Thursday, February 26, 2015


Jemaine Clement     Taika Waititi     Jonathan Brugh     Cori Gonzalez Macuer     Stuart Rutherford     

I’m not much of a fan of vampires, but I really chuckled during What We Do in the Shadows, a mockumentary about four vampires who are flat mates in Wellington, New Zealand.  I was a fan of HBO’s Flight of the Conchords for a two years, with Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie.  Now, Clement and Taika Waititi (writers, directors, producers, and stars of this production) have created a similar show in terms of its wit and dry—sometimes black—humor. 
            We get a clue right from the beginning when the story opens with an alarm ringing at 6:00 (pm), and a hand reaching out of a casket to turn it off.  This is Viago (Waititi), the more fastidious mate, who will awaken the others for a flat meeting.  It seems that Deacon (Brugh) hasn’t washed the dishes for five years, and that is his assigned chore.  Vladislav (Clement) sides with Viago in pressuring Deacon to do his job, stating that it’s embarrassing to bring guests into the apartment with the dishes, splattered with blood, piled up to the ceiling.  Deacon’s defense is that the guests are going to be killed anyway, so what the f---, but Viago and Vlad are insistent.  The fourth mate is Petyr (Ben Fransham) who is 8,000 years old and lives in the basement in a crypt.  He has just bitten Nick (Macuer), turning him into vampire who will be a thorn in the flesh for the others throughout the rest of the story, his main problem being that he blabs to everyone about being a vampire.
            Another funny vein throughout the story is that the vampires—who normally want to have their identities hidden—have agreed to have a documentary made about them, so a camera is following them everywhere.  Of course, Nick brings this up when they tell him to stop bragging.
            Excitement builds as everyone is looking forward to the annual Unholy Masquerade in the Cathedral of Despair, but Vlad goes into a rage when someone else is announced as the guest of honor.  He stays home to pout while the others take off in splendid costumes.  (Since they can’t see their images in a mirror, they have to consult the others about what to wear).  Once again, Nick creates a problem by bringing his human friend Stu along, endangering his life, of course.  This creates a stir at the gala when the vampires realize they have a human in their midst, whereupon in strides Vlad in full costume ready to take on the special guest with whom he shares a chaotic past. 
            When things get truly out of hand, the mates, who have developed a fondness for Stu despite their normally cold hearts, make a hasty departure, only to encounter werewolves lying in wait for them.  This transitioning from one situation to another, each with its dilemmas and contradictions, makes for an entertaining, delightful show. 

A spoof about vampires with its own charm.

Grade:  B+                        By Donna R. Copeland


            Ziggy Gruber, the owner of Kenny & Ziggy's New York Delicatessen in Houston, TX, is featured in Erik Anjou's documentary, Deli Man.  I talked with him by phone on February 20 to get more information about the deli business and his life.
            Ziggy sees himself as someone who is very much attuned to his family and one who does whatever he can to perpetuate culture and community as well as family.  He's very involved with his Jewish community, and while he works very hard to earn a living, he is all about making people happy.
            Leisure time is spent with family; he says that his family is around him 24-7, and that's the way it has always been in his life.  He never has had a thought not to have family around.  Even the people who work for him have become an extension of his own family.  He works a lot of hours every week, and he's still "on" even when not at work.  His phone is always on, for instance.
            Although Ziggy doesn't have any hobbies really, he does like to go out to other restaurants because "food is what I'm all about", and he enjoys tasting food at other places and observing their operations.  He patronizes restaurants with high-end cuisine, as well as all kinds of ethnic establishments.  
            For Ziggy, satisfaction in having the deli comes from making many people happy.  Kenny & Ziggy’s is family-oriented, and he and the wait staff get to know everyone, as many come with grandparents or other special people, giving the place a homey feel.  They end up going through their customers' life cycles as they cater their brisses, bar- and bat-mitzvahs, and even shivas and funerals.  He notes that nowadays we live in a very distant world that can be cold, with people on their cell phones so much of the time.  But when they come to the Deli, there's more action and a better sense of times past.  
            Since he is always “on”, and life can get hectic, I asked him how he keeps himself centered.  His response was that as the leader, the captain of the ship, he must always stay centered.  He has 75 employees, and about 1800 people a day come in the deli.  Being calm and organized comes naturally because he was born into the business and has never known anything else.  “I don’t get frazzled because this is all I know.”
            A question about the proposed Metro system along Post Oak Boulevard prompted a detailed response.  “I’m honestly not happy about it”, he says.  He feels great responsibility for his employees and their families and he remembers the “experiment” with the rail downtown.  In his view, that area has not recovered.  So he worries that for the city to do something similar on Post Oak, could hurt the thousands of people who work in the area.  He asks, “Why would any politician or anyone want to ruin the largest tax-bases in the city?”  He sees it as a handful of people who own property up and down the Boulevard standing to make a substantial amount of money.  They are not thinking about the common good.  He points out that the proposal will not reduce traffic, and that the traffic actually moves quite well on Post Oak.  Finally, he doubts whether his customers in the Galleria area are going to want to sit and wait at a bus stop in the sizzling heat.  “I’d like to see the people who are making these decisions have to wait for a bus so they can see what it’s like.”
            I had read in the newspaper about Ziggy’s intention to start up a new restaurant where Sorrel used to be on Richmond and Greenbriar.  He said he wanted to do it to create another concept as well as give him and his employees some protection should the Post Oak Metro disrupt their operation of the Deli.  The name of the new place will probably be Dubrow’s, and the concept will be where a Kenny & Ziggy’s meets a Houston’s.
            It has meant much to Ziggy to take personal responsibility in preserving the deli experience in America.  This has required diversifying both in terms of the customer base and the menu.  Even sushi is on hiw menu now.  When the Deli first opened, about 70% of their customers were Jewish.  Now, only about 20% are Jewish, and the rest are other cultural groups.  It’s not that they have lost Jewish customers; it’s that their customer base has grown so much.  And again, he says, it’s good food, and much of traditionally Jewish food has become mainstream in America.  Although the number of Jewish delis in the country is diminishing, they will still survive:  “If you run a deli properly, and you keep your costs and your labor in check, it will survive”, because people like good food.  He likens the atmosphere in his deli to a country club where employees all know their regular customers and their families, only there are no membership fees. 
            Ziggy Gruber was very good on camera, so I wondered if another film is in the works.  Not at this time, although his brother who is in film has joked about it.  That would be fine, but he says he likes what he does now, and can’t imagine doing anything else.  “This is my heart and soul; this is what I do.”  And clearly he does it very well!



            This documentary by Erik Anjou is a charming and entertaining history of delicatessens in the U.S., their association with the Jewish culture, and the current state of affairs for delis.  Prominent in the presentation is third generation deli owner, David “Ziggy” Gruber, who went to Houston, Texas, in 1999 with his friends to open Kenny and Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen on Post Oak Road. 
            Ziggy grew up in New York City, maintaining a continuing close relationship with his grandparents who had emigrated from Hungary and Romania and opened one of the first delis there.  From a young age, Ziggy was attracted to the business, and he and his grandfather grew very close working alongside one another.  When he graduated from high school, his intention was to attend the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, but in the interim, his mother took him to England to meet with relatives he had never seen.  When he passed a Cordon Bleu college there, he was instantly entranced, and managed to talk his way into becoming a student.  He did well, and when he was finishing up, he was prepared to accept a position at a Michelin star restaurant.  This was dear to his father’s heart because he was hoping that his son would become a chef of fine cuisine.  However, upon Ziggy’s return to New York and his attending the Deli Man’s Association dinner where the average age was 80, he realized he needed to preserve that part of his heritage, and so has worked in delis ever since.  His restaurant in Houston is very successful, earning high ratings across the years.  A recent chicken soup cook-off at a Jewish temple in Houston, where many well-known restaurants were in competition, gave him first prize.
            The documentary makes very clear how demanding and frustrating deli work can be.  There are incredibly long hours including weekends and holidays, the customers are “finicky”, and it’s difficult to recruit and maintain responsible help.  It also points up very clearly how the delicatessen is in drastic decline across the U.S. for various reasons.  Ziggy is wistful about this, but his father is philosophical—“Nothing lasts forever; everything changes.” 
            Some delis, for example, Caplansky’s in Toronto, are incorporating changes to “Jew it up” and preserve their cultural heritage. They include storytelling in open mic sessions, a Passover Seder dinner, and a competition among home-cooking enthusiasts.  At other establishments, waiters get into the act by entertaining the customers with conversation, song, and jokes.  Ziggy is praised for his way with customers, which is very warm and personalized.
            Deli Man is informative, entertaining, and certainly prompts the viewer to rush right out and order a pastrami sandwich on Rye.  Celebrity interviews are liberally sprinkled throughout the film, and a detailed account of Ziggy’s personal life comes across very nicely, ending up with a wedding in Hungary at the site of his grandfather’s bar mitzvah.  Cinematography (David Sperling) and musical  (Lorin Sklamberg) accompaniments round out the very nice production.

Plan on a trip to a deli soon after viewing.

Grade:  B            By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, February 19, 2015


Rob Corddry   Craig Robinson   Adam Scott   Clark Duke   Jason Jones

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is so bad, I didn’t mind a cell phone being on a few rows down.  Maybe it’s just not my kind of humor (people in seats behind me were laughing), but I hardly cracked a smile, and just wanted it to be over.  The repertoire is:  penis jokes over and over and over again; people who are shot with blood splattering everywhere, but they don’t really die; drug “jokes”; terrible father—I could go on.  There is even a joke about suicide, in which Lou (Corddry) tells his son Jacob (Duke) that the men from way back in the family have tried to commit suicide.  Of course, everyone is miraculously saved, only to die of something else.
            Having been credited since the first Hot Tub film as the one who invented a time travel solution, Lou, the guru of a tech company is obnoxiously self-serving; he’s so obnoxious his jokes fall to the floor.  And he’s a huge denier of reality; just after his financial person tells him the company is heading for bankruptcy, he makes a speech to all employees at an important function that everything is going great, and that is the reason they should look after themselves and take care of number one.  Whereupon, he gets shot in the balls.  Never fear, though, more than one magical turn of events will see to it that he stays intact.  Whether it’s backward or forward in time, the dialog is insipid and the jokes are lame and repetitious.
            Such a story does not have to make sense, but the dialog and the jokes should still “sing”; neither of which happens in this film.  I have to wonder, why did they make this movie?  The first film in 2010 received poor ratings.  It seems like whatever these filmmakers (Steve Pink, director; Josh Heald, writer) could think of that would be socially repellant, they thought would also be comedy.  Illogical, I would say.

My first ‘F’ of the year.

Grade:  F                        By Donna R. Copeland

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


Mae Whitman   Robbie Arnell   Bella Thorne   Skylar Samuels  Biance Santos   Allison Janney   Ken Jeong

A ‘duff’ is the “designated ugly fat friend” that her more attractive friends have around them to make themselves look better by comparison.  It’s actually in the Urban Dictionary online, so I presume it is a term in use nowadays.  In this film, Bianca (Whitman) learns from her hunky neighbor Wesley (Arnell) that she is ‘The Duff’ to her friends Jess (Samuels) and Casey (Santos).  She is a bright rather nerdy teen and has never heard the term so is mortified.  Since her regard for herself is not all that great anyway and she’s a bit self-destructive and suspicious, she projects her anger onto her two best friends and ends the friendship—to their mystification and dismay, of course.
The director Ari Sandel and his crew have turned this film into something resembling Mean Girls (2004) by its dealing with high school conflicts, with the central character being a rather introverted, naïve person, and by introducing a character not in the novel (The Duff by Kody Keplinger), but who, like Regina in the earlier film is an “A-lister” who cannot abide a duff taking up with her ex-boyfriend.  Madison (Thorne) is a mean girl who is filled with hubris and doesn’t mind at all bullying Bianca by helping to make videos of her made on the sly go viral at school.
Bianca, in her desperation enlists the help of her football star neighbor, Wesley, who is willing to coach her in becoming more attractive in exchange for her helping him get a passing grade in science.
I found The Duff to be smarter than I had expected (there are some laugh-out-loud scenes as well as transitions and developments that have substance), and the actors are good at playing high school students.  I’m just puzzled why filmmakers don’t cast teenagers in a movie about teenagers; All the main characters are obviously 10 or more years older than high school students.  It’s not as if there aren’t a slew of good age-appropriate actors at their disposal.  This was particularly bothersome in Arnell’s case because he looks so much like Tom Cruise.
The adults in the film do show their acting chops and electrify the scenes they are in.  Allison Janney plays Bianca’s mother who is a pop psychology guru who shows little interest in her daughter until the very end.  But she is a hoot nevertheless.  Similarly, Ken Jeong plays a journalism teacher who has the best of intentions, but clearly makes the students’ eyes roll.  He’s a fine character actor who also captures attention when he is on.
Although they did decide to include a “nasty” stereotypical high school girl in the story, I did appreciate the filmmakers’ portrayal of Bianca’s friends as caring, loyal, and supportive—as many girls that age are.  They also presented intelligence and studiousness in a positive light—not altogether nerdy—as sometimes happens in films for young people.

The Duff is lightly entertaining with substantive points to make about high school.

Grade:  C+                        By Donna R. Copeland



--> Kevin Costner     Maria Bello

McFarland, USA is a Disney production that reminds of the recently opened indie, Spare Parts, in which, like this film, Latino teenagers are challenged by an inspiring teacher to go beyond their perceived destiny and achieve the American dream.  Spare Parts is about a scientific competition, whereas McFarland is about a sports competition.  Both are based on true events.  I preferred the raw, edginess of Spare Parts, but McFarland is still very good. 
In both films, the inspiring teacher has a dicey past that each man is trying to overcome, and find themselves in what they think is a temporary position, not having an inkling of the emotional pull of their new communities.  Coach White (Costner) has gotten into trouble at several institutions because of a hot temper and not controlling his impulses, and the family has had to move multiple times; McFarland is the lowest yet.  White’s wife Julie (Bello) is a model of support, and they have two lovely girls. 
White is astute, though, and when he sees three of his students running back and forth to the farm fields to help their parents, he realizes how fast they go, and hatches the idea of coaching them in cross country running.  He takes advantage of the fastest runner getting in trouble, and sees to it that his “punishment” will be to recruit his fellow students for the team.  As a side, in both these films, the principal is a leader who has insight into teachers’ intentions and what’s best for students.  So with everyone involved working together, Coach White has a scrappy team that can be motivated to reach beyond their dreams, and educate him along the way as well.
The road will not be smooth, of course, with family issues, work vs. school pulls, some parental resistance, and community violence needing to be dealt with along the way.  But another strong point of the film is in demonstrating how community support and everyone working together can achieve seemingly impossible goals.
Niki Caro, the director, working closely with the writers, presents a realistic picture of the Latino and white cultures mixing together—both rough spots and humorous incidents—and balances well the athletic, emotional, social, and administrative highs and lows.  The audience in the screening I attended expressed their appreciation of the film by applauding, chuckling, and cheering throughout.
Kevin Costner was at his best in giving eloquent speeches at just the right time and—more often—mumbling shyly his thanks or sympathy.  At one point, though, he has to come through more openly in a very tender moment with a student.  The supporting cast of Latinos—many of whom have been in television productions—are really fine, and make the picture sing.
Altogether, McFarland is an entertaining, inspiring, and heartfelt movie.

Running for your life cross country—literally.

Grade:  B                        By Donna R. Copeland

Monday, February 16, 2015


Ballet 422 is a documentary showing a young dancer, Justin Peck, choreographing his third ballet, coaching the dancers on what he wants, and engaging with sets and lighting, music, and costume crew.  If one enjoys the ballet, but does not know much about how a work is produced, the documentary, directed by Jody Lee Lipes, is very interesting.  It is also remarkable in that Peck is one of the “lower” members of the Corps, and none of the current dancers have ever had their work performed by the company.  He chooses to name it “Paz de la Jolla”, based on a 1935 musical, “Sinfonietta de la Jolla”, which serves as the musical accompaniment.
There are several, to me, remarkable aspects of Ballet 422, one being that all of Peck’s interactions with dancers and crew are entirely positive, with almost no conflict.  This stands in marked contrast to the Black Swan fictional movie, which contained so many conflicts some people avoided seeing the film at all.  Peck does apparently have a low-key personality and perhaps has some kind of knowledge about people management, so perhaps that accounts for so much good will.  It could also be that the filmmakers simply chose not to show any of the tensions that actually did occur. 
Another aspect that I find curious—although I think it is characteristic of all ballet companies—is the habit of calling the dancers “boys” and “girls.”  These are all young men and women, so I would think they would protest what sounds like condescension. 
I enjoyed watching this film, but was regretful it did not show at least an abridged version of the actual ballet.  We see/hear snippets, but I would have liked to see more of the final production. 
A very nice touch at the end is showing Peck preparing to go onstage to dance, and then showing stunning outdoor evening shots of Lincoln Center, where the American Ballet Theater performs.

For big ballet fans—an inside story of a work in the making.

Grade:  C By Donna R. Copeland

Cirque de Soleil's AMALUNA - performing in Houston, TX, at the Sam Houston Race Park through March 22, 2015

I was given a ticket to see Cirque de Soleil’s production of Amaluna at the Sam Houston Race Park in Houston.  Amaluna features a mostly (70%) female cast and all female musicians, directed by Tony winner, Diane Paulus. Given this information, I was expecting something a bit different, say, with the young princess being a heroine; however, tradition prevails, and she is ultimately rescued by a prince.  The story is about a mysterious Island called Amaluna, which is ruled by goddesses and guided by the moon.  Its   queen, Prospera, is preparing for her daughter Miranda’s coming-of-age ceremony and creates a storm by playing a resonant cello solo to bring up a ferocious storm that will cause a passing ship with possible suitors for Miranda to stop at the Amaluna port. 
As the Moon Goddess appears and is giving Miranda her blessing, one of the sailors, Romeo, watches her playing in a waterbowl.  He is smitten as she shows her acrobatic skills and amazingly lithe body, achieving major contortions that look effortless, and he notices her sense of humor and teasing personality.  When she jumps into the water, he dives in after her, and they kiss briefly after playfully swimming in the water, and Miranda departs.  Miranda has fallen in love with Romeo, but they must surmount a number of obstacles before they can hope to be together. 
One obstacle is created by Cali, half-lizard, half-human, for although Miranda regards him as a lovable pet, he has fallen in love with her.  Seeing the two young people together in the water rouses his jealousy, and he captures Romeo, making him his prisoner in the water bowl. 
To coach the two lovers in the art of balance, Prospera takes them to observe the Balance Goddess whose slow, deliberate movements in navigating herself inside a wheel made from palm leaf ribs epitomizes balance itself.  After this, their trials will begin.
All the sailors are imprisoned, and in their boredom the men vault up and down on a seesaw-like structure high up in the sky, some landing impressively on another’s upturned palms, another on a nearby platform, or running across the seesaw from one end to the other. 
Romeo makes an effort to reunite with Miranda by climbing up a pole to her living quarters, showing his sheer muscular strength and agility.  Alas, he falls back to the ground time after time, like Sisyphus trying to get up a mountain.  But he is determined to make it to his love, and their wedding at the end is truly spectacular.
Amaluna’s performances in Houston are ongoing through March 22nd.


Wild Tales is a remarkable film from Argentina showing in six vignettes a range of human emotions and coping techniques in response to stress.  In all the tales, emotional press (animal instincts, perhaps, in that beautiful close-ups of animals in the wild are shown during the initial credits) usurps logic and good old problem solving in reaction to government bureaucracy and corruption, personal betrayal, and greed.  It is a struggle against ubiquitous narcissism in a world without charity, and broaches the question about whether it is paranoia or reasonable fear that people are experiencing.  This is Argentina’s submission to the Academy Awards for the Foreign Language prize.
In the first story, casual conversation on a plane reveals that almost everyone onboard has had some kind of relationship with a man named Gabriel Pasternak.  Lo and behold not only his ex-girlfriend, but his psychiatrist, grade school teacher, music critic, childhood friend, and rejecting lover are all present, and indicting him for being so difficult.  He is shown to reject people at the slightest provocation and carry a deep and abiding resentment.  (This is shown graphically at the end of the tale by a plane, presumably piloted by Pasternak, descending full speed toward an elderly couple—perhaps his parents—in their backyard.)  Revenge.
In the second vignette, a waitress is outraged by the appearance of a customer who has betrayed her family, and he does not even recognize her.  The cook’s solution is outright revenge of the violent kind, reasoning that he deserves to die; and besides, prison isn’t so bad—your rent and food are paid for and you can just relax and enjoy your friends there.  Another kind of revenge
The third vignette highlights rage—in particular, road rage—when a slower, junk-heap car does not yield to an Audi, and even moves back and forth between two lanes to keep the Audi from passing.  The two male drivers have a number of verbal and nonverbal altercations, neither ever giving up in deadly struggles.  Empty revenge.
In the fourth, Simon, an explosives engineer who has just organized the demolition of a building, heads for home, but must stop on the way for his daughter’s birthday cake.  On the way, he gets a parking ticket, has his car towed for “illegal” parking, and gets stalled in a traffic jam.  That’s not the end of his trials; his car gets towed three more times and he undergoes significant losses when he decides to fight back by putting some explosives in his trunk and waiting for it to be towed by a corrupted city agency.  It looks like he is going to lose everything—his family, his job—when he becomes a hero called “Dynamite” who has effectively fought against city corruption.  He does, however, have to spend time in prison.  Partial revenge.
The fifth vignette is more complicated.  A young man is distraught after a car accident, which leaves his father in a severe dilemma, as his son is rather fragile emotionally, and the car is registered in the father’s name.  Enter his attorney and the city justice system, which, in addition to cooking up a scheme of subterfuge, is clearly out after as much as they can possibly squeeze for themselves from the family.  In this case, the father gets fed up with the greed, and remembering that his son has never respected him calls off the deal he has made—which could bankrupt him—but still must deal with his wife and son.  Partial revenge.
In the sixth vignette, we see a happy couple at their wedding, joyously celebrating with their families, when the bride sees something that makes her suspicious about her new husband’s fidelity.  This sends her into a jealous frenzy, feelings of mortification and embarrassment, and determination to get revenge, even if it means wreaking havoc on her own wedding.  She makes threats that truly terrify her husband, and he—and his mother—have several reactions, but he finally “comes to”, uses good sense, and solves the problem.  Revenge deflected.

Six tales that appear outrageous, but depict common human experience.

Grade:  A By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, February 12, 2015


--> Jamie Dornan   Dakota Johnson   Jennifer Ehle   Marcia Gay harden

Fifty Shades of Grey certainly did not measure up to the hype it has received.  I would imagine that real S&M practitioners would find it rather tame and maybe even dull, and we would likely not find nearly so many other people interested in it without the seduction of a billionaire generous with his money.  Aside from the harsher portions, the love scenes are erotic, and Christian (Dornan) is very gentle and skillful with Anastasia (Johnson).
            The story opens with Anastasia filling in for her ailing roommate, on an interview with Mr. Christian Grey for the school newspaper.  She is clearly out of her element and very ill at ease, which turns out to attract the man who wants to be the dominator in a relationship with a woman.  She is clearly smitten right from the beginning, despite her unease, and in the coming days, will submit to his pursuits.  He is very open about what he is looking for (even drawing up a contract for her to sign), always sweetening the deal with fancy presents and getaways, and giving her the option to leave at any time. 
            For a college student, Anastasia is very naïve, and reacts as if she has never heard of the arrangement he is trying to make with her.  During the first part of the film, it is off-putting to see her appear like she is only 10-12 years old.  But at least across time, she becomes more age appropriate and begins to leave the shrinking violet stance, making Christian cool his heels while she “negotiates” the contract with him.
            This is just the first of three films that will be made based on E. L. James’ novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, so the film ended rather abruptly with the outcome ambiguous.  The filmmakers must be needing to stretch the material in order to make three films out of it, because it drags in places.  In fact, other than a meal here and there or a short trip, not much of anything takes place except Christian pursuing Anastasia and their lovemaking interludes.
            Dornan and Johnson are very attractive, with good chemistry and reasonably good acting; she is good at portraying naïveté and innocence, and he at smoothness and gentle persuasiveness.  Supporting cast is also very good.  Music by Danny Elfman and Beyonce and cinematography by Seamus McGarvey all enhance the production.  I enjoyed director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s “Nowhere Boy” about John Lennon’s childhood, but I feel like she doesn’t make the grade in this film.  Perhaps this wasn’t the best choice of books to film.

Unless you’re keenly interested in the topic, you can skip this.

Grade:  D+                        By Donna R. Copeland

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

KINGSMAN: The Secret Service

-->Colin Firth   Taron Egerton   Samuel L. Jackson   Sofia Boutella   Michael Caine   Mark Strong   Sophie Cookson 

Kingsman has just about everything:  Entertainment, intrigue, clever script, humorous references, constant surprises—and it’s just fun.  AND it has a female being one of the heroes!  It certainly lives up to previous successful works (Layer Cake, X-Men First Class) of the director, Matthew Vaughn, and co-writer, Jane Goldman.  The plot zips along so intelligently with all kinds of intricacies, yet is easy to follow without being facile.  Similarly, the fights and gun battles are fierce, yet come across as fine choreography.  Cinematographer George Richmond enhances these scenes with artful camera work. 
            In addition to being a spy thriller based on the comic book stories of Mark Miler and David Gibbons (“The Secret Service”), the film gets in pointed social commentary about the environment, social class, compassion, cooperation, and violence, that takes for granted the audience will comprehend, mixing it in with both serious and humorous dialog.  The crux of the story is that a private secret service has emerged that aims to be better than those run within a government.  Its agents have tended to come from the upper classes, but one agent, Harry Hart (Firth)—and yes, he has a very big and tender heart—has decided that it would be wise to recruit someone intelligent with street smarts.  That would be Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (get it?  a “loser” played by Egerton), who is getting into a heap of trouble at home and on the streets and is headed for prison.
            Eggsy and his fellow trainee, the graceful but tough Roxy (Cookson), are put through their paces in a grueling program that is full of tricks.  Out of the class of nine, only one will be selected to become an agent in the service.  Meanwhile, there is a dastardly plan dreamed up by the billionaire villain Valentine (ironic) that the way to solve environmental meltdown is to reduce the population of the world.  With the help of his tech-savvy assistant Gazella (Bouella), he has a doomsday plan that involves getting people to kill one another.  The Kingsmen become aware of this, and are committed to sabotaging it.  There are plenty of nail-biting moments in the story when it is touch and go.
            I loved Colin Firth—always the gentleman from the upper classes—in the role of a James Bond-type of agent.  It was a complete surprise to see him (at least his double) kicking a--.  Of course, always elegantly.  As his mentee who has an interesting back-story with him, Eggsy ends up recapitulating the master’s truths and actions.   Cookson gives a performance that exemplifies the naturalness and human traits (nurturance, competitiveness, intelligence) demanded by the role.  I also loved Jackson’s portrayal of a villain with a lisp (clever note) who sounds like a bro, but has nefarious plans with his loyal, ferocious assistant Gazella (Boutella). 
            Beyond all this, Kingsman brings up a knotty issue about whether secret services are best administered by the government or private companies.  Kingsman gives us a look at how private companies can be good or bad.  The clincher is that neither of the two in the film has any oversight as would a government agency.  Food for thought.

If you want exciting, intelligent filmmaking that’s also fun, go see Kingsman!

Grade:  A                        By Donna R. Copeland

Thursday, February 5, 2015

SEVENTH SON: When Darkness Falls, the Son Will Rise

Ben Barnes     Jeff Bridges     Julianne Moore

Seventh Son

Seventh Son, based on a Joseph Delaney novel, The Spook’s Apprentice, opens in a medieval tavern with Master Gregory (Bridges) imbibing and throwing his weight around.  His apprentice arrives to remind him the bells are ringing (there is an emergency) and he is needed immediately.  He goes out to find that the witch Mother Malkin (Moore) has escaped iron-bar prison on a mountaintop where he left her screaming her lungs out.  (The back-story is that the two used to be lovers, but when he married someone else she went into a rage and killed his wife.  He captured her, but couldn’t bring himself to kill her so put her in a prison he thought would be secure, but she only gained more strength across time, and broke out.)  She kills the apprentice, and now, Gregory must locate a replacement and train him before the full moon when Malkin plans to wage a supernatural war on mankind.
Gregory is a “spook” charged with getting rid of evil supernatural creatures on earth.  Now, he needs a new apprentice, and searches for a particular one who is the seventh son of the seventh son (one known to have special powers and a destiny).  He finds him on a pig farm living with his parents.  Tom Ward is not only the seventh son, but he is also the son of a witch, giving him even more power.  His mother voices her reluctance to let him go, knowing what lies ahead for him, but knows she must.  She takes a stone pendant from her neck—which turns out to be magical—and gives it to him, saying, “Everything that you will ever need is inside you.”
We’ve already seen the fierce struggle between Gregory and Malkin, now there is just one battle after another for the rest of Seventh Son.  It is entertaining for a time, watching the supernatural warriors morphing back and forth between animals and humans, but it gets so repetitive, and automatic (like, a fight every so many minutes without much in between), the viewer loses interest.
It is really fine to see the talented Julianne Moore take on an evil, super-aggressive role, and she pulls it off.  When she and Bridges are in a scene together, it’s electric.  For some strange reason, Bridges talks in a rough voice with what sounds like pebbles in his mouth.  But he plays the crusty old mentor very well.  Supporting cast members are good, although not outstanding, except for Jason Scott Lee, Gregory’s old loyal friend Ulag who never says anything but gets his messages across.


Grade:  D+ By Donna R. Copeland