FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #118 – “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” (dir. Matthew Vaughn)

Poster for "Kingsman: The Golden Circle"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel dive into a second chapter in a silly spy saga that doubles down on every one of the first film’s impulses, for weal or woe: the elegant masculine paradigm, the awesomely kinetic and well-shot fights, the ridiculous Dr. Evil-caliber villainy, and the shoddy, one-dimensional female characters saddled with menial tasks in place of depth. Come see where we landed on the only spy film this year that is, and we quote, “Longer than f*cking Dunkirk“. (38:12).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the tracks “My Generation (“Battle Royale” Remix)” by The Who, as remixed by Apashe, from the film’s second trailer. We might’ve used “My Way“, but that vile fuckhead Joe Arpaio has forever sullied it for us.

Listen above, or download: Kingsman: The Golden Circle (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

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2010 Glennies, Part 4: Best Actress

#5: Annette Bening – Nic, The Kids Are All Right

This film didn’t quite do it for me, and reminded me that I sometimes have to catch myself from thinking that the best performances of the year will invariably fall within the best films. But while Lisa Cholodenko’s sex comedy/family drama was not without its flaws (particularly in the second half), Annette Bening’s performance as the conservative “patriarch” of this surprisingly* conventional family was immaculate. She completely sold her ever-changing reactions to the introduction of her kids’ birth-father (Mark Ruffalo), treating him first like a looming threat to her primacy, then laughing and drinking wine with him and the family. This is a completely authentic character, and Bening’s delivery of dramatic outbursts and comedic barbs alike was spot-on. Her chemistry with Julianne Moore felt mostly believable – it had a kind of comfort and ease, just like an old married couple.

She also completely nails the best two lines in the film, which I won’t spoil here.

*By the standards of quirky indie film, that is.

#4: Carey Mulligan – Kathy, Never Let Me Go

I’ve seen Carey Mulligan play cheerful, but I’ve seen her play somber much more frequently. While I may eventually reach a point of wanting to see a wider range from this actress, I found every dour moment of her screentime in Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go to be completely compelling. This film relied heavily on tone, and Mulligan’s performance and chemistry with her fellow leads (Keira Knightley in particular) helped maintain the film’s bleak and somber atmosphere without ever letting the audience lose emotional touch with the characters. These are wretched and pitiable creatures, and it is Mulligan’s heart and compassion that keeps the audience caring for them right to the end.

#3: Hailee Steinfeld – Mattie Ross, True Grit

An early scene in True Grit features Mattie Ross in hardball negotiations with a stable owner over her late father’s horses. Her unrelenting performance amid rapid-fire dialogue in this scene would have been enough to get 13-year-old newcomer Hailee Steinfeld a supporting nod from me, but the Academy be damned – this is unquestionably a lead performance. Steinfeld is in every scene of True Grit, and the film could not have succeeded without such a mature and charismatic take on this character. Mattie Ross is articulate, intimidating, and a bit of a gadfly, and has to keep up with powerful characters three times her age without ever overstaying her welcome with the audience. It’s a tall order, but Steinfeld completely pulls it off. Her rapport with Jeff Bridges was admirable, treading some fascinating ground between road-trip comedy and an intense father-daughter bond. This film is a delight, and it owes much of its appeal to Steinfeld.

#2: Natalie Portman – Nina Sayers, Black Swan

The effectiveness of Nina Sayers is in both her initial state- the pure and fragile “sweet girl”- and her incredible mental and physical transformation. Natalie Portman not only sold both aspects of the character, but fearlessly committed to all the pain and revulsion – bordering on body horror – that she must experience. Portman’s chemistry and frightful interactions with her fellow players (Barbara Hershey in particular) become increasingly fascinating as Nina descends into full-blown schizophrenic madness. Along with Aronofsky’s direction, this was a performance that would make or break the film, occasionally even compensating for deficits in the screenwriting.

“I’M the Swan Queen!” screams Nina as she embarks on the film’s final performance. And indeed she is. Embodying both the white and black swans, Portman’s performance is complete and unmatched.

#1: Kim Hye-ja – Mother, Mother

It is a rare movie tagline that so adequately captures the tone of a film. For Bong Joon-Ho’s Mother, it was this: “She’ll stop at nothing.” Simple and straight to the point. Kim Hye-ja, an actress primarily from Korean television, gives a tour de force performance as the unnamed titular matriarch. Every one of her character beats rang completely true, from her constant worry about her mentally disabled adult son (Won Bin) to her utter desperation to clear his name for murder. She goes to some alarming lengths as the film goes on, and Kim’s performance completely sold each one of her increasingly heartbreaking decisions. The gorgeous opening scene features Kim breaking into an uneasy dance in the middle of the field, with a very pained expression in her face and body language. The full meaning of this scene becomes apparent later in the film, but from the outset, it is clear that Kim Hye-Ja can convey a great deal of emotion in completely unspoken terms. This is a character that the audience wants the best for at all times, no matter what she becomes.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Jennifer Lawrence as Ree in Winter’s Bone
  • Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
  • Emma Stone as Olive Pendergast in Easy A
  • Marisa Tomei as Molly in Cyrus
  • Julianne Moore as Jules in The Kids Are All Right (Honorable, honorable mention: as Catherine Stewart in Chloe)

Click here to see the rest of the 2010 Glennies.

Atom Egoyan’s “Chloe” – An odd bit of erotica

Two seconds. That’s how long it takes for Amanda Seyfried’s breasts to appear in this film, and as she begins a wistful voiceover about what it means to be a prostitute, it is with this first artfully lit shot that Atom Egoyan’s Chloe (a remake of a 2003 French film) presents itself with decidedly European sensibilities. But while the Europeans might decry my American puritanical sexualization of the female breast, I must confess that this shot (and many similar ones that followed) put me somewhat on guard. There are few things that take me out of a film faster than the feeling that I’m being manipulated by the screen. If this were a film about gargantuan fighting robots, I could certainly ignore the feeling, but Chloe strives for a good deal more. As it went on, I was forced to decide whether I was watching a thoughtful and emotionally complex exploration of sexual obsession and jealousy or being titillated just for the sake of it.

The premise is certainly a provocative one. The Stewarts are a pair of well-off professionals whose marriage is gradually drifting apart – David (Liam Neeson), a college professor, is friendly and semi-flirtatious with every woman he meets, and his wife Catherine (Julianne Moore), a doctor, is becoming increasingly insecure and jealous. From the outset, we are as much in the dark as Catherine about her husband, as she becomes more and more suspicious that he’s cheating on her. She finds a friend and confidante in an escort named Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), whom she hires to try and seduce David.

“I usually meet the client directly,” starts Chloe.

“I’M the client” declares Catherine.

And indeed, nearly all we see from this point on is through the interactions between these two women. As Chloe recounts her various encounters with David, Catherine insists she spare no detail. These graphic recollections are nothing new in cinema (they reminded me a great deal of Mike Nichols’ 2004 film Closer), but they still rang true for me. They spoke to the secret shame shared by private detectives and their cuckholded clients alike – when you’ve been betrayed by someone you love, you want to know every last disgusting detail.

It is this obsession that the film and its actors convey so effectively. The plot takes a number of rather predictable twists, but I really can’t fault it for this. As Catherine watches the destruction of her marriage, she gradually realizes that it may be her own mistrust and jealousy that precipitated its end. By the final act, the film only seems predictable in the sense of people being reliably self-destructive, and Julianne Moore proves to be the tragic heart of this film, turning in a performance that is both fearless and believable.

But what an enigma is Amanda Seyfried… This is an actress whose work I’ve nearly always enjoyed, who often elevates lesser films with her performances. But for the first half of this film, her line delivery is nearly as flat and devoid of character as porn star Sasha Grey in Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience. As she recounted the vagaries of life as a high-class call-girl, I just didn’t buy it. And while her performance certainly improves in the second half, it’s balanced out by some rather preposterous character twists (for which I place equal blame on the screenwriter).

This is certainly an ambitious film, and its successes manage to stay a bit more interesting than its failures. The film looks great, featuring some gorgeous cinematography from DP Paul Sarossy. It delivers a fantastic performance from Moore and solid supporting work from Neeson. And perhaps most importantly, despite the absurd lengths the film goes to in order to destroy its characters, it delivers a few remarkable relationship insights. I have to think that if only something had elevated the character of Chloe, I wouldn’t have been left to ponder whether this film is exploitative or gratuitous. The film strives for something like Closer but becomes something more akin to Heartbreakers. The result is something worse than one, but better than the other, and fascinating nonetheless.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10