After what seems like an age since I went to the cinema due to the winter weather, I managed to catch a break last night and see two films which were very different in tone.
“Kingsman: The Secret Service” (Director: Matthew Vaughn)
Loosely based on the comic series by Mark Millar, “Kingsman” follows the story of Garry “Eggsy” Unwin – an intelligent young man who has lost his way in life. Following one too many run ins with the police, Eggsy calls in a one time debt owed by Harry Hart – a man who appears to be a dapper tailor but who is in fact an operative working for an international spy organisation and who offers Eggsy the chance to leave his old life behind to become a Kingsman agent.
Following his work on re-inventing the superhero franchise movie with the two “Kick Ass” films in various roles plus “X-Men: Days Of Future Past”, Matthew Vaughn moves into the spy world with a film that not only serves as a homage to the classic Bond films and television series like “The Avengers” (the British spy series not the blockbuster franchise) but also manages to update it and add a slice of social commentary topped off with a sly grin on its collective face.
As with the “Kick Ass” films, this film is loud, bold, violent and sweary, but the script by Vaughn and Jane Goldman also has some virtuous values with the story speaking of the values of loyalty and that people can change their circumstances no matter where they come from.
Colin Firth doesn’t instantly strike you as the stuff that gentleman spies are made of, but he definitely shows some action moves that James Bond and Jason Bourne combined would be proud of, especially in an especially violent scene where he has to fight a mob of deranged people in a church. Alongside this, Firth gives the character of Harry the stereotypical upright gentleman spy bearing that is reminiscent of Patrick Macnee’s portrayal of John Steed in “The Avengers” whilst adding a dash of man who is troubled by past decisions and but who is also an effective mentor for Eggsy in that he doesn’t want to see potential wasted.
Taron Egerton follows his recent appearance in British biographical drama “Testament Of Youth” with an energetic and clever performance in the role of Eggsy. On the surface, Eggsy is a man with confidence and no shortage of lip, but Egerton manages to balance this with a young man who has doubts about whether he can make it in the Kingsman’s world and who has a fierce loyalty and protection instinct – both to his family and to Harry. As the film progresses, Egerton effectively sells Eggsy’s transition from track suited yob to action hero.
In a sly reference to the Harry Palmer series of films, Michael Caine stars in the role of “Arthur” (all Kingsmen are codenamed after members of the Round Table of Camelot), the head of the Kingsman organisation. Arthur represents the old order who doesn’t want to see the likes of Eggsy as equals and the role is reminiscent to the character of Colonel Ross or Major Dalby from “The Ipcress File” (a fantastic spy film which I would highly recommend).
Whereas in the world of 007 you have Q as Bond’s quartermaster and technological wizard, “Kingsman” has their own techno wizard in the appropriately codenamed “Merlin” portrayed by Mark Strong, who was the main villain of the original “Kick Ass” film. Strong portrays Merlin as a hard nosed taskmaster who handles the training and testing of the trainee spies.
Whilst most of the trainees are against Eggsy joining the Kingsmen, he has one ally in the form of Sophie Cookson in the role of Roxy who demonstrates her capability as an agent as effectively as any of her male counterparts whilst being another person who Eggsy feels protective for.
As with any “super-spy” film, the story hinges around the quality of the villain and Samuel L. Jackson gives a colourful and humourous portrayal in the role of the film’s main villain Richmond Valentine whilst maintaining that he is a credible threat. This is helped with the character having an achilles heel and the exaggerated nature of his plan which hinges on a piece of everyday technology.
With every villain, there needs to be the “muscle” and this comes in the form of the character of Gazelle portrayed by Sofia Boutella. On the one hand, Gazelle is both beautiful and graceful especially in the way that she kills her opponents whilst being vicious in the very act of said killing.
There is a guest cameo by Mark Hamill in the role of Professor James Arnold (with a very credible stereotypical British accent) which must be a tip of the hat to the source material. (Mark Hamill himself is a character in the original comic series and is held hostage in the same fashion as Arnold).
This film is a great pastiche on the gentleman spy genre whilst making the film suitable for contemporary audiences. The ending is primed for a sequel and given the quality of this film deserves one. Move over Bond and Bourne, there’s a new spy in town.
“Wild” (Director: Jean-Marc Vallee)
Based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, this film primarily follows Cheryl’s hike on the Pacific Coastal Trail in what was a journey of rediscovery for her. It also explains the reasons behind her journey including her mother’s death, her own divorce and years of destructive behaviour.
I really wanted to see this film since I saw the trailer featuring Reese Witherspoon walking the Californian desert. I thought that I was going to miss my opportunity, given the weather and the limited release schedule. Fortunately, I managed to “Wild” last night and was rewarded with a emotional and thought provoking film.
Any film that starts with Reese Witherspoon pulling off her toenails whilst letting loose with a primal scream of fury was certainly going to be a gutsy and, in some respects, uncomfortable film to watch. This is very true in the retrospective scenes which shows the background to Cheryl’s hike where the viewer is witness to a lot of swearing, sexual scenes and scenes containing drug use plus scenes that chart the death of Cheryl’s mother to cancer. However, these scenes are necessary to provide context to the journey itself and to appreciate why she took it.
The film is structured in a non-linear way which people may find difficult to follow, but it seeks to provide an element of “cause and effect” showing the Cheryl who is taking the walk whilst informing the audience of the behaviours that led her there.
One thing I will say is that although this film is difficult to watch at times, it is a film with plenty of gentle humour mined from the fact that Cheryl is a novice in hiking and from the majority of the people who she meets.
The direction by Jean-Marc Vallee showcases the beauty of the Pacific Coastal Trail whilst not pulling punches both in portraying the difficulties in Cheryl’s life before she went on the hike and during the hike itself. It also works with the screenplay by allowing her inner monologue to lead the viewer along, both in terms of Cheryl’s thoughts “speaking” to the audience and through the use of cuts showing memories and hallucinations.
I’ve never seen Reese Witherspoon tackle material of this nature before and I am pleased to say that I can highly recommend her performance in this film. She manages to balance the darker aspects of the story with the more optimistic tone prompted by Cheryl’s journey to self redemption. Ms Witherspoon is the main focus throughout the film with little time off screen and considering she has to hold the audience’s attention with her being the sole actor on screen, she manages to do it with humour, guts and emotional honesty.
Her main co-star focus is on the scenes relate to Cheryl’s pre-hike life with people moving in and out of her life whilst on the hike. Laura Dern portrays Cheryl’s mother Bobbi and manages to deliver a performance in a similar vein to Witherspoon as she has to give a background of a woman who is full of life, energy and optimism whilst also being a woman who lived in an abusive relationship and, eventually, being a person who passed away at a young age to illness.
Thomas Sadoski portrays the fictional version of Cheryl’s former husband as a man who in some respects loves her and is a source of support to her along the journey along the Pacific Coast by sending letters which Sadoski narrates.
As with my opinion that I can’t call it between Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne for Best Actor at the forthcoming Academy Awards, I will freely admit that I will find it equally as difficult to call between Felicity Jones’ portrayal of Jane Hawking in “The Theory Of Everything” and Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal in “Wild” as she manages to provide a portrayal that makes you look at the difficulties that we all face in life and the lengths we go to to overcome them.
Whatever the decision, “Wild” is a fantastic film and I look forward to reading the memoir on which it is based in the future.