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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

Fury

 

Fury is a beautifully constructed WWII movie. The story, the script, the characters, the acting, the tanks, the effects are all top-notch. But is it special? That’s the big question about Fury. It’s a truly entertaining film, and maybe that’s enough.

Fury is a tank, commanded by “Wardaddy” (Brad Pitt). He’s fought Germans in Africa, France and, now, on the Krauts’ home turf. The film is set in spring 1945, just weeks before the war’s end. Germany is reeling, but the bloody battles continue.

When any war movie introduces its characters, you know: some will die; some will survive. Wardaddy’s group includes the religious Swan (Shia LeBoeuf), Latino “Gordo” (Michael Pena) and redneck “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal).

The most interesting character in Fury is Norman, a callow youth played by Logan Lerman. Norman is a pencil pusher, just 8 weeks into his Army career, when he’s somehow assigned to Wardaddy’s crew. He is unprepared for witnessing death and certainly not ready to kill people.

A couple of battle scenes set up the final showdown. The faceoff between Fury (and other American tanks) against a bigger, stronger German tank depicts the intense effort of those inside the tank and the constant movement of the tanks for strategic positioning. (A note at the movie’s opening notes that American tanks did not quite measure up to German tanks.)

A sequence that follows the takeover of a German town shows Wardaddy and Norman enjoying a cordial visit with 2 German women. It’s a moment of quiet humanity amidst the horror of war. Later, the other 3 tank men crash the party and behave uncouthly until Wardaddy takes control.

When Fury is assigned to go it alone and defend a key rural intersection, they sit and wait for German activity. Norman scouts from a hillside and spots hundreds of Germans on their way for the film’s climactic battle, which is loud, intense and furious.

Writer/director David Ayer frames the film with memorable opening and closing shots and his overhead shots of the tank positioning are cleverly shot. In Fury, though most of the action occurs during daytime, the days are gray and dismal—appropriate for the grim business of war.

As Fury depicts it, war is hell. WWII, particularly so.

 

 

 

12 Years A Slave

12 Years a Slave is slow, overly long and filled with disturbing scenes. It is also one of the year’s best movies.

The true story is simple. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga, NY. He has a wife and kids. An accomplished musician, he is recruited by two “magicians” to provide music for their act.

After dinner at a restaurant in Washington, Northup wakes up in chains. He is kidnapped and sold at a slave market. Paul Giamatti appears as a slave broker, with the ironic name, Freeman.

Northup’s first owner in Louisiana is Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). He is, despite his participation in slavery, a decent man. He treats Northup with a bit of respect. He gives Northup a violin. His overseers, however, are brutal idiots. One of the overseers (Paul Dano, who is becoming typecast as a weasel) fights Northup and loses.

Later Northup is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), an abusive slave owner. The depictions of inhumanity are overwhelming. Brad Pitt plays Bass, a contractor who works on a building for Epps and utilizes Northup’s skills. The slave tells his story, Bass gets word to the folks back in New York and, in short order, Northup is freed and returned home.

Director Steve McQueen tells Northup’s story in a plodding, deliberate manner. But that’s appropriate. Life in the Antebellum South—even during cotton harvest—moved at a slower pace. It’s obvious that screenwriter John Ridley had to condense a good deal of the real-life Northup’s book to tell his story and to depict the life of a slave.

Movies have been around for over 100 years. Racial attitudes in America have changed greatly during that time. (See D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation for a century-ago depiction of black Americans.) It seems odd that Northup’s story would not have been brought to the screen until now.

12 Years a Slave is not light entertainment. It stirs emotions. It might make you cry. Chitwetel Ejiofor could be this year’s answer to Quvenzhané Wallis, the young girl who amazed in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Like her, he has a challenging name and owns his movie. (She, by the way, has a tiny roll in 12YAS as one of Northup’s daughters.) Like her, he is likely to be mentioned when awards nominations are announced. Unlike her, a rookie when she made Beasts, he is a film veteran who has now found his breakout role.

12 Years may be challenging for some audience members, but it has the basic elements that  make a great film: strong characters, a compelling story and a nuanced telling of the story. This is not the Gone With The Wind or even the Django Unchained version of slavery. This is brutal and stark. See it and be impressed.

The Counselor

Things to like about The Counselor:

  1. Cormac McCarthy’s literate script. The master novelist transfers his writing talent to a screenplay.
  2. Ridley Scott’s compelling visuals. Every scene in The Counselor looks good onscreen.
  3. Cameron Diaz’s silver fingernails. Stylish. (as Malkina)
  4. The love scene between The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) and his lady Laura (Penelope Cruz). Tastefully sexy amongst the white sheets.
  5. Brad Pitt in a cowboy hat (as Westray) telling The Counselor that he could be happy living in a monastery. Why doesn’t he? In a word, he says, “women.”
  6. Javier Bardem (as Reiner) telling a very dirty (but funny) story about a Malkina sexual escapade on a Ferrari windshield.
  7. Bruno Ganz (as the Diamond Dealer) triggering memories of the Hitler Reacts videos.
  8. The Counselor’s repeated requests for advice from others. Ironic role reversal.
  9. Ruben Blades back on screen as one of those who counsels The Counselor.
  10.  Rosie Perez back on screen as a prisoner The Counselor is assigned to defend.
  11. The creative method of transporting dope into the U.S. via oil drums hidden inside a tanker truck’s tank.
  12. Dean Norris back on screen as one involved in the drug trade. Ironic role reversal for Breaking Bad DEA agent Hank.
  13. Malkina’s leopards chasing jackrabbits.
  14. The classy look of most of the settings: Reiner’s restaurant, Reiner’s residence, The Counselor’s apartment, the spa where Malkina and Laura visit together.
  15. The gritty look of the garages where the dope is loaded and unloaded.
  16. The Counselor’s discomfited reactions to all the cautionary words he hears.
  17.  McCarthy’s clever use of the word “cautionary.”
  18.  The creative methods of killing people.

The Counselor does lean heavily on dialogue but there is plenty of action to balance it out. The story—a drug deal that doesn’t come off quite as planned with money missing—is standard stuff.

If you’ve ever enjoyed a Ridley Scott movie or a Cormac McCarthy novel, don’t miss The Counselor.

World War Z

Brad Pitt made a zombie movie. Not a funny zombie movie like Zombieland or Warm Bodies, but a serious zombie movie. Why?

Maybe because Pitt’s character, Gerry Lane, turns out to be the savior of humanity? Maybe because he’s the only well-known actor in the film, so he’ll be a real-life savior for his co-producers if it’s a hit? (Which it will likely be.) Maybe because it’s the time of the season for zombies and a zombie movie that doesn’t even snicker at the undead?

World War Z has some amazing effects. A teeming throng of zombies, looking like ants, climbs upon one another to scale a high wall. Another teeming throng of zombies runs through the streets of Philadelphia chasing a throng of non-zombies. An airplane… (No, wait, no spoiler here.) Rumors about production costs for the film go as high as $200 million.

Lane is a husband and father. After helping his family escape a tense situation in downtown Philly gridlock and more danger in Newark, they’re all ‘coptered to a carrier in the Atlantic which is serving as UN command center.

After Lane is convinced to help save the world, he and his crew go first to South Korea where gun battles in the dark beg the question, how can you tell the zombies from the normals? Then, he’s off to Jerusalem. As he eludes pursuing zombies with a female Jewish soldier in tow, he amputates her hand to prevent a zombie bite from infecting her. They escape by hailing a Belarus airliner on the runway and flying off to a World Health Organization facility somewhere in Europe.

Here’s where Lane offers one of those long shot “this just might work” ideas, reminiscent of an off-the-wall diagnosis on the House TV show. An intense cat-and-mouse game (actually zombie-and-normal game) ensues, providing the movie’s tense climax.

Here’s my main problem with World War Z: It’s a serious zombie movie. I’m not sure “serious” and “zombie” should go together. I know that zombies are hot stuff right now, but even as well made as TV’s The Walking Dead is, I have trouble buying into that show.

If you, however, are on the zombie bandwagon, you will, I think, want to zip and zoom and zero in on this zesty, zingy film, along with zillions more zombiphiles.

Killing Them Softly

Brutality, gore and obscene language combine to deliver the year’s grittiest crime drama. Setting the film against the backdrop of the 2008 pre-election financial crisis could have been a genius move, but ultimately is just an amusing juxtaposition.

“Killing Them Softly” is not a classic but has several memorable characters and some funny dark humor.

The story: two novice hoods are sent to rob a card game that’s run by the mob. They’re nervous, but they pull it off. Brad Pitt plays a mid-level mobster whose mission is to avenge the robbery. Pitt tells a mob lawyer, played by Richard Jenkins in one of their many conversations, that he doesn’t like to get into his target’s faces, he prefers to kill them “softly, from a distance.”

He imports a gunman played by James Gandolfini to help with the killing. This subcontracted hitman has addictions, mainly booze and hookers, which render him basically useless. Also in the cast are Ray Liotta and Sam Shepard.

Cinematic highlights include one particularly violent shooting, presented in slow motion a la “Bonnie and Clyde.” Also effective is the movie’s opening whose audio switches sharply back and forth between hard rock music and Barrack Obama campaign speech soundbites.

Throughout the film we see and hear TV clips of George W. Bush making his case to congress for bailout money and references to the ’08 election. The message, apparently, is that the meltdown affected mob finances just as much as it did the rest of America.

To borrow a line from another president, let me make one thing perfectly clear: this is one of the more violent movies you’ll ever see. If that’s your thing, enjoy. If not, stay away.