Kingsman: The Secret Service

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Matthew Vaughn delivers a slick and slightly misbehaving piece of mainstream entertainment in Kingsman, an homage to everyone’s favorite spy. This rude romp embraces all the wackiest aspects of the Bond series while lovingly abusing it at the same time. 

Kingsman is a super-secret organization of smartly dressed British spies. Like Bond, they are highly skilled at bagging baddies. Little focus is placed on bedding babes, but the princess eventually gets it in the end. The film also throws down a colourful supervillain (Samuel L. Jackson) with a dastardly plot. Jackson plays a psycho dot com billionaire with a lisp. Yeth, a lithp.

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The story begins when a Kingsman is killed early on in the first act, so there’s a job opening for a new recruit. Colin Firth’s sporty and winsome character picks up low class Eggy (Taron Egerton) to fill the gadget shoes.

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Kingsman is good, sick, maniacal fun with a high body count. In one blood-soaked scene, Firth brutally murders more people in a church than the Bride (Uma Thurman) puts down at the House of Blue Leaves in Kill Bill Vol. 2.

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The film teeters on the edge of graphic novel subversion and goofy offensiveness. If you have a hankering for dark and perverse humour, buy a ticket. I can’t recommend this cheeky spy flick enough.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers—The Ultimate in Science Fiction

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“The Ultimate in Science Fiction.”

Today in cinematic history, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) was released in theaters. In Don Siegel’s hot-headed paranoia B-movie, the killer aliens from outer space duplicate humans.

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“Something evil has taken possession of the town.”

The aliens spawn up a frothy mess from super-sized seed pods.

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Gee, Wally. That’s not a walnut.

Filmed entirely in southern California, Invasion is set in a sleepy nondescript California town. The Eisenhower-era commiesploitation film noir focuses on the fear of depersonalization and the claustrophobic constraints of conformity.

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It’s probably better to stay on the train.

Significant plot hole aside, Invasion is a concise (80 min.) and dramatic thriller that succeeds at creating a sustained sense of suspense.

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Say. This ain’t Green Acres.

Special effects are kept to a minimum.

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She has a lot of pretty, pretty boys she she calls friends.

The plot’s premise is emphasized through Siegel’s classical compositions, mise-en-scene, and crisp night-time photography.

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I’m about to be transformed into a hot frothy mess.

When the film was first previewed, wholesome audiences thought the ending was a bit of a downer. Originally, the main character was left yelling and waving his arms madly about in the middle of the highway, desperately trying to warn folks of the dangerous pod people. To give the film a happy ending, the studio added opening and closing sequences that imply help is on the way.

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And they all lived happily ever after.

If your preference is the more ambiguous ending, there’s a work-around. Start the movie at scene three and end with scene twenty-four. The other alternate for a better ending is to watch the 1978 remake starring Donald Sutherland.

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Blame it on the speed.

Either way, Invasion is the ultimate in science fiction. Available on Netflix and streamable ($0.00) via Amazon Instant Video.

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For Your Consideration … Films I Would Watch Again

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And so it begins. The annual ritual of whittling down hundreds of film titles—and a gazillion hours of captivation and wonderment—to just 15 is a cruel and torturous punishment. This list is forever transient and subjective, made up of whatever mood I was in when I happened to set my eyeballs on a particular film on a particular day. The fifteen films on this list consist of impressions that I could not shake from my brain and the stories I’m eager to watch unfold again, in some cases for the third or fourth time. 

1. BAD WORDS (March, 2014)

Jason Bateman’s directorial debut. It’s hard to believe this hilarious gem was overlooked by the Academy. Bad Words is a crass, sweet and super dark comedy with instances of pure vulgarity that is at the same time heartwarming. Yes, heartwarming.

2. THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (March, 2014)

I figured this quirky tale would fly past the Academy faster than a bottle rocket but to my surprise, it’s nominated for 9 Oscars, including Best Screenplay. For the record, the erotic Egon-Schiele style painting that replaces “Boy with Apple” was commissioned by the film’s director, Wes Anderson. Artist Rich Pellegrino created seven versions of two women “doing that thing they are doing” and Anderson selected one.

3. DOM HEMINGWAY (April, 2014)

Jude Law’s greatest performance by leaps and bounds. After spending 12 years in prison for keeping his trap shut, notorious safe-cracker Dom Hemingway is back on the streets of London looking to collect his due. The opening scene defies all fallacies and misconceptions of masculinity and toughness in film. The story is entirely built around character motivation and response. Dom is a loser for the choices he makes, not for who he is. The screenplay is three-dimensional and complex. It manages to reverse all pre-conceived or judgmental notions we may have when we first set eyes on Hemingway. No sappy male redemption story here folks. Bravo!

4. UNDER THE SKIN (April, 2014)

Okay, so I have a big man-size crush on Scarlett but who doesn’t? A mysterious woman (Scarlett Johansson) of unknown origin combs the highways of Scotland in search of lonely and forsaken men. The sexy beast lures the lost souls into an otherworldly den of darkness where they are seduced and grotesquely stripped of their humanity. This film is light on dialogue but heavy on strong, simple visuals. Many of the men filmed were not actors, but random people walking down the street. The van Johansson drove had been outfitted with high quality hidden cameras to capture the interactions. Once again, Jonathan Glazer succeeds in unsettling the viewer. Definitely not a Hollywood film. Not for everyone.

5. THE IMMIGRANT (May, 2014)

A modern masterpiece. James Gray’s latest film is a deep classical melodrama steeped in beauty. Like the melodramas of the 1950s and 60s, the cinematography is stunning and the sepia tones capture the era. An immigrant woman (Marion Cotillard) is tricked into a life of prostitution until a charismatic illusionist tries to rescue her and reunite her with her sister, who is being held in the confines of Ellis Island. Why the Weinstein Company decided to dump this movie in theaters without much hubbub is a question only it can answer. It’s a shame because people missed out on award worthy performance by Joaquin Phoneix, who falls apart at the seams on screen.

6. SNOWPIERCER (June, 2014)

South Korean writer/director, Bong Joon-Ho’s first primarily English film is one of constant chaos. Joon-Ho is a creative director. He builds intensity and immediately hooks the viewer. Snowpiercer is a rhythmic thrill ride without being awkward or excessive. Set in a future where a failed climate-change experiment kills all life on the planet except for a lucky few who boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe.

7. EDGE OF TOMORROW (June, 2014)

Tom Cruise still believes in Tom Cruise movies. In Edge of Tomorrow, a military officer is brought into a war against an alien enemy who can reset the day. Cruise teams up with a full metal bitch (Emily Blunt) to try to end the war. Blunt is all sorts of fabulous throughout the film. Edge is a very well executed sci-fi time loop movie and the characters’ repetitive day continues to entice the audience until the very end. Plus, the audience gets to see Mr. Cruise die … over and over again.

8. THE ROVER (June, 2014)

Toughies riding in cars. An untamed, uncompromising post-apocalyptic film in the Mad Max (1979) vein, The Rover is a bleak, savage and downbeat chase thriller through the sun-scorched Australian outback. The film is extremely rewarding and ultimately quite moving. Ten years after a global economic collapse, a hardened drifter (Guy Pearce) pursues the men who stole his only possession, his car.

9. A MOST WANTED MAN (July, 2014)

This is the last completed movie of Philip Seymour Hoffman. As I watched the late actor play a drained and weary chain-smoking, whisky-swigging spymaster, it was hard not to find the dark shadow of his tragically early death hanging over his character. The book A Most Wanted Man is the twenty-first novel of author John le Carré. The film itself is tight and the story is filled with intrigue. I didn’t get the same sweaty palm response I felt in Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy  (2011) but it’s still a noteworthy spy flick. The film is stylishly directed and evokes the lower depths of espionage agencies. Hoffman is outstanding, of course, which makes his loss all the harder to bear.

10. BOYHOOD (August, 2014)

I’m a sucker for dysfunctional family films. Nominated for 6 Oscars, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood explores the life of a young man from age 5 to age 18. The film’s audience connection is a universal one and the events that happen on screen unfold in mundane surroundings. We’ve all felt the awkwardness when starting a new school or job. Or perhaps the thrill of a first love along with the earth shattering despair when it ends. No one is immune to life. These events happen to everyone regardless of age or gender. Linklater takes these ordinary events and makes them grand and important. “Life doesn’t give you bumpers.”

11. THE DROP (September, 2014)

This was the last completed film of James Gandolfini. It’s always a lovely surprise to have a contemplative action film. Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy) finds himself at the center of a robbery gone wrong and tangled in an investigation that digs deep into the gritty neighborhood’s past, where friends, families and enemies all work together to make ends meet. Directed by Michaël Roskam, there is no shortage of elements that you’d expect from a Shane Black flick. Like Black, Roskam avoids the easy route and creates a world of understated tension, memorable characters, and the slow burn of hidden violence. There’s nothing extraordinary about the plot. Nice guy works a job in the seedy party of town. He meets a girl with a scarred past. Ex-boyfriend gets angry. Guy gets roped into a crime against his will. Blah, blah, blah. Hardy takes this lead and kills it in his meek but powerful delivery. Dennis Lehane’s script is to-the-point without being on-the-nose.

12. WHIPLASH (October, 2014)

You’ve already seen me rave about this Oscar nominated film in my blog.  A promising young drummer (Miles Teller) enrolls at a competitive music conservatory where his dreams of fame are mentored by an extremely harsh instructor (I predict an Oscar win for J.K. Simmons) who will stop at nothing to eke out a student’s potential. Oh, and more than just a zit-faced teeny bopper, this film will make Teller an all-out freaking movie star.

13. A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (November, 2014)

In the Iranian ghost town Bad City, a place that reeks of death and despair, the townspeople are unaware they are being stalked by a lonesome vampire. This original hybrid flick feels like a mash-up of several über-cool art-house subgenres, including vampire films, French new wave, 80s rom-coms, Jarmuschesque and Lynchian film noir. Shot in good old fashioned black and white, this film mesmerizes the audience with melancholy, despair, and sweetness. Yes, you read that correctly. The film also boasts one of the most romantic first kiss scenes (sigh) ever to grace the silver screen.

14. TOP FIVE  (December, 2014)

Chris Rock has some significant doo doo to say about his life, his story, and the world of comedy. Top Five reminded me of Birdman but without the “meh” factor. Unlike Birdman, Top Five is more than a whiny display of alleged satire and social commentary about the relevance of critics. Sometimes raunchy and painfully funny, this comedy reflects Rock’s charm and audacity which he continues to reflect in his standup.

15. INHERENT VICE (December, 2014)

This neo noir crime comedy drama is about a 4:20 private eye in 1970 Los Angeles who becomes embroiled in a twisty and dangerous mystery. This flick is rich in odd characters, offbeat comedy and a deeply human element. A great film that won’t be to everyone’s liking. I suspect there are folks out there who can resist a movie with colorful lines like “You smell like a patchouli fart,” but i’m not one of those people. This is just one nugget of such bizarre dialogue to be found and savored in Paul Thomas Anderson’s messy, convoluted film.

Because I love them so,  I must pay tribute to the 2014 zombie film I would watch again.

15.1 Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead (October, 2014)

Gallons of gore and an absurdly high number of brutal kills, this Nazisploitation flick is one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s almost a perfect sequel that amps up everything to the freaking max. This politically incorrect funfest massacres everyone in its path. Two bloody thumbs lopped off in its hackability, I almost died from all the gore-gasms.

 

Bang on the Jazz Drum All Day

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The last and probably only Hollywood film ever made about a jazz drummer was The Gene Krupa Story (1959). Jazz critics called the film “ludicrous” and “inaccurate.” Still, the film managed to inspire thousands of young musicians including Peter Criss (Catman) of KISS.

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It’s taken the silver screen 55 years to recover from all that noise. Whiplash (2014) director/writer Damien Chazelle’s story about the musical journey of a young jazz drummer’s experience at a demanding music conservancy is extraordinary in many ways. It is apparent that Chazelle, also a percussionist, watched and learned from Krupa. He also most likely watched the many DVDs on “the world’s greatest drummer,” Buddy Rich, who receives honorable mention in this film more than a few times.

The storyline is refreshingly straightforward. A gifted young drummer, played by Miles Teller, enrolls in a the country’s most prestigious music school, the fictional Schaffer Academy in Manhattan (Schaffer is based on the ultra-competitive jazz school at North Texas State University), where his dreams of awesomeness are mentored by a fierce and ruthless instructor, played by J.K. Simmons, who’s onscreen monster-of-insults performance is terrifyingly oscar-worthy. He serves up verbal, physical and emotional abuse, public humiliation, and rants and raves like a crazed Full Metal Jacket (1987) sergeant.

Expecting “110 percent musical perfection” was often cited as Buddy Rich’s goal. To say that J.K. Simmons’ whack-job character channels Buddy Rich is an understatement worthy of further examination. High expectations? Yeah, he had a few.

Whiplash is no touchy-feely film and in many ways may seem like a horrifying experience. In actuality, it’s a story of passion between two men in love with the same thing. They share a devotion to the jazz tradition and the missions of perfection and artistic excellence.

The minor subplots of family feud and a brief romance (no nudity) remain subplots and don’t distract from the main story. The main characters remain true to themselves throughout the film and there is no male redemption involved. Thank you, Chazelle.

Whiplash is not a musical. In fact, the only song played in its entirety is Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” during the film’s crescendo.

Creature features: Monsters of the imagination

I was once told that in order to be a good writer one has to be a good observer. Nothing flicks my twisted switch faster than a creature feature and I’ve observed them all. I was raised on a healthy diet of schlocky horror and martial arts movies from the 1930s to 1970s. These genre busting films were broadcast and welcomed into wholesome homes across America via local US television stations during the 1960s and ’70s. This was my candy store. Part sci-fi, part fantasy and a whole lotta scary. The stories I love most feature space aliens, large-scale mutants, and giant nuclear monsters terrorizing planet Earth.

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“Golly. I’m a whole lotta scared.”

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Starring Leslie Nielsen, my favorite Naked Gun.

These films are welcome to wreak havoc on my imagination. The Raven (1963) and The Terror (1963) are smart representations of the creature feature genre. Roger Corman’s B movies are delicious and extraordinary.

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Jack Nicholson (Lt. Andre Duval) pursues a mystery woman to an old baron’s castle.

All of those Japanese monster movies produced by Toho Studios and Daiei Motion Picture Company, known for Godzilla (1954) and Gamera (1966), created more monsters than you can shake a chopstick at.

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“Three heads are better than one.”

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Tail-biting fun.

The Universal Horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s like Frankenstein (1931) and other old RKO Pictures films like King Kong (1933) keeps the schlock menu timeless.

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“I’m king of the world!”

The television stations also broadcast all the great British horror films by Hammer Film Productions like The Curse of the Werewolf (1960) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939).

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Half-man, half-wolf and a whole lotta hair.

Thanks to a handful of creative and determined directors, this larger-than-life genre will not be eradicated anytime soon.

Director Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 unleashed Kaiju on mankind in Pacific Rim. Giant robots called Jaegers, controlled from within by two pilots, fight giant monsters in a showdown with sea monsters to save humanity. “Engage.”

Featuring all creatures great and small, Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods (2012) is a fun gorefest mash-up. Part slasher and part creature feature. This flick is sassy, sexy and fiendishly funny. Monsters spring up scary surprises at every turn as their appetite increases for pretty young things.

In 2006, Joon-ho Bong made a mutant water dragon emerge from the Han River in Gwoemul (The Host). An idiosyncratic combination of creature feature and thriller with a twist of slapstick and side of dysfunctional family. The world suffers at man’s hand due to environmental carelessness like so many of its predecessors. This creature is aquatic and acrobatic. I’m in love.

What to watch next?

I had the pleasure of meeting Mark Lester last weekend at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. He’s a director and producer of high-action films and I was thrilled to learn that he recently finished directing a creature feature.

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“I eat bikinis for breakfast.”

A small secluded island off the coast of Belize suddenly finds itself terrorized by a deadly predator from Earth’s distant past when deep-sea divers accidentally awaken an ancient evil in Poseidon Rex.

Filmed on location, Lester’s latest opens in theaters and iTunes on April 18th. Listen to his radio interview on America’s Most Haunted.

Sometimes I convince my co-author Michael Corbin Ray to watch B movies with me. Our debut novel The Long Way features a creature. A dragon to be precise. If our genre mash-up story (east meets west) reads like a film we’ll blame it on cinema and the art of observation.

The Only Thing Missing is a Little Teapot Spout …

When I was a child, one of the first things I remember hearing about China was the taboo behind girl babies. When I misbehaved, my dad would joke around and say, “Therese, if you don’t straighten up, we’re going to ship you to China.” I knew what that meant. My days of watching westerns, martial arts, films, and Night Gallery would be over. I would be sealed in a wooden crate without any “fragile” stickers, placed on a palate, and shipped with all the other girls who behaved badly. It was said that a Chinese family often felt cursed if a female child was born into it. I’m sure my parents sometimes felt the same way — I know my younger brother certainly did.

In the novel we’re working on, my writing partner and I chose as our main character a young girl living under terrible circumstances in mid-19th century China. We wanted to breathe life into a seemingly useless pest. During our research into this time and place, we came across many grim historical discoveries, but one towered above them all:

If a Chinese baby dies, no loving hands prepare it for its grave. A piece of coarse matting is tied around the tiny body, and it is carried to a little tower erected outside most cities, with little openings like windows, but without doors. All that is left of baby is thrown in through one of these openings, and falls into the pit below the tower. If the little one is a girl, the parents are not always particular to ascertain if it is quite dead or not.

That quote is taken from a book called Child-Life in Chinese Homes, written by an English missionary to China named Mrs. Bryson and published in 1885. It can be fascinating to read these old accounts of westerners in Asia. Often they seem arrogant and superior in their attitudes, neither willing nor able to grasp the meaning or value of the strange customs and people they were discovering. This Mrs. Bryson, though, does seem in her writings to have a real love for the children and families she met and worked with.

Baby tower, Foochow, ca. 1900. From Chinese Pictures: Notes on Photographs Made in China, by Mrs. J.F. Bishop.

I’ll leave you with a trailer for the film King of Masks, one of my favorites. The story is about a simple street performer who finds new joy in his life when he purchases a young boy from a slave trader posing as the boy’s father. He trains the boy as his apprentice and treats him as a grandson. All is well until Doggie (an afectionate term often used for young children in China) is discovered to actually be a girl in disguise:

It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man …

… Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have. As I sit here in my living room about to watch Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (again) I am reminded about how difficult it is to kill your characters. They ain’t ever gonna breathe again. Killing folks is a damn thing — even the ones who you’ve written to deserve it. What I admire most about films like Unforgiven and Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch is the ability to portray characters who are both admirable and dirty. I mean, after all, no one is innocent, particularly in desperate times. Those desperate times are where I empathize with characters the most. Everyone likes an underdog, even if that underdog is lowdown, dirty, and belongs in a junkyard. Unlike most John Wayne films, in my favourite stories, there are no heroes, only some baddies killing some other baddies we don’t really know (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly; Bladerunner; Apocalypse Now; A Clockwork Orange; and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, to name a few). The only true hero is desperation. I am filled with life when I sit down to watch Unforgiven. It will no doubt prepare me for writing the next chapter of my current novel. Keep your spurs on and your Winchester close by …