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

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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 – Les Misérables (12a) [2013]

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Star Rating: 4/5

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At the beginning of 2012, audiences were treated to the silent film, The Artist. It was unexpectedly charming and something different in an age of formulaic, clichéd blockbusters. A year on, and audiences are treated to something different once again in the form of the marvellous Les Misérables.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), looking like a scraggy vagabond, as a convicted criminal about to be released on parole.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), looking like a scraggy vagabond, as a convicted criminal about to be released on parole.

The storyline is based upon the 1862 historical-fiction novel by Victor Hugo and the subsequent theatre production. It loosely centres round Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and Javier (Russell Crowe). Jean Valjean is a convicted man, who breaks his parole and seemingly vanishes in his bid to start a new life. Javier, the Inspector, upon discovering what Jean Valjean has done, is determined to find Prisoner 24601 and bring him to justice.

The plot for Les Misérables is more detailed and layered than that, especially as it has a large cast all with roles to play before the story ends. Unlike the stage version, the film does a good job of keeping the narrative understandable and easy to follow, despite having to take out chunks from the book. This is no small achievement, considering that more or less the entire movie is sung. Credit should rightly go to Tom Hooper for this, as well as for successfully turning a theatrical play into an Oscar-nominated film. (It should be borne in mind that The Woman In Black was the last time a director attempted to translate a play into a movie, and the less said about that film the better!)

However, in spite of Hooper cutting out sections of the book, the film still seems too long and somehow bloated at 158 minutes. The Artist, it should be noted, is only 100 minutes and, consequently, does not feel over-stuffed. Part of the reason for why Les Misérables feels this way is due to the numerous sub-plots taking place throughout the story, many of which have only questionable importance to its outcome.

Inspector Javier (Russell Crowe), wearing almost the identical garb of the former (and now fallen) Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte I, on the lookout for Jean Valjean.

Inspector Javier (Russell Crowe), wearing almost the identical garb of the former (and now fallen) Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte I, on the lookout for Jean Valjean.

Yet, more significantly, does the story actually matter? When one watches Les Misérables in the theatre, one is more likely to be awed by the music and the mechanics of the stage, than taken in by the (slightly contrived) narrative. But the movie does not have an innovatively-devised podium. Additionally, it suffers from a cast that, while stellar in name, generally lack the powerful vocals of their stage counterparts.

Russell ‘wannabe-Napoleon Bonaparte’ Crowe and Hugh Jackman, the two leading men, are particularly guilty of this. It is not that their performances are bad, it is just painfully obvious that they are actors first and singers a distant second. One might argue that this is what Hooper desired as he claimed to want the vocals ‘raw’ and conversational, rather than melodramatic. (Then again, he could have been saying this as a defence of his cast, in hindsight, after realising that he should have used stage actors instead of Crowe and Jackman.)

Also, the more one sees and hears the supporting cast, the more Crowe and Jackman are shown up; in particular, against Anne Hathaway. Hathaway, as Fantine, might look pale and terribly thin with her skin, bone and flesh emaciated a la Natalie Portman in Black Swan, but she most certainly can sing. In Rio I, Hathaway showed that she can sing well and nicely. But in Les Misérables she takes her talents to a new level, acquiring immense vigour in her voice, despite clearly lacking in nourishment.

No-one else looks starved like her, but Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks, as the rebel Marius and Éponine, respectively, have very good voices; Amanda Seyfried, as Cosette, illustrates that she’s a better singer than actor (and that she can exist without her incongruous pink lip-gloss, unlike in the medieval-themed Red Riding Hood); while Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier, respectively, show us that they may not have noteworthy vocals, but that they can still make us laugh whilst in tune.

Jean Valjean, now all cleaned up and living a new life under a false name, holding a poorly street-woman, who just so happens to be Fantine (Anne Hathaway).

Jean Valjean, now all cleaned up and living a new life under a false name, holding a poorly street-woman, who just so happens to be Fantine (Anne Hathaway).

Yet, if one is truly bothered about the singing not being up to scratch with the stage performers, one can still admire the sceneries and the visuals. Cinema, as opposed to theatre, is not limited by the area of a stage (however impressive the mechanics of it may be), and Hooper uses this to his advantage to give viewers a true feel for the (miserable) neighbourhoods that our characters come from in a way that the theatre perhaps can’t convey as deeply.

