Allied

It is not Rick’s Café Americain that Max (Brad Pitt) walks into shortly after the beginning of Allied. But it is in Casablanca in the period of German occupation during World War II. Inside this gin joint, Max meets, for the first time, his “wife” Marianne (Marion Cotillard).

Like Casablanca, the classic Bogart film of 1942, Allied features an impassioned request for a specific tune played on piano and has a climactic scene at an airport.

In this latest film from director Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away, Forrest Gump, Polar Express and Back To The Future I, II and III), Max and Marianne pretend to be a married French couple working for the Germans. But they are on the side of the good guys.

While waiting to accomplish their mission in sweltering Casablanca, they maintain the charade and live together, pretending to be man and wife. It’s no spoiler to reveal that they become attracted to one another. Consummation occurs in a raging desert sandstorm, a fitting metaphor to connote passion. (The tryst happens inside a car with the windows rolled up, so nobody ends up with sand in his/her navel.)

They escape Casablanca to England where they marry and have a child. Max, a Canadian spy, continues to work for the allies. Marianne, a native of France, becomes a housewife and mom. But is that all she’s up to? Could she be a double agent, working for the Germans?

When Max’s superiors mention their suspicions, he is stunned by the accusation. But soon he begins to have doubts. He even flies into France to query a Resistance leader about her history.

In Allied, Max and Marianne’s relationship is allowed to evolve gradually. Early on, the film trudges slowly between its few sequences of real action. The film seems however to sprint toward its resolution in its final half hour.

While Allied is unlikely to approach the classic status of several of Zemeckis’s other films, it has an engrossing story performed by a strong cast. The two leads, Pitt and Cotillard, are talented pros who carry the movie. Even though Brad may be a bit too old for the role—he turns 53 in December—his performance is likely to please all Pitt fans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

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A pleasant mix of whimsy and peril, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them takes elements from the Harry Potter saga and places them in a new setting with new characters. This latest movie from the mind of J.K. Rowling—she wrote and co-produced the film—has a mostly adult cast and is set on our side of the Atlantic in the mid 1920s.

You don’t have to be familiar with the Potter universe to enjoy FBAWTFT, although it has numerous references to Potter people and things. The film introduces a new character, briefly glimpsed in a Johnny Depp cameo, who will surely provide darkness and evil in Beasts’ sequels. (Four more movies are planned.)

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a British wizard who arrives by ship in New York. In a classic switcheroo, his magical suitcase full of beasts gets mixed up with that of aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Newt also meets fellow wizards Tina (Katherine Waterston) and her roommate Queenie (Alison Sudol). A hat tip to Dan Fogler as Jacob—It’s a role that could’ve seen him go full Oliver Hardy but he keeps it in check.

Tina is not highly regarded by the U.S. wizards organization, led by Seraphina (Carmen Ejogo) and enforcer Graves (Colin Ferrell). The wizarding group keeps a close eye on Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) who has a group of adopted children and preaches against witches and wizards. One of her flock is Credence (Ezra Miller), a troubled young man with dark secret and an awful haircut.

FBAWTFT has a bit of sexual tension bubbling under between Newt and Tina and especially between Jacob and Queenie, given Queenie’s mindreading ability. But everything is squeaky PG-13 clean.

The beasts? Yes, they are fantastic. Many are derivative, possessing the look of certain prehistoric bird/reptile creatures, as well as other beings witnessed previously in sci-fi movies. My favorite wizard world freaks are those seen in the speakeasy scene where a diminuitive bartender serves Jacob a drink called giggle water. He drinks it and he giggles.

Will Fantastic Beasts satisfy Potter fans now that that tale has concluded? Most likely yes, but it’s a different flavor of wizardry and magic. Like the Potter films, Beasts’ pace is breakneck, heavy with plot and characters. But Newt and crew lack the pure charm Harry and his gang possessed. A different flavor, to be sure, but tasty enough to succeed.

Hacksaw Ridge

Going into combat without a gun at Okinawa during World War II? This would appear to be a bad idea. But there is a reason Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) refuses to tote a weapon.

