Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service Review

(dir. Matthew Vaughn)

20th Century Fox

“Manners maketh man.”

Matthew Vaughn has developed quite a reputation for irreverent takes on popular film genres. The man who bent the rules with Layer Cake, Stardust, Kick-Ass, and X-Men: First Class takes the spy genre to new, yet familiar places. When the independent secret service known as the Kingsmen, suffers the loss of one of their agents, Harry Hart (Colin Firth) recruits the thuggish, but well-meaning, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) as a potential replacement. Eggsy’s training tests him in ways he never imagined, but his real challenge comes when he must team up with fellow recruit Roxy (Sophie Cookson) to stop the world-ending plans of Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). Based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, Kingsman is a throwback to the Bond movies of old, with all the crudity and violence those films could only winkingly suggest at.

There’s a lot Kingsman has working in its favor, chief amongst them is its sense of fun. Vaughn has made no secret of his fatigue with serious genre movies and Kingsman is the antithesis of ‘dark and gritty.’ That’s not to say the film isn’t violent. The fight scenes are bloody, over the top, and rely quite a bit on shock value. These aspects come together to create some of the most inventive action scenes I’ve seen in a while (set to a great soundtrack, if I may add). But all the action, as good as it is, wouldn’t have emotional weight without the charming performances by its leads.

Egerton (certainly a star in the making) blends Eggsy’s street-smart ways, naivety, and misplaced pride into something irrefutably endearing. In less capable hands, the role could have easily fallen into the realm of annoyance, but Egerton creates an underdog you can’t help but root for. Colin Firth, who provides the film’s moral center, is nothing short of badass. And who would have ever thought to associate Firth with badassery? Mark Strong, who plays the Q-esque role of Merlin, delivers a consistently great performance. While Strong is never the leading man, any film that has him as a supporting player is immediately elevated. Jackson’s Valentine, supported by blade-footed henchwoman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), twists the classic Bond villain tropes into something born of the era of self-made computer billionaires. The characters serve to create an amusing contrast between gentlemanly codes of conduct and the celebrity-inspired notions of street cred. Behind all the gags and guns is a measured examination of class struggles and status.

Matthew Vaughn is as visually imaginative in his creation of set pieces as usual (Valentine’s secret lair is fantastic) and he has the ability to create films that feel much larger than their budgets. But, his biggest strength comes in the form of screenwriting partner, Jane Goldman. Goldman is one of the best screenwriters working today, a fact that goes sorely unrecognized far too often. It’s her deft handling of humor and heart, the creation of morality in chaos, that allows this film to transcend some of the more juvenile and outright offensive aspects that Mark Millar’s creator-owned projects are sometimes known for. Furthermore, the story has a sense of completion, a clear arc that understands its characters and allows them to evolve. While I’d certainly enjoy a sequel in Vaughn and Goldman’s hands, the film doesn’t fall prey to the traditional Hollywood method of telling part of a story. Kingsman feels complete, like its creative powers weren’t saving things for later, and I think that’s one of the reasons the response to it has been so positive.

Kingsman is a much needed relief from the dire state of winter releases. As one of the smartest action-comedies in recent years, it’s a must see for fans of spy movies and a solid reminder that we don’t have to take genre so straight-faced. It’s a film conceived out of pop-culture, one that manages to play with references and callbacks without feeling like parody or spiteful mockery of the films it’s indebted to. While the film still throws up the middle-finger that Millar’s work is famous for, Kingsman lovingly dares to be more. 

Grade: A

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Jupiter Ascending Review

(dir. The Wachowskis)

Warner Bros. Pictures

“I will harvest that planet tomorrow, before I let her take it from me.”

Jupiter Ascending is batshit crazy, the kind of crazy that makes Star Wars look like a product of realism. In The Wachowskis latest science-fiction endeavor, we learn that the Earth (along with all other planets containing life) has been “seeded” with the genetic material of alien royal families. At the center of the film is Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a housemaid who, after being abducted by aliens, learns that she has the same genetic code of a deceased alien queen who held ownership over the Earth. With the aide of genetically spliced, exiled royal soldiers, Caine (Channing Tatum), and Stinger (Sean Bean), Jupiter must prevent the earth from falling into the hands of the former matriarch’s children, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth).  Trust me when I tell you that this brief synopsis doesn’t even begin to cover all the zany plot intricacies of the film.

While the central story is easy to follow, and far less philosophically and scientifically complex than The Matrix Trilogy or Cloud Atlas, The Wachowskis still can’t resist stuffing the film with details. There’s a lot of exposition used to set up the universal hierarchy that the film’s plot revolves around. A lot of these details come too quickly to fully digest on an initial viewing and some of the political structures and clauses seem purposefully wordy and overly complex. Despite the fact that not every detail sticks, and some of the made up words sound comically arbitrary, The Wachowskis craft a fully fleshed out universe for their film. I mean, there’s literally enough alien races, space crafts, political relationships, backstories, and Soylent Green-level twists to fill seven seasons of any high-concept sci-fi show.

The cast seems to have had a blast making this film, and it shows in every single performance. Not a single one of them seems afraid of looking silly (and with a number of supporting characters as animal-human hybrids, it’s nearly impossible not to look silly). Eddie Redmayne is finally able to break out of his Oscar-season glow with a scenery-chewing performance that he delivers in a husky whisper that occasionally shifts into abrasive yelling like he’s got some kind of space tourettes. While Mila Kunis’ personality makes her a solid hero, it also makes her seem less out of her element than the story needs her to be. There are some moments in Jupiter’s character evolution and her romantic relationship with Caine, where you can tell that the film’s length was cut in the editing room. Part of this could also be attributed to the almost fairy tale portrayal of romance that The Wachowskis have in this film (not unlike the six month, ‘I’ll love you forever’ relationship between Neo and Trinity in The Matrix series). Still with such a cast amassed, it’s a shame that the film couldn’t run longer to give them all a little more to explore, both in terms of character and concept.

On the technical side of things, The Wachowskis haven’t lost any of their skill in crafting imaginative action scenes. There are some truly impressive battles in this film, and while some have criticized the film’s high budget, you can see every penny of it on screen. The designs are just incredible, each one a work of art. While there’s nothing as cinematically transformative as “bullet-time,” Caine’s air boots are pretty stellar and contribute to some great fight scenes. All of this dazzling effects work is set to an adrenaline pumping score by Michael Giacchino that borrows a few notes from his fantastic Star Trek score. The Wachowskis go all out with the technical wizardry of this film, as if they made their last big-budget feature ever. Sadly, they very well may have.

While so many big-budget films are made dour by directors who want their film to be the epitome of seriousness, The Wachowskis embrace the pulp nature of their film. It’s as if they spun a drug store book rack containing the most absurd, science-fiction novels of the 60s and 70s, and plucked the strangest, and cheesiest, details from each, in order to create something that feels refreshing. It’s disappointing that the film’s box office results have ensured The Wachowskis won’t get to make their proposed trilogy of Jupiter Jones’ story. Regardless, I celebrate the film they made and if this was truly their last big-budget hurrah, they sure went out in style.

Grade: B+