All posts by Ben Cahlamer

‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’ Fails to Find its footing

History is replete with the spoils of cinematic spies; resources and gadgets are ready at an instant; beautiful locales, venomous villains and gorgeous ladies on tap. James Bond was fashionable, Steve Rogers was symbolic, Austin Powers was hip, Derek Flint was cool, Ethan Hunt is grace under pressure. And then there was Eggsy Unwin, the unwitting street thug turned superspy. He returns to theaters in Matthew Vaughn’s farcical Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

Each of the aforementioned superspies were successful because their creators managed to put their characters in the middle of timely stories; they reflected the challenges that faced modern society while the actor inhabiting the role brought a certain braggadocio and swagger that made the performance ultra-cool for swooning audiences looking for an escape.

Vaughn has successfully delivered on this formula in the past, most notably X-Men: First Class and to an extent, the Kingsman’s previous outing, 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service. The story there gave our future hero, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) an identity thanks to a life-oath sworn to between his dad and Harry Hart (Colin Firth). The bond that Jane Goldman and Vaughn created worked so well because it was about polishing the street-wise punk, making him realizing his potential; a proverbial rags-to-riches story. And, as much as it was The Secret Service’s script, Egerton and Vaughn are an exceptional duo when it comes to films.  See the melodrama Eddie the Eagle for a solid example of the actor-director’s teamwork.

In the over-long The Golden Circle, Eggsy is back, more polished with just a wink of his former street-wise life. In the opening frame, he demonstrates how well he can handle himself in a defensive situation, thwarting a former Kingsman applicant (Edward Holcroft). In the next frame, we see him with his girlfriend, Tilde (Hanna Alstrom) and his street-wise punk friends, establishing that he hasn’t fallen too far from his original tree, but he’s sprouting new leaves. Of course, he’s wiser as evidenced by the snarky, expletive-laden commentary throughout the course of the film.

Following a disaster that all but decimates the Kingsman, Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) find themselves turning to bourbon and their American brethren, the Statesman. Here, Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum, Pedro Pascal and Halle Berry come to the Kingsman’s rescue, and unless you live under a cinematic rock, the next part will not be a shock: Harry returns from the dead. Vaughn and Goldman go to great lengths to explain how this is possible.  This plot instrument is valuable in a sequence later in the film, but it’s an instrument that wears its welcome.

As spy networks cross, a sinister plot lurks around the other side of the globe with a deliciously evil Poppy Adams played by Julianne Moore. Moore’s performance is a highlight of the film, her pitch-perfect villainy was enough to make Blofeld blush. Except Charles Gray’s turn in Diamonds Are Forever. That’s a story for another time. Sadly, Moore’s presence on the screen is marred towards the end of the third act, but it isn’t enough to make you dismiss her character completely. Bruce Greenwood puts on his stately manner as the President of the United States and gives us a good show.

What troubles me about The Golden Circle is that I was left to wander off in my own thoughts during a key action sequence, partially because it was Bond-lite; something I’ve seen so many times. The parallel characters between the two spy organization are so similar, they seemed unnecessary, which is why it is a shame that neither Jeff Bridges nor Channing Tatum had too much to do in this film. What managed to bring the film around for me was a quote by Winston Churchill, uttered by Harry Hart.  I won’t recite it here, but you’ll know it when you hear it.

Despite the film’s shortcomings, the film is timely, even if it is over-the-top. Several strong character moments, specifically between Egerton and Strong support the film’s premise. Its length and distracting antics don’t always work. Rest assured, Vaughn, Eggsy, Harry and the rest of the team will be back.  Your box office dollars will ensure that.

Now in theaters, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is rated R by the MPAA.

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I Am Home: Twenty years of ‘Event Horizon’

Twenty years ago this week, audiences were scared out of their wits with Paul Anderson’s sci fi-horror-fetish film, Event Horizon.  Plagued by production problems and studio interference, Anderson’s film ended up as maimed as most of the victims in the film (if you haven’t seen it yet, I don’t know if I blame you, but I would ask what you’re doing this reading this . . . . WATCH IT!)

