Bridesmaids (2011)

2016 #172
Paul Feig | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids opens on a shot of the outside of a house, but we can hear the people inside. It sounds like they’re having sex. “I’m so glad you could come over,” one says. Cut to a view of the closed bedroom door. Still sounds like sex. “Cup my balls,” says the male voice. Our assumption is still sex. Cut to inside the bedroom, where it looks like he’s on his back and she’s on top of him — you know, having sex. And it’s maybe at this point that you realise that, yes, they are just having sex — there is no clever, funny twist coming.

Thankfully this unimaginative sequence is not indicative of Bridesmaids’ overall quality. The female participant in that first scene is Annie (co-writer Kristen Wiig), a down-on-her-luck baker who’s struggling with life since her cake store went bust. When her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) announces her engagement, she asks Annie to be her maid of honour. But Annie soon clashes with fellow bridesmaid Helen (Rose Byrne), the wealthy and glamorous wife of Lillian’s fiancé’s boss, who’s keen to replace Annie in Lillian’s affections. Wedding preparations and hilarity ensue.

Despite the rough start, there are some very, very funny parts later on; but, unexpectedly, it also works pretty well in more character-focused sections. You’re not going to mistake this for an emotional drama, but there’s more investment in the characters than you might anticipate given the cast and crew’s pedigree. I guess this is the on-screen result of a telling behind-the-scenes titbit: reportedly, producer Judd Apatow pushed hard for wild, physical comedy, while writers Wiig and Annie Mumolo preferred to go for subtler material. The film’s most notorious sequence — the diarrhoea scene — was largely at the insistence of Apatow and director Paul Feig. I feel like that probably explains a lot about how the film can be restrained and emotionally intelligent at times, and then ludicrously crude at others.

Bitch fight

Maybe it also explains how it ended up being too long. The ideal length of a comedy movie is about 90 minutes, so crossing the two-hour mark feels needless. At the very least it could do with just a tighten — trimming some scenes, or even individual shots, would make a pleasant difference. And to think, there’s an extended cut!

Even more baffling is the fact that this earnt Melissa McCarthy an Oscar nomination, which is just… daft. I mean, she’s not bad, and it’s a bit of an excursion from the kind of roles I’ve seen her play otherwise — and doing something different to your norm is the kind of thing that attracts awards attention — but an Oscar? For this? No. That’s just silly.

I guess that was due in some part to the mass of praise Bridesmaids received on its release, after which there was (of course) a massive backlash. Until I read online comments before writing, I’d forgotten just how hyped it was, and how much people turned against that. With several years’ distance things have calmed down, which probably works in the film’s favour: freed from that pressure, it entertains as a largely funny, surprisingly emotionally astute female-driven comedy.

4 out of 5

Paul Feig is a guest panellist on tonight’s episode of Insert Name Here, which is… random.

Spy: Extended Cut (2015)

2016 #106
Paul Feig | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15

The cinema was blessed — or, depending on your point of view, blighted — by an abundance of espionage-related movies last year (see: the intro to my initial thoughts on Spectre for more on that), and even writer-director/star team Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy got in on the act with this comedy.

McCarthy is Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who provides desk-bound support for Bond-esque super-spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law). When Fine is killed while investigating the villainous Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), Cooper insists she go into the field to finish what he started. This doesn’t impress experienced agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who goes rogue to deal with Boyanov himself.

Technically speaking, Spy is a spy comedy rather than a spy spoof — a perhaps subtle distinction, but one that does inform the kind of comedy you’re getting; i.e. rather than a send-up that relies on you knowing the material being parodied to get the jokes, this is almost a workplace comedy… just one where the workplace is international espionage. Put another way, less Naked Gun or Austin Powers, more Kingsman with the comedy dialled up higher in the mix.

This is perhaps why it’s sporadically amusing rather than regularly hilarious; on the bright side, it only occasionally slides too far into dull toilet/gross-out ‘humour’. Similarly, it means that there are a handful of fun and/or exciting action beats scattered throughout the film, which you might not expect. They’re typically brief, but — even more surprisingly — there’s a fight between McCarthy and a henchwoman in a kitchen which is a genuinely good action sequence. It’s also surprisingly gruesome. Yes, it’s R-rated, but in the world of comedy that usually just means an overabundance of the F-word. Here we have at least one clear headshot, a dissolving throat, a knife through a hand, and more photos of a henchman’s penis than you ever needed to see. (That last one’s only describable as “gruesome” depending on your personal predilections, of course.)

Apparently Feig is a fan of James Bond and developed, wrote, produced, and directed Spy because he knew no one would ever let him do a real Bond movie. I guess that explains why some of it does work passably well as a genuine action/thriller. Composer Theodore Shapiro does an equally good job of evoking Bond’s musical stylings throughout his score. In my experience most comedies don’t show such consistent commitment in their music. Talking of music: as I mentioned in my June monthly update, there’s a random cameo by Verka Serdyuchka, Ukraine’s Eurovision entry from 2007. That gets the film some bonus points in my book.

The quality of the cast’s performances are variable in ways I didn’t expect. Statham almost steals the film, playing essentially himself — but exaggerated, I’m sure. McCarthy is a solid lead, at her best when sparking off Rose Byrne, who makes anything more watchable. Miranda Hart has a large supporting role as McCarthy’s CIA colleague, but I’m not sure that her strengths are wholly played to. I guess if you like her you’ll like her here (and if you don’t…) Peter Serafinowicz’s lecherous Italian is disappointingly overplayed, however, and I’m not sure why you’d cast ever-so-British Jude Law as a James Bond type and then give him an American accent.

The extended (aka unrated) cut contains almost 10 minutes of extra material, detailed here. Reading that list really demonstrates how some bits were tightened up for the theatrical release. I’d even wager that some parts are the result of improvising to find one good line, but in the extended cut they’ve strung half a dozen of the options together. I don’t think any casual viewer would miss much by sticking to the theatrical cut. That said, despite it running to two hours, I didn’t find it to be too long. It still wouldn’t hurt if it was tighter in places, but I didn’t get that “oh dear God why is this longer than 90 minutes?!” feeling you can get from 120-minute comedies.

Amusing rather than hilarious, but with a pleasing commitment to its genre, Spy isn’t going to tap into the zeitgeist in the way Austin Powers did almost 20 years ago(!), but it does provide a largely entertaining couple of hours.

3 out of 5

Feig and McCartney’s latest collaboration, the Ghostbusters reboot, is in UK cinemas from today, and launches around the world over the coming weeks.

Adam (2009)

2016 #20
Max Mayer | 95 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Hugh Dancy (of TV’s Hannibal) stars as the eponymous Adam, a New Yorker with Asperger syndrome who’s having to work out how to go it alone after his protective father passed way. Isolated by his condition and his struggle to cope with change, his life faces upheaval when he loses his job, but he also begins to strike up a relationship with his new neighbour, Beth (Rose Byrne). As someone once said*, the course of true love never did run smooth — especially when one of a couple has a social interaction disorder.

Inspired by writer-director Max Mayer hearing a person with Aspergers interviewed on the radio, that starting point has had the end result of Adam at times being at risk of slipping into a “this is Aspergers” documentary. Fortunately it manages to pull that back — such explanatory scenes are surely necessary for neophyte viewers’ understanding of Adam’s condition, which is naturally central to the events that follow. Dancy worked with with Mayer for a month before filming began to develop the character, and spoke with individuals affected by Aspergers to learn about their feelings, sensory issues, and interests. It clearly paid off: I imagine it must be tricky to pull off a character like that without taking it too far, but Dancy is great in the role.

As the other half of the relationship, Rose Byrne holds her own having to almost play the ‘straight man’ to Dancy’s more obvious performance. She’s a considerably better actress than some of her movie choices would have you believe, and roles like this prove that. Bonus points to the writing here for Beth not just accepting everything Adam does — that’s much more realistic than him happening across an endlessly understanding saint of a woman. But boo to the critics who didn’t buy that a privileged “daddy’s girl”-type could ever possibly fall for someone with autism — how judgemental are you?

Among the supporting cast, Peter Gallagher plays the kind of role he always seems to play: as soon as he makes passing mention of being investigated for some kind of financial crime, you know he did it (and probably more), and his daughter will find out and it’ll wipe the scales from her eyes. The only question is whether he’ll be found guilty by the court or weasel his way out of it. Talking of predictability, Mayer opts for the ‘indie’ rather than trad-rom-com ending, but that in itself is kind of predictable. Of course, when both possible outcomes are predictable (and, in a rom-com, there are only two), you can’t win.

So you can’t deny there are clichéd building blocks here, and they do hold the film back from being great, but the sweet relationship and Dancy’s performance overcome them enough to make for a likeable movie.

4 out of 5

* It was Shakespeare. It’s always Shakespeare. ^

X-Men: First Class (2011)

2011 #60
Matthew Vaughn | 132 mins | cinema/Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12A / PG-13

Superhero films have been a significant regular part of the summer movie season for over a decade now, but this year really looks like it’s going to take the biscuit: The Avengers obliterated box office records Stateside last weekend, and has spent most of the week knocking down more worldwide; there’s a Batman sequel/finale to look forward to, which everyone has been expecting to do the same; and sandwiched somewhere between the two is a Spider-Man reboot that, provided it doesn’t get dwarfed by the other two and/or poor reviews, is likely to make a pretty penny. (If I recall correctly, the initial Raimi Spidey film was the first movie ever to make over $100m in its opening weekend; and now, 10 years later, The Avengers is the first to beat $200m — how neat.)

But that’s all still to come (I haven’t even seen The Avengers yet myself, and I won’t now until at least sometime next week, for various reasons. Grr.) Instead, here’s a review of my personal favourite from last year’s crop of comic book adaptations — indeed, I ranked it the second best film I saw all year.

I made sure to see First Class soon after its cinema release back in June 2011 — an increasingly-rare cinema trip for me (previous one before this was Inception in July 2010), and even rarer to go so quickly, but it earnt it as probably my most anticipated movie of the summer. I’ve been a fan of the X-Men since the ’90s animated series was a defining part of my childhood; Matthew Vaughn has become one of my favourite filmmakers thanks to Stardust and Kick-Ass, both of which earnt 5 stars and spots on my end-of-year top 10s (and Layer Cake was 4-star-ly entertaining too); and the idea of doing a superhero film that was definitively set in a specific point in the past (namely the early ’60s), rather than the perpetual Now of every other entry in the sub-genre, is the kind of thing creative fans long for but risk-averse studios rarely greenlight. Plus the trailers looked brilliant.

So my long-held high anticipation (unlike many whingy comic-continuity-obsessed inexplicably-Vaughn-dubious internet fanboys, who needed the trailer to even consider thinking the film might be good) led me to the cinema quickly. Why so long to post a review, then? Because I’ve been waiting for Blu-ray to see it properly.*

As “Film fans”, rather than “movie consumers”, we’re supposed to believe 35mm cinema projection is the best way to view a film, rather than the cold hard digital realm that’s taking over, or the home cinema that is increasingly the viewing location of choice as people seek to avoid inflated ticket prices and noisy crowds, and gain a huge degree of convenience in the process. Well, sod that. I saw X-Men on 35mm. It was blurry, the sound was muffly. I saw a clip in a summer movies trailer just a few days later when I saw Pirates 4 in 3D (i.e. digitally projected), and had a genuine moment of, “oh, that’s how it’s meant to look”. So thank God for Blu-ray — never mind prices, crowds or watching when I want, the real advantage is seeing it as sharp as a pin and being able to hear everything the characters are saying. I can enjoy the cinema experience, but at the end of the day it’s about the film, and if the only way to see, hear and appreciate it properly is to watch it 5+ months later on a much smaller screen from a digital source, so be it. The fact that it’s usually cheaper to buy the Blu-ray to own forever than take two people to see it just once doesn’t hurt either.

But I digress massively. X-Men: First Class takes us back to the origins of the X-Men (at least, the movie-universe X-Men): it’s the 1960s, mutants aren’t widely known about yet, Charles Xavier is uncovering some interesting ideas at Oxford, and Erik Lehnsherr is travelling the world taking revenge for Nazi atrocities. But when some Evil People are plotting to do Something Nasty, the US government winds up bringing them together, and the road to establishing the X-Men begins…

I should give up on plot summaries again, I never write good ones. There’s so much more to First Class than that might suggest. Firstly, it’s very much a prequel to the other X-Men films, rather than a reboot. So no Cyclops and co in the original team-up, which really annoys some fanboys, but pfft, it doesn’t matter. It’s fair to say the characters who make up the eventual first X-Men team aren’t as iconic or memorable, but that’s fine because here they’re just supporting characters. This is the story of two other young men, Xavier and Lehnsherr, aka Professor X and Magneto.

