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.

Moonlight (Jenkins; 2016)

One of the many reasons we go to the movies is to experience a life that isn’t our own for a couple of hours.  Often this experience is a form of escapism, but it can also be educational or empathic.  We see someone else’s struggles and successes and we can imagine ourselves in their position, or we can cheer them on, or we can sit back and analyze their successes and failures and apply that to our own world.  Moonlight, the movie based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is the very rare film that manages to take the character piece one step further and lets us inhabit the life of its focal character, not just allowing us to understand them, but if you allow yourself to actually become that person, in this case Chiron a.k.a Little a.k.a. Black, for a short but immensely meaningful period of time.

Moonlight manages to do this by using every tool at the film director’s (an almost sure to be Academy Award nominated Barry Jenkins) disposal to give us this intense immersion into Chiron’s life.  First there is the astounding cast.   Chiron (pronounced Shy-Rone) himself is played by three different actors – Alex R. Hibbert plays “Little”, Chiron as a child, Ashton Sanders is Chiron during his high school years, and Trevante Rhodes is the adult Chiron “Black”.  Apparently these three actors never studied each other, never saw what the other two were doing with the role, and so brought their own fresh interpretation to the part.  It’s a testament to their talent, and the talent of Jenkins as director and writer that these three performances fit together perfectly, all seemed like the same person, but did truly seem like that person at a very distinct part of their life.  A big part of how they were able to accomplish this, I think, is through the fact that Chiron is a very quiet character.  He says very little, so most of what he communicates is through facial expressions, body language, and the actions he takes.  These three actors, and really the entire cast, manage to say more through glances and stances than many movie characters manage to say in pages of dialogue.  They convey things that in daily life we only get from our closest of friends and family, thus making these characters extremely intimate.

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Alex R. Hibbert as “Little” and Mahershala Ali as “Juan”

Then we have the incredible writing by Tarell Alvin McCraney in his original story and by Barry Jenkins in his screenplay adaptation.  Since it’s a story originally made for the stage, it uses a structure which divides the story into three very distinct acts.  Using this structure we are allowed to experience Chiron’s transformation from child to adult naturally, logically, and, at the risk of overusing the word, intimately.  Chiron, being a very quiet person, spends most of his time listening to those around him and reacting to the choices they make.  Jenkin’s screenplay somehow makes all of this both relatable enough that we can attach Chiron’s experiences to our own, but foreign enough to render it a brand new experience.  We see the kindness of strangers, the failings of family, the letdown of failed expectations, and the surprise of our own unexplored feelings all through Chiron’s experiences and it flows perfectly never letting us truly breathe except at the start of each act break but never overwhelming us to the point that we need to stop to catch a breath.  It’s an experience that creeps up on you, and surprises you with its depths that you don’t realize you are caught up in immediately.

The subtle brilliance of Moonlight, though, and the piece of the puzzle that allows all the rest to really work is the amazing cinematography by James Laxton.  It doesn’t have the in-your-face artistic beauty of a The Revenant, the discipline of Children of Men, or the incredible trickery of Birdman, what Laxton gives us in his cinematography is a window into the mind and emotions of Chiron in a way just performance and script can’t.  If Chiron is concentrating the point of view is rock steady and sharply focused, if he’s swimming the camera bobs and is half underwater itself, someone is on drugs the camera loses focus and can’t keep track of what it is meant to be looking at.  Without Laxton’s camera Moonlight would still be an excellent character piece, and still one of the best movies of the year, but it’s his astonishing use of point of view that truly puts Moonlight over the top as a work of art that is not only one of the best films of this year, but one of the best character dramas ever put to screen period.  It’s his his work that transforms Moonlight from a film you experience into a film you actually inhabit.

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Needless to say, Moonlight is a film I believe everyone must see.  There will be, and have been, films this year with more important themes, though the themes given to us here are still quite weighty and meaningful, and there will be movies with more entertaining stories, but there will be no other film this year, nor in nearly any other year, that can place you so firmly, so intimately, so subtly, and so emotionally into the life of another human being and let you experience an existence as someone other than yourself.  That may be the most important and most amazing thing a film can do, and that is what Moonlight does.

Rating:  9.4 out of 10