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Tuesday
Aug072018

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

Female Bond-ing

On a lark, I paid to see The Spy Who Dumped Me Saturday night. At best, the trailers promised a sufficiently bone-headed action/comedy; at worst the movie looked like a forgettable endurance test. To my great surprise, I really enjoyed the movie, and immediately posted the following on Facebook:

THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT.

The reaction was swift; the judgment definitive. With a few exceptions, my community of friends and colleagues let me know that I'd made a terrible error in judgment--possibly due, per one theory, to some bad marijuana.

Before moving on, I'd like to correct the record, and apologize for leaving out a ">".

Spy movies and spy-movie spoofs are a dime a dozen. Between the Mission: Impossible and James Bond franchises; the Fast/Furious series (which inexplicably turned street racing criminals into international persons of mystery); and genre send-ups as literal as Spy and as tenuous as Pitch Perfect 3, espionage actioners have become as ubiquitous as comic-book movies. So the prospect of sitting through another one didn't exactly thrill me, despite the presence of the reliably unpredictable, infinitely watchable Kate McKinnon.

Director Susanna Fogel and co-writer David Iserson embrace a lot of conventions while sidestepping others in their story about Audrey, a grocery store clerk whose newly-exed boyfriend, Drew (Justin Theroux), turns out to be an elite CIA operative. Drew's last mission ended disastrously, leaving the fate of the world in the hands of Audrey and best friend/aspiring actress, Morgan (McKinnon). They need to deliver a flash drive containing Planet-Threatening SecretsTM to someone in Vienna--all the while being pursued by motorcycle-driving hit-men, Ukrainian assassins doubling as an Olympic gymnastics team, and other CIA agents, who may or not be in league with the hit-men. Or the Russian mob. Or the Chinese mob.

We get high-speed chases and monologuing villains; shoot-outs with faceless thugs and the inevitable Big Double-Cross (not to be confused with the half-dozen "They're Not Who You Thought They Were" revelations). But our protagonists remain recognizably human throughout the film--or as recognizably human as semi-exaggerated comedy characters can be. Audrey knows how to fire a gun, yes, and Morgan's dashed dreams of joining Cirque du Soleil come in handy when fending off a killer disguised as a harlequin Borg during the finale. But there's no elaborate training montage, no trip to Q's gadget shop, no magical transformation from check-out girl to video-game mega-brawler.

Sure, The Spy Who Dumped Me dips greedily into the Spy Movie Cliché Cookie Jar (and often goes back for seconds), but does that criticism hold up when sites like ScreenCrush gush over Christopher McQuarrie's use of "homage" in setting up his Mission: Impossible: Fallout climax? I guess it's my fault for confusing "Easter Eggs" with lazy screenwriting. But I digress.*

Speaking of that Tom Cruise juggernaut series (which, until Fallout had, in my not-so-humble estimation, defied movie-franchise odds by improving with each subsequent entry), the praise surrounding it mostly stems from the fact that Cruise performs all those really dangerous stunts himself--sometimes resulting in physical injury and always resulting in truly spectacular set pieces.

But I'm past the point where stunts are enough to sustain me for two-and-a-half hours. When Tom Cruise pulls a Vic Morrow on set (God forbid), maybe I'll once again emotionally invest in one of his big-screen spectacles--similar to the way Heath Ledger's death added a new degree of urgency to seeing The Dark Knight when it opened. Until then, my days of being impressed by a multi-gazillionaire leaping off of things while supported by the best safety teams money can buy in service of a crummy blockbuster are over--much like this ranting aside.

Audrey and Morgan survive this insane adventure using their innate wits and resourcefulness--not to mention a very strong friendship and more than a smattering of luck. It's only a semi-spoiler to say that they're helped along the way by another CIA operative named Sebastian (Sam Heughan), since his loyalties are as much in question throughout the film as the ultimate fate of that flash drive. This allows our heroes to get in and out of some pretty scary situations without the story losing all credibility, while also giving Audrey some much-needed context regarding her relationship with Drew.

Speaking of scary situations, Fogel directs the hell out of The Spy Who Dumped Me's action scenes. This is as much a legit action film as it is a "chick flick", and I can't recall another film recently that cared enough (or was competent enough) to treat both sides of the dichotomy with such care. We've all seen the slow-mo walking-away-from-an-explosion scene, but Fogel gives us a high-angle view of the destruction, trading fireballs for chunks of gray rubble and Drew walking just enough apace of the damage to indicate that he'd messed up his exit plan. There's a mistaken-identity shoot-out in Vienna later on; a tiny-street car chase; and that Cirque thing I hinted at earlier--all handled with the you-are-there intensity of the best modern Bond films and the comic terror of two young women who've suddenly traded swiping right on their phones to swiping right to knock a bike-riding killer into a wall.

My one major critique is Fogel and Iserson's overt injection of feminism into Audrey and Morgan's dialogue. We see that these capable yet vulnerable women are smart, resourceful, and don't need to rely on capital "M" men in order to live successful lives. Their romantic hang-ups are obstacles to overcome, as they would be for someone of any gender, but they don't prohibit the characters in ways unique to the so-called gender war. Yet, there are several scenes in which either Morgan or Audrey complain to themselves or to the men around them about issues that the screenwriters fail to establish as being relevant outside their own heads.

Drew is the lightning rod for these semi-misguided aggressions. When he meets Morgan, for example, immediately after having met and fallen for Audrey, Morgan corners him and gives the "If You Hurt My Best Friend, I'll Kill You" speech. Drew accuses Morgan of being "a bit much", which sends psychic shockwaves through Morgan and becomes a point of heartfelt conversation betwen her and Audrey later in the film.

Maybe because I watched this film from "a guy's" perspective, I had trouble fully grasping Drew's alleged offense. As played by McKinnon, Morgan is a bit much: the whole point of her character is to be the loud, audacious, over-protective best friend. Yet Drew's calling her out on that harsh truth seems to have triggered something deeper, perhaps the unwritten code that prohibits men from using words like "bossy" to describe women--regardless of how a particular woman might demonstrably treat those around her.

For the record, "bossy" men are just as obnoxious as "bossy" women in my estimation, and should either be respectfully called out on their nonsense or ignored completely. See Drew's casual exit from the scene described above as a glowing example.

Later on, Audrey confronts Drew for having left something very important with her during their break-up--effectively using her apartment as a stash-spot while he flies around the world completing missions. Audrey asks if he'd assumed hers would be the perfect hiding place because there was never any danger of her going anywhere. The subtext is, of course, that the guy gets to enjoy freedoms that the woman is denied while she keeps the cave warm in anticipation of his return. Not gonnna touch that one--except to say that, in this particular case, Audrey is correct in her assumption about Drew, and Drew was correct in assuming that Audrey did, in fact, provide the perfect cover.

During the year that they dated, Drew, a government-trained judge of character and behavioral patterns, likely picked up on the fact that check-out-girl Audrey never showed interest in doing anything beyond working at a Trader Joe's knock-off; that she talked about going to Europe but never made plans to actually get on a plane; that she never mentioned changing apartments, moving across town, or even leaving the state. Drew's plan might just as easily be boiled down to keen espionage skills as old-fashioned, sexist underestimation.

Fogel and Iserson offer a fine counterweight to their characters' problematic views of the opposite sex in the form of Gillian Anderson's MI6 head operative, Wendy. Morgan takes a particular liking to her, constantly asking if she and Audrey can become official government spies (regardless of the fact that Wendy works for a different government). Morgan tries the "girl power" move, and is summarily shot down by this no-nonsense leader who realizes that saving people's lives is a nobler goal than embracing an agenda.

Creators can write and shoot whatever they want, and I'm sure there's a strong contingent of moviegoers who are well-served by seeing people like themselves on screen delivering empowering, reinforcing messages in their entertainment. I'm simply suggesting that this film's narrative actually undermines some of those messages, rather than underscoring them.

If, by some miracle, we get a sequel (The Spy Who Dumped Me Again?), I hope that Audrey and Morgan take the meta-lessons learned from this adventure and see their lives as kicking ass, rather than needing asterisks.

*Heh, even I'm not immune from clichés.

Saturday
Jul212018

Mermaids (1990)

Sliding Scales

In the late 1980s, pop culture anointed Winona Ryder to be the omniscient, angst-ridden voice of a movie generation. Between narrating Edward Scissorhands’ bookend bed-time story; Heathers’ journal-reading snark; and Mermaids’ tumble down Memory Lane, the actress’ sweet, wobbly delivery invited audiences into her characters’ confidence; her wide outsider’s eyes evoked the eternal teenage conflict between pre-adult hesitancy and the brazenness of unchecked youth. By playing it straight in worlds dominated by wildly askew main characters, Ryder grounded these films’ truly out-there critiques of reality.

The trouble with Richard Benjamin’s Mermaids (based on the novel by Patty Dann) is that Ryder plays 15-year-old Charlotte Flax with the same quirky gusto that Cher puts into the role of her mother, Rachel. The Flaxes (including youngest daughter Kate, played by Christina Ricci) change cities and states with alarming regularity, thanks to mom’s near-clinical fear of commitment to men, to jobs, to setting down roots. Progressive stuff for 1963, and the latter part of the film zeroes in on Charlotte’s expressions of rebellion, which include smoking, talking back, and sleeping with a local handyman (Michael Schoeffling) nine years her senior.

These acts break the bonds of repressive Catholic guilt that have at once weighed Charlotte down for much of her life, and offered her a constant source of discipline and ritual in a household where both are dirty words (ironically, Rachel is a non-practicing Jew). Unfortunately, Ryder’s narration in the first half plays like cartoon thought balloons, turning "unclean" impulses into ham-handed jokes in scenes that often follow Cher’s character having done something equally off-the-wall. Throw in Bob Hoskins’ jitterbugging eyebrows (they’re attached to the semi-character with whom Rachel becomes briefly infatuated), and you have a calamitous overdose of “comedy” that leaves reality so far behind that entire stretches of story cease to mean anything.

Not surprisingly, the film’s shift toward a more adult tone coincides with the death of John F. Kennedy. As the world faces a dark new reality, so, too, do the Flaxes learn that if they’re going to survive as a family, they need to at least confront the void at which they constantly hurl barrels of sarcastic avoidance. Even then, it takes a near-drowning incident involving Kate to bring matters into focus; I was relieved that screenwriter June Roberts (and, by extension, I assume, Patty Dann) don’t try to “fix” the Flaxes by having them suddenly understand the benefits of conformity. They’re still oddball creatures deserving of their own travelling ecosystem, but they adopt just enough of the outside world’s social norms to be considered more than dysfunctional.

This is a nice little arc, on paper. But the reality of watching Mermaids is not so rewarding. The movie feels like a betrayal of Ryder’s gifts, relegating a master empath to sideshow-attraction status and pulling something akin to an identity switch in the second half.

Friday
Jun222018

Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town (2018)

I Dare You to Love Me

As a title, Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town does two jobs:

A) It grabs moviegoers’ attention in an overcrowded marketplace that is, frankly, starved for audacity.

B) It challenges media outlets to run uncensored coverage of the film and, consequently (or at least potentially), grows its audience.

Both scenarios are plausible and obnoxious, which is also a great way to describe wannabe L.A. rocker, Izzy (Mackenzie Davis), whom we meet as a fiery train wreck in progress. She wakes up in a stranger’s bed with no idea where she is, how she got there, or how good (or bad) the sex was. Her catering outfit is smeared with wine (or possibly vomit mixed with blood and wine), and the creaky floors in this alien house make it difficult to leave without stirring her unconscious partner.

He wakes up and (re-)introduces himself as George (Lakeith Stanfield), a bookish helicopter pilot who mistakes Izzy’s small talk and request for a lift back to her friend's house as a sign of genuine interest. Izzy is still hung up on her ex, Roger (Alex Russell), whom, she learns via Instagram a short while later, is having an engagement party that night. With no car, no money, and nowhere else to go (her expectant friend has just kicked her out), she hustles, pedals, and scoots across L.A. in the hopes of convincing Roger to rescue her from a life of directionless poverty.

Izzy is almost impossible to like at the outset. But writer/director Christian Papierniak subtly and superbly flips our expectations during this long, weird journey so that, by the end, we follow the arc of his character’s narcissism from a place of aggravating self-involvement to one of enlightened self-improvement. Somewhere between begging for odd jobs from a shut-in computer programmer (Haley Joel Osment); to catching a glimpse of things to come in a lovelorn pack-rat (Annie Potts); and singing a duet of Heavens to Betsy’s “Axemen” at a Christmas party, her mission to whisk Roger away from wedded bliss becomes murky: Does she have anything to offer Roger beyond nostalgia and youthful passion? If so, is it fair to herself to hide out in the past instead of forging a meaningful future?

Like Trainspotting, Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town starts as an energetic, hyper-stylized ode to irresponsibility before settling into a fittingly somber mood. Papierniak underscores Izzy’s addiction to romanticized notions of fate through rose-tinted dream sequences and a nine-chapter structure marked by rock-club-poster title cards. As the film progresses, these elements take on new form and meaning, which track with the engagement party countdown. Izzy comes to realize just how much the world around her has moved on while she spent years reeling from a series of professional setbacks and personal betrayals (not all of which involve Roger).

Papierniak's visual execution of this theme is remarkable. Those dream sequences smash-open the movie, and Izzy's subsequent freak-outs and manic unpleasantness are played so big that it's easy to dismiss her as a character. In later chapters, the director dials back the quick-cutting and the focus on oddballs, introducing us to Izzy's dysfunctional family and, at long last, to Roger. In one of my very favorite scenes from any movie, Papierniak uses light and close-up to transport the star-crossed couple from their turbulent present to their idyllic early dating life and back again. It's here that Mackenzie Davis dredges up Izzy's deepest vulnerabilities, playing them as earnestly as the callous notes she'd employed for much of the rest of the film.

From this pivotal scene onward, Davis and Papierniak break through the layers of self-deception and doubt that have held Izzy back for nearly half a decade. Even in a zero-hour twist during which things seem to work out in the unlikeliest of ways, the screenplay and performance find their way back to truth. It is here, faced with the real-world understanding of what relationships are, what they aren't, and what they could be, that Izzy discovers her inner rock star--the badass who's unafraid to give the middle finger to anyone, even if that person is some pathetic and no-longer-useful version of herself.

Believe it or not, I've left out a lot of story details. This pains me, but there are performances and revelations in Papierniak's film that I would spoil only under penalty of death--no matter how much it pains me not to be able to praise them. The third act (or, I guess, the final three chapters) infrequently stall out in "surprise relationships" mode, but they lead to some wonderfully heartfelt confrontations, so we'll call that a draw. Izzy Gets the Fuck Across Town takes some getting used to, and the title tries way too hard to stand out. But if that's what it takes to put eyeballs on one of the year's best, most surprising films, so be it.

Monday
May282018

Lu Over the Wall (2017)

Water You Afraid Of?

You can read politics into most anything these days, and doing so has become America's second national pastime. It's a fun, infuriating, and potentially dangerous hobby, the full effects of which we likely won't know for forty years. But in the meantime, why not burn the midnight oil wondering about what a sitcom does or doesn't mean; whether a musician's outrageous behavior can be pinned on mere theatricality, bona fide insanity, or (heaven forbid) deep-seated yet potentially unpalatable beliefs; or whether or not an animated Japanese film was really meant as a critique of a world increasingly divided by myths and misconceptions?

Masaaki Yuasa's Lu Over the Wall is a charming, family-friendly animated feature that jumps off the screen with upbeat music, hyper-alive colors, and a title character whose endearing sweetness may give you cavities. Yuasa and co-writer Reiko Yoshida create a near-tangible reality within the Japanese island village of Hinoshi. The small population seems evenly split between technology-obsessed teenagers; too-busy-to-do-anything-but-work adults; and a winnowing population of elders who guard against an ancient superstition involving Merfolk.

The waters surrounding Hinoshi are dangerous, you see, inhabited by vicious creatures who devour and/or abduct anyone foolish enough to venture outside the city after dark. This narrative has prevailed through generations, inspiring a tradition of hanging white-painted sea urchin husks outside homes and business (it represents the sun), and spawning the legend of nearby Merfolk Island, where no one dare tread.

Enter Kai (Shôta Shimoda), a sullen teen transplant from Tokyo who finds himself drafted into a burgeoning rock band by peppy local aspirants Kunio (Sôma Saitô) and Yûho (Minako Kotobuki). When Kai joins his new friends at their practice space in the ruins of Merfolk Island, he meets Lu (Christine Marie Cabanos), a sprightly child mermaid who is attracted to the group's songs. In this world, music is not only figuratively transformative, it changes Lu's floppy fish tale into a manic set of dancing legs.

Lu Over the Wall follows in the tradition of E.T., with a small team of sassy kids protecting their lovable alien discovery from the suspicious adults all around them. Lu uses her abilities to help Kai in a swimming contest, thwart bullies, and even open up to his dad, still reeling from a recent divorce. Of course, trouble comes calling when Lu is discovered by the townsfolk during an impromptu flash mob at the beach (it's actually weirder than it sounds), and the movie unfolds as a cautionary tale about the dangers of holding on to outdated beliefs and prejudices in the face of new evidence (and, going a step further, the dangers of not allowing that evidence to be presented).

All hell breaks loose on Hinoshi as Lu's father, a cunning and very protective antrhopomorphized shark, comes looking for his daughter. The ensuing carnage creates an atmosphere in which action replaces communication, and it's only through dumb luck that both humankind and Merfolk don't wipe each other out. It's like a grim version of The Lego Batman Movie's climax, in which unlikely alliances band together to save the day--minus the shiny, irony-coated plastic of that film's overall mood. It's not really a spoiler to reveal that everything works out in the end, since the climactic flooding of Hinoshi leads to some genuine disaster-movie scenarios for which parents will definitely want to be in the room.

I don't know if the writers and artists who created Lu Over the Wall set out to comment specifically on American politics, or if their film is simply a recurring tragedy that pops up across nations and generations. Whichever the case, both children and adults can learn a lot from Lu, Kai, and the various factions that come into conflict as a result of their "forbidden" friendship. We really do need to learn to talk to each other; to listen to each other; and to recognize the dignity of the self, even amidst typhoons of accusation, rumor, and presuppositon. If people who hold opposing political, religious, or social beliefs can't find commonality beneath our myriad divisive labels, we'll be forced to accept the harsh judgment of cosmic commonality, which will drown us all, indiscriminately.

Tuesday
May082018

Terminal (2018)

Noircissism

Just as Gotham City and Metropolis are separated by a puny river in the latest incarnation of DC’s movie universe, I’d imagine there being less than a millimeter’s distance on a map between Frank Miller’s Sin City and The Precinct, the equally hard-boiled urban setting of writer/director Vaughn Stein’s Terminal. Both towns are ridiculously small, thematically colorful, and populated exclusively by lascivious, alcoholic bruisers and femmes fatale whose overlapping adventures reveal corrupt institutions held precariously intact by shadowy voyeurs. But in terms of mystery (a selling point of any good noir), these films are worlds apart.

Terminal’s (ahem) terminal narrative flatness can be traced back to Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters, which posits that “all characters in a movie are necessary to the story—even those who do not seem to be. Sophisticated viewers can use this Law to deduce the identity of a person being kept secret by the movie's plot: This 'mystery' person is always the only character in the movie who seems otherwise extraneous." In a movie like Terminal, whose main cast is only five roles deep, well, let’s just say the character economy isn’t exactly bustling—which is a problem when the eighth-of-the-run-time climax hinges on a revelation that one might deduce from watching the first five minutes (or glancing at the movie poster).

Margot Robbie plays Annie, a sometimes-waitress/sometimes-exotic dancer/sometimes-something-or-other, who wants nothing more than to ascend the Precinct’s underworld, which appears to be based around a perpetually empty train station overseen by the elusive Mr. Franklin (see poster for details). Annie lays out her plan to a priest during confession: she’ll turn the city’s top assassins (Max Irons and Dexter Fletcher) against each other, simultaneously proving her worth and filling a vacuum. Coinciding with the “A” Plot is a side story in which Annie counsels a despondent diner patron named Bill (Simon Pegg), who, following a cancer diagnosis, can muster neither the courage to live nor to die.

Taken on their own, and in Stein’s capably stylish hands, these ideas could have made for fun (if familiar) twenty-minute vignettes in a Netflix anthology series. Unfortunately, there’s an hour-plus of filler stuffed in between the fleeting bursts of momentum, resulting in a pace-challenged collection of dramatic set pieces disguised as a movie. It’s gaudy filler, too, marked by Lit 101 allusions to Alice in Wonderland and  Film 102 references to Pulp Fiction—complete with a suitcase Maguffin and contentious banter between two colorful hitmen, one of whom is named Vincent.

It’s fun to watch Robbie and Pegg stretch as performers: the former exploring a more nuanced brand of crazy than she exhibited in Suicide Squad; the latter refining his unique blend of empathy and black humor, which pays off in ways so unexpected as to require a Usual Suspects-style re-watch.

Then there’s Mike Myers. I don’t envy the actor’s high-wire balancing act, which requires creating a creepy, pathetic new character that does not also bring to mind the comically pathetic characters in his repertoire. He falls off the rope early on. Worse yet, a late-stage costume change conjures specific memories of an iconic Myers identity, inspiring titters rather than the tingles I assume Stein had hoped for. At this moment, the film officially shrinks from city to subdivision, channeling soap-opera surprises and the end of Sucker Punch (ham minus Hamm, as it were).

I can recommend Terminal as a good time, visually. Stein’s feature-film debut commanded my attention and respect, particularly in the handling of sets and shots that feel at once crayon-playful and tetanus-filthy. His take on the “rabbit hole”--a bottomless, glowing chasm that cuts to the Precinct’s perverse heart--is the one Alice reference that lands without a sickening thud, and I will definitely be on board for whatever story calls to him next. I just hope it’s a destination instead of a tourist trap at the end of an unkempt, unremarkable highway.