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We Are Your Friends

August 28, 2015
We Are Your Friends

It would be easy to dismiss We Are Your Friends as late-summer fluff, but that would be a mistake. Going in, I was pretty sure I was going to like the EDM-heavy soundtrack so it would be at least enjoyable. I certainly didn’t expect to find one of the most compelling, touching, and yet transcendently fun movies of the year, all set to a catchy, uptempo groove.

The story itself isn’t terribly new. Cole Carter (Zac Efron) is young and hungry, in this case trying to be a DJ. He lives in the San Fernando Valley — here positioned as the New Jersey to Hollywood’s Manhattan — along with his friends Mason (Jonny Weston), Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez), and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer). They’re slowly working on Mason’s dad’s place as they dream of getting out of the valley and up into the hills.

Strictly speaking, Cole’s dream is less about DJing electronic dance music than producing it, though the two seem to go hand in hand these days. Many DJs do still spin off actual vinyl, but more and more of the tools have been digitized, enabling live sampling, beat-matching, and other turntable tricks from a purely electronic console. And it’s easy enough to drag and drop synthesizer patterns on a laptop to make a track that Cole thinks that’s all there is to it, just like thousands of other aspiring EDM DJs and producers.

Everyone wants to become better than they are, but the hills are a tough, crowded climb from the valley. Ollie wants to be an actor, just like everyone else in Los Angeles. Mason tries to get his popularity by promoting club nights. Squirrel isn’t so clear about what he wants, but he’s the one among the group who can give voice to their desperation. And when their dreams don’t seem to be panning out, the four take jobs with a slick real estate businessman (Jon Bernthal) who only gets shadier and shadier as the story goes.

One night after spinning in a side-room at a club, Cole meets the headlining DJ James Reed (Wes Bentley). James is on the long, slow downslope of his career; he’s still famous, but he’s mostly going through the motions after losing the spark that once drove him. But he sees talent in Cole, and becomes a sort of mentor. Cole also becomes close to James’ assistant and girlfriend, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), which sets up a predictable conflict down the line.

While the elements are nothing we haven’t seen before, their execution is impeccable, and there’s a lot of overlooked value in a familiar story told very well. Co-writer and director Max Joseph comes off a string of music video length shorts and the series spun off of Nev Schulman’s Catfish. He brings that MTV sensibility with him, particularly when Cole delivers a couple hyperactively edited info-dumps. He’s unafraid to experiment stylistically, like in the party at an art gallery where Cole gets dosed; the paint runs off the canvases and absorbs the revelers into a psychedelic animation.

But the real genius here is in subtler touches. James’ big insight to Cole is that while computers and electronics can mix and modify sounds, there’s something inimitable about starting with truly organic sounds. As Cole learns to pay attention to the world around him, the sound editors push the samples just enough to make them stand out: a zipper, a breath, the hum of power lines. It’s a gentle touch, never too much, but it makes all the difference in the world to a story that’s so tied up in the way things sound.

On larger scales, Joseph plays the ebb and flow of the audience every bit as masterfully as Cole plays the crowd on a dance floor. He and co-writer Meaghan Oppenheimer introduce all the themes and lines they need early on, but calmly at first. Then they know just how to fade back and forth, steadily ramping each facet of the story up, and crossing to another just before the current one runs thin. All these things that make up Cole’s life swelling and falling, building on each other until they come together in the track Cole has been waiting his entire life to produce.

We Are Your Friends does have its flaws, most notably the secondary status of women — most of them are party decorations, as in a music video, and Sophie isn’t much more than a distaff riff on the same theme as Cole’s friends — and the strange sight of a nearly Latino-free Los Angeles. These are problems endemic to almost all mainstream American movies, but they’re still problems. I walked away from the screening elated at seeing such a gorgeous work, and disappointed that it wasn’t even more.

It’s possible for us to hold both the greatness of We Are Your Friends and its failures in mind at the same time, just as the movie itself can hear both the celebration and despair when it asks, “are we ever going to be better than this?” Maybe this particular film really couldn’t be made any better, but I hope the filmmakers will take a great first feature and make something even greater next time.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

Grandma

August 28, 2015
Grandma

I suppose I have to start off by admitting that Grandma talks about abortion. I know this is a hot button that freaks some people out, so consider this fair warning right off the top. Calmer, more sensible audiences have been lucky to have movies coming out now that deal with the subject in a calmer, more sensible way. There are even ones that don’t center every last detail of the story on the Big Issue, like last year’s Obvious Child. I just never thought I’d see a review of one that contains the phrase, “from the director of American Pie.”

That’s not really fair to Paul Weitz, though. He didn’t write that one, and when he does write — as he does here — he’s usually more thoughtful and nuanced than, well, pastry-philia. Grandma follows on the heels of his last feature, Admission, born out of his desire to work more with the great Lily Tomlin, and it’s a perfect match for her longstanding feminism.

Tomlin plays Elle; a little on the nose, sure, but trust me you barely notice it in the film itself. She’s just broken up with her girlfriend (a still-underused Judy Greer), when her teenaged granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner) shows up, needing money to terminate an unexpected pregnancy, with a clinic appointment scheduled on the same afternoon.

Of course, Elle has no money, being an underemployed academic and poet. She even cut up her credit cards to make some point that seems a little pyrrhic in retrospect. But that doesn’t mean she can’t help. They pile into Elle’s late partner’s disused old car to chase down the money. After getting a jump-start, they hit the road for real.

Oh yeah, Elle’s partner. Violet passed away some years ago, but Elle is still clearly haunted by her grief, which is partly why she couldn’t really commit to her recent ex. She’s also at odds with their daughter, Sage’s mother Judy (Marcia Gay Harden), who has cast off Elle’s countercultural rebellion for a Chanel-pink business suit. But it would be wrong to say that she’s abandoned feminism; she wears the suit as a high-powered executive, and she took control of her own reproductive choices by conceiving Sage with the help of a sperm donor. If anything, Sage is the one who seems lost in all of it, not even recognizing names like Betty Friedan’s.

In a way, Elle’s day seems to reflect the current struggles underlying feminism as a movement. She’s bound to her past — Violet standing in for second-wave feminism — but finds herself outmoded and even opposed by those who have come after her and their ambivalence towards what came before. Meanwhile, in all their fighting the upcoming generation of women are ignorant and alienated from all these concerns until they find themselves in trouble and needing help. And that help’s not likely to come from the boys around them — Sage’s irresponsible not-quite-boyfriend (Nat Wolff). Rather, they should look to the generations of women who have stood together before to hold each other up, and need to come together again now.

In particular, this is all reflected through the characters’ opinions around abortion, as the signature political issue for feminism over the last fifty years. Not all of them are positive, none of them are simple, and they’re all informed by lived experience. There’s even a particularly strong negative reaction, courtesy of Sam Elliott as a one-time friend of Elle’s, that gives a real honest counterpoint without turning it into a straw-man to be handily beaten down.

I don’t know whether this was all in Weitz’ head when he sat down to write a story to match Tomlin’s voice and character. Maybe a female writer and director could flesh out this metaphor even more strongly than he has. But Grandma, as it stands, is a charming and sensitive film, and one of the best we’ve got so far.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

No Escape

August 26, 2015
No Escape

Hollywood is, as a whole, run by moneyed interests trying to gain more money by extracting it from — to a somewhat decreasing these days but still pretty large extent — American pocketbooks. You have to be pretty well-established in the mainstream to play the game in the first place, and the most lucrative demographics are themselves pretty mainstream. And for “mainstream”, you should be reading “white, male, heterosexual, generally sound of mind and body, and so on”. It’s not really a surprise that Hollywood movies end up including racist, sexist, homophobic, and other discriminatory tropes that generally turn out-group members — “Them” — into nonentities, punchlines, or worse.

Some movies are better than others, and the presence of problematic elements doesn’t automatically make one terrible, but for various reasons audiences have gradually been getting more aware of these sorts of issues. As they become aware, some have started speaking out more publicly, and others have responded by giving the cold shoulder at the box office. And, since Hollywood is driven by nothing so much as money, we’re starting to see some progress in changing the kinds of stories we tell ourselves, and how we tell them.

Which is why I’m surprised to see a movie as blatantly and unapologetically racist as No Escape come out today, and distributed by the Weinsteins, no less. It’s not even hidden; just a great big steaming pile of pretty, rich white people running away from scary poor yellow-brown people.

The white people in question are Jack and Annie Dwyer (Owen Wilson and Lake Bell), and their two cute little girls. Jack has taken a job with a multinational corporation to help set up a water treatment facility in — well, to be honest they never really say where exactly it takes place, as if all these southeast Asian countries are interchangeable. It was filmed in Chiang Mai, but there are references to the Vietnamese border, which Thailand doesn’t have. The printing on most signs looks like it might be Thai, but to be honest I can’t tell the difference at a glance between Khmer, Thai and Lao. One bit I’m sure of, though, is the police gear; it was printed in Khmer, but upside-down, to the understandable consternation of the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

So the night after the Dwyers land, the prime minister is executed. The next day, rioting breaks into the streets, particularly targeting foreigners and foreign collaborators. Not only are Jack and his family obviously white, his position was important enough that his face was printed larger-than-life on a banner hung in the hotel where all foreign visitors stay. They have to escape the yellow horde with targets painted squarely on their faces.

The timing of the production seems to suggest an inspiration in last year’s Thai coup; it’s been suggested that trying to print the police gear in Khmer instead of Thai was part of an attempt to provide cover so they could film in Thailand in the first place. I hate to break it to writer/director John Erick Dowdle, but foreigners weren’t particular targets of that coup, and the violence he depicts is more on the scale of the Khmer Rouge than the sorts of unrest we’ve seen in more recent decades in that region.

I will give this to Dowdle: he does ultimately root the conflict in a real concern about the way multinational corporations exploit third-world economies. Unfortunately, he bungles even that by delivering the muddled explanation through a white mercenary named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan) who comes to the Dwyers’ aid towards the end of the movie, rather than letting an actual local give voice to their own concerns. In fact, locals don’t get to voice anything at all in this movie. Other than one of Hammond’s pals, the biggest speaking role for a local is the concierge at the foreigners’ hotel. Because, it suggests, when the yellow and brown people stop speaking subserviently and helpfully to the white people something has gone Very Wrong.

I understand what Dowdle was trying to do here. By cutting us in the audience off from what the locals are saying, he’s trying to impart the same sense of isolation the Dwyers would be feeling. It’s a colossal misstep, though, which serves to heighten the us-versus-them dynamic, and undercuts the idea that there’s a reason to any of this chaos beyond crazy yellow people being crazy. Besides, despite whatever Hammond explains, all the rebels we actually see on screen are merciless sadists bent on coming up with newer and crueler tortures for their victims.

No one is going to claim that people have not done terrible things like we see in this movie. But in southeast Asia most of the victims are other locals, not white tourists. And when white people are involved in these horrors, they’re much more likely to be the persecutors than the targets. The most interesting story in a violent revolution in a third-world country is pretty much never going to be about the pretty white kids caught in the middle of it all.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: pass.

Mistress America

August 21, 2015
Mistress America

Two years ago, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig dug into that awkward, hazy transition between young-adulthood and, well, full adulthood in Frances Ha. Now they’re back with Mistress America to take another pass at that same time of life, but from a slightly different angle.

Of course, they can probably make an entire career out of these films. The coming-of-age story exploring the transition from teenage years to adult life has been in many ways thoroughly picked-over, almost certainly because the people going through that change are a prime demographic for the film industry in general, and who doesn’t like to see themselves on screen? That’s not to say that the bildungsfilm has gone totally stale; there are plenty of stories left to tell about kids who fall outside the predominantly white, suburban norm that Hollywood usually targets.

And even within that well-trodden ground, the stories have changed along with society. As young-adulthood has emerged as a distinct phase of life, the changes protagonists are expected to make have shifted a bit. But other than Baumbach and Gerwig, filmmakers have generally left the other end of this new stage alone. St. Elmo’s Fire — the one earlier film that comes, thematically, to mind — is about recent college graduates, even though by now it’s hard to imagine people in their early twenties being so well-established.

Like Frances, Brooke (Gerwig) is reaching a point where her current lifestyle is becoming untenable. Unlike Frances, Brooke at least appears to have her life together. We see her mostly through the eyes of Tracy (Lola Kirke), her soon-to-be stepsister who has just started college in New York City. From her perspective, Brooke’s life seems amazing and romantic, a fun-loving extrovert living in New York City who seems to know everybody and has Big Plans.

But even Tracy can tell how flimsy Brooke’s position is. Living in a space that’s technically not zoned residential sounds quirky and daring when you’re just out of college and can ignore the risk of suddenly being locked out. The restaurant Brooke wants to start sounds amazing when she’s just throwing around ideas, but there’s nothing in her plans about the hard, boring work of actually running a business. Her exuberance is infectious and exciting, but it’s only going to take her so far.

Most people have at least some of that sort of spirit when they’re younger, but we all grow out of it sooner or later, and usually before our lives come crashing down around us. Brooke holds onto it longer than most, even pushing the bounds of credulity. Baumbach and Gerwig did much the same thing with Frances and her own unwillingness to confront the realities of adult life. In both cases, it throws the tensions they explore into sharp relief, while at the same time helping keep the mood light and faintly ridiculous.

Of course, we’re catching Brooke at her breaking point. When the restaurant plan is in trouble, she — along with Tracy and two other kids from her college — heads out to the tony suburbs, trying to scrounge up money from her ex-boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus) and ex-best-friend Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind). The extended sequence at their house, which forms the heart of the film, could almost stand alone as a one-act screwball comedy in the old Howard Hawks mode. The script is lean and fast, with precisely-timed lines going off like firecrackers against each other.

And that’s the perfect style for this story, because it’s the way Brooke lives her life. Half a dozen things are going on at once, all at high speed and crossing over each other unexpectedly until you can barely keep on top of it all as it careens ever more wildly. And eventually there are just too many things to keep track of everything and youthful exuberance won’t carry you any further. Things come to a screeching halt, and then you have to pick up, look around, and start again. This time a little older and wiser, and maybe with a more realistic plan to go forward.

Or maybe not too realistic. We’re still young after all, right?

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

We Come as Friends

August 21, 2015
We Come as Friends

There’s a saying that goes around among Westerners who try to maintain a somewhat global perspective: “Africa is not a country”. It’s a push-back against the common ignorant tendency in the West to treat the continent as if it were some sort of monolithic whole, rather than an extraordinarily large and diverse place.

But after watching Hubert Sauper’s documentary We Come as Friends, I wonder if it might not be better said “Africa is not countries”. The whole idea of nation-states is a colonial legacy artificially forced on people who never thought to carve up the world like that.

As Sauper turns his lens on colonialism and post-colonialism from the border region of South Sudan in the days just before and after its independence, it seems like so many of the problems in the region ultimately stem from an insistence on viewing Africa in the West’s terms rather than its own. As he opens the film, he muses on his approach to Sudan. He suggests we to come to Africa like aliens landing on a foreign planet, implicitly asking the audience to try and set aside our mental filters. Can we allow the scenes to speak for themselves, rather than to impose meaning on them?

He reinforces this stance by refusing to provide context for what he shoots. We know he’s in South Sudan — or what will soon be — and that it’s the summer of 2011. Beyond that, we must learn everything from the images. Naming a village, or giving precise dates for his encounters will only tell us information from a Western perspective. Explaining who someone is beyond what they say would only be a convenience to let us off the hook of really listening and letting them define themselves.

This comes up most strikingly in a scene where a Western ambassador is dedicating a new power plant. As he speaks, one of the native dancers dressed in traditional garb begins to whoop and holler and jump around the square. It’s a striking note of authenticity that comes bursting through the otherwise sedate, stiffly formal proceedings. We may be inclined to call it a protest, but to even use that word implies an endorsement of the legitimacy of such a Westernized ceremony in a tribal region.

On the other hand, there’s a lot we miss without the context. That power station happens to be in a region with billions of dollars of gold underneath it, and the process for extracting gold from ore requires plenty of electricity. It’s impossible to tell from the images just how duplicitous the ambassador was when he spoke of “bringing light to the people of South Sudan”.

And then there’s the problem of unringing a bell. Outsiders may have introduced the idea of “Sudan”, along with both the Christianity and the Islam that are tearing a bloody wound across the country. And whether they’re artificial, Western constructs or not, Sudan and South Sudan are places that exist, and more locals than just warlords and kleptocrats now believe in them. Simply renouncing colonial interventions and going back to the way things were is not an option. Besides, we’ve already seen that Western divestment just opens the door to Chinese interests, who are as willing and eager to smile broadly and declare their win-win friendship as any Westerner ever has been.

Similarly, it’s easy to point and laugh at a compound of inane Texas missionaries preaching the Christian gospel to the Sudanese. It’s ironic how they use the story of the Fall to demand that the local children wear clothes, never noticing that in not being ashamed of their nakedness the kids are closer to an antelapsarian state than the Western missionaries are. And they recreate border problems in miniature when they build a fence, insisting that the people near their compound adapt to their own ideas of “us” and “them” — “mine” and “yours”. But that doesn’t change the fact that many of the South Sudanese do have an honest and sincere Christian faith now, and to say “no, that’s a Colonial imposition” would be every bit as paternalistic and reductive as the missionaries are.

As usual, the big lie of verité-style documentaries is that they present things “as they are”, without imposing any filter or perspective on the content. Every time one of Sauper’s crew points a camera, they divide the world into what’s inside and outside the frame. When Sauper presents a juxtaposition — whether it’s passive, like a UN truck passing through the frame behind someone’s head, or active, like running to catch both the ambassador and the dancer in the same shot — he cannot escape the fact that he chooses the images based on his own sense of meaning. He can try to hew as closely in possible to the spirit of what he felt while he was there, but he can’t help but be informed both by his own past and by all the information he specifically chooses not to tell us.

Still, Sauper seems to do the best he can to minimize his biases, even if he’s not exactly forthcoming about having them in the first place. And it’s a fascinating and enlightening exercise for us to attempt the same.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, fail.

American Ultra

August 21, 2015
American Ultra

Some movies are more substantial than others. Some are nourishing meals, while others are snacks. American Ultra is definitely among the latter, and that’s okay. Snacks taste good and it’s fine to enjoy them in moderation. But, if I can run with this metaphor a while, American Ultra is not just any snack; it’s cotton candy. It’s so light and insubstantial that it melts away in an instant, and just a day later I find it hard to be sure that I ate anything at all, much less describe it.

One thing I can say it’s not. I went in knowing this was supposed to be an action comedy about a stoner, Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), who turns out to be a highly lethal CIA sleeper agent — the title undoubtedly referencing the infamous MKUltra projects — and was expecting something more like Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master, but with pot. Instead, it’s more like straight-up Bourne style spy action, but played with an absurdist wink.

So Mike is living in a small town in West Virginia, working at a convenience store. He worries that his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), is meant for bigger things, and he’s holding her back. There are a couple of touching scenes between the two, but they don’t really add up to much. That’s kind of a running theme, here.

Back at the CIA, a rising star named Yates (Topher Grace) has decided to clear the remaining assets of the “Wise Man” program under which Mike was trained off the books using his own program “Tough Guy”. The officer who had been in charge of Wise Man, Lasseter (Connie Britton), finds out that Mike is in trouble and decides to help him. She travels to his town and activates his programming just before Yates’ forces descend.

Writer Max Landis has the same facility with characters he showed in Chronicle, and the cast take it from there.

Eisenberg and Stewart are, if anything, understated in their portrayal of Mike and Phoebe’s relationship. I’d love to see another story where it’s just their quietly bittersweet romance, but as it is that has to get out of the way so we can get to the action.

Grace is perfect as the overeager young upstart so desperate to prove his worth and yet so frustrated that he doesn’t get his way. It’s a nice way to play out his still-boyish charm and twist it into something with a little more depth than we’d expect from a guy who looks like a disposable preppie character.

But it’s Walton Goggins that steals the show as “Laugher”, one of the Tough Guy assets. He manages to be creepy and menacing early on, but closes out his screen time with a gut-punch of a scene where he feels more like Lennie Small than anything else. It’s the one part of the movie that I still can’t get out of my head.

And that’s kind of the thing with American Ultra. There are all these little knots of story or character that stick around, but everything else just fades away. I remember that I had fun, but not really anything special or particularly interesting about it. It’s like a Cheeto, designed to melt away as you eat it, leaving part of you feeling like you’ve had nothing at all. And the parts that really stick are too few and far between to add up to much at all.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

August 14, 2015
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

The first thing that has to be cleared up about The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is that it’s not the 1960s television series. Obviously, the movie is never the same as its source, nor should it be. But other than the names and general situations, I’m not quite sure what connection Guy Ritchie intends between the two.

That’s not to say that the movie is automatically bad. In fact, it’s generally entertaining and fun as an action flick, but not what you might expect if you come in as a fan of the show. It’s something more like the relationship between Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and the original Inglorious Bastards: take the outline of a macaroni war movie, layer it over with whatever stylistic filters Tarantino has in mind, and out from the other side you get something that bears only a passing resemblance to what went in.

In this case, the filters are very heavy on the 1960’s era ambiance, and they do look gorgeous. But they’re pretty clearly coming from us today, looking back on the ’60s as tourists. For instance, Ritchie loves the cubistic, “multi-dynamic” technique, where the screen gets broken up into a bunch of smaller images that show different aspects of the action. It’s fun and retro and meticulously executed, except for the small matter that it’s not actually from the series. That’s from The Thomas Crown Affair, which premiered almost six months after the last episode of U.N.C.L.E. aired in January 1968. It didn’t even exist anywhere as a cinematic device until the middle of 1967.

Still, as I said there’s still good here. The opening sequence kicks things off right as CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) tries to exfiltrate Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from East Berlin, while KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) tries to stop him. The action is precisely staged and goes off like clockwork; one of the most fun and satisfying examples I’ve seen in a while.

But U.N.C.L.E. die-hards are already grumbling at this point: Solo and Kuryakin are partners, and their agency isn’t bound to either government. However, this is an origin story, because evidently everything needs to start with an origin story now. Soon enough, Solo and Kuryakin are pushed together on their real mission: seek out Teller’s father in Rome, where the Vinciguerra crime family has used him to steal nuclear weapons technology.

The art direction and compositions may be inspired by a retro idea of the ’60s, but the structure is decidedly bound to modern narrative conventions, and origin stories are only the start. In the series, Solo and Kuryakin simply existed ab initio, but here they get slapped with Complicated back-stories. Solo was a sort of thief, con artist, and profiteer in World War II — a sort of Milo Minderbinder character — who works for the CIA in exchange for his freedom from prison. Kuryakin — who in the series was extraordinarily well-read and secretive about his past — is now a giant thug with anger-management issues stemming from some past family trauma. Even Teller is given a difficult relationship with her father, radically different from the way they would have been portrayed in the series.

Anyway, off we head to Rome, where Daniel Pemberton’s tight, jazzy score from the first action scenes gives way to something more akin to Ennio Morricone’s work. The life of mid-century European luxury is lushly photographed, and Elizabeth Debicki is ravishing as the Vinceguerra family’s leader, Victoria. One set piece gives way to another, and we’re slowly getting the feeling that these are starting to feel less precise and more chaotic. By the climactic ATV chase across a Mediterranean island, we’re into full-on shakycam and split-second editing, just like a standard current action movie.

I can’t say what’s guiding Ritchie’s decision here. Maybe it’s some attempt to stylistically “modernize” the property to bring it in line with the current storytelling mode. All I can say for sure is that the last big action block looks awful, and even worse after the first big block showed us what Ritchie is capable of delivering.

Cavill is charming as hell, and looking more like Christopher Reeve than ever. Still, he’s no Robert Vaughn, as unfair a comparison as that may be. Hammer comes off worse in comparison with David McCallum — after building a career out of stiff, sometimes lovable doofuses, he can never pull off that mysterious charisma. It’d be a stretch even if the script weren’t working against him. And that goes double for Vikander, who just doesn’t get much to do here. On the other hand, it’s more than the female tagalongs got to do in the series.

But one thing does survive the transition from the small to the big screen: most of the movie has a great sense of fun to it. When you get away from the clichéedly-serious backstories and the “gritty” style of the later action scenes, it plays less like the Bond knockoff that U.N.C.L.E. started out as, and more like the sly, impish, playful show it pivoted to when faced with competition from the Adam West Batman series. It’s this playfulness, coupled with John Mathieson’s gorgeous cinematography and the mod-inspired art direction, that makes the finished product as enjoyable as it is.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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