Thursday, August 16, 2018

“SKumm’s Thoughts” - THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME

“SKumm’s Thoughts”

Every year seems to find a new comedic It-Girl.  Melissa McCarthy (THE HEAT) and Amy Schumer (TRAINWRECK) each had standout moments which seemed to propel them into the spotlight, and seemed to redefine what it meant for a female in the genre of comedic film.

So hats off to Kate McKinnon (“Saturday Night Live”) for her performance in SPY.  She uses up so much energy onscreen that everyone else looks two steps behind.  The only person capable of keeping up with her (I really hate to use the word “zany” here…) ZANY character is her best friend (Mila Kunis), and only then because every Costello needs an Abbott.

SPY centers around the friendship between Audry and Morgan (Kunis and McKinnon), and the extremes they will go to in order to protect each other when they are thrust into the world of international espionage via Audry’s shady ex-boyfriend.  Seems he was secretly a CIA operative, and he may have stolen something that the government(s) wants back.  This sends Audry and Morgan overseas and on an adventure usually handled by the dudes.  And honestly, that isn’t where this movie gets its extra zing from (yes, apparently I’m going with adjectives which begin with the letter Z now).

What worked so well in previous female-led comedies (THE HEAT, BRIDESMAIDS, etc.) isn’t what drives the story here.  Thrusting females into what are traditionally roles for men can open up many different comedic opportunities, but here it is handled differently.  Writers David Iserson and Susanna Fogel (who also directs) seem to know that their greatest strength lies in the chemistry between Ms.’s Kunis and McKinnon, and, almost entirely to her credit, the prowess of Ms. McKinnon.  She is what lifts this film up, what provides roughly 95% of the film’s laughs, and what, ultimately, makes this an enjoyable affair.  You want to keep watching to see exactly what this woman will say next, not to mention what she will be wearing.  Her jokes are not just set ups and punchlines; she gets reactions with her facial expressions just as much as she does with her (I warned you) zingers.

The always enjoyable Ms. Kunis turns in the perfect Abbott-esque performance.  She plays the straight guy (although there’s a term which needs redefining now, doesn’t it?) role perfectly, casting a sardonic eye upon Morgan and her antics.  The laughs she elicits are few and far, far between, but what the viewer is witnessing is two very different comedic styles playing well against the other.  It’s just that one is much louder and screaming for your attention more so than its subtle counterpart.

Of course, the film can become mired in the trappings of the genre it is lambasting; what would a contemporary espionage film be without international agencies working against each other, double crosses, technological world threat, and sadistic baddies.  The story thrives on skewering many of those troupes, but to convey at least a somewhat engaging storyline, small doses of the familiar—or the typical—need be included.  Certain formulas have to be adhered to a point, lest your audience be subjected to something akin to a long comedy sketch.

But with the driving force of McKinnon, I can’t help but wonder what her character could have done if left with no restraints at all.  Ms. Kunis is great in her own capacity, but the sheer physical force of her counterpart is something entirely different to behold.  And this film is a lovely start to Ms. McKinnon’s time of being the It-girl.

Grade: B

-- T.S. Kummelman

Wednesday, August 15, 2018


‘Blu-ray or Bust’

I keep waiting for a truly effective follow-up to 2014’s lovely little sleeper hit IT FOLLOWS.

So many of these “horror” films trying to recapture that same vibe—a simple premise made more complicated by the choices made by the protagonists as the story unfolds—fail because they either don’t stick to their own rules or because they are just plain stupid.  The latest from Blumhouse (known for the INSIDIOUS and THE PURGE franchises) sticks to their typical formula.  Remember UNFRIENDED (stupid), PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (became more progressively stupid), and SINISTER (oh Sweet Baby Hey-Zeus)?  Simple rules set up early on that are repeatedly broken by stupid characters (except for the PARANORMAL films, in which I don’t think even the writers knew what the hell was going on after the second film).

TRUTH OR DARE isn’t much of a different fare—it just has better acting, slightly better jokes, and slightly more intelligent kids getting knocked off.  There isn’t really anything scary going on for the viewer, besides a few creepy faces.  The premise, again, is a basic one: college friends on a vacation to Mexico get roped into a game of Truth or Dare that a malevolent spirit/demon forces them to play.  The stakes are their lives, and an hour and forty-one minutes of yours.

Surprisingly, that time goes by rather quickly.  Despite the fact that the movie breaks one of its main rules in the first twenty minutes, the story moves along at a brisk pace.  There is enough to keep the viewer entertained, and not as many “oh you stupid MORONS!” moments as there are in other films of this type.  All of the acting is on point; best friends Olivia and Markie, played by Lucy Hale (“Pretty Little Liars”) and Violett Beane (“The Flash”) respectively, are believable so far as chemistry is concerned.  The boys are mostly throw-away characters, including Landon Liboiron of “Hemlock Grove” fame; he played a moody werewolf there, and here he plays a moody a-hole.  Not much of a stretch, but he does a fine job with what he is given.

The score by Matthew Margeson (KINGSMAN, EDDIE THE EAGLE) is almost too good for the goings-on here, and the cinematography by Jacques Jouffret (THE PURGE films, unfortunately) is passable, although I was left wondering more than once if there was any other way to film that damn border-station sign.  Director Jeff Wadlow (you have him to thank for KICK-ASS 2) uses the usual genre tricks, and doesn’t offer up a whole lot of new material.  Which is what bothers me the most about this film, I suppose; he has an entertaining cast, a few great sets, and three other freaking writers that managed to help produce a script that doesn’t get too tangled up in itself.  There was potential here, and it turned out a bit…well, “meh” would probably be the best summation.

Not great, not horrible, just meh.

What really galls me about the release is the production company feeling the need to put their name in the freaking title.  Seriously?  Have egos grown that exponentially since your last release (which was the bag-o-poo titled INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY)?  Because that last one had a bigger budget and was magnificently stupid—not necessarily something that would make me confident enough to put the company’s name in front of the title for the next offering.  Then again, I’m just some geek on a laptop; every time I think I’ve got the Hollywood machinations figured out, someone goes and does something majestically idiotic to force me to start scratching my head again.

Then again, this is the same production company that also gave us SPLIT, and the forthcoming M. Night Shyamalan sequel GLASS.  Here’s hoping they don’t screw with anymore titles.

Film Grade: C+
Special Features: D (two docs, neither really all that interesting)
Blu-ray Necessary: I’m gonna go with noooooo

-- T.S. Kummelman

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - DARK CRIMES

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

Jim Carrey has had an interesting career.  With his star-making roles on “In Living Color” as, basically, the one funny white dude on a show created by and starring The Wayans family, to his hit turns as ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE and “Lloyd” from DUMB AND DUMBER, he has been a comedic force that shifted from generation to generation.

Each role featured him as a larger-than-life character whose onscreen presence demanded your full attention.  He was THE MASK (thank the Sweet Baby Hey-Zeus for “Cuban Pete”!), he was BRUCE ALMIGHTY—hell, he even played The Grinch in the first live-action adaptation of the Dr. Seuss classic.  And he was manic in every one.  His mania became his calling card, and his physical comedy the payoff to some of the funniest jokes.

Enter the new Jim Carrey.  In what seems like a Robin Williams-type bid for attention to his dramatic acting skills, Mr. Carrey stars as disgraced ex-detective Tadek.  He is a Polish policeman desperate to clean up his tarnished reputation by solving a murder, although vengeance against the system which knocked him down a peg is also at the top of his priority list.  His crusade is not a well-defined bag o’ reasons—one of the mysteries of this film is his real motivation, which becomes more defined as the story slowly progresses.

Mr. Carrey’s performance here is a quiet one, far different from his previous roles.  His carefully nuanced acting here is refined and, at times, remarkable when you consider that you haven’t really seen this side of him before.  Like the late Mr. Williams, this is not a sudden turn to dramatic acting.  THE MAJESTIC and ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND are two prime examples of his maturity in the art of acting; not that you can discount his comedy, as those over-the-top roles take a whole lot of energy that you just don’t see every day.  Remember, Mr. Williams’ rapid-fire and physical comedy seemed to define him for generations, and he was lauded for his serious turns in THE DEAD POET’S SOCIETY and GOOD WILL HUNTING.  So, don’t think this is new territory for Mr. Carrey—it’s just more refined and more dramatic than we’ve previously seen.    Yes, his accent does fluctuate at times, but it isn’t enough to distract from the rest of his performance. 

And he isn’t the only star here: Martin Csokas (THE EQUALIZER) plays an irascible author who becomes the focus of Tadek’s investigation, and the gorgeous Charlotte Gainsbourg is the damaged single mother Kasia, whose ties to the investigation and the suspect help redefine the role of the femme fatale.  One way to look at this is to keep in mind that there are many, many more layers to every one of these characters than what is on the surface.  You basically get every facet of the human condition here, most notably, of course, with that of the tortured Tadek.

The special features are underwhelming—included is one “making of” doc that does offer some insight that expands a little more than the typical, but that’s it.  No doc special concerning the true story the film is based upon, nothing that shows how they set up some of those luxuriously executed long-shots, nothing about the unique editing style.  You’ll notice, though, that the film was released overseas in 2016, and it is just now being released in the U.S., albeit on video.  So, the studio is to thank for their lack of faith in putting much effort into the release.

While the film has a few flaws—keep in mind that this is a character study wrapped in a not-too-ambiguous mystery—it does make for a strong argument when it comes to Mr. Carrey’s acting prowess.  There is true talent here, talent which borders on a different sort of artistry than we are used to seeing from him.  Don’t ignore it.

Film Grade: B
Special Features: D+
Blu-ray Necessary: Not Necessary (although the shadows contrast nicely in the dreary, muted setting)

-- T.S. Kummelman