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Monday, August 17, 2015

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


"America teaming up with Russia? That doesn't sound very friendly," quips Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), a German mechanic who finds herself rescued from East Germany by dashing American super spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill)  in the opening gambit of Guy Ritchie's The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Indeed, it isn't, at least for a while. Napoleon and Teller find themselves immediately stalked by KGB operative Illya Kuraykin (Armie Hammer), who's practically the Soviet version of the Terminator, able to tear the trunk door of a car with his bare hands. Napoleon and Illya, two sides of the Cold War coin, soon find themselves on the same side, working together to prevent an Italian criminal organization from acquiring a nuclear warhead.

With The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Ritchie returns the spy genre to its sexy, stylish heyday, the glamorous 1960s. Able to cut loose from being an earnest, square jawed Man of Steel, Cavill has a ball as Napoleon Solo, a former master criminal recruited for 15 years by the CIA as their finest and, frankly, most ridiculously handsome agent. The suave, unflappable Solo, who wears a three piece bespoke suit like there's no tomorrow, has a taste for womanizing and the finer things in life, and is the polar opposite of Hammer's Illya, a stern Russian soldier accustomed to submerging his feelings and humanity at the behest of his Soviet masters.

Some of U.N.C.L.E.'s best moments involve the Cold War's best new frenemies, Napoleon and Illya, verbally jousting and taunting each other about one of their most basic similarities, that both super spies have "their balls tied by a short leash" by their respective masters. Vikander is a fetching, smoky-voiced mystery woman, keeping her cards close to her vest, but U.N.C.L.E.'s greatest scene stealer is Elizabeth Debicki as the villain of the piece. Debicki is smashing, giving us a glimpse of what it would have been like if Audrey Hepburn played a criminal mastermind ready to blackmail the world with nuclear weapons.  

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is also a curious inferno of fake accents, with Englishmen Cavill and Jared Harris sporting American accents and Hammer rasping with a Russian tongue. Though playing an East German, Vikander sports her real Swedish accent, and Hugh Grant, as the British spymaster Waverly, couldn't abandon his British accent if he tried. Enjoyable action, swaggering secret agents, gorgeous women, stunning cars, jaunts through Berlin, Rome, and the Mediterranean, and a classic elegance not seen in a spy movie since Sean Connery was 007 marks The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as sexy, frothy, engaging entertainment.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Fantastic Four (2015)



Fantastic Four is a Negative Zone, dropping dead on arrival on movie screens. Directed by Josh Trank, who has since become estranged from 20th Century FOX and disavowed the theatrical cut, Fantastic Four is a dour monster movie about supposedly smart teenagers doing something really stupid and causing havoc to themselves and to others. The ostensible hero of Fantastic Four is the brilliant Reed Richards (Miles Teller), whom we meet as a ten year old boy genius misunderstood by his parents and outwardly despised by his teacher (Dan Castellanetta, who, like Mr. Feeney on Boy Meets World, is somehow still Richards' teacher 7 years later). Richards' greatest invention is an inter-dimensional teleporation device. Reed created a functioning one in his parents' garage when he was 10. Seven years later, he's still perfecting that exact same device and somehow believes the proper showcase for such a potentially world-altering invention is a high school science fair. 

At that very science fair, Richards is recruited by the cast of House of Cards - Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg. E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara) - to join the Baxter Foundation, some sort of think tank in New York City that has a virtually identical device as Reed created, but lacking the ability to bring organic matter back from the other dimension (creatively dubbed "Planet Zero"). Franklin Storm has a bunch of crazy ideas about Planet Zero possessing the answers to the mysteries of the universe and questions about the origins of our own world, as if current science already hasn't sussed much of that out. Planet Zero is a gruesome, post-apocalyptic wasteland of craggy cliffs, nightmarish lightning skies, and yeah, let's go there, that place looks awesome. Franklin Storm pairs Richards and Sue (whose special science talent is pattern recognition) with the guy who created Baxter's teleportion machine, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), a moody, angry, pouty genius whose speeches about the world deserving to die raised red flags that got him kicked out of Baxter, but Dr. Storm brings him back anyway. Completing this fantastic foursome of science is Franklin Storm's biological son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), a fast and furious street racer who wiped out his whip and is doing his dad and sister's science-y stuff to get his ride back. 

The fantastic foursome of science get the inter-dimensional teleporter up and running, successfully sending a brave chimpanzee to Planet Zero and back. (Sue pointedly tells Reed at one point that one of her jobs is to design the environmental suits to be worn by the people going to Planet Zero to protect them, but they send the poor chimp over sans any protective wear.) When Tim Blake Nelson, one of Baxter's big wigs, witnesses the successful demonstration and decides to contact NASA so they can send qualified astronauts, Reed, Johnny, and Victor get drunk off a tiny flask of booze and decide they need to be the Neil Armstrongs of this brave new World Zero. Reed then recruits his loyal-to-a-fault best friend since childhood, Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), to join them on this fantastic voyage, and Grimm goes along unquestioningly. The sexist jerks left Sue at home, but she's naturally alerted to the teleporter machine suddenly going online, and when the inevitable disaster on Planet Zero occurs, Victor is seemingly killed and cascades of unexplained energy come through the dimensional rift, striking Reed, Johnny, Ben, and Sue and transforming them in different, ghastly ways.

We know how this turns out: Reed can stretch, Sue can turn invisible and project force fields, Johnny can burst into flame and fly, and Ben is bombarded by alien rocks and turned into a giant orange rock monster. Now under the supervision of the US Government, Reed runs away from the secret facility they're held in, while the other three find themselves in service to the military. Ben in particular becomes a valuable operative in the field, and Johnny is next up to join him, finding their abilities weaponized. A year later, Sue locates Reed living on the run in South America, trying to scrounge the materials to build yet another teleportation device. Super genius Reed Richards only knows how to invent one thing. Reed is reacquired to join his fantastic friends, just in time to watch a military team teleport to Planet Zero and meet... Dr. Doom, who somehow survived, encased in his containment suit, sporting vaguely defined psychokinetic powers, and has become completely insane. Hey Victor, how was Planet Zero? What'd you do for that year? Oh, it doesn't matter. Victor's plan is to open a wormhole that will suck Earth into Planet Zero and destroy it. Then Victor will be the only one left, and yeah. That sounds pretty great. So the Fantastic Four combine their fantastic powers and stop him and that's that. Bizarrely, Fantastic Four ends almost identically to Avengers: Age of Ultron, with the newly minted team looking over their new headquarters and the screen cutting to black before Reed can say their new team name out loud.

Fantastic Four is a drab, lurching bore. Taking place mostly in laboratories, cramped hallways, somber, dimly-lit rooms, with the occasional field trip to a horrible alternate world of death, Fantastic Four lacks any of the joie-de-vivre of Marvel's superhero movies or even the sly wit and self-awareness of  studio-mate FOX's X-Men franchise. As Reed Richards, our leading man, Teller has all the charisma of inert Flubber. Chemistry between Teller, Mara, Jordan, and Bell is sorely lacking, be it in their interpersonal relationships (Mara and Teller, destined to be married in comic book lore, ignite as many sparks as a mouth full of Pop Rocks) or as a collective unit. As brother and sister, Mara and Jordan barely even look at each other, much less project any familial bond. Also, Mara's Sue Storm was born in Kosovo, for reasons the movie has no idea what to do with. The storied rivalry between Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom is practically nonexistent; just a quick scene of jealousy over Reed flirting with Sue and a quickie exchange over who's "smarter." The pathos of Ben Grimm, transformed into the monstrous Thing, is reduced to him moping in a dark cell in between going on black ops where he gets to smash enemy tanks. More than half the movie expires before the Fantastic Four actually gain their powers, but as per usual with this franchise, Fantastic Four drops the ball once again in imagination, rushing into the final confrontation with Dr. Doom and resolving it with uninspired action and minimal drama. As for hoping Fantastic Four ignites a reinvigorated franchise for FOX, pffft. This reboot of Fantastic Four is one and done. Back to the old drawing board. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation



The Living Manifestation of Destiny

Nine years ago, I disavowed Mission: Impossible. Today, I believe in Ethan Hunt more than ever. Tom Cruise returns for his fifth Mission in 19 years as the ageless, indomitable secret agent Ethan Hunt in writer-director Christopher McQuarrie's Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, a slam-bang, globe-trotting tour de force about friendship, loyalty, and the elevation of Ethan Hunt to mythical status. Like Roger Moore's James Bond in the 1970s, Ethan Hunt is the most famous secret agent in the world, a rock star among spies. "There are stories," a fetching young female agent says to the legend himself upon meeting him. Young lady, you wouldn't believe the half of it, Hunt's wry smile seems to say. By now, Ethan Hunt simply can't be stopped, and McQuarrie's Mission smartly weaves Hunt's forehead-slapping invincibility into the narrative. This is never more apparent when one of Hunt's greatest detractors, Alec Baldwin, the new head of the CIA who seeks to dismantle the Impossible Missions Force, is forced to sing Hunt's praises to the British Prime Minister whom Hunt is about to abduct: "He's a gambler... He can become anyone. He's immune to all counter measures. He is the living manifestation of Destiny." Even 007 can't claim such laurels.

Hunt, of course, doesn't quite see himself as others see him. Or if he does, he's simply too modest to say. There are times when it seems like he forces himself to be the superhero everyone believes him to be, in spite of himself. Once again, Ethan is reunited with his IMF besties, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, and Jeremy Renner, all of whom he gave Ethan's Special IMF Besties iPhones to at the conclusion of the previous Mission, Ghost Protocol. (Paula Patton, who received the fourth Bestie iPhone, is never mentioned.) All three of Ethan's besties spend much of Rogue Nation debating Ethan's motives and even his sanity at times - Ethan has never quite been so obsessed and occasionally unhinged as he is in Rogue Nation - but one thing they never question is Ethan's ability. Ethan can do anything; Pegg is so certain of it he doesn't for a moment believe Ethan can't hold his breath for over three minutes to perform an "impossible" mission inside a water tank. "Difficult, yeah, but not impossible." Ethan's closest allies see him as an action figure that can weather any abuse, to Ethan's chagrin. But he still does it all unquestioningly. After nearly drowning and being resuscitated, Ethan is never quite as endearing as he is all punch drunk but still not hesitating for a second to engage in a car chase and motorcycle chase. Unlike Bond or Jason Bourne, who primarily work solo, Ethan is reliant on his team, and looks out for them. When he recruits Pegg into his schemes and tries to give him an out after things go FUBAR, Pegg rejects the very idea of abandoning Ethan on the sole basis of his unwavering friendship. Ethan is genuinely touched. 

In Rogue Nation, Ethan and the IMF are once more disavowed and on the hunt (pun unintended) for the Syndicate, which was introduced in the closing seconds of Ghost Protocol. The Syndicate, led by thin-lipped British mastermind Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), are a covert black ops terrorist organization, "a rogue nation, an anti-IMF." (We get it. Easy on the sell job, fellas.)  The CIA believes the Syndicate are a figment of Ethan's imagination, but the IMF know better, because the IMF always knows better. Rogue Nation weaves in recent tragedies like missing Malaysian flights and nuclear meltdowns and lays the blame squarely at the feet of the Syndicate. They're always one step ahead of Ethan Hunt, which drives Ethan as crazy as we've ever seen him. A direct sequel to Ghost Protocol referencing the nuclear missile attack on San Francisco the IMF foiled, Rogue Nation also pleasantly calls back to previous Missions, with a blatant flaunting of a rabbit's foot and Baldwin referring to Ethan's theft of the NOC list in the original Mission as occurring in his first year in the CIA. Rogue Nation also introduces the most formidable and intriguing female character in franchise history, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a show-stealing, ass-kicking disavowed British Secret Service agent who alternates from Syndicate operative to Ethan's ally. There's never really a question who's side she's ultimately on, and it takes a tremendous contortion of logic why the Syndicate never kills her considering how consistently she betrays them in favor of Ethan, but Ferguson is magnetic, more than a match for Ethan Hunt.

McQuarrie delivers the awesome international spectacle Mission: Impossible demands, from a bravura opening airplane heist in Belarus, with Cruise seemingly hanging onto the outside of a cargo plane taking off by his fingertips, a virtuoso, acrobatic action set piece involving three assassins in an opera in Vienna, to a relentless, next-level motorcycle chase in Casablanca outdoing the tremendous car chase in McQuarrie and Cruise's previous collaboration, Jack Reacher. Surprisingly, instead of upping the ante by going balls-out in the London-based third act, McQuarrie takes the opposite tack, going smaller and making the resolution of Rogue Nation about the characters and the personal vendetta between Ethan Hunt and Solomon Lane, literally concluding in a glass box. Ethan doesn't even climb and jump off of any ridiculously tall buildings in this movie! On the line isn't so much the fate of the world as the fates of Pegg, Ethan's best friend, and Ferguson, a woman caught in an impossible situation. More than anything, loyalty and friendship drives Ethan Hunt in Rogue Nation. When it comes to his friends, Ethan Hunt admirably proves nothing is impossible.