. Hopefully Fox will continue to follow Marvel’s lead and keep the quality of this franchise high.

REASONS TO GO: Great action sequences and good chemistry between McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t capture the period as well as it might have.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some partial nudity and a few mildly bad words, along with some action sequence that may be too intense for the youngsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fassbender and McAvoy both appeared in the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” early on in their careers but haven’t appeared together in the same project since.

HOME OR THEATER: The action sequences are huge and need a huge canvas.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Outlander

New Releases for the Week of June 3, 2011


June 3, 2011

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS

(20th Century Fox) James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, January Jones, Kevin Bacon, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oliver Platt, Jason Flemyng. Directed by Matthew Vaughn

The saga of the X-Men gets an origin story as we see how the friendship between Charles Xavier and Eric Lensherr dissolves into bitter rivalry. We’ll also see the very first mission of the mutants, as they attempt to avert Armageddon during the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. An all-new cast reboots this franchise.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and promos here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Superhero

Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity and language)

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

(IFC) Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Nicholas Conrad, Carole Fritz. Ace documentarian Werner Herzog takes us inside a place few humans have ever seen – the Chauvet Cave in France. Here we are allowed to see, in stunning 3D, the most ancient cave art discovered to date, drawings dating back 30,000 years. The filmmaker had to get special dispensation to take his 3D cameras into the caves, and it is unlikely permission to film inside the caves will ever be granted again in order to preserve the environment of the site.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: 3D

Genre: Drama

Rating: G

Hobo with a Shotgun

(Magnet) Rutger Hauer, Nick Bateman, Molly Dunsworth, Gregory Smith. An angry homeless guy armed with a lawn mower and the titular shotgun decides to clean up the streets of a hopelessly corrupt city. This started out life as a faux trailer on some editions of the Grindhouse DVD.

See the trailer and a link to rent the movie at Amazon here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Action

Rating: NR

Midnight in Paris

(Sony Classics) Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Michael Sheen, Adrien Brody. An American family moves to Paris for business reasons. Once there, they fall under the spell of the City of Light, and learn that lives different than our own aren’t necessarily better. This is the newest from Woody Allen and it has been getting some of the best box office receipts for the acclaimed director in more than a decade.

See the trailer and web-only content here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual references and smoking)

Stardust


Stardust

Danes and Cox are bemused by DeNiro's assertion that Martin Scorsese taught him how to waltz.

(Paramount) Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Peter O’Toole, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Henry Cavill, Rupert Everett, Ricky Gervais, Kate Magowan, Ian McKellan (voice), Nathaniel Parker, David Kelly. Directed by Matthew Vaughn.

This arrives to us from the mind of Neil Gaiman, one of the most respected names in the Graphic Novel field today. The man who gave us such works as Sandman, Death: The High Cost of Living and Coraline also gave us this, his version of high fantasy.

The village of Wall in England is so-named because of a long wall running along the edge of the town. It seems like an ordinary wall, with a breach in it where the stones have collapsed over the year – it’s a very old wall, after all – with the town on one side and pleasant fields on the other. However, persistent town legend has it that crossing through the wall takes you to a place not known to man. The legend is so widespread that the town actually has a guard posted 24-7 at the breach, although few in Wall are so addled as to wish to see what lies on the other side.

One night, a young man does so and meets a girl, a beautiful girl who says she is a princess being held captive by a witch. The young man and the girl do what comes naturally to young men and girls and nine months later, the young man has a special delivery from the wall guard – a baby, who the young man is charged with raising.

Years later – 18 of them, to be exact – the baby has grown into a young man himself, a shop boy named Tristan (Cox). He is deeply besotted by Victoria (Miller), a town beauty who is very rich and being wooed by equally rich (and equally shallow) Humphrey (Cavill). However, she finds a soft spot for the lovestruck Tristan and agrees to go on a late night picnic with him. Tristan is devastated by the news that Humphrey has gone to Ipswich to buy an engagement ring which he intends to present to Victoria at her birthday party a week hence. She intends to say yes to Humphrey.

Just then they are interrupted by the descent of a falling star. In a moment of romantic passion, Tristan promises to retrieve the star for Victoria. She agrees if Tristan can do this, she will be his. In the meantime, the star has landed and it’s not a piece of rock or a chunk of metal. It is, in fact, a beautiful girl (Danes) who goes by the name of Yvaine. Her arrival has signaled a time of great changes in the land – not England, for the Wall is in fact a magic dividing point that separates the land of reason (England) from the land of magic (Stormhold). The King of Stormhold (O’Toole) is dying, and as is customary in that autocratic land, the crown princes are murdering one other in order to be the last prince standing in line for the throne.  It turns out that since four…er,  three princes remain and the King doesn’t have time to wait for the others to go about finishing the others off, he sets a challenge – the prince who can retrieve an amulet and restore the color to the ruby within it will be King. The trouble is that the ruby is around the neck of Yvaine.

There is also a wicked witch named Lamia (Pfeiffer) who knows that the heart of the star bestows youth and beauty on those who know how to use it. For her and her sisters, it is absolutely vital that they retrieve this star since their last one is almost gone and the old girls are beginning to show their age.

Everybody is after the star, but it is Tristan who finds her first. He promises to help her return home to the heavens once he’s presented her to his true love, so Yvaine – who doesn’t like this overly earnest and awkward young man – begrudgingly agrees. This sets in motion a series of perils, pirates (led by the able Captain Shakespeare, played with panache by De Niro) and all manner of really bad people.

This is a movie of charm and wit. There are some great moments and a few real good laughs, but there are some moments of poignancy and real insight as well. Director Vaughn, best-known for Layer Cake, balances all of the elements very nicely. Yes, it’s definitely a fantasy but there isn’t an over-reliance on special effects. Sure, there are some breathtaking moments like the Sky Pirate Ship landing on the water, or a duel between Tristan and Lamia, but the appeal here is in a lovely simple story and some solid acting.

Cox is very likable in his role, and De Niro is obviously having a good time in his role as the pirate captain with a reputation to uphold, but it is Pfeiffer who in all ways is the real reason to go see this movie. She makes a really terrific villain (as those who’ve seen her in Hairspray can attest) and isn’t afraid to have a ton of make-up and prosthetics applied to artificially age her, despite being one of the most beautiful women in the world (still). She plays the part with supreme self-confidence and unleashes one of her best performances in years. It’s a surprisingly demanding role and one critical to the movie’s success, but Pfeiffer pulls it off admirably. This may not be necessarily Oscar material, but it’s the kind of work that gets the kind of work that a good actress wants to do for her.

I was enchanted with Stardust from the very first moment when McKellan’s stentorian narration begins. The world here is richly detailed, which is I think one of the great selling points to most fantasy readers, in the same way that Tolkein’s Middle-Earth is, or Lewis’ Narnia. Stormhold is a world that is lived in and watching this you naturally want to live in it too. I highly recommend Stardust for anyone who loves fantasy movies, fairy tales, adventure stories or romances – and especially for those who love all of the above.

WHY RENT THIS: Charming and witty. Lovely performances, particularly from Pfeiffer. A fully realized fantasy world that you want to live in.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags a bit in the middle. Some of the plot points are a bit worn thin.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some minor violence and sexuality but nothing not suitable for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Captain Shakespeare’s vessel, the Caspartine, is named after director Matthew Vaughn’s two children, Caspar and Clementine.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Daredevil