Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Cast: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Halle Berry, Elton John, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Pedro Pascal

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Writers: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn

I remember when Kingsman: The Secret Service came out, it was the blockbuster that nobody saw coming. Even though it was based on a popular comic book series and had a good director and cast attached, it just wasn’t on anybody’s radar as a potential smash hit franchise. Then it came out and took everyone by surprise. It was fresh, it was tongue-in-cheek, it was thrilling, inventive, and over-the-top, and it did a good job of satirising and paying homage to the campy spy movies and TV shows of the 60s and 70s. There were parts of it that I didn’t like, but the film was fun enough that the negative aspects didn’t bother me all that much. This time around the sequel has to contend with something that the first film didn’t really have to: audience expectation. People wanted to know where the series was going to go next, how they were going to top the antics in the first film, and how they were going to justify bringing Colin Firth back from the dead. That’s a tall order for any movie and The Golden Circle proved not up to the task.

A year after the first film, the Kingsman Secret Service is still going strong and Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) has stepped into his mentor’s role as Galahad. While on holiday in Sweden with his girlfriend Crown Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), a volley of missiles destroy Kingsman’s secret headquarters and other bases of operations. Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) are the only survivors and must find out who attacked them. They follow the Doomsday protocol to a distillery in Kentucky and cross paths with Tequila (Channing Tatum), a redneck who proves more than a match for Eggsy in combat. It turns out that Tequila is an agent of Statesman, a sister organisation from across the pond, made up of rowdy American cowboys to complement the dapper English gentlemen of Kingsman. The pair meet and team up with Champ (Jeff Bridges), Ginger Ale (Halle Berry), and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), and learn that they also have Harry (Colin Firth) in their care, alive but with no memory of who he is. Together they learn that global drug dealer Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) is behind the attack and make it their mission to foil her evil scheme.

The trouble Kingsman finds itself is something you see very often with comedy sequels. Oftentimes with the first film the concept itself is part of the joke and the amusement comes from seeing how it works and what they do with it. If the concept is something that we haven’t seen before then the movie can create humour by either meeting or subverting our expectations. Now, with the sequel, we’re in on the joke. That’s why it’s not enough to just do the same thing again; if the film is unable to come up with a new idea, then it must come up with a different take on the old idea. Kingsman tries to do this with Statesman, an American counterpart to Kingsman, an idea with a lot of potential that the movie never lives up to. There is so much that they could’ve done. We could have been treated to some interesting and funny comparisons between these British and American archetypes, we could have been offered a British commentary on US culture, the film could even have done away with the British spy game entirely and tackled a more characteristically American genre like the Western. The only Statesman who ends up having any kind of a prominent role in the story though is Whiskey (god, it pains me to write that extra ‘e’!). Tequila, Ginger Ale, and Champ are all sidelined so that the movie can instead offer us more of what we saw in the first film.

The return of Colin Firth has proven to be a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand I did enjoy seeing him resume his role as Galahad and his reunion with Eggsy did allow the film to retain and develop their relationship, which was the emotional core of the first film. Their scenes together in this film work well as Eggsy attempts to reach the Harry that taught him everything he knows and inspired him to dedicate his life and skills towards something worthwhile. On the other hand, Galahad’s death allowed the first film to establish serious stakes for its characters and bringing him back might have cost the sequel more than it bargained for. Now the stakes are gone, and with it the film coasts along without any real sense of tension or suspense. In the film’s very first bit of action when Eggsy battles a foe on a high-tech taxi through the streets of London, it felt more like a cartoon than a thriller because I never believed that Eggsy was really in any danger.

Some of it works. There’s a good joke here and there, a couple of decent action scenes (though nothing in the same league as the Baptist church massacre) and there’s even quite a moving moment near the end (one that continues the John Denver trend of 2017). But none of it is as fresh or as good as it was the first time around, which makes the parts that don’t work all the more glaring. The tone is all over the place, falling short off the line between silly and serious that it used to have. Yes, going over-the-top is part of this franchise’s M.O., but there’s edgy and then there’s ‘edgy’, and if you don’t know when to stop you’ll end up with a scene that turns sexual assault into a gag at the victim’s expense. The movie does follow its predecessor’s example by featuring a weak villain, but at least Jackson was trying in the former’s case. Moore phones it in so much that her CGI robot henchdogs felt real in comparison. Overall The Golden Circle will probably work well enough for those who loved the first film unreservedly, but for me the film’s positive qualities were not enough to outshine its negative qualities this time.



Logan Lucky

Cast: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Seth MacFarlane, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, Sebastian Stan, Hilary Swank, Daniel Craig

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Rebecca Blunt

Steven Soderbergh is no stranger to heist movies. In fact he’s probably the one who sets the standard for other filmmakers. His most notable contribution is, of course, the Ocean’s trilogy, a series of slick, stylish movies that brought together an ensemble of colourful characters to pull off a string of increasingly impossible capers. These movies, while far from Soderbergh’s best work, were suspenseful, entertaining flicks that rose above the regular standard by virtue of his expert direction. One of the staples of the heist movie is the big reveal, the practice of keeping the audience in the dark about what’s really going on before (surprise!) revealing that the shootout between Paul Newman and Robert Redford was actually part of the plan. Soderbergh did this by playing around with perception, showing some, but not all, of what was happening and then revealing that there was a bigger plan all along. Soderbergh brings that same direction here to create what one character describes as “Ocean’s 7-Eleven”.

Logan Lucky is set far away from the classy, sophisticated city of Las Vegas in the rural, southern land of North Carolina. Here lives Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a blue-collar worker who is fired from his construction job due to a leg injury he sustained in high school. His daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) lives with his ex-wife Bobbie (Katie Holmes), but they’re planning on moving to Lynchburg soon which will make visitations harder for Jimmy. He concocts a plan with his wounded veteran brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and their rough and tough sister Mellie (Riley Keough) to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedaway where Jimmy was laid off. To pull this off they need the assistance of Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), an explosives expert currently serving time behind bars, and his two redneck brothers, one of whom is apparently a computer expert who knows “all the Twitters”. Thus a plan goes underway to break Joe out of prison for a day and steal the money from the stadium vault during one of NASCAR’s biggest and most profitable races.

The genius of setting the movie in this rustic backdrop with these unpolished characters is that we never really know how smart or dumb they really are, which plays right into Soderbergh’s perception game with us. There are enough silly, comedic moments with these unruly characters for us to think that their plan will end up going wrong in a million different ways, but that just makes us all the more curious to see how their elaborate plan with its several moving parts will actually work out. The Logans and their comrades are a far cry away from the cool, suave likes of Danny Ocean and his gang; in fact they would not be at all out of place among the dim-witted misfits you often get from the Coen Brothers’ films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? Watching them execute a convoluted heist in the Soderbergh tradition is as fascinating as it is entertaining.

Logan Lucky is so-titled because of what Clyde refers to as the Logan Family Curse. Much like those hapless Coen Brothers characters whose prospects are thwarted time and time again by events beyond their control, misfortune seems to haunt the Logan family at every turn (or so Clyde believes). Between himself and his brother they have six working limbs and they are descended from a line of Logans whose lives have never gone the ways they’d hoped. Thus there is some additional suspense there as we wait to see whether the family curse will strike while their heist is underway. The screenplay as penned by Rebecca Blunt (who many suspect is a pseudonym for Soderbergh’s wife Jules Asner) does a very good job of keeping this idea present in the audience’s mind without banging them over the heads with it. Everything that transpires does so with the sufficient motivation and fluidity for the whole story to feel organic. Everything we see happens for a reason and, in the end when the carpet is inevitably pulled out from under us, all the missing pieces that get revealed fit in just right.

Like Ocean’s Eleven, Logan Lucky is neither the deepest nor the most innovative movie Soderbergh has ever made. There are some moments that are genuinely affective and impactful, the most notable of which takes place during Sadie’s child beauty pageant (of all places!), but otherwise the movie is simply good fun. Most of the performances are enormously entertaining, especially Daniel Craig’s who seems like such a grump in his role as Bond that it’s quite refreshing to see him having a genuinely good time. There are some characters like Hilary Swank’s FBI Agent and Katherine Waterston’s medical worker who don’t get enough time to make an impression and Seth MacFarlane can be pretty distracting (silly, fake English accents seem to be a thing with Soderbergh), but they don’t really drag the movie down. Logan Lucky is the kind of engaging, suspenseful movie that Soderbergh knows how to do well and is well worth a watch.


Hail, Caesar!

Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

This latest offering by the Coen brothers is one that harkens back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time before television when film was the single most popular form of daily entertainment. The studios were titans, the movies were phenomena and the actors were gods. The film’s 1951 setting marks a time when this age of glitz, glamour and glory was nearing its end following a decision by the US Supreme Court to abolish the studio system and end the monopoly of the ‘Big Five’. Cinema approached an age of uncertainty with the adoption of TV on the rise, as was the fear of Communism and McCarthyism. Many of the films Hollywood made at this time were escapist fantasies from majestic westerns like The Searchers to dazzling musicals like Singin’ in the Rain to biblical epics like The Ten Commandments. This age of disenchantment, paranoia and frivolity, all based around the movies, is the perfect setting for a Coen brothers movie.

The film follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood ‘fixer’ whose job it is to preserve the public image of Capitol Pictures and its stars. When Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the studio’s biggest production ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is kidnapped and held for ransom, it becomes Eddie’s job to recover him without the press finding out. Along the way he must also deal with such problems as the pregnancy of Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a celebrated actress who remains unmarried, and the grievances of the esteemed director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) who finds working on his period drama with the inept Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) impossible. Mannix is also offered a job by an airline company, a prestigious job with better pay that would allow him more time with his family, and must decide what working for the studio really means to him.

I’m a little stumped by Hail, Caesar! The Coen brothers have never been ones to opt for simple, conventional narratives and their off-beat, eccentric style has always been liable to throw some viewers off at first. However I couldn’t help but feel lost while watching this film. I was definitely entertained by it but, when it was over, I was left wondering what had actually happened and what it was all for. The stars whose roles amounted to little more than cameos, the stories that were left unresolved, the outlandish plot developments; all of these had me wondering what on earth Joel and Ethan Coen were thinking as they made this film. However I must remind myself that these concerns are also present in The Big Lebowski which is by all means a great movie. The Coen brothers are two quality filmmakers whose work has proven to be largely consistent (with a couple of exceptions) and are therefore entitled to a certain degree of trust and faith.

Faith. Based on the closing monologue to ‘Hail, Caesar!’ (the movie within the movie), faith seems to be the idea behind it all. Faith in an institution, faith in an ideology, faith in a greater being; these are all featured prominently in the film. The protagonist Eddie is an earnest, well-meaning, god-fearing man whose work often requires him to do things that weigh heavily on his conscience. Every night he unloads his sins onto his confessor, looking for direction and reassurance. In other words he is suffering from a crisis of faith. Brolin is excellent in this role. I think the reason I felt perplexed though is that the film felt bloated to me. There is so much going on in this movie on top of Eddie’s story that the central point kind of gets lost in the middle of it all. Layered storytelling is nothing new to the Coen brothers but the film’s larger purpose usually remains prevalent through it all. Here it just seems like the story took a backseat to the comedy, characters and homages.

With that said, the comedy, characters and homages are all splendid. The film’s recreation and parody of Golden-Age Hollywood is spot on and was a constant pleasure to behold. Standouts as well as Brolin include Clooney as the oblivious and impressionable movie star, Ehrenreich as the hopelessly miscast actor and Tilda Swinton as a pair of twin sisters who run rival gossip columns. There is also a one-off appearance by Frances McDormand that is pure gold. The movies featured within this film pay tribute to many of Hollywood’s classic tropes including the stylised looks, the song and dance numbers and the large and extravagant sets. ‘Hail, Caesar!’ itself is basically a reimagined Ben-Hur. The comedy jumps between satire and farce and leads to some hysterical moments, one of the best being Laurentz’s futile attempts to direct a refined performance out of Doyle.

After watching about half a dozen Coen films before this, I’ve reached a theory that they all follow one central theme: shit happens, and it happens for no reason. This is why I think their films often end without reaching a definitive resolution, because you cannot resolve chance. These is no blatant deliberation to their stories, they are just a string of events that simply happened. In the end, when it’s all over, life goes on. What I think sets Hail, Caesar! apart though and prevents it from attaining greatness is that the larger point it wants to make gets buried underneath the multitude of stories and characters that, while entertaining, lack depth. One of the things I love about Fargo is that it always feels like there is something larger at stake in the film’s conflict and that all of the characters, including the minor ones, have a purpose. Hail, Caesar! simply doesn’t have enough of that. What it does have is an ensemble of entertaining characters, great comedy and a wonderful retrospective of classic Hollywood.


Jupiter Ascending

Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton, Maria Doyle Kennedy

Directors: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

Writers: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

No one can accuse the Wachowski brothers of being unambitious, but their films tend to be hit or miss. Just about everyone loves The Matrix and V for Vendetta, but the Matrix sequels and Speed Racer are universally despised. Cloud Atlas has proven to be divisive (personally I thought it was a great film). The Wachowskis are essentially two filmmakers who appear to want the best of two worlds. They want to make intelligent and insightful thought-provoking films, but they also want to make entertaining and exciting action films. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t. Jupiter Ascending is one of their misses.

The plot centres on Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis), a Russian immigrant who was born under the stars as her family made their journey to America. Before his death her father, an enthusiastic astrologer, expressed a wish that his daughter be named after the greatest and most beautiful planet in the solar system. As she was being born there were signs written in the stars above, prophesying the greatness that awaits her.

Meanwhile, deep in space, we are introduced to the House of Abrasex whose matriarch has died. Her three children Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), and Titus (Douglas Booth) are fighting each other over her inheritance. They speak to each other in fanciful dialogue, consisting almost entirely of exposition, about politics and planets and other things we don’t care about until the subject of the Earth comes up. The Earth is apparently a key factor in whatever business it is they are discussing and becomes a matter of great interest to them.

Cut to a few years later where Jupiter and her mother are caretakers who make their living cleaning the houses of rich families. She often expresses how much she hates her life (and I mean often) and constantly wishes that she could be elsewhere. Beyond that her personality is non-existent. In order to raise some money for a telescope like the one her father had, Jupiter agrees to sell her eggs to a clinic. During the procedure the doctors and nurses turn out to be agents of Balem who have been sent to kill her. A mysterious figure bursts into the room, guns blazing, and saves Jupiter’s life. This alien warrior, Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) reveals to Jupiter the existence of extra-terrestrial life and informs her of the great destiny that awaits her. That’s probably as far as I can go without venturing into spoiler territory but I should probably say that the story that follows does not prove to be particularly exciting or interesting.

Jupiter Ascending is effectively style over substance. The visual effects are absolutely superb. The worlds they display are beautiful, creative and stunning. Rather than a sci-fi film, Jupiter Ascending is more of a fantasy set in space (like Star Wars) and so the sets and costumes are grand and epic like you would expect in a fantasy. The action scenes are somewhat entertaining but they often become so muddled and unclear that it is very easy to lose track of what is actually happening. Also, despite being a visual spectacle, this film failed to make any effective use of the 3D technology. Like so many other filmmakers, the Wachowskis don’t seem to realise the possibilities that come with making a 3D film and simply made their visuals jump at the screen a bit.

However the areas in which this film really falls short is in story and character. Jupiter is an uninspired protagonist who barely does anything throughout the film beyond serving as a damsel in distress. Caine is a typical impassive warrior whose role is to constantly rescue Jupiter from danger (seriously, every single action scene consists of him rushing in to save her). He is also obviously there to serve as a love interest to Jupiter despite not sharing any chemistry with her, leading to some very forced and awkward dialogue between them. None of this is a criticism against the actors, I’m sure they did their best, but against the bad writing and directing that they had to work with. Eddie Redmayne, someone who I know is a good actor, gives an unintentionally funny performance as the film’s main villain Balem. The way he alternates from underacting with a silly sounding voice to overacting with an even sillier sounding voice is hilarious. To give a performance that ridiculous could only have been accomplished through truly bad direction.

Jupiter Ascending tries to tell a Star Wars-like story about a young, ingenuous protagonist who stumbles her way into a grand galactic adventure in which she discovers that she has an important destiny to fulfil. However this film does not have any of the characters, the thrills or the heart that made Star Wars such a great trilogy. What the Wachowskis made instead was a film that, while visually stunning, is completely lacking in compelling characters, an interesting plot, and emotion.



Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall

Director: Bennett Miller

Writers: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman

Until I saw the trailer for Foxcatcher I had never heard of John du Pont or of his crime. I never got round to looking him up so I walked into the film without knowing the particulars of his story, which in a way might be a good thing since I don’t like going into films with preconceived notions. What I ended up seeing was a staggering film about a deeply disturbed man and the traumatising ordeal he inflicted upon two brothers. Even now the thought of John du Pont with his cold gaze and unnerving voice frightens me. I have no idea how accurate the film’s account of the story or its portrayal of du Pont is but to speculate on that might be to miss the point. Maybe this film isn’t about du Pont or the Schultz brothers, but is instead a film that uses their tale to tell a story about, amongst other things, the quest for and the cost of greatness.

We are first introduced to the wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic Gold Medallist who is dissatisfied with his station in life. He goes to give a talk at an elementary school where the children plainly do not who he is and are not interested in what he has to say. He gets mistaken for his older brother David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) who is also a gold medal winning wrestler, an early indication of the shadow that Mark lives under. He lives in a small apartment where he eats cheap food and every day is an endless cycle of training with his brother and going home. Mark is dissatisfied with his present state because he believes himself to be less than what he could be. Mark is a man who aspires to greatness. He wants to be a champion. He wants to be a role model. He wants to be the best wrestler in the world.

Enter John du Pont, played by an unrecognisable Steve Carell, a multi-millionaire who appeals towards Mark’s aspirations by offering him the chance to join his Foxcatcher team along with the best resources and publicity that money can buy so that he might win the gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Mark sees this opportunity as the big break he has been waiting for. He accepts and tries to persuade his brother to do the same. David, in contrast to Mark, is completely satisfied with where he is and has no desire to seize this chance. He has a wife whom he loves, children that he adores, and a training routine that works for him. Mark, who feels that his own achievements are somehow less because he has always lived under his brother’s shadow, accepts this. He rushes over to the Foxcatcher estate, excited at the prospect of going at it on his own. However his time with John du Pont proves to be a traumatic experience.

John du Pont, like Mark Schultz, is a man who aspires towards greatness and he expects to receive it. He comes from a very wealthy background in which he grew up wanting for nothing. He’s used to getting whatever he wants whenever he wants it and has developed a strong sense of self-entitlement. When David Schultz rejects du Pont’s offer, du Pont is stunned. He doesn’t understand the prospect of not getting what he wants or the concept of a man who cannot be bought. Similarly he fully expects to become an Olympic level wrestling coach despite not having the knowledge nor the experience for it. He speaks about wanting to give America hope by providing them heroes to admire because that is how he wants people to see him. Du Pont wants to be regarded as the all-American hero. A great deal of du Pont’s insecurity stems from his relationship with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who has always been discouraging towards him, saying that she doesn’t like seeing him do “something low” like wrestling. This sort of dismay hurts du Pont and causes him to vent his anger onto those around him, particularly on Mark Schultz. Perhaps du Pont’s resentment towards Mark is on some level because he sees him as the man he wishes he could have been, but more likely is that he abuses Mark in order to make himself feel superior.

Wrestling is often viewed as an animalistic sport and there is a strong sense that John du Pont views the wrestlers under his employ as little more than beasts and himself as their master. He often treats Mark as if he were nothing more than a pet, striking him and talking down to him. Although Mark has developed a friendship with du Pont and has grown to view him as a father figure, his affection is rewarded with disdain and abuse. Du Pont is a man who wants to be revered and believes that he is entitled to reverence by those he deems inferior to himself. When David Schultz does join the team his indifference towards du Pont appears to have a grating effect. Whatever it was that drove du Pont to murder David shall always remain a matter of speculation but the film suggests that du Pont was maddened by the thought of someone who did not look up to him and who did not rely on him, not dissimilar to the way that his own mother regarded him.

In Foxcatcher Bennett Miller delivers a dark, disturbing story about the scarring effects of a man in pursuit of respect, love and greatness. When all is said and done Mark Schultz survives du Pont’s malice, but not intact. A part of Mark has been grievously damaged by du Pont’s abuse, perhaps beyond repair. Being treated as a beast has had a horrendous effect on him that he may never escape. When we see Mark Schultz competing in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, perhaps it’s not a coincidence that his closing image is of him fighting in a cage. This film is as cold and as merciless as du Pont’s maliciousness and still gives me chills.