Review: Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Directed by: Matthew Vaughn
Written by: Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman
Starring: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Mark Strong, Halle Berry, Elton John, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Emily Watson
Released: September 21, 2017
Grade: B

Kingsman: The Golden Circle
There are risks when launching a new film franchise but 20th Century Fox found success in 2014 with the release of Kingsman: The Secret Service.  Based on the comic book series, the film made more than $400 million at the international box-office and was spurred by good word of mouth (despite the controversy surrounding a poorly timed joke during the film’s climax).  It’s no surprise that this second film was put into production not long after.

It follows in the same vein as the original and is trying to be a James Bond film on steroids.  This is evident in a lengthy opening action scene that some will call fun and others will call farce.  Our hero, Eggsy (Egerton), is attacked by a rejected Kingsman applicant who has “gone bad”.  That’s a slight understatement.  The pair duke it out in the back seat of a car while being pursued by a bunch of stereotypical, not-so-intelligent goons.

It’s not long after when the film’s keynote villain is revealed.  Poppy Adams (Moore) has a 1950s style lair hidden on a mountain top in Colombia.  She runs the biggest drug cartel in the world but is frustrated by the fact her name isn’t included alongside Bill Gates and Richard Branson as one of the all-time great entrepreneurs.  Of course, this is because her business is illegal.  Unlike alcohol and tobacco, the marijuana and heroin she sells are frowned upon in most countries.

That’s something she’s looking to change.  Poppy puts a virus in her latest batch of drugs and it’s not long before millions of people come down with unusual, life-threatening symptoms.  She promises to provide them all with an antidote but on one condition – the President of the United States agrees to regulate the drug industry and legitimise her thriving business.  Oh, and she’ll also release Elton John (paying himself) who she’s kidnapped for her own amusement.

Eggsy and his tech guy, Merlin (Strong), travel to Kentucky to form an alliance with an equally secretive spy organisation in the United States known as Statesman.  The operate out of a distillery in Kentucky and it’s therefore no surprise to learn the code names for their agents include Tequila (Tatum), Ginger Ale (Berry) and Whiskey.  What follows is a humorous, albeit standard, battle of good versus evil.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle doesn’t quite have the charm and freshness as its 2014 predecessor but it’s still entertaining.  Taron Egerton continues to be a likeable, common hero.  His character comes across as suave and gentlemanly… until he opens his mouth.  Mark Strong is also very good but it’s Oscar-winner Julianne Moore (Still Alice) who steals the show as the villainous, over-the-top Poppy Adams.  We don’t often see her as a goofy, comedic character but she makes the most of the opportunity here.

Not everyone gets as big, juicy role.  Jeff Bridges and Channing Tatum are not afforded much screen time.  It’s also surprising to see the acclaimed Emily Watson reduced to what is not much more than a cameo.  Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick Ass) continues his use of fast-paced action sequences.  He wins points for creativity but the repetitive nature of these scenes and the over reliance on special effects makes them a touch tiring.

Clocking in at a lengthy 141 minutes, I think we’ll be hearing more from the Kingsman.


Review: Australia Day

Directed by: Kriv Stenders
Written by: Stephen M. Irwin
Starring: Bryan Brown, Shari Sebbens, Sean Keehan, Elias Anton, Miah Madden, Jenny Wu
Released: September 21, 2017
Grade: B-

Australia Day
A lot has changed in terms of film distribution models over the past few decades.  I can remember back to the days when a film would come out in cinemas and then wouldn’t make it to video stores until about a year later.  Given the disruption (both good and bad) caused by the internet, the models have changed to give the public a wider range of options to consume content.

Australia Day is the latest movie to try a different path in search of financial success.  It’s about to get a three week run in local cinemas but at the end of the first week, it will also become available online for consumers to purchase and watch.  It’ll be interesting to see how it performs and whether other low-budget films follow in its footsteps.

Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day were all directed by the late Garry Marshall and based on the title of this feature, it may appear that writer Stephen Irwin has borrowed from his hymn sheet.  That’s not really the case though.  While the film is set across a 12 hour period on Australia Day, one could argue that such events could take place on any day of the year.  It’s a story about family, race, crime and revenge.

The film opens with a Run Lola Run style running scene with multiple protagonists.  Events have taken place, some people are on the run, some are trying to solve a mystery.  There’s a guy (Brown) who is penniless and is about to lose his home.  There’s a young Asian woman (Wu) with an injured foot in search of her embassy.  There’s an Iranian-Australian teenager (Anton) who has been abducted and bashed.  There’s a 14-year-old Indigenous girl (Madden) in search of her drug-addicted mother.

This is a busy film… perhaps too much so.  I like things “thick and fast” but with so many storylines, there’s not a lot of time to question the actions of these characters.  As an example, Bryan Brown’s character has plans involving a high profile politician but they feel a bit goofy as we don’t know enough about his history.

Director Kriv Stenders (Red Dog) does the best he can with the material and is well supported by AFI Award winning editor Nick Meyers (Balibo, The Rocket).  Things are a little sluggish through the middle stages but they wind the tension up as the storylines come together and reach their climax.  You’ll still be interested in how events unfold during the final 15-20 minutes.  It was all shot in Brisbane and given many scenes take place outdoors, fans of the city will enjoy spotting local landmarks.

Australia Day has something to say about cultural “wars” within this country but I can think of other Aussie movies with a more focused narrative (e.g. Mystery Road and Japanese Story) that left a deeper emotional mark.


Review: It

Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman
Starring: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Finn Wolfhard, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Wyatt Oleff
Released: September 7, 2017
Grade: C+

Author Stephen King is the flavour of the month here in Australia with two adaptations released in cinemas within the space of three weeks.  The Dark Tower struggled at the box-office and didn’t get much love from critics.  Expectations will be higher for It given it’s a novel that has been successfully adapted before.  A two-part series first aired in the United States in November 1990 and I can remember watching it when it found its way into Australian video stories not long after.

The film opens with arguably it’s most shocking scene.  A young boy named Georgie sees his paper boat washed down a drain while playing out on the street during a heavy storm.  When he peers down into the drain, a freaky looking clown is staring straight back at him.  There’s a little bit of small talk but eventually, the clown grabs Georgie’s arm, rips it off, and then pulls him down into the sewer.  A lady looks on from her front porch and sees a mix of blood and rainwater in the middle of the street.

Instead of focusing on the funeral and resulting investigation, the narrative jumps a few months forward to a somewhat happier time.  A group of young kids have finished up school for the year and are planning on a series of adventures over the summer holidays.  It’s a reminiscent of the popular television series Stranger Things given the age of the cast, the supernatural themes and the 1980s setting.  The fact actor Finn Wolfhard appears in both It and Stranger Things only adds to the sense of familiarity.

King’s novel is 1,138 pages in length and while this film excludes a major part of the story (for reasons that you’ll learn at the end), it’s a struggle to develop these characters in the level of detail required.  It’d be better suited for a multi-part television series.

There are seven kids in total that form the “Losers Club” and the screenwriting team struggles in working out how much time to devote to each.  There’s a strong inference that one of them has been sexually abused we rush through these scenes so as to keep the focus on the scary clown.  The weakest characters are a group of one-dimensional bullies who are jerks for no reason in particular.

With the parents and authorities pushed deep into the background (except for a handful of scenes), it falls upon the heroic children to confront the clown, who goes by the name of Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) and find out what happened to Georgie.  It’s clear from the outset that something is unusual about the town.  The number of people who disappear is 6 times greater than the national average and there’s a 7pm curfew which is enforced each night. 

The performances delivered by the young actors aren’t particularly convincing.  The dialogue doesn’t flow and their emotions are overcooked.  The screenplay tries to create tension between some of them but these arguments are trivial and end up being resolved far too easily (tying back to my qualms about a rushed premise).

As Pennywise the clown, Bill Skarsgård (Atomic Blonde) is creepy but he’s a few notches below Tim Curry’s sensational performance in the 1990 mini-series.  Curry freaked audiences out with his voice and facial expressions.  Skarsgård has less to say with director Andy Muschietti (Mama) relying more on make-up and visual effects.  It’s not as effective.

I’ll have no trouble sleeping tonight… and that’s actually a shame.


Review: Victoria & Abdul

Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Lee Hall
Starring: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams
Released: September 14, 2017
Grade: B

Victoria & Abdul
She’s been acting since the late 1950s but the film role that helped boost the international profile of British actress Judi Dench didn’t arrive until 1997.  In John Madden’s Mrs. Brown, she played one of the great British monarchs, Queen Victoria, as she tried to cope with the death of her husband in 1861.  In addition to winning a BAFTA Award and Golden Globe, Dench picked up her first Academy Award nomination (losing to Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets).

For those who believe that “good things come to those who wait”, Dench’s story belongs in the textbook’s opening chapter.  She was 62 years of age when she made Mrs. Brown and in the two decades that have followed, she’s appeared in roughly 40 movies and earned another 6 Academy Award nominations (winning once for Shakespeare in Love).  She’s showing no signs of slowing down and will go down in the history books as one of cinema’s greatest performers.

Dench’s backstory is relevant because Victoria & Abdul marks an important milestone.  She reprises her role as Queen Victoria for the first time since the career revitalising Mrs. Brown.  This time around, we see the much loved Queen in the later years of her life – from 1887 through to her death in 1901.  It was during that period when she became the longest serving monarch in British history (a record recently broken by Queen Elizabeth).

The image we see of Queen Victoria during the opening scenes is not how she would prefer to be remembered.  Having served Britain for half a century, she’s tired of the ongoing commitments.  She’s assisted out of bed by her staff each morning and she’s stuck in an endless cycle of public appearances and meetings with dignitaries.  There’s a humour moment where she falls asleep whilst hosting a lavish dinner.

In search of something different in her life, Victoria strikes up a friendship with Abdul Karim (Fazal), an Indian servant who had travelled to London to present the Queen with a special coin.  He was to return home to India but the Queen asked him to stay on.  It wasn’t long before he came one of her closest confidants.  They spent many hours together with Abdul teaching her about Indian culture and history.  This infuriated her family and political advisors who did like his growing level of influence.

Directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Philomena) and written by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, War Horse), Victoria & Abdul is based on the novel of Indian writer Shrabani Basu.  She stumbled across the story and was surprised how little was known about it.  In putting together her book, she had access to the journals of both Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim.  The later had been handed down from generation-to-generation and had not been made public until Basu made her inquiries.

The story is the biggest attraction here and it’s amazing to think that such an interesting tale has been kept hidden for so long.  It’s certain to grab the attention of British monarchists.  I’m not fully sold by the approach but Frears and Hall have gone with something light and crowd-pleasing.  The Queen’s family are presented as villainous ogres and Abdul can seemingly do no wrong (even when he does make a mistake in judgement).  The film also avoids subjects such as the religious divide in India and the effect of British rule – both were needed to provide context to the characters’ mindset.

At its heart though, this is about the power of friendship and it’s hard to fault the performances of Judi Dench and Ali Fazal in the leading roles.  You get a strong sense of Victoria’s loneliness and the way in which her spirits lift when interacting with Abdul.  Offering laughs with a tinge of sadness, audiences should soak it up.

You can read my chat with author Shrabani Basu by clicking here.


Review: Tommy's Honour

Directed by: Jason Connery
Written by: Pamela Marin, Kevin Cook
Starring: Peter Mullan, Jack Lowden, Ophelia Lovibond, Sam Neill, Peter Ferdinando, Max Deacon
Released: September 7, 2017
Grade: B

Tommy's Honour
They’re two passions of mine but it’s not often that golf is depicted through the medium of cinema.  Caddyshack, Tin Cup and Happy Gilmore are part of very small collective of successful golf movies.  Tommy’s Honour is the latest entrant in that group and tells the story of Young Tom Morris (Lowden), a Scottish lad who won four Open Championships in the 19th century and helped shape the game of golf as we know it today.

As a broad genre, sporting movies are always a challenge for the screenwriter.  If you go with a work of fiction, there’s a high risk that audiences won’t consider it credible.  If you go with an event that actually happened, how can you possibly create a level of intensity that matches the original?  I was at Torrey Pines for the 2008 U.S. Open when Tiger Woods holed a 12 foot putt on the 18th green to force a play-off.  As amazing as it was, there’s no point making it into a movie.  You’re better off watching a replay on YouTube where you can see the real Tiger and listen to the real commentators.

Tommy’s Honour has a slight advantage in that regard because we’re travelling back to the 1860s and delving into a period of golf history that isn’t well known or well documented.  Only a small number of photos exist of Young Tom Morris and there’s certainly no video footage.  Kevin Cook, a former senior editor at Sports Illustrated magazine, published an award winning book on Morris’ exploits in 2007.  It’s that work which has been adapted for the screen by Cook and his wife, Pamela Marin.

You could argue that Cook and Marin make a good screenwriting duo.  He is a golf tragic who spent countless hours researching the subject matter.  He delved through the archives in Scottish libraries and interviewed historians who had passed information down from generation to generation.  Marin is less passionate about the game and so tackled the story from a different angle.  Rather than focus on Morris’ achievements on the course, she was keen to understand his relationship with his father, his family and his wife (Lovibond).

The film wants to reach as broad an audience as possible but it’s evident that golfers will take the most away from this.  Young Tom Morris was an excitable character that helped promote the game across Scotland.  He’d won his fourth Open Championship by the age of 21 and was arguably the first individual to be financially successful from the game of golf.  He and his counterparts were paid significant sums of money to participate in exhibition matches across the country.

An interesting point of note about the film is that it’s directed by Jason Connery, the son of Oscar winner Sean Connery.  Jason grew up playing golf with his father and hence the interest in the subject matter.  To transport us back into the 19th Century, he’s found some great locations across picturesque Scotland and has fun showing us “old school” golf clubs and attire.  The special effects are a little too obvious in places (such as the flight of the golf ball) but this can be excused given the film’s tight budget.

Tommy’s Honour is another worthy credit on the resume of rising British star Jack Lowden (Dunkirk).  He’s created a likeable, charismatic character who wants to change the world whilst staying true to his values.  Lowden admits to being a terrible golfer but spent many hours with a coach to look as convincing as possible on screen.  Peter Mullan (Trainspotting, War Horse) is equally good as Morris’ more “traditional” father and it’s also nice to see a cameo from Sam Neill (Jurassic Park) who plays the stuffy Captain of the St Andrews Links.

The dialogue is a bit stiff in places but Tommy’s Honour is must see viewing for fans of golf, Scotland, or both.


Review: Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie

Directed by: David Soren
Written by: Nicholas Stoller
Starring: Kevin Hart, Ed Helm, Thomas Middleditch, Nick Kroll, Jordan Peele, Kristen Schaal
Released: September 14, 2017
Grade: B-

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie
Another two weeks of school holidays is upon us and with that, comes a flurry of new animated movies.  Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie has an unusual title but will already be familiar to those who have read the children’s book series.  It was the brainchild of author Dav Pilkey who penned a total of 12 novels between 1997 and 2015.  He was reluctant to give up the movie rights at first but ultimately sold them to DreamWorks Animation after an auction in late 2011.

As a newbie to the material, I’ll admit that the premise is cute and the characters are fun.  George (Hart) and Harold (Middleditch) are two fourth grade students who have been next door neighbours and best friends for many years.  Both have active imaginations and they spend much of their spare time creating comics in their treehouse.  George does the writing and Harold takes care of the illustrations.

These two have a great sense of humour… which is not shared by Principal Krupp (Helms).  The sign on his desk reads “hope dies here” and it epitomises the way in which he runs the school.  His latest way of punishing the kids is to make them come in all day on Saturday for an “Invention Convention.”  It’s why the students refer to at a “penitentiary” school as opposed an elementary school.

George and Harold have taken it upon themselves to bring joy back to the school.  They’re forever orchestrating pranks and whilst Principal Krupp has his strong suspicions as to who’s responsible, he’s yet to catch them in the act.  There are other characters in the mix including a smart, nerdy kid who wants to impress (Peele) and the school lunch lady (Schaal) who is in search of romance.

It’s at this point where things get a little weird.  George and Harold use a special ring to hypnotise Krupp and have him believe that he’s their comic book creation, Captain Underpants.  He strips down to his white jocks and uses a red curtain as a makeshift cape.  Having a fun-loving superhero as principal quickly breathes life back into the school… but it also sets in motion a series of chaotic events headlined by a new villainous school teacher, Professor P (Kroll).

I’d suggest this film is targeted at pre-teens based on the style of jokes.  There’s a scene where a teacher talks about Uranus as being a gassy planet and another moment involving whoopee cushions.  There’s not a lot of adult humour but for those grown-ups who read the books as children, there might be an interest in seeing how it has been translated for the big screen.  You won’t have to waste too much time given it clocks in at a tight 89 minutes.

The voice cast is headlined by Kevin Hart (Ride Along) and Thomas Middleditch (Silicon Valley).  They’re both in their mid-30s but smoothly transform their voices into something befitting a 10-year-old.  Ed Helms (The Hangover) steps into the shoes of Principal Krupp and Nick Kroll (Loving) couldn’t sound more sinister as the crazy Professor P.  They’re a strong, well-chosen group of voices.

My interest waned during the chaotic final act when the narrative is put aside and we’re treated to a ho-hum, over-the-top action fest.  I was hoping for something a little more creative or perhaps something with a stronger emotional core.  That said, I like these characters and I’ll continue to show an interest if sequels are given the green light.