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Friday, September 4, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: BOULEVARD (2015); THE D TRAIN (2015); and TRUE STORY (2015)


BOULEVARD
(US - 2015)


The third of four films Robin Williams had in the can at the time of his death in August 2014 and the last to feature him onscreen (he voices a dog in Terry Jones' long-delayed sci-fi comedy ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING, tentatively due in the US in early 2016), BOULEVARD finds the actor on the controlled, dramatic side of things for one of the better projects from his mediocrity-plagued final couple of years. A character study of a lifetime of repression and walled-off emotions, BOULEVARD was directed by the wildly inconsistent Dito Montiel, who garnered some indie acclaim with 2006's A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS, but other than 2009's underrated FIGHTING, has fizzled in the years since. Montiel's specialty is shooting his films in the parts of NYC that still look like the NYC of the 1980s, but BOULEVARD finds him venturing outside his comfort zone. A low-budget indie shot in Nashville in the summer of 2013, the film didn't even secure a distributor until several months after Williams' death (Starz Media, who opened it on 11 screens in July 2015), which probably had to do with the subject matter as much as it's just a depressing downer without a lot of mass appeal. Williams stars as Nolan Mack, a milquetoast, 60-year-old loan officer who's worked at the same bank branch for 25 years. The comfort and familiarity of his job extends to his home life with wife Joy (Kathy Baker). While they enjoy one another's company, share an affinity for fine wine, the literary works of John Updike and Salman Rushdie, and movies like Godard's MASCULIN FEMININ, the childless couple are more like old friends than spouses. They sleep in separate rooms and there's no indication of any physical intimacy between them in quite some time. While returning from a visit to his father (Gary Gardner, who also died prior to the film's release) at a nursing home, Nolan impulsively detours through a sketchy part of town and picks up Leo (Roberto Aguire), a male prostitute who suggests they go to a motel. Asexual Nolan declines any offers of sex and just wants to talk or, at most, gently caress or hold Leo. Nolan becomes a sugar daddy of sorts, buying Leo a phone, clothes for a job interview, and giving him money. He grows possessive of Leo, who comes to like Nolan but is still drawn to the streets and hustling. Nolan's fixation on Leo becomes a major life distraction that eventually gets him a black eye after a physical altercation with Leo's pimp (Giles Matheny) that spills over into his workplace, and forces him to spin a web of lies that Joy constantly catches him in but says nothing.



It's always strange seeing an actor who's since passed on in a new project months or years after their death. Of course, the fact that Williams is no longer here and that his life ended the way it did casts a dark cloud over the already melancholy BOULEVARD. Nolan is a meek man who loves his wife, but whose life has passed him by and at 60, he's only now coming to terms with the fact that he's gay but too emotionally withdrawn to know how to act on it. After years (decades?) of a loving but platonic, convenient marriage, that part of Nolan has shut down but Leo stirs something inside of him and while he can't act on it in a sexual way, it's making him re-evaluate everything, much to the dismay of Joy, who loves her husband but knows their marriage is a security blanket of sorts. She even demonstrates just how well she knows her husband when he finally admits he's been lying and her first question is "What's his name?" Williams and Baker are very good here, and after some truly abysmal films in recent years (THE BIG WEDDING, THE ANGRIEST MAN IN BROOKLYN, A MERRY FRIGGIN' CHRISTMAS) and the failed TV series THE CRAZY ONES, it's nice to see one last excellent performance from him--he's always been at his best when a director can rein him in, and Montiel succeeds on that front, even as the story seems ready to clandestinely veer into ONE HOUR PHOTO territory at any moment. Williams also works well with Aguire and with Bob Odenkirk, as Nolan's best friend, a cynical English prof with a propensity for younger women. BOULEVARD manages to accomplish the rare feat of being a downbeat film that doesn't force its characters to wallow in misery, but at the same time, it offers no real surprises in its outcome and it's prone to clunky exposition drops. It's not a great film (unless you're grading on the Montiel curve), but it's an occasionally effective and heartfelt one, and fans of Williams and the always-excellent Baker (who gets a fine Beatrice Straight-from-NETWORK tirade near the end) will definitely want to seek it out. (R, 88 mins)


THE D TRAIN
(US/UK - 2015)


IFC opened THE D TRAIN on over 1000 screens in the second week of the summer movie season and watched it promptly tank, landing in 19th place with $450,000 and plummeting an apocalyptic 97% in its second weekend. It's a mixed bag, but commercially speaking, it's the kind of offbeat project--think of Adam Sandler fans going to see PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE--that produces vitriolic reactions from an audience that's not getting the movie they thought they'd be getting. Of course, THE D TRAIN didn't really get much of a push in the first place, starting with a vague trailer that sort-of looked like a wacky reunion comedy but seemed a little off. IFC was probably betting on Black's presence alone netting them a commercial hit, while Black was probably thinking this would be another BERNIE to beef up his indie cred. Black is Dan Landsman, a nice-guy sad sack with a nice family--wife Stacey (Kathryn Hahn), teenage son Zach (Russell Posner), and an infant daughter--and a dull job at an outdated Pittsburgh consulting firm whose technophobe owner Bill (Jeffrey Tambor) doesn't buy into the idea the computers are essential. Dan also chairs his 20th high school reunion committee, even though the other volunteers don't like him and don't invite him out for drinks after their meetings (Dan sees their bar pics on Facebook the next day). After spotting their high school god Oliver Lawless (James Marsden) in a sunblock commercial on TV, Dan has a plan to make the reunion epic and make himself the hero in the process: get Lawless, a star athlete and all-around stud who went to L.A. after high school to become an actor, to commit to the reunion. Dan grows a soul patch and fakes a business trip to L.A. in order to meet up with Oliver, and after a drug and alcohol-fueled weekend where something quite unexpected happens, Oliver agrees to come to the reunion, which up-ends Dan's life in ways that soon spiral out of control.



Given that the sexually adventurous Oliver talks openly of no preference for women or men, just "whatever feels right," what happens in L.A. between him and Dan probably won't come as a surprise to anyone who's seen 2000's CHUCK & BUCK, the indie hit whose star/writer Mike White--looking alarmingly like the late, great Norman Fell as he gets older--has a supporting role and co-produces here. THE D TRAIN explores this plot turn with little concern for commercial viability, but the biggest issue is that Dan never seems like a real person. He's a man who desperately wants to rewrite his high school experience, even inventing ridiculous nicknames for himself (like "The D Man," "D-Fresh," and "D-Money") that everyone calls out as complete bullshit. At first, Dan seems sad and a little pathetic, not unlike Ricky Gervais' David Brent on THE OFFICE, but the more the film goes on, especially after the L.A. section, the more unsympathetic you'll feel to the point of possible repulsion. Cringe comedy has to be funny while making you uncomfortable, but Dan becomes such a unlikable asshole that the cringe factor never gets to take hold and you start feeling sorry for Oliver, who's the far more interesting character and didn't ask for any of this. Marsden is terrific as Oliver, who also has his own insecurities ("I peaked in the 11th grade," he says regarding his failed pursuit of Hollywood fame, and he also haplessly tries to impress Dan by pretending to know Dermot Mulroney when they spot him in a bar) and vulnerabilities that he tries to mask by doing things like dispensing sage advice to Zach about how to maneuver his way through a three-way. But Black's performance becomes so over-the-top and off-putting that you keep rooting for Dan's life to completely collapse, and I'm not sure that was the intent of the writing/directing team of Jarrad Paul and Andrew Mogel. As Dan grows increasingly desperate and more hostile, I kept thinking of the nuances that an actor like, say, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman could've brought to the character (he would've been perfect for this). Black isn't able--at least not in his performance here--to explore the dark places that THE D TRAIN wants to go, and the film never finds the right tone, trying to go in one direction but being pulled in another by Black doing his "Jack Black" thing. It also doesn't seem to make much sense that 45-year-old Black and and 41-year-old Marsden would be high school seniors in 1994. Why not make it a 25-year reunion?  And maybe this is being pedantic, but why is Quarterflash's 1981 hit "Harden My Heart" being played at a Class of 1994 reunion?  What 18-year-old in 1994 was listening to Quarterflash? And the morning after the reunion, Stacey tells Dan that he needs to take Zach to school. What class reunion takes place on a weeknight or a Sunday? (R, 101 mins)


TRUE STORY
(US - 2015)



There's a fascinating film to be made of the facts behind TRUE STORY, but the result here is a lifeless and formulaic psychological thriller-turned-forgettable courtroom drama.  In 2002, New York Times journalist Michael Finkel was fired after fudging some facts and creating composite characters for an investigative piece. At the same time, American fugitive Christian Longo was in Mexico, evading murder charges for the deaths of his wife and three children. When Longo was apprehended, he had been using the name "Mike Finkel," and passing himself off as a reporter. Finkel and Longo had no connection and had never met, and when word got back to Finkel that someone on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list was using his name as an alias, he reached out to a jailed Longo, who was in Oregon awaiting trial. So began a relationship that's somewhere between man-crush and co-dependency of sorts that carries on to this day (the film says the men still talk on the first Sunday of every month), one that saw Longo manipulating Finkel and the disgraced Finkel using the case to nab a book deal and revitalize his career. There's a lot of talk in the prison visitation scenes between Finkel (two-time Academy Award-nominee Jonah Hill) and Longo (Academy Award-nominee James Franco) but none of it really goes anywhere. Longo keeps insisting he's innocent, which secures Finkel's book deal, but then pleads guilty to two of the murders, and not guilty to the other two in what's perceived as a blatant attempt to confuse the jury and cause a mistrial. Longo has been diagnosed with a narcissistic personality disorder, but TRUE STORY doesn't really explore that. In fact, once director Rupert Goold keeps the focus on their one-on-one discussions, the film isn't really about much of anything. There's no suspense in the courtroom sequences, which are anchored by Franco giving a long and rambling Longo monologue, and Finkel comes off as too sloppy in his ambition and too gullible to be taken seriously. Because they have a nice natural rapport and have been friends for years, Hill and Franco--a dramatic pairing that, thanks to their extensive comedy history, still feels like stunt casting even though they have three (yes, three) Oscar nods between them (and a single wink from Franco as Longo smiles at Finkel after the verdict is read almost salvages things)--do good work with what they're given, but the Brad Pitt-produced TRUE STORY just never catches fire. (R, 99 mins)



Monday, August 31, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: SKIN TRADE (2015) and EJECTA (2015)


SKIN TRADE
(Thailand/US - 2015)

The globetrotting actioner SKIN TRADE is a bloody, bone-crushingly entertaining throwback to the mismatched buddy/cop movies of the late '80s and early '90s. It occasionally suffers from budget limitations and has more plot and extraneous characters than it really needs, but it delivers the goods where it matters, and has its heart in the right place with an obviously sincere concern for human trafficking on the part of producer/co-writer/star Dolph Lundgren. Lundgren is Nick Cassidy, a plays-by-his-own-rules Newark cop obsessed with nailing Serbian crime lord Viktor Dragovic (Ron Perlman) who, with his four sons, oversees a global operation involving the trafficking of drugs, young women and teenage girls. Meanwhile, Bangkok detective Tony Vitayakul (ONG BAK's Tony Jaa) has lost contact with his girlfriend/informant Min (Celina Jade), who went undercover to be abducted by the Cambodia wing of Dragovic's operation. Back in Newark, Cassidy nabs Dragovic at a shipyard after a shootout results in the death of one of the criminal's sons, but Dragovic jumps bail to Cambodia after his goons blow up Cassidy's house with a rocket launcher, killing his wife and daughter. Clinging to life and without the knowledge of his boss Costello (Peter Weller) and FBI agent Reed (BLACK DYNAMITE's Michael Jai White), Cassidy flees both the hospital and the country, heading to Southeast Asia to exact revenge on Dragovic and bring down his operation. The Feds are in hot pursuit, and through a convoluted set of circumstances, Vitayakul spends a good chunk of time thinking Cassidy killed his partner, but eventually they team up to take out Dragovic...if they don't kill each other first!



A DTV-level film that somehow made it into some theaters, SKIN TRADE suffers from some dubious-looking greenscreen and digital work, though only Lundgren can convincingly pull off looking cool as he walks away from a CGI explosion. A weathered and craggy-looking Lundgren, augmented by some facial scarring makeup, is an engagingly gritty hero and convincingly sells Cassidy's obsessive rage (Lundgren is a better actor than people think). He works well with Jaa, especially in a pair of extensive fight scenes, but it's nearly an hour into the film before they even pair up, as the script works through a lot of backstory and characters. One wishes White had a little more to do--one pivotal plot point hinges on his character, but because he's such an engaging screen presence in action films (and a solid actor as well) that it does seem like he's getting table scraps here with an overall minor supporting role. Perlman chews the scenery with a thick Eastern European accent, and Weller gets a couple of dyspeptic outbursts as Cassidy's pissed-off lieutenant (disappointingly, the filmmakers deprive Weller of the chance to demand Cassidy's gun and shield to stash away in the top drawer of his desk). Director Ekachai Uekrongtham previously helmed the 2004 Muay Thai boxing drama BEAUTIFUL BOXER, but otherwise has little experience is this genre, with most of his work being straight drama aside from the 2008 horror film THE COFFIN. He does a good job with the actors, but one suspects Lundgren and Jaa--both experienced directors themselves--had significant input in the staging of the action. SKIN TRADE doesn't really offer anything new, but it does enthusiastically deliver exactly what it promises. (R, 96 mins)


EJECTA
(Canada - 2015)



Fans of the linguistic viral zombie outbreak cult classic PONTYPOOL (2008) will be interested in EJECTA, as both were scripted by Tony Burgess and feature Lisa Houle (PONTYPOOL's radio station manager Sydney Briar) in a key role. Much the way PONTYPOOL offered a rare lead for a familiar and constantly jobbing familiar face (Stephen McHattie), EJECTA does the same for veteran Canadian character actor Julian Richings. Richings is William Cassidy, a loner still haunted by an alien abduction he experienced 39 years earlier. Cassidy also blogs about UFO sightings, alien encounters, and government conspiracies under the name "Spider Nevi," and he reaches out to young documentary filmmaker and Spider Nevi superfan Joe Sullivan (Adam Seybold) about an upcoming Carrington Event or "mass ejection," a solar flare that may throw Earth off its orbit. Instead, they encounter an alien running rampant through the woods, and something--exactly what doesn't become clear until much later--happens that lands Cassidy in a Guantanamo-like bunker where he's interrogated and tortured by the sadistic Dr. Tobin (Houle, in a quite a menacing contrast to her PONTYPOOL character), an operative for a mysterious shadow wing of the government who doesn't hesitate to shoot military personnel in the head if she doesn't like the answers they give or if they fail to respond to her requests with appropriate speed.



Burgess and directors Matt Wiele and Chad Archibald juggle three overlapping stories: Cassidy and Sullivan encountering an alien in the woods; Tobin's soldiers looking for the missing Sullivan; and the psychological and physical torture of Cassidy by Tobin. It's the Cassidy-Tobin dynamic that's the most interesting element of EJECTA, so of course it takes a back seat until late in the game as the directors instead focus more on the other two storylines, which seem to exist simply to pander to the found-footage and hand-held crowd, whether it's Sullivan's documentary about "Spider Nevi" or the military search, which plays out entirely in green night-vision. There's some thought-provoking ideas in the Cassidy-Tobin sections of the film, particularly in the way Cassidy withstands every brutality Tobin has inflicted on him because after what he experienced 39 years ago, nothing can terrify or hurt him, and in fact, her abuse only makes him stronger. In the end, despite some unexpected elements in the home stretch--including some unabashed KEEP-worship in some of the music and visuals--and a pair of terrific performances by Richings and Houle, EJECTA isn't much more than yet another shaky-cam, faux-doc, found footage alien invasion movie with some pretty dodgy visual effects. Fans of PONTYPOOL--one of the best horror films of the last decade--will find it frustrating because, like that film, EJECTA could've brought something new to a played-out subgenre. It's still better than any SKYLINE or AREA 51 or most of its type. Despite its many problems, it's worth one watch for the work of Richings and Houle, and I have to admit that the shout-out to THE KEEP was a pleasant surprise that won some points in its favor. (Unrated, 82 mins)

Friday, August 28, 2015

On DVD/Blu-ray: THE RUNNER (2015); BIG GAME (2015); and THE WATER DIVINER (2015)


THE RUNNER
(US - 2015)


The possibilities seem limitless when you think of the entertainment potential of Nicolas Cage playing a Louisiana politician embroiled in a sex scandal.  But THE RUNNER, the Oscar-winning actor's latest straight-to-VOD trifle, demonstrates barely enough oomph to be classified as lukewarm. Playing like a really boring season of HOUSE OF CARDS whittled down to 90 minutes and missing all the good parts, THE RUNNER is set in 2010 just after the BP oil spill and offers Cage, with a wildly on-and-off N'awlins drawl, as Colin Bryce, a little-known New Orleans-based congressman who makes headlines after delivering an impassioned speech shredding BP during a televised hearing. A rising star with Senate ambitions crashes quickly when hotel security footage shows him in an elevator dalliance with the wife of a local fisherman. Bryce's PR-savvy wife Deborah (Connie Nielsen) has overlooked his past infidelities in their 25-year business arrangement of a marriage and is willing to stick with him as long as he doesn't resign and start back at square one. He does resign, she leaves him, and he stops just short of going full TIGHTROPE with New Orleans prostitutes (the camera pans down to a wad of bills and a couple of Trojans just to let us know he's safe about it) before a whirlwind romance with his married-but-separated consultant Kate Haber (Sarah Paulson). Bryce then rebuilds his career as a pro-bono attorney working on lawsuits against BP until his attempt to get back in politics forces him to realize that it's all about schmoozing lobbyists and greasing palms or corporate benefactors in the arena of political gamesmanship.



Who cares? Where's the story here?  Where's the hook? As a drama, it's uninteresting, and as a character study, it doesn't even qualify as one-dimensional. You have to gladhand and sell part of your soul to be a politician? Thank you, writer/director Austin Stark for blowing the lid off that one. Cage plays it completely straight in a story that's begging for him to conjure some of his manic BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL - NEW ORLEANS craziness. I respect Cage wanting to play something straight, and it's probably not fair to criticize THE RUNNER for not being the film I wish it was, but if it offered anything substantive or even slightly intriguing, I wouldn't have to wish it was something else. What's most difficult in assessing THE RUNNER is that there's really nothing wrong with it in its presentation or its filmmaking: the performances are fine--there's also Wendell Pierce as Bryce's chief advisor and Peter Fonda as Bryce's alcoholic father, a beloved progressive 1970's New Orleans mayor whose legend casts a long shadow-- and there's nothing bad in Stark's direction, but there's just no meat to the story. THE RUNNER tries to be Cage's THE SEDUCTION OF JOE TYNAN, but there's two problems with that: nobody remembers THE SEDUCTION OF JOE TYNAN and the end result is about as exciting as watching Nicolas Cage watch C-SPAN. (R, 90 mins)



BIG GAME
(Finland/UK/Germany/US - 2015)



With some more convincing visual effects and better distribution, the high-concept, dumb-but-fun BIG GAME could've been a decent-sized hit. Written and directed by Jalmari Helander (the Finnish holiday horror cult hit RARE EXPORTS), BIG GAME is short (the closing credits start rolling at 77 minutes), and it's the kind of movie that dads and their preteen sons would really enjoy. Instead, Anchor Bay rolled it out on a whopping 11 screens and VOD, even with star Samuel L. Jackson riding high on KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE and AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. Jackson is strictly in paycheck mode--yes, he does get one obscured-by-an-explosion "motherfucker"--as lame-duck US President William Alan Moore, dealing with declining approval ratings and a calculated effort by his opponents to smear him as "wimpy." He's already survived one assassination attempt, which left a bullet lodged near the heart of his top Secret Service agent Morris (Ray Stevenson). Moore is on his way back from a summit when Air Force One is shot down over the mountains of Finland. Morris, bitter about taking a bullet for a man he perceives to be a spineless coward, sabotaged the parachutes of the other agents and is revealed to be in cahoots with psychotic terrorist Hazar (Mehmet Kurtulus) in a plot to kill the President. Moore's escape pod is discovered by 13-year-old Oskari (RARE EXPORTS' Onni Tommila), who's hunting in the forest alone to prove his manhood to his father and the small village's close-knit hunter-gatherer types. Oskari steps up to help the President and get him through the forest to show his father he's a worthy outdoorsman and the President shakes off his wussiness to take on Morris, Hazar, and their associates who will stop at nothing to eliminate him.


Sort-of like a family-friendly OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, BIG GAME is the very definition of a harmless diversion. Jackson isn't very convincing playing a doormat, and may have only signed on for the free trip to Helsinki, but he has a nice rapport with young Tommila. Stevenson and Kurtulus are pretty one-dimensional bad guys (Stevenson seems to be amusing himself by doing an Alec Baldwin impression), but you also get a character actor summit back home, with Victor Garber as the VP, Jim Broadbent as a CIA terrorism expert, Felicity Huffman as the CIA director, and Ted Levine as the Joint Chiefs chair. Helander pulls off a couple of imaginative action sequences--one involving Moore and Oskari huddled inside a runaway freezer--that succeed in spite of some greenscreen work that looks rushed. The kind of movie where no one can off a bad guy without a snarky quip of some kind, BIG GAME is brainless fun if you're in the right mood, and an earnest attempt at showing us what a low-budget Finnish Jerry Bruckheimer production might look like. (PG-13, 87 mins)


THE WATER DIVINER
(US/Australia - 2014; 2015 US release)



It doesn't seem like that long ago that an Oscar-winning actor like Russell Crowe making his narrative directing debut with an epic period piece would've been instant awards-season material. Indeed, THE WATER DIVINER was a big Christmas Day 2014 opening in Australia and other parts of the world, but Warner Bros. sat on it for several more months in the US before giving it a limited release on just 385 screens in April 2015, making it the Oscar-winning actor's least-seen film since 2009's instantly obscure (and deservedly so) TENDERNESS. It's that awards season presumptuousness that's the first step in hindering the film, which leisurely strolls out of the gate and unfolds at the speed of Merchant-Ivory, seemingly already assuming it's an Oscar front-runner. Set in 1919, the film also stars Crowe as Joshua Connor, a rugged Australian farmer and father of three sons who were killed on the same day in the Battle of Gallipoli four years earlier. Connor's still-grieving wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie) has lost her grip on reality and still talks about their sons as if they were boys, fixing their shoes and darning their socks, and even insisting that Connor read a bedtime story to them in their empty room at night. After Eliza commits suicide, Connor heads to Turkey to recover the remains of his boys and bring them home to be buried next to their mother. The Gallipoli battle site is declared off limits by occupying British forces, but Connor finds an unlikely ally in Major Hasam (Yilmaz Erdogan of ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA), a leader for the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli but now working as a Turkish liaison with the Australia-New Zealand ANZAC forces on locating and identifying remains at the battle site's mass burial. At his hotel in Istanbul, Connor also bonds with proprietor Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and her young son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades). Ayshe, who also lost her husband at Gallipoli, initially resents the Australian "enemy" but comes to sympathize with him upon learning that he's lost his wife and his sons, and their growing friendship stirs resentment in Omer (Steve Bastoni), Ayshe's controlling brother-in-law to whom she has essentially been handed over as property and is arranged to be married when she decides her grieving period is over.


Crowe's film is sincere but inert and predictable, from the mutual, it's-nothing-personal-just-war understanding and respect that Connor and Hasam come to as they become friends, to the slowly blossoming romance between Connor and Ayshe. THE WATER DIVINER takes a turn for the silly when Connor's keen ability for locating ground water becomes a Spidey Sense of sorts when he uses it to ascertain the exact spot where his sons were killed. It's also hard to buy Connor's flashbacks to Gallipoli events that he couldn't possibly be remembering but rather, sees them as paranormal visions. Are screenwriters Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios trying to take the leap that Connor's talent for water divining leads to something more spiritually divine?  If so, it doesn't work. The cramming in of the romantic subplot is soap-opera material at best, especially with a ludicrous dinner-by-500-candlelights scene that's unintentionally hilarious, as are some terrible CGI explosions that look like they were done using an app on Crowe's iPhone. The ending is weak, rushed, and unsatisfying, though there are moments throughout where the film almost pulls it together before bumbling and stumbling again. Crowe's performance is fine, and he has a good "buddy" chemistry with Erdogan, and when sequences aren't being thwarted by too-obvious greenscreen backgrounds, the location shooting in Australia and Turkey looks very good thanks to regular Peter Jackson cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, whose last film this was--the 59-year-old Oscar winner for FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING died of a heart attack just three days after the film's US opening. At the end of the day, THE WATER DIVINER is a well-intentioned but leadenly-paced and meandering misfire. (R, 111 mins)


Thursday, August 27, 2015

In Theaters: NO ESCAPE (2015)


NO ESCAPE
(US - 2015)

Directed by John Erick Dowdle. Written by John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle. Cast: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Sterling Jerins, Claire Geare, Sahajak Boonthanakit. (R, 103 mins)

NO ESCAPE was originally titled THE COUP when it was scheduled for release in early 2015, but was sent back for some retooling and a title change when stupid test audiences didn't know the meaning of the word "coup." That damning example of real-world IDIOCRACY proves to be the most memorable thing about a largely generic action movie that constantly sabotages itself with bad editing, ill-advised slo-mo, and a complete leave from reality every time it gets some honest, serious momentum going. Filmed in Thailand and obviously set there even though all references to the country have been removed by the Weinstein Co. lest they risk offending a sizable portion of the always-lucrative Asian box office, NO ESCAPE takes place in a now-unidentified far east country where American engineer Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) is moving his family when his new employer, a corporate mega-conglomerate called Cardiff, ships him and two others to take charge of a clean-water project. Jack lost his last job in Austin, TX and while he and wife Annie (Lake Bell) and daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and "The Beeze" (Claire Geare) aren't ecstatic about the move, it was the best offer he had. It's a bad omen when the Dwyers arrive and the TV and electricity are out, and no one from Cardiff has made any attempt to meet him at the airport or touch base with him after his arrival. While walking around the business district near the hotel, Jack finds himself in a middle of a riot when armed revolutionaries take on the police and the military.  The Prime Minister, friendly to American business interests, has been assassinated and his regime toppled, and the revolutionaries are coming specifically for the Cardiff engineers to show the company that they aren't welcome. Jack sees one of the engineers shot in the head, and the revolutionaries pursue him through the streets and through the hotel, forcing the family to do everything they can to survive the siege, get out of the hotel, and somehow make it to the US Embassy.


There are quite a few solid, intense sequences throughout NO ESCAPE, but they're consistently undermined by the film's stretching of time to suit its own needs: when the Dwyers make their way to the roof of the hotel and decide they need to jump to the neighboring building, it provides some serious nailbiting suspense until you notice how absurdly long it's taking for the revolutionaries to get across the roof in an attempt to stop them. And when they finally do, the only person who gets shot is the nameless local schlub with no dialogue who dutifully helps the Americans only to get shot in the back for his selfless efforts, tumbling off the ledge and going splat on the ground ten stories down. The prologue showing the Prime Minister's assassination is a complete botch, with some incredibly slapdash editing that makes it appear the PM has somehow made it to the clear opposite end of the hotel in a matter of seconds (Kevin Smith associate Scott Mosier gets a prominent "Additional editing by" credit in the closing crawl, indicating that he was likely brought in to sort out a mess). When the revolutionaries are taking over the hotel, it's chaos wherever they are, but business as usual where they aren't, sometimes alternating from floor to floor--if they've already worked their to hacking people to pieces way up to the eighth floor, then how are things calm and normal on the fourth, where Lucy is swimming in the pool?  The film's most ridiculous scene has all four family members covering their faces with scarves and hopping on a moped and slowly moving through a huge crowd of anti-American protesters undetected, all of them failing to notice Jack's blond hair dangling out of his hat. The Dwyers basically go from building to building in their trek to the American Embassy, and sometimes the streets are filled with rioters and sometimes they're empty--depends on what the filmmakers want to do in that particular scene.


NO ESCAPE is directed by John Erick Dowdle, who co-wrote with his brother Drew. The team, aka The Brothers Dowdle, are best known for their horror movies like the [REC] remake QUARANTINE (2008), the M. Night Shyamalan-produced DEVIL (2010), and the found-footage AS ABOVE, SO BELOW (2014). The Dowdles bring that horror sensibility to a number of sequences in which they let the suspense build, like letting Jack's ride up a slow elevator to the eighth floor play out in real time with the camera planted on Wilson's face, which does a very effective job of cranking up the tension since we have no idea what awaits him when those doors open. But there's just too much implausible silliness, like the way they're always hiding in plain sight underneath a table or something as the bad guys wander right on by. NO ESCAPE also drops the ball by squandering Pierce Brosnan in what amounts to little more than an extended cameo as a gregarious, hard-drinking mystery man named Hammond, who knows the country and offers some helpful tips to Jack. Brosnan is absent for a long stretch after his first early appearance, where he makes a memorable impression belting out a karaoke version of Huey Lewis' "Heart and Soul." It's obvious that he'll come into play later, but even when he does, he isn't well-utilized. Brosnan delivers a colorful, enjoyable turn as Hammond that sees him riffing on his wildly-praised-at-the-time but largely forgotten performance in THE MATADOR (2005), and his scenes with Thai actor Sahajik Boonthanakit, as Hammond's cab driving buddy Kenny Rogers (his cab business is named "Kenny Roger Taxi") are a lot of fun. The Dowdles should've made better use of both of them instead of scene after scene of Wilson saying "Now, come on girls, we've gotta stick together!" when the daughters complain that they're hungry or have to go potty, or repeatedly do things that put the family's lives in danger. NO ESCAPE doesn't really have enough depth to offer any sort of commentary (nor does it explore the sinister suggestion that the execs at Cardiff, who never do make contact with Jack, have left him there to die), so what you're left with is a rather run-of-the-mill, VOD-ready, end-of-summer action movie that doesn't seem to hang together all that well. On the plus side, it's never boring and there's enough to keep it briskly entertaining, but it just seems content to do the bare minimum it needs to do to get by, and sometimes not even that much.



Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: MIRACLE MILE (1989) and CHERRY 2000 (1988)


MIRACLE MILE
(US - 1989)

Written and directed by Steve De Jarnatt. Cast: Anthony Edwards, Mare Winningham, John Agar, Lou Hancock, Mykel T. Williamson, Denise Crosby, Kelly Minter, Kurt Fuller, O-Lan Jones, Robert DoQui, Earl Boen, Danny De La Paz, Claude Earl Jones, Alan Rosenberg, Diane Delano, Alan Berger, Brian Thompson, Jenette Goldstein, Edward Bunker, Howard Swain, voice of Raphael Sbarge. (R, 88 mins)

Despite rave reviews from critics, MIRACLE MILE wasted no time vacating theaters as quickly as possible. Opening on May 19, 1989, the last weekend before that year's big summer kickoff (back when Memorial Day weekend signified the beginning of the summer movie season) and the same day as the immortal ROAD HOUSE, the Richard Pryor-Gene Wilder comedy SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL, the inferior horror sequel FRIGHT NIGHT PART II, and the teen comedy HOW I GOT INTO COLLEGE, it landed with a thud in 15th place. A box-office bomb, MIRACLE MILE has gone on to become one of the essential cult films of the 1980s and has just been released on an extras-packed Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. An apocalyptic AFTER HOURS or DR. STRANGELOVE remade as a meet-cute date movie that also prefigures Don McKellar's 1998 film LAST NIGHT, MIRACLE MILE has lovestruck trombone player Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards, also the star of HOW I GOT INTO COLLEGE) charming waitress Julie Peters (Mare Winningham) after spotting her at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. As Julie goes to her night shift at a coffee shop, Harry tells her he'll meet her outside when she's off at midnight, but a power outage causes him to oversleep and he doesn't get there until nearly 4:00 am. Julie's long gone and after leaving a desperate message for her, a romantic comedy enters the TWILIGHT ZONE as he picks up a ringing pay phone. On the other end of the line is Chip (voice of Raphael Sbarge), who's calling from a missile solo, frantically explaining that the nukes have been launched and they've got an hour before they hit. Chip thinks he's talking to his father, but dialed the wrong area code. Chip's ranting goes silent when Harry hears gunshots, followed by a voice warning "Forget everything you've heard and go back to sleep."



Still not sure if it's an elaborate prank, Harry describes the phone call to Julie's co-workers and overnight regulars at the diner. Disbelief escalates when a well-dressed coffee shop regular (Denise Crosby) makes some calls and finds out that many of America's politicians are mysteriously away in South America. Panic immediately ensues, with cook Fred (Robert DoQui) herding everyone into his food truck and heading to the airport, where the well-dressed woman has chartered several flights out of L.A. Fred refuses to go the opposite direction so Harry can pick up Julie, so Harry jumps out of the back of the truck and begins an hour-long odyssey into the night to get Julie--the woman he's waited his entire life to find--and get out of L.A., which is rapidly descending into a state of lawless chaos as the word of the world's end has quickly spread, making Harry wonder if he's needlessly incited a Chicken Little panic.


Steve De Jarnatt at a recent MIRACLE MILE screening
Written and directed by Steve De Jarnatt, MIRACLE MILE took nearly a decade to get made the way its creator intended. A hot property coming out of film school with his acclaimed 1978 short film TARZANA (with cult actors Timothy Carey and Eddie Constantine), De Jarnatt started shopping his MIRACLE MILE script shortly after, generating plenty of buzz but always getting the same reaction: the ending had to be changed. To De Jarnatt, the bleak ending was key to what made the film work, and the near-decade-long ordeal in making the MIRACLE MILE he wanted to make likely had a major hand in him shifting gears and abandoning feature films to focus on TV series work. While MIRACLE MILE languished in perpetual turnaround throughout the 1980s, De Jarnatt sought out journeyman gigs--he scored a co-writing credit on the 1983 SCTV cult comedy STRANGE BREW and directed the "Man from the South" episode of the rebooted ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS on NBC. He was offered films like THE PURSUIT OF D.B. COOPER (1981) and PEE-WEE'S BIG ADVENTURE (1985) and he was in talks to direct DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (1985) before he left the project and was replaced by Susan Seidelman. De Jarnatt ultimately bought back the MIRACLE MILE script to ensure it would be made his way or not at all (on the MIRACLE MILE Blu-ray commentary with film critic Walter Chaw, De Jarnatt says "I was perceived as being arrogant, but I wasn't being arrogant...I just wanted to make my movie"). Still lacking the pull to get MIRACLE MILE made, De Jarnatt stashed it away and went to work on the post-apocalyptic action/romance hybrid CHERRY 2000 for Orion, who shelved it for three years before sending it straight to video in late 1988. By the time CHERRY 2000's belated and unceremonious release came about, De Jarnatt already had MIRACLE MILE in the can.


Support came from Hemdale Film Corporation, the indie that had just hit the respectable big time by backing Oliver Stone's Oscar-winning PLATOON (1986). Not only did Hemdale chief John Daly love De Jarnatt's script, he insisted that the downbeat ending remain intact. Figuring he'd have to make some concessions, De Jarnatt shot a somewhat less bleak--but still bleak--ending and Daly disapproved. "No," the supportive producer advised. "Let's rip their hearts out." Hemdale's credits included favorites like THE TERMINATOR (1984) and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985), but they were hitting their artistic and commercial pinnacle around the time they gave the green light to MIRACLE MILE. Over 1986-87, the company produced the feel-good sleeper hit HOOSIERS, Oliver Stone's SALVADOR and PLATOON, Tim Hunter's grim RIVER'S EDGE, and Bernardo Bertolucci's epic THE LAST EMPEROR. Their fortunes would quickly wane over 1988-89 with box-office under-performers like CRIMINAL LAW, SHAG, and STAYING TOGETHER, and outright bombs like HOTEL COLONIAL, BUSTER, THE BOOST, COHEN AND TATE, THE TIME GUARDIAN, and the Nicolas Cage-eats-a-cockroach classic VAMPIRE'S KISS. They never had a moneymaker after THE LAST EMPEROR, and by the time MIRACLE MILE came out in 1989, nearly two years after it was shot, Hemdale was starting to run on fumes before sputtering to a quiet end in 1994 with the animated film THE PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN.


"It seems every year, more people find it," De Jarnatt explains on the commentary. Like most Hemdale releases in 1989, MIRACLE MILE played to empty theaters, but it's managed to find a place in the consciousness of the cult movie collective. Along with the NYC-set AFTER HOURS and John Landis' L.A.-set INTO THE NIGHT (1985), it's one of the great "night" movies of the 1980s, the kind of film that brilliantly captures the look and feel of a city in the wee hours of the morning and that distinct L.A. flavor with its desolate streets ("New York is the city that never sleeps," De Jarnatt says, "but L.A. goes to bed at ten o'clock"), oddball characters, absurdist humor ("Fuck Joyce Brothers!"), and its extremely effective score by Tangerine Dream (De Jarnatt only worked at night while writing the script, and did so while listening to the duo's soundtrack to William Friedkin's SORCERER). It's a distinct product of its era--with pay phones, TV stations that sign off after 2:00 am, and the all-consuming fear of nuclear war--but it's aged very well. Sure, some of the visual effects reveal just how little money with which De Jarnatt had to work, and the fashions unquestionably date the film in the late '80s, but the best things about it stand the test of time, particularly the vivid performances of the cast. Everyone from Edwards and Winningham down to the character player with the smallest bit all get their moments--from the ensemble at the diner (most of the surviving supporting actors all reunite for a group interview on the bonus features) to '50s western and sci-fi hero John Agar, who's just terrific as Julie's grandfather, setting aside his 15-year argument with his estranged wife (Lou Hancock) as the two reconcile on what Harry knows will be the last night of their lives. MIRACLE MILE is a film that has stuck with the few people who saw it in 1989, and it's obviously an important one to everyone involved (Edwards and Winningham also have an intervew on the Blu-ray), all of whom look back on it with nothing but fond memories and are clearly happy that its reputation has grown.



CHERRY 2000
(US - 1988)

Directed by Steve De Jarnatt. Written by Michael Almereyda. Cast: Melanie Griffith, David Andrews, Ben Johnson, Tim Thomerson, Pamela Gidley, Harry Carey Jr., Brion James, Michael C. Gwynne, Larry Fishburne, Marshall Bell, Jennifer Mayo, Cameron Milzer, Robert Z'Dar, Jack Thibeau, Howard Swain. (PG-13, 99 mins)

Prior to MIRACLE MILE, De Jarnatt made his feature directing debut with CHERRY 2000, a dystopian action sci-fi romance that at times seems to be going for some ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI-style eccentricity. Orion Pictures had no idea what to do with CHERRY 2000, which completed filming in 1985 and saw its release date shuffled multiple times throughout 1986 and 1987 before it was shelved indefinitely. Orion ultimately released it directly to video in November 1988, seven months before the already-completed MIRACLE MILE hit screens and just a month before star Melanie Griffith's breakout, Oscar-nominated performance in Mike Nichols' WORKING GIRL.




In the year 2017 with most of America a desert wasteland and unemployment at 40%, Sam Treadwell (David Andrews), a successful white-collar exec at a recycling business, is heartbroken when his cherished robot lover Cherry (Pamela Gidley) short-circuits and fries during a bout of vigorous lovemaking on a floor flooded by an overflowing dishwasher. Cherry was one of the last of the priceless 2000 line, and when Sam manages to salvage her data chip, he becomes obsessed with doing whatever it takes, whatever the cost, to find a pristine Cherry 2000 to replace his beloved unit. To do this requires the toughest tracker in the area to get him to Zone 7, the location of the last remaining Cherry warehouse, and he finds her in the desolate helltown of Glory Hole: renowned bounty hunter E. Johnson (Griffith). On their way to Zone, located in what was once Las Vegas, they bicker back and forth, with E. Johnson chiding Sam for loving a robot and Sam developing feelings for E. Johnson but unable to let go of his cherished Cherry. They eventually get some help from wily old tracker Six-Fingered Jake (Ben Johnson) and cross paths with treacherous Snappy Tom (Harry Carey Jr), the owner of the Last Chance Brothel & Gas before the introduction of chief villain Lester (Tim Thomerson), who rules what's left of a sand-covered Vegas.


Thomerson!
Written not by De Jarnatt but Michael Almereyda (best known for his modern update of HAMLET with Ethan Hawke) from a story by Lloyd Fonvielle (THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE), CHERRY 2000 is a little silly at times, but it gets a lot of mileage out of a very likable performance by Griffith as the tough and charming E. Johnson, and it really picks up with the arrival of Thomerson, then fresh off TRANCERS, as the ruthless but hapless Lester. It's also enjoyable to see old-school western stalwarts like Johnson and Carey dropped into the middle of such a goofy setting, but CHERRY 2000 has a hard time getting by the black hole in the center that is human charisma vacuum David Andrews. Had the studio's original choice for Sam--a then-little-known Kevin Costner, who backed out after doing FANDANGO, SILVERADO, and AMERICAN FLYERS in quick succession--made himself available, the film likely would've had a more magnetic hero and more box office potential once THE UNTOUCHABLES and NO WAY OUT became big hits in 1987. Andrews has had a busy career in supporting roles and guest spots on TV--with his major series lead coming on NBC's short-lived MANN AND MACHINE in 1992--but there's a reason he never became a star. He plays Sam as whiny, needy, and even a little bit creepy, and while it still would've been silly, Costner would've at least been able to more convincingly sell Sam's devotion to Cherry without coming off in such an unappealing way. Still, CHERRY 2000 plays a bit better now than it did in 1988. It works it fits and starts, but it's a generally enjoyable and appealingly odd fusion of love story, western, and post-apocalypse, and shows what could've been a recurrent De Jarnatt theme of romance blossoming under the unlikeliest of circumstances. When the filmmaker seemingly removed himself from the game after the box-office failure of MIRACLE MILE, making ends meet with TV assignments on shows like THE X-FILES, ER, and LIZZIE MCGUIRE, cult cinema's had a potentially unique voice largely silenced for 25 years. With the Blu-ray releases of De Jarnatt's two forgotten late '80s gems, perhaps it's time for that voice to be heard again.

Friday, August 21, 2015

In Theaters: SINISTER 2 (2015)


SINISTER 2
(US/UK - 2015)

Directed by Ciarin Foy. Written by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill. Cast: James Ransone, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Sloan, Dartanian Sloan, Lea Coco, Nick King, Tate Ellington, John Beasley, Lucas Jade Zumann, Jaden Klein, Laila Haley. (R, 97 mins)

Scott Derrickson's SINISTER (2012) was a dark, grim shocker with at least one instant-classic sequence and ranks as one of the better horror films to come off the Blumhouse assembly line.  Derrickson co-wrote the first film with C. Robert Cargill, and both return to script the sequel, though Derrickson has delegated directing duties to Irish filmmaker Ciarin Foy. Foy wrote and directed the intermittently interesting 2012 high-rise horror indie CITADEL, a film with some effectively eerie sequences that just never quite gelled as a whole despite several terrifying moments. The intent of the script and the intent of the director often appear to be working at cross purposes throughout SINISTER 2: Derrickson and Cargill obviously want a modern horror movie filled with piercing jump scares and seem determined to turn boogeyman Bughuul (Nick King) into the next great horror icon, while Foy finds horror in the grounded reality of psychological trauma, much like his widower lead character in CITADEL, a timid man forced to protect himself and his infant child from a marauding gang of feral children prowling the building and seemingly singling him out to terrorize. Foy has said that CITADEL's story was born from a horrific mugging he endured where he violently beaten and stuck with a syringe, and while CITADEL had some undeniably frightening moments, Foy never quite pulled it all together, almost like his script needed one more draft before he got it right. There's a similar feeling throughout SINISTER 2: there's scary elements here, but they're the elements that don't involve the Bughuul silliness and the ghost children.


Taking place a few months after the events of the first film and the tragic fate of the family of celebrity true-crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke), SINISTER's unnamed "Deputy So & So" (James Ransone), the Barney Fife-ish sheriff's deputy and Ellison Oswalt superfan, is promoted to lead character for SINISTER 2. Fired from his job and working as a private eye to make ends meet, So & So is actually on a personal mission to locate and burn down the abandoned homes of families murdered by children in order to prevent future supernatural influence of Bughuul. The exact intent of Bughuul, the corpse-painted boogeyman who looks like the frontman for a Scandinavian black metal band, is a little hazy, but he basically, via ghosts of other dead children, cajoles impressionable kids to carefully plan the elaborately-staged murder of their entire family and film it on Super 8. A lot of this is just an excuse for some inherently creepy, grainy sequences of families being burned alive, electrocuted, or having rats gnaw through them all to the tune of some droning, nerve-jangling music by the duo of tomandandy. So & So ends up at a farmhouse in rural Illinois that he believes to be vacant but is actually occupied by Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon), who is more or less squatting there with her twin sons Dylan (Robert Sloan) and Zach (Dartanian Sloan), the three of them hiding from her estranged, abusive husband Clint (Lea Coco). The house's previous occupants were killed in the barn behind the house and troubled Dylan is already being haunted by visions of Bughuul and dead children convincing him to murder his family.


Where the first film was primarily about Oswalt's investigation into the murders of his house's previous owners, Bughuul was seen only fleetingly, which made his infrequent appearances that much more jarring. Here, Derrickson (also a producer) and Cargill have Foy showing entirely too much of Bughuul, to the point where he ceases to be scary. Indeed, if there's a SINISTER 3, they'll likely have him start talking and dropping the kind of snarky bon mots that turned A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET's Freddy Krueger from a frightening and relatively quiet dream demon to a motor-mouthed stand-up comedian by the third and fourth entries in the series. No, the truly scary parts of SINISTER 2 lie beyond Bughuul, and it starts with the effective casting of the young Sloan boys (they're actually part of a set of triplets--they have a sister as well). They aren't completely identical and each is very good in challenging roles. As the introverted Dylan, the chief target of his father's abuse, the thinner, ganglier Robert Sloan perfectly conveys the slump-shouldered sadness of his character, a boy practically afraid of his own shadow and who reflexively wets himself at the sight of his bullying father. The stockier Dartanian plays the more outgoing and less book-smart Zach, the kind of pushy competitor that identifies him as his dad's favorite. The real sense of horror and suffocating tension in SINISTER 2 arrives with the appearance of Coco, who in just three or four short scenes is more terrifying than any of the times we see Bughuul. Sossamon and the Sloans also do their best acting in the scenes later in the film with Coco, whose control-freak Clint won't even allow anyone else at dinner to eat until he's taken his first bite, and is a man crude enough to announce "Now, if you don't mind, I'm gonna go fuck my wife" after he beats the shit out of So & So, who shows up unannounced to warn him that they're all in danger. Coco is the secret weapon of SINISTER 2, so much so that you'll actually feel your adrenaline pumping in the extreme discomfort his performance incites. It's he--not the grimacing Bughuul--who's the most frightening thing in the film.


There's a stronger, thematically deeper, and more disturbing film to be made with SINISTER 2 had the focus been entirely on the Collins family and its victimization by Clint--and to an extent Zach, who's clearly on his way to being just like his old man--and how that victimization and the cycle of abuse make it so easy for Bughuul and his supernatural acolytes to sway Dylan. Ransone is likable enough in a second-string Luke Wilson kind-of way as the affable So & So, but did his character even need to return? The filmmakers really drop the ball in the climax in a way that can't properly be described without massive spoilers, but let's just say it takes some leaps and is a tremendous letdown and feels like a scene or two seems to be missing. Foy's voice made itself heard in CITADEL but it was hampered by a script that wasn't quite ready for prime time. Here, that same voice is present but it's muffled by Derrickson's and Cargill's need to turn Bughuul into the face of a franchise. There's some real horror here grounded in everyday, ugly reality, but SINISTER 2 is more concerned with tired jump scares and CGI ghosts.



Sunday, August 16, 2015

In Theaters: THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)


THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.
(US - 2015)

Directed by Guy Ritchie. Written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Hugh Grant, Alicia Vikander, Jared Harris, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Christian Berkel, Misha Kuznetsov. (PG-13, 116 mins)

With rare exception, the list of 1960s TV shows turned into big-budget event movies in the mid '90s to the early '00s is a pretty dire roll call of failure. For every MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE or THE FUGITIVE, there's a slew of duds like WILD WILD WEST, THE SAINT, I SPY, BEWITCHED, THE MOD SQUAD, GET SMART, LOST IN SPACE, MCHALE'S NAVY, and THE AVENGERS, among others. In an age when every superhero is getting their own movie, 2015 seems a tad late to hop on the TV reboot bandwagon and bring THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. to the big screen as a $75 million summer movie. It's even more surprising that it retains the period 1960s setting during the Cold War. The film was a long-in-gestation project, languishing in development hell for at least a decade, with Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney, and Tom Cruise all attached at various times. On the heels of his career reinvention as a Hollywood franchise guy with Robert Downey Jr's SHERLOCK HOLMES films, the former LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS wunderkind Guy Ritchie fashions his U.N.C.L.E. as an extremely enjoyable retro '60s spy movie that's funny while successfully avoiding the camp and kitsch of a straight-up AUSTIN POWERS spoof. Other than some CGI work and some minor quick-cutting in some of the action sequences, Ritchie's U.N.C.L.E. looks and feels like it could've been made in 1965, with the same level of outstanding production design, atmosphere, and attention to detail he brought to his semi-steampunk interpretation of SHERLOCK HOLMES. The fact is, nobody needed a MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. reboot and the idea sounded less than promising, almost like the film was setting itself up to bomb and clean up at the Razzies next spring. There's no reason this thing should be as giddily entertaining as it is, but it turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer.





The question is, will it matter? The target audience has to be older by default--how many in today's prime multiplex demographic even know what THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. was? The spy series, which starred Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as, respectively, U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin, and Leo G. Carroll as their boss Waverly, aired on NBC from 1964-1968. It was a response to the 007 phenomenon (then hitting its stride with the much-anticipated release of GOLDFINGER, followed by the Bondmania zenith THUNDERBALL in 1965) and even had Ian Fleming onboard as a creative consultant until his death a month before the series premiere. It was so popular that NBC even edited episodes together, padded them with new or unused footage, and released them as feature films that became hits. That's right--U.N.C.L.E. fans went to the theater and paid to see re-edited versions of things they already saw on TV. Ritchie's U.N.C.L.E. serves as an origin story for Solo (MAN OF STEEL's Henry Cavill) and Kuryakin (THE LONE RANGER's Armie Hammer), who begin the film as nemeses. It's 1963, and Solo is in East Berlin to smuggle mechanic Gaby Teller (EX MACHINA's Alicia Vikander) to the west. Gaby is the estranged daughter of Dr. Udo Teller (Christian Berkel), a scientist forced into being a Nazi collaborator during WWII. He's been in the secret employ of the US government but has gone missing and is now held prisoner by megalomaniacal shipping heiress Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki), who's using him to develop a nuclear weapon. Solo and Kuryakin must become reluctant and constantly bickering allies to both protect Gaby and get her in contact with her uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth), who may know of Udo's whereabouts. As they form a begrudging respect and friendship with one another as colleagues, Solo and Kuryakin are also operating under strict orders to obtain Vinciguerra's computer files--and take the other out if the need arises.


THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is a lighthearted, globetrotting spy outing, filled with witty and occasionally smutty double entendres, great zingers ("For a special agent, you're not having a very special day, are you?") and some quirky action scenes, including one that plays out in the background while Solo relaxes with a quick bite and some wine while sitting in his getaway truck. Hammer does a great job with his thick Russian accent and actually demonstrates some character depth even though Kuryakin is primarily a ball of barely-contained rage. Cavill is having a blast as the cocky, womanizing Solo, not doing a direct impression of Vaughn but beautifully nailing the great character actor's distinct vocal inflections and cadences, uttering his dialogue with a perpetually-arched eyebrow but never taking it over the line into self-aware snark (Hugh Grant plays their eventual boss Waverly, though his role is relatively brief here).Ritchie's U.N.C.L.E. is a breezy, uncomplicated affair that's big on laughs but takes itself seriously when the situation warrants for a nice balance of serious action and intentional laughs. And that may ultimately be its commercial downfall: it's hard for 2015 audiences to accept a period piece like this at face value, without the kitsch and the parody element that an AUSTIN POWERS would bring to the table. It's one thing to wonder if the kids today know what THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. was, but do they even know what the Cold War was?  Ritchie's film is terrific entertainment and the kind of movie you'll stop and watch until it's over every time you come across it while channel-surfing as it plays on HBO in perpetuity...but will anybody under 40 even care about this movie right now?