2015 has proved an interesting year for secret agents. Kingsman: The Secret Service did for spy films what Kick-Ass did for superhero films; Spy had the courage to place a non-conventionally shaped protagonist at the centre of its drama; Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation gave us more Cruising adventures. But before James Bond graces us with his presence once more in Spectre, spy fans could do a lot worse than Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1960s TV series, as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. proves a smart and stylish entry to the genre. What makes The Man From U.N.C.L.E. stand out from the crowd is its deliberately arch humour and expressive production design. To accuse the film of valuing style over substance would be to miss the point, as the film makes substance from its style. Each costume of CIA man Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) and their German charge Gabriella Teller (Alicia Vikander) illustrates not only something about the character(s), but also the excessive design of the genre, such as James Bond’s tuxedo and the glamorous outfits of lady lovelies from Diamonds Are Forever to Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. The biggest action set piece has more emphasis on screen divisions and crosscutting than on the action itself. Rather than detracting from the narrative, this stylistic emphasis plays up the film’s affection for the genre and its history. For fans of the spy genre that enjoy reveling in its absurdity, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. offers much to enjoy.
Marvel’s super family has had a rough ride at the cinema. After a mid-90s film that was never released and two instalments from Tim Story that were met with negative reviews and audience disappointment, hopes were high for Chronicle director Josh Trank’s reboot. But amidst review embargoes, accusations of studio tampering and dismal box office, Fantastic Four (2015) looks set to continue the awesome foursome’s misfortunes. But considering the painful mess that is Catwoman or the embarrassed denial of Batman & Robin, Fantastic Four is far from the worst that the superhero genre has to offer. Trank lends the film a sombre mood, with gloomy visuals from DOP Matthew Jensen and some surprisingly gory moments. The central characters, Reed Richards (Miles Teller), Sue Storm (Kate Mara), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) are a decently disparate group, with suggestions of the snippy but affectionate relationships central to the mythos. They are not the family unit of the comic books (or earlier films), but as a group of young friends experiencing some unusual growing pains they just about work. The film’s strongest moments are those featuring our four heroes experiencing their altered states, with some genuinely unsettling moments of body horror, such as when Reed looks down at his elastic limbs and Ben’s evident sadness and disgust at his monstrous state once he becomes the Thing. The family dynamic is seen between Sue and Johnny and their father Franklin (Reg E. Cathey), and while their interchanges are clichéd they are at least consistent. Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) offers some interesting views on the hijacking of scientific discovery by the military-industrial complex, but his final act appearance as Dr Doom is wasted and undoes much of the solid work done previously.
This is the central problem of the film. It begins as a dour drama about friends grappling with changes that manifest in horrifying ways. Yet it also needs to be a superpowered adventure with grand set pieces and spectacular displays of amazing abilities. Perhaps Trank’s original version was more drama and less spectacle, and the reshoots forced in the rushed finale. The end result is unbalanced but still manages some interesting depictions of the body and explorations of outsiderness, ambition and hubris. The best super-family movie remains Pixar’s The Incredibles, but Fantastic Four (or perhaps Fantastic Flaw) is still worth a look.
Inside Out might just be the best film of the year. High praise from other quarters raised my expectations, although recent Pixar efforts such as Brave caused trepidation. But all my fears swiftly evaporated as Inside Out proves to be Pixar’s strongest film at least since WALL-E. Beginning literally with the dawning of consciousness, Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) first experiences Joy (Amy Poehler), as does the viewer in appreciating the filmmakers’ sublimely realised efforts at personifying feelings. Subsequent emotions Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) add to the mix, this jostling of emotion familiar to children and adults alike. Riley’s mindscape is dazzlingly realised, from personality islands to the thought train to the abyss of forgetfulness, and the random jingles that play in our head for no discernible reason. Nor are any of these elements gimmicky, as they all make sense within the film’s overall conceit: the seemingly random aspects of our minds have reasons and motivations, these aspects don’t always agree and sometimes feeling can be complicated. Most touchingly and movingly, Inside Out demonstrates that feeling Joy all the time is not only unrealistic but unhealthy, and that Sadness is essential and even positive. Inside Out made me laugh uproariously and I can unashamedly report that I cried, more than I have at almost any other film. For that, I cannot applaud it enough.
The fifth installment in the Mission: Impossible franchise is a mixed bag. It delivers grand scale set pieces, multiple intrigues and double-crosses, as well as the obligatory rubber masks and Tom Cruise running, and running, and running again. It also manages to work as an ensemble piece despite Cruise’s star power and the centrality of his Ethan Hunt, as Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, who alongside Cruise has appeared in every MI film to date) and new arrival Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) all contribute equally to the drama. Ilsa goes some way to resolving the gender issues of the previous film, as her role in the drama is not determined by her gender. She also gets the best set piece of the film – a dark knife fight amongst stone columns that conveys the gritty professionalism of experienced killers.
This set piece, however, highlights director Christopher McQuarrie’s apparent discomfort with grand scale action sequences. The opening sequence is spectacular but subsequent set pieces fail to match its impact. An underwater heist followed by a car/motorcycle chase fails to draw the viewer in, despite some visceral angles from DOP Robert Elswit, while bullet-spitting chases are less than immersive. McQuarrie is more comfortable with intimate action, recalling his blistering debut The Way of the Gun. His style therefore seems at odds with the expansive scale of the MI franchise, while his script sometimes veers awkwardly from high tension to quirky humour. There are many good moments in the film, but they are not effectively knitted together, making MIRN less than the sum of its parts.