“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” (2015) Review

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“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” (2015) Review

The year 2015 seemed to be a big year for cinematic spies. At least three movies have been released about the world of espionage. And one is scheduled to be released some three months from now. One of the movies that was already released was Guy Ritchie’s big screen adaptation of the NBC 1964-1968 television series called “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”.

The television series from the 1960s began with its two main characters – Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin – already working for the international intelligence agency called U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement). Ritchie’s film is basically an origin story and tells how Napoleon and Illya first became partners in the espionage business. Set in 1963, “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” begins in East Berlin, where professional thief-turned-C.I.A. Agent Napoleon Solo is tasked with retrieving a young woman named Gaby Teller and escorting her to West Berlin. Gaby is the daughter of an alleged Nazi scientist-turned-U.S. collaborator, who has disappeared a year or two ago from the United States. Tasked with stopping Napoleon from achieving his goal is a highly skilled K.G.B. agent named Illya Kuryakin.

Although Napoleon’s mission is a success, he is ordered by his C.I.A. handler Saunders to work with Illya and Gaby to investigate a shipping company owned by Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra, a wealthy couple of Nazi sympathizers. Due to the couple’s intent to create their own private nuclear weapon, the C.I.A. and K.G.B. have decided to make this operation a joint effort. Gaby becomes essential to the mission, since her uncle Rudi works for the Vinciguerras.

Mixed reviews greeted “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” when it first hit the theaters. Well, according to Wikipedia, the movie achieved mixed reviews. Judging from box office results, the movie barely made a profit. It seemed a pity that not many moviegoers were willing to take a chance on this film. Then again, I am not that surprised. Warner Brothers Studios barely made any effort to publicize this movie. And this was a mistake in my eyes. Today’s generation of young moviegoers are not familiar with the 1960s television series. In fact, the series had not been seen on the television screen since TNT Channel aired a handful of episodes back in 1996. The studio could have stepped up its game in publicizing the film. They could have also used re-released box sets of the old series at a reasonable price as tie-ins. And some moviegoers old enough to remember Norman Felton’s series, complained that the movie was not an exact replica. I have nothing to say about that. Well, I do. But that will come later.

“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” is not perfect. Actually, what movie is? And I do have one or two minor complaints and a major one. Okay, minor complaints. I was not that impressed by Daniel Pemberton’s score for the movie’s second half. I found it overbearing to the point that it nearly distracted me from the plot. My second complaint revolved around James Herbert’s editing. Well, I was impressed with his editing in most of the film . . . especially the car chase in East Berlin and the sequence featuring Napoleon and Illya’s break-in of the Vinciguerras’s shipyard. But I was not impressed by Herbert’s editing in the final action sequence featuring Napoleon and Illya’s attempt to rescue Gaby from a fleeing Alexander Vinciguerra. I found it slightly confusing and thought it had too many close ups. In fact, the sequence reminded me – in a negative way – of Paul Greengrass’ direction of the second and third “BOURNE” movies.

However, my main beef with “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” proved to be Joanna Johnston’s costume designs. The movie is supposed to be set in 1963. The costumes DID NOT reflect the fashions of that year. I kid you not. The following image is an example of women’s fashion in 1963:

Look at the images of Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debecki:

I cannot deny that Joanna Johnston’s designs are both original and gorgeous to look at. But . . . they are not a reflection of the movie’s 1963 setting. Judging from Vikander and Debecki’s costumes, I would say that the movie was actually set some time between 1968 and 1970 or 1971. And in the end, the movie’s costumes only reminded me of the costume mistakes featured in the 2011 movie, “X-MEN: FIRST-CLASS”.

I certainly had no problem with the movie’s plot written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. In fact, I rather enjoyed it. I have always wondered how Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin first met and started working for U.N.C.L.E. The television series never revealed this history, considering it began with the pair already working for the agency. And Rictchie and Wigram’s plot more than satisfied my curiosity. They made some changes from the television series. One, Napoleon became a former thief whom the C.I.A. blackmailed into working for them in exchange for avoiding prison. In some ways, this newly imagined Napoleon Solo reminded me of the Alexander Mundy character from the 1968-1970 television series, “IT TAKES A THIEF”. The Illya Kuryakin character underwent a few changes as well. He remained a somewhat stoic and uber professional agent, with a penchant for the occasional sardonic humor. But Ritchie and Wigram gave him a fearsome temper that was usually triggered by anything relating to his father, who had been dishonored by a scandal during World War II.

Ritchie and Wigram’s script not only utilized a bit of “IT TAKES A THIEF”, but also some characters from the TV version of “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” It seemed obvious to me that the Victoria and Alexander Vinciguerra were based on the Gervaise Ravel and Harold Bufferton characters that were portrayed by Anne Francis and John Van Dreelan in two Season One episodes. And fighting neo-Nazis is a theme that has permeated many spy movies and television shows throughout the years. Especially neo-Nazis with nuclear weapons. In fact, I just saw a Season One episode of the 60s’ series called (1.05) “The Deadly Games Affair” in which a former Nazi who tried to kick start a crazy plot to bring back the former glory of Hitler’s party. For “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”, I thought Ritchie and Wigram created an interesting twist on theme, by incorporating the Swinging Sixties scene in Europe . . . especially through characters like Victoria Vinciguerra and Gaby’s Uncle Rudi. As for the movie’s dialogue . . . well, I just adored it. I especially adored the interaction between Napoleon and Illya – especially in one scene in which they argued over the right wardrobe for Gaby to wear during their mission.

Speaking of performances, I tried to recall a performance that seemed . . . well, off kilter or just plain bad. Perhaps other critics came across such performances. I did not. Armie Hammer had an interesting task in his portrayal of K.G.B. agent Illya Kuryakin. He had the difficult task of conveying many aspects of Illya’s personality – his no-nonsense attitude, ruthlessness, emotional streak and barely controllable temper. And he did it . . . with great skill. I cannot recall if David McCallum ever had to deal with such an array of personality traits and blend them so seamlessly. Henry Cavill made an extremely charming Napoleon Solo. More importantly, he did an excellent job in conveying the character’s talent for manipulation and judge of character. I realize that his Napoleon Solo seemed more like an adaptation of the Alexander Mundy character. But watching his performance made me realize how much he reminded me of Robert Vaughn’s performance in the NBC series. Alicia Vikander, who portrayed Gaby Teller, proved to be such a surprise for me. One must understand that I have never seen “A ROYAL AFFAIR”. And I honestly do not recall her performance in “THE FIFTH ESTATE”. But I was very impressed by her performance as East German defector Gaby Teller, who turned out to be vital to Napoleon and Illya’s mission. Vikander connected very well with both of her leading men, especially Hammer. And she did a great job in conveying Gaby’s intelligence, toughness and strong will.

Hugh Grant pretty much took me by surprise with his performance as Alexander Waverly, the head of U.N.C.L.E. He was charming and witty, as usual. Of course, as usual. He is Hugh Grant. But he was also effective and projected a strong presence as U.N.C.L.E.’s pragmatic leader, who is ruthless enough to make some tough choices. When I first saw Elizabeth Debicki in “THE GREAT GATSBY”, I was very impressed by her performance. I was even more impressed by her portrayal of the villainous Victoria Vinciguerra. She conveyed a great deal of charm, style and wit in her performance. I also thought Debicki made a scary villain. Hell, she was one of the scariest villains of the Summer 2015 season. I was surprised to see Sylvester Groth, who played Gaby’s Fascist uncle. The last time I saw him, he portrayed Nazi Joseph Goebbels in 2009’s “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”. And he was funnier. He was a bit more scary as Gaby’s snobbish, yet sadistic Uncle Rudi. But he was also very funny . . . especially in his last scene in the movie. The movie also featured Jared Harris, whose take on a C.I.A. station chief seemed more like a spoof on American authority figures, along with solid performances from Luca Calvani, Simona Caparrini and Christian Berkel (who also appeared in “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”.

“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” had a few flaws. This is to be expected for just about any movie. And yes, I realize that it is not an exact replica of the NBC 1964-1968 series. Mind you, I could care less, for I believe originality is more important than repetition. And that is what I liked about “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” Director Guy Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram took an old television series and put their own original spin on it. And they were ably supported by a first-rate cast led by Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill.

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The Celebration of Mediocrity and Unoriginality in “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”

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“THE CELEBRATION OF MEDIOCRITY AND UNORIGINALITY IN “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”

Look … I liked the new “STAR WARS” movie, “THE FORCE AWAKENS”.  I honestly do.  Heck, I feel it is better than J.J. Abrams’ two “STAR TREK” films.  But I am astounded that this film has garnered so much acclaim.  It has won the AFI Award for Best Picture.  It has been nominated by the Critics Choice Award for Best Picture.

“THE FORCE AWAKENS”???  Really?  It did not take long for certain fans to point out that the movie’s plot bore a strong resemblance to the first “STAR WARS” movie, “A NEW HOPE”.  In fact, I am beginning to suspect that J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan had more or less plagiarized the 1977 film, along with aspects from other movies in the franchise.  Worse, it has some plot holes that Abrams has managed to ineffectively explain to the media.  In other words, his explanations seemed like shit in the wind and the plot holes remained obvious.

Then I found myself thinking about “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”, Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1964-1968 television series.  I will not deny that the movie had some flaws.  Just about every movie I have seen throughout my life had some flaws.  But instead of attempting a carbon copy of the television series, Ritchie put his own, original spin of the show for his movie.  And personally, I had left the movie theater feeling impressed.  And entertained.  It is not that Ritchie had created a perfect movie.  But he did managed to create an original one, based upon an old source.  Now that was impressive.

But instead of having his movie appreciated, a good deal of the public stayed away in droves.  Warner Brothers barely publicized the film.  Worse, the studio released in August, the summer movie season’s graveyard.  And for those who did see the movie, the complained that it was not like the television show.  Ritchie had made changes for his film.  In other words, Ritchie was criticized for being original with a movie based upon an old television series.

This is incredibly pathetic.  One director is criticized giving an original spin to his movie adaptation.  Another director is hailed as the savior of a movie franchise for committing outright plagiarism.  This is what Western culture has devolved into, ladies and gentlemen.  We now live in a world in which the only movies that are box office hits are those that form part of a franchise.  We live in a society in which glossy and mediocre shows like “DOWNTON ABBEY” are celebrated.  We live in a world in which a crowd pleasing, yet standard movie biopic like “THE KING’S SPEECH”can receive more acclaim than an original film like “INCEPTION”.

In regard to culture or even pop culture, this society is rushing toward conformity, familiarity and mediocrity.  God help us.

Ranking of Movies Seen During Summer 2015

Usually I would list my ten favorite summer movies of any particular year. However, I only watched ten new releases during the summer of 2015. Due to the limited number, I decided to rank the films that I saw:

 

 

RANKING OF MOVIES SEEN DURING SUMMER 2015

1. “Jurassic World” – In the fourth movie for the JURASSIC PARK franchise, a new dinosaur created for the Jurassic World theme park goes amok and creates havoc. Directed by Colin Trevorrow, the movie starred Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard.

 

 

2. “Ant-Man” – Convicted thief Scott Lang is recruited to become Ant-Man for a heist in this new entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directed by Peyton Reed, Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lily and Michael Douglas starred.

 

 

3. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” – Guy Ritchie directed this adaptation of the 1964-1968 television series about agents for the C.I.A. and KGB working together to fight neo-Nazis in the early 1960s. Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill and Alicia Vikander starred.

 

 

4. “Tomorrowland” – Brad Bird directed this imaginative tale about a a former boy-genius inventor and a scientifically inclined adolescent girl’s search for a special realm where ingenuity is encouraged. George Clooney, Britt Robertson and Hugh Laurie starred.

 

 

5. “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” – Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are forced to prevent an artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner from destroying mankind. Joss Whedon wrote and directed this second AVENGERS film.

 

 

6. “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” – Tom Cruise starred in this fifth entry in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE” film franchise about Ethan Hunt’s efforts to find and destroy a rogue intelligence organization engaged in terrorist activities.

 

 

7. “Mr. Holmes” – Ian McKellen starred in this adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel about the aging Sherlock Holmes’ efforts to recall his last case. Directed by Bill Condon, Laura Linney and Milo Parker co-starred.

 

 

8. “Fantastic Four” – Josh Trank directed this reboot of the Marvel comics series about four young people whose physical form is altered after they teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe. Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell starred.

 

 

9. “Entourage” – Doug Ellin wrote and directed this fluffy continuation of the 2004-2011 HBO series about a movie star and his group of friends dealing with a new project. Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara and Jeremy Piven starred.

 

 

10. “Terminator: Genisys” – Alan Taylor directed this fifth movie in the TERMINATOR franchise, an unexpected turn of events creates a fractured timeline when Resistance fighter Kyle Reese goes back to 1984 in order to prevent the death of leader John Connor’s mother. Arnold Schwartzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney and Jason Clarke starred.

“THE FIFTH ESTATE” (2013) Review

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“THE FIFTH ESTATE” (2013) Review

The subject of WikiLeaks has been something of an conundrum for me. I have been aware of the series of news stories about the website and its founder and spokesperson, Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg. But I must be honest . . . my thoughts on the whole matter tend to disappear at least a few minutes after hearing or reading about it. So when news of a film about WikiLeaks was announced, I found myself surprised by the online reaction to the news. 

“THE FIFTH ESTATE” drew its title from a term that describes a group that operates outside of the society’s normal groups, especially one that is considered beyond the restrictions or rules of those others. A “fifth estate” is strongly associated with journalists and media outlets viewed outside of or in opposition to the mainstream media or official press. This term could easily describe WikiLeaks, the Internet website and organization that publishes secret information, news leaks, and classified media from anonymous sources. The movie, which is directed by Bill Condon, is based upon Domscheit-Berg’s book “Inside WikiLeaks: My Time with Julian Assange and the World’s Most Dangerous Website” and“WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy” by journalists David Leigh and Luke Harding. Both were published in 2011. The movie follows the association between Assange and Domscheit-Berg, from their 2007 meeting at the Computer Chaos Club in Berlin to their estrangement over the Afghan War Logs. Judging from the movie’s source of material, it is easy to see that the story is mainly told from Domscheit-Berg’s point of view.

Is it a good movie? Many critics and filmgoers seem to believe otherwise. They directed their negative criticism toward Josh Singer’s screenplay and Bill Condon’s direction. In fact, many also believe it was a mistake for the movie to be told either from Domscheit-Berg’s point of view or those in the U.S. intelligence service. I now feel they were right in regard to the movie’s points-of-view. After all Assange proved to be the movie’s main topic in the end. I now feel that “THE FIFTH ESTATE” would have benefited from balanced viewpoints of both Domscheit-Berg and Assange. There were a few other aspects of “THE FIFTH ESTATE” I found a little troubling. There were moments when I could not ascertain some of the dialogue. I do not if this was due to the movie theater’s sound system or the performances in the film. “THE FIFTH ESTATE” also featured a set – an office space filled with desks – that served as a visual metaphor of the WikiLeaks website. Honestly, I found this so-called metaphor rather irrelevant and ham-fisted.

However, “THE FIFTH ESTATE” had its good points. I thought Bill Condon’s direction of the film to be solid and well-paced. He was ably assisted by Tobias Schliessler’s sharp cinematography and Virginia Katz’s skillful editing. Condon also did an excellent job of injecting suspension in a tale that focused on the Internet. I feel that he and screenwriter Josh Singer were right to include the consequences of the Afghan War Logs exposure in a few sequences featuring a Libyan doctor with political ties named Tarek Haliseh, who served as an informant for U.S. intelligence. Despite the film’s failure to focus some of its story from Assange’s viewpoint, I must admit that I found the movie’s plot very interesting. Thanks to“THE FIFTH ESTATE”, I managed to maintain my interest in WikiLeaks a lot longer than ten minutes or less. 

I cannot deny that “THE FIFTH ESTATE” greatly benefited from a talented cast. Benedict Cumberbatch gave a very interesting performance as colorful creator of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange. I have no idea if the latter was satisfied with Cumberbatch. And there is a good chance (or not) that the characterization was off. If it was off, then one must place the blame on Singer’s screenplay, not Cumberbatch’s skillful performance. A less skillful actor could have easily been overshadowed by Cumberbatch’s performance. Fortunately, Daniel Brühl was talented enough to make Daniel Domscheit-Berg a fascinating character in his own right – especially in scenes that conveyed the latter’s frustrations with the Assange character. A third performance that caught my eye came from David Thewlis, who was equally colorful as British journalist Nick Davies, who covered WikiLeaks’ exposure of the Afghan War Logs. I was also impressed by Laura Linney, who did an excellent job in conveying the U.S. intelligence services’ anger and frustration toward the WikiLeaks website. The movie also featured solid performances from Stanley Tucci, Alicia Vikander, Dan Stevens, Alexander Siddig, Peter Capaldi, Moritz Bleibtreu and Anthony Mackie. However, I was disappointed by the film’s minimum use of Mackie. For someone listed third in the cast, he had a very small role.

Despite the negative reaction to the movie and my belief that it could have included the viewpoint of main character Julian Assange, I still managed to enjoy “THE FIFTH ESTATE”. I thought director Bill Condon and screeenwriter Josh Singer did a solid job in creating a credible thriller from a movie about computer online leakage. More importantly, the film benefited from first-rate performances given by a talented cast led by Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl.