Thursday, May 19, 2016

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Originally posted on March 20, 2015

"There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self."

Spy movie parodies and send-ups have been done to death ever since the Bond films came into existence, with Austin Powers and TV shows like Get Smart and Archer achieving more than a little success due to their hard-edged and hilarious jabs at (and love for) the classic spy franchise.  While Kingsman: The Secret Service is not exactly a parody of 007, it's definitely a tribute to the genre and it's very silly (in a dark sort of way).  Director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class) delivers a twisted, over-the-top spy movie with lots of heart, charm, and action scenes that are just amazing. Looking for shaky-cam and rapid-fire cutting?  You won't find it here, and I thank God for that.

Taron Egerton plays Gary "Eggsy" Unwin, a smart but aimless young man living in a broken home in London.  He becomes involved with a secret intelligence agency that his father worked at before he died in action 17 years ago.  Eggsy is put through rigorous training along with other young, hopeful candidates all in competition to fill a spot in the agency.  He's mentored by an ass-kicking senior agent named Harry Hart (Colin Firth), and supervised by the leader of the organization, Chester King (Michael Caine).  All the while, more sinister things are being plotted by the wealthy and powerful philanthropist Valentine (a lisping Samuel Jackson) and his assistant Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), who walks around on bladed, prosthetic legs.

The film stands on its own as a very entertaining and thrilling action/comedy. However, the love and affection for Bond is what pushes it from "good" to "pretty damn good" territory.  The over-the-top nature of the action scenes and situations are fun and inventive, and the movie never shies away from ugliness, grotesquery, or cartoonish death scenes (the church scene... my God... the church scene). All of this is held up by a fantastic cast, both in the ways you expect and ways you might not have. 

Carrying the film for the majority is relative newcomer Egerton, and he adds a great deal of charisma to the role.  Colin Firth is absolutely perfect as Hart, acting as a father-figure for Eggsy and adding that old-school Bond charm the film rides on.  I wasn't sure how to feel about Jackson's lisping villain at first, but looking back, it's kind of interesting.  He's a character acting with child-like ambitions in a child-like world, so one has to question whether or not lisping like a two-year old is something he was just born with or something he does on purpose to keep himself innocent. 

Character depth might be limited to the lead characters, but the supporting actors are always fun to watch (especially blade-footed Gazelle). Kingsman's plot is intricate in ways that don't really make sense except in the film's own world, and that's about at Bondian as you get.  I won't spoil it here, but all I'll say is that I'm a sucker for sci-fi allegories that use society's obsession with technology to predict its undoing.  The script air-tight and littered with spy-movie references, dry wit, and clever plot twists that keep everything light and fast-paced without feeling rushed or sloppy (minus some spots in the first act).

Action scenes are fast and brutal, often using full bodied frames and continuous shots.  Slow motion is used to great effect to increase the impact of a punch or a bullet rather than slow the fights down like in too many other action movies.  The CGI effects are par for the course, nothing too exceptional and nothing hideous (though those chrome hot-air balloons toward the end come pretty close).  The score by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson is also nothing memorable, but it's perfectly serviceable (just like most of their work).

Kingsman, most importantly, is just a great time.  Great characters, fantastic action, spy movie references, and a finale that can only be described as explosively hilarious make it as fun as it is.  I've heard that this is the first in a series of films that could spawn a whole new franchise, and while I'm excited for more, I'm also skeptical.  A film series like this may run into the Spider-man problem: trying to outdo itself becomes impossible and so sequels become increasingly overstuffed.  Although if Vaughn were to return as director, the potential is undoubtedly huge. 


Thursday, May 12, 2016

Captain America: Civil War (in 4DX)

Superheroes.  So many Superheroes.  So much fighting, so much spectacle, so much narrative mess. But also so much character, so much heart, and so much fun.  That pretty much sums up the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is thirteen movies and four television series deep.  It's an incredible accomplishment from a business standpoint; built-in marketing, constant "event" films, and oodles of fanboy-loving continuity.  There have been a few minor duds, but overall, this is a remarkably solid series.  Captain America: Civil War is a lot like the first Avengers movie from 2012; it unites legions of superheroes for a gigantic brawl, most of which we already know if we've been keeping up with all the films.  But even more so than The Avengers movies, there's unexpected character depth and fights without easy resolutions.  Not to mention it's fun as all hell.

It's been one year since Ultron nearly destroyed the world by dropping an entire city in Sokovia from the sky.  Though the Avengers stopped him, and gained new allies in the process, people fear their power and the government wants more control over how they go about performing their super-heroics.  Naturally, this doesn't sit well with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), seeing as he's witnessed government corruption firsthand.  However, the guilt-ridden Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downy, Jr.) feels like a little regulation might be necessary.  Then tragedy strikes; a terrorist attack occurs at a conference in Vienna, and the king of Wakanda is killed.  Soon it's discovered that the bomb was planted by Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Steve's lifelong friend and only link he has to his previous life.  Steve believes Bucky is innocent, so the two go on the run and amass other superheroes to help fight for their cause, including Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Scott Lang/Antman (Paul Rudd).  In his attempts to stop Steve and capture the Winter Soldier, Tony assembles his own team of powered-up heroes, including Natasha Rominoff/Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), the son of the assassinated king T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Vision (Paul Bettany), and some kid named Peter Parker (Tom Holland), who calls himself Spider-boy or something.

The Russo Brothers (Anthony and Joe) helm yet another great Captain America movie after their tremendous success with The Winter Soldier in 2014.   While I don't know how much the film's narrative has in common with the graphic novel of the same name, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do an outstanding job balancing the superhero factions and making sure each character has appropriate screen time.  Downey, Jr. and Evan carry the film with excellent performances, particularly Downy in some of his most vulnerable and heartbreaking moments we've seen from him yet.  Both characters are dealing with the loss of loved ones (under vastly different circumstances) in their own character-appropriate ways, and so much is happening beneath the surface of every action they make. That's no small feat given the insane amount of other things happening.  Special mention goes to Johansen though, who's proving more and more to be the heart of the series.  A Black Widow movie totally wouldn't make any money though.  Nope.

One might assume that Civil War's biggest problem is that it's overstuffed, and it's got a lot going on for sure.  But unlike other superhero movies with tons of elements fighting for screen time (I'm looking at you, Spider-Man 3), the gears are always turning, the stories are always interlocking and moving forward, and the character interactions are nothing but entertaining.  As far as new characters go, Black Panther couldn't have been any better.  T'Challa has a great character arc, is performed wonderfully by Boseman, and might have my favorite-looking costume of the bunch.  However, with this newest incarnation of Spider-man, I'm a bit torn.  On the one hand, action scenes with Spidey are really well done, and scenes between Tony and Peter are hilarious.  But it feels like a forced inclusion nonetheless in an already jam-packed narrative, and it doesn't really fit.  Also, I'm not nuts about a major part of the new cinematic Spider-man's story being so influenced by Tony, effectively making Peter feel like "Iron Man's sidekick."  It also doesn't help that this our third cinematic Spider-man in recent memory.  I will say that the airport fight scene does its best to wipe away all the narrative complaints I could possibly conjure.

But conjure I will, and what brings the movie down a peg is a major third act contrivance involving the film's true villain.  Even though I was extremely invested in the story throughout the climax, I couldn't ignore how lazy the villain's motivations were from a screenwriting standpoint.  I'm all for eschewing world-ending nonsense (like the kind in Age of Ultron) in exchange for a personal stakes, but I just couldn't buy it.  I forgive a lot of silly crap when it comes to these movies, as do we all.  But unless you're Edgar Wright (making the funniest movies of the face of the planet), you can't throw out your plot's intricacies at the last minute and expect me to be ok with it.

That doesn't stop the climax from being truly heart-pounding though, as Steve and Tony face off for reasons that are much more compelling than expected.  I'll address the elephant in the room that is Batman V Superman, but I don't need to tell you which is the better film.  Civil War isn't dripping in Dawn of Justice's style (like most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, there's homogenized TV-esque feel to them), but it's on a whole other planet when it comes to its writing.

On the technical side of things, I was both blown away by some visual effects and stunned at how bad others are.  In a flashback, Tony Stark really looks like an aged-down Robert Downy, Jr., but some shots of him later in the Iron Man suit are so poorly-composited that he looks like a bobble-head action figure.  There are, however, copious amounts of practical effects and well-choreographed fights that, even if hacked up a bit in the editing room, still give the film weight.  The music by Henry Jackman fulfills its in-the-moment purpose and does absolutely nothing else; no calling back themes of previous heroes, no memorable themes for new ones, nothing, nothing, nothing.  Just bland and monotonous action beats.  Appropriate?  Yes.  Memorable?  Not a chance.

So like many of the films in the Avengers series, CA:CW is bolstered by an excellent cast, really well-written characters, and brightly colored fun mixed with relatable human drama.  While I'm sad to see that Joss Whedon won't be directing the next Avengers film, I'm sure the Russo Brothers will continue to deliver strong entries like this one.  This movie is a balancing act, and it keeps afloat despite its bloated runtime and overwhelming character count.  While things get messy in the finale, the emotions between the two leads reach such an engaging boiling point that it almost doesn't matter. I'm looking forward to more Marvel movies, and I'll get them.  I'll get so, so many of them.



This was the first movie I've seen in 4DX, a new format that utilizes motion seats, shots of wind and water, flashing lights, and fog to create a crazy fun movie experience.  You know those theme park attractions where you watch a short video with all that stuff?  Imagine a whole movie like that. Moving through streets in chase scenes is really visceral, your chair gliding and bumping along the way, as are flying scenes in which the chair tilts up and down at the appropriate moments.  Fight scenes are intensified by the back of the chair reacting to characters getting thrown onto their back. When bullets fly onscreen, air shots blast by your ear and give you a jump.  It's some really cool stuff, and Civil War seemed absolutely tailor-made for the format.  I do wish the movie wasn't in 3D though, as it started to irritate my eyes when there were quick-cuts onscreen and my chair was shaking around.  I also could have done without the water, especially since I had to keep wiping off my 3D glasses when it splashed on my face.  Thankfully, there's an option to turn the water off, which I promptly did.  And while the experience can be a bit exhausting, dialogue scenes are motion-free, allowing you to rest up before the next big battle.  It's a great time, and even though it's a bit pricy, it's worth at least giving it a try.

Monday, May 9, 2016

What will 4DX be like?

Later this afternoon, I'll be seeing Captain America: Civil War in 4DX in the Times Square Regal theater.  With a ticket price of about $28, I can't know what to expect in terms of the immersion the format promises.  The movie will be in 3D, the seat rumbles, I might feel literal wind in my face, and there might be... uh... bubbles... but I don't know much else about it.  4DX sounds like it could be the incredibly immersive film-viewing experience I've waited for all my life, or it could be a bunch of gimmicky distractions.  Either way, Civil War is getting great buzz and I can't wait to see it.  I was a bit disappointed in Age of Ultron last year, so hopefully this is the true Avengers sequel we've all been waiting for.