Why Would a Democracy Need a King?

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Even with the note that I personally did not care for Kingsman: The Secret Service, the role of Colin Firth’s star character Kingsman Agent Harry Hart and the way they Dougie Jones’d* him (which would probably function as a spoiler if the marketing wasn’t so happy to reveal his return) in the sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle plays a metaphor for itself: an attempt to get right back to business with the stylistic things that made it charming in the moment, only for it having trouble finding its footing even when it’s just trying to repeat the same beats as the first verse.

To be fair to The Golden Circle, Matthew Vaughn’s sequel to his 2015 spy movie homage adapted from Mark Millar’s The Secret Service comic book about the independent intelligence organization, it feels less nasty and reprehensible than its predecessor (I might daresay it feels so by a large amount depending on how generous I am given the day). And it gets to feel so by having nearly every awful element amount it contained in one massively misconceived scene that easily would lose a point by me if I were a rating man. Make no mistake, the stuff that occurs in the scene centered around a mission at Glastonbury Festival is pretty damn bad. Narrative-wise, it’s a horrible introduction to the capabilities of Statesman Agent Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) as well as providing a sudden conflict of assumed infidelity between our Kingsman Agent Galahad aka Eggsy (Taron Egerton) and his committed Swedish Princess girlfriend Tilde (Hanna Alstrom) that never truly gets resolved so much as just dropped. Content-wise, it has a painfully out-of-touch portrayal of 2010s youth that is the closest thing anything in the franchise came to functioning as parody and the parody is frankly unfunny. On top of which, the mission in particular requires two men to double team on seducing a young woman and place a tracker in her in a manner that outdoes the anal sex joke in the first movie in tastelessness, especially in consideration of the now-year-old Donald Trump/Billy Bush recording tapes, especially considering the juvenile manner of the camera zooming further on the tracker as it sinks into Eggsy’s target.

If I can remove that scene from my mind, it’ll be a bless up.

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Beyond that, the movie still makes a mess out of its attempt at political themes** by trying to argue that villainess drug mogul Poppy’s (Julianne Moore) attempts to kill every person who uses drugs – illegal or medicinal or whatever – in the world is bad but also makes third-act shift being anti-War-on-Drugs to turning its resolution into something akin to a “Drugs are bad” PSA with everything back to normal including the criminalization of the drug trade and addicts. And that’s only the thematic clunkiness of Vaughn and Jane Goldman’s screenplay, the narrative pacing is kind of up and down all throughout. It all feels like a first draft assemblage of moments: Eggsy being introduced to Tilde’s parents, Poppy’s sudden destruction of all the Kingsman agents and headquarters G.I. Joe Retaliation-style (leaving Eggsy and Mark Strong’s intel man Merlin as the lone survivors), the Kingsman’s contingency protocol to rendezvous with their American co-organization Statesman, and their subsequent investigation as to what Poppy is up to in her 50s themed Cambodian hideout. That’s my attempt to streamline the main plot into some sort of summary and it ignores how momentum-halting the sudden return of Firth’s Hart from the grave becomes as they discover him suffering from amnesia, the domestic issue between Eggsy and Tilde, the president’s (Bruce Greenwood) apathy to the matter despite having no true stake in the denouement in the film (which also makes it the source of most of the film’s muddled politics), or the way Channing Tatum’s charming Agent Tequila is somewhat sidelined. That last one largely hurts because of what a Tatum fan I am and how very much best-in-show he is from the moment he shows up, turning it into more of a cartoon from his wild card guntoting Texan caricature.

Tatum is not the only worthwhile performance, though. Among the stand-outs in a mostly great cast: Egerton has only gotten stronger as a screen presence from his impressive breakout in the first movie, Pascal provides a great rugged Burt Reynolds imitation, Jeff Bridges only has 5 minutes tops of screentime but can play that sort of Southern Gentleman personality in his sleep, Moore is a wonderful demented home-maker of a villain, and Elton John tore the house down in a foul-mouthed extended cameo. In fact, the only real disappointment is Firth and part of that is just that the movie can’t let him go back to his full charms until late in the game at which point it’s underwhelming and too little too late.

