The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Man From UNCLE

Although it’s been met with mixed reviews and box office indifference, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. flick is easily the best I’ve seen this year. It’s clearly not for everyone, but to me, it feels like Guy Ritchie called a meeting and started it off by announcing “Alright fellas, we’re going to make a movie that this guy Rocko will be into.” It’s made up entirely of things that I specifically am mad about, and I love every second of it.

First things first, regardless of what you think of anything else: The soundtrack is killer. Every tune is used to full effect, every song is evocative of the scene it aurally augments. Itstead of feeling like the sounds are dropped in, the soundtrack itself is a character. It’s got a lot of obscure tracks from Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Solomon Burke, Louis Prima, and a host of Europeans making their take on that R&B skirt shake that keeps me (as well as plenty others globally,apparently) getting up in the morning. The next judo swing in the one-two punch is original instrumentals by Daniel Pemberton, made up of a fever dream take on the classic Lalo Schifrin and Ennio Morricone sound that will never grow old. The collective effect is that it does something weird to your right foot if you’re listening while driving. It suddenly grows heavy and makes you press harder on that gas pedal.

Although heavily stylish, nothing feels extraneous in Man From U.N.C.L.E. There’s not one scene that doesn’t serve the story. And while the story is made up entirely of things you’ve probably seen before, tropes that weren’t even new when the original show was back in 1964, the execution of those angles are fresh as daisies. Every time I felt like I was about to see something utterly familiar, I was surprised by the ride the movie took me on.

One thing that helped in that regard is that in works of Spy Fiction, and this is especially so in Spy-Fi, the hero is often incalculably cool, calm, collected, and infallible. By expanding the focus to two leads, they’re allowed to have failings that otherwise might not work to serve the story. Napoleon Solo is a bit square and occasionally incapable. Illya Kuryakin has anger control issues. They both fuck up, but between the two of them, they’re never quite fuck-ups.

There’s two criticisms I keep seeing of this film. One is that the show is old and people don’t remember it, so why see the movie? That’s too stupid a concept to even address and borders on being offensive, so I’ll move on. The other is that it’s not a faithful enough take of the show. I disagree with that, too. I don’t think it’s even a remake so much as an origin story and a prequel. The movie drops with a sequel hook that will probably never stick, but you can just watch season one/episode one of the show, and you’re good to ingest many more hours of fun with Solo and Illya.

Funny thing. Critics keep slamming the new Bonds as being too self serious and poorly staged for modern times. Here at last is a period piece that doesn’t take itself all too seriously, that managed to weave a story with jokes that isn’t a joke itself post Austin Powers, and it will be gone from theaters about 20 minutes from the point that I post this.

But hey, it got made. I saw it. So should you.


Hammer Horror

When it comes to classic Horror films, some will always swear by Universal. That was the studio that gave us Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster. But for my dime, my heart belongs to Hammer. Every year around this time, I like to review a few favorites, revisit some I might’ve given a bum rap to, and even try to catch some I hadn’t seen before. I’ll tell you what I think about a few of my favorites.

The key to Hammer was that they managed to hire great actors, real Shakespearian thespians looking for quick and easy work in the off seasons. To them, the stage was the thing, and anything else was slumming. Movies weren’t so interesting to them, but as true dramatic actors, playing literary characters in genre movies was a smooth proposition. That’s Christopher Lee as Dracula. True to Bram Stoker’s vision he played the Count as something of a gentleman, practicing a brand of evil that is almost subliminal.

Although Mr.Lee played the immortal count a number of times, I can only heartily recommend the first Dracula feature, entitled Horror Of Dracula in the US to avoid copyright issues with Universal. A relatively loyal retelling of the essence of Bram Stoker’s story, Lee faces off against Peter Cushing as Van Helsing, taking turns chowing down on the scenery until their final face off, which is as memorable a piece of celluloid action as scenes that cost literal millions more to make. The trouble with each subsequent Dracula feature was that he was revived and perished again every time out for each cash grabbing sequel, leading to an impression that he just couldn’t get anything right.  in my imagination there’s a great unmade Christopher Lee Dracula flick in which the consummate bloodsucker successfully conquered the world, but since it doesn’t exist, I just stick to the first one and recommend that you do the same.

Another tremendous Hammer offering was The Curse of Frankenstein. In a bit of role reversal, Christopher Lee played the sympathetic monster and Peter Cushing portrayed Dr.Frankenstein. Unlike Universal’s version or even the original novel, Cushing as Frankenstein was an awful, demented bastard. A twist of obvious brilliance, because really, wouldn’t it be a pretty ghoulish entity that would stitch corpses together and presume to create life in such a manner?

Every bit of suave sophistication Christopher Lee brought to Dracula was completely absent in the misbegotten creature he portrayed here. The scene in which he has first gotten loose -a stumbling, horrifying thing that looks every bit like you would imagine living death- is one of the most fantastic depictions of a monster you could ever find. Although the make up is obviously dated, it’s all in the way that Lee moves, utilizing his training as a mime.

1961’s Hammer entry Paranoiac doesn’t feature a conventional villain at all. In fact, it’s a bit hard to determine who’s the protagonist and who’s the antagonist. Oliver Reed brilliantly plays an angry young man swinging out of control, but it would seem that he could be the (anti)hero of the thing. You don’t know for sure until the final real.

Hammer Horror is notable in that it avoids schlock. You would expect elements of camp, which are completely absent from the better ones. That’s certainly true here. Paranoiac deserves to be regarded in the rarefied critical air of Psycho. And like Psycho, the less you know going in, the better.


Reed also starred in my absolute favorite Hammer production: Curse Of The Werewolf. As a tragic figure, Oliver’s misbegotten man spited by God has no equal. Born under a bad sign and sordidly tragic circumstances, he never has a chance, and in the hands of a great, criminally underrated actor, you hope that the swarthy and sympathetic orphan might make good. Alas, Hammer didn’t really make those kinds of movies…