My Victorian-fiction professor once told me that any work, highbrow or low, can rightly be subjected to serious criticism and review. Of course, he hadn’t seen Kingsman: The Golden Circle. This is a film whose success should be measured not in stiff-collared discourse about heteronormative allegory or in spelunking for meaning in its meandering plot, but on a giant, rainbow-lit wacky-meter.
Put somewhat differently: Citizen Kane it’s not, but The Golden Circle sure aims straight for the rosebud.
The sequel to 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, Golden Circle returns to its predecessor’s proven formula of swagger, wire stunts, lifestyle branding, and ultra-violence. (If you liked the first one, you ought to like this; but do see it first, as ping-backs come fast here.)
This time around, when the Kingsman HQ, shop, and most of its agents are obliterated in Act One, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong) seek the help of “Statesman,” Kingsman’s American equivalent. Cue the cowboy hats, lassos, molasses drawls, and bourbon, and trot out Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, and Pedro Pascal. Then marvel as do-no-wrong director Matthew Vaughn expertly molds his Savile Row spy tropes around hokey Kentucky charm. The whole thing’s a total hoot.
Before long, Kingsman & Statesman join forces to pursue another wild and hyperbolic villain, this one played not by Academy Award nominee Samuel L. Jackson but by Academy Award Winner Julianne Moore. I’ll leave her character’s More >
Birth of the Dragon weaves a strange, anachronistic, and ultimately limp story around a one-off 1960s fight between young Bruce Lee, who was at the time teaching Kung Fu to locals in San Francisco, and the perfectly-named Wong Jack Man, an unflappable papaya-robed Shaolin master. While this battle of titans, we’re told, actually happened, I’d wager that the rest of this movie most certainly did not.
Which is probably a good thing. Besides struggling under a decidedly direct-to-streaming feel, Birth of the Dragon curiously paints its alleged hero — the legendary Lee, played by Philip Wan-Lung Ng — as a self-important and preening side-note, a two-dimensional braggart whose main contribution is teasing his students and brooding in a just-so little clapboard office about how best to display his greatness. Lee himself may actually have been this way for all I know, but even so he probably deserved to at least play the leading role in what’s ostensibly his own picture.
Alas, he’s relegated to the sidelines in favor of Billy Magnussen — you’ll remember his brief stint as one of the bro-tastic mortgage brokers in The Big Short — who plays Steve McKee, one of Lee’s students. McKee improbably makes friends with Wong Jack Man, the swift-kicking monk who’s visiting Fog City to wash dishes (stay with me), and even more improbably wanders into a Westworld-worthy meet cute with a comely Chinese waitress, Xiulan Quan (Qu Jingjing). She’s captive, a work-slave to evil Chinatown masters More >
Through experience, a true aikido master pares his movements to the bare minimum, doing just enough to twist and deflect an assailant. It’s mesmerizing to watch such efficiency in action — the lightest touch deals a devastating result. That’s Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.
Faithfully depicting a real military event — the stranding and largely extemporaneous civilian-assisted rescue of some 400,000 allied troops from the French shores in the early months of the Second World War — Dunkirk is split into three stories: One, told from the perspective of troops on the beach, unfolds over a week. Another follows the civilian boats that sailed to effect their rescue, and is told over the period of one day. The third takes place in a single hour, featuring a group of Spitfires waging war in the air. These overlapping stories criss-cross, so the same events unfold at different times and from different perspectives. It’s a clever and effective way to draw in the full scope of the events, without cramming the soldiers’ multi-day ordeal into the span, say, of a single tank of fuel.
Dunkirk is a war movie stripped bare of context and politics, focusing from its first frame on the utter immediacy of conflict. Nolan keeps the cameras close in on his characters; we join them on the beach, at sea, and in the air. It’s More >
Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is about as jumbled and overstuffed as its title makes it sound, and it’s a real shame that Luc Besson’s baldfaced attempt to recapture the quirky, super-saturated essence of probably his best and certainly his trippiest film (The Fifth Element) collapses into a heaving, straining mess of dialogue best suited for a middle school play with a story to match even though the aliens are so quirky and shiny and very different looking and it’s in SPACE with lasers and star destroyers and the space weapons make noise which they of course wouldn’t do and there are stern-faced commanders in galactic uniforms and — oh look, another alien!
