Movie Review: “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”

Starring
Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant
Director
Guy Ritchie

Hollywood hasn’t been shy about its love for sequels, reboots and remakes this summer, but as far as big screen adaptations of mildly popular television shows go, you could do a lot worse than “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” In fact, though director Guy Ritchie has admitted that he wasn’t overly familiar with the 1960s TV series before signing on to the project, it’s the ideal property for a filmmaker like Ritchie to tackle, because it allows him to cherry-pick the show’s best bits and put his own spin on the material without worrying about stepping on too many toes. That approach worked well for his “Sherlock Holmes” movies, and it’s equally as effective with “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” an entertaining homage to retro spy films that makes up for what it lacks in substance with plenty of laughs and undeniable style.

In 1963, during the height of the Cold War, the United States and Russia agree to temporarily put aside their differences and combine forces when they learn that a secret criminal organization has kidnapped former Nazi scientist Udo Teller to build an atom bomb. The CIA and KGB assign their top agents – American thief-turned-spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and hard-nosed Russian Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) – to infiltrate the organization led by the beautiful but deadly Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) in order to rescue Dr. Teller and prevent a global disaster. Assisting Napoleon and Illya on their mission is Teller’s daughter, Gabby (Alicia Vikander), a plucky mechanic whose uncle is their only lead in locating the bomb.

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Movie Review: “Straight Outta Compton”

Starring
O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti
Director
F. Gary Gray

Considering that core N.W.A. members Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are producers of the film about the band that made them superstars, it will surprise no one to discover that “Straight Outta Compton” delivers an almost laughably squeaky-clean version of their life stories between 1986 and 1995. There is no mention of Andre “Dr. Dre” Young’s assault of Dee Barnes (he tried to throw her down a flight of stairs, but not before slamming her into a brick wall), and while they show Eric “Eazy-E” Wright responding with, “But I ain’t no faggot,” upon hearing the news that he has AIDS, they do not mention that Eazy-E in fact issued a statement days before his death, making sure that the world knew that he in fact wasn’t no faggot, and that he contracted the virus the way God intended him to: through heterosexual intercourse, as if there is some nobility in that. We get it, Eazy – you’re not gay. But you’re still dead.

In spite of this whitewashing (it seems vaguely racist to use that phrase to describe a bunch of African-Americans), “Compton” is a highly entertaining film. The concert and studio sequences are intoxicating, and the performance of Ice Cube – by Cube’s oldest son, for crying out loud – is mesmerizing. It’s no reinvention of the musical biopic wheel by any means, but there is an adrenaline rush that comes with a film about a bunch of dirt-poor kids from Compton banding together, compromising nothing, and bending the rest of the world to their will.

The movie begins in 1986, giving the audience brief back stories of the five core members of N.W.A., while making no mention of any previous band affiliations the members had (of which there are several). Andre Young was a dreamer, a supreme DJ talent under pressure to make bank and take care of his baby. O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson was the main brain, equal parts poet and instigator. Eazy-E was the hustler who had the cash to make a recording happen. That recording was the Cube-penned “Boyz-n-the-Hood,” rapped by Eazy (who, if the movie is to be believed, couldn’t rap worth a damn at first) and was a massive hit out of the box. The song attracted the attention of manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who used his contacts to land Eazy’s indie label Ruthless Records a distribution deal with Priority Records.

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Blu Tuesday: The Knick, Unfriended and More

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“The Knick: The Complete First Season”

WHAT: In New York City during the turn of the 20th century, the extremely talented Dr. Thackery (Clive Owen) takes over as chief surgeon at the Knickerbocker Hospital (dubbed The Knick) after his mentor/boss commits suicide. While Thackery and his staff attempt to overcome the medical limitations of the era by making new discoveries of their own, they’re forced to deal with major issues like race relations, class warfare, sexism, drug addiction and more.

WHY: When Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from filmmaking, it seemed a bit premature for someone so young. But while the director has remained true to his word as far as the big screen is concerned, he’s taken his talents to the small screen in the interim, most notably with this excellent period drama from Cinemax. Loosely based on real-life events and people, “The Knick” is different from traditional (and more contemporary) medical dramas in that the surgical procedures actually serve the characters and story, not to mention offer a fascinating look at just how far the medical field has come since then. The supporting cast is great, particularly Andre Holland and Michael Angarano as two of the surgeons on Thackery’s team, but the series succeeds largely thanks to Clive Owen’s commanding lead performance. And because Soderbergh directed and shot every episode, it’s also one of the best-looking shows on television. Though the first season starts to drag in the last few episodes due to lackluster subplots involving Typhoid Mary and a jealous surgeon dealing with problems at home, “The Knick” is a well-acted prestige drama that deserves to be on a much bigger stage like HBO.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray release includes cast and crew audio commentaries on three episodes (although sadly, both Clive Owen and Steven Soderbergh are absent), as well as “Post-Op” recap featurettes for every episode but the first.

FINAL VERDICT: BUY

“Unfriended”

WHAT: On the one-year anniversary of the death of classmate Laura Barns, who committed suicide after being cyberbullied due to an embarrassing video posted on the web, a group of friends are stalked by a mysterious intruder on their Skype call claiming to be the vengeful spirit of Laura.

WHY: Technology has become so integral to our daily lives that it was only a matter of time before someone made a film that unfolds entirely on a computer screen, and though “Unfriended” isn’t the first to employ this gimmick, you can be certain it won’t be the last. But while there’s a lot to admire about the concept and technical skill required to pull off such a seamless visual trick, the movie is constantly getting in its own way. For a film made for tech-savvy teenagers who can juggle multiple apps with their eyes closed, there’s a maddening amount of hand-holding that takes place, from the way its main character hovers over text with her cursor to ensure the audience is following along, to the time it takes her to perform a simple task. The movie builds some nice tension with delayed chat messages, slow-moving download status bars and the worst Skype connection in history, but it doesn’t have any genuine scares. Though “Unfriended” should be applauded for addressing such a serious issue in today’s culture of anonymity-driven public shaming, it’s surrounded by so much stupidity – including the same poor writing, tired clichés and shallow characters that constantly plague the horror genre – that it only weakens its message.

EXTRAS: No bonus material is included.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

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Movie Review: Fantastic Four

Starring
Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Tobey Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey, Tim Blake Nelson
Director
Josh Trank

“Fantastic Four” is perhaps this summer’s most frustrating movie. Films that are consistently terrible are generally not frustrating, because they rarely show any potential beyond what they are. But that’s not the case with co-writer/director Josh Trank’s “Fantastic Four,” a movie full of potential that it’s not allowed to deliver upon.

Years after director Tim Story’s bland take on the superhero team, the filmmaker behind 2012’s “Chronicle” gives us a grounded vision of the Marvel heroes. The players – Reed Richards (Miles Teller), Susan Storm (Kate Mara), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) – remain the same, except they’re much younger and, at the start of the film, aren’t very close, with the exception of Ben and Reed.

Ever since Reed was a little kid, he showed signs of genius, but that genius was always misunderstood. The only person who truly gets him is Ben, who supports his dream of teleportation. One day, Reed’s teleporting device is noticed by Susan and Johnny’s father, Dr. Storm (Reg E. Cathey), at a science fair, which lands him a spot at the Baxter Building, a place for brilliant minds. Dr. Storm has been trying to crack interdimensional travel for years, and he uncovers the final piece of the puzzle in Reed. With the help of Susan, Johnny and the brilliant by cold Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), Reed gets the job done, but unfortunately, the government doesn’t want to send a bunch of kids to another dimension. While drunk one night, the young scientists (along with Ben) suit up and transport themselves to that other dimension, which leads to disastrous results.

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Movie Review: “The Gift”

Starring
Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Busy Philipps
Director
Joel Edgerton

There is a reason that stalker thrillers fell out of vogue: in terms of story structure, even the good ones have a lot in common with the bad ones. It’s a rigid narrative, which means it’s virtually impossible to surprise the audience. Joel Edgerton’s “The Gift” (in which he also stars) falls victim to the same trappings as stalker thrillers past, but only for the first half of the movie. From there, the movie breaks from tradition, offering several pleasant surprises in the process. There are no ‘boo’ moments in the score, and Edgerton’s script is transparent in ways that these films are rarely allowed to be. It’s almost unfair in how the movie is able to have its cake and eat it, too. And the ending will have people buzzing, and most likely wanting to take a shower.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have recently moved to California for Simon’s new job. As the two are shopping for furnishings, Simon runs into Gordon (Edgerton), a high school classmate that Simon hasn’t seen since they were teenagers. “Gordo” goes out of his way to be helpful to Simon and Robyn, and leaves multiple gifts for the two at their front door. Robyn is touched by Gordo’s generosity, and can relate to his social awkwardness, but Simon isn’t comfortable with the affection that Gordo lavishes on Robyn, and asks Gordo to leave them alone. Gordo does, but in doing so, he leaves a clue for Robyn that suggests that Simon is not being forthright about his and Gordo’s shared past.

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