It seems odd that Doss’s true story has not been widely shared in the 71 years since his heroic actions occurred. After seeing depictions of WWII’s key events (Pearl Harbor, D-Day, etc.) on film over and over again, it’s refreshing to learn about this previously lesser-known episode.

Hacksaw Ridge delivers all the gruesomeness of heavy combat but also provides the enjoyable backstory of Desmond Doss.

Doss is a redneck from rural Virginia whose family life is turbulent. His father Tom (Hugo Weaving) is the worst kind of alcoholic. He is abusive to Desmond’s mom. When Desmond and his brother fight, dad encourages them to have at it, even unto the point of serious injury.

When the U.S. is forced into the war, Doss sees other young men from his area join the effort and he, too, enlists. But with one condition: he refuses to carry a gun. He says he is not a “conscientious objector” but is a “conscientious cooperator.”

His military leaders, including his sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and his captain (Sam Worthington), are baffled by his refusal. When court martial punishment is waived, Doss’s training continues and he becomes a medic within a combat unit. Armed not with a weapon but with morphine to relieve pain, he is part of the attack on Okinawa’s Hacksaw Ridge.

Director Mel Gibson opens the film with a brief montage of bloody combat violence and death before returning to Virginia and Desmond’s story. Doss meets and marries nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) before he ships out. An hour or so into the film, the climb begins up Hacksaw Ridge to overtake Japanese troops.

The action is fierce. Doss sees friends die. He sees men suffer serious wounds. When his unit retreats, he stays and pulls to safety many men left behind to die.

Andrew Garfield’s wide grin is well suited for his role as the likable hayseed. But his big hair is a bit distracting. Wouldn’t a WWII inductee have been given a buzz cut in basic?

Hacksaw Ridge brings to mind the 2014 film Unbroken about another WWII hero, Louis Zamperini. I prefer Hacksaw Ridge because Gibson’s storytelling focuses as much on the central character as on the events.

One more thing: If you choose to skip this film because of director Mel Gibson’s alcohol-fueled unsavory behavior a few years ago, consider that he now claims to have ten years of sobriety under his belt. As a longtime fan (going back to The Road Warrior), I hope he stays clean.

The Girl On The Train

Emily Blunt is good. Her title role in The Girl On The Train as a sad, damaged soul is the kind that often nets awards nominations. She manages the role well, avoiding the temptation to overact.

But it is the storytellers—novelist Paula Hawkins, screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson and director Tate Taylor—who make TGOTT a compelling, suspenseful mystery. The unfolding of the film’s set-up is accomplished smoothly, revealing characters and situations in a manner that grabs one’s attention and doesn’t let go.

When Rachel (Blunt) mentions her vivid imagination in an opening voiceover, it’s a clue that what is seen through her eyes may not be accurate. Factor in the alcoholism that rules her life and she becomes an unreliable source for certain plot elements. She does, however, have voyeuristic tendencies, so she is highly observant.

Two other key female characters, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and Megan (Haley Bennett), are women that Rachel has watched from her seat the train that takes commuters into Manhattan from the suburbs. Anna is married to Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux). Megan is Anna’s neighbor who helps care for Anna and Tom’s baby.

Rachel often sees Megan embracing her husband on the upstairs deck of their home located not far from the tracks. She also sees her ex and his new wife—the woman he had an affair with while married to Rachel.

One day she notices Megan is on the deck with a different man. Soon after, Megan disappears. Rachel’s recollections may be of help to the lead police investigator (Allison Janney) determine what happened but the time in question is a blackout period due to her excessive drinking.

Among the talented cast are two favorite former sitcom stars. Martha (Lisa Kudrow of Friends fame) is a woman from Rachel and Tom’s past. Cathy (Laura Prepon of That 70s Show) gives Rachel a place to stay when her drinking problem is at its worst.

