“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” (2015) Review

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“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” (2015) Review

The year 2015 seemed to be a big year for cinematic spies. At least three movies have been released about the world of espionage. And one is scheduled to be released some three months from now. One of the movies that was already released was Guy Ritchie’s big screen adaptation of the NBC 1964-1968 television series called “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”.

The television series from the 1960s began with its two main characters – Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin – already working for the international intelligence agency called U.N.C.L.E. (United Network Command for Law and Enforcement). Ritchie’s film is basically an origin story and tells how Napoleon and Illya first became partners in the espionage business. Set in 1963, “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” begins in East Berlin, where professional thief-turned-C.I.A. Agent Napoleon Solo is tasked with retrieving a young woman named Gaby Teller and escorting her to West Berlin. Gaby is the daughter of an alleged Nazi scientist-turned-U.S. collaborator, who has disappeared a year or two ago from the United States. Tasked with stopping Napoleon from achieving his goal is a highly skilled K.G.B. agent named Illya Kuryakin.

Although Napoleon’s mission is a success, he is ordered by his C.I.A. handler Saunders to work with Illya and Gaby to investigate a shipping company owned by Alexander and Victoria Vinciguerra, a wealthy couple of Nazi sympathizers. Due to the couple’s intent to create their own private nuclear weapon, the C.I.A. and K.G.B. have decided to make this operation a joint effort. Gaby becomes essential to the mission, since her uncle Rudi works for the Vinciguerras.

Mixed reviews greeted “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” when it first hit the theaters. Well, according to Wikipedia, the movie achieved mixed reviews. Judging from box office results, the movie barely made a profit. It seemed a pity that not many moviegoers were willing to take a chance on this film. Then again, I am not that surprised. Warner Brothers Studios barely made any effort to publicize this movie. And this was a mistake in my eyes. Today’s generation of young moviegoers are not familiar with the 1960s television series. In fact, the series had not been seen on the television screen since TNT Channel aired a handful of episodes back in 1996. The studio could have stepped up its game in publicizing the film. They could have also used re-released box sets of the old series at a reasonable price as tie-ins. And some moviegoers old enough to remember Norman Felton’s series, complained that the movie was not an exact replica. I have nothing to say about that. Well, I do. But that will come later.

“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” is not perfect. Actually, what movie is? And I do have one or two minor complaints and a major one. Okay, minor complaints. I was not that impressed by Daniel Pemberton’s score for the movie’s second half. I found it overbearing to the point that it nearly distracted me from the plot. My second complaint revolved around James Herbert’s editing. Well, I was impressed with his editing in most of the film . . . especially the car chase in East Berlin and the sequence featuring Napoleon and Illya’s break-in of the Vinciguerras’s shipyard. But I was not impressed by Herbert’s editing in the final action sequence featuring Napoleon and Illya’s attempt to rescue Gaby from a fleeing Alexander Vinciguerra. I found it slightly confusing and thought it had too many close ups. In fact, the sequence reminded me – in a negative way – of Paul Greengrass’ direction of the second and third “BOURNE” movies.

However, my main beef with “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” proved to be Joanna Johnston’s costume designs. The movie is supposed to be set in 1963. The costumes DID NOT reflect the fashions of that year. I kid you not. The following image is an example of women’s fashion in 1963:

Look at the images of Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debecki:

I cannot deny that Joanna Johnston’s designs are both original and gorgeous to look at. But . . . they are not a reflection of the movie’s 1963 setting. Judging from Vikander and Debecki’s costumes, I would say that the movie was actually set some time between 1968 and 1970 or 1971. And in the end, the movie’s costumes only reminded me of the costume mistakes featured in the 2011 movie, “X-MEN: FIRST-CLASS”.

I certainly had no problem with the movie’s plot written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. In fact, I rather enjoyed it. I have always wondered how Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin first met and started working for U.N.C.L.E. The television series never revealed this history, considering it began with the pair already working for the agency. And Rictchie and Wigram’s plot more than satisfied my curiosity. They made some changes from the television series. One, Napoleon became a former thief whom the C.I.A. blackmailed into working for them in exchange for avoiding prison. In some ways, this newly imagined Napoleon Solo reminded me of the Alexander Mundy character from the 1968-1970 television series, “IT TAKES A THIEF”. The Illya Kuryakin character underwent a few changes as well. He remained a somewhat stoic anduber professional agent, with a penchant for the occasional sardonic humor. But Ritchie and Wigram gave him a fearsome temper that was usually triggered by anything relating to his father, who had been dishonored by a scandal during World War II.

