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Posts Tagged ‘Mila Kunis’

‘Do you have any idea what this film is about?’ I asked Olinka as we settled into our places in a slightly rowdy city-centre theatre (having turfed out the kids who had chosen to ignore the allocated seating system and taken our spots).

‘No.’

(One of the many things I like about Olinka is that she will happily go and watch just about anything without the slightest demur, which she claims is because she simply enjoys going to the cinema with me. Hence her desire for one more trip before I disappeared for a while.)

‘Well, it’s a sort of comedy thriller.’

I was gratified to see her face light up. ‘Well, that’s good, because everything we go to see together -‘

‘- you either approach or come away from in the belief that it’s a comedy thriller, yes, I know. So I thought it would be appropriate.’

The film in question was Susanna Fogel’s The Spy Who Dumped Me, which – as the title suggests – ventures into fairly well-travelled territory as, well, not quite a spy spoof, but an espionage movie with some funny bits in it. This is one of those mid-budget genre movies for which expectations were originally quite modest, but following test screenings which apparently got ‘phenomenal’ reactions from the audience, it has been moved up to a more auspicious slot.

Mila Kunis plays Audrey, an ordinary shop assistant from Los Angeles with a slightly turbulent love life, having just been chucked by her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux – if, like me, you’re one of the people who has trouble keeping track of these things, this is the dude who wrote Iron Man 2, not the prime minister of Canada). Luckily, perhaps, Mila’s slightly unhinged best friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon) is around to cheer her up.

But then, as the title might have led you to expect, Drew crashes back into Audrey’s life, revealing that he is in fact a CIA agent being pursued by some Bad People, and that he has hidden a top-secret spy McGuffin in the stuff he left at Audrey’s apartment! It turns out that it is Audrey’s civic duty to go to Europe and deliver the McGuffin to the Right People, or at least stop the Bad People from getting their hands on it. Morgan ends up going along as well, because it’s important to have your friends around you at moments like these…

Well, from that synopsis, you would have to say that it doesn’t sound tremendously like the premise for a hilarious comedy experience. And there is a sense in which this is true, for this is one of those films which tries its hardest to hop genres. In a way it very much reminded me of the Melinda McCarthy-Jason Statham vehicle Spy, in that the spy movie bits are played very nearly straight, with some quite graphic violence, while the funny bits could have wandered in from any commercial American comedy of recent years (which is to say that they are profane, possibly to the point of actual obscenity, and fixated on bodily fluids and so forth).

The main thing I took away from this was an increased realisation of just how formulaic American genre movies have become: with The Spy Who Dumped Me, it’s like a comedy and a thriller have been deconstructed and an entirely new film has been assembled from the key elements of both. Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that this is a film with some tonal problems, as is often the case with this sort of thing – there’s something very odd about going from a moment where the main characters are beaten and tortured, into a wacky comedy bit within the same scene. Charade this is not.

On the other hand, I suppose the whole confection works as well as it does because the espionage genre (or the more escapist end of it, anyway) has become such an absurd proposition anyway. There’s a plot line in this film about the girls being hunted by a model-like eastern European gymnast turned gun-toting assassin, and while this is so outrageously silly it sounds like something out of a spoof, it’s also exactly the kind of plot element that turns up in Luc Besson movies or films like Atomic Blonde. I know I complain about the Bond franchise being stuck in ultra-glum mode at the moment, but I suppose there’s a sense in which they’re well out of the glossy, silly end of the genre. You could argue that, in a slightly clumsy way, films like Spy and The Spy Who Dumped Me are trying to fill the gap left by Bond in the way they combine action and humour in a wholly preposterous context.

As an actual thriller, The Spy Who Dumped Me is forgettable stuff, with a plot that barely hangs together: it’s also so stuffed with cliches that it must be intentional. As a comedy, however, it is rather more effective. It’s hard to shake the sense that Mila Kunis owes a significant element of her career to the fact she is, well, easy on the eye sockets, but she’s also quite an effective lead for this kind of light comedy. It is just unfortunate for her, then, that she has wound up sharing this film with Kate McKinnon, who is a ferociously talented comic performer.

The wacky best friend is a stock figure in this kind of film; not long ago I was fairly critical of the sub-par work done by Chelsea Handler in This Means War (a film which is almost like a weird mirror image of The Spy Who Dumped Me in some ways). Kate McKinnon is not sub-par in this film: in fact, she is so good that it almost unbalances the whole thing, as she is the person you are always wanting to see more of. She has an ability to steal scenes which almost defies belief, in addition to being able to deliver a killer one-liner and also do bizarre physical comedy. She was the funniest thing (possibly the only really funny thing) in the All-Female Ghostbusters remake; she is the funniest thing here, too. If she can find herself the right vehicle to star in in her own right, global stardom surely beckons.

I said about This Means War that it felt like a rom-com aimed at jocks, which presumably explains why it was such a lousy film. The very least that you can say about The Spy Who Dumped Me is that it feels like an action comedy genuinely made for a female audience. Naturally, this puts me out of the target audience in a fairly definitive way, but I still had a good time watching it. The supposed plot is negligible, but there’s McKinnon doing her thing, and there are also lots of very good jokes, many of them about the culture clash between the US and Europe. There’s also a typical adroit cameo from Gillian Anderson, whom it is always nice to see.

In the end we rather enjoyed this bona fide comedy thriller; we weren’t hooting and gasping and shrieking like many other members of the audience at our screening, but we had fun. It’s not what you could honestly call a great film, by any measure, nor does it really break new ground. But in terms of the odd little intersection of genres where it finds itself, it is an entertaining and quite likeable movie.

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By Jove, what’s this? Another movie from the Wachowski siblings, consigned to the outer wastelands of the release schedule? (By which I mean February, of course.) At this point, all the quality movies hoping for glory in the awards season have been released (and probably re-released, in some cases), while it’s still a bit too soon for even the earliest blockbusters to be coming out. What tend to emerge at this time of year, blinking and unloved, are the films which the studio really don’t have much faith in: things which are looking like big-budget follies, in short.

The omens for the Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending are slightly ominous, when you look at it that way. This big, lavish fantasy movie was originally scheduled for a release last June, and trailers for it had actually started to appear in front of other films. But at practically the very last minute it was pulled and knocked back to this year, supposedly so it could have its special effects and plotting touched up. Even if you buy this explanation, early February is not a prime release date for a $176 million movie made by two writer-directors of substance.

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Oh well. Jupiter Ascending dispenses with the traditional voice-over and/or series of captions explaining its universe in favour of something more quirky and personal, although boiling the plot down into something easily summarised is a formidable challenge. Basically, Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, a young second-generation Russian immigrant working as a domestic cleaner in present-day Chicago. She is not very happy with her lot in life.

However, things change when she finds herself menaced by strange, inhuman forces (she’s having her eggs harvested at the time, which I suppose has a vague thematic resonance, but no strong bearing on the plot). Fortunately she is rescued by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a half-man half-Airedale Terrier bounty hunter from space, who zaps the bad guys and whisks her off on his anti-gravity skates, before explaining what’s going on.

The truth is simple (if also somewhat bonkers): Jupiter is the genetic reincarnation of a 90,000-year-old space princess and, as a result, is de facto royalty in the strange interstellar milieu the movie depicts. She is also the recipient of a prime piece of planetary real estate (here’s a clue: you most likely live on it) and an unwilling participant in the power-games of an immensely wealthy family of space tycoons. Chief amongst these is Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), who is most put out to have lost a potentially profitable planet. However, as well as a vast fortune he also has a private army of flying space-crocodiles on retainer, which he is not afraid to deploy in defence of his interests…

You know, I’ve liked the Wachowskis ever since the first time I saw The Matrix, quite a few years ago now: I was one of those people more than willing to give the Matrix sequels a chance, I thought V for Vendetta (which they wrote) was better than many gave it credit for, and their last movie, Cloud Atlas, was probably the film I enjoyed most in 2013. Anything they do is going to be interestingly different, at the very least.

But this movie? Hooooo boy! Now, I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. I went with a friend and by the end we were hooting with laughter at everything unfolding on the screen. The slight problem, perhaps, is that Jupiter Ascending is not really intended to be an outright comedy film. It’s just that the film is so, so way out there in some of its ideas, and especially in the way it’s unafraid to stack them on top of one another, that it eventually simply becomes absurd.

This being the Wachowskis, the film is never less than ravishing to look at: the special effects, costumes, and production designs are all gorgeous. But it’s as though the siblings have availed themselves of a very large tank full of extravagant visuals, bizarre plot ideas, and very bad acting, and are using a high-pressure hose to spray the contents indiscriminately across the screen for 127 minutes. The results are bracing, but also very weird.

There are perhaps a few similarities with their greatest work, as this is the story of an ordinary person who discovers they are actually of great significance in a world they are initially ignorant of, a world in which human life has a slightly sinister quality, as a resource to be exploited. But the rest of it is all over the place: it looks a bit like Flash Gordon and a bit like Dune, there are lengthy discussions of galactic inheritance and tax law to gladden the heart of any Phantom Menace admirer, there’s a very Hitch Hikers-y sequence on a planet of bureaucrats that also brings to mind Brazil – at which point, of course, a heavily-disguised Terry Gilliam wanders on for a cameo appearance. And why not? It makes as much sense as anything else. In the midst of all this Jupiter’s main preoccupation seems to be coming on to her dogged (and doggy) guardian, in a manner I found slightly needy. Needless to say, he seems to have incipient republican inclinations.

Off on another sound-stage, meanwhile, the protracted squabbles of Jupiter’s extended family of comedy Russian-Americans are interrupted by flying space-crocodiles crashing through the ceiling, on a mission from Eddie Redmayne’s character. Everyone seems to be assuming Redmayne is a mortal lock for the Best Actor Oscar, for his performance as Stephen Hawking in that film I haven’t seen. Well, if he doesn’t get it, it may be because tapes of Jupiter Ascending are doing the rounds, as his performance here is quite extraordinarily OTT. I suspect the reason most of the scenery is computer-generated is simply to stop Redmayne from chewing on it, not that anyone else in the film is particularly restrained.

It’s not immediately obvious whether Jupiter Ascending is genuinely intended to be a piece of soaringly camp nonsense, or if it’s just a seriously-intended genre movie which has had something go very, very wrong with it. The fact that the plot still doesn’t quite hang together suggests the latter, but if the film has a serious message to impart it’s not very clear what it is. There seems to be a suggestion that you can be perfectly happy sponging out someone else’s bog all day, provided you know that deep-down you’re a space princess (personally, I sort of doubt this), while the film does seem to have some interesting, if half-formed ideas about how post-scarcity societies are really going to function – even to the point of implying that a truly post-scarcity society is impossible in a finite universe. This does tend to get drowned out by some bog-standard egalitarian anti-capitalism, which sits weirdly with the generally pro-monarchical tenor of the film (Jupiter gets off on Dog-boy calling her ‘your Majesty’).

I remember a review of Spielberg’s 1941 wherein the writer suggested the principal pleasure of the film was simply watching the director play with the resources of a big-budget movie like a kid with a train set. I think much the same applies to Jupiter Ascending: the plot is barmy, and in places baffling, but it looks stunning, the action is superbly mounted, and there are so many incidental pleasures along the way (Tim Piggott-Smith comes on as a half-man, half-badger alien). Jupiter Ascending is probably a terrible film, but it’s the most brilliant terrible film I’ve seen in ages. I hope it does well enough for studio bosses to keep giving the Wachowskis money: the world of cinema would be a much poorer place without their particular brand of inspired madness.

 

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If you are the kind of parent who is constantly harangued by a daughter declaring her desire to become the world’s greatest ballet dancer, and how this makes it your duty to fulfil their dream no matter the personal inconvenience or expense, then on one level you could do a lot worse than to stick them in front of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. This should cure almost anyone of wanting to get into ballet. On the other hand, it’s probably also capable of massively traumatising the average child (and possibly some adults), so if you do go down this route don’t come back to me complaining if it all goes horribly wrong.
 

Anyway. Aronofsky’s multiply-award-nominated movie is the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a neurotically-perfectionist ballerina with a company in New York. Opportunity comes a-knocking when she is cast in the lead role of Swan Lake, despite the doubts of her director (Vincent Cassel) that she has the necessary emotional range for the part. Nina’s struggle with the role is complicated by her relationships with her clinging, obsessive mother (Barbara Hershey), and an ambitious, hedonistic rival (Mila Kunis). To succeed she finds she must summon dark forces from within herself, forces that refuse to stay under her control…

If you attempt to make a film about ballet then, whether you like it or not, you’re going to wind up getting compared to The Red Shoes, the big mama of all ballet films. It’s a rule, what can I say? Being a painstaking sort of person I dug out my DVD of Red Shoes (not a particular favourite of mine, I have to say, but it came in a boxed set) prior to watching Black Swan just to see how the two compared.

Well, obviously, on one level the two films are the products of utterly different sensibilities – even without rewatching it, I think I would have recalled that the Powell and Pressburger film did not feature quite such striking levels of profanity, vomit, self-harm, drug abuse, masturbation, and lesbian oral sex (hang on, though, it’s not quite as good as I’m probably making it sound). But what the two films share is the theme of the price of making great art, partly embodied through the figure of the director of the company – Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) in the old movie, Thomas (Cassel) in the new one, though the characters are quite different in other ways.

While The Red Shoes is a fairly traditional narrative for the most part, Black Swan is a much more internal movie, about the psychological burden placed on Nina, who’s at the centre of virtually every scene (and the camera’s very seldom more than about three feet from Natalie Portman’s head). Even so, the performances in this movie are uniformly strong – though I suppose in theory you could argue that this movie is actually slightly misogynistic, given that every major female character either has somewhat loose morals or is a borderline wacko. Barbara Hershey (possibly the only character actress in the world to have a regular character in Judge Dredd named after her) is particularly good as Nina’s creepy mum, while Winona Ryder is literally unrecognisable as an aging, fading prima ballerina.

Gentlemen readers: you may want to wind your DVDs on about seven minutes from this scene.

It’s Portman’s movie, really, though. She hasn’t always realised the extraordinary promise that was there right from her debut in Leon, and indeed for a while a few years ago she even struggled to bring out all the subtlety and nuance in George Lucas’s Star Wars scripts (I forgot to mention that this review may contain irony), but here she’s utterly magnetic from beginning to end, even if she does spend most of the movie wearing a face like a rictus mask of anguish. With consummate skill she manages a pitfall-strewn path, beginning the movie as someone with definite issues. As it progresses, of course, she goes completely and convincingly bonkers.

As, to be honest, does the rest of the movie. This starts off as a fairly realistic and low-key drama, one that doesn’t (for example) shy away from showing the punishing demands ballet dancers make on their bodies. But slowly and gradually there are little eruptions of weirdness into the film, which becomes increasingly intense and claustrophobic. By the closing sequences, it’s become almost phantasmagorical, with drama, melodrama, fantasy and horror bleeding into one another. The final impression is almost overwhelming, as acting, direction, cinematography and CGI come together in an extraordinary crescendo.

The Oscar nominations came out this week and I get the sense that Black Swan is sort of in the second rank of movies, chasing The Social Network and The King’s Speech for the big prizes. Not that I really think the Oscars, or any other awards, actually mean anything, but I wouldn’t necessarily dispute that, overall: but Aronofsky’s direction and Portman’s performance are both unlike anything else I’ve encountered in the cinema in a long time. Parts of Black Swan will remain burned into my brain for a long time (and not just the bit you’re probably thinking of) – it’s a remarkable, memorable movie, even if it’s not always the easiest one to watch.

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