Kingsman: The Golden Circle is the film every Bond movie wishes it were, but never will be.
            It begins as it means to go on, with a fist fight in a car chase.  Unlike Quantum of Solace (2008), which began the same way, you can see exactly what’s happening and actually become engaged in the action.  And, furthermore, it’s all set to a Prince song.  So, win-win.
            And this sets the tone for the film we are about to see.  Scribes Goldman and Vaughn have worked the ideas, so each scene gives more than is strictly necessary.  It’s like they decided what they needed to have happen, then sat down and thought about how to also make it clever.  Or funny.  Or both.  That’s good film-making.  Do the creative work when it’s just lines on paper ... The cheapest and most fundamental stage of any film’s production.  Re-writes and re-shoots are so much more expensive!
            Anyway, back at the plot, when Eggsy gets home, after his fight, we find that he has settled down with his anal-loving princess, Tilde, from the end of The Secret Service.  When did Bond ever hang on to a woman for more than one movie?  Indeed, Eggsy is properly romantic with her.  So, we even have a bit of a love story woven into this already busy movie tapestry.

Julianne Moore's Poppy produces all of the world's narcotics from her 50s-style drug store.
            Then we meet our super-villain, Poppy (played by Julianne Moore, who is clearly having as much fun as Sam Jackson did in the last film).  In her introduction, she explains that she is obsessed with the 50s, back when life was simpler; and her evil lair looks like nothing so much as the town square from Back to the Future, complete with drug store, burger bar and live theatre (in which a kidnapped Elton John has a permanent residency).
            Here, she serves up a burger made of human meat (there goes the McDonald’s sponsorship deal) and smiles far too widely, in that way that tells you a person is completely bug-nuts.  Interestingly, when we learn what her plan is, it actually makes sense and she becomes a genuinely interesting and engaging character.  Who is also completely bug-nuts.  Take that Ernst Stavro Blohard!
            As you’ll know, if you’ve seen any of the posters or trailers, we are also introduced to the Kingsmen’s American counterparts, the Statesmen.  They spread their brand all over the world through sales of whisky.  Interesting that a quintessentially American drinks-based organisation doesn’t sell cola.  (But, maybe that would have been one lost sponsorship deal too many).
            These new characters blend in and the dialogue is shot through with spirited exposition which doesn’t leave a sour taste.  It’s a neat trick and the proof of good writing from Goldman, who has had the bottle to, once again, set herself a high bar; and it’s all distilled into a film which just barrels along.
            (Okay, I’ll stop now.)
            There is a lot of swearing, here.  Having a film that looks and sounds like a Bond movie, but with down-to-earth English swearing is fun, at first, but we get so much of it that the typical English response of laughing ’cos it’s embarrassing, actually wears off.Hh  There's also some outrageous humour which, I imagine, will get some voices raised in anger at the film, as happened about the Tilde gag last time.  So, they could have shown a bit more restraint with all that, and displayed a bit more of their obvious wit, but these films are not really about restraint. 
            Director Matthew Vaughn layers his film with glorious detail; there are so many clever ideas, so many moments when they indulge in a pun or just have fun.  Okay, so the golden circle of the title is, actually, irrelevant; that’s okay.  It’s a maguffin, nowt wrong with that.  Everything in the film is presented in a heightened way, with vivid colours, polished surfaces, snappy dialogue and delightfully clever lap-dissolves from scene-to-scene.  No one has had quite so much fun transitioning from one scene to another since Ang Lee made his version of  Hulk in 2003.

Missiles maketh man.  Taking a leaf from the Robert Rodriquez' Desperado playbook - Taron Egerton's Eggsy is on the case and dressed to kill.
            Mark Strong (as Merlin) is even better than he was last time, and gets to sing.  Meanwhile, Taron Egerton, (who, I notice, even though it’s his film, still only gets third billing) ably holds his own amongst a growing cast of actors with way more experience than he has, not least Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore, who are two of the best actors of their respective generations!
            Channing Tatum is in on the gag (in case you hadn’t noticed, he doesn’t take himself at all serious), but is criminally underused in the film (they’re saving him for the next one, no doubt).  This does, however, give an opening for Pedro Pascal to step into the limelight.  You know Pedro from Game of Thrones, but here he looks like he’s auditioning for the remake of The Cannonball Run.  Fortunately, he’s also in on the joke.  Indeed, all of the Americans look like they can barely deliver their dialogue from giggling too much. 
            Thankfully, the viewer is having fun too.

Any chance we can get Ned Beatty in on the action ... Or Sally Field?
            Like a Bond film, Kingsman does a bit of globe-trotting.  There’s no reason, at all, for example, to go to Italy, but they do, for a clever and thrilling stunt-scene involving a cable car which, presumably, couldn’t have been done in America.
            I don’t like sequels which simply repeat the first film (that’s why you won’t find me writing about Fast and Furious or Transformers, for example); I like a film to push its concepts and its characters along a bit, like Guardians of the Galaxy did, earlier this year.  So, yes, we get some of the signature ingredients of the first film faithfully reproduced:  the henchman with a fake limb, the punch-up in a pub, the protracted fight-scene with no edits; but we also get a lot of new ingredients thrown into the mix.
            There is an infection being spread, which has three stages; the first is a warning, the second is a mad craziness and the third is suddenly more serious.  The film has similar sections, with the scene setting of the first act giving way to fun and games with the new characters, before the serious bit which shows, through merciless satire, that the real super-villains of the world aren’t the ones with the secret lairs.  The really evil people are the politicians.
            Just take a glance at the real leaders of the world, if you want some context.
            Speaking of which, Victor Von Trump’s use, just this week, of the phrase ‘rocket man’ may be the most audacious piece of marketing any motion picture has had the fortune to receive - because this film features the Rocket Man himself, Elton John, in a delightful role (much more than just a cameo) where he too demonstrates and real willingness to parody himself.

Man of the match: Elton John!  Now there’s a phrase I never thought I’d type.
            It isn't just the presence of Elton John which put me in mind of a Ken Russell film, when I was watching Kingsman The Golden Circle, no, it the bravura performances, the riotous colours, the restless creativity and the great music cues (it's up there with Guardians and Baby Driver as soundtrack of the year, for me) It’s also the way the film refuses to shy aware from bad taste, and the characters you enjoy spending time with, no-matter how monstrous they are.  It is fun from beginning to end, with a few serious satirical points to make along the way.
            Part of me is hoping that Eon Productions have the wisdom to tap Vaughn on the shoulder for the next Bond film (he did give Danny Craig his big break with Layer Cake back in 2004, after all), but a bigger part of me is hoping he stays right where he is and keeps showing the flaccid, self-important Bond franchise how it should be done.

Dir: Matthew Vaughn.
Script: Jane Goldman & Matthew Vaughn.
Dur: 141 mins
Cert 15


            It all began in 2011, when something that had lain dormant for 21 years was reawakened and stumbled blearily back into the light.  That monstrous entity was ... ‘The 1980s’.  Be afraid, kids; be very afraid.  This nostalgia, at least in movies, was resurrected by J.J. Abrams’ film Super 8.  That was a love-letter to Steven Spielberg’s films of the early 80s, those that he made himself, like E.T. and Poltergeist (both 1982) and those he produced, like The Goonies, and Back to the Future (both 1985).  These films had an inner sweetness at their core, a belief in family values, a suburban American setting, and (usually) a gang of kids getting into scrapes whilst being ignored by adults.

The gang's all here ... There's Fred and Daphne and ... no, wait, my bad: There's Xander and Willow and ... ehm ...
            The TV show Stranger Things did the same thing in the summer of 2016, and threw just as much of the other Steve into the mix.  So, this featured obvious influences from Spielberg’s films of the period, as well as Stephen King’s books (most obviously 1980’s The Mist and 1986’s It); not to mention a healthy dose of H.P. Lovecraft.  The show proved to be a phenomenon.  Audiences are clearly ready for this nostalgia, especially audiences who weren’t actually there in the 80s.  I’ve discussed Stranger Things with a lot of people and the ones who are really enthusiastic about it, are the ones who weren’t born then.
            I feel that this is important because this isn’t nostalgia for the actual 80s nor, even, for the films and books themselves but, rather, for the simplified image of the world they project.  Spielberg, like his buddy George Lucas, was inspired by his own nostalgia for his childhood, back in the 50s.  So, nostalgia for the films of the 80s is, by extension, nostalgia for the world of the 50s.  A time when people knew their place, when the war had been won, the new enemy was a long way away and, so far as kids were concerned, the world could be encircled with a white picket fence.        
            Given the chaos we see in the world every day, pining for simpler, more ignorant times is perfectly understandable.  Of course, in a Stephen King book, those white picket fences don’t keep the monster out, because the monster is, like as not, already in.

Steve and Steve, the two men whose imaginations have come to define a particular view of the 80s.  One seen through rose-tinted specs, the other through beer goggles.   Not surprising, then, that they haven't worked together. But never say never ... stranger things have happened.
            Although I have read most of King’s books of the 70s and 80s, I haven’t read It.  I know, I know, it’s a phenomenon, it’s his masterpiece; people have been telling me that for thirty years; but it never excited me.  Can’t explain why, unless it was just the sheer intimidating size of the damn thing.  I am a notoriously slow reader and a 1,200 page book would likely take me three months.
            And I’ve never seen the 1990 mini-series.  Or, if I have, it made so little impression that I’ve already forgotten it.  I know, I know, it has Tim Curry chewing up the furniture,cos his photo has been everywhere on the internet for months.  I remember, too, that it had John-Boy Walton in it.  Beyond that, nothing.
            So, I could approach the film cold, with no pre-conceived notions.  Unfortunately, what I couldn’t do, was wipe from my memory all the other horror films I’ve ever seen.  Even though I hadn’t read the source material or seen the previous adaptation, It suffers from over-familiarity. 
            They have followed the template of the Nightmare on Elm Street films, those immensely successful horror comedies of the 1980s, which are referenced deliberately and obviously here.  The problem with this, though, is that the Freddie Krueger films weren’t scary.  They were wacky and funny and sometimes a bit gross, but never actually scary. 
            It isn’t scary, either.

Creepy?  Yes.  Intriguing?  Certainly.  Actually scary?  No, not even close.
            This really is a horror film for beginners.  The twenty-or-so-year cycle of media fashion has turned and it’s time, once again, to roll out all those tried and trusted horror tropes that some of us remember from Halloween (1978), and the next generation got from Scream (1996).  The Milennials this film is targeted at have likely never seen this sort of Scooby-Doo caper before and, judging from the film’s astounding box office, they love it.  But I have been watching films since, it feels like, the beginning of time and, for me, a parade of empty jump-scares doesn’t work.
            It isn’t scary.
            The film has no sense of dread; nothing that was unknown or unexpected, which undermines the few potentially unnerving scenes in here, and waters down the few disturbing images.  The script relies far too heavily on the gang members going off on their own and, when they’re alone, doing something stupid like following a creepy figure into a dark room.
            The gang of kids feel so familiar that they are virtually stereotypes.  There’s the token fat kids, the token black kid, the ill kid, the funny kid and the token girl kid.  There’s a few others too but, frankly, that’s just too many kids to keep in one’s mind.  Then, when they find themselves in a dangerous position, there is a lot of screaming.  Really painful high-pitched childish screaming that seemingly never ends.

And then there was this creepy clown and he, like, possessed the slide projector and ... Zoiks!
            There’s nothing conspicuously wrong with the film, all of the set-pieces are well handled, the special effects work, the performances are generally good (a couple of the kids are trying too hard, but the others are spot on) and the new improved Pennywise the Clown is an excellent creation.  His squeaky, childish voice is properly unnerving in the opening storm-drain scene. 
            But it isn’t scary.
            And I can feel the scaffolding of the book propping up parts of the script.  Pennywise hints at his motivation but doesn’t really get any significant dialogue with which he can explain himself, until the end so, for the first two-thirds of the film, you don’t really know what he’s up to nor why.   Which makes it difficult to care.
              Structurally, the film is a mess, with too much time being spent on unconnected haunting scenes (each kid has to have his/her own hallucination, his/her own haunting) then, when they decide on some action and attack the monster where it lives; they take some casualties, so promptly give up.  They go away and the gang breaks up; simply so the film can get them all back together again five minutes later, then they go back into the creature’s lair and finish the job.  Over several hundred pages of sprawling, epic novel, this probably works; but in a lean, linear movie, it really doesn’t.

They really needed to sit down and squeeze the source novel - to flush away some of the extraneous characters and subplots.
            We get hints at some of the characters’ back stories - particularly in relation to their parents - but these whip past too fast to make much impression.  I’m sure that King will have filled all this in, in far more detail in the book.  But, for the film script, I’m thinking they should have either given these elements enough screen-time for them to develop some relevance, or cut them out completely.  It wouldn’t have hurt to cut the size of the gang down, either.  The novel will have had time to make a football team of characters distinct and interesting (that is one of king’s great strengths) but movies are best when they are precise and concise.  If there had been fewer children, but they had been better developed, I feel I would have cared more about them.
            One ingredient I recognise from other King books, is the depiction of the parents.  Their only function in this film is to fuck up their kids.  That’s it.  One way or another, all of the parents are weak or venal or violent and, yet, the kids are (with the exception of the one-dimensional school bully) reasonably well-balanced healthy kids.  For most of the film, however, the parents are an absence.  Platoons of kids are being taken from the town by Pennywise, and yet we are barely told about it, nor do we see any of the pain this is causing, except to our little gang.  It's there, in the background, fleetingly.  But, again, this either needed more screentime, or no screentime at all.
            It’s long been understood (well, it has by me) that short stories and novellas work best as film adaptations, because they tend to be narrower in focus with more economical stories and more manageable cast-lists.  For a Stephen King book the size of a telephone directory (and with a similar number of characters) this adaptation really could have done with being an ongoing TV series rather than a couple of two-hour movies (oh, yes, things aren’t done yet ... this is just Chapter One).
            Still, the film has been a sudden and resounding success, so expect it to be followed by a plethora of films featuring supernatural adversaries which have their devilish schemes foiled by gangs of meddling kids.  Scooby-dooby-doo!

Dir:  Andy Muschetti
Writers: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukanaga, Gary Dauberman
Dur: 135 mins
Cert: 15


            The Limehouse Golem concerns a vicious killer who stalked the East End of 1880s London.  It details how the police were dogged by the press as they went through a long list of suspects.  It acknowledges that the crimes were as much about class as sex, and the police investigation was as much about politics as justice.  There is doubt even over the number of victims.
            But it isn’t a Jack the Ripper film.
            Inspector Kildare is a ferociously intelligent detective, with human failings and questionable morals; who believes he is immune to the whiles of the fairer sex and who, along with his assistant and sounding board, Flood, chases the clues, works the evidence and pursues the suspects through the foggy, gas-lit back-streets of old London town.
            But this isn’t a Sherlock Holmes film.
            Except, of course, the shadows of Jack and Sherlock are so long, it’s impossible not to feel their presence in any depiction of late Victorian London, even in their deliberate absence.
            The story takes place eight years before the summer and autumn of the Ripper and begins with a house full of corpses who have been so brutally murdered one could almost say they’d been ripped!  When Bill Nighy’s Kildare is given the poison chalice of the ‘golem’ killings, the house, with the corpses still in situ, is also full of police, the press and the curious.  There is nothing we’d recognise as police procedure, but then, this is set 100 years before the term ‘serial killer’ was coined.  Fortunately, he is assisted by a bobby called Flood (played, ably, by Daniel Mays) who, in a departure from the way such characters are usually portrayed, is as intelligent as he is street-wise.  They make a good team and their friendship, like their performances, is understated.
Nighy and Mays experimenting with one of those evidence boards, most beloved of movie serial killers and TV detectives.
            Kildare is trying to uphold justice at a time when victims were routinely blamed for the crimes inflicted upon them, the poor were beneath consideration, and women were guilty ... of being women.  As Elizabeth Cree notes “My gender becomes inured to injustice.  We expect it, until we can greet it merely with a shrug”.
            Through Cree, as played by Olivia Cooke, the film gives voice to many of the injustices women faced then (and, by extension, still face today) as well as exploring how the artifice of theatrical life can offer escape from that injustice, into fantasy; at least to some extent.  But, the film is at pains to point out, even when we aren’t painted and performing on stage, we’re still pretending to be something we’re not.

Kildare and Cree.  You might be forgiven for thinking this is a romantic moment, were it not for the fact it's in a prison and he's the only man who thinks she's innocent of poisoning her husband.
            Nighy, whilst remaining a thoroughly Upper Class Brit in his diction and demeanour, has a deep vein of working-class dissent running through him, which enables him to bring both humour and humanity to Kildare.  In interview, Nighy has confessed to finding his own performances mannered and twitchy (not his exact words, but you get the idea) well, here, he restrains the ticks and tricks he uses to make his characters loveable in his comedic roles, and grandiose in his Hollywood villain roles.  Instead, he is dignified and serious; which is what the film needs at its centre.
             Interestingly, Nighy was a last-minute replacement for Alan Rickman who was unavailable on account of being suddenly dead.  This might explain why Kildare is, on the face of it, an unusual role for Nighy.  But, for me, this makes him all the more engaging because, like his character, he's out of his comfort zone.

A moody piece of concept art (which is, frankly, much better than the official poster, below).  You'll note that this features the face of Alan Rickman, who was originally cast as Kildare.  Nighy does a good job of bringing the intelligence, intensity and brooding darkness that one would expect of Rickman, whilst still making the role very much his own.
            The novel on which this film is based was written by Peter Ackroyd, a historian who has spent much of his career unearthing the truth about the myths and legends of London.  So, few writers would be better qualified to see the city in all its historical detail, yet filter that through a contemporary filter.  Tales of faux Victorian skirt-lifting are very on trend at the moment, as are tales featuring unreliable narrators, psychogeography, the gothic, and mercurial sexual identity; so it’s clear to see why this novel has found its way to the screen, some 23 years after publication.
            The story treads the line between fact and fiction.  Even though I know a fair bit about Jack the Ripper, I had to research The Golem, to see if he, like the Ripper, was a historical killer, or one Ackroyd had invented (I’ll let you do the same research, rather than spoil your fun); what is certain, though, is that Ackroyd didn’t invent everyone in his cast.  Dan Leno really was a celebrated music hall performed (although not at the time the novel is set) and writers like Karl Marx really did spend time in the British Library reading room.
            Leno is introduced in full drag, on stage, playing a cheery dollymop, singing a rousing sing-along song about how she is subjected, daily, to domestic violence.  All together now:  “Baby, hit me one more time ...”  Beyond that, though, Leno (as portrayed by Douglas Booth) comes across as a calming influence, one of the few people in the film who is comfortable in his own skin, presumably because he is one of the few people in the film who doesn’t pretend to be something he isn’t.  Ironic, really.

Jay Leno.  The things he's been reduced to since leaving his chat show.
            The film has quite an audacious structure, layering the present with flashbacks which explain motivation and circumstance; but then, Ackroyd is a writer who, even in his non-fiction, is fascinated in the way that the past can poke through the skin of the present.  Much as the suppressed passions of late Victorian men and women, such as unspoken homosexuality, unrequited love, cross-dressing, sexual identity and jealousy, all poke through the thin veneer of denial.
            Added to this subtext, we have the various scenarios that Kildare imagines as his investigation proceeds, seen from the point of view of whichever suspect is in his sights at the time.  This form of unreliable narrative helps keep fresh a story which, despite being set 140 years in the past, feels very contemporary.

Nighy is intense and serious and compelling throughout.  A laugh riot, this film certainly is not.
            Ackroyd understands the sociological role of the media and his characters do, too.  We are told, at one point, “People love to see degradation upon the stage, it's what they pay for.”  I couldn’t help but think of the tabloid front pages I walk past every day, the poverty-porn documentaries I flick past at night, and the endless tirade of social media.
            All of this is brought to the screen with a chilly, gritty visual style by director Medina, who must have put together a pretty-good pitch, since his IMDB profile doesn’t suggest he had this film in him.  He is, of course, aided and abetted by Jane Goldman (aka Jonathan Ross’ little woman ... ahem) who continues to make writing excellent, imaginative and compelling scripts seem effortless.  Her experiences of being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated business will, no doubt, have added some gravel to the issues which underpin this movie.
            There is a rage at the iniquities of Britain’s ingrained class system here, and at the miserable treatment of, particularly, women.  That, it seems to me, is the main purpose of Victorian pastiche these days: to demonstrate what the entitlement and the immorality of the paternalistic elite once led to, and what the continued swing to Right in politics will, once again, lead to, for those unfortunate enough to not be white, rich, able-bodied, straight or male.
            The Limehouse Golem is a tale of intersecting and overlapping unhappiness, and what it costs good people to do something about it.  It is literally a misery junction!

So, hang on ... If this film is about the injustices doled out to women, and empowerment, and the evils of a paternalistic society ... Why have I got to stand with my arse to the camera?  I'm not Scarlett Johansson, you know!

Dir: Juan Carlos Medina
Script: Jane Goldman
Cert: 15
Dur: 105 mins