KING, QUEEN AND PAWNS: Movie reviews of Kingsman: The Secret Service, Song of the Sea and Timbuktu by Howard Casner

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kingsmanKingsman: The Secret Service, the latest entry in a comic book franchise, this one with an espionage theme, is, in many ways, an impressive and handsomely made movie.

From a technical perspective, it’s incredibly well done with the best costumes, sets, and music money can buy. It doesn’t stint and there is nothing in this film that is an old piece of tat or is cheap as chips.

The acting is also first rate, raiding the cupboards as it does for the actors who are left who managed to not appear in The Lord of the Rings or The Harry Potter series.

And it has some beautifully well staged and directed second unit scenes of carefully, even wittily, choreographed episodes of extreme violence.

In many ways, those who like these sort of studio type tent pole films will probably find it hard to carp at anything they see.

So why did I find the whole thing dispiriting and extremely depressing?


I think, in the end, it’s because it was so well made and so much money and talent were spent on it, yet the movie as a whole shows such contempt for human beings that even misogyny doesn’t really describe it and, even worse, is cynically hypocritical about it at the same time.


I mean, I can forgive misogyny, who hasn’t wanted to take out the human race from time to time.


It’s that hypocrisy that kind of gnaws in my craw.


The basic premise is that a mad millionaire called Valentine has come to realize that it’s too late to turn back global warning and that since it has been caused by a virus called humanity, the only solution is to choose a group of people to survive an apocalypse of his own planning.


The people he chooses are the movers and shakers of the world (including Obama—you only see him from behind, but he’s black and has the general figure of the current POTUS so draw your own conclusions; yeah, I know that the director Matthew Vaughn claims it’s not, but if it walks like duck, quacks like a duck, etc., etc., etc. and the fact that he denies it only adds to the huge amount of cynicism that insultingly drives the film).


Valentine then gives away SIM cards for free so that everyone in the world has one. But the SIM cards, when activated, will cause people to go crazy and kill each other.


For those who agree to his plan, he plants a special device in their neck that will counter the signal. He also invites them to a remote location so they are safe from all others and can party hardy while the rest of the world extinguishes itself.


For those who don’t agree, he abducts them and puts them in a prison.


Who can stop him? Well, that most secret of all secret services, The Kingsman, of course, a group financed by the extra money left over when the heirs of vast fortunes were killed during World War I.


The Kingsman is one of those intelligence communities who are fascist, but we don’t hold that against them because they are on our side. There’s no indication as to who they take orders from (if they take orders from anyone but themselves), and, with one exception, they’ve somehow managed to set things up where you can tell the good guys from the bad guys because the good ones have hair and the bad ones are bald (which I find personally insulting).


They also act like Jehovah of the Old Testament, ordering their followers to do something horrendous (like the Big Guy telling Abraham to kill his only son), then afterwards saying, “hey, just kidding, what kind of God do you take us for”.


It’s supposed to be profound, I think, but ordering someone to kill a dog, then firing them when they don’t, and then later telling them that the gun was full of blanks, of course, who do you take us for, we’d never actually ask you to kill a dog, except we kind of did, but it doesn’t count because we were only joking, though we really weren’t, though we were—I don’t know, I found it all to be a bit mind boggling.


Beyond that, the story is pretty familiar. Harry Hart (or Galahad, all the Kingsman are named after figures from the legend of King Arthur) is the Gandalf/Obie Wan figure who chooses a young man to train, here named Eggsy (the Frodo/Skywalker figure), who then goes on one of those hero’s journey and learns a bunch of life lessons and becomes the man the boy needs to become, yadda, yadda, yadda.


Nominally and on the surface, the filmmakers (writers Jane Goldman and the aforementioned Vaughn, from a graphic novel by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons; they’re also responsible for Kick-Ass) are on the side of humanity.


But in storytelling, one has to wonder. The filmmakers get so much joy out of killing people off, with set pieces of grotesque violence that are directed with as much devilish cunning, shrewdness and wit as can be mustered to wring as much laughter out of the audience, as well as vast approvals of applause, you never have an emotional connection to what is going on.


There are two set pieces that so clearly demonstrate this approach. The first is a cold, vicious takedown by Galahad of the congregation of a racist, homophobic church. Now, I like a good genocide of religious nuts as much as the next person, but the whole scene is edited and directed not so much to evoke horror, but to show off just how brilliant Vaughn and the others are. And it goes on far too long. Vaughn here is not so much in love with humanity, as he is with his own technical prowess.


The second is a scene where the good guys activate the implants Valentine put in his followers. When they do this, hundreds of heads explode in bursts of colorful flower like wisps of smoke. And you can tell the filmmakers are just having a hell of a good time doing so.


So I’m not sure in the end that, as much as Valentine is painted to be a psychotic sociopath who wants to be a modern day Noah, the filmmakers are really in that much of a position to really point fingers.


And Valentine’s plan, from my perspective, leaves a bit to be desired. In the end, as it is dramatized here, he is basically trying to save all the people who caused the problems in the first place, not people who tried to stop it or even people who might be useful to start up a new world (all of the potential survivors look like people who’d be totally lost trying to change a tire).


But I have to hand it to the filmmakers. They certainly take no prisoners. Even Obama agrees to go along with Valentine’s plan and accepts an implant. I don’t know whether to feel insulted that they think Obama would actually do this, or feel relieved that the bad guys don’t bother to save people like Boehner (except now we have the irony that after all those heads go boom, Obama and his group are now out and Boehner’s in).


Though I have to say that at the same time, everyone involved also hedged their bets. When it comes to people they don’t like (the church and the bad guys), they dispatch them in cold, bloody and vicious ways in long stretched out brutal scenes. But when it comes to the hoi polio, like people lounging on a beach or attending a baseball game, whenever they are set upon each other at the end, they do little more that wrassle with each other a little bit.


For me, Vaughn never got the tone quite right. It all seemed a bit wibbly wobbly. And the story, though well told enough, also has its share of wibbly wobbliness at times because it’s another one of these movies that combines an origin story, while fully dramatizing a present day story, while setting everything up for future sequels. Goldman and Vaught don’t really have time to show anyone much humanity even if they wanted to, which I’m not so sure they did.


With Colin Firth taking an afternoon stroll through the roll of Galahad; Michael Caine as Arthur, who tells Galahad in his trademark Cockney accent that he doesn’t think the working class can make good Kingsman (don’t ask); Mark Strong, of The Imitation Game, as Merlin; Samuel L. Jackson, with a lisp to end all lisps (I was never quite sure whether to laugh with or at him), as Valentine; and Mark Hamill almost unrecognizable as Professor Arnold.


Relative newcomer Taron Egerton plays Eggsy, the hero. He’s fine, but he needs better taste in shoes (those winged tennies just look ridiculous).


And Sofia Boutella as Gazelle, the gorgeous girl Friday who has swords for legs. Actually, she was a bit too fetishistic for my take, but she definitely gives Christian Grey a run for his money.



song of the seaSong of the Sea, the new animated whimsy from writers Will Collins and Tomm Moore (Moore also directed as well as co-directed his earlier film The Secret of the Kells) is a story about a young boy who lives in a lighthouse on the Irish coast. When his little sister is born, his mother mysteriously disappears, leaving his father in one major of a funk and the boy with a little sister who is quickly getting on his nerves.


Six years later, while the two children are visiting their grandmother, his sister disappears as well. When the boy finds her, he discovers that she, like their mother, is a selkie, a woman who transforms from seals into humans, and that he must get her to the sea and reunite her with a special cloak or she will die.


While doing so, he learns to see his sister as more than the annoying brat most older children see in their younger siblings and finds a way to help his father through the loss of their mother.


Song of the Sea is something I would call cleverly beautiful. The animation, hand drawn, is intriguing and witty and lovely to look at for its own sakes. The filmmakers show a lot of dreamlike imagination and originality in how they create the story.


The plot itself often feels a bit made up as it goes along, though. There are times when it seemed the scenes were chosen not so much for cause and effect or logical story progression, but more for what sort of difficulties the characters could be gotten into that would give the animators the most to work with visually.


So though there were times when I wished things might have a bit more forward momentum, it’s still a lovely, little darling of a film.


With the voices of Brendon Gleeson and Fionnula Flannagan, as well as David Rawle, of Moone Boy, as the voice of the young hero.


Nominated for Best Animated Feature for the 2014 Academy Awards.


timbuktuTimbuktu, the new movie from Mauritania, is a film that one might say falls in the occupation genre; that is, a story about a city that is being occupied by a foreign power and what happens to the citizens therein.


Usually, as one might gather, these are often not particularly optimistic movies, though the horrors of what happens to the occupied varies from such American made World War II melodramas of inspiration (The Moon Is Down and This Land is Mine), to the more serious reflective fare (Au Revoir Les Enfants and The Story of Women), to the outright horrific (City of Life and Death).


Of course, the occupiers often have their own versions of the situation, especially if you are the U.S. occupying Japan (The Teahouse of the August Moon, Sayonara, Tokyo Joe).


Here, in a story by writers Kessen Tall and Abderrahmane Sissako, who also directed, the citizens of Timbuktu in the nation of Mali find themselves occupied by jihadists, who quickly outlaw smoking, music and such symbols of immorality as women showing their arms (they are required to wear gloves, even while selling fish).


The occupiers follow this up with forced marriage and a powerful scene of a man and woman buried in the sand up to their necks and getting stoned to death.


The approach to storytelling is more neo-realist than heightened realism. The acting seems to be by non-professionals (the exception being Abel Jefri as the head of the occupying forces, who has been in such movies as The Passion of the Christ—he also symbolizes the hypocrisy of the situation when he sneaks off to light up the occasional cigarette) and the style is that of low key drama devoid of any melo- at the beginning of it


Because of this, though the film may not have the deliberately paced highs and lows that many movies have, and it may not be structured to deliver the goods at predetermined times, it creates its own rhythms and approach such that by the time it is over, you feel an overwhelming sadness at what is happening here.


The first film from Mauritania submitted for consideration in the Foreign Language Category of the Academy Awards and one of the five nominated.


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