Entries from August 2015 ↓

Seymour Movies: Summer 2015 Review, Mostly in Blurbs

If this weekend’s most touted opener is a Noah Baumbach movie, then I guess we can close the books on the summer movie season. I’m not using this space to assess the grosses and trends. Better you should read this guy, who’s so much smarter about these things than I am.

Also be warned this makes no claims of being comprehensive: I’m saving my remarks on Straight Outta Compton for a separate occasion. There are a few movies from this summer that I wanted to get around to, but couldn’t. (Shaun the Sheep, come baaaack!!) There also are those I may still get around to before long (Trainwreck) and others (Jurassic World) that are on my prohibitive life-is-short list. So here, in no particular order, is most of what I saw in the dark since Memorial Day.

 

FURY ROAD

 

 

Mad Max: Fury Road – As with almost everybody else, I admired its eccentric (yet austere) design, the proto-feminist tweaking of heroic prototypes and its masterly narrative drive. George Miller may be the best in the world right now at such tension-release dynamism. And yet…as was the case with just about every action film I saw this season, even a movie as accomplished and engrossing as this, Fury Road seemed to have its way with me as I was watching it and then, as soon as it ended, was all done with me.

Tomorrowland – Was this summer’s prototype of Big Fat Bust until Not-So-Fantastic-Four (see below). I liked it better than most others and totally bought what it was selling despite its flaws because I, too, was a credulous, New Frontier-besotted 12-year-old in 1965 who thought a visit to the New York World’s Fair was the Best Day of His Whole Life up to that point. Maybe it would have been at least a more interesting movie if its focus had been on the Hugh Laurie character that questioned (as I often do) whether we truly deserve to have a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.

 

 

Dope movie

 

Dope – As of now, I no longer care how much it resembles Risky Business. But I still care, after so many other movies over so many weeks, about the cool jerks at this story’s core along with the bullies, thugs and airheads who make trouble for them. Say it with me: It’s not the concept. It’s the characters (stupid)!

Inside Out — So great that even kids loved it. But I’m betting they loved Minions more.

Ant-Man – Or, “What Would Have Happened If Leo McCarey directed The Incredible Shrinking Man With a Bigger Budget.” And does the hero really have to become an Avenger? Speaking of which…

The Avengers: Age of Ultron – I still snicker over Captain America saying how even he can’t afford to move back to Brooklyn, where he’d last lived in the 1940s. I can’t remember anything else that happened. Speaking of which…

(Not So) Fantastic Four –.We could ourselves be heroes if we found something to like about it, so let’s see…Kate Mara’s teeny little segue into a fake Balkan accent was adorable and Michael B. Jordan’s brash side deserves a movie all to itself. But paraphrasing the great Theodore Sturgeon’s observation about science fiction in general, ninety percent of everything is shit, especially this. And when the even the movie’s director agrees, what’s the point of being “contrary to received wisdom” at all?

 

mr-holmes

 

 

Mr. Holmes – Fragment of a conversation, somewhere in London, 1893.
CONSULTING DETECTIVE: You know, James, my good friend Watson seems to believe you and I have much in common.
HENRY JAMES: Indeed! And how might that be?
CONSULTING DETECTIVE: He is of the opinion, and I respect his instincts on such matters better than those of any man, that you and I are of a rare species of humankind that takes absolutely nothing for granted. Naturally, despite my disinclination towards reading fiction, I had to see if he was right and as I evaluate the available evidence, it’s quite clear you possess gifts for observing comparable to mine and for using such observations to assess the full range of human temperament with depth and felicity that exist nowhere else in our shared language.
HENRY JAMES: (staring at his interlocutor, smiling) I am greatly honored, even mildly flabbergasted, by your remarks, sir. But…with respect to your Mister….
CONSULTING DETECTIVE: Doctor…
HENRY JAMES: Yes, of course. My apologies…Doctor Watson…I fear he labors under a misperception about our respective capacities.
CONSULTING DETECTIVE: But, my dear fellow, I have become quite familiar with your work…
HENRY JAMES: …And I with yours, Mister Holmes, for you are now quite possibly the most famous man in Britain. But…if I may speak frankly….
CONSULTING DETECTIVE: Please.
HENRY JAMES: There is, in fact, quite a lot that you take for granted…Not much is lost on you, I will concede, but…
CONSULTING DETECTIVE: (Back stiffened, peevish) And what precisely would these…omissions comprise?
HENRY JAMES: (beginning to speak, then stops, pauses) Precision is difficult, even evasive, on such matters. I think it best that you find out for yourself…And eventually, I suspect that you will.

Love and Mercy – You see Paul Dano in the lead role and you think, “He’s Brain Wilson!” You see John Cusack in the lead role and you think, “What an astute and sensitively observed commentary John Cusack is making on Brian Wilson’s life!” This distinction in no way impairs your appreciation of either the movie or, most especially, Elizabeth Banks. But you’re aware of the distinction nonetheless.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – Forget that set piece with the plane. That’s over and done before the opening credits, which will always be the best part of these movies because Lalo Schifrin is, if not God, at least the god of theme songs. (I’d see any movie version of Mannix as long as its theme comes along.) The best stunts in this movie are performed by its star’s vanity, which will outlast this franchise the way roaches will survive Nuclear Armageddon .

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – It didn’t try as hard the one directly above to achieve its effects and that’s why it doesn’t matter whether you remember the original series or not. Still wondering if it’ll get the chance to do a sequel because it deserves one. Henry Cavill, judging from the Dawn of Justice trailers, could use something else to do with his time and so, for different reasons, could Hugh Grant.

 

 

Phoenix Movie

 

Phoenix – Nina Hoss could have been a superstar in the Silent Era, which is the supreme compliment you could make towards any living motion picture actor. I saw this on the day of TCM’s daylong tribute to Garbo and Hoss has the same magnetism, especially in stillness. If she were embedded in ice, she would continue to emit vibrations

Listen to Me, Marlon – Suppose, just suppose, that back in the early 1960s, instead of wasting everybody’s time and money with a remake of Mutiny on the Bounty that nobody wanted or needed, somebody had managed to secure the rights to Henderson the Rain King and convinced Brando to play the title role. We’d have had a better movie – or at least, a more interesting failure – and Brando’s slide off the rails, however inevitable, may not have been as precipitous. Or…maybe nothing would have helped. In any case, what he says towards the end about his a-hole father applies to him as well: He did the best he could.

 

amy-winehouse_400

 

 

Amy – Thomas Pynchon said it best: “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before but there is nothing to compare it to now…It is too late…”

The Best of Enemies – Preening, pompous, patrician peacocks peck, poke, prod and prick pretentiously without profundity or pertinence.

 

 

end of the tour

 

The End of the Tour – Maybe the only movie on this list that doesn’t leave you tossed aside at the end as you begin forgetting what you just saw. It’s a little movie that keeps your head (and heart) toying with very big questions long after it’s over. Also it makes you curious to read a difficult book that it’s not based on – which is so much cooler than another metal object exploding in mid-air

Reopening Channel D

 

Napoleon Solo Original

 

 

When I now think of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV series (1964-1968), it is as a toy, a plaything of youth. As with most toys, I locked the show away in a high, hard-to-reach corner of my crowded memory bank. I’ve taken it down a couple times in recent years through Netflix and assorted snatches on YouTube and, as you’d expect, it looks a lot smaller, even chintzier than it once did. But I also think it deserves a reassessment more nuanced than the too-casual shorthand even fans of the show use to dismiss what, for a brief time, was a legitimate pop-culture phenomenon.

When, for instance, people lazily describe U.N.C.L.E. as a “Cold War spy spoof”, they’re wrong in several shades of the same color. In the first place, labeling Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum) as spies is as imprecise as labeling James Bond a spy. All three are international cops. Period. (Doctor No pegged Bond more or less correctly at the start of his movie career as a “stupid policeman.”) This made U.N.C.L.E. less a spy show than another cop show (or a western in business suits) only with outlandish (if often prescient) technology and even more outlandish villains.

Frame such factors with series co-creator Sam Rolfe’s deadpan-earnest establishment of the ersatz United Network Command for Law Enforcement (appreciation for whose cooperation in each episode’s closing credits prompted job applications from credulous eight-year-olds of all ages) and you have a show that was less an outgrowth of the espionage genre and more like science-fiction, an alternative depiction of the mid-sixties in which the whole USA-vs. -USSR Cold War back-and-forth poses less of a threat to the human race than lone-wolf maniacs, bonded by some bureaucratically-arranged netherworld labeled THRUSH, who try to outdo each other in threats of mass destruction and/or global domination.

Indeed, when I think back to the self-absorbed sociopaths targeted by U.N.C.L.E.’s rainbow coalition of sharply-dressed “enforcement agents,” it’s less reminiscent of the bad old days of Imperialist Dogs Toe-to-Toe Against Commie Ratfinks and more akin to the bad new days of free-lance terrorists and renegade masters-of-the-fiscal-universe who wont let anyone stop them from making themselves richer and everybody else poorer – or worse. Is it possible that a nearly fifty-year TV program could offer clues as to how to at least put up a cool front against such up-to-the-minute inchoate peril?

 

DelFlorias U.N.C.L.E.

 

Some of the recurring gimmicks retain their modest appeal, even when they seem less credible than ever. That “ordinary tailor’s shop” in Manhattan’s East 40s that served as covert access to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters may have been the worst-kept secret in New York City. Some bad guys broke through the dressing room door in the very first scene of the very first episode. And after that, nobody thought of changing location in four seasons? Really? And you mean to tell us that none of those hapless civilians drafted for world-saving duty (especially in the first season) who dropped by the office for a gentlemanly pat on the back from U.N.C.L.E.’s stiff, avuncular COO Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll) ever told their friends and family what that dressing-room hook did when the signal was given? There had to have been a front entrance, nondescript of course, for office-supply salespeople and take-out lunch deliveries – though the United Network Command etc. might well have been as much a trailblazer for today’s well-endowed employee cafeterias as it was for cellular communication. I’m already thinking too much here. This MAD parody, a sweet-little relic of its own kind, captured all the first-season absurdities as well as I can.

 

Man from Auntie

 

I’d never known this, but at the very beginning, the idea was that each week U.N.C.L.E. agents would somehow wander into the lives of a hapless civilian who would, either willingly or not, tumble through the looking glass into this aforementioned alternative universe of private militias, mountain garrisons, chemical weapons, psychological warfare and apocalyptic tactics. Even after this formula wore off after a season or so, it was responsible for Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s better episodes. You liked having someone who wasn’t in on the game wandering around this arcane world on your behalf partly because, as droll, charming and adroit as Vaughn and McCallum were in playing their respective roles, Solo and Kuryakin were basically well-tailored ciphers. Napoleon Solo remains the coolest name ever given to a TV action hero, thanks to Bond’s creator Ian Fleming, who the producers brought in at the start for suggestions. But Napoleon (“Nappy Spice” would now be his new-jack moniker) was little more than a jumble of mannerisms encased in two-button suits with a suave-but-chilly intellect, somewhat reminiscent of the recently deceased John F, Kennedy. Maybe that was enough to keep us in Solo’s corner for those four seasons. But I now wish Fleming had left behind a better idea of who this Solo guy was and where he came from. Somewhere among the online clutter, there was something about him being Canadian. That wasn’t going to fly on American network TV in the early-to-mid-1960s, when it was OK for leading men to be Canadian – Dig that crazy Raymond Burr and who the hell is William Shatner! – but not leading roles.

(Most, but not all, of these notions – especially the absence of a back story for Napoleon Solo – are addressed in the new Guy Ritchie movie, about which I shall say nothing more except that it’s better than you’d expect it to be — even if you expect it to be just as it was when it was your favorite toy. Which it wont be. But that’s not our topic for today. So where were we?)

 

Robert-Vaughn-David-McCallum-Man-from-UNCLE

 

 

You know what else I wish? And this is nothing against McCallum, who managed to bring intriguing flashes of temperament into Ilya’s characterization. I wish the show had followed another of Fleming’s original suggestions and partnered Napoleon with a woman. Her name was supposed to be April Dancer, which was used as the title character’s name in the puerile spinoff, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. In a more far-sighted and progressive age of TV when networks weren’t concerned with offending white viewers in the Deep South, it wouldn’t have been too out-of-line for the producers to cast a woman-of-color in the role. Any number of beautiful, magnetic black actresses could have made the grade at that time; to name only a few, Diana Sands, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll, Eartha Kitt, Nichelle Nichols or even Dorothy Dandridge, who back then was in dire need of a fresh new break. This Man From U.N.C.L.E. could have broken the barrier that I Spy breached a season later while giving Americans their own urbane, witty and altogether transformative version of British TV’s The Avengers. Anything’s possible in alternate universes, even my suggestion a year ago of a different lead for Hawaii Five-O. But if even the remakes and updates we’ve been seeing of these shows are any indication, producers’ visions still go only so far, and no farther.