My Spy

My Spy

By: Kevin Jordan

Pet peeves.

One of my wife’s biggest movie pet peeves is when kids are smarter than adults. While some kids are most definitely smarter than some adults, this theme almost always goes way too far when asking you to suspend your disbelief. Home Alone, Rookie of the Year, The Goonies, Spy Kids, Holes, any of the Harry Potter films – all annoy her to a certain extent. While I am slightly more forgiving (The Goonies is just too good), I agree. My Spy is no exception to this rule and probably would have sent my wife out of the theater in fifteen minutes.

JJ ((Dave Bautista) is a CIA agent in the middle of an undercover operation in Russia, trying to thwart a weapons deal involving plutonium. Just as the deal is about to be sealed, JJ inadvertently blows his cover by asking if he can help whatever is the next phase of the buyer’s plan (the question causes a bad guy to accuse him of being someone else). JJ tries to cover up the mistake, but then just admits that he is a spy. This being a kids’ movie, JJ is not executed on the spot. Instead, he kills all but one bad guy and recovers the plutonium. This scene kind of works for its action and an attempt at humor through some silly cinematography and choreography, which is about what one expects from a spy movie aimed at children.

When JJ returns to his office in America, he receives a standing ovation from everyone. Everyone except his boss, David (Ken Jeong), that is. David shows JJ video of the botched weapons deal, pointing out the escape of Marquez (Greg Bryk) and that there is more plutonium out there. This scene does not work for multiple reasons. One, Ken Jeong was a terrible casting decision to play JJ’s boss, choosing to be neither intimidating nor funny. Two, everyone in the office somehow did not know that the mission was actually a failure (which points to the boss being a moron or everyone in that CIA branch being a moron). Three, JJ is suspended, despite his mission at least being partially successful, confusing the audience in the process.

After a couple minutes, we end up at the next briefing, where JJ is given one last chance – surveillance of Marquez’s ex-sister-in-law, Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley), with his new partner/techie/fangirl, Bobbi (Kristen Schaal). This scene also did not make sense, although it’s possible I missed something David said during the briefing because the kid behind me sneezed on my neck. Yeah. That happened. Anyway, I doubt anything David said could have made it logical to surveil a woman who long stopped being associated with Marquez.

The main plot of the film kicks off at this point, which is Kate’s nine-year old daughter Sophie (Chloe Coleman) discovering a hidden camera in a dog’s bouncy ball *face in my hands*, following the wifi signal until she discovers JJ and Bobbi’s hideout, and threatening to expose them with video she took of them at work unless they do what she wants them to do. I understand that this is the entire premise of the film and must be accepted in order for the film to work. I also understand that this is the point in which my wife exits stage right because that premise fails on all levels.

The tack this film should have taken is one similar to that of Kindergarten Cop. JJ and Bobbi should have been inserted into the building with cover stories and interacted with Kate to find out if Kate knew anything about Marquez or if there was any reason to believe he would even contact her. I’m even willing to accept the blown cover part, but would have changed it to JJ and Bobbi explaining to Sophie that they were watching Sophie and Kate to keep them safe from bad guys. Almost the entire movie could have been kept as is (minus the blackmail, that is) while maintaining the idea that a nine-year old is not smarter than CIA agents, thus making the film palatable to those of us that are, in fact, smarter than a third grader.

The movie really falls flat during the second act, where there is no action and the threat of a black market nuclear weapon is practically forgotten. During this time, we must endure Bobbi pouting over Sophie getting all of JJ’s attention, JJ training Chloe to be a spy, Chloe forcing JJ to hang out with her and her mom, including the predictable budding romance between JJ and Kate. On top of that is the worst scene in the entire film – JJ telling a roomful of Chloe’s classmates and their parents that he is a CIA agent for a living when he cannot come up with a plausible cover story (which the CIA absolutely would have given him) or even just say that he recently left the military after tours in Afghanistan. Even the sneezed-out germs on my neck winced at this scene.

The news is not all bad though. Once the film remembers that it is an action movie and brings Marquez back into the fray, it becomes somewhat entertaining. Despite a lot of the idiocy in the screenplay, there are some solid moments of comedy. It is also encouraging to see Bautista follow up Stuber with another solid lead performance role. Plus, the kids will love Chloe Coleman, who also delivers a good performance. Unfortunately, none of those things would be enough to overcome my wife’s pet peeve and I am not that forgiving. Now, I need to go wash my neck again.

Rating: Ask for nine dollars back and a sneeze guard.

Stuber

Stuber

By: Kevin Jordan

Didn’t see that one coming.

Trailers always elicit an immediate reaction from the viewer in the form of whether or not the viewer will go see the movie. For a trailer for a movie like Stuber, most people will probably think “well, not gonna go see that piece of shit.” I say that because I am one of those people. Except, being a critic, my thought came out as “well, when am I going to have to sit through that piece of shit?” The point is, the trailer for Stuber leaves you wanting to watch pretty much any other movie. The premise alone screams STAY AWAY!!!! A cop kidnaps an Uber driver and forces him to chauffeur him around the city fighting crime. That sounds much more like a rejected Saturday Night Live skit trying to appeal to Millennials than a summer blockbuster movie.

To be blunt, that premise (and movie title) sucks. The only real interest I had going into the film was to see if Dave Bautista could carry a film. What is surprising is that the movie works. Yeah – I am as shocked as you because, again, we both watched the trailer. It works because the film is aware of how stupid its own premise is and is constantly poking fun at it. And it works because Dave Bautista seemed right at home in what is really just a buddy cop flick.

It’s funny because we know it’s stupid.

(Mild SPOILERS ahead. You’ll see what I mean.)

Officer Vic Manning (Bautista) has been chasing drug kingpin Oka Tedjo (Iko Uwais) for three years, after Tedjo killed Manning’s partner (Karen Gillan, who is tragically underused in this film). His obsession has led to the collapse of his marriage and neglect of his daughter. Never mind that his daughter is a full-grown adult, we need tired, cliched tropes to build Manning’s character. Anyway, Manning’s chief (Mira Sorvino) informs him that the FBI is taking over the Tedjo case and that he should take a little time off to deal with his personal life. This includes getting Lasik surgery, which will better help him see his daughter’s (Natalie Morales) art work at her art show that same evening. After getting the surgery, he gets a call from a source about Tedjo handling a big drug deal that night and Vic immediately jumps into action to meet his source for details. And by jump, I mean crashes his car because he just had eye surgery. This is where the movie gets creative with its premise.

This being an action-comedy featuring gigantic, former wrestler/MMA fighter Dave Bautista, we need to believe that he won’t just crush every bad guy in his gigantic, former wrestler/MMA fighter hands (seriously, his hands are bigger than my head!). Kudos to the writer (Tripper Clancy) for saying “what if we partially blind him?” Not only does that solve the “but he’s huge!” dilemma, it also provides a clever reason for him to need to be driven around. That brings us to the next question – why not just give him a new partner to legally drive him around rather than commit a felony (among many by kidnapping an Uber driver named Stu (Kumail Nanjiani)? Well, because it’s 2019 grandpa, try to keep up.

I’m just the plucky sidekick!

While the action is decently entertaining (and surprisingly bloody, earning an R rating), the comedy is the star of the film. That is where Nanjiani comes in. With his deadpan deliver and accompanying physical expressions, I found myself laughing quite often. I was not expecting that because, yep, trailer. Even better is that Nanjiani and Bautista feed off each other to deliver more laughs. That’s not to say every joke in the film works. There are several ongoing side plots that fail to deliver any comedy – Stu trying to get five star ratings from customers, Stu trying to get home to have sex with a girl (Betty Gilpin) he is in love with but who only views him as a friend, and Stu’s boss being a massive douche nozzle. Now that I really think about it, the premise is really the only solid joke in the film.

(Side note: the funniest line of the movie isn’t in the movie, but only in the trailer. Vic hands Stu a tiny gun and says “it’s a baby gun. It allows you to fire it while crying.”)

The point is that Stuber is a throwback to fun buddy-cop movies that are desperately missing from film right now. Bautista delivers a solid lead performance, giving us good action scenes, and Nanjiani nails the plucky, comedic sidekick. Together, they deliver a film that doesn’t take itself seriously and characters that are fairly relatable and sympathetic. I will not go so far as to say Stuber is a good movie (the side plots, failed jokes, and predictable ending prevent that), but it is an entertaining movie despite what the trailer is trying to tell you.

