“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” (2016) Review

 

“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” (2016) Review

Two years following the success of 2014’s “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”, Marvel Entertainment released a new “X-MEN” film set ten years after the previous one. The movie proved to be the fourth one directed by Bryan Singer.

“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” began in ancient Egypt, where the world’s first mutant, a powerful individual named En Sabah Nur, ruled by by transferring his mind into new bodies. Unfortunately, a group of former worshipprs betrayed En Sabah Nur aka “Apocalypse” by entombing him alive. They also killed his four lieutenants, the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, who tried to protect him. The movie jumped to 1983 Egypt where C.I.A. Agent Moira MacTaggert (last seen in 2011’s “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”) has been investigating a cult in Egypt that worships En Sabah Nur. Her accidental exposure his tomb to sunlight awakened the ancient mutant and produced a shock wave around the globe. Following his awakening, En Sabah Nur set out to recruit four mutants as his new “Four Horsemen”:

*Ororo Munroe aka “Storm” – an orphan and pickpocket from the streets of Cairo, who is able to control the weather

*Warren Worthington III aka “Angel” – a mutant with feathered wings on his back, who has resorted to participating in underground fight clubs in Berlin

*Psylocke – an enforcer for the black marketeer mutant Caliban, who is not only telepathic and telekinetic, but can also produce a purple-colored psychic energy

*Erik Lehnsherr aka “Magneto” – a Holocaust survivor and former friend of Charles Xavier, who has the ability to manipulate metal and control magnetic fields, and who is recently grieving over the accidental deaths of his wife and daughter by the Polish police

Apocalypse’s shock wave also caused Jean Grey, an adolescent student and mutant at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters to have a nightmare and momentarily lose control of her powers. When Charles Xavier attempted to investigate the power source he discovered that Moira was involved. Although her previous memories of them together were erased, Xavier meets with her to discuss the legend of En Sabah Nur. But when they become aware of the ancient mutant’s plans to bring about the apocalypse; Xavier and Moira recruit fellow mutants like Raven aka “Mystique”, Hank McCoy aka “Beast”, Alex Summers aka “Havok”, and Peter Maximoff aka “Quicksilver” to stop Apocalypse’s plans. Xavier students like Jean Grey, Scott Summers aka “Cyclops” (Alex’s nephew) and Kurt Wagner aka “Nightcrawler” also join the campaign to stop En Sabah Nur.

Let me be frank. “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” was not well received by the critics and many filmgoers. I am not going to explain why they felt this way about the movie. Needless to say, I do not agree with this pervading view. I am not saying that “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” was a great film. It was not. I believe the movie had some problems.

One of those problems is that some of the cast members were obviously too young for their roles. This certainly seemed to be the case for James McAvoy Michael Fassbender and Rose Byrne, who portrayed Charles Xavier, Magneto and Moira McTaggart. All three are in their mid-to-late 30s and portrayed characters who were in their early 50s (late 40s for Moira, I suspect) . . . with no make-up to convey their characters’ aging. Both Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult portrayed Mystique and Hank McCoy, who were slightly younger than Xavier and Magneto. But “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” gave a good excuse for their slow aging . . . Mystique’s blood. Another cast member who portrayed a character much older than himself (without makeup) is Lucas Till, who is at least 25 or 26 years old, reprising his role as the late 30s to early 40s Alex Summers. And finally, we have Josh Helman, who is barely 30 years old, who reprised his role as William Stryker, who must have been around the same age as Xavier and Magneto. Does Singer have something against aging in his “X-MEN” films? And if he wanted to maintain the same cast, could he have at least consider using aging makeup for at least five members of the cast?

Two, what was the point in including both Stryker and Wolverine in this movie? Why? They were not essential to the plot. Was it really necessary for Singer to convey that Stryker had ended up giving Wolverine adamantium after all? Despite the time change in “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”? What was the point? Could we at least have one “X-MEN” film in which Hugh Jackman does not appear? I also see that Singer, along with screenwriter Simon Kinberg, decided to include Stryker in this tale as a plot device to delay Hank, Raven, Peter, and Moira from reaching Cairo. Pointless. It was the most pointless moment in this movie. Finally, I had a problem with the “Four Horsemen”. Aside from Magneto, the other three were barely used. What was the point in showing how they were recruited by En Sabah Nur, when Oscar Isaac and Michael Fassbender seemed to be the only ones in scenes featuring the ancient mutant and his “Horsemen”, who had the most lines. It is bad enough that once again, Singer indulged in his penchant for ignoring minority characters like Storm and Psylocke. Then he includes Angel into this movie – who was shown to be younger than Storm, Scott and Jean in 2006’s “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND” – and barely give the latter any lines.

And yet . . . I still liked “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE”. In fact, I liked it more than I did “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”. The 2016 movie had its problems, but it never seemed racked with so many plot holes like the 2014 movie did. Without the cloud of time travel hovering over the movie, the writing for “APOCALPYSE” struck me as a little clearer and a lot more straightforward. I can applause Singer for attempting to tackle something complicated as time travel. I simply believe that he, Kinberg and the other screenwriters did not handle it very well. On the other hand, the more straightforward narrative for “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” seemed to suit both Singer and Kinberg.

I did not care for the minor arc regarding William Stryker and Wolverine. And yes, En Sabah Nur’s plot to retake the world seemed a bit unoriginal. But Singer and Kinberg handled this story a lot better than they did the time travel plot for the 2014 movie. And to be honest, I rather liked it. I did not love it, but I liked it. I also liked the fact that En Sabah Nur’s plot had a surprising twist (well, one that I did not see coming) that did not involved his “Four Horsemen”.

I may not have a high opinion of “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”. But the movie did provide some interesting consequences that played out in “APOCALYPSE”. One, both movies allowed Xavier and Mystique to become close again, following their estrangement in “X-MEN: FIRST-CLASS”. In one of the movie’s more interesting scenes, Mystique discovers that she has become something of a legend to some of the younger mutants, including Xavier’s students. The movie also allowed Jean Grey the opportunity to learn to utilize her “Dark Phoenix” powers with more control . . . and without Xavier trying to suppress her. Do not get me wrong. I am one of those fans who actually enjoyed “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. But it was nice to see Xavier dealing with Jean’s powers with a healthier attitude. And although I was not impressed by how Singer and Kinberg pushed Storm into the background – especially during the film’s second half, it was nice to get a peek into her life as a young Cairo pickpocket before she ended up as one of Apocalypse’s minions and later, a student at Xavier’s school.

I certainly had no problem with the movie’s productions. I thought Grant Major did an exceptional job in not only re-creating ancient Egypt for the movie’s prologue and for the rest of it, the early 1980s. This is not surprising, considering Major’s work with director Peter Jackson on movies such as “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy. Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography contributed to the movie’s epic and sweeping look. Louise Mingenbach’s costumes, along with Geoffroy Gosselin and Anne Kuljian’s set decorations struck me as a solid reflection of the movie’s early 1980s setting. But the two aspects of the movie’s visual style that really impressed me were Michael Louis Hill and John Ottman’s editing, especially in scenes that involved En Sabah Nur’s entombing in the movie’s beginning and the X-Men’s showdown with the ancient mutant. I was especially impressed with the movie’s special effects, especially in the very two scenes that I had just pointed out.

The acting featured in “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” also struck me as impressive. Well, to be honest, there were only a few performances that really caught my notice. However, I certainly had no problem with the other performances. Of the four actors who portrayed En Sabah Nur’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, only one left no impression upon me – namely Ben Hardy, who portrayed Angel. The character barely had any lines and if I am mistaken, I could have sworn that Angel’s character was from a younger generation (that of Rogue and Iceman’s) – at least in the current movie franchise. I can also say the same about actress Lana Candor, who portrayed Jubilee. Not only did the actress barely had any lines, she was also portrayed as an Xavier student from Rogue and Iceman’s generation in a previous movie.

Although Alexandra Shipp, who portrayed Storm, and Olivia Munn, who portrayed Psylocke; were shifted to the background after their characters were introduced; both managed to impress me in the end. Shipp’s portrayal of the adolescent Storm struck me as rather lively and energetic. And Munn was effectively intimidating as the mutant enforcer, who becomes one of En Sabah Nur’s minions. The movie also featured solid performances from Rose Byrne, who returned as C.I.A. Agent Moira McTaggert; Sophie Turner and Tye Sheridan as the adolescent Jean Grey and Scott Summers aka “Cyclops”; Kodi Smit-McPhee as the younger Kurt Wagner aka “Nightcrawler”; Lucas Till as Alex Summers aka Havok; Nicholas Hoult as Dr. Hank McCoy aka “Beast”; Josh Helman as William Stryker; and Evan Peters as the always amusing Peter Maximoff aka “Quicksilver”. If you are careful, you might also spot Hugh Jackman, Zeljko Ivanek, Ally Sheedy and of course, Stan Lee.

Only four performances in this movie really impressed me. One of them turned out to be James McAvoy’s portrayal of Charles Xavier aka “Professor X”. At first, McAvoy’s performance seemed solid . . . almost perfunctory. But once it became apparent that Professor Xavier’s fate was connected with with En Sabah Nur’s scheme, McAvoy skillfully portrayed the telepathic mutant with a great deal of emotion and pathos. Michael Fassbender proved to be equally fascinating as the emotionally battered Erik Lensherr. He did a great job in conveying Magneto’s reactions to the deaths of a family and peaceful life, and to being emotionally manipulated by En Sabah Nur. Jennifer Lawrence continued to impress me with her excellent portrayal of the complex Raven aka “Mystique”. I found it fascinating to watch the 20-something actress portray a character who had become battle hardened and mature after spending two decades fighting on behalf of fellow mutants. Many critics have complained about Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of the movie’s main villain, En Sabah Nur aka “Apocalypse”. Apparently, they could not get past the actor’s make-up or mask. Well, I could. And I thought Isaac did a pretty damn good job in portraying a villain who was not only something of an egomaniac, but also a world-class manipulator. And he did so with great skill and subtlety.

I am not saying that “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” was one of the best movies from the summer of 2016. Nor am I saying that it was one of the best in the “X-MEN” movie franchise. But I certainly do not believe that it was one of the worst. As far as I am concerned, the worst in the movie franchise was released four-and-a-half months earlier. But I thought it was something of an improvement over the convoluted plot that seemed to mar “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”, thanks to Bryan Singer’s direction, Simon Kinberg’s screenplay and an excellent cast led by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.

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“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

“BRIDGE OF SPIES” (2015) Review

Several years ago, I read an article in which Steven Spielberg had expressed a desire to direct a James Bond movie. It has been over a decade since the director had made this comment. And as far as I know, he has only directed two movies that had anything to do with spies – the 2005 movie “MUNICH”, which co-starred the current Bond actor, and his latest film, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”.

Like “MUNICH”, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” is a spy tale with a strong historical background. Based upon Giles Whittell’s 2010 book, “Bridge of Spies: A True Story of the Cold War”, the movie centered around the 1960 U-2 Incident and the efforts of attorney James B. Donovan to negotiate the exchange of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers for the captured Soviet spyRudolf Abel – whom Donovan had unsuccessfully defended from charges of espionage against the United States. Although Whittell’s book focused upon a larger cast of characters involved in the U-2 incident and the famous spy exchange, the screenwriters – Matt Charman, along with Joel and Ethan Coen – and Spielberg tightened their focus upon Donovan’s role in the incident.

It occurred to me that in the past fifteen years, I can only think of five Steven Spielberg-directed movies that I have truly liked. Five out of eleven movies. Hmmmm . . . I do not know if that is good or bad. Fortunately, one of those movies that I managed to embrace was this latest effort, “BRIDGE OF SPIES”. I enjoyed it very much. I would not rank it at the same level as “MUNICH” or “LINCOLN”. But I thought it was a pretty solid movie for a director of Spielberg’s caliber. The latter and the movie’s screenwriters made the intelligent choice to focus on one particular person involved in the entire incident – James B. Donovan. If they had attempted to cover every aspect of Whittell’s book, Spielberg would have been forced to release this production as a television miniseries.

Yet, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” still managed to cover a great deal of the events surrounding the shooting of Powers’ U-2 spy plane and the exchange that followed. This is due to the screenwriters’ decision to start the movie with the arrest of Rudolf Abel in 1957. More importantly, the narrative went into details over the arrest, the U.S. decision to put Abel on trial, their choice of Donovan as his attorney and the trial itself. In fact, the movie covered all of this before Powers was even shot down over the Soviet Union. The screenwriters and Spielberg also went out of their way to cover the circumstances of the arrest and incarceration of American graduate student Frederic Pryor, who was vising his East Berlin girlfriend, when he was arrested. And that is because the writers had the good sense to realize – like Whittell before them – that the incidents surrounding the arrests of both Abel and Pryor were just as important as Powers being shot down by the Soviets.

What I best liked about “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was its ambiguous portrayal of the nations involved in the entire matter – the United States, the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). No country was spared. Both the United States and the Soviet Union seemed bent upon not only projecting some image of a wounded nation to the world. Both engaged in sham trials for Abel and Powers that left a bad taste in my mouth. And the movie portrayed East Germany as some petulant child pouting over the fact that neither of the other two countries were taking it seriously. Which would account for that country’s vindictive treatment toward Pryor. And neither the U.S. or the Soviets seemed that concerned over Pryor’s fate – especially the U.S. Watching the movie finally made me realize how the Cold War now strikes me as irrelevant and a waste of time.

As much as I enjoyed “BRIDGE OF SPIES”, the movie seemed to lack a sense of urgency that struck me as odd for this kind of movie. And I have to blame Spielberg. His direction seemed a bit . . . well, a bit too relaxed for a topic about the Cold War at its most dangerous. Many might point out that “BRIDGE OF SPIES” is basically a historic drama in which anyone familiar with the U-2 incident would know how it ends. Yet Both “MUNICH” and “LINCOLN”, along with Ron Howard’s “APOLLO 13” and Roger Donaldson’s 2000 film, “THIRTEEN DAYS”, seemed to possess that particular sharp urgency, despite being historic dramas. But for “BRIDGE OF SPIES”, Spielberg’s direction seemed just a tad too relaxed – with the exception of a few scenes. One last problem I had with “BRIDGE OF SPIES” was the ending. Remember . . . this is Steven Spielberg, a director notorious for dumping a surprising layer of saccharine on an otherwise complex tale. This saccharine was on full display in the movie’s finale sequence that featured Donovan’s return to the United States . . . especially the scene in which he is riding an El train to his home in the Bronx and his family’s discovery of his activities in Eastern Europe. It was enough saccharine to make me heave an exasperated sigh.

Speaking of Donovan’s El Train ride back to his neighborhood, there was one aspect of it that I found impressive. I must admit how cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, a longtime collaborator of Spielberg’s since the early 1990s, allowed the camera to slowly sweep over Donovan’s Bronx neighborhood from an elevated position. I found the view rather rich and detailed. In fact, Kamiński provided a similar sweeping bird eye’s view of the Berlin Wall and the two “enclaves” that bordered it. Another aspect of the movie’s production values that impressed me were Adam Stockhausen’s production designs. I thought he did an outstanding job in re-creating both New York City and Berlin of the late 1950s and early 1960s. And his work was ably assisted by Rena DeAngelo and Bernhard Henrich’s set decorations; along with the art direction team of Marco Bittner Rosser, Scott Dougan, Kim Jennings and Anja Müller.

The performances featured in “BRIDGE OF SPIES” struck me as pretty solid. I thought Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Jesse Plemmons, Michael Gaston, Will Rogers and Austin Stowell did great work. But for my money, the best performances came from lead Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Dakin Matthews and Sebastian Koch. Dakin Matthews has always been a favorite character actor of mine. I have always found his performances rather colorful. However, I would have to say that his portrayal of Federal Judge Byers, who seemed exasperated by Donovan’s attempt to give Abel a fair trial, struck me as a lot more subtle and effective than many of his past roles. Sebastian Koch gave a very interesting performance as East German attorney Wolfgang Vogel, who seemed intensely determined that his country play a major role in the spy swap and not be cast aside. Superficially, Tom Hanks’ role as James Donovan seemed like the typical “boy scout” role he had especially became known for back in the 1990s. And in some ways, it is. But I really enjoyed how the actor conveyed Donovan’s increasing disbelief over his country’s questionable handling of Abel’s trial and his sense that he is a fish-out-of-water in a divided Berlin. However, I feel that the best performance came from Mark Rylance, who gave a deliciously subtle, yet entertaining portrayal of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel. What I liked about Rylance’s performance is that he did not portray Abel as some kind of stock KGB agent, but a subtle and intelligent man, who seemed clearly aware of the more unpleasant side of both American and Soviet justice. Rylance’s performance paid off with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

I might as well be frank. I do not think I would ever regard “BRIDGE OF SPIES” as one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies. I thought the movie lacked a sense of urgency and sharpness that nearly robbed the film of any suspension . . . despite it being a historical drama. But, I still believe it was a first-rate film. I also thought that Spielberg and the movie’s screenwriters did a great job in conveying as many details as possible regarding the U-2 incident and what led to it. The movie also featured a first-rate cast led by the always incomparable Tom Hanks. Overall, “BRIDGE OF SPIES” proved that Spielberg has yet to lose his touch.

“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.

“AGENT CARTER” Season One (2015) Episodes Ranking

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Below is my ranking of the eight episodes featured in Season One of ABC’s “AGENT CARTER”. Created by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the series stars Hayley Atwell as Agent Margaret “Peggy” Carter:

 

“AGENT CARTER” SEASON ONE (2015) Episodes Ranking

1 - 1.06 A Sin to Err

1. (1.06) “A Sin to Err” – While Agent Peggy Carter and Howard Stark’s valet Edwin Jarvis investigate a mysterious woman whom Stark may have dated, Chief Roger Dooley and the rest of the Strategic Scientific Reserve (S.S.R.) staff begin to suspect that Peggy might be a traitor in their midst.

 

2 - 1.05 The Iron Ceiling

2. (1.05) “The Iron Ceiling” – After a message from the Leviathan intelligence agency is decoded; Peggy, Agent Jack Thompson and the Howling Commandos investigate a Soviet military complex to stop a possible sale of Stark’s missing weapons.

 

3 - 1.08 Valediction

3. (1.08) “Valediction” – In this season finale, Peggy and her fellow S.S.R. agents race to stop a pair of Leviathan agents from kidnapping Stark and dumping lethal gas on the population of New York City.

 

5 - 1.04 The Blitzkrieg Button

4. (1.04) “Blitzkrieg Button” – Stark briefly returns to New York City in order to instruct Peggy in getting her hands on one of his weapons, now in the hands of the S.S.R. Meanwhile, Chief Dooley travels to Germany to interview a convicted Nazi military criminal about the Battle of Finow, in which most of the Soviet troops were massacred.

 

4 - 1.01 Now Is Not the End

5. (1.01) “Now Is Not the End” – The series premiere features Peggy, who is still grieving over the “death” of Steve Rogers, arriving at her new assignment with the S.S.R. in 1946 New York City. She is also recruited by Howard Stark, who is suspected of selling his weapons to the Soviets, to find out who had stolen them.

 

6 - 1.07 Snafu

6. (1.07) “SNAFU” – A suspicious Chief Dooley and the other S.S.R. agents interrogate Peggy about her connection to Stark and Leviathan. Meanwhile, the Leviathan agents get their hands on the lethal gas that had been responsible for the massacre at the Battle of Finow.

 

7 - 1.03 Time and Tide

7. (1.03) “Time and Tide” – Jarvis is interrogated by Thompson regarding Stark’s whereabouts. Meanwhile, the S.S.R. discover a typewriter used to exchange coded messages by the Leviathan agents.

 

8 - 1.02 Bridge and Tunnel

8. (1.02) “Bridge and Tunnel” – Peggy and Jarvis set out to find a missing truck filled with nitramene weapons.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” (2014) Review

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” (2014) Review

I have never been a major fan of Wes Anderson’s films in the past. Well . . . I take that back. I have never been a fan of his films, with the exception of one – namely 2007’s “THE DARJEELING LIMITED”. Perhaps my inability to appreciate most of Anderson’s films was due to my inability to understand his sense of humor . . . or cinematic style. Who knows? However, after viewing “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”, the number of Anderson films of which I became a fan, rose to two.

Written and directed by Anderson, “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” is about the adventures of one Gustave H., a legendary concierge at a famous hotel from the fictional Republic of Zubrowka during the early 1930s; and his most trusted friend, a lobby boy named Zero Moustafa. Narrated from a much older Zero, the movie, which was inspired by the writings of Austrian author Stefan Zweig, begins in the present day in which a teenage girl stares at a monument inside a cemetery, who holds a memoir in her arms, written by a character known as “The Author”. The book narrates a tale in which “the Author” as a younger man visited the Grand Budapest Hotel in 1968 Zubrowka. There, he met the hotel’s elderly owner, Zero Moustafa, who eventually tells him how he took ownership of the hotel and why he is unwilling to close it down.

The story shifts to 1932, in which a much younger Zero was one of the hotel’s lobby boys, freshly arrived in Zubrowka as a war refugee. Zero becomes acquainted with Monsieur Gustave H., who is a celebrated concierge known for sexually pleasing some of the hotel’s wealthy guests – namely those who are elderly and romantically desperate. One of Gustave’s guests is the very wealthy Madame Céline Villeneuve “Madame D” Desgoffe und Taxis. Although Zubrowka is on the verge of war, Gustave becomes more concerned with news that “Madame D” has suddenly died. He and Zero travels across the country to attend her wake and the reading of her will. During the latter, Gustave learns that “Madame D” has bequeathed to him a very valuable painting called “Boy with Apple”. This enrages her family, all of whom hoped to inherit it. Not long after Gustave and Zero’s return to the Grand Budapest Hotel, the former is arrested and imprisoned for the murder of the elderly woman, who had died of strychnine poisoning. Gustave and Zero team up to help the former escape from prison and learn who had framed him for murder.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” not only proved to be very popular with critics, the film also earned four Golden Globe nominations and won one award – Best Film: Musical or Comedy. It also earned nine Academy Awards and won four. Not bad for a comedy about a mid-European concierge in the early 1930s. Did the movie deserved its accolades? In spades. It is the only other Wes Anderson movie I have ever developed a real love for. In fact, I think I enjoyed it even more than “THE DARJEELING LIMITED”. When I first heard about the movie, I did not want to see it. I did not even want to give it a chance. Thank God I did. The movie not only proved to be my favorite Anderson film, it also became one of my favorite 2014 flicks.

Is “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” perfect? For a while, I found myself hard pressed to think of anything about this movie that may have rubbed me the wrong way. I realized there was one thing with which I had a problem – namely the way this movie began. Was it really necessary to star the movie with a young girl staring at a statue of “the Author”, while holding his book? Was it really necessary to have “the Older Author” begin the movie’s narration, before he is replaced by his younger self and the older Zero Moustafa? I realized what Anderson was trying to say. He wanted to convey to movie audiences that M. Gustave and Zero’s story will continue on through the Author’s book and they will never be forgotten. But I cannot help but wonder if Anderson could have conveyed his message without this gimmicky prologue.

“THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” may not be perfect. But I would certainly never describe it as a mediocre or even moderately good film. This movie deserved the Academy Award nominations and wins it earned . . . and many more. It was such a joy to watch it that not even its angst-filled moments could dampen my feelings. Anderson did a superb job of conveying his usual mixture of high comedy, pathos and quixotic touches in this film. Now, one might point out this is the director’s usual style, which makes it nothing new. I would agree, except . . . I believe that Anderson’s usual style perfectly blended with the movie’s 1930s Central European setting. For me, watching “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” seemed like watching an Ernst Lubitsch movie . . . only with profanity and a bit of sexual situations and nudity.

I have only watched a handful of Lubitsch’s movies and cannot recall any real violence or political situations featured in any of his plots. Wait . . . I take that back. His 1942 movie, “TO BE OR NOT TO BE” featured strong hints of violence, war and a touch of infidelity. However, I believe Anderson went a little further in his own depictions of war, violence and sex. But this did not harm the movie one bit. After all, “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” was released in the early 21st century. Sex and violence is nothing new in today’s films . . . even in highly acclaimed ones. Despite the presence of both in the film, Anderson still managed to infuse a great deal of wit and style into his plot. This was especially apparent in two sequences – Zero’s initial description of M. Gustave and the Grand Budapest Hotel; and that marvelous sequence in which a fraternal order of Europe’s hotel concierges known as the Society of the Crossed Keys helped Gustave and Zero evade the police and find the one person who can who can clear Gustave’s name and help him retrieve his legacy from “Madame D”. I especially enjoyed the last sequence. In my eyes, Lubitsch could not have done it any better.

There were other aspects of “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL” that enhanced its setting. First of all, I have to give kudos to Adam Stockhausen and Anna Pinnock for their work on the movie. Stockhausen, who also served as the production designer for the Oscar winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, did a superb job of reflecting the movie’s two major time periods – Central Europe in the early 1930s and the late 1960s. Pinnock served as the film’s set decorator. Both Stockhausen and Pinnock shared the Academy Award for Best Production Design. Milena Canonero won an Oscar for the film’s costume designs. I have to admit that she deserved. I feel she deserved it, because she did an excellent job of creating costumes not only for the characters, but also their class positions and the movie’s settings. She did not simply resort to re-creating the fashion glamour of the 1930s for the sake of eye candy. Robert Yeoman’s photography for the movie really impressed me. I found it sharp and very atmospheric for the movie’s setting. I can see why he managed to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography.

I was shocked when I learned that Ralph Fiennes failed to get an Academy Award nomination for his performance as M. Gustave. What on earth was the Academy thinking? I can think of at least two actor who were nominated for Best Actor for 2014, who could have been passed over. Gustave is Fiennes’ masterpiece, as far as I am concerned. I never realized he had such a spot-on talent for comedy. And although his Gustave is one of the funniest characters I have seen in recent years, I was also impressed by the touch of pathos he added to the role. Another actor, who I also believe deserved an Oscar nomination was Tony Revolori. Where on earth did Anderson find this kid? Oh yes . . . Southern California. Well . . . Revolori was also superb as the young Zero, who not only proved to be a very devoted employee and friend to M. Gustave, but also a very pragmatic young man. Like Fiennes, Revolori had both an excellent touch for both comedy and pathos. Also, both he and Fiennes proved to have great screen chemistry.

Revolori also shared a solid screen chemistry with actress Saoirse Ronan, who portrayed Zero’s lady love, pastry chef Agatha. Ronan’s charming performance made it perfectly clear why Zero and even M. Gustave found Agatha’s sharp-tongue pragmatism very alluring. Another charming performance came from Tilda Swinton, who portrayed one of Gustave’s elderly lovers. It seemed a shamed that Swinton’s appearance was short-lived. I found her portrayal of the wealthy, yet insecure and desperate Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis rather interesting. Adrien Brody gave an interesting performance as Dmitri Desgoffe und Taxis, Madame Villeneuve’s son. I have never seen Brody portray a villain before. But I must say that I was impressed by the way he effectively portrayed Dmitri as a privileged thug. Willem Dafoe was equally interesting as Dmitri’s cold-blooded assassin, J.G. Jopling. And Edward Norton struck me as both funny and scary as The movie also featured first-rate performances from Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Mathieu Amalric, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Owen Wilson, Fisher Stevens, Bob Balaban and especially Bill Murray as Monsieur Ivan, Gustave’s main contact with the Society of the Crossed Keys. The movie had three narrators – Tom Wilkinson as the Older Author, Jude Law as the Younger Author and F. Murray Abraham as the Older Zero. All three did great jobs, but I noticed that Wilkinson’s time as narrator was very short-lived.

What else can I say about “THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL”? It is one of the few movies in which its setting truly blended with Wes Anderson’s off-kilter humorous style. The movie not only benefited from great artistry from the crew and superb performances from a cast led by Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori, but also from the creative pen and great direction from Wes Anderson. Now, I am inspired to try my luck with some of his other films again.

Top Five Favorite “THE AMERICANS” Season Two (2014) Episodes

Keri-Russell-and-Matthew-Rhys-in-The-Americans-Season-2-Episode-13

Below is a list of my five favorite episodes from Season Two of FX’s “THE AMERICANS”. Created by Joe Weisberg, the series stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys:

 

TOP FIVE FAVORITE “THE AMERICANS” SEASON TWO (2014) Episodes

1 - 2.01 Comrades

1. (2.01) “Comrades” – In this season opener, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are forced to work with another pair of Soviet spies named the Connors for a mission that results in the death of the latter.

2 - 2.07 Arpanet

2. (2.07) “Arpanet” – Nina Sergeevna agrees to a polygraph test conducted by FBI Agent Stan Beeman and receives instructions from her Soviet colleague, Oleg Burov in this tense episode. And Philip is ordered to bug the Americans’ newARPANET computer system.

3 - 2.09 Martial Eagle

3. (2.09) “Martial Eagle” – Elizabeth and Philip infiltrate the local Contra training base, which results in unexpected casualties. They also learn that their daughter Paige has donated all of her savings to her local church.

4 - 2.13 Echo

4. (2.13) “Echo” – The Jennings are forced to confront one of their marks – a U.S. Navy officer named Andrew Larrick, who had been blackmailed into helping the KGB. The truth behind the Connors’ murders is revealed. and Stan makes a decision that has strong consequences for Nina’s fate.

5 - 2.04 A Little Night Music

5. (2.04) “A Little Night Music” – The Jennings’ KBG supervisor, Claudia, gives them two assignments — to snatch a Soviet defector who is assisting the U.S. in stealth technology and investigate Larrick, who is a suspect in the Connors’ murders. Meanwhile, Paige becomes involved in church, thanks to her close friend.

Top Five Favorite “THE AMERICANS” Season One (2013) Episodes

fx-s-the-americans-renewed-for-second-season

Below is a list of my five favorite episodes from Season One of FX’s“THE AMERICANS”. Created by Joe Weisberg, the series stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys: 

 

TOP FIVE FAVORITE “THE AMERICANS” SEASON ONE (2013) Episodes

1 - 1.10 Only You

1. (1.10) “Only You” – The FBI’s tenacious investigation of Agent Chris Amador’s death leads the KGB to frame Elizabeth Jenning’s colleague and former lover, Gregory Thomas, for his murder in order to protect Elizabeth and Philip’s identities.

2 - 1.07 Duty and Honor

2. (1.07) “Duty and Honor” – During a mission to discredit a Polish dissident in New York City, Philip is reunited with a former lover and fellow KGB agent named Irina.

3 - 1.13 The Colonel a

3. (1.13) “The Colonel” – In this tense season finale, Philip and handler Claudia proceed to meet with an Air Force colonel, who might be a new source. Meanwhile, Elizabeth sets out to retrieve a bug from Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s home, unaware that the FBI has set a trap.

4 - 1.04 In Control

4. (1.04) “In Control” – Following the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, the FBI attempt to assess whether the KGB was involved. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Philip prepare to deal with any excessive reactions from the American intelligence community.

5 - 1.06 Trust Me

5. (1.06) “Trust Me” – Elizabeth and Philip are abducted and brutally questioned. Their abductors turn out to be KGB agents instructed by Claudia to determine if either of them is a mole. Meanwhile, FBI Agent Stan Chambers helps his Soviet source Nina frame her embassy supervisor for treason.