Film Review: Allied (dir by Robert Zemeckis)


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Earlier today, after deciding to take a break from watching the Lifetime films that have been steadily accumulating on my DVR, I went down to the Alamo Drafthouse with my BFF Evelyn and we watched the new World War II romantic adventure film, Allied.

Now, you should understand that I’m an Alamo Victory member and one of the benefits of my membership is that I get a free movie for my birthday!  (My birthday was on November 9th.  The offer’s good for up to a month after the big day.  Pretty nice, no?)  I have to admit that there’s a reason why I wanted to see Allied for free.  I knew that, since this big movie with big stars and a big director was being released at the start of Oscar season, I would have to see it eventually.  Add to that, Allied is current somewhat infamous for being the movie that contributed to the divorce of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.  Apparently, Brad had an affair with Marion Cotillard while making this movie.  I knew I had to see Allied but I didn’t want to pay for it because, quite frankly, I wasn’t expecting it to be very good.

I mean, the trailer looked awful!  The trailer was a collection of war film clichés and, as happy as I was to see Brad without that raggedyass beard that he tends to have whenever he’s trying to be a serious actor, it was still hard to ignore that he essentially looked like a wax figure.  Then you had Marion Cotillard, looking as if she’d rather be playing Lady MacBeth.  Judging from the trailer, Allied just didn’t look very good.

Having now seen Allied, I can say that the trailer does the film a great disservice.  Not only is Allied far more entertaining than the trailer suggests but the trailer also gives away the film’s big twist!  Seriously, this twist occurs about 75 minutes into a 120 minute film and, if it was sprung on you without warning, it would totally blow you away.  It would leave you reeling and reconsidering everything that you had previously seen.  But since the twist is highlighted in the trailer, you instead spend the first half of the movie impatiently waiting for it.

You probably already know the twist.  But I’m still not going to reveal it because maybe there’s one or two of you out there who have managed to avoid the trailer.  Instead, I’ll tell you that Allied is a World War II romance.  It opens in Casablanca, with Canadian secret agent Max Batan (Brad Pitt) working with Marianne Beausojour (Marion Cotillard).  Marianne is a legendary member of the French Resistance.  It doesn’t take long for Max and Marianne to fall in love and soon, they’re having sex in the middle of the desert, making love in a car while a sandstorm rages all around them.  Max eventually marries Marianne and they have a daughter.  But around them, the war continues and both of them find themselves struggling to determine who they can and cannot trust.

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As directed by Robert Zemeckis, Allied is a big movie, one that is frequently entertaining and yet occasionally and frustratingly uneven.  Allied feels like its less about recreating history and more about paying homage to the World War II and espionage films that Zemeckis watched when he was growing up.  It’s a technical marvel, featuring not only sandstorm sex but crashing airplanes and a painstaking recreation of Europe in the 1940s.   The film is full of seemingly random details, many of which don’t add much to the narrative but they do contribute to Allied‘s oddly dreamlike feel.  This is the type of film where espionage is discreetly discussed at a party while Gershwin plays on the soundtrack and British airmen casually snort cocaine in the background.  When Marianne gives birth to Anna, she does it outside while bombs explode around her.  When the baby is finally delivered, a group of nurses applaud.  It’s all wonderfully over the top but, occasionally, the narrative lags.  Zemeckis sometimes seems to be torn as to whether or not he’s paying homage to or deconstructing the genre.  As a result, some scenes work better than others.  (There’s a lengthy sequence involving a note containing false information.  It’s obvious that Zemeckis is trying to pay homage to Hitchcock’s Notorious but he never quite manages to pull it off.)

Despite what I previously assumed as a result of seeing the trailer, both Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard are well-cast.  Cotillard is one of the few actresses who feels at home in a throwback film like this one and she does a good job keeping the audience guessing.  (Of course, if we accept that Allied is essentially Zemeckis’s cinematic dream of World War II, Cotillard serves to remind us of Inception and its multiple layers of dream logic.)  Brad Pitt, meanwhile, should consider playing more roles without his beard.  After watching Daniel Craig sulk through four James Bond films, it’s nice to be reminded that, occasionally, an actor can actually have fun while playing a secret agent.

Allied is uneven but entertaining.  Don’t let the trailer fool you.

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Film Review: The Conjuring 2 (dir by James Wan)


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The Conjuring 2 will scare the Hell out of you.

Seriously, I’ve seen a lot of horror films, including the first Conjuring (which I absolutely loved).  I’ve seen ghosts, vampires, demons, werewolves, psycho killers, and threats in the shadows.  I’ve seen cats jump out of closets.  I’ve seen ghostly faces suddenly appear in the darkness.  I’ve heard screams and chants and howls.  I’ve seen limbs severed in every possible way.  I’ve seen a lot of cinematic horror and, as a result, I tend to feel that there is nothing that can scare me.

Well, it turns out that’s not true because The Conjuring 2 scared the Hell out of me.

In many ways, The Conjuring 2 tells a familiar story.  Once again, the film begins with an opening crawl that informs us that what we’re about to see is based on a true story.  Once again, a loving but chaotic family is being haunted by evil spirits and the Church has asked paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren to investigate.

The setup may sound familiar but director James Wan manages to keep the scares compelling.  Over the past few years, Wan has emerged as one of our greatest genre filmmakers.  Whether he’s directing an Insidious film or the latest Fast & Furious installment, James Wan knows how to hold an audience’s attention and how to make the potentially predictable compelling.  In The Conjuring 2, Wan creates and maintains such an atmosphere of dread that even the expected scares (bumps in the dark, voices in the shadows, slamming doors, and faces suddenly appearing in the background) take on an ominous intensity.  From the very first shot, Wan leaves the audience with a profound feeling of unease.  I was not alone in covering my eyes during a few scenes.  I was also not alone is occasionally looking around the darkened theater, just to make sure that there weren’t any ghosts creeping up on me.

That said, we all already know that James Wan is a master of horror.  We know that he can tell a ghost story and, from the minute we saw the first trailer, we all knew that The Conjuring 2 was going to be scary.  What sets The Conjuring 2 apart is the same thing that made the first Conjuring so special.  (For that matter, it’s the same thing that made Wan’s Furious 7 so special.)  Wan fills the screen with horror and spectacle but he also finds the time to celebrate his character’s humanity.

There’s a scene that occurs about 90 minutes into The Conjuring 2.  Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) are visiting with the haunted family.  The family has been shaken by both the supernatural and the fact that so many people refuse to believe that they are actually being haunted.  Ed spies a guitar sitting in the corner of the room.  He grabs it and, with the haunted children gathered around them, he launches into a surprisingly good Elvis impersonation.  He sings I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You, all the while glancing over at Lorraine standing in the doorway.

(What makes this especially touching is that Lorraine has been having premonitions of Ed’s violent death and is terrified that she’s going to lose him before they finish investigating this case.)

It’s a totally unexpected scene and yet it works perfectly.  Some of it is because Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga have this great chemistry that makes you believe that they actually have been married for years.  But it’s also because the scene reminds us that The Conjuring 2 is about more than just ghosts and scares.  It’s also about love and family.  The haunting is threatening to end Ed and Lorraine’s love story.  The haunting is threatening to destroy a loving family.  Ed and Lorraine aren’t just investigating a ghost but they’re also saving a family.  They’re not just fighting against the supernatural.  They’re fighting for love.

And, in our cynical times, that may sound corny or silly or old-fashioned.  Well. you know what?  The Conjuring was an old-fashioned film and, in a way, so is The Conjuring 2.  But who cares?  Horror works best when it’s mixed with humanity.  The Conjuring 2 may be a horror film but it’s also a celebration of humanity, love, and family.

You may have noticed that I haven’t go into many specifics about the plot of The Conjuring 2.  I don’t want to spoil it for you.  This is a film that you should experience with fresh eyes.  I could tell you about the scariest scene in this film but, if I did, you would not get the full experience.  I’ll just say that I’ve seen a lot of scary movie nuns but none of them can compare to The Conjuring 2.

The Conjuring 2 is the best supernatural horror film that I’ve seen this year so far.  It will scare you and it will touch your heart.  See it.

Also, be sure to stay for the end credits, which feature a lot of genuinely creepy snapshots of the actual locations where the film’s haunting is said to have occurred.  Not only are the pictures scary but they also show the care with which The Conjuring 2 recreated 1970s London.  Is the picture below a scene from the film or is it a picture that was taken during the actual haunting?  You’ll have to see The Conjuring 2 to find out!

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Film Review: Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (dir by Christopher McQuarrie)


Rebecca FergusonEarlier tonight, Jeff and I saw Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation and now I’m pretty sure that I’m developing huge girl crush on actress Rebecca Ferguson.

She plays Ilsa Faust, a former operative for M.I.6. who is now somehow involved with a shadowy terrorist organization known as The Syndicate.  And while Ilsa may only be a supporting character (because, after all, this is a Mission Impossible film and therefore, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is unquestionably the star), she dominates every scene that she’s in.  Whether she’s escape the scene of an attempted assassination while wearing a dress that is simply to die for or rescuing Ethan Hunt from certain death, Ilsa Faust is a woman who kicks ass, takes no prisoners, and looks great while she’s doing it.  As much as I love Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, Ilsa Faust is my new espionage role model.

The movie attempts to suggest that there’s some sexual chemistry between Ilsa and Ethan.  Oddly enough, there’s not.  Tom Cruise looks good and he gives a confident and likable performance but, as a character, Ethan comes across as being almost asexual.  He seems to be attracted to only intrigue and danger.  And yet, that lack of authentic romantic chemistry actually works to the film’s advantage.  Ilsa is never reduced to merely being a love interest.  Instead, she’s an equal to Ethan throughout the entire film.

Of course, Ilsa has secrets of her own.  Everyone in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation has a secret.  The film opens with the IMF being disbanded and its operatives being absorbed into the CIA.  When the CIA director (Alec Baldwin, in full jerk mode) orders Ethan to stop investigating the Syndicate, Ethan goes underground and continues his activities in secret.  His allies (Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, and the great Simon Pegg) can only help him in secret.  The origins of the Syndicate turn out to be the biggest secret of all.  There are so many secrets in Rogue Nation that it’s sometimes hard to keep track of them all but, again, that works to the film’s advantage.  It keeps the audience off-balance.  You never know when someone’s going to suddenly pull out a gun and start shooting or rip off a mask and reveal themselves to be someone else.

Rogue Nation is an entertaining action film.  The stunts are spectacular and the set pieces are exciting and enjoyably over the top.  (There’s a scene where Ethan Hunt has to change out a security card while holding his breath underwater and I literally watched it through my fingers.)  I wouldn’t suggest trying to read too much into the film and yet, at the same time, Rogue Nation does capture the paranoid times in which we live. The film manages to both condemn the excesses of government while celebrating the toys that make those excesses possible.  The average film goer may not be able to do all of the things that Ilsa and Ethan can do but we all know what it’s like not to trust authority.

That’s what makes Solomon Lane, the main villain played by Sean Harris, such an interesting character.  I know that some reviewers have complained that Lane’s role was underwritten but I have to disagree.  Lane may not be as verbose as the typical spy movie villain but I appreciated the fact that he remained somewhat enigmatic up to the conclusion of the film.  He never made the mistake of over explaining his evil plan and accidentally giving the IMF team extra time in which to defeat him.  (Solomon Lane obviously learned his lesson from watching countless would-be world conquerors accidentally allow James Bond to get the better of them.)  Lane may be ruthless and evil but he’s also a revolutionary who is outraged by some of the same things that the rest of us are outraged by.  This brings a welcome hint of ambiguity to the film.

Though it never quite reaches the lunatic highs of either Kingsman or Furious Seven, Rogue Nation is still an enjoyable and effective action movie.  Undoubtedly, Ethan and the IMF team will return in another installment.  Here’s hoping that Ilsa Faust gets a spin-off of her very own.

 

 

Film Review: The Theory of Everything (dir by James Marsh)


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Earlier this year, when I was sitting in the audience for the unfortunate Nicholas Sparks film The Best Of Me, I found myself staring at the sight of an oil rig worker (played by James Marsden) relaxing by reading Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.  And, before I could stop myself, I laughed out loud and I may have even loudly said something along the lines of, “Oh come on!”

At the time, I got a lot of dirty looks but I stand by my reaction.  It’s such a cliché.  Any movie character who is meant to be intelligent and soulful will be seen casually reading a copy of Hawking’s book and scrunching up his brow as he considers whatever it is that Hawking has to say.  It makes sense, of course.  If the current cult surrounding Neil deGrasse Tyson proves anything, it’s that it is currently in to pretend to be fascinated by science.

I have to admit, though — science has never been my subject.  The cold logic of it all bores me to tears and there’s no bigger turn-off then listening to someone brag about being a “rational thinker.”  (Rational thought is incredibly overrated.)  As long as things work like they’re supposed to, the how and the why don’t really concern me.  Whenever I hear someone complain that there are “too many unanswered questions,” I think to myself, “Good.”  I like unanswered questions.  I like irrational feelings.  I like mysteries that can never be solved.  They fuel imagination.  They inspire great art.  They make life interesting and unpredictable.

(Please understand, I am not anti-science.  I’m anti-pretending-to-care-when-I-don’t.)

With all that in mind, you might think that I would be bored by The Theory of Everything, the recently released biopic about Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his marriage to Jane Hawking (Felicity Jones).  And, I’ll be honest.  If not for the fact that the film has been pegged as being a certain Oscar contender, I might not have ever wanted to see The Theory of Everything.  However, seeing as how The Theory of Everything is a certain Oscar contender, I did want to see it.

And, up until the final 30 minutes of the film, I was surprised with just how much I liked The Theory of Everything.  I have to admit that the film’s science still went over my head.  As far as that was concerned, the only thing I really learned is that there’s a difference between General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory but don’t ask me to explain that difference.  (And, for the love of all that is good, please don’t try to explain it to me…)  But, to be honest, the exact details of Hawking’s theories aren’t really that important to The Theory of Everything.  Instead, the film is content to have supporting characters assure us that Hawking’s work is brilliant and important and that’s really all that it has to do.  After all, everyone in the audience already knows that Stephen Hawking is a genius.  The appeal of The Theory of Everything is not the science but instead the human behind the science.

The Theory of Everything works for two very old-fashioned reasons — it’s well-directed by James Marsh and it’s well-acted by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.  For all the time that the film devotes to people talking about how Hawking challenged the conventional view of the universe, The Theory of Everything is, in many ways, a conventional biopic.  But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  A familiar story well-told is still a well-told story.

The film starts with Stephen as a student at Cambridge and we follow him as he awkwardly courts Jane and takes her on an amazingly well-filmed and soul-achingly romantic date.  Shortly after this, he’s diagnosed with motor neuron disease.  (As I discovered while doing some research for this review, Hawking was actually diagnosed before he even met Jane.)  Told he only has two years to live, Stephen’s first instinct is to isolate himself from the world but, largely as a result of Jane’s love and support, Stephen instead continues his work and becomes world famous.  The film suggests that it took a combination of Stephen’s logical (and skeptical) genius and Jane’s devout and unwavering faith (in both his genius and the God that Stephen doesn’t believe in) for him to eventually become the Stephen Hawking that we all recognize today.

And it’s all extremely well-done and touching, up until the final 30 minutes of the film.  Going into the film, I did not know much about Stephen Hawking but (thanks to Wikipedia), I did know that he eventually left Jane for another woman.  I have to admit that I did not expect the film to deal with this part of the story.  To the film’s credit, it does attempt to deal with the end of Stephen and Jane’s marriage but it does so in such an awkward way that it’s obvious that the filmmakers weren’t quite sure how they should handle the situation.

After all, the film had just spent 90 minutes presenting Jane as being an occasionally frustrated saint and Stephen as being idiosyncratic but likable.  And now, suddenly, Stephen is going to have to act like a jerk.  The film doesn’t know how to handle this and, as such, those final 30 minutes feel fake in a way that the rest of the film does not.  When Stephen tells Jane that he’s leaving her for another woman, it’s presented as being an almost mutual decision made by the two of them.  Tears are shed but there’s little visible anger, with the film going so far as to suggest that Stephen is leaving Jane because he wants her to be able to live the life that she put on hold to take care of him.  It’s even implied that Stephen was kind enough to pick out a new husband for her.

That new husband is played, quite well, by Charlie Cox.  When he first told Jane that he’s attracted to her, I assumed that the scene was included so that Jane could gently rebuff him and show us how devoted she is to Stephen.  However, thinking back on it now, it almost feels as if that scene was largely included so it could provide some cover for Stephen.  It’s as if the filmmakers are saying, “See?  Stephen wasn’t the only one tempted to end the marriage…”

And I have to admit that the way the film handled the end of Stephen and Jane’s marriage felt so false to me and the way Jane was treated and portrayed seemed so unfair that, as soon as I got home, I actually did the following google search: “Was The Theory Of Everything unfair to Jane Hawking?”

And the first result that came up was an article in The Guardian that essentially stated: “Yes, The Theory of Everything was unfair to Jane Hawking.”

Reading the article, I discovered that, according to Jane’s autobiography (upon which the film is ostensibly based), both her marriage to and divorce from Stephen Hawking was far more complex and intriguing than what was presented in the film.  For one thing, the marriage ended not with tears of acceptance but instead with a shouting match.  And trust me, if any actress could have done justice to Jane Hawking’s anger, it would be Felicity Jones.  By the time the film ends, both the character and the actress have earned the right to express their anger.  But neither one of them gets that opportunity, largely because that version of the Hawking marriage would also have been far less crowd pleasing.

And, if anything, The Theory of Everything is specifically designed to be a crowd pleaser.

And don’t get me wrong.  It’s a good film and it’s one that left me with tears in my eyes.  Do I recommend the film?  You bet I do.

I just wish that, during those final 30 minutes, the film could have been a little bit more honest with itself.  It’s a good film but it’s hard not to regret missing out on the film that it could have been.

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