Film reviews: Trainwreck | Man From U.N.C.L.E. | Pixels

Trainwreck, starring Amy Schumer and LeBron James. Picture: Contributed
Trainwreck, starring Amy Schumer and LeBron James. Picture: Contributed
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Trainwreck promises to showcase Amy Schumer’s talent but is shunted into the sidings of Hollywood safety

Trainwreck (15)

Directed by: Judd Apatow

Starring: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Tilda Swinton, LeBron James
Rating: ***

Trainwreck has been generating a lot of headlines recently – and not just because of the despicable act of gun violence that took place as a Louisiana audience sat down to watch this latest comedy from Judd Apatow. Its star, Amy Schumer, is currently one of America’s funniest, most talked-about and most subversive stand-up, her bracingly honest and frequently foul-mouthed reflections on sex and gender in both her live act and on her hit TV series Inside Amy Schumer earning her plaudits, a support slot for Madonna and a seemingly permanent place in the columns of cultural commentators and op-ed writers.

That makes her first proper film role a big deal, not least because she’s bypassed the usual stand-up route into movies – years of playing scene-stealing supporting roles as the wacky best friend – to headline a self-scripted Hollywood movie for an A-list director. That Apatow should have sought out Schumer, though, is hardly surprising. In the last 15 years he’s changed the face of American comedy by moving the freaks and geeks centre stage and more recently used his clout to enable Lena Dunham to flourish by producing her HBO show Girls (on which Schumer has appeared a couple of times).

As Trainwreck opens it certainly seems as if Schumer is going to make the transition to movies with her comic edge intact. Cast as a journalist for a glossy men’s magazine called S’Nuff, she plays Amy, a thirty-ish New Yorker whose commitment-phobic nature dates back to a childhood lecture from her newly divorced father (Colin Quinn) on the impossibility of monogamy. As an adult, this has manifested itself in an unapologetic enjoyment of no-strings sex, the sort where a next-morning walk-of-shame doesn’t signal regret at the guy she’s slept with, just disappointment at the inconvenience caused by breaking her own “no sleepover” rule.

She certainly prefers the stress-free hit-it-and-quit-it approach to the alternative, represented here by her sister, Kim (Brie Larson), who has rebelled against their father by finding a suburban dork to settle down with, raising his equally dorky son, and trying to get pregnant with a child of their own. To Amy this feels like hell, so when she’s assigned a story to interview a mildly dorky sports surgeon called Aaron (played by Bill Hader) who promptly falls for her after sleeping with her once, she freaks out. Worrying she’s landed the male equivalent of a bunny boiler (he calls her the next day wanting to see her again), she finds herself suddenly interested in journalistic ethics as a means of getting out of seeing him. This being a mainstream Hollywood movie, though, it’s not long before she starts to question whether or not she might actually have feelings for him herself, something that threatens to alter her whole attitude to dating, love and sex.

The first third of the film gets a lot of mileage out of reversing gender stereotypes in this way. Amy’s funny and sexy and likeable as a character precisely because of how unrepentant she is. The guys in her life seem to respond to the “treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen” approach, revealing themselves to be far more sensitive than Amy cares to realise. But as she starts to fall for Aaron, giving in to feelings her sarcastic voiceover tells us she doesn’t really believe in or approve of, the film gets on a more conventional track that starts to feel a little disappointing. Schumer has plenty of chemistry with Hader, but after a falling-in-love montage neatly skewers rom-com clichés (one Woody Allen gag in particular offers a sly comment on the way his movies have been tarnished by his own relationship choices), Apatow doesn’t do enough to subvert expectations in a way that feels true to the character Schumer has created.

The film around her isn’t really funny enough either. Apatow tends to keep his running times a little baggy to give his characters space to ramble on in a naturalistic way, but here the extra time feels like an excuse to stuff in a raft of cameos from American sports stars with limited appeal for viewers outside of the US. Elsewhere Tilda Swinton swoops in for another of her unrecognizable cameos to play Amy’s insensitive, perma-tanned British editor. Looking and sounding alarmingly like Kathy Beale from EastEnders, she gets some good lines, but she’s not hilarious and the whole men’s magazine plot device feels a little dated in the age of click-bate and listicles (Schumer’s magazine writer doesn’t feel particularly credible either: she barely takes any notes, makes a point of never recording interviews, and submits articles on paper, in person, directly to the editor).

In the end, there’s little doubt that Schumer is a star in the making with a point of view and plenty to say. But as a star vehicle, Trainwreck could have done with going off the rails a little more to compliment her talent.

Man From U.N.C.L.E. (12A)

Directed by: Guy Ritchie

Starring: Alicia Vikander, Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant
Rating: **

There are two types of torture,” a former Nazi concentration camp sadist informs Henry Cavill’s American secret agent midway through this film. “One for the extraction of information. The other for its own sake.” Cinematically speaking, Guy Ritchie favours the latter option. His adaptation of the 1960s TV show is painfully dull and needlessly drawn-out. A one-time project for Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney, it emerges from years of development hell with a retooled script and uncharacteristically flat visuals. The result is a mirthless period spy caper that fails to fulfil Ritchie’s stated aim to make espionage movies sexy, fun and frivolous again.

Not helping matters are the film’s spectacularly ill-cast leads. In the Robert Vaughn role that Ian Fleming had a hand in creating for the small screen, Cavill’s Napoleon Solo looks ridiculous, the actor’s Superman physique ruining the line of his three-piece suits as much as it ruins his attempts to convince as a suave and nimble-fingered thief-turned-CIA agent. As his KGB-trained counterpart Illya Kuryakin, Armie Hammer is even more woeful, saddled as he is with a comedy Russian accent, a flat-cap and a quick-to-anger disposition that never feels the least bit threatening.

The origins story plot sees these former rivals forced to team up to protect a beautiful East German mechanic (Alicia Vikander) as she helps their joint agencies recover a nuclear warhead that her estranged father has had a hand in developing. What little action there is in the film is devoid of thrills. Indeed, this functions more like a stodgy con movie than a spy film as Ritchie loads it with lots of boringly executed scenes of people talking, followed by sleight-of-hand editing that repeatedly rewinds sequences to show the same thing from a different perspective, as if we’re too dense to work out what’s going on without having our attention repeatedly drawn to the hardly difficult-to-guess twists. As the show no longer has much cultural currency, Ritchie doesn’t feel the need to pay due deference (no big deal in itself; neither did Tom Cruise with Mission: Impossible), but he doesn’t establish the significance of the film’s acronymic title in a way that either justifies the ending or Hugh Grant’s casting as this secret organisation’s head.

Ritchie’s former producing partner Matthew Vaughn did this kind of spy movie pastiche with much more panache recently in Kingsman. Those looking for a fun spy movie are advised to check that out instead. Or just wait for Spectre.

Precinct Seven Five (15)

Directed by: Tiller Russell

Rating: ****

Detailing former New York City cop Michael Dowd’s rapid transformation from somewhat idealistic rookie to uniformed criminal, director Tiller Russell’s police corruption documentary uncovers a real life story as queasily thrilling as anything in The French Connection or The Shield. Operating at the height of New York’s crack wars in the 1980s, Dowd’s inner gangster was allowed to flourish thanks to systemic failings in the force, twisted honour codes and the fact he was policing an urban war zone notorious for having the highest murder rate in the city. Dowd himself is an exuberant – if not especially contrite – interviewee, and while Tiller is clearly a little seduced by the drama of it all, he’s good at exploring the moral myopia that sets in when the view from the trenches elevates loyalty to each other above protecting and serving the public.

Mistress America (15)

Directed by: Noah Baumbach

Starring: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke, Matthew Shear

Rating: ****

Hot on the heels of While We’re Young, Noah Baumbach delivers this delectable comedy, co-written with and starring current muse and partner Greta Gerwig. She plays Brooke, the soon-to-be stepsister of college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke). The latter is newly arrived in New York and struggling to make friends, so when she meets the life-force that is Brooke (she’s like a darker version of the title character in Gerwig and Baumbach’s previous collaboration Frances Ha), she’s instantly smitten with her energy, her ability to “curate” multiple careers, and her willingness to live life the way the aspiring writer in her wishes she could herself. The writing aspect is what the film’s really about: as Tracy starts borrowing details from Brooke’s life for her own literary musings, Mistress America explores issues of creative ownership in the share-all culture of social media. But it packs a lot of other stuff in too as it rattles along, its breathless pace perfectly reflecting the amusing and sometimes absurd chaos of modern life.

Pixels (12A)

Directed by: Chris Columbus

Starring: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Peter Dinklage

Rating: *

Adapted from an ingenious short film depicting what might happen if classic arcade game characters attacked New York, Pixels arrives on the big screen as a noisy, poorly thought through special effects vehicle for Adam Sandler. Cast as a former video game whizz, he’s called upon by childhood best friend-turned-American President Kevin James to help save the world when aliens mistake a beamed-into-space video message showing the 1982 World Arcade Game Championships as a declaration of war. The concept isn’t without promise, but the way it has been patterned after every other zero-to-hero Sandler opus ensures this is “Game Over” from the start.

Fantastic Four (12A)

Directed by: Josh Trank

Starring: Miles Teller, Michael B Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell

Rating: **

Very far from fantastic, Chronicle director Josh Trank’s relaunch of the Marvel superhero team starts off well enough as it tries to sketch out their origins in the earnest fashion of the first X-Men film. But after dispensing with scientific genius Reed Richards (Miles Teller) struggling to comprehend his newly stretchy physique (the result of an inter-dimensional space expedition gone wrong) things quickly fall apart. The rest of the team barely distinguish themselves, and the big set-pieces are oddly paced, anti-climactic and lack any drama. The end result feels like an expensive pilot for a TV show that will never get picked up.