Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Spy / ***½ (R)

Susan Cooper: Melissa McCarthy
Rayna Boyanov: Rose Byrne
Rick Ford: Jason Statham
Nancy B. Artingstall: Miranda Hart
Sergio De Luca: Bobby Cannavale
Aldo: Peter Serafinowicz
Karen Walker: Morena Baccarin
Elaine Crocker: Allison Janney
Bradley Fine: Jude Law

20th Century Fox presents a film written and directed by Paul Feig. Running time: 120 min. Rated R (for language throughout, violence, and some sexual content include brief graphic nudity).

Daniel Craig will have one more movie as James Bond left on his contract after the new Bond film “Spectre” is released this fall. After Bond 25, should Craig or the Bond producers decide to go in different directions, it will be time once again to consider a new Bond. Jude Law might very well be in the running, as I believe he was when Craig was cast in the role. He’s handsome, charming, has a dreamy smile, and yet he can be deftly serious and people are willing to let it slide when he uses a woman or two to get what he wants. These are all traits of his character, Bradley Fine, in the new movie “Spy”. The catch is that although Fine is a successful spy for the CIA, he is not the spy of which the title refers.

No, comedic character actress Melissa McCarthy plays the spy of the film’s title. You see the movie is a send up of a sort of spy flicks like the James Bond series. Even more so the movie is an overt criticism of the ideology and clichés of the spy genre and of Hollywood in general. McCarthy is plump and short and funny and everything that a serious action movie heroine is not. And yet, considering all of that, I would hesitate to call “Spy” a spoof of the super spy genre. The opening credit sequence and song could very well pass for an actual James Bond credit sequence. Director Paul Feig and McCarthy approach the movie with a sincerity that would make it an almost plausible spy action/comedy thriller if it weren’t so openly criticizing its own inspirations.

Immediately after meeting Fine in the pre-credits sequence, we met the voice in his earpiece who is mostly responsible for keeping him alive and able to perform the remarkable action feats of which he’s capable. This is Agent Susan Cooper, played with all the charm and quirky natural comic goofiness McCarthy has ever brought to any of her roles. She’s in top form here and it obvious from the moment we see her. She’s also a serious agent. She keeps one step ahead of the villains with infrared cameras trained on Fine at all times, she calls on drone airstrikes to get Fine out of impossible to escape situations and has Fine’s back better than just about any spy presented in cinema. When Fine takes her out on a date to thank her for all she does for him after their most recent mission, we discover she hasn’t learned every social trick up Fine’s sleeve. We, of course, also learn of her crush on Fine and his obliviousness to it.

After Fine is compromised on a mission—at no fault of Cooper’s—it becomes apparent that the identities of the CIA’s current installment of field agents have fallen into the hands of a powerful arms dealer, Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne). They learn she plans to sell them as part of an arms deal and someone must find out the details, but who? What makes this treatment different than say “Get Smart”, where you have an incompetent field agent subbing for all the good agents, is that Cooper isn’t really a half bad field agent. She graduated at the top of her class, but kind of always played second fiddle to Fine because they came up through the ranks together, made a pretty good team and he was the one who fit everybody else’s idea of how a field agent should look and act.

So Cooper gets the assignment with strict orders to observe only for the sole purpose of forcing her to break those orders, because that’s all part of the cliché. This will not do with veteran agent Rick Ford, played by a foul-mouthed Jason Statham in a refreshingly comic turn. Ford just cannot accept that he cannot solve the case. He fails to understand that the bad guy—or rather gal—now knows him. While he embraces his ignorance to a fault, it could be that Ford is the ultimate metaphor for male insecurity. He overcompensates in his actions and his language and in his own concept of his intelligence.

In fact, every major male character in the movie is some form of misogynist. Fine treats Cooper as some sort of servant or child, even giving her childish trinket jewelry as a reward for her efforts, without which he would surely die. The villain behind the arms purchase, played by Bobby Cannavale, uses Rayna as a way to gain advantage over his competitors and promptly discards her when he has what he wants. And then there’s Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz), an Italian agent brought in to help Cooper with logistics in her assignment. Aldo is the most blatantly misogynistic of the bunch, hitting on anything in heels or a skirt, and yet he also breaks the cliché by being the most open-minded. He does not discriminate between targets. He’s as turned on by Cooper in her sad fashion choices and Midwestern farm mom appearance as he is by any woman, maybe more so.

The greatest feat that Feig accomplishes here is his juggling act between fully embracing the espionage clichés and defiantly breaking them with biting social commentary about Hollywood’s sexist nature. And he does all that with hysterical comedy. The language may be harsh for some, but most of it fits into the film’s thematic philosophies of twisting and flipping the gender roles and genre expectations. This team of Feig and McCarthy can’t be beat, and I cannot wait to see just how they flip the genders again in next year’s “Ghostbusters” franchise reboot.

Warning! Red Band trailer contains foul language.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

San Andreas / *** (PG-13)

Ray: Dwayne Johnson
Emma: Carla Gugino
Blake: Alexandra Daddario
Lawrence: Paul Giamatti
Ben: Hugo Johnstone-Burt
Serena: Archie Panjabi
Ollie: Art Parkinson
Daniel: Ioan Gruffud

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Brad Peyton. Written by Carlton Cuse and Andre Fabrizio & Jeremy Passmore. Running time: 114 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense disaster action and mayhem throughout, and brief strong language).

The disaster flick is a cinematic summer pastime that goes back even further than Spielberg’s supposed creation of the summer blockbuster with his movie “Jaws”. In fact, the 70s were known for a large number of Hollywood disaster pictures. We love disaster flicks. They’re usually bloated, overblown excuses for ridiculous action sequences populated by too many stars—including the ones that have been nominated for Best Picture Oscars—but we can’t stay away from them.

It’s been a few years since the last big budget disaster flick. No, “Sharknado” doesn’t count. I’m talking about theatrical releases and big budgets here. Roland Emmerich ruled the modern disaster flick with movies like “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow”, but he left a hole when he submitted his sworn last disaster flick “2012”, depicting the supposed end of the world predicted by the end of the Mayan calendar.  Director Brad Peyton (“Journey 2: Mysterious Island”) has filled that hole by placing a big giant hole in the middle of California in the new film “San Andreas”.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Pitch Perfect 2 / *** (PG-13)

Beca: Anna Kendrick
Fat Amy: Rebel Wilson
Emily: Hailee Steinfeld
Chloe: Brittany Snow
Jesse: Skylar Astin
Bumper: Adam DeVine
Kommissar: Birgitte Hjort Sørensen
Pieter Krämer: Flula Borg
John: John Michael Higgins
Gail: Elizabeth Banks

Universal Pictures presents a film directed by Elizabeth Banks. Written by Kay Cannon. Running time: 115 min. Rated PG-13 (for innuendo and language).

So when “Pitch Perfect” was released in theaters in 2012, I’m guessing I wasn’t alone in thinking, “Yeah, a movie about a cappella singing competitions? I’ll catch it at home if it gets good reviews.” The movie only made a little over $5 million on its opening weekend. Not exactly breaking the box office. Then people started talking about it, and word of mouth was that it was worth the admission price. By the end of the year it had netted over $68 million at the U.S. box office and was a huge hit on home video formats. A $5 million opening weekend isn’t supposed to do that.

With its snappy dialogue, great musical numbers and the introduction of Rebel Wilson as a fresh face in comedy, a “Pitch Perfect” sequel became inevitable. So here it is three years later, the girls who make up the musical group The Bellas are three years older, and the audience gets pretty much the same treatment for their encore. That’s what we’re paying for, so that isn’t a complaint. As a critic, it leaves little to discuss beyond the plot, but I enjoyed myself, so I’ll give it another whirl too.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Poltergeist / ** (PG-13)

Eric Bowen: Sam Rockwell
Amy Bowen: Rosemarie DeWitt
Kendra Bowen: Saxon Sharbino
Griffin Bowen: Kyle Catlett
Madison Bowen: Kennedi Clements
Carrigan Burke: Jared Harris
Dr. Brooke Powell: Jane Adams
Boyd: Nicholas Braun
Sophie: Susan Heyward

20th Century Fox and MGM present a film directed by Gil Kenan. Written by David Lindsay-Abaire. Based on the 1982 screenplay by Steven Spielberg. Running time: 93 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense frightening images, brief suggestive material, and some language).

There are some who are calling the present period in cinematic history the Golden Age of Independent Horror. It is true that there have been a good deal of innovative horror films released over the past decade. We’ve seen the rise of Spanish and Korean horror masters, like Guillermo del Toro and Joon-ho Bong. “Saw” changed the horror landscape forever. The first “Paranormal Activity” was original and genuinely frightening. And even as recently as this year we’ve seen innovative horror films like “It Follows”. Perhaps, however, horror directors are getting a little full of themselves and are forgetting the basics of filmmaking as they apply to horror.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road / **** (R)

Max Rockatansky: Tom Hardy
Imperator Furiosa: Charlize Theron
Nux: Nicholas Hoult
Immortan Joe: Hugh Keays-Byrne
Slit: Josh Helman
Rictus Erectus: Nathan Jones
Toast the Knowing: Zoë Kravitz
The Splendid Angharad: Rosie Huntington-Whiteley

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by George Miller. Written by Miller and Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris. Running time: 120 min. Rated R (for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images).

They say it is a fine line between genius and madness. When I was in college, we had a professor that might’ve proved this adage. He was a brilliant teacher and director known for sometimes spectacular behavior to get what he wanted out of his casts. As a teacher he loved to ask his students each Monday which movies we had wasted our money that weekend. He chortled at the latest “artistic” cinema we’d consumed as some sort of deep commentary on society, but… get him talking about George Miller’s post-apocalyptic adventure “The Road Warrior” and you’d hear him extemporize about the genius of modern cinema.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron / *** (PG-13)

Tony Stark/Iron Man: Robert Downey, Jr.
Thor: Chris Hemsworth
Steve Rogers/Captain America: Chris Evans
Bruce Banner/Hulk: Mark Ruffalo
Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow: Scarlett Johansson
Clint Barton/Hawkeye: Jeremy Renner
Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver: Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch: Elizabeth Olsen
Ultron (voice): James Spader
J.A.R.V.I.S./Vision: Paul Bettany
Nick Fury: Samuel L. Jackson

Walt Disney and Marvel Studios present a film written & directed by Joss Whedon. Based on the Marvel Comis characters created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby. Running time: 141 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments).


These words typically associated with comic books could easily fill in for the sound effects in the opening sequence of “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, the second film in the “Avengers” franchise and eleventh overall in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In fact, these and similar words could fill the soundtrack of almost the entire nearly 2 ½ hour running time of the movie. It is wall to wall to ceiling to floor action. It even has a little bit of the science fiction themes and soap operatic elements that sold so many of the children of the 80s on comic book culture.

For those who are doing their best to consume everything MCU they possibly can, the plot picks up the moment where this past week’s TV episode of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” left off. I was disappointed not to see at least a brief cameo by Agent Coulson, however. For those of you who just want to kick off your summer with a balls-out smash blockbuster action spectacular, don’t worry, you don’t need to have seen one second of the television show to understand and enjoy what’s happening on the big screen.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Criterion Thoughts—The 39 Steps (1935) ***½

UR, 85 min.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, John Buchan (novel)
Starring: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, Helen Haye, Frank Cellier, Wylie Watson

Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” plays as a movie trying to break out of the constraints of its times. It is an example of how Hitchcock needed the power and scope of Hollywood to jump the cinematic art forward in just the way he did after his marriage with Tinsletown. It is a movie that bursts at its cinematic seams for greater production value and a leap forward in storytelling for the format.

As is often the case with Hitch, he unsettles his audience with his opening images. A man buys a ticket at a box office and the next few shots are those of feet. Even the purchase of the ticket fails to show us a face or even a torso of the man we are following into a theater. Without seeing any faces and with a sequence of feet walking this way and that, we are immediately placed into the mindset of a sort of chase going on. And yet, we have no notion of who is being chased, or why, or who is doing the chasing. The inside of the theater is a scene of a degree of chaos.