Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 16: From Russia with Love (1963)


Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where From Russia with Love (1963) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 111 of the first edition hardback, Roger recounts watching the film at a theater in Cape Town, South Africa while studying abroad as a college student. At the box office he was informed that it was “not a theater for whites,” but he was permitted to enter anyway because he was American and “didn’t know any better.” His mistake was announced to the rest of the amused/bemused theater in Afrikaans & after the screening he was escorted back to his dormitory by local police.

What Ebert had to say in his review: Roger never officially reviewed the film, but he did write a piece titled “‘From Russia with Love’ and Its Place in the Bond Canon”. It begins, “‘From Russia with Love’ (1963) is one of the best James Bond movies and one of the first sequels to surpass the success of an original entry (‘Dr. No’). Its existence represents a crucial reason for the series having lasted until today. The picture is not be quite as good as ‘Goldfinger,’ but it provided a better influence on the following films of the series, with an ambience of suspense and danger that couldn’t be fully replicated until the recent arrival of the Daniel Craig Bonds.”


As much as I love the stray dumb action movie or hard-edged cop drama, there are a few hyper-masculine film genres that I just fail miserably to connect with as an audience: Westerns, war movies, submarine-bound thrillers, etc. Voluntarily enrolling myself in the Roger Ebert Film School was bound to push me outside of my comfort zone at some point, though, so I’ve signed up to watch the occasional macho macho movie or two dozen as they pop up on the list of films Ebert happened to mention in his autobiography. Cool Hand Luke was a nice surprise in that way, proving to be much easier to connect with than I expected, given its external bravado was a front for something much more vulnerable & existential. I wasn’t quite so lucky with this go-round, though, as I encountered yet another man’s-man film genre I tend to ignore/avoid as much as possible: the James Bond picture. I could probably count on one hand the number of Bond movies I’ve seen in my life and there’s exactly one title from the never-ending series I can claim to have legitimately enjoyed: the delightfully campy Moonraker. From Russia with Love erased some of that lunar-bound goodwill & did little to turn me around on the idea of giving all two dozen Bond films a closer look, a task that seems more daunting & pointless as each year passes and yet another entry in the franchise gets queued up. If anything, the film solidified my prejudice & confirmed that the series would likely be of use to me only if I’m ever chronically having trouble falling asleep.

The second film in the ongoing James Bond series, From Russia with Love is a linear sequel to Dr. No, a film I never plan to see unless coerced. Secret agent James Bond goes on an undercover mission in Turkey where he is unknowingly being hunted by the Russian terrorist syndicate H.Y.D.R.A., I mean S.P.E.C.T.R.E. The evil S.P.E.C.T.R.E. plans to kill Bond in order to avenge the death of Dr. No or some such. Bond plans to use cool gadgets & seduce beautiful women. I’ll let you guess on your own which side of that coin prevails. I found it incredibly difficult to focus on this film, which played in my mind as the blandest of background noise movies with only the rarest glimpse of eye-catching camp to help keep me conscious. According to Ebert, From Russia with Love was an improvement upon the series’s debut, Dr. No, and the box office numbers agreed with that sentiment, racking up $79 million internationally off a $2 million budget. All I see here is another indistinct entry in an endless franchise, made memorable only by some Cold War jingoism & vaguely imperialistic tourist-gawking at Turkish customs, most notably belly dancing eroticism. Even after I watched the film in its entirety I felt like I hadn’t seen a single frame, as if my brain had filtered it for interesting content and held onto nothing. 1963 audiences & Bond enthusiasts alike have an entirely different experience with From Russia with Love that I’ll likely never understand. It’s a dog whistle situation in its purest form & I’m deaf to most of its charms.

I don’t mean to make From Russia with Love sound like an aggressively terrible film without a single redeeming quality. I found it to be bland, but competent. In order to play fair I guess I should point to a few campy touches I found amusing: an overwrought Cold War chess metaphor, a Dr. Claw prototype stroking his requisite white cat, an absurd Russian training facility not too dissimilar from the X-Men war room, a gratuitous cat fight, a shamelessly tawdry opening credits sequence projected onto naked flesh & bejeweled tits, an egregious example of Ebert’s Fallacy of the Talking Killer trope. I also never noticed before how surf rocky the Bond theme is and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Sean Connery so young & so dashing, even if his only decent line was [watching a man climb out of a billboard advertisement’s mouth] “She should have kept her mouth shut,” a quip that’s more than a little gross if you think about it for too long. I’m also glad to now fully understand the porno-within-the-show title From Russia with the Love Bone from Trailer Park Boys, though I’m not sure the two of hours of boredom required to get there was worth it. The simple truth is that I’m not equipped to enjoy this kind of thing & From Russia with Love wasn’t especially interested in grabbing attention outside its inherent Bond-genre reach. The film made no effort to meet me halfway. Any day of the week I’d rather watch films like this spoofed in works like Spy, Top Secret!, or The Man from U.N.C.L.E. than watch the real deal. I realize there’s a large audience for these kinds of films out there, given their incredible longevity, but I can’t yet count myself among them, nor am I sure that I ever will. Oh well. At least I’ll always have Moonraker.


Roger’s Rating: N/A

Brandon’s Rating: (2.5/5, 50%)


Next Lesson: Lady Jane (1986)

-Brandon Ledet

The Brothers Grimsby (2016)


three star


“When you’re young, you have way fewer taboo topics, and then as you go through life and you have experiences with people getting cancer and dying and all the things you would have made fun of, then you don’t make fun of them anymore. So rebelliousness really is the province of young people — that kind of iconoclasm.”Steve Martin

By all means, I should’ve hated The Brothers Grimsby with a fiery passion. It’s a cruel, crass, derivative work that turns the phrase “sophomoric humor” into a badge of honor & a mission statement. Still, I found myself quietly rooting for Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest work of depraved triviality. The film managed to pull a few hearty laughs out of me in some of its isolated gags and when a joke fell horrifically, sometimes offensively flat I felt sorta bad for the movie instead of turning against it. Since The Dictator was released upon a nonplussed world in 2012, the looming question has been if Cohen’s politically pointed shock humor shtick has become stale or if his audience has merely outgrown him as he has stubbornly refused to grow with them. I’m not sure what the correct answer is in that dichotomy (or if those two explanations are even mutually exclusive), but as a fan of Cohen’s Ali G/Borat/Brüno glory days I’m not yet willing to let him vanish into the ether. I sincerely want Cohen to return to relevant, pointed work that can carry his particular brand of cynical silliness into 2010s longevity. The Brothers Grimsby is by no means that return to form, but my desperate desire to see Cohen do well again might explain why I was soft on its many, many flaws.

Of all the various characters Cohen has played over the years, The Brothers Grimsby‘s Nobby Butcher might be the least defined. A drunk soccer hooligan from the working class community of Grimsby, England, Nobby is essentially a poverty-bound buffoon with little to no character nuance. Picture a version of Idiocracy set in the UK & you pretty much get the full picture. Nobby has “too many” children. He’s eternally intoxicated. He’s prone to anally inserting lit fireworks to impress his pub buddies, yet is an unrepentant homophobe. In his own words, Nobby is “working class scum.” There’s nothing remotely real or human about his character that could make you fall for him in any empathetic sense the same way you could for Melissa McCarthy’s somewhat similar titular character in Tammy. Nobby exists purely to prove a point, which may have worked if he were employed in the same candid camera prank mockumentary format as the Borat & Brüno movies. In a fictionalized setting, however, his paper thin, archetypal qualities fall flat the same way they did in The Dictator & The Ali G Movie.

The aspect that almost saves The Brothers Grimsby from total vapidity is Nobby’s relationship with the other Butcher brother, Sebastian. Sebastian is a Jason Statham-type superspy baldy with a chip on his shoulder & a license to kill. Nobby is hell-bent on reuniting with his much more posh brother & reminding him of his humble Grimsby roots. Sebastian’s half of The Brothers Grimsby functions well enough as a cheap-end action thriller, even giving a fairly decent preview of the dizzying-looking 1st person shooter flick Hardcore Henry that’s barreling towards us in the coming months. When Nobby starts to get involved, the film takes a turn for superspy spoofery that pales in comparison to countless comedies that have done it better in the past, most notably last year’s Spy (another McCarthy vehicle; perhaps these two should collaborate; Cohen might learn a thing or two). It’s not the superspy spoofery that threatens to elevate The Brothers Grimsby, though. It’s the familial bond between the Butcher boys. There’s real pain in their separation-anxious childhood flashbacks. Watching them reconnect is even more touching (sometimes graphically so). I never would’ve expected that a film featuring untold gallons of elephant semen would center on a message as sweet as “Family is the greatest gift in life”, but it’s that very aspect of The Brothers Grimsby that provides a window into a better world where Cohen could possibly become lovable again.

