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Allied (2016)

alliedposterForgive me the indulgence but please hear me out on this peculiar observation. In 2005, Brad Pitt stars in a movie where his onscreen wife may be a spy and he may need to kill her, and his marriage to Jennifer Aniston ended shortly thereafter. Flash forward over ten years and Pitt is starring in another movie where his onscreen wife may be a spy and he may need to kill her, and his marriage to Angelina Jolie is now coming to a reported end. Obviously there are extenuating circumstances in something so personal as relationships, but if I was Pitt’s agent, I think I might advise against all future projects that even come too close to this cursed storyline. Allied wasn’t worth it, pal.

In 1942, Max (Pitt) and Marianne (Marion Cotillard) are husband and wife and also spies for the British government. They’re enjoying life back home with their infant daughter Anna when Max gets some startling news. His superior officers are investigating whether Marianne is secretly a German spy. He is to learn for himself what is real and if she is indeed a spy Max is ordered to kill her or he himself will be executed for treason.

allied2Allied already starts dangerously when the majority of its opening act is set during WWII Casablanca, setting up an unwinnable comparison. We’re meant to watch these two secret agents go about their clandestine operation and fall in love. One of those things happens. Oh sure, for the purposes of the plot, Max and Marianne fall in love, but no member of the audience is going to believe what they see. Pitt and Cotillard have anemic chemistry together and their characters are too stilted to draw us in (rumors of an onset romance between the stars seem unfounded by the results on screen). They achieve their first act mission, get their kill, but they don’t really encounter complications. It all proceeds just a little too easily and we fail to get a sense of their capabilities as spies. They practice the cover of husband and wife but only in superficial appearances that come across more like Marianne chiding Max (“A real husband would offer his wife a cigarette first”). I recognize that these people are spies and thrown into danger but we need to invest in them as characters if the rest of the movie is supposed to matter, let alone their relationship together. There are no supporting characters of importance. Lizzy Caplan (Masters of Sex) pops up as Max’s lesbian sister and you’d swear she’d have some significance, but nope. When Max is investigating Marianne, it never feels like the pieces are coming together. Rather it feels like we’re just getting new pieces, some lucky and some less so. The plotting feels too disjointed and arbitrary. Screenwriter Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Peaky Blinders) is one of the best working in the industry, especially when it comes to crime thrillers and naturally drawing out tension. I expected more from him with Allied, but then that will be a trend with several aspects of this mediocre movie.

Here’s the problem with this premise: it’s too limiting. Either Marianne is a spy or she isn’t, and if she isn’t that makes for boring drama. You’re stuck so more and more obstacles have to be put in place to merely delay the inevitable reveal because that’s all the movie had. A solution could have been an Act Two break that revealed Pitt’s character to be the real spy, allowing the audience to reflect back on his action with a new lens of understanding. The crux of Act Three would then be Max’s moral dilemma of whether he turns himself or whether he frames his wife and in doing so erases evidence against himself. It would be a far more challenging and ethically murky scenario than a rather rote finale where the characters follow their predestined paths. I also think summary execution of a spy is a waste considering the value of covert information or even posing as a triple agent. I think the entire story should be told from a different perspective (okay, now spoilers). Little Anna is far too young to know what happened to her mother and I imagine there will need to be a cover story even for the official cover story. My pitch would be tell this story in the mid 1960s when Anna is now in her early twenties and discovering the larger world. She starts to come across testimony or nagging pieces of evidence that contradict her father’s story of what happened to Marianne, and her death now seems very mysterious. As she uncovers the old evidence she learns that her own parents were spies, a truth that had been kept from her, and all the evidence points to dad being the killer. The Act Three confrontation between harried father and daughter would then reveal the actual truth and that Marianne took her own life out of guilt and a desire to spare her husband punishment from his remorseless superiors. The lie was meant to comfort but now it discombobulates a family and a woman’s understanding of her parents and her relationship to them (end spoilers). Doesn’t that sound like a better version of Allied, dear reader? I certainly think so.

Director Robert Zemeckis (Flight, The Walk) is such a skilled craftsmen but this movie just gets away from him. You sense his urge to insert effects sequences into what should be an ordinary period thriller, and so we get distracting sequences that either rip you from the reality of the movie or might make you titter unintentionally. Max and Marianne’s coupling scene involves having sex in the front seat of their stranded car in the middle of a sandstorm. It would have been far more effective and possibly erotic if the camera had merely stayed in that confined space and let the building passion bubble over, all while the light becomes more and more faint from the sand storm, adding all sorts of sensual lighting opportunities with obfuscation and shadows. Instead, Zemeckis has a rotating camera shot that goes on for about a minute steady without cuts and zooms in and out of the car, inside and outside the dusty sand storm. It stops any sensuality from building. Another example if that Anna is born during the Blitz, and yet again instead of being in a small space and leaving more up to the imagination, Zemeckis and his special effects team have to recreate the air assault which increases the melodrama in a bad direction. Zemeckis has never really done a straight thriller and I can feel his flagging interest as he searches for special effects sequences to hold onto as some sort of anchor. I don’t think his skillset was the right balance for this story and the execution it needed to prosper.

allied-pitt-cotillardIt really doesn’t feel like Pitt (The Big Short) wants to be in this movie at all. Rarely have I seen this lethargic a performance from usually one of the most reliable actors in Hollywood. Part of it is the withdrawn and conspicuous nature of his spy character but it’s more than that. I don’t know if he feels like he understands his character or is that committed to the script, and so it feels like he’s just coasting and waiting for the end. It reminded me of the disastrous Oscar hosting duties from a sleepy James Franco and an overcompensating Anne Hathaway. Cotilard’s character is the gregarious and charming one, and so it feels like she has to do all the heavy lifting to compensate for the dearth of Pitt’s performance. Cotillard can be a brilliant actress with powerful instincts down to her very marrow, as last evidenced in 2014’s devastating and humane drama of personal desperation and dignity, Two Days, One Night. She has to play the more active role, first as the charmer and then as the mystery. She works much better as the charmer. I don’t think either actor knew fully who their characters were and stumbled forward.

Allied is a strange movie where the director, the star, and the screenwriter each didn’t seem to know what movie they wanted to make. Each major participant, short of a game Cotillard, doesn’t even seem like they want to be here, as if this was a school assignment that they’re doing the minimal amount of work to fulfill a requirement. Allied just feels like one of those big studio misfires where nobody was on the same page. The story lacks characters to connect with and complications that feel connected to them and their circumstances. The plot follows the path of least resistance and arrives at its predetermined destination right on time, to the monotony of its audience. Pitt’s somnambulist acting makes the movie and his lead character harder to enjoy. There’s a definite lack of intrigue with this premise and its ultimate execution. I expect better from Zemeckis, Pitt, and Knight, and I’m sure they’ll deliver with their next projects. In the meantime, skip Allied since it certainly feels like the cast and crew weren’t in alliance.

Nate’s Grade: C

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

sM6KRdyGuy Ritchie’s big screen reboot of the 1960s TV show is the right kind of fizzy summer escapist entry that goes down smooth and entertains with just enough swanky style to pass the time. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is equal parts spy thriller and straight-laced genre satire, hewing closer, and more successfully, to a marriage between Ritchie early cockney gangster flicks and his big-budget Sherlock Holmes action franchise. It’s often fun and surprising at how well it holds its tone between comedy and action; it almost feels like a screwball romance with guns and bombs. The trio of leads, Henry Cavill as the American agent, Armie Hammer as the KGB agent, and Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) as the German asset, make an engaging group with plenty of conflicts to explore. It’s surprisingly more character-based than driven by its action set-pieces. Cavill shows far more life and personality than I’ve ever seen from him on screen. Vikander and Hammer have an amusing chemistry together and the movie allows them to roughhouse without pushing either character in a direction that feels too safe. Their series of will-they-won’t-they near misses will drive certain portions of the audience mad. The movie gets into danger when Ritchie and his co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram get too cute, especially with a narrative technique where the movie doubles back or highlights action that was in the background at least four times. The world of this movie is also another asset, as the period costumes, soundtrack, Italian locations and production design are terrific and further elevate the swanky mood. It’s an ebullient throwback that serves up enough entertainment with its own cock-eyed sense of throwback charm.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Boxtrolls (2014)

FIN03_Monsters_1Sht_FM_345Another delightful film from the creators of ParaNorman, the whimsical Boxtrolls is another stop-motion treasure that plays just as well for children as it does adults. The fanciful world follows the industrious title creatures that have wrongly been demonized as villains. Snatcher (a tremendous Ben Kingsley) has much to gain by stirring up boxtroll fears, and if he captures them all he’ll finally be allowed to join the town’s inner circle of muckity mucks. We follow “Eggs” a boy who has been raised by the boxtrolls since he was a baby and his re-emergence with the world above ground, notably with the help of a morbid little girl, Winnie (Elle Fanning). The world building is confident and well developed, the storyline finds nuanced ways to be touching and deliver serious messages about peer pressure, assimilation, and the ways which we judge ourselves and whether those are even of merit. But the main draw is the glorious animation, so fluid, so lively, and a landscape that makes full use of color and light and shadow. It’s an immersive experience that your eyes don’t want to blink for fear of missing something. The plot is droll and expertly sequenced with its variety of character and comic asides. The vocal cast does a terrific job, notably Kingsley and a hilarious Tracy Morgan. The film can get a little spooky for young children but should still be comfortable viewing. The Boxtrolls is further proof that the animation house Laika is operating at near-Pixar peak levels of brilliance and deserve the benefit of the doubt with any future films.

Nate’s Grade: A

Lincoln (2012)

Steven Spielberg’s long in the works biopic of Abraham Lincoln could have easily been retitled, The Thirteenth Amendment: The Movie, such is the narrow band of focus. Lincoln is an engrossing, handsomely mounted study in the political machinations that went into passing the 13th amendment to outlaw slavery. Unless you’re a fan of history of politics, I can’t imagine that this movie is going to prove that engaging for you. This is a big movie about Big Moments with lots of people with beards giving speeches. Daniel Day-Lewis does a tremendous job as our titular sixteenth president, giving the man more foibles and traces of humanity than I can remember from any screen portrayal. Liam Neeson (The Grey) had long been attached to be Spielberg’s Lincoln, but I cannot fathom any other actor in the role after seeing Day-Lewis’s amazing work. I think he’s a shoo-in for his third Oscar. It’s intriguing to witness what a political animal Lincoln was, able to play off different sides to get his way. In the end, you may even feel a stir of patriotic pride, inspired by the good that government can grant with the right leaders for the right causes. The supporting cast all provide great performances, from Sally Field as the volatile Mrs. Lincoln, to James Spader as a conniving lobbyist, to Tommy Lee Jones as a stubborn curmudgeon… so basically Tommy Lee Jones. Just about every speaking part is a recognizable character actor. Who’s going to turn down the prospect of a Spielberg Lincoln movie? The tighter window of focus allows the movie greater depth as an important political juncture in our nation’s history, but Lincoln could have also been the 19th century equivalent of that Schoolhouse Rock song, “I’m Just a Bill.” This is an easy movie to admire but I think a more difficult film to love, to fully embrace.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Delivering pretty much more of the same, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows isn’t exactly an improvement over the classic detective’s first foray into out-and-out Hollywood action cinema. The real treat of the budding franchise is the comic interplay between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law). Their harried banter makes for the best moments. Once again the plot is overwrought, the side characters underdeveloped (poor original dragon tattooed girl, Noomi Rapace, given absolutely nothing to do but run in a gypsy skirt), mysteries that you give up and just wait for Holmes to explain, and a villain that proves to be lackluster. For Moriarty (Mad Men’s Jared Harris) to be the nemesis, the intellectual equal of Holmes I’m going to need to see much more than this. There is a fine sequence at the very end where Holmes mentally envisions the steps of his attack and then Moriarty joins in: “You think you’re the only one who can do that?” They hold an entire duel fought step-by-step in the imagination. I wanted more experiences like this, but director Guy Ritchie (Snatch) falls back on his signature stylized action sequences of fast whooshing and quick spinning. The action is a step up from the first Holmes, and that will be enough for most ticket-buyers. I’ll admit there is a certain meta-literary charm at watching Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature detective fighting his way through an armed body of baddies. Whatever your feelings were for the 2009 Sherlock Holmes, I’m fairly certain you’ll revisit them in their entirety with Game of Shadows. I know I did.

Nate’s Grade: C+

The Notorious Bettie Page (2006)

A somewhat shallow biopic, The Notorious Bettie Page is kept afloat by an incandescent performance from Gretchen Mol, at one time the appointed future Hollywood It Girl. Mol imbues the same transcendent mix of girl-next-door sweetness and sex-kitten-in-training vivaciousness that Page was famous for; she was, in the same moment, both angel and temptress, and yet never understood the impact. We get your standard assembly of biopic moments but some intriguing past elements barely get touched on, like the potential sexual abuse Page may have experienced from her father. There’s a ripe conflict of sex vs. sin waiting to be explored that also seems to get the most cursory of exposure. Director Mary Haron (American Psycho) cleverly stages the movie as if it was a product of Page’s own time, but it also places the film in an artistic limbo because of its strident, possibly anachronistic forward thinking. Bettie Page is such an interesting person and had such a lasting impact, not just on the debate over what constitutes pornography, but the movies fails to tell us why she should still even be relevant. It feels somewhat of a shame that such a person, simultaneously a devout Christian and bondage pin-up queen, doesn’t get a better character showcase. Still, the movie is well made and Mol is luminous, imitating Page’s cheesecake poses and faces to perfection. The Notorious Bettie Page would have worked better looking harder at what made its title heroine notorious and memorable still to this day.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Day After Tomorrow (2004)

I must confess a giant moment of geekery: for a month or so I waited patiently until the Wednesday before the new disaster opus The Day After Tomorrow opened so I could finally say, “The Day After Tomorrow opens … the day after tomorrow.” I’m surprised the marketing department didn’’t beat me to that punch.

Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) is an environmental scientist concerned about global warming trends and the chaos they could cause. He tries to alert government officials to these dangers but is met with a cold shoulder. Jack’s son, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal), is traveling to New York for a school quiz tournament on the slightly less grave mission of earning the affections of one of his classmates. Somewhere between the establishment of these two stories, all hell breaks loose. Jack and another researcher (Ian Holm) share data and discover that the world is headed toward a gigantic climate shift, a new Ice Age. While the world is crumbling, Jack is determined to reunite with his son, trapped in New York.

The special effects of The Day After Tomorrow are indeed awe-inspiring, but once they finish the viewer is left with a story that is, shall we say, overcast. Unlike director Roland Emmerich’s other disaster films with aliens or giant lizards, a cataclysmic climate shift is not a beatable foe, so the story is left without resolution. It’s kind of hard to vilify the weather.

What do you do once the world starts another Ice Age? Not much besides keeping your butt from freezing off. So this means that the crux of the “after” scenes revolve around Jack trying to reunite with his son. Jack tells his son to hole up where he is and, cue heroic music, he will come find him. Sure. Does anyone stop and question, “Why?” I know why Jack treks, on foot no less, from Philadelphia to New York, but it isn’t even necessary. His son and their friends are fine where they are and the only severe threat they face is when the giant frosty eye of the storm looms overhead. Quaid’s character has no opportunity to assist them during even that scene. I’m sure someone thought it would be a touching display of a father’s love for his son, but it’s really just winds up looking foolish. He tells his son not to move, then disobeys his own advice to venture out. Nothing of significance happens because of Jack’s journey. He might as well have stayed home and read a book.

The acting of any disaster flick is really confined to yelling and … panting, I suppose (which could also accurately describe the acting prowess of the late night programming of Showtime). Quaid is a sturdy hero but seems to look ten years older than normal. Gyllenhaal is one of my favorite young actors (I adore Donnie Darko) and, to his credit, he does a suitable job of running around and yelling.

Perhaps the funniest thing in The Day After Tomorrow is a Vice President who refuses to listen to environmental concerns that looks a heck of a lot like our current VP, Dick Cheney. The timeliness also extends to a somewhat witless president who, when faced with a crucial decision, turns to his VP and asks, “What do you think?”

The necessary scenes of planetary and civilization destruction are first-rate in the film. Emmerich is our premiere master of laying waste to the world, particularly New York City. Emmerich keeps our view of the carnage mostly restrained to long shots where we can witness the full magnitude of devastation he is trying to put forth.

The weather effects are top notch, especially a series of tornadoes that devastates downtown Los Angeles. There are some beautiful visual moments, like seeing thousands of birds migrating from impending doom, or a final image from above of the iced Statue of Liberty. Tomorrow also has a clever moment late in the film when the frost storm hovers over New York and forces characters to outrun advancing … frost. It’s not as stupid as it sounds. And, as per usual in disaster flicks, Mother Nature always knows where to strike – landmarks. How else does one explain the precision of taking out the Hollywood sign?

For a good hour, The Day After Tomorrow is great escapist entertainment. The scenes of destruction are riveting, and the moments leading up to them have great suspenseful pacing. The film’s climax is its half-way point, which is never a good sign. After all the floods, rain, snow, twisters, and everything Mother Nature has in her arsenal, we are left with characters scrambling around running from … wolves. Going from tidal waves to wolves is not exactly an increase in suspense.

There is a hilariously awful moment in the film involving Sam’’s wife, played by Sela Ward. Sela is a nurse at a hospital watching over a child with cancer. She refuses to leave him alone and waits for an ambulance to arrive, because, for some reason, the cancer kid can only be transported by ambulance. It’’s just distasteful and dumb that this storyline even exists: brave woman determined to stay by the side of cancer child.

The Day After Tomorrow is an exciting diversion that doesn’’t know what to do with itself after all the big money shots are spent. It’s like a balloon once the air is all out. Perhaps the creators should have consulted any prior warning about stranding an audience in a story that no one cares much about. It’s worth seeing, but it’s also worth leaving after Mother Nature unloads her goods.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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