The King’s Man review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast : Ralph Fiennes, Harris Dickinson, Gemma Arterton, Djimon Hounsou, Rhys Ifans, Matthew Goode, Tom Hollander, Daniel Brühl, Charles Dance, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Genre: Action/Adventure/Historical
Run Time : 131 min
Opens : 30 December 2021
Rating : NC16

The King’s Man is one of those movies that, thanks to the pandemic, feels like it’s been coming out forever – on top of release date shifts even before the pandemic. Now, we can finally learn the origins of the covert organisation at the heart of the Kingsman film series, loosely based on the graphic novel The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons.

It is just before the First World War, as chaos is brewing across the globe. Orlando (Ralph Fiennes), the Duke of Oxford, is a former soldier who has renounced a life of violence. His teenage son Conrad (Harris Dickinson) yearns for adventure and wants to enlist in the army, against his father’s wishes. Nanny Polly (Gemma Arterton) and valet Shola (Djimon Hounsou), employees of the Oxford household, are secretly assisting the Duke in an intelligence collection operation. In the shadows, a mastermind known only as the Shepherd is manipulating world events. His agents have proximity to power, including priest Grigori Rasputin (Rhys Ifans), con artist and self-proclaimed clairvoyant Erik Jan Hanussen (Daniel Brühl), industrialist Alfred DuPont (Todd Boyce) and spy/exotic dancer Mata Hari (Valerie Pachner). The Duke must race against the clock to prevent the Shepherd from plunging the world into irreparable chaos, as the seeds of the Kingsman spy agency are planted.

Big-budget period action-adventure movies with an alternate history bent are rare offerings, and The King’s Man plays in a sandbox that not many other tentpole franchise films play in. The closest analogue might be the first Wonder Woman movie, which was also set during WWI. Matthew Vaughn is nothing if not stylish. It’s hard not to be awed by flashy, show-off camera moves, like a shot that travels through the ocean, through the torpedo tube of a German submarine, and into the submarine’s control room.

For all the faults of the earlier Kingsman movies, and especially the second, Vaughn brought plenty of panache to the proceedings, which carries over here. While there’s nothing here that is as striking as the fight in the church in the first Kingsman movie, there are several wonderfully choreographed action scenes, including a swordfight with Rasputin in which the mad monk busts out some impressive acrobatic moves. The production design by Darren Gilford and costume design by Michele Clapton contribute to the specific mood of the movie – Vaughn isn’t aiming for total historical accuracy, but there’s also an attempt to sell the period and the settings.

The King’s Man wants to be a rip-snorting, swashbuckling adventure, but it also wants to be genuinely emotional and dramatic. This is a movie with obviously, intentionally goofy elements, including Tom Hollander in triple roles as cousins King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II (credited as Tom Hollander3). This is also a movie in which characters deal with crushing grief, one that tries to make a larger statement about the futility of war and the fallacious narrative of it being glorious to die in service of one’s country.

The movie is sometimes unable to support this pendulum swing between tones. For all of The King’s Man’s undeniable weirdness – there’s a scene in which one character licks another’s leg, in the middle of an attempted poisoning via Bakewell tart – there still is a predictability to the proceedings. The reveal of the big bad, for example, is far from surprising, and even if it was intended to be that obvious, is ultimately underwhelming. The movie also feels a little longer than its 131-minute runtime, given that there’s a lot to set up and a lot of real-life history to condense and fictionalise.

The first Kingsman movie’s greatest asset was arguably Colin Firth in an action-oriented role while also banking on his screen persona as a charming gentleman. Ralph Fiennes performs a similar function in this movie and does so with aplomb. He is an arresting screen presence and acquits himself impressively in the physical department, stunt doubles and digital trickery notwithstanding. Harris Dickinson is somewhat bland as Conrad, but the focus remains squarely on Fiennes’ Duke of Oxford. Both Arterton and Hounsou are delightful presences, but their characters are thinly drawn.

Rhys Ifans has a grand time playing Rasputin – after all, there’s no ceiling for “over the top” with a historical figure as outlandish and despicable as Rasputin was. It’s just a shame that Rasputin is not the ultimate villain, despite the trailers making it seem as such, and he is not in the movie for as long as this reviewer would have liked.

Summary: This prequel to the Kingsman movies is better than the bloated and unfocused second instalment, taking the franchise to an interesting place with its emphasis on historical fiction. Ralph Fiennes is also the ideal leading man for this story. However, for all of director Matthew Vaughn’s style, he struggles with maintaining tonal consistency, such that the movie is sometimes enjoyably goofy, and other times wants to be very serious. Ultimately, the movie’s weirdness makes it stand out amongst the comic book movie landscape and does show the potential of action-adventure movies rooted in historical fiction. Stick around for a mid-credits scene.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Zookeeper’s Wife

For F*** Magazine

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE 

Director : Niki Caro
Cast : Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Michael McElhatton, Iddo Goldberg
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 2h 6min
Opens : 30 March 2017
Rating : NC-16

After the second world war, various accounts of everyday heroism started coming to light. The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true story of Antonina Żabińska (Chastain), who along with her husband Jan (Heldenbergh), ran the Warsaw Zoo in Poland. On September 1st 1939, the German invasion of Poland began, with the zoo devastated by bombings, many of Antonina and Jan’s beloved animals killed. The couple attempt to raise their son Ryszard (Timothy Radford and Val Maloku at different ages) amidst the horrors of war. They also become involved in the Polish underground resistance against the Nazis, using the zoo to house over 300 Jewish “guests” escaping from the Warsaw ghetto. During this time, the Warsaw Zoo is frequently visited by German zoologist Lutz Heck (Brühl), who spearheads a Nazi program to recreate extinct breeds of cows and horses. Heck begins to suspect something is amiss, as Antonina rebuffs his advances, all while ensuring the safety of those who have found a safe harbour in the Warsaw Zoo.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman. As crass a thing to say as it is, many audiences have developed a jadedness towards biopics set in Europe during WWII. Most of us have a general idea of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi regime, and these films tend to be sombre, stuffy affairs, often too concerned with being respectable to have a visceral impact.

While The Zookeeper’s Wife has much in common with your average WWII prestige pic, there are fascinating, moving elements to the story. For one, there’s the setting of the Warsaw Zoo, and the depiction of the menagerie that Antonina, Jan and their staff cared for. There are elephants, camels, lions, tigers and birds of prey, with the film doing a good job of setting up how dear the animals are to the zookeepers. When everything is ripped away, we get a sense of their pain.

The film was predominantly shot in Prague, with production designer Suzy Davies creating a convincing environment for the story to unfold in. A combination of well-trained animal actors and visual effects work bring the zoo’s denizens to life. A battle sequence in Warsaw’s Old Town area is appropriately intense. There’s also a haunting scene in which the Nazi troops setting the ghetto ablaze with flamethrowers is intercut with the Jews hiding in the zoo observing Passover, singing a seder song.

War films tend to have male protagonists, and it’s easy to see why director Niki Caro and star Jessica Chastain were drawn to Antonina’s story. Caro made waves with her film Whale Rider, and is attached to direct the upcoming live-action remake of Disney’s Mulan. Chastain is as radiant as ever, essaying utmost poise in the most desperate of circumstance. Antonina is not afraid to get her hands dirty, and early on, resuscitates a new-born elephant calf. As with many films of this nature, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a story of sacrifice and principles. We can’t tell if that’s a good Polish accent she’s affecting, but it’s not as distracting as it could’ve been.

The relationship between Antonina and Jan goes through a trial by fire. Heldenbergh is believably rugged, a rough-hewn hero who cares deeply for those around him, even if he doesn’t show it on the surface. Like many German actors, Brühl seems typecast as a Nazi, but he makes for a layered antagonist here. At first, Lutz doesn’t seem quite so bad as his compatriot – after all, he loves animals. However, the depths of his viciousness are gradually revealed.

With the focus placed squarely on Antonina, we don’t quite get to know the people who are huddled in the basement of the zoo’s residential villa, such that The Zookeeper’s Wife sometimes succumbs to the pitfalls of making them faceless victims. The film also hits a considerable lull in the middle, and could have benefited from more suspenseful moments. Caro does strike a balance in portraying the cruelty of the German occupying forces without making the film gratuitously gory.

Throughout The Zookeeper’s Wife, there are glimmers of the bracingly powerful film it could’ve been. Instead, this is largely standard war biopic stuff, but it will bring the story of Antonina and Jan Żabińska to a larger audience than ever before.

Summary: While it’s bolstered by a stirring, engaging lead performance from Jessica Chastain, there’s not too much to distinguish The Zookeeper’s Wife from other wartime biopics of its ilk.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

Alone in Berlin

For F*** Magazine

ALONE IN BERLIN

Director : Vincent Perez
Cast : Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, Daniel Brühl, Mikael Persbrandt, Katharina Schüttler, Louis Hofmann
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 43min
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Brief Coarse Language)

alone-in-berlin-posterAdapted from Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel Every Man Dies Alone, Alone in Berlin tells of a small but spirited resistance from within the heart of Nazi Germany. It is 1940, and working-class Berliners Otto (Gleeson) and Anna (Thompson) Quangel receive news that their only son has died in combat. After witnessing the treatment of an old Jewish woman in their apartment block, Otto and Anna begin writing postcards containing short messages exhorting for the people to resist Hitler and the Nazis. Otto wants to leave his wife out of it for her protection, but Anna insists in standing alongside her husband. They leave the postcards in public places, and this soon attracts the attention of the police. Escherich (Brühl), the detective put in charge of hunting down the perpetrators, finds himself gaining respect for his elusive targets, while starting to question Nazi ideology.

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Every Man Dies Alone is a fictionalisation of the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, has been adapted for TV and film in German several times, and was also made into a Czech television miniseries. The English translation of the 1947 German novel was only published in 2009. While the story of ordinary German citizens who attempt to stand against the oppressive Nazi regime has the potential to be powerfully resonant, said potential is only glimpsed a few precious times in this film. The family of Swiss actor/director Perez, who also co-wrote the screenplay, experienced the horrors of World War II first-hand. Perez’s grandfather was shot by fascists in Spain, his great uncle was gassed by Nazis, and another uncle died in battle on the Russian front. As such, it’s curious that he seems to approach the material with a distinct lack of passion.

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Thanks to location filming in Berlin, Cologne and Görlitz, Alone in Berlin possesses decent production values. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to pull the viewer in. For a film about a time and place where there was danger on all sides, Alone in Berlin fails to generate any urgency or tension. We get an adequate sense of the oppression that the Nazis imposed on their subjects, but nothing leaps off the screen. It’s generic historical drama stuff, when the story of Otto and Elise Hampel deserves a more searing telling.

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Thompson and Gleeson are both fine actors. They don’t get too many notes to play beyond “downtrodden”, but are invested in the material. The varying strength of the German accents across the cast can be a little distracting. Mark Rylance was originally cast as Otto, and in part because Gleeson is still unmistakably Irish, we think he might have been a better choice. Brühl tries to give Escherich notes beyond that of the typical dogged inspector, but only makes an emotional impact in the film’s closing moments. The Gestapo agents are stereotypically, blandly evil.
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The perspective of the common man living in Nazi Germany coupled with the fact that it’s based on a true story should have made Alone in Berlin a powerful work. Instead, even with its strong lead performances, much of the film is mired in mediocrity. Offering not enough insight into the minds of dissidents in Nazi Germany, nor serving up any wartime cloak-and-dagger mystique, Alone in Berlin will leave most viewers cold.

Summary: Finely-acted but too sluggish and dour to be genuinely moving, Alone in Berlin is far from the full-bodied, stirring tale it should’ve been.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Captain America: Civil War

For F*** Magazine

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

Director : Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Cast : Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Chadwick Boseman, Emily VanCamp, Daniel Brühl, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Martin Freeman
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2 hrs 27 mins
Opens : 28 April 2016
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

Earth’s mightiest heroes are torn asunder in this, the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Following calamitous incidents in New York, Washington D.C., Sokovia and Lagos, the politicians of the world seek to establish a governing body to supervise the actions of the Avengers. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey) agrees to sign what becomes known as ‘The Sokovia Accords’, while Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans) refuses to comply. Sam Wilson/Falcon (Mackie), Wanda Maximoff/Scarlett Witch (Olsen), Sharon Carter/Agent 13 (VanCamp), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Renner) and Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Rudd) take Rogers’ side. Backing up Stark are Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson), James Rhodes/War Machine (Cheadle), Vision (Bettany), and new additions T’challa/Black Panther (Boseman) and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Holland). In the meantime, Rogers is still tracking down Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier (Stan), his childhood friend who was brainwashed into becoming a ruthless killing machine. Then there’s the enigmatic Dr. Helmut Zemo (Brühl), who seeks details on one of the Winter Soldier’s past missions to enact a treacherous scheme. If the world’s heroes are too busy fighting one another, who will protect everyone else?


             It’s generally agreed upon that 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier is among the strongest entries in the MCU thus far. It’s an intense political thriller with lavish action spectacle and a resonant emotional component woven into a concinnate whole. With that film’s directors Joe and Anthony Russo and its writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely returning for Civil War, we had appropriately high expectations. Civil War is not so much a standalone Captain America movie as it is Avengers 2.5, packing in quite a number of characters from the MCU and introducing a couple of new ones. There are lots of moving parts and the story comes off as disjointed. The film gets off to a wobbly start, lacking particularly striking imagery or an impactful action sequence to open with. The source of the conflict at the heart of the film is established clearly enough, but Rogers’ and Stark’s resentment for each other doesn’t get enough room to really simmer to a boil.

            In the comics, the Civil War event centred on secret identities and superhero registration. Since secret identities have largely been a non-issue in the MCU, collateral damage has become the catalyst for conflict. There are some pretty high stakes and the film wants us to take the rift between the MCU’s two biggest heroes very seriously, but not at the expense of quips and general joking about. There are many humorous moments that do land and a reference to Empire Strikes Back had this reviewer doubling over with laughter. Cap, Falcon and Bucky also share a real ‘bro’ moment that’s quite endearing. However, there are several instances where the one-liners result in a sense of flippancy, undermining the gravity of the situation at hand.

            Both Evans and Downey have become very comfortable with their roles as Captain America and Iron Man respectively. There is a valiant attempt at having both parties make valid points, though the film tends to side with Cap because, well, he’s in the title. There’s plenty of snarky back-and-forth jibes, but the ideological disagreements get no room to breathe. There’s not very much to say about the performances of all the returning cast members, since the characterisation is generally consistent with how they’ve been drawn in previous films. Stan continues to be eminently sympathetic as Bucky – half puppy, half killing machine. Vision and Scarlet Witch share a few scenes together, as a nod to the characters’ romance in the comics, but these come off as superfluous. The budding romance between Cap and Agent 13 feels extremely tacked on. There are plenty of references to previous entries in the series, with an emphasis on Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron, so one wouldn’t quite be able to make head or tail of this going in blind.

            Fans will be pleased to know that both Black Panther and Spider-Man are handled as well as possible. Boseman brings a stern dignity to the role of the Wakandan prince who is both royalty and costumed crime-fighter, the requisite outsider with no prior link to the Avengers. Stark ropes in teenage science whiz and vigilante Peter Parker. Holland’s portrayal of Spider-Man feels very true to the spirit of the character: the wisecracks, the wide-eyed awe, the pubescent awkwardness, it’s all there in the right amounts. Marisa Tomei briefly shows up as Parker’s Aunt May, and the Spider-Man scenes have increased our anticipation of the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming all the more. The design of the suit is divisive: while it harks back to the more traditional artwork of the likes of Steve Ditko and John Romita Sr., the slightly old-fashioned spandex look doesn’t quite fit in with the established MCU aesthetic, especially since it’s established that Stark designed the suit for Parker.

            The “villain problem” that has plagued most MCU movies continues here. Helmut Zemo, who is markedly different from the costumed supervillain of the comics, is portrayed as a sly manipulator lurking behind the scenes for his own ends, pulling the marionette strings and fanning the flames of internecine strife. Unfortunately, Brühl makes so little of a mark that this reviewer had to go back to write this paragraph after completing the review, initially forgetting the need to elaborate on the villain.

            The standout action sequence is, naturally, the full-on clash between the two factions set at an airport in Leipzig. The scene is packed with fun visual gags and moments engineered to get the audience on their feet, cheering. It’s quite a shame then that the rest of the action sequences, perhaps barring the climactic brawl, are generally unmemorable. The heavy use of shaky-cam and breakneck editing means we can’t take in the choreography or get a good sense of who’s doing what in the middle of a fight.

            There’s a lot in Civil War that works fine and the people making these movies have enough experience under their belts to not make a complete fumble of things. However, because many of us are experiencing comic book movie fatigue, it takes a lot more than general competence to get us truly excited. There’s ultimately very little in Civil War that’s actually truly novel. It’s a victory, but far from a flawless one.

Summary: The introduction of Spider-Man and Black Panther into the MCU are highlights, but Civil War’s lack of cohesiveness and the hard-to-follow fight sequences prevent it from being the earth-shattering event it’s pitched as.

RATING: 3.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong