Thursday, March 05, 2015

What I Watched in February

I was able to get to the theater twice in February and I had a blast both times.

First up was the expensive science fiction adventure epic JUPITER ASCENDING from the Wachowskis. Delayed from a release last year I had fears about this one but I found my fears to be unnecessary as the siblings seem to still have their skills intact. Of course, I'm a defender of the Matrix sequels and I loved SPEED RACER so understand that I did not enter the screening imagining the worst and what I got was a grand pulp inspired space opera - awesome!

The main inspirations for the film seem to have been the mad, galaxy-spanning SF stories of the pulp magazine era, the covers of those same magazines, the book and film of The Wizard of Oz and the entire cinematic output of Terry Gilliam. The storyline is straightforward to the point of simplicity and the characters are basic types that gain depth and nobility as the film zips along. The story is similar to the classic myths of a young peasant who learns of their special birthright and eminence in the ruling hierarchy. This elevates the young person (girl, in this case) to a place of importance but also puts them in mortal danger from which they are protested by skilled warriors and wise advisors. You know - the same tales ripped off by Star Wars!

The film is being slagged by most people as 'at best' eye candy and 'at worst' sci-fi silliness. I would claim that it is both of these things and more- an audacious attempt to craft a new science fiction universe that seems truly alive. It is rare these day that filmmakers are given the latitude to make a movie that builds a crazy futuristic vision wholly out of new (if very familiar) material. JUPITER ASCENDING isn't based on a series of YA novels, connected to the Marvel Universe or part of any previously known property - it is its own rough beast stalking the theater screen, wanting to be seen. It is pure fun from the top of its gorgeously designed visuals all the way down to its SF/fantasy trope bones. It is the kind of movie I am glad can still be made even as I know it will take years before there is a chance the sneering masses will think of it as anything other than some silly crap they were smart to avoid.

My second trip to the theater was even more impressive. I have been a huge fan of director Matthew Vaughn since his debut LAYER CAKE (2004). That film was a razor sharp British crime tale with the future James Bond Daniel Craig proving his ability to carry a movie. In many ways KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE is a follow up to that film but amped up to a scale that makes the first movie seem reserved by comparison.

As was Vaughn's 2010 graphically violent super-hero movie KICK ASS, this is adapted from a Mark Millar comic book making this his third comic book to screen translation in a row. To my eyes he is getting better and better at this form of filmmaking. His X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011) saved that franchise from near death after the mess of the previous Wolverine film but this movie proves that he can bring an entire new franchise to the public successfully. Make no mistake- there will be sequels to this film and I could not be more thrilled by the prospect.

KINGSMAN is a modern spy film about a group of extra-governmental agents that work to destroy threats to the world. Very much a British organization, the group maintains a small unit of spies with Arthurian code names, impeccable dress requirements and unfailing good manners. Although the film hinges on a disturbing worldwide threat from Valentine (a lisping Sam L. Jackson having a ball) the real joys of the movie are our introduction to this world as we watch a young man recruited and trained to join the organization. Colin Firth is excellent as the older spy bringing the younger man into the secrets of spycraft and trying to point him toward a more constructive, positive life. Mark Strong is also wonderful as one of the other members of Kingsman and Michael Caine is given a great supporting role as the head of the group as well.

I could not have been happier with this film if I had been given free tickets. Rarely has a spy thriller been more engrossing and fun in such an entertaining way. Yes, the film is violent and at times graphically so but I was surprised by how restrained it was at times, keeping blood out of scenes that might have been very....messy, let's say. The film is funny without being insulting, action packed without being incomprehensible, well plotted but not densely so and emotional without being maudlin. The movie earns its R rating in many ways but its so good natured it is able to move from scary to suspenseful to goofy to funny without harming the  story or undermining the characters. This is my favorite new movie of the year so far and I wish I could watch it again right now!

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (2014)- 8 (wonderful)
MURDER MANSION (1972)- 8 (rewatch)
LONDON BY NIGHT (1937)- 6 (fog bound mystery with some shaky British accents)
STONEHERST ASYLUM (2014)- 9 (beautiful gothic horror romance)
VIGILANTE (1983)- 7 (well done Death Wish variant with an abrupt ending)
DEMONIC TOYS (1992)- 4 (not very good Charles Band production)
KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2015)- 10 (loved it!)
DOLLMAN (1991)- 4 (another crappy Band production)
COMMAND PERFORMANCE (2009)- 7 (solid Dolph Lundgren action movie)
THE HOUSE THE VANISHED (1974)- 7 (a.k.a. Scream and...Die - solid Jose Larraz thriller)
79 A.D. (1962)- 8 (excellent sword & sandal story - full length version)
INNOCENT BYSTANDERS (1972)- 7 (well done spy thriller)
COLD IN JULY (2014)- 8
THE WILD NORTH (1952)- 8 (rewatch)
JADE (1995)- 3 (slick and stupid)
JOHN WICK (2014) - 8
LUCY (2014)- 5 (based on junk science and dumb as a bag of hammers but kind of entertaining)
THE RUNAWAY BUS (1954)- 6 (fun little British mystery) 


Nick Rentz said...

I always enjoy your monthly what I watched lists. Which Charles Band movies do you like? I think Dolls counts, so I would say that's his best. Out of his Puppet Master movies I've only made it through the first three. The first one is a film that didn't warrant sequels, but I enjoyed the second and third more. The second suffered from being shot on film. However, the third was the funnest. Speaking of Death Wish variations, which ones do you think are the best and worst?

Brad said...

Yes! The House That Vanished. That is indeed a solid Larraz thriller. Good work.

Elizabeth Forbes said...

This two movie reviews was really a great movie of this year. I watch the Kingsman it was a hilarious and action movie and based on the review the other movie was romance action movie. I hope I can watch that movie.

Lionel Braithwaite said...

Love your comments on both movies,and also loved both movies (too bad there won't be a sequel to Jupiter Ascending though-I'd love to know what Jupiter will do to protect Earth from her extraterrestrial siblings.) I'd love to see some toys/merchandise based on Jupiter Ascending, as well as Kingsman, just for the lulz.

Rod Barnett said...

I have only seen the first Puppet Master film and thought it was only OK- I plan to watch the others but I'm in no hurry. And DOLLS is much more of a Stuart Gordon film than a Charles Band to my eyes - but to each his own.

As for DEATH WISH variations- that's a tough one. I will recommend VIGILANTE FORCE (1976) and STREET LAW (1974) as good ones.