Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Compared to its predecessor, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is more about quantity than quality.

This sequel to the 2014 big-budget action saga ratchets up the technical bravado and the stunt casting within its globetrotting tale of espionage, while forgetting to incorporate a compelling story worthy of advancing the fledgling franchise.

Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the newcomer to the titular clandestine British spy organization in the first film, is now one of its most loyal and trusted agents, having adopted the same Galahad nickname as his late mentor (Colin Firth). As this installment opens, he’s ambushed by a former rival (Edward Holcroft) with a bionic arm that he uses to relay secrets to his new boss, Poppy (Julianne Moore), a ruthless international drug tycoon living in a jungle utopia.

Poppy’s plan for world domination — besides kidnapping Elton John (gleefully playing himself) for her own personal entertainment — involves exploiting the world’s drug addicts by adding a deadly toxin into trafficked shipments of marijuana, cocaine, and more.

She also dispatched henchmen to destroy the Kingsman headquarters in a London tailor shop, prompting Eggsy and his colleague, Merlin (Mark Strong), to flee to the United States, where they partner with an equivalent organization run by Champagne (Jeff Bridges) that’s housed inside a Kentucky whiskey distillery. Their combined efforts to locate Poppy before her scheme runs its course are endangered by conflicting loyalties and other complications.

From its opening fight sequence set inside a cramped taxicab, to the ensuing chase involving the aforementioned souped-up vehicle, to the two hours that follow, Kingsman: The Golden Circle keeps the pace lively. Between the seamless visual effects and the hyperkinetic action sequences — choreographed and edited together with creative precision — the film has style and attitude to spare.

The ensemble cast features plenty of recognizable faces, some of which only contribute for a few scenes (such as Channing Tatum and Halle Berry) and are presumably meant to contribute more to future sequels.

However, the convoluted screenplay by Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class), who also collaborated on the first film, doesn’t have much substance to supplement the spectacle. The villain seems one-dimensional, and there’s a lack of sociopolitical context given the contemporary climate in which the story is set.

As a result, the final showdown seems more predictable than provocative, revealing the film to be a compilation of half-realized ideas that never come full-circle.

 

Rated R, 141 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Sept. 22

Friend Request

Your Facebook account is probably safe as long as it doesn’t feature any advertisements for this laughably incoherent psychological thriller about popular college student Laura (Alycia Debnam-Carey) who befriends shy art scholar Marina (Liesl Ahlers) out of pity, then regrets the decision when Marina becomes aggressively clingy. Soon afterward, Laura’s social-media friends start dropping dead. The film hints at a more serious examination of cyberbullying, online privacy and the addictive allure of social media. But instead it becomes a predictable revenge saga focusing on witchcraft and the supernatural. Feeling outdated and lacking genuine frights for genre aficionados, this is an easy choice to unfriend. (Rated R, 92 minutes).

 

The King’s Choice

More than 70 years later, movie screens are still peppered with compelling true-life World War II stories. Take this visually striking chronicle detailing a three-day period in 1940 during which German war ships sailed into waters near Oslo, prompting King Haakon (Jesper Christensen) to confront the Nazis — and specifically an envoy (Karl Markovics) who favors a diplomatic resolution — rather than surrender, during an attempt to occupy the capital. The screenplay is sketchy in terms of specifics, yet even if there are missed opportunities along the way, director Erik Poppe (A Thousand Times Good Night) capably provides a broad overview of a pivotal chapter in European history. (Not rated, 133 minutes).

 

Last Rampage

Most of the true-life intrigue is drained from this tedious big-screen drama about Gary Tison (Robert Patrick), a notorious convicted killer who escaped from an Arizona prison in 1978 after his sons carried a cooler full of firearms into a jail visit. With the exception of Gary’s wife (Heather Graham), the family tried to flee to Mexico, becoming involved in another gruesome murder spree as a determined sheriff (Bruce Davison) tracks them. The bulk of the film focuses on that time period, with brief bursts of violence bridged together by quieter, character-driven moments. That’s when Patrick’s performance as a manipulative, scripture-quoting sociopath rises above the formula. (Rated R, 93 minutes).

 

Stronger

Jake Gyllenhaal’s committed performance carries this straightforward biopic from versatile director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) about Jeff Bauman, a blue-collar man who was wounded in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, then became a hero after helping to identify the perpetrators while having both of his legs amputated in the hospital. During his arduous rehab, he tries to reconcile with his girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany) while dealing with the exploitative nature of celebrity in a culture of trite hashtags and soundbites. By digging beneath the headlines, it’s an intimate yet uplifting character study that conveys gritty authenticity rather than settling for sentimentality or cheap catharsis. (Rated R, 119 minutes).

 

Woodshock

There are excessive shots of people sleeping in this lugubrious meditation on grief, and some moviegoers might join them. It follows an employee (Kirsten Dunst) at a northern California cannabis dispensary struggling with a guilty conscience stemming from a recent tragedy. Her drug-induced paranoia causes her to becomes withdrawn from her logger boyfriend (Joe Cole) and aggressive toward her boss (Pilou Asbaek). Sibling filmmakers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, who come from the fashion world, capture some haunting imagery amid the redwood forests. But their obsession with extraneous sounds and mundane details severely compromise the narrative momentum. The deliberately paced result doesn’t make much sense. (Rated R, 101 minutes).

Mother!

While it might be tempting to admire Mother! for its distinct vision or its technical prowess, the film is considerably more difficult to embrace on a narrative or emotional level.

This abstract exploration of a crumbling relationship from filmmaker Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) starts as a cautionary tale about excessive kindness to strangers and winds up spiraling into incoherent insanity. The muddled result admirably tries to inject moral complexity into a familiar scenario, but overall is more pretentious than provocative.

The story takes place almost entirely inside a rural house being renovated by a nameless poet (Javier Bardem) struggling with writer’s block and his wife (Jennifer Lawrence) who can’t commit to having a baby.

One night, a mysterious man (Ed Harris) knocks on the door, claiming to be a doctor needing a place to stay. She almost immediately claims the nosy interloper has become too intrusive, with the writer’s generosity causing some tension in their marriage. And that’s even before secrets are revealed, starting with the outsider’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) sharing some bitterness and resentment.

Along the way, plenty of creepy imagery and exaggerated sound effects suggest something more sinister that can’t be revealed here — except that the arrival of more visitors brings more chaos.

This bizarre combination of domestic drama, supernatural thriller and pitch-black absurdist comedy clearly isn’t for all tastes. Genre aficionados or Lawrence fans might become frustrated with the lack of traditional frights. For extended stretches, the film is heavy on mood and atmosphere but light on narrative momentum. It subversively tweaks familiar concepts, such as unwelcome intruders and nighttime noises in a creaky old house.

However, there are much bigger ideas about marriage, spirituality, fame, and life-versus-art packed into Aronofsky’s screenplay, which derives some suspense from its intriguing character dynamics.

The film is unsettling in spots and head-scratching in others, yet remains difficult to dismiss because of its audacious visual flourishes, such as the abundant use of hand-held close-ups as the camera follows the title character around the house.

Still, it’s easy to find annoyances. Lawrence’s character is too passive and helpless. The film is overstuffed with quirks and affectations. Despite the physical intimacy, the film remains emotionally detached.

The latter is the most problematic, as the superior craftsmanship is overwhelmed by Aronofsky’s relentlessly cynical outlook on humanity. The film might have you screaming for the wrong reasons.

 

Rated R, 121 minutes.

American Assassin

There’s nothing especially urgent or timely about American Assassin, even though it deals with plans to unleash a nuclear bomb and destroy the world.

That’s because the premise outweighs the execution in this lackluster vigilante thriller from director Michael Cuesta (Kill the Messenger), in which the obligatory twists and plot mechanics feel inauthentic and cause the excitement to dwindle.

Still grieving the loss of his parents, Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) watches his girlfriend killed in cold blood during an apparent terrorist attack on a Spanish beach, just moments after proposing. Naturally, he becomes bitter and eager for revenge, and hatches a plan to infiltrate the offending terror cell himself. While that fails, his efforts catch the attention of a government counterterrorism official (Sanaa Lathan) who sees him as the perfect recruit for a series of black ops missions.

That first act offers an intriguing perspective on the ongoing war on terror, even if it oversimplifies some of the sociopolitical details. It’s still preferable to what follows, such as the forced partnership between Rapp and his CIA-assigned trainer (Michael Keaton), a Cold War veteran and tough-love mentor whose drill-sergeant tactics cause friction with the brazen hotshot.

Even more problematic is the convoluted storyline about double agents, stolen plutonium, and an impending nuclear attack by a wide-ranging terror network masking its endgame with smaller attacks on civilian targets.

From there, the film navigates a predictably high-stakes, high-tech tale of conflicting loyalties while jet-setting among a handful of European and Middle Eastern locales, leading up to a ridiculous climax set aboard a runaway motorboat. And random jihadists are thrown in as plot devices, like countless other movies of this sort.

The book from which the screenplay is adapted — written by the late Vince Flynn — is chronologically the first of several stories involving the Rapp character, and presumably the plan is to launch a big-screen franchise, as well.

If that’s the case, hopefully future installments won’t squander the efforts of the charismatic O’Brien (The Maze Runner), who showcases his versatility and proves himself capable of handling the physical demands of a bona fide action star. He portrays a compelling character in search of a better movie.

 

Rated R, 111 minutes.

Brad’s Status

Midlife crises can manifest themselves in various ways, and in the case of the title character in Brad’s Status, they can be almost entirely self-inflicted.

However, watching a contemporary misanthrope wallow in self-pity and regret isn’t as depressing as it sounds in this incisive and well-acted character study that might allow you to appreciate your own situation by comparison.

Ben Stiller plays the title role, as the founder of a nonprofit who lives in Sacramento with his wife (Jenna Fischer) and teenage son, Troy (Austin Abrams), a talented pianist who’s looking at high-profile colleges.

That leads father and son to venture to Boston for an admissions interview at Harvard, which happens to be Troy’s top choice. Brad struggles to celebrate such a potential achievement, however, because he sees Troy’s college choice as a reflection on his own accomplishments and his avenue to avenging the perceived slights of his small group of college friends.

His ex-classmates have each attained greater fame and fortune, especially a smug entrepreneur (Michael Sheen) from whom Brad must begrudgingly request a favor.

Brad dwells on those jealousies and insecurities, as revealed through an internal monologue that comprises a large chunk of the dialogue. “There are times you realize your entire life’s work is absurd and you have nothing to show for it,” he laments to nobody in particular.

The screenplay by director Mike White — who wrote School of Rock, among others, and plays a small role in this film — throws around lots of metaphors while sprinkling in plenty of amusing quirks and sardonic observations to compensate for the self-absorbed brooding of its protagonist.

Brad’s Status manages to balance satirizing upper-middle class snobbery without indulging in it. The result is not as profound as it aspires to be, although it deals with relatable issues beneath the surface, such as keeping problems in perspective, letting go of past grudges, fathers living vicariously through their children, straightening out your priorities, and accepting your lot in life.

Still, White and Stiller deserve credit for honesty. Most of us know someone vaguely like Brad, who isn’t an easy target for sympathy, and the film doesn’t allow him a trite path to catharsis or epiphany. With modest ambitions, it scores accordingly.

 

Rated R, 101 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Sept. 15

Dayveon

Although it’s rough around the edges, this gritty and evocative coming-of-age drama shows promise on both sides of the camera. The title character (Devin Blackmon) is a 13-year-old in rural Arkansas still grieving the recent death of his older brother. So he aspires to join a local street gang while being outwardly hostile to his mother’s live-in boyfriend (Dontrell Bright), before a violent incident hits too close to home. Contrivances threaten to derail the screenplay by rookie director Amman Abbasi, although the film offers a raw yet sincere portrait of adolescence — thanks to expressive newcomer Blackmon — with a firm grasp on its characters and setting. (Not rated, 75 minutes).

 

In Search of Fellini

Cinephiles should appreciate this nostalgic coming-of-age drama that finds its own modest niche while capturing the spirit of the legendary Italian filmmaker. The story follows a wide-eyed young Cleveland woman (Ksenia Solo) still living at home with her overbearing yet terminally ill mother (Maria Bello). She becomes a Fellini devotee almost by accident, which prompts an impromptu trip to Italy to meet him in his final days. Of course, the resulting adventure becomes more about finding herself, as she navigates an odyssey of strange happenings that recall some Fellini favorites. After a too-cutesy start, the charming film sidesteps cliches and evocatively captures its exotic locales. (Rated R, 93 minutes).

 

Rat Film

Perhaps the world wasn’t clamoring for a documentary about the history of rat control in Baltimore, but this offbeat cinematic essay from rookie director Theo Anthony is hardly a pest. It uses the titular rodent — and checkered efforts at eradication — to launch a lighthearted exploration of the city’s legacy of urban decay and socioeconomic disparity among its human residents. The scattershot approach makes for an uneven result, although the interviews (with exterminators and others) and archival footage are generally fun and informative. While acknowledging the absurdity in his concept, Anthony channels Werner Herzog by making some compelling big-picture arguments within an amusing if slightly unsettling package. (Not rated, 82 minutes).

 

The Show

There’s plenty of emotion but precious little sense packed into this acerbic media satire that winds up more heavy-handed than provocative. It follows a jaded reality TV host (Josh Duhamel) whose latest project is a desperate ratings grab by his producer (Famke Janssen), depicting actual suicides for shock value and ostensibly to raise money for victims’ families. As expected, the resulting moral outrage from viewers only feeds its popularity. While effectively expressing some obvious cynicism about hypocrisy in contemporary television, the film can’t grasp the tonal dexterity necessary with such hot-button material, and instead drowns in sanctimony. The cast includes Giancarlo Esposito, who also directed. (Rated R, 104 minutes).

 

Vengeance: A Love Story

By now, Nicolas Cage can practically sleepwalk through these types of generic vigilante roles. In his latest low-budget revenge thriller, Cage plays a Gulf War veteran and Niagara Falls detective trying to fight the system and clean up the city. He becomes enamored with a single mother (Anna Hutchison) who is brutally raped one night in view of her young daughter (Talitha Bateman). Although the case seems open-and-shut, the resulting investigation encounters interference from a hotshot defense attorney (Don Johnson). Some effectively gritty action sequences, Cage’s tough-guy posturing, and a dorky title can’t elevate an otherwise mundane screenplay adapted from a Joyce Carol Oates novel. (Rated R, 98 minutes).

 

The Wilde Wedding

An esteemed ensemble cast is squandered in this lackluster romantic comedy about a dysfunctional family of stuffy artistic types that gathers for a wedding on Long Island. Specifically, Eve (Glenn Close) is an actress preparing for her fifth nuptials, this time to a British author (Patrick Stewart). The weekend guests include Eve’s pompous ex-husband (John Malkovich) and various extended family members eager to engage in drunken hookups, resolve past grudges, reveal secrets, and more. The principal actors — along with Stewart’s wig — try to elevate the contrived screenplay by director Damian Harris (Deceived), which features endless bickering between unsympathetic characters within a forced sitcom scenario. (Rated R, 95 minutes).

IT

© 2017 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

(L-R) JAEDEN LIEBERHER as Bill Denbrough, JACK DYLAN GRAZER as Eddie Kaspbrak, FINN WOLFHARD as Richie Tozier, JEREMY RAY TAYLOR as Ben Hanscom, SOPHIA LILLIS as Beverly Marsh, WYATT OLEFF as Stanley Uris and CHOSEN JACOBS as Mike Hanlon in New Line Cinema’s IT, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

According to the CDC, bullying and child abuse are the leading causes of childhood suicide resulting in roughly 4,400 deaths per year.  While these themes have recurred in the periphery of many coming-of-age films, so rarely has cinema tried to deal with it head on without sensationalizing the matter.

Generally, the horror genre seems to have been a Christian apologetics ministry to warn against the evils of premarital sex—with rare exception.  In Clive Barker’s HELLRAISER, a young girl’s father murders her occult-obsessed uncle but proves himself to be an incestuous lech.  In M. Night Shyamalan’s film, THE SIXTH SENSE, a subplot involves Munchausen-by-Proxy.  A young girl played by Mischa Barton is being poisoned by her mother.  She tapes the incidents and, after her death, reveals the tape to Cole (Haley Joel Osment).  The mother is caught just as she’s beginning to poison the girl’s younger sister.

The first cinematic adaptation of Stephen King’s IT (previously incarnated as a rather incomprehensible mini-series) personifies evil in the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård).  Reputedly a centuries-old eldritch demon, Pennywise (a.k.a. “It”) feeds on the fears of children in the mining town of Derry, Maine.  He’s first encountered when Bill Denbrough’s (Jaeden Lieberher; MIDNIGHT SPECIAL) little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), floats a paper boat along the neighborhood street curb.  Georgie loses the boat down the sewer drain, where he discovers the peculiarly cherubic Pennywise who utters ominously, “We all float down here.”

A year later, still guilt-ridden (he let Georgie go out alone) and determined to find his missing brother, Bill and several other bullied/abused children discover the demon lives in an abandoned house—some kind of nexus of evil incidents that have left hundreds of children dead or missing over the past two hundred years.  Each of the children has encountered It in one form or another: Overcompensating for his insecurities with mom jokes, the bespectacled, diminutive Ritchie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard) fears being abducted and forgotten about.  Never without his inhaler, Eddie Kaspbarak (Jack Dylan Grazer) fears asphyxiation.  Stanley Uris (Wyatt Oleff) fears being picked on for his Judaism, though he is also deeply skeptical of religion.  Mike Hanlon, the only minority among the group, fears ostracism from the all-white community but also lives with the memory of watching his family burn to death.

While many of the others have run ins with the school bully, Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), it is the overweight eccentric bibliophile (and secret NKOTB aficionado) Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), for whom Nicholas is a personal, external tormentor.  Likewise, Bev’s (Sophia Lillis) father (Stephen Bogaert) abuses her.  To me, it is inevitable that Bev and Ben would be the most hardened of survivors among this so-called Losers Club.

Directed by Andy Muschietti and written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, IT is replete with “jump scares” and visual/body horror.  However, the film shines when focused on the children’s relationships with one another, their mutual distrust of authority (adults act oblivious, almost purposely, to the disappearances; one draws parallels to child abuse scandals within the Church), and their pact to fight back.  Still, the director and editor don’t allow these scenes to breathe for a beat or two, cutting right back into the headlong violence.

The children’s resolve to defeat Pennywise also bears elements of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, as do many of King’s stories which revolve around childhood traumas, survival through shared struggle and conquering personal demons—figurative and literal.   But like another monomyth, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the protagonist does not emerge unscathed.

Many critics and viewers took to calling out M. Night Shyamalan’s use of the Final Girl trope in his thriller, SPLIT.   In Shyamalan’s film, the Beast tells her would-be hero that he preys only on the unbroken because they are weak.  This drew serious criticism from psychiatric circles that fear such dramatic mischaracterizations underplay the severity of prolonged damage done by abuse.

The difference in both King’s novel, the miniseries, and presumably the planned sequel to this film, is that twenty-seven years later when the demon returns, the children are each deeply, psychologically scarred in their own ways.  For them, as well as for Bilbo Baggins, the “hero” in Tolkien’s mythology, the battle scars are too many.  Those of us who have endured years of bullying and/or abuse are not “heroes” in any sense.  Our memories are often vacated as the only means by which we cope day to day.  Like the evacuees of Dunkirk, all we did was survive… and that was enough.

Home Again

Obviously, life in Hollywood is much different from the Hollywood we often see in the movies, yet Home Again can’t seem to tell the difference.

Indeed, not much feels authentic about this predictable sitcom-level romantic comedy masquerading as a heartfelt female-empowerment saga.

Alice (Reese Witherspoon) is trying to reset her life as a single mother of two precocious daughters after a recent separation from a prominent music producer (Michael Sheen). So she moves to Los Angeles, into the family house that was home to her famous filmmaker dad until his recent death.

While working as an interior decorator, Alice has a chance encounter at a bar with three young men trying to find investors for their short film — director Harry (Pico Alexander), screenwriter George (Jon Rudnitsky), and actor Teddy (Nat Wolff). Following a night of partying that ended with a one-night stand, the guys wind up moving into Alice’s guest house while they get on their feet.

That scenario leads to plenty of awkwardness as the guys practically become surrogate fathers to Alice’s kiddos — something that lures their real dad back into the picture — and their road to maturity coincides with Alice’s self-discovery.

There might be some autobiographical roots within the directorial debut of Hallie Meyers-Shyer, the 30-year-old daughter of Hollywood filmmakers Nancy Meyers (What Women Want) and Charles Shyer (Father of the Bride). Between the punchlines, she offers a half-hearted examination of progressive parenting, the cutthroat nature of showbiz, the pressure of a family legacy, and staying true to your creative vision.

Witherspoon brings her usual perky charisma to her portrayal of a woman enduring a mild midlife crisis while trying not to seem desperate and needy. Candice Bergen steals a few scenes as her ex-diva mother. But the scheming trio of aspiring artistes is more pretentious than charming.

The same can essentially be said for Meyers-Shyer’s screenplay, in which the dialogue rarely sounds like real people talking, from the pick-up lines to the investor pitches to the inevitable arguments that populate films about fractured families.

There are some scattered laughs amid the contrived cuteness. Yet for a film about lost souls, Home Again doesn’t provide much emotional incentive for caring about what they find.

 

Rated PG-13, 96 minutes.

Rebel in the Rye

Given the notorious nature of his reclusiveness, any biopic about the late J.D. Salinger is bound to include its share of speculation. However, Rebel in the Rye unintentionally makes the argument that the author isn’t as compelling as his work.

Even as it focuses on the troubled writer’s life and work prior to his disappearance from public life, this effort to illuminate his formative years provides only mild insight into his artistic process, and salutes his tormented brilliance without offering much depth beyond the mystique.

The film attempts to showcase the brash, outgoing side of Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) from his younger years, set against the backdrop of World War II and his time as a student at Columbia University — both of which were influential in shaping his career.

As a student, he takes a writing class taught by Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), the editor of a literary magazine who becomes his mentor after spotting his talent yet being unafraid to criticize the stubborn Salinger, then known as Jerry, about his short stories.

He later serves in the Army and fights in Europe before returning home a changed man, and not just because of a trembling hand that inhibits his ability to write. His experiences on the front lines correspond with a series of rejections from potential publishers for his writings.

That’s when his various neuroses and insecurities emerge, as Jerry gradually morphs into a bitter and disenfranchised outsider over publishing battles, unrequited romance, and lingering wartime trauma. He distances himself from his disapproving father (Victor Garber), his ex-flame Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), and even his longtime agent (Sarah Paulson).

The film marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Danny Strong (The Butler), who also adapted the script from Kenneth Slawenski’s biography.

The versatile Hoult manages to generate moderate sympathy during Salinger’s downward spiral. And as he sarcastically dispenses pearls of wisdom, Spacey conveys a charisma that the film as a whole is lacking.

Ultimately, the film invites viewers to draw art-imitates-life parallels between author and character, which only illustrates that Caulfield is more intriguing than Salinger. It’s doubtful either of them would approve of this overly slick and sanitized portrayal.

“I’ve always found fiction so much more truthful than reality,” Salinger explains. The film unsuccessfully tries to have it both ways.

 

Rated PG-13, 109 minutes.