The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)
★ / ★★★★
Here is a movie that might have been tolerable, perhaps even deserving of a marginal recommendation, given that it had ended around the one hour mark. But then it continues for another hour even when the screenplay, written by Susanna Fogel and David Iserson, does not have enough fresh content to entertain a spectrum of viewers. The death march that is the latter hour is so desperate for laughs that it forgets it is a parody of spy flicks, chick flicks, and action-comedies. As a result, the joke ends up being itself.
Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon play two best friends who get thrown in the middle of an international plot involving governments and terrorists that wish to get their hands on a device. While the co-leads share convincing chemistry at times, there are numerous instances when McKinnon overshadows Kunis—particularly difficult to pull off because the latter makes it look as though exuding charm and variegated emotions is effortless.
McKinnon’s approach is tank-like: do and say whatever it takes to be the funniest person on screen. She has numerous facial expressions in her arsenal—and she is not afraid to look silly or stupid as long as she is remembered, especially when she is not on screen. I admired her strategy and it works for a one-woman show, but the director, Susanna Fogel, seems to forget that there must be a constant partnership on screen. Because I kept noticing McKinnon’s firecracker physicality and energy, I caught myself wishing that the film was solely about her character, Morgan with too strong of a personality, instead of Audrey, the woman dumped over text by her boyfriend who happens to work with the CIA.
The picture is surprisingly violent—which I enjoyed. However, this element of surprise is not enough to elevate the generic material. Yes, it is a parody of pictures that follow a certain formula, but it does not command an identity of its own. This is problematic, especially during the second hour, because when bullets fly and the characters go on the run, we know exactly how each sequence will play out. It becomes predictable—and isn’t one of goals of parody supposed to point to what is wrong or tired about a subject and attempt to subvert it? It relies on exaggeration—which parodies are supposed to do—but employing this strategy and nothing else prevents it from becoming a standout of the genre.
I dive into movies like “The Spy Who Dumped Me” not to ascertain the contents of its plot, but to see if it could really outsmart the genre it attempts to parody or skewer. While I chuckled sporadically because McKinnon and Kunis manage to sell their lines with verve to spare, the unambitious screenplay leaves a lot to be desired. In addition, notice its wildly fluctuating tone, how out of control it is to the point where would-be amusing moments are placed right next to occurrences that are deadly serious, or vice-versa. Clearly, the screenplay would have benefited from further redrafting.
A Serbian Film (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) was a former pornographic actor who retired early. He had some savings but since he didn’t have a stable job, his family was in a state of financial difficulty. When Lejla (Katarina Zutic), a former colleague, contacted Milos about a once in a lifetime opportunity work with an independent director, Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic), the husband and his wife (Jelena Gavrilovic), Marija, agreed that he should accept the offer because the paycheck would allow them to be set for life. However, Vukmir’s project was incredibly top secret. Even Milos was ignorant to what he was about to do in front of the camera. Based on the screenplay by Aleksandar Radivojevic and Srdjan Spasojevic, “Srpski film” managed to take the term “torture porn” on a new level. There was a plethora of scenes that depicted women as playthings. It showed them screeching out of pain from objects thrusted inside them, being punched in the face until their faces were swollen and bloody, forcing to perform fellatio until they passed out due to a lack of oxygen, and being cut into pieces with a machete. It was ugly and it was shameless in challenging us to keep our eyes open to see what would happen next. Supposedly, the filmmakers’ intention was to parody the movies made in Serbia. They didn’t like the forced political correctness that plagued the films in their country. So, by creating something that is so far from what is expected, it is an act of standing up against the mundane movies that are constantly being financed, made, and released. I understand their intention, but I don’t quite see how this project is supposed to be a parody given that there was nothing amusing about it. I was disgusted. I was shocked. I was disturbed. But laugh I did not. I thought it was very cruel to women. For a movie that was supposed to be progressive-thinking, the final cut was backwards. And it fails with a deafening thud. Furthermore, if the filmmakers’ intentions were completely taken out of the equation, I would still consider the film to be weak. Milos wasn’t portrayed as a responsible father and husband, in the least, so how could we root for him? His family was supposed to be struggling financially, yet it wasn’t shown to us that he tried to get a job anywhere. It was mentioned that he had an education. He wasn’t old, so why didn’t he seriously consider other options before accepting a cryptic job? The movie was about a half an hour too long. There were too many scenes when Milos was drugged and looking confused. He, as well as the audiences, were left to decipher what had happened to him through millisecond flashes of images accompanied by shrill, harsh sounds. Not only were the techniques an assault to the senses, it didn’t feel like being on a journey with Milos was ultimately worth it. He lacked pragmatism; he always happened to helplessly stumble upon one bad situation to the next. “Srpski film,” also known as “A Serbian Film,” directed by Srdjan Spasojevic, is a one-note mean joke where nobody wins. I welcome transgressive movies given that their ambition and intention meet a certain level of artistry that forces me to think about the power of the movies as well as consider possibilities of unexplored territory. Pascal Laugier’s “Martyrs” is an excellent example of a transgressive film. “A Serbian Film” is cheap and execrable.
Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
A group of college students were driving up to the mountain to have some fun when they encountered two hillbillies, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), in a gas station. Having seen a lot of scary movies and heard of stories about grizzly murders in the woods, the college kids couldn’t help but translate Tucker and Dale’s every action as a possible chance to kidnap or kill them. In truth, the duo were only there because Tucker had recently bought a vacation home, a cabin, and they could use a bit of relaxation before heading back to work. “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil,” written by Eli Craig and Morgan Jurgenson, directed by the former, had a chance to really sink its teeth in horror movie clichés about hillbillies being nothing but churlish, incestuous, often cannibalistic, folks but it ultimately felt superficial because the one-liners and the physical stunts lacked range. The set-up was this: The young men and women were so stupid, they ended up killing themselves by accident. Cut to Tucker and Dale’s shocked and horrified reactions. The material was very funny during its initial gags, but the filmmakers failed to detach from the formula, ironically constructing its own clichés by making fun of clichés. The title promised the two friends fighting evil. After they rescued Allison (Katrina Bowden) from drowning, Allison’s friends thought that she was kidnapped because they observed from afar. This triggered Chad (Jesse Moss), innately irascible and shamelessly sporting an ugly popped collar, into a state of rage to the point where he ended up being as ruthless as the murderers his group of friends feared. The movie wasn’t specific in the “evil” that Tucker and Dale had to fight. Was it the negative stereotypes regarding hillbillies that became embedded in the genre’s bones over the history of cinema? Was it the apocryphal placidity in hateful individuals, who lived in the suburbs or cities all their lives, and their secret yearnings of violence just waiting to be unleashed? Furthermore, it failed to acknowledge that stereotyping can be a good thing; it helps our mind to process information faster than it normally would. For instance, they allow us to respond quickly to potential dangers. Relying on stereotypes and neglecting to put more thought into them, hence failing to sympathize with others who are different, is the real tragedy. If the screenplay had focused more on that message, tragedies even outside of horror movie conventions could have been effortlessly highlighted. The story really shouldn’t have been about the body count. Allison was in the process of getting her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, hoping to establish a career as a counselor. I expected her to be more self-aware. The subplot involving Dale and Allison falling for each other was a nuisance, almost worthy of a dozen eye-rollings. Wouldn’t it have been too much to ask if they didn’t pine for each other so profusely? With every bloody confrontation between the hillbillies and the college students, it was interrupted by Dale having to explain to Allison what had transpired. Given that we just saw what happened, the little summaries felt repetitive and I started to wonder if the filmmakers were simply biding their time to push the material to a typical ninety-minute mark because the script became indigent of fresh ideas that cut deeper than boning knives.
Dance Flick (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Damien Dante Wayans directed this parody about a girl (Shoshana Bush) who moves to the city with her father after her mother dies on the way to her dance audition. With the help of a friend (Essence Atkins), she’s able to meet others, open up a little more and fall for a guy (Damon Wayans Jr.). If that sounds familiar, that’s because that’s pretty much what “Save the Last Dance” was about. But this movie takes it a bit further by adding in “Step Up,” “Step Up 2 the Streets,” “High School Musical,” and “Hairspray” into the mix with occassional popular references to icons such as Britney Spears, Halle Berry, and the like. As accessible as those references were, I liked that Wayans added some less popular jokes such as from movies like “Black Snake Moan.” As idiotic as this movie was, I somewhat enjoyed it because I saw it when I was in the mood for watching something where I don’t have to think. I also liked the fact that it showed some vignettes where it revealed the stupidity of the plot or meaningful of certain dance movies. For instance, in “Step Up 2 the Streets,” people constantly had to fight for “respect” (whatever that means) instead of focusing on issues that would most likely impact their futures like education and working toward achieving something most people would assume to be impossible. This movie’s ability to bluntly present issues like that made me like it because I hardly think fighting for so-called respect should be the main drive of young people today. Still, the movie consistently lost focus such as whenever it would refer to something ridiculous like “Twilight.” In my opinion, if such in-your-face spoof pictures should stay in their own universe. That glaring decision to show something so out of the blue was not only unfunny, it also reflects desperation. “Dance Flick” could have been so much more fun if it had its act together. After all, there are a lot of dance movies out there to make fun of because they take themselves too far. The difference between those and this movie is that “Dance Flick” knows it’s being ridiculous.
Crank: High Voltage (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
At this point, I can enjoy just about any movie that Jason Statham stars in because even though most of them are mindless, they’re fun to watch. Statham is as charismatic as ever for his return as Chev Chelios, a hitman who gets caught up with gangsters who (literally) stole his heart. In order to survive, he must constantly charge his artificial heart which only lasts for about an hour. Half of the fun about this picture was the lead character trying to look for ways to charge his life force. The film is lewd, crude and downright crazy because even rubbing up against people could create enough electricity for him to survive. However, even I have to admit that I enjoyed this sequel less than the original for a few reasons. Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the writers and directors, brought back certain characters from the original only to kill them off almost instantly. When a character did come back and survived, the character was not utilized in such a way that they could push the film forward. Therefore, there were many points in the film when it felt stuck even though the characters were kinetic in purpose and movement. I liked the campiness of the film but there were also times when it was too campy. In fact, there was a scene when it tried to summon Godzilla parodies. As adventurous as it was, it was dead on arrival for me because the violence that was being portrayed on screen was not funny, which was unlike the rest of the movie when everything else was cartoonish. In fact, that fighting sequence should have been quite epic, in my opinion, despite Johnny Vang (Art Hsu) being a simple-minded henchmen, because Statham’s character spent more than half of the film trying to chase him. Other actors that returned were Amy Smart as the girlfriend, Dwight Yoakam as Doc Miles, Efren Ramirez as Venus (who played Kaylo in the first), and Keone Young as Don Kim. I enjoyed this film’s enthusiasm to entertain but I ultimately have to give it a mediocre rating because it needed to have more focus instead of just aiming to be all over the place. Even though the first one was crazy, it tried to tell a story. On the other hand, “Crank: High Voltage” just felt like a series of random scenes pasted together which did not make sense as a whole.
★★★ / ★★★★
This movie provided me bucketloads of nostalgia because I used to watch the cartoons when I was younger. Starring and written by Dan Aykroyd (Dr. Raymond Stantz) and Harold Ramis (Dr. Egon Spengler), “Ghostbusters” is really fun to watch because of its originality and bona fide sense of humor. The film also stars Bill Murray as Dr. Peter Venkman, Ernie Hudson as Winston Zeddmore (an eventual Ghostbuster), Sigourney Weaver as their first client and Rick Moranis as Weaver’s mousy neighbor. I was impressed that each of them had something to contribute to the comedy as well as moving the story forward. I usually don’t like special and visual effects in comedies because the filmmakers get too carried away and neglect the humor, but I enjoyed those elements here because all of it was within the picture’s universe. Although the movie does embrace its campiness, it’s not completely ludicrious. In fact, since the Ghostbusters are part of the Psychology department, I was happy that the script managed to use the psychological terms and ideas in a meaningful way such as the idea of Carl Jung’s collective unconscious. I also liked the fact that it had time to respectfully reference (or parody?) to “The Exorcist” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” Although the humor is much more consistent in the first half, the second half is where it manages to show its intelligence such as the fusing of ideas from gods of various cultures and Christianity’s armageddon. Without the actors providing a little something extra (such as Murray’s hilarious sarcasm), this would’ve been a typical comedic spookfest. The special and visual effects may have been dated but it still managed to entertain me from start to finish because the film is so alive with ideas and anecdotes with universal appeal.
Hamlet 2 (2008)
★★ / ★★★★
I’m not a big fan of slapstick comedy and it’s dispersed throughout this movie, but Steve Coogan’s enthusiastic performance as a drama teacher who wants to inspire his students prevented me from becoming completely bored by it. The presence of familiar faces such as Elisabeth Shue, Catherine Keener, Melonie Diaz, David Arquette, and Amy Poehler made it that much better because their sometimes subtle performances contrast to the all-too-obvious elements of the picture. Not to mention that “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” song is not only satirical and catchy but just plain hilarious if one is not too sensitive when it comes to making fun of religion (Christianity in this case). I think I would’ve liked this film more if the slapstick that plagued the beginning were completely removed. Not only were they not funny, they also slowed the story down. Instead, the filmmakers should’ve dealt with race relations in the classroom; they tried to move in that direction but I got the feeling that the writers were afraid that the movie would get too serious. What is a comedy without a little bit of dramatic gravity? Despite my coming from a high school with a diverse group of ethnicities, self-segregation is not uncommon; it would’ve been nice if that was explored because I could relate to it and I think it’s still an important issue. I also liked the fact that the story of “Hamlet” was not just randomly chosen to make a play. Coogan’s character can relate to it, in his own strange way, so we get that sense of purpose. I don’t necessarily recommend this movie to just about anyone because it is targeted toward people with a specific sense of humor. If one is a fan of “Napoleon Dynamite” (which I hated with a passion), he or she might enjoy “Hamlet 2.” For me, this film is offensive (in a good way), satirical, and had heart but it could’ve been more insightful and moving if they had toned down the slapstick.