Kingsman: The Golden Circle – Film Review

Though Matthew Vaughn has many talents, you suspect being a great poker player isn’t one of them. In an era when the makers of the biggest blockbusters are going to extreme lengths to keep their major plot points under wraps, the Kingsman director gleefully splays his cards on the table with a giant gurning grin at the earliest opportunity.

The return of Colin Firth’s suave super spy Harry in Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a prime example. Despite being relieved of his grey matter by Samuel L. Jackson’s lisping villain in the first movie, Vaughn cheerfully revealed that the classy sleuth would live to don a pair of shiny oxford brogues once again as soon as this inevitable follow-up was confirmed.

And while it’s an inarguable thrill to see Firth back in umbrella-twirling action, his entirely expected revival is indicative of this so-so sequel’s biggest flaw. The Golden Circle once again brims with Bond-turned-up-to-11 swagger and gloriously OTT thrills, but it lacks the wild creative spark that made the original such a delirious delight.

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We’re a year on from the first movie and hoodie-turned-hero Eggsy (Taron Egerton) has officially joined the sartorially immaculate ranks of the Kingsmen and happily settled down with his Swedish princess girlfriend. That is, until a catastrophic attack wipes out almost all of the Kingsman agents in one fell-swoop, leaving Eggsy and Mark Strong’s tech genius as the only survivors. In desperate need of back-up, the duo head across the pond to team up with their brash American cousins The Statesman in order to take down Julianne Moore’s off-kilter drug baron Poppy Adams before she unleashes her plan to monopolise the world’s drug trade.

From the opening brutally bonkers scrap inside a black cab, Vaughn’s intention is clear as he doubles down on all the mayhem that made this movie’s precursor so much fun. The locations are more extravagant; the 007-inspired gadgets are even more outlandish, with a laser lasso, killer robot dogs with drill-bit teeth and an indestructible henchman with a claw crane arm just some of the daft gadgets dreamed up for this follow-up. Even the action has been amplified from the Secret Service (a movie which culminates in a multicoloured firework display of exploding heads), the camera seemingly defying gravity as it spins and swivels fluidly through dizzying set-piece after dizzying set-piece.

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And then there’s the introduction of the American contingent, a brash and flashy outfit hidden away in a Kentucky bourbon distillery where all the agents have booze-related codenames. Whiskey, played with grit and plenty of Southern charm by Pedro Pascal; Halle Berry’s Ginger Ale, essentially the yank equivalent to Mark Strong’s guy in the chair; Champagne (Jeff Bridges), the team’s benevolent boss; and the rough-around-the-edges Tequila, played by Channing Tatum with tobacco-chewing enthusiasm, right up until he’s inexplicably sidelined for almost the entire movie. After initially playing up the differing styles between the refined Kingsman and the honky-tonk Statesman, it’s slightly disappointing that these culture clash elements not used more effectively, with the two-sides learning to get along surprisingly quickly, a few mild jibes aside.

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As action packed as it may be, the movie is missing the heartfelt emotional core of its predecessor. The original movie saw Firth’s sharp-suited agent training the chavvy Eggsy in the art of sophisticated espionage. While The Golden Circle tries to reverse this arc with Eggsy hoping to coax an amnesiac Harry back into action, it doesn’t have the same powerful resonance as the original. All of which leaves Eggsy without much of a journey, except for his half-baked attempts to stay faithful to his girlfriend, which is only really tested during a gross Glastonbury-set sequence when he has to seduce a target. And even then he calls his girlfriend to ask permission first.

Moore’s cheerfully off-kilter villain is also underused, her perky violence feeling only mildly threatening as she spends the entire movie stuck in her 50s Americana-inspired South American lair (think Graceland mashed-up with the Aztec zone in The Crystal Maze) offing henchman just for the hell of it.

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The movie also fails to justify it’s two-and-a-half hour runtime with a predictable plot that follows a near-identical structure to the original – not to mention countless Bond movies. It doesn’t help that all the surprises were let out of the bag before the film was released. As a result Harry’s return struggles to have the desired impact, being met with grateful relief rather than shock after almost an hour of needless teasing. Likewise, his journey back to his old self holds no suspense – we saw him fighting alongside Eggsy in the trailers and so never doubt that he’ll be alright again soon enough.

For all its exuberant, brazen thrills, The Golden Circle simply doesn’t hold attention or capture the imagination like it’s predecessor, coming across as an all-too familiar journey to a destination we’ve visited many time before. Maybe next time Vaughn will manage to keep his cards closer to his chest.

Runtime: 141 mins (approx.)
Director: Matthew Vaughn;
Screenwriters: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn;
Stars: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Julianne Moore, Pedro Pascal

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Mother! – Film Review

Whether it’s Jennifer Connelly’s desperate drug addict in Requiem for a Dream or Natalie Portman’s barmy ballerina in Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky seems to draw an almost sadistic thrill from dragging his desirable female leads through hell. Even so, the torment inflicted upon Jennifer Lawrence’s titular Mother in the director’s latest psychological horror is beyond anything we’ve seen before.

A dense, deranged and distressingly breathtaking piece of art, it’s no wonder Mother! has polarised critics, with many praising it’s sickening beauty and others dismissing its befuddling plot as nothing more than auteuristic twaddle. The truth, as if often does in these cases, lies somewhere in the middle. Mother! is an undoubtedly astounding work of artistic vision, both horrific and mesmerising; but in his haste to disturb and disorientated his audience, Aronofsky loses sight of exactly what he’s trying to say.

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The movie starts off in compelling fashion, resembling a slow-burn chamber piece as Lawrence’s Mother devotedly restores the previously gutted home she shares with her husband (Javier Bardem), a poet wrestling with his latest work. Their idyllic seclusion is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Ed Harris’ wheezing doctor and, the next day, his boozed-up wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). Invited to stay for as long as they like by Bardem, the destructive couple make themselves comfortable, breaking precious heirlooms and asking invasive questions. It’s not long before Mother starts to worry that her husband has opened the door to something far worse than passing strangers.

Aronofsky’s direction is masterfull in these early scenes, gently dialling up the tension and paranoia by drip-feeding jarring sounds (amplified by the absence of a soundtrack) and unsettling images as Mother’s anxieties take shape. And unsettling is most certainly the right word. Like Hogwarts, if J.K. Rowling had written the Harry Potter series while suffering a bad trip on LSD, the house has a mischievous life of its own. The walls shake, the doors don’t lock, and the floors ooze blood from human-like orifices. Despite her desire to make it a model home, Mother is a prisoner here, never leaving the confines of the house and shot either in tight close-up or from her own dizzying perspective. It’s a claustrophobic experience, but also an exhilarating one.

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Not that any of it prepares you for a brutal and bewildering final act that’s the closest thing to an actual living nightmare ever committed to film. Time seems to lose all meaning as the walls shift and mutate in the blink of an eye and all manner of frightening apparitions storm the scene, culminating in one sequence so vile and vicious, it will likely be too grotesque for many.

The technical skill on display here is impressive, with Aronofsky seamlessly mashing together a discordant collection of genres and influences. Yet, as his visual ambitions expand and become weirder, he loses sight of his story. Mother! works best as an intimate study of maternal anxiety, with Lawrence powerless to prevent the dangerous forces of the world from invading her perfect home and laying ruin to everything she holds dear.

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But as Aronofsky’s roller-coaster of bizarre despair shifts into overdrive, he over complicates matters by throwing even more ideas into the mix. Religion, family, sexuality and the crumbling of civilisation are all exposed and plastered across the screen. Still, Aronofsky saves his most scathing work for a self-loathing portrait of the creative process as Bardem’s blocked artist becomes increasingly frustrated by his inability to find inspiration.

It’s this theme that eventually overwhelms and derails the plot. As the focus shifts more and more towards Bardem’s creations, Lawrence’s angelic Mother gets lost in the maelstrom, losing her voice and agency until she is little more than a (at times literal) punchbag for Bardem’s creative ambitions.

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There’s no denying that Mother! is a bold and unforgettable visual masterpiece, but as soon as Lawrence’s compelling presence fades into the background, the film descends into a cold, hollow mess of vivid imagery that lacks purpose or meaning. It seems that, like his onscreen counterpart, Aronofsky is guilty of letting the embers of a good idea burn out before that’ve truly caught fire.

Runtime: 121 mins (approx.)
Director/Screenwriter: Darren Aronofsky
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer

 

It – film review

For those who’ve ever pondered what the resultant movie would’ve looked like had Stephen Spielberg directed The Exorcist in 1973, Andy Muchietti’s It might be the closest you’ll get to the real thing. Pitched somewhere between The Goonies and E.T., if either of those movies had a penchant for perma-grinning demonic clowns or severed toddler arms being munched on like breadsticks, this latest adaptation of Stephen King’s classic tome is a heartfelt coming-of-age yarn that will pin you to your seat – even if it doesn’t always rattle your bones with fear.

Barring a few slight differential nods, this new version immediately sets itself apart from the Tim Curry-starring TV movie of 1990 by making some smart updates to the source material. Discarding the cumbersome back-and-forth timelines (saving the grown-up part of the story for a planned sequel), Muchietti shifts the action forward from the quaint 1950s to an Amblin-inspired 80s that often makes it feel like we’ve mistakenly dropped in on the set of Netflix’s Stranger Things.

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Like that TV show, It hones in on a band of young outsiders, each with their own identifiable dysfunction. There’s Richie, the class joker; Ben, the chubby new kid on the block; Miles, the orphaned son of a sheep farmer; Eddie, a germaphobic mama’s boy; Stan, whose dad is a rabbi; Bev, the snarky token female of the group; and stuttering B-B-Bill, whose little brother was believed to have drowned during a heavy storm.

Though it leads to a rather baggy and cliche-riddled opening third, Muchietti’s devotion to developing each member of The Losers Club pays off to great effect when the gang eventually face-off against Bill Skarsgard’s titular supernatural being. Each kid has their own frightening encounter with Pennywise, who often takes the form of their greatest fears.

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While the fright-factor of these encounters is fairly hit or miss – Bev’s bloody grapple with a tangle of sentient drain hair is chest-poundingly terrifying, while Eddie’s tussle with a decaying patient feels rote by comparison – they’re still intensely gripping throughout, the horrifying effect amplified because we understand the personal stakes for each kid and feel invested in their survival.

It helps that the entire cast are superb throughout, each perfectly capturing the carefree recklessness of youth and the paralysing fear of impending adulthood that courses through the veins of every adolescent.

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And then there’s Pennywise. Though Tim Curry’s iconic performance will continue to linger long in the memory, Skarsgard has successfully carved out his own distinct interpretation of the unhinged child killer. With his oversized porcelain dome, puffy cheeks, protruding bottom lip and grubby Victorian garb, Pennywise is a triumph of make-up and design. Yet it’s the subtle nuances in Skarsgard’s performance that really draw you in and disturb. The realisation that It’s eyes aren’t looking in the same direction as Skarsgard executes that slight malevolent smirk and a bead of drool drips from his chunky fangs will unsettle even the toughest of moviegoers.

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The only disappointment is that the resultant horrors don’t quite match the insidious power of Skarsgard’s performance. Muchietti leans heavily on well-worn horror tropes, with jump scares, spooky empty rooms and bone-snapping body horror all getting a thorough airing here. The practical effects work is mightily impressive, but the set-pieces themselves so often fail to elicit a stir simply because we’re so familiar with how they will play out. It’s telling that the most chilling scenes of all are the moments when the kids are subjected to real-life horrors, whether it’s a harrowing encounter with a rabid school bully or the uncomfortable touches of Bev’s lecherous father. Proof that sometimes the suggestion of evil can be even more potent that the real thing.

Nevertheless, It works surprisingly well as a standalone movie – a rarity in these times of tentpole blockbusters, unleashing an emotionally affecting tale that effectively relays the horror in King’s original novel while amplifying its heart. How Muchietti will make the second part as entertaining and satisfying is anyone’s guess, but the very prospect has us grinning like a bloodthirsty demonic clown whose just spotted his next victim.

Runtime: 133 mins (approx.)
Director: Andy Muchietti
Screenwriters: Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman, Cary Fukunaga
Stars: Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Taylor, Sophie Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Grazer