Ritchie and Wigram’s script not only utilized a bit of “IT TAKES A THIEF”, but also some characters from the TV version of “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” It seemed obvious to me that the Victoria and Alexander Vinciguerra were based on the Gervaise Ravel and Harold Bufferton characters that were portrayed by Anne Francis and John Van Dreelan in two Season One episodes. And fighting neo-Nazis is a theme that has permeated many spy movies and television shows throughout the years. Especially neo-Nazis with nuclear weapons. In fact, I just saw a Season One episode of the 60s’ series called (1.05) “The Deadly Games Affair” in which a former Nazi who tried to kick start a crazy plot to bring back the former glory of Hitler’s party. For “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”, I thought Ritchie and Wigram created an interesting twist on theme, by incorporating the Swinging Sixties scene in Europe . . . especially through characters like Victoria Vinciguerra and Gaby’s Uncle Rudi. As for the movie’s dialogue . . . well, I just adored it. I especially adored the interaction between Napoleon and Illya – especially in one scene in which they argued over the right wardrobe for Gaby to wear during their mission.

Speaking of performances, I tried to recall a performance that seemed . . . well, off kilter or just plain bad. Perhaps other critics came across such performances. I did not. Armie Hammer had an interesting task in his portrayal of K.G.B. agent Illya Kuryakin. He had the difficult task of conveying many aspects of Illya’s personality – his no-nonsense attitude, ruthlessness, emotional streak and barely controllable temper. And he did it . . . with great skill. I cannot recall if David McCallum ever had to deal with such an array of personality traits and blend them so seamlessly. Henry Cavill made an extremely charming Napoleon Solo. More importantly, he did an excellent job in conveying the character’s talent for manipulation and judge of character. I realize that his Napoleon Solo seemed more like an adaptation of the Alexander Mundy character. But watching his performance made me realize how much he reminded me of Robert Vaughn’s performance in the NBC series. Alicia Vikander, who portrayed Gaby Teller, proved to be such a surprise for me. One must understand that I have never seen “A ROYAL AFFAIR”. And I honestly do not recall her performance in “THE FIFTH ESTATE”. But I was very impressed by her performance as East German defector Gaby Teller, who turned out to be vital to Napoleon and Illya’s mission. Vikander connected very well with both of her leading men, especially Hammer. And she did a great job in conveying Gaby’s intelligence, toughness and strong will.

Hugh Grant pretty much took me by surprise with his performance as Alexander Waverly, the head of U.N.C.L.E. He was charming and witty, as usual. Of course, as usual. He is Hugh Grant. But he was also effective and projected a strong presence as U.N.C.L.E.’s pragmatic leader, who is ruthless enough to make some tough choices. When I first saw Elizabeth Debicki in “THE GREAT GATSBY”, I was very impressed by her performance. I was even more impressed by her portrayal of the villainous Victoria Vinciguerra. She conveyed a great deal of charm, style and wit in her performance. I also thought Debicki made a scary villain. Hell, she was one of the scariest villains of the Summer 2015 season. I was surprised to see Sylvester Groth, who played Gaby’s Fascist uncle. The last time I saw him, he portrayed Nazi Joseph Goebbels in 2009’s “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”. And he was funnier. He was a bit more scary as Gaby’s snobbish, yet sadistic Uncle Rudi. But he was also very funny . . . especially in his last scene in the movie. The movie also featured Jared Harris, whose take on a C.I.A. station chief seemed more like a spoof on American authority figures, along with solid performances from Luca Calvani, Simona Caparrini and Christian Berkel (who also appeared in “INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS”.

“THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” had a few flaws. This is to be expected for just about any movie. And yes, I realize that it is not an exact replica of the NBC 1964-1968 series. Mind you, I could care less, for I believe originality is more important than repetition. And that is what I liked about “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” Director Guy Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram took an old television series and put their own original spin on it. And they were ably supported by a first-rate cast led by Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill.

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1910s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1910s: 


TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1910s

1-Mary Poppins

1. “Mary Poppins” (1964) – Walt Disney personally produced this Oscar winning musical adaptation of P.L. Travers’ book series about a magical nanny who helps change the lives of a Edwardian family. Directed by Robert Stevenson, the movie starred Oscar winner Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.



2-Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines

2. “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” (1965) – Ken Annakin directed this all-star comedy about a 1910 air race from London to Paris, sponsored by a newspaper magnate. Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles, James Fox and Terry-Thomas starred.



3-Titanic

3. “Titanic” (1953) – Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb starred in this melodrama about an estranged couple and their children sailing on the maiden voyage of the R.M.S. Titanic. Jean Negulesco directed.



4-Eight Men Out

4. “Eight Men Out” (1988) – John Sayles wrote and directed this account of Black Sox scandal, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series. John Cusack, David Strathairn and D.B. Sweeney starred.



5-A Night to Remember 

5. “A Night to Remember” (1958) – Roy Ward Baker directed this adaptation of Walter Lord’s book about the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. Kenneth More starred.



6-The Shooting Party

6. “The Shooting Party” (1985) – Alan Bridges directed this adaptation of Isabel Colegate’s 1981 novel about a group of British aristocrats who have gathered for a shooting party on the eve of World War I. James Mason, Edward Fox, Dorothy Tutin and John Gielgud starred.



7-The Music Man 

7. “The Music Man” (1962) – Robert Preston and Shirley Jones starred in this film adaptation of Meredith Wilson’s 1957 Broadway musical about a con man scamming a small Midwestern town into providing money for a marching band. Morton DaCosta directed.



8-My Fair Lady

8. “My Fair Lady” (1964) – Oscar winner George Cukor directed this Best Picture winner and adaptation of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s 1956 Broadway musical about an Edwardian phonetics professor who sets out to transform a Cockney flower girl into a respected young lady to win a bet. Audrey Hepburn and Oscar winner Rex Harrison starred.



9-Paths of Glory

9. “Paths of Glory” (1957) – Stanley Kubrick directed this adaptation of Humphrey Cobb’s anti-war novel about a French Army officer who defends three soldiers who refused to participate in a suicidal attack during World War I. Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou and George Macready starred.



10-Somewhere in Time

10. “Somewhere in Time” (1980) – Jeannot Szwarc directed this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1975 time travel novel called“Bid Time Return”. Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour and Christopher Plummer starred.

“A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” (1958) Review

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“A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” (1958) Review

There have been many versions about the April 1912 sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. Many versions. And I have personally seen at least five of them. One of them happened to be the 1958 movie, “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER”.

Directed by Roy Ward Baker, “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” is based upon historian Walter Lord’s 1955 book about the historical sinking. Since the 1958 movie was based upon a historical book instead of a novel, Baker, producer William MacQuitty and screenwriter Eric Ambler approached the film’s plot in a semi-documentary style. Even the movie’s leading character turned out to be the Titanic’s Second Officer, Charles Lightoller, who was portrayed by actor Kenneth More. The movie also featured other historical figures such as J. Bruce Ismay, Thomas Andrews, Captain Edward J. Smith and Margaret “Molly” Brown. Due to this semi-documentary approach, “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” is regarded as the best movie about the Titanic.

I cannot deny that there is a great deal to admire about “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER”. Not only do I feel it is an excellent movie, I could see that Roy Ward Baker did his best to re-create that last night aboard the Titanic. He and Ambler gave the audience glimpses into the lives of the ship’s crew and passengers. The movie also went into great detail of their efforts to remain alive following the ship’s brief collision with an iceberg. Some of my favorite scenes include the Irish steerage passengers’ efforts to reach the life boats on the upper decks, the wireless operators’ (David McCullum and Kenneth Griffin) efforts to summon other ships to rescue the passengers and crew, and passenger Molly Brown (Tucker McGuire)’s conflict with the sole crewman in her lifeboat. But my favorite scene has to be that moment when the Titanic’s stern rose high before the ship sank into the Atlantic Ocean.

For a film shot in black and white during the late 1950s, I must admit that “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” looked very handsome. Legendary cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth’s phtography struck me as sharp and very elegant. I do not know if Yvonne Caffin’s costume designs for the movie’s 1912 setting was completely accurate, but they certainly did add to the movie’s late Edwardian atmosphere. Especially those costumes for the first-class passengers. I do have to give kudos to the special effects team led by Bill Warrington. He and his team did a superb job in re-creating the ocean liner’s historic sinking. I am even more impressed that their work still manages to hold up after fifty-four years.

The cast of “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” was led by Kenneth More, who portrayed Second Officer Lightoller with his usual energetic charm. More was ably supported by the likes of Laurence Naismith as Captain Smith, Michael Goodliffe’s poignant portrayal of ship designer Thomas Andrews, Frank Lawton as J. Bruce Ismay, George Rose as the inebriated survivor Charles Joughin and Tucker McGuire’s colorful portrayal of American socialite Molly Brown. The movie also featured future “AVENGERS” and Bond veteran Honor Blackman; David McCullum of “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.” and “N.C.I.S.” fame; and Bernard Fox, who will also appear in James Cameron’s 1997 movie about the Titanic sinking. But despite the numerous good performances, I honestly have to say that I found nothing exceptional about any of them.

Like many others, I used to believe that “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” was the best movie about the Titanic. After this latest viewing, I do not believe I can maintain that opinion any longer. In fact, I am beginning to suspect there may not be any “ultimate” Titanic film. And “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” is not perfect, as far as I am concerned. Many have applauded the filmmakers for eschewing any fictional melodrama or using the sinking as a backdrop for a fictional story. Personally, I could not care less if a Titanic movie is simply a fictional melodrama or a semi-documentary film. All I require is a first-rate movie that will maintain my interest.

“A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” began with a montage of newsreel clips featuring the Titanic’s christening in Belfast. One, the ship was never christened. And two, I could see that the newsreel footage used in the movie dated from the 1930s. The movie tried its best to allow the audience to identify with some of its characters. But due to “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” being a docudrama, I feel that it failed to give an in-depth study of its more prominent characters . . . making it difficult for me to identify with any of them.

I realize that “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” was a British production, but I was amazed at the low number of American passengers featured in the cast. The 1953 film, “TITANIC” suffered from a similar malady – the only British characters I could recall were members of the crew. I do remember at least three Americans in the 1958 movie – Molly Brown; Benjamin Guggenheim, portrayed by Harold Goldblatt and a third passenger, whose name escapes me. I was satisfied with McGuire’s performance as Molly Brown and the nameless actor who portrayed the third American passenger. But Goldblatt portrayed Guggenheim as a member of the British upper class in both attitude and accent. It almost seemed as if the filmmakers wanted Guggenheim to be viewed as a British gentleman, instead of an American one.

Walter Lord’s book made it clear that one of the last songs performed by Titanic’s band was NOT “Nearer My God to Thee”. Yet, the filmmakers chose to perpetrate this myth in the movie by having the remaining passengers and crew sing the song en masse before the ship began to sink in earnest. This pious attitude continued in a scene aboard the R.M.S. Carpathia, in which the survivors listened to a religious sermon. Instead of projecting an air of melancholy or despair, the survivors, thanks to Ward Baker, seemed to project an air of the British stiff upper lip cliche. I feel that a melancholic air among the survivors would have made the scene seem more human.

I cannot deny that “A NIGHT TO REMEMBER” is a first-rate look at the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic. More importantly, the movie and especially the visual effects still hold up very well after half-a-century. But the movie possesses flaws that make it difficult for me to regard it as the best Titanic movie ever made. Perhaps . . . there is no best Titanic movie. Just bad or well made ones.

Ten Favorite Movies Set in the EDWARDIAN AGE (1901-1914)

Below is a list of my ten favorite movies set during the Edwardian Age (1901-1914) in Great Britain: 

Ten Favorite Movies Set in the EDWARDIAN AGE

1. “Howard’s End” (1992) – This Academy Award nominated film is an superb adaptation of E.M. Foster’s 1910 novel about class relations in turn-of-the-20th-century England. This Merchant-Ivory production starred Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham-Carter, Anthony Hopkins, Samuel West and Vanessa Redgrave.

2. “A Room With a View” (1986) – Merchant-Ivory also produced and directed this excellent adaptation of E.M. Foster’s 1908 novel about a young woman struggling with her individuality in the face of the restrictive Edwardian culture of turn-of-the century England and her love for a free-spirited young man. This film starred Helena Bonham-Carter, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis, Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliot.

3. “Mary Poppins” (1964) – Julie Andrews won an Oscar for her performance in this magical Disney musical based upon the “Mary Poppins” books series by P. L. Travers. Directed by Robert Stevenson, this classic film also starred Dick Van Dyke, David Tomilson, Glynnis Johns, Karen Doctrice, Matthew Garber and Ed Wynn.

4. “The Assassination Bureau, LTD.” (1968) – Basil Dearden directed this a tongue-in-cheek dark comedy that was based on an unfinished novel, “The Assassination Bureau, Ltd” by Jack London. It starred Oliver Reed, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, and Curt Jürgens.

5. “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” (1965) – Ken Annakin directed this charming all-star comedy about an 1910 air race from London to Paris. The cast included Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles, James Fox, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Gert Frobe and Terry-Thomas.

6. “A Night to Remember” (1958) – In my opinion, this Golden Globe Award winning adaptation of Walter Lord’s 1955 book about the R.M.S. Titanic is the best movie about the famous ocean liner. Directed by Roy Ward Baker, this film starred Kenneth More, Laurence Naismith, Ronald Allen and Honor Blackman.

7. “The Golden Bowl” (2000) – Based upon Henry James’ novel, this is a tale of love, marriage and adultery amongst American expatriates and an Italian nobleman in turn-of-the-century England. Starred Uma Thurman, Jeremy Northam, Kate Beckinsale, Nick Nolte, Angelica Huston and James Fox.

8. “The Prestige” (2006) – Christopher Nolan directed this excellent adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel about rival show magicians in turn-of-the-century England. The movie starred Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Piper Perabo, David Bowie, Andy Serakis and Michael Caine.

9. “My Fair Lady” (1964) – George Cukor directed this Academy Award winning adaptation of Lerner and Lowe’s hit Broadway musical . . . which was an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play, “Pygmalion”. Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn star.

10. “Titanic” (1997) – This latest version of the sinking of the RMS Titanic won eleven Academy Awards. Directed by James Cameron, it starred Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Frances Fisher, Bill Paxton and Gloria Stuart.