Knives and Skin, an oddly inflected new film from director Jennifer Reeder, is unlike much else I’ve seen. Sure, there are signposts. The overall vibe is sort of midwestern David Lynch, with highly theatrical color effects borrowed from Dario Argento and an atmosphere of spotlighted American malaise a la the photographer Gregory Crewsdon. But to enumerate those clear influences is to define the film on the terms of a succession of Great White Men who came before it, and that feels unfair to Reeder. She’s working to open up new territory; Knives and Skin is an explicitly feminist endeavor that’s more interested in upending its forebears than paying them homage. Continue reading
As Piercing opens, Reed (Christopher Abbott) is a man with murder on his mind. About 30, nondescript, slightly schlubby even, with a receding hairline, five-o-clock shadow, and a troubled, unsure demeanor, Reed is first seen hovering over his infant daughter with an ice pick in hand. He’s not making a cocktail. Riddled with anxiety and insomnia, Reed is a wreck. His work isn’t fulfilling him. His wife can’t calm him. And then at one point, as he gazes down into the dark pools that are his daughter’s eyes, the infant speaks to him: “You know what you have to do, right?” The moment is chilling, yet absurd. In a very dark way, it’s hilarious. And with that, Piercing is off to the races. Continue reading
The Spy Who Dumped Me is a lot — femme-centric rom-com, violent action-thriller, dopey spy farce, and genial paean to friendship in the face of adversity–and director Susanna Fogel revels in the tonal disparities from its opening sequence, which intercuts an enthusiastically mounted, bullet-riddled chase scene set in Vilnius, Lithuania, with scenes from a birthday party for Audrey Stockman (Mila Kunis), a 30-year-old grocery clerk who’s just been blindsided by a break-up text from Drew Thayer (Justin Theroux), her boyfriend of one year. The party’s been organized by Audrey’s devoted pal Morgan (Kate McKinnon), an aspiring actress whose ceaseless shenanigans help blunt Audrey’s sadness. It quickly becomes clear that, somehow, the guy hiding out from Lithuanian thugs in the gloomy, desaturated espionage thriller is Drew himself. When Morgan grabs Audrey’s phone and sends a text calling him a “worthless nutsack” and promising to “set his shit on fire,” Audrey gets a returned phone call from that other movie, in which Drew beseeches her to reconsider. Fogel keeps this up for a solid 10 minutes before the film’s title appears on screen, and it’s an intriguing overture.
The idea of a female-fronted, R-rated spy movie isn’t especially novel in the aftermath of Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow, but there is something delicious about the notion of a couple of completely ordinary millennials boasting and bluffing their way through a multinational conspiracy plot. The funny business isn’t as funny as it should be — too many gags don’t land, and some of the scenes have a choppy quality, suggesting they never quite came together in the cutting room. But Fogel cuts no corners getting her spy-movie pastiche on screen, which helps propel things forward. Second-unit director Gary Powell is a veteran of Jason Bourne, James Bond, and more, and with his assistance Fogel pulls off stunts and executes camera moves that shouldn’t really be possible in a romantic comedy–including a great shot that begins inside an apartment, then follows closely behind and beside Theroux as he takes a running jump off a balcony, rolls off the back of a panel truck, commandeers a motorcycle, and rides off. Scenes shot in Vienna have the sophisticated gloss of a Mission: Impossible movie, and the large-scale modernist architecture of Budapest provides some especially imposing locations as the film’s mood grows darker near its midpoint, when Audrey and Morgan are taken hostage and briefly threatened with torture. That’s when we meet Ivanna Sakhno, who gives an intensely deadpan performance as Nadedja, a round-eyed, tightly strung Olympic-gymnast-turned-assassin with a sadistic streak and a probably unhealthy attachment to her balance beam.
Before long, the picture springs back into a more broadly comic mode, even developing a second, more devastatingly handsome spy, Sebastian (Sam Heughan of Outlander), as a love interest for Audrey. More than anything else, though, The Spy Who Dumped Me builds a showcase for Kate McKinnon, who first appears high-stepping her way into the frame as she sings “Happy Birthday” like the love child of Liza Minnelli and John Cleese. And she swings, struts, and sashays her way through the increasingly violent proceedings with brio as Kunis plays straight woman to her lanky, savvy jester. Her outfit for the first third of the movie is a black-and-white tank-top, suspenders, and capris combo that suggests a knockabout lineage dating back to vaudeville and silent movies. It is possible Fogel is so smitten with McKinnon that she allows her to overplay this shtick–the extended climax has Morgan fulfilling her longtime dream of performing on stage in a Cirque du Soleil-style trapeze act. (“Remember your training from the New Jersey Circus Center,” she tells herself.) This bit of business is meant, I think, as a triumphant sally into surrealistic lunacy — and there’s something so spectacularly unflattering about McKinnon’s outfit, as well as the way the harsh stage lights hit her face, that you have to admire her commitment–but it seems to go on forever and, worse, separates Morgan from Audrey.
If McKinnon’s constant mugging threatens to deprive her co-stars of oxygen, she nevertheless brightens the film considerably and even gives it a measure of poignancy. The love life described by the title belongs only to Audrey; Morgan is single when the movie begins and single when it ends, and there’s the faintest hint that her surface outrageousness hides a loneliness and insecurity underneath. (She’s stunned into silence when Drew responds to one of her jokes by calling her “a little much.”) But she’s not bitter about it–far from it, she plays Cupid. In one scene, the pay-off to a long-running gag, she’s delighted to learn that Audrey has the film’s MacGuffin hidden inside her vagina. When Audrey retrieves it and hands it to a nonplussed Sebastian, the look on McKinnon’s face is, well, not lascivious, exactly, but kind of wicked. She’s watching a connection being made, and she’s excited for her friend — though not sappy about it. It’s a broad moment, yet well-observed and almost precious in context. The Spy Who Dumped Me isn’t totally successful, but with character beats like this in her wheelhouse, Fogel deserves another shot.