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November 19, 2015

Movie Reviews: Spy, The Man From UNCLE

I thought both of these movies would be crap. I was wrong. They're both good.

Spy stars Melissa McCarthy as the operations assistant to Jude Law, who plays, basically, James Bond, though James Bond working for the CIA. McCarthy's role at the agency is like the Arab guy in True Lies -- she's the one "in the van" who pipes important information (where to turn, where enemies are) to the actual spy over the radio.

She is also desperately, painfully in love with Jude Law, something which is obvious to everyone but Jude Law. Or maybe it's obvious to him, too, but he just chooses to use that to his advantage: see, McCarthy is a very competent operations assistant and much of his success is due to her, though, of course, (Feminist Messaging!) he gets all the credit and she is not even noticed by anyone.

In the early-going, disaster strikes their team and the villains now know the faces and resumes of all covert operatives in the CIA. Why, there's no one they could possibly send into the field to finish the blown operation... wait, but what about Melissa McCarthy? She went to spy school at The Farm and is technically an agent. She's obviously mentally agile enough. What about her?

If this plot sounds like it's exactly like that of the (underrated and charming) Steve Carrell/Anne Hathaway Get Smart remake, that's because it is, but it's still a nice fantasy, and it's nice to see the geeks and losers of the high school (um, the CIA) going out into the field to prove to the jocks and pretty people that they can be cool too.

The first hour of this movie is very, very funny. I do not want to blow any of the jokes. I would just say that some highlights include Michael McDonald's turn as a mean-spirited Q-type, and the sorts of covers the agency prepares for Melissa McCarthy -- let's just say that when the CIA looks at Melissa McCarthy, it does not think the cover of "international photojournalist" comes into their minds. They have less glamorous cover stories for her.

Some weirdness creeps in when the film repeatedly goes to unexpectedly graphic violence as a laugh-line. I don't know what this is doing here; the film is parodying James Bond, and Bond movies aren't known for graphic violence. Maybe it was their idea to show the difference between elegant, understated spy movie violence and real violence? I don't know. Either way, it doesn't work.

Also shocking is a fairly long segment involving penises. Note that i saw the unrated version of the film, though; in the regular theatrical release, this probably didn't go on as long.

The film sort of wears out its welcome as it goes on for two hours. Almost, but not completely, but it is highly questionable why this is a two hour movie -- at 90 minutes, it would have been a positive gem. As it is, the ending is a series of silly attempts to parody spy movies other than James Bond movies, with nonsensical double agents and people flipping allegiances and just a bunch of things that are worse than implausible -- they're just not funny.

That said, man, the first hour is great, and the second hour, while not as good as the first, is still fine. It just bothers me that they had real superbness in their sights and sort of lost sight of the target.

Ultimately, a mostly successful film is still a successful film, especially compared to the absolutely useless dreck Hollywod churns out. Three stars, recommended (though do note the unrated version of the film is unexpectedly violent and penis-filled).

I rented The Man from UNLCLE expecting to waste my money. The film was a huge dud at the box office, not even making $100 million worldwide.

However, it's better than the last two Bond movies I've seen and in fact most of the Bond movies I've seen. As a matter of fact, I think my favorite spy is now Napoleon Solo.

The movie is an attempt to out-Bond Bond by returning Bond to his roots -- in the Cold War (the film is set in 1963, and the beginning is set in divided Berlin), glamorous locations and more of a travelogue-with-occasional shooting plotline, and... a hero who is an amoral, sybaritic cipher of man who seems to not care about anything except carnal pleasures.

I'll get into that later.

Here's why I think the movie did so poorly at the box office: It's not really an action movie, in the way you'd expect an action movie to unfold. There is not a chase or fight every eight minutes. There are some chases, and there are some fights, but most of this movie actually involves an infiltration into an organization of former Nazis and Italian fascists.

And since this is an infiltration, Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryarkin are not supposed to be fighting everyone and showing how cool they are. In fact, Solo specifically tells Kuryarkin that when he's forced into a fight, given his cover story of being a Soviet architect, he's supposed to lose. (Solo has a funny line here which I won't spoil.)

Kuryarkin, the Russian, is the human one of the duo. He's emotionally broken from a terrible youth in the Soviet Union, he falls in love easily, he anger issues, he lives in shame about what his parents were forced to do in Mother Russia.

Napoleon Solo, on the other hand, is essentially inhuman in his absolute detachment from the world. If you read the reviews for the early Bond novels and films, critics were scandalized at how amoral and nihilistic and sadistic James Bond was. That's largely what made the movies popular, of course: It just felt more adult and "real" that a professional killer would be emotionally cold and unburdened by the weight of conscience.

Over the years, they've lost that aspect of Bond, though they try sometimes to reclaim it. Sure, Bond says "The bitch is dead" at the end of Casino Royale, but we also had this embarrassing exchange in Goldeneye:

GIRL: So there you are in your armor again.

BOND: It's what keeps me alive.

GIRL: It's what keeps you alone.

In fact, they returned to this armor metaphor in Casino Royale, having Bond tell Vesper that all his armor was now gone, and that he was absolutely naked to her and ready to fall in love.

Well, that didn't last long.

But anyway, while James Bond is often said to be amoral, the movies actually do spend a lot of time trying to "humanize" him. I suppose they have to. Hell, it's been 22 movies; you can't spend all that time with a total sociopath.

But for one movie, that can be a real trip. Napoleon Solo is not a sociopath in the sense he goes around wantonly killing people. This film actually features a surprising lack of violence. (Oh, there's some violence, but it's more on a human, realistic level; there are no gigantic lab complexes blowing up here.)

It's just that it's quite clear that he does not care about anything and is only attached to the world through his physical and sexual appetites. He likes fashion, he likes expensive wine and food, he likes money, and he likes, to put it bluntly, pussy. That's the extent of his character.

He is not an admirable man. He is merely talented.

Unlike Bond, who occasionally falls in love or at least seems to, this seems perfectly impossible with Solo.

Nor do they make this all jumped-up and Hollywoodized by having other characters scream at Napoleon about how he ought to care about things. No one comments on it, actually, except for Illya's disapproving recitation from Solo's soviet dossier that he is a "corrupt" and "amoral" "criminal."

The film, in other words, doesn't really spoon-feed you this, nor have characters read their Stage Directions aloud in order to convey character. It gets at it a bit more subtly.

But it does get at it. Henry Cavil's performance is at first off-putting -- he seems fake. You can see him acting; you can see this Napoleon Solo character is a front. He acts like Rob Lowe acting like young Robert Vaughn in Austin Powers 2 -- everything is Handsome Man acting, with aristocratically arched eyebrows and stagey takes and emotionless line delivery.

But as the movie goes on, this works more and more to Cavil's advantage. Is it that we see Cavil acting? Or is it that we see Napoleon Solo acting, because Napoleon Solo is essentially a human blank who is simply mimicking the behavior of men he's seen that are called charming? And is he just wearing this mask because he knows that it's a useful way into a woman's pants?

His performance, stagey and contrived, begins as appearing inept, and yet by the end appears very crafty indeed.

It also results in the film's funniest sequence, which I can't spoil. Let's just say the sequence involves Napoleon Solo deciding how much he cares whether Illya Kuryarkin lives or dies. Let's just say the answer is "not terribly much."

There is also a strong female lead, and a great short appearance by, well, if you don't know, I won't spoil it.

The film has shortcomings. If any film called for old Hollywood style Technicolor, it's this one, with locations in Berlin and then Rome/the coast of Italy. But much of it looks muddy, like it's all CGI. There isn't much actual CGI in the movie, I don't think, but the film just has that sort of CGI look, even when it's not CGI. I just don't think the filmstock was very good. We have some great locations here, and the quality of the film just isn't good enough to really wow the viewer. (Then again, maybe this was just a problem with my tv and the PPV download, which is not nearly as sharp as Blue-Ray.)

There are some editing problems. There's a chase that happens near the end involving three parties. The chase involves one character making a series of decisions about what route to take to intercept his prey. I have no idea what these decisions were, nor what caused him to make them, nor do I have any idea where the one route was in relation to the other one. It was chopped together.

There are plotting lapses, particularly at the end, when some people have the MacGuffin and, for unexplained reasons, people who don't have the MacGufin think they actually have it themselves, and people who should have no idea where the MacGuffin is know, for completely unexplained reasons, where it is.

But this sort of thing, the plot not making any sense, only bothers you if you haven't otherwise bought into the movie enough to handwave such concerns and say "Oh who gives a shit, it's only a movie." I definitely did buy into it.

And I'm pretty damn disappointed this movie tanked, because I would have loved to have seen a series of UNCLE movies. Hell, they're not even really UNCLE in this movie at all.

Three and a half stars. Oh Napoleon, we just barely got to know you before you left.

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posted by Ace at 07:05 PM

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