My Spy: We mock the things we are to be.
Two months’ worth of bi-weekly trips to the multiplex yielded at least a dozen opportunities to memorize the trailer for My Spy. Originally slated for a mid-March opening, it was the next film on the screening schedule until the studio — not looking to go up against Trolls World Tour — got cold feet and pushed the release date back to early summer. However, all things being what they are, the film’s San Diego premier can now be held in your living room.
Trained to kill by US Special Forces, JJ (Dave Bautista) appeared to be making the right career move when he accepted a position as a CIA operative. But his first mission — to infiltrate and diffuse a plutonium exchange between Russians and Arabs — goes terribly wrong when the poster boy for steroids takes out everyone involved except the one terrorist destined to make his getaway with the highly coveted isotope in tow.
The boss (Ken Jeung, thankfully setting his patented snarky sniveling on low boil) is so unimpressed by the bungled debut that he condemns JJ — along with tech support wizkid/his biggest fan Bobbie (Kristen Schaal, the star with most ductile kisser currently twinkling in the Hollywood heavens) — to Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. Their mission is to spy on ER nurse Kate (Parisa Fitz-Henley) and her ridiculously precocious daughter (aka the main motivation for downloading the picture) Sophie (Chloe Coleman). Why them? The CIA have a hunch that bad guy Marquez (Greg Bryk), a character so brutal that he made his sister-in-law Kate a widow, may be paying a visit to the Windy City.
The plot is unremittingly predictable. After being made by a 9-year-old, JJ is blackmailed into becoming her magic genie of sorts. When she’s not manipulating his hulkiness to her advantage, Sophie, a mini-reconnaissance expert in her own right, spends much of the running time alternating between boning up on the ins-and-outs of espionage and grooming JJ as her replacement dad. She even goes so far as to strongarm her pet gargantuan into putting in an appearance at her class’s “My Special Friend” day. It would have been easier for JJ to part the Red Sea than to make it to the front of the classroom with disrupting one desk after another.
Alone in the house, I found myself much more engaged than anticipated. When JJ and Sophie are onscreen, it’s a laugh-out-loud delight to watch. And to the filmmaker’s credit, this goes darker than most family fare (hence the PG-13). There is a running gag involving ex-mercenary JJ fantasizing about various ways in which to quickly and quietly dispatch Sophie. And as unaccustomed to dining in public as he is, the dinner conversation quickly turns to talk of bashing lizard skulls and drinking one’s urine as a means of survival. The bi-racial gay couple across the hall give JJ a “queer-eyed” makeover for his date with Kate, and there is even a twist towards the end destined to catch audiences off guard. It’s no Crying Game, but it is an unexpected development, which is notable in this context.
We mock the things we are to be. For two-thirds of the picture, director Peter Segal (Tommy Boy, Grudge Match) and his writers take delight in mercilessly goofing on action movie tropes, particularly the one that involves characters walking towards the camera as the world flares up behind them. But in the end, it’s just these sorts of routine chases and explosions that will no doubt draw yawns from even the film’s prepubescent target audience. And there’s a penny in it for the first one able to guess what shot caps the big action scene.
VOD New Release Roundup
Butt Boy — Chip Gutchell’s (director and co-writer Tyler Cornack) proctologist clearly learned his trade at the hands of a prison rapist, yet somehow the bewildered, unhappily married IT tech leaves the exam a new man. The sudden desire to lodge things up his backside is very much a new development, and isn’t sated by a bar of soap or a board game piece. Jump ahead nine years: a missing child case remains unsolved, and recovering alcoholic Chip once again gets the itch, only it’s not for a cocktail. A tyke goes missing during his company’s Take Your Child to Work Day celebration, and the detective assigned the case is the same one assigned Chip as his AA sponsor. (As Detective Fox, Tyler Rice suggests a young, greasy Stephen Baldwin, whether he likes it or not.) I’m all for playing satire straight, but boy, with so little shading and coloration, Cornack’s performance is that of a somnambule. And a film that borrows a cup of premise from Howard Stern’s never-produced Fartman shouldn’t take itself so damn seriously. 2019. S.M. ★ ★ (Available on VOD/Digital)
Selah and the Spades — Think Heathers without the bite. The five factions in charge of the various vices at the prestigious Haldwell School gather ‘round a meeting table — complete with artfully mismatched chairs — located in the middle of a forest glade. How silly. Selah (Lovie Simone) remains under suspicion for the manner in which she treated a former member of the Spades. So when it comes time for her to take an underclasswoman under her wing to serve as her pet (a superb Celeste O’Connor), one senses an impending call for history to repeat itself. But there isn’t any real sense of what it’s like to be a student at the pretentious institution. The only educator in view is Headmaster Banton (Jesse Williams), an authority figure who has just slightly more on the ball than does Bayside’s Mr. Belding. And there are enough canted angles and surplus space to fill an aircraft hangar. There’s a way to make anything work, but Selah doesn’t quite find it. At least it didn’t end in psycho-sexual thrills or unnecessary violence. 2019. S.M. ★
She’s Allergic to Cats — Much of filmmaker Michael Reich’s glaucomatous experimentation can be traced back to its shot-on-VHS origins. The closest disenthralled video artist Mike Pinkney (as himself) has come to Tinseltown prominence is the iconic Hollywood sign that looks down upon the dog washing emporium where his job is to groom and express Fido’s anal glands. One should master the rules before breaking them: all of the imperfections Reich delights in putting on view do not approximate storytelling. Nor does he cast his lead’s disillusionment in a thought-provoking light. A tight shot of dog crap in the road is followed by the title card: “My life is shit.” When Reich shifts from low-fi camcorder to au courant digital, his pictures sharpen only in terms of physical clarity, not visual storytelling. There is a romantic subplot, but as is the case with many a beautiful woman who, when confronted by an imponderable man-boy... well, it doesn’t take a spoiler to alert one as to the direction this will take. (Knocks aside, the shot of the banana-woman was sublime, but not enough to warrant an endorsement.) 2016. S.M. ● (Available on VOD/Digital)
Thousand Pieces of Gold (newly restored in 4K) — A simple and true (based on fact, but also and nonetheless true) story of a Chinese peasant girl sold by her father into slavery in the late 19th Century, taught some useful English phrases such as “I live at the saloon,” and resettled among the “white demons” of Oregon, where she manages to avoid whoredom but remains unaware that slavery is there prohibited until a black man comes into the saloon one day in quest of a beer. Nancy Kelly, shying off at anything resembling action, directs with strong but never sloppy feeling, and a fresh, never flowery eye. And Rosalind Chao, together with her asymmetrical dimple, is a marvelously expressive actress. Her fugitive moments of happiness inside general petrification are very touching indeed: her first discovery of the gold camp’s Chinatown; her first acquaintance with American apple pie; her first rounding-up of a laundry customer as an independent entrepreneur. And talking of what’s touching: Chris Cooper, as a gentleman among roughnecks, has one of the most naturally touching faces on the American screen, sort of a cross between Richard Basehart and Ralph Meeker, but a bit more featurelessly worn down, as though by a millennium of wind and sand. 1991. D.S. ★ ★ (Available on VOD/Digital)