Kingsman: The Secret Service

 

Kingsman: The Secret Service is a ton of fun! It’s action-packed and full of surprises. It moves at a frantic pace and never slows down until its final postscript. Like last year’s Lego Movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service is a better movie than we usually get in February.

Harry Hart (Colin Firth) aka Galahad is the dapper, well-dressed ops director of the secret spy organization that works out of a men’s clothing store in London. The versatile Firth is, as the British say, “spot on” in this role.

Following the death of a colleague in a 1997 mission, he gives a medallion and contact information to the man’s young son Eggy. Years later, now in his early 20s, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) needs help getting out of a jam and calls Galahad who takes care of the situation. When Kingsman agent Lancelot (Jack Davenport) is killed in action, Galahad recruits Eggsy to try out for a position. The competition is tough and Eggsy works hard to succeed.

When the film’s villain Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is introduced, he is apparently a good guy, an environmental warrior. But his method for saving the planet involves eliminating much of the world’s human population. He scores good will by giving the entire world free wi-fi and internet—but there’s an evil motive to his generosity.

Galahad consults with Kingsman chief Arthur (Michael Caine) who suggests Galahad learn more about Valentine. At their first meeting, the dinner scene is a classic. (I’m tempted to share more, but… alas, no spoiler from me.)

K:TSS recalls early James Bond films, but in a more appreciative fashion than the Austin Powers movies did. As Q does in the Bond films, Galahad introduces Eggsy to amazing spy devices. Villain Valentine has an impressive mountaintop lair, complete with an airplane landing strip in a cave. And there’s the promise of a sexual payoff for the story’s hero, a la 007.

Kingsman: The Secret Service contains numerous memorable and bloody fight scenes. They are cartoonish and, in many case, quite funny. Director Matthew Vaughn (who also directed X-Men: First Class, Kick-Ass and Stardust) has created a film that looks good and has plenty of clever bits. Like the woman with the lethal Oscar Pistorius prosthetic feet, the exploding opening credits and the high-speed chase scene where the car being chased travels in reverse.

Kingsman: The Secret Service delivers the goods. I like it a lot.

 

 

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The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men is a movie that could’ve been made any time in the last 50 years. It has an old-timey feel to it. The film is rated PG-13 for war violence and smoking, but except for a couple of exclamations of “holy s—,” there’s nothing in the script that might offend.

Based on a true story, this tale has Frank Stokes (George Clooney) gathering a team of art lovers to go into the rapidly cooling World War II European war zone and save classic works of art from the Germans. It’s a war movie complete with peril and death, but it lacks that gritty feel of the more hardcore war films.

The Monuments Men are James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban). After they arrive in Europe, they add Dimitri Leonidas (Sam Epstein).

They begin their mission after D-Day when the Allies have the Germans on the run. Granger goes to just-liberated Paris where he tracks down Claire (Cate Blanchett) who provides vital info regarding certain works that were taken. After spending time working with him, she transforms from cold fish to would-be seductress.

Jeffries goes to Bruges, Belgium to protect a Michelangelo sculpture from Nazi capture. Campbell and Savitz encamp near the Battle of the Bulge in a sequence reminiscent of M*A*S*H. Garfield and Clermont go to the frontlines.

As the Monuments Men begin to recover these purloined art treasures, competition to regain the works heats up versus… the Russians! Our guys know that if the Ruskies—officially Allies versus Hitler—get to the paintings first, they will claim them for Mother Russia. The situation becomes tense, even after the Germans have surrendered.

In addition to starring, George Clooney directed and co-wrote The Monuments Men. It’s a vanity piece. He looks good. Rarely does he have even one hair of his 40’s-era haircut out of place. (He even gives his dad Nick a cameo.)

The Monuments Men is a decent, but not great, movie. Give Clooney credit for telling a story that’s not been told before. As mentioned above, this is not a gritty war film. So, for those who didn’t care for the language and the gore of Saving Private Ryan (which coincidentally had Damon in the title role), The Monuments Men may be the perfect war movie for you.

Enough Said

Here is an excellent movie for grownups. Two extremely likeable characters fall in love in a movie that has a message for all couples.

Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a divorced woman who goes to a party at the urging of her unhappily married friend Sarah (Toni Collette). At the party, Eva meets Albert (James Gandolfini), a divorced man. Eva also meets Marianne (Catherine Keener) who becomes a massage client and, in short order, a friend and confidante.

Albert and Eva go out on a date. Neither expects anything special, but they enjoy each other’s company and soon are sleeping over. They have one big thing in common: both have daughters who are about to finish high school and go away to college. This circumstance requires that they interact with their exes.

The message for couples in Enough Said is not to let little things become deal breakers. Those of us who’ve been married for a while know that both partners have to tolerate their mates’ imperfections. For instance, dirty underwear left on the bedroom floor may be an annoyance but not grounds for divorce. On the other hand, when one partner is aware of his/her annoying behavior and makes zero effort to change, that can be a problem.

Eva has scenes with Sarah and her husband Will (Ben Falcone). They nitpick and bicker but manage to stay together.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is totally charming as Eva. She frequently flashes the great smile that her often snarky Elaine (on Seinfeld) shared minimally or, often, sarcastically.

James Gandolfini is just a big, sweet teddy bear as Albert. I had a melancholy feeling watching Enough Said because I knew that it was one of his last roles before his sudden death last June. His performances during the past year in Zero Dark Thirty, Not Fade Away and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone showed promise of a hugely successful post-Sopranos film career. Sadly, that will not happen.

Let me offer a huge hat tip to the woman who wrote and directed Enough Said, Nicole Holofcener. Her dialogue is clever, funny and believable. Her directing is efficient and never overbearing. Honestly, the only thing I dislike about Enough Said is its rather generic title.

If you’re looking for a movie for grownups without violence and peril, escape to the movie house to check out Enough Said.

 

 

 

 

Jobs

Was Ashton Kutcher cast as Steve Jobs because he resembled SJ? Possibly, because director Joshua Michael Stern ends the movie by showing us how much the actors looked like the real life folk they were portraying. (Honestly, who cares?) Nonetheless, Kutcher delivers a respectable performance as the megalomaniac visionary.

Jobs may disappoint the Apple fan who cherishes his/her iPhone, iPad, iPod, Macbook Air etc. because the story ends in 2001. Millennials familiar with the delight he communicated at Macworld presentations in the new century may not appreciate the portrayal of Jobs as, well, an asshole (as he is so identified in the film by his boss at Atari).

The upside of focusing on the 20th century portion of SJ’s life is that we are spared his illness, a sappy deathbed scene and final goodbyes. We are not spared a too long sequence depicting a 70’s acid trip which may have colored Jobs’ vision of life and computers.

Jobs’ relationship with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (played by Josh Gad) is examined. They needed each other. Woz was the geeky tech genius. Jobs was the articulate guy who could deal and lead. An early scene shows Wozniak working to develop an Atari game, for which Jobs paid Woz just $350 (after SJ was promised $5K from Atari when the job was done).

When Apple is getting up and running with help from investor Mike Markkula (Durmot Mulroney), more of Jobs’ selfishness is revealed. He is stingy when doling out shares in the new endeavor, parks in handicap spaces with impunity, fires people spontaneously and has little tact in his dealings.

Arthur Rock (J.K. Simmons—with hair!) also invests and uses his power on the board to have some of Jobs’ power stripped away. Jobs suggests Pepsi’s John Scully (Matthew Modine) take over leadership of Apple. Jobs is put in charge of a new project called the MacIntosh. The Mac is a critical hit but a sales dud (oh, yes, it was), leading to Jobs’ departure from the company.

When he returns to a crippled Apple in the 90’s, he’s still a maverick (although he no longer drives a Maverick as he did in earlier scenes). The new Jobs, however, treats employees better, promoting creativity. A young man who visualizes the iMac with the colorful translucent shell is encouraged and motivated by Jobs’ guidance.

I had anticipated Jobs’ relationship with Bill Gates might’ve received a bit more play in the film. After Jobs looks at the new Microsoft Windows OS that’s a rip-off of the MacIntosh OS, Jobs is shown on the phone angrily berating Gates.

Kutcher brings the distinctive Jobs lope to the role. And his acting chops are okay. But his baby face belies his being the uncaring (about people, not product) jerk he depicts. He simply lacks the proper gravitas.

Jobs is the sort of movie you expect to see on a cable channel, not in a movie house. But hardcore fans of Jobs and Apple will appreciate Jobs and, while they aren’t likely to line up as if a new Apple product were about to be released, they should be curious enough to check out this decent biopic.

The Heat

Congratulations to Melissa McCarthy for making a hilarious movie! Congratulations to Sandra Bullock for giving McCarthy all the room she needs to do her funny business in The Heat.

Bullock follows in the tradition of TV’s Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano and Andy Griffith, all of who were title stars of their sitcoms, but depended on zany sidemen and women to bring the biggest laughs. Bullock brings her considerable charm and infinite likeability to the screen, but Melissa McCarthy as Boston cop Shannon Mullen is the reason to see The Heat.

McCarthy, whose other lead role this year in Identity Thief led to a healthy gross of $135 million, will sell lots of tickets to The Heat with her raunchy, f-bomb-laced riffs and shameless physical humor.

Melissa McCarthy’s agility for a woman of her size is amazing. And her delivery of scriptwriter Katie Dippold’s lines is natural and organic—I’d guess she was given freedom to ad-lib by director Paul Fieg. He also directed Bridesmaids.

By the way, I was told that Bullock claims there are 196 f-bombs in the film.

Bullock as FBI special agent Ashburn is a smug, tightly-wound type A detail person. McCarthy as Mullen is loose, spontaneous and wild. There’s instant animosity between the two. Both are territorial and neither wants to relinquish control.

Bonding takes a while. They share a mutual dislike for not only drug dealers, but also for a pair of DEA agents. As they learn each other’s personal backstories, there’s a bit of sympathy to be shared.

This action/comedy has some grit: people get tied up, shot, stabbed, etc. There’s a pretty good chase scene. It’s rated R and rightly so.

The opening title sequence has a 70’s graphic look and features the song Fight The Power by the Isley Brothers.

The studio (and, presumably, test audiences) liked this movie so much that its release was pushed back from April to late June—a more lucrative, but also more competitive time of year for film box office success. Also, it’s rumored that a sequel is already in the works.

The Heat will make you laugh. And if laughter is what you want and need, don’t miss it.

 

 

The Great Gatsby

Director Baz Luhrman’s version of The Great Gatsby is, above all, great storytelling. Yes, it has moments of sensory overload, but Luhrman and his cast also slow things down to let us get to know the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story of life in the early 1920’s, aka the Jazz Age.

With some characters, motivations are obvious. With others, the character’s needs and wants are more gradually revealed. One person leaving a Gatsby screening observed that the casting of the key players was almost perfect.

Leonardo DiCaprio, in a performance that’s among his best, plays the title role and keeps Gatsby initially mysterious. Tobey Maguire is also a standout as Nick Carraway, the narrator of the book and movie, a callow Midwesterner who is awestruck by what he experiences in New York. Cary Mulligan captures Daisy Buchanan’s grace and charm, as well as some of her less savory qualities. Another impressive player is Joel Edgerton as the impetuous Tom Buchanan, who reveals all of his character’s anger and resentments. In a small role, Isla Fisher shines as Myrtle Wilson.

Trailers for Gatsby and Luhrman’s reputation for bombast may have set the bar high for those anticipating a loud and splashy, over-the-top production. Indeed, a couple of the parties at Gatsby’s mansion are mind-blowers. And the fireworks scene, accompanied by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, is jaw-droppingly spectacular.

Luhrman loves the fast fly-in shots and so do I. (They’re like zoom-ins, but the feeling is of the camera’s moving.) His bookending the film with the black and white vintage look titles is clever, but not quite as clever as the titles sequences seen two months ago for Oz the Great and Powerful.

Those who hold Fitzgerald’s novel in high esteem will appreciate the filmmaker’s respect for Fitzgerald’s text. Those who rolled their eyes upon hearing that the movie would use contemporary music in its soundtrack will find that most of the selections work in harmony with the film’s events. Lana Del Rey’s Young and Beautiful is particularly memorable.

The Great Gatsby is a classic novel, one that’s taught at schools and colleges. Transferring such a tale to film is not easy. Painting a portrait of the characters that’s true to the printed work and including major plot elements requires a variety of skills. Those skills are evident here, particularly in the time management of the story.

My only qualms: I thought Gatsby’s home was substantially grander in the movie than I’d imagined from the book. Also, I pictured Gatsby to have a more weathered, rugged appearance than does DiCaprio, who looks fit and healthy.

It’s notable that The Great Gatsby is rated PG-13. Hats off to Luhrman for making a great movie without a single f-word. (High school English teachers, feel free to send your students to see The Great Gatsby without fear of getting yelled at by the school board.)

The Great Gatsby is solid, with few flaws. Enjoy the story, the characters, the settings, the cars, the wardrobes. Don’t miss it, old sport!

Oz the Great and Powerful

Oz the Great and Powerful is a stroke of genius. The movie and its entry into the entertainment marketplace are beautifully conceived.

Congrats to director Sam Raimi for assembling a movie that pays respectful homage to the 74-year-old classic The Wizard of Oz, without infringing on its copyright. Oz the Great and Powerful is pure escapism for young and old alike.

Congrats to Disney for producing a film that will generate sequels, theme park rides, video games and much more. Disney stock, trading near all-time highs recently, may soar to greater heights in the wake of Oz’s release.

Wicked has sparked new interest in the Oz saga during its 8 year run on Broadway (and via road companies in the US and abroad). But a Wicked movie won’t come until 2014 at the earliest. So Oz the Great and Powerful gets to reap all the Oz love for now.

From its seemingly low-tech black and white opening credits to its similar color closing credits, Oz the Great and Powerful brings one delightful element after another to the screen. Many scenes, characters and costumes seem fresh and new, filled with color and creativity.

But, on closer inspection, we note the similarities to The Wizard of Oz. The movie begins in black-and-white and transitions to color after a tornado. Characters from the “real life” part of the movie appear in the fantasy part, though in different guises. There are witches (good and bad), munchkins, even flying monkeys. (You’ll love flying monkey Finley, voiced by Zach Braff.)

James Franco, it turns out, was a terrific choice to play Oz. The character refuses to take himself too seriously until circumstances demand that he shoulder some responsibility. Franco is obviously having fun with the role.

The witches are portrayed with wholesome sexiness—nothing sleazy, but certainly some eye candy for the guys. Mila Kunis shows up in black leather pants, wearing an outrageous red hat with an enormous brim. Her sister witch is Rachel Weisz whose claw-like black and white manicure gives a clue to her disposition. Michelle Williams looks positively angelic in white.

The film’s climax reprises yet another bit that we’ve enjoyed since 1939 in that other Oz movie. It may seem that I’m regarding OTGAP almost as a remake when I mention that the two main things that are missing from the original The Wizard of Oz are Dorothy and classic songs. (Speaking of derivative, a couple of the witchy catfights may make you think of Harry Potter versus Valdemort faceoffs.)

Despite its just-a-bit-too-long runtime of 2:10, Oz the Great and Powerful maintains a good pace and loses its energy only a time or two. Don’t wait for the DVD or Netflix. This is a film to see in the theater, in 3-D, on the biggest screen you can find. Don’t miss it!

A Place at the Table

It’s not that people are dying of starvation. But many Americans don’t have the food choices that you and I do.

The reasons are many and varied as A Place at the Table points out. The documentary goes to Collbran, CO; Jonestown, MS and Philadephia, PA to show real people and their difficulties obtaining a nutritious diet.

The two school-age girls in Mississippi and Colorado and the young single mom in Philly are the central characters in the film. Their problems, as depicted, are heartbreaking. The single mom, for instance, finally gets a job, but her pay, which disqualifies her for food stamps she had been receiving, is not high enough to feed her two kids and pay for daycare.

A Place at the Table features celebrities. Actor Jeff Bridges offers his thoughts about the nation’s food problems and mentions Hidden in America, a TV movie from 1996 that starred his brother Beau as a member of the “working poor.”

Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio appears to talk about his efforts as a hunger activist. His wife, Lori Silverbush, is co-director of APATT with Kristi Jacobson.

As do many advocacy films, A Place at the Table offers certain statistics and declarations without sufficient attribution. And, ironically, some of the people described as victims of hunger are, in fact, obese.

While the film encourages a variety of government actions to correct shortcomings, it is not an overly political film. Yes, Michelle Obama has a cameo, but APATT does not engage in bashing of any particular party or administration.

The film does takes aim at the US Department of Agriculture’s price supports, which APATT claims are inordinately high for commodity crops (corn, soybeans, etc.) but low for growers of more nutritious fruits and vegetables. The result is healthy fruits and veggies are too costly and limited funds (and food stamps) go toward less healthy foods that provide more calories for the buck.

The film’s highlights include many upbeat moments: a Colorado church offering a free hot meal each week to any and all, a group of Mississippi school kids learning to prefer honeydew melon as a snack over junk food, the Philadelphia mom sharing her pride in her accomplishments.

A Place at the Table brings attention to vital concerns and offers suggestions for improving conditions in America. But will it reach those persons who can affect change?

In addition to its theatrical run, the movie will be available starting March 1 for download on iTunes. By the way, APATT features cool music from The Civil Wars and T-Bone Burnett.

Gangster Squad

With classic elements galore, Gangster Squad delivers the goods. Sean Penn turns in a killer performance as a boxer turned mob boss in mid-20th century Los Angeles. His character is almost cartoonish, like a Dick Tracy bad guy. Josh Brolin, as leader of the secret Squad, is not unlike Dick Tracy, with a Tess Trueheart type wife.

With a hint of the colors of retouched picture postcards and the requisite armada of late 40’s automobiles, Gangster Squad is drenched in nostalgia. The wardrobes (including men in hats), the red lipstick, the smoking, comments about WW II, the music all do a nice job of capturing the era. Josh Brolin’s opening and closing narrations echo another staple of this genre.

Penn’s character Mickey Cohen controls not only vice but also the majority of police and political leaders in metro LA. Nick Nolte, looking healthier than in his other recent roles, is the LAPD chief (not been bought off by Cohen) who anoints Brolin’s character John O’Mara as leader of a secret gangster squad.

O’Mara recruits a team of cops to shut down Cohen and his operations. Ryan Gosling is a cool LAPD detective named Jerry Wooters who successfully hits on Cohen’s babe, Grace Faraday, played by Emma Stone. He eases his way into the squad and becomes a vital team member.

The squad operates almost like the Mission Impossible teams of prior movies and TV shows. They even have a tech guy, played by the nerdy Giovanni Ribisi, who plants a microphone in Cohen’s digs and listens in from a remote shack.

The Gangster Squad and Cohen’s crooks trade punches throughout the film until the last round, when the knockout blow is finally delivered.

Gangster Squad is an entertainingly violent movie that’s not quite a classic, but has all the LA period piece cops and robbers stuff. One quibble is the casting of Emma Stone as the babe. A more mature, less innocent looking actress may have been more effective in the role.

Word is that the movie was originally slated for a September, 2012, release. But because of its violent content (and one particular sequence) was retooled and held back after the Aurora, Colorado shootings. Nonetheless, Gangster Squad is action-packed with great characters, a strong cast and a good story. I’m already looking forward to seeing it again.

Looper

“Looper” is a mildly entertaining time travel sci-fi film with three likable stars: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt.

Time travel is often used as a gimmicky crutch, as in the TV series “Lost.” To build a whole movie around time travel is risky. When a character interacts with his older self, things can get confusing. Gordon-Levitt and Willis play the same character, Joe, at different ages.

The movie is set in a not-especially-futuristic-looking 2044. Most of their vehicles appear about the same as those we drive today—except for that one cool jet-powered scooter. In 2044, time travel has not yet been developed. But 30 years beyond, time travel has been perfected. But it’s only used by the bad guys.

Because, we are told, it’s hard to dispose of human bodies in 2074, mob hits are accomplished by sending the poor suckers back to 2044 where they are quickly offed and tossed into a furnace. Among those sent back to be killed are older versions of some of those young assassins. They “loop” back, hence the title.

One looper who is sent back—the older Joe—escapes death at the hand of his younger self. He begins a mission to kill a 2044 vintage kid, before he grows up to become a gang leader called The Rainmaker. Still with me? This is where Emily Blunt comes in. She is a single mom, living in a rural farm house with her precocious child. Her kid may the one who would become the Rainmaker. The boy does have some mighty anger issues!

Jeff Daniels gives a standout performance as a crime boss with a wicked sense of humor.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s strange makeup (presumably to make him even slightly resemble Bruce Willis) gives him odd-looking lips and eyes. Emily Blunt sounds like a native-born American, squelching her limey accent.

“Looper’s” plot is messy. The movie’s pace hits the brakes just past its midway point. And the sci-fi lacks those “oh, wow” effects/settings/technology that you expect in a movie like this one.

“Looper” is not a bad movie, just one that needs more truly compelling content. One might presume that writer/director Rian Johnson figured the time travel bit might be a strong enough frame to build the movie on. Not quite.