ALLIED (2016)

November 22, 2016

allied Greetings again from the darkness. Every writer, director and actor dreams of being part of the next Casablanca … a timeless movie beloved by so many. It’s rare to see such a blatant homage to that classic, but director Robert Zemeckis (Oscar winner for Forrest Gump) and writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) deliver their version with an identical setting, nearly identical costumes, and the re-use of a song (“La Marseillaise”) which played such a crucial role.

Spy movies typically fall into one of three categories: action (Bourne), flashy/stylish (Bond), or detailed and twisty (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). This one has offers a dose of each blended with some romance and a vital “is she or isn’t she” plot. The “she” in that last part is French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour played by Marion Cotillard. Her introduction here is a thing of beauty, as she floats across the room thrilled to be reuniting with her husband Max Vatan. Of course the catch is that Max (Brad Pitt) is really a Canadian Agent and their marriage is a cover for their mission to assassinate a key Nazi. Yes, it’s 1942 in Morocco.

The two agents work well together and it’s no surprise when this escalates to a real romance between two beautiful and secretive people. It seems only natural that after killing Nazi’s and making love in a car during a ferocious sandstorm that the next steps would be marriage, a move to London, and having a kid. It’s at this point where viewers will be divided. Those loving the action-spy approach will find the London segment slows the movie to a crawl. Those who prefer intelligence gathering and intrigue may very well enjoy the second half more.

What if your assignment was to kill your beloved wife if she were deemed to be a double-agent? Max finds himself in this predicament, and since no one ever says what they mean in the community of spies, he isn’t sure if the evidence is legit or if it’s really a game to test his own loyalty. This second half loses sight of the larger picture of war, and narrows the focus on whether Max can prove the innocence of Marianne … of course without letting her know he knows something – or might know something.

Marion Cotillard is stellar in her role. She flashes a warm and beautiful smile that expertly masks her true persona. The nuance and subtlety of her performance is quite impressive. Mr. Pitt does a nice job as the desperate husband hiding his desperation, but his role doesn’t require the intricacies of hers. Supporting work comes via Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, August Diehl, Marion Bailey, Simon McBurney, and Matthew Goode.

The Zemeckis team is all in fine form here: Cinematographer Don Burgess captures the feel of the era, Composer Alan Silvestri never tries to overpower a scene, and Costume Designer Joanna Johnston is likely headed for an Oscar nomination. For a spy movie, the story is actually pretty simple and the tension is never over-bearing like we might expect. While watching the performance of Ms. Cotillard, keep in mind her most telling line of dialogue: “I keep the emotions real.” It’s a strategy that is a bit unusual in her world. How effective it is will be determined by the end of the movie.

watch the trailer:

 

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CERTAIN WOMEN (2016)

October 13, 2016

certain-women Greetings again from the darkness. This is surely one of the most intriguing movies of the year that is about women and by a woman. Writer/director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, 2008) has adapted the short stories from Maile Meloy into a film with 3 segments focusing on the daily perseverance of three women in small town Montana (including a rare Wyoming joke).

The first segment has lawyer Laura Dern returning to the office after an … umm … “long lunch meeting”. Waiting for her is her client played by Jared Harris (“Mad Men”). The frustration between the two is palpable. Things take a turn for the worse as the sheriff calls Dern to the scene where Harris has taken a hostage at gunpoint. The issues on display here include the lack of respect for a female attorney, her unsatisfying personal life, and the one-way trust that can happen in times of desperation.

In the next story, we follow Michelle Williams and her husband James LeGros as they meet with a lonely elderly neighbor (Rene Auberjonis) and offer to buy some limestone blocks that have been sitting on his property for decades. The subtlety of the conversation embodies the missing respect and power of Ms. Williams’ character.

Emotions are exploding beneath the surface in the third segment featuring horse handler Lily Gladstone as she stumbles into a class being taught by Kristen Stewart, and is immediately captivated by the smart young teacher. Where this attraction leads is further commentary on the challenges faced by those trying to escape the daily drudgery of their lives.

The above recaps don’t come close to capturing the extraordinary quiet and stillness that director Reichardt uses in an emotionally powerful manner. These three women are all intelligent and filled with both pride and visceral disappointment … each quietly suffering, yet trudging forward with the emptiness each day brings. They each have a feeling of isolation – even if they aren’t truly alone, and failed or lackluster relationships certainly play a role.