I’ll be doing a more formal review in the coming weeks, but I wanted to get a marker out there . . . a warning if you will.

Fine.  If you won’t take my word for it . . .

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“Vacate… 

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… I want off this ship.”

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“You can’t.  She won’t let you.”

 

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‘Dave Made a Maze’ Is Zany Fun

I was fortunate to grow up with films like The Never Ending Story, Labyrinth, Gremlins, and Explorers.  To me, these zany films allowed me to explore my own dreams, to follow my passions, and to realize that the world is a much bigger, but not as scary a place as I thought it was.  These days, films are less focused on dreams and more on conquering our fears.

Yet, every once in a while, a film comes along that dares to explore the things that defined my childhood film experiences; a film that is so zany, so unbelievable that it just has to be seen with your own eyes.

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Here enters writer-director Bill Watterson’s debut feature, Dave Made a Maze, a film that made the festival circuit earlier this year and has entertained, delighted and surprised so many festival goers, and is now in a limited theatrical release.

Dave (Nick Thune), a struggling artist seeks to create something significant. Dave lives with his girlfriend Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) in a small one-bedroom apartment.  His problem is that he never finishes anything that he starts and he decides one day to build a cardboard fort, becoming trapped in the self-evolving maze leaving Annie and their friends to effect a rescue.

Developed on a micro-budget, Watterson made something really special out of literally nothing more than a few sheets of cardboard and some tape.  The acting is really what carries the film and sells the premise.  Thune is brilliant as the misanthropic Dave.  Kumbhani was absolutely hilarious as the deadpan Annie.  She is Dave’s rock and yet, is tired of his lack of follow-through.  As his rock though, she understands the importance of what Dave started and why he needs to complete his quest.

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The heart in Watterson and co-writer Steven Sears’s script comes from the supporting cast.  The cynical Gordon (Adam Busch) is more talk and less about action (no wonder why he’s a perfect best friend for Dave), Greg (Timothy Nordwind) and Brynn (Stephanie Allynne) want to be able to brag about this experience, and documentarian Harry (James Urbaniak), along with his two-man film crew, are determined to make the whole experience more frightening than it actually is.

The motley rescue crew ignores Dave’s warnings and what follows is a hilarious reality check in a cardboard world where they need to find an exit strategy, quickly.

The amount of detail that went into creating the visual look of the film is staggering and it shows in both the cardboard creations and the practical special effects.  This film is very much a throwback to ‘80s PG – rated movies with tongue-in-cheek references to Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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The references are where this film’s imagination shines.  Sure, there are unexplained inconsistencies in the story.  So long as imagination and dreams flow, life’s inconsistencies are bound to show up some times.

Now playing in theaters, sit back, relax and take it all in.  Life will never be the same after you’ve seen Dave Made a Maze.

Logan Lucky is a Winner

When writer-director Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from filmmaking in 2013 to pursue painting, we thought he was gone for good. Soderbergh stated that there were too many obstacles to movie making.

“I’m interested in exploring another art form while I have the time and the ability to do so,” he told The New York Times in 2011. “I’ll be the first person to say if I can’t be any good at it and run out of money I’ll be back making another ‘Ocean’s’ movie.”

If you look at his Ocean’s films, the art of deception is just as critical as is the final, master stroke of the brush. This is not to suggest that Soderbergh deceived his fans from his absence. Rather, his Oscar-winning career has been defined through pictures with many moving pieces, creating a mist of subversion. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words and there is always more going on than meets the eye.

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We’re fortunate that he did not run out of money, and that he’s using it to continue his brilliant tradition of subversive heist capers with the ultra-cool Logan Lucky, opening in theaters this Friday.

Here, Soderbergh and Channing Tatum join forces again. No, Tatum won’t be thrusting about the screen or whipping out his pecs. But he does show his dramatic side as Jimmy, a blue-collar construction worker, who has recently had bad luck with a job and ongoing parental and marital issues with his ex-wife, Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes).

See, the Logans are very unlucky. They are unlucky at work, they are unlucky in relationships, and they are just plum unlucky at life.

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Adam Driver plays his brother, the deadpan Clyde, who’s had bad luck physically, a souvenir from Iraq, and he is left to tend bar in a dive. Together, they come up with a plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. To make the job work, they need the professional help of the close-cropped, pale-blond explosives expert, Joe Bang (played by Daniel Craig with a perfect Southern twang), whose name says it all; and he delivers too. Elvis’s granddaughter, Riley Keough, got to show off her driving skills as the Logan’s sister, Mellie.

Lucky doesn’t have the same glam and glitz as Ocean’s, but it’s not meant to either. First-time writer Rebecca Blunt crafted a tale of comedic intrigue full of family dynamics (Magic Mike), torn relationships and revenge heists (Ocean’s Eleven) using the politics of the South to frame her story. Soderbergh’s deft direction screams “look this way!” as our characters set their plan in motion, and you are drawn completely in.

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There was definitely a sense of déjà vu with this film. However, Soderbergh has taken all that he has learned from his convalescence to create a painting full of rich, well-developed characters. We get to know Clyde and what makes his creepy, Ooompa Loompa-vibe work so well. We see why the cheeky Mellie fits right in with her brothers, and Jimmy’s tender side, even with Bobbie Jo on his back, and why Joe Bang has a sweet tooth. Even the venerable Seth MacFarlane and Hillary Swank have their moments of fun. It’s this intentional reflection on the characters and their situations that really make the film tick.

I am by no means mocking Soderbergh. His absence from the silver screen has made my heart grow fonder for the works he has yet to give us. For now, he has a victory on his hands. Help him complete that victory lap, put your foot on the gas pedal and race (safely!) to your local theater to catch it. You’ll have a smile on your lips from the opening frame to the last credit (and, for cryin’ out loud, stay until the very last credit!)

Logan Lucky is rated R and is in theaters now.

Prieto’s ‘Kidnap’ Is A Timely Film

Halle Berry demonstrates time and again how magnetic her presence is on the silver screen.  She made her feature film debut in Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout in 1991.  She has won an Academy Award for her lead performance in Monster’s Ball and has been a Bond Girl, the epitome of actresses the world over.

It is safe to say that she is an established actress and entitled to make her own passion projects.

Unfortunately, the ‘passion’ and ‘project’ did not congeal in her latest film, Kidnap.

As the film opens, we meet waitress Karla Dyson who is as witty as she is stressed.  She is hurried, with a sense of purpose while her son Frankie sits patiently at the counter, waiting for his mom to be relieved so that they can spend the day at the park.

Knate Lee’s script starts out quite strong as we get glimpses into Karla and Frankie’s lives.  Karla is painted as a tough-as-nails mom while Frankie is bubbly and outgoing.  They are struggling through a bitter custody battle following Karla’s divorce from Frankie’s father.  Karla has a rather frank conversation with Frankie about making friends with his dad’s girlfriend.  Lee uses this point to paint stability in the fractured family while Prieto’s use of home videos over the opening credits goes to reinforce how far Karla will go to protect Frankie.

Once they get to the park, Karla becomes extremely distracted leading to the crux of the film’s story.  The interesting thing about the actual kidnapping is that Lee and Prieto intentionally force us to watch it along with Karla.  Circumstances force Karla to chase after the abductors.  As solid as the chase is, it is fraught with unnecessary camera angles.  Within these camera angles, Berry projects her way through the chase, demonstrating her determination, but it falls short.  It is important to note that Berry’s performance is as strong as it has ever been and her determination shined through.  In addition to her performance, her hair stylist deserves kudos too.

Lee introduces so many characters and story threads that come figuratively out of the swamp that they either get jumbled up or get lost amongst the never-ceasing chase.

Speaking of the never-ending chase, director Luis Prieto manages to put the tension into overdrive fueled by a red Chrysler Town and Country ripping through the Louisiana Bayou.  Someone at Chrysler is probably figuring out just how to market the Town and Country’s brains over the brawn of a third generation Ford Mustang.  Or else they’re trying to reassure worried moms that their products really can’t maneuver as quickly as depicted in the film.

Prieto and cinematographer Flavio Martinez Labiano find ways to distort the image with odd camera angles making it appear as if they were trying to extend Karla’s perseverance, but instead became distracting.  Labiano did manage to capture a number of gorgeous overhead and aerial shots really enhancing the Louisiana Bayou that is very rarely seen.

The stunts really shine here and Andy Dylan’s stunt team does deserve recognition.  It’s very rare for a film to contain so many driving stunts, even with the budget this film had.  The non-driving stunts also had a physicality about them that rivals a number of action movies.

Kidnap is a valiant effort to tell a modern take on the state of families and society in general.  While it is very clearly a B-level movie, Berry’s convincing performance carries the film so far before it completely deteriorates, overwhelmed by a projected chase and a number of missed opportunities.

“The Dark Tower” Crumbles Under Its Own Weight

For as long as I can remember, films adapted from Stephen King’s novels or short stories have resulted in either outright classics or box office failures that eventually turn into cult classics. I confess that I have not read his novels, but I have been enamored with the films that have come from his novels over the years.  Those films that resonated with me have done so because they have something to say.  They may not say it perfectly; they may not be very well-acted or well-told stories, but their message is always clear.

Unfortunately, Nikokaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower is a poorly framed hodgepodge of all three of the attributes I just mentioned. It is a semi-well-acted film, full of really interesting characters that have little to no life in them.  The antagonist is the Devil incarnate played by Matthew McConaughey.  As ‘The Man in Black,’ McConaughey is a gate-keeper of sorts, trying to tear open a dimensional wall between his pseudo-future world and our present day world where his agents are taking kids who he has deemed special.

In the real world, New York City is experiencing unusual earthquakes, shaking the city to its core.  The 11-year old Jake Chambers played by Tom Taylor, has lifelike dreams of people and events he’s never witnessed, yet they are as real to him as the world around him. He is able to capture these dreams in a sketchbook, but his fellow students and his parents believe he is hallucinating, forcing them to send him to a special clinic that they believe can help him.  After a rather unique escape, Jake finds a house which he saw in his dreams.  The house is a portal to the Mid-World, where The Man in Black is awaiting him.  As Jake makes his way into the Mid-World, he happens across Roland Deschains, better known as the Gunslinger, played by Idris Elba.  The Gunslinger, the last of his kind, is on a quest that fills his heart with rage.

It is this rage that Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen and Arcel tap into. Unfortunately, the overly limp characters don’t translate into a coherent story.  It was as if the four screenwriters pulled elements from several 1980’s fantasy films and 1960’s Spaghetti Westerns to create a visual background for these characters. Despite the incoherent nature of the story, the visuals were as good as any other film, but they were not enough to overcome the other elements in the film. Tom Holkenborg’s score created background noise, creating an environment rather than supporting the characters and their motivations, which is a shame because he is known for bombastic scores in similar style films.

McConaughey was fascinating to watch, his creepiness came through loud and clear, but it doesn’t serve the character very well; he is too boisterous to be moody, though I imagine he was selected for the broodiness he exudes in his Lincoln commercials. Elba plays rage quite well, but Arcel’s direction doesn’t allow him to fully transition from a “man of action” to being a mentor/protector for Jake.  Taylor seemed the most wooden, both in his approach to the role and his acting though he did loosen up by the end of the film.  The strongest moment is when Elba’s Roland recites the Gunslinger’s Creed as he and Jake bond.  The moment is not truly earned, but it emphasizes each character’s respective motivations later in the film.  McConaughey’s moment comes in the middle of the film when he visits Jake’s family.  His performance here is classic McConaughey, conveying so much through his looks and his actions rendering him less creepy.  If only for a moment.

Since I hadn’t read the novels before seeing the movie, I can’t speak to their true influence on the film. It was obvious that the screenwriters tried to cram in as much as possible into one movie with the intent of creating a universe of filmic stories.  Unfortunately, the sheer lifelessness in this film has sealed the dimensional gateways shut.  Though it does appear that a television series is being developed, which is the proper platform for something of this magnitude.

For a film that spent 10 years in various stages of development, it shows. There is a lot of potential created in various moments and yet, they go nowhere because none of the moments are truly earned.  If they do develop a television series and create some of the backstory that was missing here, I think I would be interested enough to catch it, but as a standalone film and an entry to another cinematic universe, it does not work.

 

Heineman’s ‘City of Ghosts’ is an eye-opening experience

I grew up with Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather who shaped our opinions and our discussions.  We as an audience had trust in what they had to say, and more importantly in how they delivered it.  Today, the news needs to be delivered as quickly as possible, and corrections issued if a mistake is discovered.  It has become so much a part of my everyday life that I have all but abandoned traditional news outlets.  Despite this, I find myself living inside the vacuum created by social media and online news media and yet, I’m still all-too-well aware of what’s happening in the world.  However, I find that online media introduces a high-level of bias colored by a cacophony of voices rather than one person delivering the news each night.  That’s why, when I sat down to watch “City of Ghosts,” I was quite taken by surprise.  I was only peripherally aware of the Arab Spring rising of ISIL and its dangerous stranglehold on the Middle East.  I was not aware of a group of citizen journalists who have risked everything to raise awareness of the occupation of Raqqa, a city deep inside Syria on the Euphrates.  Academy Award – nominated director Matthew Heineman managed to open my eyes very quickly to the true nature of both sides of this conflict as he lays out ISIL’s ascension to power and the rapid growth of citizen journalist network Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS).

After opening the film with the group receiving the International Press Freedom Award in 2015, Heineman goes on to describe ISIL’s rise to power, appeasing a war-torn populous looking for freedom.  The state-run news agency portrays life in Raqqa as peaceful, where basic services meet the needs of the people.  RBBS starts capturing footage of ISIL’s atrocities; using social media, they work tirelessly to create an online campaign attracting the attention of global media outlets and the ire of ISIL.

With unprecedented access to the core members of the group, Heineman depicts their everyday struggles to flee Syria for a safe haven in Turkey and Germany while the team remaining in Raqqa struggle to anonymously capture footage and photos of the atrocities that ISIL forces are inflicting. The team that remains in Raqqa upload the photos and videos of the atrocities to the teams in Europe.

As ISIL becomes aware of the clandestine efforts inside their borders we discover that there is truly no safe haven, for anyone.  In Raqqa, they order the citizens to destroy satellite dishes restricting internet access and cellular communications.  On the European continent, they execute members of RBBS.

In its simplest form, the picture Heineman paints is that of a propaganda war similar to one the British had with Nazi Germany during the early stages of WWII.  History is repeating itself.  Here, time is on the side of RBSS as they viral nature of social media works in their favor.  The more they post, the more it puts innocents in other countries at risk as evidenced by the attacks in France and in the United States.  And, it puts their own family members in harm’s way.

The efforts of this citizen journalist network bring to light real-world problems.  The images and the flow of the narrative convey the situation succinctly.  I could imagine audiences who watch this would be shell shocked at best.  Not for the feint at heart, Matthew Heineman touches a raw nerve here and it will stick with you long after you leave the theater.

5 out of 5 stars.

This review was written for and originally featured on phoenixfilmfestival.com.