Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – Review

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – Review

In 1962 when actor Sean Connery took on the fictional character of Agent 007 James Bond and turned it into an international favorite of film fans, the television network NBC wasted very little time in seeing the opportunity to bringing the same type of spy espionage thriller to American family’s homes and their then black and white TV screens. They called the weekly series The Man from U.N.C.L.E”.

From 1964 – 1967 the TV weekly premise was similar to the James Bond film plots of being both stylish, debonair and thrilling, with the only key exceptions being there were two spies partnered together. One was an American named Napoleon Solo and the other was Russian named Illya Kuryakin. And as with the James Bond missions, Solo and Kuryakin would trek around the world squashing evil and subversive cold war plots against democracy mostly in the form of their arch enemy “THRUSH”.  

Fast forward nearly 50 years and Director Guy Ritchie brings the weekly series to the big screen with the same title of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E”. with Henry Cavill ("Man of Steel") starring Solo and Armie Hammer ("The Social Network") as Kuryakin.

In the film adaptation this story centers on two agents putting aside longstanding hostilities to two team up on a joint mission to stop a mysterious international criminal organization, which is bent on destabilizing the fragile balance of power through the proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology. The duo's only lead is the daughter of a vanished German scientist, who is the key to infiltrating the criminal organization, and they must race against time to find him and prevent a worldwide catastrophe.

PROS: Director Guy Ritchie has made one of the sexiest, stylish and elegant films I have seen in a while. He has manage to spare no cost in having all of the male actors look simply dashing and GQ in every frame, as well as with the female cast who with their perfectly manicured looks, hair and dress could easily graced any magazine cover then or today. He also puts the right esthetic look to the backdrop of the film from the 1960’s with the look of the hotels, cars, boats, music, clothing, jewelry and street scenes. This film is impeccable looking from frame to frame throughout the entire film.

CONS: While the film looks great and stylish, its plot is as compelling as watching someone reading aloud an article in a GQ magazine for the 1:45 minutes running time. For it (the plot) has no real sense of urgency and no real spin tingling intrigue. And while the TV series did have a bit of a tongue and cheek humor aspect to it (as does this film), U.N.C.L.E the movie made the critical mistake of not creating an emotional connection with the characters and their job of being deliberately in the line of fire in the deadly craft of international espionage. The film looks pretty but it goes down flat.

CONCLUSION: In spite of its good pacing and several witty - funny scenes, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E”. while beautiful to watch feels slightly hollow, lethargic and disconnected and in the end somewhat tedious to watch. And though it was not hard to follow with some minimum interest to the plot overall, the film drags.

Still, because it looked good and held my attention minimally, I would say see it, but only after its free on your basic cable network in about 18 months. You won’t be bored, but you won’t be thrilled either.

3 Stars

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Straight Outta Compton – Review

Straight Outta Compton – Review

The film “Straight Outta of Compton” tells the story of the group N.W.A. and in the year 1988 when they burst on to the scene as a groundbreaking new group that revolutionized the music industry and pop culture forever with its honest, aggressive and sometimes confrontational storytelling of their lives and experiences growing up in Compton CA.

And the impact? Well, they are acknowledge as being at the forefront of changing and influencing hip-hop music forever with N.W.A's first studio album titled "Straight Outta Compton," that created both huge popularity for their sound and equal controversy with its brutally honest depiction of life in Los Angeles. And with the guidance of their first manager Jerry Heller, N.W.A band members Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E, DJ Yella and MC Ren navigate through the rough and tumble turns of the music industry, with the obvious results of fame, wealth, greed, jealousies, tragedies and ultimately a place in American music history.

PROS: At its core “Straight Outta of Compton” does four things exceptionally well as part of the film’s plot development. One, it tells the intricate individual personal stories of the young men who made up the band. Two, it tells the story of the creative process of their music through the prism of the rough urban life of some of most dangerous streets in America. Three it showcases through the back drop of how the music industry evolved to their original sounds and voice. And four it tells how their new brand of music dramatically changed pop culture forever while simultaneously igniting revolutionary political and cultural wars across the entire country.

CONS: Nothing

CONCLUSION: Unless you have been buried under a rock for the last 30 years you have at one time or another have both either heard the music of N.W.A. and or know they had a lasting cultural impact on music entertainment since their very first track was released. And with that it is not necessary for me to delve in to any particular aspects of the film story and key moments, you all probably know them already.

Also, while I will confess that I am not a fan of hip-hop rap music culture as a simple matter of personal appeal, I did truly admire the imaginative and forward thinking of the band members to strike out on their own path for a new sound that was not only successful, but created music that had the same honesty and sincerity as any famous poet. As with all generations, including my own when I was growing up with the sounds of Motown and Rock music of the 1960’s, all youth are drawn to telling their own personal stories either in the simple written word and or more often in the more memorable format of their music. Such is the same then with the members of N.W.A and that generation who bought their CDs and sang their lyrics out loud.

“Straight Outta of Compton” is very, very entertaining as it is filled with genuine charisma, visceral integrity and exhilarating energy. The acting is almost flawless in telling this unique story by capturing effectively the band member’s actual personalities, their actual physical looks and their mind set from beginning to end. But the film’s greatest strength is its honesty with the story itself, warts and all, without any overdue glamorization to their lives and or those circumstances for better or worse that defined who they were and became.

N.W.A and its story “Straight Outta of Compton” is a fabulous film to watch with not one single boring moment. It tells why their music mattered then and now, but it ultimately tells a uniquely American story of how these young men found through imagination their own path through their own Ellis Island to the American dream and American success by way of the streets of Compton, CA.

3 - 3/4 Stars

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Gift - Review

The Gift – Review

Melbourne Australian born actor Joel Edgerton is building up a resume of very solid work that in my estimation will garner him an Oscar nomination in the not too distant future. His previous works include the wider audience type fares of “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Great Gatsby”, as well as two films soon to be released in 2015 with the first titled “Black Mass” that tells the true story of Boston gangster Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) and the second film in the Western genre starring Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor and Bradley Cooper in “Jane Got a Gun”. If you want to see him in something out of the norm that is both suspenseful and riveting I highly recommend you rent Edgerton’s acting and writing work in the independent films “Animal Kingdom” and the “The Square”. And it’s with this eclectic resume we see his latest effort, as well as Edgerton’s full range of stage craft skills as the star, director, producer and writer of the screenplay in the genuinely effective psychological thriller “The Gift”, starring Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall.

Early on in “The Gift” we see a young married couple named Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall) whose life is going just as planned as Simon has taken a new job in sunny California. In very short order they have a totally chance encounter with an acquaintance of Simon's from high school and as to be expected with people’s appearances changing from the way you last remember them Simon doesn't initially recognize his former class mate named Gordo. But it’s after their meeting in the mall that Gordo, under the guise of being friendly and neighborly, finds out where the couple’s new home is and begins to show up uninvited to their door. When neither of them are there Gordo leaves a series of mysterious gifts for them to find that over time begins to feel and prove to be very troubling.

After something really strange happens one evening, Simon approaches Gordo to directly demand he stop coming by their home. But it’s from this confrontation we soon discover that both Simon and Gordo share much more in their past than being classmates 20 years ago with Robyn becoming increasingly suspicious of what exactly happen in their past between her loving husband and this stranger that Simon refers to from his high school nickname as “Gordo the Wierdo”.     

PROS: The first hour is simply brilliant as we see an Alfred Hitchcock-ian type execution of a story delivered in very subtle layers filled with titillating drama and unnerving anticipation from scene to the very next. In fact there were two specific instances in “The Gift” where large sections of the viewing audiences in the theater let out very loud screams in the anticipation of something bad was about to happen. Not for me of course as I know when I being set up for something like that.  

Also, the first hour does a good job in not revealing its key plot point until much later and therefore I was constantly guessing as to what subtle clues to that plot was I being given in either some seemingly benign throw away conversations and or some hidden symbolisms that could help me along as to why Gordo was intent on entering Simon and Robyn lives. I got nothing and that was a good thing.

CONS: The second hour flattens out just a tad from its previous effective climb. My guess the transition in the writing got stretch a little thin mostly by the sudden change in some of the characters initially straight forward personalities. But it is probably more of my own hang ups about the story earlier effectiveness and in the end not a real criticism of the overall story telling of human intrigue. And while this change never hurts the films approach to some hidden “secrets” which are at the core to the films story, it just seemed for me the transition could have been done just a little smoother.

CONCLUSION: “The Gift” is about trust. Who do you trust, what do you trust and how do you go about trusting. And when you mix a secret with the lies to cover it up, you end up with a story and a film with real human life and death like tension when people betray that trust.
“The Gift “is dark, at times very creepy, chilling, and direct and a very much focused film. Overall nothing in this movie is a cheap salacious effort to entertain you as you feel the circumstance that have drawn these people together are real and contemporarily meaningful. Director Edgerton makes really good use of camera angles, night time darkness, shadowy movement, faded images, bumps in the wall and moments of prolong silence as effective moments of real fear as I have seen in a film in some time. And while you are watching this you know you are being totally manipulated each step of the way and yet you can neither figure out how nor do you care as to why, as it felt every 15 minutes of this 1:45 minute film we are dealt a new surprise after another to its very smart and unanticipated conclusion.

Joel Edgerton has a gift for patience which I like in a good Director as well as his appreciation for taking old time drama stories and placing them in contemporary packaging. He understand the range of human emotions and uses them as a landscape to telling a good story without any gimmicks, car chases, explosions or cheap sex scenes.

Some have referred to “The Gift” as this generation’s modern take on the game changing film “Fatal Attraction” only this time for men, well it’s not that at all. But what it is, is a film that will make you think about life overall and especially about the past. It will scare you a bit as you unwillingly but consciously contemplate something you may have consequentially done in your past that may come back to rear its ugly head 20 years later. But above all “The Gift’ dives head on into that emotionally unpredictable door of what torment is like when it is in the form of a lifelong journey of betrayal, which in the end irreparably damages the most important of human qualities we should value above all the rest; “Trust”.

3 – 3/4 Stars