Boy, that was painful and I’m sorry to have written it. (Interestingly, this is also what Luc Besson said when he finished the script.) But swaddle that run-on opening in high-dollar CGI and you’ve pretty much got this movie.
Valerian tells the story of one Major Valerian — a hopelessly miscast Dane DeHaan, whose pasty emo loping does not sit well with the role of galactic federal super-agent — and his headstrong, quippy partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevigne). From their very first scene together we’re battered with shockingly unsubtle dialog that sets forth in no uncertain terms Valerian’s sole apparent motivation in this world: The dogged romantic pursuit of his partner and rank subordinate. (To the grand dismay of women and compliance officers everywhere, Laureline does not immediately report him to More >
After last year’s double throat-punch to hero films — the rambling Suicide Squad, and the interminable and downright dismal Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice — the DC franchise was pretty much on life support. As the premiere date for Wonder Woman drew near, the usual promo engine was strangely silent, chugging out posters and ad spots at a rate better suited to a subtitled art-house pic. None of this seemed promising. Fool me once, shame on DC; fool me twice? Well, I will say that going into Wonder Woman, I didn’t expect much.
And I hope you don’t either, because that’s the best way to see Wonder Woman: a brilliant hero picture that clambers atop its hokey source material to deliver a stunning aria to old-fashioned heroes, 2017 style.
This triumph is due in chief to two women: Director Patty Jenkins (whose main prior film credit is Monster, 14 years ago) and Israeli bombshell Gal Gadot (who cut her teeth with supporting roles in three Fast and Furious films while doing her level best to elevate some pretty lousy comedies). More on Gadot shortly.
I’ve waited until the fourth paragraph to tell you this is essentially a movie about an Amazon princess from a mythical island of beauties who ventures out into Europe during the First World War. Because that sounds silly. And it is. But it’s so well done, and has so much heart, that even the thick-necked tough guy beside me whose main love in life is a seatbelt extender (I reckon) was sniffling through act three.
To hell with More >
You may not know that the original Baywatch TV series was canned after just one season on NBC. It wasn’t until its reanimation in 1991 for first-run syndication (executive produced by David Hasselhoff) that this show-zombie became a worldwide sensation. That makes it sort of the self-published surprise-smash novel of its time. Fifty Shades of Bay.
And Baywatch was never a particularly good show, but it sure did scratch a decade-plus global itch for hot bodies in red onesies jogging along the Coppertone-drizzled beaches of L.A. county. Our needs, it turns out, are basic.
And that’s really all this reboot had to do. Cast the Rock? Gravy. Make it a comedy, with a deep-R rating? Bonus. Spin some fanciful crime-lite plot? If you like. But give us the beauties on the beach, and if ever you falter, give us those beauties again. It’s so easy: Any time this film threatened to skip the rails, all director Seth Gordon had to do was shout that safe-word and show us some flesh. Boobs and abs shall be your guardrails, your training wheels, your guiding light home at night. Thus spake the Hoff.
So it’s hard to grasp how something so dead-brained simple has gone and gotten itself so thoroughly botched. It’s a true shame to take a film so promising in its own fleshy way — one shamelessly showcasing for its first fifteen glorious minutes the superhero bodies of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Zac Efron, Alexandra Daddario, Kelly Rohrbach, and Ilfenesh Hadera — and so promptly devolve it into an More >
I doubt anyone could confidently have foretold the runaway success of Marvel’s original Guardians of the Galaxy. When it opened in summer 2014, I had never once heard of its characters; moreover, talking raccoons and pleasing filmgoing, in my experience, rarely co-localized. But the raccoon Spoke, and It Was Good. Actually really good.
It also made lots of money, so it’s no surprise what happened next. Marvel is the glowing crucible where dollars and follow-ups are forged. I know of no entity that can so reliably cultivate any and every celluloid success, spawning from each seed a thick and verdant bed of sequels and spinoffs. So now, three years later and as it must, comes Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Expectations run high, and the question is whether writer/director James Gunn (returning once more here) can deliver.
