At The Movies

Thursday 28 May 2015, with Simon Morris

At The Movies: Slow West, Gemma Bovery, Spy

Slow West screenshot

An ailing Simon Morris loses his temper with three films: spy spoof Spy starring Melissa McCarthy and Jason Statham; a frothy French literary joke Gemma Bovery; and Scottish-New Zealand western Slow West, starring Michael Fassbender and Central Otago.

The big picture with Simon Morris

Reviewers, like everyone else, have their good weeks and their bad ones. Some reviews come after an unexpected Lotto win, or a delightful surprise party in honour of our critic, which gives his whole week a rosy glow. These are the times when the most routine action-film, the soppiest romantic comedy and the latest work of Adam Sandler get sympathetic - even glowing - write-ups.

But woe betide any film that happens to come out immediately after three parking tickets, a stubbed toe or a fierce hangover following a delightful surprise party. When a film critic has a bad week, then everyone suffers. This week is a good example.

Whether the ensuing curmudgeonliness coloured my judgement of perfectly harmless movies I might have otherwise given the benefit of the doubt, or whether I was simply infected by a desire to stand up minutes after these films started, I can’t say.

In reverse order, the unlucky short straws were drawn by a formulaic comedy about spies, starring the exhausting Melissa McCarthy; a French pastiche of a famous book I never quite saw the point of; and yet another failed attempt to bring back the western – or in this case, take it to Central Otago.

Tags:   arts film

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Slow West - film review

Directed by John Maclean, starring Michael Fassbender

Slow west is a British-New Zealand co-production with impressive credentials.   It stars the talented Michael Fassbender as the loner drifter, it was written and directed by Scotsman John MacLean, who recently won a Bafta for Best Short Film, and it’s been well-received, I gather, by both the Sundance and the Cannes film festivals.

On the minus side, there’s already been a New Zealand western mostly shot in Central Otago called Good For Nothing, which I hated, and my love of a good, classic western inevitably means I’m impatient with anything that falls short of that.

One thing you can’t quibble about with Slow West is its title. The characters are certainly heading in a westerly direction, and it’s as slow as a wet week.  

Mostly we stay on the road with Jay Cavendish (Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Silas (Michael Fassbender), exchanging monosyllables, and not taking the story much further than 'lone naïve kid' and 'worldly-wise drifter'.  

What was clearly needed was a bit of excitement to take my mind off how slow the proceedings were getting. And it seems the people who made the trailer thought the same thing. They’ve beefed up the action with some stirring, dramatic music. It sounds great, except the real soundtrack is the opposite of this. It’s mostly long, windy pauses, occasionally spiced up with a mournful solo cello that accentuates the lack of thrills and spills, rather than rectifies it.

When, belatedly, a villainous bounty-hunter turns up, backed up by a mostly Kiwi gang of cod desperadoes, it’s frankly too little too late. An hour in, I’d started to lose the will to live. What did all those reputable critics see that I didn’t?

When the haunting closing theme struck up, I leapt out of my seat and headed for the door like a jackrabbit chased by wolves.

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Gemma Bovery - film review

Directed by Anne Fontaine, starring Gemma Arterton and Fabrice Luchini

In France, the novel Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert is considered a national treasure. 

When it came out in the 19th Century, it was also the publishing equivalent of Fifty Shades of Grey , the potentially shocking tale of a dissatisfied wife’s search for pleasure. A fit subject for deconstruction, you might think…

Well you would if you’d actually got to the end of the novel. I just didn’t get it, unlike British graphic novelist Posy Simmonds, who rewrote it as a Frenchified version of the Englishified Gemma Bovery, but there any pleasure ends. For this you can blame French writer-director Anne Fontaine, who as far as I can tell has sucked any pleasure – and certainly most of the jokes – from the original graphic novel.

Part of the problem was I wasn’t as up on the detail of the original novel as I should have been, and as director Anne Fontaine assumed I would be. No doubt any French schoolboys would be nudging each other as each lightly-distorted, familiar plot-point passed by. But all I could think was “Is this going anywhere?”

It’s unfortunate that there’s a straight version of the original Madame Bovary on its way to our cinemas next month.  I suspect I might have kept up with Gemma Bovery a bit better with that under my belt. Failing that, there was only pain by the end of this boring piece of choux-pastry.

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Spy - film review

Directed by Paul Feig, starring Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham and Jude Law

It’s a matter of considerable satisfaction in certain quarters that low, foul-mouthed comedy is no longer the exclusive property of male American performers.  

Where once a film like this week’s Spy might have starred Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughan, Steve Carrell or Adam Sandler, now it’s been given a sex-change and handed to Melissa McCarthy - the new face of American comedy.  

Spy is about as by-the-numbers as its title. Melissa plays Susan Cooper, a backroom control agent for the dashing Bradley Fine, played by Jude Law.  

Bradley is an idiot, and Susan is the brains of the duo, as displayed in an opening sequence involving lots of standard James Bondery.

My least favourite spy movie is one that attempts to pastiche James Bond, which is already quite pastichy already. This, needless to say, is a pastiche pastiche James Bond. Certainly if universal stupidity is a prerequisite for universal laughter, then that mission is well and truly accomplished here.

Spy is exactly what it looks like on the page. To quote the great Dylan Moran, “it’s everything I was expecting, only less…” Some weeks I may have given points for good intentions on the part of the film-makers, but not this one. All I could see were the dismal end-results.

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