“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.

“J. EDGAR” (2011) Review

“J. EDGAR” (2011) Review

Actor/director Clint Eastwood directed his third – or possibly fourth – biopic film, during his career, with “J. EDGAR”, an examination of the career and private life of F.B.I. director, J. Edgar Hoover. The movie starred Leonard Di Caprio as the infamous lawman. 

“J. EDGAR” is a 137 minute movie that spanned Hoover’s career in a series of flashbacks. The movie begins in the early 1960s, when the famed F.B.I. director is recounting his forty-to-fifty years as a Federal lawman. Hoover’s recollections span from his participation in the Palmer Raids – a series of attempts by the U.S. Department of Justice to arrest and deport radical leftists, especially anarchists, from the United States, his appointment as director of the Bureau of Investigations in the 1920s, his “War on Crime” campaign in the 1930s, the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping during the same decade and his investigation of civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr.. The movie also focuses on his use of blackmail to retain his position with the F.B.I., and his relationships with both his mother and Clyde Tolson, his assistant director for the Bureau.

I do not think I would ever regard “J. EDGAR” as one of Eastwood’s best work. It had the potential to be a top-notch film. But a slightly incoherent script written by Dustin Lance Black prevented the movie from reaching its potential. One, the movie’s use of flashbacks started fine. But somewhere in the movie’s second half, this use fell flat. I suspect that my problem with the flashbacks was that Black’s script and Eastwood’s direction seemed inconsistent and slightly confusing.

Another problem I had with “J. EDGAR” was its focus on the Lindbergh Kidnapping Case. It was simply too much. Hoover reached the heights of his fame as the Bureau’s director, because of the manhunt for Midwestern criminals such as John Dillinger, Alvin Karpis and Charles Floyd. I realize that this topic was also covered in Michael Mann’s 2009 crime drama,“PUBLIC ENEMIES”. But Eastwood and Black seemed determined to ignore the topic, aside from Hoover’s bouts of jealousy toward the agent that hunted down many of these criminals – Melvin Purvis. Instead, Eastwood and Black decided to focus a great deal on the Bureau’s participation in the Lindbergh case. Too much, if you want my opinion. The film never touched on the Bureau’s dealings or lack of with organized crime. I find this a pity, because one of the most memorable moments in Hoover’s career was his so-called “arrest” of gangster Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, a publicity stunt supported by columnist Walter Winchell.

Fortunately, “J. EDGAR” was not a complete loss. I must admit that despite its flaws, it was a solid and entertaining movie. Eastwood’s direction seemed to be at its best in scenes that featured anarchist Luigi Galleani’s attempted to assassinate Hoover’s boss, Mitchell Palmer with a mail bomb; Hoover’s meeting with Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf and Charles Lindbergh; a highly charged scene between Hoover and his mother regarding his sexual preference; and especially the scenes featuring Hoover’s relationship with Tolson. Most movie or television productions tend to portray the relationship between the two men with a slight tawdriness. Eastwood and Black’s portrayal of the Hoover-Tolson relationship struck me as surprisingly tasteful and compassionate – especially since other aspects of Hoover’s life and character was portrayed with less sympathy.

I must admit that Tom Stern’s cinematography was a solid piece of work, but it did not exactly blow my mind. And if I must be frank, I was not exactly enamored of the film’s slightly gray tone. I also felt slightly leery of the makeup created for Di Caprio, Arnie Hammer and Naomi Watts. The makeup did not seem effective in aging the three leads in the 1960s and 70s sequences. However, I was impressed by James J. Murakami’s production designs that conveyed the years between 1919 and 1972. I believe the re-creation of the early and mid 20th century would not have been complete without Deborah Hopper’s superb costume designs.

The biggest virtue of “J. EDGAR” turned out to be its cast. Once again, Leonardo Di Caprio rose to the occasion and gave a superb portrayal of a complex and some would say, difficult personality. As usual, Di Caprio managed to inject a good deal of sympathy and poignancy into a historical figure that has a negative reputation over the years. I had been impressed by Armie Hammer’s solid portrayal of the Winklevoss twins in last year’s “THE SOCIAL NETWORK”. But he really outdid himself as Hoover’s right hand man, Clyde Tolson – especially in the scenes featuring the pair’s relationship. Judi Dench gave her usual solid performance as Hoover’s strong-willed mother, Anna Marie Hoover. But in the scene featuring Mrs. Hoover’s disapproval of her son’s sexual lifestyle, she was brilliant and slightly scary. Naomi Watts gave a solid and slightly melancholic performance as Hoover’s faithful secretary, Helen Gandy. “J. EDGAR” also featured solid support from the likes Josh Lucas as the introverted Charles Lindbergh, Dermot Mulroney as the ineffectual New Jersey State Police superintendent Herbert N. Schwarzkopf, Lea Thompson as Lela Rogers (Ginger’s mother) Geoff Pierson as the intense Mitchell Palmer and Jeffrey Donovan as Attorney General Robert Kennedy. However, I was a little confused by Donovan’s slightly exaggerated take on Kennedy’s Boston accent, considering that Donovan is also a native of Massachusetts.

I noticed that “J. EDGAR” did not earn enough to make a profit at the box office. In a way, I can see why. I feel that it was a solid movie that failed to live up to any potential it could have achieved – especially at the hands of a first-rate director like Clint Eastwood. But thanks to his direction, the movie’s production designs and a first-rate cast led by the superb Leonardo Di Caprio, “J. EDGAR” still proved to be a somewhat entertaining and solid film.

“THE SOCIAL NETWORK” (2010) Review

“THE SOCIAL NETWORK” (2010) Review

One of the movies touted as a strong Oscar contender last fall and winter was David Fincher’s recent movie called ”THE SOCIAL NETWORK”.  Based upon Ben Mezrich’s 2009 book about the founding of Facebook – The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal” – the movie starred Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield as two of Facebook’s co-founders, Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin.

”THE SOCIAL NETWORK” began in 2003, when Harvard University student, Mark Zuckerberg, came up with the idea to create a website to rate the attractiveness of female Harvard undergraduates, after his girlfriend Erica Albright broke up with him. After downloading photos and names of female students from the various databases of resident halls, Zuckerberg created a website called ”FaceMash” where male students can choose which of two girls presented at a time is more attractive. Zuckerberg’s actions became the catalyst for the creation of ”Facebook”, when his ”FaceMash” site attracted the attention of twin brothers Cameron Winklevoss and Tyler Winklevoss and their friend and partner, Divya Narendra, who hire him as their programmer for their site, ”Harvard Connection”. Instead, Zuckerberg asked his friend Eduardo Saverin to finance a new site he planned to create called ”Thefacebook”, the predecessor to”Facebook”. Zuckerberg’s new site also attracted the attention of entrepreneur and co-founder of ”Napster”, Sean Parker, of whom Saverin developed a dislike. The website also led to the formation of a new corporation, the end of Zuckerberg and Saverin’s friendship and several lawsuits filed against him.

From a technical point of view, ”THE SOCIAL NETWORK” is an excellent movie. Director David Fincher did an excellent job of making the best of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay. And the latter portrayed the creation of Facebook and the conflicts of all those involved with a witty and complex story. When I had first saw the trailer for ”THE SOCIAL NETWORK”, I suspected that the movie would portray Zuckerberg as this one-dimensional, arrogant and cold-blooded nerd with an inability to communicate with anyone. Superficially, actor Jesse Eisenberg portrayed the entrepreneur in that matter. But thanks to Fincher’s direction, Sorkin’s script and Eisenberg’s performance, Zuckerberg is portrayed with greater complexity. And I can say the same about the other characters. My only complaint about the movie is that I found the revelation that the scenes depicting the creation of ”Facebook” were flashbacks handled in a very awkward manner.

Aside from Eisenberg’s excellent performance, I was also impressed by Andrew Garfield’s portrayal of ”Facebook” co-founder Eduardo Saverin. Like Eisenberg, he gave a complex portrayal of his character without losing any sympathy. Armie Hammer must have had a ball portraying the Winklevoss twins. Rooney Mara was very effective as Erica Albright, the ”girl who got away” and whose rejection of Zuckerberg set in motion the creation of ”Facebook”. But I was truly impressed by Justin Timberlake’s portrayal of ”Facebook consultant and entrepreneur Sean Parker. I had no idea that the singer had the acting chops to portray such an energetic and complex role. Also, it was interesting to see Joseph Mazello (of ”JURASSIC PARK” and the recent HBO miniseries, ”THE PACIFIC”) portraying another ”Facebook” co-founder, Dustin Moskovitz. However, he does not seem to physically resemble the actual person.

From a technical point of view, it is easy to see why ”THE SOCIAL NETWORK” became a front runner for the Academy Awards for a while.  It is basically a well made movie with very little flaws. However, it never became a favorite of mine. Why? Quite simply, it left me feeling cold.  It failed to move me. I found the events of the creation of”Facebook” and the law suits that followed very interesting . . . but cold. I suspect my lack of emotions over the film has a lot to do with Fincher’s chilly direction and my inability to really care for any of the characters. I like complex characters in fictional or biographical stories a lot. But I found the characters in ”THE SOCIAL NETWORK”simply too chilly and self-involved for my tastes. And Fincher’s direction and Sorkin’s script failed to make me care about them or their situation.  Despite my feelings toward the movie, I think it deserved the Best Picture Oscar a lot more than the actual winner, “THE KING’S SPEECH”, did.