Speaking of elephant semen, The Brothers Grimsby seems intentionally dead-set on outdoing Freddy Got Fingered on sheer volume of the stuff. That’s not the only way Freddy Got Fingered functions as a telling reference point for The Brothers Grimsby either. In the hellish version of reality where every movie is a sophomoric, depraved work of delirious slapstick comedy, Freddy Got Fingered is Citizen Kane & The Brothers Grimsby is Forrest Gump. It’s almost good, far from great, and sure to send plenty of discerning, right-minded folks into a huff at the mere mention of its name. In the slightly less horrific world we actually live in, The Brothers Grimsby is more in line with scatologically-obsessed, entirely forgettable flicks like Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star.  Dumb-comedy apologists (myself included) might find a surprising amount of entertainment value in there somewhere, but no one’s seriously going to bat to defend it against the flood of negative criticism it assuredly deserves.

Roger Ebert once wrote “The day may come when ‘Freddy Got Fingered’ is seen as a milestone of neo-surrealism. The day may never come when it is seen as funny.” There is no such doubt about the future of The Brothers Grimsby, which is never quite irreverent enough to touch on formal surrealism & also wholly dedicated to punching-down humor. Jokes about AIDS, Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, poop, child molestation, crack addiction, non-consensual genital contact, small town poverty and, yes, elephant semen are disappointingly cheap & forgettable, greatly distracting from the very few things the film actually, improbably gets right. If Cohen wants to stick around any longer in any semblance of relevance, he’d be smart to keep The Brothers Grimsby‘s emotional core & knack for deliriously silly diversion, leaving his misanthropic cruelty & scatological fascination in the rear-view. Otherwise, he’ll become as stale & regrettable as titles like South Park & “Two Girls, One Cup”, which are both all-too-appropriately referenced in the film. A small glimmer of hope is still out there for Cohen to grow as an artist & join us in the 2010s, but it’s fading fast.

-Brandon Ledet

Brandon’s Top Camp Films of 2015


Yesterday, I posted my list for the best films I saw in 2015, but with the exceptions of a couple outliers like Magic Mike XXL & Mad Max: Fury Road the whole thing reads as a little too . . . stuffy, dignified. To get a fuller picture of what the year looked like, here were the 15 films I most enjoyed on the trashier side of cinema, the ones we slapped with a Camp Stamp.

1. Goosebumps – The same way films like The Monster Squad, Hocus Pocus, Witches, The Worst Witch, and (on a personal note) Killer Klowns from Outer Space have introduced youngsters to the world of horror (and horror comedy) in the past, Goosebumps is an excellent gateway to lifelong spooky movie geekdom. It strives to stay true to its half-hokey, half-spooky, all-silly source material, resulting in a film that’s genuine dumb fun from beginning to end, but still packs a sharp enough set of teeth that it might just keep a tyke or two awake at night.

2. Unfriended – This laptop-framed live chat horror flick is so ludicrously invested in its gimmickry that it comes off as kind of a joke, but the commitment also leads to genuinely chilling moments that remind the audience a little too much of their own digital experiences. As a dumb horror flick filmed entirely from the first-person POV of a gossipy teen operating a laptop, it’s both way more fun & way more affecting than it has any right to be.

3. Spy – Paul Feig & Melissa McCarthy’s latest collaboration updates the mindless excess of the superspy spoof genre (seen before in films like Naked Gun, Austin Powers, and MacGruber) with a surprisingly sharp sense of humor lurking under its crass irreverence. If nothing else, Jason Statham’s monologue in which he brags about his past adventures might be the single funniest (and most relentlessly dumb) scene of the year.

4. Furious 7 I watched all 7 Fast & Furious movies for the first time this year and can say with total confidence that this was easily the most over-the-top in its absurd disregard for physics, human nature, and good taste. What a fun, ridiculous spectacle of an action movie.

5. Turbo KidA cartoonish throwback to an ultraviolent kind of 1980s futurism that probably never even existed. It’s difficult to believe that Turbo Kid didn’t previously exist as a video game or a comic book, given the weird specificity of its world & characters. It’s a deliriously fun, surprisingly violent practical effects showcase probably best described as the cinematic equivalent of eating an entire bag of Pop Rocks at once.

6. Deathgasm – An authentic look into a metal head teen’s colorful imagination, Deathgasm is a gore-soaked, go-for-broke horror comedy about a high school metal band’s war against a zombie apocalypse. It’s delightfully gross & oddly sweet.

7. Krampus – Director Michel Dougherty’s first film, Trick ‘r Treat, was a comedic horror anthology devoutly faithful to the traditions of Halloween. His follow-up, Krampus,  thankfully kept the October vibes rolling into December traditions in a time where so many people do it the other way around, celebrating Christmas before Halloween even gets rolling. All hail Krampus,  a soul-stealing demon who acts as “St. Nicholas’ shadow”,  for bucking the trend.

8. The Final Girls – If you happen to be a fan of 80s “camp site slasher films” like Friday the 13th & Sleepaway Camp and you enjoy meta genre send-ups like Scream & The Last Action Hero, please check out The Final Girls as soon as you can. It not only participates in the trope-referencing meta play of Wes Craven’s Scream, but because of its outlandish movie-within-a-movie concept, it also adopts the dream logic of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare. Although the film’s main goal is undoubtedly a goofy, highly-stylized comedy, it also reaches for eerie, otherworldly horror in its central conceit.

9. Mission: Impossible – Rogue NationPretty much a repeat of what I had to say about Furious 7. I watched the entire Mission: Impossible series for the first time this year & the newest installment, Rogue Nation, easily stood out as the most over-the-top entry in the fairly silly action franchise yet.

10. Russell Madness – A family comedy “produced by” Air Bud about a Jack Russell Terrier who finds success as a mixed-species pro wrestler. Need I say more? The only flaw in its execution of what had to be the dumbest premise of the year is that they didn’t stick with what must have been the original title: Russell Mania.

11. American Ultra/Victor Frankenstein I can’t defend essentially anything I’ve ever read Max Landis say on the internet, but I can say that he wrote two of the most mindlessly fun, delightfully excessive examples of trashy cinema that I saw all year.

12. Patch Town – A horror comedy Christmas musical about an evil Cabbage Patch dolls factory, Patch Town sounds like the kind of Sci-Fi Channel dreck that would settle for a couple odd moments & a celebrity cameo, then call it a day. Instead, it milks its concept for all it’s worth. Its high-concept, low budget weirdness is calculated, sure, but it’s also surprisingly thorough in pushing that concept as far as it could possibly go & even better yet, it’s genuinely funny.

13. EverlyA scantily clad prostitute played by Selma Hayek attempts to reunite with her family and escape a life of indentured servitude through an onslaught of gun violence. Cornered in a condo, Hayek’s Everly has to shoot her way through an army of Japanese gangsters, bumbling bodyguards, and fellow prostitutes to achieve freedom. If this sounds stupid & gratuitous, it’s because it most definitely is. Everly isn’t a film where any themes or ideas are explored in new or interesting ways and the violence is a mere exclamation point. It’s a film where violence is the entire point.

14. R100 Late in the run time of this surreally campy BDSM comedy, the film addresses the audience directly by suggesting that, “People won’t understand this film until they’re 100 years old.” Even that timeline may be a little too optimistic. Directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto, the juvenile prankster who brought the world the cartoonish excess of Big Man Japan & Symbol, R100 initially pretends to be something it most definitely is not: understated. The first forty minutes of the film are a visually muted, noir-like erotic thriller with a dully comic sadness to its protagonists’ depression & persecution. It’s around the halfway mark where the film goes entirely off the rails genre-wise, dabbling in tones that range from spy movies to mockumentaries to old-school ZAZ spoofs. It’s doubtful that even 100 years on Earth will give you enough information to make sense out of that mess.

15. The Flintstones & WWE: Stone Age SmackDown – What can I say? I’m a sucker for pro wrestling cinema. The dumber the better. In The Flintstones & WWE: Stone Age SmackDown the unholy marriage of the title not only connects both The FlintstonesHoneymooners-style comedy and the WWE’s complete detachment from reality with their collective roots in working class escapism, it also revels in the most important element in all of wrestling & animation, the highest form of comedy: delicious, delicious puns.

