Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

2017 #125
Matthew Vaughn | 141 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Critics, eh? There’s a lot you could say about them, both individually and en masse, but right now I’m concerned with the fact they’ve given Kingsman: The Golden Circle a Rotten Tomatoes score of just 50%.* More than that, many have gone further: I’ve read one-star reviews from several major outlets. Audiences disagree. On IMDb it’s got a very respectable 7.4 (just a few points down from the much better-received Wonder Woman, for comparison) and it topped the box office this past weekend, beating the latest LEGO movie in the US and almost doubling the first film’s opening weekend in the UK. Well, I’m definitely an audience member rather than a critic. In fact, I’m still weighing up the possibility that The Golden Circle might be even better than its predecessor.

I’ll return to both the critics and the two films’ relative merits later. For now, the obligatory plot summary: a year on from the events of the first movie, Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a fully-fledged Kingsman agent and is dating Swedish princess Tilde (Hanna Alström). An encounter with former wannabe-Kingsman Charlie (Edward Holcroft) sets Eggsy on the trail of Poppy (Julianne Moore), a drugs kingpin with a ’50s Americana fetish and a plan for global domination. Eggsy and tech whizz Merlin (Mark Strong) travel to the US of A to team up with their sister organisation, Statesman, in a bid to stop Poppy’s nefarious scheme.

Magic us out of this one, Merlin

That’s the coy version of things — more coy than the trailers, certainly, which brazenly gave away major developments and revelations. (You’ll note my summary’s shortage of big-name stars, for example, who have been plastered all over the advertising.) Director Matthew Vaughn even asked the studio not to reveal one thing in the marketing — namely, that Colin Firth was back — but they went ahead and did it anyway. I know they had a movie to sell, but I’m not convinced they needed to ignore him on that. Actually, that connects to my first complaint about how critics have treated the film: those one-star major reviewers seemed to hate the film so much that they were happy to spoil bits left, right, and centre. No such disregard for the audience here (though there will be minor spoilers, if you’ve not seen it yet). Nonetheless, if you were one of those people who seemed to find the first film’s anal sex joke to be the most heinously offensive sin committed by cinema since The Birth of a Nation, maybe read a couple of those reviews for a benchmark if you’re undecided about seeing this sequel — it may also offend your delicate sensibilities for reasons I can only vaguely comprehend.

To me, The Golden Circle represents a commitment to being purely entertaining. It’s consistently funny and at times laugh-out-loud hilarious. The action sequences are crazily hyperkinetic to the nth degree. It mixes in all the classic spy movie shenanigans, like far-fetched plots and cool gadgets and exotic locales; but it also works to subvert, expose, or develop some of those things. Beyond that, however, it has surprisingly good character work for what could’ve been a mindless comedy shoot-em-up. I mean, Merlin’s arc… well, i said no spoilers. But the film also makes time to be concerned about Eggsy’s relationship and how his work might affect it. It’s almost a good subversion of the gentlemen-spy sleep-around stereotype, though the Glastonbury sequence rushes through that rather than meaningfully deconstructing it (more about that already-infamous scene later).

The Lepidopterist

Then there’s Harry’s return — not just a pleasant surprise, but an emotional minefield for our other heroes, who were still coming to terms with his demise. Now, some critics reckon that Harry’s revival lowers the stakes for the rest of the movie. Well, only if you choose to disregard the details of his return. OK, yes, there’s now a safety net in some scenarios; but a gel that slows the effect of a headshot isn’t much use if, say, you get blown to pieces. Also, the idea that Harry was “very much dead” is actually an assumption that’s not wholly supported by the first film. I mean, obviously it was implied that Harry is very much dead — that was the point at the time — but watch it again: you don’t actually see much detail of what happens, other than that Valentine shoots him somewhere in the head and he collapses to the ground. The scene ends almost immediately. Vaughn and co use this to their advantage, having the Statesman turn up with seconds of the shot being fired. Yeah, it’s still implausible, but then I don’t think people’s heads explode in choreographed light shows either, and that was a big part of The Secret Service.

Comparisons to that previous movie abound in other reviews, I guess because it went down well while this one, which is ostensibly more of the same, hasn’t. Also, to be fair, because the film itself is constantly making such references too. Consequently, some critics are focused on the idea that what The Golden Circle lacks is the freshness of the original. Well, personally, I enjoyed the first one more when I re-watched it a couple of days ago than when I first saw it back in 2015, so the “I’ve not seen that before” factor is not its defining quality for me. Nonetheless, this is the kind of sequel that’s somewhat derivative of its own predecessor, with many riffs on stuff you’ll remember from before. The most regularly repurposed is the famous church fight, though I’d argue that it’s taken the style of that sequence and then applied it to several more in this film, rather than merely producing an outright copy of what came before — something I would (and did) accuse, say, X-Men: Apocalypse’s Quicksilver sequence of doing (even though it tried to find fresh angles on the same basic concept).

Skipping rope in the snow

One particular way that half the action sequences feel like they’re deliberately riffing off / ripping off that church fight is that they’re set to pop songs, and often unexpected ones. It may be repeating a trick, but this use of music is consistently entertaining — I mean, hasn’t Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting always wanted a fight set to it? And the country-fied cover of Word Up for the finale is bang on. That’s not to mention the score by Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson. I always liked the main theme from the first film, which is carried over here, along with effective action cues (for those times it goes without a pop song) and a neat integration of melodies from John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. That song is used to very particular effect at one point, and, listening to the soundtrack while writing this review, the bit of Mark Strong singing it that’s included did actually leave me with a little something in my eye — again, not what you expect from a film like Kingsman. Though I must clarify, that is due to the memory of the film, not the quality of Mr Strong’s singing, which is certainly… Scottish-accented. Something I didn’t notice particularly when watching the movie (and why would you on a first viewing?) is that those melodies are there right at the start, played on bagpipes and segueing into the opening theme. Cheeky foreshadowing beggars.

While there may be some dimension of merit to some of the criticisms I’ve referenced so far, others merit mention only to be ridiculed. I mean, one critic slagged off the fact that most (but not all) of Poppy’s scenes take place in one location, which must be the most ludicrous factor contributing to a film getting one star that I’ve ever read. Relatedly, that the big-name new cast members are given less focus than the returning characters seems to be a recurring sticking point. Well, what do you expect? In fact, what do you want? It’s like thinking the solution to Quantum of Solace’s woes was to spend less time with James Bond and more with Agent Fields. Plus, surely the fact that some prominently-billed new names turn out to be glorified cameos is more to do with the marketing overhyping them — as you do when you’ve got genuine movie stars in your movie — than the film itself fundamentally underserving them. Sure, I’d like more of Channing Tatum’s character too, but hey-ho; and it’s not like his limited screen time isn’t put to memorable effect, several times over. The same can be said for Julianne Moore and, arguably best of all, Elton John. They may reuse the same Elton gag a couple of times too often, but on the whole he has a surprisingly effective part to play. On the other hand, after “more Halle Berry” was something that eventually undermined the X-Men films, I’m fine with her role being kept to a minimum. Still, for everyone who wished for more of Tatum and co, there are already rumours of an extended cut coming to DVD and/or Blu-ray. Oh, but those critics moaned about it already being too long. There’s no pleasing some people…

More Tatum, less Berry

There is perhaps a case to be made that the film has bitten off more plot than it can comfortably chew. I’ve already said that some sequences feel a little too hasty, and there might be one big set piece too many — I assumed the film was about to head into its final act, before remembering we hadn’t had all the snowbound set pieces from the trailers yet. Personally, I didn’t mind this additional length — at no point did the film bore me. I’ll be more than happy if that extended cut does materialise. Perhaps the paciness despite the length is what led many critics to call it out for having too complex a plot, an accusation I find somewhat implausible. I can only assume they weren’t expecting to think at all and so almost literally turned their brains off, because this isn’t some intricate thriller, it’s a big action spy movie that moves pretty linearly from plot point to plot point. That’s not a criticism, just an observation.

And if you want to go the other way and overthink the film, some people do get very het up about what the political messages and affiliations of these two movies may or may not be. Now, I’m not going to argue they don’t have a political dimension — that would be a patently ludicrous position to take, given how much they both allude to real-world issues like climate change and the drug trade — but, allowing for that, I don’t think the films care what their political allegiance is. That’s how some people can manage to read a movie in which the working-class hero blows up the world’s conspiring elites in order to stop the common folk from massacring each other as nothing but a right-wing fantasy, and how other people can manage to read a movie in which an unaccountable intelligence organisation gentrifies a lower-class kid to make him worth something, before blowing up an environmentalist and President Obama, as proletariat wish-fulfilment. Both of those describe The Secret Service, but there are elements in the sequel that have the same effect — this time, it’s your stance towards the war on drugs and how we deal with addicts that is being prodded.

View to a kill

All of that said, the more I’ve thought about the film afterwards (as you do, especially if you’re going to, say, write a review for a blog or something), the more some issues do begin to become apparent. While I don’t inherently object to the Glastonbury sequence (I’d wager it in part exists as another way for Vaughn to thumb his nose at critics of certain parts of the first movie, and he got ’em too), I do think there were cleverer ways to handle it. Vaughn has said that sequence is meant to be about having to do something you don’t want to do for the sake of your job, but that doesn’t wholly explain the teenage smuttiness of how it plays out. I mean, wouldn’t it be funnier if Eggsy felt he had to stick to his principles and find a way to clumsily shove his finger up Clara’s nose? Then phone Tilde back: “It’s okay babe, I only put it up her nose.” “You did what?!”

So yeah, it’s not a perfect movie. But, at least while it was on, I was having way too much fun to care. If you’re the kind of person who found something (or lots of things) about the first movie offensive to your moral fibre, chances are slim that you’ll like this sequel. Conversely, if you’re the kind of person who misses ’90s lads-mag culture, you’ll bloody love it, mate. For those of us somewhere on the (very broad) spectrum between those two points, other reviews make it clear that it’s not to everyone’s taste, but it was very much to mine. The niggles I’ve mentioned have led me to give it a lower score than the first film, but I reserve the right to change my mind as soon as I get a chance to rewatch it — I can envision myself ultimately revisiting The Golden Circle more regularly than The Secret Service.

4 out of 5

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is in cinemas most places now, and in the other places soon.

It placed 15th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

* At time of writing. It was 49% on Saturday and 51% on Sunday, so it might be different again by the time you read this. ^

Advertisements

Magic in the Moonlight (2014)

2016 #151
Woody Allen | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13*

Magic in the MoonlightWoody Allen’s 44th film is a Sunday-afternoon-style period comedy, which nonetheless manages to touch on issues of existentialism and the meaning of life. If that sounds terribly Deep, don’t worry: Magic in the Moonlight may tickle your fancy, but it’s unlikely to tax your brain.

Colin Firth stars as Stanley Crawford, a genius illusionist and renowned debunker of spiritualists, who’s recruited by fellow magician and childhood friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney) to expose a young ‘psychic’ named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone), who has enthralled a rich family in the South of France, but whose methods have Howard stumped. Despite his unconcealed cynicism, Stanley too struggles to find the truth, but he does find himself increasingly smitten with Sophie…

After this setup the plot is no great shakes (the one twist is eminently guessable), but the rest of the film is a romantic confection made up of sunny Côte d’Azur locations, pretty vintage costumes, gently witty dialogue, and quality actors gamely playing along. Firth is hardly stretched as a romantic lead — indeed, he has one scene that is virtually lifted wholesale from Pride & Prej — but Stanley’s pompousness and sarcastic cynicism gives the role a little bite. Emma Stone’s big eyes do half the work for her, though she still gives it her all in a way that makes her character and performance endearing. Eileen Atkins, as Firth’s beloved aunt, and McBurney get halfway decent supporting parts, though there’s little time for the rest of the cast, especially Marcia Gay Harden, whose role as Stone’s mother is virtually nonexistent.

Magic with daylightThe most pleasing aspect is probably Darius Khondji’s photography. He emphasises the region’s beautiful golden light, with saturated colours emphasised by deep shadows, to create a warm and idyllic atmosphere, further accentuated by the twinkling blue ocean and stunning locales. It’s exemplary work that will likely make you long for distant times and places.

It may ultimately be a slight work, then, but it is still a delightfully pleasant way to spend 90-something minutes.

4 out of 5

* for “a brief suggestive comment, and smoking throughout”. So, it’s a PG, really. ^

Conspiracy (2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #20

One meeting. Six million lives.

