American Assassin

 

Certainly not fun in the way the “Kingsman” films are, never the less this is a satisfying spy thriller with enough of a story to keep us engaged and a couple of characters that give us some rooting interest but not a lot of sympathy. The action is reminiscent of  the style of the Joh Wick movies but without the irony and gore fetish of those movies.The film is so serious that modern audiences might not recognize it, because it is not a parody or a send up or pastiche, it is a drama. It is told in a straightforward manner and I don’t think these is a single moment in the film where you will catch anyone winking at the audience.

American Assassin is not for everyone. I have read two or three of the Vince Flynn novels that feature the lead character Mitch Rapp. He is not James Bond. He is a dedicated killer, committed to wiping out threats to America. There is no nuance to his attitude and people looking for the grey zones between who is right and who is wrong should seek their entertainment elsewhere. Mitch is just going to kill the bad guys, and he is not stylish about it but he is efficient. Young Dylan O’Brien does not look like the Mitch Rapp I had in my head, but this is an origin story and if the series gets a chance to continue I’m sure he will mature into the role more. Seven years ago, Taylor Kitch would have been the choice for Mitch in this film, instead of the bad guy “Ghost”. So it makes sense to cast him in the role of a former agent that has gone rogue.

The plot is not particularly unique except in the way it can visualize a world where Iranian operatives might cooperate with the CIA. The ultimate target of the attack is also somewhat interesting although it seems a by inconsistent with the character. The opening scene with an attack on tourists at a beach resort is brutal and may seem a little too real in the way it is depicted. The terrorists are indifferent machines, going through the process of killing as many people as they can. The personal psychological trauma inflicted on our nascent “hero” is understandably sufficient motivation to shed himself of the humanity, a characteristic that distinguishes Rapp from other characters in this genre. Much of this film takes place in the light of day and I enjoyed getting a tour of Istanbul that was maybe a little brief. The more extended tour of Rome was a nice compliment to the nighttime tour we got in “Spectre” a couple of years ago. Both of these cities are highly photogenic and they are different enough for this type of film to tale advantage of.

The real draw for people who make an effort to see this will be Michael Keaton. I really appreciate having him as an onscreen presence in films so much more often these days. Those of us who remember his debut in “Night Shift” will be amazed at the spectrum of characters he has ended up playing. As the hard as nails CIA trainer Stan Hurley, he manages to be believable, even when he is being tortured. His no nonsense approach to personnel will probably not endear him much to real CIA recruiters but as a film character he is exactly right.

Most of the film is SOP when it comes to these sorts of stories. There is one really great fight scene in a speedboat that makes a creative contribution to how these stories are told There is a solid use of real physics in the fight that is the closest we come to a cinematic shot in the film. As the high speed boat rockets across the water and it encounters a large wave, the combatants are thrown into the air and off of their attacks momentarily. It’s not something I’ve seen before and that’s why I appreciated it so much. Frankly, I’m not that complex when it comes to this kind of film. I root for the Americans, I enjoy the revenge plot and I was satisfied with the action beats. This is not a film that you would call artistic or great, but it is one that will leave people who want to have this kind of experience, sated.

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Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Upfront I want anyone reading this to know that I am a big fan of “Kingsman:The Secret Service“. I am a sucker for British Spies and that maniacal dip into comic laced espionage was one of my favorite films of 2015. The cast was great and the over the top violence made the film feel very cartoonish in a good way. As a consequence, “The Golden Circle” enters this year’s movie experiences as one of my most anticipated films. I looked forward to further adventures and there was a promise of a returned Colin Firth, which made me want to know how they were going to pull that off. The advance information also tipped us to the fact that we would connect with the American counterpart of the private intelligence agency, so this stoked my interest even more. The director, Matthew Vaughn, has made several films that I really enjoy, including my favorite film of 2010, so I had great confidence in his ability to pull this movie together. Such confidence has been rewarded my friends. “The Golden Circle” is what you hope it will be for the most part.

One of the things that I find attractive about the series is that it is not afraid to be a little politically incorrect. James Bond might be a sexist pig, but his attitude is always tempered by a PG-13 rating. Kingsman goes all out in using sexual exploitation for humorous purposes and that might make the series unappetizing to film goes who want their movies to be socially just. In “The Secret Service” there is a punchline based on a promise of a forbidden sex act. It’s just the thing a 12 year old mentality would laugh at and the film is upfront about that. That joke was one of the widely criticized moments of the first film. Writer/Director Vaughn has taken that joke and turned it into a plot point for this film. I really appreciated that the Princess Tilde returns to this franchise in a greatly expanded role and with a lot more dignity. That however allows the original tasteless joke to be a background to two sexually inappropriate moments of humor in this film, one of them involving Elton John. The other moment will be the focus of criticism by haters for this film. It involves a GPS device and the mucus membrane, and it certainly is a sequence that will make delicate sensibilities squirm. That plot point aside, most of the rest of the film is standard comic violence with over the top moments of gruesomeness.

There is a second aspect of this film that I really appreciate as well. The plots of both of these movies turn trendy social issues on their heads and use them as the motivation for the villain’s plot. Global Warming was the theme of the first film, Drug Legalization is the driving force for this movie. The aptly named Poppy, played by Julianne Moore, is motivated to make her product socially acceptable through the use of international hostage taking. It is a creative plan that to a large degree mimics the plot of the first film but still manages to allow some twists in the story. There is a great shot against the U.N. that puts the U.S. President in the story. Unlike the feckless Obama impersonator in the first film, this character gets lines and is played by a recognizable actor, Bruce Greenwood. His approach to the plot is as deranged as Poppy’s so the two intelligence agencies here are caught between a rock and a hard place.  The only thing missing from this is a satisfying comeuppance for the players, in the manner of the delightful head exploding climax of the first film.

 

Restoring Harry Hart to the storyline of the Kingsman is tricky. Being shot in the face is a pretty definitive exit for a character. I appreciated that the solution here was not a quick fix and it ends up being a secondary plotline in the story. There is a pivotal point with a dog and that also insures additional pleasure for most viewers.  Colin Firth adds so much class to the project and in future episodes (should they be made) his character will lend gravitas to the proceedings. We do lose a couple of characters that really could have made future stories great as well, but in the long run the films have to circle around Taron Egerton’s Eggsy and Firth’s Harry Hart.

The Statesmen organization has several good characters to add to the film. Jeff Bridges is a welcome addition to any film and Halle Berry is a fun match for the American version of Mark Strong’s character of Merlin. At the moment, these are background players, the really active American counterparts are played by Pedro Pascal and Channing Tatum. The major drawback that I have with the film is the under utilization of Tatum’s character “Tequila”.  After a solid introduction, he is sidelined for the remainder of the picture. Pascal’s “Whiskey” has to carry the American load and does so effectively for most of the picture. There are some twists that feel a bit forced but they do make for a rousing conclusion to the movie.

While there is nothing as excessive as the church scene from the first film here, there are some great action scenes that use the mix of slow motion and accelerated filming that the church sequence used. This style appears to be Vaughn’s signature touch and although it might be a bit cliched if over used, I thought it was reasonably judicious here. A cab chase at the start of the film and the final attack on the secret lair both take advantage of that style and it works well in those scenes. Much of the rest of the film is presented more traditionally, including initiation rituals for the bad guys and Elton John’s scenes. Oh yeah, did I mention that Elton is in the movie? He is pretty funny sending himself up in feathered costumes and parodying his own drug troubles. Julianne Moore gets to abuse him a little but he verbally gives it right back in great comic form.

This movie can’t quite reach the satisfaction level of the original, few sequels manage to do so. “The Golden Circle” however does entertain and it meets our need to have the action a little bit bigger and the comedy a little bit broader. It is jammed with characters that complicate the story but also provide a lot of jokes. They have managed to bring back a character from the dead in a credible way for an improbable, over the top, spy adventure. I don’t know that it will win over many converts. If you disliked the first film you will certainly not care for this movie. If however, you are like me and took fiendish pleasure in the undermining of political correctness and the shear joy of silly violence just for the comedic effect, than the Kingsman Golden Circle is tailored perfectly for you.

35th Anniversary Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan

One of the great movie experiences of my life was seeing Star Trek the Wrath of Khan when it opened in 1982. I was a huge fan of the original series and when the first film came out I was there on opening day. A lot of people seem to be disappointed in Star Trek the Motion Picture, but I ate it up and the audiences turned out in droves. Despite some lingering negative feelings it was a huge hit. In spite of the fact that Wrath of Khan was the second film in the series, it felt like the film franchise was being rebooted. The action was going to be more dramatic, the uniforms for the Federation were dramatically different, but the best thing about this film was that it would focus so much more on the relationship between the three main characters on the Enterprise.

Admiral Kirk is unsatisfied with a desk position in Star Fleet. Spock is now the Captain of our beloved ship, and Dr. McCoy continues to be the kind of sage friend that both of them need to have in their lives. The film begins with a fake out on the rumored death of Spock, and then gradually refocuses on the melancholy that seems to hang over Kirk as he faces the fact that he is indeed getting older. The Enterprise is a cadet training vessel and it suddenly gets called into service and Kirk, McCoy and Spock are reunited on the bridge that we always want to see them at. There are the usual crew aboard and a new character that held the promise of important things to come. One of the old crew is now the First Officer on another Federation vessel ( or wessel as he was likely to pronounce it) , Captained by actor Paul Winfield. In the process of finding a location for an important experiment, they happen upon an old nemesis of Captain Kirk and the fireworks begin.

So many Star Trek tropes are introduced in this film that it already feels like the start of a new show. This is the film that gave us the Kobayashi Maru, the refusal to accept the No Win scenario, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”, “I have been and always shall be your friend”, “Khaaannnn”, the old Klingon proverb and a dozen more. Kirk gets a lot of back story with the introduction of two other characters and the effect is to make the film even more personable. The biggest impression however is made by the guest star returning to a character introduced in the original series, Ricardo Montalban. He not only steals the Reliant, he steals the movie with his bare chest and long flowing white hair. Montalban spews out the lines with an elegance at one moment and a spiteful vengeance in the next. He is the embodiment of the genetically engineered superman that supposedly practically conquered earth in the 1990s, two centuries earlier. He mixes Shakespeare and Melville and still is convincing as he outwits and id outwitted by Kirk.

The first time I saw the film was at the National Theater in Westwood on opening day. It was a beautiful wide and large auditorium with a gold motif and curtains. It was famously the Theater where “The Exorcist” first played in Los Angeles, and it was only just now that I discovered it has been torn down for almost a decade. The movie was packed and the sound system was terrific. The impact of the film on me at the time was profound. Characters that I had loved were getting old or dying, the ship that we marveled at is severely damaged, and there is a bagpipe salute that will bring a tear to any stout hearted Trekker.

 

The Fathom event that put this back in Theaters featured a so called “Director’s Cut”. Nicholas Meyer who is responsible for putting the movie together with one fourth of the budget of the previous film did a fantastic job in 1982, but there were a few things he was unhappy about. The final scenes of the casket on the Genesis planet were filmed and added against his wishes, he wanted Spock to stay dead. According to the information being screened before the movie, he has subsequently acknowledged that he was wrong and that the scene works for the series. Most of the additions are small moments with a single line or two that elaborate on the characters motivations or fill in a plot element. The best additions were some small scenes that clarified that cadet Preston is Scotty’s nephew and then Mr. Scott gets a better dramatic scene after the first attack on the Enterprise.

Before the program this evening, I watched the Original Episode “Space Seed” last night. Khan’s impervious nature in that show has given way to personal vendetta in the film, and that works really well given how the plot sets up his situation. William Shatner was interviewed for about twenty minutes as an extra for the event and he was entertaining and eccentric as heck. He conflated a couple of the movies as he was talking about them, but he was an impressively sharp 86 year old. He seems quite vital and he keeps pretty busy. Kirk was always my favorite on the show. Spock was the popular character and I loved Leonard Nimoy, but let’s face it, Captain Kirk was about as close as you could get to James Bond in space. He had a string of lovelies across the galaxy and he got to ham it up on a regular basis. His shouting of the name exemplifies the theatricality of his performances but also fits with the nature of his character.

 

Frankly, I may not stop smiling for a few days. From the first notes of James Horner’s score with the Alexander Courage theme woven in, to the Amazing Grace electronic music at the end, I was hooked. This is another commercial for a video release, but it is exactly the kind of value added commercial that makes me want to spend my money and reward everyone involve. The word is given, Warp Speed my friends.

It

I have seen a building enthusiasm for this film since the first trailer appeared. It has a startling look in the most famous scene from the story, and it is enough to get buzz going for the film. A few weeks ago, as I was watching another Warner Brothers film, they played a five minute sequence from it as a promo for the movie. That short segment was terrifying and amped me up for this movie in a way that I was having a hard time believing. I like some Stephen King properties but I have never anticipated them like a Star Wars film, but something here got under my skin. I am writing this a couple of days late because I have been traveling. We saw the film in one of the Thursday night early screenings and it was packed. This movie is clearly going to be huge.

All that said, I may be bursting a few floating red balloons with this next statement. “It” is not as frightening as you hope it will be, but it is better put together and acted than you have any right to hope. Not having read the book or seen the mini-series that was made from it, I have no reference for how the story is supposed to play out but there are a couple of things that are obvious right away. This movie is really a coming of age story with some fantastic elements and those are designed to scare us almost as much as the daily horrors that are part of growing up. All of the kids in the story are outsiders who have been labeled as losers. Each one is a stereotype that we have seen in other movies before. The sensitive nominal lead is a kid who is struggling with the loss of a beloved sibling. There is a chubby kid with a heart of gold and the soul of a poet who will be overlooked as a romantic interest in spite of being bright and charming. We have a needy Mama’s boy who is a little to cowardly to be that shallow and will reveal himself as more than he appears before it is all through. The four other kids include a girl with a secret, the one Jewish kid in town, and a geek with a severe case of coulrophobia and let’s not forget the one black kid in the neighborhood as well.

 

This version of the story begins in the eighties. I understand originally it was a fifties setting so that the adult part of the story would be contemporary for when the book and TV movie came out. The update does a couple of things,. First it will allow the adult story that is going to follow this chapter of the saga to take place in our times. More importantly, it sets the kids story in a period where nostalgia runs deep for modern film audiences. One look at this group of kids and there will be visions of “The Goonies” running through the minds of Gen-Xers and millennials. There is even a sly reference to the John Hughes films that so absorb the geek film audience of these times. All of this is managed with some splendid child performances by the young cast. Finn Wolfhard plays Richie, the geek with a filthy mouth. It is certainly no accident that the thing he is known for is the Streaming series “Stranger Things”, a show that wallows in the same sort of 80s nostalgia.Jaeden Liebeher is Bill, the central character who has guilt issues that mimic King’s character Gordie LaChance from “Stand By Me”. He is a solid child actor, I have yet to catch up with his performance in “Midnight Special” but he was memorable in “St. Vincent” a film I can easily recommend.   Sophia Lillis is the right combination of tough girl and sensitive soul. Her character’s story is probably the darkest of the kids and she plays it as a delicate balance of fear and openess. The performer who really steals the movie for me was Jeremy Ray Taylor, who plays Ben, the new kid who also happens to be the chubby kid. His struggle to talk to a girls, walk his bike and hold onto a school project at the same time is a perfect rendition of a kid at that age. His character has been well written but he was also nicely cast and the impact on the audience i a couple of spots shows that he may have generate the most empathy of anyone in the story.

 

The elephant in the room is Bill Skarsgård, the actor who portrays Pennywise the dancing clown. We get hints of the history of this character but nothing more than musings. Whether he is a real monster or a creation of the id of all these characters, Pennywise will do for clowns what Clark Gable did to undershirts in “It Happened One Night”. Along with John Wayne Gacy, Pennywise does more to justify fear of clowns than anything else I can think of. Skarsgård has a distinctive lilt to his voice in this film. At times he sounds almost like a benign entertainer, but one look at those eyes and that deceptive smile and kids will run. The most frightening part of the film happens at the beginning of the film when cute as a button Jackson Robert Scott playing little brother Georgie, meets Pennywise at the storm drain. All the other horror moments in the film seem conventional in comparison to the exchange of dialogue and the slow paced bad choice that Georgie makes. The plaintive expression on the clowns face belies the evil that resides there and the quirky voice pattern makes us doubt that there is any danger at all. The crawling of your skin however should be enough to make you run in the opposite direction.

 

Like most horror films, every few minutes the audience is provided a jump scare or a sequence of building tension with a visual hook to it. None of these moments contains the same gut level terror in that opening moment. There is one scene featuring an old slide projector that comes close but too much has been revealed in the trailers to make it work as well as it should. At the climax, there is a little more of Pennywise and his dialogue than is advisable. The more tangible the character is, the less frightening he seems. As I said earlier, this is more of a coming of age film than a fright fest. The confrontation at the end makes this feel more like an action film and less supernatural, in spite of all the supernatural elements.  I still quite admire the film, it’s just that it is less of what I was hoping for and more conventional than I wanted. Still it is a quality picture and if clowns creep you out to begin with than maybe “It” will succeed in giving you the nightmares that I somehow missed out on.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: 40th Anniversary

In 1977, Star Wars was the big film in the science fiction genre. It dominated the Summer season and took off as a cultural artifact that continues to resonate today. The likelihood that another science fiction film would come on the scene and impress in the same ways seemed remote, but Steven Spielberg was just at the start of his career and the third major motion picture he directed was going to wow us in ways that were very similar to his pal George Lucas’ little space opera. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is grounded in the everyday reality of audiences at that time. It was not set on a distant planet with space battles, it was taking place in our backyards, in Mexico, India and at a National Monument in Wyoming. The special effects were very different from “Star Wars” but equally compelling. When the Mothership shows up for the climax of the film, it almost makes you forget the space battles around the Death Star.

The film opened in December so it was a Holiday release and it did gangbusters business. It made more than a $100 million with maybe 300 screens during it’s opening run. In 1977/78, that was real money. Three years later in a re-release in a “Special Edition” it added another $16 million. This week’s run will add a smaller amount to the total but I think it is impressive that a 40 year old film still draws in enough customers to make a mark on the contemporary charts. The reason is simple, it was a great film in 1977 and it is still a great film, 40 years later.

Steven Spielberg is the consummate film director of the last fifty years. He may be rivaled creatively by directors such as Martin Scorsese or the Coen Brothers, but his track record of film success plus creativity is unparalleled. “Close Encounters” is entirely his baby. Although he has contributed to a few other film scripts that he directed, this is a solo credit, his only one. The inventiveness of the story and the odd way that it plays out building suspense as to what is happening to our sad hero is a testament to Spielberg’s creativity with story. Of course his directorial choices are outstanding as well. From the start of the movie, when a black screen is accompanied by an otherworldly note, held for a moment but increasing in volume until a crash and then the screen fills with a desert sandstorm image, we are hooked. The mundane but complicated work of air traffic controllers, talking on a radio with the flight crews of airlines, depicted on a black and green screen as a set of numbers, comes across like a tense mystery with just enough humor to make it memorable. Finally in the opening sequence we meet the Neary family, who are like all of us. Their home is average, cluttered, and filled with loud kids and distracted parents. The floor of the boys bedroom may be one of the most accurate pieces of set design ever. At the heart of this story is Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfess, his second time in a row playing the Spielberg persona on screen in a Spielberg movie.

What happens to Roy on this night changes everything. His relationship with his wife and kids will be damaged in ways that look beyond repair, but it happens slowly. If Quint was obsessive about the Great White, well he had nothing on Rot Neary and the vague form that he keeps seeing in his food, bed and bathroom. At the start of the film he is a well meaning father who kiddingly threatens one son while trying to help the other one figure out fractions in an interesting way. He wants his kids to share the magic of his own childhood experiences and the recurring theme of Pinocchio is introduced. It is only a few days later that he indifferently trashes the house where they all live in a quest to figure out the symbol in his head. His oldest son is embarrassed and lashes out when Roy can’t control his frustration and desperation. His wife, the wonderful Terri Garr, is mildly supportive but is also trying to protect him from himself. As much as there is to celebrate at the end of the film, there is plenty of tragedy to get us there. Roy’s actual encounter is brilliantly shown with practical effects in the truck he drives for work and the fantastic conceptualization of the UFOs he chases that first night.  Spielberg then allows him to undercut his own experience with a clever second encounter that is not at all what it seems. This is another writers touch that is well realized by the most sympathetic of directors.

There are a few moments that will leave modern audiences a bit bewildered. Roy trying to navigate using folded maps and not GPS is a pretty good example. At a official inquiry, a newsman points out that the absence of photos of UFOs is not proof of their non-existence any more than the absence of  pictures of planes or cars crashing denies that those things happen [these days, that kind of film fills the evening news]. There is a great humorous sequence when the investigation team needs to read some map coordinates and instead of going on-line, they have to roll a giant globe from a government office to their workspace. So the technology might be dated but the story hold up well. Can we trust the government to tell us the truth? Do we know all there is to know about space? Are some crazy people maybe not crazy?  Roy gets lumped in with a guy who believes in Bigfoot and that’s enough to discredit him in a lot of eyes. He does discover an ally in Jillian, who has lost her son Barry to the visitors. Barry’s disappearance is one of the sequences in the film that is iconic and it was really frightening. It was a moment that made you think this film could go anywhere and any point.

Melinda Dillon was nominated for an Oscar for her role as the distraught mother who also had the same kinds of obsessions as Roy. When the two of them finally work together as they arrive in Wyoming, you can feel the us versus them bonding between the two characters. Director François Truffaut was cast as the main scientific leader of the UFO team, and he works mostly because of his language barrier. Bob Balaban as the cartographer drafted as Truffaut’s interpreter also acts as a surrogate for the audience on the inside of the plot. This dual approach to the story might give away too much but because Jillian and Roy don’t connect till late in the film, and Balaban is sometimes unclear on what is happening, the suspense is maintained.

The climax of the movie is correctly remembered for the technical proficiency of the special effects and design teams and the outstanding score by John Williams. Williams has a huge number of Oscar nominations but probably fewer wins than he deserves because he was frequently matched against himself. This was one of those years. While most of the time he probably cancelled his competing nominations out, the classical score for Star Wars was not likely to ever be forgotten. His work in this film however is equally sublime and used in such a creative way in the story that maybe he should have received a co-screenwriting credit with Spielberg.   Vilmos Zsigmond won the Academy Award for the cinematography of the film, but there were several other photographic geniuses that made contributions as well including: John Alonzo (Chinatown), William Fraker (Wargames),
László Kovács (Paper Moon), Douglas Slocombe (Raiders of the Lost Ark), Allen Daviau (E.T.), and a half dozen others.

There are many themes that you can pull out of this film and all of them feel like that could be the central focus. In the first part, mystery is at hand, in the second act it is obsession and the third transfers to both paranoia and hope. I always see this as a film that is ultimately about how the world can potentially be brought together by an event of this magnitude, or conversely how it could tear us apart. That dichotomy is the script again by the director himself. There are a hundred little moments that deserve more attention, and I hope that despite the fact that this is the first time I have written about this film, it won’t be the last and those moments will have some light shined on them as well. 

Addendum:

My friend Eric on the East Coast took his son to see this for the first time, while I was taking my daughter to see it today. Eric is a fine writer and he put together a nice post with a heartfelt message to Mr. Spielberg at the end. You might want to look at it here.