I might have said this somewhere before, but the surest sign that a comedy works, that it's really funny, is when it gets you to laugh despite conditions. When you plop down into your seat in a bad mood, distracted, maybe even a little pissed and within a few minutes, all of that starts to slip away. It's one thing to score laughs when someone's ready to laugh. A stand-up comedian's set can be made or broken by the relative intoxication and good will of an audience. But for something to take you out of your discontent and crack you up despite yourself, well, that's a kind of magic. It's better than religion.
The Heat, director Paul Feig's follow up to the hysterical 2011 hit, Bridesmaids, isn't a game changer in the buddy cop comedy department, and it's not better than Bridesmaids. But what it does -- mainly unleashing Melissa McCarthy onto the screen like an element of nature -- it does so very well.
Sarah Ashburn (Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side) is an FBI special agent who, despite being a successful and detail-oriented field agent, has a problem playing with others. Bucking the macho bullshit of her colleagues with her nerdy correctness is one thing, but her priggish devotion to closing cases makes her less than an ideal team player.
Angling for a promotion within her Jersey office, her director assigns her to the case of a drug kingpin in Boston, where she'll have to work within their jurisdiction. If Ashburn can prove her ability to operate with a team, her shot at a bigger office vastly improves.
When she arrives in Boston, Ashburn immediately questions a low-level dealer who might have a connection to her target but who was apprehended by the loose cannon, Det. Shannon Mullins (McCarthy, Bridesmaids). Mullins, a veritable bull in the china shop, doesn't take kindly to her collar being commandeered by the feds, much less by the buttoned-up, annoying Ashburn. Everything about them clashes.
Of course, they are forced to work together, become friends and discover the women buried underneath layers of emotional scarring and the vulnerabilities that fuel their slavish devotion to their jobs -- changing each other for the better in the process. Don't gag. It might be clichéd, but it's still funny.
If The Heat doesn't seem too far outside of the Judd Apatow/Adam McKay wheelhouse, well, that's because it isn't; it's basically a female version of The Other Guys. Directed by Feig, who has a history within the Apatowverse going back to their seminal collaborations on the underappreciated 2000 television series, Freaks & Geeks, The Heat fits snugly into the last decade of foul-mouthed, R-rated comedies from Apatow and Co. Possessed by sharp comedic direction that he honed everywhere from 30 Rock to Parks and Rec to The Office, Feig has the chops to lift the rote, somewhat nonsensical script, by Katie Dippold (Parks and Rec) from expletive-laden mediocrity into something with a pulse -- since there's nothing particularly new going on here.
I’ll Bet This Will Piss Them Off. Julian Assange has been throwing a wrench in the government’s works for a while now. Add Bradley Manning and the NSA’s Edward Snowden into the mix, and you’ve got We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, now playing.
Well, Feig and his hysterical cast since, clearly, the best laughs in The Heat were born of improvisation. Melissa McCarthy is somewhat playing to her type here, and it's something that needs to be broken soon, but for now she hasn't burned out the shtick. She steals The Heat just in terms of sheer, manic screen presence that's skillfully cut with inherent charm as Mullins drops her over-the-top defenses.
Sandra Bullock is the perfect foil for their Laurel and Hardy-esque pairing. She's C-3PO to McCarthy's violently capable and profane R2-D2. Bullock has never been in anything that's this intentionally funny (Demolition Man, maybe) and what's great about The Heat is how it plays to her comedic strengths from a ton of terrible rom-coms, in a way that capitalizes on not just her wasted funny girl talents but riffs on her action star roots, too. Their chemistry -- McCarthy's, Bullock's and Feig's -- is the reason to see this.
Neat little cameo casting choices are sure to delight the '80s-obsessed. Mullins' boss, Capt. Woods is played by Thomas F. Wilson (Biff from Back to the Future), while her mom is personified by a reliably acerbic (and much welcome) Jane Curtin (a founding SNL cast member and pioneering female comedian along with Gilda Radner). Other familiar faces fill the periphery, from comedians like Bill Burr and Marlon Wayans (as Ashburn's romantic interest, Agent Levy) to a slew of tiny cameos that you'd have to be a sitcom expert to recognize.
But it's Feig's predilection for getting the best out of the ladies that sets this apart from the male-dominated, bullshit raunchy comedy norm (the trailer for Grown Ups 2 ironically underlined this). Like Bridesmaids, The Heat reinvigorates a conventional premise with hilarious set pieces and comedic chemistry that gets better the more you think about them.
All of which goes a long way to making The Heat one of the funniest films of 2013.
We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks
With Edward Snowden in the news, it seems that director Alex Gibney, the documentarian who is basically the under-the-radar Michael Moore (he's not so well-known or vilified) has chosen a prescient time to release his in-depth look at Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and the rise and fall of Wikileaks. We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks covers a lot of what followers of the story already know, but takes on a new relevance in this snowballing age of Total Information Awareness and the clear assaults by the latest administration not only on government whistleblowers but the core principles of a free press.
We Steal Secrets begins as a profile of Julian Assange touching on his roots as a young, Australian hacker among a collective behind the 1989 worm attack that infected NASA's computer systems in the run up to the Galileo launch (which was carrying a problematic nuclear fuel source). Known as the WANK worm, it was ultimately benign, though the bigger threat it represented was a precursor the current war being fought in cyberspace -- one of porous digital borders and the privileged information within. Assange, a self-described as a "humanitarian anarchist," believed that all information should be free and in the public domain. So, with the help of a mysterious coder who created a virtual, anonymous dropbox and a few volunteers, he created Wikileaks in 2006.
Within four years, documents ranging from corrupt Icelandic bankers and the 2008 financial meltdown, Guantanamo abuses, secret nuclear accidents to the bullshit behind Scientology became public knowledge. Proprietary information became Assange's bread and butter. But it wasn't until a private from Crescent, Oklahoma named Bradley Manning decided to leak nearly half a million classified government documents detailing Iraq War abuses, Afghani corruption and State Department secrets that Assange became the wanted man he still is.
Manning has been rotting in a brig for most of the last three years.
We Steal Secrets is apparently already hated by Assange (who declined to be interviewed for less than $1 million; the guy has some legal problems, apparently), though I'm not sure why he'd object as Gibney plays the events straight. He just doesn't paint Assange as a saint or martyr or even the perfect embodiment of the ideals behind Wikileaks that Gibney clearly admires. Considering his history with other hot-button issues (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer), Gibney is certainly a populist documentarian. But he balances his views of Assange and Manning with somewhat of an unbiased tone and his almost slavish devotion to laying out the facts and details is densely thorough, packaged with a typically slick, visually deft presentation.
The results are compelling while feeling like a deliberative laundry list of not-so-ancient history. We Steal Secrets is not a polemic. It's not a hit piece. It's not really making judgments about how right or wrong anyone is, even the government. Gibney leaves that for the audience to decide while letting his subjects ask the questions that are really important. Why wouldn't the New York Times be just as guilty as Assange in publishing the same documents? How can the leaks by Manning be considered espionage if none were sold to the enemy or if they didn't cause operational harm to anyone -- as opposed to just embarrassing the shit out of a bunch of important people? Have you seen the Collateral Murder video that started the whole storm? You should. It was almost a tragic lie. Why shouldn't that scare you?
The most moving thing about Manning was his inability to deny his conscience. With that perceived weakness, the world was changed. Perhaps some innocent people will find the justice that would have been denied by the powerful, even in memory.
Regardless, fortunately and, at least for now, We Steal Secrets reminds us that the truth can still be found in the wild.
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