Monday, August 17, 2015

Man from U.N.C.L.E. Review

*Originally Published in the Monroe News*

The fourth in a chain of spy movies this year, Guy Ritchie’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” a film adaptation of the 1960’s TV show, privileges the cool and glamour of the spy profession over the bang and sizzle of more action oriented takes on the genre. If you’re looking for high octane stunts, go see “Rogue Nation.” If you want beautiful people to make you laugh - see this one.

Pairing the American art thief Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), blackmailed into service by the CIA, and the Russian KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), “The Man from Uncle” follows the ideologically opposed spies as they seek out a rogue organization manufacturing nuclear weapons. To do so, they must work with Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the mechanic daughter of the ex-Nazi scientist allegedly coerced into building the bomb. But the plot takes a passenger seat in this extravaganza of spy cool.

From the opening sequence, which pits Solo against Kuryakin against one another in a race to Ms. Teller, Mr. Ritchie takes time between action for Solo to simply be cool, shooting off one-liners and demands with swagger. Kuryakin, on the other hand, while he has his moments of cool, comes off as a hot tempered but by-the-book brute. And that’s okay, because unlike in his “Sherlock Holmes” films, the two very different agents ultimately can’t succeed without one another. They differ vastly, but compliment one another well.

While several plot twists await throughout the nearly two-hour yarn, they’re never too compelling, serving rather as vehicles for what Mr. Ritchie really wants to focus on with this film: pretty people acting and interacting. Even the primary villain is more saunter and smolder than believable threat. The movie takes place in the 1960s, but you’d never know it if it weren't for the occasional rotary phone. Everything feels so hyper stylized, from the costumes to set pieces. The period-appropriate spy score by Daniel Pemberton adds to Mr. Ritchie’s thesis of a sensory-oriented experience.

Except for an intentionally hectic multi-screen scene in the third act, the action burns slowly, again serving in a secondary role of highlighting character cool or allowing them an opportunity to exchange witty banter. Some scenes delve into the absurd in this pursuit, but they never seem out of place - a testament to the film’s consistency and self-awareness.

Like I said in my review of “Rogue Nation,” I ran to my car and tried to slide over the hood after watching Mr. Cruise's latest spy caper. After leaving “Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” I was more inclined to buy a new suit. Sacrificing narrative depth and action, this film provides ample doses of cinema glam by using and often subverting spy genre tropes.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

"Fantastic" this superhero reboot is not - Fantastic 4 Review

I wish I could believe director Josh Trank, best known for his over-the-shoulder supervillain case study “Chronicle,” intended his franchise reboot “Fantastic 4” to be a satire of studio micromanaging of artists. It contains the necessary ingredients: greedy military officials wanting control of the Baxter kids’ inventions and, later, their powers, baiting them with their much-needed funding.

Such a critique wouldn’t be out of place in the superhero film industry. Joss Whedon recently split from Marvel claiming a stifling of creative freedom, and the original director of “Ant Man,” Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz”), who worked on the film for nearly eight years, was replaced when the film began shooting due to creative differences with the studio. It’s indicative of a problematic tension between creators wanting to push the envelope, and the studios who rely on formula to ensure box office returns and sequels.

The same tension is evident in this rendition of Marvel’s first family, the story of four children who, through a freak accident of scientific mumbo jumbo, come into the possession of super abilities. It wants to be something unique, going so far as to delay any semblance of an action scene until nearly halfway through the film, instead spending time developing a number of potentially rewarding themes: environmentalism, scientific and personal ownership, and parent-child relationships. But then the tone shifts for the second act, and while it’s not as attentive as the first, it remains redeemable until the hasty and sloppily filmed third act
As such, the film doesn’t deserve the credit of being considered a carefully constructed and thoughtful satire. The unclear thematic threads and a complete lack of narrative integrity suggest something more akin to an identity crises, either between Trank and Fox Studios or within Trank himself.

Aside from a few instances of meaningless science babble (“his biochemistry is off the charts”) the film actually actually starts out pretty well. Pacing wise, it privileges a slow and intentional burn in lieu of something more explosive as seen in the Marvel films, allowing us ample time to explore the relationships and idiosyncrasies of the major characters. Dr. Storm (Reg E Cathey) struggles to urge his children (Johnny, played by Michael B. Jordan, and the adopted Sue, played by Kate Mara), Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) to collaborate for the sake of scientific progress. As they build a device that facilitates inter-dimensional travel, Reed and Sue exchange a number of appropriately awkward flirt scenes, Johnny provides sass and Victor gives the middle finger to any and all authority (literally and figuratively).

The dialogue, for the most part, is refreshingly crisp during this segment of the film. Doom comes off a little dry at first, and his more Machiavellian tendencies don’t shine like they need to in order to properly foreshadow his later detachment from humanity, but several rather thought provoking speeches and conversations establish a solid foundation of ideological tension and psychological motivation.

Sue Storm (Kate Mara) uses her powers to prevent theater goers from seeing this film 
Then tragedy strikes, causing the teens to acquire their powers, which make them seem more like monsters than superheroes at first, and properly so. Reed’s stretch powers come off as freakish as he snakes himself through a ventilation duct, Johnny's body uncontrollably erupts in flames, and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), Reed’s childhood friend, is a monster cocooned in rock, slowly freeing himself one limb at a time.
Things mature in this stretch, with the stakes heightened, but the pace increases so much that interpersonal tensions seem too quickly resolved and the themes previously established soon loose their grip.

With a final brilliant scene of slow, monstrous villainy, the last remnants of Trank’s competencies extinguish, giving way to a third act that completely disregards the established themes for a short, uninspired fight scene during which Reed makes a statement no longer than a tweet that resolves all conflicts among the characters and unites them against a villain attempting - you guessed it - world destruction. It’s quick and cheap.

It doesn’t even look good. While the Johnny's flame powers and Ben’s rocky bod look alright up close, the environment is so clearly green screened that it’s distracting. It looks like cheap rock in the foreground and a Bob Ross painting behind.

The tragedy of “Fantastic 4” is that, unlike other superhero nonstarters like Ryan Reynolds’ “Green Lantern,” it possessed such potential, as demonstrated by the first act. For whatever reason, though, it collapsed, leaving viewers unsatisfied and fans disappointed. This is not an acting issue - the cast did great considering what they were given. This is a writing issue, regardless of the source, and there’s no redeeming such a fundamental weakness.

Save your money and skip this one, folks. Stay home, watch ‘Chronicle” and weep for what could have been.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation Review

This review was originally published in the Monroe News

Yet another summer sequel, “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation” marks terrific Tom’s fifth venture in the iconic series. Under director Christopher McQuarrie, this globe-trotting installment tosses the 53 year old Cruise into ever more breath-taking (literally) set pieces strung loosely together by a flimsy Sherlock-Moriarty styled back and forth.  

The film begins with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, the now legendary operative of the Impossible Mission Force, tracking down the mysterious (and not so cleverly named) Syndicate, an international terrorist organization made up of ex-superspies promoting war a destruction on a global scale, as villainous organizations are wont to do. However, some - chiefly the CIA agent Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) - accuse Hunt of fabricating the organization’s existence to justify his thrill-seeking hero complex. Citing the fallout from the film’s predecessor “Ghost Protocol,” Hunley succeeds in dismantling the IMF, forcing Hunt and friends to, once again, work as fugitives of their own government to dismantle yet another the global threat.

Several times the film dances around the idea of psychologically examining Hunt, a man who puts himself in ludicrous amount of danger, gamboling not just with lives, but with the security of nations, and relying on luck to win the day. But the superspy refuses to yield in his belief that the Syndicate’s leader, Lane (the creepily subdued Sean Harris) isn’t manipulating events from behind the scenes.

But we never question the infallible Hunt, and in order to validate his many high-octane set pieces, the focus quickly transitions to a more external tension between Hunt and Lane. The former obsessively attributes the world’s tragedies to the criminal genius, and the latter tolerates his potentially useful foe in classic bad-guy fashion. The relationship becomes a “I knew you knew I knew that you knew” kind of back and forth.

It’s familiar, but that’s okay. Lane’s megalomania serves for more than a few dramatic, high-tension scenes, especially when including the film’s leading lass, the cleverly named Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), whose loyalties - while confusing - are less of a mystery and, again, more of an impetus for dramatic action.

Indeed, a cerebral thriller is not the mission you will accept when you choose to see this blockbuster. The Mission Impossible franchise is all about the crazy action, and “Rogue Nation” delivers. From high speed motorcycle chases filmed in extremely tight shots to maximize the sense of speed to infiltrations of underwater safes, “Rouge Nation” succeeds in moving butts to the edges of their seats. However, it’s the more combat oriented scenes that really steal the show. McQuarrie found a perfect balance of acrobatic speed and strategy to make Hunt seem like the most formidable guy in a  fight without breaching into the unrealistic or relying on choppy editing, a feat most obvious during a great set piece backstage of an ongoing opera.

But Hunt isn’t alone in stealing the show. Ilsa comes in at a close second, flipping around enemies like Marvel’s Scarlet Witch, though without unnecessary displays of cleavage. Appreciably, the film treats Ilsa less like a spy in a man’s world and more like a spy in a spy world. Of course she would slip off her heels when planning to get in a fight.

Beyond Ilsa and Simon Pegg’s Benji, who spends his time in equal parts on a laptop and providing a sarcastic vent amidst the crazy action, the rest of the supporting cast doesn’t get much to do until the film’s third act. Jeremy Renner plays a witty yet conflicted foil to Hunt’s obsession, and Baldwin is a serviceable CIA jerk, but it’s Pegg, with his name brand subtlety and timing, who grounds the film for the non superspy audience members.

Will you leave the theater ruminating upon the nature of men in power and those who devote themselves to stopping them? No - wait for the next Bond film for that (hopefully). Will you run out of the theater and try to slide over the hood of your car while audibly humming the classic Mission Impossible tune? I sure did. While not the smartest in the franchise, “Rogue Nation” provides a more than serviceable action blockbuster experience.