Wednesday 17 January 2018

Cinema reviews... Spy offers comic chemistry

Spy Cert: 15A

Melissa McCarthy as secret agent Susan in 'Spy', one of the better comedies this year.
Melissa McCarthy as secret agent Susan in 'Spy', one of the better comedies this year.
Krysten Ritter
Liam Cunningham
Bill Stephens with lion

Hilary A White and Aine O'Connor

After years of minor roles in mid-level comedies and whatnot, Paul Feig stepped into the director's chair for the third time with Bridesmaids (2011) and hasn't looked back since. Spy sees him wield both pen and clapperboard while reuniting with Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne, and the comic chemistry feels as sturdy as four years ago.

McCarthy's talents are finely suited to this style of comedy action, where both her range and physicality shine. She is Susan, a CIA desk jockey who guides special agent partner Bradley Fine (Jude Law) around dangerous missions via satellite link-up and headset. When Fine looks to have been bumped off by an international arms-dealing cartel, Susan volunteers to go undercover and smoke out the baddies, led by sultry but dim Rayna Boyanov (Byrne). What's the panic? Only a nuclear weapon that has fallen into the wrong hands.

Granted, the narrative course is not exactly Cloud Atlas but the reason Spy does so well within its narrow confines is the characters, most of whom pulsate with comedic potential. McCarthy is foul-mouthed and game, while Byrne weds gangster chic and airheadedness effectively. Around them waltz Jason Statham's potty-mouthed but useless special agent, Allison Janney's weary agency head and near-showstealer Miranda Hart as Susan's bestie. Even Law gets a laugh or two.

Throw in decent action and a ruthless opportunism for mining gags and you have one of the better comedies of the year so far. Not that the competition has been stiff, mind.


Now showing

Listen Up Philip

Cert Club

For many, the likeability of a film and its central protagonist go hand-in-hand. Such folk will recoil with horror when they are introduced to Philip Lewis Friedman, the insufferably self-obsessed so-and-so that writer-director Alex Ross Perry asks us to get behind in this wry and offbeat US Indie dramedy.

Writers are often a sorry muddle of inflated ego and low self-esteem, and Philip (Jason Schwartzman, on fire) fits the bill to a tee. A pungent whiff of Wes Anderson, Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach permeates the air as Philip huffs and puffs about the place while waiting for his second novel to come back from the publishers. Full of his own self-importance but prone to sulky introspection and contrariness, Philip is a chore for both his agent and long-suffering girlfriend Ashley (Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss).

He is taken out from under their feet when he makes contact with his literary hero, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce, clearly channelling Philip Roth), who invites Philip out to his country retreat. There, Philip writes and spouts fabulously pretentious psychobabble, much to the chagrin of Ike's surly daughter (Krysten Ritter).

With Ashley finally ridding herself of Philip, he takes up with the equally snobby Yvette (Joséphine de La Baume).

Schwartzman and Pryce are ghastly together, forming a memorable comedic double act. Perry keeps an ounce of credibility about things that is unnerving, as if such turgid waffle was once overheard in a Brooklyn café. A scary thought.


Now showing in IFI

Let Us Prey

Cert 18

Director Brian O'Malley makes his feature debut by telling an oft-told story, but he creates atmosphere and menace and works traditional horror tropes well to deliver a neat, satisfying piece.

Idealistic young police officer Heggie (Pollyanna McIntosh) arrives at her new posting in a small Scottish village to find that not all of her colleagues share her fondness for doing things by the book. When she arrests a well known local bad boy (Brian Vernel) for traffic offences and having blood on his headlight that suggests a victim, Sgt MacReady (Douglas Russell) displays a very different attitude to extracting the truth.

As the police cells fill with locals accused of different crimes, things take a sinister turn when a stranger (Liam Cunningham) arrives injured at the station. Quoting bible verses and working his way into the darkest part of everyone's psyche, nominal goodies and baddies alike, things get messy for Officer Heggie. And it turns out she has her own dark past, something the stranger knows all about. As the clock ticks towards midnight, the tension and horror mount. The dark stranger arriving into a small town, turning things on their head and upsetting the balance of power has been the main theme for many a story. There are also plenty of fallen / subverted angel stories but their popularity is not for nothing. O'Malley and the writing team use lots of genre cliches here but most get twisted a little and the strong female lead rides a satisfying feminist wave in several recent films. The night time setting and small station in a small village mean it's inevitably dark and claustrophobic. It's shot to highlight that and with no sub plots, just the inexorable plod to midnight and whatever reckoning that it will bring all feels creepy.

Cunningham owns his role as the quiet terror in cell four, Russell is enjoyably OTT as the sergeant with secrets and McIntosh is convincing as the heroine. The rest of the cast all deliver so, overall, although it's not incredibly original it works, doing what it sets out to do, namely to deliver a small claustrophobic Scottish horror.


Opens June 12

Fortune's Wheel

No Cert

We love saying things could "only happen in Ireland" and the story of the Fairview Lion Tamer might well be described as such but it could have happened in any city with a circus. What filmmaker Joe Lee has captured is a particularly unique Dublin account of it. Lee brings his experience of having made video documentary and archive projects, beginning the story with its first major news coverage and gathering together witnesses from the time to tell the story in their own unique way.

In November 1951, rumours started to spread around Fairview in Dublin that a lioness was on the prowl. And a lioness was on the prowl. She had escaped from her cage on some local waste ground where she wintered with two other lions and their owner Bill Stephens. Bill gave chase, hoping to recapture the lioness before the authorities had to take drastic action. But the streets of suburbia proved a difficult place to calm a lion. Radio interviews from the time, people spoke so beautifully, and interviews with witnesses who were children at the time, give a great atmospheric account. The film then goes back to the beginning of Bill Stephens' interest in animals and what drove this apparently gentle and much-liked young man to make what was an unusual career choice.

It's not only a good story but it captures an interesting snapshot of Ireland at the time. Bill's early marriage to Mai was not popular with his family. She was a part of his act when he worked with circuses yet after his death Mai never told her family much about that huge part of her early life. Bill's family too opted for silence about this extraordinary piece of family lore. It was only when subsequent generations got curious that the story was pieced together. A lovely 76 minutes.


Now showing

Insidious: Chapter 3

Cert 15A

Cover your ears while you watch a sub-par horror like Insidious: Chapter 3 and something dawns on you. It turns out that shrill blasts of processed sound and ambient drones make up a hefty part of the fright factor. Understandably, you feel somewhat cheated. The third part of James Wan and Leigh Whannell's horror franchise is a step too far, it seems, in flogging this brand of demonic possession and malevolent bumps in the night. It's unfortunate because the 2010 original (written by Whannell, directed by Wan) was a worthy addition to a genre that all too often lacks freshness or imagination.

Whannell directs this time and the results are flaccid. We go back a few years to focus on Elise (Lin Shaye), the heroic medium who saved the Lamberts in the first two films. Elise is approached by Quinn (Stephanie Scott), an ingénue seeking to contact her dead mother. Elise obliges but in doing so grants a nasty demon access to the apartment Quinn shares with her dad (a shockingly hopeless Dermot Mulroney) and kid brother.

As the nocturnal interferences become more forceful, Elise comes to the rescue but must also combat her own demon (as documented in the previous parts of the trilogy).

Cue lots of tacky, dry ice-laden sets and schlocky acting. Any noteworthy scares have been lovingly compiled in the accompanying promotional trailer, which makes for far less arduous viewing. Poor.


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