Friday, September 4, 2015

Retro Thrills and Cold War Kicks In Guy Ritchie’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E”

I’ve been a Guy Ritchie fan since stumbling upon Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels years ago. The man’s wry wit and distinctive visual style made him, in this reviewer’s opinion, the UK’s own Quentin Tarantino. Ritchie has had great successes with films such a Snatch and of course, the Sherlock Holmes franchise. I’m happy to report that Ritchie is in fine form with his big screen adaptation of the cult 1960’s TV-series The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
     Thankfully, Warner Brothers resisted all temptation to bring The Man From U.N.C.L.E into the 21st century w/iPads, Bugatti Veyrons and tattooed ladies. (Granted all of those certainly have their appeal.) With this property, though, they showed some integrity and the result is a Mad Men episode on steroids! Period costuming, sets, vehicles and even the photography are absolutely spot on in evoking the film’s era. This isn’t just a post card from the 1960’s, it’s a love letter back to that stylish if troubled decade.
     The plot is simple, though not the thin framework upon which to hang stunning production values it could have been. American art thief turned CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is teamed with KGB strong arm Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) to escort lovely East German mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) to find her long lost father in Rome and stop him from completing a nuclear bomb for escaped South American Nazis. Along the way they encounter complications from all sides, including neo-fascist Italian industrialists, a power-mad wife (Elizabeth Debicki), even duplicity within the team itself.
     Henry Cavill’s cleft chin and Superman jaw-line lacked the aristocratic feel of Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo. However, Cavill did give this performance a James Garner air of all-American smart ass charm. Honestly, I’d rather see Cavill play Napoleon Solo again rather than Clark Kent any day of the week and in a double feature on Sunday.
     Armie Hammer turned in a strong performance as the two-dimensional Illya. Yes, the character was lacking in development but no biggie, Ritchie’s expertise behind the camera showcased Hammer perfectly.
     Elizabeth Debicki poured a disturbing composure into her femme fetale Victoria, the dominating wife of the Italian industrialist supplying the means to create the nuclear bomb. Not only does Debicki portray Victoria with cool slyness, she looks completely stunning. Debicki’s Victoria could easily be an early-super model were it not for her dark side, which itself is strangely alluring. Miss Debicki has apparently played Lady Macbeth in a recent film version of the Scottish play; believe me, THAT has gone on my must-watch list.
     This film’s only drawback would have to be the musical montages. Not that these are poorly done or that the musical choices do not work with the images, it just feels like there are too many. While entertaining, Ritchie’s style abuse here becomes almost tedious.
     The Man From U.N.C.L.E presents a Cold War era action-comedy with genuine stunts, decent writing and good performances all around. Guy Ritchie helmed a solid film; if not blockbuster material it is undeniably quality cinema. Every penny of the $75 million dollar budget is up on that screen to be enjoyed, and I recommend you do so! This is a bit of 1960’s retro, Bond-esque fun. It is possible that we have not seen the last of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, so jump on this budding franchise while it’s still fresh.

P.S. – U.N.C.L.E stands for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Regrets & Redemption of Old Mr. Holmes

I’ve anxiously awaited this film, not only as an Ian McKellen fan but as a devout Sherlockian since Jeremy Brett played the master detective in the 1980’s Granada series. Anticipation of McKellen’s take on the iconic Victorian sleuth ignited in me an enthusiasm I’ve not felt in years. Today, I’m genuinely happy to report that Sir Ian McKellen, and Mr. Holmes, did not disappoint.
      Mr. Holmes went well beyond my expectations of an aged Sherlock Holmes coming out of retirement for one more case. This film reveals the life of a man in decline, living a self-imposed exile as a hobbyist bee-keeper in the south of England. An old case, Holmes’ final, holds the key to this exile, however senility is quickly setting in and Holmes himself has forgotten what transpired decades earlier. The regret lingers, but the cause has been lost. Working with the aid of young Roger Munro (Milo Parker), his house-keeper’s son, Holmes slowly uncovers his own tracks through various mnemonic clues. A picture, a glove, a film version of Dr. Watson’s fictionalized (read: sanitized, yet sensationalized) account of this tragic case are all Holmes has to jog his failed memory. Fortunately, eventually, the clues bring recollection and the answer revealed as one that shocks Sherlock Holmes to the very core of his coolly methodical soul.
     There is much to be appreciated in this fine work from director Bill Condon, who also helmed Dreamgirls and Gods & Monsters – in which McKellen played an aging James Whale. Condon’s storytelling expertise is evident in every carefully composed frame. Attention to period detail is impeccable in both the 1940s where the film’s main action is set and post-WW I London, the setting of Holmes’ last case. The script is smart, well up to Conan-Doyle’s standards. Laura Linney’s performance as Holmes’ war widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, was superbly natural, adding always to the embittered widow just enough depth to garner our empathy without demanding it. Young Milo Parker showed great promise in his first serious role, the launching of a bright fledgling actor. Mr. Holmes is a serious film, though not without moments of whimsy: When Holmes views the cinema version of Watson’s telling of this ill-fated final case, he is played onscreen by non-other than Nicholas Rowe from 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes
     Of course, Ian McKellen as the great detective addled with a failing mind is truly this film’s highlight. The subtly nuanced performance presents us with Holmes both at the height of his analytical powers and as a feeble old man in his 90’s seeking reconciliation with the notably emotionally distanced person he was in the past. McKellen never begs us for our sympathy or understanding, he never has too. It is Holmes who elicits our admiration, our pity and our reproach; the mark of all consummate actors: McKellen’s illusion was complete.  
     Mr. Holmes will most likely not be out much longer, and may not be available at every multiplex; nevertheless this film is worth finding. Once again, in a summer dominated by $100M superhero tent-poles and monsters it is easy to miss the smaller gems.