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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

The Boss

Melissa McCarthy is a likable, funny woman. Unfortunately, not all of her movies are likable and funny. The Boss is hard to like and not particularly funny. And while storylines for comedies are often dumb, this one is particularly so.

Michelle Darnell (McCarthy) is a self-made financial success who screwed over a lot of people on her way up the ladder. One of them is former boyfriend Renault (Peter Dinklage) who leads investigators to nab her for insider trading.

After her jail time, she crashes with her former assistant Claire (Kristen Bell) and Claire’s daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson). Michelle tags along to a Dandelion meeting (a Girl Scouts sort of group) and takes over. When Claire agrees to mass produce brownies, Michelle recruits Dandelions to jump ship and help sell the brownies.

The street fight between the Dandelions and the Darnell’s Darlings is a funny highlight, well-staged by director Ben Falcone (McCarthy’s real life husband). But the rest of the film leaves much to be desired.

Michelle takes the production of the brownies to a much larger scale and sells the company to Renault. Later, she and Claire attempt to steal back the brownie recipe from Renault, leading to the film’s resolution.

The Boss is a mess. Not nearly as funny as it should be. And while crude humor is fine with me if it’s funny, crude humor for the sake of shocking an audience, as in The Boss, is embarrassing. And I was disappointed that appearances by the usually strong Kristen Schaal and Kathy Bates’s were essentially wasted.

Unless you’re a member of the Melissa McCarthy fan club and you thought Tammy was a decent film, take a pass on The Boss.

McCarthy’s got talent and charm and she can make you laugh until you cry. But those big laughs and tears will have to wait for another Melissa McCarthy movie.

 

 

 

The Hateful Eight

Quentin Tarantino’s new film The Hateful Eight is not among his best. It has QT trademarks including over-the-top violence, a quirky mix of characters and the great Samuel L. Jackson. The Hateful Eight has an excellent original soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. The film even has an overture and an intermission! But the pacing is off.

Have you ever had someone tell you a joke that has a long set up before you finally get to the punchline? And then the joketeller repeats the punchline for emphasis? That’s what The Hateful Eight reminds me of.

Let’s meet the eight who end up in Minnie’s Haberdashery, a roadhouse in a desolate area of Wyoming, during a blizzard. The time is a few years after the Civil War. Bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) is bringing in murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) for a reward. (Ruth, with his overgrown moustache and boisterous manner reminds one of a taller Yosemite Sam.)

The stagecoach he’s chartered picks up bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a Civil War veteran (Union side) who hears the N-word many times during TH8. Another passenger who begs a ride is Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims he’s to be the new sheriff of nearby Red Rock.

Already at the roadhouse are four more individuals: British dandy Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsden), “The Mexican” Bob (Demian Bichir) and former Confederate General Smithers (Bruce Dern).

The Hateful Eight meanders a full hour and 45-minutes before intermission. The long-awaited plot resolution after the break is violent but often funny in that QT way.

Tarantino has said that TH8’s story was modeled after certain plots on old TV westerns with episodes that took their time in revealing whether a stranger was a good or bad guy. Maybe QT just wanted his audience to become more familiar with the eight, but the first chapters of TH8 slog along at turtle speed. Don’t nod off.

The Hateful Eight is being shown screened in selects theaters (including Ronnie’s in St. Louis) in a 70mm wide-screen format using film instead of a digital system. (The digital version I saw showcased the film in a wider-than-usual aspect ratio.)

Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have a Tarantino film back on movie house screens. But after his successes with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, TH8 falls short.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Short

The Big Short is one of the more clever, creative and different films to come down the mainstream movie track in a long time. It contains one of the year’s best acting performances. It is, unfortunately, a failure.

Why? Because it is too cute. Because it tries to explain arcane financial information in silly ways. Because it attempts to assign white hats and black hats where many hats should be gray. Because, ultimately, it is hard to cheer for these few winners when there were so many losers.

We all know what happened in 2007-2008. Okay, we don’t know exactly what happened but we know how the nation’s economic collapse affected each of us individually. The Big Short, based on Michael Lewis’s book, tries to tell part of that story with humor.

Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is a Deutsche Bank employee on Wall Street who serves as narrator, occasionally turning directly to the camera in the middle of a scene to share a point of exposition. He drips smugness.

Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a California doctor who leads an investment group. Burry, a man with tons of nervous energy (the real life Burry has Asperger’s), guesses that the housing market will collapse in ’07 when many subprime mortgages are scheduled to adjust significantly higher. He makes huge bets (using his investors’ money) that the mortgage banking industry will suffer defaults on home loans. Bale’s performance as this quirky but self-assured gambler is among his best.

Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) is part of a New York-based investment consortium which receives much of its funding from Morgan Stanley, a major Wall Street institution. Baum has a strong moral compass. He is concerned about right and wrong, yet he proceeds with betting against the banks—including Morgan Stanley.

Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) is a Boulder-based investor who wants to get in on “shorting” the mortgage market but his capitalization is too low. With help from Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former banker who has cashed out and retired, he gets in on the action.

Director Adam McKay (who co-wrote) includes clever quick montages of timely images to reflect the times. They include a Britney Spears clip to represent 2000 and a 1st generation iPhone to indicate 2007. The segments with Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain and Selena Gomez (alongside a real economist) attempting to simplify some of the complexity of finance are funny. Are they informative? A little.

McKay gets an “A” for ambition and a gold star for trying to relate the stories in Lewis’s book in a lighthearted manner. But The Big Short fails to accomplish its mission. I am betting against it.

Crimson Peak

Crimson Peak, the new film from director Guillermo del Toro, covers multiple genres. It’s a period piece romance with gorgeous costumes. It’s also a suspenseful horror film with an assortment of creepy ghosts and cringe-worthy gore.

And what an amazing setting! Most of the movie’s action takes place in a huge mansion in rural England. Allerdale Hall is old and damaged. Snow falls into the house through the huge hole in the roof. Secrets and ghosts abound in this enormous home.

Central character Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring writer who is haunted by ghosts, living in Buffalo a century ago. A mysterious British stranger, Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), calls on Edith’s businessman father (Jim Beaver) to obtain financing for his clay-mining machine. Thomas’s travelling partner is his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain).

Edith’s dad refuses to invest in the Thomas’s device. Thomas waltzes with Edith at a society event and Edith begins to fall for him. Dad, smelling a rat, pays Thomas and his sister to leave town. This would clear the way for Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) to pursue longtime acquaintance Edith.

As the Sharpe siblings prepare to leave Buffalo, Edith’s dad is killed in a grisly murder. Edith halts the Sharpe’s exodus and soon marries Tom and joins him and sis at Allerdale Hall. That’s when the weird stuff really gets going.

Who are the ghosts? What is the history of Allerdale Hall? Why can’t Edith have a house key? What’s in that tea being served to Edith? What’s the real story behind Thomas and Lucille? What’s going on in the basement? What’s in those tubes in the closet? Who or what is Enola? What’s the cause of those red spots in the snow outside?

Mia Wasikowska as the smitten but confused bride Edith plays it both ways. The ghosts that haunt her life cause her to proceed cautiously but the strange things she sees and hears in the house stimulate her curiosity. She has to investigate.

Hiddleston with his face that’s shaped like a caricature and Wasikowska with her pale countenance are perfectly cast. As Lucille, Chastain’s character is a wild card, one who is not to be trusted.

As the mystery unfolds and secrets are revealed, Crimson Peak turns out to be a movie that cannot be described simply. Guillermo del Toro combines the genres to bring a film full of memorable visuals, memorable characters and general creepiness. Perfect for the Halloween season!