Friday, September 25, 2015

Worth Mentioning - The Ian Fleming's Solo Affair

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody watches spies and Nicolas Cage fights the supernatural.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

A television series that ran on NBC for four seasons, from 1964 to 1968, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is one of the many examples of spy entertainment that flooded the market in the wake of the success of the early James Bond 007 films. It had one element that set it apart from the pack, though - James Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, also contributed ideas for U.N.C.L.E. during its development. Writer Sam Rolfe and executive producer Norman Felton deserve most of the credit for how the show turned out, but Fleming offered up some story ideas and helped create the lead character. A character he named Napoleon Solo (he obviously liked the name Solo, because it also turned up in Goldfinger). At one point, the show was even going to be called Ian Fleming's Solo.

Unfortunately, I have never seen the 1960s U.N.C.L.E. TV show. The U.N.C.L.E. moment I'm most familiar with comes from the 1983 TV movie The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair, which features a scene where Napoleon Solo, as played by Robert Vaughn, crosses paths with a British secret agent played by one-time James Bond (On Her Majesty's Secret Service) George Lazenby, not-too-subtly reprising the role.

So while watching the recently released big screen adaptation of the series, directed by Guy Ritchie from a screenplay he wrote with Lionel Wigram, I couldn't compare the portrayals of the characters or the tone of the film to the way the material was brought to the screen fifty years ago. I could only take it on its own terms, and on its own terms I found it to be decently entertaining.

Henry "Man of Steel" Cavill stars, and since he got very close to being cast as James Bond for the 2006 007 film Casino Royale, it seems appropriate that he has ended up playing a different Fleming character. The '60s-set story finds his CIA agent Napoleon Solo being assigned to reluctantly team up with KGB operative Illya Kuryakin, played by Armie Hammer, to stop nuclear weapons from getting into the wrong hands. Those wrong hands belong to second generation Nazi/shipping magnate Alexander Vinciguerra (Luca Calvani) and his wife Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki), the true villain of the piece. The Vinciguerras have abducted rocket scientist Udo Teller, the brother of one of their employees, to force him to make uranium for them. Udo's long-lost daughter Gaby (Alicia Vikander) is enlisted to help them infiltrate the Vinciguerras' business and social circles so they can retrieve Udo and his research from them.

Cavill gives a drily amusing performance as the cooler-than-cool Solo, while Hammer's Kuryakin is a bit of stiff and Vikander brings an intriguing presence to the film.

The script is nothing to write home about, but Ritchie and cinematographer John Mathieson did bring it to the screen with a cool retro-meets-modern visual style.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. didn't do especially well in the United States, and I can understand why. The title isn't exactly a draw these days, and the film does come off as underwhelming compared to the trailers - it's not nearly as much of a comedic action romp as it appeared to be. For the most part, it's a rather sedate movie, and when the action does come it's oddly lacking in thrills. Still, I found it enjoyable as a whole.

It's no James Bond or Mission: Impossible, but if you're in the mood to watch a spy flick, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. isn't a bad one to put on.


Nicolas Cage has a tendency to go over-the-top, a fact which has become overwhelming in his public perception and has become a major deciding factor in whether or not you're a fan of his acting. You either want to see him play to the back row, or you've grown tired of it. Although I felt he was miscast as my favorite Marvel Comics character (Ghost Rider) and he sometimes goes too far into silliness for me (The Wicker Man remake), I enjoy watching Cage at work. Even when he goes too far, at least he always brings an energy to his roles.

When it was announced that Cage would be starring in a supernatural horror movie, I imagined that it would be another case of him going way over-the-top as he faced off with the film's ghostly presence. So I was surprised when I watched Pay the Ghost and found little evidence of Cage's quirks. In this film, he plays it straight and down-to-earth, normal hairstyle and all.

Cage's character Mike Lawford is a workaholic English professor seeking tenure at NYU. The only time Cage puts any real flourish into his performance is when Mike is reading Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's The Erlking to his class, and that poem, about a father who can't perceive the evil force threatening his child, is fitting for this point in Mike's life, because his preoccupation with work has made him unaware of the fact that an evil force is threatening his own son, Charlie (Jack Fulton).

When Mike and Charlie go to a carnival on Halloween night, the boy mysteriously asks his father, "Can we pay the ghost?" Then he disappears, snatched away by the otherworldly, cloaked figure he has seen lurking around... And not even the fact that Cage is dressed in a cowboy costume during this scene is enough to add levity into this film.

Jump ahead to the next October. As the one year anniversary of Charlie's disappearance nears and it becomes more clear to Mike and his wife Kristen (Sarah Wayne Callies) that there is something supernatural at work here, the phrase "Pay the ghost" turns out to be the key to solving the mystery of not only what happened to Charlie but what has been happening to children in New York City every Halloween night for centuries.

Pay the Ghost is based on a novella by Tim Lebbon that I haven't read, but the film adaptation - written by Dan Kay and directed by Uli Edel - feels more like it was directly inspired by Sinister and Insidious. While an intriguing back story is concocted to explain the child abductions, every horror element in the film has been lifted from a previous movie. There's spectral children hanging around, the visit by a medium, a moment of possession shot in a way that reminded me of the famous head turn from The Exorcist, and it all builds up to Mike having to journey into another dimension lorded over by an evil creature to retrieve his lost son.

Sure, these types of movies usually do have some similarities, but here the mix and match from other things is a bit too much because it's all done in a lesser manner. Despite the fact that Edel and cinematographer Sharone Meir achieved a dark, atmospheric look for the film and the great composer Joseph LoDuca put in a strong effort, none of the chills and scares are effective because the movie is just going through the genre motions. There's even a scene where a character's enjoyment of a golden oldie is disrupted by a ghostly occurrence. We've seen all of this before.

Cage and Callies deliver solid performances and have some nice dramatic scenes to work with, just don't go into this film expecting any hint of "crazy Cage". His Mike is a very average guy who has been beaten down by a year of stress and worry, so Cage appropriately shows more restraint than usual.

Pay the Ghost is technically well made and the story is interesting overall, but I was never drawn in, never invested in what was going on because it seemed to me like the filmmakers were just saying, "This sort of thing worked in that other movie, let's toss it in here." If you can get past the retread aspect, there is some entertainment to be had, but it is a very middle-of-the-road movie. It'd be a fine film to include in an October horror viewing spree, but if you're short on time you'd be better off sticking with the movies it's attempting to emulate.

The Pay the Ghost review originally appeared on

In addition to writing reviews and daily news articles for Arrow in the Head, I'm now writing the Face-Off features there. Face-Offs are posted every Wednesday. To see what movies or characters I pit against each other, keep an eye on this page.

So far I've covered Unbreakable vs. Signs and Cannibal Holocaust vs. Cannibal Ferox.

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