Kingsman: The Secret Service58/100
I’m on board with this in principle — scrappy council-house kid gives stuffy old-rich-gentlemen’s club a kick in the ass is a solid enough baseline for the old-fashioned secret-agents-save-the-world story, and scenes of over-the-top, balletic violence provide an enticing hook. This is also an origin story — the jumping-off point for an obviously hoped-for franchise turning the film’s unknown Welsh star, Taron Egerton, into a street-smart action hero — and so we spend much of the film stuck in spy-school, where director Matthew Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman spit up a range of pre-chewed chestnuts from the history of elite-training narratives on film to show how fatherless protag “Eggsy” Unwin (Egerton) earns his super-spy status under the mentorship of the ever-dapper veteran Harry (Colin Firth). It’s not unpleasant, but it doesn’t go anywhere new.
300: Rise of an Empire45/100
It’s been eight years since the release of Zach Snyder’s beefcake epic 300 put movie buffs on notice that the future of action cinematography was endless slow-motion, excruciating speed ramping, and ever more phony-baloney green-screen tableaux. That might not seem like a long time, but in Hollywood terms it’s a freaking eon. It only took two more years than that before Sony kicked Sam Raimi to the curb and rebooted the Spider-Man series entirely with a younger, cuter director. So maybe Zack Snyder is lucky Warner Bros. greenlighted a straightforward sequel to 300 rather than handing a remake to Fede Alvarez or somebody.
One of the most powerful moments in Scarface is the culmination of a violent, perfectly judged sequence of events crafted for maximum impact by screenwriter Oliver Stone and staged with ferocious efficiency by director Brian De Palma. It takes place at the end of a night when Al Pacino’s Cuban gangster, a feisty little hard-on named Tony Montana, has survived an attempt on his life that left him with a bullet in his shoulder. He has overseen the execution of his boss, who was behind the hit. He has shot dead a corrupt cop who was extorting his cash and favours. And he has just been upstairs to collect from between satin sheets his boss’s woman, a sleek blonde dressed in white who is his prize. The camera zooms out from a medium close-up on Pacino’s face as, still bleeding, arm in a sling, exhaustion writ large across his face, Tony Montana peers through 20-foot-tall glass windows, staring dumbly into a Giorgio Moroder sunrise as an advertising blimp floats over the water, its pithy slogan an empty promise of greatness yet to come: “The World Is Yours….”
UPDATE 8/29: My wife jumped on me after reading this for the suggestion that the act of taking scalps from victims was somehow endemic to the Native American people. While she agreed that’s how it’s presented in this film, she told me that the Europeans introduced the practice to indigenous Americans, and not the other way around. I was not too surprised at this, though it’s certainly contrary to the popular narrative, and promised to find a source online and add a footnote. Jonathan Rosenbaum, perhaps the film’s most notable detractor, beat me to it. It doesn’t change my opinion of the film — Tarantino’s riffing on film history rather than real history, and Aldo Raine probably wouldn’t know the difference, Apache blood or no — but I agree that it’s well worth noting.
Among the most satisfying of exploitation subgenres, for those who swing that way, is the rape-revenge picture. The basic structure is well suited to the grindhouse feature — it offers an excuse to stage scenes of sexual violence (the “rape” portion of the formula) alongside images of even more graphic, brutal violence (the “revenge”) while packaging the exercise as both moral lesson and wish-fulfillment fantasy. The appeal of the story is fairly primal — an early prototype for this sort of thing, Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left, was based on The Virgin Spring, a 1960 Ingmar Bergman film that had its own roots in a centuries-old Swedish folk song. As folk tale, the rape-revenge yarn functions as a stern warning, perhaps first appealing to an imagined audience’s prurience and sadism with the story of a violation, then warning them about the civilized world’s uniform, punitive, and perhaps grisly response to such an assault. As film, the subject matter is even more charged. Given feminist ideas about the male gaze and the embedded sexism of 100 years of film history, the idea of staging a rape for movie cameras, in a film destined to reach a (presumably base and horny) grindhouse audience, has the stench of amorality (if not outright immorality) about it.
The most interesting thing about Wanted is that its protagonist is one of the most unlikable action heroes in memory — a smug, self-regarding asshole whose honestly distasteful misanthropy is at least refreshing in a genre that often relies on charming sociopaths to sell popcorn. As the film opens, Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) is a hapless desk jockey working at a job he can’t stand for a boss he hates. (Somebody show this guy Livejournal, Facebook, anything.) He knows that his own girlfriend is getting screwed on the kitchen countertop by one of his office mates during the daily lunch hour. He types “Wesley Gibson” into Google and laments the returned empty page. He can’t get $20 out of the ATM because he doesn’t have $20, and he can’t get $10 out because the machine only dispenses 20s. And our little Sisyphus can’t get over the idea that, after he gets off work in the evening, he just has to get up the next morning and go back to work again. For those of us in the audience who long ago made our peace with real-world annoyances like earning a paycheck and polishing our résumés, Wesley expresses contempt in second-person voiceover. Presumably, dear viewer, you haven’t killed anyone lately — and that makes you a pussy.
Funny Games: The TV Years
When I first heard that Funny Games was being remade for the U.S. multiplex, I couldn’t imagine a more unlikely crossover between extreme European cinema and the American mainstream. But now this. Gosh. I know HBO is reputedly starving for new, edgy content. But really, what the hell is going on?
04.01.08 | HBO COMMISSIONS FUNNY GAMES, COMEDY-DRAMA SERIES
BASED ON MICHAEL HANEKE’S FILMS, TO BEGIN AIRING THIS FALL
LOS ANGELES, April 1, 2008 – HBO, in conjunction with Halcyon Pictures and Tartan Films, is set to begin production on the 12-episode first season of the new HBO comedy-drama series FUNNY GAMES, it was announced today by Nicki Brand, executive vice president, HBO Entertainment. Michael Pitt (“The Dreamers,” “Last Days”) and Brady Corbett (“Thirteen,” “24”) will star in the series, reprising their roles from the recent Warner Independent Pictures feature film.
Slated to debut October 31, FUNNY GAMES is executive produced by Michael Haneke (“Cache”) and Ron Howard (“The Da Vinci Code”). Based on the 1997 film directed by Haneke, the show looks at a different ordinary American family each week as they cope with the arrival of the white-clad Peter and Paul, two unwelcome guests who enjoy sinister “funny games” that turn their hosts’ lives upside down.
“FUNNY GAMES is an intense, thought-provoking series that’s unlike anything else HBO has presented before,” said Brand. “The show undermines the creature comforts of the bourgeoisie and mocks the American television audience through telling moments of sadism and brutality in a way that broadcast TV can’t do.”
“We’re definitely going to push the envelope,” said Howard. “Michael’s brilliant films never found the audience they deserved, but I’m incredibly excited to think that, every week, the HBO viewing audience will have the opportunity to rethink its relationship to the thoughtlessly violent entertainment spectacles it craves.”
The show will also introduce a groundbreaking interactive component. Midway through each episode, viewers will vote via 900 number or text message on whether or not the family in that week’s installment should be allowed to survive. But, in a soul-shattering twist that underscores the relation between cinematic spectatorship and sadism, each installment will nonetheless end with the casual murder of each family member, as well as any pets.
“Since I first conceived it in the mid 1990s, FUNNY GAMES has always been my intelligent, passionate reaction to stupidly violent American cinema and the audience of shabby, knuckle-dragging cretins that thoughtlessly consumes this kind of naïve, morally destitute entertainment,” said Haneke. “Fuck you,” he added.