Rating: Ask for three dollars back, one for each bad side plot.

Spectre

By: Kevin Jordan

Harking back to earlier times.

spectre

Ranking things has become a staple of American media and might be what they spend the most time and effort on.  From power rankings to best-of rankings to “which candidate was the least deplorable during last night’s (pick your party) debate” rankings, they have majorly impacted the way news is presented and consumed.  Heck, I do it myself every year in my annual Year in Review piece.  So, with the release of James Bond 24 – Spectre – it was predictable that nearly every entertainment outlet would rank all things James Bond.  From Bond Girls to villains to henchman to cars to gadgets to the movies themselves, those sites ranked everything short of Bond haircuts (and it wouldn’t surprise me if a search turned that up as well).  While these are fun exercises, they get old after the thousandth one written and are always biased depending (mostly) on the age of the writer (if you want to test that theory, find a baby boomer and tell him Pierce Brosnan was a better Bond than Sean Connery.  Then, duck the incoming punch).  I’m not going to rank anything here, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least answer a similar question – how does Spectre compare with the other Daniel Craig Bond films?

Let’s just get this out of the way up front – Casino Royale was a nearly perfect film and none of the subsequent Bond films have come close to matching it (I didn’t write a full review of Skyfall, but I found it slightly overrated, as noted in my 2012 Year in Review).  Having said that, I enjoyed all of them because they are well-produced, Craig is fantastic, my wife will go see them with me, and they are better than nearly every other action movie out there.  Spectre is no different, delivering well on all three of those qualities.  However, some chinks in the armor are beginning to show.

Spectre is a bit of a throwback to pre-Craig iterations.  Remember all of the jokes in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me that ridicule the clichés of Bond flicks?  Well, pretty much every one of those clichés was on full display in Spectre and, disappointingly, the movie was only aware of one of them (I’ll get to them in a moment).  To me, the lack of these clichés is what made the previous Craig films so good and refreshing, so bringing them back was a head-scratcher.  So, let’s talk about them.

Opening Song

Adele set a very high standard with “Skyfall,” so following it up was going to be a tough chore for anyone.  Unfortunately, Sam Smith and the producers decided not to even try.  I’ve always wanted to use the word caterwauling and singer Sam Smith was caterwauling with the best of them in “Writing’s on the Wall,” one of the worst openers for any Bond movie.  Smith himself said it took half an hour to write the song and the demo version was used in the final cut of the film.  I’m guessing the folks who approved had listened to the demo shortly after firing guns without wearing ear protection.  Guys, that ringing in your ears wasn’t exploding gunpowder, it was Smith.

Gadgets

Previous Craig films wisely stayed away from the silly gadgets of yesteryear, but director Sam Mendes apparently thought it was time to bring them back.  Exploding watch?  Check.  60’s era toggle switches in Bond’s car to set off fire, bullets, and ejector seat?  Check.  Nanobots in Bond’s blood to track his vitals and location?  Check.  Headshakes from me every time one of these appeared?  Check.  To be fair, the film is mildly aware of this trope, adding a toggle switch in the car for pre-selected music (the car was intended for agent 009) and, upon receiving the watch from Q (Ben Whishaw), Bond asks “Does it do anything?” to which Q responds “It tells the time.”

Bond Car

Every Bond movie has a car chase (or four) and this one features an Aston Martin DB10 with the previously mentioned toggle switches.  Every Bond movie also wrecks Bond’s car, which I find tired.  I know it goes along with the recklessness of Bond’s character, but couldn’t we save the car just once?  Or at least, can’t Q give him a car that doesn’t cost three million pounds (Q actually tells us the cost, which also made me wonder why he used ten cent toggle switches.  Whatever).

Bond Girls

Some people think Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) counts as a Bond girl, but I don’t think so.  Bond girls are one of two things – the damsel in distress or part of the villain’s gang (or both).  Sleeping with Bond does not make a Bond girl, though all Bond girls sleep with him.  That leaves Dr. Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux) – damsel, and Lucia Sciarra (Monica Bellucci) – part of the gang (though only by marriage).  Nothing sets these two apart from most Bond girls, especially Bellucci, who serves no purpose in the film other than to have sex with Bond after Bond eliminates her assassin husband.  But, hey, they’re hot so…mission accomplished?

Henchmen

Did anybody miss the villain’s right hand man?  Me either.  But what true Bond villain doesn’t have a cartoon character henchman to execute his evil plans?  Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) fills out that role while almost over-filling out his suits.  His job is busting heads without asking questions and if he had any lines at all, I don’t remember them.  He doesn’t have metal teeth or razor-edged hats, but he does like to kill people by pushing his fingers through their eyes, so he achieves the same effect – ewww, gross.

Villain

The villains all tend to be the same – super intelligent sociopaths with ridiculously complex evil plots and some quirk.  Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz) is the leader of the evil organization called Spectre, which contained Quantum, the previous evil organization thought to be THE evil organization.  Franz claims to be the one responsible for all of the bad things that happened in the last three movies and to that I say – really?  But he’s not done.  He’s also trying to get a system approved and online that connects national surveillance systems all into one system that he would control because…um…hmmmmm.  Actually, we never find out.  He’s actually pissed off at Bond for a completely unrelated reason – and had daddy issues – thus creating the wildly convoluted plot of Spectre.  And Franz has a cat, aka – his quirk.

The “Death Ray”

Invoking The Spy Who Shagged Me again, remember when the bad guys capture Powers and the villain decided to kill Powers with an elaborately designed device, but the villain’s son says “why don’t we just shoot him right now?  Here, I even have a gun” and the villain argues with his son?  Yeah, well, Franz has a remote controlled chair will drills on either side that he uses to drill holes into Bond’s head.  Egads.

The Lair

Every villain has to have an absurdly elaborate lair, right?  The villain in Quantum of Solace had a hotel in the middle of the Bolivian desert, powered by hydrogen-fuel cells.  The villain in Skyfall had an abandoned village/island filled with computer servers.  Franz has an energy-independent compound inside a crater in Africa in which his surveillance system is housed.  Also, the drill chair is there.  I rest my case.

Political Content

Every Bond movie reflects current real-life politics.  In addition to mass surveillance, Spectre throws in drones, plus, another worn-out trope – the spy agency is obsolete, so must be dissolved.  If there’s one thing to truly dislike about this movie it’s the idea that MI6 needs to be dissolved because we have drones now.  I’m pretty sure a Predator drone is incapable of wearing a suit and dancing without someone noticing that it’s an airplane.

If you’re like me, you will be disappointed that this movie took several steps backward by bringing back many of the silly tropes and clichés that previous Craig movies had seemingly (and thankfully) moved beyond.  But, you will forgive that for the reasons mentioned earlier (production, etc., etc.), plus good performances from Ralph Fiennes (M) and Andrew Scott (C – you know him as Moriarty in Sherlock).  And if you still want to know where Spectre ranks, even in just the four Craig movies, I’d say Brosnan over Connery.

Rating: Ask for a dollar back because there really should be a penalty for Mendes caving in to nostalgia.

Guardians of the Galaxy

By: Kevin Jordan (Number9)

Nothing can stop Marvel.

Guardians

Back when I wrote about Edge of Tomorrow, I casually commented that one of the most anticipated movies of the summer was Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and that I had no idea why it was so anticipated.  I’ve read approximately one comic book in my entire life, but I’m aware that they exist and have at least heard of most the titles of most of them.  But, Guardians of the Galaxy?  Up until a couple of years ago, virtually nobody had heard of that one, including me.  I also joked that the only thing revealed in the trailers were the five guardians, a spaceship, a bunch of jokes, and a whole lot of action and I can honestly tell you that all of those things exist in this movie.  My big fear was that the plot was either going to not exist or be a complete mess since the previews didn’t show a peep of it.  Well, to answer your question, yes – I’ve only ever read one comic book.

Last week, after seeing Lucy, my friend opined that Lucy is fine as long as you don’t think about it.  That very well might be the most backhanded compliment one can give to a movie.  Essentially, what that statement means is that the film is a flaming turd disguised by an element or two that makes the film tolerable.  In the case of Lucy, those elements are good action scenes and Scarlett Johansson walking around in a tight, black dress causing half the audience to drool and the other half to edge ever-so-slightly towards bulimia.  But, when you start to think about the plot, the character development, or the various character motivations, you realize you can smell the turd and it’s not pleasant.

The interesting thing about said compliment is it is used almost exclusively by people to sugarcoat their real opinion for a certain audience or because they secretly liked the movie and don’t want to admit they have no idea what a well-written story/screenplay looks like (note: my friend is one of the former).  Personally, I use that statement as a veiled insult directed at people who openly like movies that fit the compliment or the people who actually wrote/made the movie.  In other words, when I say that Lucy is a tolerable action movie if you turn your brain off, I’m saying Luc Besson – and anyone who claims Lucy is more than a big, dumb action flick – is a moron.  I’m not saying you can’t like the film or enjoy it (hell, I enjoyed the shit out of Battleship); I’m just saying don’t make it more than it is.  For me, there aren’t many things funnier than people trying to explain the depth and gravitas of poorly written movies like Maleficent.

The converse to said compliment is that it is possible to make big, action flicks that are both fun and non-dumb, which brings me to Guardians of the Galaxy.  Based on the previews, I fully expected that I would have to turn off my brain to enjoy the film.  If you are in the majority of folks, the only thing you know about the film is that a tree, a raccoon, a green-chick, and two dudes come together on a spaceship to crack jokes and shoot people.  That is not exactly the formula for a well-written movie; in fact, it’s essentially Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, but with intentional comedy.

(Side note: how hard are you trying to match up those characters right now?  There is no way you are sleeping tonight without figuring that out.)

Where Guardians succeeds and so many others fail is that it delivers a very simple, straight-forward plot, focuses a lot on character development while using it to advance the story, and doesn’t use action just for the sake of action.  The entire plot of the film, as you may have guessed, is that the five characters shown in the previews will save the galaxy from something.  In this case, they have to save the galaxy from a villain named Ronan (Lee Pace) who is trying to get his hands on an Infinity Stone, which will give him the power to destroy entire planets.  Simple, right?  The plot advances through various events, bringing the characters together while also telling us more about the characters themselves, including their back stories and motivations for the actions they have taken and the actions they are going to take.  There are a couple of minor, unanswered questions like – who is the collector (Benicio del Toro) and why have we now seen him in two different movies? – but those questions don’t make the plot harder to understand or outright nonsensical.  In the context of the film, the collector is the guy who promised to pay Gamora (Zoe Saldana) a ton of money for the sphere containing the stone and that’s it.  Simple, right?

On top of all that, there are smaller things that make the movie more entertaining than just about any movie this summer.  For one thing, the movie is aware of itself.  Another thing you hear people sometimes say is that a movie took itself too seriously or isn’t aware of itself.  What that usually means is that the mood of the movie does not match the content of the movie.  Not to harp too much on Lucy, but it definitely takes itself too seriously (after the first half, that is) in that it treats its own premise with far too much weight.  The idea that a human gains multiple superpowers through expanded brain capacity by ingesting a large quantity of a drugs sewn into her stomach is absurd and should be treated as such (obviously, this is not how Lucy handled its own premise).  Guardians is a comic book movie in which one of its characters is a genetically engineered, sarcastic raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and another is a tree named Groot (Vin Diesel).  The mood you would expect is fun action and comedy dressed in special effects and that’s exactly what you get.  That’s how you know Guardians is aware of itself.

Of course, the movie isn’t without its flaws.  Chris Pratt gives an uneven performance – sometimes he’s really good and sometimes he’s soap opera bad.  There are a bunch of thieves led by Yondu (Michael Rooker) that are superfluous and could easily be lifted from the movie without impacting the story.  There are some really bad performances put forth by Karen Gillan as Nebula – who spends the entire movie screeching – and Pace, who over-delivers nearly every line he utters.  Perhaps the most glaring flaw is best put like this – what the hell is Glenn Close doing in this movie?

The point I’m trying to make is that the movie doesn’t ask you turn off your brain, but also doesn’t ask you to think about anything either.  It’s simply asking you to come along for a fun ride for a couple of hours and enjoy yourself.  I’m not saying Guardians of the Galaxy is the best movie of the summer, but it might just be the most entertaining.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back.  This movie turned out far better than even Marvel could have predicted.