The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

themanfruncle

I remember following the television series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. in my pre-teen years, but I don’t recall anything about it. When I saw this DVD on the library shelf, I told myself to watch it to find out.

U.N.C.L.E. stands for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, a secret international intelligence agency at the height of the Cold War in the early 1960s.

A CIA agent, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), takes Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), daughter of Dr Udo Teller (Christian Berkel), a Nazi scientist, from East Berlin, evading KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer).

A mysterious organisation plans to upset the fragile balance of world power, and these two agents reluctantly team up to stop them. They travel to Rome, where they are approached by Alexander Waverly (Hugh Grant), a high-ranking M16 operative who reveals that Gaby is an undercover agent under his employment.

The trio are then reassigned to a new international organisation under Waverly’s command, who announces a new mission to Istanbul. (Indication that there would be a sequel to this movie?)

This is a typical spy thriller – with lots of action, car chases, gun shots  – done with stunts, visual and special effects to radiate energy. However, I found that I did not enjoy the movie as much as I did the television series. Could the reason be the age factor? Umm…., anyway I probably would not watch any sequel of this movie.

Pawn Sacrifice

I have never mastered the game of chess, but I’ve heard of Bobby Fischer since my early teens so this 2015 DVD caught my attention when I last visited the library@esplanade. I’ve always liked watching biopics and this one was never shown in cinemas here.

The movie opens with the question: “What will Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire, who is also the producer) do next?”. This is what the world over is asking because he has failed to show up for Game 2 of the world title match with chess champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber).

In the next frame, we are brought back to when Fischer was a kid who started to play chess seriously when he was 12, beating American Masters such as Donald Bryne in “the Game of the Century” to become the youngest ever US chanpion. His goal was to play the Russians and win. The two child actors, Alden Lovekamp (absolutely adorable) and Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick as the young Bobby are perhaps the best things in this movie.

Declaring the Russians to be cheats, unfair, unjust and immoral, Fischer quits at one point. Until he meets a lawyer (representing the likes of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones) and priest (Father Bill Lombardy, played by Peter Sarsgaard) who both team up to help Fischer towards his goal. He continues to study how the Russians play, every day, for 18 hours a day, for 4 years. Without chess, Fischer doesn’t exist. His genius is compared to Mozart’s, which I don’t agree.

So far, Americans have never beaten Russians at chess but it happened at Santa Monica when Fischer took them on, winning eight matches in a row. The only opponent left to defeat is Spassky. By now, Fischer is displaying signs of paranoia and delusional psychosis. Thinking he’s the best in the world, Fischer ‘disappeared’ for months and earned a  reputation for being tedious, arrogant and inconsiderate.

When Fischer finally beat Spaskky, he became the most famous celebrity in the world but his mental health continued to deteriorate and he disappeared from public view.

I did not recognise most of the music used here (like psychedelic rock music), except John William’s Olympic Fanfare & Theme. The archival footage add authenticity to the movie. This biopic is not like the conventional ones we get to see; this is more like a confrontation between genius and madness. It is about someone seeking to win even though he is losing his mind.

Escape Plan

Neither a fan of Sylvester Stallone nor Arnold Schwarzenegger, I gave this 2013 movie a miss when it was on the big screen, but decided to borrow the DVD to watch these two actors team up onscreen for fun. I was also curious about the acting chops of the former governor of California, as I only know him for his famous “I’ll be back” line from The Terminator movies which I’ve never watched.

The movie opens with Ray Breslin (Stallone) escaping from the Bendwater Federal Penitentiary in Colorado. It turns out that Breslin deliberately got himself arrested in the first place and put in an Isolation Centre because he wants to fully test the security of the system. He was a lawyer, a Prosecutor, who thought putting people in prison was not enough; he wanted to make sure they stay there and didn’t get out. And this is the way he has chosen to live his life for the past 14 years. It sounds implausible to me, so my expectation of a good story plummets way down; but I was still curious about Schwarzenegger’s role.

This comes when Breslin is unexpectedly snatched and taken disoriented from New Orleans to the International Detainee Unit at an unknown location. Here, he meets Emil Rattmayer (Schwarzenegger), a fellow inmate. Breslin wants to  get into an isolation area, so Rattmayer picks a fight with him as a favour. Though this is a really violent and bloody fight scene, it rings false to me as I’m sure it’s all the choreographed work of stuntmen, with visual and special effects thrown in.

Both end up in “The Tank”, which is an ultra-secret, high-tech facility. But this is exactly what Breslin wants: to have this place tested. This place they’re now in turns out to be in the middle of an ocean, somewhere along the Moroccon Coast. Still, both manage to escape.

This supposed action-thriller-mystery did not provide any intrigue; more than three-quarters of the time, the environment is the same, thus giving a sense of claustrophobia depite its futuristic look. Neither did I get any sense of authenticity in the two leading characters.

Reach Me

 

Not that I’m a fan of Sylvester Stallone, but he is the only reason I borrowed this 2014 DVD. I’ve never heard of the rest of the cast and I’ve never heard of this movie before. I wasn’t too disappointed that I found it to be dull; at least, there are some great photography of places like Phoenix in Arizona (El Segundo) and Blythe in California (Redondo Beach). Some (at least 3) of the songs (I counted 22) are nice too, though I’ve never heard them before and unlikely to come across any of them again.

That the story is not great is not as bad as the pace and the delivery of it:

A  motivational book (called ‘Reach Me’) has gone viral. It is written by a reclusive author Teddy Raymon (Tom Berenger) who refuses to come out of his hiding. The book gains popularity and inspired a group of people (including a former inmate, a hip-hop mogul, an actor, an undercover cop, his Priest and a mobster). Gerald (Sylvester Stallone), editor of a Tabloid, sends a young journalist (who wants to write the Great American Novel) to find Raymon.

There are quite a few scenes that involve fighting, so there are obviously stuntmen and special/visual effects, so I thought the scene that has Stallone painting was also not real until I saw in the End Credits that the book cover (‘Reach Me’) is painted by him. I would not have believed it if I had not seen it for myself.

Elvis & Nixon

The only reason I borrowed this 2016 DVD is that I remember telling myself to watch Kevin Spacey, one of my favourite actors, in a movie that I’d deliberaely not watach on the big screen.

Though it is based on a true story, and the photograph of Elvis Presely and President Nixon at the White House is the single most requested photograph in the National Archives, the only thing I enjoyed was Spacey’s performance. He is really an amazing actor. His portrayal of Nixon is so accurate that I doube any other actor could have done a better job.

I did not find any humour in Elvis showing up at the White House to request a meeting with the President. And I wonder why music by Blood, Sweat & Tears (‘Spinning Wheel’), Creedence Clearwater Revival (‘Suzie Q’) and Ottis Redding (‘Hard to Handle’) are used instead of songs by the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll himself.

Wonder Boy

I had been on the watch-out for this biopic since word about it started circulating last year. I was excited when Dick Lee shared on his Instagram last week that it would be shown in cinemas from today. Call me biased, but I feel this is a wonderful movie. Not only do I salute Lee for telling intimate details of his life, especially the three (or so) years from Aug 1972, but I also marvel at his multi-faceted talent. (It must have been extremely heart-wrenching, as I had found it absolutely difficult to write my short memoir.)

The opening credits is accompanied by a soundtrack of violins tuning up as if before a performance, close-up views of the piano keyboard, then fingers playing on the keyboard. I’m surprised the Music Director is Sydney Tan and not Lee himself, when most of the music featured is Lee’s (the list is so long I lost count). (There are also others, by Bee Gees, The Carpenters, Three Dog Night, The Osmonds, Temptations etc.)

There is a lot of music in the movie. This alone is worth the price of admission. I wonder if the girl who sang the Carpenters’ We’ve Only Just Begun and won the Talentime is meant to portray Jacintha Abishiganaden (Lee’s ex-wife).

Besides Lee’s Life Story, the other song featured most prominently is Fried Rice Paradise. I really enjoyed listening to them and couldn’t help but sang along. I also wondered if some of my ex-students can remember them and how they would feel if they hear them again (especially if they watch this movie), as I recall how many of them sneered and made nasty comments when I introduced Lee’s songs (esp these two) as authentic local compositions.

Benjamin Kheng, who plays Lee, is a great choice. Not only because he can sing and play the piano well. I’m impressed with Michelle Wong, who plays Patricia, Lee’s sister. Gerald Chew and Constance Song as Lee’s parents also put up good performaces. I found myself wiping off tears at the touching scenes involving these characters, while a mature man a few seats away was heard sniffing, whining and sobbing!

There are many newspaper clippings of Lee’s progress in the music scene, including the years he made a name for himself in Japan and one that showed Hong Kong singer Sandy Lam at his birthday celebrations.

I was surprised to see Dick Lee appear towards the end of the movie as himself, singing his most famous song, Home. This got me thinking: would Lee make another movie about the years he was away in Japan and Hong Kong? And the achievements he has made since his return to Singapore. Then maybe his character would be playing on a Steinway sometimes, instead of mostly on a Yamaha and just once on a Bosenderfer.

What To Expect When You’re Expecting

I was surprised to find this 2012 movie at the Serangoon Public Library, which has a very limited selection of DVDs. After watching it, I was even more surprised that this movie is not even rated NC 16, considering that the censorship board here is so strict and there is so much coarse language, drug reference and sexual content.

Perhaps reading the book (of the same title, by Heidi Murkoff, who is also the producer) on which it is based would have been less shocking, and the humour and message better appreciated.

The story is about five couples (Cameron Diaz as Jules Baxter, Jennifer Lopez as Holly, Elizabeth Banks as Wendy, Brooklyn Decker as Skyler and Anna Hendrick as Rosie) who are expecting a baby for the first time, whether through pregnancy or adoption.

Their partners (husbands) do not have memorable roles either, except that Chris Rock and Dennis Quaid have some wise words like:

  • There is no such thing as ready (for parenthood) – you just jump in front of a train and hope not to die. Being a dad, I’m exhausted but happy. I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.
  • At the end of the day, family is what means the most.

The many songs (I counted 28) do not do much except during scenes involving a Reality Dancing TV Show (with a member of Black-Eyed Peas as a judge). But I must say the prosthetics department has done an excellent job. And the photography team did good work for the scenes shot in Ethopia.