Kingsman: The Golden Circle (****) – Viva Las Vegan

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Kingsman: The Golden Circle – 2017

Director Matthew Vaughn
Screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman
Starring  Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Halle Berry, Elton John, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Pedro Pascal, Hanna Alström, Edward Holcroft, Bruce Greenwood, Emma Watson, Sophie Cookson

So the question about the sequel is what you can do to surprise your audience. The first time I heard that Firth was going to be reprising his role as Harry (Firth) in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, my heart sank a little. Having him come back is ridiculous enough on its face. We now know that no one is really permanently gone if the groundswell wants them back. That it couldn’t have been at least kept a secret made the whole movie melodramatic, no matter what happens. Imagine how different The Empire Strikes Back would be if we went back to Ben in the promotional materials. Luke’s development would not be expected at all.

That’s the way I saw Eggsy (Edgerton) before watching this film. Fortunately, Matthew Vaughn starts the second Kingsman film with the mindset on further pushing Eggsy’s learning curve. The events that conspire to leave Eggsy and Merlin (Strong) together are a nice beginning for those who enjoyed seeing how they survived the first story. In the first act, we see Eggsy has stayed with the Princess. That is even more of a surprise for those who expected him to be coming home to Roxy (Cookson). It’s a strong Moneypenny on steroids feeling, seeing the smoldering Cookson in her conservative Kingsman uniform. It is even worse when we think now it likely will never happen.

The antagonist this time is an entertaining (for her) Moore as Poppy, a drug kingpin. Moore is way less shrill than I am used to seeing her, but then, she knows she’s not in contention for an Oscar here. Her plan seems kind of silly. I can’t say there aren’t more than a few people who would agree with the President (Greenwood) hanging back a beat or two. For the second time in a row, I can’t wait to see the plan work.

There is an occasion for the Kingsman to head to the US and visit their cousins, The Statesmen, lead by Bridges, Tatum, Pascal and Berry. I can’t say that the Statesmen add anything substantial to the mix, other than Pascal with his lasso.

The economy of characters dictates with the introduction of so many new characters, it is necessary to get rid of some others. This will be a tough sell for many, especially given the return of Harry and the presence of an Alpha Gel making no one truly being gone.

I enjoyed this film, even if it, surprisingly seems less violent than the original. It’s still one of the most violent films of the year, but it’s quite a comedown.

There is another more potentially more offensive scene regarding a tracking device placement. I cannot speak to this other than to say I would not like to have the same thing happen to me. Comparing this to the “If you save the world” statement of the Princess in the first film is to compare apples to oranges in the Garden of Eden. The mystery to me is that a film maker like Vaughn would have a need to go for shock at this stage in his career. There is so much more to enjoy in this film than a scene of that nature.

In a more refreshing sense, Elton John makes his best movie appearance ever. I say this only knowing about 4 films that he’s been in and never watching in him more than in this film. Every scene he’s in is not one you’d expect of one of his status.

There is no dip in quality or effort in this film. If you enjoyed the first one and can willingly suspend disbelief when it comes to characters that come and go, you should have no problems here. Vaughn’s sense of humor, understanding of visual flair and development of character is still on point here. I do think it would be interesting to see if he can curb his riskier tendencies to input juvenile references for a point. That may just land him a Marvel or Star Wars film. That would be a sight to see.

(**** out of *****)

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Gerald’s Game (****): We deserve the sunlight

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Gerald’s Game – 2017

Director Mike Flanagan
Screenplay by Jeff Howard and Flanagan based on the book by Stephen King
Starring Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Chiara Aurelia, Henry Thomas, Carel Struycken, Kate Siegel

Everything’s coming up Stephen King these days. The sheer volume of material he’s put out over the years make it surprising that we don’t see even more. The added benefit of his prodigious output is that we now have an entire universe of references from which to pull. The effect for Gerald’s Game is somewhat a boon, given the claustrophobic nature of the story.

The story is a simple one. Husband and wife Gerald and Jessie Burlingame (Greenwood and Gugino) head to a secluded cabin in Maine to spice things up in their marriage. For him, it requires objectification and role play. Jessie had something different in mind, like, say, talking. He no sooner gets the cuffs on her when she realizes their dichotomy and begs him to release her. He gets upset and an argument ensues, all while she’s still in the cuffs. During this argument, he falls dead on top of her.

