D.E.B.S. (2004)

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three star

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I wish that I could have really, really loved this movie. D.E.B.S. is a perennial IFC favorite, and even though there was a period of time where this movie seemed to be on several times a week, I never managed to catch it. It’s a quirky movie with a great cast and a smart concept, and although it has a great stride once it hits it, it takes so long to get there that I can’t give it 4 stars based on the last act alone.

The premise of the film is that there is a secret test within the SATs that measures a person’s aptitude for espionage. Women who pass the hidden aptitude test are recruited into the D.E.B.S. (Discipline, Energy, Beauty, Strength), a clandestine spy academy where everyone dresses like Catholic schoolgirls and learn to be superheroes. Amy Bradshaw (Sara Foster) is the posterchild of the D.E.B.S., as she made the “perfect score” on the D.E.B.S. test, but she dreams of going to art school in Barcelona. Max Brewer (Meagan Good) is the trigger-happy leader of their quartet, joined by chain-smoking French sexpot Dominique (Devon Aoki) and perpetually ditzy Janet, who has yet to earn her stripes. Amy has recently broken up with her boyfriend, Homeland Security agent Bobby (Geoff Stults), a bro who refuses to accept that it’s over, when the D.E.B.S.’s handler Mr. Phipps (Michael Clarke Duncan) assigns the squad to surveil notorious supervillain Lucy Diamond (Jordana Brewster), in whom Amy has an academic interest.

Lucy is a criminal mastermind, the last scion of a syndicate family who loves to steal, with diamonds, naturally, being her speciality. She’s back in the states and meeting with “former KGB” assassin Ninotchka Kaprova (Jessica Cauffiel); unbeknownst to the federal agencies tracking her, Lucy’s rendezvous is actually a blind date engineered by her bodyguard and adorably-devoted BFF Scud (Jimmi Simpson). When Bobby’s pettiness accidentally reveals the D.E.B.S. and other agencies to Lucy, a shootout ensues and she escapes, running into a warehouse where she and Amy have a pistol standoff/meet cute. Amy lets Lucy get away, and the latter realizes she’s falling for the enemy. After a few more encounters, Lucy stages a bank heist to meet Amy again, and the two abscond to be together. The rest of the D.E.B.S. organization (minus Janet, who knows Amy went willingly and begins a cyber-friendship with Scud) goes into scorched earth mode scouring the world for Amy, who’s happily shacked up; when they eventually discover the two and retrieve Amy, the D.E.B.S. Boss (Holland Taylor) agrees to cover up the incident to maintain the agency’s reputation, forcing Amy to denounce Lucy publicly at the senior prom, er, “Endgame.” Meanwhile, Lucy realizes she would rather live without crime than Amy, and sets to righting her wrongs and winning her back.

D.E.B.S. is often described as a spoof of Charlie’s Angels, but that comparison doesn’t track very well for me. The Angels were more like private detectives than spies, for one thing (at least in the original show). D.E.B.S. has more in common with Austin Powers than either the 70s Angels TV series or the godawful 2000 film adaptation (or its somehow-worse 2003 sequel) and, despite having a cast full of beautiful women, never feels like it was made with the male gaze in mind. The relationship between Amy and Lucy feels organic, if a little corny, and is never played for titillation or exploitation. There’s also a little bit of Josie and the Pussycats thrown in for good measure, with lots of colorful visuals and the third-act-squad-breakup plot development that was so popular from roughly the mid-nineties through the early-aughts, although it lacks that film’s subtlety and social commentary. As much as I enjoyed the movie once the romantic plot got rolling, overall, the film is ultimately too inconsistent to really leave a mark. As it turns out, combining clunky gags (there’s a callback joke about what Max and Amy said to each other on the first day of training as well that really thuds, as well as a one-liner about Amy going off book in her final speech) with sublime ones (Lucy and Scud lip-synching to Erasure’s “A Little Respect” over a montage of them returning stolen goods is a treasure, and the D.E.B.S.’s house’s security field having the same tartan pattern as their uniforms is a good visual joke) doesn’t work. And that’s not even getting into the inexplicably odd things that happen in this movie. Why do the D.E.B.S. top brass teleport in and out of every scene? Are they teleporting, or are they holograms?

The movie performed abysmally, making less at the box office than the average twentysomething owes in student loans. It didn’t even break six figures! But what can you really expect when you release a film that’s this uneven? Still, it’s definitely worth a watch. The soundtrack is great (there’s even a Postal Service track playing when Lucy decides to give up her life of diamond theft and doomsday lasering), which is always a plus. Brewster and Simpson make a really great on-screen pair with believable chemistry and comic timing, even if the D.E.B.S. (Amy included) are one-dimensional and kind of bleh. If you can get past some of the worst CGI gun sparks ever committed to film, this is a refreshing twist on the indie-tinged lesbian love story that was such a big draw ten years ago, just make sure you see it through to the cliché but cute conclusion.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

American Ultra (2015)

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fourstar

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It’s not exactly accurate to say that the bloody stoner action comedy American Ultra is completely without precedent. It’s at the very least possible to see echoes of the film telegraphed in properties as wide in range as Pineapple Express, Hot Fuzz, Hitman, Spy, Clerks, MacGruber, and the Borne franchise. What we have here instead of a wildly idiosyncratic picture without predecessor is the distinct sense that director Nima Nourizadeh & writer Max Landis have a deep love & appreciation for movies, especially for the violent action comedy as a genre. American Ultra currently isn’t doing so hot in terms of ticket sales or critical reception, but it has the makings of a future cult classic (like a Near Dark or a John Dies at the End) written all over it, because that love for irreverent action cinema shines through so brightly. Although Landis has been recently been making an ass of himself on Twitter complaining about the lack of immediate returns on a screenplay he’s obviously proud of, he can at least take solace in the fact that future blood-thirsty stoners will be greedily streaming his film on loop as they reach for the nearest bong & nod off in their respective piles of empty two liter bottles & Cheetos.

Plotted over just three event-filled days, American Ultra follows the panic attack stricken stoner/amateur cartoonist Mike Howell as he transforms from a pathetic loser to an inhumanly capable killing machine assassin. Played by Jesse Eisenberg with the exact neurotic fragility you’d expect from a performance from Jesse Eisenberg, Mike is a pitiable weakling who relies on the emotional strength of his partner-in-crime stoner girlfriend Phoebe Larson (played by Kristen Stewart, of whom I’m becoming a not-so-secret dedicated fan) for any & all basic life functions. What Mike doesn’t know is that his frailty is actually a safeguard invented by the government to protect his well-being (and potential danger to others) as a discarded “asset” (read: killing machine assassin). Once Mike is re-activated by a well-meaning CIA agent gone rogue he finds himself capable of killing even the most menacing of threats (including other “assets”) with items as ordinary as dust pans, cookware, extension chords, and spoons, when he was just minutes ago not capable of doing much more than rolling joints & tending a corner store cash register.

What’s so unique about American Ultra is its ability to avoid the more pedestrian lines of thought you’d expect from that kind of plot. For instance, Phoebe is much, much more than the girlfriend accessory you’d expect from a male-helmed action film. Her role is constantly active & vital to the surprisingly layered plot, making for a deeply engaging love story once the full details of her relationship with Mike is revealed. Besides Phoebe’s active role & the satisfying romance narrative, the film also surprises in its distinct style of comedy. Although there’s no shortage of glib jokes on hand, most of the successful humor is anchored in its over-the-top violence. American Ultra is shockingly violent, completely giddy in its comic blood lust. It’s likely that audiences’ mileage may vary depending on the viewer’s love of action movie gore, but I personally had a really fun time with the film’s outrageous brutality.

The movie’s standard action movie palette of G-men, satellite surveillance, and drone strikes may not scream the height of creativity, but there’s plenty to play with between the lines to make it a unique property (besides propensity for violence & an active female lead). American Ultra‘s very specific world of CGI pot smoke, black light dungeons, illegal fireworks, bruised & beaten leads (despite action films’ tendency to show their battered heroes with only the lightest of scratches), and refreshing ability to shoot extended sequences in grocery stores without succumbing to grotesque product placement all pose it as the kind of distinctive property destined to gain a cult audience likely to overshadow the narrative of its lackluster theater run. Max Landis might be squirming (or, more accurately, throwing a temper tantrum) over what’s currently perceived as a commercial (and critically middling) failure, but I believe a little patience will eventually lead to American Ultra finding its proper (drug-addled, gore-loving) audience, who are perhaps currently a little too intoxicated to make the trek to the cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

Shanghai Noon (2000)

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threehalfstar

(Viewed 8/15/2015, available on Netflix)

Shanghai Noon is an entertaining buddy romp that presents the Wild West through a unique lens. The main character is neither white nor American. I’d say that Shanghai Noon makes for a post-modern Western movie that deconstructs the genre, though I would hesitate to say that this is an intentional subtext, even as the movie delves into the treatment of Chinese laborers on the Intercontinental Railroad. Jackie Chan stars as Chon Wang (say it out loud . . .), trying to rescue the damsel in distress, and Owen Wilson sidekicks as Roy O’Bannon, an outlaw with an image problem.

It’s a funny and energetic movie. I trust Jackie Chan implicitly with action and humor, and he delivers. Owen Wilson brings his regular brand of self-aware goofiness and performs solidly here. The main humorous setup is along the vein of Culture Clash at the OK Corral with a side helping of Buddy Comedy, and I think that it works out well as Chon Wang explores the tropes and narratives of the cinematic Old West and Roy O’Bannon tries his hardest to not learn anything about himself.

Shanghai Noon utilizes Jackie Chan’s kinetic brand of physical humor to great effect, leaving you both impressed and laughing. He and Owen Wilson make a successful odd couple, and their relationship is the most important one in the movie. It’s clear that O’Bannon thinks that he’s the protagonist, and it’s important to his characterization that he keeps this perspective even in the face of massive evidence that he is indeed the sidekick. I wonder if there is subtext here that captures the feelings of non-Americans in a wider sense, that Americans think that everything is about them.

The romantic relationships fall weirdly flat though, as Chon Wang accidentally marries a nameless Native American woman (while blackout drunk, not ok, all right?) who silently follows the boys around and keeps them out of trouble, then eventually takes up with O’Bannon. At the end of the movie, Princess Pei Pei inexplicably falls in love with Chon Wang and presumably gives up her life of royalty to live in a frontier town as a sheriff’s wife. This romantic side is so strange to me because the women are presented as powerful on their own, and then just seem link up with the men because it makes for tidy ending. The Native woman takes on the classical Western roll of the Man with No Name and saves the day time after time as Chon Wang and O’Bannon bumble along. Princess Pei Pei is noble, strong, courageous and self determined as she tries to balance her own desires and her role as a leader. Were the romantic subplots really necessary?

I’d recommend this movie on its own merits as fun and entertaining, perfect for a bowl of popcorn and not having to think about anything. I think that you could also work it into any list of Jackie Chan movies since it’s a good example of an American production that fully utilizes his skills in both action and comedy. It would also be of particular interest to anyone looking at deconstructive or post-modern Westerns, or looking at comic Westerns as a genre.

-Erin Kinchen