London Has Fallen (2016)

★★

London Has Fallen PosterDirector: Babak Najafi

Release Date: March 3rd, 2016 (UK); March 4th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Crime; Thriller

Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart

“Vengeance must always be profound and absolute,” sneers a baddie at the beginning of Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen, sequel to Olympus Has Fallen. That movie wasn’t particularly good, though it still holds superiority over its younger British sibling, which is a pretty damning indictment of Najafi’s effort. As it transpires, vengeance is neither profound nor absolute. What is absolute is London Has Fallen’s failure to assert any sort of moral vigour, and boy does it try hard. This is a film that begins with an American-led drone strike — the strike lands somewhere in the Middle East and kills a bunch innocent civilians — and then concludes with a lot of western brouhaha. Gerard Butler’s pretty good, mind you.

An early morning jog unhealthily recants Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and London Has Fallen never really recovers. Why we find Special Agent Mike Banning (Butler) out jogging is a mystery anyway — this is a guy with an unpainted nursery room awaiting his handiwork at home. Banning is expecting a child with his wife, played by Radha Mitchell, whose limited screen time only marginally lags behind that awarded to both Angela Bassett and Charlotte Riley. The lack of time for the latter is a real shame given Riley’s sparky attitude imbues the piece with some much-needed freshness late on.

Ah yes: the nursery. We watch as Banning does a bit of home décor, all the while hoping upon hope he won’t get called away from his family to serve President Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart). And why should he be called? It’s not as if Banning is the President’s most trusted right-hand man. Only, he is, though not for long: Banning has his resignation letter typed and ready to send. Finally he will be free to live a comfortable life with his wife and future child. It’ll be grea– wait, hold on. The British Prime Minister just died. Big funeral. All heads of state invited. Damn, so close.

And so we voyage across the pond, fingers crossed that the day will run smoothly. Of course, it turns out the Russian President can’t be bothered showing up because, y’know, Putin joke. Neither David Cameron nor Vladimir Putin are mentioned by name — the British PM is instead referred to as James Wilson, though the Russian President receives no such treatment. Prohibitive legalities taken into consideration, this random-name-generator approach infects proceedings with an early dose of second-handedness that the film really could do without. Elsewhere, it’s a case of broad strokes: the Italian PM is depicted as frisky, the French leader as fashionably late.

In fairness, nobody is buying a ticket to see a screenwriting masterclass, but even the basic story formulation feels lazy. When it isn’t flip-flopping between watery thematic substance and vaguely racist punchlines, we get to sit through Secret Service meetings during which potential terrorist plots are dismissed far too easily. And absolutely everything is telegraphed: ominous brassy horns sound out as Banning details the President’s route through London, foreshadowing trouble with as much subtlety as a jumbo jet taking off. Then there’s the godmother conversation that reveals whose death is pending. This sort of blatancy leaves us with no dramatic handle to cling on to.

There are a few decent things afoot. The London setting works as a familiar backdrop and it’s enjoyable seeing the characters race around the city. One shot especially stands out: as an air raid siren booms, the camera pans back from ground level towards the sky, its focus fully on Banning and Asher as they navigate ghost streets. Props should go to cinematographer Ed Wild and director Najafi for this brief juncture of inspiration. And when the piece refuses to take itself seriously, there is mild fun to be had (including one or two well-conceived action sequences). Rather than ill-judged attempts at joining the political conversation, London Has Fallen should embrace its silliness more. White House Down managed its limitations well, opting for nuttiness over seriousness with some success, and this ought to have following suit.

We do see visual prowess, then, but ultimately there is no escaping the absurd special effects. A river blast looks like something out of a video game cutscene. A bridge collapses in Final Destination style (not London Bridge, oddly). And it doesn’t seem to be a case of hokey-on-purpose, but rather just poor visual integration. There is a disconnect between scene-setting shots, which take on a grainy quality hinting at realism, and silly-looking explosions. On a side note: at one point events fly stateside, to Washington, D.C. and to a White House that looks in tiptop shape following its destruction in Olympus Has Fallen. Somewhere, a plasterer deserves one heck of a raise.

London Has Fallen unmasks the US President as damn competent with a weapon and then reckons it can contribute to the debate over the perils of modern warfare. The entire saga is far too flippant to get away with any of it: not the nervy and misguided faux-justification of terrorism via wheelchair reveal, nor its self-forgiving attitude towards unethical war. American Sniper suffered from a jingoistic eyesore and this evokes a similar blindness — it really doesn’t have a moral leg to stand on. If anything, you leave the cinema severely disliking everybody. Apart from Gerard Butler obviously. Have you seen him batter Jimmy Fallon with a giant hand?

London Has Fallen - Gerard Butler & Aaron Eckhart

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Gramercy Pictures, Lionsgate

A Bigger Splash (2016)

★★

A Bigger Splash PosterDirector: Luca Guadagnino

Release Date: February 12th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama; Mystery

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson

Ever sat through a film that looked splendid, had winning actors winningly performing, bore intrigue and yet that made you want to claw your eyes out? A Bigger Splash announced itself in such a way to me, although to be fair its teeth-grating annoyance did eventually improve to a state of plain old manageable annoyance. The negative overlay has to do with a severe disconnect between viewer and three wholly unlikeable characters: filmmaker Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) isn’t all that aggravating — probably because he looks eternally fed up with his predicament — though the same cannot be said for rocker Marianne (Tilda Swinton), music producer Harry (Ralph Fiennes), and student Penelope (Dakota Johnson).

Marianne and Paul’s quiet, idyllic Italian break built around sun, sex and relaxation gets interrupted suddenly by the screech of phone call and the whoosh of aeroplane (it’s a metaphor). On the other end of the line is Harry, Marianne’s pal and former lover, who is calling to let her know his plane is about to land at the nearby airport. He has brought his daughter with him, for some reason. More significantly, Harry brings raving obsession, with Marianne first and foremost, but also with rambling — for two hours, the guy is physically unable to hold his tongue. He seems fittingly well-versed in the island’s community, at one point hilariously showing up at a resident’s house just to try their risotto.

It isn’t initially clear how the four know each other thus interactions are racked with awkwardness, though that doesn’t stop Harry mouthing on about how he once served the Rolling Stones. These introductions are inelegant also because Marianne cannot speak — she is a rock star and rock stars have to go on voice rest, though she does eventually wispily chatter when the film realises silent sex isn’t enough for somebody of Swinton’s calibre. She does at least get to don full Bowie-esque getup in flashbacks. Marianne’s beau, Paul, suffers from headaches brought on by medication brought on by a serious life event brought on by his ailing career, or something. Crucially, the headaches are not an issue at the start (remember Marianne can’t talk), only flaring up upon Harry’s arrival (remember Harry can’t shut up).

The latter’s daughter, Penelope, is moody, scheming, and unpredictable (and then entirely predictable). An age issue suggests miscasting; Johnson, otherwise, doesn’t have much to do apart from laze around. The four characters spend most of their time lazing around in truth, often naked — the camera lingers but does so exclusively — as they wind each other up about their respective troubles and life philosophies. You can see what the screenplay is going for, that feeling of rising tension and impending drama, but the underlying menace reaches boiling point after 30 minutes and only starts to subside thereafter.

What begins as an odd pseudo-romantic endeavour becomes something else entirely, a would-be thriller if the film was at all thrilling. Its musical inclination — the suggestion is that Marianne and Harry were once big partners in sound and debauchery — beckons A Bigger Splash towards a more drugged-fuelled narrative, perhaps something akin to Kill Your Friends. In fact, that comparison pits Fiennes in the wrong film: his self-serving, self-destructive nature is far more suited to the Owen Harris flick. He does commit to the role admirably, delivering a performance buoyed by genuinely creepy eccentricity, but the horridness of Harry means Fiennes is constantly fighting a losing battle for sympathy.

Despite all that, there is a small hint of intrigue going on in Luca Guadagnino’s retreat escapade. Without giving anything away, you do find yourself awaiting a genre shift towards a more mysterious tone, and when said shift does inevitably arrive it feels right in a story sense. But it’s also very abrupt and too late in the game, therefore the movie concludes before character reactions reach full formation and story arcs can be suitably sewn up. I’m not against open-endedness (quite the opposite; as a fan of Lost, unanswered questions are right up my street) but the film’s overlong buildup renders the eventual pay-off a tad undercooked.

Potentially rewarding themes attempt to break through the superficial limelight, nods towards a clash of cultures and the obliqueness of fame for instance, but none of these make a true mark. In the end, it is all a bit celebrity Mad Dogs without the desired amount of madness or dogged captivation. There is nothing to chew on and nobody to root for. The only splash here, unfortunately, is one into shallow water.

A Bigger Splash - Johnson & Fiennes

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Fox Searchlight

The Hateful Eight (2016)

★★★★

The Hateful Eight PosterDirector: Quentin Tarantino

Release Date: December 25th, 2015 (US); January 8th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Comedy; Crime; Drama

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh

Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight almost feels like a career denouement. Fittingly, its structure loosely resembles that of the director’s inaugural feature, Reservoir Dogs, though experience has clearly softened his haste. One can imagine a young Tarantino, exuberance overriding patience, penning a screenplay too snappy to tempt overstaying its welcome (at less than 100 minutes, it is his shortest film). With over 20 successful years to his name and having perfected his incomparable style — arthouse blockbusters — snappy screenplays no longer have a place in the auteur’s workshop. The Hateful Eight reflects just that, seemingly to the point of no return.

Post-Civil-War tensions are rife in what is essentially a courtroom western. In non-revelatory terms, let’s run through some of the prosecutors (after all, Tarantino’s screenplay does the best descriptive job). John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is pure Americana, the type who gets glossy-eyed reading a letter written by President Abraham Lincoln. He is transporting criminal Daisy Domergue to Red Rock where she will be hanged — Jennifer Jason Leigh, oddly enough, increasingly channels The Breakfast Club’s Allison with each disconcerting grin and her general weirdness. Along the way they meet Major Marquis Warren, practical and thoughtful, played by Samuel L. Jackson.

He hitches a ride after some toing and froing, as does Chris Mannix who the trio find flailing around frantically in the brewing blizzard. Mannix, the prospective Sheriff of Red Rock, is weaselly and the most out-there of the entire bunch. He is played by Walton Goggins, the film’s MVP on the humour front. Tim Roth (Oswaldo Mobray), Michael Madsen (Joe Gage), Bruce Dern (General Sanford Smithers), and Demián Bichir (Bob) are already huddled up in Minnie’s Haberdashery when the travelling troupe arrive seeking shelter from the storm. Turns out the snow would have been a safer bet.

This rabble, though most engaging, are a noxious bunch. They use “during wartime” as a reductive excuse for past misdemeanours when really those misdemeanours were, and are, a way of life. “Justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice,” muses Roth’s Mobray with ominous foreboding. Much has been made about the treatment of Domergue, and it’s plain to see why: she gets throttled often and without much in the way of retaliatory action. The characters are almost universally vile, Domergue included; the abuse is not funny nor, crucially, do I think it is meant to be. It didn’t offend me (the N word is again invoked with consistency) but others mightn’t be so kind.

For around an hour and a half, you get the feeling Tarantino and co. are taking the material seriously, so much so that those doing the striking gain a nasty reputation. But when the spaghetti violence takes form later on, that conscientious veneer ceases to exist and gory absurdity reigns supreme. Perhaps justifiably, given the caricature-esque group involved. At this point the violence is played, at least to an extent, for laughs and shock value — although it is worth noting most of the amusing moments arrive via verbiage. Ruth, for instance, intentionally has the worst comeback patter: “My pistol plays a tune… Domergue’s Death March.”

Jackson gets the best of the dialogue and subsequently repays Tarantino’s faith. He delivers a whodunit monologue with such devious joy; you can just about see the actor licking his lips as he succumbs to the satisfying taste of the words rumbling around his mouth. On the topic of audio, Ennio Morricone delivers another resplendent score, thoroughly grandiose and absolutely worthy of the occasion: his return to the genre for the first time since Buddy Goes West (1981). Galloping horses carry a distinctly cinematic sound and Tarantino, a movie lover, knows it. He also knows and cherishes the woody authenticity of film as a shooting medium, making Robert Richardson’s immaculate visual serving a welcome non-surprise.

There are times, and this is true of all Tarantino outings apart from the aforementioned Reservoir Dogs, when you find yourself actively egging conversations towards their conclusion. This is especially applicable in “Chapter One” of The Hateful Eight, when Warren is attempting to nab a seat in Ruth’s convoy. It might be a genuine attempt to flesh out key characters or simply a matter of self-indulgence, or possibly a bit of both. Tarantino writes and writes, and then writes some more, and when you see one of his films you just have to accept that. Because when he gets it right — and let’s face it, he does get it right quite a lot — even Aaron Sorkin must look on with a hint of jealousy.

Having said that, there isn’t much depth beyond the obvious cultural and political divisions (which are so plainly invoked they barely register as thoughtful). The certainty of death manifests via blood-trails in the snow — these rose markings could also represent the importance of evidence on the path to justice, though I might be clutching at straws with that one. Tarantino makes it work, however, by subbing in rich characters and the unrepentant screenplay I have already alluded to. The film exists in an era that demands people declare their backstory upon meeting a stranger and those variably truthful backstories are thoroughly enticing to hear.

A chapter in the film’s second act expertly refreshes proceedings just when you think the film might be turning stagnant and a tad repetitive. “The name of the game is patience.” It is true; patience welcomes more positives than negatives in The Hateful Eight. Quentin Tarantino is the sort of director who would rather swim across an ocean than take a speedboat in order to prove his point. You’ll know by now whether or not you enjoy that sort of storytelling. Regardless, there is something charming about a film that keeps you in the cinema a little longer than necessary — especially if said film has a lot going for it.

The Hateful Eight - Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh & Bruce Dern

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company

Sicario (2015)

★★★★

Sicario PosterDirector: Denis Villeneuve

Release Date: October 2nd, 2015 (US); October 8th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Action; Crime; Drama

Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin

For Denis Villeneuve, Sicario marks something of a departure from Enemy’s odd intricacies and the personal anguish of Prisoners. It has more in common with the latter — a nasty streak and a bleak underbelly — but Villeneuve’s third English-language outing is a different beast entirely. It’s a very cold film. There is so much bloodshed that you almost become impervious to feeling, though attempts to humanise its various players are admirable and fairly successful. Sicario’s concerns are wrapped up in the (under)world of grisly cartels, and in how the war on drugs has fostered moral imprecision, even on the ‘good side’.

FBI agent Kate Macer (a brilliant Emily Blunt) is part of that good side, and one of only a few individuals whose outlook relays consistent righteousness. We realise instantly that Kate is both strong and capable, yet not at all infallible. Nobody is for that matter — when her team finds a myriad of deceased bodies plastered behind the walls of a house, physical and mental repulsion take over (there’s a lot of vomiting). This discovery triggers an IED explosion that kills two agents, setting in motion a covert investigation into some serious criminal wrongdoing. Kate, driven by a need for revenge, volunteers for the job.

She has to navigate a landscape dominated by important-looking men wearing suits and asking personal questions (“Do you have a husband?”). Josh Brolin’s Matt Garver is one of those men, an advisor-cum-field officer whose macho posture is supported by a spine of arrogance — for some reason he wears sandals during mission briefs. Garver leads the field operation, batting back Kate’s inquisitive questions with vague swings; you get the sense his unwillingness to reveal all has less to do with bureaucracy infecting law than it does pomposity.

Pitting Kate in amongst cowboys and sheriffs and gruff Texans with gristly beards seems to be Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s way of acknowledging reality while also challenging the effectiveness of a masculine culture. While most of the men — not all, Kate’s partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) is similarly noble, though he too is portrayed as an outsider — are energised by the presence of their egos, Kate, indiscreet and somewhat inexperienced, is our key moral fibre. It’s through her gaze that we peer into an immoral world, and it increasingly feels like only her actions can reshape said immorality.

Sicario is clear in its admission that nothing is clear. People are neither good nor bad (in fairness some are quite bad) but instead exist somewhere along an ethical spectrum. A Mexican cop whom we visit throughout the film is shown interacting with his family, particularly his football-loving son. Joe Walker’s editing — which cuts from the search operation to the officer’s modest home — implicates the cop in some form of corruption, yet his family-conscious roots are never invalidated. The vast majority of people on-screen are treated as human beings, a trait often missing in films that depict warring factions (see American Sniper).

If government agencies and drug cartels are the factions at war, Juárez, Mexico is the battlefield. The city is introduced as a final level boss: maze-like, audibly inscribed with tales of dread, bookended by a pulsating score. It’s the urban equivalent of Everest’s Death Zone — the longer you stay, the more likely you are to die. Perennial, and future, Oscar nominee Roger Deakins often gives scenes time to breath, funding the perception of encroaching danger. Civic infection has wreaked havoc upon the people of Juárez, so much so that civilian life is now inseparable from criminal activity. Just ask Silvio, the aforementioned policeman.

Early on, we take a drive through the cartel capital in a stretch of truly exceptional filmmaking. It’s tense, eerily subdued. It makes you feel ill, and its conclusion ushers forth one of the most anxiety-ridden traffic jams in silver screen history. Following the film’s incredible opening third (which is ostensibly a 40-minute horrorfest) the pulse inevitable drops. What follows isn’t quite as interesting; it’s the downtime between assignments, where Kate and co. swan around bars and stare diligently at maps, invoked to add character depth.

One of those characters is Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), the titular sicario. Del Toro saunters on screen parading a mystique that suggests he ain’t to be messed with. He folds his jacket even though it is already creased, a move that mirrors his make-up: externally unruffled but internally blazing. The actor has that grizzled veteran demeanour, his hitman reminiscent of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West. Gillick says very little, affording extra reverence to the few words he does speak: “You’re asking me how a watch works. For now, let’s just keep an eye on the time”. Or, in layman’s terms, conquering a complicated cartel network is inescapably complex.

Lines are blurred and identities masked in Sicario’s post-9/11 society. This is Zero Dark Thirty with a narcotic skin. There is a wonderful sequence that precedes the final act (at which point the tension re-escalates): darkened human silhouettes descend into the black abyss below a brooding, orange-tinted skyscape. It’s a sublimely serene moment in a film otherwise dominated by impending threat. The serenity, like life in Juárez, is short-lived.

Sicario - Emily Blunt

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate

Prisoners (2013)

★★★★

Prisoners PosterDirector: Denis Villeneuve

Release Date: September 20th, 2013 (US); September 27th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama; Mystery

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman

There is a great deal of religious allegory laced throughout Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve’s morbid entry in the child abduction genre (when wouldn’t morbidity factor?). The first voice we hear belongs to Keller Dover, played by Hugh Jackman, who relays the Lord’s Prayer “Our Father” with solemn gruff. Shortly thereafter, the dad of two converses with his son about the need to be prepared for impending natural disasters — floods, subsequent humanitarian crises etc. These early religious influxes glare from the screen, but as the film progresses it is driven by a more subtle assertion: loss of children equals loss of faith, and loss humanity.

Prisoners isn’t really about religion at all. It’s about our mundane and/or extreme reactions to potential tragedy. We follow two men, broadly speaking, each fulfilling his perceived duty in the wake of a double disappearance. Keller Dover is one of those men, whose young daughter and friend go missing on Thanksgiving. Perennial show-stealer Jake Gyllenhaal is the other man, the detective on the case. Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay awards ample development time to the pair of them; just when you think the film is erring too much on one side of the story, it shifts to the other perspective.

Gyllenhaal’s Loki relays that sort of downtrodden look, one that suggests he may be fed up with his role in the dank Pennsylvania logging town. He relentlessly blinks as if forcing himself to stay awake. We learn from the source that Loki has solved every case he’s ever been assigned, and you get the sense that is probably because he routinely swap sleep for work. Keller, likewise, bears a dishevelled appearance most of the time, his gruff beard and hardened exterior perfectly matching the woody setting. Even Keller’s chequered shirt is dark grey and army green.

When the pair first interact following the girls’ disappearance, Jackman is brilliantly emotional; enraged to no end, with bloodshot eyes and a reckless aura that serves as a basis for what is to come. On the other hand Gyllenhaal evokes detachment, as if Loki has already been down this horrid route before. To him, it seems, what happens next is a formality. It is a fascinating — if not entirely surprising — clash that continues to evolve without genericism.

Roger Deakins’ use of a woozy grey colour palette encourages the dour and desolate mood. Cinematographer Deakins is always an ever-present during awards season (he was nominated for his work here, and has been on the final ballot for his numerous efforts alongside the Coen brothers) but, in one of the circuit’s most egregious ongoing shams, the camera master has never won an Oscar. He sets the scene ominously in Prisoners: when it rains, it really does pour.

For around an hour Deakins meticulously cuts away from any violence, allowing our imagination to run wild. The first instance of visceral brutality comes via the fists of dad Keller, flipping the morality of good and bad. Terrence Howard plays the father of the other lost girl, his ethics wavering but without as much force. Keller arrives at barbarity through his own prejudice — he believes he has the culprit, but the law disagrees. To Keller, his psyche crumbling under the weight of anguish and guilt, the law has become sterile and justice is best served cold.

The film challenges us to consider his predicament, and whether or not his actions are justified. That Hollywood babyface Hugh Jackman is the one inverting right and wrong only serves to complicate matters further. Even the local priest is a drunk, and worse. The reaction of Keller’s wife, mother to one of the missing girls, is a little harder to swallow. Played well by Maria Bello, she blames her husband for what has happened. Though this might be a truthful and raw circumstantial response, there is a disconnect between the overstretched attempt at melodramatic realism and the more grounded troubled realism surrounding Keller.

Villeneuve’s film is also about systematic failure. It calls into question how two girls, both of whom should be safe in their own neighbourhood, can go missing without a trace. The fact that Loki always seems to be fatigued suggests that he is overworked. You applaud his tenacity and sympathise with his increasing hopelessness — especially as he juggles the intense job with spit-fire tirades from the victims’ families — but you also lament the inadequate law set up. Keller is unable to actively assist the ongoing investigation due to legalities, the structure keeping him and his wife at arm’s length.

The movie reflects Zodiac’s overbearing misery (and also its literal puzzlement), and Gyllenhaal’s appearance also recounts his Nightcrawler aesthetic — post-gaunt, perhaps. He has to be restrained as the detective, but also as the co-star. Jackman, quite obviously, is the one doing most of the emoting. He gives a stunted powerhouse performance, a broken one, a trembling one. “You look very tired.” And he is. Paul Dano plays one of the primary suspects and although the nature of his character generally renders him silent, his performance manages to be one of internal terror and external creep.

“No-one took them. Nothing happened. They’re just gone,” says one women dejectedly. And that’s the mantra by which the film lives. It keeps us guessing to the point where we might never find out what happened. This slow burning premise echoes of the first season of The Killing; very thorough, manoeuvring this way and that, affording its audience time to think. The pace is slow and film is long at two and a half hours, but the pace would be slow for the families involved. A sudden burst of energy towards the conclusion ushers in an incredibly well-executed car sequence.

Prisoners reconstructs the pillars of humanness and purity. What would we do in similar circumstances? Having initially caught his suspect with fuzzily correct intentions, doubt soon creeps into Keller’s mind. Yet he never releases his captive. As time wears on, it becomes apparent that Keller is only disseminating pain in order to serve his own emptiness — it’s a temporary stop-gap that might, somehow, eventually lead to a permanent solution.

Prisoners - Gyllenhaal & Jackman

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright: Warner Bros. Pictures

Spy (2015)

★★★★

Spy PosterDirector: Paul Feig

Release Date: June 5th, 2015 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Comedy; Crime

Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jude Law, Jason Statham

When James Bond saunters into town, his pristine Armani suit hiding any number of high tech weapons, hair nestled to the last strand, there often isn’t an awful lot of room for laughter. To solve: swap Bond for Melissa McCarthy and his Armani suit for her grey cardigan. Paul Feig’s Spy is many things, but first and foremost the writer-director has made a film that ridicules other films through sharp satire and vulgarity. It is ridicule born out of admiration, though mercy is somewhat lacking.

Susan (Melissa McCarthy) works for the CIA as Agent Bradley Fine’s (Jude Law) office-based earpiece. She is self-depreciating and lacking in confidence, which makes it easy for those who she obsequiously admires to take advantage of her skills. When Fine runs into trouble while trying to locate a nuclear device, Susan ditches her hesitant psyche and volunteers to observe potential bomb supervisor Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) in the field.

Feig romanticises the spy genre before sticking a bullet in it. The contractual car chase sequence (there are two actually) matches slick low camera angles with precise steering, but is ultimately a nightmare for Susan who desperately needs a seatbelt. Later on a spot appears to be free at Boyanov’s poker table — of course the baddie plays poker — but Susan’s efforts to join are scuppered when she finds out the spot is reserved. The humour is fairly light-hearted, particularly during the first hour as the underlying stupidity of the genre unravels before our eyes.

