The Man from UNCLE – see it while you can (a review)

MfU poster

As a literal child of the 60s, I am barely old enough to remember the television series The Man from UNCLE, yet another show centred on Cold-War America’s fascination with the spy world. While Bond, Flint and Helm were doing their thing in theatres, The Men were joined by the likes of The Saint, I Spy, The Persuaders and Get Smart.

Unfortunately, whereas I can quote lines from Get Smart (don’t judge me) and have fond memories of The Saint, things are a little foggier when it comes to The Man from UNCLE. Thus, when I took in the newly released movie, my mind was open.

Essentially, an origin story for the UNCLE organization—United Network Command for Law and Enforcement—the movie introduces us to the two men on which the series hinged, American spy Napoleon Solo and Soviet spy Illya Kuryakin, and how they are forced to work as a team despite their complete distrust both of each other and of their own governments.

I won’t go into great detail about the plot as it really doesn’t matter—much as the plot of a typical Bond flick doesn’t matter. The only reason for the central plot conflict is to force these two guys together and watch them play “whose dick is bigger.” Really. I mean it.

Over a two hour span, I think there was maybe 30 minutes of actual story. The rest of the time was spent in a great variety of chase scenes, some of which were quite funny, or watching Solo (Henry Cavill) and Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) argue over fashion, spy gadgets and how badly the Soviet needs to get laid.

Now & Then: Chemistry is key for bickering twosome Napoleon Solo (dark hair) and Illya Kuryakin

Now & Then: Chemistry is key for bickering twosome Napoleon Solo (dark hair) and Illya Kuryakin

All of the friends who saw this movie with me had issues with this. The story wasn’t particularly engrossing and they felt like director Guy Ritchie had simply provided a light dessert; enjoyable in the moment, but offering little satisfaction.

To some extent, I agree with them. I am a fan of Ritchie’s earlier efforts with the Sherlock Holmes movies (Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law). Here, the stories were quite rich and complicated, as one would hope with a Sherlock Holmes tale. Using this barometer, The Man from UNCLE definitely failed.

But to some extent, I think my friends missed the point (but then, I would). I don’t think Ritchie was going so much for a story that you might find in the most recent Bond films, filled with character complexities and inner conflicts, longer story arcs, generous back story.

Rather, I think Ritchie was going for the vibe and energy of that earlier generation of spy films, which were more a vehicle for the star than anything and featured much shallower stories. To me, this film was more about Dean Martin’s Matt Helm, James Coburn’s Derek Flint, and if only for the humoured banter, Roger Moore’s James Bond.

Ritchie is trying to capture a time and place, or perhaps more specifically, a style. And if we have learned anything about Guy Ritchie, in a battle between style and substance, he will always go with style. In some ways, I see him more as a painter than a director, as his primary goal seems to be a luxurious visual. Dialogue is simply a necessary evil for him.

Although, this is not to say that the dialogue was a burden here. The chemistry between Cavill and Hammer is palpable, much as it was between Downey Jr. and Law. And the addition of Alicia Vikander’s character Gaby simply enriches that dance.

Alicia Vikander's Gaby complicates life for the boys

Alicia Vikander’s Gaby complicates life for the boys

She is a very capable actor and this role is perhaps the complete opposite of her performance in Ex Machina (my review). Although, you may end up questioning which role was more manipulative.

Unfortunately, Ritchie may have overestimated the power of his painter’s brush in this film if my friends and the 2/3-filled Friday night opener was any indication of how this movie is being received. This film was obviously set up to be a franchise, but as we have seen in the past, that decision doesn’t rest with the studios as much as with the audience (aka box office).

I’m hoping the movie does financially better than it looked. I’d like to see more of these movies. May have to live with reruns of the original series, instead.

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Other reviews of The Man from UNCLE:

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. about more than just the cool clothes: review – Peter Howell, The Toronto Star

Movie Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – Danny F Santos

Heart of Coppola

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Francis Ford Coppola likes me! He really likes me!

So, no sooner do I finally get around to posting my laurels from Nashville than I find out that my screenplay The Naughty List was selected as a semifinalist in the 12th Annual American Zeotrope Screenwriting Competition, an organization run by Francis Ford Coppola (I seem to recall he was a director of geopolitical documentaries).

I had started to wonder if the screenplay was going to see any love in the competitive world…this is good!

Coming to a theatre near you (please, please, please)

Coming to a theatre near you (please, please, please)

So, what is the story of The Naughty List?

What would you do if you learned decisions you make every year ruin the lives of millions of children?

Oh, and your name is Santa Claus.

After a brush with death just days before Christmas, Santa rescinds the Naughty List only to learn that for some kids, the lump of coal started a life-long downward spiral. In fact, two kids—now warlords—are about to unleash hell on each other and their people.

With a loving heart and snowy balls, child-like Santa dives into the fray. But his magical meddling only makes things worse.

He greases the wheels of war. More children suffer, including a girl desperate to save her family. As his magic fails, Santa knows he must face the oncoming storm as a mortal.

One man. Two armies. Can Santa stop the madness and save a crumbling Christmas?

 

Fading Gigolo faded too slowly (a review)

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Writer. Director. Lead performer. Possibly the most critical functions in defining how well a movie will do, and often one individual will play more than one role with varying degrees of success. But when a single person plays all three, look out.

For some reason, the movie that results from the triple play rarely seems to work in my experience. And 2013’s Fading Gigolo falls right into that category. (Citizen Kane is one of the few successes I can think of.)

The triple play of Hollywood stalwart John Turturro, Fading Gigolo tells the story of two friends, second-hand bookstore owner Murray (Woody Allen) and florist Fioravante (Turturro), who are both going through some financially tight times. So when Murray’s dermatologist (Sharon Stone) suggests she and her girlfriend (Sofia Vergara) are considering a ménage á trois, Murray immediately thinks about his good looking buddy and suddenly it is American Gigolo for the middle-aged.

Boobs and bums but no climax (Stone, Vergara)

Boobs and bums but no climax (Stone, Vergara)

Oh, and all of this happens in the first two minutes of the movie.

One after another, Murray lines up customers for Fioravante, whose kicked-puppy facial expressions and old-world charm sweep the women off their feet and money out of their wallet. To his credit, Fioravante feels some guilt over taking advantage of the lonely women, but he gets past that with the help of Murray’s nebbish logic.

Life becomes more complicated, however, when he meets the widowed Hassidic Jew Avigal (Vanessa Paradis) and in helping her come out of her shell, finds himself developing feelings for the woman.

Fioravante helps draw Avigal out of herself (Turturro, Paradis)

Fioravante helps draw Avigal out of herself (Turturro, Paradis)

When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I thought it would be a beautifully sweet film about human relationships with the comedic backdrop of Woody Allen as a pimp. And to be sure, there are moments of beauty in the film. But only moments.

Unfortunately, there are no moments of conflict in the film. Nothing against which the characters can really push and grow, with the exception of Avigal, and so the movie feels like the emptiest of emotional calories. You feel good while it is in front of you, but the minute a scene is over, you don’t remember a single moment of it.

Woody Allen still has it, although somewhat sparingly, and there were moments in the story reminiscent of his characters in Bananas or Sleeper, but in some respects, he has just become an older caricature of those characters. Sharon Stone has one or two moments where you can see some vulnerability in her character, but those dissolve pretty quickly. And Sofia Vergara is simply boobs with an accent, as with every role I have ever seen her perform.

A little Hassidic slapstick (Allen, Liev Schrieber)

A little Hassidic slapstick (Allen, Liev Schrieber)

As mentioned earlier, Vanessa Paradis’ Avigal is the only character with an arc in this story, the only character who is transformed, and the actress does a pretty good job with a relatively straightforward character. Unfortunately, against a backdrop of nothing characters, I can’t tell if she did a good job or just a less bad job.

But again, all of my irritation is focused on Turturro and his failings. Fioravante is a sweet man but has all the internal conflict of Michael Landon’s angel character Highway to Heaven, i.e., too good to be true.

As a writer, Turturro missed every opportunity to enrich a flat screenplay. In the writing vernacular, there was no inciting incident (the reason to become a prostitute is weak), no turning points, no crisis and no climax except in the sexual sense.

And because the writer Turturro seemed satisfied with the screenplay, the director Turturro had nothing to offer to improve a moribund story comprised of high-fructose corn syrup.

So much talent. Such a beautiful concept. Such potential for humour and pathos.

Such a let down.

Movie should have worked just on this line alone

Movie should have worked just on this line alone

Lessons from bad movies – The Canyons

canyons poster

I believe that you can learn something from every experience you have, and because I am trying to learn more about screenwriting and films, this means watching bad movies. Thus, I was intrigued when I saw Netflix was showing a film called The Canyons.

Written by Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho) and starring Lindsay Lohan and porn-star-going-legit James Deen, The Canyons shows the decay of Hollywood through the eyes of a struggling young actor who is still in love with his former girlfriend who is now the adornment of an unbalanced but oh-so-controlled producer on a trust fund. Paranoid from birth, the producer eventually learns of rekindled flames between the two and slowly his self-control ebbs. To tell you more would be to spoil the (complete lack of) surprise in this film.

Although the story was straightforward and highly predictable, I have to admit to being confused by one very big thing: I don’t know who the protagonist is. Through whose eyes is the audience supposed to see this story?

Lindsay Lohan’s Tara (the girlfriend) shares almost equal screen time with James Deen’s Christian (producer) and Nolan Gerard Funk’s Ryan (actor), and the story’s perspective seems to shift on a whim. If I go purely by a scale of which character left me feeling least icky in their behaviour, I would have to say Ryan was the protagonist. But he feels more like an unwitting pawn in this film.

Interestingly, however, if I was forced onto a limb, I would actually say Christian was the protagonist despite his antagonist schtick. As a character, he is reminiscent of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman…possibly his baby brother…although there is no comparison between Christian Bale’s performance and James Deen’s.

Speaking of which, the wooden performances of the actors don’t help my quest for a protagonist. (At her best, Lohan’s glamour-gone-gory Tara was reminiscent of Ann-Margret’s characters in Carnal Knowledge and Tommy at their most strung out.) Without distinct emotive clues and any sense of subtext, I really have no clue what any of the characters hopes to accomplish…there simply aren’t any goals, again with the possible exception of Ryan.

Lohan-Margret

To continue piling on, I would be intrigued to find out what kind of movie director Paul Schrader thought he was making.

On the one hand, with rampant over-use of black & white images of derelict movie houses, it seemed Schrader was going for art-house film, using the photographic decay as a metaphor for the social decay of Hollywood (this is the man who wrote Taxi Driver and directed American Gigolo).

At the same time, his rampant insertion of lengthy scenes of graphic sex gave the film a B-movie, soft-core porn feel. Here, Schrader may have been going for a moral decadence metaphor, but if so, I think he failed terribly. Instead, we were left with a humping morass of buttocks and breasts that a 13-year-old boy couldn’t be bothered to whack off to.

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But the one scene that truly grabbed my attention was a lunch conversation between Tara and Christian’s assistant Gina, played by Amanda Brooks. What caught my attention, however, was not the scintillating or captivating dialogue (there wasn’t any) or the repressed subtextual exchanges (they were incapable) but rather the fact that even the camera was unable to pay attention to the scene.

On either close up, the camera angle perpetually slid to the left or the right, and sometimes back again. Not panned to capture a background element. Slid, as if someone had forgotten to tighten the flange that holds the camera to the tripod. The camera literally nodded off.

So then, if this movie was so bad, how could I learn a lesson?

The lesson of The Canyons is that if you can get an actor of sufficient name recognition who is trying to prove something (e.g., I’m not washed up) interested in your script, you can get anything made.

 

Postscript:

As I looked up some background facts on this movie, I learned that The Canyons was the first film to be largely funded via crowd-sourcing. Given the performance of subsequent crowd-sourced films like Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here (poor) and Kristen Bell’s Veronica Mars (modest), I am beginning to wonder if there isn’t some merit in studios having some influence on whether and how a film gets made.

Picture this

A new way to write?

A new way to write?

So, it would appear that somewhen in the recent past, I made a transition in my writing. As I was working with a friend and colleague the other day on a novel we’re writing, I realized that something significant had changed.

I no longer write in words. I now write in pictures.

This is not to say that I have become an animator or that my writing implement of choice is a paint brush or crayon (nothing wrong with those choices) but rather that when I imagine a scene in my head, I no longer think to describe it in words but literally as visuals.

This may not sound like much to you, but for me—who has long held myself to be a wordsmith, first and foremost—it is huge.

For quite some time, I have been taking screenwriting classes, and the one comment that has been made consistently throughout that time is that I write like a novelist. I have mentioned before my affinity for narrative and my need to describe a scene to within a literal inch of its setting. Well, it would appear that in trying to break myself of the verbosity, I have swung all the way into pictures, leaving words in my dust.

For the case in point, I was trying to describe to my colleague how we might open the novel at the end of our story and then transition from one event at the end to a metaphorically similar point at the beginning of the story, which all sounded great until I tried to put that down on paper.

I managed to cobble together some verbiage that roughly describes what I saw, but I know it will take some time to effectively capture the visual in words…time I am more than happy to put in. But it rocked me to realize that I no longer saw things the same way.

Oh, my God. You don’t think… Nah, couldn’t be. I’m still working on being a writer.

Dear God, please don’t tell me, I’m thinking about become a… ugh, I can’t say it… a… a… director!

Anyone have a beret and megaphone I could borrow?

directors-chair

(Images are property of owners and used here without permission because that is Legal’s problem.)

Not for nothing – REQUEST FOR HELP

ssnolan3

How do you write about nothing?

I know how to not write. In fact, I was very good at that in the past, but gratefully not writing is no longer much of an option for me.

I’m not talking about not writing, however. Instead, I am talking about writing scenes where superficially nothing happens, where a character walks through the mundane actions of life. What they are doing is unimportant to them, a robotic response to an overwhelming thought or scenario. There is an astronomic exchange of information and yet no words are spoken.

In a novel or short story, you can have an inner dialogue, revealing the character’s thoughts, but in a film, you have only silence. Sure, there’s always the trusty voiceover, but I personally think that unless the character is recalling a past statement, voiceovers are a crutch. And a voiceover weakens a scene when you compare it with silence.

Think of the last time you were faced with silence in response to something you said or did. Think of the dis-ease (yes, that’s where “disease” comes from) you experienced as you tried to figure out what the other party was thinking. In many of those situations, I bet that shouting would have been preferable to silence.

In an improv class I took—I am sorry that this is my version of “This one time, in band camp…”—we were doing a status exercise wherein one character would try to take status away from the other one, proving themselves superior through statement or action. While many student pairs would do their best to out-pompous, out-preen or out-bravado each other, I took a different tack. I went completely silent.

No matter what my partner said or did, I faced him stoically or indifferently, deigning to give him the merest glance on occasion while going about my activities. And the louder or larger he got, the less I minded or acknowledged him. The more he talked, the weaker he appeared.

Silence is powerful. And even if the silence is due to idiocy, it comes across as thoughtfulness.

Think of scenes in movies where a character has chosen to deal with a problem by thinking about it. With a good actor, you can see all the thoughts as they play out in his or her mind. The body, the face, the eyes tell you all you need to know about the emotional swells washing through the actor. A single word breaks that tension and weakens the moment. As a storyteller, why would you ever give that up?

Which brings me back to my original question: How do you write nothing?

Perhaps I am delving too far into the domains of the director and actor, but there has to be a way to ensure both those artists know what you, the writer, intend. But I’ll be damned if I know how.

So, I open the question to you, my fellow artists.

What do you do, what have you learned, what have you seen that tells you how to write nothing and yet convey a world of thought and feeling?

Please share your thoughts here as I can’t be the only one who wants to know.