Sunday, March 29, 2015

"Kingsman: The Secret Service"

 2.5 / 5 

Kingsman: The Secret Service is such a full-throttle assault to sensibility, an attempt to be both retro and modern that seems so off-balance that I found myself in a quandary: I loved it except when I hated it.  After it was over, I wondered, was it a gloriously excessive romp or a frustratingly failed spoof?  Like Betty White says in the census-taker sketch from Saturday Night Live, "There's really no way of knowing."

Amid some of the worst visual effects in a big-budget studio release and violence that crosses the line from gratuitous to relentlessly excessive, Kingsman: The Secret Service delivers a long stretch of giddy inventiveness as it reveals the existence of a spy ring so secret even its members seem unsure if it exists.

The Kingsmen are named for a Savile Row tailor, or maybe the shop is named for them, it's never clear and it doesn't matter.  What matters is that they are the special agents that MI6 would call on for help if MI6 knew about them.  They are the kind of spies James Bond could only aspire to be, ruthlessly effective yet impeccably cultured.

The movie begins with a thoroughly botched scene of a thoroughly botched mission.  For the first 10 or 15 minutes of Kingsman, director Matthew Vaughn seems incapable of telling a story using modern tools -- in fact, Kingsman opens with what has to be the most amateurish effects shot in recent memory.  The visuals don't even rise to the level of a cheap video game.  In an effort to plunge the audience right into the action, nothing is clear and the movie itself is distracting.  Things get even worse when Kingsman introduces Eggsy (Taron Egerton), an East London thug whose life is so stereotypical thuggish (baggy pants, hip-hop music, fast cars, thick accents) that Kingsman has nowhere to go but up.

And it does.  It rises, it rises, it rises, and finally it doesn't achieve lift-off as much as it shoots straight into the cinematic heavens, finding its way after the first blind stumbles and morphing into exactly the kind of movie we wish James Bond films could be again.  It's fast on its feet, clever and charming, and more than a little thrilling.  It's all going so well.

Then, as Kingsman does time and again, it comes crashing back down, falling hard when it introduces the lisping, curious character played by Samuel L. Jackson, a multi-billionaire who, it comes to pass, has a plan to take over the world.  True, total global domination is a villainous motivation we see far too little of in spy movies anymore -- they've all become so literal, so real, so gritty.  Kingsman is figurative, silly, lighthearted.  But neither Jackson nor the script (based on a graphic novel) can figure out this bad guy, and the movie suffers for it.  His plan, when it's finally revealed, seems so full of gaping holes, and is presented with such impossible-to-believe amateurishness, that there's no way Kingsman could expect us to take it seriously -- but it does.

Jackson's prodigious talents fail him this time around, and even Kingsman's script points out that the plot is only as good as the villain -- and when your villain is presented as a lightweight, lisping Russell Simmons knock-off, it's hard not to think what might have happened if he had been Scaramanga or Blofeld rather than a character who's a quarter-of-a-step up from Dr. Evil.

The villain's name is Valentine, and without giving too much away, his plan involves using billions of cell phones all over the world to emit a signal to -- well, exactly what it does (and, more importantly, why) are never entirely clear.  For those who may be familiar with the story, imagine he gets his way: Then what?  You knew what Goldfinger had in mind, Valentine not so much.

But nevertheless, the Kingsmen are going to stop him, including the newly recruited Eggy, whose training and indoctrination into the Kingsman program form the best part of the movie.  Eggy's training by the no-nonsense Merlin (Mark Strong) and by Firth's Harry Hart (code name: Galahad) -- all the Kingsmen are named for Arthurian legends -- is endlessly entertaining.  Watching the London lad become a gentleman spy is as entertaining as the name-checked transition of Eliza Doolittle.  More, even.  For this long, long stretch of time, Kingsman had me believing it had not only overcome its early difficulties, but that it was introducing us to a situation and characters that could form the basis of sequel after sequel -- all of which I was already envisioning myself going to see.