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Meanwhile, the main action setpieces feel like one great big repetition over and over. While they’re all digitally-cut swinging long takes that get right in on the fight to a fun ole’ needledrop without much distinction between them when you get down to it. The ones that bookend the film are certainly a lot of fun – with a cramped car-bound fistfight opening the film and a great big environment manipulating gun battle as the second to last action scene – and the film is very quick to get down and dirty in an action when it looks like one’s coming, but that only goes so far to avoided feeling diluted in style when the movie can’t be as varied in its action movie tones as the original did so well. In fact, the original did that so well, it almost tricked me into liking it. The Golden Circle doesn’t get that far.

So, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a less objectionable than its predecessor, but I’m entirely convinced it’s better. It feels sapped of personality unlike the original, it feels paint-by-numbers. In lowering its weakneses, it also ended up lowering most of its charms and strengths and while I’m not sure this is a bad thing, this movie feels like the most grudgingly obligatory of Matthew Vaughn’s works since X-Men: First Class. He’s feeding us a burger of soiled meat and telling us it’s a Big Mac.

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*Even acknowledging that Twin Peaks: The Return is not at all the source of that kind of development in bringing back a character, I hope that term becomes a thing.
**And for all the Kingsman apologists try to claim it’s the sort of movie you should shut your mind off about, there’s no way to do that with the first’s pointed attempts at class commentary and the second’s War on Drugs plot points. If the Kingsman films fail to provide any political commentary that isn’t muddled, I find that to be a consequence of execution, not intent.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

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I don’t really have a rebuttal against all the observations people have used as criticisms toward David Leitch’s 2017 action film Atomic Blonde. Yes, its narrative presentation is overcomplicated. Yes, it’s aggressively stylized to a degree that will probably put off anyone who is even slightly reticent to the cartoon theme park presentation of end-of-Cold-War Berlin. And of course, the big one – it all seems to be in service to a scheme that is less than the sum of its parts. I understand the frustrations that presents and how it might cause an unhappy viewing experience, but my only possible response is… that kind of is the point?

Far be it from anyone to assume that we get depth from a sensory popcorn summer movie (and Atomic Blonde is absolutely not all that deep), but we have here a surprising character study told largely not only via the overlabored layering of the story (including a frame narrative that serves no other purpose than to establish the unreliability of it all) but the very broad stylization no different than the likes of John Wick. Which is appropriate.

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You see, Leitch was a part of the two-man team that directed John Wick (uncredited alongside the credited Chad Stahelski, who directed Wick‘s 2) and it seems the aspect of that film that covered Wick’s one-track mindedness and emptiness of soul came from Leitch, though he also kept around the ability to frame and cut (alongside editor Elisabet Ronnaldsdottir) amazing action sequences that really sell the brutal toll MI6 and the Cold War take on agent Lorraine Broughton’s (Charlize Theron) body. More than functioning as just a film stacked with action setpieces, those setpieces are meant to be full of stress and impact, all the more so that when we watch Lorraine suffer through bruises and struggle to stand, we know just where that hardship comes from.

And what does Lorraine, MI6, and company get for all of this pain and the body count she leaves behind and the overcomplication of her mission to find a stolen list of undercover double agents for the West end of the Berlin Wall? Practically nothing. The story based on the 2012 graphic novel The Coldest City (which I have not read and thus can’t say how close it follows that work) is close to the end of the Cold War as the Berlin Wall is about to collapse. There’s no reason for the US, UK, West Germany, and East Germany to take their fight for land to the bitter end and yet here we are witnessing Lorraine, MI6 rogue David Percival (James McAvoy), and other agents violently looking to get on top of others at a point where their efforts will not matter in the least.

How can they push themselves through this nihilistic uncertainty? Well, that’s where the style comes in and how they sell themselves into it. Not only does Lorraine manage to make it out on top of her constant fistfights, she also makes it look way too good from her incredible outfits designed by Cindy Evans from the blood red stilettos she weaponizes early on to the cold white overcoat she dons swinging around her as she whips and swings around police officers. Nevermind the way she has to give a different context to her story within her interview with superior officer Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA officer Kurzfeld (John Goodman), repeating exactly what we just saw but with an amount more insincerity than we would have received just witnessing the events.

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Or Percival, who is energized by McAvoy clearly having the time of his life, just eagerly shedding as much “English” behavior in himself as possible so he could slip into the wonderfully carnivalesque hedonism of this wonderland blue Berlin surrounding (captured by Jonathan Sela going a bit too high on the color correction but still retaining a sharp and bold style that makes the film eye candy to a fella like me) and dressed like if Eminem was a military officer. If Atomic Blonde wants to establish Berlin as a fantastical state of mind, McAvoy is its perfect anchor into that state, other than its astonishingly enjoyable needle drops of 80s contemporaries.

There are characters in Atomic Blonde whose biggest functions are to express anxiety at the pointlessness of it all and end of casualties for their lack of conviction unlike Lorraine or Percy and that’s the thing. Even if this brutal hard conflict full of blood and bruises is just days away from ending, it’s still the days that count and a dizzyingly fight for survival. It’s the kind of tired darkness that inhabits a John le Carre novel but it doesn’t feel miserable thanks to having the energy of a punk rock concert and I’m thankful for it for that. It’s the sort of feeling when you’re just trying to dance to forget how hopeless your life is.

There is purpose to the mission still and to what Lorraine does and the twisty tangles behind discovering that true purpose is understandably frustrating but that can’t help but aid Atomic Blonde‘s needs to be a truly fatigued spy story where it takes harder work to think about it than its worth without losing an ounce of that excitement. It’s the type of thing that keeps it being a fun movie while establishing that spy work is not fun.

So anyway, I said Atomic Blonde wasn’t deep and I still maintain that it isn’t. And I do hear all the complaints out. But it feels so much more intelligent as a popcorn film than I think people are giving it credit for and at the very least, nothing negates the fact that Leitch has supplied yet another feature’s full of phenomenally tangible fistfight setpieces from a stairwell one-shot to an audacious backdrop of Stalker in a cinema. Near the end of a disappointing summer, I’m about prepared to call this my favorite movie to come out during it and a valuable attempt to salvage it.

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The Passion of the Walker or: 1000 Words About How Furious 7 Was Made Before I Actually Give an Opinion

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It’s been two weeks that I’ve struggled to figure out how to speak out my mixed feelings about Furious 7 and I’m just going to come out with it.

There are obviously reviewers and bloggers, many of whom I follow and admire, that believe that not only is it less than imperative to involve matters off-screen into assessing a film, it’s actually more stunted to involve those matters.

I don’t think they’re wrong at all, but when it comes to some pictures, I can’t help but invoke everything I know about the production history as a context. And while, I’m sure practically everyone now knows one of the main reasons that I will have to approach Furious 7 in this way. But I promise there is more to it than the obvious fact of Paul Walker’s tragic death in the middle of production.

So… let’s come back to 2006, when the terrible terrible terrible The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (also debuting director Justin Lin, who would helm the franchise up until this point) came out, I guess Universal realized they had a true stinker in their hands because after test screenings came back extremely negative, they all but begged star of the first picture (and subsequent face of the franchise) Vin Diesel to please agree to a cameo in the finale of the film. Diesel finally said yes on the condition that he is allowed a hefty amount of creative control on the franchise (as well as the Riddick franchise, but that doesn’t seem to have gotten the kickstart boost of popularity that Fast & Furious has received). For the rest of the series, Diesel has been a name producer alongside franchise founder Neal H. Moritz.

In the meantime, pretty much every subsequent Fast & Furious film had been fast-tracked into production (Fast & Furious and Fast Five were announced subsequently and originally intended to be shot back-to-back). And the increased critical acclaim and popularity of the pictures had been sort of justifying Universal’s craws insistence on making these pictures a bunch at a time. For four pictures, Lin was in fact able to keep with the schedule, but in the middle of post-production of Fast & Furious 6 in 2013, Universal demanded Lin wrapped his shit up and get to shooting up Furious 7, Lin said he couldn’t do that – he felt that not enough post was done and that it would actually hurt the quality of the final cut of Fast & Furious 6.

Universal said “fine” and so fast-tracked production on Furious 7 for the first time without Lin and bringing onto the director’s chair horror movie guru James Wan (coming off of the 2013 successes of the fantastic The Conjuring and the shitty Insidious: Chapter 2, with nary a car chase in either film – I don’t know if it’s more racist of me to assume Universal picked Wan for their car heist franchise because he’s Asian or of Universal to possibly have picked Wan for their car heist franchise because he’s Asian). Lin is unlikely to return given his attachment now to the second season of True Detective and Star Trek 3, I think it’s safe to say he’s out of the franchise for good.

Anyway, in the middle of production, Paul Walker and his assistant unfortunately died in a car accident unrelated to the franchise, and that veered production off-course and ended up forcing Universal, Moritz, Diesel, and company to figure out what to do with the franchise from there…

And eventually, the plot becomes loud and clear from the wikipedia page: Villain from the previous film, Owen Shaw (Luke Evans in a wordless literally comatose cameo) has an older brother named Jason Statham (although the movie swears the character’s name is Deckard Shaw, which is a cool name, but I’m under the impression Statham is playing himself). Statham wants revenge for his brother’s grievances and so goes about killing Han (Sun Kang in another wordless cameo despite being top-billed) before setting his sights on the rest of our gang.

The intention of the picture becomes even more clear from its marketing and the hype it packages and markets itself: “We, the makers of the Fast and the Furious franchise, intend to give a goodbye to Paul Walker’s character of Brian O’Connor”.

From the black and white funereal feeling of its presentation of its posters (with the added tagline of “One Last Ride” in spite of everyone involved being clear in their intention for the franchise itself to continue), to the fact that Diesel and Gibson alone (I recall particularly an interview where Gibson outright wears a T-Shirt with nothing on it but Walker’s face which recalls feelings I had when my own deceased best friend back in ’07 had T-Shirts made of him, but I didn’t get one because it felt exploitative towards his life and my own grief. That said, people grieve however they feel is best.) seems to have kept running around the year-long marketing hype of Walker having a final goodbye in the film, part of what makes the final movie itself sloppy is how much it devotes of its TOO DAMN LONG 137-minute running time to the wacky hopefully self-aware action setpieces and how much it devotes to a very sappy and sincere yet kind of hamfisted emotional arc (not just with Brian’s departure, but with Michelle Rodriguez as Letty’s amnesia from the previous film – both of which feel like afterthoughts) in pseudo-Dear Zachary manner. But that’s fine with all of those setpieces absolutely thrilling – the three major ones taking place in the middle of a truck heist on a mountain road (after the famous car-diving sequence), Abu Dhabi, and a sprawling Los Angeles multi-level chase that is only slightly less messier than the climax of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but still quite able to keep itself intact.

I mean, sure those emotional beats are loud and obnoxious and not really carried by the best actors ever (You will never see Diesel, Rodriguez, Walker, Jordana Brewster, Ludacris, or Gibson described as thespians) and even get annoying after a while (Diesel’s lines are almost entirely laughable “wisdom and insight” that he never felt compelled to give himself previously in the franchise, making Dominic Toretto surprisingly the most annoying character in the film above Gibson’s Roman himself). A friend of mine, who hadn’t seen the movie, stated just from the advertising that “Universal has been better at parading a corpse than a lynch mob” and that’s sadly accurate.

And keep in mind that with each movie prior to Furious 7, Brian was becoming less and less of a lead and more among Dom’s +group.

But I do feel this is quite honestly from Diesel and Gibson’s heart in spite of how loud and obnoxious it comes off. Not only to Walker, but to the fans of the franchise who honestly come off as not the most stonewalled bunch, but just a tad tied to the sort of fans that enjoy mindless Transformers works. They kind of give the illusion of depth to this story with all these wonky emotional beats (complete with, once again, a shitty fucking soundtrack that sounds like a mixtape though composer Brian Tyler gives some cheekiness in his score with choral work in the climax and all) so that fans can feel like their franchise is a lot more epic rather than just being BIG.

So, I just spent 1100 words on the production history and the hype and background of Furious 7, particularly Diesel’s part in it, and why?

Because James Wan is credited as the director of a franchise film in a genre he has never once touched or given any inclined intention to touch. But I don’t believe for a fucking second that Wan was the sole director of this film.

While Wan probably took over the action sequences and more of the Deckard Shaw/God’s Eye driven storyline (which, even if Kurt Russell wasn’t being best in show, is silly in its own regard – the crew want God’s Eye to catch Deckard, but Deckard is always popping into every setpiece to say “hi” with a big fucking gun), I feel like its not exactly impossible to imagine that Diesel took the director’s chair with the more character-inclined moments, like Letty and Dom in the cemetery or the final montage (a moment I admire heavily as perhaps the most earnest minutes of the film, but never feels like it belongs in the same film where the Rock blasted the fuck out of a Black Hawk in the middle of downtown with the remains of a drone he destroyed).

Maybe that’s just insane speculation coming out of me, but it feels like these scenes are moments Diesel (no stranger to directing – while I haven’t seen StraysMulti-Facial wasn’t much more than Diesel attempting to showcase his kind-of-nonexistent range as an actor and sort-of-existent social insight as a writer) would have wanted to helm for himself in his own hands.

And so I can’t begrudge the faults in Furious 7 as one of the biggest messes I’ve seen on-screen as much as I’d like to on account its sincerity and all the sort of things it gets right (Walker’s CGI presence and stand-in is almost seamless all things considered and you probably will only see the slips if you look for them). I still begrudge it its faults – unnecessary runtime, story is neglectful when it shouldn’t be (it makes a big deal that Brian loves the dangerous lifestyle too much to completely devote himself to his family and yet we never get to see a moment where Brian finally makes that mental shift to the arc’s resolution – or we kind of do but the soundtrack and the actors are still not good enough to communicate it beyond lines that are too chewy to come out clean), Wan’s editing style is not as clean as Lin’s (though it never goes into the incoherence of Transformers nor the sterile manner of the first film) – but it definitely tries to overcompensate for those faults.

And I mean overcompensate in the very innuendo-ish manner as well. Bigger scale (in the air, all over the city, between buildings), Bigger Stakes (The whole because Djimon Hounsou and terrorism), even when the Rock, Tony Jaa, and Jason Statham stand on screen (Jaa and the Rock gets such a tiny role but Johnson’s still best in show behind Kurt Russell feeling like a young man again – and making me want to try Belgian Ale), these guys’ screen presence have their own great big gravity.

Again, granting themselves self-awareness, but enough of a serious demeanor to insist that maybe their fans are not all that brainless.

It’s a mess, but in the end, it was a mess I ended up having fun with, even in spite of its running time (I’ve never walked out of a major blockbuster overhearing so many people saying they’ve fallen asleep), and certainly for all of its sincerity. If Diesel actually made this movie, then it’s because he believed in it and you can tell he did. Obviously believed in it more than he should have but enough that we 100% for the running time of the film are game with whatever they’re going to say or do.