movie reviews February 2015

black sea Fifty shades of Greymr. turnerkingsman: The secret service

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Kingsman: The Secret Service
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

With Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class and, now, Kingsman: The Secret Service, director Matthew Vaughn has proven himself singularly adept at translating comic book action to the screen, using precisely choreographed camera movement and seamless computer effects to capture on film both the implied motion and the literal static tableaus of the comic panel.

The effect can be thrilling. But, as with most tools, the results depend on how it's wielded.

Like Kick-Ass did with superheroes, Kingsman, again adapted by Vaughn with Jane Goldman from a Mark Millar comic, casts an irreverent, self-referential eye on the secret agent genre.

Kingman is a secret international organization with unlimited funds, operating beyond governmental authority. Since this is a 007 parody, the milieu is British, the organization an extension of the Round Table with agent code names drawn from the various knights.

Disguised as a Saville Row tailor shop, Kingsman HQ could not be more appropriate as we soon learn that the central tenet of service is to comport oneself at all times as a gentleman. That image is embodied in Harry Hart, codenamed Galahad, as portrayed by Colin Firth, he of the urbane demeanor, world-weary sigh, and, for most audiences, The King's Speech lineage. Led by — who else? — Michael Caine as the organization's M, Firth and Co. are the very models of modern mid-century gentleman-spies: well mannered, eloquent, and impeccably tailored.

And lethal.

Vaughn gets a lot of mileage from the disparity between these polished exteriors and the violence of which these gentlemen are capable.

When one of their number is killed, each knight submits a candidate, all of whom face a series of perilous tests to determine a successor. While his fellows deliver a gaggle of suitably aristocratic types, Hart, anything but a snob, nominates Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton), a working-class kid from the estates, to whose father he owes a great debt.

Meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson has begun chewing up the scenery as megalomaniacal billionaire Richmond Valentine, who is plotting to save the environment by inducing a worldwide homicidal frenzy. In true Bond fashion, Valentine has a secret mountainside lair, a henchwoman, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), who sports razor-sharp prosthetic leg blades, and oddly, a cartoonish lisp which grows increasingly irritating the longer he's on screen — as do many of the film’s bits.

Kingsman fancies itself clever as it panders to its audience of fanboys. The martinis, bespoke suits, Ken Adams-influenced sets and Rosa Klebb-style stiletto-toed brogues, however, soon begin to feel like overly literal, unnecessary pastiche. After all, haven't we seen most of this for decades in everything from Matt Helm and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” to Austin Powers and Team America?

Vaughn's characters overtly discuss the old Bond movies and repeatedly claim, "This isn't that kind of movie," but, ultimately, it is that kind of movie. Vaughn doesn't so much parody the genre's foibles as fiercely indulge them. Hart espouses classlessness, yet Vaughn's film buys into the broadest reactionary stereotypes. Eggsy's background is straight out of “Shameless” — a world of thugs and lay-abouts and the women who suffer them.

In fact, women in Kingsmanbarely register, appearing in the forms of Eggsy's battered mom; a kidnapped Swedish princess who, in a tasteless bit of schoolboy humor, offers anal sex in exchange for rescue; and Gazelle, who has been literally dehumanized and refashioned as a weapon and occasional valet.

And remember that comic book action that Vaughn renders so effectively? By the time Harry Hart (granted, under Valentine's influence) has single-handedly slaughtered an entire southern US church congregation, culminating in the impaling of the pastor's head, one may even begin reconsidering this talent as a virtue. Far too often, Kingsman feels like a film about gentlemen created for an audience of yahoos. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 02/17/15)

Mr. Turner
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

Part of the criteria for film as art can mean creating the presence and feel of another era. The screen captures a period of history where the viewer goes beyond mere observing a creation of certain time period, knowing its accuracy can always be questioned, to a higher believability that the viewer carries onward, to other things besides the theater to whenever that period comes to mind. Screenwriter and director Mike Leigh, with cinematographer Dick Pope, has created such a film in Mr. Turner. The film’s four Oscar nominations, including for cinematography, production design and costume design, seem almost paltry in recognition to the beauty this film presents on the screen.

Mr. Turner, as art, is a story of an artist in the second half of his life in the early- to mid-19th century. We know nothing of Joseph Mallord William Turner before we meet him sketching the light upon the land on the Continent in mid-life. He is already well known by this time, an English painter and water-colorist of landscapes referred to as “the painter of light.”

Timothy Spall (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The King’s Speech) gives JMW Turner all the eccentricities, arrogance and sensitivity one who has read of Turner’s life would expect. His father, William (Paul Jesson) is more an assistant than patriarch as he leads the wealthy and upper class to his son’s studio to bargain for his paintings. The film presents some of Turner’s work (authentic or not) such as “Snow Storm – Steam Boat of the Harbour’s Mouth (1842) and “Rain, Steam, and Speed – the Great Western Railway (1844), both of which seem to confirm Turner’s reputation as an early creator of abstract art.

Spall convincingly presents Turner’s personality a depth in the midst of his talent that includes extreme shallowness, even cruelty, in the way Turner treats his loyal housekeeper Hannah Danby, played by Dorothy Atkinson.

Atkinson matches Spall’s masterful performance as a somewhat dimwitted woman longing to have her love of Turner acknowledged beyond his clumsy sexual ambushes. In one extraordinary scene, Turner comes from behind to penetrate Danby and as he thrusts back and forth, reaching a quick climax, she turns her head back toward his with a look of both ecstasy and deep wanting for a kiss that Turner does not give.

Only near the end of Turner’s life, when Danby discovers his residence with another woman, the ever-joyous Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), does Danby, ravaged by a skin disease, realize he will never look at her as any thing other than a housekeeper and sexual release.

Some could say Mr. Turner is a film where nothing much happens. Yet so much happens as it does in any life in the changes that bring sorrow and happiness. Spall gives Turner a realness that many would associate with a brilliant artist. A presentation tempered always by the English way of politeness in the face of challenges and surprises, and the ultimate view of meeting life with a stiff upper lip.

One viewing of this film seems inadequate. Both with the artistically curious and those wanting to fathom more the human spirit, Mr. Turner demands more than one sitting. Spall and Atkinson’s performance give life to a time long pass while reaching across the centuries in giving their characters the universality that never leaves the human predicament of life no matter the century. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 02/16/15)

Fifty Shades of Grey
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Thanks to the First Amendment, filmmakers can depict just about any act of coupling imaginable. The challenge, however, is making viewers care what happens to lovers before, during and after coitus.

Yes, the new film adaptation of E.L. James’ kinky novel 50 Shades of Grey offers 20-plus minutes where the audience can witness spanking, blindfolds, riding crops and acres of skin. What’s missing are two characters who are interesting to watch regardless of where they’ve put their clothing.

As with a great deal of pornography, the filmmakers are so preoccupied with making sure all the bondage and submission make the cut that they have forgotten how to make the eventual coupling happen convincingly. Who needs plot or character development when simply having a plumber or a UPS driver show up and deliver more than the advertised services?

That said, most porn directors have the decency not to make viewers suffer through 40 minutes of shallow, cringe-inducing courtship before fulfilling their promises. James’ novel is loaded with clumsy blather that compares lovemaking to washing machines. Only the “humping robot” from the stoner cartoon Robot Chicken could get any satisfaction from that.

Sadly director Sam Taylor-Johnson, who once helmed the terrific John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy, and screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks) are unable to use the tried-and-true story arcs involving pizza delivery and must settle for James’ less plausible and more convoluted setup.

Virginal college student Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, the daughter of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson and the granddaughter of Alfred Hitchcock leading lady Tippi Hedren) takes a trip from Portland to Seattle to interview billionaire telecommunications magnate Christian Grey (Irish actor Jamie Dornan) for her school newspaper.

For a 4.0 student, she’s rather dim. Like many a rom/com heroine, Ana stumbles and falls on her way to meeting Christian. She’s subbing for her sick roommate, so it’s obvious she’s not a budding Nellie Bly. He answers her queries with the hollow, motivational poster blather one might expect from a real CEO, even one who’s built as if he were sculpted like Michelangelo’s David.

The comparison is fitting because throughout the film Dornan’s face changes its glum expression fewer times than the statue’s visage does.

It’s not that surprising to learn that James developed her story as Twilight fan fiction. Like Bella Swan before her, Ana is essentially a doormat with arms and legs. In print, the motif is a little easier to take because the character is supposed to be a surrogate for the reader, the fewer distinctive personality traits, the better.

