Spies who look good

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is sexy without being sexist, funny but not a spoof

Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, which stars Olivia Cooke and RJ Cyler, is a coming-of-age story of an aspiring teen film-maker.
Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, which stars Olivia Cooke and RJ Cyler, is a coming-of-age story of an aspiring teen film-maker.PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
The Man From U.N.C.L.E stars Alicia Vikander and Armie Hammer.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E stars Alicia Vikander and Armie Hammer. PHOTOS: SHAW ORGANISATION, WARNER BROS
In Absolutely Anything, Simon Pegg and Kate Beckinsale exhibit a strong dynamic.
In Absolutely Anything, Simon Pegg and Kate Beckinsale exhibit a strong dynamic.PHOTOS: SHAW ORGANISATION, WARNER BROS

Can a spy movie have jokes without becoming a spoof? Can it feature sexy women without being sexist, and glamorous European locations without it looking like a series of pretty postcards?

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (PG13, 117, opens tomorrow, ) walks the tightrope with grace. As anyone who has watched Johnny Depp vehicle The Tourist (2010) might tell you, there is more to a spy thriller than a couple of winning smiles, nice frocks and the sun-dappled Italian coast.

A longish opening sequence that explains the Cold War and the divided state of Germany in the 1960s opens the film, which thinks it necessary to lay out the post-war map than assume the audience will know what the words "Berlin Wall" and "Checkpoint Charlie" mean.

That opening exposition is entertainment in itself. Director Guy Ritchie montages jazz and R&B with graphics and archive footage to present history as an action scene. Ritchie is not quite up there with Steven Soderbergh at his Ocean's Eleven best at packaging exposition as entertainment - the narration lacks the wryness - but Ritchie at least never lets characters talk narrative when he can show it.

And there is a lot of background stuff to get through in this origin story that introduces secret agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and his frenemy Russian counterpart Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer).

The movie does not just pop them in, fully formed and ready to dive into their first caper. Writers Lionel Wigram and Ritchie give them family backgrounds and how they came to be teamed with East German mechanic Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), estranged daughter of a nuclear scientist working for a group of Nazi sympathisers.

The plot is largely inconsequential. The trio bask in grand Italian suites, show up at chic parties, shop for clothes and occasionally break into a secret lair or two, all while looking really good.

The debonair Solo never passes up a chance to bed hotel employees or forgo a slice of truffle while the tightly wound Kuryakin burns with contempt for the reckless American.

The square-jawed embodiments of the Iron Curtain and Uncle Sam bicker interestingly, mixing personal insults with cultural digs, with Gaby butting in as the level-headed one. The tempering influence of the characters of Gaby and the villainess Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) forces Ritchie to trust in understatement.

Cavill, Hammer and Vikander make a reasonably fun team, but their chemistry does not quite have the effervescence demanded of them by the banter, elegant locations, Paco Rabanne belts and Dior dresses.

That shortfall becomes most apparent when British comic actor Hugh Grant steps in as British spymaster Waverly. The moment he shows up, it clicks: There should be five more of him in the movie to give it the buoyancy it needs.

There is good-natured British wackiness aplenty in Absolutely Anything (NC16, 86 minutes, opens tomorrow, ), a silly romp about browbeaten teacher Neil Clarke (Simon Pegg) given the power to have anything he desires by aliens conducting random tests on the moral fibre of humans.

While moderately funny, with the bonus of a strong dynamic between Pegg and Kate Beckinsale, playing his neighbour and love interest Catherine, this work stands out for the names in its cast.

It has one of comedian Robin Williams' final performances, as the voice of Neil's dog Dennis after the power of speech is wished upon him. Comedian Eddie Izzard is also here, in top form as the tyrannical school principal.

The other remarkable fact is that the film brings together, for the first time since 1983, all the remaining members of the Monty Python comedy team. Terry Jones directs, co-writes and cameos (and does a decent job in all three), with Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Michael Palin and John Cleese voicing the computer-graphics aliens.

This is not a Python-branded movie, nor does it come close to the heights of a Monty Python And The Holy Grail (1975), but in the troll-like nastiness of the aliens, there is more than a trace of sour absurdism that made the troupe so special.

This year's Sundance sensation, however, manages to combine sweetness and gallows humour in almost perfect amounts. Me And Earl And The Dying Girl (PG13, 105 minutes, opens tomorrow,

) won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, the same two wins Whiplash (2014) earned before it went on to nab an Oscar for supporting actor J.K. Simmons.

Like Whiplash, Earl is a coming- of-age story, seen from the point of view of teen aspiring film-maker Greg (Thomas Mann), forced by his mother ("The Lebron James of nagging," he narrates) to spend time with family friend Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who is dying of cancer.

The illness provides plenty of drama and the jokes are feather-light, coming mostly from the variety of high-school and parental oddballs that beset the put-upon Greg, whom Mann plays with a wonderfully mopey physicality, his rounded shoulders looking as if they would snap from the weight of his woes.

From Taiwan comes another dramedy of teen bonding. But unlike Earl's preoccupation with the meaning of teen life, the issue here is money.

Meeting Dr Sun (PG, 94 minutes, opens tomorrow, ) sees a group of poverty-stricken male high schoolers who plan to steal their school's statue of Dr Sun Yat-Sen for scrap value. Kid hijinks, however, never run smoothly.

Writer-director Yee Chih-yen tries to mould a slapstick-laced teen caper movie around a message of social inequality and its effects on the family.

That concept, like the theft the kids devise, looks great on paper, but getting it off the ground proves to be something else altogether.

Meeting Dr Sun is showing only at The Projector, Golden Mile Tower, Beach Road.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2015, with the headline 'Spies who look good'. Subscribe