He does. Volume 2 is at least as funny, and has even more heart, than the first. The visuals are stunning, the banter is easy, the laughs are solid. The characters feel lived in, each one gets plenty of screen time, and Baby Groot is just as terrific as the many trailers suggest. (Though Vin Diesel is again credited, the gravel-voiced actor’s relation to this miniature CGI walking tree now seems tenuous at best.) The plot is a bit shallow and resorts once more to the old Marvel playbook, generating some new universe-menacing threat that somehow no prior hero has yet encountered. In positive news, though, it does have Kurt Russell. And some legitimately More >
(1) My former girlfriend’s terrier once ate a giant marzipan bar of mine, nearly her same damn size. We came back from the ski hill and this little dog was slouching around with a rock-hard belly, packed thick with almond paste. A man of science, I was truly shocked she fit it all in. Another friend’s dog got into a massive birthday cake and ate the entire thing in minutes.
(2) I love Luxardo cherries. They’re the best. If a bartender puts one in a drink, I’ll petition for more and more. One time, a particularly hospitable barkeep thought she’d catch me crying wolf, and put about thirty in my drink. I ate every single one, feeling justifiably like Homer in the Ironic Punishment Division.
Why do I say these things? Well, some folks prefer balance. They like a little taste of something sweet after a wholesome meal. They don’t want an entire marzipan bar the size of their whole body and nothing else. They don’t want to eat just cake. They don’t want thirty liquor-steeped cherries in a Collins glass.
They won’t like this movie.
This movie is a sugar rush. It’s like someone sucked the marrow and substance out of every good action movie, then distilled whatever was left into a sticky sweet syrup of hero cars and CGI and nuclear threats and explosions and punchlines. It’s a thick quilt of shiny bits swaddling the most infantile and preposterous scaffold of story. There’s nothing to it but flash.
I liked it.
Sure, any old joe could sit down in my special Haus chair and More >
Before we talk about what T2 Trainspotting is, let’s be clear on what it’s not: namely, the Trainspotting for a new generation. It couldn’t be, anyway, with its heavy dependence on backstory, with most of its protagonists now pushing 50, and with what once shocked our innocent pre-Google moviegoing minds no longer even moving the needle.
No, T2 is a nostalgia film, through and through. If you saw the first one in the theater, and have since orbited the sun twenty damn times and want very much to have your nose rubbed in that fact, then you’re pretty much the target audience and you’ll find this a sharp and welcome vein-shot from memory lane. If you’ve never seen the first, this installment will probably make no sense at all.
That doesn’t mean, mind you, that you need to have seen it lately. I confess I felt unprepared walking into this movie. While I did see Trainspotting in the theater in ’96, and have seen it at least a couple times since, it’s been well over a decade and the story wasn’t exactly fresh in my mind. But director Danny Boyle must’ve seen this coming, because he sprinkles helpful refreshers throughout. He also liberally injects clips from the first film, typically using old locations as a trigger to overlay some original footage. Reminiscent of CHiPs ’99? Sure, but that’s a reference for a level-fourteen battlemage of B-rate movies (or a reader of my last review).
“Never meet your heroes,” they say, and to this I would add, “be careful with movies you liked as a kid.” Sure, some do age well (Ghostbusters, Robocop, Top Gun), but you’ll find others strangely peppered with stop-and-blink slurs (The Breakfast Club) or just plain hilariously bad today (Rambo: First Blood Part II, or Stallone’s Cobra come to mind). I say that to say this: There’s a reason why classic cop-dramas remade as movies tend so heavily toward comedy. (Think 21 Jump Street, The A-Team, Dragnet, Starsky and Hutch; Miami Vice and S.W.A.T. are about the only two I can think of that played it straight — I blame Colin Farrell.) It’s because redoing an old favorite how it actually was might not play too well today.
So I get why Dax Shepard (who wrote, directed, and stars in CHiPs) tried to turn this early-80s treasure into something R-rated and racy. I get why he cast Michael Pena as Ponch and himself as Jon. I even get why he aimed for a semi-self-aware, kinda-woke-but-also-raunchy angle.
What I don’t get is why what should have been the milk run of remakes fails so hard.
First and most troubling, CHiPs isn’t very funny. While paced as though it’s skipping from punchline to punchline, so many of these fall flat that it plays more like a weird, reverso drama. And for an R-rated comedy, a surprising majority of the would-be funny stuff is cognitively available to a middle schooler (though I’d wager his dick jokes are better).