ALLIED (2016) Hearkens Back to 1940s Classics

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The best part about ALLIED (2016), a love story and thriller that takes place during World War II, is that it hearkens back to classic movies like CASABLANCA (1942) and Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS (1946).  The worst part is that in spite of the nostalgia it evokes, it fails to rise to the levels which made those 1940s classics so memorable.

That being said, ALLIED is a solid film that is much better than the lack of hype surrounding it would lead you to believe.

ALLIED opens in 1940 Casablanca, where we meet Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) a British intelligence officer on a mission to assassinate a key Nazi figure.  He’s working with Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) a French Resistance fighter, and the two are posing as husband and wife as they work to infiltrate the inner circles of the Nazi regime in Casablanca.  It’s a bold assassination plot, and their chances of survival are slim.

But survive they do, and as they make their escape from Morocco, Max asks Marianne to come back to London with him and marry him, which she does.  The two of them, having risked so much to pull off their ruse in Casablanca, have clearly fallen in love.

The two begin a life in World War II London, even having a baby together, and life is as good as it can be for people being bombed regularly by the Nazis.  But things take a sinsiter turn when Max’s superior officer Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) informs him that British Intelligence suspects Marianne of being a Nazi spy, and that if proven true, that Max will have to kill her.

The final third of the film follows Max’s efforts to learn the truth about his wife- is she a spy or isn’t she, and if she is, then what will he do about it?

I really enjoyed ALLIED, although the film falls short of being something special.

I especially enjoyed the beginning of this movie.  It takes its time setting the stage for the assassination plot by Max and Marianne.  Lesser films would have begun with the assassination and jumped right into the marriage between Max and Marianne.  By inviting us into the stress and anxieties behind their ruse, the film really allows its audience to get to know Max and Marianne and to see just how it is that they fall in love.  It makes the second part of the film all the more painful because we see these two go through a lot and grow very close.

The scenes during this part of the movie involving Nazis are also very suspenseful and well done.  The opening third of the movie is compelling and tense.

The movie also looks great, fully capturing the period, which one would expect from a movie directed by Robert Zemeckis.  And it’s interesting that Zemeckis directed this movie, because you know he’s the guy behind such visual flicks as the BACK TO THE FUTURE movies, WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (1988), FOREST GUMP (1994), and THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004), but there really isn’t anything all that visual about ALLIED other than its period piece window dressings.  I mean, the film looks wonderful, but knowing that Zemeckis directed this one, I expected even more in terms of cinematic flair.  That’s not meant to be a knock on Zemeckis but simply an observation that knowing his resume I thought his work here was not all that reflective of his signature style.

The screenplay by Steven Night is as solid as the rest of the movie.  As I said, it does a nice job in the first act of allowing us to be a part of Max’s and Marianne’s love story.   The second act keeps things moving as the action switches to wartime London, and of course the final act turns things up a notch as the audience is eager to follow Max on his investigation, to help him learn the truth about his wife— is she a spy or isn’t she?

I thought the one place where the movie didn’t excel was its ending. Like the rest of the movie, it’s satisfactory, but it’s nothing special.  I had hoped that a phenomenal ending would put this movie over the top, but that was not the case.  It’s certainly not a bad ending by any means, but CASABLANCA it ain’t.

Night also wrote the screenplay for THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014), a wonderful film that was one of my favorite movies of 2014 yet seemed to fly under everyone else’s radar.

If Brad Pitt seems quite at home wearing a World War II military uniform, that’s because he’s already done so in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) and more recently in FURY (2014).  As Max Vatan, Pitt is just OK here.  I’ve seen him deliver far better performances— in MONEYBALL (2011), KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012), and THE BIG SHORT (2015), to name just a few recent ones— than he gives here in ALLIED, where he seemed quiet and reserved throughout. For a man fearing that his wife is a Nazis spy, he never really shows the amount of angst one would expect from a man in his position.  It also doesn’t help that Pitt seems to wear the same blank expression on his face throughout the movie.  Sure, it’s the look of a man who is a covert intelligence officer, who is trained not to let others see his true feelings, so in terms of the plot of the movie, it’s fine, but in terms of letting an audience know what he’s thinking, it doesn’t fly.

