Thursday, August 27, 2015

Guest Post: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Fun, Frothy but Forgettable.

by Jonas Schwartz

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015), the origin story of the successful 1960s TV series, would make a fine placeholder for a year without a Mission Impossible or James Bond movie.  However with Rogue Nation still in the theaters and Spectre landing in November, this light action thriller/comedy feels superfluous and lacking compared to the competition.

In 1963, Former thief and current CIA asset Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, Man Of Steel) smuggles out an East German female mechanic, Gaby Teller, (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina) with a KGB agent, Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer, The Social Network), on their heels. 

Teller’s mission is to contact her father, a former Nazi scientist who has been kidnapped and forced to build a nuclear weapon.  Due to the horrific nature of the situation, the US and Soviet Union work together, forcing Solo and Kuryakin to become partners.

The original TV series, which starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, ran on NBC from 1964-1968.  James Bond author Ian Fleming was connected to the series, and the show had the flair found in the early Bond films but with a more limited budget. The show never felt derivative.  

This movie, written by director Guy Ritchie and Harry Potter producer Lionel Wigram, captures the mod sixties but doesn’t have a clever enough story to be noteworthy.  The plot steals from every Buddy film since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).  

The partnership of an American and Russian agent was better handled in the Bond hit The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).  Elements of Gaby Teller can be found in many Bond heroines, including From Russia With Love’s (1963) Tatiana Romanova and Thunderball’s (1965) Domino Vitali.

Even the slick, stylish villainess Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) is minor compared to Bond femme fatales Fatima Blush (played in Never Say Never Again (1983) by Barbara Carrera) and Fiona Volpe (played in Thunderball by Luciana Paluzzi). Though she has that cool cat voice and nonchalance when committing atrocious crimes, she becomes an ancillary villain, one easily dispatched.

Ritchie uses split screens to pump up the tension in action scenes and uses black humor even when the heroes are in danger to thrill the audience. The opening sequence and a scene involving a truck and speedboat are the most fun. Ritchie and Wigram also use script editing to mix the event sequences out of chronological order, which leads to pleasant surprises.  

The women’s performances fare better than the men's. Vikander is a striking damsel in distress. While her heroes are manipulators by trade, she is the moral center and adds a sense of integrity to the gang. Though her role is underwritten, Debicki is delightfully venomous. In one delicious moment, she poisons a character then glides down to the sofa like a snake about to swallow a horse whole. Hammer and Cavill are more mechanical than early Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cavill’s robotic voice is meant to be suave but dulls the senses. Hammer’s Russian accent slips in and out.

The best part of the film is the pitch perfect score by Daniel Pemberton, featuring lounge music by Roberta Flack, Nina Simone and Peppino Gagliardi. The cocktail sound fits perfectly with the bubbly champagne tone.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is reminiscent not only of Bond and Mission Impossible but also this summer’s sleeper hit Spy. That Bond spoof, starring Melisa McCarthy in her best role, captures the themes, humor and action that U.N.C.L.E lacks with a cast more game than the one found here.

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

Is He Unbreakable? The Shyamalan Series Begins

On Friday, September 11th, director M. Night Shyamalan’s new film, The Visit, will be released theatrically in the United States. The film is of the found-footage variety, and apparently straddles the line between horror and comedy.

I’m…curious about it.

Now, I understand fully that Mr. Shyamalan is a controversial figure in film circles these days, though I have been a vocal admirer of his films since seeing The Sixth Sense in the theater in 1999.

I have rarely felt disappointed by Shyamalan’s silver screen work, in part, because it so relentlessly personal, so individual in visualization and story-telling.  

Indeed, I find it highly ironic that this cinematic artist is criticized so regularly (and so angrily) for boasting a consistent, distinctive approach to filmmaking while dozens of generic, cookie-cutter superhero movies get made every year and are lauded breathlessly as being something special and unique.

In short, I would take Shymalan’s brand of individuality -- failures and all -- over the specter of filmmaking by committee any day (and every day, for that matter).

Mr. Shyamalan often gets pigeon-holed by unappreciative critics as simply being a director who wallows in twist endings. However, I find his creative approach much more complex and much more intriguing than that descriptor suggests. 

I also know that critics -- at least many I have encountered -- simply don’t like being out-guessed. They don’t like it when a filmmaker surprises or outsmarts them, or does something different. Because all critics are above reproach and know everything about how to make movies, right?

Accordingly, Shyamalan’s film are often perceived by reviewers as a direct challenge to their legitimacy. His work is then judged negatively on the following basis: it either surprises successfully, or it doesn’t surprise at all. He is graded entirely by the twist ending, in other words.

He’s sort of in a no-win situation there, honestly.