The acting and cinematography (film, not digital!) is as expert as the directing. Ms. Gladstone is truly a standout by saying few words out loud, but speaking volumes with her open and pleading eyes. The nuance of each scene is where the most interest is, and the overall mood of the characters and tone of the stories overcome the fact that we are plopped into these lives with little or no backstory. As each one softly crashes (two figuratively, one literally), we understand these are the faces of strong women who will continue to do what’s necessary … even if that’s shoveling horse poop. The film is dedicated to Ms. Reichardt’s dog Lucy (a key to her personal and professional life).

watch the trailer:

 

 


THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

August 22, 2015

man from uncle Greetings again from the darkness. There aren’t many of us left. I’m referring to fans of the 1960’s TV series who will always think of Robert Vaughn, David McCallum and Leo G. Carroll as the real United Network Command for Law and Enforcement – shortened to U.N.C.L.E. Of course, these days, the movie industry is committed to remakes, sequels and re-boots, and it’s not surprising that it takes “Superman” and “The Lone Ranger” to try and fill the shoes of Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin.

Henry Cavill as Solo and Armie Hammer as Kuryakin join forces with Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) as Gaby in a mission to thwart the sale of a nuclear warhead built under duress by Gaby’s estranged father. Also joining in the fun are Jared Harris as Sanders, Hugh Grant as Waverly (Mr. Carroll’s old role) and Elizabeth Debicki (she made quite an impression as Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby), who makes a very intriguing “bad guy” as Victoria.

A one word description of this movie would be pretty. Most EVERYTHING and EVERYONE are pretty. The clothes are pretty. The sets are pretty. The Italian locations are pretty, and Lord knows the people are pretty. Most of the lead actors have spent some time modeling: Cavill, Hammer, Vikander, Grant, Debicki, and Luca Calvana. Heck, David Beckham even has a cameo just to make sure every scene includes someone really pretty.

In the same year with the latest Mission: Impossible (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) and James Bond (Spectre) movies, it’s understandable that the Sherlock Holmes writer/director team of Lionel Wigram and Guy Ritchie take a less serious and more tongue-in-cheek approach. Unfortunately, the comic chops are a bit weak on the leads, so while they look pretty … many of the punchlines come off pretty weak.

For any other surviving loyalists to the original TV series, the best advice would be to accept the movie for what it is, and avoid comparing to those classic memories. Even Jerry Goldsmith’s original theme song only merits a few moments of airtime. Those unfamiliar with the original material will likely accept this as the Pirates of the Caribbean of spy movies, and understand that the current TV show “The Americans” handles the Cold War much more dramatically and intensely. However, if anyone is looking for pretty …

watch the pretty trailer:

 

 


LINCOLN (2012)

November 19, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The movie lover in me has been anxiously awaiting this one for months. On the other hand, as a citizen, the recent Presidential campaign antics put me in quite the political funk. Tired of the rhetoric and disenchanted with the current leadership, I was concerned my thoughts might poison the outlook on director Steven Spielberg‘s latest. Fortunately, both Lincoln and Lincoln allowed me to forget those in charge today, and instead witness the look and feel of true leadership and greatness.

Despite the title, this is not simply a biographical sketch of our 16th President. Rather, it’s an essay on back room politics … the key to Washington and democracy. Deal-cutting, horse-trading, arm-twisting are just some of the strategies involved in reaching compromise. When the stakes are history … abolishing slavery … the passion of those unseen actions is intensified. We see a man at the height of his power willing to do what is necessary to reach a goal in which he fervently believes – even though his views are not shared by a great many others.  Ratifying the 13th Amendment could have been quite dry in lesser hands, but Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis are experts at what they do.

Some of the most fun in the film occurs during the House floor debates between Republicans and Democrats. These scenes serve as a reminder that the two parties are often at philosophical odds and, just as designed, debate and discussion lead to compromise and advancement. At least that’s the general idea and purpose. Next to Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, err, embodiment of Lincoln, the script is what really jumped out at me. Loosely based on “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Tony Kushner’s screenplay serves up dialogue that is sharp, crisp, entertaining, thought-provoking and filled with message. This is a very talky film, not a Civil War film. We only get a couple of brief battlefield scenes, but the conversations never allow us to forget that the brutal war is always on the mind of the politicians and citizens. Some of the theatricality teeters closely to the look and feel of a play, though it is quite effective for the ongoing politicking. I hope Kushner’s work is remembered come Oscar time … especially for the way he worked in the full text for both the Gettysburg Address and the 13th Amendment.

I’ve always held a certain fascination with Abraham Lincoln. Familiarity with with the legends, the icon, the monuments, the statues, even the automatronics at Disney World so many years ago.  It is with true awe that I recognize what Daniel Day-Lewis delivers. His presence is so powerful that I found it all but impossible to look at anything else when he was on screen. That will certainly mandate a second viewing, but I have no hesitancy in recommending a film that brings to life what a great man can be … what true leadership can be. This is a man who carries his burdens in his soul. He may have been self-educated, but in addition to Shakespeare and Euclid, Mr. Lincoln understood people. That knowledge allowed him to maintain his high principles through patience and reasoning and even (sometimes) humorous story-telling.

