2015 Mini-Reviews Round 2: Predestination / What We Do in the Shadows / Spy

Predestination

In an alternative version of 1985, time travel technology exists and its surgical use to prevent certain past disasters is overseen by the Temporal Bureau. A time agent (Ethan Hawke) receives an assignment to catch a terrorist in the 1970s, and while undercover as a bartender, hears the remarkable story of a woman named Jane who needed gender re-assignment surgery to survive as John (Sarah Snook in both roles). With the involved story told, time jumps and lots of heady twists ensue, and the world-building of the alt-1985 ends up taking a backseat to the mother of all ontological paradoxes. Watch out Looper and 12 Monkeys, Predestination is in town and it’s got time travel shenanigans to spare.

Jane

This is one killer time travel thriller, with a cast committed to its insane premise. While Hawke is good as a hardened time traveller, he is not the highlight here. Sarah Snook gives an astonishingly good performance in a double role, as both strident pre-surgery Jane and world-weary “present day” John. Snook brings such a distinct energy to each role (as John, helped by the wonders of make-up to boot) that it takes a very long to sink in that the same actor is playing both parts, even when the audience knows off the bat that Jane and John are the same character. She really is a revelation here, steely and brittle and broken by turns. It’s almost needless to say that she walks away with the movie. (And with Tom Hardy coming out with his own double act in Legend, he’s going to have to knock it out of the park to even match Sarah Snook in this.)

John

The film is loosely based on a Robert Heinlein short story, and indeed, the construction of the narrative feels like a clever method of adaptation. And very admirably, the film is really interested in presenting a dark underbelly to the 1950s, gee-whiz space travel sci-fi that Heinlein could be so fond of in stories like “The Man Who Sold the Moon”. The gender issues played with create a strong sense of place in the ’50s and ’60s-set scenes.

Fizzle

Early on there’s a fair bit of certain characters trying to coax information out of other characters, and you could cynically read that as reflecting an audience member coaxing coherence out of an opaque film. I say Predestination is not obtuse, but rather assured and whip-smart. Granted, some of the dialogue can get very on-the-nose when the themes reach their payoffs in the third act, but it’s a minor point. And it’s all in the service of a finale in which the twists come fast and furious, each stacking on each other with such audacity you can’t help but go with it.

Time Travel

It’s a dazzling showcase for Sarah Snook, it’s a heady yet thrilling tale of time travel El Mariachi style, it’s a mind-bender, it’s a science fiction gem. Predestination retains its dignity even as it shamelessly fires twists at the viewer, each one a cannonball. And I can almost guarantee this is a more interesting film involving gender re-assignment surgery than the upcoming The Danish Girl. A strong 8/10.

 

What We Do in the Shadows

There’s an exchange in the show Monk that goes like this: “[He’s] the Prince of Darkness!” “No, he’s not the Prince of Darkness. I’ve seen him vacuuming the ceiling. You wouldn’t see the Prince of Darkness doing that.” What We Do in the Shadows reminds me of that quote, because this hilarious mockumentary is preoccupied with depicting a multigenerational vampire flat, where the bloodsuckers argue over who has to do the dishes, hold flat meetings to iron out issues, and for that matter, iron out their shirts. It’s got lots of domestic comedy, it’s just that the domestics here happen to be able to levitate and cast no reflection. And that’s the other side of what this film accomplishes: it shows with flippant but clever (and at times gut-busting) humor what it might really be like to be a vampire. Does the Prince of Darkness vacuum the ceiling? Well, as you can see in the picture below, vampires do indeed vacuum the walls…

Vacuum

Our tenants are Byronic softie Viago (Taika Waititi, also co-writing and co-directing), 379 years of age; intense and no-nonsense Vladislav (Jemaine Clement, ditto), 862 years of age; insouciant and callous Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), 183 years of age; and most ghoulish of all, ancient Petyr (Ben Fransham), 8000 years of age. Petyr looks like full-on Nosferatu due to advanced age, while the others are free to walk out in the world, provided, of course, the sun has set. The ages are fairly important, because they indicate a generational difference among the vampires – you have bloodsuckers from the dawn of man, the Dark Ages, and the 17th and 18th Centuries living together and conversing just like regular humans.

Group

But through the naturalistic lens of these characters, lots and lots of vampire mythology gets put through the mockumentary wringer, making for some great matter-of-fact comedy. And at certain point the scale is cleverly dialed up, which translates to charmingly low-budget action setpieces that end up being damn memorable. (Look out for a hallway fight straight out of Inception!) So the laid-back production pays off, and seeing the boom mic in frame isn’t a low-budget gaffe, but a part of the film’s conceit of documentation. I should mention, the doc conceit of the movie doesn’t really make sense, and some pedantic viewers might be bothered by that. But the fact that the film lampshades this at several points makes it work comedically if not logically.

Reflection

And that’s the ambition of What We Do in the Shadows. To craft a really clever comedy but not to get too hung up on a few of the details. The film is a haven for puns, satire, and even a couple scares, all involving endearing and insecure characters who we see deal in the mundane aspects of being vampires. It’s a gem. A strong 8/10.

P.S.: Taika Waititi is in final negotiations to direct Thor: Ragnarok for Marvel. It’ll be really fascinating to see his vision if he stays with the project.

 

Spy

Desk-based and terminally under-appreciated CIA agent Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) guides her field specialist partner Bradley Fine (Jude Law) on missions far and wide, until one day Fine lands into some serious trouble with notorious terrorist Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne). With a nuclear missile in play and all known field agents’ identities compromised, Cooper is very reluctantly sent on a mission to stop the deployment of the nuke. Can a woman all but ignored by her superiors for years get the job done when the stakes are so high? And can comedic writer-director Paul Feig do for spy movies what he did for buddy cop films in The Heat?

Susan 1

The humor of Spy is a bit scattered and random at times, but it hits the mark often enough. As the film begins, there are very obvious Bond pastiches (Theodore Shapiro’s John Barry-esque main theme, the title sequence), but all kinds of broad physical humor as well as off-center banter find their way into the mix. Some of it doesn’t work, most of it does; it’s really a function of keeping the jokes coming on a conveyor belt, as it’s almost inevitable that there are misses in there.

Susan Captured

What does work unequivocally is the thematic framework on which the jokes are hung. Susan Cooper is super-competent at her job, but people constantly underestimate, judge and treat her based only on her appearance. So while the jokes are flying, something deeper is being portrayed. It’s only reinforced further when you see that the villain has under-appreciated grunts/employees as well, making for lots of gags that also work thematically. The whole situation is also like a reflection of Melissa McCarthy’s rise in Hollywood, with the hotshot star agent roles taken up by men and one token conventionally beautiful woman (Morena Baccarin), before the situation arises for McCarthy/Cooper to shine.

Susan Fight

The supporting cast all commit admirably to their parts. Law has a lot of fun adopting an exaggerated American accent and portraying the false bluster of an agent who appears invincible but is in reality useless when relying on his own senses. Allison Janney, Byrne and others also heighten their performances well, but the entire supporting cast is overshadowed by Jason Statham’s fucking hilarious parody of his usual type of action-badass role. He’s a consistent comedic highlight, especially when he rattles off various over-the-top episodes from his spy career (think the Most Interesting Spy in the World) with bug-eyed conviction.

Rick

The film has flaws other than its joke hit rate. There’s some confused geography in the action; I think Feig can keep the jokes coming but I don’t know about his visual style. There’s also slightly shaky editing at times, and the third act gets too plotty for its own good; we have to care a bit about who’s doing what, but not that much.

Susan 2

In any case, Spy does what it sets out to do and more. It’s a funny spy genre romp/take-off (in a year littered with spy films), but its real triumph are the themes that its surface-level jokes illuminate around its central character. McCarthy and Statham own the film, and while Spy isn’t the funniest nor the most well-made comedy around, it’s good at its job. A weak 7/10.

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2 responses

  1. […] high-stakes field of the spy-action genre: the subversive Kingsman: The Secret Service; the comedic Spy; the thrill ride Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation; the 1960s throwback The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; […]

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