You may be able to solve this movie’s puzzle before the big reveal, but a lingering question remains unanswered after the end titles: is Emily Blunt’s performance awardworthy? Director Tate Taylor’s 2011 film The Help resulted in three acting Oscar nominations and a win for Octavia Spencer.

Blunt is a solid pro. Depending on what comes down the cinematic track during the next few weeks, that girl on that train may not be on the inside looking out come awards season.

 

 

Sully

When the real-life Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed that jet in the Hudson River in January 2009, it was an amazing “feel good” story. He became a hero. Not only was he a capable pilot, he was also a nice guy.

He’s portrayed in Sully by Tom Hanks, a capable actor who also seems to be a nice guy.

Yes, there was drama in the actual incident, but apparently not quite enough for director Clint Eastwood to build a movie around. The story needs… conflict! An essential ingredient for many narratives, the conflict in Sully seems contrived.

While America was enjoying the happy outcome of the emergency landing and Sully was becoming a media darling, that nasty ol’ NTSB had its doubts that the river landing was necessary. The three members of the National Transportation Safety Board played by Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn and Jamey Sheridan question Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) about their decision-making.

In informal meetings and in an official hearing, the NTSB team suggests that Sully could’ve made it back to LaGuardia or to Teterboro airport in New Jersey. They even produce flight simulations showing that they could have safely touched down at either airport. Sully cites the human element as the key factor in his choice.

The depictions of the river landing are realistic and provide the meat of the movie. Because of the incident’s happy ending, the film provides a reminder of the tension of the evacuation and rescue effort.

Sully’s concern is for his passengers as they make it safely from the plane and after all have been taken from the river to various locations. In a sweet segment during the closing credits, the real-life Sully and his wife visit with passengers from the flight. Laura Linney plays Mrs. Sullenberger in the film. Her role is small but effective.

Are Sully, its star and its director Oscar-nomination-worthy? Those, I think, will be borderline calls, based on the competitive field. Because Sully was a reserved, medium-key individual, Tom Hanks gives a medium-key performance. Even last year’s role in Bridge of Spies offered more opportunities for Hanks to display his acting chops.

Sully relives the events of that day in 2009 without major stylistic flourishes. This solid film should give American audiences a moment to be proud of and should rekindle the nation’s appreciation for this hero pilot.

The Shallows

Man versus shark. Or, in this case, woman versus shark. Yes, you’ll think of Jaws, but The Shallows is different. As with Jaws, the chills and tingles come early and often.

Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) is a 20-something med school student from Texas. She is also a talented surfer. She is dropped off at an out-of-the-way beach in Mexico. It’s the beach that her late mother visited when she became pregnant with Nancy.

In the water, she chats with a couple of locals on their boards. They ride waves together. After the locals head in for the day, Nancy senses something is amiss. An injured whale floats nearby, victim of an attack by an enormous great white shark.

It is not a spoiler to reveal that the shark attacks Nancy. She survives and takes refuge atop the whale. Later she manages to move to a nearby rock, just a few hundred yards from shore. Here she uses her jewelry to close her leg wound in a scene that’s not for the squeamish.

Those of us who saw Jaws 41 summers ago knew—due to reams of advance publicity for the film—that Spielberg’s shark was a dummy. The shark in The Shallows (who gets significant screen time) appears more real.

Nancy spends the night on the rock, along with a bloodstained bird that managed to escape the shark. When the two locals return to surf the next day, she tries to warn them away but their outcome is not a happy one.

As she prepares to spend a second night on the rock with the shark nearby and the tide rising, she plots her next moves that might ensure her survival.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra (who directed the 2014 suspense thriller Non-Stop and last year’s Run All Night) keeps the tension level at a simmer between moments of terror. Prepare to jump a few times during the film’s compact 85-minute runtime.

Blake Lively does an admirable job of communicating her upset/horror of the situation without overplaying the role. She’s not the only human character in The Shallows, but it’s her film to win or lose and she wins.

 

 

 

 

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Popstar

You just know that the mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is going to be funny. But will it be clever funny or stupid funny? Turns out it’s a bit of both.

