Saturday, September 5, 2015

August 2015

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
     For reasons that I’d be hard pressed to explain, at age eight, a television show took over my life. It was 1964 and the new show on NBC was “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” I didn’t just become a fan of this slyly humorous Bond-film rip-off, I became obsessed. I watched each show not just to enjoy the cliché plots or the humorous repartee between Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, but to gain knowledge of this secret organization, absorb every nugget about the characters and their world. (I longed to visit the New York City tailor shop that was the front for headquarters, unaware that it was a set somewhere in Southern California.)
   Of course, I wasn’t alone. Suddenly, you could own a “Man from U.N.C.L.E” identification card, a replica of Napoleon’s gun (complete with silencer), and the yellow triangle badge that gained you entrance into U.N.C.L.E. headquarters (I think it all came as part of a package). I soon had established my U.N.C.L.E. outpost under the basement stairs, equipped with a world map marking the sites of known U.N.C.L.E. branches. Luckily, T.H.R.U.S.H. was nowhere to be found.     
      I’m not sure why it took 40 years to bring a version of the show to the big screen, but it definitely was not worth the wait. This high-octane, Guy Ritchie actioner, set in the early days of the Cold War, defiles the legendary series with a humorless, dull script, over-the-top chase scenes and even worse acting.
     Henry Cavill (the most recent “Superman”) plays Napoleon, the suave, low-key master spy who always has an eye out for the ladies, while Armie Hammer (“The Social Network,” “The Lone Ranger”) portrays Illya, a no-nonsense, somewhat humorless Soviet agent who is paired with Solo to fight international bad guys.
      Neither of these actors (or should I write “actors”) brings even a modicum of spark to their characters; they are good-looking mannequins who read the words on the page and little more. The only actor who leaves any impression is the super-model thin Elizabeth Debicki, who, at least, exudes the chic attitude of the 1960s.
    No one would ever claim greatness for the TV show’s scripts, but the film’s screenplay offers little of the original’s sarcastic humor, stylish wordplay and fiendish villains. At points in the film, I wasn’t even trying to follow the dialogue, it was so bland.
      On television, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum (still going strong on “NCSI”) played the pair as a comedy duo who just happened to have licenses to kill. Illya never stopped rolling his eyes at Solo’s double entendres while Napoleon kept pushing Illya toward any woman who showed interest. No reason not to find love while saving the world, right?
     Not only does this new movie ignore the spirit of the Sam Rolfe-created series, but it offers virtually no link to the original: where is the cool U.N.C.L.E logo, Jerry Goldsmith’s theme or the ballpoint pen communicators? I longed to hear Solo whisper into his pen, “Open channel D.” 

      Though it’s rarely mentioned with the other important 1970s films about the Vietnam experience—“Coming Home,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Apocalypse Now”—this philosophical action movie about a drug deal gone bad deserves recognition.
    Based on Robert Stone’s acclaimed novel “Dog Soldiers,” the movie opens in Vietnam, where freelance journalist John Converse (Michael Moriarty) is about to return to the states. Converse, lost in the meaningless chaos of this very particular war without a moral compass, scores a kilo of heroin, with plans to sell it once he’s back in California. Yet it’s clear from the start that he’s a rank amateur, clueless about the people he’s dealing with.
     He convinces his Marine buddy Ray Hicks (a superb Nick Nolte) to deliver the package to Converse’s wife Marge (Tuesday Weld) in Oakland, who is completely unprepared when a pair of corrupt cops (a strange duo of Ray Sharkey and Richard Masur) attempts a home invasion to intercept the drugs. This sends Ray and Marge on the run, with the bad cops (led by the great character actor Anthony Zerbe), who eventually take Converse prisoner, on their trail.
      What makes this film memorable is the love-hate relationship that builds between Marge and Ray; he’s tired of doing what he’s told and sees the chase as an existential journey that brings order to a senseless world, while she’s trying to find an anchor in her life to replace her drug addiction and uncertain marriage. It’s the story of America as the turbulent ‘60s concluded; a society unable to keep the drugs, guns and discontent, fostered by an unpopular war, from splitting the country.
     Like an ancestor of “No Country for Old Men,” this Karl Reisz-directed picture chronicles a world gone crazy, where violence has become a way of doing business. The film’s Merry Prankster-inspired finale feels like a heroin-induced reenactment of a shootout from an old Randolph Scott movie. 
     Except for Moriarty, who, in the midst of a run of good roles (“Bang the Drum Slowly,” “Report to the Commissioner” and, on TV, “The Glass Menagerie”) seems uncertain how to play this weak, hopeless character, the acting is exceptional.
     Nolte, at the time best known for his hunky role on the TV miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man,” gives one of the best performances of his career; he’s a tough, angry Marine willing to die for the “mission” at the same time that he recognizes the pointlessness of it all. A glance at Notle’s filmography shows how haphazardly he’s chosen roles over his 40-year career, especially in the past 15 years, yet he never fails to turn his characters into complex, interesting men.
      Weld, another underutilized performer, was always perfect (“Pretty Poison,” “Play It as It Lays,” “Looking for Mr. Goodbar”) as a dazed woman, on the brink of a breakdown, who has been disappointed by life. Her Marge, an unwilling participate in this misguided adventure, is the real survivor among this group.   
       Director Reisz, who escaped the Nazis as a child, leaving behind parents who died in the Holocaust, became a leading light of the British New Wave movement in the 1950s. The Czech-born director’s 1960 debut was the classic rebellious youth film, “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning,” which made Albert Finney a star.
     Though Reisz directed just nine features, he knew how to get the most out of his actors, helming Vanessa Redgrave to two Oscar nominations (“Morgan” and “Isabella”) and then later guiding Meryl Streep (“The French Lieutenant’s Woman”) and Jessica Lange (“Sweet Dreams”) to nominations.
     If there is a philosophical companion piece to “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” it would be Reisz’s 1974 James Caan film “The Gambler.” In both films, a smart, discontent man finds salvation by heightening life’s risks.

