“X-MEN” Movies Ranking

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Below is my ranking of the movies I have seen from the “X-MEN” film franchise.  Warning: many may not agree with it:

“X-MEN” MOVIES RANKING

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1. “X2: X-Men United” (2003) – Bryan Singer directed this film about Army colonel William Stryker’s plans to use Professor Charles Xavier to destroy the world’s mutant population once and for all. As you can see, this is my favorite in the franchise.

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3. “X-Men: First-Class” (2011) – Matthew Vaughn directed this tale set in 1962 about the first meeting between Charles Xavier “Professor X” and Erik Lensherr “Magneto”, their creation of the X-Men and their efforts to prevent mutant villain Sebastian Shaw from using the Cuban Missile Crisis to acquire world domination. Despite the questionable costumes and a few plot holes, this was a big favorite of mine.

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3. “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006) – Brett Ratner directed this tale about the X-Men overcoming tragedy to deal with the resurrected and more powerful Jean Grey and Magneto’s continuing war on non-mutant humans. Many fans hated this film. I enjoyed it, although I found the pacing a bit too rushed. Enough said.

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4. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009) – Gavin Hood directed this movie about the origins of James Howlett aka the Wolverine and his relationship with his murderous half-brother Victor Creed aka Sabertooth and his first class with William Stryker in the 1970s. Another movie hated by the fans. And again, I enjoyed it, although I consider it lesser than the 2006 movie.

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5. “X-Men: Days of Future Days” (2014) – Directed by Bryan Singer, this movie is a time-travel adventure for Wolverine, who must convince a younger Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr to prevent Mystique from murdering a anti-mutant scientist, whose work will prove deadly for mutants within a half century. Great premise, but shaky execution. Too many plot holes, but still enjoyable.

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6. “The Wolverine” (2013) – James Mangold directed this atmospheric tale about Wolverine, still grieving over a recent tragedy, traveling to Japan to meet the Wolverine heading to Japan for a reunion with a soldier named Ichirō Yashida whose life he saved during the Nagasaki bombing at the end of World War II. He ends up defending Yashida’s granddaughter from the Yakuza and her avaricious father. Great Japanese atmosphere and interesting beginning, but it nearly fell to pieces in the last half hour.

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7. “X-Men” (2000) – Bryan Singer directed this first movie in the franchise about Wolverine and a young Marie aka “Rogue”’s introduction to the X-Men and their efforts to defeat Magneto’s plans to transform the entire population into mutants against their will. Enjoyable, but it felt like a B-movie trying to disguise itself as an A-lister. Also, too many plot holes.

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8. “Deadpool” (2016) – Ryan Reynolds starred in this reboot of the Deadpool character about the comic book hero’s origins and his hunt for the man who gave him an accelerated healing factor, but also a scarred physical appearance. Despite the sharp humor and fourth wall cinematic device, the narrative struck me as sloppily written and mediocre.

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“CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” (2016) Review

 

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” (2016) Review

One of the more popular story lines to emerge from Marvel Comics was the 2006 story called “Civil War” in which many comic book characters from the company’s franchise battled over a new law designed to have superpowered individuals act under Federal regulation. Kevin Fiege and Marvel Films decided to adapt this story line for the final film in their Captain America trilogy.

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” features some differences from the Marvel Comics comic series. The latter featured the Superhuman Registration Act, which would force those with superhuman abilities to register with the U.S. government . . . even at the expense of their secret identies. All those with special abilities – via magic, science, extra-terrestrials and even gods – would be forced to register. The 2016 movie featured the Sokovia Accords, a set of internationally ratified legal documents that provide regulation and frame-working for the military/law enforcement deployment of enhanced individuals, particularly the Avengers. To be honest, the difference between the Superhuman Registration Act and the Sokovia Accords strikes me as rather minimal.

However, the plot for “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” began with a flashback to 1991 when a mysterious assassin intercepts an automobile on an isolated road, carrying a case of super-soldier serum. The plot jumped some twenty-five years later to Lagos, Nigeria; where a team of Avengers under the command of Steve Rogers aka Captain America stop a HYDRA team led by Brock Rumlow aka Crossbones from stealing a biological weapon from a lab in Lagos. When Rumlow blows himself up, hoping to kill Steve; Wanda Maximoff aka tries to displace the blast into the sky with telekinesis. Unfortunately, the blast destroys a nearby building, killing several Wakandan humanitarian workers. Because of the Lagos incident, U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross informs the Avengers that the United Nations is preparing to pass the Sokovia Accords, which will establish a U.N. panel to oversee and control the team.

Some members of the Avengers support the Accords and decide to follow Tony Stark aka Iron Man, who continues to feel guilt over his creation of the A.I. Ultron and the latter’s destruction of Sokovia. Others decide to follow Steve, who remains suspicious of the governments’ use of enhanced individuals. But when a bombing disrupts a conference in Vienna where the Accords were to be ratified and kills King T’Chaka of Wakanda, security footage indicates that the bomber is James “Bucky” Barnes aka the Winter Soldier, whom T’Chaka’s son, T’Challa aka Black Panther, vows to kill. Steve, who has been searching for Bucky since the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., becomes determined to find Bucky first before anyone else can harm him and find out what really happened in Vienna. The search for Bucky manifests into another story line when the latter and Steve begin to suspect that someone from HYDRA might behind

I must admit that when I first learned that the third Captain America movie would be an adaptation of Marvel’s “Civil War”, I was not happy. I felt certain that the movie would be more of an Avengers tale than another Captain America movie that would round off the character’s trilogy. But I had decided to put aside such fears and see the movie. “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” had a great deal to offer. Exciting action sequences, plenty of travel, drama, thought provoking issues and especially some first-rate acting.

One aspect of “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” that really caught my attention were the issues presented in this story. And the issues in this story seemed to focus on guilt and responsibilities. This especially seemed to be the case for the Avengers in the wake of what happened in Sokovia and Lagos. Although Steve, Sam Wilson aka the Falcon, and especially Wanda feel guilty for what happened in Lagos; they would prefer to deal with the consequences on their own rather than allow the government to take control of their lives as Avengers. Tony, James “Rhodey” Rhodes aka War Machine, Vision and Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow seemed to feel that the best course to deal with the consequences of the group’s actions is to allow the government to control their actions. What is interesting is that while various governments and especially Thaddeus Ross want the Avengers to pay a high price for what happened in Sokovia and Lagos, Ross refuses to acknowledge guilt or pay the consequences for the battle in Harlem between Bruce Banner aka the Hulk and Emil Blonsky aka Abomination in “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”. Someone had pointed out how friends found themselves on opposite sides of this conflict. I saw this theme played out with Natasha, who found herself opposing Clint Barton aka Hawkeye, Sam and Steve – three men with whom she had formed close friendships. This theme also played out with Wanda’s growing friendship with Vision, when the pair of them took opposing sides on the Accords issue.

The past seemed to weigh heavily in this movie, as well. The ghost of Steve’s past – in the form of one “Bucky” Barnes manifests on the heels of the Vienna bombing. Another ghost from Steve’s past manifested in the form of Sharon Carter, a former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, whom he had first met in “THE WINTER SOLDIER”. Both Steve and Sam were surprised to discover that Sharon was the great-niece of his former love, Peggy Carter. One could say the same for Bucky, whose past as the brainwashed Winter Soldier is not only used to frame him for the Vienna bombing, but also manifests in the discovery of Howard and Maria Stark’s fates. And while I found this revelation rather interesting, I did not find it particularly surprising, after the events of “THE WINTER SOLDIER”. In fact, many fans of the franchise did not seem surprised. Tony’s ghosts from the past also formed a cloud above this story. His and Bruce’s creation of Ultron not only led to Sokovia’s destruction, but also to his support of the Sokovia Accords. More importantly, Sokovia’s destruction led a colonel from an elite Sokovian commando unit named Helmut Zemo to seek revenge for the deaths of his family during the battle against Ultron. And the newly ascended King T’Challa struggled to deal with his father’s death, as he sought to kill Bucky for the death of his father King T’Chaka during the Vienna bombing.

But “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” is foremost an action film. And the movie featured some first-rate action sequences. Many film critics and moviegoers have been talking about the battle between the two Avengers factions at a Berlin airport. And yes, I found it impressive . . . somewhat. My favorite moment occurred when Scott Lang aka Ant-Man transformed himself into a giant, taking everyone by surprise. But if I must be honest, the airport sequence is not my favorite action scene in the movie. One of my favorites proved to be the chase sequence in Berlin in which the police, Steve, Sam and T’Challa pursued a fleeing Bucky. Another favorite turned out to be the movie’s first action sequence in which Steve’s Avenger team battled against Rumlow and his HYDRA team in Lagos.

The movie also featured some excellent acting. To be honest, I cannot think of a bad performance in this film. Once again, Chris Evans stepped up to the plate and provided another first-rate performance as Steve Rogers aka Captain America. For once, his Steve proved to be a more reflective man, who had learned to control his quick temper (until near the end of the film). I can also say the same for Robert Downey Jr., who gave another excellent performance as Tony Stark aka Iron Man.

Scarlett Johansson was excellent as former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow, who desperately tried to get Steve and Sam to cooperate with the government and sign the Accords. Anthony Mackie’s portrayal of Sam Wilson aka the Falcon proved to be a little more emotional and satisfying, as his character openly expressed contempt toward the Sokovia Accords and minor distrust toward Bucky Barnes’ re-appearance in Steve’s life. Sebastian Stan continued his excellent performance as Bucky Barnes, now a desperate man trying to keep both his memories and his life intact. Don Cheadle’s performance throughout most of the movie struck me as solid. But I must admit that he really stepped up his game and gave a very poignant performance in his last scene in which he and Tony discuss the near tragic circumstances of the Berlin airport fight. Both Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany clicked on screen as Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch and Vision. This was especially apparent in one scene in which Wanda becomes aware that Vision has been trying to prevent her from leaving the Avengers’ headquarters.

Chadwick Boseman made a very impressive debut as T’Challa aka Black Panther. Boseman did an excellent job in portraying T’Challa’s barely controlled anger over his father’s death and his obsession in exacting revenge. Eight years after “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”, William Hurt repeated his role as Bruce Banner’s main adversary, Thaddeus Ross, who has become the U.S. Secretary of Defense and main supporter of the Sokovia Accords. And he was a lot more subtle and scary in this film than he was in the 2008 movie. Daniel Brühl gave a very subtle, yet intense performance as Helmut Zemo, the former Sokovian commando who wanted revenge against the Avengers for the deaths of his family. Alfre Woodard gave a very sublte, yet emotional performance as a woman who had confronted Tony about the death of her son in Sokovia. The movie also featured some solid performances from Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, John Slattery, Hope Davis and Frank Grillo.

Despite my admiration for the movie’s cast, the action sequences and some of the issues raised in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR”, I had a major problem with it. In fact, I had several problems with it. First of all, the whole idea behind the Sokovia Accords really made no sense to me. I could say that this whole matter began because several Wakandan civilians were killed, when Steve and Wanda were trying to stop Rumlow from harming others through self-detonation. But it really began with the Chitauri invasion of New York in “THE AVENGERS”. Then came the fallout from the destruction of the HYDRA sponsored helicarriers in “THE WINTER SOLDIER”, along with Iron Man and the Hulk’s battle in South Africa and the destruction of Sokovia in “AGE OF ULTRON” and finally, the Lagos incident in this film. For some reason, people like Thaddeus Ross want to solely blame the Avengers for the civilian fallout and not the villains. In the case of the events of “AGE OF ULTRON”, Tony, Bruce and Wanda were to blame. And Wanda . . . was not an Avenger at the time. What I could not understand is that neither Steve, Sam or anyone else who supported them had bothered to point this out. In fact, no one had bothered to point out Ross’ own involvement in the Hulk v. Abomination battle that nearly destroyed Harlem in “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”. You know . . . like Tony and Natasha?

Even if the Avengers had found themselves under government control, the possibility that innocent civilians might get hurt would always be possible. Not even the Avengers or any other costumed hero/heroine can save everyone. Yet, no bothered to point this out. I also noticed that Thaddeus Ross failed to mention the Hulk v. Abomination battle in Harlem. This is understandable, considering he was partially to blame for what happened. But why did no one pointed this out? And could someone please explain why the Accords were named after the Sokovia incident, instead of the incident in Lagos, which had kick-started the international community’s decision to create them in the first place? Martin Freeman portrayed a character from the Joint Counter Terrorist Centre, who helped Ross regulate the Avengers. The problem is that . . . he really did nothing in this movie, except show up and then sneer, first at Bucky and later, at the movie’s villain. Frankly, I found his appearance in this movie a complete waste of time. Speaking of waste . . . Frank Grillo, who had skillfully portrayed Brock Rumlow aka Crossbones in “THE WINTER SOLDIER”, reprised his character for this movie. And guess what happened to him? The poor schmuck was bumped off via a suicide bombing some twenty to thirty minutes into the film. Am I to believe that Rumlow, a major character in “THE WINTER SOLDIER”, had been reduced to a cameo, a plot device for the Lagos sequence . . . and nothing else? I guess so. In the end, Marvel ended up wasted Grillo’s time, just as they had wasted Thomas Kretschmann’s time in “AGE OF ULTRON”. And what were the German special forces, the GSG 9 doing in Bucharest, Romania? Bucharest was Bucky Barnes’ home at the time. And it was at his apartment where the GSG 9 tried to arrest him. What were they doing in a foreign country, trying to arrest an American citizen for a terrorist attack (the Accords conference) that happened in another foreign country – namely Austria. What on earth was the GSG 9 doing there?

I also had a problem with Tony Stark’s discovery that Bucky Barnes was the HYDRA assassin who had killed his parents. This discovery led Tony to try to kill Bucky, and Steve to come to his best friend’s defense. Two years earlier, Natasha Romanoff and Nick Fury had released top secret S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA files on the Internet, during the battle at the Triskelion in “THE WINTER SOLDIER”. Through these files, Helmut Zemo discovered that Bucky was a brainwashed assassin used by HYDRA to kill Howard and Maria Stark back in 1991. If Zemo had been able to gain access to those files, why did Tony or any Stark Enterprises employee failed to do so? Why did he not make any attempt to access the files? A man, whose own father had been one of the co-founders of S.H.I.E.L.D. and a former enemy of HYDRA’s? Considering Tony’s nature, I find it difficult to believe that he never bothered to make the attempt. I have a deep suspicion that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely may have deliberately ignored this issue so they would have an excuse for Tony to suddenly react to Zemo’s revelation. How sloppy . . . and manipulative.

And then there is the problem of Robert Downey Jr. The actor was first cast in “CIVIL WAR” in a supporting role. However, the actor refused to do the movie, unless he was made a co-star. And Marvel gave in to his demands, because they so desperately wanted him in another Marvel film. Why did they allow Downey Jr., who portrayed Iron Man, to become a co-star in a Captain America movie? The name in the movie’s title is Captain America. I do not recall the name of Iron Man being in the title. So, why did Kevin Fiege and Marvel allow Downey Jr. to hijack half of Chris Evans’ third solo film? Especially since Evans was the lead in one of Marvel’s biggest hits – both financially and critically. Why did a Captain America movie end up giving as much attention to Tony’s character arc as it did to Steve’s? Tony’s character arc had more screen time than Bucky Barnes or Sam Wilson, who had stronger emotional connections to Steve than Tony. Why did the movie’s screenplay featured a five-to-ten minute scene in which Tony Stark recruited Peter Parker aka Spider-Man for his team and did not bother to show how Steve recruited Clint Barton and Scott Lang? In a Captain America movie?

You know, Marvel could have saved the Civil War story line for an Avengers film and wrapped up Steve’s connection to HYDRA in this film. This movie could have focused upon Steve’s efforts to help Bucky and put HYDRA behind him for good. The movie “ANT-MAN” featured former S.H.I.E.L.D. official/HYDRA mole Mitchell Carson alive and well at the end, with a sample of Darren Cross’ Yellow Jacket serum in his possession. They could have tied this up with the Winter Soldier program . . . or create another plot featuring HYDRA. The narrative for “CIVIL WAR” could have focused on the Winter Soldier program, allowed Helmut Zemo to remain a HYDRA agent, allowed Steve’s friendships with both Sam and Bucky to become more complex and allowed his relationship with Sharon Carter to develop at a decent pace. Instead, Fiege and Marvel decided to (temporarily?) end the HYDRA story arc with former S.H.I.E.L.D. director Phil Coulson and ATCU director Glenn Talbot blowing up HYDRA bases . . . off screen in an “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” episode called (3.18) “Singularity”. I found this so unsatisfying. And since Marvel and Fiege decided that this third Captain America movie should be more about the Sokovia Accords, this left Sam and Bucky engaged in a long and rather stupid running joke regarding their mutual competition for Steve’s friendship. The latter’s romance with Sharon proved to be very rushed. And instead of admitting this, some fans are blaming actress Emily VanCamp and the Sharon Carter character, instead of the movie’s screenwriters and producers. They have also began promoting the idea of Steve becoming bisexual and beginning a romance with Bucky (and not Sam, whom I suspect was not white enough for them). And I am not the only one who has noticed that Zemo’s motivation for revenge against the Avengers bore a strong resemblance to the Maximoff twins’ hostility toward Tony Stark in “AGE OF ULTRON”?

“CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” featured some excellent acting by a cast led by Chris Evans, some interesting issues on whether government intervention is a good thing or not, and some great action sequences, thanks to directors Anthony and Joe Russo. But for me, “CIVIL WAR” turned out to be nothing more than an Avengers movie shoved into a Captain America flick. And in the end, I found this rather unsatisfying and schizophrenic.

“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

Several years ago, I read an article in which Steven Spielberg had expressed a desire to direct a James Bond movie. It has been over a decade since the director had made this comment. And as far as I know, he has only directed two movies that had anything to do with spies – the 2005 movie “MUNICH”, which co-starred the current Bond actor, and his latest film, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”.

Like “MUNICH”, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” is a spy tale with a strong historical background. Based upon Giles Whittell’s 2010 book,“Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War”, the movie centered around the 1960 U-2 Incident and the efforts of attorneyJames B. Donovan to negotiate the exchange of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for the captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel – whom Donovan had unsuccessfully defended from charges of espionage against the United States. Although Whittell’s book focused upon a larger cast of characters involved in the U-2 incident and the famous spy exchange, the screenwriters – Matt Charman, along with Joel and Ethan Coen – and Spielberg tightened their focus upon Donovan’s role in the incident.

It occurred to me that in the past fifteen years, I can only think of five Steven Spielberg-directed movies that I have truly liked. Five out of eleven movies. Hmmmm . . . I do not know if that is good or bad. Fortunately, one of those movies that I managed to embrace was this latest effort, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”. I enjoyed it very much. I would not rank it at the same level as “MUNICH” or“LINCOLN”. But I thought it was a pretty solid movie for a director of Spielberg’s caliber. The latter and the movie’s screenwriters made the intelligent choice to focus on one particular person involved in the entire incident – James B. Donovan. If they had attempted to cover every aspect of Whittell’s book, Spielberg would have been forced to release this production as a television miniseries.

Yet, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” still managed to cover a great deal of the events surrounding the shooting of Powers’ U-2 spy plane and the exchange that followed. This is due to the screenwriters’ decision to start the movie with the arrest of Rudolf Abel in 1957. More importantly, the narrative went into details over the arrest, the U.S. decision to put Abel on trial, their choice of Donovan as his attorney and the trial itself. In fact, the movie covered all of this before Powers was even shot down over the Soviet Union. The screenwriters and Spielberg also went out of their way to cover the circumstances of the arrest and incarceration of American graduate student Frederic Pryor, who was vising his East Berlin girlfriend, when he was arrested. And that is because the writers had the good sense to realize – like Whittell before them – that the incidents surrounding the arrests of both Abel and Pryor were just as important as Powers being shot down by the Soviets.

What I best liked about “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was its ambiguous portrayal of the nations involved in the entire matter – the United States, the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). No country was spared. Both the United States and the Soviet Union seemed bent upon not only projecting some image of a wounded nation to the world. Both engaged in sham trials for Abel and Powers that left a bad taste in my mouth. And the movie portrayed East Germany as some petulant child pouting over the fact that neither of the other two countries were taking it seriously. Which would account for that country’s vindictive treatment toward Pryor. And neither the U.S. or the Soviets seemed that concerned over Pryor’s fate – especially the U.S. Watching the movie finally made me realize how the Cold War now strikes me as irrelevant and a waste of time.

As much as I enjoyed “BRIDGE OF SPIES”, the movie seemed to lack a sense of urgency that struck me as odd for this kind of movie. And I have to blame Spielberg. His direction seemed a bit . . . well, a bit too relaxed for a topic about the Cold War at its most dangerous. Many might point out that “BRIDGE OF SPIES” is basically a historic drama in which anyone familiar with the U-2 incident would know how it ends. Yet Both “MUNICH” and “LINCOLN”, along with Ron Howard’s “APOLLO 13” and Roger Donaldson’s 2000 film, “THIRTEEN DAYS”, seemed to possess that particular sharp urgency, despite being historic dramas. But for“BRIDGE OF SPIES”, Spielberg’s direction seemed just a tad too relaxed – with the exception of a few scenes. One last problem I had with “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was the ending. Remember . . . this is Steven Spielberg, a director notorious for dumping a surprising layer of saccharine on an otherwise complex tale. This saccharine was on full display in the movie’s finale sequence that featured Donovan’s return to the United States . . . especially the scene in which he is riding an El train to his home in the Bronx and his family’s discovery of his activities in Eastern Europe. It was enough saccharine to make me heave an exasperated sigh.

Speaking of Donovan’s El Train ride back to his neighborhood, there was one aspect of it that I found impressive. I must admit how cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, a longtime collaborator of Spielberg’s since the early 1990s, allowed the camera to slowly sweep over Donovan’s Bronx neighborhood from an elevated position. I found the view rather rich and detailed. In fact, Kamiński provided a similar sweeping bird eye’s view of the Berlin Wall and the two “enclaves” that bordered it. Another aspect of the movie’s production values that impressed me were Adam Stockhausen’s production designs. I thought he did an outstanding job in re-creating both New York City and Berlin of the late 1950s and early 1960s. And his work was ably assisted by Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Henrich’s set decorations; along with the art direction team of Marco Bittner Rosser, Scott Dougan, Kim Jennings and Anja Müller.

The performances featured in “BRIDGE OF SPIES” struck me as pretty solid. I thought Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemmons, Michael Gaston, Will Rogers and Austin Stowell did great work. But for my money, the best performances came from lead Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Dakin Matthews and Sebastian Koch. Dakin Matthews has always been a favorite character actor of mine. I have always found his performances rather colorful. However, I would have to say that his portrayal of Federal Judge Byers, who seemed exasperated by Donovan’s attempt to give Abel a fair trial, struck me as a lot more subtle and effective than many of his past roles. Sebastian Koch gave a very interesting performance as East German attorney Wolfgang Vogel, who seemed intensely determined that his country play a major role in the spy swap and not be cast aside. Superficially, Tom Hanks’ role as James Donovan seemed like the typical “boy scout” role he had especially became known for back in the 1990s. And in some ways, it is. But I really enjoyed how the actor conveyed Donovan’s increasing disbelief over his country’s questionable handling of Abel’s trial and his sense that he is a fish-out-of-water in a divided Berlin. However, I feel that the best performance came from Mark Rylance, who gave a deliciously subtle, yet entertaining portrayal of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. What I liked about Rylance’s performance is that he did not portray Abel as some kind of stock KGB agent, but a subtle and intelligent man, who seemed clearly aware of the more unpleasant side of both American and Soviet justice.

I might as well be frank. I do not think I would ever regard “BRIDGE OF SPIES” as one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies. I thought the movie lacked a sense of urgency and sharpness that nearly robbed the film of any suspension . . . despite it being a historical drama. But, I still believe it was a first-rate film. I also thought that Spielberg and the movie’s screenwriters did a great job in conveying as many details as possible regarding the U-2 incident and what led to it. The movie also featured a first-rate cast led by the always incomparable Tom Hanks. Overall, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” proved that Spielberg has yet to lose his touch.

“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.

“AGENT CARTER” Season One (2015) Episodes Ranking

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Below is my ranking of the eight episodes featured in Season One of ABC’s “AGENT CARTER”. Created by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the series stars Hayley Atwell as Agent Margaret “Peggy” Carter:

“AGENT CARTER” SEASON ONE (2015) Episodes Ranking

1 - 1.06 A Sin to Err

1. (1.06) “A Sin to Err” – While Agent Peggy Carter and Howard Stark’s valet Edwin Jarvis investigate a mysterious woman whom Stark may have dated, Chief Roger Dooley and the rest of the Strategic Scientific Reserve (S.S.R.) staff begin to suspect that Peggy might be a traitor in their midst.

2 - 1.05 The Iron Ceiling

2. (1.05) “The Iron Ceiling” – After a message from the Leviathan intelligence agency is decoded; Peggy, Agent Jack Thompson and the Howling Commandos investigate a Soviet military complex to stop a possible sale of Stark’s missing weapons.

3 - 1.08 Valediction

3. (1.08) “Valediction” – In this season finale, Peggy and her fellow S.S.R. agents race to stop a pair of Leviathan agents from kidnapping Stark and dumping lethal gas on the population of New York City.

5 - 1.04 The Blitzkrieg Button

4. (1.04) “Blitzkrieg Button” – Stark briefly returns to New York City in order to instruct Peggy in getting her hands on one of his weapons, now in the hands of the S.S.R. Meanwhile, Chief Dooley travels to Germany to interview a convicted Nazi military criminal about the Battle of Finow, in which most of the Soviet troops were massacred.

4 - 1.01 Now Is Not the End

5. (1.01) “Now Is Not the End” – The series premiere features Peggy, who is still grieving over the “death” of Steve Rogers, arriving at her new assignment with the S.S.R. in 1946 New York City. She is also recruited by Howard Stark, who is suspected of selling his weapons to the Soviets, to find out who had stolen them.

6 - 1.07 Snafu

6. (1.07) “SNAFU” – A suspicious Chief Dooley and the other S.S.R. agents interrogate Peggy about her connection to Stark and Leviathan. Meanwhile, the Leviathan agents get their hands on the lethal gas that had been responsible for the massacre at the Battle of Finow.

7 - 1.03 Time and Tide

7. (1.03) “Time and Tide” – Jarvis is interrogated by Thompson regarding Stark’s whereabouts. Meanwhile, the S.S.R. discover a typewriter used to exchange coded messages by the Leviathan agents.

8 - 1.02 Bridge and Tunnel

8. (1.02) “Bridge and Tunnel” – Peggy and Jarvis set out to find a missing truck filled with nitramene weapons.

Top Five Favorite “THE AMERICANS” Season One (2013) Episodes

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Below is a list of my five favorite episodes from Season One of FX’s “THE AMERICANS”. Created by Joe Weisberg, the series stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys:

TOP FIVE FAVORITE “THE AMERICANS” SEASON ONE (2013) Episodes

1 - 1.10 Only You

1. (1.10) “Only You” – The FBI’s tenacious investigation of Agent Chris Amador’s death leads the KGB to frame Elizabeth Jenning’s colleague and former lover, Gregory Thomas, for his murder in order to protect Elizabeth and Philip’s identities.

2 - 1.07 Duty and Honor

2. (1.07) “Duty and Honor” – During a mission to discredit a Polish dissident in New York City, Philip is reunited with a former lover and fellow KGB agent named Irina.

3 - 1.13 The Colonel a

3. (1.13) “The Colonel” – In this tense season finale, Philip and handler Claudia proceed to meet with an Air Force colonel, who might be a new source. Meanwhile, Elizabeth sets out to retrieve a bug from Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s home, unaware that the FBI has set a trap.

4 - 1.04 In Control

4. (1.04) “In Control” – Following the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, the FBI attempt to assess whether the KGB was involved. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Philip prepare to deal with any excessive reactions from the American intelligence community.

5 - 1.06 Trust Me

5. (1.06) “Trust Me” – Elizabeth and Philip are abducted and brutally questioned. Their abductors turn out to be KGB agents instructed by Claudia to determine if either of them is a mole. Meanwhile, FBI Agent Stan Chambers helps his Soviet source Nina frame her embassy supervisor for treason.

“THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” (1990) Review

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“THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” (1990) Review

I will be the first to admit that I have never been an ardent reader of Tom Clancy’s novels. Many who know me would find this strange, considering my penchant for the movie adaptations of his stories. The first I ever saw was “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER”, the 1990 adaptation of Clancy’s 1984 novel of the same title.

The last remnants of the Cold War – at least the one between the United States and the Soviet Union – were being played out when “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” hit the screen. Realizing this, director John McTiernan, screenwriter Larry Ferguson (who also had a role in the film) and producer Mace Neufeld decided to treat Clancy’s story as a flashback by setting the movie in the year Clancy’s novel was published. The movie begins with the departure of the new Soviet submarine, the Red October, which possesses a new caterpillar drive that renders it silent. In command of the Red October is Captain Marko Ramius. Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, the U.S. Navy submarine called the U.S.S. Dallas has a brief encounter with the Red October before it loses contact due to the Soviet sub’s caterpillar drive. This encounter catches the attention of C.I.A. analyst Jack Ryan, who embarks upon studying the Red October’s schematics.

Unbeknownst to the C.I.A., Captain Ramius has put in motion a plan for the defection of his senior officers and himself. They also intend to commit treason by handing over the Red October to the Americans. Unfortunately, Ramius has left a letter stating his intentions to his brother-in-law, a Soviet government official. This leads the Soviet ambassador in Washington D.C. to inform the Secretary of Defense that the Red October has been lost at sea and requires the U.S. Navy’s help for a “rescue mission”. However, Ryan manages to ascertain that Ramius plans to defect. When the Soviets change tactics and claim that Captain Ramius has become a renegade with plans to fire a missile at the U.S. coast, Ryan realizes that he needs to figure out “how” Ramius plans to defect before the Soviet or U.S. Navies can sink the Red October.

I might as well put my cards on the table. After twenty-three years, “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” holds up very well as a Cold War thriller. What prevented it from becoming a dated film were the filmmakers’ decision to treat Clancy’s tale as a flashback to the last decade of the Cold War. I have never read Clancy’s novel. In fact, I have only read two of his novels – “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger”. Because of this, I could not judge the movie’s adaptation of the 1984 novel. But there is no doubt that “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” is a first-rate – probably superb thriller. Screenwriters Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart made another first-rate contribution to the script by not rushing the narrative aspect of the story. The movie is not some fast-paced tale stuffed with over-the-top action. Yes, there is action in the film – mainly combat encounters, a murder, hazardous flying in a rain storm and a shoot-out inside the Red October’s engine room. And it is all exciting stuff. However, Ferguson and Stewart wisely detailed the conversations held between Ramius and his fellow defectors, Ryan’s attempts to figure out Ramius’ defection plans and his efforts to convince various high-ranking U.S. Naval officers not to accept the Soviets’ lies about the Red October’s captain.

“THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” also features some excellent performances. Sean Connery gave one of his best performances as the Red October’s enigmatic and wily captain, Markus Ramius. Alec Baldwin was equally impressive as the slightly bookish, yet very intelligent C.I.A. analyst, Jack Ryan. A part of me believes it is a pity that he never portrayed the role again. The movie also boasted fine performances from James Earl Jones as Ryan’s boss, C.I.A. Deputy Director James Greer; Scott Glenn as the intimidating captain of the U.S.S. Dallas, Bart Mancuso; Sam Neill as Ramius’ very loyal First Officer, Vasily Borodin; Fred Dalton Thompson as Rear Admiral Joshua Painter; Courtney B. Vance as the Dallas’ talented Sonar Technician, Ronald “Jonesy” Jones; Tim Curry as the Red October’s somewhat anxious Chief Medical Officer (and the only one not part of the defection) Dr. Yevgeniy Petrov; and Joss Ackland as Ambassador Andrei Lysenko. Stellan Skarsgård made a dynamic first impression for me as Viktor Tupolev, the Soviet sub commander ordered to hunt and kill Ramius. And Richard Jordan was downright entertaining as the intelligent and somewhat manipulative National Security Advisor Dr. Jeffrey Pelt. The movie also featured brief appearances from the likes of Tomas Arana, Gates McFadden (of “STAR TREK: NEXT GENERATION”) and Peter Firth (of “SPOOKS”).

Before one starts believing that I view “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” as perfect, I must admit there were a few aspects of it that I found a bit troublesome for me. The movie has a running time of 134 minutes. Mind you, I do not consider this as a problem. However, the pacing seemed in danger of slowing down to a crawl two-thirds into the movie. It took the Dallas’ encounter with the Red October to put some spark back into the movie again. And could someone explain why Gates McFadden portrayed Ryan’s wife, Dr. Cathy Ryan, with a slight British accent? Especially since she was an American-born character?

Despite these minor quibbles, “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER” is a first-rate spy thriller that has withstood the test of time for the past 23 years. And I believe the movie’s sterling qualities own a lot to John McTiernan’s excellent direction, a well-written script by Larry Ferguson and Donald E. Stewart, and superb performances from a cast led by Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin.