Review – Kingsman: The Secret Service

After giving superheroes a boot in the Thunderballs with Kick Ass, Matthew Vaughn turns his Goldeneye onto the spy flick with typically brash and boisterous results.

It may not reach the heights of Kick Ass, but Kingman: The Secret Service is so unashamedly over-the-top it's hard not to sign up to its licence to thrill

It may not reach the heights of Kick Ass, but Kingman: The Secret Service is so unashamedly over-the-top it’s hard not to sign up to its licence to thrill

Vaughn’s unique style has won him a legion of admirers since his much-loved 2004 debut Layer Cake; the film that went a long way to bagging its star Daniel Craig the iconic role of James Bond, who in a neatly circular turn of events is the primary influence for Kingsman: The Secret Service.

Hoping to capture lightning in a bottle for a second time following the success of Kick Ass (2010), Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman have once again teamed up with Mark Millar to loosely adapt another of his comic book series.

Spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) creates holy hell in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) creates holy hell in Kingsman: The Secret Service

While Millar’s comic was set within the world of MI6, the movie decides to go even more super-secretive by focusing on the Kingsman, a spy agency so covert that 007 himself probably doesn’t know about them.

Influenced by Arthurian legend, the Kingsman are led by a round table of gentlemen spies, including Arther (Michael Caine) and Galahad, aka Harry Hart (Colin Firth). When one of their own is killed in action, Hart takes mouthy street kid Eggsy (Taron Egerton) under his wing and convinces him to go up against other young hopefuls to replace the fallen spy.

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) in deep water in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) in deep water in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Tech tycoon Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson), meanwhile, is busy trying to take over the world and it falls on what’s left of the Kingsman to put a stop to his ultra-sinister plan.

The spy movie has hardly been short of a spoof or two; hell, the godfather James Bond was sending it up most of the time during the Roger Moore years. Kingsman takes its cue from that era; from the poster which is a direct pastiche of For Your Eyes Only to the high concept plotline that really took hold during Moore’s era.

Dot com douchebag Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Dot com douchebag Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Alongside the numerous nods to Bond, there are other homages to a well-trodden genre, including The Avengers‘ (no, not that one) John Steed with the Saville Row-besuited league of gentlemen spies and liberal use of umbrellas.

While the tips of the bowler hat to 007 and co are plentiful, Vaughn and Goldman’s self-referential script is also at pains to have its cake and eat it by having its characters remind each other that “this isn’t that kind of movie” shortly before endeavouring to pull the rug out from under our feet.

The recruits striving to become a Kingsman in Kingsman: The Secret Service

The recruits striving to become a Kingsman in Kingsman: The Secret Service

The most glaring way Kingsman “isn’t that kind of movie” is through the colourful use of Anglo saxon (much like Kick Ass). As occasionally amusing as it is (pretty much every sentence uttered by Jackson drops an f-bomb; and we all know how gleefully Sammy invokes the use of that word), you suspect the thinking behind it is to see how far it can be pushed and to give us a spy drama with the shackles removed. This admittedly works quite nicely when Arthur’s well-spoken demeanour disappears at one point and the foul-mouthed cockney lurking under the surface is exposed.

The offhand ultra violence that marked Kick Ass out as a bold piece of filmmaking is also in plentiful supply here. An early bust-up in a pub is the aperitif to an unholy bloodbath in a right-wing Christian church to the tune of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Freebird that reaches Old Testament levels of brutality and sees the camera get stuck in to the ensuing carnage.

'King' Arther (Michael Caine) in Kingsman: The Secret Service

‘King’ Arther (Michael Caine) in Kingsman: The Secret Service

This, and later fight scenes have a balletic quality John Woo would be proud of, although the final assault on Valentine’s secret lair by Mark Strong’s Q-esque Merlin and Eggsy leaves you wondering at what point the former tearaway learned such gracefully merciless close quarters fighting techniques (we’re left to assume he’s picked this up as the film never bothers to show us).

While it has plenty of nice touches, in particular the casting of Mark Hamill as a very convincing English professor (in the comic, the terrorists abduct an environmental scientist called Mark Hamill), it ends on a bum note with a moment of pantomime absurdity that makes Q’s infamous line from Moonraker – “I think he’s attempting re-entry sir” – seem like a moment of restraint worthy of Bergman.

It may not reach the heights of Kick Ass, but Kingman: The Secret Service is so unashamedly over-the-top it’s hard not to sign up to its licence to thrill.