Kingsman is fast, funny, cheeky, clever and, most of all, suave and sophisticated, as any spy who received a bespoke-made suit from Savile Row must be.  Eventually, Eggy even learns how to order the perfect martini (hint: only look at the bottle of vermouth).

Then, just as the Kingsmen should be making the plans for a final attack on Valentine's mountaintop compound (another digital mess of a location), everything goes kablooey. I mean that literally.  During a stop at a Southern evangelical church that may hold a secret to uncovering Valentine's plot, something happens.  I won't say what it is, I'll say only that it leads to the most excessive, depressing, ugly and out-of-place outburst of violence, one that is so spectacularly ill-conceived it made me want to leave the movie then and there.

I didn't.  I stayed, even though I didn't want to.  And I'm glad I did.

If you think that last paragraph is confusing, it's nothing compared with the emotions I felt watching Kingsman.  I was angered, I was disgusted, I was shocked, I was confused and, more importantly, I felt I had been betrayed.  True, the movie's opening scene also contains some rather over-the-top violence, and the rest of the movie will have lots of exploding heads and splattered brains, but this particular scene stopped the show in its tracks.  It presents violence for no other reason than to get us to laugh at big wooden poles being shoved into someone's head, at bullet blasts to the face, at body parts falling off.  Maybe Vaughn intends to convey some sort of "meta" message through the over-the-top violence, but it doesn't work.  (And if it's not, if he means it solely as entertainment, it still doesn't work.)  It comes close, at least twice, maybe even three times, to ruining the film.

But Firth, Egerton, Strong and Michael Caine (as Arthur, naturally) are there to bring it all back.  When the violence turns cartoony and silly as people's heads blow up in multiple colors, shot from above like a Busby Berkeley Technicolor musical, they manage to rise above it all.  These are solid actors with terrific characters.  In Kingsman, they've found a concept that could grow and get better and turn into movies that audiences don't just half-love but whole-love.

Kingsman almost works.  It is wonderful fun.  It made me smile and laugh at exactly the times when it wanted me to smile and laugh.  It sucked me in to its story, made me believe in what I was seeing.  And then, it wasted all of that goodwill by its insistence on being edgy, by bringing in "meta" elements that referred to other (better) films, by spilling blood in such aggressively ugly ways.

As a film, Kingsman should aspire to be exactly like the debonaire Harry Hart/Galahad, but still has far too much Eggy on its face.  Next time around, let's hope they get it right, because I do hope that Kingsman will have a next time around.  I'd love to see what they could do if they figure out how to get the tone right.

Viewed March 28, 2015 -- AMC Promenade 16


Sunday, March 22, 2015

"It Follows"

 3.5 / 5 

Horror may be the toughest of all genres to pull off.  What scares one person may bore another.  What gets under my skin may leave you shrugging.  So, ever since the slasher fad of the 1980s, horror films have pushed the limits ever further of what an audience can stomach, reasoning, I guess, that if an audience can't be scared, it can at least be revolted.

Suspense and fright has given way to shock and disgust, and horror filmmakers have relied increasingly on startling sound effects and grisly visuals to sell their wares.  (You may have noticed that the easiest way avoid being "scared" at a horror movie is to plug your ears; without the jolting sound cues, most horror films lose their power.)

But there's been a slow and welcome change of late, with movies like The Woman in Black, Insidious and The Conjuring taking glee in the re-discovery of taking their time to establish a story, then turning the screws ever tighter.  It Follows is a nice addition to the growing trend of intelligently, skillfully made horror movies.

It begins with the horror-film truism that came up in the early 1980s, that a smart, capable young woman should never sully her reputation with sexual intercourse, that sex equals death.  The latter axiom may only have been implied in movies like Friday the 13th and Halloween, but became a part of the real world around the same time, when HIV and AIDS were making headlines -- and frightening young people away from sex of any sort.

The characters of It Follows seem to live in a world perpetually stuck in about 1982.  Their cars look like the sort of hand-me-downs that a 1980s high-schooler would have driven.  Their homes have above-ground pools and 4:3 television sets with rabbit-ears.  The girls feather their hair, the boys are attired in hopelessly retro ways, and there's nary a cell phone in sight.  And yet, this isn't a period piece.  It's more a kind of horror-driven fairy tale set in this imagined world that never moved on from the latter years of the Cold War, the time before we knew about AIDS and the ways sex could kill you.

From its first shot, It Follows establishes the off-kilter sense of doom and dread that pervade it.  Director David Robert Mitchell knows how to create a mood, one that never lets up.  I can't think of a movie as strangely unsettling, in ways both big and small, since Philp Kaufman's masterful 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Acting, production design, photography, music and sound effects are all used to keep us off-balance.

It Follows opens with a scene we don't understand -- a barely dressed young woman staggers out of a suburban house and stumbles down the street.  It's hard to tell if she's running, and if she is we can't figure out from what.  She assures neighbors and her father that she is fine, but she's obviously not.  And then, the next morning, she's dead, in the movie's only overtly grisly scene.  (Fair warning: It is indeed a disturbing image.)

Seemingly unrelated, young college student Jay (Maika Monroe) is getting ready for a date with a boy named Hugh (Jake Weary) who may be too old for her.  They flirt a little.  They sit down to a movie ... and Hugh begins to freak out.  He can't see something sinister that Jay can see.  They forget about the incident, and continue their flirtation.  They have sex in the back of a car.

Then things get really, really weird, because the sex they have is, well, cursed.  I won't tell you how, I won't tell you why, but Hugh has "passed on" something to Jay without her knowledge or consent, and he needs her to be certain that she has been infected.  There's only one way to get rid of it -- to pass it on to someone else.

Yes, in the revisionist horror-movie world of It Follows, sex isn't an instant death sentence, not as long as you can go out and have sex with other people.  In the 1980s, the way to survive a horror movie was to be the virgin.  In It Follows, the only way you can reasonably be assured of living to the end of the movie is to become sexually prolific.  It's a sly subversion, one that Mitchell plays both for laughs and for shock.

It Follows is never less than fascinating, occasionally genuinely creepy and scary, and frequently downright bizarre.  It sets its own rules and then follows them carefully.  It hints at a "meta" cinematic world view, one that allows it to comment on itself ... but just barely, never going over the top in that sense the way the downright silly Cabin in the Woods did a few years ago.  It Follows doesn't want to be an homage to other horror movies -- it wants to be its own.

Though it has an odd sense of pacing and an ending that plays things a little too coy, it largely succeeds.  It Follows is, above all, a wonderfully effective little horror show that knows the best places to find horrors aren't necessarily in monsters that live in our imaginations -- but in the monsters that live inside our heads, the ones that emerge and grow once we've entered the world of adulthood.  They're the kinds of monsters that take hold and never let go, following us everywhere we go, with the ability to take the form of anyone, but especially the people we care about the most.  As the title says, once we decide we're going to be adults, it follows that some pretty ugly stuff decides to start following us around for the rest of our lives.

Once you get over the effective creepiness of It Follows and start thinking about what it all means, its subtle and cutting observations become all the more fascinating.

Viewed March 22, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Saturday, March 21, 2015


 4 / 5 

After Disney unleashed its overblown Wizard of Oz prequel and an ill-advised revisionist take on Sleeping Beauty, there was reason to fear Cinderella.  After all, as the credits rather cynically put it, this is a live-action version of "Disney's Cinderella Properties" -- oh, and a fairy tale by some French guy.

So, what in the world is Kenneth Branagh, whose admirable abilities as a director of movies like Dead Again and Shakespeare's Henry V were so squandered on the first Thor movie, doing with such an overtly commercial project?  The doubter in me, well, doubted the outcome.

I was wrong to do so.  Branagh, it turns out, has brought class, wit, elegance and undeniable charm to a project that seemed so crassly designed to sell more princess gowns to little girls and Swarovski crystal shoes to their mothers.  Branagh's Cinderella suffers little from the synergistic visions of its producer, and instead casts an enchanting spell over the source material.

As he proved with his best Shakespearean films, if you're going to tell an old and classic story, tell it right and do it with grace and skill.  In Cinderella, he does just that, aided immeasurably by willing and generous actors, not to mention a screenplay by Chris Weitz (About a Boy) that knows precisely when to be honorable and when to wink and nod at the Disney source material.  (Perrault's original fairy tale is so slight and provides only the backbone -- it really is the 1950 animated film that's being remade here.)

It's the rare movie from the modern version of The Walt Disney Company that would have made its founder proud, rated PG for head-scratching reasons ("mild thematic elements") -- Cinderella is a film that will make the pulse of little girls beat faster, but also contains joy and satisfaction for childless adults.  It's a dazzler, lessened only by the modern over-reliance on computer-generated visual effects that feel overblown and under-imagined -- the moments that are the most eye-popping are not the majestic aerial shots of a digitally rendered kingdom or the slightly underwhelming transformation in the garden.  The best moments are the ones filled with the emotion we associate with the tale: romance, mythical love at first sight, and the longing Cinderella carries in her heart.

That longing is a little more fleshed out than Disney animators managed 65 years ago.  Back then, Cinderella (like so many on-screen heroines) wanted the prince because she needed a man.  Today, Cinderella wants the prince because in a first brief meeting they regard each other as equals; he does not know her, she does not know him, but he likes her unusual vision of life, and she admires his respect -- something she receives none of at home, as every child knows.

As Cinderella, actress Lily James pulls off the feat that Julie Andrews did so well in movies like Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music: She's naive and wholesome without being cloying.  Her stepmother (a deliciously sinister Cate Blanchett, playing it all with perfect dastardliness) has relegated her to servant status not because Cinderella is a simpering footstool but, rather, because she isn't.  In this version, Cinderella has a real identity as a young woman suffering from grief and loss, but who has developed a worldview with a simple guiding philosophy: "Have courage and be kind."

Cinderella is kind, almost to a fault, because she wants to respect the dying wish of her mother.  But as the stepmother ("Madame will do," she suggests when Cinderella stammers to find the right name for her) heaps humiliation upon humiliation on the girl, Cinderella finally does reach her breaking point.  And this is where things get even more interesting, because the film suggests that only upon asserting herself and acknowledging the impossibility of being that perfect "Disney princess" will a fairy godmother appear to grant a wish -- in other words, get a backbone girls, and develop your own sense of self: Not bad lessons for youngsters to learn.

Helena Bonham-Carter's brief role as said godmother is amusing but not quite as grand as it might have been -- but that's because the movie is reserving the real heart of the movie for the prince's famous ball.  As he has done in most of the rest of the movie (the post-ball pumpkin-coach chase scene is the only real exception), Branagh showcases surprising reserve.  Cinderella is a movie made with some delightfully old-fashioned notions of how to shoot and frame scenes, and more than most modern directors, Branagh frequently lets the actors act without multiple cut-aways, and in a wonderful waltz sequence generally allows the camera to find and linger on the main characters.  I loved the way Cinderella was filmed and edited, with restraint and confidence.

That's not to say it's a perfect film.  The opening is so sticky-sweet you might feel a toothache coming on, while the climax can't quite get over the problem that will always be inherent in Cinderella: She can't be truly happy until she's got a rich man at her side.  Yet, Cinderella makes up for some of those deficiencies, particularly in a surprisingly unnerving scene toward the end when the movie suggests that if she doesn't find the prince, Cinderella may go slightly off her rocker.  (That makes it a bit of a relief, actually, when he slips that shoe on her foot.)

What does it matter, though, if Cinderella is flawed?  Flaws can make diamonds all the more interesting, and that's the case here, too.  Just when I was ready to write off Disney's strategy of remake after remake after remake, Cinderella comes along and wins my heart and suggests that, just maybe, there are still reasons to tell these classic stories in different ways.  Cinderella is traditional and straightforward, it's simple and its heartfelt.  It does exactly what Disney used to tell us is the only thing we have to do to get what we want: It believes.  And it makes us believe, too.

Cinderella is a lovely little thrill, a movie that wants to tell a story, and a story that wants to be a movie.

Viewed March 20, 2015 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks