Monday, February 08, 2016

Mixed-Up Movies

I had an absolutely delightful lazy weekend. I went to bed early Friday night, for plenty of reading time before turning out the light (still earlier than normal). Saturday, I slept late, had a leisurely breakfast, then spent the day reading. I got through a whole book that afternoon. I think the last time I did something like that, it may have been a holiday. I also managed to get to a couple of HBO movies I've been planning to watch.

First, there was Kingsman. This is the one with the team of "gentleman" secret agents. You may recall the trailer with the scene of Colin Firth very politely beating up a gang of street toughs without wrinkling his bespoke suit. The concept of this movie, an updated and high-tech Knights of the Round Table, had a lot of promise, and it has a great cast. But I felt like the whole thing was mishandled. The story focuses on a young street punk who gets recruited to try for an open spot on this modern Round Table. These operatives are usually recruited from among the upper crust, but his father had once saved the life of Colin Firth's character, so he's being considered for the role now.

One of the issues I had with this movie was that it didn't seem to know if it was trying to be a spoof of secret agent movies along the lines of Austin Powers, playing with the idea of dapper gentlemen kicking ass, or if it was meant as a serious secret agent movie. Another issue was that it was a transformation/coming of age movie that skipped the actual transformation process. They established that this kid had the physical skills already -- he'd been a champion gymnast, had served briefly in the military, and grew up in a tough neighborhood -- but what he was lacking was social graces. They even mentioned Eliza Doolittle. But we never saw him learning any of this stuff, even though in the final confrontation he's there in his nice suit, with his posh accent, and knowing all about the finer things. It's not helped that they seem to have conflated testing and training. We see the trials the candidates for the one open slot go through and those are kind of training-like, but we don't see them actually being trained as one of these operatives.

My other issue is that they don't seem to know what a gentleman is and don't really seem to have made any effort to come up with their own definition. They mostly seem to have settled on a vague "wears nice clothes and knows about good drinks" rather than dealing with a code of chivalry and behavior. That gives the sense that this movie was written by and for 13-year-old boys. These gentleman agents swear like sailors, so there's little contrast other than accent between the way the agents speak and the way the street toughs speak. The final test for which candidate is chosen is something no true gentleman would do. And yet a lot of the main character's strengths seem to come from the fact that in spite of his rough upbringing, he has instincts that tend to lead him to behave in a chivalrous manner, though it doesn't seem like the script is aware of this. Then we also have the treatment of women, which was bad enough that I noticed and was bothered by it. One of the candidates for the open slot is a girl, and she seems to step right out of the "how not to write a strong female character" playbook. For one thing, she's "the girl," with that being her defining trait. They seem to be trying to write her as a Strong Female Character, so she's the one who's most capable in the group while also being the only one who's nice to the hero. Except then the way they pave the way for the hero to win in spite of her awesomeness is to tear her down. She's whiny and afraid and only gets through some of the tasks because of a pep talk from the hero. She plays a role in the final showdown, but it's off to the side, and her "enemy" is her own fears. She doesn't have any other antagonist to fight or deal with. And then there's the princess -- the one person who stood up to the villain and refused to go along with his scheme, so she's been held prisoner, something right out of my "strong female character" guide. But then at the end of the movie she's literally given to the hero as a reward. I wanted to throw things at the screen.

So, if it's on TV and you like secret agent movies, there are some amusing moments and a good cast (yes, that is Mark Hamill playing a British professor). But it's not what it should have been.

On the extreme other end of the spectrum, I watched The Water Diviner, which is not what you'd expect of a Russell Crowe film (he stars in it and directed). It's sort of an artsy period piece about the aftermath of World War I. An Australian farmer who lost all three of his sons at Gallipoli heads to Turkey after the death of his wife to see if he can find his sons' bodies and bring them home. Surprisingly, he gets the most help from a Turkish officer who's now being made to help the British catalogue the battlefield. The fate of his sons isn't entirely what he'd been led to believe, and so he has to go on a dangerous journey to find the truth.

I recall that there were some criticisms that this movie didn't quite know what it wanted to be, and I might agree, because it's a lot of things all at once. I just happen to like those things and the way they were put together. It's got mystery, adventure, romance, plus a lot of philosophical musing about war and grief. There are dashes of magical realism in that the main character is a diviner, someone who can find the right place to dig a well, but that also helps him find other things. It's probably tied up too neatly for those looking for more of a philosophical art piece, but it moves a little too slowly for those looking for an action film. I liked it, though. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. Whether it's a wide shot of the Outback or an image of a man sitting alone at a table in a hotel dining room, every shot looks like a work of art, and the film lets these shots linger so we can enjoy them. There's no MTV-like quick-cutting. And it must have haunted me because I think it inspired some dreams last night. The war scenes are pretty vivid, as is the aftermath, but I don't think it's to the violent extremes of a lot of movies these days. It's an odd little movie that may only be to some tastes.

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