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A Squircular Blog from The Squiss

Film reviews, essays, journalism, insights and general ramblings

from Edward Field, the Squircled Stegophilist.permission to rage tn

 

 

The Squiss is currently on hiatus to concentrate on other projects.

Fear not, he will return…

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Kingsman: The Secret Service ****

28 January 2015

Adapted from the acclaimed comic book by Jane Goldman (Stardust, The Woman in Black) and directed by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, Kick-Ass) Kingsman: The Secret Service is a sit back, put your feet up, go with the flow romp. It doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and it achieves its goals admirably.

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Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is an agent with a super-secret undercover organization hidden behind the façade of an exclusive tailor’s outlet in London. When one of the Kingsman agents is killed in action, a brief, intensive selection process begins through which a replacement will be found. Whilst the majority of the potential recruits are public school educated and born with silver spoons in their mouths, Harry’s proposition is Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin (Taron Egerton), a streetwise kid from the wrong side of town and a pitiful history. With death or expulsion the penalty for failing each task, Eggsy battles prejudice as well as aptitude tests in a bid to become a Kingsman.

From the opening titles of Kingsman: The Secret Service we know we’re up for fun. The credits tumble out like rocks from exploding walls as Vaughn sets the tone of adventure and derring-do. We think we know where we’re going but Goldman and Vaughn have formed a reliable partnership that maintains the ability to surprise, to appall and to shock simultaneously. This is tongue-in-cheek, logic be damned magic.

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Throughout Kingsman: The Secret Service we are treated to bloody, violent, beautiful choreography that leaves us wincing, laughing and admiring the audacity of the mayhem they spread across the screen. The church sequence is a marvel to behold and a scene that Tarantino must wish he had created first. As for the grand, spectacular finale, well, let’s just say you’ve never seen fireworks like this! It is a visual triumph that is, in an odd kind of way, mind-expanding. Riotous, beautiful and very funny indeed.

One of the great joys of Goldman’s and Vaughn’s collaborations is that they seem not to care too much what anybody thinks. They just do it. They know the rules and they play the Hollywood game but they do it their way. Product placement has long been a standard of filmmaking, and though there is plenty of it on display here, one particular example is the funniest, classiest most blatant since, well, ever!

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Like Goldman’s and Vaughn’s other work, Kingsman: The Secret Service doesn’t take itself seriously. It is joyfully camp at times, frequently taking digs at the genre it is mocking. In the Roger Moore years, James Bond became a buffoon, an unbelievable pastiche of himself. Here, Bond gets a makeover and frivolous fun is on the agenda throughout. All the ingredients are here: a super villain, excess, beauty and gadgets. This is gadget heaven and umbrellas have suddenly become cool.

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Colin Firth is clearly having an absolute blast as the suave agent. Who needs Paddington to boost your cinematic profile when you can shoot, stab, smash and bludgeon this stylishly? Firth is a class act and this is proof once again that there is far more to him than simply the stiff upper lip persona.

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Samuel L. Jackson is on scenery munching duty the as Valentine, a twisted tech genius holding the world to ransom under the guise of being its savior, and why not? There’s a certain amount of ham in his performance but it works perfectly here and he’s in good company.

Egerton makes for a fine, watchable secondary hero that we may perhaps find it easier to identify with but he’s not in the same league as Colin Firth or Michael Caine and does not easily drag our attention away from them. Mark Strong’s accent takes a little while to settle in but he, too, brings light humour and a certain gravitas to Kingsman: The Secret Service, as we have come to expect from his presence.

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There are plenty of gaps in the plot (at what point does Eggsy actually learn to fight properly?), and occasionally the humour is a little too obvious and slips below the level Vaughn sets, but all of these glitches and flaws are forgivable when a film is this much fun.

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Unfortunately, when a film is as much fun as Kingsman: The Secret Service, the temptation (and pressure from the studio) must surely be there to forge a sequel. Let’s hope Goldman and Vaughn resist that money making exercise and leave Kingsman to stand proudly as a unique experience that thrills and entertains completely.

Another film review from The Squiss.

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John Wick *

20 January 2015

Another day, another review.  In the case of John Wick, there’s a really short version: Don’t bother.

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John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is a recently bereaved man whose wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan) kindly, inexplicably, managed to replace herself with a perfectly timed puppy so that John won’t be lonely. He also owns a car. Shortly after burying his wife, John takes his dog and fills up his car at the gas station where he attracts the attention of thug Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen, recently seen in Plastic). Iosef wants the car, John doesn’t want to sell it, Iosef resolves the issue that night by rearranging John’s face, killing the dog and stealing the car. Needless to say, John is a little narked and phones Iosef’s dad, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) to complain. The thing is, John Wick is a retired hitman and all-round killing machine.

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John Wick could have been resolved painlessly in five minutes: “Your son killed my dog and now I want to kill him. If you don’t let me, I’ll kill everybody you employ, everybody you know and every inanimate object you own.” “Okay, he’ll be home in half an hour. Come on over…”

No such luck.

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It starts slowly, stutters and plummets thereafter.

John Wick is the type of film that gives credibility to the opinion that Keanu Reeves stinks on the big screen. It isn’t right (sometimes), it isn’t fair but in this instance it is fairly accurate. In reality, Reeves is the second best thing (after the dog) in this tedious, ham-fisted mess that attempts to be a thriller, but I suspect there is more to it than that. He isn’t awful, he just doesn’t appear to be trying. He gives every impression of gritting his teeth, and taking the money before he wanders back into the safe obscurity of the horizon. He looks bored and I suspect he’s fulfilling a favour and hoping he escapes in tact.

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John Wick is the directorial debut of both Chad Stahelski (stunt coordinator and Reeves’ double on Constantine, The Matrix films, The Replacements, Point Break…) and an uncredited David Leitch, who happened to be a stuntman on Constantine and Matrix Revolutions. Either this is one hell of a favour orKeanu Reeves lost big time on the between-the-scenes poker marathons.

As we found with The Interview and This is the End, having two directors doesn’t mean the film is going to be twice as good. John Wick is proof again that if one director can’t make it work, a second director only serves to shoulder the blame. Stahelski and Leitch have hired a goon to ‘write’ this mess and have then proceeded to direct it in the same manner i.e. in block capitals and armed with wax crayons.

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Scattered throughout John Wick are subtitles that float across the screen (no bad thing) with random words picked out in block capitals to give the impression of the speakers SHOUTING random WORDS whenever they feel LIKE it (VERY bad THING indeed!). I’m just going to gloss over the needlessly capitalized words sprinkled through them.

The performances in John Wick are frequently, painfully wooden and from a cast that also either owed favours (Willem Dafoe) or were cheap (the rest). It plods, lines are repeated and the costume design clearly consisted of shopping; EVERYONE is wearing brand new clothes!

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John Wick contains some fine action sequences in which Keanu Reeves swings a variety of weapons with maximum effect, but when there is complete reliance on blood spatter and gunfire and a complete oversight when it comes to script, direction, performance, logic and reason, no matter how good your star is, your film is in serious trouble.

To refer to my original statement, there is a slightly longer short version:

Don’t waste your time, money or breath watching, thinking or talking about John Wick.

Another film review from The Squiss.

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Birdman ****

16 January 2015

It’s not hard to see why Birdman has divided audiences. It isn’t an easy viewing experience and it would be all too simple to call it a ‘Marmite’ film, but it’s not as straightforward as loving or hating Birdman; I think some people just don’t ‘get’ it. And, no, I’m not setting myself above all others and claiming that I do get every point and nuance.

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Writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu (21 Grams, Biutiful) has crafted a comedy drama of depression and insanity where the viewer isn’t always entirely certain what is going on either upon the screen or in Riggan Thomas’ mind. For that matter, Riggan isn’t entirely certain where the dividing line is between reality and psychosis, so what hope is there for us?

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Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) is a washed up, wrung out movie star famous for his role as the titular Birdman. With his film career on the wane, his personal life in tatters and his mental state fragile, he endeavours to kick-start his career and prove that he is a real ‘actor’ by adapting, directing, staring and producing an adaptation of a Raymond Carver’s short story, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, on Broadway. The production is troubled with recasting problems, relationships, clashes with inflated and fragile egos and family issues including a daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), who is begrudgingly working as his PA. But these problems are nothing compared to the maelstrom in his head.

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Birdman is a very dark and frequently disturbing film that is lightened by occasionally also being very funny. There are snaps of dialogue and physical action that thrust a belly load of laughter into the air to lift the mood and the action, though mostly the action of language and retorts, keeps the viewer on edge. Antonio Sanchez’ jazz drum score, however, scratches at the brain so that we are never truly comfortable, regardless of the humour and action upon the screen.

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The camera work is an absolute joy to behold. Periodically a film comes along (The Player, Atonement) that causes us to rave about a particular scene that is one long, elaborate shot and which must have been rehearsed and choreographed endlessly. Birdman is comprised almost exclusively of such shots that are so beautifully edited that it is frequently very difficult to see where one shot ends and the next begins, although it is difficult not to be distracted by Iñárritu’s skill and play ‘spot the edit’ rather than concentrating on the film.

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Birdman is loaded to the brim with fine performances from Edward Norton’s egotistical actor, Mike, to Lindsay Duncan’s viciously cutting critic, Tabitha. With solidly impressive support at every turn from Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts et al, Iñárritu has filled Birdman with variety and sparkle from his cast. In any other year, Keaton would be looking pretty damn confident in the run up to the Oscars but he has a battle on his hands with Eddie Redmayne’s turn in The Theory of Everything. Regardless of how much gold he wins this year, he is on blisteringly good form here as Riggan in what may very well displace Betelgeuse as his career-defining role.

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I’m not entirely convinced that Birdman is a film to enjoy, but it is a fantastic, mind-mending, disturbing experience of madness and surrealism that needs to be witnessed more than explained. Take a deep breath and go for it, but don’t blame me if you emerge with your head spinning and less relaxed than when you went in.

Another film review from The Squiss.

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Whiplash *****

13 January 2015

Wow! Just wow!

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A young drummer, Andrew (Miles Teller) enrolls at a prestigious music conservatory. Plucked from a rehearsal room, he is given the opportunity to play with the studio band under the tutelage of aggressively driven band leader Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a man with a vicious mouth, extreme methods and an obsession with driving his students way beyond breaking point in order to achieve their potential and find absolute perfection.

Perhaps my greatest joy with Whiplash is that just a few weeks ago I was barely aware of its existence and deliberately knew little about it as I took my seat in the screening room. There is something very special about being blindsided without expectation, and blindsided I was. My screening companion and I felt exhausted by the end and were still discussing animatedly it an hour later.

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I knew I was in the presence of greatness within minutes of Whiplash. From the opening scenes of Andrew rehearsing and Fletcher observing, passing judgment and scything him down with sharpened tongue and looks that slayed, it was abundantly clear that writer/director Damien Chazelle was on a mission to hammer us repeatedly with verbal blades, withering looks and an intensity that other directors would kill to produce.

There are insufficient superlatives to express the power and effect of Whiplash and Chazelle’s achievement. At least four times in the course of the screening my heart sank as Chazelle took us towards an alleyway that was predictable and certain to kick a five-star experience into another four-star, notable also-ran. Each time, he turned it around beautifully, steadfastly refusing to take the convenient route, instead aiming another kick at the tender parts, slamming us with the unexpected and leaving us to reel or look on in wide-eye admiration.

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His brilliance is in the subtlety, the sharp cracks of dialogue that slice through the opposing character’s confidence; it is in the reactions of the onlookers that we see once and only once, never over-egging a moment; it is in the blood, sweat and tears, literally, that coat the symbols; it is in the music, the performance and the slam of hand and stick on metal and skin and it is in the accompanying venomous glares that scream more eloquently than a thousand words could ever achieve.

Until last night, I didn’t really ‘get’ jazz. After 107 minutes of Whiplash that passed in a heart-pounding, hair prickling moment, I can’t get enough. If there had been a second screening I’d have put myself through the exhaustion again in an instant.

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When the Oscar nominations are revealed tomorrow, I doubt if the Academy will honour Whiplash with a Best Film nod but I sincerely hope it is in the mix at least for director and editing. As for J.K. Simmons, his nomination and win as Best Supporting Actor are probably as much a certainty as Daniel Day Lewis was for Best Actor in 2013 for Lincoln. If Simmons doesn’t clean up 90% of the principal awards and see his already superb career take a whole new trajectory after this, I’ll eat my hat, and yours and every one I can find in the village! Good? Whiplash is damn near perfect and J.K. Simmons is a major reason for it!

For those who know J.K. Simmons as ‘that guy from…’, no longer is he going to be the go-to guy for irascible bosses and supporting characters. There is an effortlessness to his commanding performance as the teacher his students fear but whose validation they crave. Powerful, venomous, controlling, manipulative, vindictive… Fletcher is at turns both horrible and, perhaps, a genius. J.K. Simmons’ utter ownership of the character pokes an electrified finger into every nerve prompting us to hate, fear and, just maybe, respect and admire a man who walks a razor sharp line between obsessive insanity and genius, all the time staring his victims in the eye, screaming into their face and daring them to take him on.

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On the receiving end of much of his venom is Andrew, played with equal measure and control by Teller. It is a solid performance that meets Simmons’ all the way. More than that is Teller’s performance at the drums that astound. He plays with his hands and his fists and his mind and his emotions and every ounce of fluid he can ring out of every available pore in his body. At the risk of sounding repetitive, wow. Just wow!

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I recently reviewed Big Eyes, a true story that really didn’t warrant a feature-length big screen outing. Conversely, Whiplash is an event I wish I could make a reality so that I could experience it in the flesh repeatedly.

Chazelle has crafted a film that is pretty much perfect. I fear it will receive a limited audience because, on paper, the premise doesn’t blow anyone away: Teacher gives student a hard time; student struggles to find himself... But back in 1994, a little prison movie was released that was badly marketed, garnered seven Oscar nominations, didn’t win a single one and bombed at the box office. It was only word of mouth and the DVD release that made the world sit up en masse and notice that The Shawshank Redemption for what it is. Perhaps Whiplash will go through a similar experience, though I suspect Oscar won’t make the same mistake this time around.

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The year is young but Whiplash is the best cinematic outing from it so far. See it, see it now and prepare for something remarkable. To steal a line, “I’ll count you in…”

Another film review from The Squiss.

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