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: The Walk

5 10 2015

“To be on the wire is life – the rest is waiting,” opines Joe Gideon at the start of Bob Fosse’s 1979 film “All That Jazz.”  That quote is attributed to Karl Wallenda, a circus performer who, ironically, died from a fall the year prior to that film’s release after a stunt performed with no net.  Yet after watching Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk,” Gideon’s words seem more in the spirit of Phillipe Petit, the wire-walker who traversed a cord strung between the Twin Towers in 1974.

Though structured like a standard heist flick – and providing all the expected thrills that should come along with the genre – the film is about more than just a clever plan or a physical accomplishment.  Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) similarly equates the wire with life, and his life is his art.  The “coup,” as he repeatedly refers to it, makes for a fun exercise, but the plot to hang a wire between the Twin Towers is merely the means to the end of his performance.

Perhaps those who do not wish to think much into his daring piece deride Petit’s walk as empty exhibtionism or some kind of stunt that prioritizes style over substance.  For this precise reason, he earns the sympathy and identification of co-writer and director Robert Zemeckis.

In “The Walk,” the subject and the storyteller are practically one and the same in their aesthetic philosophies.  Both view spectacle as a component of art, not its opponent. There’s a reason Zemeckis opts for a variation of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” as Petit glides along his wire as opposed to dramatic, triumphant underscoring. For these two artists, the purest beauty comes from achieving the previously unthinkable while operating at the highest of stakes (Petit with his a hundred-story height, Zemeckis with a hundred-million dollar budget).

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REVIEW: Flight

24 11 2012

Denzel Washington has wowed audiences by playing both sides of the hero-villain spectrum.  Just look at the two performances that earned him Oscars.  1989’s “Glory” saw him as an almost angelic soldier fighting in the first all-black company in the United States Army, while 2001’s “Training Day” had him as a cop so devious and corrupt you wanted to jump through the screen and put a bullet through his head.

In “Flight,” Washington plays in the shades of grey of Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic pilot who becomes a hero after steering his malfunctioning plane to safety with his unconventional wisdom.  The catch is that Whitaker was high on cocaine and drunk as a skunk when he did so.  Of course, the public blindly adores him in a way reminiscent of Sully, the pilot who landed his vessel in the Hudson River and had a memoir in Barnes & Noble faster than you could say “American Airlines.”  But Whitaker has plenty of baggage that he can’t come to grips with and can’t compress into one of the overhead bins.  (Sorry, the puns with “Flight” are just endless.)

Because it’s a Denzel Washington performance, it’s fascinating to watch.  He owns the screen with a commanding presence rivaled by few in cinema these days.  But because Washington has such well-known and well-defined extremes, it’s fairly easy to tell what he thinks of Whitaker.

While he may have the moments of tough, firm leadership that Coach Herman Boone exhibits, Whitaker is clearly more in the model of a Frank Lucas or an Alonzo Harris.  It’s impressive that Washington can convey meaning through the mere iconography of his stature; however, in a movie like “Flight” that depends on our shifting judgements of the protagonist, that strength becomes a liability.

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REVIEW: A Christmas Carol

29 11 2009

Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” gets the title “timeless” bestowed on it because every year at Christmas, some new version of his story is spawned.  Robert Zemeckis is the latest filmmaker to take a stab at the tale.  Rather than revamp, retool, or recondition the story, he simply uses modern technology to retell it in a fun way that stays true to the source material and keeps the soul intact.  His “A Christmas Carol” bottles up the real spirit of the holiday season like no recent movie and spreads it through the audience.  It really is an empowering feeling to walk out of a movie inspired to put that twenty-dollar bill in the Salvation Army bin, not in the cash register at the mall.

The story of Ebenezer Scrooge is probably the second most well-known holiday yarn, weaved into the very fabric of the holiday season itself.  We all know it: the old miser with a heart colder than the snow packed on the London sidewalks gets a wake-up call that changes him.  Prior, Scrooge scoffed at Christmas with a “bah, humbug.”  He scorned those who wanted to care for him and refused to give care to the people that need it the most.  He treats his employee like dirt and gives him wages that amount to little more than that.  But Scrooge gets a visit from three ghosts – the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – that change his perspective by reminding him of the joy that the season used to bring, the plight of those less fortunate, and the bleak future that awaits him if he doesn’t change his ways.  The result is a more tender-hearted man who appreciates Christmas and the giving spirit that accompanies it.

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What To Look Forward To In … November 2009

7 10 2009

The holiday movie season begins to kick into high gear in the month of November, as does exciting Oscar season.  Accordingly, this post is longer than the previous monthly preview posts.  Brace yourself for movie mania coming your way in a few weeks.  Sit back, relax, and let Marshall guide you through the coming attractions.

November 6

From the mainstream movie perspective, the hot movie of this weekend will be Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.”  Shot with the same motion capture technology that Zemeckis used to make “The Polar Express,” the movie will cash in on premium ticket prices from 3D and IMAX 3D screenings.  My main concern about the quality of the movie itself lies with its principal actor, Jim Carrey, who will act as Scrooge and all three ghosts.  I doubt Zemeckis will permit it, but I fear that Carrey will make a mockery of Dickens’ classic novel much in the fashion of Mike Meyers with “The Cat in the Hat.”  Regardless of what critics say, I will probably end up seeing this with the family for some good old-fashioned family fun at the movies.

“The Men Who Stare at Goats” is the first movie of the holiday season to which George Clooney lends his talents.  Here, he plays a a military man in charge of a secret unit that attempts to use psychic powers for military purpose.  One such activity is to attempt to kill goats just by staring at them.  The movie also stars Ewan MacGregor as the reporter who discovers it all; the cast also includes Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey.  The movie is directed and adapted by Grant Heslov, previously nominated for an Academy Award for his work on “Good Night, and Good Luck.”  The trailer seems to show Heslov’s approach as similar to the Coen Brothers who usually provide a fun-filled romp.  Maybe the film will be a bona-fide indie hit, and Overture Films will be able to claim their first movie to gross over $50 million.  But we’ll have to see.

I’ve already written about the Oscar favorite, “Precious,” in a previous Oscar Moment.  I’ll post the trailer here just for the sake of promoting it, but if you want to hear my thoughts, read the post.

Two thrilling movies also open this week.  First, “The Box” with Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, seems to have an intriguing premise: if you push the button on the box, you will get a million dollars, but someone you don’t know will die.  However, it looks to be more interested in cheap thrills than exploring moral issues.  The other, “The Fourth Kind,” looks downright scary.  If horror is your thing, this looks like the movie for you.  I saw the trailer at “District 9,” and even if you don’t want to see it, you have to ponder the validity of the “true story” behind the movie.

November 13

Disaster porn reaches its pinnacle this weekend.  “2012,” Roland Emmerich’s apocalyptic film, will have some of the biggest destruction and explosions the world has ever seen.  The trailer was so mind-blowing that I am willing to overlook all vices in the plot to see the world’s greatest landmarks get wiped off the earth.  My only comment is that if John Cusack somehow finds a way to stop the end of the world, I will be enraged.

The other major wide release of the week is “Pirate Radio,” a movie that Focus Features so desperately wants you to see that they changed the title from “The Boat that Rocked” just a few weeks ago to appeal to you. Are you flattered? You shouldn’t be. The movie seems like comedic Oscar Bait, but it didn’t do well Britain, the country of production. Focus scrambled to change their focus from awards movie to popular movie. So whenever this pops into a theater near you, be armed with the knowledge that “Pirate Radio” is merely a washed-up Oscars wannabe. But make the decision to see it for yourself.

New York and Los Angeles get the treat of watching Wes Anderson’s adaptation Roald Dahl’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”  I have the utmost respect for Anderson for not conforming to the growing trend to do all animation through computers.  Anderson’s film uses the stop motion technique, moving an object gradually to give the illusion that it is moving.  Even more exciting that Anderson’s eccentric style in an eccentric medium is the voice cast.  Clooney voices the titular character, the cunning Mr. Fox.  The cast also features Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Bill Murray.  What’s not to like?  (NOTE: The movie expands on November 20 and enters wide release on November 25.)

For those who like very obscure indies, “That Evening Sun” with 87-year-old Oscar bridesmaid Hal Halbrook has his latest shot at the gold.

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