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Kingsman: The Secret Service ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Kingsman, The Secret Service

Kingsman: The Secret Service ~ A Capsule Movie Review
by Allen Kopp 

Kingsman: The Secret Service is based on a comic book, so you know about what to expect. Wait a minute, though. It’s better than you probably think it is. It’s literate and well-made, full of action sequences (no matter how implausible they are) in the style of James Bond, without any of the tiresome romantic interludes with bosomy super models.

“Manners maketh the man,” agent Harry Hart (Colin Firth) says, just before he single-handedly reduces a roomful of thugs to a pile of bleeding corpses. If manners maketh the man, so does his clothing. The well-tailored suit (not off the peg) is equivalent to the suit of armor worn by knights of old, says Harry Hart, and the secret service agent the equivalent of the knight.

Harry must find a suitable candidate to put forward to his bosses as a possible secret service agent to replace one who was killed. He recruits a young man from a squalid environment named Gary (known as “Eggsy”) Unwin (played by Taron Egerton). Eggsy’s father saved Harry’s life, so Harry has every reason to believe that Eggsy might have what it takes.

Each of the other agents puts forward their own candidate, so there are eight or so at the beginning. (The number dwindles as they are disqualified one by one.) The training they are subjected to is grueling, difficult and scary. For example, when they are sleeping, the room they are in is flooded with water. They must think fast, as an agent would have to do, or they die. In another scene, they all jump out of a plane at 35,000 feet. They are told after they jump (by radio communication) that one of them doesn’t have a parachute. It’s up to the others to save the life of the one who doesn’t have the chute, while hurtling through space. And if that isn’t difficult enough, they must land in a small circle on the ground. It makes Navy Seal training look like kindergarten.

Of course, there always has to be an arch-villain in a spy movie. The arch-villain here is named Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). He is an eccentric and colorful tech billionaire with a lisp. He is also an environmental lunatic who believes the earth will survive only if the population is reduced. He devises a plan whereby he offers free Internet and cell phone service to anybody who wants it. (If you give something away, people have to bite. Thus is human nature.) All people have to do is pick up their SIM card that will allow them to get the free service. The thing about the SIM card that people don’t know is that it makes people ultra-violent and instills in them a desire to kill each other. One half the earth’s population kills the other half. In this way the population is reduced and the planet is saved. How are the Kingsmen going to foil this plot? They need lots of help.

Kingsman: The Secret Service is clever and derivative, but aren’t all spy movies derivative of other spy movies? The characters are interesting and engaging. (I could have done without the bitch with blades for legs, though…ho-hum.) If this movie does nothing else, it revives a stale genre and makes it fresh by giving it a different twist. I see there are going to be a whole spate of spy movies out this year. Don’t people who make movies have any originality? I guess the answer to that question is: Whatever makes money. As the saying goes, “Everything that’s old is new again.”

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

The Imitation Game ~ A Capsule Movie Review

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp

In the early days of World War II (1939, before America entered the war), Germany, with its sophisticated encoding system called Enigma, was winning the war. All of Germany’s communications (battle plans, troop movements, U-boat positions, etc.) were encoded. Britain desperately needed to break Germany’s Enigma code to have a chance of gaining the upper hand and winning the war. Many people believed the code was unbreakable because it was changed every night at midnight. If the team of cryptographers and mathematicians working on the problem had made any progress on any given day, the code the next day would have been completely different and they would have had to start over from the beginning. No one was able to break the code until a brilliant mathematician named Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch who is unlike any other actor) decided that a different approach was needed.

He invented a digital machine that, in effect, became the world’s first computer. As improbable as it seemed to his government employers (who thwarted him at every turn and wanted to fire him), and to almost everybody else, his “machine” did exactly what he said it would do. After many failures, much effort and much heartbreak, he was finally able to break the German code by “programming” his machine with the expectation that certain words would appear in every message; such words, for example, as “Heil, Hitler!” Breaking the code was, of course, a triumph, but, as Alan Turing said, “Now the hard part begins.” Germany could never know the British had broken the code. The knowledge (used by the British) of what Germans were thinking and what they were going to do next had to be used sparingly and strategically.

Alan Turing was a tortured genius. He was a homosexual in a time when being a homosexual was recognized as a crime by his government. His sexual predilections made him isolated and this on top of being a mathematical genius, a kind of personality not particular known for its charm and tact. He had no social skills and seemed at times to not know how to interact with people. That he was a genuine (though unlikely) hero in the war effort cannot, however, be disputed. At the end of the movie, we are told that his breaking of the Enigma code shortened the war by two years and saved approximately fourteen million lives.

The Imitation Game is a movie that is actually about something, instead of a fictitious story with made-up characters. The breaking of the Enigma code and its effect on the war effort is one of the most compelling true stories of the twentieth century. About Alan Turing it can be said, “The people from whom nothing is expected are often the people who do the things that nobody ever expected.”

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Still Alice ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Still Alice

Still Alice ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

Still Alice is a weepy woman’s movie about a vibrant fifty-year-old woman who develops early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore, who will probably pick up an Oscar later this month for this role) has a fantasy life. She is a linguistics professor, something of an expert in her field who values communication above everything else. She has a successful marriage to a doctor (Alec Baldwin) and three perfect, grown children (an actress, a doctor and, you guessed it, a lawyer) who are just as dazzling and successful in their own right as their parents. In the middle of all this perfection, Alice begins to realize she has something wrong with her. She begins to forget the names of objects. She says the same things over and over and doesn’t remember appointments. Her husband is put out with her that she “blew their dinner plans.” She wets her pants because she can’t remember where the bathroom is in her own house. When she seeks the help of a neurologist, he discovers that she has a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease that is genetic (familial) and that strikes its victims at an early age. Perhaps the worst thing about Alice’s disease is that she will most certainly pass it on to her brilliant children.

Still Alice is stuff we’ve seen before. It’s like a TV movie, one of those disease-of-the-week things. What purpose does it serve? (I suppose the answer to that is that it makes money for its investors.) The victims are always brilliant: poets, doctors, lawyers, professors, scientists. (We are told that a person with a higher level of education loses “it” faster than a person who only went to high school.) Wouldn’t it be just as tragic if the victim was a factory worker or an elementary school teacher? A mail carrier or a clerk in a department store? Maybe we never see the victim as an “average” person because it just isn’t as tragic, or as much fun, to watch the unsophisticated and uneducated degenerate right before our eyes. They just don’t have as much to lose.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

American Sniper ~ A Capsule Movie Review

American Sniper

American Sniper ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

From producer/director Clint Eastwood comes American Sniper, the true story of Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal (Sea, Air and Land) who became something of a hero and a legend during four tours of duty in Iraq due to his sharpshooting skills. With at least 160 confirmed kills, Chris Kyle became the most successful (deadly to the enemy) sniper in American military history.

Chris Kyle is a Texan and starts out wanting to be a cowboy, but he is moved to serve his country when it is attacked on September 11, 2001. He joins the Navy Seals and finds himself fighting the enemy in Iraq. After one tour of duty, he has the deep conviction that he is still needed and signs up for another tour, and then a third and a fourth. With a wife and two small children at home, he is torn between his duty to them and what he sees as his duty to his country.

Bradley Cooper, who we have seen in a lot of other movies lately, plays Chris Kyle with a clenched-jaw Texas accent that at times I find difficult to understand. Once again, we are left with getting the gist of what is being said without the actual words. No other actor could have played Chris Kyle any better, though; he even bears a strong physical resemblance to him.

American Sniper isn’t a justification for war and isn’t making a political statement. Rather, it is about the people who fight the war (one person in particular) and the actions they must take to survive and to help their fellow soldiers survive. If that means shooting and killing a woman or a child who is lobbing missiles at Americans, then so be it.

Not the least amazing thing about American Sniper is that Clint Eastwood is still making action movies like this in his 85th year.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Mr. Turner ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Mr. Turner

Mr. Turner ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

J.M.W. Turner was an English landscape painter who lived from 1775 to 1851. The new movie, Mr. Turner, is a stately (slow-moving) look at his life and times. Timothy Spall plays Turner and the movie was directed by celebrated director Mike Leigh.

While Turner (known to his friends as “William”) was a profoundly gifted painter whose work influenced landscape painting for generations, the movie focuses more on his eccentric private life than on his work. He lives with his elderly father and calls him “daddy” until the older gentleman’s death. He never marries but fathers two daughters with a shrewish woman who comes around periodically to berate him and his work and to tell him how worthless he is. He cares little for the woman or the two daughters but must, seemingly, tolerate them. (When one of the daughters dies as a young woman, he barely bats an eyelash.) He has an unattractive housekeeper, one Hannah Danby (she reminds me of the character actress Margaret Hamilton, who played the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz), with whom he enjoys furtive sexual congress from time to time. He travels a lot, seeking inspiration for his work, and it is on one of these trips that he meets Mrs. Booth, a widow with a soothing nature. The two are drawn to each other, not for the sake of physical appearance (“When I look in the mirror, I see a gargoyle,” he says.), but for what each sees in the other. He has a dalliance with Mrs. Booth that lasts eighteen years or so, in effect leading a double life apart from his life in London. He is at the home of Mrs. Booth when he dies at the age of 76 of a heart ailment. Hannah Danby is, wordlessly, left with a broken heart.

Mr. Turner is an English art film, rather than a mainstream movie, so its audience is limited. Turner is very jowly (or at least that’s the way he is portrayed here), so I had a little trouble understanding what he was saying, especially in the early going. The other characters are, mostly, more intelligible. Sometimes we are left to catch the gist of what they are saying, rather than the words themselves. All in all, though, Mr. Turner is a fascinating glimpse, for the serious moviegoer, at the life of a nineteenth century genius.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Unbroken ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Unbroken

Unbroken ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

Unbroken is a true American story about a boy born of Italian immigrant parents, one Louie Zamperini. As a child, Louie is bullied and inclined toward fighting and mischief, which includes smoking cigarettes surreptitiously and drinking liquor out of milk bottles. Feeling worthless, Louie turns to running at the urging of his older brother, Pete. He finds he is very good at running, becomes the fastest runner in history for a high school student, and ends up in the 1934 Olympic games, held in Nazi Berlin.

Fast forward a few years to World War II when Louie is a bombardier on a fighter plane. When the plane he is on goes down somewhere in the South Pacific, he and only two other members of his crew (Phil and Mac) survive. Adrift on a life raft, they believe someone will rescue them, but they find it difficult to maintain the hope that will keep them alive. After many days at sea with slim hope of rescue, one of the three, Mac, dies. Louie and Phil hang on, but just barely. Just when you think things couldn’t get any worse for them, they are captured by the Japanese and put in a prisoner-of-war camp, where they are routinely beaten, tortured and brutalized. The snarling young Japanese commandant of the camp, known by the prisoners as “Bird,” knows that Louie was an Olympic athlete and singles him out for special mistreatment, at one point forcing all the other prisoners to punch Louie in the face, which they are, of course, reluctant to do.

The only thing that keeps Louie Zamperini and the others alive in the face of unspeakable brutality at the hands of the Japanese is the determination not to give up. At one point, Louie says that making it through alive to the end of the war is the best way to get revenge. The will to persevere that he learned as an athlete in his younger days serves him well.

We’ve seen life in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps in plenty of other movies—The Bridge on the River Kwai, King Rat, Empire of the Sun, Paradise Road, The Railway Man, to name a few—so that aspect of Unbroken seems familiar. Also we have seen plenty of harrowing stories about survival in World War II. What makes Unbroken unique is that it was directed by a woman (Angelina Jolie) and that Louie Zamperini was a real—not a fictional—person that almost anybody could identify with. He died in 2014 at the age of 97. If you won’t give up, neither will I.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp

Selma ~ A Capsule Movie Review

Selma

Selma ~ A Capsule Movie Review by Allen Kopp 

In the American South of the 1960s, black citizens were guaranteed the right to vote but were systematically denied the right to register to vote by a system controlled by white officials. (If you can’t register, you can’t vote.) The new movie, Selma, is about the struggle to right this wrong and about the symbolic fifty-mile protest march from Selma to Montgomery that galvanized the country’s attention.

To politicians of the day, suppression of black voters in the South was a political football they preferred to stay away from. When Dr. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) seeks the help of the sitting president, Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson, the actor who seems to be able to play any part, from Ben Franklin to a transgendered woman), he (Johnson) wants to defer the matter to a future time, believing the country has more pressing problems, such as the Vietnam War and poverty. The demagogic governor of Alabama, George Wallace (a snarling Tim Roth), seems unable to effectively deal with racial issues in his state. He wants the president to handle the matter, while the president dresses Wallace down for not handling it on a state level. When the protesters, mostly black but some white, attempt to cross the bridge over the Alabama River, led by Dr. King, there is a bloody melee with an all-white police force. When the story and its accompanying images are beamed across the national airwaves, people everywhere are suddenly paying attention to what is happening in the South and waiting for what happens next.

Of course, the focus of Selma is Dr. Martin Luther King, his life and struggles. In the many scenes between him and his wife, we sense a tension between them and get the impression that their marriage is not all it should be. (These interior scenes are, for some reason, grungy-looking and dark.) Dr. King’s well-publicized marital infidelities are played down. (The couple’s children are nonentities, mentioned in passing and seen only from a distance.) Dr. King seems to not know that the FBI is snooping on him, listening in on his private conversations, seeking to destroy his family and his life. Once again, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI is the villain.

Selma is a history lesson wrapped up as mainstream entertainment. How historically accurate is it? Only those who were there and remember the events as they happened can say for sure. What is known is that President Johnson signed into law in 1965 the Voting Rights Act that prohibits racial discrimination in voting.

Copyright © 2015 by Allen Kopp  

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