Tag Archives: armie hammer

Movie Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

man_from_uncle

I was somewhat ambivalent about seeing The Man From UNCLE, the new Guy Ritchie spy flick based on the 1960s TV series of the same name.

Sure, there were exciting names attached — Henry Cavill (Superman), Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger/Winklevii), Hugh Grant and Alicia Vikander (no doubt the “it” girl in Hollywood right now) — but it just felt like this would be one of those films that would slip under the summer blockbuster radar. Promotional efforts haven’t felt particularly aggressive, hype has been virtually non-existent, and reviews have been generally positive albeit unspectacular.

But I did what I do, and that’s to watch as many movies as I can. With neutral expectations going in, I can report that The Man from UNCLE is a nice change of pace from the typical excesses of big action films in recent times. It’s more style than substance, but there sure is a lot of style, and it’s laid back attitude renders it a relatively relaxing popcorn experience. If you feel the need to unwind, this is the film for you.

The story is quite straightforward: Cavill plays an American superspy and Hammer plays the ace of the KGB. At the height of the Cold War, the two are forced to team up to bring down international terrorists led by Australia’s own Elizabeth Debicki, who may be building a nuclear bomb. The key to their mission is a young wan who must be the most beautiful, glamorous East German mechanic in history (Vikander), whose father is believed to be working on the bomb.

And so begins a fun-filled ride with three attractive people who are thrown together against their wills but have to find a way to make it work and complete their mission. From a big picture perspective it’s not hard to see where it is heading. The two spies start off as despised rivals programmed who want each other dead (it is the Cold War, after all) and there is plenty of mistrust threatening to tear the mission apart, but eventually they put differences aside and combine their impressive talents, Avengers-style, to kick some terrorist ass.

However, it feels like Ritchie is well aware that you already know about this cliche, so instead of trying to deviate from this path, he embraces it by making the journey as good-looking, stylish and fun as possible, and importantly, not taking things too seriously.

Consequently, the film gives off a very relaxed, cheeky sort of vibe, not dissimilar to the Oceans Eleven franchise, where it feels like the characters are always in perfect control of the situation and rarely get their feathers ruffled no matter how tense things are supposed to be. There’s pros and cons to this type of experience. On the one hand it’s fun and you are repeatedly impressed by how cool and suave the heroes are, but on the other there is rarely any genuine tension because there’s never a sense of mortal danger.

I’d just had a long week at work and recently watched the terrifyingly tense Austrian horror flick Goodnight Mommy, so I didn’t really mind just sitting back and enjoying the show as a relaxing popcorn adventure that won’t raise the pulse too much.

In line with laid-back tone, the film makes good use of light humour and sharp dialogue, most of which is witty banter between Cavill and Hammer (they even sound like a comedy duo) as they try to one-up each other in abilities as well as gadgets to prove the superiority of their country. Some of it is inherently hilarious because technology considered cutting edge in those days is of course unfathomably archaic now. At the same time, it’s refreshing to see an era not dominated by technology, such as the opening scene where Cavill had to navigate the streets of Berlin with an old-fashioned map (!).

I get the feeling that the film is targeted more towards older audiences. For starters, young people are likely to never heard of the TV show on which the film is based and most of them won’t even understand just how tense the Cold War era was. There’s plenty of vintage fashion and vintage cars, and a throwback sensibility I suspect people used to modernized non-stop action can fully appreciate.

Speaking of the action, it’s decent even by modern standards. It is again more style than substance and obviously nowhere near as relentless as say Mission: Impossible 5 or Fast & Furious 7, though it was never meant to compete with those films. As with everything about it, this film that takes things at its own leisurely pace, and proudly so. Tonally, there are uneven moments that struggle to keep away from the farcical, though for the most part the film stays true to Ritchie’s vision.

In any case, The Man from UNCLE can always lay claim to having the best-dressed cast of the year. The performances of the star trio are also fantastic — Vikander in particular is smooooooooking — and they genuinely appear to be enjoying themselves, resulting in great chemistry that fuels the movie with a jovial atmosphere. I find it amusing that they got a Brit to play an American, an American to play a Russian, and a Swede to play a German. Only Hugh Grant gets to play his true nationality.

I think, or at least I hope, there is a place for films like The Man from UNCLE in today’s cinematic landscape. While it won’t blow anyone away, there is an elegance and sophistication I find charming about it. Considering how badly it could have gone, I feel the adaptation ended up about as well as it could have gone. I’m excited to see how they will take it to the next level in the sequel.

3.5 stars out of 5

Battle of the Biopics: The Iron Lady (2011) vs J Edgar (2011)

I’ve been thinking of ways to hasten the catching up of my movie reviews, but at the same time it didn’t feel fair to put some of the higher profile films in a four-film blitz. So I came up with a compromise. A head-to-head between two of the biggest biopics of 2011, Meryl Streep’s The Iron Lady and Leonardo DiCaprio’s J Edgar. Ladies first.

The Iron Lady (2011)

The Iron Lady was a little slow, not terribly exciting, and a little selective in the events it wanted to depict, but it does boast a powerhouse performance from Meryl Streep and tells the story of one of the most intriguing political figures ever.

I admit, I didn’t know much about Thatcher other than her pointy face, crooked teeth and trademark voice, and The Iron Lady helped illuminate her life to some extent.

The story is told through flashbacks, from 2008, where Thatcher is battling dementia, and relives some of the most pivotal moments of her astonishing political career. You don’t have to understand politics or British politics to get this film (though it will help) because it’s essentially about how an ordinary woman overcame the odds to rise to the top of the UK’s political ladder.

Thatcher is painted as a complex person: highly ambitious, relentless, cutthroat, and ultimately quite tragic. I know a lot of people kicked up a stink about the film because they hate Thatcher’s guts and think she butchered the country, but I get that she’s the protagonist of the movie, not the villain, so she had to at least have some redeeming qualities or have the ability to make people feel sorry for her.

Much of the film’s effectiveness comes from Streep’s performance. I don’t know enough about Thatcher or have seen enough video clips of her to know how close Streep is, but by most accounts it was a fantastic impersonation (similar to what people said about Philip Seymour Hoffman when he won for Capote). But was it worthy of the Oscar (again)? I’m not 100% sure.

The Iron Lady was an unusually short 105 minutes (for a movie of this kind), but it actually felt longer than 2 hours. It’s an intriguing biopic but will unlikely break into any “top biopic” lists any time soon.

3 stars out of 5

J Edgar (2011)

Clint. Leo. Armie (Hammer, that is). What’s there not to look forward to in J Edgar, the biopic about J Edgar Hoover, the most legendary FBI director of all time? While there are no cross-dressing scenes (apparently this was just an “unconfirmed” rumor), Eastwood makes it 100% clear in his film that Hoover (DiCaprio) was not only gay but for many years pined after his longtime assistant Clyde Tolson (Hammer).

Like The Iron Lady, this film is also told in flashback format. It begins as an aging Hoover tells his life story to Ed Westwick from Gossip Girl. The story follows a young Hoover working for A Mitchell Palmer in the US Justice Department in 1919, later rising to become the head of the FBI before introducing many of the most monumental improvements in crime solving techniques – in particular, criminal science.

While the film covers the most significant events and cases in Hoover’s life, such as the capture of John Dillinger and the Lindbergh kidnapping, the heart of the movie undoubtedly lies with Hoover’s sexuality and his tumultuous relationship with Tolson. It’s not quite Brokeback Mountain but I found it to be rather moving at times. It was hard to root for Hoover at times because he was deeply flawed and could be a colossal prick, but the love he felt for Tolson, at least for me, felt genuine and heartbreaking.

Even though he looked nothing like Hoover and was obviously a lot taller, Leo’s performance was, as expected, awesome. As was Armie Hammer’s. What I didn’t realize before watching the film was that it also starred Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s loyal secretary who stuck with him for a zillion years, and Judi Dench, who played Hoover’s somewhat frightening mother.

Look, when you have Clint Eastwood at the helm, you know you’re going to get some quality cinema. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call him, on a film-by-film basis, the best director around today, so naturally I am a little biased when it comes to his movies.

My problem with J Edgar for me was that the story lacked cohesion at times and certain plot points were covered with too much subtlety, to the extent where it became confusing and unclear. The biggest complaint, which you might have guessed, is the make-up. I couldn’t quite understand, with the advancements in modern technology and make-up techniques, how they managed to make both Leo and Armie look so bloody freaky and unnatural. They weren’t even that old (60s?) but looked like Guy Pearce in Prometheus.

Anyway, apart from that, I have to say I quite liked J Edgar. It’s not one of Clint’s best films, but it’s among his better ones. In any case, I liked it more than The Iron Lady.

4 stars out of 5

Winner, J Edgar