Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Vaughn; 2017)

Kingsman: The Secret Service was arguably the most pleasant surprise in film for the year 2014.  It was a film that capitalized on a nostalgia for the over-the-top camp prevalent in the spy films of the 70s and 80s while also modernizing them for today’s audience.  It did for the Roger Moore era James Bond what Casino Royale did for James Bond in general.  By giving us heroes and villains with realistic motivations and plot devices that paid off in droves by film’s end alongside action sequences ripped straight from the most bombastic of kung fu movies and cool gadgets that would only be ruined if they were explained in any way we saw a movie that knew exactly where to be smart and where to be dumb to make a roller coaster ride that had honest stakes.  When it made 414 million dollars from an 81 million dollar budget and only increased its following from there with incredible word of mouth, it was inevitable a sequel would be made.  Say hello to Kingsman: The Golden Circle written and directed by Matthew Vaughn just as the first film was.

It’s less than a minute before we are treated to the frenetic action and comic book gadgets of the first film, but moreso.  The combination car chase, fist fight, and gun fight shows off more spectacle than anything in Kingsman: The Secret Service, so it seems that we are about to get the creative adrenaline fueled film we were hoping for.  But, this leads us to the film’s first problem.   While it does have a lot of action scenes, all of them way over-the-top in the stunts and special effects departments, more action does not mean better when the scenes aren’t terribly well thought out.  Most of the action scenes come from an overly contrived situation or they involve actions taken by people that make no sense given the context of the scene around them.

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One area which was very smart in Secret Service is also excellent in The Golden Circle, and that’s the motivations of its villains.  In the first film we were given a villain who saw himself as the hero, or perhaps the anti-hero, doing a job that needed to be done even if it was distasteful.  Here, Julianne Moore as Poppy gives us a villain who knows she is one, but feels it’s unfair that the world considers her one and comes up with a grand scheme to make herself socially acceptable.  It’s a pretty fantastic motivation for a villain not quite like anything I’d seen before but still makes a lot of sense.  Add to that the reaction of the government of the United States to Poppy’s plot, and you have a really true to life reaction to an incredibly unbelievable situation.  There is a problem in the plot in that the scheme affects the entire world but only the reaction of the United States seems to matter, and this in a movie that focuses on a British Spy Agency and features a Swedish Princess, but for the most part the forces that drive the plot are quite intelligent and allow for real social commentary.

The rest of the writing, though, does not share this same intelligence.  The beats of the storyline feature manufactured drama after manufactured drama.  If a simple solution to a problem is apparent, you can be guaranteed that those involved will choose the most convoluted, illogical course of action nearly every time.  Kingsman: The Golden Circle relies on easily settled misunderstandings and epicly idiotic planning on the parts of its characters to work, and this very much soils the intelligence put into its overall premise.  Add to that that the opportunity for social commentary is largely wasted, and you have a script which is no where near the level fans of the first film were hoping for.

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The music in the original Kingsman subtly added quite a bit to its combination retro and modern feel by giving us a mainly orchestral score very. and purposely, reminiscent of a James Bond film, so that when “Freebird” suddenly comes in to the forefront in the infamous church scene it’s an adrenal shock to the system which adds an incredible amount to an already bonkers scene.  The Golden Circle does away almost entirely with the orchestral score and gives us action scenes set to Prince, and ZZ Top, and covers of classic rock songs done in different styles, and therefore ruins the juxtaposition of styles which added so much the original film and made for yet another Guardians of the Galaxy clone where the music is concerned, which was fun for a while and was shown it can still work in Baby Driver and Atomic Blonde, but this is a styling that is starting to wear very thin.

The performances here are on a par with the first film for the most part, though Julianne Moore’s villain has nowhere near the opportunities to shine that Samuel L. Jackson’s did and giving Elton John such a large role in the film in which he plays himself did not work for me, which is okay.  The Kingsman isn’t a showcase for acting, so we don’t really need more than okay in my opinion, though it would have been nice if someone could have given us at least a creatively thought out character like Samuel L. Jackson and Sofia Boutella did in the original, seeing the workmanlike but otherwise unspectacular performances here showed my just how much life those two brought to the first Kingsman.

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The cinematography is another high point of the film, with shots that are both good looking and practical at the same time, and while CGI is in obviously constant use it flows fairly seamlessly for the most part, though there are a handful of exceptions to this.  Even if the plot is dipping into one of its more stupid bits or the pacing of a given scene is leaving you bored or overstimulated you at least know that whatever’s in front of you will be great looking.

Final verdict: Fans of the original Kingsman: The Secret Service will almost certainly leave Kingsman: The Golden Circle disappointed.  The script is sloppier, the nostalgic James Bond feel nearly non-existent, and the plot holes are on larger than life display.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t things to love here, though.  The over-the-top action is still incredibly fun to watch and the comic booky spy trappings are still creative and fun.  Most Kingsman fans could probably wait until this is rentable to see the movie, or even better catch a cheap matinee if possible, but if you are more into the movies for the stunts and special effects more than for story, Kingsman: The Golden Circle should scratch the over-the-top spy flick itch nicely.

mother! (Aronofsky; 2017)

If Eugene Ionesco or Samuel Beckett, your surrealist playwright of choice, were alive and working in Hollywood today I imagine the fever dream which is mother! is the sort of thing they’d come up with.  mother! is the latest offering from Darren Aronofsky the writer/director who gave us Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain, among quite a few others.  mother! combines his obsession with the artistic process with his proficiency for creating images which are at once disturbing and beautiful and his penchant for creating an experience for the movie viewer more so than telling a story.

The prominent cast members of mother! are Jennifer Lawrence as mother, Javier Bardem as Him, Ed Harris as man, and Michelle Pfeiffer as woman.  The cast is impressive, and they do an excellent job for the most part, but what I wanted to point out here is the fact that no one in mother! has a name.  It’s one of many factors which make the film such a dreamlike experience, one of the many factors which make for an experience which is always on the border of being familiar, but never comes close to being intimate.

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mother! is a nearly impossible film to discuss on anything but a sheerly technical level without giving away spoilers, so past this I’m not really going to try, but it’s a film that is steeped in metaphor and in which the story such as it is is really only there to rope you in and give you a framework to start you on your journey into the nightmare which the movie ultimately ends up being.  No one has a name, yet you know who everyone is.  Everyone but you and Jennifer Lawrence seem to understand perfectly what is happening, but you and your anchor in this world are lost, scared, and confused.  It’s more dream than movie, and like a dream, mother!‘s purpose is to send you a message which is anything but obvious.

The performances in mother! aren’t going to win any awards, but they are what we’ve come to expect from a crew of veterans, and its especially nice to see Jennifer Lawrence return to form after the dreck she gave us in 2016.   Michelle Pfeiffer is the real standout among the main cast, in my opinion, giving us a performance brave enough that I’d wished she’d been playing roles like this for more of her career.  Javier Bardem and Ed Harris are more foils and excuses to move the action along than actual characters, but both perform this job admirably enough that you don’t notice that fact at all while the story is unfolding.

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The true draw for this movie, though, is the combination of sights and sounds which are at once gorgeous and disturbing, breathtaking and mundane.  The camera frames each shot in a way which is both practical and artistic, making the feel of a dream which Aronofsky so obviously is striving for making sure we are looking exactly where he wants us to be, but still unsure of exactly what it is what we’re seeing except that whatever it is is fascinating.  The combination of sounds and art direction add so much the proceedings and transform the house all the action takes place within into another character, and a character that in many ways is more important and more developed than the people living inside of it.

So, what kind of movie is mother! aside from an artsy one?  It’s closest to a horror film in that it is disturbing, creepy, and bewildering, but it’s goal is to unsettle more so than to scare.  What it primarily is, is a message to unravel, a puzzle to take apart.  It’s unclear if Aronofsky had one theme in mind, but I saw messages about immigration, fame, the process of creating art, environmental concerns, and others.  mother! is an art house film that somehow got a major release, and I really hope it gets the audience it deserves.

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Final verdict:  mother! is a difficult film, but it’s one worth unraveling.   It’s the act of unraveling, in fact, which makes mother! so fascinating.  To anyone who thinks dream interpretation is a good time, you will love mother!  To others, mother! is a hard movie to recommend, not that I don’t recommend, just that what you get out of mother! is going to depend an awful lot on what you’re willing to put into it.  If you want to turn off your brain, relax, and just let entertainment come to you when you see a film, avoid mother! like the plague.  If you want to actively engage with a film, sifting through its sights and sounds for meaning like a detective ferreting out clues at a crime scene, and if you don’t mind or even enjoy more a film which practically demands more than one viewing to take everything in, than mother! is exactly what you’ve been looking for.  I know I definitely plan on taking it again when I can.