Topical jokes about Jurassic Park bats eventually secede from the ongoing shenanigans, ironically at around the same time tough guy Agent Rick Ford starts rearing his hilariously bloated head. The influence of Jason Statham pours into the screenplay and the film thereafter becomes a hotbed of amusing profanity. Statham does a tremendous heightened impersonation of himself and steals the show in the process: eyes constantly bulging, words packed with punch.

He instigates a lot of “fucks” too — an additional thirty minutes and Spy might have given The Wolf of Wall Street a run for its sweary money. Solitary f-bombs increase in quantity as the film progresses, universally well-delivered but not as gratifying as Statham’s completely baseless, hyperbolic remarks (he claims to have survived a car crash on top of a moving train while on fire, or something). Ford is a reflection of the nutty stunts and brash egos prevalent throughout the Bond franchise, but he’s only one branch on the film’s satirical tree.

We travel with Susan to numerous glamorous cities, visiting Paris and Rome and Budapest, Robert Yeoman’s cinematography consistently painting each locale with a prosperous gloss. If this wasn’t so obviously a spy outing you’d be forgiven for confusing the whole thing with a holiday brochure. Early on, some cotton wool-wrapped admin staff marvel at all the incredible gadgets: hoverboards, Aston Martins, palm-sensitive weaponry. None of that for Susan though. She receives some security disabling aerosol disguised as anti-fungal spray.

Spy incorporates a large volume of female characters whose attributes range from quiet, to funny, to powerful, to supremely effective in combat. Rose Byrne hams it up with delectable aplomb as Boyanov. She’s a nefarious villain, indisputably, but she is also smart and sexy. Allison Janney snaps away as Susan’s boss, always ahead of the curve. Even as the goofy best friend, Miranda Hart gets in on the action. Susan is the antithesis of convention personified. She’s all of the above, but also kind and proficient when it comes to terminating bad eggs. McCarthy retains her Bridesmaids crassness and is such an affable screen presence.

The men don’t fair quite so well. They are smutty, degrading, idiotic and full of ridiculous non-truths. Good spies are actually bad spies, they’re apparently just good at being dicks. “I like things that are easy,” says Fine, referring both to the control he has over Susan and her penchant for making his job exceedingly less difficult. Peter Serafinowicz turns up the creep factor as chauffeur Aldo, essentially a reimagining of Bond with his sleaziest characteristics intensified.

At one point Janney’s character tuts, “Women,” and it feels like a nod towards the unfortunate consequences of institutional misogyny found within classically male-dominated workplaces — especially Hollywood, and spy films, where women have often been (and sometimes still are) defined as plot points rather than well-rounded characters. This time some of the men are purposefully shallow. They do have redeeming qualities — Fine isn’t really a rubbish person, he’s simply indicative of a groan-inducing fake macho culture — but here the gender roles are well and truly (and refreshingly) reversed.

The violence is comical, reminiscent of those splattery outbursts in Hot Fuzz. A tremendous kitchen fight scene spiritually resembles the supermarket brawl in Edgar Wright’s movie, with baguettes, lettuce and hand-piercing knives all used in an inventive manner. Not every gag hits the mark, especially ones driven by aimlessness rather than intelligent wit; Susan invades an outdoor techno entertainment event and chases around a slightly chubby Elton John-lookalike, with the whole endeavour feeling a bit lazy. That’s not the norm though. The film has a lot in common with the underrated Johnny English when it comes to silly comedy.

The plot gets increasingly convoluted as more deals are struck and more bosses are revealed, but that is sort of the point. It’s part of the overarching joke. You’ll see Spy for the humour, which is adept and plentiful. But the film also has its finger on the cultural pulse, ready to pull the trigger on irreverent gender roles and uneven social standards via a barrage of well-earned laughs.

Spy - Melissa McCarthy

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): 20th Century Fox

21 (2008)

★★

21 PosterDirector: Robert Luketic

Release Date: March 28th, 2008 (US); April 11th, 2008 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller

Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kevin Spacey, Kate Bosworth

When it comes to playing cards there are two ways a trick can go wrong. A plethora of impressive skills, perhaps including some nifty sleight of hand, culminating in unexpected disaster. That’s the first. The finale is disappointing, but at least you get the temporary thrill of expectation. The second revolves around a bland illusion. When a trick hits all of the correct spots yet fails to sparkle. 21 is a bland card trick. Its deceptively pacey opening hints at promise however, when the hands have been laid and the chips counted, Robert Luketic’s film amounts to nothing more than a serviceable few hours.

Inspired by true events, 21 tells the tale of six MIT students and their advantageous teacher who coalesce together in order to pull off card counting blackjack victories. Ben Campbell (Jim Sturgess) is the team’s newest recruit, having joined in a desperate attempt to fund his Harvard dream. Though the Las Vegas voyagers get off to a successful start, rising tensions begin to chisel away at the group’s policy that denounces in-game emotion, and their cover is threatened.

If you struggled to follow any of the poker lingo in the opening paragraph, 21 will probably have you pulling your hair out after half an hour. (I’m almost bald now). The first few frames are snappy and strategy-led, though quite unnecessary given the content is repeated later on. In short, infrequent bursts, detailing the logistics of what our characters are doing is fine. The nature of the narrative needs some exposition to keep the film bubbling along. But we hear about rules and game play so often, and without vindication too. The film isn’t about blackjack — it isn’t about anything really — blackjack is simply a means to an end. That is how the characters see things (“It’s just business”) and it should be how we see them too. Unfortunately, writers Peter Steinfeld and Allan Loeb get too caught up in the explanation part that they forget about storytelling. It’s all a blur, really: stat crunching, pluses, minuses, attributing animals to numbers. Who cares?

This need to accurately relay the ins and outs of the gambling world leaves little room for narrative clarity, ushering forth an enormous helping of laziness. Coincidence is rampant from the get-go; “The Robinson is going to someone who dazzles,” a Harvard representative informs Ben, giving him his only motivation to cheat. If that wasn’t cheap enough, the interviewer goes on to tell Ben he needs more life experience. Money and life experience, huh? If only there was a quick-fix solution to both. Good thing our lead is intelligent as well, otherwise we’d be spending almost two hours — a ridiculously long run time — watching him pay his way to Harvard in a suit store. We never really believe in Kevin Spacey’s teacher by day, Vegas kingpin by night either. You’d think a flustered student would have ratted him out by now. Navigating the outing’s incredulity becomes increasingly arduous as the events dive deeper.

Kevin Spacey is pretty good though. Perhaps there is an element of phoning it in going on, but the actor’s charisma works wonders for his character even if it does accentuate the mundanity of those around him. His delivery strikes as quite perceptive on occasion. Presumably he is aware of the invariably groan-inducing dialogue. (“Ben, let the car drive by itself,” says Micky after hearing about his student’s attempt to create a self-driving car). The other performers tough it out, but they can’t overcome the bland material. Jim Sturgess is okay as the main player, never threatening to erupt from his character’s generic chains. It is worth pointing out Josh Gad, who is quite amusing as Ben’s obnoxious best mate.

The characters join the plot in the doldrums of commonality. We’ve seen it all before: the group member who succumbs to jealousy; the friend left hanging in the lurch; the suave leader with ulterior motives; the hard-to-get girl whose beauty matches her romantic indecision. Sure, 21 looks alright when the gang reach Las Vegas but even then there are so many aerial shots that we begin to wonder if the director simply has no idea what to do next. Since there is inability to conjure up any emotional connection, the filmmakers recruit surface elements to grab our attention. The bright lights and quick edits fail to yield pizazz, and even a fairly sparky soundtrack feels diluted amongst the mechanical air.

Laurence Fishburne shows up every now and again and effectively sums up the film’s failures. He plays casino security chief Cole Williams, and his moral stance is never really unfurled. Cole hates the incoming modernisation — he’s an old school guy, preferring film to digital — and the soon to be implemented facial recognition software is sure to leave him out of a job. The guy is a dick though, more or less working the antagonist role opposite our card counting clan. It is conceivable that Cole’s ambiguity is a reflection of dubious actions elsewhere, and gambling in general, but that is probably awarding too much credit to an otherwise uninspired production. So we don’t care about him.

21 is eternally insipid. Everything from plot to character diversity reeks of carefulness, even the group’s motto is tedious. (“Don’t get caught counting”). Kevin Spacey provides the occasional spark that the piece seeks dearly. It wishes to dazzle, some might say, but eventually peters out. I’m still trying to figure out why an underground gambling hub exists in a Chinese restaurant.

21 - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Vulture

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures