RED JOAN (2019)

April 20, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sir Trevor Nunn is a Tony Award winner best known for his stage productions, and for being director of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1968 through 1986. The film is “inspired by a true story”, and Lindsay Shapero has adapted Jennie Rooney’s 2013 novel, which was a blend of history and fiction taken from the life of Melita Norwood … the longest serving British KGB spy.

Dame Judi Dench plays Joan Stanley (the movie version of the aforementioned Ms. Norwood) whom we first meet as she is being arrested for treason by MI5 agents in May 2000. Most of the film consists of Joan being interrogated while having flashbacks to her earlier life, beginning in 1938 at Cambridge University. She was a hard-working nose-to-the grindstone Physics student who is drawn in to the fascinating world of Sonja (Tereza Srbova) and her brother Leo (Tom Hughes), who are supporters of the Soviet party. In the flashback scenes, young Joan is played by Sophie Cookson (who reminds of a young Faye Dunaway).

The film spends most of its time in flashback mode, and Ms. Cookson excels as the idealistic Joan first in her scenes with Sonja and Leo, and later with Stephen Campbell Moore who plays Professor Max Davies. Joan is recruited to work in the lab with Davies, as the secretly work to create the Atom bomb. It’s Sonja and Leo who coerce Joan into passing along secret documents that allow Stalin’s Russia to keep pace on bomb development. She easily flies under the radar since, as Sonja tells her, “Nobody would suspect us. We are women.”

From a historical perspective, the film kind of falls flat. It also doesn’t qualify as a British spy thriller since there are really no thrills to be found. “The Americans” TV show was infinitely better at the spy genre than this one; however, if the film works on any level, it’s as moral debate fodder. Joan clearly has her reasons for doing what she thought was right … leveling the playing field between super powers, so that none had an advantage. The question is, what is right and who is to decide? During this time, alliances were quite fluid between Russia, Britain and the United States, and she believed her actions saved lives.

Dame Judi is really not on screen much, and when she is, there’s little for her to do except play innocent and dream of years gone by. She was labeled “Granny spy”, and though her story is interesting, and does provide yet another aspect from WWII, the film itself never really grabs us as viewers. The early periods are well filmed with beautiful costumes and sets, but we are never as dumbstruck as Joan’s son (Ben Miles) when he admits he thought his mum was merely an over-educated librarian. As a character study, there’s something here … but as entertainment, it’s a bit lacking.

watch the trailer:

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KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2015)

February 16, 2015

kingsman Greetings again from the darkness. In 2010, writer/director Matthew Vaughn turned the superhero genre on its ear with the hit Kick-Ass. With this most recent film (back with co-writer Jane Goldman), he has done the same thing to spy-thrillers.  We get the well-tailored look made famous by Roger Moore’s James Bond, the fanciful and lethal gadgets from early Bond films, the ever-present umbrella (put to new uses here) of “The Avengers” John Steed, and the ultra-suave and debonair manners of Napoleon Solo from “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”  We get all of that in a surprisingly effective and fun action performance from Colin Firth.

Fun is the operative word here. It’s clear all parties involved are having a great time, especially Mr Firth going drastically against type. There are two action-packed and pretty humorous (in a demented way) fight scenes. One is early on inside a London pub, and has Firth flashing his particular set of skills against a group of thugs. The other (and even more raucous) fight occurs inside a church and is set to Lynryd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”. The body count piled up as fast as the guitar licks.

As spectacular as the fight scenes are, the real fun here is in the characters. The old guard of the Kingsmen includes Firth as Galahad, Mark Strong as Merlin, Jack Davenport as Lancelot, and Michael Caine as Arthur. This long-standing group is one part international spy, one part Knights of the Round Table … and these gentlemen are extremely well trained and impeccably well dressed. When one of their agents dies on the job, the recruitment boot camp kicks into gear. Made up of a group of relative newcomers to the movie world, the two most interesting are Roxy (Sophie Cookson) and Eggsy (Taron Egerton). Adding to the intrigue, Eggsy is the son of a former Kingsman, and has some skills that aren’t initially apparent.

Of course, what would a spy-tribute movie be without a colorful villain? Samuel L Jackson plays lispy megalomaniac Valentine, who has a quick gag reflex when it comes to violence. Fortunately his henchman Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) is equipped with razor sharp leg prosthetics and some ultra-crazy fighting skills.  We even see Mark Hamill as Professor Arnold … fans of the Mark Miller/Dave Gibbons graphic novel will appreciate the irony.

Firth and Egerton play off each other quite well in the mentor-pupil relationship, and Egerton is clearly set up for the franchise sequels … as is his friend and fellow Kingsman, Ms. Cookson. For those who think the Daniel Craig Bond films are too dark and serious, this provides a flashback to lighter Bond fare (minus the misogyny). Many hot topics are touched on: class warfare, domestic abuse, racism, etc, but mostly this can be taken as a rollicking good time because “it’s not that kind of movie”. It does, however, remind us that “manners make the man”.

watch the trailer: