New Releases for the Week of November 16, 2018


FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD

(Warner Brothers) Eddie Redmayne, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, Katherine Waterston, Ezra Miller, Dan Fogler, Zoë Kravitz, Carmen Ejogo. Directed by David Yates

When outlaw wizard Grindelwald escapes custody, he plans to create an army of wizards to make war on the world of Muggles. Standing in his way are Newt Scamander, No-Mag Jacob Kowalsky, Tina Goldstein and an instructor at Hogwart’s by the name of Albus Dumbledore.

See the trailer and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard, 3D, 4DX, DBOX, DBOX 3D, Dolby, IMAX, RPX, RPX 3D, XD
Genre: Fantasy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for some sequences of fantasy action)

A Private War

(Aviron) Rosamund Pike, Tom Hollander, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci. This is the story of Marie Colvin, one of the most respected and admired war correspondents of the 21st century thus far, a woman whose compassion and passion entwined to tell the story of those most affected by war – those caught in the middle. Colvin would go to places few other journalists would dare to tread, including a Syrian town called Homs where she would find a story that would eventually define her.

See the trailer and video featurettes here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for disturbing images, language throughout, and brief sexuality/nudity)

Boy Erased

(Focus) Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Madelyn Cline. After a Baptist pastor’s son is outed, the community leader in a small conservative town feels that the boy’s only hope of salvation is conversion therapy. Based on a gripping true story, the young man fights to establish his own identity in an environment where he’s told that being the person that he is becoming is a sin.

See the trailer, clips, interviews, video featurettes and B-roll video here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: AMC Altamonte Springs, Cinemark Artegon Marketplace, Cobb Plaza Cinema Café, Regal Winter Springs Village, Rialto Spanish Springs Square

Rating: R (for sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use)

Instant Family

(Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Rose Byrne, Octavia Spencer, Margo Martindale. A couple, exploring foster care adoption, discovers three siblings that they decide to take on. Going from no children to three without any parenting experience is a daunting task at best but throw in a rebellious 15-year-old girl into the mix and they are in over their heads. This is based on writer-director Sean Anders’ own experiences.

See the trailer here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, sexual material, language and some drug references)

The Public Image is Rotten

(Abramorama) John Lydon, Jah Wobble, Martin Atkins, Lu Edmonds. Johnny Rotten was once the face of punk rock until his band, the Sex Pistols, imploded. Lawsuits and legal chicanery kept him from moving on with his stage name so he adopted the name he was born with and founded Public Image Ltd., a band decidedly different than the one he left. Forty years later it is still a band. This was recently reviewed here on Cinema365 (see link below) and may be the best music documentary you attend this year.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Music Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater (Monday only)

Rating: NR

Widows

(20th Century Fox) Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki. When their criminal husbands are killed during a job, their widows are left with the debt their late spouses incurred with people you really don’t want to owe money to. Resolved to get out of the situation, they decide to pull off the heist their husbands couldn’t. This is Oscar winning director Steve McQueen’s first film since his masterwork 12 Years a Slave.

See the trailer, clips, clips, interviews, video featurettes and B-roll video here
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Crime Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for violence, language throughout, and some sexual content/nudity)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Amar Akbar Anthony
The Clovehitch Killer
Speed Kills
Taxiwaala

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

A Sniper’s War
Amar Akbar Anthony
El Angel
The Front Runner
Green Book
Taxiwaala

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

55 Steps
Amar Akbar Anthony
The Children Act
Johny Johny Yes Appa
Sarkar
Taxiwaala

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Amar Akbar Anthony
Taxiwaala

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

The Children Act
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald
The Front Runner
Green Book
Instant Family
The Public Image is Rotten
Widows

FILM FESTIVALS TAKING PLACE IN FLORIDA:

Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, Fort Lauderdale

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The Cloverfield Paradox


Houston, we have a problem.

(2018) Science Fiction (Netflix) Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, John Ortiz, Chris O’Dowd, Aksel Hennie, Ziyi Zhang, Elizabeth Debicki, Roger Davies, Clover Nee, Jordan Riviera, Michael Stokes III, Celeste Clark, Nathan Oliver, Donal Logue, Susan Cryer, Ken Olin (voice), Simon Pegg (voice), Greg Grunberg (voice),Judy Ho. Directed by Julius Onah

 

Sometimes movies are made with the best of intentions, utilizes a nifty premise and terrific cast. We get excited for the movie but watch as it’s release date suffers delay after delay. We see no trailers, no publicity materials just rumors that the studio is dissatisfied with the final result. When we finally get to see the movie, sometimes we find out the studio was justified in their fears. More often than not the movie’s problems stem from studio interference. I don’t get the sense that’s what happened here.

In 2028 Earth is caught in a massive energy crisis. Sober news anchors intone that the planet will run out of energy within five years. Racing against time, a multinational scientific team on a satellite orbiting the Earth works to solve the crisis with a particle accelerator which will do…something. We’re never quite sure what. Thankfully, The Cloverfield Paradox doesn’t way itself down with unnecessary explanations.

Test after test ends in failure and the crew – the American captain Kiel (Oyelowo), the also American communications officer Hamilton (Mbatha-Raw), the German engineer Schmidt (Brühl), the Chinese physicist  Tam (Zhang), the Russian something or another Volkov (Hennie), the Brazilian doctor Monk (Ortiz) and the Irish technician Mundy (O’Dowd) get into finger-pointing and tensions between the Americans and Russians back home don’t help matters any. Then a power surge during a test causes the experiment to actually work. Everyone is happy – until they look out the window and notice that Earth isn’t there. That’s when the going gets really weird.

The cast here is as first-rate as any for any movie this year let alone a direct-to-Netflix film and quite frankly, they earn their paychecks impressively. The trouble is, most of them are hamstrung by underdeveloped characters. Other than Hamilton who at least gets the semblance of a backstory, most of the characters are essentially defined by their functions to the plot; the red herring, the indecisive one, the suspicious one, the compassionate one and so on. As the comic relief, O’Dowd is the most impressive here although Brühl and Mbatha-Raw both come close. While it is laudable to make the leads persons of color, it would have been far more admirable to give them something to work with.

The other glaring problem here is that while the concept itself – involving parallel universes and alternate realities – is intriguing, the execution is lacking. It’s all exposition with characters constantly advancing the plot by explaining what’s happening. The movie is scene after scene of too much talking and as the movie gets further alone, the plot begins to go off the rails. While the ending is actually quite nice (and ties the film to previous Cloverfield films), it isn’t enough to save a film which while promising turns out to be not only disappointing but that most awful of cinematic sins – boring.

REASONS TO GO: The cast is pretty nifty. The ending is fun but not enough to save the movie.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot gets more ludicrous as the film goes along. A decent premise is wasted with a poor execution.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally titled God Particle and was intended for theatrical release. After several release date delays, Netflix quietly purchased the film from Paramount and ran the trailer during the Super Bowl – the same day it would become available on the streaming service.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Life
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Legend of King Solomon

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


If it looks like a duck…

(2017) Science Fiction (Europa/STX) Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, Rutger Hauer, Peter Hudson, Xavier Giannoli, Louis Leterrier, Eric Rochant, Benoit Jacquot, Olivier Megaton, Gerald Krawczyk, Pierre Cachia, David Saada, Hippolyte Burkhart-Uhlen, Elizabeth Debicki (voice), Sasha Luss. Directed by Luc Besson

 

Luc Besson is often called a visionary filmmaker, mainly for his watershed 90s sci-fi epic The Fifth Element. Besson was heavily influenced by the French comic book Valerian and Laureline which also seems to have been influenced by the iconic French magazine Heavy Metal. He hasn’t attempted a sci-fi tale on the same grand scale up until now however.

Two agents – Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne) – are hard at work in the gigantic multi-species space station/city known as Alpha (which began life as the International Space Station – try to keep up). This intergalactic symbol of peaceful co-existence is being destroyed from the inside out and seems to be linked to the destruction of a paradise-like planet centuries earlier. Valerian and Laureline who have a nascent romance going (mostly in Valerian’s head) must navigate a variety of exotic alien races and cultures along with a conspiracy of far-reaching dimensions in order to save Alpha and quite possibly the universe.

Sounds like a simple enough movie but trust me this is only a bare scratching of the surface. The plot is somewhat convoluted and is confusing as all get out until late in the game. Because this is a two hour-plus movie lots of frustrated viewers will have ceased caring much by the time things become clear.

At least there will be some breathtaking visuals to keep them entertained through the confusion. Besson has always been a particularly visual director and he is in his (fifth) element here. The mainly computer-generated images are massive in scope and detail. Those who have seen the trailers for this thing and ended up plunking their hard-earned dollars at the box office were no doubt taken as I was by the gorgeous visuals.

But in all honesty there really is little beyond that to recommend the film. There is almost zero chemistry between Delevingne and DeHaan and both seem to be terribly unsuited for their roles. The comic book this is based on has Valerian as a raven-haired badass while Laureline is a buxom beauty with flowing, flaming red hair. Certainly I’m not against a filmmaker eschewing slavish devotion to source material visuals but the whole scope of the characters change from four color printed page to celluloid and that seems to be kind of a waste of good material.

This was one of the biggest disappointments of the past summer for me, and that’s saying something considering how many underwhelming blockbusters there were this year. I had high hopes that Besson would be able to shepherd this largely unknown in the U.S. source material into a big time franchise but alas it was not to be. Clunky dialogue and weak performances doomed this with critics and the lack of big names doomed it with American audiences. The movie so badly under-performed that it caused a major executive shake-up at the studio that made it. Considering that Valerian and Laureline have influenced a lot of the big budget sci-fi films of the past fifty years (including the original Star Wars) it’s a shame that it didn’t get a better movie to represent it.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are amazing. There is a great deal of imagination displayed throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: There is little chemistry between DeHaan and Delevingne. The movie is a bit too convoluted and a little too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity as well as plenty of sci-fi violence and even a bit of slightly suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With a budget of $210 million U.S. this is the most expensive film ever made in France – to date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fifth Element
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Love and Saucers

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2


Box office champions tend to have the last laugh.

(2017) Science Fiction (Disney/Marvel) Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel (voice), Bradley Cooper (voice), Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell, Sean Gunn, Tommy Flanagan, Rob Zombie, Rhoda Griffis, Seth Green (voice), David Hasselhoff, Gregg Henry, Michelle Yeoh, Ving Rhames, Chris Sullivan, Elizabeth Debicki. Directed by James Gunn

 

Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, Da Queen loves everything Guardians, particularly Rocket Raccoon. If I were to say anything negative about either the franchise or the characters, I am likely to get the cold shoulder for weeks on end at best or a heavy object upside my head at worst. Thus, I waited for her to go out of town on business before publishing my review for this massive hit.

Taking place only four months after the first Guardians (making this 2014), the nascent team continues to bicker like, well, family. They are getting set to take on a CGI alien tentacle thing that is kind of a cross between a squid and the machine ships of the Matrix trilogy. Incongruously, Baby Groot (Diesel) sets up a boombox and dances along to the strains of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” while all around him is chaos. That kind of sets things up and sums things up at the same time.

Rocket (Cooper) being a raccoon has a distinctly kleptomaniac kind of attitude and before long their former employers, the genetically perfect (but not too bright) Sovereign are after them and they are saved by a mysterious figure but are forced to crash land on a primitive planet to make repairs. There the mysterious figure reveals himself; his name is Ego (Russell) but more to the point, he’s also Star Lord’s (Pratt) dad and he invites his boy over to his planet for a bit of father-son bonding time. Rocket and Groot stay behind to repair the Merano and guard their prisoner Nebula (Gillan) while Gamora (Saldana) – sister to Nebula – and Drax (Bautista) go along for the ride, joining the ultra-empathetic Mantis (Klementieff) who works as a kind of valet for Ego.

Things being what they are for the Guardians, Ego turns out to be a God-like Celestial and as the saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely and Ego’s power is as absolute as it gets. The Guardians are once again called into battle but can they overcome the power of a god?

This is everything fans of the first film hoped it would be; there’s a lot of Easter eggs in it for Marvel fans in general (like a cameo appearance of Howard the Duck) and Guardians fans in particular like the appearance of the original Guardians team of Yondu (Rooker), Starhawk (Stallone), Charlie-27 (Rhames) and Aleta Ogord (Yeoh).

The downside of that is that it feels at times like Gunn is trying to cram a bit too much into the movie; not only is he setting up future Guardians movies as well as, indirectly, the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War but he’s also trying to throw in a whole lot of Guardians lore while trying to tell a coherent story of his own. There is also a whole lot of carnage and some impressive battle scenes – a ton of them in fact – and for some it might end up being geek overload.

Gunn also wisely spreads the wealth among his talented cast; we get to learn a whole lot of backstory for all of the characters and while Peter Quill is the ostensible focus, Drax ends up getting almost all of the laughs while Nebula and Yondu are given some scenes of tremendous pathos. And yes, the sci-fi spectacle is all there from the art deco splendor of the Sovereign to Ego’s planet which the most ambitious computer effect is ever created to date with something over a trillion polygons of computer graphics.

The chemistry between the cast continues to be strong and while the story sometimes might be a little hard to follow, there is still some investment and I’m sure that Marvel’s lords and masters over at Disney were smiling at the theme of family which is one of their sweet spots. This year’s summer blockbuster slate has been inconsistent in quality but certainly it has had its share of smart and entertaining successes and this is one of the biggest so far.

REASONS TO GO: One of Kurt Russell’s best performances in years. The song selection is masterful. The special effects are truly special. Baby Groot nearly steals the show.
REASONS TO STAY: Gunn tries to pack in a little bit too much into the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence (of the sci-fi nature), some mild profanity and a little suggestive content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Glenn Close filmed scenes as Nova Prime but they ended up on the cutting room floor.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Ice Pirates
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale

Everest (2015)


Climb ev'ry mountain!

Climb ev’ry mountain!

(2015) True Life Drama (Universal) Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, Michael Kelly, Sam Worthington, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson, Ingvar Eggert Sigurösson, Robin Wright, Naoko Mori, Martin Henderson, Justin Salinger, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Reilly, Ang Phula Sherpa, Tim Dantay, Charlotte Bᴓving. Directed by Baltasar Kormákur

There are a certain type of people who feel compelled to push themselves to the limits. They don’t feel truly alive unless they are facing down death. Most of us don’t require this kind of validation of our own supremacy, but those that do can’t live without it. Thee and me will never climb Mt. Everest simply because we don’t need to. Others, however do it because they have to.

\At one time, Everest was the province of experienced mountain climbers and at that only the best of that breed. However, New Zealander Rob Hall (Clarke) figured out that there was money to be made in getting ordinary travelers (who could afford it and were in good enough physical condition) to the top of Everest. His company, Adventure Consultants, specialized in getting people to the summit of Everest – the highest place on Earth.

The 1996 climbing seasons sees a proliferation of these sorts of outfits, all clustered in Everest’s base camp. Rob Hall is bringing an experienced team of climbers including Sherpa Ang Doree (Sherpa), Andy “Harold” Harris (Henderson) and clients Doug Hansen (Hawkes) who had nearly made it to the summit the previous year but was turned back by Hall 100 meters from the top, Yasuko Namba (Mori) who was summiting the final of the Big Seven – the seven highest peaks on seven continents – which is an accomplishment only elite climbers ever meet and Texas doctor Beck Weathers (Brolin). Accompanying them is respected writer Jon Krakauer (Kelly) who’d be providing much needed publicity for the company.

At base camp is den mother Helen Wilton (Watson) who would be overseeing the operation from there as well as team physician Caroline MacKenzie (Debicki). A close friend of Rob’s, American Scott Fischer (Gyllenhaal) runs a rival team. Scott is known for being more of a go-for-it guy whereas Rob tends to be more methodical. As the two discover that the sheer number of climbers are creating bottlenecks on the mountain, they determine to work together so as to reduce traffic. Scott’s Russian right hand, Anatoli Boukreev (Sigurösson) is there to lend a hand.

Waiting at home is Rob’s wife Jan (Knightley) who is about to give birth to their daughter, an event Rob is planning on being home in Christchurch for. Also at home is Peach Weathers (Wright), a no-nonsense Texas woman who is a mite ticked off at her husband who is undertaking this adventure despite her distinct disapproval – and despite having had eye surgery recently.

After months of preparing, the time for the final ascent to the summit arrives but things start to go wrong almost right away; the Sherpas who were supposed to have fixed the ropes had inexplicably failed to do so, leaving the guides to fix them on trail, causing long delays. The teams end up staying on the peak long past the turnaround time of 2pm. And headed towards them is a monstrous rogue storm. This would be the worst day of fatalities on the mountain (until 2014 when ironically enough an avalanche occurred while the second unit was filming in Nepal would break the record) and who survives and who doesn’t is an act of will and sheer luck.

The story itself is riveting. Those who have read Krakauer’s book on the subject or watched the documentary that was made in 1998 will know in advance who survives but even so there’s a tension here that is right up there with any movie released this year. The performances are for the most part terrific; Clarke has become a very reliable lead although he hasn’t ever had a breakout performance that would mark him as an A-lister and this won’t be the one that does so either, although in many ways it is one of his most memorable pieces of work. Brolin and Hawkes, solid actors both, continue to do impressive work. Watson ends up being the emotional core of the film.

There are some truly heartbreaking scenes here, the most notable being one where the wife of one of the trapped climbers contacts him on satellite phone, urging him to keep moving forward, pleading with him all the time knowing that he is dying even as he speaks to her. We see the horror unfold as Helen keeps in contact with survivors, discovering the grim toll taken by the mountain.

This is almost an impossible story to tell properly; for one thing, giving audiences a sense of the mountain’s size and grandeur really can’t be done with just pictures. Some of the footage was taken on Everest itself but a lot of studio re-creation was done, particularly for some of the more perilous scenes and in all honesty I wasn’t convinced. Still, the story is so compelling that I was able to overlook the flaws of the film and enjoy it for what it was; an adventure and tragedy rolled into one.

Like Meru, this isn’t a movie that really motivated me to want to go and climb Everest on my own. Everest at least makes an attempt to explain why men are willing to climb up to the cruising altitude of a 747 where the air is so thin that the body begins to die, but in the end we never really get a clear picture of why – perhaps because the men doing this thing don’t really know themselves. Oh, Doug Harris does say he’s doing it to prove to his kids that nothing is impossible – even a letter carrier on the summit of Everest – but is the price for a lesson like that truly worth it? I think that a lot of kids whose mothers and fathers didn’t come back from this trip would say it wasn’t.

REASONS TO GO: Edge of the seat filmmaking. Some very solid performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t give us a sense of the majesty or the size of the mountain.
FAMILY VALUES: Scenes of intense and graphic peril, some gruesome images and a bit of swearing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the bodies of all the victims of this expedition have been found, all but one remain on the mountain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into Thin Air: Death on Everest
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Sicario

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.


Neither Cavill nor Hammer want their hair getting mussed.

Neither Cavill nor Hammer want their hair getting mussed.

(2015) Spy Action (Warner Brothers) Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris, Christian Berkel, Misha Kuznetsov, Guy Williams, Marianna Di Martino, David Beckham, Julian Michael Deuster, Peter Stark, Pablo Scola, Andrea Cagliesi, Peter Stark, Simona Caparrini, Joanna Metrass. Directed by Guy Ritchie

The 60s were an interesting era. While most people associate the last half of the decade of the era with the counterculture, evolution of rock and roll, protests and rioting, the first part of the era was something completely different. It was a time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the New York’s World Fair, of great stress and great optimism. It’s a time when the Beatles and Burt Bachrach co-existed on the charts, and style still held more than a trace of elegance and grace. It was the golden age of spies, with James Bond, Modesty Blaise and Matt Helm all fighting the menace of Evil Empires and Megalomaniacs bent on world domination – or destruction. It was the age of U.N.C.L.E.

Napoleon Solo (Cavill) is a former war profiteer caught and sentenced to prison. However, the C.I.A., recognizing that his skills are superior, intervenes, allowing the sentence to be commuted – so long as he works it off for the Agency. Solo has become one of the most respected and successful spies in the business. Ilya Kuryakin (Hammer) is a KGB agent with incredible athleticism, brute strength and a temper more explosive than Vesuvius.

They butt heads when Solo tries to smuggle a pretty East German auto mechanic named Gaby (Vikander) out of East Berlin and Kuryakin is  told in no uncertain terms to stop them and he turns out to be pretty much a one-man wrecking crew, but nonetheless Solo gets the girl out of the Soviet zone.

As it turns out, her Uncle Rudi (Groth) works for Vinciguerra (which means “Win the War” in Italian), a sketchy Italian multinational corporation that may have her father, a nuclear physicist who may have discovered a means of making nuclear bombs portable. For a third party to have such destructive power at their fingertips is intolerable both for the Americans and the Russians so they decide to send their best men into the fray and get the technology for their own countries.

They will first have to get past Victoria Vinciguerra (Debicki), the twisted de facto head of the company and her vicious brother Alexander (Calvani), more thugs than you can shake a stick at and their own mutual suspicion. The game of spying has become even more complicated and confusing than ever.

Like the Mission: Impossible series, this is based on a hit TV show from the 60s but unlike the former film franchise, the filmmakers have elected to keep the film in the same general time period as the TV show which to my mind is a brilliant idea. The era is perfect for the story; they just don’t do urbane the way they used to, and Napoleon Solo is nothing if not urbane.

I like the casting in the leads but oddly enough, I’d have liked the casting better if Cavill and Hammer had switched roles. Cavill, I think, has a darker side to him than Hammer does and Hammer, who grew up not unfamiliar with the country club lifestyle, would have made an extremely convincing Solo. But then again, Hammer is a big fellow and that might not have jibed well with the Saville Row ladies man that was the American spy. Then again, David McCallum was a much less physical specimen than Hammer and still made an extremely effective Kuryakin in the TV series.

Ritchie, having done Sherlock Holmes and its sequel, has created a new niche for himself after escaping the old one. He is able to re-create the early 60s – 50 years gone now – by making the setting timeless places, mostly in the Old World. He uses vintage clothing as well as recreations to clothe his actors, although his screenwriters don’t quite have the idioms down – phrases like “skill set” and “price point” are phrases from this decade and not that one, and one would have wished the writing had been a little more careful in that regard. Comes from having young whippersnappers doing the writing (actually co-writers Lionel Wigram and Ritchie are two and eight years younger than I, so shows you what I know).

Vikander has become a hot property and this movie isn’t going to do anything to cool her down. These are the types of roles perfectly suited to growing a career; even though the movie is coming out in August, it’s still a major studio release and thus she’s going to get plenty of attention. The movie is pretty lightweight, true and so is the part although it is the most complex role in the movie but this isn’t meant to be John Le Carre; it’s light and frothy and Vikander wisely plays it that way.

And that’s really the draw for this movie; yeah, it doesn’t really add anything to the genre and yeah, it’s a pretty overcrowded field this year with James Bond waiting in the wings still, but that’s all good. When I was a kid, I used to watch the reruns of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and eagerly read the paperback novelizations of the show. Hey, my parents loved it so who am I to disagree with an endorsement like that? In any case, this is a throwback to an earlier time well-executed in every way. Think of it as a cold Pepsi on a hot August day; perfectly refreshing and very welcome.

REASONS TO GO: Perfectly set in the period. Effervescent.
REASONS TO STAY: A few anachronisms here and there.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of action, some partial nudity and sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Solo removes a tablecloth from a table without disturbing the place settings on it, he actually does that trick, being trained by a British variety show performance who specializes in the stunt.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Man Flint
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: People Places Things

The Great Gatsby (2013)


It's my party and I'll smirk if I want to.

It’s my party and I’ll smirk if I want to.

(2013) Drama (Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki, Adelaide Clemens, Jack Thompson, Amitabh Bachchan, Gus Murray, Kate Mulvany, Barry Otto, Daniel Gill, Iota, Eden Falk, Steve Bisley, Vince Colosimo, Max Cullen, Gemma Ward, Olga Miller. Directed by Baz Luhrmann   

The Jazz Age of the Roaring ’20s was known for conspicuous wealth and the wealthy who partied capriciously even as a stock market crash loomed ever closer. It was an age of the flapper, of gangsters and bootleggers, of old money sneering at the nouveau riche with all the venom of an aging viper whose territory is being taken over by a younger and deadlier snake.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote what is arguably his masterpiece in 1925 to tepid sales and lackluster reviews. When he passed away in 1940, he believed himself to be a failure although ironically his work would receive the acclaim and sales only a few years later. ‘Tis the melancholy truth about artists – most have to die in order for their work to matter.

So what’s so great about Gatsby? Well, a lot of things – it’s depiction of the lavish excesses and the empty morality of the very rich, but also the language. Few understood the American idiom quite as well as Fitzgerald and the words truly flow beautifully off the page. Read it aloud and you might think you’re delivering the words of an American Shakespeare into the ether. That is, perhaps, overpraising the work but many consider it to be the Great American Novel and if not that, at least the Great American Tragedy.

Given the lavish excess of the book, Australian director Baz Luhrmann might well be the perfect choice to make the film version. Three others have preceded it – a 1926 silent version which sadly has been lost to the mists of time as no prints are known to exist, although a trailer for it does and if you look it up on YouTube, you can see it. Another version was filmed in 1949 starring Alan Ladd and Betty Field but has been held up for 60 years over mysterious copyright litigation which someone needs to sort out. The most famous version is the 1974 Robert Redford/Mia Farrow version which famously flopped and has been disowned by nearly everyone involved (there was also a made for television version in 2000).

However, this one is the only one that I am aware of that is available in grand and glorious 3D. Why is it available in such a format, you might ask? So that the glitter and confetti from the various parties might seem to pop out of the screen at you. Otherwise there really is no particular necessity for it.

The film follows the book pretty faithfully – surprisingly so. Midwesterner Nick Carroway (Maguire) moves into a carriage house in the fictional Long Island community of West Egg on the grounds of the fabulous mansion of Jay Gatsby (di Caprio), a reclusive sort who throws lavish parties for which everyone who is anyone shows up at uninvited and about whom all sorts of rumors are floating about.

Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan (Mulligan) lives across the bay – in fact directly across from Gatsby’s mansion – with her philandering husband Tom (Edgerton), an old money sort who is a racist jerk who makes Daisy’s life miserable. Tom inexplicably bonds with Nick and takes him to visit his mistress Myrtle Wilson (Fisher), a clingy shrewish sort who is married to George (Clarke), an auto mechanic who is somewhat slavishly devoted to Myrtle and treats Tom, whose cars he repairs, as something like a potentate.

But Daisy has a secret of her own; prior to meeting Tom she was courted by Jay Gatsby, then an officer in the Army preparing to be deployed into the Great War. By the time he returned, she was married to Tom. Gatsby then set to amassing a fortune by as it turned out fairly nefarious means, utilizing underworld businessman Meyer Wolfsheim (Bachchan)  as a go-between.

Gatsby wants Nick to invite Daisy over for tea which he does; Nick genuinely likes Gatsby whose optimism appeals to Nick’s sensibilities. Once Daisy and Gatsby are together it’s like a flickering torch reignited. The two realize they are meant for each other. Gatsby urges Daisy to tell Tom that she doesn’t love him. Daisy is extremely reluctant, although it’s true. This will lead to a confrontation in the Plaza Hotel in New York that will have deadly consequences.

Luhrmann is known for visual spectacle and for thinking outside the box. He frames the story with Nick in his later years committed to a sanitarium for alcoholism, writing down the events of his youth as a means of therapy ordered by his doctor (Thompson). Fitzgerald’s words literally flow into the film as 3D graphics. It’s a nice conceit.

Luhrmann is also known for willful anachronisms – filming period films with a modern soundtrack (which includes songs by Lana del Rey, Jay Z – who supervised the soundtrack – and Andre 3000, among others) which as a personal note drives me entirely crazy. Why go to the trouble of meticulously re-creating an era which Luhrmann does and then immediately take his audience right out of it by having a jazz orchestra rapping? Methinks that Luhrmann doesn’t care if his audience is immersed in the film or not as long as they know who directed it.

Gatsby is one of the most enigmatic literary characters of the 20th century and is a notorious part to get down properly. He is a driven soul, passionate in his feelings for Daisy but absolutely amoral when it comes to money. He is a self-made man, largely willing his own image of himself into reality only to  come to understand too late that these things are illusions that are ultimately empty reflections in a mirror that we can’t see. Di Caprio once again reminds us that he is a powerful actor capable of mesmerizing performances at any given time. This is certainly one of his better works, capturing that enigma that is Gatsby and giving it flesh and soul.

Nick is our surrogate, floating in a world of wealth and privilege with eyes wide open. He joins in on the debauchery and recoils in horror as it turns savagely on itself. He watches the events unfold towards their inevitable conclusion and manages to retain his own humanity. He is a decent sort who is thoroughly capable of being corrupted – and to an extent he is – but in the end it’s his own decency that saves him. Maguire is particularly adept at radiating decency and does so here. He’s not particularly memorable – he was never going to be in this kind of role and opposite di Caprio – but he does everything you could ask of him here.

Mulligan, who burst onto the scene not long ago with an amazing performance in An Education has continued to blossom as an actress since then. This is not really a role she’s well-suited for; Daisy is a self-centered and vacuous soul who doesn’t have the courage of her own convictions. Mulligan is far too intelligent an actress to play vacuous and thus she isn’t terribly convincing in the role. Nicole Kidman might have been a better choice and she’s closer to di Caprio’s age range to boot.

There is a lot of spectacle here but sadly it is sabotaged by Luhrmann’s own imagination, which is kind of ironic. Spectacle for spectacle’s sake, as Jay Gatsby would surely have known, is an ultimately empty gesture. There is plenty here to like but one gets too distracted by the fluff. Brevity is the soul of wit and Fitzgerald was fully aware of how to use language economically. So too, simplicity is the soul of film and that is a lesson Luhrmann has yet to learn.

REASONS TO GO: Di Caprio delivers another bravura performance. Captures the era in many ways. Follows Fitzgerald’s story surprisingly closely.

REASONS TO STAY: Far too many instances of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing.” Afflicted with the Curse of the Deliberate Anachronism.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some violent images (although none especially shocking), some sensuality, partying and smoking within a historical context and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Duesenbergs are the automobile of choice for Jay Gatsby but the real things are far too rare and valuable to be used as movie props. The one you see in the film is one of two replicas, each painted yellow and modified to match each other for filming.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100; critics were pretty much split right down the middle on this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moulin Rouge

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Iceman