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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

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  • 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 – Zero Dark Thirty (15) [2013]

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Star Rating: 3.5/5

Director:

  • Kathryn Bigelow – The Loveless, The Weight of Water, The Hurt Locker

Cast:

Music Composer:

When it comes to films about historical events, like Titanic, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Lincoln, one knows how they will end before even starting them. Yet, such movies can be just as, if not more entertaining and gripping than movies where one does not know what is going to happen. The same is true for the arresting Zero Dark Thirty, which also sends out a potent message to America’s enemies.

The film is a politico-historical drama based around real events. ‘Zero dark thirty’ is a military codename for half past midnight, and it is the time that the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden took place on the night of 1st/2nd May 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Maya (Jessica Chastain), baggy-eyed as she watches countless interrogations of detainees in her attempts to find a lead to Osama Bin Laden's location.

Maya (Jessica Chastain), baggy-eyed as she watches countless interrogations of detainees in her attempts to find a lead to Osama Bin Laden’s location.

Zero Dark Thirty is all about the CIA’s attempts to find the world’s most wanted man following his masterminding of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers on 11th September 2011, and his subsequent vanishing. The film is an unhurried, yet captivating thriller that does not feel like it is 157 minutes long. Like with The Hurt Locker, it has a grounded feel, and therefore lacks the hyperbole and surrealism of 24. Even the ending mirrors this mood, which is rare and noteworthy for Hollywood.  It is too early to know how true Zero Dark Thirty is to the reality, but it feels like a realistic and fair representation of events. First, it illustrates how dangerous it is for Americans to be in Afghanistan/Pakistan, thereby emphasising how heroic they are being out there. Second, it demonstrates some of the difficulties CIA agents face operating in the field, trying to unearth information about their targets (who have multiple identities and never seem to stay in the same place twice). Third, the movie shows the CIA adopting dubious torture methods and degrading treatment upon suspected and actual terrorists in undisclosed locations in their desperate bid to find leads on Bin Laden.

There has been much controversy over Kathryn Bigelow’s depiction of torture adopted by US personnel in 2002 and afterward (when it was officially outlawed). Arguably, the film enables Bigelow to reveal her anti-American/anti-war bias again, like she did so painfully in the critically-acclaimed The Hurt Locker. Yet, it is doubtful that she glorifies torture here. Instead, she lets viewers decide for themselves, in a similar vein to Rendition, if torture is ever necessary or useful, which is an intelligent way of kicking off a moral debate on an important and current subject.

CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke) arguing with his and Maya's boss, Joseph (Kyle Chandler), as he tries to help Maya in anyway he can.

CIA agent Dan (Jason Clarke, right) arguing with his and Maya’s boss, Joseph (Kyle Chandler, left), as he tries to help Maya in anyway he can.

But what is even more striking than the portrayal of ‘enhanced interrogations’ in Zero Dark Thirty is how the film has painted the War on Terror as merely Osama Bin Laden. Yes, he is the figurehead of modern-day Jihadi terrorism and his death is a symbolic hammer-blow to the cause. But by 2011 it is dubious how influential Bin Laden was to the pursuit of world Jihadism, due to the emergence of numerous Al-Qaeda splinter groups, such as Al-Aqaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Al-Shabaab, among others. Yet, these other terrorist groups are barely given a mention, which is strange considering the security threat they pose to the world.

Additionally, Zero Dark Thirty does not explore, even for the sake of context, the complex and conflicting relationships between America, Afghanistan and Pakistan, not to mention the contradictory nature of the Pakistani state itself. (Anyone remember David Cameron saying that Pakistan looks “both ways” on terrorism?)

However, if one can ignore the lack of political background, one can enjoy strong performances from all the cast. At the forefront, is Jessica Chastain, who demonstrates, for the first time, that she can play a leading role just as solidly as she can a supporting one when given the chance. Her single-minded character, Maya, is given the central task of finding Bin Laden. Maya might get her way sometimes in a contrived manner for reasons of plot, but Chastain looks so natural in the role, and the way Maya changes under the circumstances is indicative of Chastain’s talent.

Patrick (Joel Edgerton) enjoying banter with his marine companions before leading them to into combat to kill Bin Laden.

Patrick (Joel Edgerton) enjoying banter with his marine companions before leading them to into combat to kill Bin Laden.

Maya’s solemnity is in mild contrast to her two main colleagues, the tough-yet-amusing Dan (Jason Clarke) and the bitchy Jessica (Jennifer Ehle). Both Clarke and Ehle play well, and are more empathetic than Maya. Nevertheless, they are both outshone by Chastain’s performance.

Over-all, Zero Dark Thirty is a sincere and honest attempt to recreate the finding and killing of Osama Bin Laden. That one knows how the movie will end is irrelevant, as it is an engrossing and tense watch. The film might be devoid of much of the current context vis-à-vis the War on Terror, and it might be overly-simplified; yet, what it lacks on those fronts, it makes up for in compelling performances, not least from Jessica Chastain. Furthermore, Zero Dark Thirty sends out a stark message to America’s enemies: it doesn’t matter where they hide or for how long they hide, America will find them and bring them to justice.

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