Review – The Imitation Game

It’s a fascinating, if troubling, thought to imagine how different the world would be without Professor Alan Turing having been in it.

The Imitation Game may not quite discover the unwritten code to great cinema, but it remains an engrossing account of a remarkable man's world-changing accomplishments

The Imitation Game may not quite discover the unwritten code to great cinema, but it remains an engrossing account of a remarkable man’s world-changing accomplishments

Recounting a compliment given to him at school by his best friend Christopher, the person who would have the greatest impact on his life, Turing notes that “sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine”.

How true. Not only did Turing break Nazi Germany’s Enigma code, but the machine he created to achieve what had previously been thought impossible also unlocked the building blocks that ushered in the computer age.

Professor Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) with 'Christopher' in The Imitation Game

Professor Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) with ‘Christopher’ in The Imitation Game

His reward for all this? Chemical castration at the hands of a British government that at the time regarded homosexuals like Turing as illegal deviants.

While Morten Tyldum’s fine adaptation of Andrew Hodges’ book Alan Turing: The Enigma dwells more on Turing the code breaker, his homosexuality isn’t swept under the carpet as some critics have unfairly judged. Rather, it chooses to define its central, enigmatic protagonist by the remarkable accomplishments he made first and his sexuality second.

Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) gets ready for the adventure of a lifetime in The Imitation Game

Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) gets ready for the adventure of a lifetime in The Imitation Game

Whether you agree with that approach or not shouldn’t detract from what is a taut and gripping thriller featuring yet another towering performance from Benedict Cumberbatch in the central role of the complex and difficult Turing.

One of the most interesting, and potentially controversial, aspects of The Imitation Game is its unspoken suggestion that Turing was possibly autistic. The difficulty he has in the film interacting with people, including fellow Bletchley Park code breakers Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), John Cairncross (Allen Leech) and Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard); his struggle to understand how others feel and think; and the trouble he has expressing his thoughts and feelings about anything except his beloved decryption machine seem to imply this, although we can never know for sure, of course.

Eureka! Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is flanked by Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) and John Cairncross (Allen Leech) in The Imitation Game

Eureka! Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is flanked by Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard), Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode) and John Cairncross (Allen Leech) in The Imitation Game

The only real connection he makes, aside from school friend Christopher (Jack Bannon), is with Keira Knightley’s Joan Clarke, although even this bond is more intellectual than anything else. While Turing insists that Joan be given the chance to prove herself (to the frustration of some of his more sexist colleagues) his position isn’t dictated by seeking gender equality; rather he sees a person who can contribute towards realising his single-minded obsession to perfect the code-breaking device.

Tyldum does an effective job of wringing the tension out of the key moment when the breakthrough is made and we, as much as Turing and his team, suddenly comprehend the seismic impact of what they’ve achieved. This is then nicely undercut by the terrible realisation of what they must – and must not – do in order to maintain the illusion to the Germans that Enigma remains unbroken.

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) gets on the wrong side of the military in The Imitation Game

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) gets on the wrong side of the military in The Imitation Game

The awful personal and professional burden of preserving secrets at all costs eats away at Turing, who ostracises himself so much from Joan and the others that the only person he can turn to is pragmatic MI6 operative Maj. Gen. Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong).

A cast studded with British thespian talent eats up the material, in particular Charles Dance as Turing’s brusque commanding officer Cdr. Alastair Denniston and Rory Kinnear as the detective who digs into Turing’s past after the war, only to realise too late what he’s done. Knightley holds her own in the film’s only major female part and imbues Joan with more than just plucky English stoicism; there’s a steeliness to her performance and a refreshing depth the actress hasn’t always plumbed.

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch  butts heads with Cdr. Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) while Maj. Gen. Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) looks on in The Imitation Game

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch butts heads with Cdr. Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) while Maj. Gen. Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) looks on in The Imitation Game

Alex Lawther gives a marvellous turn as the young Turing, an “odd duck” who betrays a gamut of emotions in a single glance towards fellow pupil Christopher – his is a name to watch out for in the future. Cumberbatch, meanwhile, does a superb job of showing just enough of the brilliant professor while still remaining an enigma.

The Imitation Game may not quite discover the unwritten code to great cinema, but it remains an engrossing account of a remarkable man’s world-changing accomplishments.

Review – Nightcrawler

There is an idea of Louis Bloom; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real Louis Bloom – only an entity, something illusory. And though he can hide his cold gaze… he is simply not there.

