Reel Opinions

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Still Alice

At the beginning of Still Alice, Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is in the middle of celebrating her 50th birthday.  She is surrounded by her loving family, including her husband (Alec Baldwin) and two of her adult children, Anna (Kate Bosworth) and Tom (Hunter Parrish).  Her third child, Lydia (Kristen Stewart) is off in Los Angeles, pursuing a career as an actress.  As for Alice herself, she is a linguistics professor at Columbia University, is respected in her field, and travels the country giving lectures at different campuses.

But lately, there have been subtle but noticeable changes in Alice's behavior.  She forgets things, or can't think of a certain word when she is talking.  And when she goes out jogging, she gets lost and can't even remember where she is.  She fears it may be the early signs of a brain tumor, so she goes to see a neurologist.  After a series of tests, the neurologist concludes that she is suffering from early onset Alzheimer's.  Not only that, it turns out that the Alzheimer's is genetic.  Her father had it late in his life, and there's a chance that her children could be positive as well.  The movie that follows is not so much about Alice succumbing to the disease, rather it is about her trying to hold on to her memories and her identity as long as she can before the disease takes them away from her.

Based on the novel by Lisa Genova, Still Alice is certainly a heartbreaking film, but it is not the sentimental or manipulative tearjerker it could have been in the wrong hands.  While the movie hits some pretty predictable story beats, the writing and directing team of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland decide to focus on Alice and her family, and make them the point of focus.  That makes it all the more cruel when Alice's mental condition slowly begins to deteriorate during the course of the film.  The movie may have a predetermined outcome, but it is the journey that these characters take that keep us riveted.  Alice is written as an intelligent woman who realizes with fear that she is going to lose everything.  In one of the film's sadder moments, she tells her husband she wishes she had cancer instead.  People wear pink ribbons, and raise money to find a cure and hope.  With Alzheimer's, there is nothing for Alice to do but wait to deteriorate, and let her family watch.

At the center of it all is Julianne Moore's Oscar-winning performance.  Moore has long been one of our most natural and gifted actresses, but lately has been wallowing in genre efforts beneath her ability like Seventh Son, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Non-Stop and Carrie.  As Alice, she gets to deliver one of her better performances in a while.  I don't know how she accomplished it, but you can actually see the light and life drain from her eyes during the course of the film, as the disease takes hold of her.  She creates a character who has a lot of pride, and is afraid of losing it as Alzheimer's grips her.  At one point, she claims she forgot about a dinner date with friends, because she was out for a run and stopped at an ice cream store.  She blames her illness for forgetting, but we also suspect that Alice herself is humiliated by her own problem, and doesn't want to be seen in front of friends, less she slip up in conversation or forget something. 

Moore does a fantastic job playing all the different sides of her complex character.  She is loving, proud, and sometimes she pries a little too deep into her family's personal matters.  But through it all, she is respected by her family and peers.  The movie shows not just her pain as she loses herself, but also the pain of those around her who must watch her fade away.  We can see the pain in the face of her husband when she can't find the bathroom in her own house, and winds up soiling herself, or in one of her daughters when they are having a conversation, even though Alice does not recognize her.  All of the performances here put us through the emotional wringer, especially Baldwin and Kristen Stewart, who is finally able to shed her shallow image from the Twilight films, and gives a performance of real substance here as a daughter who has been treated as kind of a black sheep of the family, but might just end up being closer to her mother than anyone realized.

Really, it is the performances that keep us involved, even if the script itself sometimes is a little too pat.  It likes to solve a lot of its problems with conveniences, and while it never seems overly forced and calculated, it is noticeable.  Also, it's insights into the disease itself are not exactly shattering.  While this is a better than expected script, it still comes dangerously close to whitewashing some of the harsher elements of its subject matter.  Still, it is never manipulative, and is is the performances that sell the film from beginning to end.  They make these people and their situation seem real, instead of dramatized.  Even if certain elements of the storytelling seem scripted instead of being drawn from life experiences, it is the honesty of the portrayals that carry us through.

What ultimately makes Still Alice work is how it understands its central dilemma.  Memories are priceless to each and every one of us, and if they are taken away, we lose ourselves as well.  This is a poignant film about falling into a sort of oblivion, and how we must fight to hold on to those memories and thoughts that make us who we are.

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The Lazarus Effect

David Gelb's The Lazarus Effect is a particularly junky thriller (in genre, not in effect) about a bunch of young scientists who are smart enough to figure out a way to bring somebody back from the dead, but are not smart enough to survive some of the oldest horror cliches in the book.  The movie is dead on arrival, holds nothing of interest in its brief 83 minute run time, looks cheaply made, and is a huge waste of a mostly talented cast.

The plot centers on a scientist couple who are romantically involved, Frank (Mark Duplass) and Zoe (Olivia Wilde).  They're supposed to be married by now, but their experiment to bring the dead back to life has consumed all their time.  There are hints early on that Zoe is starting to feel regrets about putting her work before her pending marriage to Frank.  There are also hints that one of the lab assistants, Niko (Donald Glover), has feelings for Zoe.  These potential plot points are brought up, but never really elaborated on afterward.  It's almost as if the screenplay can hardly muster enough enthusiasm for the slightest bit of character development.  Also taking part in the experiment is fellow lab assistant Clay (Evan Peters) and newcomer Eva (Sarah Bolger), who carries a camcorder with her at all times, almost as if she hopes the movie will become a "found footage" film at some point, so she'll have something to do.

As the film opens, the group has succeeded in bringing a dog back to life.  After returning to the land of the living, the dog is despondent, refuses to eat and is genuinely lethargic, except for when it suddenly becomes violently aggressive at odd times for seemingly no reason.  Again, this is a potential plot point that could have been interesting in another movie, but it is never really elaborated on here.  Despite their success, the group has their funding cut and the experiment is dropped entirely.  Not wanting to lose the progress they've made, the group breaks into their old lab that night, and attempts to repeat the experiment with another dog.  However, something goes wrong this time, and Zoe is fatally electrocuted in the process.  After mere seconds of grieving, Frank puts his dead girlfriend up on the operating table, and proceeds to bring her back to life.

Just like the dog, Zoe seems a bit odd when she comes back to life.  The team chalks it up to Zoe trying to come to terms with what she's just gone through, but there are ominous signs that something is not right.  She gains telekinetic powers, can read people's minds, and develops the habit of disappearing and reappearing somewhere else whenever the lights go out.  The movie seems to hint that Zoe went to hell, and has brought back something evil that is now controlling her.  Zoe describes hell as being forced to live the worst moment in your life over and over in an infinite loop.  Watching The Lazarus Effect, I could kind of understand what she means.  This is a repetitive and dull movie where people keep on making the same mistakes and doing the same stupid things over and over, and you're trapped there in the theater, forced to watch it happen over and over again.

The movie's most repeated scare tactic is to have the lights suddenly go out, and have Zoe disappear, then later reappear somewhere else while a loud, clanging music chord blasts on the soundtrack.  I imagine very few people will find this effectively scary, unless they are creeped out by faulty electrical wiring.  Even when Zoe is in full "demon mode" and killing off her former colleagues one by one, the scares never come, due to the sometimes confusing editing during the more violent moments.  This implies that the movie was heavily cut in order to secure a "teen-friendly" PG-13 rating.  The short 83 minute running time implies that the movie was a doomed project almost from the start, and was heavily slashed in a vain attempt to save it.  Judging by the footage that did wind up on the screen, there was nothing really here worth saving.

The Lazarus Effect plays like the first draft of a script that accidentally went before the cameras before it was ready.  There are some ideas expressed, but they are never explored in any way.  Instead, we get a lot of scenes where the screen goes dark, then somebody pops up in front of the camera from out of the frame.  Even by the lowest standards of schlock horror, this stuff is pretty lame.

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Friday, February 27, 2015


Not only is Focus a highly entertaining film, but it marks a long-overdue return to form for Will Smith.  Over the past few years, Smith has been cast adrift in a series of bloated vanity projects, bizarre cameos (Him showing up as the Devil in last year's Winter's Tale left most audiences scratching their heads.), and setting up projects for his kids.  Here, at last, he gets to return to the smooth charisma and cool charm that made him a box office star in the first place.

