Tag Archives: spy movie

Pineapple Grosse Pointe Kiss Bang — “American Ultra”

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in American Ultra

American Ultra is the rare case of two stellar actors elevating material that could get lost without them. Those two actors would be Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. I know, it’s popular to despise them both or think they’ve gotten where they are due to luck and limited skill sets. That thinking is wrong.

American Ultra follows Mike and Phoebe, an impoverished pair of lovers doing what they can to get by. She is patient with him; he has panic attacks at the mere thought of leaving town. Just as we’re getting to know them, viewers are whisked away to C.I.A. Headquarters, where Yates (Topher Grace) is shutting down a program of brainwashed operatives once run by Lasseter (Connie Britton). Mike is on the hit list, and to save him, Lasseter has to trigger him into remembering his agency training.

Events spiral out of control, and Mike is soon using everyday objects to murder his would-be assassins. I counted a spoon, a dustpan, and I think even a package of tortillas as deadly weapons. After the violence, Mike returns to being panicky and unsure of himself. Phoebe handles and helps him through it, getting a few punches of her own in along the way.

Eisenberg earned an Oscar nomination for his leading role in The Social Network, but being cast as Lex Luthor in the upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice seems to have turned many back against him.

Think what you want, but there’s one scene in American Ultra where Eisenberg cuts through the blood and the tears with just a look. His performance becomes a creature all its own, something pulsing and angry and confused and viciously dangerous. The film can’t rely on this – it needs Eisenberg to pace back and forth nervously between action scenes and make us laugh. Yet Eisenberg knows when to step on the gas and when to let off.

Stewart is even more complicated. She’s treated as toxic by an industry in which she launched two major franchises (Twilight and Snow White and the Huntsman) by the age of 22. We’ve covered why before, and it’s one of the most egregious double standards Hollywood’s offered in recent years.

Hate Stewart if you want, but you’re missing one of the most dynamic shifts into independent film in recent history. She is slaughtering dramatic and comedic roles left, right, and center, finding the chemistry, timing, and emotional nuance that was drained from her characters in mainstream roles. With Camp X-Ray, Clouds of Sils Maria, Still Alice, and now American Ultra, she’s in the middle of an impressive two-year stretch. She’s good. She might even be great one day.

Eisenberg and Stewart sell this off-kilter material beautifully together. They believe in the movie’s reality so intensely, they cover up for many of the film’s seams. They’re assisted by comedy veterans like John Leguizamo as Mike’s drug dealer and Tony Hale as a C.I.A. agent torn in his loyalties.

If you watch American Ultra as a straight action movie or comedy, you’ll find it uneven. It’s a film you can’t take too seriously. If you watch it as a romance and a chance for two actors to power their way through a mash-up of a half-dozen genres, it may leave you touched and impressed.

American Ultra ends up doing many things that The Man from UNCLE couldn’t get right. The chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart is palpable. While their styles are vastly different, this film is more consistent and coherent. It’s a violent, occasionally comedic metaphor for the struggles we go through in opening up and learning to trust during relationships. On that level, it works beautifully and it can hit the heart in strange ways. If anything, it’s a sly update on a film like Grosse Pointe Blank, using spy movie tropes as a way of talking about the growing up we have to do in life.

In many ways, this is what I wish films like Kingsman: The Secret Service, Wanted, Pineapple Express, and Shoot ‘Em Up could have achieved: a reason for being. While they were focused on slick explosions and fancy choreography and other things I’ll admit I love, none of them left me thinking positively about them later that day. They were wastes of time and, though it lacks their level of polish, American Ultra is a better film with more heart than all of them combined. It even achieves that brief, “Look at what they make you give” moment better than The Bourne Ultimatum did (though that’s a better film in almost every other regard).

It won’t be for everybody, but for those willing to jump on a violent indie action comedy that would fit at home in the late 90s or early 00s, this is your cup of tea.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section uses the Bechdel Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film. Read why I’m including this section here.

Does American Ultra have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Kristen Stewart plays Phoebe. Connie Britton plays Lasseter. Monique Ganderton plays Crane. Other unnamed speaking roles include Rachel Wulff as a CNN reporter.

Do they talk to each other?

No. (They do help beat someone up together once, so there’s that.)

About something other than a man?

The question doesn’t apply if women don’t talk to each other in the film, but when they talk to men, they’re usually discussing the plot or plans about what to do next.

American Ultra could’ve and should’ve done a lot better here. Stewart gets the chance to talk to many supporting characters who are men, but none who are women. The movie simply fails here, and it’s not very consistent about how tough Stewart’s and Lasseter’s characters are.

Very minor changes could have made this film more balanced and more communicative between women. The world of the film is also overwhelmingly populated by men.

Topher Grace’s Yates is incredibly misogynist, to boot. While it’s fun to hate Topher Grace and it makes us want to see him get his comeuppance that much more, the movie relies on this facet as a shortcut to building a fairly thin villain.

It’s a problematic movie when it comes to the representation of women. As always, one can still like a movie that has problems of any sort, but being aware of and discussing those problems and why they exist is an important part of being a viewer. American Ultra needed to do better here.

Where did we get our awesome images? The feature image is from a Gizmodo piece. The in-article image is from Collider here.

If the Stage Collapsed Under a Jazz Masterpiece Every 12 Minutes — “The Man from UNCLE”

Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer in The Man from UNCLE
Cavill Hammer would be a good name for a kid. If you name your child Cavill Hammer, please include a link back here.

I was hoping for one last triumphant popcorn flick on the way out of summer. At first, The Man from UNCLE seems to fit the bill. Based loosely on the 1960s TV show, it opens with enough style and energy to jump off the screen. I can’t count the number of times the planet’s been threatened this summer, and a playful riff on 60s spy movies should feel as light and airy as The Man From UNCLE starts.

CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB operative Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are both after the same quarry: a defecting East German car mechanic who’s also the daughter of a missing, ex-Nazi rocket scientist. The opening is everything you think the movie could possibly be. It zips along with a unique flair, cutting back and forth in time so you can understand each operative a little better. It works like jazz, its rhythm alternating between tight and loose in a call-and-response way. It’s a beautifully orchestrated opening sequence.

If you want more of that quirky, high-energy, stylish action then The Man from UNCLE is where you’re going to find it…once in a while. The film never goes straight downhill, but it does run up and down that hill faster than you can keep up. Brilliant comedic moments are interspersed with banter scenes that fall flat. The passive-aggressive competition between Solo and Kuryakin is realized wonderfully during a heist sequence but never revisited again. The daughter who joins them on their mission, Gaby (Alicia Vikander), has to mediate their competitive nature, which takes her into serious territory. With three comedic straight-men and no foil, it’s up to the film itself to invent comic interplay. When it’s there, it sings, but when it’s not, it’s like the jazz goes horrendously off-tune and you wonder if the trombonist just had a heart attack.

Alicia Vikander in The Man from UNCLE
The costume design is insanely good, by the way.

The Man from UNCLE has style to spare, a clever way of editing, a sharp sense of humor, energetic action, and three leads each more talented and charming than the last, but it doesn’t rely on any of these things long enough to create a consistent theme.

Is the point of the movie to be stylish? It forgets to be for long stretches of time. Is it to cleverly edit story in nonlinear ways that keep us hopping back and forth between expectations and reveals? The same energy isn’t put into its linear scenes; they fall flat by comparison.

Is the point of the film its wicked humor? Then why do we get a torture scene near the end where the torturer proceeds to tell us how he experimented on concentration camp prisoners? That’s a mood-killer in a comedy if ever there was one.

Why is each character introduced as a scenery-chewing joy only to devolve into a dour monument to solemnity by the end?

Why is the action joyfully cartoonish at the beginning and self-consciously gritty by the end? Did a producer pass by and think, “Yes, this bright, cartoonish 60s romp needs more Dark Knight in it?”

If nothing else, The Man from UNCLE reminds you of the value of Robert Downey Jr. Downey starred in both of director Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies. They shared similar tonal shifts, although the mysteries at their core were far tighter. Both Holmes movies shared the same grinding halts to deliver bland expository dialogue in between frenetic action scenes. The difference between Downey, Jude Law, and Noomi Rapace seizing on each others’ Victorian lines, versus Cavill, Hammer, and Vikander never finding their rhythm together in the 60s is night and day. Elizabeth Debicki, as the villain Victoria, is the only one really keeping things lively by the end.

Elizabeth Debicki in The Man from UNCLE
It’s not a ’60s spy movie until somebody jabs somebody else with a needle.

That’s a lot of flaws for something I ultimately did enjoy, and The Man from UNCLE also suffers from arriving on the heels of the surprisingly better, funnier, and even more stylish Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. As spy movies go, there’s an all-time great in the theater right now and then there’s a pretty good one in The Man from UNCLE.

The Man from UNCLE is as enjoyable as anything this year when its comedy and style hit. You just have to bear with the moments when it takes far too long to find its mark. These are enjoyable actors to watch, even when they’re all playing dry wit at the same time. If you’re looking for a spy movie or action comedy, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the far better bet, and more specifically takes advantage of the big screen. If you’ve already seen that or you just don’t like Tom Cruise, The Man from UNCLE is a solid bet if you’re patient with it. It does boast some of the best music of any film this year.

(This was written before my American Ultra review. Whether you like that or The Man from UNCLE better is a matter of taste. Check out my American Ultra review, and my Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation review while making your spy movie choices. Or just do a triple-feature.)

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section uses the Bechdel Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film. Read why I’m including this section here.

Does The Man From UNCLE have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Alicia Vikander plays Gaby. Elizabeth Debicki plays the villain Victoria. They are unnamed, but other speaking roles include Simona Caparrini as a Contessa, and Marianna Di Martino as a desk clerk.

Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

About something other than a man?

Yes. Nuclear weapons and nefarious plots are the order of the day.

It’s better balanced than the industry usually is, but The Man from UNCLE isn’t exactly equal opportunity. The two men are the central characters, and Vikander is sexualized in a way Cavill and Hammer aren’t.

The film’s world of espionage is also dominated by male side characters. While it may or may not reflect the gender balance in 1960s spy circles realistically, nothing else about this movie is realistic. The world created here would have benefited from women in more of the roles supporting these core four actors (Cavill, Debicki, Hammer, Vikander).

Debicki plays a villain who’s very in control of her sexual life. Unfortunately, that is used as a villainous trait at one point. We often see that kind of control over one’s sexual life in women villains, not women heroes, and The Man from UNCLE is no different. As her counterpart on the good guys, Vikander’s sexuality is treated in a more innocent, ingenue-like manner.

Insane style in The Man from UNCLE
Everyone’s treating everyone else like adults, even if they’re shooting at each other.

Thankfully, everyone’s sexual exploits are treated as their own decisions. We steer clear of any Roger Moore-era James Bond sexual assaults (or recent Daniel Craig, for that matter). For the amount of double-crosses at play and the centrality of sex at different points in the film, The Man from UNCLE is very conscious and specific about characters treating each other in careful and respectful ways when it comes to sex.

The film’s not perfect, but it does some things better than much of the spy genre. That said, the genre itself is still housed in some antiquated mores of gender roles, and The Man from UNCLE uses some of these in its storytelling.

Where did we get our awesome images? The feature image is from The Mary Sue review. The image of Cavill and Hammer is from the Forbes review. The images of Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki are from a fashion article on The Telegraph. The image of Cavill and Debicki on a sofa are from a People trailer article.

Ethan Meets an Equal — “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”

Rebecca Ferguson fight scene in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
You just hang around, Tom Cruise, I got this.

by Gabriel Valdez

Every once in a while, there’s an action movie you breathe your way out of as the credits roll. You’ve been smiling the last several minutes and maybe you hadn’t even realized you were holding your breath. You’re also charged – your adrenaline’s spiking and you feel like you could do a thousand ill-advised stunts just like the action heroes on screen did. The Matrix is the poster child of this post-movie syndrome. Millions of viewers in 1999 hoped that someone would try to engage them in a kung fu battle in the theater’s parking lot. The Bourne Ultimatum made us feel like we could race across rooftops and earlier this year, Mad Max: Fury Road made passengers across America shout for exhilarated drivers to stop hairpinning every turn as if they were being chased by post-apocalyptic Viking dune buggies.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is not just the best of the Mission: Impossible films, it’s also one of the better spy movies you may ever see. There are larger than life action sequences, but the film lives and breathes its complicated spy world like none of the other Mission: Impossible films have. Each movie in this series has been an action movie first and a spy movie second. Rogue Nation reverses this trend. It ramps up the film’s spy elements without losing the breakneck action. Moreover, there are fewer technological gimmicks – Rogue Nation is a film about play and counter-play, about plots buried within plots and the personalities behind them clashing and manipulating each other.

The hallmark of the Mission: Impossible franchise is getting to see nearly every element of a well-orchestrated plan go wrong at some point. The team has to adjust on the fly. Rogue Nation remembers this, but evokes it in some different ways.

Tom Cruise on motorcycle in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Tom, look behind you. THAT’S why you need to wear a helmet.

As Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his spy agency the IMF are shut down by Congress, he has to pursue a burgeoning terrorist organization without much help. Where predecessor Ghost Protocol found mileage by pairing Cruise with Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt, Rogue Nation makes a riskier gambit. Cruise is paired with Simon Pegg’s Benji for a good portion of the film. Benji isn’t just there for comic relief; he’s an agent in his own right by this point. Pegg’s impeccable timing and irreverent attitude bring a fuller human being out of Cruise this time around. Pegg’s presence allows Cruise to be less perfect, more flawed. It’s an unexpectedly enjoyable screen pairing.

The previous “best” in the series, Ghost Protocol let the viewer into the chaos even as a plan unfolded. The tension in a spy sequence relied on how our heroes were going to find ways to help each other as everything around them broke down. Rogue Nation takes a different tack by hiding several characters’ real motivations from the viewer. The tension arises from how our heroes may find ways to betray each other. It’s a fun inversion that takes particular advantage of Jeremy Renner’s skill at being such a good wet blanket.

Tom Cruise and Jeremy Renner in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Jeremy Renner: wet blanket for hire.

There are two big names to know here. The first is Rebecca Ferguson. She plays Ilsa Faust, who is Ethan’s equal as an agent. This isn’t the James Bond style of “equal,” meaning she’s equal insofar as it takes to turn her into a romantic conquest. No, she is essentially as good a fighter, as good a shot, as good a driver, and as clever a spy as Ethan is. She’s also the heart of the plot, something of a quadruple agent by the time the story’s done.

This brings up the second name: Christopher McQuarrie. He directed and wrote the screenplay. You may not know him, but he once won an Oscar for writing The Usual Suspects. It was a complex crime thriller with practical style and storytelling. For inspiration, Rogue Nation hearkens back to that practical style, as well as the first Mission: Impossible film. McQuarrie has a talent for creating incredibly complex and ever-evolving stories, but he uses considerable behind-the-scenes wizardry to present a classy, raw-yet-polished style that’s free of needless flash. Audiences can easily keep up with and enjoy the complicated spy shenanigans.

We may not all be Tom Cruise fans – there are things to admire and despise about the actor himself. If you’re going to watch any recent Tom Cruise movie, this is the one to see. There’s not much ego to the film. It’s also a Rebecca Ferguson and a Simon Pegg movie. While it’s a very good action film, it’s a truly thrilling spy movie. You probably won’t see anything else like it this year.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section uses the Bechdel Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film. Read why I’m including this section here.

1. Does Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation have more than one woman in it?

Yes and no. Outside Rebecca Ferguson, there is a speaking role for Hermione Corfield, but the technically correct version of this question requires more than one named woman. Corfield plays “Record Shop Girl.” A few henchmen (but still not enough) are played by women, which is refreshing, and Jingchu Zhang plays Lauren, but her role is brief and I don’t think she’s ever named in the film, just on the IMDB page.

2. Do they talk to each other?

No.

3. About something other than a man?

Moot point if the previous answer is a no.

This is an interesting one because it goes in all directions at once, both good and bad. Paula Patton and Maggie Q were sought to reprise their roles from the fourth and third movies, much as Renner, Pegg, and Ving Rhames reprise their roles. Patton couldn’t do it because of her lead role in the Warcraft movie, while Maggie Q was filming the lead role in the now-canceled TV show Stalker.

One can be informed by what happens behind-the-scenes – I can understand why they didn’t want to introduce additional team members beyond the ones we already know. At the same time, one also has to judge by what’s on the screen, and Rogue Nation fails the Bechdel Test pretty hard.

The Bechdel Test is part of an equation, not the whole thing. It’s refreshing to see a woman who’s neither a love interest nor a junior member to the team here. Ilsa being Ethan’s equal is stressed, and Ferguson carries the action scenes incredibly well across multiple fights. On the who-saves-who scorecard, Ethan comes out owing Ilsa pretty considerably.

Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
It’s what I always wear when assassinating chancellors.

The film does focus on Rebecca Ferguson scantily dressed in at least three scenes. There is some level of lusting the other direction, however, as Tom Cruise is presented to us shirtless and still in better shape than most of America. It’s certainly not equal lusting. The male gaze is served much more than the female gaze. I give credit to the film for not forcing a romance between the 31 year-old Ferguson and the 53 year-old Cruise. It could have diminished the notion that she’s his equal if done wrong (most films do this wrong), as well as disrespecting the narrative of Ethan’s own complicated, still-in-love-with Michelle Monaghan backstory from the third and fourth films.

Take all of that into account. Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa is my second favorite movie badass of any gender this year after Charlize Theron’s Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road. The difference is that Furiosa was allowed to be a badass without being sexualized according to the male gaze the way Ilsa is. It’s also awkward because, given her role in the film, Ilsa doesn’t need to be so sexualized.

Rebecca Ferguson on motorcycle in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
I don’t understand, why couldn’t she wear this to the opera?

The end result is something complicated: there’s a positively portrayed, talented, professional woman who can spy, fight, drive, and do all the things Tom Cruise does without having to fall for him. She’s his complete equal plot-wise, but not always according to the film’s camera. At times, she’s still hyper-sexualized in a way not necessitated by the plot but that serves the male gaze in the audience. I don’t find myself angry at Rogue Nation the way I am at some films that do this. Whether that’s because Ilsa is presented so equally otherwise, or because my opinion’s been compromised by the tendencies of my own gaze, it’s difficult to tell.

Trying to return Patton and Maggie Q along with the franchise’s other actors is a positive, but not one that shows up on screen or that can be communicated to most audiences. Regardless, ending up with so few women in the film is a big negative. That Ferguson’s Ilsa is presented so capably is a big positive. That Ferguson’s Ilsa is sexualized by the camera in a way that she isn’t by the plot or through her characterization is a negative. Given the state of the industry as a whole when it comes to women, do the negatives outweigh the positives? Given the lack of strong women characters, does having that one positive outweigh the negatives? This time, I can’t really tell. There’s a lot missing from Rogue Nation in the way of women, but what it does have in Ferguson’s Ilsa is missing from a lot of the industry. This section isn’t always meant for judgment, certainly not as much as it’s meant for information. If it were meant for judgment, I would find mine pretty obscured this time out.

Where did we get our awesome images? The feature image is from NY Daily News’ box office report. The topmost of Rebecca Ferguson throwing an elbow and the one with Jeremy Renner are from Slice of Sci-Fi’s review. Tom Cruise on a motorcycle comes from Forbes’ box office report. The last two images of Rebecca Ferguson come from the excellent Collider.