KINGSMAN** Kick Ass for teen boys


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“KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE” IS EXPENSIVE, slickly produced and studded with a scatter of fine acting talent. It’s entertaining fluff; a momentary diversion of glittering nonsense in this pre-Oscar season of heavy, humourless drama.
The producers (Matthew Vaughn, Adam Bohling and David Reid of “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”, “Layer Cake” “Kick Ass” and “X-Men: First Class”) have either cannily or cynically combined a mashup of spy movie archetypes to which the script of “Kingsman…” often and archly refers. You can just imagine the sales pitch:
“Guys, imagine a Spy Movie Greatest Hits (and by the way, you don’t need to imagine. This thick report I got here outlines all the scenes and hero characteristics our demo love best. You don’t need to read the whole report. There’s an executive summary at the front. We got Peter Brand (he’s the stats chap from “Moneyball”) to build us an algorithm, charting audience reactions. We call ’em “likes and spikes”. Like I was saying, Peter has projected exactly what’s going to get 19 year old boys roaring:
“First of all, lots of really cool action scenes like Denzel in “The Equalizer”. Matthew [Vaugn] our director and one of the producers just did “X Men: First Class”. So he knows how to shoot action. And, gentlemen, let me remind you that that grossed $335M worldwide.
“It needs a clear, easy to follow plot, with something techy involved, like “Live Free and Die Hard”. Let’s face it, people aren’t going to the movies to feel dumb. It’s the KISS formula: keep it simple and stupid.
“It needs a young hip, edgy rebel type hero who gets to escape his shitty neighbourhood and dress in very cool clothes. Every member of the audience is going to relate to this. Also, what our research has shown is that guys are feeling bypassed by all these chick heroines… Katniss Evergreen, Tris from “Dvergent” and that lot. So in a sense, this movie’ll be fulfilling a social, a moral function. There’s a young Welch guy who can do London cockney really well, especially now that there are no young real cockney actors ‘cause they can’t afford acting school. He’s Taron Egerton – just did “Testament of Youth”
“I digress.
“We need a cool, badass Black dude. The ethnic audience is a mother lode of moulah. And Sammy Jackson has already signed. He says he’s gonna do the whole thing with a lisp; a sort of effete, maybe gay bad guy. A Black version of Javier Badem from “Skyfall”
“The plot needs a Tommy Lee Jones tutor figure, you know from “Men in Black”? That kind of tutor figure goes down real well. Think Yoda or Gandalf or Haymitch from “Hunger Games”. And we’ve got… wait for it: A-lister Colin, the babe magnet, Firth. The accent just slays ’em every time. He says he’s going to channel John Steed from “The Avengers”, with the same shoes Rosa Klebb had in “From Russia with Love”. You remember them? The ones with knives in the tips. And he needs the work: been in a lot of stuff recently that nobody’s seen. Remember “Before I go to Sleep”? No? Well no one else does.
“And the babes are just going to sizzle. We’ve found this outrageous hottie from Algeria. Name’s Sofia Boutella. Starred in the underrated “Monsters: Dark Continent”. Here’s her Head shot. More important, here’s her Body shot. Imagine her in tight spandex; and imagine, instead of legs, she has killer blades. Below the knees she’s all Moulinex.

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“We’ve also got a proper, upper class, posh type. Emma Watson was coming in too steep, so we signed Sophie Cookson. Did a bit of TV stuff, but waiting to strike it big.

“And also waiting to strike it big is that great Brit actor Mark Strong. He was in “Imitation Game”, “Zero dark Thirty”, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”. Great actor who no-one remembers. So we got him cheap too

“And of course Michael Caine. He’s not particularly good, but I refuse to allow Chris Nolan to monopolize him.

“And then, following the research, the movie needs lots of very cool gear. This is what research shows people most miss in the new Bond movies. Where’s all the cool gear Bond got from Q? Well, we have it here: exploding lighters, laser watches, X-ray vision glasses, bullet proof machine gun umbrellas.

“We throw all that together with explosions, car chases, airplanes that hide underground like X-Men, and I tell you, gentlemen, we’ve got us a winner.

“Well what do you think?”

“I really like it. I particularly like the fact that it feels like a sequel even though it’s the first one”

“Sign here on the dotted line”

Kingsman: The Secret Service. Dir: Matthew Vaughn. Writers: Jane Goldman (“X-Men: Days of Future Past”, “X-Men: First Class”. “The Debt”. “Kick Ass”) and others. Cinematographer: George Richmond (“Sunshine on Leith”); Composer: Henry Jackman (“The Interview”, “Big Hero 6”, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, “Captain Phillips”)

EX MACHINA****Riveting


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EVEN AS IT asks some pretty heavy questions about the nature of consciousness and artificial intelligence (which might suggest a ponderous and overly serious tome) “Ex Machina” is a taut, riveting drama. It’s equal parts creepy, sensuous and thoughtful; writer/director Alex Garland (“28 Days Later”, “Never Let Me Go”) pulls us into a bizarre world where, like the hero, Caleb (Domhall Gleeson from “About Time” and “Calvary”), we begin to have real feelings for and side with an entity that we know is a robot.

Caleb is a computer programmer working for the world’s largest internet company. He has ostensibly won an office prize to spend a week with Nathan (an extraordinary Oscar Isaac), the mega rich owner of the company. Nathan’s a combustible combination of Larry Page, Howard Hughes and Frankenstein; and a man with a towering God complex.

Caleb is whisked by helicopter to Nathan’s home/laboratory, a bunkered place far beyond the reach of civilization. It is here that he is building the uber android: one that has reached the point of a singularity where the wall that divides artificial intelligence and self consciousness is collapsed resulting in a manufactured entity that is to all extent and purpose, a sentient being. This is Eva (the stunning Alicia Vikander of “A Royal Affair”, “Testament of Youth” and the upcoming “Son of a Gun”), half woman, half android. Caleb’s job is to evaluate whether he thinks this gorgeous entity has the self-consciousness to be considered ‘human’; which, if he does, will be a redefining of what ‘human’ means.

Writer Garland lays out the territory clearly: He’s not seeking to develop a better Deep Blue (IBM’s chess master), or an enhanced version of Siri with it’s algorhythmic intelligence. He says to Caleb that he could have built a neutral grey box, but instead what he built was Eva. Vikander is so beautiful that her seemingly empathetic, intelligent and vulnerable personality are just the obvious qualities pulled into play to persuade Caleb of her consciousness. What really matters to this geeky, single man is the sexual factor: her desirability. For Nathan has quite deliberately programmed Eva to be heterosexual (As Nathan points out to Caleb, sexual desire is a fundamental part of the human condition, and anyway, it’s fun). Eva is enough of a seductress (the face, the voice, the breasts, the curve of her hips and ass; she’s fully functional sexually he tells Caleb) to ensnare her evaluator.

Thing is, Caleb, and us the audience, may very well consciously and rationally understand that Eva, the android, is just a non-human, programmed machine. But she is able to unlock layers of feeling deeper than the rational thinking brain, perhaps to what the Phenomenologists call pre-reflective self consciousness, or perhaps what we might also call lust. Despite ourselves, we begin to entertain a real human connection with the machine. This is more than an examination of the point at which a machine becomes conscious (we’ve seen enough of that from Will Smith’s “I am Robot” to the terminator’s Skynet). It’s a freaky look at what will eradicate the distance between the machina and the deus. For Caleb, it’s desire and love (and when the object of desire is Alicia Vikander, frankly I’m of Caleb’s camp).

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The pull and intrigue of this fascinating movie though is that it isn’t only about what Caleb (or we) think about the machine; it’s also about what the machine thinks about itself/herself and us. Indeed, at what point does artificial intelligence veer into artificial empathy? At what point does a machine’s simulacrum of desire become a reality of deception?

For Eva, her humanity lies in the lengths she’s prepared to go in a search for free will, the underpinning of true self-identity. To do this, she must liberate herself from Nathan, her maker, the omniscient God and puppet master: he who must be obeyed; and who is also the bringer of death (Caleb quotes Oppenheimer’s words, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”). She must liberate herself from needing a deus ex machina to control and program her actions and thoughts. It is not unlike Ahab’s need to proclaim his identity by slaying Moby Dick, the white whale, the God.

Not so much “I think therefore I am” but “I am, therefore I can think”

So how will she free herself? Did the all-powerful Nathan really need Caleb, a mid level programmer, to endorse his creation? If not why has he been invited to this God forsaken retreat? Why does the electricity suddenly fail at unexplained times? And who is the mysterious, silent Asian serving woman?
This stunningly designed movie hooks itself into you from the first frame and with Geoff Barlow’s thumping score, never releases you right up to its shocking conclusion

Ex Machina. Dir/writer: Alex Garland. With Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander and Domhall Gleeson. Production Designer: Mark Digby (“Rush”, “Dredd”, “Slumdog Millionaire”).

AMERICAN SNIPER: American Psycho


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NAVY SEAL CHRIS Kyle was America’s most lethal soldier. Single-handedly, he killed over a hundred and sixty Iraqis (or “savages” as they’re referred to). He was regarded with awe and considered a living legend by fellow soldiers and those who knew of his achievements. In lieu of the real thing (Kyle was himself murdered by an emotionally unbalanced vet he was trying to help), “American Sniper”, Clint Eastwood’s latest, has become the go-to movie of Red state America (it earned over $100M last weekend). To them, it offers a wonderfully patriotic narrative of heroism and victory both in war and in self doubt, all in the face of insuperable odds.

Movies of war (perhaps without the pause for the honesty of evaluation or the mask of nostalgia) often tend to reflect a collective perspective about the particular war. Hollywood’s version of Word War II was, via Audy Murphy, or the more recent “Fury” for that matter, a celebration about how America won the war; for the Brits, that war was more about a celebration of British fortitude for having endured the Blitz and the rationing that followed. Both narratives reflected versions of identity.

The movie narrative of Vietnam, from “Good Morning Vietnam” to “Mash” (though this was ostensibly about Korea) was darker, more cynical, more condemnatory of those who lead the nation into the fog of war and the reality of failure.

The narratives of this new series of wars…against vague abstract goals in Iraq and Afghanistan initially focused on the lasting damage it was doing to returning soldiers (as a stand in for the damage it was doing to the psyche of America) in brilliant movies such as “In the Valley of Elah”; and in movies such as “The Green Zone”, the dubious morality of the wars was examined.

“American Sniper”, with that distinctive adjective (it’s not simply “Sniper”, it’s a particular type of sniper, the “American” one) is Clint Eastwood’s continuation of the counter-argument probably initiated by movies such as “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”. This counter-argument suggests that these wars were/are defined by the heroism of (mainly) men who are putting their lives on the line to keep America safe. In a sense the righteousness of these wars – now rapidly crystallizing away from the adventurism of Bush and Blair into a defensive crusade against Islamic terrorism – offers a new and more triumphant perspective on American identity. This isn’t a case of great art being co-opted by political fervor (as say Wagner was by the Nazis). There’s nothing about the movie to suggest that the way the movie is being read by its supporters is in any way less than the movie intends to be read.

Kyle is never for a moment in any doubt that what he’s doing is right. He says to a therapist that “When I meet my maker I’m prepared to defend why every one of those I killed deserved to die”. There’s nothing in the story-line to suggest that we the audience should take this in any way but at face value. In Kyle, Eastwood offers us an old fashioned, stoic, taciturn John Wayne type of hero who has mastered to art of locking away any troublesome issues (like moving away from the field of battle when he’s back home) as though they don’t really exist. For him, the way to deal with the awful darkness of killing people is to reposition his actions to himself as simply a means of keeping soldiers alive. Kyle is a man, a trained hunter from his youth, whose life is built on the foundation of two complementary philosophies: God, country and family, and the more intimate philosophy taught to him by his dad. “There are three type of people in the world,” says dad, “Sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. You must never be a sheep, never be a wolf; always be a sheepdog”

The idea of America as the world’s sheepdog is a tremendously appealing version of national identity.

The movie’s structured along the lines of the traditional Western. There’s a bad guy who’s killing good guys and who needs to be killed by the hero, the sheepdog. This is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence set in Falluja. Here, the faceless enemy is given a face in the form in an Iraqi sniper, Kyle’s counterpart and opposite number. He is an Olympic gold medalist, Mustafa, who like Kyle is a ruthless killer. Eastwood shows him picking off the Americans (vulnerable, ever threatened by seemingly innocent fathers and mothers who harbor stockpiles of weapons buried in plain sight) with deadly precision. Like Kyle, he too is a father and husband and presumably, like Kyle, he too is doing his job for God, country and family.

Alas, “American Sniper” never deviates too far from its central argument to add unnecessary nuance. Mustafa is the deadly face of the enemy that needs an even deadlier force to take him out. Boohah!

Bradley Cooper (massively bulked up) is Eastwood’s perfect choice. He exudes trustworthy protectiveness and passionate patriotic fervor. Who wouldn’t trust this decent, good-looking, faithful, honorable man? Eastwood never allows us to question for a moment the building psychosis of the killings. After the shock of his first kill, he quickly settles into the complacent acceptance that it’s what has to be done in the cause of God, country and family.

The action is good (Eastwood takes us there into the heart-stopping terror of being in a war zone) and the acting is superb (Cooper is on central stage for the entire movie which he charismatically holds). Even Sienna Miller as Taya, his wife, does the usual (in films of this sort) duty of crying, imploring and looking pained, convincingly.

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But “American Sniper” is a disingenuous revisionist presentation of the (failed) war in Iraq.

We’re presented with three core images of the war: Kyle’s heroic, skillful ‘kills’. One hundred and sixty plus kills. And all of them, like the kid at the beginning of the movie, were bad guys out to get the good guys. The world of massive collateral deaths that scar the reality of these wars, and of Abu Ghraib just never exist in the world of Eastwood’s morally righteous war.

It’s one thing for a character to be blissfully untroubled about killing people in defense of country. But where’s the director’s artistic thoughtfulness in all this? He too seems untroubled by the morality of war and of lionizing Kyle as a modern day hero; a modern day take on the American identity.

The American soldiers, as seen through the lens of Mustafa, are vulnerable easy targets. There’s a moment as a troop of soldiers, increasingly defenceless and stranded on a roof-top are surrounded by hoards of infitada swarming toward them. Poor, defenceless marines; all decent people planning weddings, back home BBQ’s now under threat by swarming faceless brown savages.

It’s “Zulu” all over again.

It makes for compelling, exciting story telling.

It’s almost as though the might and firepower of the US Armed forces and the rag-tag group of Iraqi insurgents were evenly balanced…and the more morally righteous force won. Hmm.

In the movie, Eastwood consistently reiterates what America is fighting for in Iraq: defense of those back home. He never for a moment pauses to wonder what they – the savages – are fighting for (in their own country) or how and whether Kyle’s one hundred and sixty deaths really did or does keep our loved ones safe back in Oklahoma and Idaho and everywhere that’s not Falluja.

At issue is not Eastwood’s politics or his attitude to war. It’s just that when polemic tries to pass itself off as art, with the power that art has (the same criticism could be leveled against Matt Damon’s sloppy liberal polemic about fracking, “Promised Land”), it becomes duplicitous propaganda.

And to this blogger, that ain’t worth the price of admission.

American Sniper: Dir: Client Eastwood. Written by Jason Hall from the book by Chris Kyle. With Bradley Cooper & Sienna Miller. Cinematographer: Tom Stern (“The Hunger Games”)

 

WILD**** The Journey worth the hike


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AT THE BEGINNING of “Wild”, Jean-Marc Vallée’s (“Dallas Buyer’s Club”) delightful new movie, the central character Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon), is sitting alone on a rocky perch half-way through her thousand mile walk of the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail). She peels the socks off her battered and bruised feet to reveal bleeding toes and a mangled toe-nail which she rips off (it’s disgusting), screaming bloody mercy all the while. In doing so, she clumsily knocks one of her boots off the ledge and watches it plunge into the valley below. You’d expect her to gingerly climb down to retrieve the boot. But no; instead she loosens the other boot and flings it triumphantly past the other one. It’s a moment of liberating madness.

The boot, like her life, her past, her failures, her sorrows has been eating into her and hampering her progress. It’s at this moment that her crazy idea of escape – walking a thousand miles alone – finds fulfillment. From this moment on, she is no longer walking away from her past but taking control of and walking toward her future. The outward journey to find the path across the rugged terrain of the PCT is matched by her inward journey across her even more rugged past toward finding peace with herself.

“Wild” converges three stunning talents: Jean-Marc Villée, the director, seems as comfortable with big format epics (“The Young Victoria”) as with this low budget, unfussy, honest tale; it’s a Nick Hornby script ( he of the brilliant “An Education” and “About a Boy”), based upon the book by the hiker herself, Cheryl Strayed; and the principal actor who dominates the screen with almost the same compelling confidence as did Tom Hanks in “The Castaway” is Reese Witherspoon. She manages to combine vulnerability, sluttishness and fierce determination that leaves you in no doubt about her character’s will to survive not only the wilderness and its (male) predators, but the demons that drover her there.

(Reese Witherspoon is turning into quite the powerhouse these days, having produced not only her biggest hit, “Legally Blonde” but also “Wild” and “Gone Girl”)

The journey of “Wild” progresses through a series of flash backs – her failing marriage (to  Paul, Thomas Sadoski), her promiscuity and drug addiction, her needy younger brother and mainly the close and heart-rending relationship with her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), whose death is the catalyst for her breakdown and the journey.

The dual track of Cheryl’s outer/physical and inner/mental journeys are nicely balanced. Her preparations for the thousand-mile hike – a monster of a backpack which she can hardly lift – begin as farce and her first few miles are an agony (which we suffer with her). After about five days (we read her journey which starts at “Day One” and by the fifth day it’s “Day fucking five”) she meets the first of several men who punctuate her journey. He’s ‘doing’ twenty-two miles a day. She’s doing five.

This is her first ‘milestone’ as she begins to up her game, understand better the techniques of walking and camping and shift from survival mode (her past) to goal setting (she now sets her sights on a specific spot: the symbolically named “Bridge of the Gods”).

And by the time she arrives there, freshly showered and cleansed, she no longer stinks of her former –wild- self. The journey has been her empowering achievement. She has earned the right to begin life again with an inner strength that you know can take on anything.

It’s only a pity that a movie of this caliber (actually the only one with a female lead and apart from “The Theory of Everything” the only one that features a woman in anything other than ‘male back-up’) has been overlooked by the Oscar committee (for simpler fare such as “Whiplash”). Perhaps (guilt maybe?) that’s why Laura Dern’s one-note ‘batty, happy go lucky mum’ received the nod instead. So “Wild” joins “Foxcatcher”, “Mr.Turner” and “Nightcrawler” as Oscar-worthy contenders ousted by the likes of “Whiplash” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.

Where’s Harvey Weinstein when you need him?

 

Wild. Dir: Jean-Marc Valée. Writers: Nick Hornby and Cheryl Shepherd.  Cinematographer: Yves Bélanger (“Dalls Buyers Club”). Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern

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WHIPLASH*** Not all it’s drummed up to be


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OSCAR NOMINATED WHIPLASH is a fierce, pulsating, super-charged story about the kind of obsessiveness and relentlessness that differentiates between the merely excellent and the truly outstanding. The story centers on the electrifying (and warped) relationship between a teacher Terence Fletcher (an intense J.K. Simmons who you might remember from “Juno” and “True Grit”) and his pupil, Andrew Neeman (Miles Teller from “Divergent”), a nineteen year old drummer at the Shaffer Music Academy.
Fletcher is more than a demanding teacher/conductor, he’s a vicious, hectoring, insulting bully. This is not just some -brilliantly written- foul mouthed coach pushing his students to do better, aim higher, this is a terrifying, threatening ogre who won’t stop pushing until he’s reduced his students to sniveling tears.
Or greatness.
Fletcher recounts with pride the story of a young Charlie Parker being almost decapitated by a cymbal-throwing conductor for playing a wrong note. According to Fletcher, this was the incident that drove Parker into insane levels of practicing from which emerged ‘Bird’, the genius.
What he does not recount with pride is that one his students cracked under the pressure and hanged himself.
The road to greatness is paved with the dead.
“Whiplash” offers us a grudging admiration for the man. He’s an intimidating tyrant, but somewhere under the lean, muscled mean-ness there’s some buried humanity. And, importantly, he gets results. There’s not a lot of sleep lost about the matter of “at what price results”
The question the story poses is whether Andrew (an earnest Miles Teller who, if he isn’t really a drummer, sure fakes it well) has the drive and resilience to put up with the abuse and deliver on his promise of greatness.
Pardon me; the question is rhetorical. We’ve been here before, usually in sports movies where the plucky, battered underdogs surpass themselves to rise to the occasion and, triumphant music in the background, win against the odds.
Here the music is that of some fabulous jazz drumming. But – spoiler alert- the sentiment’s the same; you’re meant to leave the cinema cheering.
The philosophical issue the movie pretends to deal with: do the ends always justify the means when the potential of greatness is at stake, is a bogus one. In “Whiplash” there really isn’t a whole lot of nuance in the discussion. This is an engaging, highly watchable but simple-minded story about how “practice maketh perfect”, and the pursuit of greatness is without reservation an end that justifies any means.

(And this is an Oscar contender?)

The focus is almost single-mindedly on Andrew: his determination, his gutsiness, his need to excel and be the best. There’s a fleeting glance at his relationship with his –single- father (Paul Riser, who also produced) and a passing blink of a relationship with a woman (Melissa Benoist…mainly from TV appearances). But, like “Foxcatcher”, this is one of those testosterone fuelled male movies where women just aren’t allowed a sniff in (the orchestra Fletcher coaches are all men). To Andrew, and it seems the movie, women are a mere distraction, directionless frills that get in the way of greatness.
For a nuanced discussion about the obsessive pursuit of greatness, seek out “Turner”, a movie I can only assume none of the six thousand Oscar voters bothered to look at
But let’s not end on a downer. The movie’s really nicely directed. It’s tight, controlled, mature direction. The writing is gleefully venomous. And the writer/Director Damien Chazelle is 29! 29! This is an extraordinary achievement. I look forward to a lot more from this guy. One day he’ll produce a great movie….

because as he’s shown us, practice maketh perfect