Monday, November 23, 2015

HOLIDAY IN MEXICO (MGM 1946) Warner Archive

In the echelons of musical sweethearts, Suzanne Burce's journey from cherub-cheeked Portland cutie to winsome soprano superstar is something of its own starlit daydream. She came to the attention of Universal Studios through the enterprising machinations of her mother, Eileen, who pushed Suzanne at the age of 5 into her first radio appearance on Stars of Tomorrow. By age 12, Sue had become Oregon’s Victory Girl with a fairly breakneck schedule of two weekly radio appearances. Under the pretext of ‘taking a vacation’, Eileen orchestrated her daughter’s big debut on Janet Gaynor’s popular radio program, Hollywood Showcase – a talent competition easily won by Suzanne, directly leading to an audition for both Louis B. Mayer and David O. Selznick. Ironically, Mayer signed the pint-sized powerhouse, then quickly loaned her out to make two B-programmers for United Artists, Song of the Open Road (1944) and Delightfully Dangerous (1945).  Though hardly artistic achievements, these pictures made money. Moreover, the girl in them had proved a hit, and Mayer – no fool, and, equally not known for wasting time or talent he could mine to his heart’s content on his own terms – quickly built a homegrown showcase around his latest discovery.
Rechristened Jane Powell, Suzanne’s swift ascendance as one of the studio’s pint-sized chanteuses is nothing short of miraculous. For a while, she held the distinction of never appearing in a movie in which she was not cast as the star, MGM effectively exploiting her in one extravaganza after the next – her status as the new kid on the block quickly transformed into a seasoned veteran of the Hollywood gristmill. Powell’s stardom runs contrary to the path taken by virtually every other starlet who came to Metro during its golden age. Even Judy Garland, arguably the greatest musical asset ever known within these hallowed halls, went through a rather lengthy period of adjustment before becoming one of Metro’s leading ladies. But Powell just was one from the beginning. Despite her formidable talent, modesty prevented Powell from developing the air of a diva. Alas, it also led to isolation, not only from her peers back home, but also the rest of the pack at MGM. For the most part, she worked tirelessly and without complaints, eventually becoming the studio’s number two box office draw after Garland. “I never felt as though I was a part of it,” Powell would later reflect, “…and I couldn’t tell anybody back home what was going on…that I had met Clark Gable, or anybody else, because they would think I was being snobbish. So I would just write letters and say ‘everything’s fine’ and keep to myself.”
Jane Powell’s third movie and her MGM debut, George Sidney's Holiday in Mexico (1946), is a minor curiosity, made mostly in support of Roosevelt’s ‘good neighbor’ policy towards Latin America, but immeasurably fleshed out by Metro's inimitable ultra-glossy production values. Produced at the height of the studio's love affair with the musical as an indigenous and uniquely American art form, in Holiday in Mexico we get to see Powell at her modest beginnings as an actress perhaps, but already fully formed as a singer, supremely accomplished and capable of balancing both the weighty classics and pop standards of their time with equal aplomb. Produced by Joe Pasternak, Holiday in Mexico is a gargantuan undertaking. Powell receives the lion's share of the songs, beginning with The Street Song from The Firefly and capped off by a haunting rendition of Shubert's Ave Maria, accompanied by Jose Iturbi and the MGM studio orchestra. In between these bookends, Powell sweetly trills Les filles de Cadix. She ought to also have performed the invigorating ‘Why So Gloomy?’ at the British Embassy; a number recorded and shot, but ultimately winding up on the cutting room floor (later resurfacing as an outtake in That’s Entertainment! III.
Looking back, it is rather obvious Mayer was taking no chances with Holiday in Mexico; the ensemble chocked full of sure-fire box office talent to draw the public into the theater; for the more mature attendees – Walter Pigeon and Ilona Massey, the latter committing her more robust singing pipes to Csak Egy Szep Lany (or, The Gypsy Lullaby).  To satisfy the ‘good neighbor’ slant, there is Xavier Cugat, ebullient and charming as always, warbling Yo Te Amo Mucho - And That's That while coddling his bug-eyed Chihuahua and skirting the dark and flashing glances of an obviously jealous paramour, as well as providing background accompaniment elsewhere in the movie; also, Jose Iturbi, congenial to a fault and showing off his flying fingers on Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto N. 2 in C Minor, and later, a blistering boogie-woogie interpretation of Three Blind Mice; accompanied by his sister, Amparo (who also is briefly glimpsed in the finale). Holiday in Mexico is really more a cavalcade than a movie; Isobel Lennart’s screenplay (cribbing from a story idea by William Kozlenko) merely interested in providing the most threadbare of connective tissues to get us from plot points ‘A’ to ‘B’ with neatly sandwiched dialogue and a few chuckle-worthy bits of comedy between these musical performances. I mean, was it really necessary to stage a ‘flashback’ sequence just to show us how Pigeon’s kindly diplomat and Massey’s hearty chanteuse first met? Probably not. But Holiday in Mexico excels as the sort of superficially polished and mind-bogglingly all-star claptrap MGM had perfected with relish throughout the 1940's and would continue, for a time, to promote with varying degrees of success in the fifties. Moreover, it is a picture whose sole purpose is to entertain without testing the boundaries of innovation. On that score, Holiday in Mexico is decidedly a highly enjoyable confection; sweet and lovely; full of the bounce and sparkle for which Metro, at its zenith, was justly celebrated.
Joseph Pasternak’s infallible formula, blending the light with time-honored tomes in classical music, glammed up and slightly re-orchestrated to appeal to the masses, strikes exactly the right chords – light-headed, but heart-strong. Holiday in Mexico is by far the most extravagant of the pictures built exclusively around Powell’s extraordinary gifts as a singer. Incidentally, the title is something of a curiosity since, in the movie, Pigeon’s American Ambassador Jeffrey Evans and his daughter, Christine (Powell) are neither on holiday nor planning a holiday – at least, to Mexico - but rather permanently reside there, living quite comfortably in their lush and tropical hacienda. I suspect, the ‘holiday’ in the title is moreover meant to sell the picture to audiences with promises of sweet escapism abroad that many, only just begun to recover from the Great Depression, and, those terrible years during WWII would be hard-pressed to afford on their own otherwise. For logistic reasons, none of Holiday in Mexico was actually shot in Mexico, MGM’s reincarnation of the pampas and sombreros on the back lot and sound stages, unapologetically colorful, stately and quite unlike most anything likely to be seen in reality. Ah well, it served a purpose then. Yet, Holiday in Mexico remains charmingly effervescent to a fault. We have Powell’s presence largely to thank for this.
In Jane Powell there is a natural gift to effortlessly invade and disinfect whatever natural cynicism or folly has befallen us in the day. It is a rare ability, one that, ostensibly, has transcended time, and, remains quite impossible to quantify. For there have been other singers before and since Powell’s time possessing such musical range (some would argue, better); and other child-star actresses as beguilingly sweet and as genuine in their performances on screen. And yet, an intangible aura lingers about Powell, something to do with the way she’s been lit by cinematographer extraordinaire, Harry Stradling Sr.; as though through a veil, preventing any further quantification or qualification of its subtext and/or meaning. Yes, Powell can sing her way into our hearts while hitting the high C’s. That much is a given. But she also tends to linger somewhere more deeply in our collective soul, transfixing and elevating mere pop culture into more meaningful – if highly sentimentalized – movie-land art.  Powell herself, would recall an experience on a New York street some years later; an elderly woman spontaneously approaching to thank her for her musicals, adding “when I used to watch one of your movies, I just knew it was going to be a good day.” Undeniably, Powell’s screen persona radiates warmth – perhaps, not immediately apparent (as she quite often plays headstrong, even pert and mildly annoying and opinionated teenagers too mature for their own good), though nevertheless, imbued with prepubescent sincerity befitting her age, at least, in these early pictures.
Herein, Powell stars as Christine, daughter of U.S. Ambassador, Jeffrey Evans who is stationed in Mexico. The self-appointed glue that keeps her father's life running like clockwork, Christine is entreated by romantic overtures from the British Ambassador's son, Stanley Owens (Roddy McDowell). Although Christine regards Stanley with minor affection, she doesn't really consider him a beau. Jeffrey dotes on Christine. Moreover, he allows her some latitude with the embassy staff, perhaps overcompensating as the single parent since the death of Christina’s mum. All is fair in love, however, and Jeffrey is delighted to learn an old flame, Countess Karpathy (Ilona Massey) has resurfaced after an absence of some years. The two were passionate sweethearts in their younger years while Jeffrey was stationed in Hungary. Alas, time – and a mysterious mutual breakup (the Hollywood kind that leaves no residual animosities) has kept the pair apart ever since. Now, fate has intervened, or rather – Christine; making the rounds to invite the local gentry to the American Embassy Ball.
Stanley wishes Christine would pay more attention to him and less to the ball. Either way, however, he is more than willing to help her along in her duties. The pair make two pit stops; first, to Casa Cugat, the fashionable nightclub where Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra perform nightly. Christine has no way of knowing the Countess, now singing with Cugie’s band, is actually her father’s former flame. Nor does the Countess let on she has known Jeffrey before. But she does break a cardinal rule – never to sing at private parties – to attend the ball. The other call Stanley and Christine pay is on Jose Iturbi; at present, a very busy man. Iturbi mistakes Chris to be the new singer he is hoping to audition for an upcoming outdoor concert. Chris proves capable of fulfilling all these requirements as his winsome chanteuse. One problem: she has no intention of singing at the concert. After all, it would conflict with her father’s plans to take a much needed father/daughter vacation to Vermont to visit his wife’s mother.
Fate intervenes yet again. So does diplomacy – and youth. Jeffrey and the Countess begin to see quite a lot of each other. Their romantic pas deux is not lost on Christine, who gradually begins to resent the time her father is spending away from her. In the meantime, Christine’s best friend, Yvette Baranga (Helene Stanley), the daughter of the French Ambassador, develops an unrequited bad case of puppy love towards Jeffrey. Evidently, love has turned Jeff’s head too, because not only is he quite oblivious to Yvette’s advances, but he also seems incapable of noticing how Christine has been repeatedly wounded by not being included in at least some of his outings with the Countess. Overcompensating for this parental neglect, Christine throws herself at Iturbi’s head, determined theirs’ should be a May/December love affair. Stanley is understandably distraught to learn Chris has thrown him over for Iturbi. Moreover, he thinks Christine is making a fool of herself. Pointing out the obvious to Jeffrey, Stanley is playfully dismissed for his candor and honesty.
But Jeff isn’t laughing so hard when he discovers the new portrait on Chris’ easel in her bedroom is of Iturbi, painted with the same tender devotion she once committed to capturing his own likeness in charcoals. Jeff confronts Iturbi and, after several moments of miscommunication, is immeasurably relieved to discover Jose is not in love with Christine. She has, in fact, imagined the whole grand amour in her head. To prove how implausible such a love match would be, Jeffrey convinces Iturbi to invite Christine and him to a dinner party at which time Jose will reveal to her he is already a grandfather.  Jeffrey and Christine – painted up to artificially look twice her natural age – have barely arrived when Iturbi springs his two granddaughters (Tonia and Teresa Hero) on them. Suddenly realizing the chasm of discrepancy in their ages, Christine is quite unable to go through with dinner. However, upon their return to the embassy, Jeffrey encounters Yvette waiting with her father (Mikhail Rasumny) and mother (Marina Koshetz) in the living room.
Apparently, Yvette has believed the same lie as Christine, informing her parents she is to be engaged to Jeffrey. Alas, the Ambassador makes it clear to Jeffrey the dowry he intends to bestow upon him is small. Realizing his only way out of this difficult situation is to downplay the romance concocted by Yvette, Jeffrey instead suggests only a very large dowry could induce him to consider marriage to the girl. Insulted by the notion Jeffrey would marry Yvette for money alone, the Ambassador storms out of the house, dragging his daughter by the ear and ordering his tearful wife to follow.  Jeffrey decides to set the record straight with Christine. But when he goes upstairs he discovers Chris packing, apparently determined to leave Mexico and live with her grandmother, thus betraying her commitments made to Iturbi for the concert.  Jeffrey explains that “everyone plays the fool now and then” and that whatever Chris’ decision – stay or run – he will support it as only a loving father could.
Jeffrey outlines the rewards of choosing to stay and face the awkwardness she has created; getting to know the Countess better and, very likely, as a new mother; maturing in her own outlook on love with Stanley – a boy of her years who really is a solid potential love match – singing at the concert because as any woman of integrity knows, one must always honor commitments, and finally, apologizing to Iturbi for making an ass of herself.  A tearful Christine comes to the right conclusion for all the right reasons. The scene dissolves to the stupendous outdoor concert finale; a moonlight amphitheater with a candle-lit choral surrounding Christine and a two hundred piece orchestra in the foreground, conducted by Iturbi to the skin-crawling strains of Schubert’s Ave Maria.
Holiday in Mexico won’t win any awards for high art, but it remains a supremely satisfying bit of escapist nonsense put forth with great panache by arguably, the only studio capable to manage its artifice and effervescence in song. Those who would quietly discount the picture as all fizz and no cola, however, would do better to reconsider the embarrassment of riches on display; Harry Stradling Sr.’s luminous cinematography offset by Cedric Gibbons and Jack Martin Smith’s elegant production design, and, Irene and Valles sumptuous garments. L.B. Mayer’s standing order at MGM – and not only for musicals – was all women should appear beautiful and all men, handsome. We get this and more in Holiday in Mexico. George Sidney directed the picture, but he really is at the service of this show’s producer, Joseph Pasternak whose particular brand of ultra-glossy European schmaltz has never been equaled. There are more sophisticated musicals out there to be sure, but Holiday in Mexico is just a lot of fun. With Powell, Cugat, Massey and Iturbi working the room, it’s also boffo entertainment, and, a genuine bang for your buck.
Holiday in Mexico comes to us via the Warner Archive. How I wouldn’t give the Archive to go back and do this one right on Blu-ray. For now, the results on MOD DVD are not too far off the mark. While scratches persist, and color-timing blips crop up now and then, the Technicolor on this nearly 80 year old classic has held up remarkably well.  I suspect somewhere along the way Holiday in Mexico received a refurbishment of its Technicolor master from Warner, because not only does the image pop with bright and bold colors, but flesh tones are darn-near perfect. Even more remarkable: no differential shrinkage of the 3-strip negative – the image tight and razor-sharp throughout and showing a lot of fine detail with virtually no compression artifacts or other digital anomalies. Honestly, outside of this catalog title getting a Blu-ray upgrade, I could not be more pleased with these results. Not so much the audio: occasionally crackling during the higher registers of Powell’s singing, and coming off fairly garbled during the first few stanzas of the climactic Ave Maria. The audio’s not terrible, but it decidedly needs some work.  If this ever gets the Blu-treatment via the archive I really would love WB to seek out the separate audio stems and produce a repurposed 5.1 stereo option for Powell’s songs.  I believe this is still possible. Bottom line: recommended as mindlessly appealing fluff entertainment with Jane Powell the real selling feature.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Saturday, November 21, 2015

FANTASIA/FANTASIA 2000: Blu-ray (Walt Disney 1940-1999) Disney Home Video

For me, it is virtually impossible to hear even one note of Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours without instantly conjuring to mind visions of lithe and balletic hippos, ostriches and alligators cavorting together in one of the lighter moments from Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940). What a miraculous achievement it remains; ensconced somewhere in the darkened recesses of my memory banks and likely to have been absorbed into at least a part of my DNA since that first viewing so long ago. Exposed to Walt’s masterpiece for the very first time at the age of eleven, I can honestly say I was instantly, and as equally, enthralled and bemused; in hindsight, two reasons I suspect the picture did not go over as it ought to in 1940 – first, because, at eleven, the scope of my child’s comprehension of what animation was – or rather, could be – was unaccustomed to what I was about to see; also, my expectations for the art of animation then had been primarily weaned on, and gleaned from, Saturday morning cartoons and other Disney features, following the conventional wisdom of interjecting plot into these colorful pictures. But a ‘concert feature’…what was that?!?
With great certainty, I could then profess to never having seen a movie like Fantasia before. Later, I was to discover no movie like Fantasia, in fact, existed. Walt’s unique vision for his ‘concert feature’ was meant to be an ever-evolving series of fanciful experimentations and lushly exuberant meditations. That Fantasia miserably failed to find overwhelming favor with audiences in 1940, and together with Pinocchio’s spectacular implosion at the box office, fiscally handicapped Walt’s creative freedom to pursue more elaborate projects for the duration of WWII, would continue to preoccupy my overall beguilement with Fantasia over the years, perhaps as much as it stuck in Walt’s craw, perplexedly and begrudgingly to haunt him to his grave. Indeed, in Walt’s own lifetime he was never again to test the creative waters so unreservedly, falling back on lucrative ‘packaged’ entertainments like Make Mine Music and Melody Time (the poor man’s pop-art version of Fantasia) while diversifying his empire into live-action movies, and later television and finally, theme parks to stabilize his company’s fiscal security. Arguably, Walt would gamble only once more with ‘cartoons’: 1959’s lavishly appointed Sleeping Beauty – the second highest-grossing picture of 1959 that, alas – due to Walt’s own extravagances in preparing the picture – did not make back its production costs either.
With subsequent theatrical reissues of Fantasia in the late sixties, its’ reputation as a cult classic grew. Today, Fantasia is readily and rightfully regarded as a magnum opus; one of many made under Walt’s inspired leadership, cementing our communal understanding of childhood, both its daydreams and nightmares as no filmmaker before or since has even dared with such audacity, consistency and purpose. Walt Disney remains one of the most instantly recognizable and influential filmmakers – nee, geniuses – of the 20th century.  If we can agree that the purpose of animation is to illustrate that which otherwise cannot be expressed in the cinema arts, then Fantasia endures, and must unequivocally be considered the purest form of self-expression, surreal and sublimely artistic, monumentally engrossing, and, supremely satisfying. Walt’s ‘concert feature’ surpasses all expectations, though chiefly, in marrying the intangibleness of some of the world’s most exquisite orchestral compositions with the finitely detail of hand-drawn cell animation. 
Merely to reconsider where Walt’s extraordinary gifts as a storyteller might have taken us, if only Fantasia had been both the critical and financial zeitgeist he had hoped for, saddens me. But the pall of the nation’s more highbrow musicologists, casting their aspersions upon his brainchild in 1940, forced Walt into a sort of resentfully apologetic retraction of his passions, issuing a statement to the press that, in part, read “Perhaps Bach and Beethoven are strange bedfellows for Mickey Mouse, but it’s been a lot of fun.” Yet, even Walt would disagree with this assessment of Fantasia; the experience of making it proving as uncertain to downright hellish as anything he might have anticipated at the outset. Having spent far too much in development on his latest ‘Silly Symphony’ short subject in order to resuscitate the lagging popularity of his most famous creation – Mickey Mouse – Walt had effectively passed the point of no return when a chance meeting with renowned conductor, Leopold Stokowski seemed to offer him a way out. Why not make the short a feature and build an entire series of vignettes around ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’; the only commonality between them, their adherence to classical music and a running commentary provided by no less an authority, than noted critic and musicologist, Deems Taylor? From the outset, Fantasia was begun as a highly cerebral and thoroughly impassioned project and its’ concept was nothing less than revolutionary.
But by the end, Fantasia had drained every last drop, not only of Walt’s creative energies, but equally, depleted the coffers of his studio. Looking back now, one is even more humbled by Walt’s fervor to elevate the art of animation to a level as yet unsurpassed.  It was risky business even back then, in fact; too risky for RKO, the studio usually distributing Walt’s pictures to partake. Indeed, RKO wanted absolutely nothing to do with Fantasia, forcing Walt to incur the spectacular costs to produce and distribute it himself for a limited roadshow engagement – and in Fantasound no less (a precursor to modern-day stereo). The creation of Fantasound alone is a staggering innovation, decades ahead of its time. Today, we reflect on such achievements from a vantage truly spoiled by our technological miracles. But in 1940, Walt and his sound mastering technicians were nothing short of burgeoning with the true pioneer spirit. Modern era Dolby owes a great deal to Fantasound and to Walt Disney for having the guts to invest in a virtual unknown commodity. 
Over the years, an insidious rumor has evolved to suggest Fantasia was both a critical and fiscal fiasco. Nothing could be further from the truth. In New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, the roadshow engagement of Fantasia played for a year to sell-out crowds with tickets sold months in advance. In these larger metropolitan centers Fantasia was exuberantly greeted by the public too with giddy excitement. The New York Times, San Francisco Herald and Chicago’s Chronicle ladled their high praise on the picture, calling it ‘magnificent’, ‘stupendous’ and ‘a miracle’.  Nevertheless, Walt was to endure a double whammy with Fantasia’s release; first, to meet the crippling cost of retooling a select few theaters to accommodate the experimental six-track ‘Fantasound’ – also, to produce a collectible programme befitting a night out at the ‘legitimate’ theater; second, to realize the very nature of Fantasia’s conception virtually prevented it from reaching the smaller markets in a manner befitting its initial design.  Point taken: Fantasia was practically designed to fail.
Yet, it was the utterly tepid audience reception outside of these big city venues, compounded by the authoritative ennui of music critics that ultimately frustrated Walt. Having failed to grasp his concept – either labeling it as Walt’s ‘lowbrow’ attempt to do highbrow proud, or chastising Walt’s sheer chutzpah to aspire to highbrow – inadvertently alienating the longhairs and their middle class counterparts who, presumably, had only come to the movies to see a glorified Mickey Mouse cartoon; the net result of their temerity to chastise what they obviously had not understood left Walt defeated and vowing never again to chase after such an single-minded vision. The same critics who had heralded Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938) as an incomparable masterpiece were now suggesting Disney’s reach had exceeded his grasp; small-town America – the ‘bread and butter’ barometer by which all movie-land product was either judged a winner or a dud – giving Fantasia their ‘thumbs down’; apparently, agreeing with these critics.
Barring the ‘jam session’ and introduction of the soundtrack as a living entity, effectively inserted as an ‘intermission’ midway; Fantasia is divided into seven distinct musical vignettes; each quite unlike the one preceding or following it and, even more incredibly, divergent from anything yet achieved in the medium of hand-drawn animation; the final sequence consolidating two contrasting pieces of music (Modeste Moussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, and Franz Schubert’s Ave Marie) to illustrate the struggle between the forces of good and evil. Walt virtually defied conventional wisdom in his own time to explore some of the most progressive avenues, bringing unprecedented scope and complexity to his 20th century ‘world view’ of these ensconced concert pieces.  Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor opens Fantasia with homage to German-American abstract animator, Oskar Fischinger; Walt, unable to resist taking his pseudo-Fischinger impressionism into periodic bouts of more concrete visualizations with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Symphony sometimes superimposed into these interpretations; brightly colored spots casting colorful overlapping shadows upon the walls or illuminated kettle drums at precisely the moment their taut canvases are struck.
From this conjectural interpretation of sound as sight, Fantasia explores more easily identifiable imagery to tell its next vignette. Eschewing the centuries old interpretation; Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet; Suite, Op. 71a is devoted to the four seasons; the screen filled with fairies, water lilies, highly stylized goldfish and ice-skating sprites. Beginning with spring, we transition to early morning in a dense forest, dew sparkling on the newborn foliage; following a cascade of twirling lilies over the edge of a bubbly waterfall. The most famous of these vignettes has unintentionally taken on a phallic representation in more recent times; Walt’s Busby Berkeley-inspired array of fan-tailed goldfish forming geometric patterns below the water’s surface, chased away by flesh-colored oriental dancing mushrooms. These are immediately chased away by Cossack-kicking gladiolus. The final episode in The Nutcracker is devoted to a late autumn frost, transforming nature’s bounty into an azure oasis, populated by glistening snowflakes and pincer-legged sprites. Disney’s version of The Nutcracker is perhaps Fantasia’s most visually spectacular sequence, which is stating a great deal, considering the myriad of treasures yet to follow it.   
Now, the animators introduce us to Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; the whole reason for Fantasia’s coming into being in the first place; Walt adhering to the time-honored tale; re-cast with Mickey Mouse as the amiable novice of the title. Determined he should elevate his status to be more than simply the fetch-and-carry for his Teutonic master, Mickey borrows the sorcerer’s cap after he has retired to bed, commanding a small army of brooms to perform his menial task of filling the cistern with fresh water from a nearby well. Alas, the magic invoked takes on a life of its own; the neophyte rendered powerless as his maniacal minions flood the workshop; thus threatening to destroy everything. At the last possible moment, the sorcerer is stirred from his slumber and, with a mere wave of his hands, ends this deluge, using the now inanimate broom to hasten his presumptuous trainee outside. The sequence is charming in its own right. But in 1940 it also introduced audiences to a radically redesigned Mickey Mouse from the one to which most had grown accustomed; the animators adding new and more realistic facial expressions; also, pupils to Mickey’s eyes.
The first half of Fantasia concludes with Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, composed in 1913 and, by far, the most recent piece of music in its repertoire; Walt determinedly tackling the creation of the earth and the plight of the dinosaurs as his subject matter. With all the realism invoked by Spielberg’s marauding dinos in the Jurassic Park franchise, we forget that, barring Windsor McKay’s rather fantastic and comical Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and some brief start-stop animation glimpsed in King Kong (1933), Hollywood had not endeavored to resurrect these towering creatures from the Cretaceous period on film for obvious technologically implausible reasons, and certainly never with such awe-inspiring and pseudo-realistic graphics. For decades thereafter, high school science teachers would utilize Rite of Spring to illustrate the early evolution of this planet to their students. Indeed, looking back on this sequence now, one can only marvel at the exacting purity of its vision; Walt inspiring his technicians to explore virtually all the experimental SFX technology created at his studio for over a decade; rotoscoping wind effects, smoke and bubbling mud to simulate volcanic activity with startling results.
The ‘jam session’ intermission is a brief chance for Stokowski’s finely disciplined musicians to cut loose with an impromptu vamp; a highly amusing mini-vignette that feeds into the old cliché about ‘when the cat’s away…’; Stokowski’s reappearance on the conductor’s platform, suddenly quieting everything down. Deems Taylor introduces us to the soundtrack, a rather introverted, occasionally neurotic and decidedly camera-shy thread running vertically down the center of the screen; coaxing this unassuming chord to perform various sounds, graphically illustrated with zig-zagging lines of lurid color. Fantasia’s musical program gets back on track with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 ('Pastoral') Op. 68; the Disney artisans taking their cue from Fred Moore to indulge in a bit of Greek mythology. However, the creation of the centaurs, frolicking in a nearby waterfall, became cause for some minor concern regarding censorship. While the male figures sport brawny bare chests, much belabored debate ensued over the equally as bare-breasted females of their ilk. To be sure, these remain in the picture, although they are quickly and decorously outfitted with Hawaiian-styled leis, artfully draped by amused, and equally as nude, winged baby cherubs. From this rather audacious opener, Walt delves into a bacchanal; the revelry cut short by the gods of ancient mythology; Zeus firing up the storm clouds and forcing everyone to take refuge. At storm’s end a fabulous rainbow is swept away by Helio’s chariot and the advancing cover of night; Diana shooting her arrows into a night sky glistening with stars. Rite of Spring remains Fantasia’s most decadent vignette, immediately followed by what is assuredly its most farcical.
Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, from the opera, La Gioconda, had suffered the slings and arrows of critical backlash for being one of the most repurposed pieces of music in recent history. As such, Walt’s interpretation of a literal ‘dance of the hours’ took Ponchielli to task one step further; transforming the clumsiness of ostriches and the formidable girth of elephants and hippos into the quintessence of tutu and bubble-blowing lithe ballerinas; the corps de ballet invaded by a Ali Ben Gator and his crocodilian entourage. Dance of the Hours is undeniably, Walt’s most Disney-fied sequence; the term not yet coined, but in hindsight, veering towards the kind of cutesy/cuddly animals we have come to expect from a Disney animated film. The trick in the exercise is that it never seems a strange bedfellow for either the documentarian Rite of Spring or the even more deadly serious battle between good and evil immediately to follow it. 
Modeste Moussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain had most recently been heard at the movies – in part – in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) as a repurposed cue to mark Dorothy’s rescue and escape from the wicked witch’s castle.  Yet, its ominous strains were hardly ‘a standard’ outside of the concert hall venue and, even then, rarely resurrected. The interpretation of Moussorgsky’s symphony took to task no less a threat to the human world than the devil himself, rechristened ‘Chernabog’ and largely animated by one artist – Vladimir Tyla – whose undiluted conjuring of pure evil has arguably never been rivaled. The inspiration for Chernabog was German artist, Heinrich Kley whose drawing of this gigantic winged demon forcing workers out of a factory by blocking its chimney was eventually picked up by artist, Albert Hurter, who refined various sketches of this fallen angel, indiscriminately tossing tortured souls into a live volcano. From Hurter's initial sketches, artist, Kay Nielsen created more detailed pastel illustrations, as well as the official model sheet for the creature, passing it along to Tyla to animate.
Drawing on his own Ukranian ancestry and classic European folklore, Tyla’s Chernabog emerges from the peak of Slovenia’s Mount Triglav on the Witches’ Sabbath; Tyla incorporating the natural landscape into his character’s design; the mountain ‘unfolding’ to reveal two gargoyle wings and a muscular/horned anti-Christ, invoking the restless spirits from a nearby graveyard to rise from their tombs as his minions for a night of revelry around his fire pit. Viewed today, Night on Bald Mountain remains a supremely unsettling sequence; Tyla infusing his demon with a grotesque animalism. Few movies outside of Universal’s initial spate of gothic horror classics from the early thirties – made prior to the installation of the Production Code of Ethics – have been as bold in their depictions of the supernatural world. Certainly, nothing like a Night on Bald Mountain has ever been achieved in the realm of animation; the spirits, hellacious, vengeful and terrorizing the small Tyrolean village at the foot of the mountain.
The minions swirling about are graphically depicted; bare-breasted witches, exposing themselves from beneath tattered, flowing robes and skeletal, fanged crusaders riding bareback on haunted steeds. The resurrection and the light, introduced at the height of Cherabog’s sinful merriment by the soothing toll of a church bell and steadily creeping dawn, set to the calming strains of Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria, Op. 52 No. 6, restores normalcy to the earth and draws order from this chaos. And yet, the hallowed, darkly cloaked and faceless figures, who lead this candle-lit processional through a forested cathedral and into the glorious burst of sunrise, are somehow less impressive by contrast and comparison; Fantasia concluding on an almost listless note of purity.  While technologically a masterpiece of the multiplane camera, first pioneered by Walt for 1937’s Silly Symphony short, The Old Mill, the last act finale to Fantasia remains its most bloodless and dissatisfying.  
It has often been said Fantasia was ahead of its time; Walt’s ‘grand and gutsy experiment’. Yet, Disney had very little pretensions toward high culture. At least, from a technical perspective, this much is true; whether considering the effects animation pioneered and/or elevated to a new level of craftsmanship, or, in conceiving an entirely new form of aural experience in the theater, equipped with no less than thirty speakers to envelope the audience in Stokowski’s rich orchestrations, and, even still, in humility of Walt’s somewhat ballsy progressivism, a collision between high and, arguably, low culture; Fantasia marked a staggering departure from the status quo. In 1940, surely it ranked amongst the rarest wonderments in modern cinema.  We would, of course, be remiss in not mentioning at least a handful of the highly skilled artisans whose work on the picture has influenced a new breed of animators; Norman Ferguson’s mastery of broad staging; Hamilton Luske’s analysis and streamlining of procedural duties that helped promote the company’s assembly line output, but with an unprecedented attention to quality and detail; Vladimir Tytla’s emotional intensity, and finally, Fred Moore’s delightfully ‘cute’ endearing appeal for the warm and fuzzy creatures only sporadically populating Fantasia’s backdrop.  
Unfortunately for Walt, the music critics were all but unkind to his grand gesture. Those anticipating furry forest animals and sweetness of the Silly Symphonies ilk were instead subjected to a fairly adult interpretation on everything from the creation of the world to demonic possession. Bewildered at how best to review such an bold and unprecedented break with tradition, many newspapers sent both a film and music aficionado to review Fantasia; only to have the former emerge considerably alienated by the plot-less experience; the latter, much offended by Walt’s cheek in depicting hippos, minotaurs and goldfish indulging the likes of Dukas, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. Walt had intended that his ‘concert feature’ should always be evolving with new segments constantly being added. However, following Fantasia’s epic disappointment, all such plans were immediately scrapped. Henceforth, Walt would regard the picture as a painful personal failure. Time, however, was on Fantasia’s side. Largely due to its resurrection on college and university campuses, and two theatrical reissues to bookend the 1960s (first, in 1963, then again in 1969) Fantasia’s reputation as a bona fide work of art steadily snowballed.
As a one-time animation student, I can recall meeting several Disney animators at Sheridan College for a Q&A back in 1991, where one of the most readily repeated inquiries was "when will there be another Fantasia?" The response then was both cordial and cryptic; but even suggestions about a possible ‘follow up’ on the horizon (though hardly in development) were met with spontaneous applause. By the end of the decade, the rumored resurrection of Fantasia had become fact: Disney Inc. debuting Fantasia 2000 in 1999. In hindsight, Fantasia 2000 is an epitaph to the studio's second golden epoch in hand-drawn animation first inaugurated in 1989 with the startling success of The Little Mermaid and ostensibly capped off by a decade's worth of mind-boggling returns to the Disney tradition with Beauty & The Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Hercules, and, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Fantasia 2000 is a little worse for the wear because of its adherence to ‘star’ introductions. Perhaps in reconsidering that contemporary movie audiences were even less likely to know any of the noted musicologists of their own generation, Fantasia 2000 is instead anchored in various cameos from former Disney Inc./Touchstone Pictures alumni; Steve Martin, Bette Midler, Penn and Teller, Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones among them. James Levine conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; a curious choice, especially when considering the higher profile and thus mainstream marketability of The Boston Pops, by then under the baton of Keith Lockhart. 
As it had served as the inspiration for the original Fantasia, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is now the centerpiece of Fantasia 2000, excised from its predecessor, slightly cropped and matted to conform to the new 1:85:1 aspect ratio of its successor. The Sorcerer's Apprentice is bookended by some of the most visually arresting animation yet achieved at the studio. The Pines of Rome, as example, is an engrossing undersea ballet with graceful killer whales serving as weightless titans of the silvery surf. Carnival of the Animals is an obvious homage to the irrepressible humor in Dance of the Hours; with a flock of jealous flamingos – caught in conformist mode – vehemently attempting to censure one of their own who has recently discovered the joys of a Yo-Yo. The Steadfast Tin Soldier Concerto No. 2 is a relatively faithful adaptation of the classic fairytale about an unlikely romance between a one-legged toy soldier and the music box ballerina he adores from afar.
Stylistically speaking, Fantasia 2000 is all over the place. While the original movie had a sort of homogenized look to it, by this, I mean to suggest all of the hand-drawn art follows a lucidity based on the time-honored principles of hand-crafted cell art known to the Disney artisans until then, the goal of the various directors toiling independently on Fantasia 2000 seems to endeavor to make each sequence as startlingly unique as all the technological prowess gleaned since 1940 will allow. Fantasia 2000 is capped off by two truly inspired artistic moments; the first - a story of rediscovering childhood simplicity in adult life; the set of circumstances necessary to procure ‘a happy life’ in cluttered downtown Manhattan, circa mid-1950’s, ranging from the successful procurement of gainful employment for a down-on-his-luck welder, to a wealthy – and rather snobbish – middle-aged couple, rediscovering why they fell in love with each other by adopting a puppy, to a harried upper middle-class mum and dad frantically reunited with their wandered off prepubescent daughter; George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is a veritable feast for the heart and eye, melding together one of the all-time great pieces of music from the 20th century with the finite, yet equally as free-flowing, linear artistry of celebrated caricaturist, Al Hirschfeld.
Arguably, the picture’s pièce de résistance remains its finale, The Firebird Suite, (owing a great deal to the forest fire sequence from Walt’s own Bambi, 1942); a no holds barred and nothing short of mesmerizing sequence, begun when a spark of lightning ignites the mythological fiery phoenix, who lays waste to this majestic forest, only to have the green earth goddess, nee Mother Nature, resurrect the land to its former natural splendor. The greatest of all animation stirs the heart as it beguiles the eye; The Firebird supremely satisfying on both counts; its themes of rejuvenation, both earthy and spiritual, concluding Fantasia 2000 on a powerful note. The animation in virtually every sequence featured in Fantasia 2000 is exquisite. A pity it is bookended by self-congratulatory introductions; some, like Angela Lansbury - rising above the triviality of her scripted narration, while others – particularly, Penn and Teller and Bette Midler, foundering badly with virtually nothing to contribute except a feeling of unease that settles in even before their brief moments in the spotlight have begun. Nevertheless, Fantasia 2000 is compelling entertainment - a sumptuous visual feast brilliantly conducted by James Levine and The Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Prepare to be astonished! For just as publicity of its day declared "Fantasia will amaze yah!" Disney Home Video’s 2-disc Blu-Ray is geared to impress in every way. Quite simply, the image quality on both features exhibits superior resolution; a gorgeous and grain-preserving image on the original Fantasia and a markedly more creamily smooth - yet as sumptuously sharp – hi-def transfer on Fantasia 2000. There’s really nothing to complain about here. Colors on both features pop as they should. A monumental preservation and restoration effort on the original Fantasia has yielded an impressive clarity, with boldly saturated Technicolor oozing from every inch of the frame. More than ever, Fantasia is a visceral and eloquent 'experience' not to be missed. Startlingly beautiful, with all but a handful of minor hints to belie its 70+ years, Fantasia sparkles as the crown jewel of this bygone era in hand-drawn animation. The original Fantasia's audio - named 'Fanta-sound' by Walt – was decidedly ahead of its time.  And it remains a testament to Walt’s faith in burgeoning technologies, even more so since the advent of true HD 5.1 stereo, these original audio stems, recorded with decidedly primitive equipment back in 1940, have nevertheless retained their aural integrity, given renewed life in repurposed 5.1.DTS as few soundtracks from this vintage are able to reproduce. The meticulous attention paid to Stokowski's orchestrations back in 1940 have weathered exceptionally well in the interim. 
For its 1982 reissue, Fantasia was re-recorded by noted conductor, Irwin Kostal to produce a Dolby Spectra-Sound ‘true stereo’ experience. Alas, at the time, this impressive endeavor was judged the lesser to Stokowski and dropped from all subsequent theatrical reissues of the picture. It would have been prudent of Disney Inc. to include the option of listening to both the original and Kostal’s orchestrations, purely as a comparative analysis. But no – Kostal’s re-orchestrations are nowhere to be found on this disc – a minor oversight. Something else to consider: the bookended sequences hosted by Deems Taylor – the noted musicologist who serves as MC– were dropped from subsequent truncated reissues of Fantasia until 1982, at which time it was regrettably discovered Taylor’s original recordings were in such a delicate state of disrepair they could not be preserved and/or represented in any satisfactory way to contemporary audiences. Instead, the studio hired Corey Burton to mimic Taylor's vocalizations. To be sure, Burton’s work is credible – even a valiant effort – and, those never having heard Taylor are apt not to notice this dubbing job.
Extras are a bit of a mystery: we lose the comprehensive ‘making of’ hosted by David Ogden Stiers that accompanied the DVD release – replaced on this Blu-ray by a new audio commentary from Brian Sibley. It is comprehensive to say the least, but I still would have preferred the original ‘featurette’, rife with vintage outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage. Herein, we get 4 ½ minutes devoted to the opening of the Walt Disney Museum as well as 14 minutes on Herman Schultheis' technical processes as ‘effects coordinator’. On Fantasia 2000, we get another audio commentary by Roy E. Disney and James Levine, a brief featurette on Salvador Dali and Walt, and the short, ‘Destino’ original begun in 1945, but only more recently completed in 2003. Bottom line: and quite simply, Fantasia is a masterpiece. Its sequel falls a little short of this benchmark, though not by very much. This 2-disc set comes very highly recommended for lovers of animation in general, of Disney animation in particular, of Stokowski and Levine, or simply to devotees of classical music. Walt’s original intent to bridge the gap between high and low brow, with Fantasia becoming all things to all people, has arguably come to pass. Some 70+ years too late for Walt to appreciate, the fruits of his labors have decidedly been recognized. It took the rest of us far too long to catch up to you, Walt. But God bless you for trying to improve our minds.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Fantasia  5+
Fantasia 2000 4
(both movies) 5+

Thursday, November 19, 2015

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 2015) Warner Home Video

From 1964 to 1968, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum costarred in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; a rollicking and uber-sophisticated spy thriller TV series meant to do for the small screen what Ian Fleming’s James Bond had done for the movies. Formulaic to a fault, but developed by co-producer, Sam Rolfe to mask most of the obviousness beneath a patina of swinging sixties mod adventures, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was as glamorous and witty as one might expect; perfect entertainment in a decade shared by The Saint (1961-68) and The Avengers (1961-69).  With a few lighter moments factored in, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. proved a delectable nod to this fanciful Cold War cloak and dagger: TV’s original odd couple, American CIA operative, Napoleon Solo (Vaughn) and his Soviet KGB counterpart, Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), begrudgingly managed by spy wrangler supreme, Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll). Flash forward to director, Guy Ritchie’s big screen adaptation, also titled The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; so described as a ‘second-rate James Bond/Mission Impossible adventure. Respectfully, I submit there is a difference; a tangible and important one, as Ritchie’s movie is neither a cheap or deliberate impersonation of these two aforementioned film franchises; nor does it try and hang on to the superficial appeal of being a direct derivative of the TV series whose name it bears. Ritchie’s flick could have so easily turned into another Hollywoodized and badly bungled gumbo, a la the big screen mistreatment The Avengers incurred in 1998.
The trick and the blessing herein is Ritchie is not trying to be a knock-off of any of the aforesaid; having made two critical executive decisions to ensure his picture can be spun off into a film franchise of its own. First, Ritchie has chosen to ground his story in that spectacularly luminous appeal of sixties glam-bam; Mussolini’s Rome in particular, looking as though a Technicolor snapshot excised from Federico Fellini’s otherwise B&W La Dolce Vita (1960); the daring escape sequence that begins the picture in a monochromatic East Berlin, vaguely reminiscent of the opener from Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1965). There are moments in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as brazenly chic and as devilishly audacious as 1969’s The Italian Job and other sequences that hold a candle to the Connery/Lazenby era of classic Bondian adventures. Second, Ritchie has kept alive just enough of what made the original series memorable, while adding a decidedly contemporary slant to both the story and its action sequences that make it more palpable than mere time capsule. This bodes extremely well for the storytelling – at least, partly. Fair enough, the DePalma-esque split-screen editing employed by James Hebert is a tad heavy-handedly applied; too much conflicting information to take in and digest within a single frame. And I could have easily done without the discombobulating handheld camerawork during the downhill race that caps off the show. This left me unable to settle my gaze on virtually any of the footage without becoming queasy in the pit of my stomach. But otherwise – this kit is nicely put together and slickly packaged with some flashy bling along the way. 
Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer step into the fine-leather shoes of their predecessors as the immaculately groomed and equally as cocky Napoleon and earthy Russian bear colleague, Illya respectively; doing virtually all their own stunts with the aid of some meticulously tricked out machinery and a few briefly doubled inserts, deftly photographed and going for broke by cinematographer, John Mathieson, who is unafraid to hold his tight shots on Cavill and Hammer to illustrate their obvious physical assets. Both Cavill and Hammer are in impeccable shape, as their raucous ‘cute meet’ confrontation inside a cramped public restroom attests; pummeling one another into the stalls and tearing apart virtually all the break-away furnishings. Even more rewarding, Cavill and Hammer look the parts as a cut above the rest for what generally passes as the rugged male animal on screen these days. It is gratifying to finally see a thriller where the leading players are impeccably attired and drop-dead handsome; the villain – uber-bitch, Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) –  in tandem, is cruel, slinky and oozing erotic sex appeal, while contemptuous to a fault and worthy of her comeuppances in the end, and, the leading lady, Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikandercan) is both a turbo-charged sexpot (hints of the classic Bond girl), but also, a lady, eschewing the cliché of the damsel in distress and still contributing to this show.
For the most part, The Man from U.N.C.L.E is a high-octane extravagance with a few improbable twists and just enough saucy dialogue sandwiched in between its showdowns to make it all click as it should. It’s not high art. Then again, why try to be? A popcorn pleaser, it definitely is, and easily one of the most stylish made in the last decade; Daniel Craig’s outings as James Bond included. It helps, Guy Ritchie has left U.N.C.L.E to its Cold War amusements; looking back on that reconstituted ‘reality’ gleaned from the decade’s TV shows and movies rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel with a darker, more joyless impression on the actual period taken from life itself. Ritchie’s verve for mild camp in this mega-budgeted screen adaptation is perfection itself, invigoratingly apart from the mainstream’s slavish aim – and, by my thinking, misfire – to bottle the grim verisimilitude of the actual profession of spying.
Leaving the poisoned umbrellas and cyanide capsules at home, Ritchie just baits us with good, clean fun. We are never meant to take any of this seriously. Mission accomplished. No one could accuse The Man from U.N.C.L.E. for being a hard-boiled Cold War thriller. Instead, it’s a dog and pony show about the mod generation; sleek and spiritedly attired in all the frothy accoutrements of sixties ‘feel good.’ At times, Ritchie seems to be channeling his inspirations from both 1963’s The Pink Panther and James Bond. Miraculously, it is never a strain to suggest these two could operate side by side and, even more remarkably, as equals; Hammer’s expressionless angry young man chronically referring to Cavill’s dapper Dan as ‘cowboy’; Solo returning the favor by repeatedly suggesting Illya’s brutish KGB knows absolutely nothing of subtlety, class or decorum – in short, feeding into the time-honored movie cliché of the sexless/joyless and charm-free Russian thug muscle. There is a reason why hyperbole – done right – still works; the screenplay co-authored by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram instinctually knowing which chestnuts to pluck and ply to their craft.
So easily, it could have gone the other way. Indeed, producer, John Davis had optioned the film rights to the sixties franchise all the way back in 1993; setting up a development deal with Warner Bros. and series producer, Norman Felton. But the process by which Davis and the studio would both be satisfied was hard won, going through fourteen drafts of the screenplay over the next twenty years. After the success of Pulp Fiction (1994) it looked as though Quentin Tarantino might write and direct this adaptation. Mercifully, this never happened. I can only shudder to think of the blood-soaked and foul-mouthed adaptation that might have materialized had Tarantino signed on. Instead, other names floated in an out of the rumor mill; directors, Matthew Vaughn and David Dobkin; then, Steven Soderbergh, cribbing from a screenplay by Scott Z. Burns. Warner Bros. initially fought to keep the production budget hovering around $60 million; the final cost to produce The Man from U.N.C.L.E. exceeding it by $15 million. Alas, casting the picture equally proved a nightmare.
At one point, Gaby was to have been played by Emily Blunt – who would have been truly marvelous in the role. But Elizabeth Debicki’s femme fatale was first offered to Rose Byrne, then Charlize Theron, neither actress very much interested in the part. Thankfully, the original idea to cast George Clooney as Napoleon Solo fizzled after Clooney informed the studio he had a bad back and would not be able to fulfill the project’s arduous stunt work. In hindsight, equally a blessing was Tom Cruise’s prior commitments on Mission Impossible 3, preventing him from partaking in this exercise. In the 80’s, Cruise’s star power was Teflon-coated. Arguably, it has never recovered from rumors of inadequacy surrounding his three failed marriages, his charisma as token beefcake at the box office taking a hit and then steadily departing, along with his inevitable youth an afterthought in the rearview.  Of the myriad of other choices bandied about for Napoleon Solo, I can think of only a handful that might have done the part justice: Ewan McGregor, Clive Owen, Jon Hamm and Henry Cavill among them. 
At age 32, the six foot Cavill is in a highly enviable bargaining position in Hollywood; with a sparkling set of blue eyes, dimpled chin, thick mane of jet-black hair and sufficiently muscular to boot; his killer smile, ruggedly masculine either stubbly or clean-shaven, Cavill emerges in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as the sort of leading man Hollywood has not fostered since the male beauties of the early 40’s; Robert Taylor, Cary Grant or Clark Gable, with a dash of Steve McQueen and Steve Reeves thrown in; having broken through to international acclaim, though alas, mostly in predictably mindless actioners and superhero franchises (with more to follow – gag!). Cavill gets more of an opportunity to ‘act’ in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – perhaps, because Guy Ritchie knows he has bought more than just a pretty face and toned body with this package; Ritchie and costumer, Joanna Johnson remaining differently above it all in resisting the urge to give in to the transparency of beefcake as the Bond franchise has increasingly done with the arrival of Daniel Craig. Cavill’s star power is not in his biceps, though it helps his eye-candy status immensely. But he projects an air of austere toughness – nee, ice-watered cruelty, married to a titanic bravado that, on anyone else, would be damn near insufferable, but on him ranks as the height of put-together male studliness. Cavill can also pull off a few lighter bits of comedy with all the panache of Roger Moore. Like Cary Grant, Cavill is not afraid to periodically poke fun at this egocentric image with a wink and a nudge; giving us his interpretation of the cream of the jest before the audience can even guess at it. As such, we laugh with his Napoleon Solo – rather than at him. Here is a man who loves only one thing more than the good life – himself.  Aside: it will be interesting to see how Cavill navigates the course to evolve as an actor of merit.
From the outset, Armie Hammer was cast to play Illya; Hammer’s paternal great-grandmother, Russian-born actress and singer, Olga Vadimovna Vadina.  Hammer’s been less exposed to the elixir of stardom than Cavill and, as such, is not yet considered leading man material. That may change for the actor after this movie as he matches his co-star’s impertinence and arrogance blow for blow and barb for barb; pulling both off with a faux Russian accent. The knee-jerk reaction to this Cold War détente has made these two adversaries uncomfortable partners on a singular mission; Guy Ritchie perhaps trying a little too heavy-handedly, especially in the early scenes, to turn out Hammer’s KGB as the sort of stereotypical assassin a la Richard Kiel’s superhuman Jaws from The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). There is even a scene where Hammer’s Illya manages to rip off the trunk hatch of Gaby and Solo’s getaway car; flinging what would otherwise be a fairly heavy hunk of metal into the air as though it were a plastic Frisbee. Thankfully, the rest of the movie does not play as fast and loose with the big bad Ruskie; Hammer stepping up to the plate, and playing some unexpected bits of comedy with great restraint and an instinct for knowing exactly where the emphasis ought to be – either on the comedy or the tenderness. As example: the scene where Illya repeated falls for Gaby’s drunken seductions, his face slapped every time he anticipates a kiss. Given Illya’s predilection toward violence exhibited earlier – and without even an ounce of provocation – we perhaps expect Illya now to get tough with Gaby, or, at the very least, fling her like a rag doll onto the bed, leading directly into a predictably hot and heavy love scene. Unusually, the script disappoints on this score – Gaby’s slaps somewhat emasculating instead; the subsequent tussle between Gaby and Illya ending with Gaby passed out on the floor after having consumed far too much alcohol; Illya, gingerly depositing her unconscious body on the bed with all the doting regard of a loyal brother.  
After a rather frenetic main title sequence with far too much backstory unravelling before our eyes to keep the names above or below the titles in focus, our story opens in 1963. We meet professional thief cum CIA agent, Napoleon Solo, ordered by his superior, the curmudgeonly Sanders (Jared Harris) to get Gaby Teller out from behind the Iron Curtain. Gaby is the daughter of nuclear physicist, Udo Teller (Christian Berkel); a defector, presently working for the Nazis, but turned inside collaborator for the U.S. at the end of WWII. Solo is the epitome of masculine chic; put together like a GQ centerfold with all the trappings of today’s enterprising metrosexual and the unbearable handsomeness to sell it to virtually any woman he chooses to seduce. Alas, he lacks an understanding heart – replaced herein by a coolly sarcasm and enterprising desire to loosen the federal government’s yolk around his neck. He will do their bidding so long as there is a little carrot attached for him. But Solo bites off more than he can chew when Gaby turns out to be a fairly aggressive, street-savvy and sinfully sexy no nonsense gal. She can definitely handle herself in a tight situation. Almost immediately, Solo puts her into one; a daring escape through the narrow streets of East Berlin, pursued by Russian agent, Illya Kuryakin, who narrowly manages to steal Gaby back. This one-upmanship will become a running gag throughout The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; Ritchie tugging on the old ‘mine’s bigger than yours is’ male chest-thumping while illustrating the strengths and weaknesses each man possesses, thus setting up how their latter day détente will prove a match made in spy heaven…or some such place.
Returning to the relative safety of his home base, Solo is put in an unlikely position by Saunders; forced to work with Illya to unearth the whereabouts of a nuclear bomb. The clock is ticking – literally, as Gaby’s uncle, Rudi (Sylvester Groth) may hold the key. And so, after placating Gaby with a trend-setting wardrobe to soften the blow, Solo lays it on the line for her. She will fake a surprise engagement to Illya for Rudi’s benefit; the couple arriving separately from Solo in Rome and Solo posing as an antiquities dealer; the trio attending a ‘by invitation only’ Formula-1 race, hosted by shipping magnets, Alexander (Luca Calvani) and Victoria Vinciguerra; a wealthy couple rumored to be Nazi sympathizers. Unbeknownst to anyone, the jetsetters are holding Udo prisoner until he completes their doomsday device. Up to his old heist tricks, Solo effortlessly swipes his invitation from British MI6 commander, Waverly (Hugh Grant); then, proceeds to lighten several guests, including Victoria, of their priceless jewelry. She is moderately impressed by his stealth but doesn’t let her obvious attraction to Solo muddle her thinking. In the meantime, Alexander flirts with Gaby after she illustrates a deft ability to tune up his racing car at a moment’s glance.
Told by Solo they will be tested in their cover, Illya allows two seemingly amateurish street hustlers to swipe his most prized possession: his father’s watch. However, back at their hotel suite, Illya develops the radiation-sensitive film he shot while at the races. Its ‘hot’ images prove unequivocally the Vinciguerras are up to something. Armed with this evidence, Solo and Illya begrudgingly conspire to break into the Vinciguerra shipyards under the cover of night, hoping to discover the bomb on site. Alas, the laboratories have been relocated. Only traces of uranium are found on the premises. Regrettably, Solo inadvertently sets off the company alarm, forcing him and Illya to launch into a daring escape by breaking a window on the second floor and blindly diving out it. Regrettably, both men fall short of the getaway boat docked outside; making their way to the moored speeder and eventually pulling away as a small army of security guards open fire on them. Illya is too late to make the most of their departure; the locks automatically sealed, creating a sort of giant bathtub of water. In narrowly averting an oncoming boat, Solo is thrown into the water, resurfacing unnoticed and managing to swim to shore. Patiently, he waits until Illya has all but exhausted his possibilities of escape, before casually driving a truck off the pier. It lands flat on the security guard’s boat, sinking it to the bottom of the water. Diving into the murky waters after Illya, who has been knocked unconscious by the blast, Solo manages to spare his life.  
Although Victoria suspects Solo and Illya of this botched break-in, the pair manages to slip past her henchmen waiting for them at the hotel and return to their respective suites unnoticed. To further cover up their activities, Solo seduces Victoria into bed. It is an almost perfect covert operation, except the next afternoon, Udo unexpectedly betrays Illya to Rudi and Alexander. Unaware their cover has been blown Solo walks into a trap; sedated and taken hostage by Victoria. Now, he awakens bound to a homemade electric chair in an experimental lab, Victoria allowing Rudi to conduct his wartime Nazi medical experiments on him. Aside: it has become something of ‘the fashion’ for every actioner made in the last twenty years to produce a fanny-twitching sequence in which our hero’s threshold for pain is tested. I have grown a little weary of these ‘torture’ scenes. By now, they are old hat at best, and hackneyed endeavors at their worst, primitively designed to humanize men of action who, by their very definition, ought to be able to take it on the chin, nose, balls and any other body parts one should so choose to brutalize with relish, yet still walk away relatively unharmed and – on occasion – not even terribly bruised; apart from one’s own vanity. And so, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. has Cavill’s put-together spy-hunk put through the ringer; strapped into this electrocution device, with Rudi giving us a big build-up to an anticipated torture sequence never to fully materialize. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was released prior to the latest Bond feature, Spectre, sporting a remarkably similar torture sequence. Arguably, Daniel Craig’s Bond set the template for such sequences with his ball-busting vignette in Casino Royale (2006).
Even more predictably, the torture device in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is turned on Rudi to give him a taste of his own medicine after Illya infiltrates the secret hideaway by tracking Solo with a Russian-made homer hidden in his shoe. Herein, Guy Ritchie is, I think, going for the sort of sophomoric humor Tarantino invoked in Pulp Fiction; the scene where John Travolta’s Vincent Vega accidentally discharges his gun in the face of his unsuspecting recent captive, Marvin (Phil LaMarr) immediately coming to mind. In The Man from U.N.C.L.E. we get the opportunity to witness the electric chair’s grotesque malfunction. It shorts out and literally incinerates Rudi while Solo and Illya stand only a few feet away debating the finer points of pumping this known Nazi war criminal for vital information; both apparently oblivious to the fact Rudi has already been ignited in a hellish fireball, thus rendering their debate moot. In the meantime, Victoria takes Gaby hostage, reuniting her with Udo on her private island. Udo is, in fact, a double agent, working for the British. Father and daughter share a brief reunion, Gaby slipping the wrong lens into the bomb’s tracking system; Victoria recognizing the ruse (as both Udo and Gaby are double agents), and thereafter hurrying Gaby off in a Jeep towards the mainland; then, assassinating Udo once he has corrected the planned sabotage of the warhead.
Solo and Illya are confronted by Waverly, who reveals himself to be a high-ranking MI6 operative. Explaining how Gaby is really working for him, Waverly is given permission by their respective governments to use Solo and Illya to invade the Vinciguerra’s island retreat, along with a small unit of Royal Marines. Alexander takes Gaby by force on a daring escape along with the fake warhead. Illya – on motorcycle – and Solo, driving a supped up dune buggy, make chase across craggy and heavily forested terrain; their vehicles eventually colliding with and overturning Alexander’s getaway vehicle. Realizing the tracking device in the decoy can be reprogrammed to hone in on the actual bomb; Solo keeps Victoria on the telephone just long enough for the Marines to lock onto the coordinates of her innocuous-looking fishing trawler; the impact of the blast not enough to set off the real nuclear bomb, but ultimately killing Victoria in the process.
Their mission at an end, Illya’s superiors instruct him to show no mercy toward the ‘American’. With the threat of exile to Siberia looming overhead, Illya arrives at Solo’s suite, intent on killing him to obtain Udo’s research.  However, having already anticipated the purpose for his visit, Solo has planned ahead and is prepared to kill Illya instead – but only, if necessary; first brokering his favor by restoring to him his father’s watch, recovered by Solo during the invasion of Victoria’s island retreat.  To satisfy both their government’s interests, thus allowing them to remain ‘friends’, Solo and Illya agree to destroy Udo’s research. A short while later, the men, along with Gaby, toast an end to their mission with champagne. Too bad, Waverly has other ideas; intruding upon the trio to inform them of another international brouhaha in Istanbul for which both the American and Soviet governments have authorized him the use of their top agents to get the job done. The irony, that east meets west is not over yet, causes Solo, Illya and Gaby to scowl; each powerless to refuse this new order.
With its’ superb buddy/buddy chemistry married to some straight-laced genre shtick and brisk campiness, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. stays mostly on course as the coolest customer in town; the quintessence of that bright and breezy, all-fizz, though some cola, summer blockbuster teeming with sun-drenched vistas and elegantly attired extras. Mixing up the conventions of the spy thriller, the actioner and the pseudo-romantic comedy, the picture is stitched together with Guy Ritchie’s expertise for solidly crafted matinee crowd-pleasing/escapist entertainment; exactly the sort of medicine to leave an admirably clean aftertaste that countermands our sour generation’s dearth of dark and depressing adventure yarns. I thoroughly enjoyed the picture for what it is – mindless fluff – rather than for what it ostensibly is aspiring to be; a valiant competitor to either the Bond or Mission Impossible franchises. There’s no competition here. Ritchie’s aim to entertain is solid and his principles are exactly what the doctor ordered. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is sleek, sophisticated, playfully obtuse and deliciously amusing. Let’s all hope this one gets a sequel.  
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is predictably impressive, preserving veteran British cinematographer, John Mathieson digital imagery to a tee, deliberately invoking blown-out contrast levels and an ever so slight, though deliberate teal bias for this rich and invigorating palette. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. veers in its visual extremes, from foreboding and almost monochromatic East Berlin to impossibly luxuriating Mediterranean lushness.  This 1080p image is dappled in vibrant watercolor shades reproduced with appetizing brilliance. Contrast is superb, with zero black crush. Grain is practically nonexistent – not surprising, considering the whole production was shot using a variety of grain-concealing digital cameras; Arri Alexa Plus, and several Canon models, plus a GoPro. Warner has infused this disc with an impressive Dolby Atmos 7.1 mix; sonically saturating the acoustic nerve with a complimentary environment to the visuals provided herein.  Dialogue is always crisp; effects during the more bombastic fight sequences really giving your speakers a workout.  Great stuff.  Extras amount to an impressively amassed series of junkets produced during filming; all of them presented in full 1080p, covering the creation of the movie, a look inside its’ character development, and celebrating the style of the sixties. Again, I really enjoyed this film: ditto for this disc – a nicely packed and intelligently produced offering from WB just before the holiday rush. Bottom line: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a solid ‘stocking stuffer’ for the armchair action guy in your family. Highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)