NECON 36 – The Most Electrifying NECON Yet!

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Necon 36 photo by Tony Tremblay

Panel audience at NECON 36.  Photo by Tony Tremblay.

NECON 36- July 21-24, 2016

Every summer, a group of writers and readers descend upon Roger Williams Convention Center in Bristol, Rhode Island for a writer’s convention unlike any other, NECON.

What makes NECON so special is that in addition to the first-rate writers’ panels, there is also ample time for socializing, meaning that you’ll have access to authors that you just don’t get anywhere else.  It’s the most laid back and casual con going.

I’ve been going to NECON since 2001.  This year’s NECON 36, was the most electrifying yet— literally!

THURSDAY July 21, 2016

Registration opened at 2:00 at the Roger Williams Convention Center on Thursday, July 21, 2016.  Authors Dan Foley and Jason and Jil Salzarulo hosted the first event, the Necon Primer for Newbies, an informal information session on what Necon is all about, for those first-timers, and this year there were quite a few folks attending Necon for the first time.  That’s a big reason why this year’s Necon was sold out, as attendance reached the capped number of 200 Necon Campers.  I did not attend this event, since I’m not a newbie, but I heard it was very successful.

At 10:00 the famous Saugie roast was held, where the campers partake in that famous grilled hot dog found only in Rhode Island.  For me, this first night is always special, as I get to see familar faces I haven’t seen since last year.  In this case it was extra fun hanging out with both L.L. Soares and Pete Dudar, as they both missed last year’s Necon.  I also got to see old friends Paul McNally, Morven Westfield, and Daniel and Trista Robichaud, who I hadn’t seen in about seven years!

FRIDAY July 22, 2016

With fellow Cinema Knife Fighters L.L. Soares, Nick Cato, Paul McMahon, Pete Dudar, and newcomer Catherine Scully, I took part in the 10:00 Kaffeeklatsch:  The World Died Streaming:  The Year in Film in Theaters and Online.  This was our annual movie panel, which is always well attended, where we discuss the movies we’ve seen this past year.  There were tons of recommendations, but the hot topic this year wasn’t a movie but a TV show, as everyone was talking about the new Netflix TV show, STRANGER THINGS.  And it wasn’t just on our movie panel.  I think I heard STRANGER THINGS mentioned on nearly every panel I attended this year!  It definitely was the highest recommended show of the weekend.

Necon 36 MichaelArrudaandLLSoares photo by Nick Cato

Yours truly and L.L. Soares at NECON 36.  Photo by Nick Cato.

As usual, we also received plenty of recommendations from Craig Shaw Gardner and Barbara Gardner.

After lunch, I attended the 1:00 panel The World Died Screaming:  Apocalyptic SF, Horror, and Fantasy, moderated by Douglas Wynne, and featuring Joe Hill, James Moore, Craig DiLouie, Lynne Hansen, and Mark Morris.  This panel focused on writing about the end of the world, especially in terms of the zombie apocalypse.  The point was made that these types of stories are popular because they resonate with people’s own fear of dying.

I next attended the 2:00 panel Not Dead Yet:  The State of Publishing Today, moderated by Matt Schwartz, and featuring Gina Wachtel, John Douglas, Sandra Kasturi, Ginjer Buchanan, and Jaime Levine.  The talk here centered on the Ebook trend which, rather than obliterating the traditional book publishing industry as some had predicted, has settled in nicely as a balanced alternative.  Ebooks and traditional print books seem to be coexisting together agreeably.  One area of growth in recent years that was not predicted was the growth of the audio book, which continues to grow as a market.

There was also discussion on the use of social media by authors to promote themselves and how today’s authors are extremely media savvy.

The 4:00 panel, The Scream of a Distant Sun:  Mixing SF and Horror, moderated by Brett Savory, and featuring Don D’Ammassa, Patrick Freivald, Erin Underwood, Linda Addison, and Gordon Linzner was a fascinating and highly entertaining and informative look at the way horror and science fiction go hand in hand, or not.  There was a lot of talk on getting the science right in a science fiction story, as getting the science wrong is a major turn off, so the advice to writers was do your homework.

There was talk about how movies like ALIEN (1979) while considered both horror and science fiction, are mostly horror, since its story about a monster can take place anywhere, not just in space. In pure science fiction, you can’t take the science out of the story.

There was also discussion on Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, originally considered a horror novel but in ensuing years it has been also classified as science fiction.

Don D’Ammassa, who with his vast personal library is one of the most well read people on the planet, is always a joy to listen to.  As usual, his comments were on the money and pointedly informative.  I could listen to him all day.

After dinner, it was time for the Official Necon Toast by Toastmasters Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory.  Tradition dictates that this toast pokes fun at the Guests of Honor, and Kasturi and Savory did not disappoint in this regard.  My favorite line came from Kasturi, who when speaking of Joe Hill, remarked that “it would have been nice had your dad showed up- Benny Hill.”  Of course, Joe’s real-life famous dad goes by a different last name, King.  Yep.  That King.

This was followed by Necon Update with Mike Myers (no, not that Mike Myers!) at 7:30, and Myers was funny as always.

After the Update, it was time for the NECON HALL OF FAME INDUCTION CEREMONY.  The recipients this year were authors Stephen Bissette and Linda Addison.

At 8:00 it was time for the Meet the Authors Party, that special time at the con when you can buy books from your favorite authors and have them signed up close and personal.  No surprise, the biggest line this year was for Joe Hill.

I set up shop next to fellow authors and friends Nick Cato, L.L. Soares, Peter Dudar, Dan Keohane, and William Carl.  Always fun to sell and sign a book or two.

After the party it was time to socialize, and I was fortunate enough to sit down and have a long chat  with author Morven Westfield who I hadn’t seen in a few years.  It was great to catch up.  Morven started coming to Necon right around the same time I did, back in 2001.

Remember I called this the most electrifying Necon ever?  I wasn’t just talking about the electricity generated by the authors.  I’m also referring to the wild thunderstorm which descended upon us around 10:00 pm and blew wind-swept rains and insane lightning at us for quite some time.  Perfectly atmospheric!

During this time, I caught up with author Sheri Sebastion-Gabriel, among others.  It was also time for the “Rick Hautala Cigar Tribute” in which a bunch of authors gather around to smoke cigars in honor of Rick, who sadly passed away in 2013.  Rick, a best-selling author, was a Necon fixture.  I always enjoyed talking to Rick and listening to him speak on the panels. Every time I heard him speak I learned something new.  Speaking at the informal but emotional tribute were Rick’s wife Holly Newstein, and Christopher Golden.

The relentless thunderstorm with its brilliant lightning flashes went on into the night, as did the social gatherings, where friends chatted long past midnight—.

 

SATURDAY, July 23, 2016

After breakfast, I caught the 10:00 panel Panel by Panel:  The Peculiar Power of Horror Comics. moderated by Angi Shearstone, and featuring Jason Ciaramella, Rebekah Isaacs, Stephen Bissette, Joe Hill, and James Chambers.  The panel discussed the happy marriage between horror and comics. It also covered some history, explaining that the modern reign of superhero comics owes itself to the ridiculous reports decades ago that erroneously linked horror comics to emotional problems in children.  This led to the outright banning of horror comics in the 1950s.  Superheroes then stepped in to fill the void, and they’ve been going strong ever since.

For my money, the 11:00 panel, Broken on the Outside & In:  Experts Discuss Writing about Physical & Mental Trauma (and Their Effects) may have been the best panel of the weekend.  Moderated by K.H. Vaughn, it featured Karen Deal, Rena Mason, Ellen Williams, Marianne Halbert, and Mercedes Yardley in a fascinating discussion of both physical and mental trauma.  On the physical side, it covered how much punishment a character can really take and survive, and it also discussed when you can get away with exaggerating these things.  For example, in the Marvel superhero films, Tony Stark would be dead from brain injuries from all those impacts in his Iron Man suit, but audiences are perfectly comfortable to let this slide.  We suspend disbelief because this is a superhero story, and we don’t hold the lack of accuracy here against the storytelling.

On the mental side, the bulk of the discussion covered how to write characters with mental illnesses in a realistic way.  Do your homework and research both the illnesses and the treatments, which change from year to year, was the major advice.

There also was a wince-inducing frank discussion of autopsies and all that goes on in an autopsy room.

Great stuff!

After lunch it was time for the Guests of Honor Interview in which Toastmasters Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory interviewed Guests of Honor Joe Hill, Mark Morris, and Laura Anne Gilman. These interviews are always informative and enlightening, and today’s was no exception.

I caught the 2:30 panel Edge of Your Seat:  Pacing and Plotting the Thriller, in which moderator Bracken MacLeod and panelists Megan Hart, Michael Koryta, Chris Irvin, Sephera Giron, and John McIlveen discussed, among other things, how to pace oneself while writing a novel, including the use of outlines.

I missed the next two panels as I got caught up in a discussion about movies with L.L. Soares and Nick Cato that covered a lot of ground, and a lot of time.

After dinner, it was time for the Artists Reception which featured fine art work by the various artists in attendance this year, and also plenty of goodies and coffee.  The art show had a new venue this year, and the set-up was perfect.  Very comfortable with easy viewing access to the paintings and prints.

At 8:00 it was time for the first ever Necon “Pub Quiz” Trivia game, which in reality was a variation of Necon’s infamous “Game Show.”  This time around, volunteers were assembled into teams.  I was on Rebekah Isaac’s team, and we led the competition throughout, due mostly to having the knowledgeable Darrell Schweitzer on our team.  Alas, we finished in second place as we were overtaken in the final round, done in by a bonus round on music.

This was followed by A Very Special Episode which is code for the Necon Roast.  This year’s victim- er, honoree, was author Rio Youers, and he was a really good sport about the whole thing.  Host Jeff Strand did an awesome job, and other speakers included Christopher Golden, James Moore, Joe Hill, Linda Addison, Richard Dansky, and Matt Bechtel, among others.  This year’s roast also featured a new “lightning round” in which 10 folks each delivered a 30 second bit, and I was fortunate enough to be among this new group of ten.

The roast is always a highlight of the weekend.

Afterwards followed late night parties in the quad which go on into the wee hours of the morning, where we gather for the last time as a social group until next year.  The other event tonight was April Hawks shaving her head for charity.

Speaking of charity, this weekend my roommate and New England Horror Writers leader Scott Goudsward had himself “yarn bombed” for charity, as Trisha Wooldridge stitched an insanely ludicrous covering over him over the course of the weekend.  The final product had Scott resembling a long lost crew member of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine.

Necon 36 Cinema Knife Fight photo by Paul McNally

Cinema Knife Fighters Pete Dudar, Paul McMahon, Nick Cato, myself, L.L. Soares, and Bill Carl gather for a group photo by Paul McNally.  That’s NEHW head honcho Scott Goudsward lurking in the shadows in between Paul & Nick.

 

SUNDAY July 24, 2016

I attended the 10:00 panel Lessons Learned:  Moving from Tyro to Journeyman in which moderator P.D. Cacek and panelists Kristin Dearborn, Scott Goudsward, Dan Keohane, and Megan Arcuri-Moran discussed how they’ve moved on from being newbie writers and have gradually become established writers.  Their advice was on the money and invaluable.

At 11:00 it was the Necon Town Meeting in which awards were distributed to the winners  of this year’s Necon Olympic events, and the ensuing discussion involved all things Necon, thanking the volunteers, and looking ahead to next year by listening to suggestions and complaints.  Speaking of complaints, there weren’t any.  This is an awesome con any way you slice it.

As always, thanks go out to the Booth family who run Necon every year, especially to Sara, who’s done an awesome job leading the con, and also to Dan and Mary, and to Matt Bechtel.  And of course, we continue to remember Bob Booth, Sara and Dan’s dad, and Mary’s husband, “Papa Necon” himself, who passed away from lung cancer in 2013.  Bob and Mary founded Necon back in 1980, and his spirit continues to be felt at Necon.

Bob also founded Necon Ebooks, which published my first novel, first movie review collection, and first short story collection.

After lunch, it was time to say so long to everyone until next year, which is clearly my least favorite part of Necon.

I enjoyed a fun conversation with Carole Whitney, as she shared with me her love of Hammer Films and told me the story of how her love for horror began in 1958 when she saw HORROR OF DRACULA at the movies.  Great story!

And that’s what Necon is all about.  The people and their stories.

If you’re a writer and/or a reader, plan on one day making the pilgrimage to Necon, a one-of-a-kind con that is more than just a con; it’s family.  And it’s still going strong.

This year’s Necon was absolutely electrifying, and we had a thunderstorm to prove it.  Who knows what’s in store for next year?

Whatever it is, I’ll be there to find out.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: SPECTRE (2015)

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This CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT review appeared this weekend at cinemaknifefight.com.  Guest reviewer Nick Cato and myself take on the new James Bond film SPECTRE (2015), as my usual CKF buddy L.L. Soares was off on another assignment.

 

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: SPECTRE (2015)Spectre poster

Review by Michael Arruda & Nick Cato

(THE SCENE: An enormous room, ominously lit, with a long table in the center.  Around the table sit various assorted villainous types.  They are all engaged in small talk on such topics as world domination, espionage, and fantasy football.  The balcony above this scene is filled with onlookers. MICHAEL ARRUDA moves amongst them.  He speaks into the miniature microphone clandestinely planted near his mouth.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: Nick, you there?

(The balcony on the other side of the room is also filled with onlookers. NICK CATO moves amongst this group.  He speaks into his microphone.)

NICK CATO: Yes, I’m here.

MA: Any sign of him yet?

NC: That would be a “negative.”

MA: Well, he should be arriving any minute.  While we’re waiting, we can review today’s movie, but we’ll have to do it on the sly, since we don’t want to blow our covers.

NC: Sounds good to me.

MA: Welcome everyone to today’s CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT column. Today Nick Cato and I are reviewing the latest James Bond movie, SPECTRE (2015), which stars Daniel Craig as James Bond.  To do the review, we’ve chosen this location, the secret hideaway of that nefarious league of villains, S.P.E.C.T.R.E., which is why we have to remain incognito.  This group doesn’t take too kindly to uninvited guests.  And the big news tonight is the shadowy head of S.P.E.C.T.R.E is making an appearance, and so we’ll learn for the first time the truth behind his secret identity.

Nick Cato has joined me tonight because all this cool spy espionage stuff does nothing for L.L. SOARES, and he is off on another assignment.  So, thanks for filling in, Nick!

NC: Happy to be here. I’ll do my best to keep my voice down.

MA: Okay, let’s get started. SPECTRE is the latest movie in the James Bond series, a series that started way back in 1962 with DR. NO.  This is Daniel Craig’s fourth time playing Bond, and the thing I’ve enjoyed about the Craig films is they’ve all been connected.  They’ve featured a story arc which continues here with SPECTRE.  The original Sean Connery James Bond films sort of had an arc, as they were connected by the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. storylines which featured Blofeld as the main villain pulling the strings in multiple movies, but once Roger Moore took over the role the films largely became stand-alone movies with little or no connection to each other.  I’ve enjoyed that the Daniel Craig films have gone back to the notion of being linked to each other.

The events in SPECTRE follow the events in the previous installment SKYFALL (2012) directly.  Acting on a message which M (Judi Dench) left him before she died in SKYFALL,  Bond (Daniel Craig) once again goes rogue— he seems to do that a lot these days—- disobeying the orders of the new M (Ralph Fiennes) and taking matters into his own hands to learn what it is the previous M wanted him to learn. What he discovers is the secret organization SPECTRE.  How the deceased M knew about SPECTRE when she was absolutely clueless about them in the previous films is beyond me.

NC: At first this bothered me to no end, but in a way it gives Dench’s M more mystery, which is kind of cool. Perhaps she did know about them but has only revealed them now that she was gone for her own safety? Or am I grasping at straws here?

(A Scarecrow stuffed with straw brushes by NC.)

After Bond watched the video she had made for him before she died in SKYFALL, he says to Moneypenny, “She wasn’t going to let death get in the way of doing her job.” Ha! Gotta love that line.

MA: In the previous Craig films, one of the more intriguing plot points was the underground organization that seemed to be behind every crime Bond was trying to thwart. They were all powerful and nearly invisible, and the prior films in the Craig series did an excellent job creating this group, giving us bits and pieces of their existence and activities, but never allowing Bond to discover who it was he was up against.

That changes in SPECTRE, as Bond learns that this group has a name, and its name is SPECTRE.  He also discovers the man running SPECTRE, Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), who, like everything else in the Daniel Craig series, has a personal connection to James Bond, which of course, makes Bond’s mission in this one more personal, as if saving the world wasn’t enough.  It only remains for Bond to learn what Oberhauser is up to and then of course to stop him.

I liked SPECTRE well enough, but there were also an awful lot of things about this one I didn’t like.  To me, the best thing SPECTRE has going for it is its cast.  All the players here do an excellent job.  But the direction here by Sam Mendes, who also directed SKYFALL, is nothing to write home about.  There are some decent action sequences, but none that I would call overly memorable.

NC: I will say I thought the opening sequence in New Mexico was very well done, and one of the better Bond openings. Not only do we get a nifty assassination that ends with a building nearly crushing 007 to death, but a wicked brawl aboard a whirling helicopter above a crowded plaza. It was almost like a 2 for 1 action blast that led into what I thought was a great looking opening credit sequence, although I could’ve done without Sam Smith’s dull song.

MA: Oh my gosh! Talk about lackluster songs!  It was about as exciting as a lullaby!

But you’re right about the opening sequence. It was well done.

But the weakest part of SPECTRE is the script.  Now, this movie is written by four screenwriters:  John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and Jez Butterworth.  All these guys have strong resumes, including having written several other Bond movies.  A movie written by these four guys has no business being as tepid as this one is.

NC: No argument there. The plot is thin considering how many people worked on it.

MA: Let’s start with the basic revelation regarding SPECTRE. Seriously, is that really much of a surprise?  I mean, am I the only viewer who when watching the previous Craig films thought that the sinister organization operating in those films sounded an awful lot like SPECTRE?  I certainly expected that to be the case.  Likewise, seriously, the revelation about Oberhauser’s true identity, is that that much of a shock?  No.

NC: For crying out loud Michael Meyers made fun of the sibling thing in his third spy spoof GOLDMEMBER (2002). They could’ve at least made Oberhauser his third cousin or something.

(Mini-Me emerges from the crowd and starts humping MA’s leg.)

MA: What are you—?  Get off me!

(DR. EVIL appears.)

DR. EVIL: Mini-Me, stop humping the movie critic’s leg. It’s friggin embarrassing! (Pulls Mini-Me off MA).   How am I expected to take over the friggin world when I have to keep chasing you around all day?  No.  I don’t want to hear it.  Zip it!  Zip!

NC: Hey, Mike?  Everything okay over there!

MA: I’m fine.  Just a “little” inconvenience, that’s all.

(Mini-Me flips MA the bird.)

MA: Anyway, the problem with SPECTRE is in terms of surprises, that’s pretty much it.  I kept waiting to learn what it was that Oberhauser and SPECTRE were up to.  What was their grand scheme?  And every time they came close to uttering it, the plot would switch back to James Bond.

NC: Yep. An attempt to make Spectre more mysterious, but they’re mysterious enough.

MA: The scene in the room with all the SPECTRE villains is a nice microcosm of the entire movie. We wait for Oberhauser to finally show up, to shed some light on his intentions, and just as it seems he’s going to, he looks up at James Bond and pretty much says “gotcha!  We know you’re here!”  Bond responds by hightailing it out of there.  I’m glad he knows Bond is there, but I wanted to know what he was doing there!  This film never gives him or SPECTRE anything worthwhile to do.

The plot point of controlling information did little for me and reminded me somewhat of the plot in the Pierce Brosnan Bond film TOMORROW NEVER DIES (1997) in which

Jonathan Pryce played a villainous media mogul who was all about— controlling information.

NC: Exactly. And as much as I like Christoph Waltz, I thought Pryce filled that type of threat better.

MA: Agreed. I’ve always thought Pryce was one of the more underrated and underappreciated Bond villains.  Part of that, I’m sure, is TOMORROW NEVER DIES isn’t the best Bond movie.

SPECTRE also is all over the place in terms of tone.  It starts off being very playful, and a lot of the early scenes and dialogue in the movie were reminiscent of the Roger Moore Bond films, which is completely unlike the dark tone of the previous Craig films.

I did like that it opened once more with the signature gun barrel sequence. This is the first time this was used in the Craig films.

By the time the film reverts to its darker side later in the movie, it unfortunately has to contend with the lame SPECTRE storyline. The previous films did a phenomenal job with this all-powerful organization which operated from the shadows, generating a feeling of chaos that ironically is completely absent from SPECTRE.  Furthermore, we finally meet the leader of this group, Oberhauser, and he’s about as effective a villain as Dr. Evil.  Strangely, I was disappointed with all the SPECTRE stuff in this movie.

NC: Weird. My favorite thing about SPECTRE was how the title organization was portrayed. They came off as all-knowing as super sinister.

MA: Really?  I didn’t find them that sinister at all.  I remember in the previous Craig films Judi Dench’s M running around like a chicken with its head cut off, lamenting that she had no idea who these people were, and she was shaken because this organization had people inside MI6, people she thought she trusted.  I didn’t get that sense of inflicted chaos here in SPECTRE.

NC: I did. I’m starting to think YOU are part of Spectre.

And while I wish Christoph Waltz had more screen time, I thought he made a nice throwback-type villain and head of Spectre. Sure, he reminded me, too, of Dr. Evil with his typical Bond villain outfit and eventual facial scar, but the sequence of him happily torturing Bond with that robotic contraption made him seem free of conscience and totally evil. Okay, maybe he was a lot like Dr. Evil, but not as funny.

MA: I just wanted him to do more.

Like I said, I wasn’t all that impressed with the direction by Sam Mendes. There were some memorable scenes, but not a whole lot.  There’s a vicious fight sequence on a passenger train between Bond and a huge assassin Hinx (Dave Bautista) which is clearly an homage to the similar train fight sequences in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963) between Sean Connery and Robert Shaw, and in THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977) between Roger Moore and Richard Kiel’s Jaws character.  In fact, the character of Hinx here reminded me of Jaws, as he was Bond’s main adversary for most of the movie and like Jaws, would walk away from obvious death situations.

NC: I liked Hinx a lot. Actor Dave Bautista has an awesome, intimidating physical presence and I too immediately thought of Jaws from THE SPY WHO LOVED ME. I was actually waiting for 007 to use a lamp or other electrical device to shock him off the train, but how Hinx ends up being dispatched was well done (and ironically reminded me of JAWS (1975), although I’m pretty sure that wasn’t Mendes’ intention).

MA: That’s pretty funny. I hadn’t thought of that.  Hey, you never know.  That might have been a little in-joke.  And who starred in JAWS?  Robert Shaw, who fought Sean Connery in the FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE train fight!

(Captain Quint from JAWS stands from the table.)

QUINT: Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women!   (Sits back down.)

NC: I just hope Kevin Bacon doesn’t show up.

MA: SPECTRE is full of the signature Bond chases and action scenes, but for the most part, they seemed to simply be going through the motions.  There was a lot of “been there, done that” going through my head as I watched this movie.

NC: While I agree, that is what I liked about SPECTRE. During SKYFALL I think Mendes tried too hard to make things a bit different, and I found myself incredibly bored. This time, it felt good to get back to Bond basics, and I especially liked the car chase between 007 and Hinx. I thought it was fun to have Bond’s car a prototype and not fully functional, making him rely more on his driving skills than the gadgets, something that hasn’t been explored in the franchise since 1981’s FOR YOUR EYES ONLY.

I also like how we’ve seen gadgets and props from past Bond films in these four Craig outings, and I think fans of the series will get a real kick out of the toy 007 gets at the end of SPECTRE.

MA: The bulk of this film takes place in London, which was similar to SKYFALL, and I found this a disappointment since most Bond films take place all over the world, and while there are other locations in SPECTRE, the bulk of the action takes place, as it did in SKYFALL, around the MI6 building in London.

NC: I wasn’t bothered by that. There was plenty of travel and action around the globe.

MA: This is Daniel Craig’s fourth turn as James Bond. I’ve been a big fan of Craig in this role, but I have to say, with each successive film I’ve liked him less.  I loved the way he portrayed the character early on.  There was an edge he gave to Bond I hadn’t seen since the Sean Connery days.  Each time he has played the role he seems to have given the character less and less of this edge.  It’s almost as if he’s not as interested in the role, which according to media reports, is true.

NC: It’s beyond obvious Craig isn’t interested in playing Bond anymore, and after his recent appearance on the Stephen Colbert show I’m sure of it. I think the problem is CASINO ROYALE (2006) was such a dark, gritty entry to the 007 world it has been too hard to capture that same spirit. That said, I did enjoy SPECTRE more than Craig’s middle two turns as Bond.

MA: I thought QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) kept that same dark spirit alive.

Even more disappointing was Christoph Waltz as Oberhauser. Truth be told, it’s not so much Waltz’s fault as the writers’, who gave this character so little to do.  He’s also just not as menacing as I expected him to be, and Bond seems to gain the upper hand a little too easily.  Of course, the big news here, and I’m not sure if this qualifies as a spoiler, is Oberhauser’s true identity.  Again, this is a no brainer and really shouldn’t be a spoiler or come as any surprise.  I mean, the head of SPECTRE in the Sean Connery films was Blofeld.  Why would it be any different today?

The rest of the cast, however, is very good. I really enjoyed Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomi Harris as Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Rory Kinnear as Tanner, all of these folks reprising these roles from SKYFALL.  The scenes featuring these characters were among my favorite in the movie.

NC: Ralph Fiennes is not only perfect as M, he truly reminded me of an actor from the Connery era films. Major kudos to the producers.

MA: Yeah, I really like Fiennes in this role.

Andrew Scott, who played Moriarty on the TV show SHERLOCK (2010-2014) is memorable as C, a British official who wants to shut down MI6 because he thinks it’s an outdated agency.  Likewise, Dave Bautista makes for a memorable assassin Hinx, and his scenes are among the film’s best as well.  Bautista, of course, played Drax in Marvel’s GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014).

Lea Seydoux is beautiful as the latest Bond girl, Madeleine Swann, but the plot point involving her character and James Bond I didn’t buy at all. We’re supposed to believe that they have real feelings for each other, but I didn’t sense anything special about their relationship, and when the story makes it clear that their relationship is more than just physical, I was left scratching my head.  Craig’s Bond shared much better chemistry with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd in CASINO ROYALE (2006).

NC: I didn’t buy their romance either. I did like Madeleine Swann’s bad ass character, especially the scene on the train where Bond realizes he doesn’t have to teach her anything. But their falling in love seemed to happen too quickly, and while I don’t want to ruin the ending, I just find it hard to believe Bond would do what he did due to a woman.

MA: I agree.

NC: I know that sounds sexist, but it’s just not in his character. I did like Monica Belluci as Lucia. She looked as beautiful as ever (she was 50 when they filmed SPECTRE) and like Waltz, is given just way too little screen time, although it does fit the need for the part.

MA: Overall, SPECTRE isn’t bad, but I just found the writing to be glaringly subpar in this one.  The story didn’t wow me, and the dialogue I found flat, especially Bond’s dialogue and Oberhauser’s.  I enjoyed the plot of SKYFALL better, and I thought that Javier Bardems’ Silva was a more interesting villain than Christoph Waltz’ Oberhauser.  I did enjoy the ending to SPECTRE better than the ending in SKYFALL, but that’s not saying much.

Strangely, my favorite of the Craig films might be the one that most people tend to like the least, the second one, QUANTUM OF SOLACE.  That was a tight, compact hard-hitting thriller.

I have to say, while I liked it, SPECTRE is probably my least favorite of the Daniel Craig James Bond movies.

I give it two and a half knives.

What did you think, Nick?

NC: It’s easily my second favorite of Craig’s 007 films. I doubt anyone will top CASINO ROYALE, which I truly believe is one of the best in the franchise and one of the best reboots of any series there is.

MA: It is an amazing reboot, that’s for sure.

NC: I agree SKYFALL had a better plot than SPECTRE, but it bored me and I found it lifeless. With everything SPECTRE has going against it, I found myself constantly entertained, which enabled me to forgive many of the quirks we mentioned.

MA: Yes, there were certainly parts of SKYFALL that bored me, and it’s a very uneven Bond film, but the parts that worked I liked a lot, better than most of SPECTRE.

NC: I would like to see if the next 007 caper involves Spectre, as I’d like to see if they’d be in the forefront or once again completely in the shadows.

MA: I wouldn’t mind seeing another plot involving SPECTRE.

NC: And as far as Daniel Craig, I love him as 007, but if the ending of SPECTRE is any indication, this may very well be his last turn at bat. I remember Pierce Brosnan would say how tired he was getting of playing Bond, too, during the end of his tenure, and Craig seems to have the same aura lately.

SPECTRE is full of holes, but it’s just so much fun I give it three knives. Here’s hoping Bond’s 25th film keeps the party going.

(The conversation in the room ceases, and a man enters the room and sits at the head of the table. The lighting is such that we cannot see his face, but it is clear by the reaction of everyone in the room that he is the head of the organization.)

NC: It looks like the moment we’ve been waiting for has arrived.

MA: Yep, he’s here.  Hopefully we’ll learn his true identity.

MAN AT HEAD OF TABLE: I am here to teach you all about chaos and horror.

MA: Here goes.

(The light shifts and gradually illuminates the man at the head of the table to reveal— L.L. SOARES smoking a cigar.)

MA: No!  It can’t be!

LS: Who did you expect?  Some guy holding a white pussycat?  Okay, minions, the beer is on the house!

(Everyone cheers.)

-END-

© Copyright 2015 Michael Arruda and Nick Cato

 

AMERICAN ULTRA (2015) Is A One-Joke Movie, But It’s a Good Joke

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Here’s my review of AMERICAN ULTRA (2015) published at cinemaknifefight.com this past weekend.

—Michael

 

MOVIE REVIEW:  AMERICAN ULTRA (2015)

By Michael ArrudaAmerican Ultra poster

 What do you get when you cross THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002) with ZOMBIELAND (2009) or any other Jesse Eisenberg movie for that matter?

You get AMERICAN ULTRA (2015), an action comedy that puts Eisenberg and his now recognizable shtick- the super smart socially awkward yet likable guy who can charm women and flip off men in the same sentence and be eloquent about it— into a Jason Bourne plot.  Now, I like Eisenberg and his style of humor, and so for the most part I liked this movie.  It’s held back only by a story that isn’t good enough for its two main characters.

AMERICAN ULTRA stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart as a young couple in love, seemingly held back from getting anywhere in life because Eisenberg’s character is a stoner who spends most of his life getting high, but Stewart’s character loves him all the same.

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) works at a small grocery store and that’s about as good as it gets for him.  He does have a beautiful girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart) who loves him to a fault, and she seems content and happy to love him just the way he is.  Mike wants to propose to Phoebe, but he never seems to find the right time or place.  He also spends his free time doodling, sketching and writing a comic about a superhero monkey.

And that’s his life, until one day two men show up at his store and try to kill him, but before they do, he jumps into assassin mode and quickly makes short work of them.  Confused and frightened, he calls Phoebe, and she rushes to his aid, only to be arrested with him once the police arrive at the scene. But their time in a jail cell is short-lived as more hitmen show up and storm the police station, wiping out everyone except for Mike and Phoebe who manage to escape once again.

While Mike has no idea what is going on or why he can suddenly morph into a deadly assassin— he fears he’s a robot— we the audience do know because we’ve already met the hot shot CIA department head Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) who’s decided that Mike is a liability to the agency and must be eliminated, a decision which doesn’t sit well with Mike’s handler Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton).  Feeling responsible for Mike, since she’s the woman behind the program which created him, Victoria decides to cross her boss and help Mike elude the CIA assassins assigned to eliminate him.

The rest of the movie follows Mike and Phoebe’s efforts to evade their killers while Mike tries to learn who he is and why he is a killing machine.

The best part of AMERICAN ULTRA is the performances by the two leads, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart.  They work really well together, and they are very believable as young lovers caught in a deadly situation.

If you don’t like Eisenberg and his brand of humor, you might not enjoy him as much as I did, but I found him funny throughout.  Of course, we’ve seen him do this same shtick in films like ZOMBIELAND and NOW YOU SEE ME (2013), but I like it.  He’s also believable when he breaks into assassin mode.  As Mike Howell, he’s basically Jason Bourne with a conscience and a sense of humor.

Kristen Stewart is also excellent as Phoebe.  This is the second film in a row in which she impressed me, as I saw her in the Julianne Moore Oscar winning movie STILL ALICE (2014) on Blu-ray recently, where she played Moore’s daughter.  I’m just very happy she’s finally done with the TWILIGHT movies.  She’s so much better when she’s not in those films.

I really enjoyed her here, as she really nails the role of a woman so in love with a guy that she could give a care about his shortcomings.  It was a nice performance to watch, and an easy character to like.  I think of all us would like to have someone like that in our lives, someone who stands by us no matter what.  Stewart also enjoys some memorable comic moments, like when she chastises Mike for some bone-headed moves like pointing out to the man chasing them that he dropped his gun, and also for stopping when one of the assassins pursuing them called his name.

But the high praise for AMERICAN ULTRA stops here, because other than Eisenberg and Stewart, the rest of the film just isn’t as good.  Mind you, it’s not bad, but it’s definitely several notches below where it should be.

For starters, the single biggest thing holding AMERICAN ULTRA back is its story, which unlike the character of Mike Howell, isn’t creative or imaginative.  Mike Howell realizes he’s secretly an assassin, but doesn’t know how or why, and there are dangerous people trying to kill him while he tries to find answers to his situation.  This is basically the same plot as THE BOURNE IDENTITY.

But at least the plot in THE BOURNE IDENTITY was solid.  Here, the answers to Mike’s questions make little sense.  The reason that Mike is being hunted is because CIA agent Adrian Yates played by Topher Grace has decided on his own that Mike is a liability, based only on the fact that Mike is supposed to remain in town yet he constantly tries to leave.  But trying and doing are two separate things, and Mike never leaves, so I don’t see the problem. Anyway Yates basically sends in an entire military unit when his first assassins fail, in effect blowing up whole sections of the town.  He eventually has to quarantine the entire place and come up with a cover story about a pandemic to satisfy the media and the public.  So much for a quiet covert operation.  The whole thing just isn’t credible, and Yates comes off as a complete moron.

It’s as if writer Max Landis, who wrote the screenplay, decided to put Jesse Eisenberg into a Bourne-style plot without coming up with a credible storyline.  Landis also wrote the screenplay for the science fiction film CHRONICLE (2012), a film that was more of a complete package than AMERICAN ULTRA.

One of the reasons AMERICAN ULTRA isn’t a complete package is the story never moves beyond Mike trying to learn his true identity.  The film plays like an origin story, as it simply tells the story of how Mike came to be an assassin.  Forget the origin story already!  How about just throwing these two interesting lead characters into an original creative plot?  It would have been much more exciting watching Eisenberg and Stewart using their talents to do something other than just run away from hit men.

Director Nima Nourizadeh, who also directed the comedy PROJECT X (2012), a film I didn’t like at all, fares better here with AMERICAN ULTRA, although that’s not saying much.  The film is slick and nicely paced, and the action scenes all decent, but things never go as far as they should.  For example, ZOMBIELAND had a crazy frenetic visual style that matched Eisenberg’s humor, with words on the screen and other over-the-top touches.  None of that kind of thing is present here in AMERICAN ULTRA.  For a film like this it’s all rather subdued.

It tries to get violent and earn its R rating, and so there is plenty of blood spilled when bad guys are shot and stabbed, but it’s the type of blood that is CGI-created and exceedingly fake-looking.  It’s reaching the point where the bloodless violence in PG-13 films is starting to be more effective because the blood shown in these R rated movies looks like it belongs in a cartoon.  Go figure.

The rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well as Eisenberg and Stewart either.  Topher Grace plays CIA agent turned villain Adrian Yates so over-the-top he’s laughable, and not in a good way. He’s about as effective a villain as Loki in the Marvel movies.  Like Loki, he’s just not on the same level as the heroes which he’s trying to defeat.

While Connie Britton does a nice job as CIA agent Victoria Lasseter who’s sympathetic to Mike’s situation and risks her life and career to help him, she’s still stuck in a ridiculous storyline that is not very believable.  I just never bought what the CIA was doing in this movie.  Sending in a lone sniper or assassin, yeah, I could buy that, but the military?  Of course, Lasseter says pretty much the same thing, which goes back to my point that Yates is a buffoon and an inferior villain not worthy of our main characters’ time.

Bill Pullman shows up near the end as the gruff CIA head honcho who arrives to clean up the entire mess, but like the rest of the CIA plot in this one, he’s over-the-top and pretty much a caricature, and his presence in this movie does little to help it other than to reinforce its poor choice of storytelling.

Walton Goggins is on hand as one of the assassins, a killer named Laugher, because he laughs all the time, and he’s not bad, but we’ve seen him do this sort of thing before, and he’s been better at it, in films like DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) and MACHETE KILLS (2013).  For the record, Goggins was also in THE BOURNE IDENTITY.

John Leguizamo plays Mike’s drug supplier Rose, and he’s good for a few laughs, although the role never rises above cliché.  And I thought Stuart Greer was quite good as Sheriff Watts, a character grounded in reality— unlike the CIA folks in this one— who seems to genuinely care for Mike even as he tries to keep him off the streets and in a jail cell.

AMERICAN ULTRA is a one joke move. Let’s put Jesse Eisenberg into a BOURNE style plot and see what happens. Fortunately, it’s a good joke, and Eisenberg is up to the task. He also receives outstanding support from co-star Kristen Stewart who’s every bit his equal in this movie.  Unfortunately, they’re about it, as the rest of the film never quite matches what they bring to the table.

Eisenberg and Stewart play two compelling, enjoyable, and oftentimes humorous characters who deserve to be in a better movie, and if this one does well, perhaps they’ll have their chance in a sequel.  I’d be happy to see them again.  It’s just too bad that the “better movie” didn’t happen the first time.

How much you like this one probably depends on how much you like Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart.  I find myself liking them quite a bit these days, and they are the main reason I liked AMERICAN ULTRA.

—END—

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: SINISTER 2 (2015)

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Here’s my CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT review of SINISTER 2 (2015) which went up Sunday night 8/23 at cinemaknifefight.com

Enjoy!

—Michael

 

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: SINISTER 2 (2015)sinister 2

Movie Review by Michael Arruda

(THE SCENE: A dimly lit basement. A door opens and MICHAEL ARRUDA enters. He comes upon an old Super 8mm film projector.)

MICHAEL ARRUDA (looking at projector): I haven’t seen one of these in years. This brings back memories from my childhood: watching my 8mm and Super 8 mm versions of the classic Universal and Hammer horror movies. Ah, the good old days! I even remember the introduction of Super 8mm and what a big deal it was. See, it projected a larger picture than standard 8mm.

Unfortunately, this projector is not here today for us to re-watch my old Super 8mm horror movie collection. No, it’s here because it plays an integral role in the movie I’m reviewing today, the utterly forgettable sequel, SINISTER 2 (2015). The 8mm films in this movie are films that show children murdering their families in the most brutal of ways. If SINISTER 2 succeeds at anything, it’s at being an ugly movie.

(Suddenly a group of ghost children appear, sitting around the movie projector.)

GHOST BOY: Jeesh! You’re a downer!

MA: I’m sorry. Snuff films like the ones depicted in today’s movie have a way of dampening my mood. Anyway, welcome to Cinema Knife Fight everyone. I’m Michael Arruda, and today I’m flying solo as my movie reviewing partner L.L. Soares wisely opted out of this one.

(The ghost children giggle.)

MA: What’s so funny?

GHOST CHILDREN (In unison): You’ll see.

MA: Whatever. Anyway, today I’m reviewing SINISTER 2, and if you haven’t figured it out yet by my sour disposition, I didn’t really like this movie. It’s definitely an example of when the sum of the parts do not equal the whole, because there were parts to this film that I actually liked, but as you’ll find out as we continue this review, they just didn’t add up to a complete package.

SINISTER 2 is a sequel to SINISTER (2012) a film that a lot of people liked, but I never warmed up to it. Its tale of a demon who possessed children and made them murder their families while capturing the gruesome killings on film left a bad taste in my mouth. It was just too ugly a tale for me to enjoy. That being said, it did have a well-constructed story that made sense, and it had Ethan Hawke playing the lead, so it had some things going for it even if it didn’t win me over.

SINISTER 2 opens with another grainy snuff film, where we see a family burned alive—oh fun! (Shakes his head).

GHOST BOY: Wouldn’t you like to watch one of our movies?

MA: No. Not at all.

GHOST BOY:   Come on! Watch it!

MA: No! I’m reviewing a movie here. Go find some children to haunt.

In SINISTER 2 we meet the deputy from the first movie, once again played by James Ransone, only now he’s an ex-deputy because he lost his job after the events in the first movie. In that one, he had helped Ethan Hawke’s character investigate the evil that was haunting his family, and because he went behind his boss’s back, he got fired.

Here in SINISTER 2, the deputy goes around burning houses in order to combat the main demon in these movies, Bughuul. The logic behind his actions is questionable at best. The families haunted by Bughuul aren’t killed until they move out of their home, and then when new people move into the house where the murders occurred, Bughuul goes after them. The deputy believes if he burns these houses before new people move in, then Bughuul can’t haunt people. But if he’s constantly burning houses and Bughuul is still around, then obviously his strategy isn’t working. Otherwise, wouldn’t it take the burning down of just one house- the last one Bughuul haunted— to sever the line? I mean, how many houses is Bughuul haunting? Obviously quite a lot! I didn’t really get the reasoning behind the deputy’s actions here.

When the deputy arrives to burn the home where the family from the first film was killed, he finds a woman Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon) secretly living there with her twin sons Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan) and Zach (Dartanian Sloan), hiding out from her jerk of a husband Clint (Lea Coco) who’s trying to locate them so he can get his sons back. Courtney at first believes the deputy is working for her husband and is there to take her boys, but one he assures her that he’s not, that he’s there investigating the house and its connection to the previous owners’ murders—something that doesn’t seem to bother her at all— she allows him to stay on the property.

Again, this plot point left me slightly confused. The deputy arrives at the house prepared to burn it, but once he finds Courtney and her sons living there, he drops those plans and instead begins to investigate the property looking for clues that the demon responsible for the murders, Bughuul, has been there.   Doesn’t he already know this? That’s why he went there in the first place, prepared to burn it down.

And, of course, Bughuul has been there, as a group of ghostly children has already contacted Courtney’s sons and has shown them their special set of home movies, setting the stage for yet another child to murder his family and film the slaughter, unless the deputy can stop them.

(The ghost children cheer.)

If this sounds like your type of thing, then have at it. I’d rather watch THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E (2015) reboot any day, and why that stylish film has been bashed so harshly I don’t know, but getting back to today’s movie, SINISTER 2.

As I said, there were parts to this movie that I liked. Let’s start with the cast. I really liked James Ransone in the lead role as the nameless deputy. It was fun to see a lead hero who wasn’t a wise-cracking macho type. He’s probably the most terrified guy in the movie, and yet he’s the one who gunning to stop Bughuul. The deputy is a likeable guy, and Ransone is very good in the role.

GHOST BOY: You gotta watch our movie! Please???

MA: Stop interrupting me! I’m reviewing a movie.

GHOST BOY: We’re gonna show it to you anyway.

MA: Suit yourself. I’m continuing my review.

Likewise, I enjoyed Shannyn Sossamon’s performance as Courtney Collins, the mom who’s constantly on guard and has to utilize all of her energy to combat the relentless efforts of her estranged husband. It’s too bad she couldn’t have used some of this energy to pay attention to what was going on with her two sons and a certain demon. About these supernatural events she’s completely clueless.

And even though Courtney and the deputy aren’t lovers in the story, they share a nice chemistry together.

(A grainy movie starts playing on the screen. MA ignores it.)

The two boys who play her twin sons Dylan and Zach, Robert Daniel Sloan and Dartanian Sloan, who are triplet brothers in real life, are effective enough and do a good job with the “good son, bad son” routine.

(MA hears a familiar voice.)

MA (pointing to the screen): Hey, that’s L.L. Soares!

GHOST BOY: I told you that you needed to see this.

(On screen, we see L.L. SOARES tied to a stake. He’s laughing.)

CHILD’S VOICE ON SCREEN: What are you laughing for?

L.L. SOARES: This is more fun than THE WICKER MAN!

CHILD: Uh, we’re going to kill you.

LS: Yeah, yeah, whatever.

(A hand lights a fire under the stake, and suddenly flames shoot out around LS who pulls out a cigar, lights it, and starts smoking it.)

LS (enjoying the cigar): Nice. Hey, you kids have any linguica? I could go for a barbecue.

CHILD: Why aren’t you dying?

 LS (blows on his cigar, igniting a stream of fire that shoots across the screen and is followed by a high-pitched scream.) Because you are, you little brat!

MA: This is actually pretty cool.

GHOST BOY (quickly turning off projector): That wasn’t supposed to happen. Where’s that other film?

MA: While you’re looking, I’m going on with my review.

And the demon in these movies, Bughuul, in spite of the fact that he resembles Michael Jackson, is one of the scarier-looking film monsters to come along in the past few years. Yet in this movie, that’s about all he does: look scary. Other than this, he does pretty much next to nothing. It’s a real shame, because Bughuul is frightening, and what he does, possess children and make them murder their families, is even more terrifying, and yet he’s been in two movies that have failed to take advantage of these strengths. He deserves to be in a better movie. Here, we see him again showing up on computer screens and in the shadows, but that’s it.

The biggest problem I had with SINISTER 2 was its clumsy storytelling. For starters, it did a very poor job at the outset making connections to the first film, and if you haven’t seen SINISTER, you might not get what’s going on until about half way into the movie.

As I said earlier, I was confused with the deputy’s investigation. First, he’s going to burn down the farmhouse. Then he’s there investigating it.

If Courtney knows what happened to the previous owners of her house, and she says she does, why isn’t she even a little concerned? Especially knowing that a child disappeared there, shouldn’t she be a bit worried about her own kids? I realize she’s focused on hiding from her nut-job of a husband, but still, shouldn’t there be some concern or caution? Evidently not.

More so, the deputy definitely knows. So, why isn’t he warning Courtney about watching her children?

Of course, part of the answer is the gimmick in these movies— that Bughuul makes his move after the family moves out of the house into another house, which is why the deputy keeps telling Courtney not to leave the farmhouse, because he figures she’s safe as long as she stays there. Most of the families do move because Bughuul has been terrorizing them and so they feel their house is haunted and they move, I guess. Like a lot of other things in this movie, that’s not really clear. Strangely, though, in spite of the fact that the ghost children have contacted the twin boys and are showing them the snuff films, there aren’t any other freakish things happening there. Courtney and the boys only leave when her nut of her husband shows up and forces them to do so.

I was surprised at the muddled storytelling because the screenplay was written by the same two guys who wrote the first movie, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill. Derrickson also directed the first SINISTER. Part of the problem is there’s not much of a story to tell. Demon haunts child, child will murder family. That’s the premise. The only question is will the deputy be able to stop it?

GHOST BOY: Okay, watch this one! (Turns on projector, and MA looks at screen.)

(The grainy film reveals LS tied to kitchen floor with some sort of electric wiring tied to his leg. He looks sick.)

LS: Wow. That was some party last night.

(Suddenly we see water wash its way towards his body. A tiny child’s hand dips an electrical wire into the water, electrocuting LS, who instead of dying suddenly glows bright green. He then gets up and starts chasing the screaming child around house.)

LS: Come here you little brat! You want to electrocute someone? I’ll show you how do to do it!

(GHOST BOY shuts off film again in frustration.)

MA: I changed my mind. You can keep showing these movies to me. They’re hilarious.

Where was I?

SINISTER 2 also doesn’t have a scary bone in its celluloid body. The only thing remotely frightening in this movie is the films by the ghost children. They are gory, disturbing and dark, and since they involve characters we know nothing about they mean very little and carry very little emotional weight. They also have grown more elaborate, to the point where you doubt a child would be able to pull it off. For example, in one scene the family is hung upside down over a swamp and then lowered so crocodiles can bite off their heads. Did I say this movie was ugly?

And about those 8mm movies—- the murders which took place years ago, I could easily understand using an 8mm camera to film the proceedings, since that’s all that existed back then. But here in present day, wouldn’t the children be using cell phones, smart phones, or digital cameras? Who uses 8mm anymore? They don’t exist! Come on, Bughuul, get into the 21st century already!

Director Ciaran Foy’s idea of being scary is to show us the snuff films. That’s it. There aren’t any creative scares anywhere else in this movie, which is a complete shame. As I’ve already said, the character of the demon Bughuul has tremendous potential to be scary and he’s stuck in a movie like this.

And while I liked the main cast, the supporting cast is forgettable, led by Lea Coco as Courtney’s monster husband Clint, who is such an over-the-top jerk it’s almost unbelievable. When they all sit down to eat, he makes his family wait until he eats first. He beats his son. He verbally abuses his wife. He’s rich and powerful and has the police and local officials in his pocket, yet he looks like a construction worker. If anyone deserves to die in this movie, it’s him, and so when he does get done in, it’s the one satisfying moment in the movie.

SINISTER 2 is a forgettable sequel in a series I wish would cease now. In fact, if there was ever a character in need of a “re-imagining” or a re-boot, it’s the demon Bughuul. Jettison these inferior movies and get him on board in something else. The sooner the better.

I give it one and a half knives, and it gets the half because I like Bughuul and I enjoyed the performances of the four leads in this one.

(Turns to the ghost children).

So, do you have any more movies to show me?

(GHOST BOY turns on the projector and we see the grainy image of several children tied to tiny beds. They are the ghost children.)

MA: Hey, those kids look like you.

(LS suddenly appears on screen holding a chainsaw with a crazed look in his eye. He turns on the chainsaw and charges towards the beds.)

(The GHOST BOY knocks over the projector, and he and the other ghost children flee the basement screaming.)

MA: Well, at least now I know what L.L. was doing instead of reviewing today’s movie. I think he got the better end of the deal.

(EXITS)

–END—

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: ANT-MAN (2015)

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CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: ANT-MAN (2015)

Movie Review by Michael ArrudaAnt_Man

OFF-CAMERA VOICE: Previously on Cinema Knife Fight—

(THE SCENE: A laboratory. L.L. SOARES wears a lab coat as he finishes his CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT review of ANT-MAN.)

L.L. SOARES: And so I give ANT-MAN two and a half knives. This is usually the part where I ask Michael what he thinks of the movie, but since he got shrunk down to a sub atomic level due to an Ant-Man suit malfunction— funny how that happened— he’s not here. So I’ll just say so long for now and—.

(There is a blinding flash of light, and suddenly MICHAEL ARRUDA reappears in the Ant-Man suit, now back to full size.

MICHAEL ARRUDA: Not so fast!

LS: Whoa! How did you manage to come back from a sub atomic level?

MA: It was simple really. I used the anti-sub atomic level button on my Ant-Man utility belt.

LS: Ant-Man utility belt? Holy Adam West!

MA: Indeed.

Anyway, I’m back and I’m ready to review today’s movie.

LS: Well, you’re a little late, but go ahead.

MA: Thank you. And since you got to deliver your review without any interruption from me, I’d like the same courtesy. So, on that note. (Zaps LS with a shrinking ray reducing LS to the size of an ant.) I knew my Dr. Cyclops ray would come in handy some day. (MA picks up LS and carries him to the lab table.)

LS (in tiny voice): Put me down! I’ll get you back for this!

MA: Sure you will. But after my review. (Drops mini LS into a glass jar, and seals the top with a cover.) That should keep you out of trouble while I review today’s movie. (Looks at camera). Don’t worry. There are air holes in the cover. Okay. One air hole.

VOICE: And now, today’s episode of Cinema Knife Fight.

 

MA: Hey, enough of that already. I’ve got a movie to review.

VOICE: You’re no fun.

MA: One more word out of you and I’ll shrink you down to Alvin and the Chipmunks level. Now go away!

VOICE: I’m going! I’m going!

MA: Moving right along. In case you missed L.L.’s review, here’s a brief recap of the plot of ANT-MAN.

In ANT-MAN, the latest superhero movie from Marvel, a company which has been churning out quality entertaining superhero films since the early 2000s, scientist Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is troubled because his protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) has taken it upon himself to develop miniature technology which Pym had worked on years before, with plans to sell it to the shady organization Hydra for military use. The technology, a suit, shrinks its wearers down to the size of insects where they can wage war undetected.

To stop Cross, Pym recruits a thief and genuinely nice guy and misunderstood ex-con Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) to break into Cross’ complex and steal his Yellowjacket suit. To do this, Pym dusts off his old Ant-Man suit, not used since Pym was a young man, and with the help of his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily) trains Scott in the art of miniature combat. They also teach Scott how to communicate with ants, an ability which will come in handy because he’s going to need the insects’ help to accomplish his mission.

Hope is not exactly happy about this arrangement since she wants to do the mission herself, and she feels her father doesn’t have faith in her. But the truth is he’s simply worried for her safety. And Scott is enticed into the mission because it will mean financial security for his young daughter, as he’s struggling to make alimony payments since he can’t keep get a job because of his criminal record.

So Scott trains with the ants, and when he’s ready, he’s embarks on his mission to steal the Yellowjacket suit, but meanie Darren Cross is no fool— he’s a villain in a superhero movie, after all!— and so he’s more than ready for Ant-Man, which sets up the climactic confrontation between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket.

You know, when you explain the plot, it all sounds rather silly, but it really isn’t.

LS (in a tiny voice): Says you!

MA: Don’t get me wrong. ANT-MAN is a light and fun movie, but it’s also exceedingly well made— it’s well written, well directed, and well-acted— like pretty much all the Marvel movies, but it’s not stupid.

And this is the main reason I like most of these Marvel movies so much: they know how to have fun, but they never insult your intelligence. In short, they’re true to the spirit of the comics, and they play exactly as if you are watching a comic book unfold on the big screen.

ANT-MAN is no exception. Like last year’s hit GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014), ANT-MAN gravitates towards the humorous, which comes as no surprise since screenwriters Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McCay, and Paul Rudd all have extensive backgrounds in comedy.

Wright wrote and directed the Simon Pegg movies SHAUN OF THE DEAD (2004), HOT FUZZ (2007), and THE WORLD’S END (2013), as well as the quirky and very entertaining SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010). In fact, as LL explained in his portion of this review, Wright was originally slated to direct ANT-MAN but dropped out of the project. LL lamented that the film would have had more of an edge to it had Wright directed it, and I can’t disagree with that assessment, although as the film stands now, I liked it just fine.

Adam McCay wrote and directed several Will Ferrell comedies, including ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004) and THE OTHER GUYS (2010), and of course Paul Rudd who plays Ant-Man in this film has acted in a bunch of comedies.

But ANT-MAN is not on the same level as GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. GUARDIANS pressed all the right buttons and had a story that was epic in nature. ANT-MAN has more flaws than GUARDIANS and its story is nowhere near as epic. Whereas GUARDIAN involved saving the universe, ANT-MAN involves stealing a secret weapon. It’s not quite on the same level.

The cast does a nice job. Paul Rudd is an effective Ant-Man and makes for a likeable enough every-day guy turned superhero. Sometimes I thought his humor was a little misplaced, and I didn’t completely buy his nice guy routine. It was a little too much for my liking, and at times the “I never robbed anyone bad” shtick was difficult to swallow. I wish he had more of a dark side, but overall Rudd was very good.

Rudd of course has a history of comedic roles, including roles alongside Steve Carrell in THE 40 YEAR-OLD VIRGIN (2005) and DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS (2010), but does anyone remember a young Rudd starring in the forgettable HALLOWEEN film HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS (1995)? It’s one of the weaker films in the series, but Rudd’s performance as a grown up Tommy Doyle, the character who was terrorized as a boy in the original HALLOWEEN, is one of the best parts of the movie.

I really liked Michael Douglas as Dr. Hank Pym. I thought he gave the best performance in the movie as the disillusioned scientist who once had a grand idea and now has to fight to prevent that idea from falling into the wrong hands.

Beautiful and sexy Evangeline Lilly stands out once again as Pym’s daughter Hope. She’s been a favorite of mine since her days on the TV show LOST, and she’s probably the most bad-ass character in the entire movie. She trains Scott how to fight as Ant-Man, and I think she could have fought off the villains a heck of a lot better than him.

Corey Stoll makes for an effective baddie as Darren Cross/Yellowjacket. It’s interesting to note that one of the weakest aspects of these Marvel movies is their villains. On a consistent basis, even though Marvel continues to churn out one quality movie after another, they also continue to churn out one subpar villain after another. And what’s even more amazing to me is their movies haven’t suffered for it. Darren Cross is an OK villain, serviceable in the wicked and evil department, but he’s not even close to being memorable.

Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale both turn in good performances as Scott’s ex-wife and her police detective boyfriend, and they rise above the clichéd interpretations of these types of roles. However, their story line of concerned parents/guardians of Scott’s cute daughter was a little too syrupy sweet for my tastes.

Likewise, Michael Pena, David Dastmalchian and T.I. play Scott’s goofball buddies who are in this movie strictly for comic relief as they bumble their way throughout the film trying to help Scott/Ant-Man save the day, and they are funny, but they do gravitate towards the silly and ridiculous and are dumbed down a bit too much for my liking.

But I enjoyed all the Marvel references, from the Avengers, to Iron Man, to Stark Enterprises, to Hydra, to the appearance by the Falcon (Anthony Mackie). These references to the Marvel universe all worked for me.

And I can’t disagree with LL’s assessment that as directed by Peyton Reed, ANT-MAN is a safe film, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not a kid’s movie by any means, but neither is it a hardcore action thriller. It’s, as I’ve said before, like reading a superhero comic book, and it’s done at the utmost level of filmmaking.

There’s also a high “cool” factor about ANT-MAN. When he shrinks down in size and communicates with the ants that help him in combat, it’s all very cool. The special effects during these scenes, while nothing mind-blowing, are certainly excellent. I also really liked the look of both the Ant-Man suit and the Yellowjacket suit.

I saw ANT-MAN in 2D rather than in 3D, and it played fine in this standard format. I loved it just the same.

So, where does ANT-MAN fall in the Marvel canon? Well, it’s not quite on the same level as THE AVENGERS (2012), GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, or IRON MAN (2008), but it’s better than the THOR movies and is similar in quality to the CAPTAIN AMERICA films. Think CAPTAIN AMERICA but with much more humor.

And you definitely want to stay for the two end credits scenes. There’s one in the middle and one at the very end. The one at the very end is definitely worth catching, as it ties in with a future Marvel movie.

Some have complained that the Marvel films are growing tired. I disagree. The quality of these movies continues to amaze me, and I continue to enjoy them and look forward to more films from Marvel. They’re on a role similar to Hammer Films when they unleashed their nonstop quality horror films from the late 1950s through the early 1970s.

ANT-MAN is high entertainment, one of the better movies to come out this summer.

I give it three knives.

(There is a huge crash. LS bursts out of the glass jar and grows in size smashing through the ceiling until he towers high above the laboratory.)

LS: You forget. Using this technology, not only can you shrink, but you can make things bigger!

MA: I know. And two can play at that game. I just need to press the AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN button on my utility belt—. (Presses button and suddenly both MA and LS are giants.   LS rips a tree out from its roots, and MA picks up a car.)

VOICE: Join us next time for WAR OF THE COLOSSAL CINEMA KNIFE FIGHTERS. Same Cinema Knife Fight time. Same Cinema Knife Fight channel.)

—END—

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: TED 2 (2015)

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Here’s my Cinema Knife Fight review of TED 2, which appeared at cinemaknifefight.com this past weekend.

—Michael

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT:  TED 2 (2015)Ted 2 poster

Movie Review by Michael Arruda

(THE SCENE:  A Comic Con in some big city.  Amidst a crowd of enthusiastic fans dressed as their favorite superheroes, STAR TREK and STAR WARS characters, sits MICHAEL ARRUDA at a table next to the LOST IN SPACE Robot.)

MICHAEL ARRUDA:  Welcome everyone to today’s Cinema Knife Fight column.  No, that’s not L.L. Soares dressed as the LOST IN SPACE Robot.  That’s the actual Robot!

ROBOT:  It is I.  The Robot!  Here as a guest on Cinema Knife Fight.

MA:  Happy to have you, and we’re here today because one of the scenes in today’s movie— TED 2— takes place at a Comic Con like this one, and my friend here, the LOST IN SPACE Robot, happens to be in that scene.  It might be my favorite part of this movie.

ROBOT:  Affirmative!  I am the life of this movie.

MA:  Well, I wish you were.  You don’t have any lines or anything, but I was still happy to see you.

ROBOT:  That’s right.  I didn’t have any lines.  What was my agent thinking?  There just aren’t any good roles for an aging robot, these days!

MA:  Well, even you couldn’t have saved this movie.

Yep, today on Cinema Knife Fight, I’m reviewing TED 2, and I’m flying solo this week because L.L. Soares had sense enough to skip this one.

I’m going to get right to the point: I hated TED 2.

ROBOT:  Hate?  Hate is a strong word.  I advise you to avoid using it, Will Robinson.

MA:  It’s okay.  This isn’t a LOST IN SPACE episode.  We can say hate here.  And I’m not Will Robinson.

ROBOT:  Of course you are not!  Did I say that you were?  Eh hem.

MA (to audience):  I think he’s having a senior robot moment.

ROBOT:  I heard that!

MA:  As I was saying, I did not like TED 2 at all.  It’s one of my least favorite movies of the year.  Why, you ask?  Well, read on!

TED 2 is the sequel to the hit movie TED (2012), the Seth MacFarlane comedy about a toy stuffed bear come to life.  I was not crazy about TED, but I enjoyed the foul-mouthed talking bear, as I found him quite funny, and I enjoyed the way he interacted with his best buddy John (Mark Wahlberg).  They were a hoot together.  What I didn’t like about it was its story which I found to be a bore, a tale of John trying to choose between Ted and his girlfriend.  Seriously?  But the bear was funny.

Now comes the sequel, TED 2.  Ted is now married, while John is divorced.  Ted’s marriage is not going that well, so he takes a co-worker’s advice and decides he and his wife should have a baby because having children will bring a troubled couple closer together.  Really?  Sounds like a recipe for disaster to me.

Ted, of course, since he’s a toy bear, can’t have children, and so he and John concoct a plan to steal sperm from New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, in a scene that is flat out weird and way too creepy to be funny.  When their attempt fails, John agrees to donate his own sperm, but then Ted learns that his wife Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) cannot have children, so they decide to adopt.  They are turned down because in the eyes of the law, Ted is not a person and so he can’t adopt a child.

They decide to take Ted’s case to court, to have the legal system declare him a person, and so they hire a young attorney Samantha (Amanda Seyfried) to take on the case.  The rest of the movie follows their efforts to have Ted declared a person, and they have to overcome one obstacle after another, including the return of Donny (Giovanni Ribisi), the psycho from the first movie who was obsessed with Ted, and he’s back again, still trying to tear Ted away from John.

So, why isn’t TED 2 funny?

I don’t think I have time in one review to list all the reasons.

Let’s start with the humor.  It’s pretty much the lowest common denominator of humor.  Drug jokes, bathroom jokes, and sex jokes, and as for the rest, it is simply not creative enough to get laughs.  It’s almost as if Seth MacFarlane thinks his reputation at being a “bad boy in comedy” is enough.  If he’s vulgar and shocking enough, everything else will fall into place. Well, it’s not enough.  The jokes have to be funny, and in this movie, they are not.  And that’s the number one problem with TED 2.  It’s simply not funny.

There are jokes galore.  They’re nonstop, which makes the fact that the film didn’t make me laugh all the more amazing.

The film tries to be creative with its humor, and there’s plenty of star power here, but oddly none of it works.  There’s a cameo with Liam Neeson shopping at the supermarket discussing with Ted if it’s okay for him to eat Trix breakfast cereal since he’s not a kid.  Trix are for kids, get it?  Ha Ha.  Not.  I think I laughed when I first saw Neeson because of the potential this scene had, but then it went nowhere.

(LIAM NEESON walks by the table.)

NEESON:  I understand you didn’t like my cameo.

ROBOT (Points to MA):  He didn’t.  I liked it just fine.

MA:  No.  I didn’t like it.  I’m surprised you even did it.

NEESON:  I have bills to pay.

MA:  Don’t we all.

NEESON:  Maybe you would have liked it better if we used a different cereal.  Fruit Loops, maybe.

MA:  Follow your nose.

NEESON: Are you making fun of my nose?

MA:  No.  It’s the line from the Fruit Loops commercials with Toucan Sam.

NEESON: You might want to be careful with what you say.  I put the last guy who criticized me in the hospital.

ROBOT:  Danger!  Danger, Will Robinson!

NEESON:  Just sayin.  (Exits.)

MA:  Don’t sweat it, Robot.  He’ll get over it.

Anyway, then there’s the conclusion at Comic Con.  This sequence should have been hilarious.  It includes a slapstick fight in which fans dressed as comic book and science fiction characters duke it out, and so we see the Lost in Space Robot tangle with a Dalek from Dr. Who, superheroes and Star Trek characters going at it, and even Godzilla gets in on the act.  It’s a geek’s dream!  But it’s not funny.

Patrick Warburton returns from the first movie, once again playing Guy, and in this film Michael Dorn (Worf from STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION) plays his gay lover.  There’s a gag in the Comic Con sequence where Warburton dresses as The Tick (the title character he played in the short-lived TV series in the early 2000s) and Dorn dresses as Worf, and they go around the convention tripping people and pouring drinks on them all the while insulting them.  This is supposed to be humorous.  It’s not.  It’s painfully unfunny!

(WORF approaches.) WORF:  It is not honorable for a Klingon to poke fun at himself!

MA:  So, you saw TED 2?

WORF:  TED 2?  What is that?

ROBOT:  TED 2 is an American comedy written and directed by Seth MacFarlane.  It stars Mark Wahlberg and—.

WORF:  Enough!  I do not care about such trivial matters as motion pictures!

MA:  So, what were you talking about when you said Klingon’s shouldn’t poke fun at themselves?

WORF:  I was talking about him!  (Points to a Klingon performing Karaoke in front of an audience).  He is a disgrace!

MA:  Yup.  He can’t hold a tune to save his life, but he’s not really a Klingon.  He’s a fan dressed as a Klingon.

WORF:  Klingons do not have fans!  We have adversaries and enemies!  (Exits.)

ROBOT:  He suffers from a maladjusted disposition.  In short, he’s a grump!

MA:  I’m going to continue now with the review.

In the first film, Mark Wahlberg and Ted were funny together.  They’re not here.  All the jokes seem rehashed.  I like Mark Wahlberg a lot.  It was painful to watch him play this role.

Likewise, I’m a big Amanda Seyfried fan, and again, it was excruciating to see her play this awful role.  In one scene for example she’s reduced to smoking pot from a bong shaped like a penis.  Speaking of penises, there’s a running gag about them in this film which has to do with internet searches and what pops up whenever you do a search on the internet.  All I kept thinking is this is the best a guy like Seth MacFarlane could come up with?

It gets worse.

We have to see lots of scenes where Ted argues with his wife Tami-Lynn, and she throws things at him and swears at him nonstop with her South Boston accent.  She’s reduced to a bad stereotype, and these scenes are also painful to watch.

Sam Jones, Flash Gordon himself is back from the first movie, only this time his scenes are as funny as Ming the Merciless.  Also back from the first movie is Bill Smitrovich as Ted’s boss Frank.  In the first film, Smitrovich’s scenes were a highlight and were laugh-out loud funny.  He’s reduced to one scene in the sequel, and it’s a straight scene, no comedy or jokes involved.  Really?

Giovanni Ribisi is back again as psycho Donny.  A lot of people liked Donny in the first film.  I thought his subplot was the worst part of the first movie.  In TED 2 Donny is still out to get Ted, and I still don’t care.

Even Morgan Freeman shows up.  What are all these people doing in this movie?  Does Seth MacFarlane have compromising photographs of these folks?

Freeman delivers a dramatic courtroom monologue about why Ted should be considered a person.  Now we get to one of the most insulting parts of TED 2, the parallels that this movie makes between Ted’s plight and the civil rights movement.

Are we supposed to take this story about Ted seriously?  Absolutely not, which to me, makes the references in this movie to the plight of those fighting for equal rights throughout history, offensive.  Well, maybe offensive is too strong a word, but it just rubbed me the wrong way. TED 2 as a vehicle for social commentary is like having Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels as the poster boys for special education.  No.

Only John Slattery from TV’s MAD MEN comes out okay.  Slattery plays a smooth talking winner-take-all district attorney, and he plays the role straight.  He has his one scene and pretty much makes sense as he makes his case convincingly as to why Ted is not a person.  Slattery might be the only person in this movie who doesn’t embarrass himself.

And regarding the “star” of this one, Ted the Bear, the CGI creation performed by Seth MacFarlane, he was my favorite part of the first movie, but sadly, he’s nowhere near as funny the second time around.  In fact, I found him flat out annoying in this sequel.

I did something during TED 2 I hardly ever do in a movie.  I found myself looking at my watch, and I was shocked to see that only one hour had gone by.  It felt like two.  Worse, TED 2 is a two hour movie, and so there was still yet another agonizing hour to go.

TED 2 was written and directed by Seth MacFarlane, and Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild also contributed to the screenplay.  It gives me no pleasure to write negatively about other people’s work, but there’s not much positive I can say about this one.   It all comes down to laughter.  And I simply didn’t laugh during this movie.

One thing I did like about this movie is a large chunk of it takes place in Boston, and the shots of Boston look good.  But I can drive to Boston on my own and don’t need a movie to show me how good it looks.

Want to watch a funny movie that mixes humor with vulgarity and off color jokes?  Watch an old Mel Brooks movie instead.

I give it half a knife.

And it gets half a knife because I like both Mark Wahlberg and Amanda Seyfried, and also because I can’t give a movie which features an appearance by the LOST IN SPACE Robot 0 knives, no matter how bad it is.

And at half a knife, that makes TED 2 the worst movie I’ve seen this year.

Okay, Robot, we’re done here.  I think I’ll take a stroll and browse around.

ROBOT: A good idea.  May I browse around with you?

MA:  Sure.  Come along.  It’ll be fun.

ROBOT:  We are going to browse around.

MA:  Come on, Robot.  I see some cool LOST IN SPACE merchandise over there.  Let’s check it out.

ROBOT:  This is going to be surreal.

—END—

KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2015) Is Polished Entertaining Fluff

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Kingsman PosterMOVIE REVIEW:  KINGSMAN:  THE SECRET SERVICE (2015)

By Michael Arruda

 Matthew Vaughn wrote and directed KICK-ASS (2010) and X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS (2011), two of my favorite superhero films of recent years, so when I learned that he was writing/directing KINGSMAN:  THE SECRET SERVICE, my interest in this flick went way up.

I’ll say right now that KINGSMAN:  THE SECRET SERVICE is not as good as KICK-ASS or X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS, but it comes close.  Its action scenes look like a video game and are about as compelling, and its story is about as believable as a SPY KIDS movie.

The Kingsmen are an ultra-secret British spy organization even more mysterious than MI6.  The film opens in the late 1990s as a mission goes wrong and Kingsman Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is saved by a young protégé who gives his life to save Harry.  Harry later visits the agent’s wife and young son and tells them he owes them a debt, which years later the now young adult son Gary (Taron Egerton) collects when he finds himself in jail after stealing a car.  After Harry arranges for Gary to be released, he then goes about grooming him to become a future Kingsman.

Of course, you’re not just selected to become a Kingsman, you have to compete for it, and so Gary finds himself competing against other recruits in a series of tasks which are overseen by their trainer, who goes by the code name Merlin (Mark Strong).

Meanwhile the rich philanthropist Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) has caught the attention of the Kingsmen because of his connection to the murder of one of their agents who had been trying to rescue a kidnapped scientist Professor Arnold (Mark Hamill).  Harry, whose code name is Galahad, is assigned to the case and begins to infiltrate the empire of Valentine in order to learn what dastardly plot he has in store for the world, and it’s a doozy.

Of course, things don’t go as planned and before you can say Sir Lancelot young Gary finds himself as the world’s best chance for survival, and suddenly it’s up to Gary to save the day, with a little help from Merlin and Gary’s friend and young Kingsman agent, Roxy (Sophie Cookson).  Wait a minute.  Shouldn’t she be a Kingswoman?

Anyway, at times I really liked KINGSMAN:  THE SECRET SERVICE, and other times not so much.  In spite of this imbalance, it’s got enough good things going for it- strong direction, a clever script, and an excellent cast to tip the scale in favor of my recommending it.

First off, the cast is the best thing about KINGSMAN:  THE SECRET SERVICE.  Colin Firth is excellent as Harry Hart/Galahad.  He’s British to the core and makes the perfect gentleman spy.  While there are plenty of James Bond references throughout this movie, Firth’s performance calls to mind another fictional English spy from the 1960s, Patrick Macnee’s Mr. Steed from the TV show THE AVENGERS (1961-69).  Firth’s suave and debonair demeanor is reminiscent of Macnee’s Mr. Steed in that classic TV show.

Samuel L. Jackson chews up the scenery as mastermind supervillain Valentine, and he’s just as good as Firth if not better.  Jackson speaks with a lisp and gets to deliver some of the best lines in the movie.  One of the funnier bits in the film is that both Jackson’s Valentine and Firth’s Galahad are movie buffs and they exchange barbs about the old James Bond movies, which are quite funny.

The film is very cognizant of its origins and how it owes a lot to the James Bond films of old.  As such, it has a good time making jokes at its own expense, poking fun at itself, its characters, and its plot.  However, this only goes so far and on its own isn’t enough to make this film an instant classic.

Mark Strong, as always, is very good as Merlin, the agent who is in charge of training the young recruits and who by the film’s end finds himself with his two newest agents in the daunting position of having to save the world.

Interestingly enough, both Strong and Firth appeared in the substandard Nicole Kidman thriller BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP (2014) last year, and while both were fine in that movie, they’re better here in KINGSMAN.

Michael Caine adds class as the Kingsman’s patriarch agent, Arthur, and in a surprise bit of casting Mark Hamill shines in a brief role as Professor Arnold.  It’s a very small role, not enough for Hamill to make much of an impact in this movie, but when he’s on screen, he’s really good, and I couldn’t help but wonder, where has he been all these years?  Yeah, I know, he’s been a very successful voice artist for animated cartoons over the years, but it sure would have been nice to see him in more movies.

But what about the young cast members?  The leads?  After all, the film is mostly about young Gary (Taron Egerton).  Egerton isn’t bad, but the problem is he’s surrounded by some excellent actors, and sorry to say, he’s outclassed by them throughout.  I found myself wishing this movie was more about Colin Firth’s character.

Sophie Cookson is also very good as Roxie, Gary’s chief rival but also his closest friend— can anyone say HUNGER GAMES?  But she too is outclassed by the veteran cast in this one.

The most interesting of the young characters is Sofia Boutella as Gazelle, Samuel L. Jackson’s right hand woman and chief assassin.  She sports a very deadly— and razor sharp— pair of metal legs that can slice a man in half, which she does in this film.

So, I enjoyed the cast, but the story not so much. The biggest problem was I never really believed any of it.  The Kingsman as a concept is believable enough, but when we see these guys in action, their fight scenes look like video game sequences.  It’s all stylish and polished, but it looks oh-so-fake.  KINGSMAN:  THE SECRET SERVICE definitely has a plot, but its action sequences pretty much all fall flat.  They look great, don’t get me wrong, but they don’t look real.

As I said earlier, there are plenty of James Bond references, especially about how outlandish the old Bond films were, but even those films had action sequences that looked believable.  They were epic and grand in nature.  There isn’t anything epic about KINGSMAN.  And when Colin Firth goes into action mode and wipes out an entire church full of people, there is nothing believable about it.  It looks fake and phony.  Pass me the controller please so I can have a turn.

Even KICK-ASS was more believable than KINGSMAN.  There was a grittiness and realism in KICK-ASS that in spite of its farfetched superhero plot worked.  That is completely gone here.

Like KICK-ASS, KINGSMAN is rated R, and so there’s plenty of blood in the action sequences, but unlike KICK-ASS, none of it looks real.  Again, with fake looking violence, the action scenes in this one were a disappointment.

It’s also rated R for language, and this is mostly because of Samuel L. Jackson’s Valentine’s colorful vocabulary.

Director Matthew Vaughn has made a movie in KINGSMAN that looks good, but it’s not quite the complete package as KICK-ASS or X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS.  Those films had pretty much everything.

The other problem I had with KINGSMAN is it never builds its suspense.  From the get-go, we see the Kingsmen in action.  There are stylish fights before we even know who we are supposed to be rooting for.  Plus, the film’s climax, while it’s certainly not a dud, isn’t overly exciting either.

The screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, who also co-wrote KICK-ASS and X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS with him, is based on the comic book “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, and it runs hot and cold.  For the most part, I liked it.  I enjoyed the characters and I enjoyed the film jokes, especially about the Bond films, but where it lacks is it never reaches out and grabs its audience with conviction.

The training sequences of the young agents were reminiscent of THE HUNGER GAMES where the young adults/teeny boppers have to compete against each other to make the grade, and only one of them is chosen, and oh yeah, if you fail you go home in a body bag.  You fail.  You die.  Sort of.  The film kind of cops out on this part later.

But a large chunk of the movie was about this training, and I can’t say that I liked this plot point all that much.  Every time the film dealt with the cadet training, I wished for more scenes with either Colin Firth or Samuel J. Jackson.

I never once feared for the characters’ lives, which is strange since characters do die in this film.  But I didn’t fear for them because I never really believed in what was going on, and for me, at the end of the day, if I don’t believe it, I don’t really enjoy it.  That being said, KINGSMAN has such a talented cast, as well as director and screenwriters, that the talent here actually overcomes the film’s shortcomings.  It’s just that with a credible story, this one could have been that much better.

Still, it’s all rather entertaining and is one of the more enjoyable pieces of fluff I’ve seen in a while.  I just wish it had been less fluff and more grit.

—END—