A remarkably assured debut from Gilroy featuring a tour de force performance by Gyllenhaal, the wickedly disturbing Nightcrawler will crawl under your skin and stay there

A remarkably assured debut from Gilroy featuring a tour de force performance by Gyllenhaal, the wickedly disturbing Nightcrawler will crawl under your skin and stay there

I’m sure American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman wouldn’t mind being paraphrased to describe someone whom he would no doubt approve of.

Louis is a go-getter in the truest sense of the word; a guy chasing his share of the American Dream who also happens to be a sociopath and a monster made flesh by our insatiable appetite for blood-soaked true crime.

Screenwriter Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut turns over the bright and shiny rock of TV news to reveal the desperate putrescence beneath. It may not be particularly earth-shattering to lay bare the grisly cynicism that constitutes the US media machine – Sidney Lumet’s peerless Network did that almost 40 years ago – but Nightcrawler succeeds by wallowing in the muck with the leeches who feed the ‘if if bleeds, it leads’ TV news culture, in particular new kid of the block Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) goes for his major scoop in Nightcrawler

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) goes for his major scoop in Nightcrawler

When we first encounter Lou, he’s being caught stealing metal fencing by a security guard, whom he beats up. Even at this early juncture, it’s plainly obvious that something isn’t right with the guy and our unease is heightened further when he attempts to fence the fencing to a scrap yard owner and angles for a job at the same time; all the while quoting self-help book rhetoric and fixing the person in front of him with a rictus grin his saucer eyes fail to match.

It’s an affectation we discover he puts on for everyone and when he stumbles across Joe Loder’s (Bill Paxton) freelance film crew shooting footage of a car crash in order to sell it to the Los Angeles news networks, the missing link falls into place for Lou, who buys a camera and dives headlong into the venal world of ‘nightcrawling’.

The city of nightmares... Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) and cable TV news director Nina (Rene Russo) in Nightcrawler

The city of nightmares… Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) and cable TV news director Nina (Rene Russo) in Nightcrawler

With the assistance of intern Rick (Riz Ahmed), a down-and-out looking for a break, who goes along for the ride for a measly few dollars despite knowing his employer is a few slices short of a loaf, he hurtles around the city and sells on his grisly footage to vampire shift news director Nina (Rene Russo) with a self-assured expectation rarely seen since The King Of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin that he will become a major TV news player.

Bravely, Gilroy eschews backstory for his unhinged protagonist and hands it over to the audience to mull over how Lou arrives where he does. He comes across as almost as blank a slate as Scarlett Johansson’s extraterrestrial visitor from Under The Skin and certainly has the same singular drive, while his mesmeric bug-eyed stare (made more striking by Gyllenhaal’s weight loss for the part) brings to mind the description of many a little green man.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) shows 'intern' Rick (Riz Ahmed) the ropes in Nightcrawler

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) shows ‘intern’ Rick (Riz Ahmed) the ropes in Nightcrawler

It’s great to see Russo back on the big screen in a part deserving of her talents and it’s fascinating watching her character reduce from alpha dominance (her description of TV news as “a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut” being a case in point) to Lou’s lap dog as she relies more heavily on his macabre footage and falls under his spell.

Likewise, Ahmed in his breakout US role following a series of very strong roles in such British fare as Chris Morris’ Four Lions, is the only emphathetic character on screen (save for Kevin Rahm’s aghast news editor) and becomes trapped by Lou, who cruelly dangles the prospect of a pay raise based on a non-existent “performance review”.

The man who wasn't there... bug eyed Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Nightcrawler

The man who wasn’t there… bug-eyed Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Nightcrawler

Needless to say, though, this is Gyllenhaal’s movie and he really goes for it, giving a career best turn in the process. Gyllenhaal has generally been at his best when playing misfits or obsessive types in such films as Donnie Darko (2001), Zodiac (2007) and last year’s Prisoners and amps it up here to a previously untapped level. Lou is a truly unrepentant figure and is as mesmerising as he is appalling.

Less successful is James Newton Howard’s fist-pumping score, which is presumably meant as the soundtrack that Lou has swirling around his head as he goes about his nightly activities (akin to Taxi Driver); however, it doesn’t really come off and ends up becoming distracting. A gripe, albeit a small one.

A remarkably assured debut from Gilroy featuring a tour de force performance by Gyllenhaal, the wickedly disturbing Nightcrawler will crawl under your skin and stay there.

Review – Interstellar

For a film that puts so much currency in science, Christopher Nolan’s most grandly ambitious work to date ultimately asks us for something far more down to earth – our faith.

As a spectacle, Interstellar is astonishing and its ambition is virtually unmatched, but an overblown final act means we're going to have to wait that little bit longer for Nolan's masterpiece

As a spectacle, Interstellar is astonishing and its ambition is virtually unmatched, but an overblown final act means we’re going to have to wait that little bit longer for Nolan’s masterpiece

In many ways Interstellar can be seen as a companion piece to Robert Zemeckis’ Contact. Aside from starring Matthew McConaughey and featuring imput from theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, the galaxy-spanning premise of both films is grounded by a seemingly impossible human connection between a daughter and her father.

The hard science at the core of each movie gradually gives way to a far more intimate tale wherein love is the rocket fuel that propels us to the closing credits and faith, when given into, can transcend time and space. In that respect it also bears more than a passing resemblance to Solaris (more the Steven Soderbergh version rather than Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 Russian classic).

Watching Interstellar, the excitable talk surrounding the picture prior to its release was that Nolan had delivered his masterwork; his 2001: A Space Odyssey. While there are obvious threads to Kubrick’s magnum opus and Hans Zimmer’s use of organs is as direct a nod as you’re ever likely to get, this is a very different animal; one that, for good or ill, is a product of 21st Century moviemaking.

The Endurance crew - Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and Romilly (David Gyasi)  in Interstellar

The Endurance crew – Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Amelia (Anne Hathaway) and Romilly (David Gyasi) in Interstellar

Nolan’s script, written with his brother Jonathan (who originally penned it with Spielberg in mind to direct, interestingly), falls into the trap of so many sci-fi films before it (2001 notwithstanding, it must be said) of turning certain characters into walking exposition announcers. Michael Caine is particularly ill-served in this regard as Professor Brand, who very swiftly convinces NASA test pilot-turned-farmer Cooper (McConaughey) to leave his kids Murph (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet) in the care of father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) in order to embark on a grand quest to save humanity.

Professor Brand (Michael Caine) spells it out in Interstellar

Professor Brand (Michael Caine) spells it out in Interstellar

The lapses in logic that marred The Dark Knight Rises (exactly how did a penniless/passport-less Bruce Wayne get back to Gotham City from the arse end of nowhere?) come back to haunt Nolan here. Glaring moments, such as when fellow crew member Romilly (David Gyasi) gives a ‘wormholes for dummies’ talk to Cooper as they are about to enter one (as opposed to before they’d even left Earth, for example), pull you out of the film.

The criticism often lazily thrown at Nolan that he’s too ‘cold’ and doesn’t invest enough in his characters doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny here, thanks largely to a committed cast who work extremely hard to overcome the occasionally clunky script. McConaughey anchors the film as an everyman who never forgets the reason why he’s risked life and limb travelling thousands of light years from home. He’s smart enough not to overdo it, which gives his big moment when an increasingly distraught Cooper watches a series of family videos transmitted from Earth that much more impact.

TARS comes to the rescue in Interstellar

TARS comes to the rescue in Interstellar

Anne Hathaway successfully convinces as Cooper’s fellow intrepid astronaut Amelia in spite of having to utter more than a few leaden lines, while Jessica Chastain’s flinty-eyed scientist adds heft to her scenes as she tries to save an Earth succumbing to blight and ferocious dust storms that resemble something out of The Grapes Of Wrath.

If the script doesn’t entirely convince, the visuals surely do and it’s here that Interstellar goes, well, interstellar. Right from his devious debut film Following, Nolan has proven extremely adept at knowing what to do with the camera and over the course of an increasingly revered career has continued to refine this skill. He also tries where possible to use physical effects in-camera rather than relying on CGI and by having his actors interact with replicas of spacecraft or go on location to an Icelandic glacier (captured beautifully by the director’s new cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema) to represent an alien world adds an authenticity that computer effects cannot match.

Interstellar goes, errrr, Interstellar

Interstellar goes, errrr, Interstellar

The film’s several set pieces are edge-of-the-seat stuff, in particular an enthralling sequence in which Cooper attempts to dock with a damaged mothership. It’s in these near-wordless moments when Zimmer’s bombastic score lifts the film, but too often elsewhere the soundtrack ends up overcooking the tension and drowning out sections of dialogue.

Murph (Jessica Chastain) faces the slow death of Earth in Interstellar

Murph (Jessica Chastain) faces the slow death of Earth in Interstellar

The crew’s robot companions TARS (humourously voiced by Bill Irwin) and CASE (Josh Stewart) – which resemble 2001-esque monoliths when motionless – are both believable in their functionality and engaging in their own right. We root for them in the same way we would Cooper or the rest of the crew and form a genuine emotional bond in much the same way as we do with Dewey, Huey and Louie in Silent Running.

As a spectacle, Interstellar is astonishing and its ambition is virtually unmatched, but an overblown final act means we’re going to have to wait that little bit longer for Nolan’s masterpiece. The question now is, where does he go from here?

Review – Only Lovers Left Alive

After testing the limits of our patience with the languorous The Limits Of Control, Jim Jarmusch has returned to his ironically idiosyncratic best by unashamedly injecting some arthouse into the well-worn vampire flick.

This year has seen plenty of highlights in the world of film; the return to form of Jim Jarmusch is one of the most welcome

This year has seen plenty of highlights in the world of film; the return to form of Jim Jarmusch is one of the most welcome

There really isn’t anyone out there who does what Jarmusch does and for that reason alone his status as life ambassador for effortlessly cool American independent cinema is assured.

There have been some misses, for sure. The Limits Of Control (2009) disappeared up itself and Night On Earth (1991) never quite got going, but set against such fare as his breakout Stranger Than Paradise (1984), the wonderful Dead Man (1995) and hugely atmospheric Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999), Jarmusch’s filmography remains one to be reckoned with.

The effortlessly cool Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) in Only Lovers Left Alive

The effortlessly cool Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) in Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive finds the candy floss-haired writer/director in a rich vein (sorry) of form and leaves you wondering why he hasn’t done a vampire movie before now. As ubiquitous as this sub-genre has become, there is still plenty of room for exploration and Jarmusch casts a melancholic glance at an America that no longer exists.

Instead of chucking in werewolves or getting bogged down in tedious vampiric lore, the film’s central bloodsuckers Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton) have a loving warmth that belies the fact they’ve been effectively ‘dead’ for centuries.

Playwright Christoper Marlowe (John Hurt), looking good for 600 (or so)  in Only Lovers Left Alive

Playwright Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), looking good for 600 (or so) in Only Lovers Left Alive

In spite of being on the planet for so many years, Eve still sees wonder in the world as she walks the streets of Tangier and sources “the good stuff” from her old friend, the English playwright Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who has been sitting on a secret anti-Shakespeare conspiracy theorists would love.

Adam, meanwhile, is very much a glass half empty vampire and finds his only solace in vintage instruments and sound equipment, which he acquires from the eager-to-please Ian (Anton Yelchin). Adam purchases his O-Negative from Dr Watson (Jeffrey Wright), who refers to his vampire customer as Dr Faust (in a cute nod to Marlowe’s most famous play).

Eve (Tilda Swinton) enjoys a blood lolly in Only Lovers Left Alive

Eve (Tilda Swinton) enjoys a blood lolly in Only Lovers Left Alive

Adam lives in the industrial wastelands of Detroit and, unlike most vampires, steers clear of “zombies” (humans) whom he scolds for allowing the world to go to rack and ruin and infecting their blood with chemicals. A visit from Eve also soon brings with it an unwelcome stopover from Eve’s annoying sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska).

The relationship between Adam and Eve is beautifully handled by Hiddleston and Swinton (looking amazing for her age; maybe she went method for the role), who exude a otherwordly detachment from the world, whilst the love their characters share is exquisitely human. In spite of having been together for hundreds of years, they can still surprise each other with previously unheard stories and fresh observations (a mutual appreciation of musician Jack White being one of the more amusing ones).

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) acquires another vintage guitar from Ian (Anton Yelchin) in Only Lovers Left Alive

Adam (Tom Hiddleston) acquires another vintage guitar from Ian (Anton Yelchin) in Only Lovers Left Alive

Rather than being seen as mere nourishment, the vampires imbibe on the O-Neg as a junkie would their latest fix; falling into a bliss state not dissimilar to that shown in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting. It’s not a particularly original approach – Abel Ferrara’s under-appreciated The Addiction explored the same metaphor back in 1995 – but like so much else about Only Lovers Left Alive, its askew view keeps it refreshing.

Yorick Le Saux’s silky cinematography (the camera’s circular motion can be interpreted in several ways) and use of space is particularly striking and lends the film an artful grace, while Jarmusch’s uncompromising script may slip into bouts of self-aware pretension when name-checking the likes of inventor Nikola Tesla and composers Franz Schubert and Franz Liszt (whom we learn Adam gave music to back in the day, apparently), but manages to get away with it.

This year has seen plenty of highlights in the world of film; the return to form of Jim Jarmusch is one of the most welcome.