 We are never allowed to forget that this is a Spielberg movie. The scenes with Lincoln and Mary Todd (Sally Field) are somewhat distracting to the greater stories, but perhaps that’s the point. These discussions were distractions to him as well. In fact, Spielberg is quite kind to Mary Todd Lincoln. Other tales have not been. Either way, Ms. Field is effective, though I wish for the sake of the film, she had less screen time.

The supporting cast is a who’s who of character actors. Most won’t be named here but Tommy Lee Jones is a key player as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, a radical abolitionist; David Strathairn as Sec of State William Steward has Lincoln’s trust; Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Lincoln’s son; and Jackie Earle Haley plays the Confederate VP Alexander Stevens. There is also a tribunal of political lobbyists or fixers that add quite the element of dirty-politics: James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson.  Appomattox is handled with class – a quick scene showing a prideful General Robert E Lee departing, and we get a couple of scenes with General Ulysses S Grant (Jared Harris).

 Lastly, the score from the great John Williams excels and compliments the mood and pace of the story … he is careful to never overwhelm. Williams is probably in line for his 48th Oscar nomination (second only to Walt Disney). Though I wish it had ended with the scene depicted at left, this is a film about political process and the people who made that process work – even at a time when everyone thought the choice had to be made between ending the war and abolishing slavery. Choose one, you can’t have both. Abraham Lincoln proved that sometimes the right man is in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, those times come around very rarely.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you too want to be mesmerized by Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln OR you like your history lessons to be entertaining and easy on the eyes

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your history to come straight from the textbooks with little more than a few photographs for prosperity OR you don’t like Sally Field.  You really don’t like her.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJVuqYkI2jQ


TMI (1-1-2012)

January 1, 2012

TMI (Today’s Movie Info)

 ABRAHAM LINCOLN is the subject of Steven Spielberg‘s next film.  With two films currently in theatres (The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse), Spielberg is already deep into production of Lincoln, which is based on the book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The film features an incredibly deep cast led by Daniel Day-Lewis (left) as Honest Abe.  The supporting cast includes Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, Jared Harris as Ulysses S Grant, and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens.  Anticipated release date: Christmas 2012


SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS

December 17, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Normally if a sequel shows up a mere two years after the original, we would have good reason for low expectations (ie, The Hangover). However, director Guy Ritchie is back and just as importantly, Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law reprise their roles as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Adding a few twists to the successful template provided by the original, the team delivers one that is sure to keep fans happy.

The reason so many Sir Arthur Conan Doyle loyalists dismissed the first film is that the frenetic pace and towering action sequences seem to go against what made the original stories so great. So what does Mr. Ritchie do? He goes BIGGER and FASTER! There are three extended action sequences that are mind-boggling to watch. They work because the plot is so elementary, my dear. Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) is out to cause a war from which he can personally profit. His plan involves guns, bombs and assassinations. Only our heroes can possibly stop him.

 Much of the odd-ball bromance from the first movie has been toned down here, and we get not only the return of Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) and Watson’s new wife (Kelly Reilly), but also the introduction of a third female character – a gypsy fortune teller, Madame Simza (the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace). Of course, McAdams character doesn’t last long, Reilly gets tossed from a moving train, and Rapace is given a few lines and a couple of sprinting scenes. There may be more women, but this is still a man’s world.

 The vision for this franchise is an updated version that encourages discovery of Holmes by a new generation. And while Downey is excellent, it’s difficult not to notice the similarities to Captain Jack Sparrow. Also, Professor Moriarty is very much a Bond-type villain. None of that matters too much as the rapid-fire dialogue between Holmes and Watson, and the crackling chemistry between Downey and Law, make this a fun time at a huge holiday movie. An added plus this time is a brilliantly written and executed chess match between Moriarty and Holmes. That scene fed my need for the more brainiac Holmes that I so adore.

It seems odd that the release date for this one is so close to that of the new Mission:Impossible, but they both deliver what the fans want and hopefully find their audience. Even if you aren’t a fan, the fabulous sets and various world filming locations will keep you interested, even as you dodge giant explosions.

note: this is the first English-speaking role for Noomi Rapace

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: while watching the first one, you thought to yourself “too bad there aren’t more explosions and fight scenes” OR you enjoy the test-pilot speed at which Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr so excel

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer the traditional, methodical pace of the Doyle books OR watching a wife get thrown out of a moving train might motivate you to action

watch the trailer: