Movie Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

August 15, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

man_from_uncle

I was somewhat ambivalent about seeing The Man From UNCLE, the new Guy Ritchie spy flick based on the 1960s TV series of the same name.

Sure, there were exciting names attached — Henry Cavill (Superman), Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger/Winklevii), Hugh Grant and Alicia Vikander (no doubt the “it” girl in Hollywood right now) — but it just felt like this would be one of those films that would slip under the summer blockbuster radar. Promotional efforts haven’t felt particularly aggressive, hype has been virtually non-existent, and reviews have been generally positive albeit unspectacular.

But I did what I do, and that’s to watch as many movies as I can. With neutral expectations going in, I can report that The Man from UNCLE is a nice change of pace from the typical excesses of big action films in recent times. It’s more style than substance, but there sure is a lot of style, and it’s laid back attitude renders it a relatively relaxing popcorn experience. If you feel the need to unwind, this is the film for you.

The story is quite straightforward: Cavill plays an American superspy and Hammer plays the ace of the KGB. At the height of the Cold War, the two are forced to team up to bring down international terrorists led by Australia’s own Elizabeth Debicki, who may be building a nuclear bomb. The key to their mission is a young wan who must be the most beautiful, glamorous East German mechanic in history (Vikander), whose father is believed to be working on the bomb.

And so begins a fun-filled ride with three attractive people who are thrown together against their wills but have to find a way to make it work and complete their mission. From a big picture perspective it’s not hard to see where it is heading. The two spies start off as despised rivals programmed who want each other dead (it is the Cold War, after all) and there is plenty of mistrust threatening to tear the mission apart, but eventually they put differences aside and combine their impressive talents, Avengers-style, to kick some terrorist ass.

However, it feels like Ritchie is well aware that you already know about this cliche, so instead of trying to deviate from this path, he embraces it by making the journey as good-looking, stylish and fun as possible, and importantly, not taking things too seriously.

Consequently, the film gives off a very relaxed, cheeky sort of vibe, not dissimilar to the Oceans Eleven franchise, where it feels like the characters are always in perfect control of the situation and rarely get their feathers ruffled no matter how tense things are supposed to be. There’s pros and cons to this type of experience. On the one hand it’s fun and you are repeatedly impressed by how cool and suave the heroes are, but on the other there is rarely any genuine tension because there’s never a sense of mortal danger.

I’d just had a long week at work and recently watched the terrifyingly tense Austrian horror flick Goodnight Mommy, so I didn’t really mind just sitting back and enjoying the show as a relaxing popcorn adventure that won’t raise the pulse too much.

In line with laid-back tone, the film makes good use of light humour and sharp dialogue, most of which is witty banter between Cavill and Hammer (they even sound like a comedy duo) as they try to one-up each other in abilities as well as gadgets to prove the superiority of their country. Some of it is inherently hilarious because technology considered cutting edge in those days is of course unfathomably archaic now. At the same time, it’s refreshing to see an era not dominated by technology, such as the opening scene where Cavill had to navigate the streets of Berlin with an old-fashioned map (!).

I get the feeling that the film is targeted more towards older audiences. For starters, young people are likely to never heard of the TV show on which the film is based and most of them won’t even understand just how tense the Cold War era was. There’s plenty of vintage fashion and vintage cars, and a throwback sensibility I suspect people used to modernized non-stop action can fully appreciate.

Speaking of the action, it’s decent even by modern standards. It is again more style than substance and obviously nowhere near as relentless as say Mission: Impossible 5 or Fast & Furious 7, though it was never meant to compete with those films. As with everything about it, this film that takes things at its own leisurely pace, and proudly so. Tonally, there are uneven moments that struggle to keep away from the farcical, though for the most part the film stays true to Ritchie’s vision.

In any case, The Man from UNCLE can always lay claim to having the best-dressed cast of the year. The performances of the star trio are also fantastic — Vikander in particular is smooooooooking — and they genuinely appear to be enjoying themselves, resulting in great chemistry that fuels the movie with a jovial atmosphere. I find it amusing that they got a Brit to play an American, an American to play a Russian, and a Swede to play a German. Only Hugh Grant gets to play his true nationality.

I think, or at least I hope, there is a place for films like The Man from UNCLE in today’s cinematic landscape. While it won’t blow anyone away, there is an elegance and sophistication I find charming about it. Considering how badly it could have gone, I feel the adaptation ended up about as well as it could have gone. I’m excited to see how they will take it to the next level in the sequel.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Spy (2015)

July 10, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

spy-poster

I won’t lie. I initially had zero interest in Spy, the new comedy directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) and starring his favourite collaborator Melissa McCarthy. The poster just made it look generic and lame, and I always thought Feig’s earlier films were overrated.

Just shows we shouldn’t judge a movie by its poster or preconceived notions based on the past. Because Spy is really funny. Hilarious stuff. Laugh-out-loud gags with a progressive slant. In my opinion it’s easily the best film either Feig or McCarthy have been involved in.

It doesn’t have a mindblowing plot — McCarthy plays a former teacher-turned-CIA-agent who acts as the eyes and ears of the agency’s top spy, played by Jude Law. She’s meek and awkward and disappointed with how her career change has turned out.

Naturally, an opportunity arises in which she is thrust into dangerous undercover field work, and this brings out the hidden beast in her as she tries to track down a lethal nuclear weapon.

All the kudos in the world for having McCarthy as the undisputed female lead and a kickass spy, an absolute rarity in sexist, beauty- and weight-obsessed Hollywood, but none of that would have mattered if Spy turned out to be a stinker.

Fortunately, Spy smashes the six-laugh quota for a decent comedy with ease thanks to a variety of factors. First and foremost, McCarthy, who gets the opportunity to show her range by playing essentially two personalities — the meek, and the snarky one we’re used to seeing from Bridesmaids and The Heat. 

In the former, she’s funny in the hesitant, awkward manner she’s very capable of pulling off. However, she’s at her ripping best in the latter, firing off quick-witted, sharp, acidic one-liners and well-placed profanity to elicit the chuckles. I always found this crude version of McCarthy funny, but too much of it felt grating and exhausting. Feig’s decision to give us half a film of it ended up being perfect; just the right amount of familiar McCarthy.

Rose Byrne, who seems to be in absolutely everything these days, once again displays her  ample comedic chops as the stuck-up villain with the posh accent. She’s not afraid to make fun of herself and go head-to-head wih McCarthy in the profanity stakes; I believe this could be as funny as she has ever been.

Jude Law, who has been out of the limelight in recent years, returns as a James Bond spoof of sorts, probably a nod to the fact that he was almost picked to be the iconic spy years ago. He’s clearly aged and appears to have gotten some plugs, though the charisma is still there. He gets to joke around the least as the tongue-in-cheek straight-man of the comedy but takes the role in stride.

Up to this point, Spy is already a fairly decent comedy. What takes it to the next level, however, is the presence of Jason Statham. As the most bankable martial arts action star of today, Statham has only been on the fringes of comedy, and by that I mean wisecracks and one-liners in between beating people up on screen. He finally gets to show off his incredible self-awareness and untapped comedic timing in Spy as a disgruntled rogue agent who steals just about every scene he’s in.

Statham’s character is British, but he’s also crass, profane, arrogant, mysognistic and hyperbolic. He reminds of a hardened version of Kurt Russell from Big Trouble in Little China. His hilarity is undeniable, and it adds an edge to the film I doubt anyone else could have offered.

I thought after Kingsman: The Secret Service the year’s best action-comedy had been set in stone, but now I’m not so sure. Spy isn’t nearly as stylish or visually impressive, but it’s much more of a pure comedy in that it generates bigger and more frequent belly laughs. I had an unexpectedly good time.

4.25 stars out of 5

Roald Dahl’s Secret Life as a Sexy Spy

August 9, 2010 in Blogging, Entertainment, On Writing

Roald Dahl in his later days

Roald Dahl was probably my favourite author growing up (along with, um, RL Stine).  Before I cared anything about writing and books and publishing, all I knew was that I enjoyed reading his stories.  His storytelling was always so effortless and his stories and characters were always so interesting and amusing.  Danny, The Champion of the World and Witches are two of the first (and few of the only) books I have re-read because I loved them so much.

Mr Dahl passed away in 1990, and even though the popularity of his books has persevered, it was with some surprise for me to see his name in the papers today.  Dahl’s authorised biography is coming out soon, and apparently it has plenty of juicy nuggets of information about Dahl’s “other” life.

I knew Roald Dahl was once fighter jet pilot in World War II, which must have made him popular with the ladies.  But according to this new biography, he was doubling as a spy gathering intelligence for the British government in the US and also happened to bang every high society woman that threw themselves at him (and there were a lot).

”He was very arrogant with his women,” said Antoinette Haskell, a wealthy friend, ” but he got away with it. The uniform didn’t hurt one bit – and he was an ace [pilot].  I think he slept with everybody on the east and west coasts that had more than $50,000 a year.”

Roald Dahl in his prime...yeah, I can see that

According to family and friends, Mr Dahl also wasn’t very good at keeping secrets, so I guess everyone knew about his exploits.

“Dad never could keep his mouth shut,” said his daughter Lucy.  “He gossiped like a girl.”

Of all the things I expected to learn about Roald Dahl, finding out that he was, basically, Wilt Chamberlain, was not one of them!

Wilt Chamberlain was as famous for scoring 100 points in a game as he was for his exploits off the court

For those who don’t know, Chamberlain was an NBA star who claimed to have bedded more than 20,000 women during his career.  While Roald Dahl may not have reached those astronomical numbers, in my opinion Dahl trumped Chamberlain as I believe in quality over quantity.

Actresses, congresswomen, oil heiresses — you name it and Mr Dahl did it (them) all.  Chamberlain only had NBA groupies, cheerleaders and air hostesses.

Movie Review: The Spy Next Door (2010)

April 10, 2010 in Movie Reviews

Growing up, Jackie Chan was one of my movie heroes.  His innovative and comedic action flicks, especially the old Hong Kong classics when he was in his prime, are amongst my favourites of all time.  Which is why it was so upsetting for me to watch his latest, The Spy Next Door.

In this stereotypical, The Pacifier-style set up, Chan plays Bob (horrible name — I loved the old films where he was just called “Jackie”), an undercover superspy who has to look after some bratty little kids belonging to his squeeze, played by Amber Valletta.  I have no idea how this happened, but Billy Ray Cyrus and George Lopez both somehow found themselves on the cast.

Jackie Chan is old.  He has just turned 56, and it showed in The Spy Next Door.  It showed so much it was depressing.  Not only the way he looked (the hair just about killed me), but also the way he moved.  While Jackie still impresses for a man of his age, especially in a few slapstick-style fight scenes where he bounced around like a monkey, he’s a few steps slower and a lot less agile than the man I grew up idolizing.  I’m not even sure if he does his own stunts anymore.  To be honest I’m pretty sure it’s not all him doing those moves.

While it’s unfair to expect Jackie Chan to turn back time, it’s absolutely fair to slag the rest of the film, which is repetitive, annoying, and frankly, very unfunny.  Jackie still has charm, but the script is so lacking he’s essentially handcuffed.  And there’s no Chris Tucker to bail him out this time.

I know The Spy Next Door is targeted almost entirely at children, and particularly young children, but even as such, it’s terrible.

Come on Jackie.  You may be unable to move like you used to, but that shouldn’t mean you have to be stuck doing films like this.

1.5 stars out of 5!