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Review – Kingsman: The Secret Service (15) [2015]

Kingsman - title banner2

Star Rating: 3.5/5

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Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman make an awesome screen-writing couple. Together, they wrote the hilarious Kick-Ass and the first-rate reboot of the X-Men franchise. Now, they are back in comical fashion with the secret service spoof, Kingsman: The Secret Service.

harry (Colin Firth) showing Eggsy (Taron Egerton) the secret way of entering the world of a Kingsman.

harry (Colin Firth) showing Eggsy (Taron Egerton) the secret way of entering the world of a Kingsman.

Kingsman is based on the comic-book by Mark Millar. It is about a young man from South London called Eggsy (Taron Egerton), who is descending into a life of violence, drink, drugs and crime when secret agent Harry (Colin Firth) pays him an unexpected visit. Harry offers him the chance, which Eggsy accepts, to train and become a secret agent/Kingsman to stop Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) from making the world anew with his new invention.

Kingsman is a stylish and entertaining film. At its core, the movie is a satire on the spy thriller genre and James Bond in particular (which, itself, was a satire on the world of espionage until Daniel Craig’s Bond hijacked the franchise). Yet, Kingsman has a (charming) stick-two-fingers-up attitude that most spy thrillers and James Bond films would never dare employ. This attitude has a strangely endearing quality and hints at why Vaughn turned down directing X-Men: Days of Future Past in favour of making Kingsman. This attitude not only makes the film worthwhile-viewing, it reminds audiences of why they loved Kick-Ass so much back in 2010.

Roxy (Sophie Cookson), the obligatory babe, trying her luck to become a Kings(wo)man.

Roxy (Sophie Cookson), the obligatory babe, trying her luck to become a Kings(wo)man.

It also helps that Kingsman is ludicrously funny. Vaughn and Goldman have an impeccable understanding of the most essential ingredient for comedy: timing. As a result, the numerous jokes, touché lines, exaggerated action sequences, and amusing special effects all work throughout the film’s 129-minute running time. Indeed, one is likely to be so amused by the ridiculousness of the movie that one is unlikely to care that the plot is cliché and overblown, or that the actors take themselves as disingenuously as their counterparts did in Knight and Day, Mission: Impossible IV and This Means War.

Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) looking laughably ridiculous as the utterly camp villain, wanting to start the world anew.

Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) looking laughably ridiculous as the utterly camp villain, wanting to start the world anew.

No-one epitomises the preposterous nature of the storyline and the acting as much as Samuel L Jackson (SLJ), as the camp, 1980s-dressed, lisp-impaired villain of the film (named Valentine to cap it all). When one is used to watching SLJ as the stern and authoritative Coach Carter and Nick Fury, one has to blink repeatedly (and with disbelief) to remember that Valentine is the same man. But credit to SLJ: he performs insincerely admirably as Valentine without disgracing himself. The same can be said for Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Mark Strong, Taron Egerton and Sophie Cookson, even if their roles are far less humiliating than SLJ’s.

Over-all, Kingsman: The Secret Service is an enjoyable film, provided it is taken with a handful of salt. The movie is absurd and over-the-top in all departments. But it is a very funny and entertaining spoof on James Bond and the spy genre in general. Thus, like with Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class before, Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman have scored again with Kingsman, and long may they keep scoring.

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Review – Before I Go To Sleep (15) [2014]

Before I Go To Sleep - title banner

Star Rating: 3/5

Director:

  • Rowan Joffe – Brighton Rock

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Ed Shearmur – Cruel Intentions, Derailed, Miss Congeniality, Masters of Horror

In my review of last year’s Trance, I wrote about how psychological thrillers mess with the mind and how they tend to be enjoyable and very intense, with semi-plausible plot twists that keep audiences guessing long after the conclusion of the film. Before I Go To Sleep is more of the same and a credit to the genre.

Christine (Nicole Kidman) wakes up, as she does every morning, not knowing who she is or her husband, Ben (Colin Firth), sleeping next to her.

Christine (Nicole Kidman) wakes up, as she does every morning, not knowing who she is or her husband, Ben (Colin Firth), sleeping next to her.

Before I Go To Sleep is based on the 2011 novel with the same title by SJ Watson. The film centres round Christine (Nicole Kidman), an amnesiac unable to remember a thing from one day to the next, to the despondency of her husband, Ben (Colin Firth). Dr Nash (Mark Strong) calls Christine every morning to make her watch a video recording of herself from the previous day. This way Christine can remind herself of what she did the previous day in an attempt to cure herself of her amnesia and, more importantly, so that she can figure out/remember the truth about the incident that gave her amnesia.

Before I Go To Sleep is an intense and entertaining film. It is not as complex as Trance, but Before I Go To Sleep still holds audience’s attention with great success throughout its relatively short, 92-minute running time. What makes the movie so absorbing is the way the film slowly (and deliberately) dangles carrots of information to viewers, so that they naturally form conclusions in their heads as to how Christine became an amnesiac. This adds to the thrill of the story and guarantees that when the twist comes, it is a genuine surprise in a good way.

Christine having a meeting with Dr Nash (Mark Strong), without Ben's knowledge or consent.

Christine having a meeting with Dr Nash (Mark Strong), without Ben’s knowledge or consent.

However, whether the twist makes plausible sense upon looking back on the film is highly questionable. One of the problems with the twist is that viewers are not given a crucial piece of information midway through the film. While it is common in psychological thrillers not to reveal vital pieces of information about events prior to the starting point of the film (timeline-wise) until the final revelation, it is another thing entirely for information to be (cynically and sinfully) withheld from viewers from the start of the movie’s timeline. This feels like the director has cheated on his audience and not in a good way.

Putting the plot twist aside, the dialogue throughout the film has been well written and the acting is decent, without being outstanding. Nicole Kidman plays believably as the anxious and emotionally distraught central character. She looks the part: gaunt, skinny, vulnerable and confused. More could time been devoted to her backstory, but that is not the real issue with Kidman’s performance. The real issue is that her performance carries the odour from her last film: the ill-fated The Grace of Monaco. With this mephitic whiff emanating from Kidman, it is hard to watch her in Before I Go To Sleep without feeling that her career has fallen and that she is trying (hard) to get herself back on track again.

The same odour, however, does not affect from the performances of the two main members of the supporting cast. Both Colin Firth and Mark Strong do good jobs with the material that they are given. If anything, the material and screen-time that they are given lets them down. Neither Firth nor Strong are given enough time on screen and the movie does not explore their personalities and their motives deeply enough.

Christine watching and recording herself in secret to try and remind herself who she is and what did the previous day.

Christine watching and recording herself in secret to try and remind herself who she is and what did the previous day.

Apart from the acting, Ed Shearmur’s score is not outstanding but it is atmospheric and unsettling. This helps to mess with one’s mind and helps to make Before I Go To Sleep a good film and a worthwhile addition to its genre.

All-in-all, Before I Go To Sleep is a thoroughly enjoyable and intense psychological thriller. It has a much simpler plot than other films in its genre, but that is not to the movie’s detriment due to the force of the storyline, the dialogue and the acting. Before I Go To Sleep’s plot twist is suspect, yet it will certainly take viewers by surprise and, therefore, like Trance, will keep audiences thinking long after the film has finished.

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Review – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 4/5

The Bourne series, 24 and Munich, in their different ways, show audiences that the world of the secret services is a murky one, where mistrust and paranoia are rife. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (TTSS) may not be a standard catch-and-shoot the bad guy thriller. Nevertheless, with a star-studded cast, TTSS is an excellent, if puzzling, portrayal of the nature of the top echelons of the secret services.

George Smiley (Gary Oldman), adopting his standard pose, explains a few things to his assistant, Peter Guillam, in one of the secret places where they do their work.

TTSS is based on the novel by John Le Carré, who worked for the best part of 20 years in MI5 and MI6; the movie is also a shortened remake of the 1979 TV series. TTSS is set in early-1970s Britain, during the Cold War. There is a mole in the ‘Circus’, the MI6 internal nickname for the highest levels of the British intelligence services. Someone is giving classified information to a Soviet agent called Polyakov (Konstantin Khabenskiy – Wanted). But who is it?

Control (John Hurt – V For Vendetta, Harry Potter VII(i) & VII(ii), Immortals) brings back his former colleague, George Smiley (Gary Oldman – Air Force One, Harry Potter III-V & VII(ii), The Dark Knight Rises), from retirement in order to discover who is behind the leak. But Smiley and his personal assistant, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch – Atonemment, Star Trek II, The Hobbit II), must do their work in secret. This is to make sure that the other members of the ‘Circus’ – Percy Alleline (Toby Jones – Frost/Nixon, Captain America: The First Avenger, Snow White and the Huntsman), Bill Hayden (Colin Firth – The Importance of Being Earnest, The King’s Speech, Before I Go To Sleep), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds – Munich, Harry Potter VII(ii), The Debt) and Toby Esterhase (David Denick – War Horse, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) – don’t find out what they’re up to. Any one of them could be the traitor.

The plot for TTSS may sound straight forward, but it is not. Rather, it is slow and very confusing. The movie is also hard to follow because it does not follow a linear timeframe. Viewers are rarely certain if they’re watching the past or the present. Moreover, the director, Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In), does not give the complete context of the story; for example, there is no hint of the five Cambridge pro-Soviet traitors that riddles the book.

Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) looking through files to find information on the mole.

This is not to say that Alfredson has made a bad film. On the contrary, the slowness of TTSS is, arguably, a reflection of the world of espionage, which Le Carré, who assisted in the movie’s production, understands so well. Seen in this light, even the many seemingly pointless short, silent scenes of Smiley going into a room or a house on his own have a purpose, since they give TTSS a greater feel for the workings of MI6.

In addition, the brilliant acting throughout the movie aids our understanding of the type of people that tend to be at the top echelons of the secret services. A lecturer of mine at university told me that Hilter’s military intelligence chief (and double-agent), Wilhelm Canaris, upheld a persona to make it seem to others that he was not on the ball. In a similar vein, all the men in the ‘Circus’ in TTSS have their manufactured character guises. No-one in the film has this more than Smiley. In the lead role, the ever-sound Gary Oldman plays Smiley exceptionally well. Whilst no James Bond, Oldman never loses his concentration as Smiley; he always remains head-down, calm and monotonous, yet perspicacious, even when there is emotion stirring within him. It is a shame for Oldman that many subtleties of Smiley’s character, from the book and the TV series, have been taken out by Alfredson.

All of the supporting cast suffer from the same problems. Everyone plays very well, but since the film is only 127 minutes (and may seem longer to those not enjoying it), there is not enough time for all of the nine main characters, including Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong – Kick-Ass, The Eagle, Zero Dark Thirty) and Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy – Layer Cake, Inception, Warrior), to have real depth. To the cast’s credit, none of them appear shallow on screen, and some of them are given the time to express themselves to a degree.

Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) as the active secret agent on the streets to help find people who may be connected to the mole.

The impressive acting is matched by the settings throughout TTSS. From the clothes; to the hairstyles; to the cars; to the fax machines (and lack of mobile phones); to the smoking, everything has the appearance of the late-1960s/early-1970s. Remarkably, nothing is out of place.

The music used throughout the film is, perhaps, the exception to this. While the music is not of its era, its strangeness, more often than not, enhances the confounding plot and the tension in some of the scenes.

TTSS is not a conventional spy/secret-agent thriller. The film moves at a measured pace and is very confusing to the extent that one may go home without having completely understood the movie. One may even need to be a fan of this niche genre to truly appreciate it. Yet, with fantastic acting – particularly from Gary Oldman – TTSS depicts its era and the underhandedness of the inner workings of the top levels of the secret services down to a tee.

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Review – The King’s Speech (12a) [2011]

Star Rating: 4.5/5

The term ‘born for greatness’ is one often used to describe the life of king. Nevertheless, it is a vague term: one that does not give a remote hint to the strains and struggles that comes with achieving great feats. The King’s Speech illustrates a form of such a challenge with the brilliance of a masterpiece.

Bertie, played by Colin Firth, gives a speech at Wembley in the mid-1920s that goes awry due to his stammer.

The film centres on Bertie (Colin Firth – Bridget Jones’ Diary, Dorian Gray, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), the future King George VI of Britain (1936-52), who has a terrible stammer, and how he must overcome this stammer in order to compete with the other great orators of his era, such as Sir Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler. When it becomes clear that his older brother, David (Guy Pearce – Memento, The Hurt Locker, Prometheus), the future King Edward VIII (abdicated in 1936), would rather marry Wallis Simpson (Eve Best), a twice-divorced American woman, than take up the throne, the necessity for Bertie to speak more eloquently becomes paramount. After-all, he is next in line.

After trying several therapists for years, Bertie turns to Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush – Pirates of the Caribbean I-IV, Shakespeare In Love) and his unconventional methods to help solve the problem. By taking us through stage-by-stage of Logue’s methods, the director, Tom Hooper (The Damned United, Les Misérables), ensures that we see Bertie’s tremendous struggle to complete a sentence without stuttering (something seemingly so effortless for the majority of us). However, we would not be able to realise just how frustrating and aggravating it must have been for Bertie if it weren’t for the exceptional performance of Colin Firth. Never before has an Adam’s Apple been so over-worked or scrutinised as in The King’s Speech.

Yet, it is not just Bertie’s consistent stammering that makes Firth’s act so memorable, but also how it affects Bertie’s general behaviour. Throughout the movie, the future George VI suffers from chronic diffidence. His speech impediment affects everything from the way he walks, talks and looks at people; to his need for emotional support from his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter – Fight Club, Harry Potter V, VI, VII(i) & VII(ii), Alice in Wonderland, Les Misérables), the future Queen Elizabeth II’s mother. And this does not even include his bad temper or his fears; most notably, public speaking. In a first-class display, Firth captures Bertie’s dread superbly as well as his character’s comprehension of the responsibilities of a monarch.

Anxiety reigns supreme as Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), George VI and Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) wait for the king to give his big speech not long after Britain declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939.

Firth is undoubtedly the stand-out performer of the movie. But that is not to say that Geoffrey Rush or Helena Bonham Carter do the film a disservice. On the contrary, they play their roles very well: the former as the tolerant therapist with a wry sense of humour, who understands how best to deal with the king’s stammer; and the latter, as the supportive wife of a man who feels that he must triumph against all odds in order to carry out his duty as king.

Alas, The King’s Speech does not touch upon the gastric problem that Bertie endured throughout his life. It also wrongly portrays the relationship between Bertie and David. (Not to mention the one between Elizabeth and David too.) Since the film is based on real events (as opposed to a book or an urban legend), historical accuracy is important and is slightly lacking in the movie, even if it is regarding a relatively minor part of the story.

This, though, should not take too much away from The King’s Speech. The film is simple, original and outstanding. In addition, it is funny (albeit in a very English way) and engaging. The acting is fitting for Oscar nominations, and Firth’s ability to make us feel the pain that Bertie’s stammer caused him is right up there with the greatest of performances. That there is no fairytale ending to the film gives The King’s Speech greater credit and more than a twinkle of realism: it makes us appreciate how and why King George VI managed to win over the affections of millions across the world.

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