-Brandon Ledet

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)



I’m not sure exactly why Guy Ritchie’s latest foray into highly stylized action cinema, a big screen adaptation of the 1960s television show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., has more or less flopped at the box office. Personally, I might at least be able to attribute my own reluctance to catch up with the picture to a little bit of superspy fatigue. So far this year the cinemas have been bombarded from the superspy likes of Kingsman: Secret Service, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, American Ultra, and a spoof of the genre simply called Spy. That’s not even taking into account the upcoming Stephen Spieldberg/Tom Hanks collab Bridge of Spies & the latest James Bond feature Spectre. If 2014 was the Year of the Doppelgänger, 2015 is certainly the Year of the Spy & The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘s returns may have suffered somewhat from a crowded market. It’s by no means been a devastating financial blow like Ritchie’s disastrous Madonna vehicle Swept Away, but it has struggled to earn back its $75 million budget, earning less than half of that sum in its U.S. theater run. What’s even more difficult to account for, however, is it the film’s middling reviews. I’m no Guy Ritchie fanboy, having seen less than half of the films that he’s released, but U.N.C.L.E. was easily the most fun I’ve ever had with the director’s sleek action movie aesthetic, however delayed my trip to the theater may have been.

Opening with a traditional James Bond credits sequence populated with sultry soul music, harsh red hues, and Cold War/Atomic Age stock footage, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. maintains a distinct sense of 60s-tinged, smart mouthed swank throughout its entire runtime. Sometimes its modernizing of the 60s superspy genre feels true to its sources. CGI-aided car chases work similarly to the manually sped-up action scenes of yesteryear. The classy noir lighting of 60s fare is brought into the 2010s with rainbow-colored lens flairs. Throwaway lines about “Hitler’s favorite rocket scientist”, enriched uranium, and smuggled Nazi gold all feel native to the era it’s evoking. At other times this modernization can work a little too much like borrowed Tarantino cool, especially in small details like the yellow grindhouse subtitles and the pop music & whistling on the film’s soundtrack, but even Tarantino borrowed those elements from older sources, so the similarities are more than forgiveable. What most distinguishes The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from, say, an Inglourious Basterds, is its calmly restrained chase of a smarmy, handsome aesthetic instead of Tarantino’s cartoonishly over-the-top tendency towards excess (which, of course, has its own distinct set of charms).

Speaking of calm restraint, just as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. remains poised & smugly handsome throughout its runtime, its American spy lead Solo (expertly played by Henry “Man of Steel” Cavill) prides himself on never losing his cool. As the CIA operative/international playboy Solo butts heads with quick-tempered KGB agent Illya (Armie “Winklevoss Twins” Hammer) & sexy German mechanic Gaby (Alicia “Ex Machina” Vikander) on a multinational mission to prevent a Nuclear Holocaust, he tries his damnedest to remain as coolly suave as if he were simply enjoying cocktail hour. A lot of humor is derived from watching Solo & Illya try to out-macho each other in activities as disparate as fistfights in restrooms to arguing over women’s fashion. Most of the film’s comedy, however, is dependent upon the sexual tension between all three leads & their escaped Nazi enemies (including a young married couple who look like an evil combination of Jason Schwartzman & Freddie Mercury and a character Tilda Swinton could play in her sleep). There’s an onslaught of innuendo in the film’s script, like when the art thief Solo offers to “fill the gaps” in a woman’s collection or to “take bottom” when divvying up which locks he & Illya will pick. By the time characters are nonchalantly delivering lines like “Want to have a go?” & “I wish I could stay to finish you off myself” the film’s earned enough goodwill to evoke full belly laughs instead of the light chuckles the first couple sexual quips elicit. Armie Hammer also gets great comedic mileage from the KGB hothead Illya, especially in the way he sweetly refers to mechanic Gaby as his “little chop shop girl” & the comically American Solo as “cowboy.”

No matter what the reasons for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘s muted reception, I do feel the film has been a little shortchanged & I regret waiting so long to catch it in the theater. It has a distinct sense of smart, sexy glamour to it that suggests an alternate universe where Mad Men was an action-packed world of superspies instead of a slowburn of an existential crisis. The film’s sexual quips, use of wrestling as foreplay, gender reversal of the damsel in distress trope, and genre-faithful plot riddled with doublecrossings & double-doublecrossings all make for a fun, sleek picture that I’m sure will have a second life on Netflix & the like even if it’s not currently doing so hot in the theater. On top of these surface pleasures, Guy Ritchie makes some satisfyingly unique visual choices such as mounting cameras to the bows of boats, the fronts of safes, and car door mirrors for a effect that feels highly stylized, but genuinely earned. He’s also confident enough in his screenplay to imply offscreen action instead of showing every little explosive detail & to allow certain scenes to breathe for maximum effect, such as a particularly sublime moment when Solo is enjoying a picnic as his partner fends for his life in the background. As far as 60s throwback action & Nazi-killing revenge fantasies go, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is about as handsome & as confident as they come. If you’re like me & have been putting it off due to superspy fatigue, I’d suggest giving it a shot somewhere down the road. It has enough universal appeal that you’re likely to enjoy yourself.

-Brandon Ledet

Mission: Impossible (1996)


three star

A few months ago I was so blown away by the ridiculous spectacle of the trailers for Furious 7  that I doubled back & watched all seven Fast & Furious movies for the first time ever just to see what it was all about. What I found was a franchise that I had rightly ignored as a teen for being a mindlessly excessive reflection of what has to be one of the trashiest eras of pop culture to date: that nasty little transition from the late 90s to the early 00s. Over the years, though, I’ve developed an affinity for mindless excess & hopelessly dated trash cinema, so 2015 proved to be the perfect time to watch the Fast & Furious movies from front to end. As expected, they started as a disconnected mess of car porn & Corona soaked machismo, but by the fifth film in the series, something intangible clicked & the movies suddenly pulled their shit together, forming a cohesive action universe built on the tenets of “family”, rapper-of-the-minute cameos, and hot, nasty speed.

I can’t say I was equally blown away by the trailers for the newest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation, as I was by Furious 7‘s more over-the-top flourishes, but there was a similar feeling of being left out there. Rogue Nation will be the fifth installment of a franchise that’s been around for nearly two decades. Despite the ubiquitousness of the image of Tom Cruise suspended from a ceiling in a white room in 1996, I can’t remember ever seeing a single scene from the Mission: Impossible films. The Rogue Nation ads suggested a similar trajectory for the franchise as the Fast & Furious films. It seemed like something along the way had finally clicked for the series, like it now had its own mythology & core philosophy, which is a feeling I’ve never gotten before from the outside looking in. My mission, should I choose to accept it (that’ll be the last time I make that awful joke, I promise) is to come to know & understand the series form the beginning, to figure out exactly what’s going on in its corny super spy mind, the same way I became part of Vin Diesel’s “family”.

What I found at the beginning of the Mission: Impossible saga was unexpectedly classy. This was a retro action movie starring (a pre-Scientology-fueled couch-jumper) Tom Cruise when he still defined what it meant to be Movie Star Handsome. This was 1996, a beautifully naive stretch of the decade before we let rap rock ruin America. This was a unnecessarily intricate mood piece espionage film helmed by (former Movie of the Month) director Brian De Palma, arguably the king of unnecessarily intricate mood pieces. This was a dumb action movie with a classic score by Danny Freakin’ Elfman, for God’s sake. In other words, why did I wait so long to watch this? I wasn’t absolutely floored by what basically amounted to a love letter to the same 60s super spy media that the incredibly funny Spy spoofed earlier this year, but I was at the very least pleasantly surprised by how well-executed it was. These days it’s difficult not to meet news of an old TV show getting a big screen adaptation with a pained groan, but back ,in its day Mission: Impossible was kind to its source material (despite fans of the original series grousing at its initial release), obviously holding immense respect for the era it came from, while still updating it with a certain amount of mid-90s badassery.

A lot, if not all, of the film’s success could be attributed to Brian De Palma. The needlessly complicated camera work he throws into this film elevates the material immeasurably. Within the first major sequence alone the eye is overwhelmed by an onslaught of tracking shots, Dutch angles, first person POV, ridiculous Old Hollywood noir lighting, etc. De Palma is known for his tendency towards excess and Mission: Impossible definitely has him operating at his least inhibited, displaying the same lack of good taste & visual restraint that he brought to the ridiculous Nic Cage thriller Snake Eyes. It’s a genuine treat. There’s some other cool, big ideas at work here, like the way the movie poses espionage as a form of theater (at one point a character lays out a secret plan as “Here’s the plot . . .”), but it’s really De Palma’s overreaching visual style that makes the movie special.

That being said, a 60’s sense of class & an overenthusiastic De Palma can’t save the movie from its own action movie trashiness entirely. Mission: Impossible is essentially a mere three ridiculous action sequences & some much less exciting connective tissue and there’s plenty of camp value to be found at the very least in its super spy gadgetry. For instance, despite the obviously technically proficient world of international super spies detailed here, they’re all fighting over possession of a floppy disk, a very era-specific MacGuffin that really takes me back. Besides this goofery, there’s also a truly ludicrous scene where a helicopter chases a train into a tunnel, there’s a lot of mileage squeezed out of the high tech masks that allow characters to rip off their faces & become other people, and the infamous Tom Cruise hanging from the rafters sequence features a lot more puke than people typically mention. All of this and Ving Rhames. I cannot stress how much Ving Rhames’ mere presence brings to the table, camp wise.

I didn’t know exactly what to expect with Mission: Impossible, but I was pleasantly surprised. I honestly think it’s super cool that a franchise that Tom Cruise pays for & stars in himself has such a classy, but (intentionally) campy beginning. As far as super star vanity projects go, you could do much worse than a cheesy Brian De Palma action flick starring Ving Rhames & an exploding helicopter. It’ll be interesting to see where the series goes from here, but for now I’m really liking what I’m seeing.

-Brandon Ledet

Spy (2015)




The absurdist genre-spoof comedy that hit its apex with cult classics like ZAZ’s Airplane & Top Secret has sadly become a dying art in recent years. Titles like Not Another Disaster Movie & Scary Movie 19 have tarnished the genre’s cultural cachet and more or less reduced its target audience to twelve year old boys who are emotionally stunted even for twelve year old boys. There have been a couple great exceptions in the past decade that give me hope for the genre’s future, though. The Judd Apatow comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, while posed as a spoof of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, was a brilliant take-down of the entire biopic genre. Walk Hard somehow included every single biopic cliché & American genre of music into one silly, but intellectually extensive spoof. The Will Forte vehicle MacGruber did more or less the same thing with the violent action flick genre that saw its heyday in the 1980s. The difference is that instead of limiting itself to brilliant send-ups of films like Commando & Cobra, MacGruber went a step further and created one of the most vile, pathetic protagonists in all of cinema. Both Walk Hard & MacGruber breathed fresh air into the genre-spoof, but they’re just two titles in a sea of bad examples.

After a single viewing of Spy at the theater, I’m already confident enough to include it along with Walk Hard & MacGruber on the list of the best spoof movies of the past decade. Sure, the James Bond international spy genre has been spoofed before in movies like Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, Casino Royale (1967), and Our Man Flint, but Spy distinguishes itself from its predecessors by feeling distinctly modern. There’s a self-aware, crass irreverence to the film that feels distinctly 2015. Although it’s riffing on an entirely different genre, Spy is very much in the vein of MacGruber more than it is in the very 90s Austin Powers. Besides the general crassness of its script & general improv-enhanced vibe of its sense of humor, Spy also continues MacGruber’s undermining of alpha male action movie types that turns the typical hero (this time as a frivolous side character hilariously played by Jason Statham as opposed to MacGruber’s central protagonist) into vile worms of the lowest order. As Statham’s misogynist prick brags to the main character that he is immune to 179 varieties of poison & can water-ski blindfolded, it’s easy to see how an exact MacGruber successor would’ve been born if he was the central character, but Spy is smart to leave him sidelined while the more morally-palatable, but just as crass Melissa McCarthy serves as a much more relatable audience surrogate.

McCarthy hit her creative peak for me last year with the goofy road trip comedy Tammy, which felt like a wonderful culmination of everything she’s been building towards since Paul Feig’s breakout comedy Bridesmaids. Feig, who also worked with McCarthy on the similarly crass buddy cop comedy The Heat, finds an entirely new kind of role for her to play in Spy. In Tammy, McCarthy was a complete mess, more raccoon than human in her thoughtless pursuit of laze-about surface pleasures. While I found that character incredibly charming, she was a far cry from the in-over-her-head every-woman McCarthy plays so well in Spy. There are flashes of Tammy’s feral nature in Spy, but they’re dialed back enough to allow McCarthy to shine though as a relatable human being. With Spy, Feig has not only created a modern classic in genre spoofery, but also helped to open a door for an incredibly talented comedic actress who’s more or less hit a typecasting wall she hasn’t been able to sidestep since her wonderful turn on Gilmore Girls nearly a decade ago. Let’s hope he can keep the productive streak going when he works with her on their fourth film in a row together, the all-female cast Ghostbusters reboot.

-Brandon Ledet