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Kingsman: The Secret Service: Kick-Ass meets James Bond on Drugs

Kingsman; Matthew Vaughn, Colin Firth, Taron Egerton, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Michael Caine

The Secret Service Kingsman

In Kingsman, a pug is named J.B, as in not James Bond or Jason Bourne, but the initials stand for Jack Bauer (the lead character from television series 24). The film is Matthew Vaughn’s royal homage to the secret agent genre in Kick-Ass meets James Bond on drugs style of action. It finds the right balance between absurdity and hilarity and succeeds in producing, in literal meta fashion, not just an ordinary spy tale.

In one of his interviews, Vaughn described the film as a modern-day love letter to all the spy films he grew up on. In fact, it visually quotes from the spy movies that came before it and plays with audience’s memories and nostalgia. Kingsman is all that a Bond or Bourne film can’t be. There’s certain amount of seriousness you associate with most secret agent films which you won’t find here. It isn’t too funny like the Austin Powers franchise either. But there are some genuinely funny moments till the end credits.

All the tropes of a classic spy film have been dealt with some mischief in Kingsman. Beyond the improbable gadgets, far-fetched plot, a crazy villain’s plan for world domination and bloody elaborate fight scenes, there’s something instantly likable about the film. Samuel Jackson for instance plays a villain with a pronunciation lisp, dresses up like a hip-hop star and can’t fathom violence in front of his eyes. He’s cerebral. He leaves all the physical intimidation and killing to his henchwoman, with deadly blades as legs. He actually wants to save the world from itself and also wants to take out a good deal of the population in the process. Another likable aspect is that the relationship between the hero and the lead female character is mostly platonic for a change. And there’s extremely funny reference to My Fair Lady.

What’s really cool about Kingsman is the action! It’s mostly tacky and gory to the finest detail but it somehow goes with the mood of the film. Had it been your regular spy film featuring Daniel Craig, you may have had problems digesting what you see on screen. But who gives a damn about Colin Firth playing Harry Hart, a secret agent of a covert international group that acts outside of any government control. But what works in favour of Kingsman is the casting of popular actors in roles against their type. An action scene in a church featuring Firth will leave you giggling and squirming at the same time in your seat. Caine is surprisingly given a shade of grey which he portrays fittingly.

The film acknowledges all of those stupid spy clichés and then it ditches them all. The best example of this I can give is in the opening sequence of the film -there is a glass of whiskey, a lot of people die and there isn’t a drop of the whiskey spilt. The film successfully reinvents just about every stereotype imaginable in a spy film.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is weirdly entertaining without being disrespectful to the genre. You may love it for all the weird reasons.

Four stars

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Birdman – A thing Is A Thing, Not What Is Said of The That Thing

Birdman; Alejandro González Iñárritu, Michael Keaton, Zach Galifianakis, Emma Stone, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough

The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance appears as an alternative title to Birdman. Walk into the theater having known nothing about the movie and the virtue of ignorance will dawn upon you as well when you walk out. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his merry men have crafted a movie of such supreme emotional impact that the end, if you are like me, it will leave you both dejected and elated. The fifth feature film to be directed by Inarritu is a layered dramedy dipping into the darkly comic nature of human ego and psyche, self deprecating, uplifting and sublime all around. The director shares writing credits with Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dineralis Jr and Armando Bo all of whom will end up being quizzed about its ending for quite some time to come.

In casting Michael Keaton as Riggan Thompson, a washed up post middle age actor who has not done anything of significance since playing titular comic hero in three movies, Inarritu stages his first coup. While Keaton assures us that his life is nothing like Riggans, people will make the unfortunate comparison and it does not help that there are numerous easter eggs pointing to little things that I am sure you will have fun identifying. But that does not make Birdman special, what does is a few unique things that Inarritu knew would make or break the movie. The treasure box cast, apart from Keaton, includes Ed Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Risenborough, Amy Ryan, Emma Stone and Zach Galifianakis. And no, it isn’t the simple fact that the cast is stellar. The almost magical quality of the movie comes from the delightful but painfully difficult process of combining extra long takes seamlessly to showcase the movie as one long continuously shot video. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki(of Gravity fame) and Inarritu come up trumps in this department and score a fantastic win because of the way the comedy and the drama work in spite of the movie running like one long shot.

‘Birdman’ lampoons notions of blockbuster movie making and along the way a number of big names are dragged down into the satirical genius of the dialogue that goes on between the troubled actor, who is acting/directing/co-producing an adaptation of a Ray Carver’s plays, and his friends/crew. ‘Ambitious’ says Ed Norton to Keaton, spouting the first of many brash truisms while playing a method actor and probably pulling his own leg. A quick read up or a quick viewing of the many making-of featurettes available(though I don’t recommend this before you watch the movie) will give one an idea of the painstaking amount of choreography and rehearsal that has gone into achieving the end product. Delving into one characters reality while maintaining the reality of things taking place around that character is difficult enough to achieve without having to keep the interaction between the other characters fresh. That is where the stellar quality of the cast really shines through. Most of the movie occurs within confined quarters(New York’s iconic St.James theater) with the climax alone leading us away from the square.

For a change(especially after Babel and Biutiful), Inarritu seems to have had a lot of fun with ‘Birdman’. Have I said enough about the movie being made to look like one continuous take? I can see your urgent nod and so I shall stop about that. He takes us through narrow corridors, backstage areas, make up rooms, theater balconies and Broadway rooftops on a journey of magical realism. And while he walks us through there is the punch of a fresh score by Antonio Sanchez that is mostly just drums and cymbals urging us on. Why the Academy of Motion Pictures thought it should be rejected is beyond me. Be it as it may that most of it is just classical music, putting music together for a movie like this is award worthy by itself. While Keaton gives us a forceful performance as Riggan with a moving and almost lacerating delivery of histrionics, Edward Norton (did I mention this before as well?) makes fun of himself while challenging Riggan and his quest. Naomi Watts’ character making her debut as a Broadway actress excels in a role which while neurotic has brilliant light and heavy themes. Zach is barely himself but still shows his acting chops in a character that seems to have been written for him (Scorsese you say, ah well maybe..). Emma Stone (incidentally the actor who according to Keaton and Norton messed up the most in the long takes) gives us another peek into her brilliant side playing Riggans troubled daughter with youthful ease.

When the end credits roll, and the last ‘fuck you’ has been directed by one indignant personality to another, the sense of exhilaration resulting from being a part of something unique is powerful. What is clear is that this is a movie that has come forth from a lot of hard work and maybe a greater amount of love. And when there is true labour of love, the end result is usually spectacular, only ‘Birdman’ is a little more than that. In making me consider that it might just surpass ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ this year in terms of its cinematic excellence, Birdman takes us on the ultimate flight of fancy!

Five stars

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American Sniper: The Sheep, Wolves and Sheepdogs

American Sniper; Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Kyle Gallner, Ben Reed, Elise Robertson 

American Sniper

Clint Eastwood is no stranger to war movies. His style of moviemaking though is something that all of us who’ve followed his efforts over time have come to be familiar with. With American Sniper, Eastwood departs a little from his usual style to present us with what looks like a normal cut and dried combat movie transitioning into a lot more within the span of its 133 minutes. The difficulty of a directing a war movie wherein the brutality of the story needs to be captured while placing the viewer in a position where the action is detailed and immersive but not overwhelming is converted into a skill by very few directors, Eastwood being one. Late in the movie a man describes the main character in the movie, Chris Kyle, to the latters’ son as a hero. The definition of heroism or the ambiguity of it forms the constant undercurrent that we are drawn to in ‘American Sniper’.

‘American Sniper’ revolves around the life of American Navy SEAL operative Chris Kyle portrayed on screen by Bradley Cooper. The flash backs to Kyles younger days show us a Texan cowboy inspired by a childhood principle that’s burnt into him to ‘protect his own’ leading him to joining his country’s defense forces specifically the SEAL’s. Deployed to Iraq and bearing the honor and pressure of being the sniper ‘Legend’, as the troops in Iraq end up calling him because of his very special and eerily accurate sniping talent, the earnestness of Chris Kyle is brought out in what looks like a simple but would have been a tough job for Bradley Cooper given his usual self-assuredness. The very first shot shows us that it’s not the few ounces of pressure on the trigger of a long gun but the decision behind pulling the trigger that is the cause of trauma in the wars that are being waged.

Justifying his nomination for the best actor Academy, Bradley Cooper transforms himself into Chris Kyle by bulking up physically and aids Eastwood in providing the most direct perspective of Chris Kyles war – Kyles own point of view. Eastwood does not bother with justifications, ramifications or reasoning and instead puts us alongside Kyle. What starts off seeming like another clichéd approach to a war that was questioned more than any other in recent times, ‘American Sniper’ moves into more personal territory as we accompany Chris on his tours and his adjournments back home. Kyle who responds to a trainer’s question about a target with the reply that he is at his best when his target is breathing justifies to himself the taking of lives with the answer that each one he takes saves numerous others. The question never leaves him and Bradley Cooper’s brooding performance serves up his situation to us without any diluting. Eastwood and Cooper present us the side of the war that insists that violence is not being doled out because it is a quick means to an end but because it is necessary. Posing a dilemma on screen is not something that is simple but we are often posed with them during the course of the movie and therein lies the difference in Eastwood’s directing style. Interspersed with the gory results of Kyles impeccable aim are flag wrapped coffins being sent back home and there is no one answer to the question of morality in the time of war.

The rest of the cast composed of Sienna Miller and a diverse and varied set of people playing characters comprising Chris Kyle’s comrades at war, trainers at the Navy SEAL facility, veterans and of course the Iraqis, hold their own against Bradley Coopers defining performance. The editing is kept taut and to the point without unnecessarily burdening us with details while at the same time keeping information within its scope as deemed by scribe Jason Hall who has adapted it from the eponymous book.  The production design intrigued me with Humvees and actual sniping guns including the TAC 388A being used lending the movie the authentic point-of-view feel that it demands.

As reports would have it, Chris Kyle’s father seems to have met Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper (who co-produced) and after assuring them of his respect for them also assured them that he would unleash hell on them if his son’s story was not given the respect due to it. The subject matter being the cause of various international debates neither Eastwood not Cooper will be the subject of Mr.Kyle Sr’s threat given that they have managed to bring us a view from the other side of the looking glass. By the time we finish witnessing Kyle’s fourth tour we are of the state of mind where we tend to agree with his decision not to rush home but to first have a drink while waiting in a bar stateside. The scary nature of war where pressing the trigger has definitive results in terms of life and death, the reasoning behind the press of the trigger leading to more compunction than triumph is reason enough to respect the soldiers of war when their sole aim is to obey their orders and protect their brothers. What needs to be questioned is the necessity of war and violence which we will as part of my review of ‘The Imitation Game’.  Kyle’s story could have had a very Hollywood ending what with the effect of the war still apparent in him if not for his real life end. A different flavor of Clint Eastwood where he leaves the story behind the man to tell the tale.

Three and a half stars.

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