Monday, 2 October 2017

300 Words on "Kingsman: The Golden Circle" (2017)

(Possible Mild Spoilers)

I loved the first Kingsman. It’s loud, brassy, and irreverent tone made for a fun send-up of the spy movie genre while its over-the-top action made still made for an enthralling and spirited viewing experience. So, going into its sequel, The Golden Circle, I was cautiously optimistic. I so wanted it to be the follow-up that the first film deserved. In short, it proved to be a decent successor.

While Kingsman: The Golden Circle will probably not supersede the original in anyone’s opinion, judged on its own merits the sequel has a lot to offer.  The entire film seems to take the bigger-is-better approach to film sequels; the action set-pieces having been amped up considerably. In places, the action scenes bleed one right into the next leaving the viewing in a state of breathlessness. This does not apply to the movie as a whole, though. In fact, The Golden Circle is a slower, darker, and more cynical story than its predecessor.

And if there was just a single flaw with the movie than it would be its more serious nature. The original Kingsman never took itself too seriously allowing one to revel in each and every absurd detail. The Golden Circle doubles-down on the absurdity (see Elton John’s extended cameo), but it feels at odds with this film’s moments of darker introspection.

The cast – everyone from the returning Colin Firth and Taron Egerton to newcomers Halle Berry and Julianne Moore – were incredibly fun to watch. Moore is especially enjoyable as the film’s villain and there were a few moments where she was genuinely chilling as the deranged (and aptly named) Poppy.

If one is hoping to spend two and a half hours watching a fun film, than he or she could do a lot worse than choosing Kingsman: The Golden Circle. It is the very definition of an entertaining film, but it simply cannot top the even more unashamedly fun original. 

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

300 Words on "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." (2015)

As a movie reviewer, it feels wrong to simply call a movie cool. Yet, when it comes to Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the cult ‘60s spy series, few words could be more apt. From its opening escape from East Berlin (showcasing the finest use of a zipline in film ever), to the witty banter exchanged at an Italian raceway, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. constantly leaves one with a twinkle in their eye and a smile on their face.

The film is one desperately in need of reevaluation. Upon its release, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. garnered only lukewarm notices, and while reviews which highlighted the film’s style-over-substance nature are correct, that is all part of the movie’s fun. The stylish costumes and 1960s aesthetic are part of what the movie so enjoyable and a veritable feast for the eyes. Performances from Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, and Elizabeth Debicki – as the film’s principal villain – are all slick and sophisticated, and each of their central characters feel authentic; as though they stepped from the filmstock of some ‘60s spy adventure.

It seems – from my experience, at least – that the reevaluation of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has already begun; the movie attaining something of a cult status in the few years since its release. Put out the same year as Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Spectre (a fine film and a decent one respectively), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is the one which most people seem to remember and talk about the most today. In short, its timeless feel gives it staying power, and the movie’s desire not to take itself too seriously leaves it open for new audiences to discover for years to come. No masterpiece, but a diamond in the rough all-the-same: an exciting, fun, immensely entertaining film. 

In other words, a really cool movie

Sunday, 10 September 2017

602 Words on "IT" (2017)

(Possible Mild Spoilers)

Going to the movie theater to see a film can be something of a gamble, especially with a film garnering such a following as IT, the adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 horror novel. The theater I was in was sold out; attendants having to direct people to available seats as they filed in. As the movie began, my fears were soon realized as I had to contend with the hushed murmurs from the row behind me, the occasional blinding light from a cell phone screen, or the man on the other side of the aisle who checked twice to watch a football game on his own phone. And yet, there were moments when the movie managed to grab everyone’s attention and, for a few moments, the sound of a pin dropping in that darkened theater would have sounded like a rumble of thunder.

Putting King’s titanic 1,138-page novel on the screen was no simple task and, I think it would be safe to say that IT proves to be more of a reinterpretation of the book than a straight adaptation. There are a number of scenes which play out just as they were written in the novel, but this film proves very much to be an IT movie for the twenty-first century. While it may have been fun to read about Pennywise assuming the personas of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man in the book, seeing the B-movie monsters of old on screen today would have been laughable. IT employs physiological horror beautifully and emerges as a scarier product because of it. And, let it be known: this can be scary movie. While I seldom felt scared per se while watching, from the very beginning the movie put me on edge and unnerved me to no end. IT gets under your skin and never relents.

While the scares themselves worked on a technical level, the real lifeblood of the film is its acting. The ensemble of kids who dub themselves The Losers Club and who vow to destroy It were cast and acted to perfection. Jaeden Lieberher, as the group’s leader Bill, was excellent handling the dark, grown-up material perfectly, but it was Sophia Lillis as Bev, the only female member of the Losers Club, who perhaps walked away with top honors amongst the child stars. Finn Wolfhard, one of the stars of Netflix’s King-inspired Stranger Things, provided some hilarious (and much needed) comic relief as the group’s resident clown, Richie.

But, any discussion of IT would be incomplete without mention of Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise, the evil entity and titular creature. Skarsgard was brilliant in the monstrous role and, added with some truly frightening makeup, managed to be a truly creepy Pennywise. I feared that audiences might laugh at the frankly absurd notion of a child-eating, evil clown, but no laughs met this Pennywise when he appeared on screen. In fact, on the few occasions when I can say that IT scared me, it was Skarsgard’s Pennywise doing the scaring. In particular, the scene with the kids and a slide projector had me jumping in my seat.

IT is not a perfect film, but it emerges as not only an excellent adaptation of Stephen King, but as a good horror movie. Today, as the market is flooded with sub-par horror films, IT proves that Hollywood can still do horror right. There, in that darkened movie theater, IT held me and so many others collectively in its grasp; the outside world forgotten for a while; our knuckles white against the seats until only a scream could break us from our trance. 

Thursday, 24 August 2017

The Other Fella - "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969)

There is a moment in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the sixth James Bond film, released in 1969, which is by now quite infamous. After saving Diana Rigg from a suicide attempt and fighting off two attackers on an unpopulated beach, George Lazenby’s Bond breaks the fourth wall, looks into camera and says that “this never happened to the other fella” referring to Sean Connery’s Bond. It’s true, Connery’s Bond never found himself in a similar scenario, but Lazenby’s 007 would never find himself facing a similar trial – or any other situation – ever again.

Bond fans the world over know the series of circumstances which lead up to Lazenby’s casting as Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (henceforth abbreviated to OHMSS for the sake of brevity), but for the sake of catching-up the less-informed, things played out something like this. Sean Connery, who rose to international fame after taking on the role of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, became disenfranchised with the part and the behind-the-scenes tribulations which went into making each installment of the series. Following the fifth Bond film, You Only Live Twice, Connery announced that he was stepping away from the part. The hunt was on for an actor to fill the secret agent’s shoulder holster and actors such as Michael Gambon, Jeremy Brett, and John Gavin were all considered for the role. The ultimate successor to Connery was Australian-native George Lazenby, a former car salesman turned male model. Lazenby won over Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman and joined Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas to headline the latest Bond film. He had international fame and fortune almost overnight.

And then he gave it all up.

To this day, OHMSS is something of an oddity in the Bond franchise and, for many years, oftentimes languished towards the bottom of lists ranking the Bond films. It has begun to gain renewed recognition, however, and some hold that it is in fact one of the best of the franchise. Some fans are even willing to say that OHMSS is the pinnacle of the series’ run. I, for one, fall into the former camp, and the film sits very comfortably in my top five Bond films. It is one which I have returned to many times and I tend to find something new whenever I do. So, today, I wish to dig a little deeper in what is probably the most sidelined film in the James Bond franchise.

I think it is safe to say that the weakest part of OHMSS is George Lazenby. Very simply, he lacks charisma. When the script calls for Lazenby’s Bond to be suave and debonair, Lazenby instead comes off as wooden and unconvincing. He may look good in a tailored suit, but he’s simply just a guy in a nice suit. He never feels like James Bond. However, in the more humane moments, Lazenby does succeed. His tender scene with Diana Rigg’s Tracy in which he proposes marriage is thoroughly convincing. Lazenby also fares well in the action department. The fight scene in his hotel room early in the film (not to mention the cold open described above) both display a true physical prowess. Later, during the assault on Ernst Stravro Blofeld’s lair, Lazenby’s Bond slides down an icy walkway on his stomach whilst firing a machine gun. Again, the effect is thoroughly convincing.

To be perfectly fair, George Lazenby was not an actor. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was, in fact, his first feature film (a few commercial appearances not withstanding). For that, he should certainly be applauded, because I think few first-time actors could step in front of a camera and be James Bond. Lazenby gave the role his best shot, consciously never mirroring Sean Connery too much and giving his own interpretation, and that too is commendable. And, surely, the task of following in the footsteps of Sean Connery was an unenviable and daunting task to say the least; the specter of legions of Bond fans hanging over Lazenby could have helped matters any. Contemporary reviewers naturally compared Lazenby to Connery and the comparison was an unfavorable one. Like Bond in the film, Lazenby didn’t emerge totally unscathed.

Mrs. Peel turned Mrs. Bond
Of course, a weak Bond is a big strike against any Bond film, but OHMSS is not mired by this fact. In fact, it seems to compensate in almost every other respect. The cast is one of the strongest in any Bond film starting with Diana Rigg’s “Bond girl” Tracy di Vicenzo who, by the end of the film, has become Bond’s wife. Dame Diana was by 1969 already internationally famous for her role in the endearing spy television series, The Avengers, starring as leather-cat-suit-wearing Emma Peel opposite Patrick Macnee’s bowler-wearing, umbrella-toting John Steed. Rigg brings some of the same feistiness and charisma which marked Mrs. Peel to Tracy. She’s a free-spirited, independent woman and still remains one of the best – if not the very best – “Bond girl” in the entire series. Her tragic end is genuinely moving.

Then, there’s Telly Savalas as Blofeld, Bond’s arch-nemesis and mastermind behind the criminal empire SPECTRE. Throughout the early Connery films, Blofeld was only hinted at (appearing as a mysterious figure seen only as a pair of hands stroking a white cat) and finally appeared in the flesh played by Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice. Yet, Savalas manages to make more of an impact than both the creepy Pleasance and the campy Charles Gray who turned up as Blofeld in OHMSS’s follow-up Diamonds Are Forever. Savalas may come off more as a thug than a real criminal mastermind, but he is so watchable and convincing as someone who loves to be on the wrong side of the law.

Gabriele Ferzetti as Tracy’s father, Draco, and Ilse Steppat as Blofeld’s right-hand woman, Irma Bunt, round out the central players, and Lois Maxwell, Bernard Lee, and Desmond Llewellyn reprise their usual roles as Miss Moneypenny, M, and Q respectively. Lee’s M, more brusque and curmudgeonly than usual, is especially memorable in this outing.

Bond and the "Angels of Death"
(A word should also be said about Blofeld’s “Angels of Death”; the assembled young women who will unwittingly carry out his plan for world domination. Beyond adding a little eye-candy and modeling some perfectly ridiculous outfits to ‘60s audiences, a number deliver good performances especially Angela Scoular as Ruby. Eagle-eyed fans will also notice famed English starlet Joanna Lumley amongst the group as well.)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service features one of the better scripts in the Bond series as well. Adapted by Richard Maibaum from Ian Fleming’s novel, the screenplay stays remarkably faithful to the source material; something of an oddity for the time as it was at this point in the Bond series’ history that fidelity to Fleming was going by the wayside and in some cases, nothing was retained from the originals but a title.

The screenplay also allows for some fine action set-pieces. The attack on Blofeld’s lair, Piz Gloria, was probably meant to be the real standout, but the skiing scenes are where OHMSS really shines. James Bond would return to the slopes a few more times over the years (including the pretty much unmatchable ski jump stunt from The Spy Who Loved Me), but the ski scenes in OHMSS, choreographed and photographed by Willy Bogner, are truly remarkable. The skiing set-pieces are fluid and beautiful to watch. It’s worth mentioning that the Blu ray release of OHMSS showcases these scenes beautifully. Truly, of all the Bond films restored to higher definition Blu ray, OHMSS is surely one of the best-looking of the lot.

Lastly, any discussion of OHMSS is incomplete without mention of John Barry’s remarkable score. The instrumental piece-of-music used as the film’s main theme has become just as synonymous with the series as the Bond theme, and it is just as exciting a piece to listen to as well. To those who say that the score is Barry’s best truly are not far off the mark.

So, even if OHMSS may lack a charismatic James Bond, it manages to make up for it in so many other ways. The constituent parts which make up the film, when analyzed, are excellent on their own and, when added up, are very nearly perfect. As I mentioned above, OHMSS resides near the very top of my list of favorite Bond films and, if I may be so bold (and with apologies to From Russia with Love, Thunderball, and even Goldfinger) I think it is the best Bond film of the 1960s.

As mentioned above, OHMSS opened to lukewarm reviews upon its initial release; critics invariably comparing George Lazenby to Sean Connery. Even as the film went into release, Lazenby had already declared that he was not going to pursue the role of Bond further. Having become just as disenfranchised with the Bond franchise as Connery before him, Lazenby left the movies behind, only later in life suggesting that he regretted not doing another film thus forever becoming known as the guy who was only Bond once. Of course, what came next is well known: with the relative flop of OHMSS, producers Broccoli and Saltzman scrambled to restore the franchise to its former glory. They approached Connery to return to the series and, enticing him with a then astronomical $1.25 million paycheck, Connery was lured back for Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Tonally, the campy, bouncy Diamonds could not be further from the downbeat OHMSS and, if watched back-to-back, the viewer is liable to suffer from whiplash.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service may still be considered the oddball Bond film, but its status is not necessarily a negative moniker. In a franchise which has lasted over fifty years, its unique presentation makes it a really one-of-a-kind Bond movie.

And, for all of the other accolades and praise which one can heap onto many of the other Bond films, none of the other fellas to have played James Bond can say that they appeared, like George Lazenby, in a film has enduringly unique as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

300 Words on "Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte" (1964)

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and its follow-up, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte are very similar films. Both were directed by Robert Aldrich. Both feature Bette Davis presiding over a large, creepy mansion. Both feature former starlets of Hollywood’s Golden Age either suffering or tormenting Ms. Davis – in Baby Jane it’s Joan Crawford on the receiving-end of the abuse and in Charlotte it’s Olivia de Havilland supplying it. Both movies feature character actor Victor Buono chewing the scenery like few others could in the 1960s, and both films feature extended prologues set many years in the past which set up the central mystery and conflict.

However, to say that Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte surpasses its predecessor would be a difficult statement to defend. Charlotte is a much slower paced film and, though it does supply a handful of gaudy moments of pure Grand Guignol horror, they are few and far between. And, while Bette Davis’ child-like act worked in Baby Jane, there are times when her performance as the titular Charlotte can become rather grating.

Criticisms aside, however, there is a good deal to like about Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte. It’s a more focused film than Baby Jane and feels less frantic in its story-telling. Its sense of foreboding doom-and-gloom is also stronger, and Davis and Buono are able to share the scenery-chewing duties with Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead who both seem to be having a whale of a time.

Though Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte was conceived as the companion piece to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, its only when the two films are separated that it can be judged on its own merits. Its unique story – a cross between Streetcar Named Desire and Gaslight – is engaging and proves that Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte can easily stand on its own. 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Back in the Water - The Appeal of "Jaws 2"

“There is a creature alive today who has survived millions of years of evolution. Without change. Without passion. And without logic. It lives to kill. A mindless, eating machine. It will attack and devour…anything. It is as if God created the Devil and gave him Jaws.” – Trailer narration for Jaws (1975)

Jaws is my favorite film. It is, to me, the perfect movie: a tightly-wound, exciting thriller with great characters, memorable writing and expert direction which comes together to create a truly brilliant whole. It is one of those movies which as soon as it is over I feel like watching again and, as a result, I found myself watching Jaws once every few months. While some may wish to temper their exposure to their favorite films in an effort to prevent them from feeling stale and tired, I have never encountered this problem when watching Steven Spielberg’s masterwork.

About a month ago, I got to see Jaws screened at a local movie theater – my first time watching the film with a large group – and I can only describe it as an incredibly fun experience. The theater was bursting at the seams; the nearly 600-seat venue almost sold out. Parents were bringing their children for their first viewing; families huddled together with their popcorn as the old Universal logo faded into life on the big screen; the audience cheered – cheered – when Chief Brody uttered the famed “You’re going to need a bigger boat" line and there were audible shrieks when Ben Gardner’s disembodied head pops into view giving Matt Hooper the fright of his life. All of this proved that Jaws has reached a very special peak for movies – it is a truly timeless experience and should be considered just as much of a classic as Gone With the Wind and Casablanca.

Despite these accolades, the Jaws franchise very quickly went off the rails: the final sequel, Jaws: The Revenge has also achieved something of a mythic status but for very different reasons as it is routinely considered to be one of the worst movies of all time. However, the first Jaws sequel, Jaws 2, is a curious example of an interesting sequel. Jaws 2 is nowhere near as good a film as its predecessor and yet it still manages to stand on its own and doesn’t plumb the depths (no pun intended) that Jaws 3D and Jaws: The Revenge managed to reach. While I don’t find myself watching it as often as the first, every once in a while I will find myself overcome with an inexplicable desire to watch Jaws 2; a desire which is simply not satisfied until I have popped the DVD into the drive and had my fill of shlocky shark fun. What makes Jaws 2 somehow work?


I do not remember the first time that I ever watched Jaws. There are a number of memories I have of watching the film as a kid, but no distinct time. However, I remember watching Jaws 2 for the first time very clearly. My Dad and I rented it from Blockbuster (I’m doing a pretty job of dating myself there) and watching it that night. And, honestly, as a kid I remember being scared. Jaws didn’t manage to freak me out and, to this day, though I am not one to venture far out into the ocean, I cannot say that I find Jaws a truly scary movie. Jaws 2, on the other hand, still manages to elicit a chill or two.

And, if I had to pinpoint what makes Jaws 2 succeed on some level, it would be its ability to scare. Whereas the original Jaws is the textbook definition of a capable thriller, Jaws 2 is a horror film. When I describe Jaws 2 to people I describe it as a slasher movie on the ocean, and I think the description is an apt one. Your run-of-the-mill slasher film is populated by a group of teenagers who are picked off one by one in increasingly devastating ways by a killer who seems to be an indestructible force of nature, and the killer is finally vanquished in the closing minutes by an older authority figure (who usually carries a title of some kind). Jaws 2 has all of these things: the cookie-cutter teens, the shark, and the heroic Chief Brody there to save the day.

I will say, to the film’s credit, that its story is a unique one and does not try to repeat the formula which worked so well in Jaws. (Jaws is, after all, a nearly perfect self-contained story and to repeat it beat-by-beat would be nearly ludicrous.) What is more, director Jeannot Szwarc (like Spielberg before him new to films at the time of his helming a Jaws film) is no Steven Spielberg, but he does manage to stage a number of effective sequences. The shark attack which claims the life of teenager, Eddie, is truly scary and later, the scene in which the shark devours the sympathetic Marge is powerful stuff too. So powerful in fact that many viewers to this day swear that they can recall seeing extended footage of the attack when the film first played on television, and while this hardly rivals the power of the imagination utilized to devastating effect in the original, it is a point worth noting nevertheless.

The rubber shark in all its glory (?)

Despite these merits, Jaws 2 is hardly a slasher film on par with the likes of John Carpenter’s Halloween which was released later the same year. The decision to show the shark more often works greatly to the film's detriment and there is hardly a scene that goes by where the great white doesn’t look fake and rubbery. Roy Scheider, who had great reservations about returning to the series and appeared in the film under some protest, looks visibly bored throughout, and there is a lack of internal logic which runs through the entire movie: while it is may be a visual spectacle, the scene in which the shark devours a helicopter sent to save the kids is so lacking in credibility that it becomes laughable.

But, as I said above, Jaws 2 knows what it is: a horror film and, on that level, it works. It does not – and will never – reach the heights which Jaws reached, but if one is hoping to satisfy the need for some shlock and not a few chills, then it is a movie which fits the bill admirably. And, certainly, Jaws 2 is leagues (water pun intended that time) superior to the films which followed it. Both Jaws 3D and Jaws: The Revenge are terrible movies and can only really be enjoyed if one is ready to watch some world-class bad cinema.


Horror films thrive on sequels and milking the life from a worthy first installment has never been uncommon. Aside from a few exceptions (most notably The Bride of Frankenstein), few horror sequels surpass or even equal their original movies. Sequels to The Exorcist, The Omen, Halloween, and a plethora of others have failed to live up to the legacy of their origins and some are even embarrassments to the bona-fide classics. Jaws 2, however, manages to be a watchable and competent sequel. Sure, it is no Jaws, but its virtues are not hard to come by. It remains, after nearly 40 years, an affecting and scary movie and while I cannot imagine any audience in the world bursting into applause at it the way they do to Jaws, I think they would be easily glued to their seats; perhaps even white-knuckled as that dorsal fin breaks the ocean’s surface once more.

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…the legend continues

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

300 Words on "Dunkirk" (2017)

(Spoiler Free)

I saw Dunkirk in 70mm IMAX which was a truly immersive experience. The screen occupied an entire wall of the theater, the walls and floor shook, and the audience members actually jumped in their seats. And yet, I can confidently say that if you did not see Christopher Nolan’s latest film in this manner, it would still have made just as great an impact.

With a filmography consisting of great films all vying for the title of his best, Dunkirk manages to rank near the top for Nolan. It is an incredibly tense experience from the beginning, the action never letting up for a single moment. The film’s utilization of a nonlinear storyline only heightens the suspense, and there are scenes where the intercutting between one tense moment to another is nearly dizzying. Because of this, Dunkirk plays out more like a thriller, but immerses its viewer in the conflict itself perhaps better than any other war movie.

The film is also short on dialogue which only further emphasizes the dramatic set-pieces which make up the heart of Dunkirk. Despite this, the cast is simply brilliant. Fionn Whitehead serves as the audience surrogate in the midst of all the mayhem, and Whitehead, as a newcomer to the screen, holds his own with a cast of luminaries including Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy, and Kenneth Branagh. Former boy band member Harry Styles may walk away with top honors simply stealing the show in some scenes. Who would have thought?

Dunkirk is a powerful movie not only in its breathless execution, but its resonant message. Once seen, it will linger long in the memory and while it may be hard to say that it eclipses other Nolan films like The Prestige or Inception in terms of imagination, it may very well be the director’s finest hour.