The first hours are a mixture of disbelief and desperate begging for what she knows to be real to just…not be. Then we start to see the effects of her breaking down. Or maybe not.

The imaginings and reality of what she sees varies from scene to scene. Among the things that seem real, a starving dog that she’d earlier took pity on by feeding Kobe beef. For the most part, we come to accept the visions as aspects of her own breaking psyche. They are either trying to help, hurt or possibly eat away at her.

Eventually, we come to a deeper understanding of who Jessie is, why she is currently in chains and we start to understand what it might take for her to escape her bonds. If you think there is a metaphor in there, you may have seen this before.

Even if you have, Flanagan has such a gentle touch that it works. Those who have gone through similar experiences might be moved in Gugino’s performance, as well as Aurelia playing a younger Jessie. There is something in King’s study of character that works in marrying the adult to the child in experience.

There are many references to other works here, including Dolores Claiborne, The Dark Tower and Bag of Bones. I have read perhaps 5 King books in my life, so I am not an expert by any means, but I can say the references I understood made the experience a deeper one for me. Dolores Claiborne, in particular, resonates. The solar eclipse of 1963 in this story also occurs in that book. The stories are indeed bookends of the experiences of abuse detailed within.

The astounding thing is how much Flanagan gets out of the King material, considered one of his minor works by many critics of literature. To me, the scenes between Jessie and her abuser are deceptively well written and it shows how one can start digging a hole from which they reside for most of their life.

That’s where the eclipse and references to the sun come in. Such a simple metaphor shouldn’t work so well, but it does here, even better, perhaps, than it did in the movie version of Dolores Claiborne, which is itself an excellent film.

Flanagan has a vision that many of us may not see at first. He carried the hardcover version of this book around with him for years while pitching films. Most didn’t see a movie in it. He saw more than a movie. He saw something about how some of us spend our lives in the shadow of the sun. It’s an essential vision of the mask we sometimes put on our past.

There is more to the story, but it almost seems superfluous compared to the acting journey we’re taken on by the excellent Gugino and Greenwood. There is some blood and gore, but it’s handled in a manner that makes it shocking because it’s not gratuitous. If you have never questioned your past, this is a worthy film to watch.

(**** out of *****)

Gold (***1/2) is a beautiful loser

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Gold – 2016

Director  Stephen Gaghan
Screenplay 
Patrick Massett, John Zinman
Starring 
Matthew McConaughey, Édgar Ramírez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Craig T. Nelson, Bruce Greenwood

The feeling in watching Matthew McConaughey working and sweating his way through every scene of Gold is that we are watching a story that feels like his own. The vision of Kenny Wells to the outside world is that of one who got away with something and struck it rich with an illusion. Inside his heart is true and he works as hard as anyone, even if he feels like he will never get credit for earning his fortune.  To anyone who has followed McConaughey since his first big role in A Time to Kill will find this story very familiar.

This is what draws me to his performance in what could be considered quite average fare. There is nothing wrong with this movie and it’s script. It definitely wasn’t considered at award time. McConaughey is at his very best, though from the moment he first takes the screen all the way through the end. He inhabits the screen like someone on his desperate last breaths, somehow sure that the legacy of his father (Nelson in a passing cameo) will be proved as legitimate through his own success.

As a down and out market prospector, Wells has a dream and quite literally hocks the last bit of gold his girlfriend has left to make it happen. The success does come, but it is not easy. Eventually bigger fish come in tor make their stamp and he sneaks past them like a dying man whistling past the graveyard.

The story is loosely based on the Bre-X mining scandal. For those who know what happened, there is still plenty to enjoy. Particularly good are Ramírez and Howard, as Wells partner and longtime girlfriend, respectively. I have never noticed as good a performance out of the latter. Indeed, this is the first time I have enjoyed seeing her on screen.

The story and performance of the day is McConaughey, though. If he’s been better, he’s never been as invested in a role so completely. He goes the full DeNiro here, making himself into a repulsive has been with a heart of gold.

The story plays like something that could have been made in another time, when more time and effort was poured into character and less into any sort of flash. This feels like the kind of film one produces when they’ve won the cache to spread their wings a little.

While it’s never dull, the story is steady and the scenery feels at once wearying and fresh. Gaghan has a deft touch with drama, but nothing here feels overbearing aside from the strain Wells gut puts on a pair of pants.

If you like McConaughey, then watch this film. If you are on the bubble and think he just may have gotten lucky, watch this film. Tell me if it doesn’t make you feel like he’s finally proved himself worthwhile.

(***1/2 out of *****)

The Place Beyond the Pines: Eva Mendes is still beautiful

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The Place Beyond The Pines – 2013

Director Derek Cianfrance
Starring Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Ben Mendelsohn, Rose Byrne, Mahershala Ali, Bruce Greenwood, Harris Yulin, Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen
Screenplay by Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder

Is there a difference between this guy and Elaine's bf?
Is there a difference between this guy and Elaine’s bf?

There is a scene early in The Place Beyond the Pines in which Luke is told by the grandmother of a child he never knew that he introduces that child, named Jason, to him.  She asks Luke if he would like to hold the little boy.  Immediately, Luke begins to rub his hands together, as if trying – unsuccessfully – to clean the essence of his own filthy past off of himself.  As if trying to prevent staining the boy with the sins of his father.  This is a particularly effective moment representative of the tenderness that Gosling is capable of displaying, when he isn’t looking off into the distance, like Elaine’s boyfriend on Seinfeld, when he hears Desperado.

Gosling plays the same guy in just about every movie, and this one is not an exception.  His brooding, overly tattooed guy from the wrong side of the tracks has the grime of bad decisions all over him.  He is so supercharged to be a bad guy that he even out scums another notorious bad guy Mendelsohn by a long ways.  And no one in the acting world can out brood Gosling.

Thankfully, Gosling has a limited role in the film as he provides an opportunity for the doe eyed Cooper, playing young cop Avery Cross, to become the hero for the middle part of the film.  His role is a new one for Cooper, and that is refreshing.  Cooper has done a lot of comedy, but was spectacular in Silver Linings Playbook.  Seeing the movie take such a different pace works as somewhat of a passing of the story baton.  Cooper does a good job portraying the shock one might go through in the worst experience an officer could live through.  But seeing him work with his father (played with guile by Yulin) and turn that innocence into an upward spiral is nice.

Then Liotta’s Peter Deluca enters the picture, with all the pomp and ridiculous corruption he is wonderfully capable of.  His grist is fun to watch.  He is anything but smooth, but he is effective.  It’s like his best performances.  He’s a wise guy with a hint of brutality.  It’s a crime that he is not in more of the film.

The last installment of the film takes the characters of Luke’s son, Jason (DeHaan) and Avery’s son A.J. (Cohen) as they find themselves stilted in growth in High School.  Their short friendship is interrupted by a drug bust.  Avery Cross intervenes, trying to keep the two separated.  If that was successful there would have been no film, so we get to see the inevitable clash.

DeHaan is a talented actor who’s been great in films like Lawless and Chronicle.  The scenes he shares with first Ali, and then Mendelsohn are the best moments of the film.  He’s like a young DiCaprio, circa What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? It will be interesting to see what he turns out like in his career.  He’s already passed Gosling for range, even if he doesn’t have the looks.

She's beautiful and has quite a range
She’s beautiful and has quite a range

Speaking of beauty, Mendes has long been one of the most beautiful women in movies.  She has shows some impressive range in the film, looking believable as a young woman and even more convincingly mature, while possessing the growth of one that has been wounded by her circumstance, but smart enough to move on, after finding the right one (Ali).  One can never get enough of a beautiful actress who knows how to age gracefully.

The Place Beyond the Pines is not the epic that it wants to be.  It is not a failure.  There is no real clear message to the film.  It is, rather, a bunch of stuff that happens, and some occasional coincidences.  It is a good story decently told.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Star Trek Into Darkness: Going where they’ve gone before

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Star Trek Into Darkness – 2013

Director J.J. Abrams
Starring Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Benedict Cumberbatch, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Alice Eve, Peter Weller, Noel Clarke, Nazneen Contractor
Screenplay by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof

One of my favorite aspects to the Star Trek reboot (my very first review on this site) was the fearlessness with which they shed the mortal coil of the original timeline and gave themselves a brand new start with a thin, but strong connection to the past.  They even had the temerity to destroy the planet Vulcan.  Talk about no going back.  The end of the first film has the Star Fleet pretty much decimated, but The Enterprise still in one piece.  They should be the flagship for new adventures.

Frustratingly, Star Trek Into Darkness ignores these advantages and pretty much leaves The Enterprise hobbled to what lingers in the past.  We see what seems to be a mission of an undiscovered planet which is improbably undertaken.  Employing useless subterfuge, the crew is left with no option but to violate the prime directive.  There is a bunch of exposition that makes it seem like these were the only options, but, come on, it’s Star Trek.  Beaming should and could solve most things.  The Enterprise did look cool coming out of the ocean, however.

Who's the hot chick?  Not sure.  Let's let her on board to do Spock's job.  Okay.
Who’s the hot chick? Not sure. Let’s let her on board to do Spock’s job. Okay.

Back at Star Fleet HQ, we see Admiral Pike browbeating and then demoting Kirk, only to give him a chance back on The Enterprise before you realize it has happened.  This is just the first plot contrivance, so hang on.  Within a couple of shakes, we have Scotty kicked off the ship, a blonde bombshell “science officer” who checks in as okay with the two highest ranking members of the crew to board, and finally The Enterprise broken down in Klingon space.  After a purely expository fight with just enough Klingons to kill without starting a war, a clearly superior bad guy gives himself up after hearing some very specific information about the weapons on board Kirk’s ship.  Then, once the stowaway is revealed, they put her in charge, along with Bones, of seeing what those bombs are made of.  Sounds logical.

Too much talking, not enough thinking
Too much talking, not enough thinking

Speaking of logic, we find Spock battling with his desires even more this time around, and it’s not entirely clear why.  He seemed pretty well centered at the end of the last film.  More debate on the good of the one versus the good of the many ensues.  Haven’t they covered this stuff before?  Although I really don’t want to fault Quinto for it.  His Spock is certainly entertaining, even as a whirling dervish of emotion who keeps trying to ignore his human half.  The original is still better, but applaud Quinto’s effort.

Pine works the hell out of Kirk this time around.  He puts everything he’s got into it it.  He looks foolish a lot of the time, but given the road map to his character is Shatner, its still an upgrade.  The only thing he lacks that Shatner eventually mastered was subtlety.  As the Vulcans say: “…only Nixon could go to China.”  He will get there too.  In the meantime, he provides the pulse of the story, and because he believes this stuff, no matter how preposterous, we kind of do, too.

Bones is still magnificent.  He’s around mainly to throw one liners into the ether.  He does this as well as DeForest Kelley ever did.  He also manages to show the compassion that we so expect from the cantankerous Doc.  Urban is one of the better character actors of our time.  Its a shame we won’t see him in RED 2.

Saldona’s Uhura is the biggest single change between the two timelines.  This time around, we don’t have to worry about the shame of kissing a black woman on-screen (like there could ever be any shame in kissing Saldona), so they’ve gone inter-special and let ‘er rip.  The fight between her and Spock makes as much sense as anything in this plot, and taking her on these away missions doesn’t really detract anything, because she portrays herself so intelligently.   I would not mind her in a fight, even if I am not crazy about the Captain and Spock going on the same away missions.

Scotty and Sulu have their moments of solid ingenuity and bravery, even if the former’s happenstance is riddled with coincidence.  Sulu as third in command gives credence to both Cho and his predecessor George Takei’s confidence as an eventual leader.  Nicholas Pegg’s Scotty is such an inspired character, he feels underused no matter how much screen time they give him.

Chekov, however, is a mess.  Yelchin does what he can, but the way Kirk throws his character around in this one lends no credence to either the Captain nor the young Ensign.  The only possible explanation for promoting an Ensign to Chief Engineer over, say, the second engineer in charge, is for screen time.  Just because one studies something over the summer does not mean they should be placed in charge.  Well, unless that person is Tony Stark.

Cumberbatch does as much as he can with a role that is cornered by the past.  He may have been even more interesting if they had not chained him down with clever twists and instead given him more of an unleashed feel.  As soon as one knows who John Harrison is, though, they are no longer wondering what will happen.  They know what has to happen and hope that the film makers will be clever enough to avoid retracing better, more original steps.

They sure know how to show off a Starship
They sure know how to show off a Starship

Having Spock scream, however, was the worst.  It gives one pause when they realize that Abrams said he was not a Trekkie when he took the reigns of the franchise.  It’s not enough that they had him do it, but they really had not given him a precedent for why he would do it.  If he did not do it when his planet was destroyed, why now?

Of course the viewer would love to scream at this point.  We’ve seen enough apparently useless information spewed forth to realize what our smart, logical Vulcan is not allowed to realize, and the result is cheapening.  It cheapens the sacrifices, the reactions and the chase.  Why would one go after a man, when they have what he wants?  Even more, he’s already given up once for it.

All of this takes away from a movie that is still quite entertaining.  Even though our characters are abused by coincidence and irony more than in any Thomas Hardy novel, they still are good at what they do.  They are not aping the behavior of their counterparts.  They are living it.  The visual effects are astounding, unsurpassed by any Trek film and on par with Star Wars.

What are we left with?  Is the visual feast and the camaraderie enough to override the silly plot that is too clever for is own good?  Why the heck are we treading over familiar ground, with these twists, when the last film set us up to beat out-of-town and go for broke?  The work of Abrams, Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof has been subject to criticism before, but this time it feels like they played it a bit safe.  They made the characters work really hard to ignore the obvious to do it.  There is a lot of talk at various points about The Enterprise being selected for the “five-year mission.”  Silly me, I thought they had already taken off.  Seems like they were stuck in port all along.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Flight just begs “For Your Consideration”

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Flight – 2012

Director Robert Zmeckis
Starring  Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Melissa Leo, Kelly Reilly, Bruce Greenwood
Screenplay John Gatnis

Look who's flying by...
Look who’s flying by…

There is a pall hanging over every scene of Flight.  Two stories are told.  One is that of William “Whip” Whitaker, an Airline pilot who has copious amounts of booze, coke and sex (with one of the stewardesses).  The other is a more humble Nicole, a photographer whose world fell apart when her mother died of cancer, and through an addiction to heroin ends up overdosed.  As she is being carted out of her apartment by the medics, Captain Whitaker’s plane flies overhead.  Only it’s upside down.

The plane crashes, but it’s due to Whip’s amazing presence of his impaired mind that allows almost all the passengers to survive.  Whip ends up in the same hospital as Nicole.  They meet in the stairwell while sneaking from their two rooms for a smoke.  Their smoke leads to a relationship that is less fire than smoldering embers.  It is fueled and hampered by their state.

Temptation
Temptation

She wants to get better, and can anonymously afford to do so.  He is mired in the potential for litigation and jail time.  He has several people on his side, wanting for him to evade responsibility.  The Lawyer for the Airline Hugh Lang (Cheadle) comes forward with a toxicology report that shows the truth, and that is just the beginning.    His friend and former copilot Charlie (Greenwood) provides another voice of support that is pretty much ignored by the still using Whip.  Even Nicole tries to get him to commit to AA.  He stubbornly refuses to change, even after it’s too late.

John Goodman plays Harling Mays, his dealer and seeming chemical magician.  His works are a little hard to understand, but a welcome relief in a film so otherwise unrelentingly dreary.

Washington’s performance is somewhat of an enigma.  We see him move from functional addict to completely miserable louse who is trying to gather his life together.  He is a master of his craft at this point.  When Gatnis’ script and Zmeckis’ direction applies pressure that would smother many other actors, he gives a solid performance that keeps the story interesting.  It is doubtful that this movie could have done nearly as well without him.

Zmeckis has been down this way before, in terms of tone.  After a career of light-hearted comedies, he scored big time with Forrest Gump and then all of a sudden turned heavy.  Films like Contact, What Lies Beneath and especially Cast Away were all weighted down with heavy themes and oppression.   After an experiment with creepy animation in Beowulf, The Holiday Express and A Christmas Carol, this is his return to live acting.  Like the airplane, it lands, with most of the overwrought but competent story in tact.  But oh, what a sequence that plane crash is.  It just stays grounded after that.

Zmeckis and Washington wring several good performances, especially from Reilly, Cheadle and Tamara Tunie, who plays stewardess and crash survivor Margaret Thomason.  The movie is good, but not great.  It’s just what one would expect in Oscar season, but Washington is the only one who deserves the consideration.

(***1/2 out of *****)