All-in-all, Les Misérables is very impressive theatrical production-cum-film. The cast’s vocals may not be as strong as those actors on the stage, and the movie lacks some of the charms of the theatre. Nevertheless, like The Artist, Les Misérables is something different, and it should be celebrated that an operatic-style film can be delivered in such a superb and entertaining manner.

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Review – Prometheus 3D (15) [2012]

Star Rating: 2.5/5

With the exception of American Gangster, the last decade has been a poor one in terms of quality films for Ridley Scott, the three-time academy award nominated director/producer. Kingdom of Heaven, Body of Lies and Robin Hood are just three of many terrible movies that he’s created, even if he has made lots of money from them. Prometheus continues this downward trend, even though it is a return to the theme of his highly successful revolutionary 1979 movie Alien.

Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) with the captain of the Prometheus vessel, Janek (Idris Elba).

Prometheus is the prequel to Alien. In 2089, archaeologist love-birds Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Sherlock Holmes II: A Game of Shadows, The Drop) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green – Brooklyn’s Finest, Devil, Black Dog, Red Dog) discover a star map among several unconnected ancient civilisations. Believing that they can discover the origins of humanity, they join a crew on the space-vessel Prometheus bound for the moon where they hope to unearth the answers.

Piloted by David (Michael Fassbender – X-Men: First Class, Shame, 12 Years A Slave), a haughty human-looking android with supreme amounts of knowledge, the spaceship arrives at their destination. After being given a telegrammed video by the elderly Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce – The Hurt Locker, The King’s Speech, Iron Man III), the patron of the trillion-dollar expedition, and a speech by Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron – Monster, The Road, Snow White and the Huntsman), a Weyland Corporation employee sent to monitor the mission, the crew set off to investigate the nearby mysterious site.

They are told to avoid contact with any unknown substances. But with some people falling behind, and other members of the crew deceiving others, the humans do come into with the unknown substances. And to dire consequences.

Charlie, Elizabeth and David exploring the cave to find the origins of humanity. Will the statue in the background give them their answers?

The premise on which Prometheus is based is not a bad one and there are some good, refreshingly 1980s-style sci-fi horror moments to keep one in suspense. In 1979, these were innovative, but now the Alien vs. Predator genre has become so abysmally cliché that all of the horror in Prometheus looks samey and unoriginal.

And as is typical of the above-mentioned genres, little of Prometheus’ dialogue or plot makes any sense. (Even Ridley Scott has admitted that the movie leaves some questions unanswered, which suggests that tying up loose ends was not half as relevant to him as making a fortune.) The very beginning of the film (which I have not mentioned) bears no relevance to the rest of the film; with the exceptions of Elizabeth and Charlie, the reasons and motives of the various crew members aboard the Prometheus expedition are unclear or not mentioned at all; and the very end of the movie is as biologically possible as mating a bear with a piranha and producing a wolf.

Worse, Prometheus gives us virtually no insight into the origins of Alien. For a movie that is a prequel to the series, it is inexcusable. Imagine if Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins had not explained the origins of Batman? What would have been the point in it? The same questions must be asked here.

As Prometheus’ storyline nosedives, the cast do the same. All of the actors have poorly-explained, two-dimensional characters and none of them have any chemistry between them on set. They create such little empathy that viewers are unlikely to care when they start to drop off. Even Noomi Rapace, who was brilliant as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish versions of The Girl With The Dragon series (aka The Millennium saga), struggles in Prometheus to keep audiences interested (despite spending a percentage of the movie running around wearing not much more than a tankini). Only Michael Fassbender, as the emotionless and enigmatic robot, has the ability to maintain viewer’s concentration. But Fassbender’s character has too many holes to be plausible.

Wounded, Elizabeth is limping round the Prometheus vessel in little clothing to find some help.

Actors and characters aside, at least Prometheus has some decent sci-fi-style special effects. They are not spell-binding, though, because one has seen similar CGIs in God knows how many other movies in the genre before. What is a pity though is that the 3D is so pathetic. For a movie like Prometheus, there should have been more effort put into the 3D aspect of the film to make it worthwhile.

All-in-all, Prometheus is another appalling film to add to Ridley Scott’s recent movie-making collection. Almost nothing works in the film, from the storyline to the cast to the 3D. For a director/producer of Scott’s capacity, whose diverse range of films over the years have been of high quality, it is simply not good enough.

(PS. Read my review of 2014’s Exodus: Gods And King for more on Ridley Scott.)

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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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