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Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Vaughn’

I almost get the sense that 2020 is a moment the world got stuck in and can’t get out of: in some respects, at least. The much-feted reopening of cinemas doesn’t seem to amounted to very much at all, with Tenet only having made about $36 million at the US box office after several weeks of release, cinemas are still closed in some major cities. (Yes, a paltry sum indeed – I should like to say, for the benefit of any moguls reading this, that if they would like to give me a lump sum, a mere 10% of Tenet‘s American take, I will happily never say a bad word about a James Corden-starring movie ever again. Everyone has their price, even if it’s a mere three and a half million dollars.)

As you’ve probably read, the studios have taken fright at this and suspended the release of any other substantial movies – the kind that the average cinema relies upon to earn its crust. People aren’t going to the cinema, so new films aren’t being released, so people aren’t going to the cinema even more. It’s hard to see where this will stop. The art house in Oxford closes again as of Friday, while the big commercial cinema is down to a three-day-week from the same point.

The bellwether in all of this certainly looks like the decision to postpone the release of No Time to Die from November this year until early spring of next. (I don’t believe in this notion of ‘cursed films’, but given all the travails this one has suffered, from losing Danny Boyle onwards, I’m almost inclined to declare an open mind where Bond 25 is concerned.) Eon have taken some stick for what unsympathetic commentators have decried as an act of cowardice, but I’m not sure I can bring myself to be quite so critical: the Bond movies are their main source of income, after all, and it’s in their interest to try to ensure both the films themselves and the manner in which they are released are as good as they can manage.

I’ve been musing on all things Bond-related recently, for a number of unconnected reasons, and this led me to (finally) watch Matthew Vaughn’s 2004 film Layer Cake, a film which has certainly ended up in the orbit of the Bond franchise, even if this wasn’t the intention at the time: back when it was new, everyone’s point of reference was Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and the plethora of mostly underwhelming knock-off lairy gangster movies it went on to spawn.

The title of the film, lest you be wondering, is a metaphor for the hierarchy of the criminal underworld, which is the milieu in which almost all of it takes place. Daniel Craig plays an ambitious young professional – his name is never revealed – whose industry of choice is the drugs trade. He is. very pointedly, not a gangster – he is a goal-oriented businessman, with a plan to make his money and then retire. It seems like he knows all the angles and has the firmest of grips on what’s happening around him.

(Not entirely surprisingly, the film seems to have no moral qualms about depicting drug dealers, and indeed narcotics themselves, in a moderately sympathetic light – one of the few times Craig sounds morally outraged is when musing on the fact that, if convicted, he’d do more time inside than a rapist, the implication being that drug pushing is a trivial offence compared to sexual assault. Hmmm, well. It certainly seems of a piece with the non-judgemental view of drug users from the second Kingsman film, also directed by Vaughn.)

All this changes for the Craig character, however, when senior gangster Jimmy Price (Kenneth Cranham) puts the brakes on his plans to retire – at least until he’s done a couple of jobs for him. One of them is finding the errant young daughter of Eddie Temple (Michael Gambon), another businessman with a portfolio which is not 100% legal, the other is handling the disposition of a huge quantity of Ecstasy which a gang of small time criminals – these guys are basically idiots – have nicked from a gang of Serbians.

Craig protests it’s not really in his line, but Price is insistent: but things proceed to get worse and worse. It turns out there is more to the missing young woman than initially meets the eye: murky gangland politics are involved. It turns out that the Serbians, meanwhile, think Craig is responsible for the theft of their drugs – due to one of the gang of idiots shooting his mouth off – and have dispatched an assassin noted for the savagery of his methods to retrieve them. It’s almost enough to make a serious-minded professional contemplate violence…

I must confess to a bit of a dislike of the laddish gangster movie as inaugurated by Guy Ritchie, even though I’ve only seen one of Ritchie’s movies which qualifies as such – 2005’s baffling Revolver. It’s probably because of my exposure to all those knock-offs, some of which I have had the misfortune to see: 51st State, Love, Honour and Obey, and Rancid Aluminium (supposedly the worst film ever made in the UK: given this list necessarily includes titles like Sex Lives of the Potato Men and Peter Rabbit, the mind boggles as it has seldom done before).

I suppose my dislike really stems from that very laddishness of the films – a sort of crass hetero-normativity, coupled to amorality and the idea that violence and criminality is inherently funny. One point in Layer Cake‘s favour is that much of this is dialled down to the extent that it is simply background noise – although it almost goes without saying that this is still a very blokey film: Sienna Miller plays Craig’s love interest, and is almost wholly decorative, while Sally Hawkins plays ‘Slasher’, one of the gang of idiots. Nevertheless, the film does handle its subject matter and the consequences (mostly) thoughtfully – the nature of the drugs trade isn’t dwelt upon, but at one point Craig realises that the only way to avoid a lengthy prison term and the loss of all he’s acquired is to kill a man in cold blood, and the corrosive effect of this, and its aftermath, are considered and depicted at some length.

There’s something very familiar about this bit, in particular, especially nowadays: the dead, icy look appearing in Craig’s eyes as he accepts he has crossed a line and can never go back. If Layer Cake is remembered for one thing, it’s as the film that swung Craig the role of Bond, and you can see why – he looks good, handles the violence and the womanising equally well, and also can clearly bring the extra level of humanity to the part that Eon were looking for at the time. Yet it is a different character, less of a rogue than Bond, more cerebral – to begin with at least. (Interest for Bond-followers in the film may be added by the presence of Michael Gambon, who turned down the role in 1971, not to mention Craig’s several scenes with Ben Whishaw, while we can only hope that the presence of a young Tom Hardy in a small role is a portent of future pub-quiz questions to come.)

Craig is very good as a man who’s forced to get his hands dirty and come to terms with the fact that, when it comes to criminal politics, being the smartest man in the room isn’t always enough to get results. This is the script’s main thesis, which it puts across well enough – though a lot of it is the usual gangster nonsense, presented fairly stylishly. The rest of the performances are also rather good – Colm Meaney is also in the gang, as is George Harris, while Gambon is genuinely frightening as the senior man on the scene.

In the end I would say this was a good film rather than a truly great one – good performances and ideas are not quite elaborated upon enough in the script, and it does still fall into a few of the typical post-Ritchie potholes. Nevertheless, this is a superior, tough thriller, which deserves to be remembered on its own merits rather than as an extended audition piece for its star’s most famous job.

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I’m the last person to say that dollar value should be the sole measure of something’s worth, but at the same time it is always interesting to learn something new about this sort of thing. I’ve been knocking out this sort of cobblers on the internet for over fifteen years now, on and off, and yet it had never really occurred to me to find out if my opinion is really of any significance. Then along came along news of Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle, a sequel to Kingsman: The Secret Service, from a couple of years ago. Now, after the first one, I would probably have said, if asked, ‘That was okay, but no more, please.’ The hefty box office return of the movie clearly said something different. And so they made the sequel. So there you go: my considered opinion about a movie’s quality is obviously worth less than $414 million. Hey, you know, chin up; life goes on.

And so, clearly, does the Kingsman franchise, based on a comic book by Mark Millar (who once read my palm in a London nightclub and got it spectacularly wrong in every detail), directed by Vaughn, and co-written by the director and Jane Goldman. This time there is added swagger, a rather bigger budget, and a longer running time – two hours twenty minutes?! Well, you do kind of feel every minute while you’re watching it, to be perfectly honest.

The representatives of the actors involved have clearly had some fun with this one, for supposed leading man and protagonist Taron Egerton is actually third billed. Nevertheless, it’s all about his character Eggsy (I think I heard other characters calling him ‘Eggy’ in a couple of places), and as the film gets underway he is balancing the thrilling life of an agent of Kingsman (an ‘independent intelligence agency’, whatever one of those is), with hanging out with his mates from the housing estate and his girlfriend (Hanna Alstrom, two dots over the O), who is the daughter of the King of Sweden. As you do.

All this changes when the Kingsman organisation comes under attack from forces in the employ of deranged international criminal mastermind Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore, second-billed), and Eggsy and his tech-support chap Merlin (Mark Strong) are forced to go on the run as the rest of the organisation is destroyed. Emergency procedures lead them to Kentucky in the USA, where they join forces with (sigh) another ‘independent intelligence agency’, Statesman, who seem to be a bunch of slightly boozed-up cowboys.

It is all to do with Poppy’s plan to get some serious respect for her international criminal activities, the details of which would probably constitute a spoiler. The safety of millions hangs in the balance, so it’s just as well that the Statesman people have got Eggsy’s old mentor Harry (Colin Firth, still top-billed) in their cellar, despite the fact he was shot through the face in the last film. As a result he has an eye-patch, Movie Amnesia, and a slight tendency to hallucinate, but is otherwise okay. Can Kingsman and Statesman come together to save the day?

I know a lot of people who really, really liked the first Kingsman film; liked it considerably more than me. I suspect the same will probably be true when it comes to Golden Circle. Maybe it’s just an age or an outlook thing. It’s not that I think these films are actively bad – Vaughn is an inventive and capable director, and the new one is stuffed with cameos from very capable and charismatic actors – Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Keith Allen, Emily Watson, Michael Gambon, and many others. And the frequent action sequences are imaginative and lavish – the film plays the Bond-pastiche card extremely well. It’s almost a bit unfair to call it a Bond pastiche, to be honest, as – at its best – Golden Circle has a scale and a sense of light-hearted fun that the actual Bond films have been missing for many years now.

The thing is that the Bond-pastiche element is only a small part of the Kingsman concoction. What this film is really about is a combination of absurdly OTT spy-fi action with equally absurdly knowing comedy. No-one could take this film seriously as a thriller, which in itself is not necessarily a bad thing – you could say the same about, yes, any James Bond film. It’s okay to make a movie which is just a slightly cheesy bit of fluff.

Yet there’s more than this going on – a weird tonal inconsistency, coupled to a fixation with appearing to be cool and transgressive. Near the start, there is a comedic sequence in which Eggsy is taken for dinner with the King of Sweden, but also a scene in which Polly serves up a burger made from human flesh. Elton John (pretty much playing himself), wearing a costume seemingly entirely made of ostrich feathers, drop-kicks a goon in the head with his platform shoes while grinning at the camera, while a few minutes later there’s a moment where Eggsy makes a mawkish speech about honour and justice before cold-bloodedly executing a defenceless enemy. Egerton has said that some elements of the film are mainly intended to shock – he was specifically referring to a sex scene in which he plants a tracker on a woman in a manner surely unprecedented in the annals of cinema, but there are many others conceived with the same purpose, I’m sure. The whole thing just doesn’t gel.

For me, one of the most telling things about the film is its energetic amorality – all the speeches about ‘justice’ and so on strike a rather sentimental note, rather than having any force to them. The implication of the film is not just that millions of people are using illegal recreational drugs, but that this is no big deal and nothing to get particularly exercised about. The only character who takes any kind of explicit moral position about this is the US President (played by Bruce Greenwood), and he is depicted as a self-serving, callous hypocrite.

But, hey, maybe total amorality, bad-taste humour and F-bombs by the dozen are where the kids are at these days. I enjoyed the action sequences in Golden Circle a lot, and there are some admittedly very funny moments (many of them courtesy of a game, vanity-free turn from Elton John). Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling like I was watching a film that wasn’t just aimed at teenagers with questionable judgement, but made by them too. Then again, I’m just an old git whose opinion doesn’t count for much anyway. No doubt this will be a big hit and another one will be along in a couple of years to discomfit me all over again.

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If I didn’t know better, I would say that the international custom of day-and-date releasing – the system whereby films appear on the same date worldwide – had been abolished, for not only is the UK enjoying Alex Garland’s Ex Machina several months before its US debut, but we have also been treated to Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service a couple of weeks before its American premiere. I’ve no idea why we have been granted such a signal honour, given that this is clearly intended to be a major movie: could it simply be the result of most of the principals involved being British themselves? I don’t know.

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Vaughn directs and co-writes with Jane Goldman, based on a graphic novel scripted by Mark Millar, and prominent among the cast is (hardest working man in showbusiness) Mark Strong. If you feel a faint bell dingling somewhere in your cortical region, it may well be because all these people were also connected with 2010’s Kick-Ass, a lairy and rambunctious take on the superhero genre. Kingsman has the same sort of style and attitude, even if its subject matter is different.

The protagonist is Eggsy (Taron Egerton – yes, that really is his name, apparently), who is, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a lowlife, living on a London council estate and passing his time squabbling with his thuggish stepfather and doing a little petty crime. (His real father died while serving in the armed forces, when he was but a tot.) Finding himself up on charges, he calls in a favour and is rescued by Harry Hart (Colin Firth), an old comrade of his father, and member of an ultra-sophisticated, ultra-discreet, independent intelligence agency, known as the Kingsmen.

As it happens, a Kingsman mission to rescue kidnapped scientist Professor Arnold (a barely-recognisable Mark Hamill, who was apparently at one point scheduled to be playing himself) has gone terminally bad, leaving a hole in the ranks of the organisation, and Hart puts Eggsy up for the selection process before heading off to investigate. The trail leads to internet billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson), who has an evil scheme on the go. Will Eggsy be able to satisfy training boffin Merlin (Strong) and his snobby superior Arthur (Sir Michael Caine, Gawd bless you sir), and join the Kingsmen as they take on Valentine and his henchmen?

With the Bond movies currently locked into ultra-serious mode, there is obviously a gap in the market for a big, daft, crowd-pleasing spy action movie, and I rather suspect Kingsman would like to be it. Certainly, it is stuffed with references, subtle and not so subtle, to classic spy and spy-fi offerings from years gone by: the front for the Kingsman organisation is a tailor’s shop, just like that of UNCLE, while a casual mention of a phone with a shoe in it appears to be a nod to Get Smart. Firth’s performance as a very British superspy, fighting the fight from a mews flat, umbrella in hand, seems to me to be very clearly informed by Patrick Macnee’s John Steed in The Avengers. But, above all, there are the classic Bond films from the 1960s.

There is an excruciatingly knowing sequence in which Firth and Jackson have a pleasant dinner together and discuss how serious and dull the modern spy movie has become, and how much they both enjoyed the old sort, with wacky gadgets and insane supervillains. This is clearly the territory Kingsman is looking to occupy, and there are trick umbrellas, exploding cigarette lighters, and frankly implausible schemes aplenty before the film is out. And yet the film seems reluctant to completely relax and be a simple pastiche of the genre. A repeated line is ‘This ain’t that kind of movie’, which is invariably delivered before one of those genre tropes is subverted.

This for me is the main thing stopping Kingsman from being the piece of jolly, breezy entertainment it clearly wants to be. Half the time it wants to be an old-school spy-fi romp, the rest of the time it insists on undermining and subverting that very genre, usually in way that seems calculatedly transgressive or openly absurd. By the end, proceedings have extended to include international carnage, sex-crazed Scandinavian royalty, a bevy of exploding heads (including, we are invited to assume, those of the entire British Royal Family), and the end of the world occurring to a disco soundtrack, and the sense that this is on some level intended as a bizarre spoof is hard to shake. Yet elsewhere the film is clearly aspiring to moments of genuine gravity and emotion. As a result, it all ultimately feels rather insincere, guided only the script’s instinct for the excessive and outlandish.

I could go on to talk about the film’s colossal inverted snobbery (Eggsy finds himself competing against worthless public schoolboys with names like Digby, Rufus and Hugo for his Kingsman place), cheerful amorality, bafflingly graphic violence, or indeed Taron Egerton’s fairly indifferent performance (I’m struggling to avoid using the word ‘smug’), but I think you get the idea. All in all it’s a bit of a shame, as there are individual moments where Kingsman shows the potential to be every bit as much fun as its premise suggested: needless to say, Michael Caine does exactly what the script requires of him with great aplomb, while Colin Firth shows a very new side to himself in a couple of action sequences (there’s one extraordinary shot where he single-handedly punches, kicks, stabs, detonates, and gun-fus to death about fifty people). Samuel L Jackson manages to find some genuine menace and humour in a character who could just have been silly, while Sofia Boutella is eye-catching as his henchperson (Boutella’s lower legs have been digitally removed and replaced with razor-sharp blades, which if nothing else is a new take on the traditional deformed-villain Bond archetype). Vaughn’s direction is undeniably inventive and energetic, too.

But, very much as in the case of Kick-Ass, Kingsman seems to be so preoccupied with being shocking and cool and cynically funny that it doesn’t really have time to be anything else – or at least anything else new. Once you strip away the violence and class warfare and black humour, what you’re left with bears an eerie resemblance to Stormbreaker, a much more family-friendly spy-fi pastiche from 2006. This is a lot more polished and in some ways cleverer, but I can’t shake the impression that it ultimately seems to have been made by and for teenaged boys, rather than mature human beings. Which is fine if you’re a teenaged boy, but this film could have been a lot more enjoyable for a much wider audience.

 

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Well, the continuation of global civilisation and weather permitting, I’m trundling off to watch Kick-Ass 2 at some point in the next few days and this seems as logical a time as any to share my thoughts about the original 2010 film, directed by Matthew Vaughn. I have been promising a review for a couple of years now, but as it took me quite a long time to catch up with the actual movie this delay is not entirely inappropriate.

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I believe I saw the first trailer for the film, which ran before Avatar in 2009, and thought something like ‘That looks a bit different,’ but when it actually came out I was in Sri Lanka and quite probably several thousand miles from a decent English-language cinema. I do recall turning up a copy of the Daily Mail on the flight home in which the resident critic complained about being ‘cyber-bullied’ after describing it as ‘a crime against cinema’ and morally inexcusable.