Country: UK & USA
Language: English & German
Runtime: 96 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 19th May 2001 (USA)
UK Release: 25th January 2002
First Seen: TV, 25th January 2002

Stars
Kenneth Branagh (Henry V, Valkyrie)
Stanley Tucci (The Terminal, The Hunger Games)
Colin Firth (Bridget Jones’s Diary, The King’s Speech)
David Threlfall (Scum, Nowhere Boy)
Kevin McNally (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Valkyrie)

Director
Frank Pierson (The Looking Glass War, A Star is Born)

Screenwriter
Loring Mandel (Countdown, The Little Drummer Girl)

The Story
1942, Berlin: a group of high-ranking Nazis gather for the Wannsee Conference, its purpose being to determine the method by which they will implement Hitler’s policy of making Germany free of Jews. Put another way, this is the meeting that created the Final Solution.

Our Heroes
I mean, they’re all Nazis, plotting the Final Solution — heroes are in short supply. That said, some object… just not very many, and not for long.

Our Villains
I mean, they’re all Nazis, plotting the Final Solution — there are plenty of villains. Chief amongst them, however, is SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich (Branagh), whose calm and charming demeanour hides a will of steel and a sure belief in their terrible purpose.

Best Supporting Character
There’s a strong cast of British character actors (as well as those mentioned above, we have Ian McNeice, Ben Daniels, Brendan Coyle, Owen Teale, Peter Sullivan, Nicholas Woodeson, and Jonathan Coy — you might not know all the names, but you’ll likely know the faces), so it’s hard to name just one stand-out. However, Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart (Colin Firth) is particularly memorable: he’s a nice guy because he only wants to sterilise the Jews. He’s also one of the few men in the room who’s aware of how the rest of the world will judge them if they proceed down a path of extermination.

Memorable Quote
Hofmann: “Evacuation to where?”
Heydrich: “Let us postpone that question for a while.”
Klopfer: “To hell, one hopes.”
Lange: “Many already have.”
Luther: “Do they even have a hell?”
Heydrich: “They do now. We provide it.”

Memorable Scene
Although it’s bookended by arrivals and departures, and occasionally broken up in the middle with pauses for food, etc, the film is essentially one long meeting. Which sounds incredibly dull, but of course isn’t.

Making of
Pierson chose to shoot the film’s meeting sequences in long takes, sometimes getting through 20 or more pages at a time. A highly unusual method for a screen production, so the fact most of the cast had a stage background must’ve been a boon. It was shot on Super 16 film for similar reasons: it has longer film magazines and smaller cameras, allowing the cameramen to get closer to the actors.

Awards
1 Golden Globe (TV Supporting Actor (Stanley Tucci))
2 Golden Globe nominations (Best Miniseries or TV Movie, Best Actor in a Miniseries or TV Movie (Kenneth Branagh))
2 Emmys (Actor in a Miniseries or Movie (Kenneth Branagh), Writing for a Miniseries or Movie)
8 Emmy nominations (Outstanding TV Movie, Supporting Actor (both Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci), Directing, Cinematography, Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing)
1 BAFTA TV Award (Single Drama)
1 BAFTA TV nomination (Actor (Kenneth Branagh))
Peabody Award

What the Critics Said
“What a week for thoroughly exceptional, audaciously gripping fact-based dramas. We had Bloody Sunday on Sunday and now here’s Conspiracy. […] The performances are uniformly outstanding, but out of all of them it will be images of Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich you will take away with you. They may even haunt your nightmares. Branagh, who won an Emmy for the role, is flawless, and in Heydrich this fine actor has re-created a monster. Just watch the iron come into his eyes when he is contradicted or questioned. Watch that smooth charm slip as he calmly threatens those who are not completely on his side.” — Alison Graham, Radio Times

Score: 100%
(Sort of.)

What the Public Say
“to see the planning of the Final Solution played out is chilling, to say the least. Obviously, it’s not an easy watch, but it’s an important film. If you’re at all interested in how scary and terrible things happen in this world, and how the death of millions can be plotted the same way your company runs a board meeting, this is definitely a movie to see.” — Dan Bergstrom @ Letterboxd

Verdict

“A group of men have an administrative meeting” is possibly the least exciting logline for a movie you could ever read, but when those men are Nazis, at the height of the Third Reich’s pomp and opulence, and the businesslike meeting is to plot one of the greatest atrocities ever committed by mankind, it becomes horrendously fascinating. For that we can also thank Loring Mandel’s precise screenplay, and perfectly calibrated performances from a magnificent cast of seasoned actors.

#21 will be… nothing to do with Phillip Schofield.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

2015 #76
Matthew Vaughn | 129 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK / English | 15* / R

Kingsman: The Secret ServiceThe team behind Kick-Ass bring that same reverent irreverence to the spy genre in this comedy-action-thriller that aims to bring the fun of ’60s/’70s spy-fi back to a genre that’s become oh so serious.

Developed alongside the Mark Millar/Dave Gibbons comic book The Secret Service, Matthew Vaughn’s film casts Colin Firth as Harry Hart, an agent for an independent intelligence operation, Kingsman, who recruits council estate kid Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the son of a fallen comrade, into the group’s elite training programme. As Eggsy battles tough training challenges and the snobbery of his Oxbridge-sourced competitors, Harry investigates suspicious tech mogul Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who is secretly kidnapping people of importance and publicly giving away free SIM cards to everyone on the planet, but for what nefarious purpose?

There are several things going on in Kingsman that make it a uniquely entertaining proposition, especially in the current blockbuster climate. Part of the setup is “My Fair Lady with gentlemen spies”, as chavvy Eggsy is reshaped to be an old-fashioned besuited gent, inspired by the story of how Dr. No director Terence Young took a rough young Scottish chap called Sean Connery under his wing and taught him how to dress and behave as a gentlemen in preparation for his star-making role as the original superspy. It’s one of those ideas that you wonder why no one thought of developing into a fiction sooner. It could have come across as datedly classist, but Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman nail it as a 21st Century character arc: being a gentlemen is not about speaking correctly or lording it over the lower classes, but about a universal level of good behaviour, politeness, and doing the right thing. It successfully and acutely dodges any potential accusations of classism.

Classy mealAn even bigger part of the film’s triumph, and what likely led it to over $400 million worldwide in spite of its higher-than-PG-13 classifications (it’s Vaughn’s highest-grossing film to date, incidentally; even more so than his X-Men instalment), is that it takes the ever-popular James Bond formula and brings it up to date. However much you might love Casino Royale and Skyfall (and I do), the Bourne influence is undeniable. They’re not Bond movies in the same mould as the Connery and Moore movies that established the franchise’s enduring popularity around the globe; they’re modern thrillers, faithful in their way to Ian Fleming’s creation, but also zeitgeisty. Vaughn and co have looked at the DNA of those ’60s and ’70s Bond classics and given them a fresh lick of paint. So we have just-beyond-possible gadgets, a megalomaniacal supervillain, complete with epic mountain base, his own personal army, a physical tic, a uniquely-gifted almost-superhuman henchwoman, and a tongue-in-cheek tone that isn’t all-out spoof but lets you know no one believes any of this could actually happen and that’s OK.

Despite the overall tone of modern blockbusters, I don’t think the appetite for movies like this ever went away; or if it did, it quite quickly made a resurgence: a similar itch has been scratched in recent years by superhero movies, especially the Marvel ones. Audiences — or, perhaps, studio execs — seem currently more ready to accept outlandish action sequences, melodramatic stakes, and an occasionally-humorous tone if they were dressed up in colourful suits and pitched in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy, A little swimrather than the supposed real-world universe of spy movies. What the worldwide success of Kingsman proves is that audiences don’t need the set-dressing of superpowers to accept an action movie that’s less than deadly serious. It’s a place I don’t think the Bond movies could go anymore — not without accusations of returning to the disliked Moore or late-Brosnan films — but it’s one many people clearly like, and Kingsman fulfils it.

Another clever move by Vaughn and co was to aim it at adults. Every blockbuster is PG-13 these days to keep the box office high, but Kingsman shows you can cut loose and still make good money. By specifically setting out to make an R-rated version of the classic Bond formula, everything gets ramped up to 11. On the one hand, that earns the controversy of That Joke in the final act (as Vaughn has said, not wrongly, it’s a variation on the classic Bond film finale; Mark Strong’s Merlin even closes his videoscreen, Q-style), but on the other it allows for crazed action sequences. The (faked-)single-take church massacre has to be seen to be believed; a highly-choreographed orgy of violence that is a marvellous assault on the senses, demonstrating the benefits of clear camerawork and highly-trained professional stunt- and effects-people over fast-cut close-up ShakyCam handwavery. Later on, a certain sequence set to Land of Hope and Glory would be inconceivable in any other movie. Things like this perfectly demonstrate why the world needs these less-than-serious kinds of film: they let creativity loose, crafting moments and sequences that are exciting, funny, unique, and memorable.

The first rule of Fight Church...Criticisms of the film tend to pan out to nought, in my opinion. Is there too much violence? There’s a lot, certainly, but part of the point of that church sequence (for instance) is just how long it goes on. Other excellent action sequences (the pub fight you might’ve seen in clips; the car chase in reverse gear; the skydiving) aren’t predicated on killing. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson’s baseball-capped lisping billionaire is a perfect modern riff on the traditional Bond villain, not some kind of attack on Americans or people with speech impediments. Some have even attempted a political reading of the film, arguing it’s fundamentally conservative and right-wing because the villain is an environmentalist. Again, I don’t think the film really supports such an interpretation. In fact, I think it’s completely apolitical — just like its titular organisation, in fact — and such perspectives are being entirely read into it by the kind of people who read too much of this kind of thing into everything.

If there’s any fault, it’s perhaps in an overabundance of ideas. One fewer training sequence might’ve been better — but then, which would you lose? Based on the trailer, some scenes were cut as it is (sadly there’s no deleted scenes section on the Blu-ray), and the film doesn’t really outstay its welcome. For me, it wasn’t as balls-to-the-wall revolutionary as Kick-Ass and, when we have actually had lighter-toned action films in the past few years, it doesn’t reconstruct its genre quite as much as Vaughn and Goldman’s adaptation of Stardust did for fantasy.

Secret SocietyNot everything hinges on being wall-to-wall groundbreaking, though, and Kingsman has so much to recommend it. It ticks all the requisite boxes of being exciting and funny, and some of its sequences are executed breathtakingly. The plot may move along familiar tracks — deliberately so — but it pulls out a few mysteries and surprises along the way. There’s an array of likeable performances, particularly from Firth, Egerton (sure to get a lot of work off the back of this), Jackson and Strong, and Sofia Boutella’s blade-legged henchwoman is yet another why-has-no-one-done-that great idea.

I’m more than happy for the Bond series to carry on down its current, serious-minded path, but I’m ever so glad Kingsman has come along to provide the level of pure entertainment and unabashed fun that series used to do so well. If they can keep this quality up, may there be many sequels.

5 out of 5

Kingsman: The Secret Service is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today, and the US tomorrow.

It placed 13th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

* During editing, the BBFC advised the film would receive an 18 certificate unless changes were made. The submitted version was classified 15. Normally such edits are applied globally (despite what some websites like to claim), but this has been a less clear case: vastly different running times were posted by the BBFC and their German equivalent, but Vaughn stated in an interview that nothing was cut for the UK. Now, the UK and US Blu-rays have identical running times, so it seems likely he was (unsurprisingly) telling the truth. Another “the UK version is cut!” storm in a teacup? Yessir. ^

St. Trinian’s: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold (2009)

aka St. Trinian’s 2*

2014 #74
Oliver Parker & Barnaby Thompson | 101 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK / English | PG

St. Trinian's: The Legend of Fritton's GoldI found the first St. Trinian’s reboot to be a bit of a surprise; a good-for-what-it-was entertainment rather than an abominable write-off. Sadly, the law of diminishing returns applies to this hasty sequel.

Clearly aiming for a slightly younger audience with a lower PG certificate (the film was initially rated 12A, like the first one, but the distributor chose to make some cuts), the plot sees the anarchic schoolgirls on the hunt for a treasure hidden by the piratical forebear of headmistress Fritton (Rupert Everett), racing against a secret society of women-haters headed by said pirate’s rival’s descendant (David Tennant). Cue hijinks.

Despite an occasionally slicker appearance, including some CGI-aided pirate-y flashbacks, and bigger sequences, like a commando raid on the school or a large flashmob musical number at Liverpool Street station, the whole doesn’t come together quite as well as the first movie. (Plus, the use of the term “flashmob” instantly dates it.) Everett is still having a ball, but Colin Firth’s role feels contractually obligated and Tennant, hot off his time on Doctor Who, performs at the level of his Comic Relief appearances rather than, say, Hamlet. Which I guess is appropriate.

St Trinian's girlsThe rest of the cast are a mix of old and new — clearly, some managed to wriggle out of a second go-round. Talulah Riley, Tamsin Egerton and Broadchurch’s Jodie Whittaker weren’t so lucky, while Gemma Arterton, since moved on to bigger and better, has managed to get her appearance reduced to a cameo. The new recruits include Girls Aloud’s Sarah Harding making a failed bid to transition into acting (though she’s no worse than anyone else), as well as Fresh Meat’s Zawe Ashton as the head of the chavs and Love Soup’s Montserrat Lombard as the top Goth, both at least bringing some comedic chops to their ensemble-cast roles. Plus there’s an increasingly rare chance to see Juno Temple go a whole film without taking her clothes off.

St. Trinian’s 2 isn’t without merit, offering the occasional laugh or amusing sequence; but even if you found the first to be surprisingly entertaining, there’s no guarantee you’ll get the same from the second. Unless you’re an under-12 girl, that is — and they are, in fairness, the target audience.

2 out of 5

St. Trinian’s 2 (or whatever else you want to call it) is on Film4 today at 6:55pm.

* Although commonly promoted as St. Trinian’s 2: The Legend of Fritton’s Gold, the actual title displayed on screen at the start of the movie omits the numeral. I’m a stickler for accuracy. ^

Easy Virtue (2008)

2011 #19
Stephan Elliott | 93 mins | TV (HD) | PG / PG-13

Easy VirtueThere doesn’t seem to be much love in the world for Easy Virtue, a witty adaptation of Noel Coward’s play (previously filmed in the ’20s by Alfred Hitchcock). A quick peek at some of my regular go-tos for such opinion-canvassing reveals a lamentable 6.6 on IMDb and an even worse 52% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. I don’t understand.

The plot concerns a young aristocratic Brit bringing his new American girlfriend — shockingly, a divorcee racing driver — back to his family’s stately home. The family are old money — the proper kind, where all the money’s gone. Cultural clashes and all sorts of other hijinks follow. Hilarity, with pleasant inevitability, ensues.

Obviously Easy Virtue is, primarily, a comedy. Fortunately, it’s frequently hilariously funny. You’d expect nothing less from a work taken from Coward, I suppose, and it doesn’t disappoint… well, didn’t disappoint me — as we’ve seen, others are a different matter. But hush, we’ll try to ignore them for the moment. There’s a decidedly wicked streak to the humour at times (a subplot about the fate of the family Chihuahua; lots of double entendres), which is welcome. The overall tone is light, largely, but not light in the head.

Director Stephan Elliott adds something extra to the wit with his choice of a wonderfully inventive soundtrack. (No disservice to those directly in charge of the music, but I’m certain I read somewhere — Couples and carspossibly in the soundtrack CD’s liner notes — that the following was Elliott’s idea.) Standards from the era are present and correct, but Cole Porter-styled reinterpretations of modern songs like Car Wash and Sex Bomb raise a smile whenever they turn up unexpectedly. It’s fabulously cheeky.

My notes also add that it is “beautifully shot [and] magnificently directed”, but unfortunately I come up short for examples after so long.

It’s not all giggles, though: there’s some surprisingly deep drama and emotions tucked in here, like the truth about Jessica Biel’s character’s past, central to the climax of the film. Naturally it falls largely on the cast to make this work, and they certainly do. The performances are frequently exceptional, especially Colin Firth, who negotiates the humour and drama with ease — his recollections of World War One being one of the darker points, for instance. I’m not entirely sure why but I have a distinct dislike of Kristin Scott Thomas, but here she’s very good as the nasty, coldly cruel mother.

I also particularly want to highlight Phillip, the awkward brother of the neighbours, and as such a minor character, played by Christian Brassington. This is the kind of character who turns up in plenty of comedies; a role that usually stops at “bumbling fool who likes the lead female but has no chance in a sweet, humours kind of way” (succinct, I know). Here, however, the character is redeemed at the end, when he tells a nasty character how cruel she’s been and aids in the ‘rescue’ of said lead female when she’s embarrassingly stranded. Colin Firth is always excellentIt’s still not a big part, nor a showy one, but those little closing tweaks left him standing out for me.

Describing Easy Virtue in a single word is easy: “underrated”. A shame that’s the word to reach for, but equally I’m not sure what other could appropriately encapsulate it. Witty, cheeky and irreverent, with surprisingly dramatic undertones — perhaps “jolly good fun” would suffice. Apart from that being three words.

5 out of 5