REVIEW: Allied

26 11 2016

When asked how she has kept up a ruse among Nazis in Morocco, Marion Cotillard’s Resistance agent Marianne Beauséjour offers one trick of the trade: keep the emotions real. Precision is important – and she has plenty – but the feeling matters most.

In “Allied,” director Robert Zemeckis might not be trying anything nearly as daring as the espionage mission undertaken by Marianne and her Canadian companion, Brad Pitt’s Max Vatan, yet he heeds that core dictum all the same. His Old Hollywood throwback is a classically styled delight that succeeds largely on the dynamism of the two stars. Their transition from partners in crime to partners in life is gradual, then sudden, and it works because Zemeckis creates an environment where a series of sparks can believably ignite a blaze.

The golden-age romance turns on a dime in the film’s second half when British intelligence officers inform Max of their belief that Marianne is, in fact, passing classified information back to the Nazis. At this point, “Allied” shifts registers into an old-fashioned thriller; Zemeckis masterfully deploys his craftsmanship here. Small sonic details become searing motifs that comment on the tension ratcheting up between the couple. Brisk cuts sweep us from one scene into the next, echoing the whiplash Max must feel. In both themes and content, the film feels like it shares a close kinship with Hitchcock’s early American work in the 1940s.
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REVIEW: Self/Less

10 07 2015

The central conceit of Tarsem Singh’s “Self/Less” is effortlessly appealing, if not incredibly novel.  A new technological breakthrough allows for the transfer of a nimble mind from a decaying body into a more spry figure.  As Matthew Goode’s well-coiffed scientist Albright puts it, think of what Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, or Steve Jobs could have accomplished with a few more years.

The man who receives this revolutionary soul transplant seems to share little in common with those three luminaries, though.  Ben Kingsley’s Damian Hale simply amassed a fortune as a real estate baron.  When he sheds his cancer-addled body and reemerges in the toned physique of Ryan Reynolds, Damian uses the new lease on life not to help humanity but rather to please himself.  In pursuit of nothing but hedonism, he beds plenty of women and never once shows why he deserves an extension of his time on earth.

Beyond Damian’s clear lack of merit to receive the shedding treatment, “Self/Less” suffers from plot holes and shallow thinking aplenty.  Writers David and Alex Pastor do add in a few complications to the concept, mostly resulting from the incomplete erasure of the mind that used to inhabit Damian’s new frame.  (Side note: Why not just clone these new bodily vessels?)  The ethical questions surrounding who really owns a physical body or a life are fascinating ones indeed…

…that will have to be answered by another movie, because “Self/Less” would much rather just cut to a mindless car chase than linger on a mindful discussion.  The Pastor brothers placed their fingers on a topic that could inspire meaningful, relevant debate.  Perhaps if they were able to complete two or three more drafts of the screenplay, they might have stumbled on something really profound.  But as is, the potential for a great movie gets squandered to produce a merely passable one.  C+2stars





REVIEW: Stoker

22 09 2014

When I left “Stoker,” I was not entirely sure whether I liked or loathed it.  The sentiment was distinct from the normal ambivalence that I feel about rather bland, unremarkable films.  Rarely had such conflicting emotions about a work of art seemed so passionless to me.

Chan-wook Park’s English-language debut certainly has a cool neo-Hitchcock vibe to it, particularly in its impressive editing and heavy dependence on atmosphere.  Very little happens in “Stoker,” which revolves around an odd teenager India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), once her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) moves in to “comfort” her recently widowed mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman).  They interact in cryptic ways, which are often so vague that only the language of the camera gives any clue as to what to make of it.

At first, this indistinctness is chillingly beguiling.  But after a while, “Stoker” just starts to feel like a bunch of smoke and mirrors.  I had no idea where the movie was going until the last 30 minutes, largely because it lacked a firm narrative.  And when there is little story to follow, all attention shifts to aesthetics.  With all that extra attention, Park’s style reveals itself as rather empty.

Perhaps “Stoker” can approximate a Hitchcock thriller in terms of finesse. But Hitch had compassion for his characters, which is such a crucial X factor that has led his work to retain such a foothold in the public imagination.  Park, on the other hand, builds such a distance between us and the characters that I found myself retreating into my own imagination to think about the next movie on my agenda.  B-2stars





REVIEW: The Imitation Game

8 09 2014

Telluride Film Festival

As if the subject of “The Imitation Game” – a tender British soul misunderstood as an incompetent and bumbling fool – weren’t enough to draw comparisons to “The King’s Speech,” the film seemingly invites the parallel in its opening credits.  It’s only faintly discernible, but audio from none other than King George’s climactic speech at the dawn of World War II plays diegetically in the background.

To those who might recognize the snippet, it serves as a perfect barometer for the ambitions of “The Imitation Game.”  With maybe a dash of brash mathematical genius of “A Beautiful Mind,” Morten Tyldum’s film is very much this year’s “The King’s Speech.”  For those unaware of the construed meaning of 2010’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, that means the film is an engaging and entertaining biopic made with high production values all around yet does not aspire to anything groundbreaking.

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game

Maybe I can only give such an unabashed endorsement of the film from my privileged subject position of being one of the first audiences to see the film or because I saw it before the glut of prestige films later in the fall.  Indeed, I can already see myself holding truly great movies against “The Imitation Game” and wondering how on earth anyone could think so highly of it.  At least for the moment, however, I choose to see the film as it is: a quality piece of cinema that is not trying to reinvent the wheel.  It’s simply trying to turn some wheels in my head, and I thoroughly enjoyed it on those terms.

Certainly a film has some merit if it can collapse a two-hour act of viewing into feeling like an experience lasting half that duration.  “The Imitation Game” flew by, largely because of how engrossed in the story and the characters I became.  Benedict Cumberbatch turns in inspired work bringing the film’s subject, Alan Turing, to life.  His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

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REVIEW: Belle

9 08 2014

“Costume design porn” (if that’s not a phrase yet, I call dibs on the trademark) rarely satisfies for me, but I’ll admit, “Belle” came as a pleasant surprise.  Amma Asante’s 18th-century set period piece focuses far less on the threads and refreshingly more on social values of the period in England.  And for once, I felt like I should care far more about what the characters had to say than what they wore.

Perhaps my interest in the film’s subject came from having visited Kenwood House in London, the film’s setting.  I spent one beautifully foggy morning exploring the newly refurbished historical site while it was nearly empty, and one particularly kind docent took the time to explain the history behind Dido Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the mixed race daughter of an English aristocrat.  Dido is brought up just like any other legitimate child by her aunt (Emily Watson) and uncle (Tom Wilkinson), who is tasked with deciding a landmark case of the rights of slaves.

Ironically, her cousin Lady Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) has far more power and standing in British society … yet far less of a dowry to offer suitors.  A rivalry develops between the two that feels completely believable, and the tension propels “Belle” throughout some dull moments in the middle of the film.

Assante’s film has its heart in the right place, promoting causes like racial equality and the rights of women as self-sufficient individuals.  She gets a little self-righteous and preachy at times, but at least these struggles ground the world in reality as opposed to the first-world problems that seem to occupy most films of this genre.  Sadly enough, these are battles still being fought, and “Belle” reminds us that we’ve still got some distance to go even though we’ve progressed from the times being covered in the movie.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Leap Year

28 08 2010

Why does anyone still bother to see romantic comedies? Look at the poster for “Leap Year” and guess how it ends; the genre has become so formulaic that my previous statement can’t even be branded a spoiler. So why is it that they are still made, and why is it that anyone still wants to see them?

Simply put, it’s because actresses like Amy Adams take roles in romantic comedies that the audiences come in droves.  So you really need me to go into the plot?  Or the production values?  If you truly want to see this movie, it’s almost a guarantee what you really want to see is Amy Adams.

So do you want me to waste both my time and yours by reviewing “Leap Year?”  In a sentence, it’s a stale rehash of all the romantic comedy cliches we’ve come to love and hate.  But the movie isn’t a total waste of time because of all the charm Amy Adams breathes into it.  As Anna, the girl so desperate to get married that she’s willing to travel in dismal conditions to propose to her boyfriend, she manages to turn someone with traits we would generally despise into a character we can actually like.  That’s no small feat.

She doesn’t really get to be funny or sexy, two things you can be very little of in a movie that’s rated PG.  But that girl-next-door sensibility and smile as wide as a mountain range are present, and they somehow make the corny plot more digestible.

If you decide to watch “Leap Year,” you won’t get anything you can’t get from any other romantic comedy.  You’ll wind up feeling about as warm as you do looking at the poster, watching the trailer, or reading a plot synopsis.  But you will get a big portion of jubilant Amy Adams, and that’s enough to make 100 minutes of banalities feel a little less dusty.  B- /





REVIEW: A Single Man

8 02 2010

The protagonist of “A Single Man,” George Falconer (Colin Firth), often references moments of clarity, in which he is able to forget the pain of his past and live in the present.  Director Tom Ford does an excellent job of highlighting these moments, and it is here where his first film absolutely glitters.  He has made a movie that stands as one of the most thoroughly beautiful aesthetic achievements in years.  And it isn’t beautiful just to be beautiful – Ford uses all these elements to subtly alert us to the true mood of the scene, but it’s never so subtle that the message is unattainable.

Set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the film’s events take place on what very well could be the last day of George Falconer’s life.  He has had to mourn the death of his longtime lover Jim (Matthew Goode) in private, thus making him a ticking time bomb of grief, ready to self-destruct at any instant.  George passes through life as little more than a specter, a mere shadow of the charismatic man that once walked in the same loafers.  On this day, no one even seems to suspect anything out of the ordinary.

We follow George as he meticulously attempts to finish his business.  He teaches his english class to a largely insipid and bored college class – with the exception of Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), who seems to take an interest not only in the thematic relevance of the class to the real world, but also in George himself.  He has dinner with his old friend Charley (Julianne Moore), a woman with a high capacity for alcohol and heartbreak.  Yet in the midst of all this, life (or some might call it fate) keeps giving him reminders of why we live.  These fleeting instances of rapture are brilliantly captured by Ford’s lens, and they especially stand out against the bleak canvas of George’s life.

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