Everyone has already pre-judged Mr. Night's next film, knowing that it will be glacially-paced, philosophically deep, and featuring some “twist” at the end. 

But what if that twist ending is not M. Night Shyamalan’s game at all?

You see, I don’t believe he actually trades in trick or twist endings. On the contrary, I believe that the description -- "twist ending" -- is simultaneously a neat short-hand, and a bad short-cut that allows people to avoid thinking.

In fact, as you will see, Shyamalan’s film narratives are all fairly linear in nature.

As a director, Mr. Shyamalan achieves something quite rare. He cleverly and repeatedly plays on and subverts audience assumptions in his films.

Near the conclusion of each of his movies, the curtain is lifted, so-to-speak -- because of new information --and the audience realizes it has been reading the picture entirely wrong, from the earliest frames. 

It’s not the ending that twists, in other words, it’s the audience’s understanding of the imagery and symbols featured that must contort.

Therefore, we are forced -- in this director's best work -- to question our initial assumptions about characters, about stories, and about events.  The twist, you might conclude, is that we come to recognize our own incorrect perceptions. 

But Mr. Shyamalan might rightly point out that he has scattered bread crumbs all along the way for us to pay attention to.  It's not that he's trying to trick us on our journey.  t's that he's trying to make us see. Our problem is that either we can't see, or that we misinterpret the signs, those bread crumbs left behind.

Is the game, then, in Mr. Shyamalan's films, actually to make viewers re-consider how they view the world? To see -- all of the sudden -- the erroneous assumptions that people take with them into new experiences? 

Perhaps that's too grand a claim. At the very least, however, Shyamalan's films make viewers sit up and pay attention. 

So -- as you can tell -- I am not a Shyamalan hater, quite the opposite. I detect beauty and virtue in the vast majority of his films. It saddens me that so many film lovers would rather criticize and hate his films than actually engage with his work, or meet him half-way in his explorations of the human soul.  I hate seeing people treat the director as a joke, or kind of reflexively gag at the mention of his name. Those are juvenile responses.

I should say as well that I have not, at this juncture, seen The Last Airbender (2010), so I cannot comment meaningfully on that effort, or its success and failure as an adaptation of previously created material.  People claim it is horrid, but people say that about all his films, even ones that I admire and adore, like that fantastic and moving bed-time story for the cinema: Lady in the Water (2007).

So, leading up to September 11th  and the release of The Visit, I’ll be conducting a Shyamalan retrospective here on the blog a few days a week. 

The titles featured in the series include The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), The Village (2004), Lady in the Water (2007), The Happening (2008), and After Earth (2013). I’ll cap off this blog series with a review of the new film, The Visit (2015).  

Just gazing at that catalog of titles, one must acknowledge, at the very least, thia director's continuing commitment to exploring the fantasy and horror genres. For sixteen years, he has worked exclusively in that terrain. 

As always, I can’t ask you to believe what I believe, or see what I see. I can ask only that you approach the films and my reviews with an open mind and respectful commentary.

First up is The Sixth Sense!  Check out my review here, tomorrow morning at 6:00 am.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Films of 1987: Masters of the Universe

Masters of the Universe (1987) is a silver screen fantasy based on the Mattel toy-line and Filmation cartoon TV series, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983 – 1985). 

Although the film is decidedly a low-budget one, and it takes some liberties with the “mythos” of the TV series established at the time, the Gary Goddard movie also boasts the underrated benefit of directness

Uniformly, the movie lacks pretension or distraction, eschews the requisite “angst” and obligatory three hour running time of most modern fantasy films, and generally opts for straight-forward action over camp.

While it’s true that Masters of the Universe doesn’t boast much in terms of narrative or thematic depth, it also moves fast enough-- and with enough clarity -- that you don’t really mind.

Masters of the Universe depicts its “fish-out-of-water” story, set on Earth, with a kind of blunt-faced “move along” verve, and that is a welcome approach. For example, you might start to ask questions about why a man in a loin cloth and cape, wielding a sword, is teamed up with high-tech soldiers in futuristic armor.  But by the time you enunciate the interrogative, the movie has moved on to its next set-piece.

Similarly, Masters of the Universe’s production design, make-up (by William Stout) and costumes are actually all pretty strong, and -- per the director’s intent -- seem to directly imply a Jack Kirby-esque cosmos. If you are a fan of Kirby (as I am…), some of the visual and thematic touches here seem to recall his impressive illustrations.

Perhaps Masters of the Universe’s greatest deficit is Dolph Lundgren’s central performance as He-Man. Lundgren looks great, obviously, but resolutely fails to imbue He-Man with any color, shading or personality. 

This big “blank” spot at the center of the action takes away from the film’s low budget virtues and charm.

Now, Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t the world’s greatest actor either, but nonetheless he was able to imbue his Conan with a sense of humor, cunning, and personal charisma. It’s not that you need a great actor for this kind of fantasy role it’s that we need to know who He-Man is, and why he fights. You need someone who projects a kind of inner intelligence or inner life, and Lundgren just doesn’t transmit it in this case.

Masters of the Universe comes from Cannon Films, the house which pretty much put the final nail in the coffin of the Superman movie franchise with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1986).  Masters of the Universe is a much better, coherent film than that sad, sad effort.

This movie fails to emerge, perhaps, as a widely acknowledged cult classic simply because the story is limited somewhat by the budget, and also by the perimeters of its “fish out of water” scenario.  The fish out of water film was all the rage in the mid-1980s but today seems abundantly less interesting than the (expensive) possibilities of an Eternia-based epic.

I prefer not to use the term “guilty pleasure” because if you like something, and it gives you joy, there’s no reason to feel embarrassed by it.

Masters of the Universe lacks the rollicking confidence and opulence of Flash Gordon (1980), and the sheer genius and imagination of writer David Odell’s other fantasy, The Dark Crystal (1982), but there’s nonetheless a cheeky, ask-no-questions jauntiness or zeal about the movie.    

If you allow yourself to “key” in on that note, to reference the film’s musical McGuffin, then Masters of the Universe is sort of a good old fashioned, straight-up fun B-movie.

On distant Eternia, the villainous Skeletor (Frank Langella) nearly succeeds in overthrowing the peaceful denizens of the planet, and he seizes Castle Grayskull. Skeletor also captures the kindly Sorceress (Christina Pickles), hoping to absorb her mystical powers and combine them with his own at the coming moonrise, when the “eye” of Grayskull opens.

Meanwhile, the hero of Eternia, He-Man (Dolph Lundgren) along with his friends, Man-at-Arms (Jon Cypher) and Teela (Chelsea Field) encounter a troll-like being, the locksmith and inventor Gwildor (Billy Barty).

Gwildor admits that Skeletor achieved his advantage in battle with a cosmic key that Gwildor made, which can open doorways to any location in the universe. The good news is that Gwildor possesses a second key, and he can use it to transport He-Man and his colleagues inside Grayskull.

Unfortunately, the heroes are not able to save the Sorceress, and retreat into another spatial portal, one which takes them to…Earth.  

Once there on that primitive world, they lose the cosmic key…the only way back to Eternia.

Soon, however, He-Man befriends young Julie (Courteney Cox) and her boyfriend Kevin (Robert Duncan McNeill).  These American teenagers have found the cosmic key and are willing to help He-Man get back home.

But Skeletor and his minion Evil-Lyn (Meg Foster) have already sent monstrous mercenaries like Beast Man through the portal to re-acquire the key…

I must confess that my memories of Masters of the Universe’s visuals were flat out wrong.

I remember seeing the film on VHS -- and perhaps on broadcast TV -- in the late 1980s. My memories are that the film appeared dark, muddy, brown and grainy. The print I saw twenty-something years ago looked…lame.

By contrast, the DVD version I watched this weekend to prep this review looked very vivid. The film’s costumes, make-up and sets are all glittering, colorful, and bright. This fact alone makes Masters of the Universe look a lot less “low-budget” than I erroneously remembered it.

While it’s true that we only see one chamber in all of massive Castle Grayskull, it is nonetheless quite a spectacular and vast one.  

Similarly, Skeletor, his minions and shock-troopers all appear pretty menacing, too, and the optical effects involving lasers, mini-wormholes, blazing swords and the like are likewise satisfactory.  The aforementioned Superman IV barely coheres in terms of special effects presentation, production values and editing.  By comparison, Masters of the Universe looks like a masterpiece.

It’s apparent, of course, that limitations were imposed by the film’s budget; limitations which, I suspect result in this mostly earthbound story, which merely book-ends on Eternia.

The story of He-Man on planet Earth is what is often termed a fish-out-of-water story, and examples from the mid-1980s include Back to the Future (1985), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), and Crocodile Dundee (1986].

Like Masters of the Universe, all these films feature protagonists encountering “alien” cultures, or confusing social mores.  The heroes are strangers in a strange land, essentially, combating their ignorance of local customs as well as attempting to complete a mission. 

Unlike those other three films, however, Masters of the Universe doesn’t tread deeply at all into cross-culture conflict, and characters from different worlds hardly seem to ask questions of one another at all. 

Instead, it’s all just a set up for action and more action. The film would have been cleverer if had featured some direct and humorous comparisons between Eternia and Earth, alas. The fish-out-of-water scenario just isn’t used to its maximum efficiency, and this fact reinforces the notion that the setting was, largely, a matter not of creative choice, but of economy.

If humor and social commentary are slighted, some of the visuals remain powerful. 

The moment when Skeletor glides down a small-town U.S.A. Main Street on his clam-shell battle skiff is actually pretty accomplished and resonant.  

Menacing shock-troopers surround him during this night-time incursion, and there’s the legitimate feel of an invasion from another reality. There’s very little that plays as fake or phony about this moment.

Straight-faced and in many scenes lacking self-awareness, Masters of the Universe occasionally showcases a kind of innocent charm.  For example, Frank Langella is terrific as Skeletor and he delivers with panache some subtly amusing lines. 

When waiting for He-Man to appear, for instance, Langella throws away the line “I expect him at any moment,” an under-the-radar reminder that in the (highly-repetitive…) cartoons, Skeletor and He-Man clash repeatedly, and eternally without a clear-cut victor.  

But they always end up facing each other…again. And always just as Skeletor’s plans are finally about to come to fruition.

I also enjoyed Skeletor’s description of Earth as “a primitive and tasteless planet.”

This from a guy with an expressive skull for a face and garbed in a black robe…

In terms of the aforementioned cartoon, Masters of the Universe omits some of the details of the Filmation series. There is no Battle Cat here, alas, and that represents a significant absence. 

On the other hand, there’s also no Orko in the film.

The most memorable image from the Filmation cartoon may be Prince Adam raising his sword and declaring (with reverb): “By the Power of Grayskull…I have the POWER!”

The movie provides audiences a variation on that trademark moment, and it works well within the movie’s context, without being annoying, cheesy or campy. 

Significantly, He-Man never transforms here into his alter-ego of the TV series, “Prince Adam.” 

From a certain perspective, thee absences of Battle Cat or Prince Adam can be easily rationalized away.  In Masters of the Universe, we are treated to a very time-specific tale in which He-Man and his closest friends are on the run, retreating from a surprise attack.

So it’s very possible that there was no time for him to turn into Prince Adam or wrangle Cringer/Battle Cat.

But oppositely, He-Man is such a thin character on paper and on the stage here, that any deepening of him – even in a trite Clark Kent/Superman mode -- would have at least added something to his personality.

The problem with Lundgren’s He Man is that the movie gives us no understanding of his history, personal history, or personality.

Is He-Man a battle-hardened hero?

A knight driven by duty and honor? 

An aristocrat or noble playing at war but becoming a real warrior? 

A cocky superhero?

Lundgren could have selected any approach, from above and tried to bring some depth or definition to the character. Admittedly, the script doesn’t help him much. But nor does his bland, vacant performance help the film overall.

I suppose a key reason to dislike Masters of the Universe is its 1980s approach to fantasy. Here, we get teenagers with mullets, an adventure on Earth, and a relatively un-nuanced battle between good and evil.

There are no epic army clashes, and no radical otherworldly vistas (like we see in Thor: The Dark World [2013]) for instance. Instead, Masters of the Universe gives us a few scuffles, and a view or two of old, familiar Vasquez Rocks.

But unlike the recent Thor film -- which gets bogged down in the technical details of its story and fails to generate any legitimate human emotion, even when Asgard’s matriarch dies -- Masters of the Universe is refreshingly linear, and generously unspoiled by delusions of grandeur. Even with all its deficits, Masters of the Universe, at least, didn’t bore me to death.

On a personal note, I also really dig the Jack Kirby-esque visuals in this 1987 film. 

Take a look at the golden helmet Skeletor wears during the film’s final battle, for one example of this aesthetic. It seems piped in directly from the icon’s Fourth World saga. 

Again, I don’t want to keep making comparisons to Thor: The Dark World, but there really is something to be said for a real life, substantial costume, over CGI armor and the like. There’s obviously a strong Kirby ethos in Dark World, but something about the weight of Skeletor’s helmet here -- the gold and the horns -- that captures a Kirby influence more profoundly or at least more vividly, in my opinion.

Finally, if you believe that movies are like Skeletor’s stated philosophy in the in film -- “I must possess all, or I possess nothing” -- Masters of the Universe might be viewed as a misguided, unfaithful, and low-budget adaptation of a once-popular property.

Like Courtney Cox’s character in the film, you might wish “you could change things…”  

But this He-Man -- while undeniably flawed and small-potatoes by today’s world-exploding, apocalyptic CGI movie standard -- still possesses “the power” to entertain.

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe GAF Viewmaster

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe Colorforms

Model Kits of the Week: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (Monogram)

Trading Cards of the Week: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (Topps)

Board Game of the Week: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: Battle for Eternia (Mattel)

Lunch Box of the Week: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe

Theme Song of the Week: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe