Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Just Deserts

Year: 2018
Director: Coralie Fargeat
Cast: Matilda Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The rape-revenge subgenre of horror is not a fun one. Usually the films are nasty bits of work like I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left that belong to one of two camps. The first are the kind that use violence as a catharsis to a horrifying act, and the second, much scuzzier, ask the audience to delight in both the rape and the revenge. The point is, whether they have good intentions or bad (very very bad), they're usually borderline unwatchable, and always directed by men.

Not so with Revenge, the debut feature of French director Coralie Fargeat. Fargeat, in addition to being a bright new talent, also happens to be a woman, and that has made all the difference. Switching the perspective of this well-worn and dubious genre makes Revenge a vital and necessary film even if it turned out to be terrible, but the icing on the cake is that it's absolutely not. Let's dive in, because I can't wait.

Pictured: Me, demanding that you rent Revenge today.

Like all rape-revenge movies, Revenge has a very simple plot. Jen (Matilda Lutz) is the American mistress of megarich stud/lapsed family man Richard (Kevin Janssens). They're having a dirty weekend at his Moroccan desert bachelor pad when his buddies Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) show up a day early for a planned hunting trip. Following a night of debauchery, Stan attempts to coerce Jen into sex, then rapes her (thankfully offscreen, though no less harrowing). Instead of helping her out, Richard pushes Jen off a cliff and leaves her for dead so she can't tattle. Understandably, she wants revenge, and thus begins a cat and mouse chase as the hunters realize this week they have a different kind of game; and this time the game is fighting back...

Well, maybe after a few repairs.

If you know anything about modern French horror cinema, you know that they do not skimp on the gore. While Revenge carves its own space out between the French Extremist movement and whatever new path Fargeat is taking international cinema on, it stills provides plenty of that red red krovvy, to the point that those with weak stomachs should probably grab a Pepto-Bismol along with their popcorn.

There's enough blood in this movie to keep the Red Cross fully stocked for a month, and certain moments will even make hardened gorehounds' skin crawl. But it never quite crosses past that line from being fun to harrowingly bleak, like Inside does with wicked glee. Mind you, there is one stomach-churning sequence with a foot that feels completely gratuitous, but it leads to one of the best gore gags in the movie later on, so I ain't complaining there. For the most part it's never so brutal that you want to turn it off and forget it ever existed; it's just an energizing display of effects that fuel the action to even further heights.

Also taking off Kevin Janssens' shirt in any situation is always a good thing.

So yes, the gore is great, but with such a pared-down plot, Revenge needs just a touch more to feel like a complete cinematic experience. Luckily, Fargeat knows exactly what she's doing, injecting pure style into every frame of the film. The One Perfect Shot Twitter account probably crashed when trying to pick one for this movie (as a matter of fact, they picked three), because almost every frame is a painting, delicately using light and color to give its characters and the beautiful Moroccan desert every ounce of glamor it's possible to bestow.

Down to even editing and shot choice, nearly every aesthetic detail in Revenge is perfect. It fuels the horror when it needs to, especially in the case of its many extreme close-ups (I'm not kidding when I say you'll be absolutely terrified by a shot of an ant, and not in the way you might expect), but it also provides the fun. Revenge has a lot of dark content, but it presents it all with such elegance and swagger that you can't help but be swept up in Jen's journey and feel for her every step of the way.

The really interesting thing about the glamorous aspects of Revenge though, is the fact that, while it does objectify Jen in the first act, the way it does this is something I've never seen before in quite the same way. Fargeat alternates between extreme close-ups of Lutz's body and her face, in such a way to remind people that she has an identity and isn't just an ass. But not just that, the shots of her body are edited in such a way that they feel like a thing completely separate from Jen. They are alien pieces of flesh, used by others, but not truly belonging to her. In fact, the only time the camera swoops across her entire body as a whole is when she first begins to gain the upper hand and sets out to exact her revenge. Then and only then does the camera recognize her beauty and her totality. It's stunning, subtle work that deserves immediate and permanent recognition.

Plus, it's just freaking gorgeous, and we need more of that in these hard times.

Oh, also the accent windows in the production design are genius too.

Revenge is an extremely pure exercise in stylish horror, and I had a bloody good time watching it. It electrifies you from frame one, and while I wish in my heart of hearts that it went even more bonkers in the second act than the slightly-grounded-in-reality chase we get, it does everything it sets out to do with gusto and aplomb. Revenge is a startlingly good debut the likes of which I haven't seen since at least The Babadook, and I'm equally excited to see what Fargeat gives us next, in whatever genre she chooses to explore.

TL;DR: Revenge is a beautifully stylish film that improves the rape-revenge genre with a new perspective.
Rating: 9/10
Word Count: 1027

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Reviewing Jane: The Person, Be It Gentleman Or Lady, Who Has Not Pleasure In A Good Novel, Must Be Intolerably Stupid

In which we review (almost) every film adapted from or inspired by the works of Jane Austen, as I read through her extended bibliography for the first time.

Year: 2007
Director: Robin Swicord
Cast: Emily Blunt, Hugh Dancy, Amy Brenneman
Run Time: 1 hour 46 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

The menopausal rom-com Book Club hit theaters earlier this year to the delight of almost nobody, but one positive to its release is that it had me thinking about reigniting my dormant Jane Austen marathon, which slumbered a bit during my summer of slashing. Honestly, it's an excellent way of transitioning back between the two, because once again we revisit an older title that is in some way thematically linked to a new film. This time it's The Jane Austen Book Club, another film about how the literature that women in a book club choose to read bleeds out into their personal lives. Only this time it's a lot less elderly raunch and a lot more illegal activity with minors.

And wigs so bad they qualify as a capital offense.

In the Jane Austen Book Club, a group of friends who have no reason to hang out with one another and seem to actively hate each other most of the time start a book club. About Jane Austen. And wouldn't you know it, but their lives are kind of similar to Austen's novels. Sort of. At least, Jane Austen's novels as interpreted by a high school senior who skimmed her Wikipedia entry.

Each of the main characters leads discussion on a novel, which shockingly ties into their own storylines: 

Prudie (Emily Blunt) is a clumsily-named high school teacher who is nursing a crush on a student (Kevin Zegers) and ignoring her useless husband Dean (Marc Blucas, of the least-liked season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but might just find a way to rekindle their romance á là Persuasion.

Bernadette (Kathy Baker) is six times divorced and the mother of the group, just like Pride and Prejudice I guess.

Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) is a librarian who is separated from her terrible husband Daniel (Jimmy Smits), and much like her book Mansfield Park, she... marries her cousin? OK, I honestly don't see the connection in this one.

Allegra (Maggie Grace) is Sylvia's lesbian daughter, an impulsive girl who lets her heart lead her like Marianne in Sense and Sensibility

Jocelyn (Maria Bello) is a happily single dog breeder who acts like Samantha Jones on downers. When she meets clueless tech wunderkind Grigg (Hugh Dancy), she tries time and again to set him up with Sylvia, not noticing that they're perfect together. This one actually has a lot in common with Emma, so good on them. Also Grigg is a sexy idiot like Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey.

This movie has an unmotivated pan all the way down to his crotch, which is in and of itself an argument for why more women should direct movies.

As I've already intimated, the screenplay for The Jane Austen Book Club is... not the best. Not only is it a jumbled mess that favors the worst, flattest characters in terms of screen time, it is replete with terrible Oscar monologues where a character sits someone down and tells them their entire backstory in one fell swoop. It's crudely constructed pabulum that whips up conflict out of nothing and always ends each segment with someone storming out of book club.

This quotidian style of drama might have been actually evocative of the storytelling of Jane Austen if the movie didn't insist on being ever so slightly edgy, in that way that pushes the envelope exactly zero point one degrees. It pulls its punches so radically that the lesbian character fades away like a ghost, the toxic heteronormative relationships patch themselves up presumably to the detriment of everyone, and Prudie's hideously inappropriate crush is treated like an actual viable option for her to pursue. The latter storyline is just sick when presented this way, and has no place in the middle of everyone else's more grounded subplot.

Emily Blunt the actress is doing a serviceable job bringing this cartoon character to life, but she's hardly the standout in a cast of people just barely making an impression, lost in a whirlwind of empty bloviating dialogue and Brits forcing American accents.

"I loike sci-fi, just liek a regglar Amairican!"

At least the movie is a drama, because the brief attempt at humor produced the ear-splitting pun "A Nightmare on Northanger Abbey Street," so the movie could have been much worse if it attempted to be funny all the way through.

The one thing I will say about the film is that, unlike Book Club, the characters actually do sit down for in-depth discussions of the books. I like the fact that the film assumes its audience is literary enough to understand references to Fanny Price and Captain Wentworth, and allows its characters to be intelligent and engage with the material. Maybe that doesn't make for a good script, but it's actually authentic, a quality that this movie desperately lacks at most turns.

TL;DR: The Jane Austen Book Club is a messy, joylessly plotty film that's much too full of itself.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 872
Other Films Based on Jane Austen in General
Miss Austen Regrets (Lovering, 2007)
The Jane Austen Book Club (Swicord, 2007)
Austenland (Hess, 2013)

Friday, August 17, 2018

Young Money

Year: 2018
Director: Jon M. Chu
Cast: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh
Run Time: 2 hours
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Full disclosure, as a white critic reviewing the first movie in 25 years to have an all-Asian cast, I am maybe not the first voice to turn to in discussing Crazy Rich Asians. The limitations of my ability to fully understand the context of this film were painfully underscored by a mahjong scene that left me completely lost as to the mechanics of the game (although, to be fair, a poker scene did the same thing to me, so maybe I just don't gamble enough). But as a Constance Wu fan since day one and one of the only people to have a positive experience with Jon M. Chu's Jem and the Holograms, I will do my best to do this film justice.

And I have a  photosensitivity, so I can at least relate to the sheer amount of sunglasses every character in this movie wears.

In Crazy Rich Asians, economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) discovers that her boyfriend of a year Nick Young (Henry Golding, a BBC television presenter in his debut film role) belongs to one of the richest families in Asia when he invites her to a friend's wedding in Singapore. Meeting his family means she must face the harsh criticisms of his controlling mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) and the conniving, gossipy idle rich that live in his world. Together with her best friend/college roommate Peik Lin (Awkwafina), she must put together a strategy to win over Nick's vast family and convince them she's not just a gold-digging American.

And she's NOT a gold-digger, unless abs count as gold.

The primary reason Crazy Rich Asians exists is to bring joy to the viewer, through whatever form of porn it can provide: luxury porn, lifestyle porn, food porn, shirtless man porn... It's an all-expenses paid tour through the best places and the brightest gems the world has to offer, like if Fifty Shades of Grey went to Asia and cut out all the spanky bits.

And as a filmgoer who loves color and energy in his movies, Crazy Rich Asians delivers for me in a way very few movies have in recent years. Sadly, the very best sequence for this comes far too early in the film (a graphic depiction of texts and photos being sent through the airwaves across the globe, as beautiful pastel curlicue lines spread across a dozen split-screen conversations), but there are moment of true brilliance scattered about, especially when it comes to the wedding that all our characters are here to attend. When the bride walks down the aisle, the filmmakers know how important this sequence is, and the way sound and image collaborate to create the most delectable sensory experience possible is a truly breathtaking moment.

Also, Constance Wu wearing almost anything is equally breathtaking.

There's a bit of collateral damage here in terms of certain insufficiencies as both a romantic comedy and a literary adaptation, but remember that no matter what I say next, Crazy Rich Asians is doing its job. And I really don't have much to gripe with, except for the fact that it's very clear that certain subplots from the page were left on the cutting room floor, because vestigial shards of character and narrative keep poking out from the sides to remind us that we haven't fully explored what's going on with the other people in this film. There's also an element of game theory that comes into play at a key moment but isn't really explored beyond the surface and doesn't carry over into as many scenes as it could have, which seems like a real missed opportunity.

And as much as I'm in love with the fact that Constance Wu has the chance to hold the lead role in a summer blockbuster, Rachel Chu is the straight woman for all the crazy goings-on around her (including Awkwafina being pleasantly prickly in her comic relief role). Constance Wu is much funnier than Rachel Chu allows her to be, and while I admire her range and her commitment to the part, I wish she wasn't so shackled by being the character who must shepherd us through this world of glamor rather than getting to be an active participant in it for much of the run time. Don't get me wrong, she still knocks her line deliveries and a few beautifully subtle physical cues out of the park, I just know she's capable of so much more than the movie is asking her to do.

But Crazy Rich Asians is a Hollywood summer blockbuster, not a highbrow art comedy about game theory. What we get is incredibly solid if generic (there's literally a changing room montage in the middle of this), and though the emotion is lacking in certain of the less fleshed-out arcs, the dynamic between Yeoh and Wu is incomparable. Crazy Rich Asians is not about the love between a man and a woman, it's about the love between mothers and daughters. Their battle to earn each other's respect is the most important relationship of the movie, and Nick is just the reward - an unwavering hottie who is there should Rachel choose to receive him.

Not only is Crazy Rich Asians resplendent with diverse, interesting Asian-American and Asian-Asian characters, it is a deeply felt story about women and how they interact. It's an absolutely necessary film for the modern age, political in how apolitical it is, and designed to bring joy to the maximum number of people across this great world of ours. You don't have to be Asian to enjoy this film, and it's not crazy if you do. It's a delightful time at the movies, and absolutely worth the trip.

TL;DR: Crazy Rich Asians is a delightful, diverse spectacle.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 981

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Development Of The Selfie

Year: 2018
Director: Bo Burnham
Cast: Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Bo Burnham is a good comedian. He has fun with the structure of typical stand-up shows, has his fair share of musical talent in addition to those bits, and even gets to act sometimes in films like Rough Night and The Big Sick. Does that mean he's my first choice to direct a movie? Of course not! But somebody let him, and I'm glad they did, because what he produced is far beyond what I could have ever expected from someone in his line of work. It's called Eighth Grade and now I'm gonna tell you about it.

I hope you like my book report.

Eighth Grade follows one week in the life of 13 year old Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher), specifically the final week of her eighth grade year. As she prepares to transition into high school, she deals with a fanciful childhood crush on classmate Aiden (Luke Prael), her quasi-bullying by rich snob Kennedy (Catherine Oliviere), and a fraught relationship with her caring single dad Mark (Josh Hamilton). She also makes a series of inspirational YouTube advice videos, helping kids overcome problems with confidence, self esteem, and finding friends, skills she completely fails to utilize in her own life.

Wait, what? You're telling me people lie on social media?!

Who here has ever been in eighth grade? (I learned in eighth grade to always start off my writing with a strong hook.) If you have, then Eighth Grade is probably a movie you're going to relate to. Much like Lady Bird, the easiest possible film to compare it to, it's as universal as a film about a single white American could possibly be. 

A lot of this is thanks to Elsie Fisher's incomparable performance. The 15-year-old actress has two years on her character, but judging by the layered portrayal she delivers, you'd think it was twenty. In order to get her character where she needs to go, Fisher has the detached and mature perspective of a veteran performer, but her actual age and experience allow her to keep Kayla completely grounded and human. She's completely recognizable as a textbook example of a 13-year-old, using tiny little physical and vocal details that most 13-year-olds wouldn't even notice they're doing. She also has the clarity to really sell the hormonal, emotional roller coaster that drives some of the funniest material in the film (look for an unforgettable scene with a banana, which is transcendently relatable and hilarious).

She's the anchor of Eighth Grade, but her most frequent scene partner is also her best: Josh Hamilton nails the well-meaning dad bit, dorky but paternal, and showing a vast world of interior emotion and fear. This is even more challenging given that we never spend a single scene alone with him. His entire performance is filtered through the emotions that he's trying to shield from Kayla, but you get a sense of depth to the character that just shouldn't be there, given the film's perspective, yet it is clear as day.

It's also dismayingly accurate as to how embarrassing dads can be at all times.

Not to bring Lady Bird into the conversation again, but I do think Eighth Grade shares even more DNA with the film in the fact that Burnham the writer is much more present and in the fray than Burnham the director. The direction is frills-free, on-the-ground, practically documentarian work that doesn't hustle to provide any particularly memorable imagery.

The only place where the non-acting elements really have come to play is the score, by Anna Meredith. It's a synth-inflected piece that confounded me at first with its anachronistic 80's sensibility, seemingly clashing with this thoroughly modern, of-the-moment piece. I'm used to these scores in retro genre features, but not something this low key and realistic. But then it hit me: What Meredith is doing is giving the movie a stripped-down, barely-there set of motifs that at key instances suddenly give way to huge swells of bouncy, almost orchestral synth melodies. These moments transform some relatively mundane scenes into vast emotional landscapes that mimic the sudden explosions of emotion that come with being a hormonal pre-teen. It's incredibly accurate and powerful work that drops you directly into Kayla's mind and refuses to let you leave.

That's the biggest element of this quiet little movie, but it's fitting that nothing else shows off quite as much. This film is very interior - a well-observed, bittersweet tale of someone who's trapped within their own fears and doubts and is fighting to get out. It's an incredibly punishing film, but also an incredibly loving one. It loves Kayla, it wants her to succeed, and so do you after spending more than thirty seconds with her. It's definitely not for faint of heart audience members who can't handle a healthy portion of secondhand embarrassment, but it is for everyone else.

TL;DR: Eighth Grade is a bittersweet film that captures the best and worst (mostly worst) moments of middle school beautifully.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 852

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Census Flashback: Everything But Rich

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

In anticipation of Crazy Rich Asians, I'll be reviewing a movie that is both crazy and Asian: the Japanese slasher Evil Dead Trap!

Year: 1988
Director: Toshiharu Ikeda
Cast: Miyuki Ono, Aya Katsuragi, Hitomi Kobayashi
Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

When one thinks of Japanese horror cinema, the slasher genre is not what rises to mind, and for good reason. J-horror has been dominated by ghostly visitations and ethereal folk tales long before The Ring brought them to American shores in the early 2000's. Oh, but no corner of the world was unaffected by the 1980's slasher craze. It was the box office boom heard round the world, and when Japanese director Toshiharu Ikeda (of 1980's Sex Hunter) got in on the fun in 1988, he found a way to blend an extremely traditional slasher structure with some of the weirdest J-horror sh*t you ever did see.

Pictured: the slasher genre trying to escape after reading Takashi Ishii's script.

In Evil Dead Trap AKA Shiryō no wana, fluff news reporter Nami Tsuchiya (Miyuki Ono) gets sent a mysterious video of a woman being tortured and, smelling an opportunity to actually report on a real story, takes her team to the location where the video was shot. You know, as you do. But you gotta get your tray of meat to the spooky isolated location, which in this case is an abandoned military base infested with vermin that seems to be actively falling apart while they explore it.

Also in typical slasher fashion, the Meat here is a heap entirely indistinguishable women who don't have two personality traits to rub together: sound engineer Masako Abe (Aya Katsuragi), make-up girl Rei Sugiura (Hitomi Kobayashi, at the time a massively famous Japanese porn star), scripter Rie Kawamura (Eriko Nakagawa), and the token man - assistant director Kondô Akio (Masahiko Abe). Also wandering around the base is Daisuke Muraki (Yûji Honma), a man who is looking for his brother Hideki. Over the course of the afternoon, one after another of the crew members meets their untimely end at the hands of several different killers (the most prominent wearing a mask that makes their face look like a crumpled heap of laundry - it's scarier than I'm making it sound) and traps that have been set up around the area.

See? Spoooooky!

That basic plot synopsis is the only place where Evil Dead Trap can be remotely compared to a generic, run-of-the-mill slasher. It does draw influence from quite a few slasher films (the structure of the kills - with a lot happening all at once then giving way to an extended Final Girl sequence - is certainly reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), and the style of the kills quite vividly emulates the best of the Italian giallo, especially Dario Argento's Suspiria. But Evil Dead Trap has a lot more on its mind than that.

For one thing, it steals the careening, unmotivated POV shots and two-thirds of the title from The Evil Deadand a major death is a direct riff on Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's Un Chien Andalou. And I don't want to spoil the movie necessarily, but let's just say the plot turns out more Frank Hennenlotter than Tobe Hooper.

A lot of this material is really fun and totally bananas. The kills are an overwhelming melange of rapid editing, black-and-white surrealism, hyper-gory effects, and Kabuki makeup that jolt you like a cattle prod. It's like an experimental film gained sentience and set out to destroy your corneas. From the Evil Dead II-esque moments where blood spurts all over people's mouths to the very Japanese approach to the setting, which is constantly exploding, catching fire, and flooding for no reason whatsoever, Evil Dead Trap has a live wire energy that grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you around mercilessly.

And as much as it's drawing from the traditions and tropes of a lot of Western horror films, it's thoroughly Japanese, using an approach that couldn't possibly be emulated in any other filmmaking culture. Just take a look at certain choice images from the film and tell me you've seen anything like it anywhere on this side of the Pacific.

Right?

Right??

Right???

Right????

The only unfortunate thing about Evil Dead Trap is that it's not all horror sequences, and everything that isn't directly engaged with murder and terror is fabulously boring. The characters are identical paper dolls that just exist to be slashed open, and the structure of the narrative leaves a lot of lead time between the last body count kill and the bonkers finale. These sequences mostly involve Nami and Daisuke slowly limping down endless tunnels and having conversations that think they're being cagier about the nature of the plot twist than they actually are (in fact - and this may just be an issue with subtitling - a certain line during a deplorable exposition-via-rape sequence gives away the ending, or at least the general gist of it).

Plus, the score is both a useless riff on The Exorcist and an unbearably repetitive insult to the ears. They clearly wrote one and a half music cues and are hopelessly devoted to making sure we get to hear them again and again and again.

But when Evil Dead Trap is great it's spectacular. The closing fifteen minutes are some of the most bonkers effects-driven cinema of the 80's, the horror sequences craft infinite disturbing and uncanny images (my favorite being a stack of televisions all showing the same image of Masako's face while she's being imprisoned and screaming for help). The expansive setting also allows for some truly bizarre interiors, including a factory-esque floor that looks like the vast expanse of Hell in The Beyond and a Crimson Peak-esque hall of falling objects.

The fascinating thing about Evil Dead Trap is that as much as I'm constantly thinking of other movies it reminds me of, it still has its own indelible personality, and a truly strange one at that. I wish the non-scare sequences were a lot better, because if that were the case it would absolutely be a masterpiece of modern horror cinema. As it stands, it is a hidden gem, but less like a diamond and more like an opal or something else cool to find but not life-changingly valuable.

Killer: Hideki
Final Girl: Nami Tsuchiya (Miyuki Ono)
Sign of the Times: It seems that the "teased hair so big you could use it as an umbrella" craze reached Japan at the very same time the slasher did.


Best Kill: Rya's death, because it is completely impossible to describe, and the one that most replicates the surrealist style of Argento.
Scariest Moment: Rei accidentally steps on a snake and must stand stock still while it decides whether to kill her or not.
Weirdest Moment: After watching her friend's head get pulverized with a machete, Name is chased out of the room when the killer shoots fireworks at her.
Champion Dialogue: "Stop talking about your penis, we're supposed to be working now."
Body Count: 7
  1. Video Lady gets her eye gouged with a knife.
  2. Rei is impaled with spears from all directions after triggering a trap.
  3. Rapist is impaled with a spike,
  4. Rya is dragged over a van with a lobster snare.
  5. Kondô is decapitated offscreen.
  6. Masako has her head split down the side with a machete.
  7. Daisuke falls from a great height and basically disintegrates. 
TL;DR: Evil Dead Trap is a bizarre and beautiful film that blends Japanese horror with the Italian giallo and the American slasher, but is too much a slog in the middle third to truly love.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1308

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Live And Let Laugh

Year: 2018
Director: Susanna Fogel
Cast: Mila Kunis, Kate McKinnon, Justin Theroux
Run Time: 1 hour 57 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

The wacky female-led spy comedy sub-subgenre has already reached its peak with the first and previously only entry: Paul Feig's Spy, one of my favorite films of 2015. There was no way The Spy Who Dumped Me could have matched the galvanizing comic energy of that film, but let's not pit movies starring women against each other. Give me a Kate McKinnon, a female director, and a bucket of hot dudes, and I'm first in line for your movie no matter what.

Plus, if you put that Kate McKinnon in suspenders, I'm already 30% more invested.

In The Spy Who Dumped Me, Audrey (Mila Kunis) is devastated when her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux) breaks up with her via text message, but she's even more devastated when she finds out that he was secretly a CIA agent and now she's involved in a major international imbroglio with her roommate Morgan (Kate McKinnon). The two besties embark on a globetrotting (but mostly continental Europe-trotting) adventure and attempt to work their way through a heaping helping of spy movie scenarios without actually having any clue what they're doing.

Along the way, the match wits with MI-6 agents Sebastian (Sam Heughan) and Duffer (Hasan Minhaj), Eastern European torture gymnast Nadedja (Ivanna Sakhno), and plenty of undercover agents so thick on the ground you can't trust anybody.

TripAdvisor is definitely going to hear about this one.

Look, The Spy Who Dumped Me is an August release, given the slot for movies that are budgeted high enough to be summer releases but don't inspire studio confidence enough to get the actual good release weekends. It was never going to set the world on fire, and it doesn't. But it's more than good enough to be an enjoyable couple hours in the air conditioning (which is extra helpful in Southern California, considering the state is ablaze again and the heat was brushing 90 last week - come to think of it, maybe The Spy Who Dumped Me IS setting the world on fire).

Unfortunately, it's also one of those comedy movies where the review is gonna be much shorter than anticipated, because there's absolutely nothing to dig into. You slide right off the surface of The Spy Who Dumped Me because it's impenetrably bland. It's really only funny on the strength of the charisma of its stars rather than any actual jokes it attempts to make. It's not un-funny I suppose, but there's not a single joke that pushes the envelope, to the point that even its obligatory single male nudity gag feels less like a shock and more like one tick in a box on your R-rated comedy bingo card.

But those stars sure are worth spending time with. Mila Kunis is easy to like in anything she does (she's not easy to love, but there's only so much one can ask for in an August comedy), and Kate McKinnon is a comedy firecracker that brings sparks of joy to any role. Unfortunately this particular role is a rather shallow one who doesn't get much emotional life beyond "friends with Mila Kunis," and never feels truly connected to the stakes of the narrative. But McKinnon playing a role is always 150% more interesting than anybody else playing it, and she pulls out some inimitable line readings that would be almost impossible to express on the page.

As I've been saying since Ghostbusters, Kate is comic anarchy, and the movies she finds herself in could sure use a bit of that.

Actually The Spy Who Dumped Me doesn't seem to have the time to devote to any character dynamic. Even the titular spy doesn't get enough screentime to establish what their relationship was like and why she might be so devastated by its loss and the revelation that key aspects of it were all a lie. WE literally see or hear about two days of their relationship: the first and the last. It's not enough for us to care one speck about the couple, and it really undermines an emotional sequence late in the film like a gopher in a golf course.

But one thing I will say about this particular spy comedy is that there really are life-and-death stakes, and many many people meet a grisly, violent end. That's not to say that it's gruesome or gory or anything, but it does commit to its premise, and that is a very good thing. In the third act, there's even a wonderful gross-out gag with a dead body that belies what a sterling dark comedy this could have been if it wasn't more committed to being a buddy adventure movie.

However, it's not like that buddy adventure movie is the worst. It's not a movie I think I'd particularly recommend to anybody, but it's not a toxic waste of time like a lot of the stuff that'll be piling up in theaters this August, so why not give it a shot if you've already seen all the littler releases that you should prioritize like Eigth Grade or BlacKkKlansman.

TL;DR: The Spy Who Dumped Me is a totally fine way to escape from the summer sun, if not a particularly awe-inspiring effort.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 888

Friday, August 3, 2018

Writing for Other People Roundup #1

Hey everyone! I've decided to actually tell you about the articles I write for other people, because I've been kind of slacking on that lately. Also, it's the reason I'm not posting on this blog quite as often as I used to, so you might as well be able to check them out. Here we go!

Ghastly Grinning: Horror Sommelier


On the web site dedicated to positivity in horror, I'm using my Fright Flashback sensibilities every month to pair the big theatrical releases with the perfect horror movie double feature.

Check out my article for August right here.

Dread Central: Brennan Went to Film School


In this column, I use film school analysis techniques to find the deeper meaning in horror movies, while still being as pithy and immature as always. Here are my articles from the past two months:

Aja's THE HILLS HAVE EYES Ain't Just About Bush

Whoops, I Went and Did a Queer Interpretation of PREDATOR

Alternate Ending: The New Digs!


I'm delighted to have been asked to join the crew at Alternate Ending, by far my favorite site for movie reviews and podcasts. It's shocking they didn't fire me immediately after turning this first article in:

Why Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is the Must-See Movie of the Summer

Word Count: 214

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Census Flashback: Questionable Puns

On our Fright Flashback/Census Bloodbath crossover, every week this summer we'll be exploring an 80's slasher film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to the weekend's upcoming blockbuster.

In anticipation of The Spy Who Dumped Me, a movie that seems like it should have come out in 1999, I'll be reviewing a movie with an equally questionable pun title: Gore-met, Zombie Chef from Hell!

Year: 1986
Director: Don Swan
Cast: Theo Depuay, Kelley Kunicki, C.W. Casey 
Run Time: 1 hour 7 minutes
MPAA Rating: N/A

As I keep noticing, the unofficial theme of this summer's Census Bloodbath project is seeing if slashers with awesome titles actually live up to the promise of said titles, and I can finally put an end to that feverish discussion with Gore-met, Zombie Chef from Hell. It's not the most excruciating movie I've ever had to watch for this project, but it's certainly up there. Hooray for knowledge! Now can I please stop?

Alas poor Yorick, he got to escape being in this terrible movie.

So, the titular character is a genial middle aged dude named Goza (Theo Depuay, who pulled double duty as this film's make-up artist), who was excommunicated by a warlock cult 600 years ago. His curse is to devour human flesh every day lest his body rot away, and boy oh boy do I wish it slipped his mind and he missed a day, because we're treated to an endless conveyor belt of annoying customers being murdered offscreen and turned into really unconvincing prosthetics. That's pretty much the whole plot of the movie, and even when the warlock cult shows back up, they can't convince me there's any kind of narrative thrust going on.

It's hard to thrust when your plastic leg has been severed anyway.

Gore-met is something that so little resembles a narrative movie, it might technically qualify as an experimental film. When I said that nothing happens, I wasn't just talking about onscreen. It seems like a literal found footage movie, like someone accidentally abandoned a camera on a tripod in a crummy bar and this is the result. The camera barely ever leaves a wide shot, and when it does, it's a horrifying extreme close-up that's ill-framed and poorly lit.

That's not to mention that the death scenes are largely offscreen (the biggest sin a slasher movie can commit), and where they are shown, they're so incoherent it feels like they still weren't even in the movie. Most of them don't actually show the killer making contact, they just smash cut to a weapon embedded in a person covered in red tempera paint, as if they spontaneously grew it out of their own bodies, Annihilation-style.

But how could I have expected more from a movie that murders a character named Stella, then introduces her and her boyfriend getting engaged, shows them going into a restaurant, then cuts to the fiancé alone trying to find out where she went, in that exact order. It's like they filmed every draft of the script and just threw every version in at random. Though I thoroughly doubt there actually was a script at any point in this process.

There IS, however, a five-minute long scene of characters with no names performing an excruciatingly repetitive blues song, so that's fun.

No matter how deep a layer you cut into, Gore-Met comes up short. The characters [sic] are exquisitely irritating, shrieking at one another until they get their way, the actors underplay every line like they're deep in the final stages of falling asleep, scenes end many seconds after the dialogue and action has concluded, and even the obligatory silly topless scene is an exercise in crushing boredom that features a disco song composed of maybe five notes played on endless loop. Plus, the characters keep insisting that there's a pool in this dive bar (??), but the movie doesn't have a budget for a pool, so they just pretend they're staring at people swimming (???).

The weird magic cult angle could have been interesting (and I do kind of love how the costume choice for them is a hoodie sweatshirt pulled tight around their skulls), but it doesn't permeate enough of the film to leave a lasting impression. This movie has a lot of the outsider-cinema, microbudget DNA of a Psychos in Love, but none of the charm or effort. It doesn't even hit the subterranean bar of a Herschell Gordon Lewis picture. 

I will applaud the film for being so completely unaware of its trashiness that it has the balls to reference A Streetcar Named Desire in a bizarrely unmotivated, poorly acted (duh) sequence that comes out of nowhere. That's one of the few moments where Gore-Met felt like the kind of bad-good experience that I delight in instead of a 67 minute movie that felt like it took 67 days to watch.

So no, the title does not make the movie. I don't know how I could more conclusively prove that fact.

Killer: Goza (Theo Depuay)
Final Girl: N/A
Sign of the Times: The fact that anyone allowed this movie to be made at all.
Best Kill: Really it's the only coherent kill in the movie, but the short order cook gets his head punched straight off, which is more than a little hilarious.
Scariest Moment: When Goza's body begins to deteriorate, he pulls off his own arm skin.
Weirdest Moment: When the title card right after the credits reads "the year 1386." Wasn't expecting that one!
Champion Dialogue: "Are you sure? It looks a little evil in there."
Body Count: 7
  1. Health Inspector gets a knife across the mouth.
  2. Stella is killed offscreen.
  3. Beau is stabbed in the gut.
  4. Prostitute is killed offscreen.
  5. Short Order Cook has his head punched off.
  6. Job Applicant is killed offscreen. 
  7. Priest is force-choked to death. 
TL;DR: Gore-met, Zombie Chef from Hell is extremely difficult to endure, a vastly tedious, goreless, poorly made slog through an incoherent series of out-of-order sequences.
Rating: 2/10
Word Count: 1001