Normally I would give a very favourable hearing to anything with the ability to get the Daily Mail so upset, but by the time I was back in the UK the film’s theatrical run was coming to an end and I basically had a tough call to make: see Kick-Ass, or Iron Man 2. Now in retrospect, one of these films is much more interesting (and arguably more accomplished) than the other, but I was still smarting after not seeing the original Iron Man in English (I was in Italy when it came out – a pattern develops) and made a bad call.

Eventually I got it on DVD, and when I sat down and watched it I found it to be… well, it’s a very well-made film, but also a rather strange and not entirely unproblematic one. Permit me to explain.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson (as I believe we are now obliged to refer to him) plays Dave Lizewski, a nondescript New York teenager who – for no particular reason other than a vague sense of moral outrage – decides to become the masked vigilante Kick-Ass. The fact that his initial efforts usually result in his being severely beaten or almost killed do not dissuade him.

However, Kick-Ass has timed his venture into superherodom poorly, for long-suffering crime boss Frank D’Amico (hardest working man in showbiz Mark Strong) is finding his operation under attack from a masked man who is keeping a much lower profile. Frank, not unreasonably, jumps to the conclusion that Kick-Ass is actually his persecutor, and with the aid of his son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) sets about laying his hands on him…

Well, here’s the big question about Kick-Ass, if you ask me: just exactly what kind of film is it supposed to be? Is it a straightforward  superhero adventure? Is it a parody of the genre, or a very dark comedy-drama? It’s really difficult to be certain because at different points it seems to be trying to be all these different things.

The thing is, that if you just look at the main storyline about Kick-Ass himself, it’s almost purely an exercise in adolescent male wish-fulfilment, presented unironically: by putting on his costume Dave eventually becomes famous and popular and lands himself a hot girlfriend (Lyndsy Fonseca). All right, he does describe himself as ‘a useless dick in a costume’ at one point (which strikes me as being pretty much on the money) and he does spend most of the film almost getting killed, but in the end he is victorious and gets pretty much everything he wants. A lot of the initial reviews of Kick-Ass focussed on the violence and profanity of the film, both of which are far beyond what you’d see in – for example – a Marvel Studios film, but if you look past that this is fundamentally one of the most conventional superhero films to be released in recent years. If anything it’s a pastiche rather than a parody, and the scenes with Dave himself aren’t really funny enough for it work as a comedy.

On the other hand, the scenes with Nicolas Cage and Chloe Grace Moretz as other crimefighters Big Daddy and Hit-Girl genuinely are darkly funny, mainly due to the dissonance between their clear devotion to one another as father and daughter, and their equal obsession with guns and violence. Cage’s performance is way out there, but it still just about works, while Moretz is also very good. I think it’s fair to say that Hit-Girl is the character from this movie who everyone remembers, and that’s not simply because she’s an eleven-year-old gun-toting masked vigilante.

Of course, I suppose we need to at least address the question of all the various scenes in which Hit-Girl swears like a trooper and gorily disposes of dozens of bad guys. It’s certainly not the case that she’s intentionally being presented as a sexualised character, which is one of the Daily Mail‘s main problems with the film, but on the other hand you’ve got a pre-teenaged girl being presented as, basically, a killing machine, and the film’s attitude seems to be ‘Hey, isn’t this cool?’ For the most part the film is so dynamic, and the action well-enough choreographed, for this not to be a problem, but I did find the climactic scenes in which Moretz and Strong violently take each other on a little troubling to watch.

I suppose if I had to sum up my issues with Kick-Ass, it would be that whole ‘Hey, isn’t this cool?’ thing. There is the odd, sometimes slightly sentimental moment of genuine idealism, emotion or poignancy, but the rest of the time it’s much more about what’s cool, or transgressively funny: I suppose I would say it’s a bit too cynical for my tastes. That said, Vaughn directs with his usual flair and energy and the script hangs together quite well. As I said, this is an impressively assembled piece of work, I’m just a bit dubious about the sentiment behind it.

Haven’t seen Kick-Ass 2 yet, as I say, but what the hell, I’ll make some predictions: it’ll be much, much more about Hit-Girl (and it’ll be interesting to see how they address the fact that Moretz has, um, matured a bit in the last three years), the transgressive stuff will be more OTT, and it’ll be trying even harder to have its cake and eat it by claiming to be some sort of ironic commentary on superhero stories while actually being a very down-the-line example of one. We shall see.

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