Stirred, Never Shaken

themanfromuncle

Love him or hate him, Guy Ritchie is a man of style over substance. From his early days of writing and directing Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, Ritchie has always cared more about how his movies look and move than how they are understood. Lock, Stock and Snatch never cared about how the plot stayed together through the movie or what the hell was going on around the main story, it was all about how scenes moved and the cool atmosphere remained untouched. Even with his transition to big budget movies like the Sherlock Holmes movies of late, the confusing and twisting plot was second banana to the distinct look and feel of the movies. The audience didn’t have to understand Ritchie’s movies, they just had to chill out for the ride. Ritchie seems to be sticking to his guns (no pun intended) for his latest remake/adaptation of pop British culture, perhaps something a bit more tailor made for him.

Based off the NBC spy show from 1960s, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. drops into 1963 during the Cold War. In the midst of East Berlin, dashing CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) locates Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), a mechanic whose father is an engineer of atomic weapons and has been kidnapped by a secret criminal organization. Fearing the new bad guys may be able to build a nuclear bomb, Solo learns he must team up with KGB brute Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) and use Teller’s connections to infiltrate the organization and save the world.

Like Ritchie’s previous films, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is very much all about its style. The costumes, set designs, cars and mannerisms are straight out of the swinging 60s. Ritchie and his production team do an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere of the era, with everyone trying to outwit each other all to the tune of smooth European jazz and Daniel Pemberton’s groovy score. But, like all Ritchie films, plot and story get shuffled around throughout the film. New plot elements are thrown in on a whim and it never really seems to spark extra interest in the movie. The audience keeps waiting for more action to happen so that the plot can develop. The action does work, especially in an opening car chase and the infiltration of a radar tower. However, the action is just too rare to make the audience shift closer to the screen. It all looks great and Ritchie still knows how to move and edit scenes, but there’s just not enough spark to make it all the way fun.

When the movie does ignite, it’s primarily because of its on-the-ball cast. Henry Cavill, briefly stripped of his Superman attire, is the charismatic kick of the cast as Napoleon Solo. Smooth and slick but never annoying or cony, Cavill shows great leading-man potential (beyond cape and spandex) as he takes everything with the same winning attitude that never gets old. He’s got a great foil in Armie Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin. Stone cold but showing touches of soul, Hammer reminds audiences that The Lone Ranger wasn’t all his fault. He and Cavill have great chemistry, especially in a hilarious scene involving a former-Nazi doctor and his worth to the mission. It’s as if the two are constantly trolling each other, one-upping the other’s spy skills at every turn. The male leads are given an extra boost with Alicia Vikander, months removed from her star-making work in Ex Machina. She kicks both male studs to the curb on occasion and never denies her place in scenes. It’s a real debate as to who the real star of this movie is, as all three leads make their stance in each scene, along with Elizabeth Debicki as the femme fatale of the movie.

While the look and style of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. are reminiscent of Sean Connery-era Bond, it’s plot and characters are much more in tune to Roger Moore’s tenure. There’s a sense of wit and romance to the film when it’s not muddled down by its start-and-stop plot. Once again, it’s style over substance as the plot is never worth getting fully invested in. It’s a good looking movie and its cast is more than capable, but there’s never enough spark to make it all kick. Perhaps if it was given an R-rating, there could’ve been more freedom to add more humor and pulpy action to it all. But then again, this is a Guy Ritchie film. A man who spends more time fixing actors’ ties than screenwriters’ inspirations.
Final Verdict: 2.5 out of 4 stars

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WRONG

fantastic4

Marvel’s first family has not had the cleanest track record at the cinemas. There was the unreleased 1994 version that is legendarily awful. Then there’s the 2005 film made amongst the popularity of Spider-Man and X-Men, which wasn’t necessarily good but by no means awful. Its sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer, filled the role of “awful superhero movie” in 2007 (the same year as Spider-Man 3 and Ghost Rider, mind you). But with the superhero movie renaissance of the last seven years, Hollywood has been trying to take caped crusaders a bit more seriously at cinemas. With that, 20th Century Fox decided to take one more stab at making Stan Lee’s first superhero team a legitimate franchise. The results can be summed up in (fitting enough) four words: big swing, bigger miss.

Fantastic Four opens with the focus on young scientist Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and his assistant/buddy Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) trying to build a teleporter. It garners the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his daughter Sue (Kate Mara), who are also building a teleporter and need help finishing it. Reed is brought in to put everything together, along with Sue’s cocky brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and Franklin’s former associate Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). The team succeeds in building the teleporter, but a government official (Tim Blake Nelson) wants to have some NASA specialists take it for a test run. The team says otherwise and uses the teleporter to travel to another dimension, where their interaction with the environment has some interesting (I refuse to say fantastic, since it’s too easy) side effects. Doom is lost in the other dimension, Reed can stretch his body to great lengths, Johnny turns into a human fire ball, Ben is a giant mass of rock and Sue can create force fields and become invisible. The group is kept under government watch as they develop their powers, but when Doom returns with wicked intentions, the team must band together and save the world.

I took a very long pause before writing this next paragraph, because I didn’t know where to begin with how WRONG this movie is. The writing, the direction, the pacing, the continuity, the acting, the energy, the action and pretty much everything else about Fantastic Four is WRONG. Every scene of this movie is rushed, as if the movie wants to get itself over with as much as the audience does. Pacing is chucked out the window at frame one with scenes given no time to breathe whatsoever and no connection between characters or the audience. That doesn’t help the dead-on-arrival dialogue, with no lightness or humor written into it. From the early scenes, with Reed and Ben meeting as kids and being nearly robotic in their delivery, that director Josh Trank (Chronicle) either doesn’t know how to direct actors or was on too tight a shooting schedule to fine-tune some scenes. Another take or two would’ve helped make the scenes feel natural, if only the actors in the movie looked emotionally invested in anything.

I’ve never before seen such a big-budget movie where nobody on-screen wants to be involved in this, and it’s even more disappointing because Fantastic Four has a stellar cast. Teller, Mara, Jordan and Bell have all done excellent jobs in better movies, but they don’t show any charisma or interest in the roles here. Most of the time it’s as if they’re all reading off of cue cards trying to get to the next scene. Nelson’s character is supposed to be the slimy government official, but he’s so small and wimpy that it’s almost funny. Kebbell tries to bring some sharp wit to his take on Doom, but when he becomes the supervillain, he’s just a guy in a mask saying ominous things, along with some superpowers that are undefined to the audience. On top of that, this is movie is about as subtle as someone bitch-slapping you with a brick. Literally, Sue calls Victor “Dr. Doom over here” out loud, Johnny’s welding helmet has flames on it and (spoiler) the ending has Ben saying how the whole situation is “fantastic,” giving Reed inspiration for the team name. You may slap your hand to your face in face-palm fashion so many times at this movie, it may give you a concussion. Even simple things, like the continuity of character appearances, are so poorly addressed. Sue goes from dirt blonde to platinum blonde between two scenes, Johnny goes from clean shaven to a thick black mustache (maybe Jordan was filming Creed and was called back for re shoots). I will say that the appearance of “The Thing” Ben Grimm is actually quite impressive and a great visual and vocal interpretation of the character, even with the CGI.

I’m not even sure who Fantastic Four was made for. It’s not for kids, because it’s taken too seriously and can be gruesome at times. It’s not for fans of the comic-book, since it tells the origin story a bit differently and fans will be so turned off by the new interpretation. I don’t even think this is for casual moviegoers, since there is nothing enjoyable about this. This movie is so dull, so stupid, so lifeless and so uninspired that I don’t think any of the producers even watched the final product before getting it out to the public. This movie was made for one reason and one reason only: Fox is running out of X-Men movies to make so they’re trying desperately to hold on to the coattails of the superhero movie boom. Hell, they lost the Star Wars franchise to Disney, how else are they going to keep up? Fantastic Four is an example why, even if it is from a formula that works, a movie should not be a bidding war between director and studio. If Josh Trank had full creative control (or a little bit) on this project, this could’ve been a creative take on the characters. But news reports over the months have shown how Fox organized re shoots and changes without Trank’s involvement, and that’s why this movie is such a mess. Great movies, especially big-budget franchises like The Avengers or Tim Burton’s Batman, work when there is a functioning cohesive relationship between filmmaker and studio. If one thing overtakes the other, it makes for a mess. Fantastic Four is not even a movie, it’s a studio squeezing whatever amount of potential profit they can out of their stock of superhero rights before the well dries up. So here’s to all the critics and fans clobbering this movie into the ground, as it deserves to be.
Final Verdict: 0.5 out of 4