He's teamed up with rising actress, Margot Robbie, from The Wolf of Wall Street and About Time.  They share a great chemistry, and are obviously having a lot of fun together.  They also create the right amount of romantic tension in a lot of their scenes.  It helps that the script they're working with, credited to directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (Crazy, Stupid Love), is well-written, sharp and often very funny.  It's well thought out too, except for the final fifteen minutes or so, which gets a bit top heavy with plot twists.  This is a movie that tries to constantly be one step ahead of the audience, tricking us into thinking the plot is going one way, only for it to go another.  It never gets annoying, because the movie doesn't overdo it, except for the third act.  But, by then, the movie had built up so much good will, I really didn't mind.  The performances rise above any narrative issues.

Will Smith plays Nicky, a professional con artist who has incredible focus, and can lift your valuables in a matter of seconds without anyone realizing.  He's a smooth and calm thief, though a certain scene does seem to hint at a gambling addiction.  He's a man who values control, and is more interested in stealing as much as possible from his mark, rather than the monetary value of what he steals.  It's all about volume to Nicky.  Early in the film, he takes on a new apprentice named Jess (Robbie).  She's rough around the edges at first, but she's a fast learner, and picks up on his game.  A relationship seems to be building between them, but since they are both professional con artists, we in the audience can never quite be sure.  Part of the fun is that the characters of Nicky and Jess don't even seem sure themselves if it is real love, or if one is trying to take the other for everything they have.

The plot of Focus is built around the fact that we know things are not what they seem, and that the romantic leads are known for playing other people as fools.  The fun comes not just from the genuine chemistry that Smith and Robbie create, but the guessing as to whether or not it is for real.  When the answers come, we're not disappointed, because the movie is smart with its puzzles, and doesn't try to pull the rug out from under us too much.  Yes, the last act is extremely convoluted and doesn't make a lot of sense as you think back on it.  But before it derails in the final moments, this is an incredibly tight and well-designed comedic con story.  The characters are smart, but not so smart that they're unbelievable.  It's fun watching Nicky and Jess play off each other and fall in love, and it's even more fun to watch Smith and Robbie get behind these characters and create a real spark with each other up on the screen.

But the most fun I had was not in following the plot, but in the many ingenious smaller moments that are placed throughout the film.  The early scenes where Nicky is teaching Jess the rules of his game have a very breezy charm, and culminates with a brilliant scene where Nicky and his various accomplices stage an elaborate pick pocket operation on the streets of New Orleans, which almost resembles a choreographed dance.  Another great scene occurs in a luxury sky box at the Super Bowl, where Nicky takes on a series of bets on the game with a high roller (B D Wong).  As the stakes of the bets increase, so does the tension of the scene, and the key actors (Smith, Robbie and Wong) all do a great job of setting up the tone of the scene, and increasing the suspense while exchanging limited dialogue with each other.

What sets Focus apart from a lot of the early year releases so far is that it's tremendous fun, very smart, and actually manages to engage the audience and get them involved with the story.  It's not a perfect film by any means, but it's definitely Will Smith's best movie in a long time, and a reminder of what a great leading man he can be with the right material.  It also cements Margot Robbie as a leading lady.  But most of all, it's a light and enjoyable entertainment that lifts the spirits.

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Saturday, February 21, 2015


What is a DUFF?

According to this movie, it stands for "Designated Ugly Fat Friend".  However, we also learn that the term can be very broad.  It can pretty much apply to anyone who is friends with anyone else who is much more attractive or popular than they are.  The DUFF is the one whom other people go to in order to get information on their more popular friend, in the hope that they can date that more popular friend.

Our heroine, Bianca (Mae Whitman), is a kind of frumpy high school girl who's never fit in.  She likes zombie movies, is a straight-A student and doesn't get noticed much, not even by the school staff.  Her best friends since childhood have been the much prettier Casey (Biana A. Santos) and Jess (Skyler Samuels).  She is their DUFF.  Bianca learns this from her long time neighbor and dim-witted football jock, Wesley (Robbie Amell), while attending a party.  At first she denies it, but then she looks back over her past, and begins to realize the horrible truth.  Everyone has always looked her over for her more popular best friends.  Heck, even when they were children playing Charlie's Angels, Casey and Jess were always the Angels, while Bianca was always stuck playing Bosley. ("Why did I play Bosley?  There were three Angels!", Bianca realizes.)

