Saturday, February 21, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Kingsman: The Secret Service
Dir. Matthew Vaughn

4 out of 5

The titular organization in Kingsman: The Secret Service is an international spy agency that's not MI-6, even though everyone involved just happens to be British.  Nor are its gentlemen agents who wear fine suits, deploy lethal gadgets, and infiltrate underground lairs supposed to be any kind of stand-in for a certain type of spy who emerged in the golden age of cloak-and-dagger during the Cold War.  (Their origin has something to do with tailors and the fortunes of wealthy casualties in World War I.)  Indeed, Kingsman borrows as many of its cues from modern fairy tales like Star Wars and Harry Potter as it does from spy movies.  Consider its protagonist: Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton), a poor London youth whisked away from his troubled home life to audition for an espionage program that tests the limits of his physical and psychological capabilities; whilst his mentor, top agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth), investigates a flamboyant tech billionaire (Samuel L. Jackson) for a litany of suspicious behavior, including but not limited to employing a personal assistant (Sofia Boutella) who sports razor-sharp foot prosthetics.

That last flourish is typical of Kingsman, a stylish spy thriller and love letter to the James Bond film series that does what many of the Bond films themselves cannot: land on the right side of the homage-parody divide.  Of course, this is the old-school '60s and '70s Bond we're talking about, the movies stuffed with outlandish megalomaniacs, gimmicky henchman, and grounded gadgetry.  But Kingsman is most intriguing in its attempt to best Bond in the personality department.  From their tony headquarters on Savile Row to their emphasis on expertise and teamwork, these guys (and gals) take their self-appointed status as gentlemen quite seriously.   It's a not-so-secret jab at the idea of a violent, vengeful Bond serving as a symbol of masculine cool; the Kingsman way is practically the opposite, according to Hart, who quotes Hemingway to his young protege: "True nobility is being superior to your former self."

It's another way of saying that you must be comfortable in your own skin, as director Matthew Vaughn certainly is.  With Kingsman he finally combines his visual panache and cheeky sense of humor with thematic heft, as the film's the out-of-nowhere commentary on wealth, class, and privilege is a vast improvement over solipsistic missteps like Kick-Ass.  This being Vaughn, the film is none too subtle, and several of its winks to other spy films are rather clunky.  Yet it succeeds all the same by taking a different tack than lesser Bond imitators, which so often try to declare their importance by either symbolically murdering or pantsing Bond in a fit of desperation.  Kingsman is the anti-anti-Bond film, working on multiple levels for many audiences: those who will recognize its tango with the history of the spy genre, those who appreciate a subversive product slipping through the Hollywood system, and those who simply want to sit back and enjoy the buoyant confidence of a movie that knows exactly how to find its own groove.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Seventh Son

Seventh Son
Dir. Sergei Bodrov

2 out of 5

Meryl Streep famously spoke of the difficulties that actresses face upon reaching a certain age - upon turning 40, she reportedly began receiving a deluge of offers to play witches, a role she resisted until last year's Into the Woods.  The starkly generic fantasy Seventh Son seems a lot like the type of movie that Streep was turning down years ago.  It's a film that has no use for female characters who aren't witches, or at least closely associated with the villainous coven led by Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore), a powerful sorceress who has returned after a decades-long exile to seek vengeance on John Gregory (Jeff Bridges), the "spook" - a kind of supernatural bounty hunter - who imprisoned her.

It's easy to read Seventh Son as a feature-length act of acquiescence.  The movie squanders a talented cast on a pro forma hero's journey invested exclusively in meat-and-potatoes fantasy clichés (gee, I hope this magic pendant comes in handy later).  As the last representative of an order dedicated to protecting people from evil magical creatures, Gregory is forever in search of a worthy apprentice.  When his latest one dies, he tracks down Tom Ward (Ben Barnes), a restless farmboy so blatantly Skywalker-esque he actually stares into the middle distance and verbally confirms that he's meant for something greater than this.  As they fight their way through Malkin's minions, Gregory gradually convinces Tom that bitches be crazy and that all witches should be summarily executed.  However, the boy nurtures a seed of dissent when he discovers that a mysterious young woman (Alicia Vikander) accused of being a witch might not be so bad after all.

There's nothing wrong with embracing the Joseph Campbell template, but you had better bring something new to the equation.  All of Seventh Son's flimflam about bloodlines and destiny amounts to little more than a few character beats in the film's loud, boring climax, when its sudden stabs at profundity feel completely unearned.  And while most of the cast more or less plays the material straight, Bridges tries way too hard in turning Gregory into one of his signature wizened drunks; for some reason, this one happens to talk like Alfred Hitchcock after swallowing a truckload of gravel.  (One of the movie's few interesting undercurrents is that the heroes progress through the story despite its wise man's consistent recklessness, hectoring, and hardline stance on witch genocide.)  Alas, when the montage of medieval fantasy images in the end credits suggests a deeper and more interesting world than anything in the actual movie, it's clear that Seventh Son suffers from a fatal lack of imagination.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Catch-Up: Winter 2014-15

I try to see as many movies as I can, so sometimes I need to purge the queue.  In this edition: catching up with cold weather diversions.

The Interview
Dirs. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

2.5 out of 5

In the wild weeks that took The Interview on its ride from mildly anticipated comedy to potential national security threat to free speech cause célèbre, it was difficult to imagine how we could ever talk about it as a movie.  Turns out it didn't take much - you just had to watch the thing.  Far from the supposedly inflammatory, outrageously disrespectful screed that motivated a group of hackers to raid Sony Pictures' hard drives and threaten moviegoers with violence, the satire of The Interview is more like the prepubescent reaction to a hidden cache of Playboy magazines.  It feels naughty and vaguely transgressive, but it doesn't fully grasp the possibilities.

Just in case you are reading this outside the white-hot political crucible of late 2014, The Interview concerns Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen), the veteran producer of a tabloid news show hosted by Dave Skylark (James Franco), whose quest to boost the program's prestige leads to an interview with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (Randall Park).  Rogen and Goldberg are savvy in presenting Un as a madman who only pretends to play the buffoon, particularly as he butters up the venal, guileless Skylark with an over-the-top bromance.  Still, The Interview has trouble deciding which route to take, so it often settles on silliness for silliness' sake.  The slightly more serious themes that buttressed Rogen's other 2014 film, Neighbors, are not to be found here, and the result is an amiably goofy yet shapeless comedy.

Top Five
Dir. Chris Rock

4 out of 5

Chris Rock is rightly considered one of the greatest stand-up comedians of all-time - a cultural, comic, and critical voice like few others in his generation - but you wouldn't know that from a cinematic oeuvre that includes misfires like Down to Earth and Head of State.  Even though his overall legacy is quite secure, the winning romantic comedy Top Five is a big step toward rectifying that career blind spot.  Rock plays Andre Allen, a former stand-up prodigy turned star of the Hammy the Bear trilogy, a lowbrow yet wildly successful comedy film franchise that features Allen fighting crime in a bear suit.  He's trying to salvage his career and his self-respect by transitioning to drama, though he's also distracted by the sideshow of his impending televised wedding to a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union).  It all comes to a head throughout a busy day while Andre is in New York City promoting his newest project - a violent historical slave rebellion epic - and being shadowed by a reporter (Rosario Dawson) who forces Andre to come to terms with the decisions he's made, both in his career and in his life.

Top Five is a madcap, banter-heavy fireworks show in the classic screwball comedy tradition.  Rock is omnivorous in his influences, and has a blast combining the familiar - vintage Woody Allen, His Girl Friday, anything from Meg Ryan's late '80s/'90s heyday - with his own sensibility, forged within the traditions of African-American comedy and the fraternity of stand-up.  Though the movie rarely throws a true curveball, Rock follows his gameplan with energy and precision, keeping Andre's exaggerated plight grounded in details that paint a more robust picture of its lead couple as human beings.  Ultimately, Top Five's biggest advantage over more generic, focus-grouped comedies stuffed with cameos and throwaway jokes (which Rock admittedly takes advantage of as well) is its individuality - a quality derived from the movie's character-driven humor and Rock's own unapologetic point of view.

The Boy Next Door
Dir. Rob Cohen

1.5 out of 5

Noah Sandborn (Ryan Guzman) is the most impossible high school senior I've ever seen in a movie.  For the first 20 minutes of sleazy thriller The Boy Next Door, he's an incredibly buff, Iliad-quoting, garage door-fixing, great uncle-caretaking, surrogate-fathering fantasy for the recently separated Claire Peterson (Jennifer Lopez), a suburban schoolteacher whose current man of the house is her dweeby teenage son (Ian Nelson).  Noah and Claire inevitably bump uglies in classic late-night Cinemax fashion, but when Claire realizes her mistake and tries to break off their non-relationship, it doesn't take long for the boy to reveal him as an angry, manipulative psychopath - a even more preposterous character who tracks closer to "Batman villain" than "spurned jock."

There is nothing noteworthy about The Boy Next Door, a self-serious take on material that's one step above amateur erotic fiction and not nearly as fun as the Lifetime movie version would undoubtedly be.  Lopez's big comeback is limited to 30 minutes of lounging in various nightgowns and an additional hour of looking mildly concerned as feverishly dumb reveals pile up in a triumph of hackneyed storytelling.  (Though, to be fair, Claire's totally normal job as a classics teacher at a public high school allows the filmmakers to sprinkle in pretentious references to Oedipus and the works of Homer.)  Ultimately, The Boy Next Door exists solely for two scenes - the steamy May-December sexytime that's built up with all the subtlety of a softcore porno, and Claire's vigilante retribution against a lunatic who surely would have raised about a million red flags by now - presumably to pander to our most forbidden desires while reassuring us of our moral uprightness.  It's an annoying case of a movie trying to have it both ways.  Too bad neither of them work in the slightest.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending
Dir. Lana and Andy Wachowski

2.5 out of 5

The Wachowski siblings' quest to out-weird themselves continues with Jupiter Ascending, a sprawling space opera that proudly chooses quantity over quality when it comes to the ideas that shape its original sci-fi narrative.  And for a while, "quantity" doesn't seem like a bad choice: the film's whirlwind first act includes attempted alien abduction, cybernetically-enhanced bounty hunters, a caste of test-tube humans spliced with animal DNA, and the machinations of intergalactic aristocrats trying to gain control the most lucrative and resource-rich planet left to them in their late mother's will: Earth.  

Caught in the middle of this madness is Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a humble domestic worker and undocumented immigrant living with her large Russian immigrant family in Chicago.  However, this being a space opera, Jupiter is in reality a very important figure in these space politics, which becomes clear when she's rescued from the alien minions hunting her by a human-wolf hybrid named Caine Wise (Channing Tatum).  She's then whisked away beyond the stars to reclaim the royal birthright waiting for her, and to make decisions that affect the fate of the entire universe with only the slightest giblets of information about what in the holy hell is going on.

The film plays like the colicky love child of Dune and Flash Gordon, attempting to parlay its obsession with court intrigue and political ritual into big, dumb action setpieces.  Unfortunately, it's a fatally unbalanced equation.  Tatum is much blander than a wolf-eared super soldier who rides around on anti-gravity rollerblades should ever be, and the movie relies on a repetitive cycle of capture, rescue, and escape that belies the painstakingly detailed world in which it takes place.  Indeed, there's another, more interesting movie going on beneath Tatum's rote action hero exercises, one where Kunis' screwball charm elevates her secret space princess backstory, and where the Wachowskis manage to insert grace notes about personhood and identity (there's a wonderful sequence where Jupiter endures a labyrinth of bureaucrats and paperwork in an homage to Brazil) alongside indelible images of gorgeous gilded spaceships and the many Dr. Moreau-style hybrids that form a kind of galactic underclass.

Jupiter Ascending will undoubtedly receive plenty of scorn for its overstuffed and incoherent plot, its reliance on space fantasy clichés, and the nonexistent chemistry of its leads.  None of it will be unwarranted; despite a release date change, it still draws unkind comparisons to similar fare like Guardians of the Galaxy.  But to pillory the film for its unabashed weirdness is a fatal mistake, an act of myopia that not only discounts the fascinating marginalia and omnivorous influences present in the Wachowskis' world-building, but also discourages any sort of deviation from the status quo of big-budget pictures.  So many movies fail in the most boring, predictable ways possible.  We should be more grateful when a movie like Jupiter Ascending has the good sense to stumble with style.