You also just know that Popstar, with Andy Samberg in the title role of Conner, is going to have numerous SNL alums in the cast. But who? Well, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, Jimmy Fallon, Will Forte and Tim Meadows (who has a big role as Conner’s manager Harry).

One blurb for the movie called it a modern day This Is Spinal Tap. While that comparison is obvious, a few things have changed in 32 years since Derek, Nigel and David mocked the rock music world. Such as holograms, the internet and social media. Also, the good/bad taste boundary has moved, allowing Popstar to include a scene of male “graphic nudity,” as the MPAA describes it.

Speaking of which, the performer who collaborated with Samberg on SNL’s classic “Dick in a Box” song/video appears in the film in an uncredited cameo. I didn’t recognize him until well into the film.

Other real life music stars who populate Popstar include Carrie Underwood, Snoop Dogg, Adam Levine, Pink, Mariah Carey, Usher and in a funny bit involving wolves, Seal.

The plot has Conner, becoming the star within a musical trio and leaving his buddies in his dust. Those two are Samberg’s partners in the viral video group Lonely Island, Owen (Jorma Taccone) and Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer). Taccone and Schaffer are the film’s co-directors and (with Samberg) co-writers. When Conner’s newest album bombs, drastic action must be taken.

So how hilarious is Popstar? Much of it is laugh-out-loud funny. But some bits are merely grin-worthy. Credit goes to all involved for throwing a huge amount of “business” into the movie. Not everything connects, but the effort is appreciated.

Special mention must be given to the hilarious parody of the TMZ television show with Will Arnett as the Harvey Levin-type character.

My main complaint is that many of Popstar’s funnier bits are in the film’s trailers. (That’s why I included a poster instead of an embedded trailer at the top of this review.) Yes, it’s a necessary marketing evil in 2016, but it disappoints when the audience explodes in laughter while you just nod acknowledgement at the funny business onscreen.

The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys is not a direct descendant of the Lethal Weapon movies but it might be a first cousin. And it’s a casual acquaintance of Boogie Nights.

Some of my favorite movies are L.A. detective stories, including a few bad ones. The Nice Guys is a good one. Set in 1977 with a cool 70’s soundtrack, the film features title characters who are not quite as hardened as most other L.A. movie detectives.

Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is a bumbling, hard-drinking single father. His precocious and cute 13-year-old daughter Holly (Angourie Rice) is the brains of the family (and the better driver).

Jackson Healy (a pudgier-than-usual Russell Crowe) is an enforcer who comes calling to damage Holland but goes on to partner with him as they work to solve a caper.

The film opens with a young boy checking out a babe named Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) in a girlie mag when a car slams through his house. He sees the real life version of the foldout babe, tossed from the car and partially unclothed. She dies, setting the plot in motion.

Another babe, Amelia (Margaret Qualley) is trying to escape from a number of people who would silence her quest to end smog in L.A. One of those people is her mother Judith (Kim Basinger), a federal agent supposedly trying to bust the auto industry for violating EPA regs.

(The 62-year-old Basinger won an Oscar for her work with Crowe in another period piece film set in the same town, 1997’s L.A. Confidential. Her latest performance doesn’t make nearly as strong an impression.)

The Nice Guys’ plot is clever but the main reason to see the film is the newly-hatched partnership between Holland and Healy. There’s verbal and physical humor. My favorite bit involves Holland in a bathroom stall trying to manage his newspaper, his gun, his cigarette, the stall’s door and his pants at the same time. It’s a classic piece of business. A couple of the large scale tumbles Holland takes end with lucky landings.

Shane Black wrote and directed The Nice Guys. He wrote the first Lethal Weapon movie and is credited with creating those characters. He also wrote and directed Iron Man 3.

Gosling and Crowe are two of our most charismatic actors. Their onscreen chemistry is not quite a home run, but there’s enough going on here to suggest those two characters might be worth another go-around. It’s not a “must see” movie, but it’s a lot of fun! (With a healthy dose of violence, car crashes, explosions and all that other action film stuff.)

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising

Tasteless humor is okay—if it’s funny. When it’s not funny, it’s just gross and dumb.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is gross and dumb. The first Neighbors movie (2014) had the dynamic of Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) coming to grips with their adulthood and changing attitudes. Plus the competition between Mac and noisy next-door frat boy Teddy (Zac Efron) was hilarious.

In the new film, Mac and Kelly are selling their home. They have a contract but the sale won’t close for 30 days.

A trio of sorority pledges learns that the girls’ groups aren’t allowed to party on campus, so they manage to rent a house off campus, the one next door to the Radners—much to the dismay of Mac and Kelly. The three, Shelby (Chloe Grace Moretz), Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein), waste no time causing Mac and Kelly great upset.

Meanwhile, Efron’s Teddy is coping with his ascent into adulthood. His former frat-mates are moving on while he languishes in immaturity. He teams up with previous rivals Mac and Kelly to derail the sorority from pulling off their hell-raising shenanigans (which include a disgusting stunt with feminine hygiene products).

Among the supporting cast, it’s good to see Lisa Kudrow as the college dean, Kelsey Grammer as Shelby’s dad, Selena Gomez as a sorority president, Jerrod Carmichael as Teddy’s chum Garf and Hannibal Buress as a police officer.

Buress gained notoriety a couple of years back for mentioning, during a standup routine, Bill Cosby’s sexual assault allegations. After his remarks were spread, Cosby victims came out of the woodwork. In Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, when a couple realizes they’ve accidentally taken powerful drugs, the guy says, “We’ve been Cosbied!”

I had Moretz pegged for real stardom. She has talent, a distinctive look and on-screen confidence. But she moves back a couple of steps in this ridiculous role. She just turned 20 and still has plenty of career ahead, but her choice to be in this bad film is a misstep.

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising is disappointing on numerous levels. My main issue with the N2:SR is… it’s just not that funny. A comedy should make you laugh a lot instead of making you look at your watch, waiting for the end titles to show up.

 

 

 

 

Captain America: Civil War

Family squabbles can get messy. Workplace violence can be frightening.

In Captain America: Civil War, which is really an Avengers movie without Avengers in the title, the battle between the two sides is epic. Then, the final faceoff between Captain America and Iron Man gets even rougher.

The leadup to the big fight (which occurs about 90 minutes into this nearly 2-and-a-half-hour film) centers on concern over collateral damage resulting from past Avengers’ battles with evil entities. Secretary of State Ross (William Hurt) tells the Avengers that 117 countries are about to sign off on accords that would require the Avengers to get approval before any missions.

Captain America (Chris Evans) is opposed to the limitations; Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) thinks they are reasonable. Before resolution of the issue, a bomb explodes at a UN meeting in Vienna. The bomber is Captain America’s childhood friend turned brainwashed bad guy Bucky Barnes AKA Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan).

The son of an African blast victim joins the Avengers on their quest. His superhero character is Panther (Chadwick Boseman).

Before the rumble, Stark recruits a high school kid named Peter Parker, just as he is becoming Spiderman. This latest iteration of the webslinger is portrayed by Tom Holland with wit and charm. (Marisa Tomei is the best-looking Aunt May ever.) Another citizen of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), returns to the big screen and plays a key role in the big melee.

This fight is fierce but more cartoonish than might’ve been guessed. Despite all the firepower from those named, along with Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Vision (Paul Bettany), Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), there’s only slight damage: War Machine (Don Cheadle) suffers a significant leg injury. More fighting between Captain America and Ironman follows soon after, with participation from Winter Soldier.

Captain America: Civil War runs the risk of being packed with too many plot points and characters. It risks running too long. But the pacing is good with action and exposition alternating nicely. Robert Downey Jr. is still the best actor of the lot. But, as he matures, Chris Evans continues to bring a stronger screen presence to his role.

Stick around for the Stan Lee cameo, which happens near the end of the film and the brief coda which signals yet another reboot for Underoos (Ironman’s nickname for Spiderman).