On screen, this makes the wait for anything other than tedious stilted dialogue to emerge all the more unbearable. Perhaps because Johnson has attractive parents, Christian is obsessively drawn to a woman who studies literature but doesn’t’t keep a working computer to write papers about it.

Christian stalks her at work even though he lives up north in Seattle and spends a lot of time making surprise appearances. For a guy who runs a telecom company (what exactly do they do?), has a six-pack set of abs, plays Chopin on piano after lovemaking, flies both a helicopter and a glider, Christian’s got an inordinate amount of spare time.

He even has time to send Ana expensive gifts like a new car and first editions of Thomas Hardy novels. He also has some of the worst pickup lines this side of Anakin Skywalker. “If you were mine, you wouldn’t’t be able to sit for a week,” he boasts.

It’s hard to get worked up over a love story that begins with the boy handing a girl a non-disclosure agreement. As he said earlier, Christian wants Ana to be on call whenever he’s feeling both horny and violent. People who actually practice BDSM roll their eyes at how James and others have depicted their activities as abusive. Considering how Christian does all sorts of underhanded techniques to get Ana’s address and other information, he’d be the making of a restraining order even if he weren’t’t into S&M.

Johnson at least tries to look curious and titillated, but against the indifferent looking Dornan, it’s all for naught. Taylor-Johnson, who trained as an artist, can come up with a pretty, insular world for Christian to inhabit. That said, neither she nor Marcel can give him enough of a soul to make the audience care if he ever rights his ways or learns how to enjoy the kinky stuff for a change.

I’ll give James and Marcel credit for having Christian obtain Thomas Hardy books instead of the “first edition” of the Iliad that Jennifer Lopez’s underage paramour gives her from a garage sale in The Boy Next Door. At least print was standard operating procedure back in Hardy’s day.

It takes a special skill to make forbidden desires seem so dull and uninviting. If the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge were as unappealing as 50 Shades of Grey, Adam and Eve could have stayed put. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 02/15/15)

50 Shades of Grey

Nude people with whips
are less sexy than most twigs
in this stupid bore.

Black Sea
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In his latest non-documentary feature, director Kevin Macdonald (How I Live Now, The Last King of Scotland) burdens a straightforward heist plot with excessive, overt messaging. Dennis Kelly’s screenplay is chiefly to blame; he embeds an oversimplified backstory for every character and situation to the detriment of the in-progress action.

Jude Law plays Robinson, a submarine captain recently made redundant by a corporate underwater salvage operation.  A mate, laid off by the company a year earlier, tips him off to the location of a sunken Nazi U-boat filled with gold bars — a bribe from Stalin to Hitler to delay invasion. The company can’t recover the treasure until the political issues in the area are resolved, leaving the millions of dollars worth of gold vulnerable to banditry by a disgruntled, rogue submarine crew.

The team Robinson assembles consists of highly specialized but tough submarine and diving veterans, plus a suit (Scoot McNairy) representing the interests of the investor. Aliens is clearly an influence on Kelly, as are post-Thatcher-era ensemble movies such as The Full Monty. However, he comes out swinging with a reference to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre when Robinson insists that all crewmembers — no matter how many of them are left when they surface — get an equal share of the loot.

Cultural differences also add to the volatility. Robinson’s go-to squad are Brits (Michael Smiley, David Threlfall) who served with him in the Royal Navy, but he needs Russians, recruited by ally Blackie (Konstantin Khabenskiy), to operate the Soviet-era sub they buy to make the mission. The Russians are practically indistinguishable, except for Grigoriy Dobrygin in the second half of the movie, and superstitiously suspicious of the greenhorn (Bobby Schofield) Robinson brings on board to assuage feelings of guilt and provide at least one emotional tie to a crewmember. An Australian diver (Ben Mendelsohn), described as a psychopath by both Robinson and Blackie, lives up to his characterization in response to the bullying, conveniently forcing the action instead of allowing it to play out in a more natural, slower way.

For a submarine heist movie, the set pieces for Black Sea aren’t nearly as claustrophobic as they should be. The closeness and darkness the crewmembers talk about aren’t experienced by the viewer, leading to more of an intellectual ordeal than a visceral one. The one scene that successfully conveys a sense of oppressive confinement takes place outside the sub on the sea floor, but by then so much has gone wrong that even the motivating power of greed seems forced. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 02/10/15)



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