Friday Roundup: Man From U.N.C.L.E., Heather Stewart, Morrissey’s novel, and Sparks

Fall is here! New York is still on the warm side, but the weather seems to be leaning strongly in a general downward direction, and that’s surely a good thing. I’m hiding out in Queens today to avoid Pope-related crowds and confusion, I’m heading upstate tomorrow for a last-minute micro-short vacation, and all is more or less well.

This is the best worst thing ever. I ordered a couple of Man From U.N.C.L.E. paperback novels from an eBay vendor, and he threw in an amazing bonus: a 250-page fully-illustrated hardcover children’s book: “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Calcutta Affair” by George S. Elrick. The illustrator is uncredited, which is a crying shame; there’s a full-color illustration on every page (so, roughly 125 illustrations), and they’re marvelous. The plot, which follows Napoleon and Illya as they battle the evil forces of T.H.R.U.S.H. in India, is strangely brutal for a kid’s book; Napoleon and Illya, so glib and mild-natured on the show, come across as, oh, a wee bit psychotic.

For instance, here’s Napoleon shooting a poor mouse in his hotel room:

Here’s Illya torturing a T.H.R.U.S.H. agent:

The hell, guys? Really, all the drawings are hilarious and awesome. I’d proudly wear a t-shirt emblazoned with any of these (and, indeed, would promptly start up a Café Press shop featuring shirts with these designs, were it not for the issue of grievous copyright infringement):

Speaking of U.N.C.L.E…. I finally saw Guy Ritchie’s big-screen Man From U.N.C.L.E. film last weekend. I knew going in that I’d have to be very, very careful about managing my expectations: I have a knee-jerk tendency to view reboots and remakes with deep suspicion (my skin gets hot and prickly at any mention of the oft-proposed live-action American remake of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, aka The Most Awesome Movie Ever Made, which is something that just fills my soul with weary dread), and, in the case of U.N.C.L.E., I feel protective of the (wonderful) source material. So at the start of the movie, my strategy was to view it as a completely separate entity from the TV show and regard it entirely on its own merits.

I abandoned this strategy about ten minutes in, when it became apparent that, instead of trying to create a completely separate entity from the TV show, Guy Ritchie was flat-out hardcore trolling fans of the TV show. Oh, man. Wow. Can we talk about Illya? Quirky, strange, cool Illya Kuryakin, as played by David McCallum. Iconic and beloved Illya, who drove teen viewers mad with lust in the sixties. Illya, possessor of the following core character traits:

a) He’s always cool and composed, bordering on icy cold.
b) He’s physically small, with a petite build (his enemies call him “scrawny”).
c) He’s mysterious—apart from knowing he’s a Soviet national with degrees from Cambridge and the Sorbonne, we’re given no specific details about his past.

So for the movie, Ritchie gave us a version of Illya with these core traits:
a) He’s brooding and angry, prone to bursts of uncontrolled psychotic rage.
b) He’s a behemoth, capable of feats of amazing physical strength—for instance, he can yank the whole back bumper off of a moving car.
c) He’s got a tragic backstory, which is explained in detail to the audience in the first act of the film.

Wait, what? That’s… that’s the diametric opposite of Illya. This is keenly, diabolically designed to get under the skins of fans of the original series. This is world-class trolling, Ritchie. World-class. I reluctantly doff my hat to you.

I like Armie Hammer. He’s a good actor, and he gets big points for being the only cast member who admits to having watched episodes of the series for research. I can only assume, though, that he watched episodes and compared them to the film script while blinking rapidly in confusion, because series-Illya and movie-Illya are two very, very disparate creatures, and never the twain shall meet. I’m going to point you again to Sarah Kurchak’s insightful AV Club piece on this very topic. From Kurchak’s essay:

The script, written by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, strips Kuryakin of almost everything that made him so appealing originally. His fondness for strong-willed women remains, but the mystery is replaced with too much backstory and his brains are replaced with superhuman brawn. He’s no longer an alternative to Solo; he’s Napoleon with a Russian accent and blond (and far too stylized) hair, 2015’s answer to everything that left the character’s original fans uninspired and unsatisfied.”

(Couldn’t they at least get the hair right? I thought to myself sadly in the movie theater. Just give him bangs. That’s all I’m asking for.)

Anthony Lane, in his New Yorker review of the film, says of the TV series: “Unlike the film, it reveled in a paucity of backstory, and David McCallum’s Kuryakin, in particular, remained as lightly mysterious as his hair. In a calamitous shift of emphasis, Ritchie turns Kuryakin into a semi-psychotic. Hammer tightens his fist, struggling not to explode and clearly wishing that he could run back to ‘The Social Network’ and hide.”

Anyway. For the record, I liked Hugh Grant’s take on Mr. Waverly quite a bit; it was a fresh and very different interpretation of the character (for starters, Leo G. Carroll was a septuagenarian when he first played Waverly, whereas Grant is a well-preserved and strangely boyish fifty-five), but it made sense. I don’t have much of an opinion on Henry Cavill’s Napoleon, much as I don’t have much of an opinion on Cavill’s Superman, other than to think both roles could’ve benefitted from the lighter and more charismatic touch of Cavill’s near-doppelganger Matt Bomer instead.

My friend Heather Stewart—actor, singer, songwriter, producer, amazing human—will have her original song “If I Can’t Take You With Me” featured on NCIS (hey, speaking of David McCallum…) on Tuesday, September 29th. 8:00 PM, CBS. I’ve known Heather since our days together working in the salt mines of E!’s Talk Soup in the late 1990s (actually, that was a very cool, laid-back workplace, and hardly ever analogous to a salt mine at all); smart, kind and funny, she’s a sheer delight to know. 

Morrissey wrote a novel, and holy hell, it sounds awful. This Slate article analyzes a single (terrible) sentence in the book; I’d reprint the sentence here, because it is joyously, breathtakingly bad, but Slate’s Jessica Winter deserves the clicks for her coverage of this.

Morrissey makes me think of Sparks, the brilliant duo behind such tunes as “Lighten Up Morrissey”, so I’m going to leave you with their 1974 single “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us”:

Enjoy the fall. See you next week.


DKoren said…
hahah! Love the "gentle persuasion" illustration! Classic! How awesome that extra is that they sent you! I would sooooo wear a t-shirt with the "why don't you amble over" frame. Happily.

And this is why I'm so glad I saw the UNCLE movie before I ever saw an ep and before you started writing reviews... I had absolutely no notion of who the characters were or what to expect. Ignorance was bliss, and I had zero comparisons to make, so took it at face value. I can see how after watching the series first, the movie would be a whole different kettle of fish! I totally get what you're saying and probably would have felt the same way myself. But I lucked out and got the best of both worlds: able to appreciate the movie as is, and now I also have the series to look forward to to increase my appreciation of the marvelousness of 60's television!

And that is sooooo cool about your friend's song appearing on NCIS! Congrats to her!
Morgan Richter said…
The illustrations (and the accompanying story, for that matter) sent me into gales of laughter. The book is amazing.

Yeah, it's always dangerous to see a movie based on something that you're close to. Ignorance would've been bliss in this case. The film and the movie are very, very different beasts.

Four of Heather's songs will also be used in a romantic comedy with the fabulous title "Seeking Dolly Parton", which comes out today on Vimeo. I don't know anything about it, but she's been on a roll with her songwriting and singing lately.
DKoren said…
That is so exciting about your friend's songs! I love hearing such good news!
Hamlette said…
The air conditioning's not working! Oh my goodness, that is so random and hilarious. This was a big plot point that needed illustrating? Oh my!

And like DKoren, I think I'm glad I saw the movie first, because I dearly love it, and might not have otherwise. Then again, I've been a fan of the old Lone Ranger show for as long as I can remember, and I love the 2013 movie too, even though it is wildly, wackily different from the TV and radio shows. So you never know. But still, I think it's better this way.

I've been really wondering about Illya, though -- because in the movie he's such damaged goods, which draws me like catnip, but my mom almost never ever ever ever ever ever likes damaged characters, and she adored TV-Illya so much, so I was kind of guessing they added his backstory and problems.
Morgan Richter said…
Hamlette--yeah, I think I would've had a very different experience with the movie if I'd never seen the TV series. TV-Illya is an odd bird, but he seems pretty well adjusted (albeit very cold), and again, we know nothing about his backstory. It's not even clear in the series that he's ex-KGB, though that's a reasonable enough assumption, given his skills set. More than Napoleon (who, in the TV show, is not a former burglar, nor is he former CIA), TV-Illya is a completely different character than he was in the movie.
Hamlette said…
The only other Ritchie films I've seen are his two about Sherlock Holmes, and there again he did some radical adjustment to characters, especially Holmes. But within his story frame, they worked. I think maybe the same goes here -- Illya is very different, but within this story, it works. Almost like an alternate universe thing going on, if that makes sense? This is Illya as he could have been if...

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