The best performance in the movie belongs to Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard.  She nails Marianne’s persona.  In the opening act of the film, Marianne tells Max that she is successful at fooling people because her emotions are true and real.  She really does like the people she is infiltrating, and so her emotions are genuine and difficult to see through.  Which makes things all the more complicated for Max later when he’s trying to decipher if she is a Nazi spy or not.  Cotillard captures this duplicity brilliantly.  Because of her performance, the audience really believes that she is in love with Max, but like Max, we’re not so sure if these genuine feelings are legit or simply part of her job as a spy.

Cotillard is also terribly sexy in this role, and I enoyed Cotillard here better than in other Hollywood movies I’ve seen her in, movies like INCEPTION (2010) and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012).

Jared Harris, an excellent actor who has a ton of credits, and who I have particularLy enjoyed in such movies as SHERLOCK HOLMES:  A GAME OF SHADOWS (2011) where he played Professor Moriarty, and the underrated Hammer Film THE QUIET ONES (2014), as well as the TV series MAD MEN (2009-2012) where he played Lane Pryce, is good here in a supporting role as Max’s superior, Frank Heslop.

For some reason, ALLIED has received almost no hype. I suspect, based on things that I’ve heard and read, that the powers that be had little faith in this movie.  It’s actually a pretty good movie, especially if you enjoy World War II period pieces.

Is it as good as those classics I mentioned at the outset of this review?  No, but then again, not many films are.  But it’s still a solid movie from beginning to end, worth the price of a movie ticket, and good for an enjoyable two hours at the movies.

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BEST MOVIES OF 2015

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Here’s my list of the Top 10 movies I saw in 2015:

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10.  IT FOLLOWS- ***- This was my pick for the top horror movie of 2015.  It makes #10 in my overall list.  Terrific horror movie by writer/director David Robert Mitchell.  It’s creative in its execution, suspenseful, has a superior movie score, and is very reminiscent of John Carpenter’s early work back in the 1970s.

9. THE MAN FROM UNCLE – *** – a critical and commercial disaster, this film nonetheless worked for me, so much so that it was one of my favorite movies of the year.  I loved the polished direction, the slick music score, and the whole 1960s “spy feel” of the film.

Sure, the two leads could have been more charismatic, but I still found it all terrific fun.

8. CHAPPIE- *** 1/2- one of my favorite science fiction films of the year.  Sure, it’s all very melodramatic and overdramatic, but this tale of a robot with artificial intelligence really worked for me.  Then again, maybe I’m just a sucker for the films of writer/director Neill Blomkamp.

7. MAD MAX:  FURY ROAD – *** 1/2- my pick for the best science fiction movie of the year.   George Miller, who directed the original films starring Mel Gibson, returns to his roots here with a film that is exceedingly exciting and features some of the most imaginative chase scenes I’ve seen in quite a long time.  Tom Hardy is fine as Max, but it’s Charlize Theron who steals the show in this one as tough as nails heroine Imperator Furiosa.

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6. AVENGERS:  AGE OF ULTRON – *** 1/2 – Excellent sequel to THE AVENGERS.  I love the Marvel superhero films, and their AVENGERS movies are among their best.  Nonstop entertainment.

5. THE BIG SHORT.-*** 1/2

I really enjoyed this intriguing drama about the home mortgage crisis and the near collapse of the U.S. economy in 2008.  Christian Bale is getting all the hype with buzz of a possible Best Supporting Actor nomination, and he’s good here, but I liked Steve Carrell and Ryan Gosling even more. Well-acted, well-written movie that tells a story that’s a real eye opener.

Written and directed by Adam McCay, most known for his comedic work, directing such films as ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY (2004) and THE OTHER GUYS (2010).  McCay puts this background to good use as THE BIG SHORT, in spite of its heavy and oftentimes depressing subject matter, is very light and quirky in tone.  McCay also wrote the screenplay for the Marvel hit ANT-MAN (2015).

Brad Pitt rounds out the solid cast.

4. BRIDGE OF SPIES – ****- The main reason I liked this Steven Spielberg Cold War thriller was Tom Hanks’ performance.  I’m not always a big Tom Hanks fan, but he knocks the ball out of the ballpark with his spot on performance as an attorney asked to defend a Soviet spy.  The story which follows is captivating and riveting.

In addition to Hanks’ standout performance, Mark Rylance is also excellent as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  This is also quite the period piece, as Spielberg meticulously captures the Cold War period.  At times, you feel like you’re watching a dramatic museum exhibit.

3.  JOY-**** -Critics did not like this comedy/drama by writer/director David O. Russell which tells the story of Joy Mangano, the woman who created the Miracle Mop, but I absolutely loved this one.  Jennifer Lawrence turns in a phenomenal performance as Joy, and this movie clearly belongs to her.  A quirky, funny film that is every bit emotionally moving as it is humorous.  It reminded me a lot of Russell and Lawrence’s earlier pairing, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

The fine supporting cast includes Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Isabella Rossellini, Virginia Madsen, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez, Elisabeth Rohm, and Dascha Polanco.

This cast led by Jennifer Lawrence combined with the creative directorial style of David O. Russell makes JOY one of my favorite films of the year.

2.  SPOTLIGHT-**** – For me, SPOTLIGHT was the most disturbing film of the year, and its second best.  It tells the story of how The Boston Globe exposed the scandal in the Catholic Church and uncovered truths which before this story most people refused to believe.  The number of abuse cases in Boston alone were staggering.

The film is amazingly underplayed, and it’s able to do this because the story itself is so horrifying.  All it has to do is tell its story, and that’s enough.

SPOTLIGHT is a fine example of a true life horror story that is more disturbing than most genre horror films.  In addition, it’s also one of the best movies about newspapers and reporters ever made.

Amazingly well-acted, its cast includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Brian D’Arcy James.

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1. SICARIO – **** – Any one of my top 5 picks could have been my number movie of the year.  They’re all that good.

However, my personal favorite of the year because it both pushed all the right buttons and is the type of movie I love- a riveting suspenseful dark thriller- is SICARIO.

I loved this thriller about an FBI agent thrown into the midst of the drug war with a Mexican cartel.  Emily Blunt is outstanding as FBI agent Kate Macer.  Even better is Benecio Del Toro as Alejandro, a mysterious hitman who in spite of his shadowy cold-blooded agenda, always seems to have Macer’s back, even when he holds a gun to her head.

Josh Brolin is also excellent as a calm, cool, and confident government agent who recruits Macer but is too shady to earn her trust.

Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, the SONS OF ANARCHY actor who has a lot of other acting credits as well.  This is his first screenplay.  It’s a good one.

Some of the most suspenseful scenes I’ve seen in a while.  A must-see movie.  My pick for the #1 movie of 2015.

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And that’s my Top 10 List for 2015.  What’s yours?

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

Like Its Undead Characters, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994) Has Aged Well

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Interview With The Vampire posterStreaming Video Review:  INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994)

By

Michael Arruda

 

I have to confess that I’ve never been a fan of Anne Rice’s novel Interview With The Vampire for the simple reason that when it was published in 1976, I had just read another vampire novel that immediately became one of favorite books of all-time:  Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.  As a twelve year-old reading Rice’s novel, I simply couldn’t get King’s novel out of my head.

And so when the movie version of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE was finally released in 1994 I wasn’t all that excited to see it.  Plus, I was not a Tom Cruise fan at all, and so with Cruise in the lead as the vampire Lestat, I was even less interested in it, and to be fair, I did not give this movie a fair shake upon its initial release.  I was quick to dismiss it.

Recently, I decided it was time to give this movie another look.  For starters, as Tom Cruise has aged, he has chosen more interesting film roles, and I’ve actually enjoyed his performances over the last ten years or so.  Plus, after the TWILIGHT movies, I figured INTERVIEW would seem vastly superior in comparison.

I was right.

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE has aged well.

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE begins in modern day, where a young man Daniel Malloy (Christian Slater) interviews a vampire, Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt).  As Louis tells his story, the time shifts to the past, to 1790s New Orleans, where Louis, distraught over the recent death of his wife and infant baby, wants to die.  Instead, he’s turned into a vampire by Lestat de Lioncourt (Tom Cruise).

The story then follows the love/hate relationship between these two vampires.  Louis hates being a vampire, and refuses to drink the blood of humans.  Lestat seems to go out of his way to torment Louis, while claiming to be trying to help Louis survive.  When Louis threatens to leave, Lestat turns a young girl Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) into a vampire so Louis will have another friend besides himself.

Eventually, Louis and Claudia escape from Lestat and travel to Paris because they have heard that other vampires reside there.  They meet the vampire Armand (Antonio Banderas) who leads a band of vampires who live on the streets of Paris.  Eventually, Lestat returns to reclaim Louis and Claudia, setting the stage for the film’s conclusion.

The biggest reason I’ve never been a huge fan of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE is its high drama vampire plot.  I prefer my vampires a bit more monstrous than the undead folks who populate INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.  While I do enjoy the individual struggles these vampires face, I don’t like the main story they find themselves in.  I like watching Louis deal with his disdain for vampirism.  I like watching Lestat’s manipulations and dramatic musings.  I like watching Claudia’s bursts of teen angst and emotion.  However, the main story arc here plays more like a soap opera plot to me than a vampire tale.  It also doesn’t play like much of a horror movie.

So, what did I like better this time around watching INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE on Netflix Streaming twenty years after its initial release?

For starters, the acting is very good.  I liked Brad Pitt as Louis, although at times he did seem a little less horrified than he should have been about his condition.

Tom Cruise probably impressed me the most, which I find ironic, since his performance probably turned me off the most when I first saw this movie back in 1994.  He’s very good as Lestat.  He doesn’t quite capture Lestat the way I imagined him from the book.  I remember him being a darker character in Anne Rice’s novel, but Cruise infuses him with so much dramatic energy, at times, it was like watching Liberace as a vampire, and Cruise captures this essence without being comical.

A very young Kirsten Dunst is also exceptional as Claudia, and she steals most of the scenes she’s in.  Likewise, Antonio Banderas was impressive as Armand, as was Stephen Rea as Armand’s fellow vampire Santiago.

I also enjoyed the look of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.  Director Neil Jordan has created a very good looking horror movie.  It’s all very atmospheric and hearkens back to the Hammer vampire movies of old.  Jordan’s previous film before INTERVIEW was THE CRYING GAME (1992) which back in the early 1990s I liked much better than INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.

Anne Rice wrote the screenplay, based on her novel, and it’s adequate as those things go.  Again, the story has never wowed me.

Another reason I enjoyed INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE more today than when it first came out is the TWILIGHT series.  Having had to suffer through those movies over the past decade, the way they reduced vampires to one-dimensional caricatures in a young adult romance, was one of the more painful cinematic experiences I’ve ever had to endure.  One movie, okay, that’s not so bad.  But an entire series of these clunkers?  Ugh!

So, in comparison, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE is like the Mona Lisa, which by the way, is another movie title by director Neil Jordan, as he directed the well-received MONA LISA (1986) starring Bob Hoskins.

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE has aged well. It boasts a solid directorial effort by Neil Jordan, and visually it’s very impressive.  It’s well-acted by Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Kirsten Dunst.  True, it’s still not my favorite vampire tale, but it does have rich resonating characters who more than make up for the weaknesses in the story.

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FURY (2014) – Brutal War Tale Does Its Job

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Fury-2014Movie Review:  FURY (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

If there’s one message in FURY (2014), the new World War II action movie starring Brad Pitt, it’s that war is a hell that just won’t quit.  Even in the waning days of the war, the fighting continues, oftentimes with more ferocity than ever before.

To this end, FURY succeeds.  It’s a brutal in-your-face slugfest between Allied soldiers and the Nazis.  We see heads blown off, eyes stabbed out, and even a severed face lying on a tank seat.  It’s not for the squeamish.

Where FURY lags, however, and what prevents it from being a superior movie, is a lack of character development and a limiting story. FURY plays out like a slice-of-life portrait of five World War II soldiers battling against the odds in the final days of the war, as the Allies penetrate further into Germany.  It’s not the most dangerous mission ever undertaken, nor is it the most heroic war tale ever told.  It’s simply five men doing their job.

It’s less about the mission and more about the men, which is fine, except that this kind of a story deserves deeper character development.  While we do get up close and personal with these guys, the film never jettisons its action scenes in favor of scenes where we get to know these characters, save for one, perhaps the best scene in the movie, where the soldiers share a dinner with two German women.

When FURY opens, Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) who commands the tank “Fury” has just lost one of his men, which leaves the rest of his crew, Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia Lebouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady “Coon- Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) angry and upset.  Collier receives new orders to take his small group of tanks and intercept a squadron of Nazis.  Even though the war is drawing to a close, the Nazis are not giving up, and the fighting is more vicious than ever.  As such, the Allies are enduring heavy casualties, and Collier and his small group of tanks are being asked to do a job which normally requires more firepower, which they just don’t have right now.

Collier’s crew is assigned a new soldier, the very young Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) who’s only trained as a communications officer and is as green as a cucumber when it comes to combat.  After razzing him initially, Collier’s crew welcomes Norman into the fold, even as he admits he has no desire to kill anyone.

The tanks are ambushed, and all of them are destroyed except for “Fury,” which leaves Collier and his crew to take on the Nazis on their own.

FURY was written and directed by David Ayer, who earlier this year wrote and directed the Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner SABOTAGE (2014).  I enjoyed FURY much more than SABOTAGE.  Ayer also wrote and directed the police drama END OF WATCH (2012).  He wrote TRAINING DAY (2001), the film in which Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Oscar, and he wrote the original THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001).

Ayer has been around, more as a writer than a director, and of the films he’s directed that I’ve seen, FURY might be his best yet.  It has a solid story, exciting action sequences, tense war action, and a competent cast.  The action is fast and furious, and the battle scenes do not disappoint.  Sure, more attention could have been paid to character development, and it could have used an additional plot point or two to lift it above the standard war movie, but as is it’s still a very satisfying movie.

Brad Pitt is solid as Sgt. Collier.  He’s the rock which holds his men together, and he’s the driving force that pushes them through the dark places.  In front of his men, he’s a bull, but alone, he breaks down, succumbing to the war horrors engulfing them.  I continue to enjoy Pitt’s string of recent performances, including roles in such films as INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009), MONEYBALL (2011), and KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2011).  Pitt was probably better in all three of those films, but his performance here is a good one, and it’s a role I enjoyed more than his most recent work in WORLD WAR Z (2013) and THE COUNSELOR (2013).

Just as good as Pitt is Logan Leman as green soldier Norman Ellison.  It’s largely through Ellison’s eyes that we see the horrors of the war, and we watch as Ellison goes from a naïve boy to a hardened soldier.

Both Shia LeBouf as “Bible” Swan and Michael Pena as Garcia are very good, but it’s THE WALKING DEAD’s Jon Bernthal as the animal-like Travis who stands out among the tank crew.  Travis is such a violent visceral character, and Bernthal has a field day playing him.  As we saw when he played Shane on THE WALKING DEAD, Bernthal is a very talented actor who I hope continues to land bigger and bigger roles in the movies.

While the action scenes are topnotch, especially the tank battle in which the Allied tanks are outgunned by a single Nazi tank, the best scene in the movie isn’t an action scene.  It’s when Collier brings Norman into a German home in which they find two young women.  While the other men engage in wild sex with the local German women, Collier shows Norman a more civilized get-together, over a home-cooked meal.  Of course, civility only goes so far, as Collier bursts into the woman’s home with a rifle and orders them to make dinner.

When Norman retreats into the bedroom with the lovely young Emma (Alicia von Rittberg), they share an intimate conversation and have what appears to be consensual sex.  Afterwards, when Emma leaves the bedroom, she looks at her cousin and smiles at her.  I don’t think Emma would be smiling had she been raped.  The whole point of this scene is that Norman is not a brute and that he doesn’t force himself upon the girl.  Then again, he’s a soldier with a rifle, and so certainly the door is open for interpretation.

Of course, when Travis, Garcia, and Swan arrive, that’s a different story, and Travis does everything in his power to humiliate and degrade Emma, in spite of Norman’s and Collier’s protestations.  The range of emotions throughout this sequence goes far deeper than at any other point in the film.  It’s the best scene in the movie.

I wish there had been more scenes in the film like this.

But as it stands, FURY is a very good movie.  It’s a down and dirty World War II thriller which serves as a sad reminder that war is a brutal ugly business.  As Brad Pitt’s Wardaddy Collier says in one of the best lines from the film, “It (the war) will end soon, but before it does, a lot more people have to die.”

For the men inside Fury, it can’t end fast enough.

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