The DUFF follows Bianca's attempts to break free of her label, and make a name for herself.  This includes working up the courage to talk to the boy she likes, the sensitive guitar player Toby (Nick Eversman).  Her efforts don't go very well, so she strikes a deal with Wesley the jock - He will help her find her own identity, and she will help him pass Science class so he can stay on the football team.  Will they start out hating each other, but gradually warm up, and even start to like each other to the point that Bianca starts taking Wesley to her secret thinking spot in the woods?  What do you think?  Oh, and of course there's a mean girl for Bianca to deal with.  She's Madison (Bella Thorne), Wesley's ex-girlfriend who is not happy to see him hanging around with a DUFF like Bianca.  She'll resort to cyberbullying in order to crush Bianca's newly found spirit.

This is a well-meaning teen comedy that obviously hopes to join the ranks of recent classics like Mean Girls and Easy A, or perhaps the 1980s efforts from John Hughes.  Unfortunately, much like its main character, the movie has a hard time standing out.  It's not bad in any real way, and Mae Whitman makes for a very likable lead, though at 26 years-old in real life, I hope she graduates to adult roles soon.  It just never finds its own comedic identity, and instead follows lockstep with the cliches of the genre.  There's the scene where Bianca tries on a bunch of different outfits as she tries to find a new wardrobe, there's the scene where Bianca is humiliated in front of the whole school, there's the misunderstanding between Bianca and Wesley that puts their blossoming relationship in danger, and there's naturally the climax at the Homecoming Dance, where Wesley must choose between the popular and catty Madison, or Bianca, who has just started to come out of her shell.  It's not that I don't think these ideas or scenes could work in a movie still, it's just that the screenplay by Josh A. Cagan (based on a Young Adult novel by Kody Keplinger) never finds a unique spin on them.

For the adult characters, the filmmakers have rounded up some strong talent, only to give them little to do.  Ken Jeong plays Bianca's mentor, Mr. Arthur, who wants her to write an article on Homecoming for the school paper.  He appears so infrequently throughout the movie, I actually forgot he was in the film when he reappeared after a long absence.  He's one of the few teachers who actually seems to notice and respect Bianca, and I kept on waiting for them to have a big scene together, but it never really happens.  Allison Janney also turns up as Bianca's mom - a woman who has built her life around being a life improvement coach after her husband left her, and teaches other women how to move on from broken relationships.  She gets a couple funny scenes, but still comes across as unfulfilled.  That has a lot to do with the fact that her own subplot about joining a dating site to find a new love for herself has no closure whatsoever.

The DUFF is a pretty likable movie, but it's not likable enough to cover up the fact that it is light on big laughs.  The cast is fine, and the movie itself never offends, but it's just not enough.  This is disappointing, as the early moments seem to hint at a much sharper comedy to come.  As Bianca explains her life at school and her various relationships, the movie has a certain sweetly offbeat tone that I admired.  But then, little by little, it loses that tone and goes straight into conventional territory.  It starts taking its own plot seriously, when it should be poking fun at it, and giving its lead character a sarcastic and knowing look at what's happening to her.  There are moments like that throughout, but it never comes across as strong as it should.  The movie wants so much for us to see Bianca as a free spirit and an outsider, but she kind of becomes more ordinary as the film goes on.

Should this movie prove successful with young audiences, I hope that Mae Whitman goes on to better things.  She's had a long career since she was a child, but this is probably her first stand-out role on the big screen.  She shows herself to be a likable comedic actress here.  Now she needs a script that can match her big talent.

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Hot Tub Time Machine 2

The unmistakable stench of flop-sweat permeates from Hot Tub Time Machine 2, as actors who seem to know they're in a doomed project struggle to rise above the material.  The actors make their way through dialogue and scenes that the movie somehow thinks are funny, but they know are not.  This is a movie where only one question needs to be asked - What were they thinking?

This movie, an unnecessary sequel to 2010's Hot Tub Time Machine, features the same director and writer, as well as most of the same cast, except for John Cusack, who claims that he was never asked to appear in this sequel.  He should thank his lucky stars.  The talent may be mostly the same here, but the energy is gone.  The returning stars are trudging through this material.  They're gloomy, they're spent, and they seem to know they're trapped in a turkey.  Now, the original movie was certainly no masterpiece.  It was a largely hit and miss comedy, actually.  But it had a certain life to it, and it did have some moments of comic inspiration.  This movie is what happens when a bunch of people are called back to make a sequel, but nobody really wants to do it.  In the history of bad comedy sequels, this ranks right down there with 1988's infamous Caddyshack II.

The plot, such as it is, hinges on three of the heroes from the last film living it up since discovering the secret of time travel.  Lou (Rob Corddry) has reinvented himself as a billionaire, and is responsible for creating the Internet search engine, "Lougle". (Ho, ho) Nick (Craig Robinson) has gotten rich off of being a recording artist by stealing a bunch of famous songs that haven't been written yet.  Finally, Jacob (Clark Duke), is largely living off of Lou's success, and serves as his butler.  The movie hinges on the fact that ever since Lou has become successful, he's become an insufferable jerk to just about everyone.  It's apparently gotten so bad that someone is now trying to murder him.  When Lou is making a speech in front of his gathered friends, a mysterious gunman opens fire and shoots him in the privates.  In an attempt to save their friend, Nick and Jacob use the hot tub time machine to travel back into the past to stop the murder attempt, but instead wind up traveling into the future instead.

This is a movie without purpose.  It generates a bunch of scenes that are supposed to be comic, but simply are not.  This is due to two reasons - One being that we have no interest in these characters, and the other being that the movie is not once funny at any point in time.  I mentioned that Lou is shot in the privates, and I must say it is but one of many jokes involving the male reproductive organ featured in the film.  The script has a bizarre obsession with it, starting with a scene where a random extra is seen pressing their genitals up against a window for people inside a building to see for absolutely no reason whatsoever.  In a later scene, Lou and Nick become contestants on a futuristic game show hosted by Christian Slater for some reason, where the two are forced to perform anal sex with each other in virtual reality for the entertainment of the audience.  Why, you ask?  Why, indeed.

Now, I'm not a prude.  I will laugh at crude humor when it is funny.  But Hot Tub Time Machine 2 doesn't even come close to attempting a joke.  The characters constantly namedrop other movies in their dialogue, but don't really try to spoof or poke fun at any of the movies they talk about.  The heroes constantly banter back and forth with each other, but nothing they say gets a laugh.  This is simply a dispirited production in every sense of the word.  Not only is the script pathetic, but the cast can barely seem to hide their doubts about it up there on the screen.  Nobody wants to be there, and it doesn't take long until the audience shares their misery.  I'm the sort who tries to look for something good in even the biggest bombs - a spark of life, or maybe a performance that stands out.  Here, I have nothing, because the movie gives nothing.

It's clear that everything that needed to be done with this idea was accomplished the first time around.  Here, everybody seems dumbfounded by this encore, and rightly so.  At the very least, we can take hope in the knowledge that there won't be a Hot Tub Time Machine 3.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

McFarland, USA

Here is a formula movie that works.  McFarland, USA is, by all accounts, a pretty standard inspirational sports drama, but it makes some smart decisions and avoids some obvious pitfalls along the way.  The movie feels honest.  There is no melodrama being played up here.  In fact, it's quite small, focuses on the individual characters and their relationships, and generally feels genuine.  While I'm sure parts of the true story it's based on have been dramatized, it doesn't seem as obvious as in some other films.

Kevin Costner, the go-to guy for feel good sports movies for over 20 years now, takes on the role of Jim White, who in 1987 led a small group of Mexican teenagers to a championship season in Cross Country running.  As the film opens, Jim has just been fired as a football coach at his previous school job after he loses his temper with one of his students.  Work is hard to find, and the only school that will hire him is a struggling high school in the small California town of McFarland.  At first, Jim's new job doesn't seem to be going very well, as he's fired as the assistant football coach after his first week.  He is kept on as the gym teacher, however, and while watching his students run laps, he becomes inspired when he sees how fast they are.  This gives him the idea to start a cross country racing team - an idea that is shot down at first by the principal of the school and the board of education, but he is able to put together a team and make it work. 

The team that Jim puts together is a likable, if not standard, group of Mexican kids who have not been given a lot in life.  They work in the fields when they're not in school, picking produce.  Some have been in and out of trouble at school, some have troubles at home, and one of the kids is overweight.  However, the screenplay is smart enough not to make the kids just one-note characters.  They have personalities, and don't fall into the usual melodrama traps that threatens their positions on the team.  The bond that they build with each other and with the Coach seems real.  While there are moments where the kids must rely on each other to keep going, it's done quietly, instead of in a heavy-handed and cinematic manner.  The cliches are all there, but they're done in a way so they don't call attention to themselves.  It feels familiar, but it also feels a little more honest than we expect.

McFarland, USA also avoids the all-too-easy trap of having its lead white character becoming a savior to his minority students.  If anything, the movie is about how the community (which is made up almost entirely of Mexicans) welcomes Jim and his family, and makes them part of the community.  The film is appropriately titled, as the entire town plays a part in the story, not just the kids on the running team.  We see Jim's wife (Maria Bello) and his two young daughters build relationships with the different people around them.  We get to see Jim make friends with the locals, and slowly come to love the people around him.  The movie does a great job of showing the community as individuals.  They're not just a bunch of extras who cheer on the the local running team on their way to victory.  They have personalities and backgrounds, and get to play their own small roles in the story.

I also appreciated the honesty that the movie deals with its minority cast.  We're never once made to feel sorry for these people, or are made to feel that their lives are different or worse off.  They are a close-knit community, and yes, they have their hardships, but the movie does not dwell on them or use it for cheap melodrama.  When the various families that make up the community come together, we can feel the respect they have for each other.  It doesn't feel like a bunch of extras standing on the outskirts of the story.  The movie is as much about them, as it is about Jim leading his team to victory, and I appreciated that.  It gives the film more heart and depth than your standard movie about a team of underdogs making it to the championships.  This movie goes the extra mile, and gives us side characters we can cheer for, not just the runners.

This is the second movie in about a month that Costner has done about race relations, and compared to Black or White, it is much more subtle and genuine.  McFarland, USA rises above the cliches of the genre by giving us not just likable characters, but ones that don't feel like they've been plugged in by the screenwriters as generic types.  Even if the overall plot of the team making it to the big championship is predictable, there are a lot of smaller moments in between that kind of surprised me.

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Matthew Vaughn's Kingsman: The Secret Service is an imperfect, but mostly fun and affectionate tribute to old fashioned British spy thrillers.  It has all the trappings of the genre you would expect, such as everyday items like umbrellas, pens and shoes serving a double purpose as weapons, a megalomaniac villain with a secret base hidden within a mountain, and lots of violence with a little bit of raunchy sex.  The movie has a devilish sort of glee to its humor that really appealed to me, and while not all the jokes hit, they land a good amount of the time.

It would almost be too easy to label Kingsman as a companion piece to Vaughn's 2010 effort, Kick-Ass.  Both are violent and loopy satires of popular film genres (spies this time around, superheroes in the earlier film), and both are based on comic books by Mark Millar.  In my personal opinion, this is the better movie.  Kick-Ass suffered from an uneven tone that switched back and forth between being a sweet-natured Judd Apatow teen comedy, and an ultra-violent Spider-Man movie by way of Quentin Tarantino.  It was jarring for me the way the movie switched back and forth between both styles, sometimes from one scene to the next, and it took me out of the film.  Kingsman finds the proper tone early on, and sticks with it.  It's essentially a parade of pop culture, interspersed with some well shot action sequences that are incredibly violent, but are done in such an over the top live action cartoon style, it's hard to be offended. 

As the film opens, we are introduced to the secret world of the Kingsman, proper British gentlemen who also protect the world from terrorists and villains with hi-tech spy gadgets and weaponry.  Our entry into this secret world is an agent by the name of Galahad (Colin Firth).  He's the sort of man who can take out an entire room of thugs without spilling his drink, or messing up his finely tailored (and bullet proof) suit.  Galahad is investigating a series of mysterious kidnappings and murders, and the trail seems to have led him to a billionaire Steve Jobs clone named Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who talks with a lisp and has secret goals for a new world order with the help of his popular cell phones and computer products.  While investigating this recent case, Galahad has also decided to take under a new student named Eggsy (Taron Egerton), who starts the film off as a lowly punk teen, but Galahad believes can make for good Kingsman material if he gets the right training.