    In recent years, no film genre has grown in numbers and acclaimed more than music-themed documentaries. Two of the past three documentary Oscar winners, “Searching for Sugar Man” and “20 Feet from Stardom” are music docs, while well-reviewed films, “Magic Bus” (about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters), “Kurt Cobain: Homage to Heck,” and “Muscle Shoals” (about another group of studio musicians), among many others, have received big-screen releases in the past five years. For television, Martin Scorsese contributed epic chronicles of Bob Dylan and George Harrison.
    As important as any of these, “The Wrecking Crew,” documents one of the biggest secrets in pop/rock history. Only those in the industry and true rock history devotees were aware that a group of Los Angeles studio musicians, loosely known as the Wrecking Crew, provided the sound to hundreds of hit records of 1960s. Providing the instrumentation for Beach Boys, Tijuana Brass, the 5th Dimension, Sonny and Cher, the Monkees and all those Phil Spector girl groups (to name just a few), these versatile musicians had as much to do with the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll on the pop charts as the singers who reaped all the credit.
    Working at various LA studios and for whichever producer called them, this collection of 20 some musicians allegedly earned its nickname by “wrecking” the business by playing rock ‘n’ roll, while their straighter colleagues were still stuck in 50s pop. It wasn’t long into the decade that this new style took over the airwaves and the musicians of the Wrecking Crew were the most sought after session players in the country.
    While rarely getting credit on records, they became the most respected players in the business, eventually used to completely replace the band members on records (like they did for the Beach Boys, the Monkeys, the Association, even The Byrds on their first single, “Mr. Tambourine Man”). They created, working with the producers, arrangements and solos that the “real” band members sometimes struggled to recreate live. 
       The documentary was pieced together (believe me, that’s the perfect description) by Denny Tedesco over the past 20 years. It was a labor of love, as his father, Tommy Tedesco, was among the key members of the Wrecking Crew and one of the most acclaimed guitarists of the era. The son has taken his contemporary interviews with the living members, photos and some film of actual studio sessions from the ‘60s, the songs, of course, along with home movies of his father (who died in 1997) to create a hodgepodge chronicle of the musicians.
    Repetitive, disorganized and lacking any sign of filmmaking acumen, the documentary can be infuriating in the way it starts to explain how something took place and then loses its focus and drifts off to something else. You get bits and pieces of people’s lives that are never put together in a coherent narrative. Yet, if you have any interest in music of the 1960s, this is a must see.
     The sessions produced by Brian Wilson, extensively interviewed in the film, for “Pet Sounds” and the single “Good Vibrations” (dramatized in the recent Wilson bio-pic, “Love and Mercy”) are among the documentary’s highlights. While Wilson talks about the importance of the Wrecking Crews in fulfilling his musical vision, the studio musicians still hold him in awe all these years later; their praise starts at “genius” and goes upward from there.
    In addition to Tedesco, the most prominent among the players were drummers Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine (Charlie Watts once said that five of his favorite drummers turned out to all be Blaine); bassists Joe Osborn and Carol Kaye, the lone female of the gang; saxophonist Plas Johnson; and two who went on to solo fame, pianist Leon Russell (minus his long hair and beard) and guitar phenom Glen Campbell.
      The documentary doesn’t make enough of the end of this dominant era of studio musicians, after producers lost control of the process and artists started charting their own course, insisting that actual band members perform on the records. By the mid 1970s, the days of the perfectly crafted, inventive pop single had faded away and so had the Wrecking Crew.
     The extras on the DVD are somewhat repetitive, but there are some good stories on the recording process from Nancy Sinatra, Bill Medley, and Barry McGwire.
    The point of the documentary, of course, is to finally give recognition to these exceptional and influential musicians, among the best of their generation, and it succeeds in doing that. If only the film had been able to match their creativity with some of its own.

    It’s easy to assume, if you read this post regularly, that I have a deep-seated hatred for popular “popcorn” movies, looking down on any film that doesn’t have some higher purpose in mind. Nothing could be further from the truth; what I reject is Hollywood insistence that making popular entertainments means venturing into fantasy and sci-fi. We’ve tossed aside heroes for superheroes.
     That’s what I’ve enjoyed over almost 20 years of the “Mission: Impossible” franchise: while Ethan Hunt and his posse pull off some amazing (impossible?) schemes, they do it all without a single superpower. 
     The fifth entry in the series, “Rogue Nation,” is a crackling entertainment from start to finish, mixing thrills, danger, temporary confusion, and off-handed humor—the time-tested qualities of a good action picture.
     As seems to happen in every spy film, the bosses back in Washington have had enough of the over-reaching, off-the-book, unauthorized actions of the clandestine operation and shut it down. (Alec Baldwin is the obstinate CIA chief who is determined to retire Hunt.)
   This leaves our hero—despite his beyond the call of duty effort to secure a shipment of nuclear weapons, keeping it out of terrorists’ hands in the incredible opening sequence—on his own, so to speak, just as he’s close to discovering the man behind the long rumored terrorist cabal, the Syndicate. (They couldn’t come up with a better name?)
     Hunt, in some ways the grown up version of Napoleon Solo, finds a fellow spy with similar skill sets and a lone-wolf mentality in Ilsa Faust (striking Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson), who has some authority issues of her own.
      It’s not long before Hunt’s crew joins him, just in time for a hair-raising chase between cars and motorcycles down the narrow streets of Casablanca. (I enjoyed the inside references to the classic 1943 film: The heroine’s name in “Rogue Nation” is the same as the character played by Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca.”)
       Brandt (Jeremy Renner), who joined the group in the last film, “Ghost Protocol” (2011), and now runs the M:I unit and Luther (Ving Rhames, a veteran of all five pictures), who always seems to be just waiting around for Ethan’s call, do what’s needed of them, but Benji (British comic Simon Pegg) finds himself center-stage in this film, dangerously on the front lines with Ethan.
     Cruise could play this role in his sleep—as he seemed to in the disappointing second film—but, especially in the last two, he appears to be fully committed to this nearly ageless, invaluable government agent. Gone are any concerns of the character’s personal life; it’s all about the mission and keeping the world safe from the evil doers, even when the guys in the suits don’t understand.
      Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who first made a splash 20 years ago with his sensational script for “The Usual Suspects,” has become one of Cruise’s go-to guys. He wrote the script for the World War II thriller “The Valkyrie” and the first-rate sci-fi film “Edge of Tomorrow,” along with directing and adapting “Jack Reacher.”
    As the writer-director on “Rogue Nation,” McQuarrie never lets us forget that these are just people doing their jobs, making human decisions and finding human solutions to escape jams. For me, that’s always going to be important.

    My wife DVRs two or three movies a day—blindly, based on the title and maybe the listed star actor. Most of them she erases after watching for about three minutes. On the other hand, I record movies that I’ve spotted while studying the online schedules of the half-dozen movie channels on our cable system, nothing the director, plot, stars, often looking it up in Leonard Maltin’s movie guide to determine if it’s worth my time. I think you can guess the result: minus the immediately deletions, she finds as many interesting movies as I do.
     An especially pleasing surprise was this English-language film from Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore, best known for the art-house hit “Cinema Paradiso” (1988). “The Best Offer” has the same kind of fable-like story and startling images as his early success, this time in the guise of a romantic mystery. Geoffrey Rush plays Virgil Oldman, an arrogant, high-respected auctioneer and forgery expert.
    He uses his expertise and the respect he holds in the industry to purchase original paintings he covets at cheap prices by labeling them as forgeries, helped in this ruse by an eccentric friend (Donald Sutherland).
    His orderly life is upended when he’s summoned by a young woman to appraise and sell all the furniture and artwork that fills room after room of a mansion once occupied by her parents. Yet she refuses to see him in person, raising his curiosity about her. Soon he forms a strange bond with Claire (Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks), who locks herself in her room when others are in the house.
    Rush perfectly captures the complexity of this unsmiling, no-nonsense professional who, starting for companionship, becomes entranced by this seemingly needy woman.
     Like “Cinema Paradise,” the elaborate, over-stuffed sets and startling images are used by the director to elevate the story and emotions. By the end, the story seems totally implausible and clever to a fault, yet the path getting there is highly entertaining.

     As long as they keep making movies in Hollywood, you can count on at least one boxing picture a year. And if I didn’t know better, I’d say they’ve been using the same script for every one of them since the 1930s.
    “Southpaw,” though very watchable with an excellent cast, doesn’t tread far from the formula started in 1931 with “The Champ.” Maybe the only alteration to the usual plotline is that Billy Hope (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is already rich and famous; he’s the light heavyweight champion of the world, with a hot wife (Rachel McAdams), a cute daughter (Oona Laurence), a palatial gated estate and, most importantly, an untrustworthy manager (50 Cent, seriously).
    Even with the back story that Billy and his wife were both foster children, it’s hard to gather much sympathy considering his obscene wealth and trashy mentality. But, just in time, tragedy strikes and Billy loses nearly everything, forcing him to take stock of his life and start over. Couldn’t see that coming….
    That leads him to an inner city gym and its owner, Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), an old-school boxing trainer (are there any other kind?) who acts and talks like he just walked off the set of “Million Dollar Baby.” Between working with troubled youths, Tick agrees to help Billy get back in boxing shape and reinvent his approach in the ring.
     It’s in the gym where director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) does his best work, finding the grit that is washed clean from the rest of the film. The boxing matches in the film are high-volume and intensely violence, but way too long. Unless you’re Martin Scorsese, please edit boxing matches as tightly as possible—five minutes of punching and bleeding feels like an eternity.
    Though much of his character is a collection of clichés, Whitaker finds a way to create a real person, elevating the film in the process. It’s one of this underrated actor’s best performances, ranking with his Oscar-winning turn as Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” and his portrayal of jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker in “Bird.” Even when his mumble is nearly incomprehensible, he offers Billy the tough-love (always present in boxing flicks) he needs and molds him into a person the audience wants to root for.
     The role doesn’t stretch Gyllenhaal’s acting skills much—certainly not compared to his superb work last year in “Nightcrawler”—but he’s convincingly uneducated, brutal and tender hearted; just what that 1931 script requires.
     And if “Southpaw” doesn’t offer up enough heartwarming boxing tropes to fulfill your needs, there is yet another chapter of the “Rocky” franchise, “Creed,” opening later this year with Sylvester Stallone as—surprise—the mumbling, old-school trainer offering tough love…..

    It’s hard not to enjoy this period piece set in 1930s Ireland as it chronicles a small slice of the century-long political and religious conflict that has marked life in this ancient country. The picture-perfect countryside, the cozy cottages, the joyful sing and dancing, all belie the stifling control the Catholic Church, with the government’s help, holds over the working class.
    The Jimmy of the title is James Gralton (Barry Ward), a charismatic rebel who was forced into exile 10 years earlier and, as the film opens, has just returned from New York City. He brings a bit of the 20th Century back with him (symbolized by his gramophone) to this Irish village, which doesn’t play well with the dogmatic parish priest (Jim Norton).
     Jimmy’s Hall is a community center of sorts, something he revives that brings old and young people together to read books (not sanctioned by the church!), learn to paint and hold dances featuring the devil’s music, jazz.  The hall also represents, to the church and landowners, a socialist movement that puts their authority in question. 
     As nostalgic as the setup is, the film becomes tedious when the expected hammer comes down on Jimmy. As much as I sympathized—it’s frustrating watching decent people allow themselves to be subjugated by the self-righteous hatred of the church—director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty (from Donal O’Kelly’s play) have stacked the deck too heavily for Jimmy so that the film has no gray. Too often, the dialogue sounds as if it is being said by a cause rather than a character.
     I have a high regard for Loach, one of England’s finest filmmakers, yet I prefer his kitchen-sink, contemporary dramas in which the dialogue (sometimes requiring subtitles) feel authentic and the emotional stakes are more personal rather than the didactic positioning of his period pieces (“Land and Freedom,” “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”)
    The best films of this 79-year-old iconoclast, essential to understanding post-Thatcher working class England, include “Raining Stones,” Ladybird Ladybird,” “My Name Is Joe” and “Sweet Sixteen.”


Dana King said...

Sounds like The Man From UNCLE has the same problem as too many of the retro movies have: they're s bust showing what they can do in a 21st Century movie that couldn't be done 50 years ago, they didn't bother to remember the things that might make people want to see it today: the attitude. The style. The aura. Whatever. They almost all miss it, and the new versions come off flat. The same is true of most Elmore Leonard books that turned into movies: the miss the tone of the book. Everything else is negotiable.

What too many contemporary filmmakers seem not to get is the concept of, "Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should."

JD Rhoades said...

(Charlie Watts once said that five of his favorite drummers turned out to all be Blaine)

I've also heard this quote from "Little Steven" Van Zant of the E Street Band on his show "Little Steven's Underground Garage," a show which I wholeheartedly recommend, by the way. I first heard about The Wrecking Crew movie on that show. I completely agree with your review.