Movie Review: Spy (2015)

July 10, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

spy-poster

I won’t lie. I initially had zero interest in Spy, the new comedy directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) and starring his favourite collaborator Melissa McCarthy. The poster just made it look generic and lame, and I always thought Feig’s earlier films were overrated.

Just shows we shouldn’t judge a movie by its poster or preconceived notions based on the past. Because Spy is really funny. Hilarious stuff. Laugh-out-loud gags with a progressive slant. In my opinion it’s easily the best film either Feig or McCarthy have been involved in.

It doesn’t have a mindblowing plot — McCarthy plays a former teacher-turned-CIA-agent who acts as the eyes and ears of the agency’s top spy, played by Jude Law. She’s meek and awkward and disappointed with how her career change has turned out.

Naturally, an opportunity arises in which she is thrust into dangerous undercover field work, and this brings out the hidden beast in her as she tries to track down a lethal nuclear weapon.

All the kudos in the world for having McCarthy as the undisputed female lead and a kickass spy, an absolute rarity in sexist, beauty- and weight-obsessed Hollywood, but none of that would have mattered if Spy turned out to be a stinker.

Fortunately, Spy smashes the six-laugh quota for a decent comedy with ease thanks to a variety of factors. First and foremost, McCarthy, who gets the opportunity to show her range by playing essentially two personalities — the meek, and the snarky one we’re used to seeing from Bridesmaids and The Heat. 

In the former, she’s funny in the hesitant, awkward manner she’s very capable of pulling off. However, she’s at her ripping best in the latter, firing off quick-witted, sharp, acidic one-liners and well-placed profanity to elicit the chuckles. I always found this crude version of McCarthy funny, but too much of it felt grating and exhausting. Feig’s decision to give us half a film of it ended up being perfect; just the right amount of familiar McCarthy.

Rose Byrne, who seems to be in absolutely everything these days, once again displays her  ample comedic chops as the stuck-up villain with the posh accent. She’s not afraid to make fun of herself and go head-to-head wih McCarthy in the profanity stakes; I believe this could be as funny as she has ever been.

Jude Law, who has been out of the limelight in recent years, returns as a James Bond spoof of sorts, probably a nod to the fact that he was almost picked to be the iconic spy years ago. He’s clearly aged and appears to have gotten some plugs, though the charisma is still there. He gets to joke around the least as the tongue-in-cheek straight-man of the comedy but takes the role in stride.

Up to this point, Spy is already a fairly decent comedy. What takes it to the next level, however, is the presence of Jason Statham. As the most bankable martial arts action star of today, Statham has only been on the fringes of comedy, and by that I mean wisecracks and one-liners in between beating people up on screen. He finally gets to show off his incredible self-awareness and untapped comedic timing in Spy as a disgruntled rogue agent who steals just about every scene he’s in.

Statham’s character is British, but he’s also crass, profane, arrogant, mysognistic and hyperbolic. He reminds of a hardened version of Kurt Russell from Big Trouble in Little China. His hilarity is undeniable, and it adds an edge to the film I doubt anyone else could have offered.

I thought after Kingsman: The Secret Service the year’s best action-comedy had been set in stone, but now I’m not so sure. Spy isn’t nearly as stylish or visually impressive, but it’s much more of a pure comedy in that it generates bigger and more frequent belly laughs. I had an unexpectedly good time.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

August 24, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

grand-budapest-hotel

Wes Anderson films are an acquired taste. I respected and appreciated his previous efforts, most notably The Royal Tenenbaums back in 2001 and the animated Fantastic Mr Fox in 2009, but I have not been able to enjoy them as much as some others, who think his flicks are the best thing since the invention of air conditioning. Anderson’s films are just so tightly-wound and choreographed — to the extent that they come across almost like animations or stage productions — that the surreal air about them often make it difficult for me to engage with the narrative for the entirety of the running time.

Anderson’s latest entry, The Grand Budapest Hotel, has been lauded as a masterpiece, and I went into it thinking that this might finally be Anderson film that I can truly enjoy. And while I did enjoy it a lot, I still don’t consider myself a convert. It’s a finely crafted motion picture full of imagination, confidence, and a ridiculous A-list cast that spews out witty lines at a frenetic pace, and yet it is so whimsical and farcical that its deeper undertones and poignancy tend to be overwhelmed, resulting in one of those fun but ultimately forgettable experiences.

The fictional eponymous hotel, located in the mountains of a fictional European Alpine state, is the setting of this wild madcap caper about the adventures of a concierge, Mr Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), and a lowly lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori, and later F Murray Abraham). Mr Gustave is a smooth, fast-talking sleazebag who makes a habit of courting wealthy, elderly women, and when one of them (Tilda Swinton) dies under mysterious circumstances, all fingers are suddenly pointed in his direction — and it is up to Zero to help prove his boss’s innocence. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel is full of twists and turns, most of which are completely unexpected because it runs so fast and furiously that all your attention is spent simply trying to keep up. If you’ve seen any of Anderson’s past films you’ll have an idea of what you are in for, though this one, with cute miniatures and hand-made art, is arguably his most stylish and visually-impressive effort. It’s decidedly meta; there are delicate layers upon layers, stories within stories, the narrative moving from character to character and through different times and eras.

The cast is outrageous — apart from the aforementioned Fiennes, Abraham and Swinton, there’s Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Lea Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Tom Wilkinson. Thanks to Fiennes’ superb performance and comedic timing, however, it did not feel jarring to have so many superstars in the one film, often for just a scene or even a second or two. Who knew Voldemort was so funny?

And that’s the biggest strength of The Grand Bupadest Hotel — it’s probably Anderson’s funniest film ever. The wisecracks are razor sharp, and, unlike much of the humour we tend to get in comedies these days, actually witty. The use of well-timed profanity is spot on. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I giggled often and hard.

The first half is funnier than the second half, where my difficulties with the film start to seep through as the story begins to take a slightly more melancholic turn. As often can be the case with Anderson’s movies, the tone can come across as unmistakenly smug. You just get the feeling that it’s getting too smart and witty for its own good — to the point where you react to the jokes with “that’s funny”, but without actually laughing. It wasn’t so much of a problem in the first half of the film because everything was so fresh and frantic and fun, though later, when you can tell the film’s also trying to be poignant and send a deeper, more emotional message, it becomes much easier to see through the contrivances. And once you lose your focus it becomes very difficult to get back on track.

Consequently, the overall package is a mixed bag, albeit one that is weighed heavily towards the positive. I loved the look of the film and the brilliant cast. It was undoubtedly funny and clever; stylish and precision-crafted. And yet its irreverent, artificial feel made the film difficult to sustain an emotional connection for its 99-minute running time.  I like to think of the experience as sampling a series of beautifully designed, tightly controlled set pieces, each of which stands up well on its own, though together the pieces don’t quite deliver something greater than the sum of its parts. Having said that, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an easy film to appreciate and enjoy, and so far it’s my favourite Wes Anderson film to date.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: I have yet to see Moonrise Kingdom and I cannot recall much of Rushmore.

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

May 5, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

This was one of my most anticipated movies of the Christmas/New Year period but I was too busy being a new dad to have an opportunity to check it out. I know not everyone agrees with what Guy Ritchie has done to the beloved detective but I quite liked Robert Downey Jr’s version of the character in the original film: a neurotic, slightly disturbed, fist-fighting action hero — who happens to solve a crime or two along the way.

Well I finally got a chance to watch it recently, and as it turned out, the sequel was pretty much more of the same. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you enjoyed the shenanigans of the first film, but personally, I was looking forward to more evolution in both Holmes and Jude Law’s Dr Watson.

In Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Sherlock investigates a series of murders and dodgy stuff he believes is connected to some sinister professor, as his trusty sidekick Watson prepares for his wedding to his long-time girlfriend Mary. The plot is actually rather convoluted, though that doesn’t really matter because the strength of the film again lies in Ritchie’s fast-paced action and Holmes’s personality quirks and one-liners. Rachel McAdams has a smaller role in this sequel and the main female role is given to the original girl with the dragon tattoo, Noomi Rapace, who plays a rather thankless gypsy.

Ritchie is a slick director, so you know you’re in for a high quality piece of entertainment. A couple of the action sequences (especially the one on the train) were done exceptionally well and the comedic timing was superb. If you’ve seen the original then you’ll have a fair idea of what to expect, and you’ll know that much of the film’s charm comes from the chemistry between Downey Jr and Law, a dirty, squabbling, scrappy odd couple that gets into all sorts of strife but always comes out on top.

My problem with A Game of Shadows is that it was too similar to the original. The story was different but the “feel” was virtually identical. It was terrific the first time round but another 129 minutes of it had me wanting something different. For instance, Holmes’s “prediction” of future events where time would fast forward (and slow down) as he talks about what he aims to do as he does it — that was cool in the first film and the first time he did it in the sequel — but by the fourth or fifth time I was desperate for something else.

I also would have preferred to see Holmes’s crime-solving genius in action, rather than always having it revealed in what I like to call “Aha!” moments, which inevitably occur just when you think Holmes and Watson have been beaten. I think it is more impressive if the audience is also presented with all the facts before having Holmes show us how he solved the mystery on the spot, rather than showing us all his elaborate prep work in hindsight through crafty flashbacks.

At the end of the day, A Game of Shadows is very solid entertainment that is every bit as good as the original. But personally, I wished it could have been more — or at least more different. For a sequel it was enough, but if there is a third film in the series the same formula won’t be able to cut it again.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Contagion (2011)

October 31, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

I’m still washing my hands at least 20 times a day after watching Contagion last week.

This medical thriller directed by Steven Soderbergh plays out like a horror movie because of how possible it might just become reality some day.  The film begins on day two of a new, highly infectious and deadly disease outbreak and follows several key characters from different walks of life as they fight for survival — of their own lives and that of the human race.

Soderbergh is known for his amazing ensemble casts, and Contagion is no different.  No single actor or actress dominates, but there is enough screen time in this 106 minute film to fit in significant roles for the likes of Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, John Hawkes (remember him from Winter’s Bone), amongst others, including my new favourite actor, Bryan Cranston (I’ve recently become addicted to the sickeningly great Breaking Bad — and it took me almost a full season to realise that he’s Tim Whatley from Seinfeld!).  Ensemble casts are ordinarily troublesome but every actor in this film played their part perfectly and without trying to steal the show, resulting in an awesome experience where you are constantly watching an A-lister without feeling overwhelmed by the fact.

There have been several ‘outbreak’  films in the past (Outbreak being one of them), but Contagion surely has to be one of the better ones, and certainly one more the most realistic.  It looks at how different people deal with the news of the infections, how the government tries to pinpoint the source of the outbreak, how it seeks to contain it, and how certain people may try to profit out of it — on an international scale.

Soderbergh controls the film at a deliberate pace — fast enough to not get bored but considerate enough to allow the audience to appreciate the magnitude of the events.  Contagion tackles numerous themes and gives viewers plenty to think about if, god forbid, this film became reality — loss of social order, public vs personal interests, wealthy countries vs poor countries, and the systems governments have in place to deal with and control sudden mass deaths and mass hysteria.  It’s actually all quite fascinating.  And yet, despite these potentially heavy themes, the film is rarely bogged down and manages to keep the focus on the characters.

As an ensemble cast film, Contagion obviously struggles to provide the deeper emotional impact some top-notch single protagonist films can, but I think overall it was done well enough to provide an entertaining and thought-provoking viewing experience.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

January 2, 2010 in Movie Reviews

I admit I don’t know a whole lot about the Sherlock Holmes created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  I may have read a few story books or seen a couple of TV shows about the super sleuth as a child, but on the whole my memory is pretty fuzzy.

Accordingly, when I watched the new film Sherlock Holmes directed by Guy Ritchie, I didn’t have a pre-conceived notion of how the character was supposed to behave.  I understand a lot of old school fans may be quite appalled at the way Sir Conan’s creation has been butchered in this ‘re-invention’ (in the same way I was devastated with what Hollywood did with Astro Boy), but I didn’t have such a problem.

With that in mind, I quite liked it!  That’s saying a lot because I haven’t liked a Guy Ritchie film since Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (and I didn’t even like that very much).

(Read the rest of the review by clicking on ‘More…’)

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