Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Retro Trio: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014); Win Win (2012); Kung-Fu Panda (2008)

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

Director: Matthew Vaughn

I just watched this movie for the second time. The first time, I absolutely loved it. The second time, I really enjoyed it, but I noticed a very unfortunate and nasty blemish that I hadn't seen the first time.

Kingsman is essentially a clever modernization of the entire James Bond mythos, told with a dizzying amount of joy. It centers on Gary "Eggsy" Unwin, a very intelligent and gifted young man who lives the life of a punk in a downtrodden neighborhood. He unexpectedly becomes a part of a group called "The Kingsman," a secret society created by wealthy British aristocrats wanting to protect the world with the freedom and anonymity that national governments do not possess. Eggsy quickly learns that his father was an agent in Kingsman, in which his moniker was "Lancelot," as Kingsman all adopt names taken from the Knights of the Round Table from British history. Eggsy himself is given a chance to become a Kingsman by going through a grueling training/tryout with other candidates. While this is occurring, the brilliant computer programmer Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is plotting to kill nearly all of humanity in an insane attempt to save the planet from human contamination.

The movie is very self-aware in its over-the-top plot, action, and its use of the James Bond template for an epic tale of world-saving. Two of the main characters even get meta during a conversation about their love of old Bond movie villains and their megalomaniacal schemes. This element of the movie could have become a tiresome crutch, but it merely served as a solid springboard into some highly amusing and creative alterations to the familiar Bond tropes. Where Bond has Q, the Kingsman have Merlin. Where Bond was a polished metrosexual who studied at Eton, Eggsy is a diamond in the rough of a neighborhood full of thugs and punks. Where Bond villains have nearly always been icy cold in their attitude towards death and brutal violence, Valentine becomes nauseated at the sight of blood. The differences are all overtly intentional and wonderfully entertaining.

You might not have guessed it, but Colin Firth makes an
excellent gentleman of lethal action. 
As an action film, Kingsman is brilliant. Director Matthew Vaughn, known for directing Layer Cake and for producing Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, keeps the tempo fast and furious. There are plenty of brutal fights, daredevil escapes, and lively chase scenes, all presented with no end of effective verve. Though I am not a fan of most action movies, per se, I found the controlled insanity of Kingsman a pleasure to take in.

All of the above are fantastic, and they hold up on repeated viewing. On my second watch, though, a nasty element of the film became glaring. The attitude towards female characters is conservative at best and downright insulting at worst. The only "strong" female character is Valentine's henchwoman, Gazelle, who is a bloodthirsty killer in the mold of classic Bond villains like Oddjob. The few other females are painfully weak. Eggsy's mother is a pathetic victim. A Danish princess is initially presented as intelligent, but then becomes a mere sex object. Even Eggsy's fellow Kingsman recruit, Roxy, needs constant encouragement from Eggsy, despite her clear merits as a tough potential agent. I found this gender imbalance a bit callous for the modern age of storytelling.

This is still a really fun movie. A sequel is planned, and I'll gladly go see it. My only hope is that we can see some movement towards giving us at least one or two respectable, strong, and fully-formed female characters to go along with the excellent male ones.

Win Win (2012)

Director: Tom McCarthy

Another great indie film from Tom McCarthy.

McCarthy has been and will continue to be a buzz-worthy name right up to and through the Oscars next year, since he is the screenwriter and director of the amazing Spotlight. However, film fans will likely already know him for his earlier films The Station Agent or maybe even The Visitor. Like those earlier works, Win Win manages to hit on the themes of people's relationships to one another, primarily when one of them is an unintentional misfit within his or her context.

Win Win focuses mostly on small-town, New Jersey lawyer Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti). Mike has a very modest practice which is falling on hard times. His looming financial straits inspire Mike's morally dubious decision to become a state-appointed guardian for a modestly wealthy client, Leo Poplar. Instead of actually taking care of Leo, however, Mike leaves him at a retirement home and collects his guardian checks. This seems to be working fine, until Leo's grandson Kyle shows up from Ohio, mostly to get away from his addict mother. The rather quiet but self-possessed Kyle eventually comes to live with Mike, his wife and daughter. Kyle becomes an even larger part of their lives when Mike, the high school wrestling coach, discovers that Kyle is a top-flight wrestler.

Very much like McCarthy's other movies, Win Win is all about personal relationships and how they shift and change under various pressures. The balance between organic drama and humor is impeccable. In lesser hands, this movie could easily have become a sentimental bore or a more light-hearted, quirky comedy in the vein of Wes Anderson. As it is, though, it has legitimate emotional heft to go with its considerable entertainment value. There are so many great moments of revelation, particularly with Kyle, that prove that stories can be engaging and fulfilling without being sensational.

I am now officially a Mike McCarthy fan. All four of his films which I have seen have been nothing short of excellent, and I eagerly await his next work.

Kung-Fu Panda (2008)

Directors: Mark Osborn and John Stevenson

I was pleasantly surprised with my first viewing of this modern popular animated movie. It showed far more skill and age-spanning humor than I was expecting.

The movie is set in a world modelled after medieval China, and where there are no humans. Rather, it is populated by all forms of animals that walk, talk and move around like humans. In this world, the kindly panda Po (voiced by Jack Black) is a noodle cook who idolizes the "Kung Fu" legends of the land, most specifically the "Furious Five" who fight evil and are headquartered close to Po's village. When word arrives that the villainous Tai Lung (Ian McShane) is about to return and exact vengeance on the Furious Five, a prophesied "Dragon Warrior" is selected to defend the temple. Surprisingly, it is Po who is chosen as the Dragon Warrior. Surprising in that Po is overweight, undisciplined, and completely unschooled in martial arts.

My expectations were not terribly high for this movie, and I mostly watched it because my wife is a fan of the it (and pandas, in general). Much to my delight, the movie is fun, clever, and amazingly vibrant. In both the visual humor and spoken gags, there are plenty of creative and comedic twists on well-known tropes. Young kids surely love the sillier slapstick and goofy, energetic deliveries of Jack Black, but older viewers like me can find plenty of laughs as well. Playing on many of the stereotypes laid out in popular kung-fu movies, the story and script take plenty of left turns to keep things fresh and interesting. It helps that there are some phenomenal voice actors, including Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, and James Hong, among several others.

The characters and settings are as colorful as anything
you've seen in an animated movie. The grade-A voice acting
enhances the energy even more.
The animation and visuals are dazzling. This movie is as colorful and eye-popping as any animated films that you are likely to see. The animators clearly drew from the wide color palate of classic Chinese culture and crafted a movie that is simply a joy to look at. Enhancing all of this are action sequences that are fun but not dizzying, as one may find in more hyper-kinetic anime films or cartoons aimed at very young children.

While I cannot quite put this film on the same level as some of the best Pixar movies, it is as close as I've seen from a rival animation studio. I would gladly return to this one in the future, as it's an entertaining way to feel like a kid again, without feeling as if my intelligence were being insulted.