Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

Kingsman Golden Circle poster

I thoroughly enjoyed the mad romp that was Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), turning the spy genre (which was particularly over-represented in the cinema for a couple of years) into a much more fun and madcap place. This sequel attempts to take that pace, that irreverence, that sense of out and out fun, and turn it up to eleven. Million!!!!

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) seems to be settling in to his new life nicely, taking over the Galahad title from poor Harry Hart (Colin Firth) and all loved up with his Swedish Princess, Tilde (Hanna Alström). But when the world’s biggest and most successful drug dealer ever, Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) decides she’s no longer happy hiding in the shadows, her first step is taking out those pesky Kingsmen.

And so, with only Merlin (Mark Strong) to keep him company, Eggsy must turn to the American branch of the private spy world: The Statesmen. Can they help – will they? And, in fact, can they be trusted?

There is a lot of gleeful, romp-worthy, tongue in cheek nonsense going on here which makes Kingsman 2 a heck of a lot of fun. The action sequences are top notch, the way everything pokes fun at Bond is a delight, and then there’s the Bigger Location budget. Bigger Stars budget. Bigger EVERYTHING – yee haa!! – all of which is very obvious on screen.

BUT I think this is possibly the problem. All those big names seem to be practically cameos – I was left a bit confused, as I thought (from the trailers and interviews) that e.g. Channing Tatum was actually in this movie, not just, y’know, in it a little bit. Jeff Bridges’ role is even slighter, and while Halle Berry’s character gets more screentime, it’s a little meh. The actual cameos – Keith Allen and a having-a-fabulous-time-of-it-darling Elton John are a lot of fun, but overall there’s just too many familiar faces with not a great deal to do.

Talking of familiar faces, it’s no secret that Colin Firth manages to reprise his role despite the end of the last movie. I suppose it’s not the most ridiculous come back in cinema history o_O However, while the movie would not have worked without him, the character didn’t quite seem to… fit… somehow? Hmm. Perhaps if there’d been less distraction with all the shiny new Big Names?

Overall, I’m left having really quite enjoyed K2, even at the longer-than-it-should-have-been running time (which, I will admit, allows for quite a rounded story and not just the usual ‘make everything faster’ blur), but at the same time a bit disappointed. Just because you can throw everything and everyone in, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.

Still, would I go see a third installment? Ye hah, darlin’ – lasso it on it over! 🙂

Released: 20th September 2017
Viewed: 2nd October 2017
Running time: 141 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7/10

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Victoria and Abdul (2017)

Victoria and Abdul poster

Everyone knows that Queen Victoria had a huge romance with hubby, Albert, and found a little relief from her loneliness following his death with ghillie, John Brown. In fact, Judi Dench played the monarch in the movie, Mrs Brown, showing us their friendship. It’s a nice touch, then, to have her back in the role for this next episode.

For the Queen’s golden jubilee, two men from India were rather randomly chosen to present the Empress of India with a token from her Indian subjects. The aging monarch took a shine to one of the men, Abdul (Ali Fazal) of the title, and recruited him first as a general servant, and then as a teacher – ‘Munshi’ – in the Urdu language, the Koran, and Indian culture in general. However, the rest of the court are far less keen on this ‘brown man’ taking a place so close to the elderly Queen, suspecting him of currying (hah hah!) favour, and her of losing her mental faculties.

One thing that shone through very well from the movie was a great grounding in making these unlikely events seem very plausible. Victoria was a willful woman, by all accounts, but also lonely and forced to maintain her regal duties well beyond the point where a quiet retirement would have been far kinder. As she dragged herself through her later years, the chance to relieve some of the boredom was presented in the form of an exotic young man who could fill her head with marvellous tales and new concepts.

There’s absolutely no faulting Dame Judi here, of course. She’s “willful and stubborn and overly attached to power” every beat of the way. Ali Fazal is charming as the young clerk, although I was ever so slightly ‘hmm’ about the way his character arc is portrayed – a flaw, I suspect, of being based on the man himself’s own journals. Still, it’s a lovely friendship, as much about age as class and culture.

I was pleasantly surprised by this movie. It was sweet and heartwarming, with enough bite from the Queen’s stubbornness in the face of her court, filled with a stellar supporting cast. It’s a lovely companion piece to 1997’s Mrs Brown, although its cosy Sunday afternoon vibe is a little let down by the inevitably slightly downbeat events at the end.

Released: 15th September 2017
Viewed: 28th September 2017
Running time: 112 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 7/10

American Made (2017)

American Made poster

In the late 1970s, pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is approached by the CIA to take aerial reconnaissance photos over South American’s less-than-stable regimes. Picked up by a drug cartel after stopping to refuel, Barry might be forgiven for thinking he’s in hot water – but instead, the cartel offers him a ton of cash to use his CIA status to help smuggle their drugs back into the USA.

Playing both sides keeps Barry a wealthy man, and indeed, the most fun moments come as the character struggles to find places to stash his cash. However, while his life is on the up, you can’t help but know there’s likely to be a cliff-drop at some point – and possibly no plane to keep Barry aloft.

This is a fun movie, no doubt, but I have to admit to being a little bored during the opening half hour or so. I can only suggest that perhaps the film makers left in a few too many of the “based on a true story” details at the expense of pace. Still, things do get more exciting as the film progresses, although there was just a sense of predictability for me.

It’s an odd time for cinema, methinks: I seem to spend my time rating movies as slightly-better-than-average, but either talking up ones that have been otherwise slated (Dark Tower, Valerian, Hitman’s Bodyguard) or finding myself disappointed with things that sounded like they were doing better (Atomic Blonde). This, sadly, falls into the latter category: high hopes of fun, turned out just a little ‘meh’.

That said, it is very well made, and the actors all seem to be having fun. There are a few stylistic additions, from the 70s-esque opening credits to a few fun maps animations, which I thought added something positive in small doses. Oh, and try to count future presidents 😉

Overall, a decent enough, fun flick, but I personally thought it took a while to get the wing flaps up and get going.

Released: 25th August 2017
Viewed: 26th August 2017
Running time: 115 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7/10

The Year of Saying Yes – Hannah Doyle

“If I cock up the next few hours of my life then I’m going to have to admit defeat.”

I’ve definitely been in the mood for some light’n’fluffy reading (and viewing) of late, and the optimistic title of this caught my eye on NetGalley. I was expecting something of a cross between Yes Man and a self-help book – and after a bit of a shaky start, plus a giant dollop of Bridget Jones, I’d say that’s almost exactly what I got!

The opening wasn’t great – in fact, my heart sank as I thought I’d picked up ‘Bridget Jones’ Little Cousin’ or something. We find our main character, Izzy, prepping for her family’s New Year’s Eve party, bemoaning the amount of food and drink she’s consumed, and trying far too hard to attract the eye of her brother-in-law’s brother – pretty much the same thing she does every New Year *eye rolling*

Thankfully, it all get a little bit more interesting, although remains pretty predictable. The strength is in the likeable main character, Izzy, as she sets about undertaking 12 dares over the course of the year, designed to improve her life and make her more confident.

Biggest complaint would have to be how easy it all is. Izzy works for a magazine, so of course she’s got a team of makeup artists and free reign over the ‘fashion closet’ – oh yeah, and of course she’s a size 10, but manages to slim-without-trying into an eight, etc etc. There’s a transformation, but no effort. It’s more than a little grating at times. Likewise, when set some seemingly impossible challenge, events simply line up in a way that no mere mortal could ever have arranged *more eye rolling*

Still, it’s Izzy’s relationships – with men, with her friends and colleagues – that form the backbone of the piece, and that doesn’t always run quite so smoothly. And most of the transformations in her life are about attitude – and while this is fiction all the way, that was actually quite inspirational to read.

NetGalley eARC: 363 pages / 12 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: none
Read from 20th-28th August 2017

My rating: 7/10 – I’m probably going to have to stop saying ‘not my usual cuppa’, but a pretty good example of the fluffiest of genres

The Dark Tower (2017)

Dark Tower poster

We seem to be living in a time when the old adage, “The book was much better”, doesn’t always apply. Fantasy in particular has come on in leaps and bounds, from Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones – we know that such adaptations can be, well, pretty darn fantastic. It’s a shame, then, that Dark Tower comes along to remind us that the transfer to the big screen is still a process fraught with dangers, and doesn’t always quite reach those dizzying heights.

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

I don’t have to look those words up. This is an opening line that is stuck in my head, opening an 8-book story that has near-mythical status for me. As a teen, finding two previously unheard of books (yes, I do predate the internet LOL!) by my then-favourite author was the stuff that dreams are made of (literally: I dream variations on this scenario to this day). That I had to wait eight years between books 3 and 4 puts even GRRM to shame! 😉

Roland Deschain is a gunslinger, one of Midworld’s peacekeepers (and more); in fact, the last gunslinger: his is a world that is slowing down and growing thin. But Roland has one last mission: to reach the Dark Tower, the nexus of all worlds, to keep it safe lest the whole universe collapse. Or, at least in this movie, to catch up to the Man in Black and get his revenge for the slaughter of everyone he ever knew.

A potted version of all this is sort of squeezed into the hour and a half of movie, and I think that’s the first disappointment: of all the richness of the world built up over eight books, we get to see so little of it. I was thoroughly baffled by the choice of focusing the movie on Jake (a youngster having dreams about the Tower et al) rather than on Roland (Idris Elba), and setting large chunks in New York rather than Midworld. Bah!

“One more time around the wheel, old friend.”

While Idris is his usual wonderful self (but who should definitely be getting meatier scripts!), and the lad playing Jake is thankfully largely unannoying, the real stand out performance for me was Matthew McConaughey as Walter (O’Dim? Paddick?), aka the Man in Black. Oozing menace, he flicks his fingers and commands people to kill, or simply to stop breathing, purely because he can. Of all the changes made from the source, throwing more of a spotlight on Walter was a good one, I’d say. Without spoiling anything from the books, he seems to have more of a continuity to his story, which was actually quite interesting to see.

What was less interesting, however, was the cliched “let’s destroy the world” plot. I just kept thinking about the line from Guardians of the Galaxy: why would you want to destroy the universe when you’re “one of the idiots that lives in it?” Argh!

Through the piece there are little nods to both the books and the wider Stephen King bibliography (not that the two aren’t entwined, of course!). Look out for the fairground attractions – Pennywise and Charlie the Choo Choo – or the graffiti urging us to “All Hail the Crimson King”, or the talking raccoons in the commercial (Oy!). I was in two minds about these: they’re somewhat pointless if you’re not a fan, but if you are then in a way they’re little reminders of all that we’re skipping.

I have a feeling I could waffle on about this movie, or at least the books, for another 90 minutes myself! So, let me summarise: The Dark Tower is absolutely not the huge mess that some earlier reviewers wanted to make it out to be. If you go in expecting a straight adaptation of the wonderful books, then you will be disappointed. If, however, you can view this as… a different way the story could have played out, perhaps… then it’s at the very least rather interesting. And if you’ve never read the books at all, then it’s still a decent if short fantasy-action flick telling a fairly self-contained story with some intriguing characters.

Personally, I enjoyed it despite the flaws. I wish there could be eight movies, to tell it all ‘properly’. But this little slice is a nice addition to the overall world, which I still hope to see more of from the rumoured TV series, even if it’s not with the great pairing of Elba and McConaughey.

Released: 18th August 2017
Viewed: 22nd August 2017
Running time: 95 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10

The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)

Hitman's Bodyguard poster

When Belarusian President, Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman), is brought to trial for crimes against humanity, potential witnesses against him start dying like flies. The last chance to stop the monster going free is cutting a deal with captured hitman, Darius Kincaid (Samuel L Jackson). But getting him to court will be no easy feat – so enter top bodyguard, Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds), with an almost perfect record of guarding not-so-nice people. Almost 😉

I was completely surprised to read some absolutely scathing reviews of this, having walked out of the cinema feeling thoroughly entertained. I’m a big fan of both the leads, and given that they’re both playing their usual characters that’s probably a good thing! Is the movie amazing art? No. Is it something fresh and exciting? Nope. But it *is* a lot of fun, with plenty of action and laughs along the way.

Some of the complaints against this have suggested the action sequences are over long, and that’s possibly true from certain viewpoints. Certainly, one boat scene goes on long enough to make the lack of people getting shot seem beyond ridiculous.

Another criticism is about the chemistry between the leads – I didn’t feel this was a problem at all. There’s not exactly fireworks, but rather a more subtle approach in the relationship going from hatred towards better understanding. And while RR’s romance subplot bored me somewhat, the addition of Selma Hayek as Darius’s foul mouthed, psychotically violent wife was a high point.

So why the hate? Well, it seems like audiences are enjoying the movie, and it’s the critics turning their noses up. I do have to say, when one respected (by me, too) movie magazine talks about the action going from the UK, to Italy, to the Netherlands, I do have to question (a) how much attention the reviewer paid in watching the movie (there is a bus load of Italian nuns, yes, but the journey with them starts and ends in the UK), and (b) what their sense of geography is o_O Is it perhaps just disappointingly not Deadpool? Well, no, it’s not. But nor is it anywhere near the kind of stinker RIPD was.

Last word: nowhere near perfect, but it was fun. Suck it! 😉

Released: 17th August 2017
Viewed: 18th August 2017
Running time: 118 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7/10

The Magicians – Lev Grossman

magicians cover

“Quentin did a magic trick. Nobody noticed.”

Quentin grew up obsessed with the Fillory (think, Narnia) books, full of talking animals and important quests, and a set of siblings who only travel to this magical place when it decides to summon them. So when Quentin (‘Q’) is invited to Brakebills, a school for magic – real magic – his head is already halfway there. But, this isn’t Narnia. Or Harry Potter (and definitely not ‘HP goes to college’!). Because Q isn’t a character in a book (urm, in the book… o_O), he’s a teenager with all the usual problems and neuroses and misery, and no amount of magic is going to change that.

The reviews of this book show it to be something like marmite: people either rave about it, or are throwing the book out of a window in a rage at how irritatingly annoying the main character, Quentin, is. Not that the rest of the cast is much better, but I half think that might be the point.

For those of us who, like Q, grew up reading Narnia and The Magic Faraway Tree, and other such books, the message that discovering magic solves all your problems is a bit ‘hmm’. The characters who go to these places are always semi-perfect, and find themselves able to cope with whatever oddity the world throws at them, more or less. They are handed vast power, and wield it responsibly and wisely – or are the baddy, to be stopped. Instead, here we’ve got a bunch of alcoholic depressives who don’t really know what to do with the freedom they’ve been granted, let alone the power. Q is thus antithesis of all those characters we’ve read about. He’s not more interesting or special or smarter than his friends, never mind the rest of us. How does that interact with unbelievable marvels?

Shortly: the story isn’t really about magic or adventures. It’s about human psychology, about grounding the fantastical with real people.

Like many people, I suspect, I picked up the book after really enjoying the TV series. The two are very different, in tone and in pace and even in the message of the story. And to be honest, I much preferred the adaptation: it smoothes over a lot of the ‘hmm’ parts to the book, makes it a bit less cynical, and focuses a lot more on the magic.

Still, I’m really glad I read The Magicians, and will happily be going on to the rest of the series. It might not have been an easy read to get into – my long reading time (see below) reflects starting and putting the book down for a long spell (no pun intended!), finding it tough going (and, perhaps, a bit too same-y to the plot from the show at that point, but less fun). However, I was never tempted not to finish, and ended up reading the second half in a few days, rather more enthralled.

I still think I prefer the TV version, but it’s such a different beast (again, no pun intended – which makes sense if you know either version 😉 ) that I want to de-tangle my thoughts of them being linked, and enjoy them both on their own more unique merits. And a fantasy story with this much angst is definitely a bit different!

Kindle: 410 pages / 25 chapters
First published: 2009
Series: The Magicians book 1 of 3
Read from 13th March – 12th August 2017

My rating: 7/10