Spy (2015)

SpyCIA analyst Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is the eyes and ears of Agent Bradley Fine (Jude Law), and so it is only natural that she feels somewhat responsible when he is compromised on her watch, while infiltrating the home of target Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne). The daughter of a terrorist known to possess a compact nuclear bomb, Boyanov is believe to know its location. Unfortunately, she also has information that jeopradises the secret identities of every active agent the CIA has on its staff, including British brick-house Rick Ford (Jason Statham). Determined to avenge her partner, Susan offers to go into the field herself, and with the help of best friend Nancy (Miranda Hart) and informant Aldo (Peter Serafinowicz) tracks Boyanov first to Rome, and then to Budapest, where she is expected to sell the warhead to an unknown third party.

Sabrina The Teenage Witch actor turned Bridesmaids director Paul Feig is back with another Melissa McCarthy vehicle, this time envisaging the actress as the titular spy. Of their three current collaborations, the other being 2013’s The Heat, Spy is probably the most successful; whereas the others were notable only for various stand-out set-pieces, their latest film together strikes a consistency that makes it an all-around more enjoyable experience. It has also reached beyond the Judd Apatow fold to include a more interesting collective of actors, including Jude Law, Jason Statham and, of all people, BBC sitcom star Miranda Hart. It’s a peculiar ensemble, admittedly, but one with plenty of potential and bags of personality. Peter Serafinowicz is in there too.

As impressive as the cast might be, however, it doesn’t make the film feel particularly American. Bobby Cannavale (who plays CIA contact Sergio De Luca) and Alison Janney (who plays spymaster Elaine Crocker) represent the United States alongside McCarthy, but just about every other key actor is British (with only Law bothering to affect an American accent). This is more than a little incongruous given that Spy is supposedly set within the world of Homeland Security, and never more so than in the third act where Cooper appears to dress up as Dawn French for her final showdown with Boyanov. Not only is this distracting within the context of the film, but it’s difficult to watch Spy without comparing it to any of the myriad British spy spoofs that already exist. With its emphasis on improvisation and weight-related humour, Spy is nowhere near as cogent or comprehensive as Kingsman: The Secret ServiceJohnny English or the UK-set Austin Powers trilogy.

Feig doesn’t quite convince as someone who understands the genre, and as a result his film is somewhat lacking in conviction. He’s incorporated a few of the key cliches (sending up secret identities, street chases and rogue agents in the process), but very few of his observations feel particularly piercing or well founded. Instead, the film prefers to poke fun at hot towels, enclosed scooters and 50 Cent. That said, at the end of the day all that matters is that Spy is funny — Get Smart may have been more on target but it didn’t contain half as many laughs — and with McCarthy on board there was never any danger of there being a dearth of good gags, many of them likely ad libbed on the spot. Surprisingly, Statham scores just as many belly laughs as his co-star, displaying a hitherto unseen penchant for comedy. Rick Ford is like Jay from The Inbetweeners reimagined as a super spy, forever exaggerating his achievements only to showcase his incompetence whenever his talents are put to the test. In fact, he literally has the last laugh.

Spy is undoubtedly a lot of fun, and refreshingly not all of the best bits are in the trailer. That said, it doesn’t quite live up to its potential — squandering much of its supporting cast, principally Janney, Serafinowicz and Hart — or even the promise of its title.

3-Stars

 

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This Is Where I Leave You (2014)

This Is Where I Leave YouWhen Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) catches his boss (Dax Shepard) in bed with his wife (Abigail Spencer), quits his job at the radio station at which he works and receives a phone call from his sister (Tina Fey) informing him that his father has passed away, he naturally assumes that things couldn’t possibly get any worse. He would be wrong. Upon returning to his family home ahead of the funeral, Judd discovers that despite being an agnostic his father has wished that they observe the Jewish custom of Shiva. Grounded by mother Hillary (Jane Fonda) for seven days of mourning, Judd and siblings Wendy, Paul (Corey Stoll) and Phillip (Adam Driver) spend the week coming to terms with their loss, their lives and each other as childhood friend-turned-rabbi Charles (Ben Schwartz) oversees the ritual.

The latest film from Shawn Levy, This Is Where I Leave You has been adapted from Jonathan Tropper’s book of the same name by the author himself, and is the latest in a long line of familial dramas to cast comedy actors. Unfortunately, the film is more Brothers & Sisters than August: Osage County, with the film doing little to distinguish itself from the most unremarkable melodramas. Whereas last year’s Oscar nominee portrayed a family intent on tearing itself apart, Levy’s is a much more traditional tale of reconnection and coming together in the face of tragedy. There is much talk of fragility and unhappiness, but ultimately nothing that can’t be more or less fixed in the space of one hundred minutes.

Aiming presumably for tragicomic, the film falls woefully short as the characters prove too false to be funny. Bateman has never been the best dramatic actor, and while his character should be the audience’s focal point he is too smug to be suitably sympathetic. As with Steve Carell in Little Miss Sunshine Bateman appears to have signaled his serious intentions by growing a beard, but it isn’t nearly enough to sell his performance. Fey is clearly struggling too, and seems unsure how to deliver lines in an unconsciously earnest manner. She’s saddled with a romantic subplot, which sees Wendy pine for her brain-damaged childhood sweetheart (as played by Timothy Olyphant), that just doesn’t work at all. Everyone else is simply conforming to type, but even safely within familiar territory Fonda, Driver and Connie Britton as Driver’s girlfriend fail to make their characters interesting.

While many of the film’s developments ultimately fall flat, there is the occasional flourish. The family’s relentless teasing of Schwartz’s character (nicknamed Boner since childhood) never fails to raise an admittedly modest smile, while Rose Byrne is perfectly watchable as Penny Moore, who had a crush on Judd when they were at school and has never really left town. There is even the occasional show of wit in the Altman residence, usually when the family are lined up for Shiva or when Wendy’s son “goes potty” in the middle of an argument. Hillary is a celebrity psychologist, and while her fictional book’s insights into her four children are often more entertaining than the film’s there is some fun to be had with her observations. For the most part, however, This Is Where I Leave You limits itself to poking fun at Fonda’s fake breasts.

Largely devoid of laughs and lacking in any real warmth or bite, This Is Where I Leave You fails as both a comedy and a drama. Worse still, the characters, performances and story absolutely fail to convince. The Altman’s may have spent a week mourning the passing of their father, but you will have likely forgotten all about it minutes after the end of the film.

2-stars

Bad Neighbours (2014)

Bad Neighbours

Mac Radner (Seth Rogen) and his wife Kelly (Rose Byrne) are looking to begin a new life as parents. Unfortunately, this means spending less time with best friends Jimmy Faldt (Ike Barinholtz) and Paula (Carla Gallo) in order to focus on the needs of their new-born daughter Stella. To begin with, Mac and Kelly aren’t particularly concerned when infamous fraternity Delta Psi move in next door, as they see themselves as cool parents still capable of having a good time, but when the antics of Teddy (Zac Efron), Pete (Dave Franco), Scoonie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and Assjuice (Craig Roberts) begin to threaten their suburban bliss they find themselves calling the police to complain. This breaks a pact they had made with Teddy, and soon it’s all-out war as the neighbours fight for their respective family homes.

There was a certain level of buzz around Bad Neighbours even before it opened to big box office and positive reviews in the US, facilitated by its strong cast and run of funny trailers. Here was a movie that borrowed from a number of different comedy sub-genres: its cast was sourced from films as diverse as Superbad, Bridesmaids and Submarine, it shared a director with Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him To The Greek, and — in a welcome change from the usual sex comedies and spoof movies — was the first frat-comedy to come along since Monsters University. (Nobody saw 21 & Over, so it doesn’t count.) By the usually low standards of the comedy genre it felt almost fresh and original.

Beneath the gross-out gags (Stella mistakes a condom for a balloon) and farcical violence (there’s a running joke involving stolen airbags) there is an underlying melancholy to Bad Neighbours which is incredibly endearing. It’s a film about growing up, accepting that your adolescence is over and moving on with your life. Mac and Kelly are ready to do this at the beginning of the movie, only to be temporarily tempted back to the party when a mob of students move in next door. They’re torn between wanting to seem cool and relevant, and wanting to get a good night’s sleep ahead of another day of bread-winning and breast-feeding; it’s a dilemma that most people will be able to sympathise with. Teddy, however, needs a little more convincing, though there are signs even among Delta Psi that adulthood is on the horizon.