The film crosses back and forth between Galahad's investigation, and Eggsy's training to become a Kingsman, along with a small group of other hopefuls.  Eventually, the two plots must connect, and Eggsy finds himself aiding the Kingsman in infiltrating Valentine's secret headquarters, and does battle with the villain's lead henchman.  In the tradition of the early Bond films, the henchman is a deadly assassin with some kind of bizarre weapon.  In this case, it's a woman named Gazelle, an expert martial artist with blades for legs.  She is played by Sofia Boutella, a professional dancer from Algeria making her Hollywood debut.  Boutella commands the screen, and it really is a shame that the movie doesn't give her more chances to show off what she can do.  Still, her big fight with Eggsy is memorable, and that's what counts when it comes to playing a deadly henchman to the lead villain.  Speaking of the villain, Jackson is clearly having a great time, and even gets off some funny lines.  But, I think the lisp that he talks with was just a bad idea.  It doesn't get the laughs that I think the filmmakers intend.

Kingsman is fun and free-spirited for the most part.  It's constantly spoofing the conventions of the spy genre, but not so obviously that it feels like the movie is constantly winking at the audience.  Like the best satires, the actors are not in on the joke, and pretend that this is supposed to be serious.  Colin Firth is obviously reveling in his first opportunity to play an action role.  Not only did he supposedly do a majority of his own fighting and stuntwork, but his performance in general has just the right amount of proper British attitude and self-reference humor.  He comes across as someone who would snap someone's neck, then sit down for a spot of tea without missing a beat.  It's a wonderful, restrained performance, and that's why he sells and gets some of the biggest laughs.  Behind the stuffy demeanor, Firth is clearly having a blast, and lets us in on his fun without breaking the character.  It's hard to explain, but if you watch his performance closely, you can see certain moments where he can hardly contain his smile or excitement.  Young Taron Egerton also impresses in the lead role, handling both his dialogue scenes and action scenes with the same amount of expertise.

Really, the only thing holding this movie back from being a great success is some pacing issues.  The movie does run a bit long, and the Kingsman training scenes are nowhere near as clever, exciting or as fun as the rest of the movie is.  There is also an action sequence set inside a church which I think was intended to be one of the highlights of the film, but runs a bit too long and quickly becomes repetitive.  The movie runs a little over two hours, and while it doesn't overstay its welcome, it does feel like it should have been trimmed slightly.  And while it's always good to see Michael Caine in a movie (he plays a head member of the Kingsman), he's given so little to do that he basically comes across as a glorified cameo.  In retrospect, these problems may seem minor, and they are.  But they do slow down and hamper the film just a little from time to time.

Even with some faults, Kingsman serves as the perfect jolt of adrenalin for the dreary winter months, as well as the antidote for the equally dreary winter movies I have had to sit through lately.  This is a fast-paced and fun film with a wicked sense of humor, and a satirical edge that actually works.  The film's studio, Fox, has been promoting the movie a lot, showing they have a lot of faith in it.  They should.  This one is a lot of fun.

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Friday, February 13, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey

I will admit up front that I am probably not the right person to review this movie.  I have not read the bestselling novel, mainly because I am not a member of its core fanbase - bored or frustrated housewives.  I am not a bored or frustrated housewife, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be.  Therefore, the movie did not have the effect on me that it has had on its millions of fans.  But, if you consider yourself a fan, you can take heart - This movie is probably everything you're looking for in an adaptation of the story.

It's not that I can't see the appeal of the story to those who fall into the right bracket for it.  It's lead heroine, Anastasia Steele, is essentially a personality-deprived cipher that any lonely woman can picture herself in the part.  All we're told about Anastasia in Fifty Shades of Grey is that she is a virgin, kind of awkward, a literature major, and that she leads a rather normal and sheltered life.  With these vague characteristics in place, just about any woman can pick up the book, and imagine themselves in the character's place, suddenly catching the eye of the handsome and mysterious millionaire, Christian Grey.  In the movie, Anastasia and Christian are played by Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, respectively.  Both are actors that I can picture myself enjoying in lead roles in other movies.  In this one, since they are essentially playing ciphers to fulfill the fantasy of its audience, they're pretty much left to their own devices playing these characters whose personality traits are hardly there.

The main characters meet when Anastasia has to go Christian's sleek high-rise office building to interview him for the college newspaper.  Her best friend was supposed to interview Christian, but she came down with a convenient flu that seems to come and go in a span of five minutes, so Anastasia goes in her place.  Christian Grey is a powerful businessman, though we learn little about what he actually does all day, other than stare wistfully out his office window, and hang out with his staff, who seem to be made up entirely out of runway models.  The two have an awkward first encounter (she falls over herself the moment she walks through his office door), but for whatever reason, Christian is intrigued by this quiet and mousey woman.  We never really learn the reason behind Christian's interest, but again, I think this plays into the whole fantasy thing, and how any woman can immediately imagine herself being wooed by the wealthy, powerful and dominant Grey.

Grey starts showing up everywhere in Anastasia's life, almost like one of those villains in a mad slasher movie who can seemingly show up anywhere or anytime.  Eventually, she is intrigued by the man, and wants to know more about him.  He pushes her away, saying that he is dangerous, and that she does not belong in his world.  And yet, immediately after saying this, he buys her expensive gifts, and takes her on a luxury helicopter ride to his penthouse.  She wants to explore the possibility of a relationship, but Christian says he's not interested in that kind of stuff.  There's only one sort of thing that he is interested in, and he reveals it when he shows Anastasia a secret room that he keeps locked at all times.  He calls it his "playroom", and it's a finely furnished room where the walls are lined with S&M and bondage gear.  It almost looks like someone decided to shoot a hard porn on the set of Masterpiece Theater.  Anastasia is repelled, but not so much so that she won't stop seeing Christian, nor will she stop toying with the idea of a relationship with him.

The whole movie hinges on a simple question - Will they, or won't they?  They do have sex "like normal people" (as Christian, puts it), but he really wants to take her back to that playroom and "punish her".  He even offers her a private room in his penthouse if she will agree to a contract he has written up that basically says she will be up for any kinky or experimental thing he can think of.  The suspense is supposed to build around the fact that Anastasia is being drawn into Christian's world, and might actually agree to his demands.  But, I never really felt engaged.  The movie is supposedly severely watered down from the novel, in order to secure an R-rating instead of the forbidden NC-17.  If the novel is a kinky and graphic sexual escape, then the movie is a fairly mediocre romantic melodrama about two personality-deprived people, one of whom has a strange fetish.  I never felt aroused or fascinated in these characters, or their weird turn ons.  It came across to me as one of those movies that plays out, and then it fades from your mind almost the instant it's over.

There are supporting characters, but none of them have any consequence on the plot.  Anastasia's best friend seems to play a big part early on, but she disappears about halfway through.  There's also a male best friend for Anastasia, who clearly likes her, and seems as eager to please as a puppy.  The movie hints at a possible love triangle to develop, but it never happens, and the guy is dropped from the story after two scenes or so.  Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden shows up as Christian's mom, but her scenes consist of her basically complaining that her son never comes home to see her anymore.  Really, the whole movie hangs on the two leads, and while the performances don't offend, they never build the right kind of steamy chemistry that a movie like this needs.  It doesn't help that Anastasia is depicted so awkward early on that we never get a clear idea why Christian is fascinated in her in the first place.  Her mousey demeanor seems forced and self-conscious.  We can almost hear the actress mentally telling herself to appear more awkward, until she has sex with Mr. Grey, and suddenly becomes a confident woman.

Fifty Shades of Grey is a good-looking movie, thanks to a strong visual style and good lighting.  But the romance at the middle of it all is so sterile, it's hard to care.  But, if you're one of the many fans who loved the book, you'll probably enjoy this too.  Just make sure you see it at one of those specialty theaters that serve alcoholic beverages.  Something tells me a few drinks could only liven up this experience.

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