‘Spy’ Movie Review 1 118

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Ever since she made everyone sit up and pay attention to her bold and brash comedic skills in the 2011 gargantuan hit comedy Bridesmaids, Hollywood hasn’t really known what to do with Melissa McCarthy. Or rather, it keeps either wasting her and/or putting her in roles that are solely there to make fun of her weight (see Identity Thief as one of the worst examples).

Step in Spy, an outrageously, brilliantly silly comedy that represents both a huge step forward for McCarthy in Hollywood and a great subversion of the traditional Bond franchise in that, essentially, the actress is playing a Ms. Moneypenny who stands up from behind her desk, heads out in the field and kicks ass while not being afraid to look plain daft in the process.

McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, an unassuming desk-bound CIA analyst whose job it is to be the eyes and ears of her field agent partner Agent Fine (Jude Law) back at the office.  But when he goes off the grid and the rest of the available agents have their identities exposed, Susan volunteers to go on a dangerous undercover mission to recover a nuke from a nuclear arms dealer (Rose Byrne).

To call Spy a spoof might be to oversimplify it, even if it does provide a raucous lampooning of what we know from those types of movies, but rather it works in its poking fun at the overrun subgenre in a completely organic way. The jokes come thick and fast, whether you like silly slapstick, clever one-liners and or exaggerated antagonistic exchanges, Spy throws everything in the mix that it can. Then chucks a nuke on top of it thereafter. It’s relentless and it just works.

The real key to its effectiveness is McCarthy and you have no idea how glad I am to be saying that. Reuniting with her Bridesmaids and The Heat director Paul Feig – one of the very few directors making female-driven comedies that are consistently both well received and make a lot of money – it’s finally a role that allows her to go all out with inimitable comedic style, front and centre, without turning into a borderline offensive caricature. Yes, a big part of the joke is how unlikely she is to be a secret agent in the first place but here it feels like good-natured “you give as good as you get” jibes rather than making fun of her as an actress. It’s refreshing and we need more of it from now on (a sequel to this is both inevitable and very welcome).

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What’s also great is how the film gives each of its supporting characters a chance to shine, while always remembering to keep McCarthy centre stage. Jason Statham is a particular highlight as the hilariously self-important Agent Rick Ford who is always trying to one-up everyone else in terms of achievements and general badassery – “I once drove a car off a freeway, on top of a train, while it was on fire… Not the car… *I* was on fire” he gloats – and you can tell he’s having a lot of fun poking at at his usually po-faced action persona.

Jude Law is perfectly cast as the suave, self-involved Agent Fine who feels like he took the role as a way to play Bond without actually ever playing him. The cast of these two leading men is another example of how the film subverts expectations. Then there’s Miranda Hart, plucked from British TV fandom to big-screen Hollywood fame and her style will be all too familiar if you know her work on the British small screen with lots of her falling over and jokes about her height and accent. It works to a point here but can overbear sometimes.

To top off the cavalcade of jokes and slapstick, there’s the most surprising element of all: the action. It’s genuinely very well done, slick and entertaining on its own action rights, full of well-choreographed car chases, shootouts and knife fights that helps elevate the film above other, similar spy comedies. Okay, it’s not exactly The Raid but there’s something to be said for this type of film that both delivers on the comedy and action in pretty much equal measure.

Not since Bridesmaids has a film given us McCarthy on her best form; endearing, charismatic and wonderfully silly all at once. And she’s surrounded by great supporting actors all upping their game for a big, brash Hollywood comedy that’s firing on almost all cylinders. Is the plot the most surprising thing in the world? No. And occasionally it’s a little too fond of the vulgarity for its own good. But ultimately its heart, wit and comedic timing wins out, making for one of the most consistently funny Hollywood comedies in ages.

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I’m a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features.

I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 422

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 454

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10