The Spy Who Dumped Me [2018]

Just a foreword here that since I think few people will have seen this film at the time I’m publishing the review, I’ve tried to keep it spoiler-lite. I talk about one specific set-piece that occurs early in the film, but every other piece of commentary reveals nothing more than was in the trailers, or is the kind of high-level summary necessary for any review to be useful.

This is the third spy spoof film within a quite short time-frame, following Spy [2015] and Central Intelligence [2016], each of which I’ve seen a couple of times now. These two films worked really well for me so I laughed all the way through both, and they also more-or-less work as straightforward spy-thriller narratives. This is one of the things I always say: a satire must be structurally closely related to its original material. The Spy Who Dumped Me invokes the famous James Bond novel The Spy Who Loved Me [1962], which is written from the point of view of the usually-disposable girlfriend that Bond acquires in each adventure. The novel is a very peculiar mix of objectifying and empowering, with a protagonist who struggles against forces she doesn’t understand but is rescued by Bond in the nick of time. It’s been 25 years since I read it, so I won’t dwell on that too much but the central concept to keep in the front of your mind is that Bond’s fleeting love rescues her, and yet is revealed as being extremely dangerous because it is an aspect of a subterranean world of crime and sexual violence. For all that Bond is sexy, being in his world is absolutely not to be desired. To that extent, Fleming’s novel is an unfulfilled Romance. Continue reading

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Bibliophilic Calgary

I’m writing this in Cafe Milano, a casual 5-minute walk from the central metro line that bisects Calgary’s main shopping district. I ordered a flat white – the flavour is good, but there’s too much milk. So far, this may be the best coffee I’ve had in North America. I should hasten to point out that I’m no real aficionado – I can’t talk the talk, let alone drink the talk, in terms of discussing different blends, being knowledgeable about the different brewing techniques. When it comes to coffee, or art, I don’t know anything, but what I like. All I can tell you is, this is fine. Coffee is one of the things I enjoy uncritically, or if I’m honest, more often end up not enjoying uncritically. My technique for finding passable coffee is pure mimicry of what I imagine a connoisseur would do: I avoid chains, I avoid big places, I look for a certain amount of care in the decor and presentation. So far my strike rate historically is about 50%. Coffee is one of the things I always go looking for when I get to a new town.

What do you look for when you go to a new city? Museums? Local art galleries? Adventure spots? Hiking trails? For me, the quality of a city is measured by just one criterion: what is the best book store in the city? I’ve never been to Powell’s in Portland, but I’m always on the hunt for the next The Strand or Blackwell’s of Oxford, being the two best book stores I’ve ever been in. It’s not even really that close for 3rd place – we’re talking about another league. I wish I’d known how cheap surface shipping was from the UK to NZ, because I could have spent a lot more money in Blackwell’s. That might have bothered my wife, but given how things went anyway, at least I’d have a pile more books I wanted. So, after hitting Lonely Planet’s #1 tourist spot in Calgary, the Glenbow Museum, I decided to find my own personal #1, by systematically visiting every bookstore Google could find. For a city of approximately a million souls, this was a tragically small number.

There turned out to be two book-stores worth talking about, which is a relief, since any city that can’t manage at least one must surely be well down that slippery slope to cultural annihilation. Continue reading

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Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado [2018]

When Day of the Soldado was announced I had much the same response as I often do to sequels and prequels: scepticism. This felt, if not quite as pointless as Solo, fairly superfluous, especially when the announcement made clear that the film would be following the least-interesting part of Sicario [2015], Benecio del Toro’s “Medelin” , a lawyer-turned-assassin, the “sicario” of the title. I described Sicario as a film with a hole in its centre because it was about the War on Drugs ™ without ever really addressing that war – its supply lines, its soldiers, its victims – in the way, say, Traffic [2000] was. This is what I’m starting to think of as a narrative of refusal, which treats its central topic as such a given, such a well-known quantity, that any direct exploration is redundant and hence refused. In Sicario, Alejandro is a pure cypher: the film makes no attempt to humanise him or his story – in fact, that’s a big part of its representational strategies, showing the dehumanising effect of the WoD. Even the notional protagonist, Kate Mercer [Emily Blunt], is the thinnest possible sketch, a woman about whom we know almost nothing. What concerned me most about a sequel was that it would be redundant, but a close second was that the sequel would become enraptured with its subjects and destroy the beautiful emptiness of the original. Instead, I think Day of the Soldado doubles down on the amorphous narrative, the cypher-like characters, the inscrutability of the story environment – the things which made Sicario interesting.   Continue reading

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X-Films: Confessions of a Radical Film Maker [2008]

Alex Cox came to my attention when I picked up Alex Cox’s Film 101, which is a compilation of his lecture notes from a guest course he taught. His introduction to film was very idiosyncratic, representing his own experience as an independent film-maker. He venerated directors like Dennis Hopper – whose life as a director was news to me. His vision was based on practical experience, and was a very entertaining read. He seemed like the perfect companion when navigating the deep waters of pure film theory. When I saw Confessions at a junk store during my book crawl in Christchurch it was a very easy purchase. Continue reading

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Annhilation [2018]

It’s entirely possible to take Annihilation on its own terms, as a creative effort separate and distinct from both the novel of the same name and of Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Stalker. Standing alone in a field of its own creation, it’s a nuts-and-bolts bit of, what? Landscape horror? A team of “investigators” who are given nothing to investigate by an arbitrarily dangerous landscape, heading to some destination for some purpose, with no really specific objective or purpose apparent. I think in this scope you’re left with an experiential film, to be savoured moment to moment, like Blair Witch with a budget large enough to include jump scares and horrific beasties. Unfortunately for Annihilation it exists in a world with both the novel and Stalker, and once you know that it’s pretty hard to like it.

TLDR: If you thought Annihilation was a good film, but haven’t seen Stalker, stop what you’re doing and go rent it from somewhere. It is essential cinema, definitely in my pantheon of films that everyone should see, along with the likes of Metropolis, Man with a Movie Camera, Casablanca, La Antenna, The Dark Knight, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Gattaca… It is the perfect form of the film it sets out to be.

Spoilers after the jump for Stalker and both versions of Annihilation. Continue reading

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Winning at Ultimate with a Pick-up Team

Over the decade or so I’ve been playing ultimate at tournaments I’ve played on a pretty big variety of teams, from teams which drilled set plays and called lines to teams that didn’t exist a few days before the tournament. Honestly, the latter is more my speed – I’m not an elite athlete and never will be. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t done alright, and my first real experience with winning was only a few years ago at a tournament in the north of England, Fishbowl. It taught me a lot of lessons about how teams win.

Fishbowl that year was about 20 teams, and I responded to a university club team’s open call for some pick-ups. I rocked up to find 4 club members, 2 local pick ups, a French club player and moi, for a grand total of 8 players for a two-day tournament. There was a basic competence at throwing, cutting, etc, but no “A-Tour” players on the team. We were seeded 20th, and that was the smart money. Before the first game we all sat down on the grass and chatted about what we liked to do, what our strengths were, and we developed a plan: first look was a break-throw from me to the front-ish of the stack, second look an open-side cut from the back. Reset at the first sign of trouble: no heroics. I never hucked the disc, there were no layout bids, I don’t recall even any dramatic hand-blocks. Some people might call that “boring”, I called it “winning” and we finished just outside the top 8 having mangled some teams who left the field looking decidedly confused. Without a doubt, the most successful tournament team I’ve played for so far, and I’ll probably never manage such a big gainer again.

The big lesson that Fishbowl taught me was that teamwork wins team sports. It’s a simple lesson, but one which I think is far far too infrequently considered by teams and coaches. Coaches just love to drill basically individual skills, and beyond a certain skill point elite players all think they’re like Muhammed Ali and none of the rules apply to them. As much as I get a kick out of super-stars doing super-heroics, Fishbowl proved to me that a commitment to fundamentals can take a team of nobodies and terrify anybody.

Especially since then, I’ve got a set of guidelines that I deploy when I find myself the senior member on a team of unfamiliar players. At nationals over the weekend I had a chat with one of my alumni from the Mashugenah school of How to Play Good who lamented that our basically scratch team at a previous tournament had more structure, cohesion, and success, than their drilled and training team of the present day. So, my arrogance having overtaken my humble acknowledgement that I’m a mediocre talent, here are the things I do to win Ultimate with pick-up teams. Continue reading

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A Murder of Quality [1964] and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy [1974]

I wasn’t really aware of John le Carré until the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy [2011] came out. I enjoyed the film quite a lot, even though on reflection, not much actually happens. I picked up the novel in the UK and read it pretty voraciously, then looked around at some of his other works, especially The Spy who Came in From the Cold [1963], and eventually watching the Alec Guinness version of Tinker [1979], which I liked rather less than the film for a number of reasons.

One review in particular of the film stuck in my imagination – fired it even – which was from Mark Kermode, who argued that it wasn’t a film about spies. Instead, he saw it as a film about a group of men negotiating who could be trusted, about navigating their personal relationships, about exploring their personalities. At the time I thought cripes! That’s just what spies are about! His non-genre review was as absurd to me as if I said “well, it’s not a whodunit, because it’s about this detective who goes around interviewing people connected with a murder, reviewing the physical evidence and figuring out who the murderer was”. The Le Carré version of spies is the deepest into the Wilderness of Mirrors, the world where everything may well be a lie, and you can’t even trust yourself. His novels are dominated by that theme, so much so that in their definitive study of the genre Cawelti and Rosenberg argue that his work is a “corrective to Fleming’s extravagant fantasies” [157], and previous masters of the humanist tradition of espionage, notably Graham Greene, acknowledged le Carré as the master of the genre.

A Murder of Quality is Le Carré’s second novel, and it shows his spymaster, George Smiley, solving an almost pure classical Fair Play detective story, albeit one much simpler than anything Christie would have bothered with. I found it fascinating, and want to point out a couple of interesting but spoilerific features below the cut.

Continue reading

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