Kingsman: The Secret Service ****

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Ever wondered what injecting a Bond film with a bit of comic-book madness would be like? Kick-Ass writer director Matthew Vaughn – who teams up with co-writer Jane Goldman again – has the answer: Kingsman: The Secret Service. It’s part-spy, part comic-book caper that doesn’t take itself seriously.

Testament of Youth star Taron Egerton plays Gary ‘Eggsy’ Unwin, a lippy kid from a London sink estate who is recruited into a secret spy agency comprised of upper class ‘tailors’ from Savile Row. Little does Eggsy know that his late father was also part of the same elite force, having lost his life to save debonair agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) in a botched Middle East operation.

Hart left little Eggsy a calling card that he now uses when his mum’s violent partner’s thugs come a-knocking, and is surprised by the special killer moves from a nibble Hart in action. This then begins Eggsy’s Kingsman recruitment and training – much to the disapproval of the agency’s leader Arthur (Michael Caine). Meanwhile, scheming phone billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) plans to take over peoples’ handsets and the world and ‘cleanse’ it. Eggsy first mission becomes a vital one to save the planet.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Hart, a part so fitting for Firth, in both temperament and physique that you can tell the actor is having an immense amount of fun portraying him. It’s a close as we get to seeing Firth as Bond too – and Firth the marital arts expert. His immaculate manners and Egerton as Eggsy’s lack of compliment brilliantly and make for great rifts as the youngster learns not just the spy business ropes but etiquette. You do long for even more jokes along the George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion line. It is also a big, sharp poke at the ingrained English class structure, something Vaughn relishes in.

If Testament of Youth wasn’t a great start to a fledging career for recently graduated drama school alumni Egerton, Kingsman propels him into the big time and puts him on pop culture’s radar. The young actor really carries the part well, not only bringing well-timed humour when needed, but also proving he’s a contender for any future action roles. Maybe a young Bond in the making?

Caine gives an intriguing turn as the agency boss – equipped with a great twist towards the end. Mark Strong is the agency’s Q-styled character who unlike the Bond character, actually gets to see some action. Jackson is hilarious as the lisping megalomaniac with an aversion to blood – watch out for the dinner scene with Hart too, and its Bond references. It’s a credit to the writers.

As for the action, it’s back to pre-(awful) Kick-Ass 2 standards. It’s a thrilling ride, from the pub brawl between Hart and thugs, to the evangelical church ding-dong between the British gentleman agent and some super prejudice worshippers that will literally have your jaw hitting the ground at the choreography, blood thirst and speed. For those wanting tropes of Bond action, it pays homage to that too.

Kingsman: The Secret Agent takes the spy genre down a comic-book route (not for those faint of heart though), opening it up to a wider audience but not forgetting to both gently mock and honour British spy pedigree. It’s an espionage blast – simplistic plot aside – that puts characterisation and beautifully choreographed action first to offer cinematic value for money.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2014: Son Of A Gun ***

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Crime dramas realised through Australian filmmaking eyes always seem that much more gritty and violent. That’s why first-time feature director Julius Avery’s contribution, Son of a Gun, is another exciting prospect with new debuting talent. Add an against-type input from our very own Brit export Ewan McGregor to the cast, and things get that much more interesting.

The best way to describe Son of a Gun is a film in three parts; prison drama, heist thriller and gangster flick. All three have their own qualities about them. All three suffer from some formulaic plotting, scripting and characterisation. But those who like their crime dish served Tony Scott hot will appreciate the action delivered in exhilarating spadefuls.

JR (devilishly handsome and photogenic Brenton Thwaites) is a 19-year-old thief sent to a Western Australian maximum-security prison for six months. As a good-looking rookie, JR is faced with two choices; be used and abused by a posse of hairy sex fiends or join forces with old-timer and prison daddy Brendan (McGregor) in exchange for helping break him and his cronies out of jail on JR’s release. Naturally, the youngster chooses the latter as he also sees this as a new career opportunity and Brendan as a ‘father figure’ and his meal ticket on the outside.

After the elaborate prison break is done, Brendan and co are hired by Russian gangster Sam (Jacek Koman) to do one last job – rob a gold mine. However, things turn ugly, and Sam double crosses his so-called ‘friend’ Brendan, leading to revenge being served on all participants involved in a game of chess.

There is an instant familiarity about a lot of the film, in terms of plot and execution, something that is inevitable with the genre. The prison scenes smack of any kind of Aussie TV drama in play, where the newbie is saved by the skin of his teeth, only to get into deeper water. What stands out is JR’s reference to chess moves in the state of play that first impresses Brendan (and us for a more cerebral connection to follow), then for the director to just flippantly revisit this at the end.

The heist is the action-packed part and well worth the ticket price alone, including automatic guns, car chases and ballsy moves. It shows Avery’s true talent and passion. The gangster bit is a little laboured and uneven, trying to fit in a relationship angle so that the film is not all testosterone-centric – though the girl in question, Tasha (curiously played by Testament of Youth star Alicia Vikander), lives up to the usual slinky, sexy Russian import, the standard flavour of Eastern European mobsters.

It’s another cliché the film is guilty of, perpetuated by comic Russian accents that Vikander dips in and out of. As the film proceeds, reality is completely suspended as more players are left unscathed by automatic gun fire while dreams of wealth are fulfilled, considering the first half snacked you between the eyes with its brutality in the dangerous game of navigating the villain hierarchy.

All cast members do an admirable job of making this a good, solid watch in its entirety. Thwaites as JR is super keen and sharp one minute then rebels like a sullen teenager trying to prove his worth the next. He has a naivety and laddish charm about him that is the only empathetic hook we have – most of the time he is neither liked nor disliked, but just good eye candy. That said the actor should be proud of his achievements in this.

It’s McGregor’s effort that is perplexing. All bearded up and rugged from the elements, he is a striking figure in any scene. The jury’s out as to whether he is ‘nasty enough’ for such a hard-hitting but still commercially aware Aussie film. Perhaps, as Brendan is almost portrayed as a ‘loyal good guy living on the wrong side of the tracks’, less menace was needed, as we do need to feel a sense of fatherly guidance from the crook towards his young protégé. McGregor also does an excellent job of breaking down his past nice guy acts by being unpredictable in nature in this, shocking at points in his violence. Still, does he have the right foreboding presence for an Aussie villain though?

Son Of A Gun is a stylish brute of a crime thriller, all cocksure and action-ready and desperate not to be taken at face value. It is a stretch, considering it falls into stereotypes, but its kinetic nature and fascinating performances from the likes of McGregor and rising stars Thwaites and Vikander make it one to watch on the latest Aussie crime drama list.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2014: Wild ****

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Initial thoughts of Tracks (2013), or 127 Hours spring to mind, Danny Boyle’s film that closed the 2010 BFI London Film Festival. There is an element of solitary confinement, battling the elements to survive, but that is where the comparisons end with Wild. This is a surprisingly engaging and spiritually enlightening story about one woman trying to save herself from herself – effectively a road movie on the path to self-redemption like many others.

Wild chronicles the experience of Cheryl Strayed’s (Reese Witherspoon) 1,100-mile lone hike along the challenging Pacific Crest Trail that runs from the Mexican to the Canadian border as she tries to overcome personal tragedy and a breakdown.

To add kudos to the whole affair, Wild is of course based on a true story, the memoirs of the real-life Cheryl Strayed called Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Thankfully, there is no groan-inducing prompt regarding this fact at the very start, a tedious tool to try and gain worthiness before we have made up our own minds. All we first witness is one tired woman seemingly in a desperate and potentially life-threatening situation. It suggests this is possibly her last moment on this earth before her demise – cue flashback and start of the tale.

The non-linear narrative is necessary to pinpoint Strayed’s mood on route, to compare how far she has come and how different her thought processes are. Its to-and-fro plot is easily embraced, rather than jarring. Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée does well never to dwell too long on each hardship or each new revelation, adopting Strayed’s attitude of being broad-shouldered and taking the rough with the smooth to the film’s conclusion. In addition, we are rewarded with scenic beauty in all the seasons, where both Strayed and us can take a moment of reflection and absorb what we have just encountered, as well as be reassured in the goodness of humankind along the way in a world of current bleakness.

Oscar-nominated Witherspoon’s more serious talent, last seen in Walk The Line (2005) has finally returned, with Wild being her first real contender for critical acclaim. Her perky personality is still bubbling along the surface in this though, with moments of ironic humour at Strayed’s situation. There is a kind of guessing game going on as to what situations will be her most testing, which keeps things fresh. There was obviously a major physical investment by the actress that gains her even more respect for her work here.

Laura Dern plays Strayed’s beloved mother, Bobbi. Although youthful for her age and portrayed more like a sister than a mother (she goes back to school with her daughter), it is a little taxing to think of Dern as a mother figure to 38-year-old Witherspoon – the only casting in the film that leaves a question mark. That said Dern’s vitality as ailing Bobbi is infectious, where you wish her ‘older than her years’ daughter would adopt some of her laissez-faire attitude in times of acute adversity. It suggests Strayed’s issues could be mainly self-perpetuated, making this journey to lighten the load even more poignant and her admirably brave to take on the challenge.

Wild is not free from calculated moments of heartstring-pulling – it suggests any such journey starts from first experiencing rock bottom so these are unavoidable, and Vallée positions these strategically throughout the film, without over-egging proceedings. Wild is a journey worth going along on though, if not to marvel at this person’s out-of-character commitment to push themselves. That is the fascinating result of this film that we only really doubt her at the very start, trying to get her heavy backpack on in a motel before she even reaches the trail. The rest of the time we believe in her 100 percent, which is the empowering catalyst.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2014: Testament Of Youth ****

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Vera Brittain’s WWI memoir of the same name is ideal subject matter to adapt for the big screen. Wartime and one woman’s inner strength (as well as beauty) is a heady mixture. Screenwriter Juliette Towhidi is sensitive to the original material, wanting Brittain to be a champion for women while very much innocent and blindly in love. In Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair), they have found a worthy lead actress to become that feminine bastion.

Privileged, intelligent and free-spirited Vera enjoys an idyllic country life with her adored younger brother Edward (Taron Egerton) and mother and father (Emily Watson and Dominic West). Edward brings home two pals one day, Victor (Colin Morgan) and Roland (Kit Harington), the latter of whom Vera realises shares the same poetry and literary passions as her, and who she soon falls in love with.

Battling conservative expectations of how a young lady at the turn of the 20th Century should act, Vera goes on to win a place at Oxford to study alongside her brother and his friends. However, WWI begins, and the men she adores are each called to the front. As the casualties mount, Vera realises her own call to duty, leaving the academic confines of the university to become a nurse. Tragedy dogs her as the reality of war affects her.

Director James Kent may well have a background in TV drama making, but he comfortably condenses this fascinating story into a feature film, without losing the passion and grief that accompanies every situation. The transitions from comfortable existence to sheer horror on the battlefront are seamless, a metaphor for how Vera’s life rushes away with her downstream into the rapids. What keeps her head above water is knowing that every experience will challenge her to make something of herself at a later date – you can sense a literary genius at work as we watch her mature.

Perhaps the most invigorating aspect of Testament of Youth is the exceptional young acting talent that it reveals. Vikander has all the grace, beauty and defiant sense of a younger, Swedish Keira Knightley. The actress has the formidable task of portraying every facet of Vera’s character in a turbulent time, and she does so, so eloquently and seamlessly, with a commanding presence, that she has undoubtedly secured a bright future in British period drama after this.

Egerton, Morgan and Harington each support Vikander’s impressive screen presence, themselves demonstrating the richness of Brit acting talent in period drama, and again cementing our prowess in this area. Their infectious enthusiasm keeps an otherwise harrowing (and visually brutal) story of war buoyant – a testament of youth. That’s not to say all things are peachy. Harington gives his troubled character an added dark edge when war begins to affect him, allowing doubt to creep in to Roland’s true state of mind.

There are some commendable performances too, from Watson and West, portraying the usual fussiness and pomposity of the time. However, Miranda Richardson’s moments of clipped retort as Oxford professor Miss Lorimer is the most memorable ‘adult’ act to enjoy (after pushing all initial thoughts of Rita Skeeter out of your mind). Lorimer is like an intriguing, later version of Vera in life as she deals with the pressures of her position while showing compassion and feeling as a strength of character when fate meets her.

The strong, parting message Testament Of Youth leaves is not allowing challenging times to change the needs and desires of an individual. Staying true to oneself is half the battle won. Duty does call, and like Vera, learn from that but use it to grow and shape as a better person. Vera’s enlightening end speech may shamelessly pander to the liberal, pacifist camp but serves a chilling reminder that in war, we are all equal in mind, body and soul. It is also a final fitting tribute to this remarkable woman’s own coming-of-age tale.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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American Sniper ***

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Could this be twice-nominated Bradley Cooper’s time at the Oscars? It’s highly unlikely given the competing talent, but what you can admire is the actor’s full immersion in the part of American Sniper Chris Kyle – and bulking up for it. This is perhaps the first method acting we’ve seen from Cooper, and it’s very exciting.

This biopic follows the situations of Kyle, a Texan rodeo-rider with a ‘win win’ attitude and excellent rifle skills from a young age who becomes a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq, credited with 160 kills while on numerous tours of duty.

While director Clint Eastwood’s film gives a tense portrayal of a man on the job and offers some very well crafted war scenes, it falls down on storytelling in the sense of the real torment suffered by the man behind the rifle.

The build-up and back-story only just covers some of our questions. Although we can see Kyle struggling to retain a form of sanity in civilian life the more tours he goes on, there are no other inferences or dramatic fallout that give a sense of a mental deterioration. Perhaps there is more in the book as to an insight into Kyle’s emotions and stresses. All we – not in military circles – can do is fill in suggested blanks from media-based information we have about ex-veterans and their post-traumatic stress disorder.

For a biopic, it seems a little superficial in character depth and samey in style – as other Iraq or Afghanistan conflict films play out, making it widen open to the standard patriotic jibes. That said this is no warmongering affair – far from it. Eastwood is trying to give us a sense of loyalty to one’s country that goes sour. It questions how far that loyalty should go before it becomes all consuming and erroneous to personal wellbeing. It’s a fascinating topic from an American perspective, but just not quite achieved here.

In the war genre array of films out there, American Sniper is a skilled and engrossing character account, in terms of action and reaction. The trouble with the latter is more should have been made out of the mindset of Kyle to get a true, well-rounded biopic, plus we go from military hero to community/national treasure with the introduction of real-life footage, without a sense of that trajectory being better explained for a non-American audience. Sure, outrage goes so far at the conclusion, but Eastwood’s commitment to the war scenes does not seem to translate as strongly to the civilian ones. Thankfully, Sienna Miller is on hand as Kyle’s wife to give more effect. Still, it’s by far one of Cooper’s best performances to date.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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