Thursday, January 28, 2016

Catching Up On 2016 Movie a Day Pt. 1

So far this year I've been trying to watch a movie a day, or at least keep the number of watched movies somewhat even with the progressing calendar. Basically, I may have to skip a day or two, but I'll make up for it by watching multiple movies on days off. So far I'm keeping good on my goal; it is currently the 28th and I've seen 29 feature films. And yet I've been writing these Movie a Day posts for just over a week, meaning that there are several films that I haven't written about yet. Here is the first in a series of posts in which I'll clear out that backlog with some briefer than usual posts. Maybe just a paragraph. I'll be peppering these in every now and then until I'm completely caught up. See if you can spot today's theme.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015): The latest film based on a Mark Millar comic book, and the second one to be directed by Matthew Vaughn (the other was Kick-Ass). The potential for this movie was through the roof, with relative newcomer Taron Egerton surrounded by an impressive cast of old pros; Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Mark Strong, and Samuel L. Jackson. Matthew Vaughn certainly knows his way around this type of boy's adventure story, having worked with Guy Ritchie in the early days of both of their careers. Matthew Vaughn and Guy Ritchie may not have started off together, but they found each other early on, and will probably always be linking in the minds of some fans due to their early work together. In the early 2000s Matthew Vaughn began to step out of Guy Ritchie's shadow by directing his own films, although his first film, Layer Cake, did feel a bit suspiciously familiar to anyone who had seen Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Since then he's proved a little bit more eclectic, though he is drawn to comic books, and he's certainly in step with Millar's mix of gleefully crass humor and stylish violence. The problem, though, is that the trick is getting old. Perhaps it's just me, having now seen  four Mark Millar films and read several of his comic series, but I'm getting tired of his brand of Boy's Adventures wish-fulfillment. Most of his stories, particularly his original creations, follow a lone outcast who gives square society the finger and violently, brutally forges his own path. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to just turn my brain off and enjoy his questionable politics and incomparable bad taste.

Kingsman seems at first blush to represent a slobs against snobs sort of take on international espionage, and seems to argue for a less class oriented view of life. But in the end the film is actually making a case for the sort of outmoded, classist attitudes the earlier passages seem to refute. The film, for the most part, is a gory James Bond riff with an uncultured young punk proving that he's just as good, or better, than his more posh counterparts. By the end of the film, however, he's joined the ranks of those posh individuals as he becomes just another lone white guy with a gun who is the only one capable of saving the world. That's my problem with Millar in a nutshell; he seems anarchic and punkish, but he's actually fairly rightwing and reactionary. It's a glaring detail that the only real world leader referenced in the film, shown in league with the villain, is Barack Obama, while the villain is defeated by a piece of Reagan-era weaponry. It might also be an important detail that the villain is a black man who dresses in what would be considered an urban style who is defeated by a group of wealthy white men in impeccably tailored suits. Perhaps I'm reading way too much into that, but I foresee Mark Millar having the same problem as Frank Miller, where eventually his anarchic bent is overshadowed by his latent fascism.

Those arguments aside, Kingsman can be a lot of fun. I enjoyed most of it, and realized that my problems with the film were probably overthinking things a bit. A few scenes hit a sort of psycho-freakout intensity that marks the film firing on all cylinders, and there's a montage of exploding heads that is brilliantly off kilter. But then the film ends with a princess offering our hero anal sex in exchange for saving the world, and that deflates things a little bit.

Final Rating: 3(out of 5)

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015): Guy Ritchie got his start with gritty, shaggy, slightly comedic tales of low level criminals in London, but seemed to get sidetracked by Hollywood success and has spent much of the last decade working on the Sherlock Holmes films. I'll admit that I found his first Sherlock Holmes film fun but somewhat soulless, and the less said about the sequel the better. But with Man From U.N.C.L.E., he seems to have finally figured out how to meld his particular talents with the demands of big budget blockbuster filmmaking. This is not a return to form in the slightest, but neither is it a drastic step forward in his artistic evolution. If anything, this is just Guy Ritchie finding a way to make an action film that is suited to his style: stylish, funny, and fleet-footed. It's not perfect, far from it, but it's probably the most satisfying film he's made in years. Both this film and Kingsman feature a similar dependence on style over substance, but I found it worked much more successfully in this picture.

Casting seems to play a large part in this fun, although it's amusing to me that all of the major parts are filled by actors playing against their own nationalities. Brit's Henry Cavill plays a straight laced Americans, American Armie Hammer plays Russian, and Swedish actress Alicia Vikander plays German. Possibly only Hugh Grant, in a late-in-the-film appearance, gets to act with his own accent. And of course they all look great in period-appropriate tailored suits. If I may for a moment: Armie Hammer seems to have trouble catching a break. He's a fun presence with a fun name, but every film that seems like it might be a succesful starring vehicle for him becomes a nonstarter at the box office. The Lone Ranger may have had its problems, but none of them could be attributed to Hammer, who gave a brilliant straight man performance. In this he plays a menacing Russian hulk much better than his all American demeanor in previous films would suggest, while Cavill plays American much more snappily than in Man Of Steel.

Guy Ritchie doesn't seem to have much ability when it comes to staging large action setpieces, but he finds some nice workarounds for the most part. The latter half of one white knuckle escape is seen mostly in reflection as one character sits and watches through a truck's windshield, while sometimes he simply cuts away from the action and gets straight to the aftermath. One stylistic trick he pulls, at least two or three times in this film, is somewhat less charming. At key moments of dialogue the audio will drop out of the movie so that the audience can't hear what's being said, all so that Ritchie can surprise us a few minutes later. Then he'll simply replay the earlier scene but with the dialogue included so we can be impressed by the film's cleverness. It was absolutely bizarre, and has to be one of the cheapest gimmicks I've ever seen. That said, the film is fun and cool, and a breeze to get through. That may not sound like the most glowing review, but it makes the perfect antidote to the increasing grim and gritty blockbuster seasons we've been getting lately.

Final Rating: 3.5(out of 5)

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015): Alternate subtitle; How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tom Cruise. Because I'll admit it; I love Tom Cruise as a movie star. I think he's incredibly charming and charismatic on screen, and I'm always happy to see him in an action film. Personally, I have no doubt that he's the biggest creep in the world, but I just ignore that while watching a movie. Exhibit A in the case for Cruise as a great movie star; he always chooses interesting people to work with. It's hard to think of a franchise that's had as much of a diverse collection of directors as the Mission: Impossible series. It's hard to think of a star with the clout to choose those collaborators. Certainly John Woo was still a hot property when he helmed the sequel, but who would have picked Brian De Palma to helm the first film at that point in his career? He also gave J.J. Abrams his first feature film after only a handful of television credits, and picked animation iconoclast Brad Bird to make his live action debut. Cruise had worked with Christopher McQuarrie (director of this film) before on Jack Reacher, but he was still a relatively unknown name to be handing such a large franchise to, having made his career primarily as a screenwriter. Through the last couple of decades Tom Cruise has proved incredibly discerning and canny in who he chooses to work with.

This, the fifth film in the M:I series, doesn't quite reach the level of action movie nirvana that the previous film did, but it's still an object lesson in how to craft an old school action flick. McQuarrie proved on Jack Reacher what a great action director he could be. That film had serious plot and script problems, and yet the direction was always clean and impressive, rendering the film compulsively rewatchable. He brings that same strength to Rogue Nation as well, showing how great action can be when it's more than just rapid-fire editing and explosions. McQuarrie favors longer takes than most contemporary action directors use, and is judicious in his use of bombastic noise. Several large setpieces in Rogue Nation are almost entirely silent, with no dialogue and only the sound of movement. He's also good at giving a sense of the physical space a scene is taking place in. His camera movements and editing make it easy to follow the flow of the action, which keeps things from becoming a confused mess like your average Michael Bay film.

Even with that much-publicized plane stunt, with Cruise hanging outside a plane as it's taking off, there's nothing in this film that reaches the delirious action heights of Ghost Protocol, but it's presented in a clear, competent manner. It's solid, and is actually satisfying in a way that many other 'cooler' films just don't match. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation feels like the best parts of Roger Moore era James Bond, with the globehopping, femme fatales, gadgets, and intrigue.

Final Rating; 4(out of 5)

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