You need some pretty fine talent to replace two of our greatest actors — Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, of course — and in Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy you certainly have that. Fassbender carries much of the emotional weight of the film, and certainly received much of the praise from critics, but it’s thanks to McAvoy’s support that the film is lifted to a higher level. He provides calm, humour and fundamental decency to balance Fassbender’s rage and emotion. What’s fascinating about them as characters is that they are half-formed people. That is to say, while they are Wise Old Men by the time of X-Men, here they are still flawed and finding their way; witness Charles’ insensitivity toward Raven, for instance. That’s quite aside from all the little character-building touches. It all builds to the fantastic, heartbreaking climax on the beach. I’d also say it adds weight to the relationship between McKellen and Stewart in the original X films. Not significantly, perhaps, because those films are about other things, but I think you can feel their shared history more keenly.

The rest of the cast is suitably well equipped. There’s 2011 Best Actress Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence as Raven, aka Mystique. Little more than a henchman designed to bring sex appeal in the trilogy, here she’s given a significant degree of backstory that makes her an important piece of the overall series. Indeed, she comes across as woefully underused if you watch X-Men after this — the flipside to the Xavier-Lehnsherr relationship working better, if you will. There’s also Kevin Bacon, playing his second superhero villain in as many years, who does sterling work as a former Nazi seeking world domination — remember the ’60s, when world domination was a valid aim for a villain? There’s more than a little Bond in the mix here.

Rounding out, we have the likes of Vaughn regular and perpetual “I’m only doing it for the money”-er Jason Flemyng, in an almost dialogue-free part that, while visually striking, doesn’t fare much better than his Kick-Ass ‘cameo’ in terms of screen time. There’s also a very flat (in every way apart from her frequently highlighted chest) turn from January Jones as a villainous sidekick, feeling every bit like the last-minute casting she was (after various other actresses walked away — considering the small size of both the role and costume, I can see why). Plus Rose Byrne, who’s always worth mentioning.

Much was made in some circles of a rushed production schedule leading to some of the film’s flaws. I think that’s only an issue because people know it could be one, because (on second viewing especially) I noted no such problems. The earlier parts are probably the film’s best — with Lehnsherr and Moira being all Bond-y, and Kevin Bacon’s Shaw being very much a Bond villain, making it feel more like a big ’60s spy thriller than a superhero movie in many ways — and when it tries to introduce an X-Men team made up of second-string leftover characters it loses its way slightly. But balance is everything with ensemble casts like this, and watching the film again gives a better perspective on its pace and its actual balance. First time through these things are distorted because you don’t know how far through the story you are, how long’s left, how long each scene will last, and so on; a second time, with an idea of where it’s going and so forth, you can better appreciate how it’s all actually weighed up, and I think First Class achieves a balance better than most have given it credit for.

Also worthy of a mention is Henry Jackman’s score. He gives us brilliant driving, menacing action themes, alongside some evocative ’60s stuff too, especially when they’re on the hunt for mutants for instance. I love a good blockbuster movie score, and this is definitely one of those.

Perhaps the thing that most impressed me about First Class, however, was its genuine sense of spectacle. The climax features master-of-magnetism Magneto hoisting a submarine out of the ocean with his powers. That’s not a spoiler, it’s in the trailers — so we’d all seen it going in. And we’re in an era of anything-goes CGI — nothing looks impressive any more because we know not only that it can be done, but how it was done too (greenscreen and pixels, essentially). But that’s not what happens, at least for me, especially on the big screen.

Between Vaughn’s direction, Jackman’s score, Fassbender and McAvoy’s performances, plus those of other supporting cast members, and sterling work by the visual effects team(s), the moment when that submarine floats dripping into the sky is hair-raising. It played to me as a moment of genuine cinematic spectacle; the kind of thing you used to get when big stunts had to be done for real somehow. It’s not a feeling I expected to get from a new film ever again.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times how it ties in to the earlier (set later) films in the series, and how some complained about it messing up X-Men comics lore. But this is an adaptation — it’s not beholden to what’s established in the comics. And it’s working around fitting into the world of the later films, so of course they’re not going to have Cyclops in a ’60s X-team, and so on. It’s a complete non-issue for non-fans, and the same for any open-minded fans who realise they’re not trying to faithfully bring the X-Men canon to the big screen. Earlier films should already have shattered that illusion anyway.

As to the former, it largely fits well with the earlier films. There might be some questions about ages and events not lining up precisely (especially with the flashbacks in The Last Stand), but these are minor points that I think we can overlook for the overall quality of the film. Largely, a use of certain effects, call-forwards, cameos and little touches here and there really tie it in to the existing films. You don’t need to have seen them to get this — indeed, I imagine the ultimate way to experience it would be with no foreknowledge whatsoever of where Charles & Erik’s relationship is going — but for all those of us who have, it works very nicely.

Yet despite these links, and the 40(-ish)-year gap between the end of this story and the start of X-Men, if First Class never received a follow-up it would work perfectly as a standalone ’60s X-Men film. But I’m ever so glad we’re getting more, because I want to see this crew and this cast tell us more stories of the X-Men.

After seeing First Class in the cinema I thought to myself that, while I would dearly love to give it a full five stars, in all good conscience I couldn’t; for whatever reason, it didn’t quite come together enough. Watching it again on Blu-ray, however, I’ve completely changed my mind: I wouldn’t change a thing. All my anticipation is more than paid off — I love this movie.

5 out of 5

X-Men: First Class placed 2nd on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.

* That was released back in October 2011, I know. The rest is general tardiness. ^

Sunshine (2007)

2008 #23
Danny Boyle | 103 mins | DVD | 15 / R

This review contains minor spoilers.

SunshineAfter branching out into the genres of horror (with 28 Days Later…) and ‘family’ (with Millions), Danny Boyle turns his hand to sci-fi with this effort, which tells the story of a spaceship in the apparently not-too-distant (but, clearly, distant enough) future transporting an improbably large nuclear bomb to restart our dying sun.

Sunshine is what some would call “grown-up science fiction”, often more concerned with the crew’s moral dilemmas than thrilling action set pieces or dazzling CGI. Luckily, though, the former aren’t too pretentious and both of the latter are still present. Similarly, the fact that it’s a British rather than American film is apparent early on: there’s an international crew (the Captain is even Foreign! Shocking!), there’s no time wasted on the melodrama of what life is like back on Earth, and the plot slow burns, carefully depicting the crew’s day-to-day relationships and tasks before, inevitably, It All Goes Wrong. The crew notice their failed predecessor floating nearby and have to decide whether to continue on their present course or divert to meet the other craft. I’m sure anyone can guess which option they choose. The ensuing slow slide from relatively minor problems to increasingly major ones fills most of the running time and, like every aspect of the film, is very well executed.

One stumbling block is that, in many ways, it’s territory that’s been trod before. Boyle and screenwriter Alex Garland mix in elements of Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Armageddon, and no doubt several other spaceship-based movies. To their credit, it doesn’t feel like a total rip-off, but the influences are apparent. I was also reminded of the BBC miniseries Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets, though I doubt that was a huge influence! (It is quite good though, so you never know…)

Most reviews of Sunshine primarily criticise a shift in quality for the third act. It’s hard to disagree on this, as the film moves from a realistic(ish) Apollo 13-esque space mission movie into slasher horror territory. It almost works, though does feel a little like they were desperate for either a multiplex-pleasing round-off or anything that would carry the film through the last 30 minutes. The real let down is the final sequence, a logic-vacant confusingly-shot finale that consequently feels a tad disappointing.

Yet it’s not bad enough to make too large a dent in the film’s overall quality. The first hour may be better than the final half hour, but it’s all still good enough to pass. Ultimately, the weak ending’s only impact may be in knocking one star off the final score — though, without an alternate final act to compare it to (obviously), it’s hard to be certain it’s even that bad.

4 out of 5

Sunshine placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2008, which can be read in full here.