Spy (2015) Review

June 27, 2015

One could say calling your film Spy suits the unimaginative titles that a Hollywood executive would like such as Let’s Be Cops or Shoot ‘Em Up. Films with titles like Quantum of Solace make people blush now a days, and we’re long past the days of films like Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key. Then again, masters like Fritz Lang called his earliest spy film Spies so maybe I’ve got to surgically remove my nostalgia-goggles. Spy has been received some surprisingly positive reviews and I’m not really sure if it’s well deserved.

Spy is a comedy by Paul Feig starring Melissa McCarthy. The two have worked together in films such as Bridesmaids (which Wikipedia humorously describes as a “neo-noir romantic comedy” currently) and The Heat, neither of which I’ve taken the time to view. In this film, McCarthy plays Susan Cooper who works for the CIA as a highly talented desk agent who guides Bradley Fine (Jude Law) on missions. After Fine is kidnapped on a mission, the CIA requires an unknown to go and finish his case and find out about his whereabouts. Cooper springs at the opportunity which has her running around Europe.

Spy seems to have traits of other American comedy films I’ve seen today involving a script which just has the basic necessities to make characters go from point a to point b and then letting the actors improvise when you really need to juice up a scene. I’ve seen clips of this in McCarthy’s other film Tammy as well, where the camera cuts away from a scripted scene and then have a close-up of the comedian is available in the scene and have them adlib a line where we do not see a character’s reaction until a cut away. This sort of ruins the cinematic nature of a film comedy to me, but it doesn’t make Spy a complete throw away that Tammy was. McCarthy and her Miranda Hart who plays her sidekick, are funny enough in these scenes and has enough zingers that will at least squeeze out a smile out of the audience if not a strong laugh. This also goes for Hart who also is squeezed into similar gags.

This isn’t the case for all the characters. Jason Statham surprisingly provides a comic performance of tough guy spy upset with McCarthy’s recent promotion to being a secret agent and often tries to one-up her or brag about his own past work. Also good is Peter Serafinowicz who plays an Italian sleaze ball spy who wants nothing more than to sex up Miss McCarthy. These guys seem to be sticking to the script and if they aren’t, I can assume that their characters have such short screen time that it allows them to feel more natural. Although the film is not as wildly out there as the films in the Austin Powers series, those films characters at least stick out in our mind as unique enough James Bond pastiches. McCarthy’s character of Cooper is given several identities which are amusing sight gags, but are immediately tossed off instead of developed into characters like Statham or Serafinowicz’s characters are. It made me wonder if the script wasn’t originally penned as a spy film. Scenes are sometimes connected strictly by McCarthy’s character saying “we have to do this now!” or “oops! I’ve left my gun in the other scene!”. At one point, McCarthy’s character drops her role as a spy to become a bodyguard to Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) or when spy elements are handled poorly to make a character like model and bollywood actress Nargis Fakhri’s role as a rival spy seems a bit shoe-horned in.

Balancing action and comedy is a real complex cocktail. Spy makes some strange choices. First, some gags are straight slapstick which is fine, but the best masters of physical comedy didn’t let it be part of the entire set-up, whether it’s Keaton’s ability to move back and forth on a steam train seem different each time in the The General or Jackie Chan’s ability to have a simple gag like being stuck in a barrel in Drunken Master 2 changes the stakes of a scene opposed to a one-time gag that has no consequences. Spy is a bit all over the map, it ranges from the bad of just having her fall as she gets into a vehicle, to the better involving a successful bike jump over a ramp, that lands her into a pile of cement. The best humorous action scenes involves an airplane flight scene, which leads to bullet holes in a plane humorously plugged with whatever objects are laying near by.

Don’t even get me started on the special effects though as we get the expected CG created helicopter and airplane scenes, the worst offender is a vomit gag with CG puke. This makes me the most paranoid about the future as this director is in charge of the Ghostbusters remake which is a film that needs really strong comedy and special effects to work. The effects work and editing in Spy is a really crap sign of things to come.

Spy works best with expectations set low for theaters, but otherwise a satisfying enough film for a rainy afternoon. Story is just “there”, it has no real visual or kinetic flair but it’s just “funny enough” to maintain your interest and see what other funny things might happen. For a film simply titled Spy, that’s all I could ask for.


Mad Max: Fury Road Review

May 14, 2015

When Mad Max 2 was released in the early 80s, it followed an already good film by making it bigger and better, expanding the universe and everything that made the original a blast by tenfold. That’s what I desire from a sequel that has to make existing characters do something more than go through the same motions again – they need a grander task and adventure than the first film. This has been seen with other science fiction franchises, going as far back as Frankenstein (1931) to Bride of Frankenstein and Star Wars to The Empire Strikes Back and for me, Alien and Aliens. I’m happy to say we have it again in Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s not quite the quantum leap from the first film to the second, but it’s satisfied the thirst that Beyond Thunderdome did not quench many moons ago.

In short, Fury Road is all you could realistically want from a Mad Max movie in the age of digital film. If you demand the rough physicality of cars speeding along from the original film, you are on the wrong track, as the cars are at least 7 times more bulky now. If you demand a modernized version of Mad Max 2, you are getting much warmer. We get nice nods to the series and other films of its ilk from the past, But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s get into plot.

Fury Road takes place well beyond thunderdome, where we find Max quickly imprisoned by a new gang called the War Boys who number in the hundreds. These black metal-esque looking scrawny drones look like a hybrid between the slaves in the Smashing Pumpkins video for “Bullet With Butterfly Wings” and their lead singer Billy Corgan in the “Ava Adore” video. That’s not the only connection to rock music, as Max resembles Rob Zombie early in the picture, and later, freaks in the film appear to be long lost members of Slipknot. I’m not even going to go into detail about the vehicle that includes a thrash metal guitar player to rally the troops. Anyhow! The pale-faced goons are lead by Immortan Joe played by Hugh Keays-Byrne. Keays-Byrne is the only prominent cast member returning from the previous films, playing Toecutter in ”Mad Max”. This reappearance confuses me a bit, so I’m going to casually go back and forth, referring to him as both Immortan Joe and Ghost of Toecutter.

Ghost of Toecutter!

Immortan Joe rules his fortress from the cliffs, where he commands the War Boys who number in the hundreds. Immortan Joe enlists the next best new character in film, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), to gather more supplies from neighboring towns. Unbeknownst to him, Furiosa has taken some hostages and has her own plan to escape from his rule. After a wild chase that sees a return of the cars from The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), Max manages to meet up with Furiosa and the two make an uneasy truce to get them away from Ghost of Toecutter Immortan Joe who is in hot pursuit. Even worse for Max and crew is that Immortan Joe has teamed with other gang leaders, with appropriate Mad-Max names like The Bullet Farmer and The People Eater. We’ve seen these characters in earlier art design for the film, and I’m happy to state that they not only look the part, but the acting is sharp and without a bad performance throughout. Each character gives just the right amount of camp and comic-book intensity to their respective roles that it would be more silly if these people were not driving spike-covered monster trucks.

The Cars that Ate Paris live again!

Speaking of looks, if there is one thing that remains in memory from Mad Max 2 or Fury Road, it’s the art direction. Fury Road introduces a new vehicle or two per chase sequence. Each one looks like it was constructed from things we might see in a scrap yard in real life, but with an over-the-top makeover that would make the average monster truck driver drool. Even greater is that these vehicles are all real, not computer-generated blobs that perform impossible physics. I wish I could comment more on the look of the scenery and vehicles, but I viewed the film at a pre-screening event which was shown in 3D. Fury Road was post-converted into 3D and makes some visuals feel unusually out of place, such as muzzle flare effects and the occasional burst of flames. This ain’t Avatar, Gravity, or even Jackass 3D. Don’t see it in 3D!

Is the film flawless? Not really. Longtime purists of the series might call foul on Tom Hardy’s lack of screen time to show off the Mad Max character. Mel Gibson’s role of Max in the earlier films was always the stand-out performance, probably because he’s the only character who isn’t given any goofy faces to make.

goofy-reactions-Mad-MaxGoofy reaction shots are sadly(?) missing in Fury Road

I’ve really enjoyed Tom Hardy in some previous films like Bronson and Lawless , but he is not given as much time for us to delve into the Mad Max character, and almost feels like the side-kick in his own film. Thankfully, the new character is just as tough and wild as Furiosa, and gets her own Mad Max-esque storyline of loss. I can understand a fan’s disappointment with not seeing as much Max in a film called Mad Max, his name is in the title after all! Personally, I’m much more happy to see a new character rather than see Max go through the same problems for a third or fourth time. My only gripe about Furiosa is that her reaction to her group of young friends did not hit me quite as hard as lesser events in the film, such as Max’s annoyance at seeing others driving his car, or even Immortan Joe quickly turning his car to avoid crashing into one of his wives. Not that all important scenes with her lack an emotional tug, but each one should hit hard, especially for a character so prominent.

The final, major issue I have with the film is not one I’ve read in any early reviews; it involves how the film was shot. The original films have a rough and raw feel that actual film gives to a movie. We can tell there is a lot of digital tinkering going on in this picture with the hot orange scenes within the desert and the dark blues of the day-for-night shots, which reminded me more of the tinted scenes from Murnau’s Nosferatu than anything resembling a scene shot at night. Not sure what was on Miller’s mind with this stuff.

Fury Road should sucker-punch audiences who regularly devour the Disney-Marvel flicks or the Fast and the Furious franchise, and definitely feel more than satisfying for people who’ve waited for this film for over a decade. All I desired was a film that felt like it was made by the maniacs who made the first two films, and I received my healthy dose of the bizarre, perverse, and generously entertaining Mad Max world. Not unlike The Littlest Hobo, Max is shown leaving his accomplices after coming to their aid at the end. I look forward to see where he travels and who he meets next. (Mad Max that is, not the Littlest Hobo).


Retaliation Review

May 11, 2015

In the past, I have denounced films on this blog for not having an engaging enough narrative to back up their action sequences or having action sequences that had too much shaky cam, both of which removed my ability to engage in the action as it was shown. However, I’m about to praise the film Retaliation from 1968 for having both these issues. How is that fair? Does anything separate it from any number of Luc Besson produced wannabes?

Let’s bounce back for a minute. Retaliation is a Japanese film from the Nikkatsu in the 1960s. The crime films made by the studio were generally b-films that directors such as Yasuharu Hasebe or Seijun Suzuki could churn out quickly. Suzuki himself would casually quickly spew out four or so a year, but what made his so special was a matter of peppering the simple plots with all the energy, pace and strangeness you could desire on a tight budget. Suzuki’s Branded to Kill features men who become turned on by the smell of rice and feature women with dead birds hanging from their rear-view mirrors.They borrowed from James Bond films: gangsters, machoness and noir cool to create a delerious cocktail that made them unique creations. Suzuki has already earned his cult status with fans like John Woo,Jim Jarmusch and John Zorn. Seeing Suzuki’s films makes you wonder what the other films are like from Nikkatsu. Are they useless derivative junk with Suzuki being their only real diamond in the rough?

Outside Suzuki, Nikkatsu’s action films have been more written about about then watched. Retaliation is directed by Yasuharu Hasebe in 1968 and has recently been released on blu-ray and DVD by Arrow Video. It’s been screened on rare occasions at some Asian film festivals, but has only received an English-subbed home video release in 2015. The film, as of writing, this has less than 50 votes on IMDb. I hope this changes, as this film, when approached with the knowledge of Nikkatsu’s history, is quite a firecracker.

Japanse film poster Retaliation (1968)
Film poster for Retaliation

Retaliation was made quickly, with scripts written as the film was in the middle of shooting. This could lead to some messy narrative confusion, but actually allows the filmmakers freedom to go as far as they want when it comes to camera angles and pure cinematic staging. This film is about a gangster named Jiro Sagae (Akira Kobayashi), who is released from prison and finds himself lent out to another Yakuza clan, who are interested in purchasing land to increase their own grasp of the area. This makes the film’s original title I Own Your Turf! more apt. He meets with Jo Shisido’s character, Hino, who is forced to work with him – an act he cannot really sink his teeth into as Jiro had killed his relatives several years in the past. Shootouts between gang members and double-crosses ensue!

The film’s plot is a bit crude, with perhaps one too many characters. The fact that Jo Shishido’s character is more interesting than Kobayashi’s is an issue, as he has a motive for revenge while Kobayashi’s role is limited to his relationship with Meiko Kaji’s character and his old gangster leader who returns to the story towards the end. What shapes this film into something more interesting is how it’s shot. There is lots of hand-held camera work and the crew is quite playful when trying to illustrate the action. Take the opening scene, where we have a quick duel between Jo and Akira.


Normally, I’d leap at the chance at the point out scenes so obviously constructed to hide what’s going on, but peeking through the bushes and spying between train carts gave me this “you are there” feeling that I feel like shaky-cam developers like Paul Greengrass are trying to pull off in his Bourne series. It works here, I believe, because I can still see follow the action by seeing who’s attacking who and what they are attempting to do, but am given this in a new perspective of the “not having the best seat in the house” type camera. This type of camera trickery isn’t set strictly to the action scenes either and is often deployed in bizarre fashion such as a dinner meeting between gangsters where an argument erupts from a bird’s eye point of view. I’m not going to spoil any other scenes, but let’s say they involve spot light lit battles and one surprisingly brutal bathroom brawl.

If there’s sour parts, it’s the obligatory scenes of nudity and rape that began coming up in the 1970s. These scenes feel tossed in and only suggest that those bad guys we saw earlier are, guess what, bad! I know this is coming from a man who later directed films with titles as explicit as Raping!. What could that one be about. . .

I’m getting far off topic, but I’d suggest that if you like your films with the cool vibe of the John Woo and Johnnie To and just want to be swept into unique and kinetic camerawork and violent action scenes, please seek out Retaliation. For those requiring a new narrative or political importance in your crime sagas, I’m sure there are some Jean-Pierre Melville films you haven’t seen yet.


Under the Skin looks like…

July 16, 2014

Word up.

When I’m not trying to convince people that watching ”Zatoichi” would not be a waste of time, I dig modern non-testosterone fueled cinema. The kind where people somehow resolve their differences through words or worse vague symbolic gestures.

A few months back I had the pleasure of watching Under the Skin. (spoilers: it’s a mutha of a film). Looking at home video options, the UK steel book version using the original poster is especially nice looking.

Get rid of the reminder that the film features an Avengers
and you have got a purty cover

It just dawned on me now that I’ve seen this before. Dig the back of the Canadian steel book for Total Recall.


This a beautiful film too

The similarities do not end there!

Both films have the following

  • characters luring each other with sex
  • hostile aliens
  • characters who think they are in dreams
  • people with great physical deformities
  • people from another planet who disguise themself as women
  • Dig Total Recall‘s own Under the Skin moment:


    It’s obvious which film is superior


    The Raid 2: Berandal Review

    May 4, 2014

    Despite managing to experience an early screening of The Raid 2, I’m already late with a review. No walk outs at my screening, but if I could shove the entire internet audience in, its reception would lead to a World War III among the audience. For those who don’t want to read me going over the film in nauseating detail, just read the headlines.

    It’s not bad

    Your own appreciation and/or tolerance of The Raid 2 is in how you approach it. I’ve created a Coles Notes version of the review for those who don’t like things written in paragraphs.


    Just like its predecessor, The Raid, the film arrived with of a shitstorm of hype. Action-lovers were quick to the internet to vote the 9 and 10s on IMDb as soon as the first premieres happened. Even worse was that The Raid 2‘s early reviews compared the film to The Godfather (!) After hearing that, I tried to avoid all promotion, gushing, trailers, and reviews until I could see the damn thing myself. I had trouble avoiding the trailer, as YouTube “suggestions” got the better of me, and my regular Twitter feed wanted to see and hear every little bit they could. I succumbed to watching a single trailer, but that was it. Not bad for avoiding it like the plague.

    With this kind of hype, I don’t think anyone could go in and be 100% satisfied. Is it the best action film ever? To some maybe, but what are you comparing it too? Is Drunken Master 2 your favourite? Dirty Harry? The Killer? Terminator 2? Mad Max 2? These are films that excel in different ways and can’t all be measured by the same yard stick. So once the phrase “best _____ ever” comes into play, we all enter with different expectations of how it’s going to trump whatever we imagine to be the best in the genre. So if you are expecting this film to be similar to Mad Max 2, you are shit out of luck.


    People have told me after seeing this that the plot is dumber than a bag of hammers. Firmly plant me in the audience who wants his film peppered with a story that tries to do something different. These carbon copy screenplays leave me bored to tears when action isn’t happening though, so you have to really admire some of the cast or crew to watch them go through the same old hat that many times, right?

    This is going to be problematic for those who loved The Raid for its simple “kill the guys” plot. Simple isn’t bad, but simple with innovation is best. Unlike The Raid, which limited itself to individual grungy rooms, The Raid 2 takes place in various locations that include car chases, long lush hallways, dance clubs, prison bathrooms, and gives the viewers new characters and new locations to cause havoc! As the plot progresses, they up the ante involving the gangster plot and Iko Uwais’ character moving through the ranks as an undercover cop in the crime underworld. Not exactly deep, but I’m not expecting Ingmar Bergman either.

    This movie doesn’t have a stronger story underneath the action scenes like the gangster films of Johnnie To or John Woo. It lacks their more in-depth views of Cop/Gangster politics and their own personal views on how their characters act in their lives. It’s closer to a Luc Besson produced film, with lots of flashy scenes and attempts at character development. It’s all rather baroque in that sense: it looks nice, but lacks the depth to bring any real meaning to it. That’s fine by me though, as you see scenes as cartoonish as a shotgun to the face or a women walking off a porno set with a rubber strap-on. Set your expectations accordingly.


    From the opening scene, it feels like less of a low budget film than The Raid. Sets are decorated wisely and we are constrained to a single building where each floor looks the same. This leads to great scenes, including a car chase organized by the Hong Kong team headed by Bruce Law. The secondary cast is much stronger too, with good performances by Tio Pauksadewo as the mob boss and Ryuhei Matsuda, who almost resembles a subdued J-pop boy band member. Enough has been said about Hammer Girl and Baseball Batman elsewhere, but I enjoyed these James Bond-esque villains who deliver the goods. They aren’t exactly fleshed-out, but they give us enough of a break from Iko Uwais, and allows other characters to display things that are desperately missing in The Raid, such as humor, or y’know, different locations. I don’t think anyone laughed at my screening of The Raid, but there were more much needed humorous touches in The Raid 2.

    I have really mixed feelings about Yayan Ruhian, the long-haired character in the film. Yayan’s side-plot isn’t needed in an already 2+ hour film but contain good choreographed action during his finale. Here’s hoping you can integrate him better into the plot next time, Gareth!


    Early action scenes in the film do not entirely work. Evans sets-up the two prison action scenes at the mudpit and the washroom, quite admirably building the right amount of tension before they should take off. However, as soon as they start, they are plagued by shakey-cam and are bit hard to follow what’s going on, especially with Uwais battling several people at once.

    As the plot progresses, I found the shaky cam less obtrusive or perhaps less prevalent. This brings up my theory: do we only really notice these techniques in films when we are frustrated with a film’s plot points or when scenes run on too long? Other shakey-cam pioneers, like Lars von Trier, have cams moving around like they’re manned by a drunk, but I only notice it during scenes where I’m getting a bit bored about extended conversations about fly fishing or whatever is happening in Nymphomaniac. But back to The Raid 2, when Iko leaves prison, I got into the film more and ta-da, the shakey-cam seemed less distracting. Magic!

    Most frustrating for me is that the biggest problem I had with The Raid is still present: Iko Uwais’ acting. It doesn’t live up to the standards of the rest of his cast. His facial expression never changes beyond a brooding stare. That being said, he can brood with the best of ‘em, but even Batman cracks jokes with Alfred once in awhile and Christian Bale is mocked incessantly for his Nolan Batman series online. Iko’s brow never changes, even during the following events:

    Iko Uwais in The Raid 2

    I had to keep myself from giggling in the theater when we see Iko on a toilet looking quite cross at something at one point in the film. It’s revealed that he’s just about to meet up with a host of baddies who are eager for his blood outside his stall, but it looks like he’s just intensely upset about his lack of Pepto Bismol. Iko is a long ways away from other leading men who can balance out facial reactions to match a scene.

    So, The Raid 2 fixes several things I tolerated in the first film and offers a greater amount of variety and whiz and bang. What it lacks, however, is a story that pushes it beyond the action that is inherent in the films of To, Woo, or Ringo Lam. It also needs a leading actor with the skill and charisma of Chow Yun Fat. If you can overlook the hype machine and want to see a flashy, lengthy film with lots of violent action, The Raid 2 lives up to such standards. If you want the next The Killer or Exiled, you’re going to be checking your watch. If you are looking for crazy action reminiscent of golden era Hong Kong, then just wait until they get out of prison in the film. I hope Evans doesn’t abandon action films entirely, but with such hype erupting before these films even screen, how could his next work be anything but underwhelming? Maybe he needs to take a break and come back to The Raid franchise once the hype for these films settles down.