‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ Movie Review 0 94


In an era when fast pacing, explosions and superheroes rule the box office, the big-budget, big-screen updating of classic ‘60s TV series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. provides an old-fashioned experience. Replete with designer suits, suggestive repartee and action more akin to a Roger Moore Bond outing than a Daniel Craig one, it’s not what you would call the most fulfilling of blockbusters. It almost feels like an antidote for those who want their big-budget films to take things a little easier.

Taking over the iconic roles once played by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum is Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer as Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin, two equally skilled CIA and KGB agents who must reluctantly team up and work together, alongside the alluring and enigmatic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), to take down a mysterious terrorist organization who are building nuclear weapons in preparation for an attack.

This summer has already delivered a major spy movie in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, a film that provided both epic spectacle and enjoyably playful interplay between its team of characters. U.N.C.L.E. doesn’t seem to be much interested in the former as it delivers disappointingly pedestrian action sequences that are either marred by a distracting CGI sheen or lack any sort of real power (or both). Save for an admittedly inventive opening sequence, which sees the two leads literally lock cars and spin around a war-torn Russian street, it’s strangely lacking in impact and energy when it comes to throwing down with that most crowded of action-packed blockbuster crowds.

The laid back approach employed by Guy Ritchie – who most recently gave us two sparklingly energetic Sherlock Holmes movies – is pleasing to a point but you do wish it would just get on with things a bit more than it does. Even the baddies’ threat of world destruction doesn’t feel like that much of a big deal. Outright thrills, then, are evidently far down this film’s checklist of priorities, instead far more interested in the overall style of the era in which it’s set; the suits, the hair, the make-up, the way people carry themselves. If it was set in modern times it would be too busy taking selfies and posting them on Instagram to worry about much else.

It has personality and charm to spare in the style departmant, thanks in no small part to the performances of the leads. Cavill gets a chance to let loose in a way that any fans of the Christopher Reeve era of Superman would like to see him allowed to do as the Man of Steel, while Hammer is a lot of fun as the yin to Cavill’s slick spy yang (if you can forgive the distractingly over-the-top Russian accent). Their banter is easily the highlight of the film, loaded as it is with plentiful supplies of innuendo and macho one-upmanship.

Then there’s Vikander as the professional – and hintingly romantic – object of the two men’s mission. It would be quicker to name the movies she isn’t a part of these days – when was the last time an actress shot to fame and so many major roles in such a short period of time? – and she fits perfectly into this slick and glossy ‘60s spy world. She plays what could have been a trite, predictable character with a nice sense of ambiguity so you’re never quite sure whose side she’s on and what she’ll do next. Even Hugh Grant, whose persona that made him such a phenomenon in the ‘90s doesn’t seem to have much of a place in today’s cinema age, shines in a small but crucial role.

Ultimately what we have with this simultaneous update and throwback of an old idea is an experience that’s more style than substance, more Paris fashion week than thrilling blockbuster, no matter how many lacking action sequences it throws at you to convince its both in equal measure. But the style is glamourous enough, the interplay between the solidly capable cast charming enough and the tone entertainingly light-hearted enough that it just about gets away with it all. It’s clearly setting things up in hope of a franchise and if it does, here’s hoping they give it a bit more oomph next time.

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I'm a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features. I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 530

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 556

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10

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