spy

Photo Credit: Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

It seems obvious that “Spy” was produced as a star vehicle for comedian Melissa McCarthy. This isn’t really an issue, as McCarthy is talented and has before proven that she is a comedic powerhouse. Reteaming with writer and director Paul Feig, whose gut-busting screenplay propels the film to extraordinary levels, the actress finally steps into a leading role that allows her to use her personality to mock the spy film genre.

Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is a secret agent for the CIA, but unfortunately, the only work she does for the agency is from behind a desk. Her job is to look out for her partner Bradley Fine (Jude Law), a carbon copy of James Bond, by being his "eyes and ears" while he is out saving the world. During one mission, Fine killed by femme fatale Rayna (Rose Bryne). After Rayna reveals that she knows the identity of all active CIA spies, the agency decides to send the unassuming Cooper to find Rayna. Desperate to avenge Fine and stop Rayna’s father from getting his hands on a nuke, Cooper teams with hotheaded agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham) to get ahold of the nuke and save the world.

Watch the trailer for "Spy" now:

“Spy” probably isn’t the best satire of spy films around, but it knows how to use its source material to incorporate well-written humor. Some elements of well-known spy franchises are used wonderfully. One example includes a moment when Cooper receives an assortment of high-tech gadgets for her mission – but is dismayed that they are concealed in toe-fungus spray cans and hemorrhoid cream. Other homages to the genre lack the creativity of others. The stylized opening theme reminiscent of those found in the James Bond franchise is bland and unoriginal.

McCartney is hilarious as the eccentric, but strong-willed Cooper. While some may be fooled by trailers painting the character as a dimwit who’s out of her element, it’s clear early in the film that she is as experienced as her male counterparts. She’s a goofball, but she takes her job seriously and can take on any gun-toting thug that comes near her. Bryne’s sharp-tongued Rayna is another highlight. After being presented in Feig’s previous film “Bridesmaids” as a good-intentioned sweetheart, it’s amusing to see her return as a profanity-spewing, spoiled heiress. Statham’s role as an arrogant undercover spy is underplayed, but the moments where he dons ridiculous disguises are hysterical.

Feig’s hilarious screenplay drives the film. Every laugh aims for, and mostly succeeds, in getting a laugh. Some of the jokes fall flat and end up going nowhere, but Feig knows how to channel McCarthy’s energy and comedic talent to avoid unfunny pitfalls. The humor isn’t exactly subtle, as Feig goes straight toward belly laughs. Critics of obscene or bodily humor will likely not get much laughs out of “Spy,” but as this film comes from the mind who packed tons of gross-out moments into “Bridesmaids,” they should know what they’re getting into.

“Spy” delivers a solid, humorous take on a genre that is already pretty ridiculous. Feig’s quip-filled screenplay gives the film its edge and makes good use of the actors’ comedic abilities. McCarthy is funny as the goofy, but skilled agent, and it’s her humor that ultimately makes the film work. Proving once again that the McCarthy-Feig combo delivers great results, the two deliver another memorable, hilarious hit.

Director: Paul Feig

  • Genre: Comedy
  • Runtime: 120 minutes
  • Rating: 7/10 Disguished Jason Stathams

From his very first film, UT alumnus Robert Rodriguez has had an eye for franchises. “El Mariachi,” his 1992 debut, spawned two sequels, and 2001’s “Spy Kids” allowed the director to aim films at a younger audience for the first time. The “Machete” films come from a fake trailer that was featured in front of “Grindhouse,” and has improbably inspired two films. “Machete Kills,” Rodriguez’s blood-soaked sequel, had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest last month.

 

The Daily Texan sat down to speak with Rodriguez after the film’s premiere.

 

The Daily Texan: What about Machete that makes you want to keep telling stories about the character?

Robert Rodriguez: I love the character. He’s so unique. When we made the first fake trailer, we did it just to kind of get it out of our system. The audience really responded to it. They’d never seen anything like it, never seen a Mexican action hero — a Mexploitation movie is what I called it.

I thought, “Wow, that’s so weird that no one had ever thought to do that. Let’s go ahead and make it.” People are really excited about it. It’s so different, in a world where everything’s remade and regurgitated, here’s an original idea that no one has done that’s pretty obvious, that someone should do.

So I did it and people really liked it. We thought, let’s make another one, because we don’t have very many Latin action heroes. It would be cool to do, to go really James Bond big with it and have a lot of fun with it. So that’s kind of why I did it. That’s one of my original characters, along with “Spy Kids” and the “El Mariachi” series. I was kind of looking forward to having another franchise.

 

DT: How did you convince Mel Gibson to play his first villain?

RR: Had he never played a villain before? I know he had played darker characters before, and he’s great at it. He’s just a terrific actor. I went to him, [and] I said, “I’m doing a sequel to ‘Machete.’” He said, “I haven’t seen ‘Machete,’ but a friend of mine, like the smartest guy I know, he loves ‘Machete.’ It was always really strange to me, but he thinks it’s a great movie.” He was curious about it. I chased him down, and my enthusiasm for it helped a lot. He finally saw it and thought it was a hoot. I said, “Man, it’ll be painless. Three days. Come in, and we’re just gonna have a lot of fun.” I saw a bunch of names for other actors, and his popped out so much. James Bond villain! Wouldn’t he be the ultimate James Bond villain? Mel’s just so good. And that’s why I went for him.

 

DT: How far do you see the franchise going, if you had unlimited money and unlimited Danny Trejo?

RR: Oh man, that would be like James Bond. What’s Bond on now? 25, 26? I could go that far.

 

DT: Other films in this vein are very tongue-in-cheek, but I feel like this strikes a really precise tone. How do you navigate that, and where do you draw the line at what’s too silly?

RR: If you look at the movies that they’re based on, these movies of the ‘70s, they weren’t trying to be goofy. A lot of them were trying to be straight up, and sometimes even put in social messages. But their employers were saying, “To get butts in the seats, you gotta have violence, you gotta have sex,” and made them put all this stuff in. It was a weird juxtaposition of social consciousness with flash and awe. 

I really wanted to keep all the actors playing it straight. Sofia Vergara is avenging her daughter, and she just happens to be using these crazy apparatuses the director gave her, but she’s playing it straight. Charlie Sheen isn’t playing the “Hot Shots” version of the President. He’s playing the President. Mel Gibson plays it straight. Machete is as straight and grounded as can be. He’s just no bullshit, so that helps you be able to kind of fly anywhere, storywise, because the characters feel real. I think if everyone was winking at the camera, it would just feel very dishonest and false, and you wouldn’t care as much.

 

DT: My favorite character in the film was El Camaleon, an assassin that can change his identity. Can you tell me where that came from, in terms of concept and casting?

RR: I did a pretty detailed outline of the story, about 40 pages. And I brought in a writer named Kyle Ward, a Texan guy. He loved it. He expanded the script to fill out, and he had an idea for a character. He had this idea of the Camaleon, and I thought, that’s a fantastic idea. I can go crazy with casting for that. I’ve been looking for a role for Lady Gaga. Walt Goggins, I pictured him as the first one. When I knew he’d have to speak Spanish, I thought that getting Antonio and Danny in a scene together would be just great. They started together in “Desperado” and went through “Spy Kids” and all that. This will be the third franchise they’ve done together. So I got really excited about it. 

 

DT: What’s the ratio of practical effects to CGI effects in the movie?

RR: There’s a bunch of CGI in there, but it’s more invisible kind of effects. They’re not like, real showy. We didn’t shoot anything on greenscreen, like adding digital walls as they’re driving towards a wall. All of the gunshots and blasts, all the blood hits, are CG. There’s a lot of effects that you don’t really think of as effects, but they add up.

 

DT: And how far along are you on “Machete Kills Again in Space?” 

RR: Are you suggesting I’m making it already? 

 

DT: The end of “Machete Kills” seemed pretty confident. 

RR: I wanted to cover my bases. I really wanted to see that movie get made. If the audience didn’t ask for a third movie, at least I would have gotten it out of my system a little bit.

Carl Colby grew up as the son of a spy, not necessarily a father. Shrouded in mystery, William Colby spent nearly 30 years serving the United States as both CIA director and Spymaster. In Colby’s self-directed film, “The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby,” he attempts to delve into the complex life his father led all the while exploring the turbulent political scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The film was screened Tuesday during election night at the A.C.E.S. building.

“This occurred when the executive branch under [Richard] Nixon was under fire. There was a lot of hostility between the Democratic Congress and the Republican administration, Watergate and Vietnam,” Bartholomew Sparrow, a government professor acquainted with Carl Colby who coordinated the event, said. “So because of this it doesn’t give [William] Colby much room to be an innovator or an entrepreneur or a big leader.”

The movie serves as a combination of history and Carl Colby’s personal experiences. Infusing the historical events of the ‘60s and ‘70s with his own father’s struggles and ambitions, Carl Colby finds a balance between informational and personal.

Colby’s mother gave the most insightful interviews. Married to William Colby for nearly 30 years, she lived a life that at times she did not even understand. Changing identities daily, she lived life undercover and on a need-to-know basis.

“This is not my story. It’s my father’s story. I was trying to make you be me,” Carl Colby said. “My mother is charming and very articulate, but the privilege that you get is that she’s talking to me. She isn’t talking for the ages as much, so you get this intimacy in her interviews.”

Carl Colby’s personal commentary evolves as the story of his father progresses. The beginning of the film shows a naive Carl Colby childishly admiring his father, the spy. But as he comes of age in the late Vietnam era, Carl Colby begins to question the morality and motives of his father.

“I always adored him. He was a god figure. He was the boss. He ran the house. What he said goes. He picks everything, and my mother went along with it,” Colby said. “But I had always respected him, and then I started to question what he was doing. And as I became a teenager and the Vietnam era came around, I started to question these things. ‘Well, who was he, and is he really guilty of these things?’ It makes you wonder.”

William Colby was appointed director of the CIA under Nixon and later served under Gerald Ford. In the mid-seventies, William Colby was brought before Congress first to testify on the Phoenix Program, a controversial village-based approach to combat in Vietnam, and then to justify the existence of the CIA. Revealing too much information, William Colby was promptly removed as head of the CIA in late 1975.

“I think he was a dedicated soldier who took on every tough assignment until he was asked to lie to Congress. I think he was unsettled by being thrown out of the CIA, by the whole experience of having to go before Congress, and then being cast off like a sacrificial lamb by the administration,” Colby said. “He had very little respect for Ford, [Donald] Rumsfeld, [Henry] Kissinger and {Dick] Cheney, the whole crowd. He felt like they were politically expedient.”

After he left the CIA, William Colby became a shadow of his former self or as his son describes him, a ghost.

“There are lots of successes: people who had hoped for the best, promoted to this, promoted to that. It’s the ambition, its palpable. You can feel it,” Colby said. “Washington is full of ghosts, men walking around who were somebody.”

Chris Pines and Tom Hardy star in McG-directed “This Means War,” a romantic action film in which the two fight for the affections for a character played by Reese Witherspoon (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox).

There’s lots of potential for “This Means War” to be a great time at the theaters. Director McG knows his way around a fluffy, paper-thin storyline, having cut his teeth on the short-lived “Charlie’s Angels” franchise, and Chris Pine and Tom Hardy are both interesting, likeable rising stars. Add in the film’s intriguing spy vs. spy premise and “This Means War” could have been the rare enjoyable Valentine’s Day movie, one that guys can take their dates to and come out with all brain cells intact. Unfortunately, all of those ingredients come out to make a half-baked, badly written film that’s about as memorable as the soda you’ll drink while watching it.

We’re introduced to agents Tuck (Tom Hardy) and FDR (Chris Pine) in a slick opening sequence in which the two charm women, wear suits and fight bad guys. All appears to be well with their rock-solid friendship. Then they both fall for Lauren (Reese Witherspoon) and, after deciding to let her choose between them and setting a few ground rules for their competition, immediately begin undermining each other in their quest for romantic supremacy.

For most of its runtime, “This Means War” is an easygoing, entertaining distraction. Its central friendship doesn’t feel forced; Pine and Hardy have a lived-in, quick-witted rapport that proves a solid foundation to build a film on.

Unfortunately, as things become increasingly sour between the two, the film begins to rely on their chemistry with Witherspoon. While she plays well with others and none of her scenes are painful, Witherspoon’s character is too inconsistent to invest in, fluctuating between a romantically conflicted sympathetic figure and an emotionally manipulative witch a bit too frequently.

McG also performs fairly admirably. He keeps the film moving at a fast clip and stages plenty of stylish action scenes. He also packs the soundtrack with classic rock and even slips in a fun “Goodfellas” homage. Even if McG occasionally stumbles with a spastic, conspicuous editing style, his earnestness and enthusiasm for the project shine through.

Many of the problems in “This Means War” can be traced back to its screenplay, which, with a few more drafts and some plot twists, could have built on its intriguing premise to make a much better film. Unfortunately, writers Timothy Dowling and Simon Kinberg created a film in which almost every plot beat for the rest of the film is predictable from the first 20 minutes. Is it possible that the baddie (Til Schweiger), Tuck and FDR fight in the opening sequence and will return for revenge? Once Tuck and FDR make rules concerning their relationship with Lauren, is there any chance they’ll break them all immediately?

Even though it’s clear where the film is going, the ending has a much more significant problem. As the romantic conflict reaches a climax, “This Means War” becomes shockingly mean-spirited and cruel to its characters and then casts all the potential conflict stemming from the terrible things they’re doing to each other aside, having them reconcile all too easily. It’s disrespectful to the characters, to the film’s commitment to its premise and to the audience. And it leaves the film on a nasty, bitter note.

“This Means War” is by no means a terrible film and a pretty ideal release for Valentine’s Day. It’ll make boatloads of money from the romantically inclined but will quickly fade from all of their collective memories before winding up a forgotten film in the $5 DVD bin at Wal-Mart. While that’s the destiny for many lackluster films, it’s a shame that this one has to join the ranks because with that cast, that concept and that director, it really could have been something special.

Printed on, Tuesday February 14, 2012 as: Spy film falls short of potential

Lana Kane as voiced by Aisha Tyler, Adam Reed, Sterling Archer as voiced by H. Jon Benjamin and Cyril Figgis as voiced by Chris Parnell in “Archer,” airing Thursday, January 26 on FX. (Photo courtesy of FX)

The third season of “Archer” resumes tomorrow on FX, and the animated spy comedy remains as ridiculous and irreverent as ever. Although the third season technically began back in September with a three-part episode dealing with the fallout from the death of Archer’s fiance Katya, the newest batch of episodes continue to display the show’s penchant for gut-busting jokes handed to characters that continue to get better and better well into the current season.

H. Jon Benjamin stars as the titular character Archer, a dashing secret agent who also happens to be a remarkably obnoxious blowhard. His colleagues at the ISIS spy agency (short for the International Secret Intelligence Service) include the alluring, sarcastic Lana (Aisha Tyler), the oblivious secretary Carol (Judy Greer) and the handicapped former field agent Ray (creator Adam Reed), not to mention Archer’s boss and mother Mallory, played by “Arrested Development’s” Jessica Walters.

Although “Archer” is certainly about espionage, the show’s spy plots tend to be mostly perfunctory, often just an excuse for the show’s brilliant ensemble to interact in a new and entertaining way. “Archer” is often much more interested in examining workplace politics in a new context, or simply content to let its characters rip with the most inappropriate, ridiculously foul comments imaginable.

In fact, tomorrow’s season premiere mostly underplays the show’s spy elements, instead letting the focus shift to guest star Burt Reynolds (who happens to be Archer’s personal hero). The episode is a showcase of everything that makes the show work, including Benjamin’s consistently entertaining vocal performance as Archer, Tyler’s hilarious way of wringing a joke out of how she can enunciate a single line of dialogue, the detailed animation and the various ways the show’s chemistry between characters works in every exchange, even though the actors often record their dialogue separately (as is common practice on animated shows).

While there’s no underplaying Benjamin’s Emmy-nominated work as Archer, other cast members often manage to steal entire episodes out from under him. Greer and Amber Nash, playing two of the clerical workers in the ISIS office, are easily the show’s most underrated players, as their bizarre dialogue and character traits make their presence equally delightful and revolting. Meanwhile, Chris Parnell is often asked to play the straight man, but hits every punchline out of the park, and Walters more or less reprises her icy, reprehensible character Lucille Bluth from “Arrested Development,” tearing into her acidic lines with aplomb.

FX’s comedy lineup is currently made up of the long-running “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and the fantasy football comedy “The League,” and “Archer” is the clear standout, unafraid to go for the darkest, dirtiest punchlines no matter what the joke and lucky enough to have a cast that’s game enough to say some of the terrible, off-color things creator Adam Reed comes up with. Archer is a show that’s only getting funnier with age, and it’s a fresh, consistently entertaining way to start 2012 for the network.

Printed on Wednesday, January 18, 2012 as: 'Archer' returns with dark, brilliant humor

Review

With his 2008 vampire classic “Let the Right One In,” Tomas Alfredson proved himself an undeniable master of the slow burn, a trend he continues with the masterful “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” The spy thriller is expertly cast and Gary Oldman leads a pack of wonderful performances with his quiet, intense portrayal of George Smiley, a disgraced MI6 agent sent back into his old group to unearth a mole.

Up-and-coming actors Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch join vets Colin Firth, Toby Jones and John Hurt in the film’s extensive cast. Standouts include the heartbreaking Cumberbatch as Smiley’s main confidant, forced to sacrifice and put himself in harm’s way for his superior and the intense bluster of Toby Jones and Colin Firth.

Alfredson demonstrates a great eye for detail throughout the film, and his polished, icy visual style manages to instill menace into small things like a ringing phone or an eye exam. The film’s sound design and score also serve to nudge audiences to the edge of their seats, even as they try to decipher the film’s complex labyrinth of a plot.

If “Tinker Tailor” has one weakness, it’s the density of the plot (which is based on a novel that had previously been adapted as a miniseries), the nooks and crannies of which could be easily lost on a first-time viewer and practically require repeat screenings. Even so, the film rewards the audience’s full attention with a satisfying, cathartic ending.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is more than worth seeing just to watch Alfredson at work, proving himself once again an absolute master of ice-cold tension and visuals. Even while it’s easy to get lost in the film’s narrative, the strong performances and direction still make the spy drama worthy of acclaim.

Printed on Monday, December 5th, 2011 as: Spy thriller features standout casting, masters the art of tension and details

“Cars 2” lacks the usual heart and warmth of Pixar’s films. Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Back in 2006, Pixar Studios was on something of a hot streak. They were doing some of their best work, both financially (“Finding Nemo”) and creatively (“The Incredibles”). And then they released “Cars,” which still made boatloads of money, but was easily the weakest of the Pixar repertoire. Now, after four years of producing not only some of the best animated films of their respective years, but some of the best films period, Pixar returns to sequel-making with “Cars 2,” which is not surprisingly its weakest film since its forebearer.

The first film was a simple love story between Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and the small town charms of America. Its sequel couldn’t be a bigger departure, casting McQueen and the rusty, dented tow truck Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) overseas for an international racing competition.

And then the film strays into the absolutely ridiculous by introducing secret agent Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), who, by a farcical series of misunderstandings, ends up working with Mater to save all the cars participating in the race (including McQueen) from a nefarious plot.

While the film’s spy plot provides most of the entertainment found in “Cars 2,” it also makes some colossal mistakes. The biggest is placing Mater in the center of the film and sidelining Lightning McQueen except for the occasional race scene. Mater only occasionally worked in the first film, and that’s when Larry the Cable Guy reigned with his shtick. But placing him front and center couldn’t be a worse choice creatively. As a character, Mater is nothing short of grating, and watching him stumble his way through various scenarios ripped off of the Bond and Bourne films alike only underlines how irritating Larry the Cable Guy’s delivery is without Owen Wilson.

Another problem with this story is how it requires its characters to be absolute idiots. First off, Mater is completely oblivious to the fact that he’s involved in espionage. Even worse, his spy colleagues didn’t immediately recognize that Mater couldn’t be further from a secret agent, which is a bit harder to swallow.

However, as ridiculous as the spy plot may be, it adds quite a bit to the film. It’s always interesting to see how a Pixar film handles real life-or-death stakes, and from its thrilling opening scene, it’s clear that “Cars 2” will have a body count. While none of its main characters are ever in too much danger, much of the film’s spy bits work mostly because Pixar doesn’t shy away from the ugly consequences of gunplay (as ugly as they can be in a G-rated film about talking cars anyway).

As always, even when they’ve stumbled creatively, Pixar has made an absolutely gorgeous film. Their rendition of Tokyo (punnily renamed Towkyo) is a marvel, and the film’s action is uniformly exciting. “Cars 2” shines in its all-too-brief racing scenes, which are a rush of color on their own but are given real weight and depth by the 3-D effects, which are among the best of the summer.

Also good is the customary pre-film short, which is presumably the first in a series of “Toy Story Toons,” lovely little postcards that allow us to catch up with Woody and Buzz. Unfortunately, even this lacks the entertaining simplicity that comes with some of Pixar’s other shorts, but is still sweet in a low-key way.

What makes the “Cars” franchise such a misstep is that it’s everything Pixar isn’t. For the last decade, Pixar has been making films that tell heartfelt, human stories set in a world with some semblance of internal logic, and the “Cars” films couldn’t be less logical or less human. The biggest questions looming over both films, one that is entirely glossed over, is why do cars exist in a world without humans? Who built them? And more importantly, why do they have interiors? When the film’s world doesn’t make a lick of sense, it’s hard to get invested.

The nonsensical nature of the world might actually work if it was a bit easier to invest in these characters. The “Toy Story” films are built around a similarly ridiculous premise but take place in a world that is recognizably ours, and more importantly, have characters with hearts and souls, something the “Cars” films sorely lack.

So we’re left with the second film in a franchise that has never really worked for Pixar, one built around celebrities voicing talking objects and lots of merchandising opportunities for cars with silly names. While kids will most likely love the colorful, never boring “Cars 2,” fans looking for the maturity and heart they’ve come to expect from Pixar will be sorely disappointed.