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Column Fri Feb 13 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service, Fifty Shades of Grey, Timbuktu, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus & Young Bodies Heal Quickly

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Kingsman: The Secret Service

A film that manages to mildly poke fun at the British spy genre while still embracing its tropes and succeeding at being a terrific action work all at once, Kingsman: The Secret Service begins as a recruitment story and becomes a full-blown save-the-world adventure, all while its stars look good doing it.

From the Mark Millar (Kick-Ass) comic book series and directed by Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake, X-Men: First Class and, yes, Kick-Ass), Kingsman lets you think for a time that it's the story of a Harry Hart, aka Galahad (Colin Firth), an esteemed member of spy organization the Kingsman, whose accomplishments are so hush-hush that no one even knows the exist. On that rare occasion when a member is killed, each Kingman recruits a young candidate to replace, and the handful of young men and women enter into a series of trials until one is left. Galahad selects Eggsy (relative newcomer Taron Egerton), something of a punk kid but also the son of a former Kingman who was a true friend of Galahad's.

But at a certain point in the second half of the film, Kingsman reveals itself to really be Eggsy's story, as he works his way through test after test, under the watchful eye of Mark Strong's recruitment overseer, Merlin, and Kingsman's chief, Arthur (Michael Caine). While Eggsy is working his way through the ranks, Galahad is tied up figuring out the evil plot of billionaire tech guru Valentine (a lispy Samuel L. Jackson) and his sidekick Gazelle (Algerian powerhouse Sofia Boutella), who has nasty blades in place of her legs.

As nasty as that sounds, it's actually 10 times nastier. In fact, the same holds true for Kingsman as a whole; the violence level, cartoonish as it may be, is exceptionally gory. One lengthy sequence in particular, involving a massacre in a church filled with white supremacists, is so kinetically brutal it may make you heave from both the blood and guts and the crazy camera movements.

Working from an adaptation by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, Kingsman: The Secret Service works so well because, frankly, it doesn't give a fuck how crazy its various stories are. It exists in a world where spy movies and TV shows are a big part of pop culture (James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Jack Bauer are all mentioned... as fictional characters), and in many ways the Kingsman are trying to show that those Hollywood spies are pussies compared to the real deal. Vaughn has never been more assured and confident as a director given what appears to be total freedom to lose his fool mind in this world.

As much as the big special effects moments and large-scale action sequences with explosions and gunplay are fun, Kingsman in never better than when it scales things back and gives us great hand-to-hand (or hand-to-razor feet) combat, like an early scene in a bar between Galahad and a small army of local thugs, or the aforementioned church sequence. Watching the perfect British gentleman Firth go through the action paces is an unexpected and much welcome treat, and he handles both the humor and serious moments with a deft wit. And he's quite nimble at kicking ass with an umbrella.

Matthew Vaughn has established himself not only as a great adapter of comic book properties, but he has a keen sense of what makes a particular set of characters interesting on the page and finds ways to make them equally enjoyable on the screen — sometimes by reinventing them. And he's also quite gifted at adapting his style to the property and adding or subtracting from the pacing to fit the mood of the material. He has a producing credit on the upcoming Fantastic 4, and I hope some of his style has seeped into that reboot the way it did with X-Men. But we're here to talk about Kingsman, and it's a whole lot of subversive, twisted, nasty fun in a custom-tailored sit.

Fifty Shades of Grey

I'd like to meet just one person — male or female — who found the original Fifty Shades of Grey novel genuinely inspirational as a means of getting worked up and ready for a whole new level of kink in their sad, empty lives. Because I bet even that one person would find the film adaptation of the E.L. James novel (with two more films on the way!) a total snooze as anything resembling a guide to BDSM practices. Of course, I'm not being exactly fair, because, in fact, Fifty Shades of Grey isn't meant to be an instruction manual to whipping, tying up, blindfolds, spanking, or buying a woman gifts until you've effectively paid her to sleep with you. It's actually a profile of a man who was sexually abused as a kid by a female family friend and has spent his whole life since trying to make women pay for his pain... but try fitting that on a poster.

Only her second feature, director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy), working from a script by Kelly Marcel, actually starts out the film on solid, curious ground. Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) is a near-graduating college student who has to fill in for her roommate Kate (Eloise Mumford) to do an interview with publishing tycoon Christian Grey (Jamie Dorman) in his Seattle office for their college paper. Armed with Kate's questions and not a lot of interviewing experience, Anastasia stumbles into Grey's office wide eyed, starstruck and bit flustered by Grey's commanding, handsome presence... and that's with his clothes on.

The real shock of Fifty Shades of Grey is the sense of humor it starts out with. Grey is fairly aware of the power he has over women, and he knows exactly how to bring Ana into his clutches. His intentions aren't exactly evil, but he does have an under-lock-and-key playroom equipped with all the latest devices of sexual torment. But even that unveiling is done with a degree of levity that had me hoping for the best in the first hour or so. Grey never gets tired of telling Ana (and us) that he's no a romance kind of guy, but he's in not short supply of romantic gestures — helicopter flights, showing up unexpectedly, fancy dinners and charm for days. The dude even holds her hair back while she blows chunks after drinking too much at a club.

But when he begins to lay out his particular wants and needs, it's clear that this fairly naive young woman (turns out she's still a virgin who has had no sexual contact of any kind ever) wants to be open minded and is so turned on by Grey that she's willing to try his ropes and handcuffs on for size. If for no other reason, I appreciated Fifty Shades of Grey for beginning the conversation on non-traditional sex; as misguided as things get in the story, at least the characters talk things out. Of course, Grey also asks Ana to sign a non-disclosure agreement about their relationship and, later in one of the film's most humorous scenes, a contract spelling out in detail what she will and won't do. Their meeting to hash out the details of the contract is hilarious, and I believe deliberately so.

There's an extraordinary amount of backstory about our two leads that seems wholly unnecessary. Details about parents (Jennifer Ehle plays her mom; Marcia Gay Harden and Luke Grimes play his parents) are ushered forth with no real connection to the main events of the film. There's a whole sequence where Ana goes to visit her mother in Georgia that serves no purpose other to for Grey to get emotional enough about her being gone to follow her there.

Weirdly enough, the film loses a lot of its focus when the kinky sex kicks in, in large part because of the way the kink is shot — lots of dopey slow-motion shots of Grey using a riding crop on Ana or strapping her down to his sex bed. Make no mistake, Johnson and Dornan are near-perfect naked human specimens, but once you get over seeing pretty much everything they have to offer, what's left is a lot of trite, softcore lighting, pulsating music, and I want to believe a wind machine was in play at some point. If you're going to teach us something, teach us. Show it to us the way Christian Grey sees it — all about causing another pain and dominating them for his pleasure. We've seen the romance; now show us why the book is notorious.

The film is actually good at not delivering on promises made by and other creepy things about Grey. He tells her she essentially has to be at his sexual beck and call, except that doesn't really happen. He says he doesn't like to sleep next to anyone, but he does it a lot with Ana. He says no hardcore sex without the contract, but that happens too. But an equally taxing problem is Ana's reactions to Grey, which range from a whole lot of lip biting to more lip biting accompanied by gasps that might be shock or maybe getting turned on.

Except for one closing encounter between the couple in which she demands he gives her the worst he's got, none of their sex is particularly daring or unspeakable. Far more daring is Ana's constant challenging of his sexual practices. "Why do you want to hurt me?" she pleads, still trying to salvage the relationship. Neither one of these people is easy to like, and while I don't need to like characters to appreciate the film, in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey, it really would have helped if I knew what either of these people was thinking. And instead of giving us anything resembling a resolution, the film ends in a cliff hanger so anticlimactic that the entire audience I saw it with was left with cinematic blue balls. (Yes, I know there are two more of these films on the way, but at least give us an angry handy.)

In a way, maybe the film fulfilled its mission by frustrating us like nobody's business. These are two lovers being guided by a sexually broken man, so maybe we don't deserve to be titillated. Maybe we deserve to be spanked for expecting a book born of Twilight fan fiction to teach us something new about human sexuality. Perhaps Fifty Shades of Grey is exactly what our sexually repressed society has earned. Maybe a Cinemax sex movie with higher production values is our price for ignoring character development and unpredictable plot for too long. Who the hell knows, but if you plunk down your hard-earned money to see this one, count yourself as part of the problem.

Timbuktu

Marking the nation of Mauritania's first-ever entry for Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award consideration (it's one of five nominees), the chilling and worthy Timbuktu provides a stark and sometimes unseemly look at the capitol of Mali, where Islamic fundamentalists moved in briefly and were met with varying levels of resistance from the locals.

The film opens with two very telling shots from director and co-writer Abderrahmane Sissako: a group of these Jihadists in a jeep chasing down a gazelle, shooting at it with AK-47 not to kill it but to wear it out, they say; the second shot is of these same men taking target practice using what is clearly African statues, blowing chunks of the art off with uncanny precision. The message is clear, but the response from the local population clearly was not as the religious zealots attempt to take control of their faith by instilling seemingly random and nonsensical laws on the people, and punishing those who refuse to obey with lashing, stonings — or worse.

The film follows a handful of interconnected characters, including Kidane, a musician who lives just outside of the city with his wife Satima, daughter Toya, and a young shepherd they employ to take care of their cows. There are also folks in the city that are being harassed on a daily basis by the Jihadists, including those who run the local mosque, who insist that these men with guns and their shoes on leave the house of God immediately. Rather than simply submit to the will of these radicals, the residents try to negotiate the extremity of the law with them (usually to no avail). When a local girl is essentially kidnapped and married off to one of the invaders, the townspeople demand an explanation, but the Jihanists always explain away their bad behavior by quoting religious text or an approximation of it.

It's too easy to watch Timbuktu and simply say that the fundamentalists are bad; the ones presented in this film, when alone with their thoughts, seems to break a few laws here and there themselves (some listen to music, some smoke, etc.), but when they come together, they are much more strict. When Kidane gets involved in a feud with local fisherman, suddenly this man who prides himself on not getting caught up in these religious disputes finds himself smack dab in the middle of one, even though his crime was clearly committed in self-defense.

Timbuktu is filled with striking images — some quite beautiful, some surreal, some that will crush your heart, and its heartening to see a film come out of a region that defied oppressors and eventually triumphed after many crushing defeats. If offers a depth to all of its characters and it doesn't sugar coat the region's hardships by showing us a time when the Jihadists were driven out. The film aims to enlighten without sparing us the pain the locals went though to get to a better place. It's a largely quiet but powerful work that deserves your attention and eyes. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

The thing I've always believed about the films of Spike Lee is that whether he succeeds or fails, he does so spectacularly. There are no half measures when it comes to his best work nor his unmitigated disasters. Decided to get financing from crowd-funding on this particular passion project, Lee has unearthed a little-known 1973 cult film (Bill Gunn's Ganja & Hess) and faithfully remade it, with touches of modern elements just to keep things interesting. I'm not sure if the end result, Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, is any good or if I even enjoyed it, but I never stopped wondering where it would take me, and that's more than a lot of movies do.

The story begins in the Martha's Vineyard home of a snooty black professor Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams). After a friend and house guest mortally stabs him with a cursed Ashanti blade, but he still manages to stay alive, the good doctor suddenly develops a taste for blood, leading us to believe that Greene has been transformed into something resembling a vampire (or at least a person with vampire-like urges). When the now-dead friend's ex-wife, Ganja Hightower (Zaraah Abrahams), comes looking for him, Dr. Greene ends up seducing her — both sexually and into his blood-tinged lifestyle — and the two get married and begin luring people into their home to feed upon them.

I'm a proponent of films that aren't afraid to shift tones during the course of the story, but Da Sweet Blood of Jesus suffers from a case of drifting tones, and it never quite settles into what it wants to be. Portions of it feel like satire — a comment on rich folks and their belief that anyone economically beneath them should simply bend to their will. But other times, the surreal nature of the tale makes it feel like a commentary on how the only way blacks in America will be able to survive is to become this level of indestructible. In actuality, I don't believe Lee, who also adapted the screenplay from Gunn's original, is attempting to be that on the nose with his messages. He's playing to atmosphere and pushing boundaries that he's never before attempted in film. The final product isn't always compelling, but it's nice to see that Lee (who is about to turn 58) is still capable of taking chances and risks.

Much as the tone moves sporadically, what works and doesn't is all over the place. There are a couple of sex scenes here that are genuinely erotic and fairly graphic (count that as a win); there are strange and downright odd supporting parts and cameos that had took me out of the film occasionally just to figure out "Is that Donna Dixon?" or "Is that Snoop from 'The Wire' in a dress?" (count that as a failure); but I did enjoy the work from Rami Malek as Dr. Green's manservant Seneschal Higginbottom, who creeps around the castle-like estate like the doctor's own personal Igor. And I'll admit to be captivated by Nate Bova as the doctor's ex-girlfriend (high school edition), Tangier Chancellor, who drops in to meet the new wife and then become dinner for the couple.

Other elements to Da Sweet Blood of Jesus that don't work: Bruce Hornsby's piano score, which in another movie would probably be award worthy, but when combined with this particular work, it never synchs up with the mood of what's happening on screen. The music comes into a scene like a noisy next-door neighbor whose stereo is on too loud. A good score works in tandem with the visuals, but here, it clashes with them. Also, the acting from the leads is so odd that I can't tell if their stilted delivery is intentional or simply a poor attempt at "sounding rich." It's an unwelcome distraction and can often be quite laughable.

In the end, I think there are two groups of people who might appreciate Lee's latest: those who are completists and need to see everything he does, or those who have never seen one of his films. I could easily see someone walking into this film cold, unaware that Lee had a hand in it, and finding it fascinating. Beyond those groups, I'm not sure I can recommend the movie to anyone else. It's an ambitious, yet utterly frustrating piece, but I hold out hope that Spike Lee continues to challenge his audience and himself as he does here. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Young Bodies Heal Quickly

This glimpse into a world where talking is not the preferred method of communication between two stunted brothers, 20-year-old Older (Gabriel Croft) and 10-year-old Younger (Hale Lytle), Young Bodies Heal Quickly is meandering but still mesmerizing tale of siblings on the road and on the run. After a somewhat accidental killing of a girl the boys were fighting with in their hometown, they are lovingly sent packing by their mother, destination unknown (to us). The film's sense of place is not important, but they seem to travel from one small community to the next, eventually arriving at the home of their older sister (Kate Lyn Sheil) and her family, before even she gets sick of them after a day or two.

This rather simple first stop in no way prepares us for the places they go next, including an off-season beachfront town where they are befriended by the French-born maid of a largely empty hotel. She sneaks them into a room and takes care of them (as a mother to Younger; as a lover to Older) before her jealous French chef boyfriend (complete with meat cleaver) chases the kids out of town. The brothers rarely leave a place voluntarily, but they eventually land with their long-lost father, who collects memorabilia from many wars and seems especially keen on Vietnam War re-enactments. In fact, the final act of Young Bodies is devoted entirely to one such event, but it transforms into something far more sinister and tense before it's over.

Young Bodies Heal Quickly doesn't feature scenes in which the boys learn from their immature behavior or mistakes, so it doesn't exactly qualify as a coming-of-age story. Instead, first-time feature writer-director Andrew T. Betzer seems more interested in capturing these specific weeks in the brothers' lives and seeking out details that another filmmaker might overlook. There are moments here that will make you uneasy — child endangerment is apparently not a concern of the boys' father — and others that unfold gradually, lulling you into a false sense of serenity before revealing a particular scene's true focal point or danger. The film feels like the work of a young filmmaker, with all the good and bad that implies, but in the end, while you may not feel the need to invite these brothers to tea, there is something about the way they approach life that pulls you in, unable to look away. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at Facets Cinémathèque.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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