THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Action Violence, some Suggestive Content, and partial Nudity

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Directed by: Guy Ritchie

Written by: Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram

(based on the TV series THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.)

Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris & Hugh Grant

2015’s summer movie season is officially coming to a close and the last big blockbuster is THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. With the last few months being populated by Pixar, superheroes, dinosaurs, and post-apocalyptic warriors, I have to admit that MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. wasn’t exactly high on my list of must-see summer movies. However, Guy Ritchie hasn’t really let me down before and U.N.C.L.E. did look like an enjoyable spy adventure. This film wound up being precisely the latter. This is simple, stylish, big popcorn fun that serves as a nice closeout to a pretty great cinematic summer. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (based on the 1960’s TV series of the same name) may be a straight-forward spy thriller that hits all the expected notes, but it hits them in fun ways that are sure to thoroughly entertained.

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The time is the early 1960’s and the Cold War is in full force. Napoleon Solo is a CIA agent working on one side of the Berlin wall and Illya Kuryakin is a KGB agent working on the other side. When Napoleon is tasked with a basic extraction mission that is hindered by Kuryakin, it seems that a simple operation is actually a cover for something far bigger. International criminal Victoria Vinciguerra is hellbent on selling a nuclear bomb to some very bad people. In an effort to stop her plan from proceeding, Solo and Kuryakin are partnered up. While Solo is a suave ladies’ man with a big ego, Kuryakin is a hard-headed borderline-psychotic who likes to shoot first and ask questions later. The two are a mismatched pair and must look after Gaby Teller, a Russian woman with possible way into Victoria’s secret lair.

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Truth be told, MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.’s plot doesn’t exactly sound revolutionary or particularly special. You’ve seen this story play out many times before whether it’s with Ethan Hunt in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE or any one of James Bond’s adventures. I’m not going to lie and say that there are big twists afoot, because there aren’t. This is a standard spy story. You can predict where everything will go and how most of the film will play out. That really doesn’t matter, because U.N.C.L.E. executes its fairly standard script with a big sense of humor and (mostly) impeccable style. This film looks fantastic. The locations are beautiful. The costumes are gorgeous. There is a definite period-piece sensibility that hearkens back to the original Bond movies of old. While too much style (involving split screens) does slightly ruin a potentially cool sequence in the latter half of the film, U.N.C.L.E. is a great-looking movie and almost won me over on that part of its execution alone. However, the sense of humor also is great. There are many very funny scenes throughout the film and it never seems to be taking itself too seriously. One sequence in particular (you’ll know it when you see it) milks a joke for longer than you’d believe possible and manages to remain funny for that entire scene.

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Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer might initially seem like an odd pair of spies, but they play off of each other very well. I appreciated that both of their characters had unique quirks (which make for plenty of comedic moments), but also had personalities behind them too. An introduction between the two of them weaves some of the best exposition into a casual conversation that I’ve seen in quite a while. Alicia Vikander (who was dull in SEVENTH SON and fantastic in EX MACHINA) disappears into the role of Gaby, who serves as the level-headed member of the group…even if she’s also the bait/damsel-in-distress. Jared Harris and Hugh Grant make brief, but notable, appearances. The real scene-stealer comes in Elizabeth Debicki’s villainess. She’s just as cruel as she is beautiful and I wish more screen time had been spent with her…as opposed to her many underlings.

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THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is a genuine surprise of the summer for me. This film turns a rather unremarkable spy plot into something remarkable and entertaining thanks to sheer style, lots of well-executed comedy, and solid chemistry between the leads. Glamour and humor make a rather mediocre-sounding spy movie into something that’s worth watching. MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is far from the best spy movie you’ll see this year (ROGUE NATION, KINGSMAN, and SPY are all superior), but it’s an entertaining blast from start to finish!

Grade: B

THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 28 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for mild Action, Rude Humor and some Language

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Directed by: Peter Lord

Written by: Gideon Defoe

(based on the novel THE PIRATES! IN AN ADVENTURE WITH SCIENTISTS by Gideon Defoe)

Voices of: Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, Imelda Staunton, David Tennant, Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Lenny Henry, Brian Blessed, Anton Yelchin, Brendan Gleeson, Ashley Jenson, Al Roker

Aardman Animation has become known for their acclaimed and highly successful stop motion shorts. They made their feature debut in 2000 with CHICKEN RUN. That film played out like THE GREAT ESCAPE with poultry and played out as a one-joke film. It was a decent first effort, but Aardman really hit their stride with WALLACE & GROMT: THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT which stands as one of my personal favorite animated films ever made. The studio went on to do a couple of computer-animated efforts, but THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS is their third Claymation feature. For some reason, this movie just didn’t resonate as well with American audiences as it did with our friends across the pond. It’s really a shame, because PIRATES! is pretty friggin’ great. It’s a piece of animation that will keep kids’ eyes on the screen from the sheer colorful visuals, but also throws in tons of jokes that only adults will understand.

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The year is 1837 and the British navy has control of the open sea with one exception. Pirates sail, plunder and pillage wherever they so desire. Many pirates are fearsome, intimidating foes, but this cannot be said of the Pirate Captain. Eager to prove his seaworthiness to his peers, the Pirate Captain aims to win the Pirate of the Year award by getting the most booty that he can, but he’s inept in nearly every way possible. After hijacking Charles Darwin’s ship, the Pirate Captain discovers that his crew’s beloved parrot Polly isn’t actually a parrot. The feathery friend is actually the last living dodo. Trekking into London to win the prize that comes with the Scientist of the Year award, the crew make their way to London in disguise and hijinks ensue.

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Unabashedly silly at every turn and clever in more ways than you might initially expect, THE PIRATES! is a beautifully animated family friendly adventure. Most kids may not understand a good portion of the jokes, but I’m reminded of how well MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN did this year and that film relied on tons of history jokes that only adults would recognize. It’s a colorful tale of swashbuckling seadogs that also happens to have brains, hard work put into it, and heart. There is a moral lesson being told (mainly about realizing who your true friends are and not taking them for granted), but it’s not done in a sloppy overly cheesy way. It just happens to be where things are ultimately heading and it certainly helps that lots of laughs populate the trip.

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Plenty of familiar voices can be heard from the mouths of these Claymation pirates and other characters. Hugh Grant voices the Pirate Captain and this is the only animated film role in his career thus far. Martin Freeman (Bilbo Baggins from THE HOBBIT) is Captain’s trusty second-in-command, while David Tennant (who most know from DOCTOR WHO) is wonderful as Charles Darwin. Despite being in her late 50’s, Imelda Staunton is great as the villainous Queen Victoria who has more than a few skeletons in her closest. Jeremy Piven, Salma Hayek, Anton Yelchin (if you’re watching the US version) and Brendan Gleeson have rather thankless roles, but are cool appearances nonetheless.

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I find myself thinking about certain moments from this movie in between long periods of not watching it and make references to friends who have seen it. There’s certainly a rewatchability factor to this film. I originally saw it in theaters and bought it the week it hit DVD. I’ve since viewed it about half a dozen times. It’s great fun. While it may be absolutely hysterical for adults, I can imagine certain age groups being completely lost during this movie. References to Jane Austen, the Elephant Man, and the inclusion of Charles Darwin as a central character might throw people for the loop. There’s a very British sense of humor around the whole film. If you like WALLACE & GROMIT, Monty Python, or any of the Cornetto trilogy (the latter two are admittedly more R-rated than kiddie fare), then you’ll probably dig THE PIRATES! a lot. There are a few misses in certain jokes and the movie just breezes by at a breakneck pace (almost too fast). The running times is about 80 minutes not counting the credits. All things taken into consideration, this is on the higher scale of family films of which there have been many recent good ones.

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THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS is based on the first entry in a series of children’s books and it’s a pity that there won’t be any follow-ups in the future. This is the definition of an overlooked gem. As the years pass, I’ll remember this film fondly with the likes of THE IRON GIANT, RESCUERS DOWN UNDER, and THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE. It’s not necessarily a mainstream hit and it will never be. This is the closest thing that you’re likely to get to a Monty Python family film and enjoy it on those merits alone. Subversive, witty, and all-around ridiculous, THE PIRATES! BAND OF MISFITS comes highly recommended! If you haven’t seen it, then do so as soon as you can. If you have, then it’s high time to revisit it. This is the kind of film that only gets the funnier the more you watch it.

Grade: A-

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