The ensemble get some big laughs out of the material, and though the set pieces delight it’s the smaller moments that make the biggest impression. Nicholas Stoller knows how to stage a party, and you can completely understand why Mac and Kelly are tempted in, but he also knows the attraction of a quiet night in front of the TV. Where the film falters is in its balance of scripted jokes and improvised comedy; as charming as the interactions between characters are (particularly in the case of Rogen and Byrne) there comes a point when you realise that you’ve been smiling rather than laughing. A number of the set-pieces seem wasted, and you wonder whether a tighter script and more polished performances might have gotten to the heart of the scene where ad-libbing has only really scratched the surface. After all, some of the cast are better at it than others, and Efron — so funny in 17 Again and Liberal Arts — struggles most of all.

Nevertheless, Bad Neighbours is a funny, likeable and surprisingly touching piece of work. It’s hit and miss at times (Lisa Kudrow is squandered as the college dean) but ultimately pulls it all together for an almost note-perfect finale. The credits are great, too.

3-Stars

 

The Place Beyond The Pines (2013)

The Place Beyond The PinesAfter learning that a former lover had given birth to his son in secret, Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) quits his job as a stunt racer for a travelling circus and begins robbing banks to better support his new family — whether they want his help or not. When Glanton’s raids put him on a collision course with idealistic beat cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a chain of events are set in motion that will impact not only their own lives, but those of their children, Jason (Dane Dehaan) and A.J. (Emory Cohen), too. Read more of this post

Bridesmaids (2011)

Anna is a single woman reduced to working as a sales clerk when her cake shop goes under. A “bootie” awaiting Ted’s (John Hamm) every beck and call, Anna is called upon by best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) to be her Maid of Honour. Quickly batting horns with Helen (Rose Byrne), a relatively new addition to Lillian’s social circle, Anna is soon fighting to hold on to her title, completely despite the negative impact it is having on the rest of her life. Even as doting cop Nathan Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd) enters the fray it appears that things are going to have to get worse before they will get better.

Bridesmaids, the latest film off of the Judd Apatow production line, takes the well-worn formula, gives it a pair of breasts and swaps space-cakes for cup cakes in Paul Feig’s (Sabrina the Teenage Witch‘s Mr. Eugene Pool) biggest film to date. Kristen Wiig’s Annie is another aimless (wo)manchild, cut from the same cloth as the rest of Apatow’s protagonists, who suffers excruciating interaction after excruciating interaction as she watches her life circle the drain. Backed up by the control freak, the prude and the inappropriate overweight friend, can Bridesmaids offer anything we haven’t already seen before? Or is it just a Hangover (see what I did there?) from other buddy comedy that ticks boxes with as much predictability as it drops farts.

Yes and no is the honest answer, as Bridesmaids crosses the half way line – shedding many of its characters and subplots as it goes. While there will be those who claim that dropping a Y chromosome constitutes great originality, and it somehow bafflingly needed proven that women can be funny too, Apatow and co.’s foray across the gender line really isn’t enough to distinguish a movie from those that came before. While undoubtedly funny at times – a food-poisoning sequence in particular had me gasping for breath – too much of the alleged humour is derived from characters mumbling nothing in particular, a technique which is more groansome, if anything, than funny.

Bridesmaids‘ biggest misstep, however, is in the mistreatment of its ensemble. Uniting a group of disparate women as the titular bridesmaids, the film unceremoniously drops two of its six at the midway point, all the better to focus on its other remaining stereotypes. Skipping over a number of the obvious set pieces in favour of anti-climactic awkward-fests (a potentially boisterous hen-party is dropped in favour of a hugely overdrawn airborne mishap), Bridesmaids wastes too much time on pointless and unfunny subplots (Matt Lucas anyone?) and repetitive conflicts to make much of an impact beyond the odd successful gag.

At times funny, at times excruciating, Bridesmaids is a functional comedy with some interesting moments and surprisingly tender interactions. For the most part, however, it is a sloppy and uneven, identikit comedy which isn’t quite sure which movie it wants to sex-change first. That said, Bridesmaids nevertheless stands head and shoulders (or Herbal Essences. Or maybe Aussie) above Apatow’s output to date.

 

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Desperate to avenge his mother by killing the man responsible for her death, Eric Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) travels the globe dispatching the Nazis who had served under Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) in the concentration camps of his youth. In England, meanwhile, Oxford graduate Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is recruited by the CIA to help avert a nuclear war. Travelling to America with operative Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) and his childhood friend Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), Xavier soon encounters Lehnsherr and Shaw, founding the X-Men with the former after saving his life in the field. Where Charles teaches his new charges tolerance and humility, however, Eric believes that they shouldn’t have to hide themselves from humanity, that they are the next stage in human evolution and should take their rightful place in the natural hierarchy. When events result in a stand-off between the U.S. and Russian naval fleets, our small group of mutant heroes must put their differences aside if they are to defeat Shaw and avert war.

I must admit to taking my seat in the auditorium with a small degree of trepidation, what with all the early chatter regarding retcons and cameos, I feared a film which jeopardised established cannon in the blind pursuit of narrative freedom; the excellence of the first two instalments (and the adequacy of the third) being somehow undermined by a nifty new beginning where Charles Xavier says “groovy” and the sun inexplicably rotates the Earth. I needn’t have worried, however, with X-Men: First Class proving far less revisionist than director Matthew Vaughn might have had you believe. While he may take a few liberties with the extant franchise, they are – and this is where X-Men Origins: Wolverine went catastrophically wrong – for the good of the story.

Having successfully deconstructed the superhero genre with Kick-Ass, it is interesting to see how Vaughn handles his superpowers. Reconstructing the opening scene from Bryan Singer’s first movie, Vaughn and screenwriter extraordinaire Jane Goldman have endeavoured to tell an X-Men origins story of their own, albeit one that beautifully marries the 1960s setting with an expanding array of new and returning mutants, successfully imbuing the story with a freshness not felt since we were last introduced to Professor X and his merry band of mutants. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender make the characters their own – no mean feat considering the talent which preceded (or is it superseded?) them – while Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw, January Jones’ Emma Frost and Rose Byrne’s Moira MacTaggert provide delightful additions to the franchise.

Elsewhere, however, the newcomers are less impressive. While the original X-film was criticised for feeling like a teaser for adventures to come on behalf of its slim cast, it at least found the time to flesh out its ensemble (OK, maybe not Toad). First Class, on the other hand, feels overcrowded, with many mutants given little to do but change sides and fill out the two organisations – I for one don’t remember hearing Álex González’s Riptide speak once. With the most recognisable mutants still in nappies at this point, the buck falls to an array of dopplegangers and less-than-inspiring B-mutants to take their place. While Banshee, Havoc and Darwin have their moments, Azazel never escapes Nightcrawler’s shadow and Angel Salvadore treads foolishness as the wasp-like go-go girl with explosive vomit.

Other elements that don’t quite work are the split screen training montages (the entire third act rests on Beast having the most productive week ever), the plotting inconsistencies (Beast has created an antidote to his mutation that he doesn’t believe will affect his mutation, quite despite the fact that it is his abnormally prehensile feet that give him his abilities) and the relationship between Xavier and Raven. While this latter issue may resolve itself as they mature into a more organic friendship by movie’s end, the characters’ childhood introductions don’t quite sit right, whether due to scripting issues or the child actors themselves. It is a small gripe, but one that haunts the film’s opening act nonetheless.

First Class is a return to form, however, with the renewed focus on characters and a welcome prioritisation of substance over style (poor special effects can be forgiven, an over-reliance on set pieces cannot) acting as a reminder of how figuratively rich the X-series can be. In tying Nazi occupation and the Cuban missile crisis to a high octane superhero tale of world domination, Goldman has once again delivered a wholly fulfilling script with some well observed inter-character dialogue. That said, although First Class has commendable aspirations, the heavy-handedness with which the name-checking of literary behemoths Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde is dealt serves only to illustrate how derivative the medium can be; riffing off existing emotional truths rather than exploring its own. Now five movies in, the core messages of self-actualisation and societal acceptance – while timeless – are beginning to echo previous instalments. Far from the vacuousess of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, however, at least it stands for something.

All in all, X-Men: First Class heralds an exciting new dawn for a franchise steeped in qualitative discrepancy. While some of the plot points might creak as the writers attempt to retrofit the narrative to the original trilogy, and although a few of the characters may fall by the wayside, there is enough wit, innovation and genuine exhilaration to justify a new franchise, even if one less radical than the overhaul befalling Star Trek. That this is largely down to Fassbender and McAvoy – although Lehnsherr may suffer a somewhat severe case of accent ambiguity and Xavier’s preoccupation with his hair might wear a little thin (ahem) – is a reflection not only of the filmmakers’ combined talents, but the quality of the source material from which they draw.

 

Insidious (2011)

When they move into a new home, the Lambert family become increasingly suspicious that they are being haunted by Casper’s worst nightmare. When packing up and moving again doesn’t help and their son falls into a mysterious coma, Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) must recruit the services of an old acquaintance and rely upon the unorthodox methods of an ageing medium (Lin Shaye). As the supernatural threat grows more potent, and the shit really starts to hit the metronome, a family secret may hold the only key to their son’s condition in what has suddenly become a desperate race against time.

As somewhat of a connoisseur when it comes to cinematic horror, I like to think I’m braver than I actually am. In fact, the reason that I love the genre so much is that I am one of the most susceptible people I know to Hollywood’s staid horror conventions and recycled scare tactics. Therefore when I say something is scary, I am prone to a rather large margin of error; when I say that something is not, however, you can trust my judgement emphatically.

With that in mind, then, let me first say that Insidious is one of the downright stupidest horror movies I’ve ever seen, with each turn of the plot eliciting a new groan in the knowledge that things are about to get a whole lot sillier. If I was sustaining a cringe throughout, however, it would have been near impossible to tell; safely hidden, as my head was, behind the palm of my quivering, sweat-stained hand. Insidious‘ biggest achievement, and perhaps the only one that counts, is that it doesn’t shy away from less accepted territory and unintentional humour, but embraces them; somehow managing retain a considerable sense of dread regardless.

Marketed as it is as from the creators of Saw and Paranormal Activity, it is easy to see why some people might be disappointed by Insidious‘ apparently blasé attitude to cheese. If I was to compare Insidious to any recent addition to the horror genre it would probably be Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell, with an ending that could be right out of Joe Dante’s The Hole in 3D. You see, rather than using its malevolent spirits with a near tedious restraint, Insidious isn’t going to waste hours of make-up and thousands of dollars of special effects on a few throwaway glimpses, it’s going to flaunt its assets at ever available opportunity.

What this should do – and perhaps to a braver soul, does – is render the audience desensitized, accustomed as they have come to the film’s primary antagonist (a demonic threat that could easily be reduced to Darth Maul running around in a dark room). Director James Wan is so shameless in his desire to scare your popcorn out of its box, however, that his confidence somehow translates into genuine, excruciating terror.

As in Drag Me To Hell, Insidious boasts acting that is best described as heightened, particularly when the hauntees turn, inevitably, to the resident psychic. Proceeded by two bumbling ghostbusters, the eventual reveal of our Betty White-a-like continues the film’s attempts at self-sabotaging its own tension, the requirement that she wear a gas mask to perform the climactic séance upping the ridiculous quotient to giddying levels. We really are talking Resident Evil: Apocalypse levels of subtlety as the ghouls come knocking, and yet it all somehow works, completely despite all of the hackneyed talk of astral projection, demonic travellers and The Man With The Red Face – not to mention the final confrontation with Mr. Maul himself.

Whatever Insidious is supposed to be, then: a deadly serious assault on your sleep cycle; a homage to such films as Ringu (our protagonist isn’t particularly photogenic), The Shining (those twin girls really do get around, don’t they?), and Poltergeist (young children should just be outlawed); or simply an unused plot from Buffy or Ghost Whisperer, Insidious is as bonkers – and absolutely terrifying – a film as you are ever likely to see.