Saturday, March 26, 2016

I Saw This!! Spies Like These

I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our all-too regular feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of movies they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so. Normally.  This time Graig literally just watched some of these as recently as last night.  He's terrible at reviewing things in a timely manner, and seems to do more productive in lumping films together with some kind of loose thread.  In this case, it's spies, espionage and saving the world type-stuff.

Kingsman: The Secret Service - 2014, d. Matthew Vaughan - Netflix
North By Northwest - 1959, d. Alfred Hitchcock - TCM
Arabesque - 1966, d. Stanley Donen - TCM
The Ipcress File - 1965, d. Sydney J. Furey - TCM
Spy - 2015, d. Paul Feig - Netflix
Machete Kills - 2013, d. Robert Rodriguez - Netflix

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If you're not into comic books, then you probably don't know who Mark Millar is.  Count yourself lucky.  But no doubt you've seen Millar's handiwork on screen, or at least in a trailer or two; Wanted, Kick-Ass and its sequel, most notably.  As a comic book writer he's an amazing idea man, but he's also all flash and bombast, without much true substance.  He's coarse and vulgar, and plays generally to the lowest common denominator while pretending to aspire to high literature.  In public he's unsettling in his egocentricity, nobody is faster to give him a pat on the back than himself.  He's established himself as one of the elite talents in the comic book industry, despite the fact that his work is, at times, utterly unpalatable.  He is, in essence, the Rob Liefeld of writers.  His popularity has meant he's been able to work outside of licensed characters for over half a decade now.  He's published a surprising number of creator-owned projects, many of which have been picked up for film and other media.  This success has also afforded him the ability to work with some of the best artists in the business, which only serves to raise the quality of his projects and his profile.

It's these artists who make Millar's stories work, if they work at all.  By filtering his vision through their own deep talents and skill, at least an attractive looking product comes out the other end.  In the same way, filmmakers taking Millar's stories and filtering them through their own vision to the screen make them somewhat more palatable, but the inherent weaknesses still lay inside.

Kingsman is Millar's play on British espionage, and the seeds of all British espionage still reside in its 1960's heyday when Bond and The Avengers and The Saint and The Prisoner and more were all a going concern.  I quite enjoyed the structure of the Kingsmen, a secret agency where each of the members takes the name of a Knight of the Round Table.  There's lots of secret rooms and special gadgets, just shy of extreme, which seems so Millar.  If one or two is good, why not ten?

There's two stories at play here, the first is the main plot of a supervillain intent on decimating the world, and providing salvation to the highest bidders, the second is that of the main character training to take his seat as a part of the Kingsmen.  These plots aren't very complimentary, and one often exists in isolation from the other.  Director Matthew Vaughan is a pretty good craftsman, so he manages to make it work as smoothly as possible, but there's a lot of stop-starts, stories that don't go anywhere important really (the story of Mark Hamill as the kidnapped professor, for instance, is over just after it begins), and missed connections (particularly in the training sequences, the connections and conflicts between the trainees is almost non-existent...probably because any further exploration would reveal them to be the most primitive of cliches).

The cast is uniformly excellent. Colin Firth makes a surprisingly awesome superspy in the John Steed mold, Sam Jackson manages to not be so Sam Jacksony as he disappears in his lispy, gagging supervillain, while Mark Strong fills his duty to appear in seemingly every modern spy film.  Taron Egerton as (the awfully named) Eggsy is also surprisingly good, despite all the emotional u-turns the character is forced to undergo.  Gazelle (Sofia Boutella) and her sword-stilt legs is actual an incredibly clever character, one of the best and most fearsome henchmen/women in a spy movie ever.  She's super deadly but also incredibly cool (it's almost a shame she's in this movie and not an actual Bond villain).

Vaughan delivers a visually wonderful and inventive movie that unfortunately gets too mired in its "extreme" Millar-isms.  Gags like bodies being sliced in half and dozens upon dozens of heads exploding into colourful fireworks have some real visual punch, but there are more and more gags or just too extreme violence that push things too far too often.  The big reward for Eggsy being anal sex with a Swedish princess is perhaps the most Millar of all, and easily the lowest of the lowest common denominators and leaves the film on the sourest of jokes.

It's a film overlong by at least 15 minutes (at 2:09 running time), and a little too in love with itself (in true Millar fashion).  It's got its enjoyable bits but it's a toss up as to whether they outweigh the seedier parts.

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When I wrote recently about The Wrong Mans, I called it the epitome of mistaken identity comedies.  I only hesitated in calling it the epitome of mistaken identity stories because Hitchcock's North By Northwest remains on rewatch every bit as amazing as the first time.  Closing in on 50 years later, NXNW plays more like a period movie, rather than something outdated.  It's crisply realized by a master storyteller such that the plot slowly opens up like a morning glory opening for the sun.  It's charming, sexy, tense, lively and exciting, without even a trace of irony.

I haven't seen many Cary Grant films in my time (probably owing to the fact that he retired from acting in the mid-1960s) but just going by this film alone his reputation as a legendary actor, and ace romantic leading man, and screen idol are well earned.  He commands attention, still dashingly handsome (he was in his mid-50's at the time), and full of charisma.  In the film he plays a Madison Avenue advertising executive, which, if I had to guess, would be what Dick Whitman modeled his Don Draper persona after.  Grants character is suave, debonnaire, well-groomed, perfectly tailored and quick-witted.  He delivers snappy lines with dry ease, without undermining the weight of his situation.  The best touch, however, was bringing the character's overbearing mother into play.  In two impeccably constructed scenes we get a sense of why Grant is still single...equal parts choice and chased off.  Nobody would be good enough for him, at least nobody he chose.  But then she didn't meet Eva Marie Saint.

Saint co-stars as the femme fatale of the picture and nails it.  Seductive, sexy, classy, alluring, elusive, she's a capable deceiver, in control and in over her head in equal measure.  Hitchcock knew exactly what he wanted out of the character and collaborated to deliver a perfect performance.  In a sense Saint's character is a damsel in distress, but she's also the rescuer.  There's maybe only a couple Bond girls that can match her empowerment, and maybe none who can match her equal measure of sophistication and sensuality.

It's the film's rather casual attention to the not just romantic, but sexual relationship between Grant and Saint that helps keep it fresh.  American cinema in the 1950's was pretty chaste, and stories of the time feel dated for their lack of real passion.  Beyond that the espionage aspect of the film is outright fun.  There's a playful danger that everyone involved just clicks with, and the phantom agent is one of the best spy tricks (somehow never repeated).  Hitchcock is a master storyteller, and this film features so many beautiful and classic cinematic moments, from the Saul Bass opening titles right up to the showdown on Mount Rushmore.  Superb filmmaking and impeccable storytelling, it's a classic worth returning to time and again.

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Stepping a few years in the future, we have Arabesque, which just screams like a studio exec saying "let's make another North by Northwest".  It's the story of a layman getting involved in some high-stakes espionage, but being in way over their head.  They meet an attractive woman who isn't what she seems and they need to foil a bad guy plot.  The film is based off a novel, but the script was wrung through a mill and came out the other side like a pale knock-off.  Even director Stanley Donen admitted the script was problematic and spent a lot of extra effort in the visual production to try and keep things interesting.  It almost works.

The film is visually very clever, as Donen uses mirror and reflective surfaces throughout the movie to give us some of the most curious angles on screen.  But Donen's craftsmanship can't hide that Gregory Peck isn't Cary Grant (Donen originally wanted his Charade star for the picture, but he had retired), nor can it hide that none of its middle-eastern characters are portrayed by middle-eastern actors.  Sophia Loren plays the femme fatale in modest brown face and a curious accent.  She's a beautiful woman in almost any makeup but the put on here, as times have changed is continually eye rolling at best (offensive at worst).  It's one of the most flagrant examples of Hollywood white washing, but it doesn't amount to much given that the film isn't that popular.

The story in place involves a Maguffin, a piece of hieroglyphic text that all sorts of different parties seem to want.  Peck, an Oxford Professor, is brought in by the bad guys to interpret the glyphs, while asked by a middle eastern Prime Minister to spy on their operations.  What ensues is a lot of tedious chases and confused identities, druggings and strong-armings.  When comparing against NXNW, it's the lack of movement, the lack of diverse scenery that grinds the film down.  Intriguing stories can most certainly be made just running around London, but great Espionage tales take you to different locations, if not jumping around the globe than at least to exciting landmarks.  There's none of that here.

Peck is a fine actor, but he's not dashing nor outright charming.  Where Cary Grant's quipping comes off at playful, sometimes defensive, Peck's come off as edgy and sarcastic.  The romance with Loren just never plays, even through to the happy ending.  After so many multiple twists and turns in her backstory it's somewhat unbelievable that Peck would stay with her (and vice versa).

Arabesque is a sporadically enjoyable movie, probably moreso if you haven't seen NXNE in a good long while, but it's marred by the insensitivities of its time and a plot that doesn't quite know how to move itself forward without taking it straight to the end.

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I learned of The Ipcress File around 2008 by way of song (this one by G L I D E) and became somewhat obsessed with finding the Harry Palmer series of films.  Though the breakthrough role for Michael Caine, the series, based of the Len Deighton books, never had much of a following in North America, Palmer was most certainly never mentioned in the same breath as James Bond, John Steed, Number 6, or Napoleon Solo.  Though often a lack of awareness can be an indictment of quality, in this case it's more to do with the sometimes less than stellar distribution and promotion of British productions overseas.  These films have never been widely available on DVD in North America outside of region-free imports, thus I've acquired DVD copies of each years ago, but in region 2... and I've yet to watch them (not because I don't have a region-free player, but I just haven't gotten around to it.  It's like the important part was having them, not so much watching them).

Thanks to my DVR, Turner Classic Movies and their "spy night" a while back, I managed to finally watch it (and the above two films I reviewed).  Let's just say it was worth the wait.  The film, with years of anticipation (if no real expectations) behind it delivered.  In the realm of British spies, it's more Sandbaggers or Tinker, Tailor... than Bond.  There's a lot of talk of bureaucracy, forms to be filled out, reports to be made... it's legwork and paperwork and not a lot of action or glory.  The basic plot finds Harry Palmer being transferred to a new team, where they're investigating the disappearance of a highly regarded scientists (it's the latest in a rash of what they call "the brain drain" in which Britain's top minds seem to be retiring, dying, missing or defecting).  Palmer finds the culprit -- not Russian or any other known threat, but a third party -- rather straight off.  Over some tense, yet still casual meetings, they eventually wind up simply paying for his return.  I take utter utter delight in the almost tediousness of these processes.  The intensity is high, and yet the threat level winds up being pretty low.  Unlike Bond who is a man of spirited action, recklessly thrusting himself into laughably extreme danger, Palmers conflicts are mundane...until they're not.

This is not so pure of espionage that The Ipcress File doesn't allow for some slighly larger than life elements.  The final act finds Palmer at the mercy of the villain of the piece, undergoing extreme torture and reprogramming treatments.  It's the highlight piece of the film, trippy visuals and noises that wear on the audience to a degree that they must ultimately have some affect on our hero, right?

Caine is superb, with the liveliest eyes and wryest sense of humor.  He cuts a dashing figure without being too good looking, too well tailored.  It's all confidence that makes him so attractive.  He's good at his job, he's good with women, and he's good in the kitchen (I wonder if this was the first major film where a male character's defining quirk is a refined palette and enjoying cooking).  Within minutes of meeting Palmer, he's tossed out more than a few dry lines that had me cracking up, which informs his character perfectly.  His commanding officer reads from his dossier, "Insubordinate. Insolent. A trickster. Perhaps with criminal tendencies," to which Palmer replies, "That's a fair assessment...sir".  Palmer's so quick witted that even his humorless superiors can't help but match wit along with him.

I love this film's look.  Mid-60's London, whether actual on-the-street or glorious retro Pinewood Studios it's all so wonderfully alive yet murky, noisy yet vital.  There's an graininess to the film, like it was roughed up with sandpaper, that makes the blacks more cloudy, but also dulling all the other colours as well.  Director Furey (hahaha) makes it a visually compelling movie through his astounding POV shots and unusual focus points.  He's often not centering the camera on a specific character or action, but sometimes just off to the side or below, cutting someone off screen, or only seeing their feet while they talk.  There's a walk-and-talk on the street with Palmer's two superiors, and he keeps cutting between a wide shot, and their feet with swinging umbrellas.  The common language, when you cut to shots of things inactive in the scene, it's because they're important details for the story, but for Furey it's like these are worth noting but aren't in any way relevant to the larger picture.  It's fascinating.  One can't also forget to mention that John Barry contributes the amazing score, one which manages to equal, perhaps even surpass his Bond work of the era.

I'll need to dive into the sequels, Funeral in Berilin and Billion Dollar Brain.  They sound somewhat exotic, but I'll be happy if Palmer 's once more mired in extensive tedium until things suddenly get out of control.

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The posters for Spy, internationally
are just tragic. McCarthy is airbrushed
to the point of being unrecognizable in
many cases.  Fakey ads are another
reason why the film didn't appeal to
me in its original release


There were a healthy dose of superspy movies on the big screen in 2015.  You've got Spectre, Mission Impossible 5, Man From U.N.C.L.E., and The Kingsmen, among the biggest films of the year.  But I was surprised to hear from a few trusted sources who said that Spy was perhaps the best of them.  I like Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy just fine but nothing about the trailer for Spy set it up as actually being good.  It looked like a bunch of pratfalls and "it's funny 'cause she's fat" moments.

I should know better than to trust trailers.

Spy is legit.  It's not Austin Powers, or Spy Hard or any other parody-style film that seeks to lampoon the genre.  There is an honest superspy espionage story at play that introduces Melissa McCarthy as an unlikely but still incredibly competent action star.   And, of course, it's funny as hell.

McCarthy opens the film as the supporting player to Jude Law's super-spy.  She's in his ear, watching his back from satellites in the sky.  She's stuck behind a desk in an office with rodent control problems.  But when Law runs into a situation and ignores her warnings, he's killed by their target, a spoiled heiress who's the only person who knows the location of a portable nuclear bomb (played with superb bitchiness by Rose Byrne).  She knows all of the agency's best agents by name, so sending one of them would be a futile effort.  McCarthy, with a solid track record both from her training days and ten years as field support, is give an observe and report only task.

Normally in a comedy, it's a bungling idiot in over their head who manages to somehow bungle their way through and not only make it out okay, but a hero, in spite of themself.  That's not the case here.  Though McCarthly sometimes gets in her own way, she's an adept fighter, a capable improviser and a more than savvy negotiator.  It doesn't help that it's another super-spy (played both in and against type by Jason Statham), gone rogue, is getting in her way, telling her she's out of her depth (though it's repeatedly McCarthy bailing him out.

The film finds opportunity to be funny without undercutting the lead character or actor.  It's definitely a point of the film that she's against type.  She can't pull off the same sexy femme fatale as a statuesque Bond girl, but she's not the arm candy, she's the brains and the muscle.  This film let's her be that, and makes you as the audience want her to be that.  It's great.  The humour comes out of character and situation, not cheap shots.  The verbal sparring between McCarthy and Byrne, or McCarthy and Statham (or, in her finest comedic moments, taking Bryne's security detail down a peg ("You want me to have Cagney and fucking Lacey explain it to you? Cagney's coming down your fucking throat. Lacey, she's gonna come up your ass. I'm gonna meet them in the fucking middle and play your heart like a *fucking* accordion. I'm gonna pump that shit until it pops, you Swedish bitch!")

Spy is exciting, globetrotting, identity swapping, action-espionage-comedy that delivers on all fronts, and is entertaining as all hell.  The cast is uniformly great (great supporting bits from Peter Serafinowicz, Bobby Cannavale, Miranda Hart, and Allison Janney too) The weakest aspect is specifically the opening and closing credit songs, which don't quite live up to the Bond-like highs or even Weird Al's epic Spy Hard theme (but the opener here is still better than "Writing On The Wall" from Spectre, ugh).  The closing credits though provide brief text and photographic glimpses into McCarthy's subsequent missions, creating an end credits sequence worth staying for.  Hopefully a sequel is forthcoming and can be as uncompromising.

A surprise, for sure, but a damn pleasant one.  Bring on Ghostbusters.  Like Spy, the trailer wasn't spectacular, but Feig and McCarthy in an action comedy.  Sold.

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You know what, I know that Machete Kills isn't exactly a spy movie, but it kind of is at the same time.  I mean, it's as much a spy movie as Moonraker, since it stole its basic plot from it.  Machete has to infiltrate places and kill people, and even though he's not an official spy, that's total spy material.  He gets to sex up some ladies and shoot people and drive crazy vehicles, and have epic fights.  That's all super spy stuff too.  Fuck it, it is a spy movie, except there's no actual spying.  It's all full frontal assault, and there's no way Danny Trejo is going undercover.  Except, oh right, he totally does at that formal dinner thing.  Boom! Spy work!

Let's just get this straight though, the Machete movies are terrible.  They're outright bad movies.  But they're also meant to be outright bad movies.  They're supposed to be corny and cheesy and racist and sexist and vulgar and exploitative and violent to comedic extremes.  It's basically Austin Powers but not as sharply comedic.  Its laughs come from that "I can't believe what they just did" gut reaction to absurdity, whether it's someone's head exploding or Sofia Vergara firing off her "double D" boob guns or just the all around cheesy cgi effects that are intentionally unrefined.  It's a smorgasbord of whackadoo ideas all put to use, nothings to much and let's not waste a single one.

It's dumb brainrot fun though.  It's over two hours long (and even then it's totally setting up a sequel...the film opens and closes with the trailer for Machete Kills Again...In Space), and it feels it.  Something like this shouldn't really cross the 90 minute mark, and yet it's evident Rodriguez doesn't care.  He just keeps propelling the film forward with goofy cameos (Charlie Sheen, Lady Gaga, Cuba Gooding Jr., Walton Goggins, amongst many others).  Mel Gibson seems to be the perfect fit for a spectacle like this, especially as the lunatic bad guy who wants to blow up the Earth so that he can live in peace in space.

There's really no point in going into too much detail about this film.  There's so much ridiculousness that it's incredibly hard to single out what's good, what's bad, what I liked and what I didn't.  It's relentless in its absurdity, and it doesn't care.  It's like Axe Cop (the comic-turned-cartoon written by an 8-year-old and illustrated by his 30-year-old brother) put to feature-plus length.  It's just a fountain of unfiltered ideas.  If I were to rate this, it would fair poorly, and yet, I might wind up watching it again some day where something so utterly bizarre is the order of the day.