Movie Review: “Kingsman: The Secret Service”

Starring
Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Sofia Boutella, Mark Strong, Michael Caine, Sophie Cookson
Director
Matthew Vaughn

After subverting the superhero genre with “Kick-Ass,” the creative team behind that film (director Matthew Vaughn, co-writer Jane Goldman and comic book writer Mark Millar) has returned with an equally over-the-top homage to spy movies. Developed separately from the Millar-penned comic on which it’s loosely based, Vaughn’s film improves on that version in just about every way, delivering a smarter (but no less absurd) take on Cold War-era spy movies that embraces as many genre conventions as it breaks. A mix of the old and new school, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is a lot cooler than its clunky title might imply – a hyper-stylized, gratuitously explicit action film that would make James Bond blush. After all, this is a movie that cartoonishly blows up Barack Obama’s head without even blinking.

The movie opens 17 years earlier when, while on a mission in the Middle East, secret agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is unable to prevent the death of a fellow agent. Feeling personally responsible, he visits the man’s wife (Samantha Womack) and young son, Eggsy, giving them a medal with a special phone number on the back should they ever need a favor. Fast-forward to present day and Eggsy (Taron Egerton) has grown up to become a lower-class delinquent who’s wasted his incredible potential. When Eggsy gets in trouble with the law, Harry bails him out, eventually recruiting him as a candidate for the same secret agency his father worked for, the Kingsmen, an independent organization of highly-trained agents who put their lives on the line to protect the world. While Eggsy undergoes the ultra-competitive training program (with only one recruit earning a spot as a Kingsman), Harry investigates a potential threat involving a tech-genius billionaire named Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) who wants to save the Earth from the dangerous effects of climate change by wiping out most of humanity.

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Movie Review: “Fifty Shades of Grey”

Starring
Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eloise Mumford, Jennifer Ehle, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk, Marcia Gay Harden
Director
Sam Taylor-Johnson

It’s well established that “Fifty Shades of Grey” began life as fan fiction by a “Twilight” devotee who was frustrated with the lack of sex in the books, and that’s fair; there is but one sex scene in the entire series, after all. However, this married mother of two (!) didn’t just write about Bella and Edward (here named Ana and Christian) having sex: she wrote about them having rough sex, BDSM-type stuff that tries to present itself as a confident woman owning her sexuality, when in fact the sex is completely about him, and he is constantly looking for reasons to “punish” her. Christian Grey is basically the Patrick Bateman (“American Psycho”) of sex, to the point where “American Psycho” author Bret Easton Ellis saw so much of Patrick in Christian that he actually begged “Grey” author E. L. James for the right to write the film’s screenplay. She turned him down. That’s unfortunate; he might have made something watchable out of this.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a college senior who does her journalism major roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford) a solid by doing an interview on her behalf when Kate gets the flu. The interviewee is Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), a 27-year-old billionaire who is giving her school’s commencement speech. Ana is intimidated by Christian – yet conducts the most passive-aggressive interview in history – but something about Ana intrigues Christian. He visits her at the hardware store where she works, and later tracks her down at a bar after she drunk calls him to tell him off. She wakes up in his hotel room, and after a brief (and hilariously awkward) chat, it is clear that there is chemistry between them, and each wants to consummate the relationship.

However, Christian plays a different sport than Ana does. He doesn’t want a lover: he wants a submissive (honest to God quote from the movie: “I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard.”), and asks Ana to look over a lengthy contract that spells out the terms of their sexual relationship, unaware that Ana is a virgin. Once he discovers this, he softens his approach and gives her the loving first experience that girls wish for, but after that, it’s all business, and business is this: you will do what I want, when I want, or you will be punished. Ana refuses to sign the contract, though the two continue to see each other. They have lots of sex, he spanks and whips her, and despite his insistence that he is not a candy and flowers kind of guy, Ana thinks that this arrangement has the potential to blossom into something greater. Fool.

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Movie Review: “What We Do in the Shadows”

Starring
Taika Waititi, Jemaine Clement, Jonathan Brugh, Cori Gonzalez-Macuer, Stuart Rutherford, Ben Fransham
Directors
Taika Waititi & Jemaine Clement

“What We Do in the Shadows” sounds like a bad comedy sketch – a “Real World”-esque reality show with vampires in place of horny millennials – but it’s actually a really funny satire of the vampire subgenre that’s done in the deadpan style of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. Of course, because of the loose, improvisational nature of the film, not every joke lands, but the ones that do are laugh-out-loud hilarious. As a result, the movie can feel a bit uneven at times, especially when it begins to lose steam in the latter half, though that’s partially due to the fact that many of the best gags occur early on. And while that inconsistency prevents it from being the comedy masterpiece that some people have suggested, the funny bits (as well as the ones you’ll likely miss the first time around) are what make “What We Do in the Shadows” such an entertaining import worthy of repeat viewings.

Filmed in the months leading up to the annual Unholy Masquerade Ball, a documentary crew granted protection from its subjects follows a group of vampires – including Victorian dandy Viago (Taika Waititi), medieval torturer Vladimir (Jemaine Clement), resident bad boy Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and 8,000-year-old Petyr (Ben Fransham) – living together in Wellington, New Zealand as they deal with the dull minutiae of everyday life as an ancient bloodsucker. But the vampire lifestyle isn’t as glamorous as it’s hyped up to be, which unwitting victim Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) soon learns when he’s invited to one of their dinner parties, only to be served as the main course. After being sucked dry and given the mixed blessing of eternal life, Nick attempts to make the most of his newfound vampire abilities, while ushering his fellow housemates into the 21st century with the help of human friend and computer specialist Stu (Stuart Rutherford).

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Blu Tuesday: Nightcrawler, Laggies and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Nightcrawler”

WHAT: When he witnesses a freelance cameraman filming a car accident one night, go-getter Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) believes that he’s found his calling. After trading some stolen loot to a pawn shop in exchange for a camcorder and police scanner, Louis hits the ground running, eventually selling his first footage to sleazy news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo). But once Louis gets a taste of success, he’ll do whatever it takes to get the best shot, even if that means crossing lines that aren’t meant to be crossed.

WHY: Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” might just be the most frightening film of the 2014 – not in the scares it delivers (because there are none), but rather the chilling peek that it provides behind the curtain of a completely different kind of horror: local TV news. This isn’t the first time that subject has been satirized before in cinema, but “Nightcrawler” tells its darkly comic tale of immorality in the newsroom through the eyes of a Rupert Pupkin-esque antihero more terrifying than any masked killer. The cinematic influences are boundless in Gilroy’s directorial debut, but that hasn’t stopped him from producing a first-rate thriller highlighted by a career-best performance from Jake Gyllenhaal. The actor has been taking bigger risks lately with darker, more mature material, and Louis Bloom is the pinnacle of this career rebirth – a wickedly entrancing and transformative piece of acting that’s fully deserving of an Oscar nomination. Rene Russo is also really good as the Dr. Frankenstein to Gyllenhaal’s monster, feeding into his sociopathic tendencies with an equally amoral disposition, but the movie simply wouldn’t work without Gyllenhaal’s commanding performance, because it’s the quiet intensity he brings to the role that makes Bloom such a fascinating character.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by writer/director Dan Gilroy, producer Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy, as well as the making-of featurette “If It Bleeds, It Leads.”

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Laggies”

WHAT: After her high school sweetheart (Mark Webber) suddenly proposes after ten years of dating, slacker woman-child Megan (Keira Knightley) panics, running away for the week to collect her thoughts under the guise of a self-improvement seminar. Instead, Megan hides out in the home of her new 16-year-old friend, Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), whose single father, Craig (Sam Rockwell), is more than a little bewildered by the whole situation.

WHY: Lynn Shelton loves a good awkward situation, and though the central plot of her latest movie isn’t as uncomfortable to watch as the ones in past films like “Humpday” and “Your Sister’s Sister,” the idea of a grown woman hanging out with a bunch of teenagers is nothing if not strange. Thankfully, “Laggies” finds the heart and humor in Megan’s newfound friendship instead of making it seem pathetic or creepy, and a large part of that is down to Keira Knightley’s charming performance. After spending nearly a decade starring almost exclusively in stuffy period dramas, it’s nice to see the actress mixing it up with more modern roles, because it gives her the chance to showcase another side of her personality. Knightley brings a childlike energy to Megan that makes her immensely likable, and she’s supported by a pair of solid performances from Chloe Grace Moretz and Sam Rockwell in good but unremarkable roles. “Laggies” is without a doubt Shelton’s most mainstream movie to date, albeit with a decidedly indie flair, and while it’s almost too sweet and innocent to leave much of a lasting impression, it’s also not a bad way to spend two hours.

EXTRAS: There’s an audio commentary by director Lynn Shelton, a pair of production featurettes and some deleted scenes.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

“Kill the Messenger”

WHAT: While working as a Senior Investigative Reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) uncovers a story about the CIA permitting the sale of cocaine in the U.S. to fund a rebellion in Nicaragua, unwittingly putting his career and family in danger when he becomes the target of a smear campaign.

WHY: Some actors may be hesitant about “selling out” by doing a big Hollywood blockbuster, but if successful, it can go a long way towards getting smaller, more personal films off the ground. Case in point: “Kill the Messenger,” a passion project for star/producer Jeremy Renner that probably wouldn’t have been made were it not for the actor’s involvement in a certain billion-dollar franchise. But while Gary Webb’s true-life story about the cost of seeking out the truth is certainly interesting enough to warrant the big screen treatment, the film is a pretty conventional political thriller that skates by on Renner’s strong performance. The supporting cast is also stacked with talent, including Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt and Michael Sheen, but with the exception of Rosemarie DeWitt as Gary’s wife, many of them are glorified cameos. The biggest problem with “Kill the Messenger” is that it’s a tale of two halves – the investigation and the backlash that Gary received as a result of his report – and while the former makes for some engaging viewing, the latter portion seems to poke more holes in the story than support it, despite a convenient piece of text at the end that confirms Gary’s findings were correct. Still, it’s a pretty humdrum ending for a story that so many people were passionate about telling.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary by director Michael Cuesta, 10 minutes of deleted scenes, and a trio of short featurettes on the cast, filming in Georgia and real-life drug trafficker “Freeway Ricky” Ross, played by Michael K. Williams in the movie.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: “The Voices”

Starring
Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver, Ella Smith
Director
Marjane Satrapi

Ryan Reynolds has starred in some pretty big movies over the last five years, and while they’ve helped cement his place on the Hollywood A-list, many of them (“Green Lantern,” “R.I.P.D.”) have done more harm than good for his career. The actor has had really bad luck when it comes to blockbuster filmmaking, but he’s proven that he can carry a movie on his own, particularly when there aren’t hundreds of millions of dollars at stake. In fact, he’s done some of his best work in smaller independent films like “Buried” and “Adventureland,” and that trend continues with “The Voices,” a flawed but amusing dark comedy that plays like a delightfully strange mix between “Doctor Dolittle” and “American Psycho.”

Jerry Hickfang (Reynolds) just wants to fit in. A socially awkward but overall nice guy who works at the Milton Bathtub Factory in the small town of the same name, Jerry is trying to lead a normal life in the wake of a family tragedy with the help of his psychiatrist (Jacki Weaver). When he’s asked to help plan his company’s annual picnic alongside bubbly British import Fiona (Gemma Arterton), Jerry builds up the nerve to ask her on a date. But Fiona stands him up in order to go out with some work friends, and when their paths cross later that night, he inadvertently murders her in the middle of the woods. At least, he thinks it’s an accident, but Jerry hasn’t been taking his meds lately, which is why he’s starting to hear voices – namely his loyal dog Bosco, who speaks in a Southern drawl, and his sociopathic cat Mr. Whiskers, who speaks in a Scottish brogue (both voiced by Reynolds) – urging him to kill again.

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