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.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION (2015)

August 16, 2015

MI rogue nation Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been almost 20 years since the beginning of the MI movie franchise, and in that time, Tom Cruise has aged at least 3 months. Perhaps the prank is on us and Mr Cruise actually filmed his scenes for all 5 Mission: Impossible movies in 1995. Of course that didn’t happen, yet somehow each entry of the series manages to get bigger and louder and wilder, so that we may continually marvel at the fountain of youth and physical prowess of the actor seemingly born to play Ethan Hunt.

Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) becomes the fifth different director to helm a film in the franchise, and he kicks things off with the stunning pre-credit action sequence you have probably already heard about … Cruise tackles an Airbus A400M (aka a huge cargo plane). It’s a short, but incredibly impressive stunt sequence that sets the stage for a movie filled with action, fighting, stunts, comedy, and intrigue – all with minimal CGI.

Alec Baldwin appears as the head of the CIA and the guy trying to permanently shut down the IMF (Impossible Mission Force), while Jeremy Renner does his best to prevent this from happening – without officially confirming or denying any specific action of Ethan Hunt’s team. When Baldwin wins, Cruise goes rogue in an attempt to track down Soloman Lane (played by Sean Harris), the sinister leader of the terrorist group known as The Syndicate (mentioned briefly at the end of the last MI movie).

As spectacular as Cruise is, the real flavor of the movie comes courtesy of Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa – a spy, double spy, or something else. Ilsa is smart and exceedingly well trained, and the perfect partner/adversary for Hunt … depending on the moment. Admittedly, this viewer knew nothing of Ms. Ferguson prior to the film, as her best known work as come on TV’s “The White Queen”. While I couldn’t help but chuckle as Ilsa made her way through Casablanca, it seemed apropos since fellow Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman made cinematic history there some 73 years prior.

Simon Pegg returns and as a bigger role this time alongside Cruise. Pegg plays gadget-dude Benji Dunn, and as you would expect adds a welcome dose of comical dialogue along the way. Joining Cruise as the only actors to appear in all five MI movies is Ving Rhames as Luther. He is given little to do this time, and it’s pretty clear Mr. Rhames has not adhered to the same workout program as Mr Cruise over the years. Alec Baldwin seems to be parodying Alec Baldwin these days, and he has become a real on screen distraction – seriously in need of a change-of-pace role. Sean Harris uses his voice to generate an unusual coldness to his role as villain, and Simon McBurney and Tom Hollander deliver the expected steady turns.

With a nod to Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, there is a wonderful sequence at the Venice Austria Opera House … in the background to Puccini’s Turandot. In addition to the Opera and the opening aviation-based fun, we also have an exhilarating motorcycle chase, some new and tricky high-tech gadgetry, an unusual car chase through the hairpin turns of Morocco, the patented MI “mask” trick, and plenty of fight scenes involving Cruise and Ferguson.  Even if none of that existed, fans like me would still buy a ticket just to hear the theatrical version of one of the most iconic theme songs ever written (by Lalo Schifrin).

If you are a fan of the Mission: Impossible franchise, you will undoubtedly find this to be a welcome and fun addition. And since Cruise has already signed on for another, the most impossible mission may be in determining whether he gets any older prior to its release.

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THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014)

November 18, 2014

theory of everything Greetings again from the darkness. Stephen Hawking would most certainly make anyone’s list of the most fascinating people to have overcome severe obstacles in life to achieve greatness. Even today, at age 72, Hawking remains one of the foremost physicists and cosmologists. His extraordinary mind now 50+ years trapped inside a body that failed him, and as we learn, should have killed him by the time he was 23.

Director James Marsh is known for his work on two documentaries: Project Nim, and Man On Wire. His flair with reality in those two films is mostly kept in check with this conventional biopic. Based on Jane Hawking‘s book “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen”, the film does a nice job of showing us the stages of his motor neuron disease, while never digging too deep into the resulting hardships for Stephen or Jane (his wife).

Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserable, My Week with Marilyn) delivers the type of performance that often results in awards. His physical contortions capture the Hawking we have all seen, yet he also emotes the charm and wry humor that accompanies his genius. Jane is played by Felicity Jones (so terrific in Like Crazy) and since it’s based on Jane’s book, we are provided a glimpse into her strength and tenacity as she refuses to give up on Hawking or their relationship.

Some basic science is touched upon here – mostly through beer foam on a table or the glowing embers from a fireplace, but it’s highly recommended that you read Hawking’s best selling book “A Brief History of Time” if you have not already done so. It’s written using language so clear and concise, that even I almost understood it! Much more than science, this film is about the tenacity of Jane and her ability to keep Stephen moving forward while still pursuing her own studies and raising their three kids.

The evolution of their relationship is deftly handled, even as they each drift away towards others. When the break eventually occurs, it is the one moment in the film where heartfelt emotion is on full display. Oddly enough, it’s more relief for both parties than disappointment. In light of the doctor’s original estimate of two years to live, this moment is quite poignant.

Excellent support work comes courtesy of David Thewlis as Hawking’s professor and mentor, Emily Watson as Jane’s mother, Simon McBurney as Stephen’s dad, Charlie Cox as Jonathan (Jane’s second husband), and Maxine Peake as Elaine (Stephen’s second wife). Also of note, Harry Lloyd plays Stephen’s classmate and friend Brian. Mr. Lloyd is the great, great, great grandson of Charles Dickens.

You can see this one without being intimidated by the science, and instead get a glimpse at Hawking’s challenges and the strength of Jane.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: the personal relationship and struggles of Hawking and his wife are of interest to you.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for some in-depth analysis of Hawking’s genius

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MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT (2014)

August 3, 2014

magic Greetings again from the darkness. One of the most prolific writer/directors since the end of the studio era, Woody Allen cranks out a script and film every year. A few are great, while the others fall somewhere between highly entertaining and watchable. None would be considered a true dud. His latest is a bit fluffy and falls comfortably into the watchable category … with nary a glint of anything more ambitious.

The line of actors maneuvering for a role in Mr. Allen’s films stretches around the proverbial casting couch.  The list of those involved with this one is again quite impressive: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden, Jacki Weaver, Eileen Atkins, Simon McBurney, Catherine McCormack, and Hamish Linklater. They each perform admirably, yet aren’t enough to elevate a somewhat lackluster script. Ms. Stone and Ms. Atkins are especially enjoyable.

Woody mixes his love of magic with his cynical religious views, and blends those with his too frequent older man/younger woman sub-plot.  The scenes with Firth and Stone are fine, but their onscreen banter would have been better served as Uncle and Niece than awkward rom-com aspirants. Despite this flaw, there remain some excellent lines and moments, plus some staggering shots of the south of France locale. The wardrobe and cars are beautiful … the film is set in 1928.

Screwball comedies are clearly a favorite for Mr. Allen to write, but his directing leans more towards the leisurely pace found in more traditional rom-coms. The mixed genres don’t always fit together, even when stacked with a superior cast. Still, it must be noted, that even at his least brilliant, Mr. Allen delivers films that are pleasant and watchable. As movie lovers, we can live with that as we await his next masterpiece … or at least his next movie in one year.

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TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

December 20, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Based on the best-selling 1974 John LeCarre’ spy novel, opinions on this movie will cover the full spectrum. Many will find it painfully slow and frustrating, if not impossible to follow. Others will be thrilled with the subtle clues and reality-based exchanges between British spies in the early 70’s. This is no James Bond thriller with exploding yachts, world class fist fights and bikini-clad women. Rather, it’s a peek at what real life spies do … huddle in soundproof rooms and exchange information through stunted conversation where just shy of enough is said.

 John LeCarre’ actually worked for the British Secret Service prior to becoming an author (also wrote The Constant Gardener and The Russia House). He based this novel around the discovery of a traitor, which remains the biggest scandal in the history of British intelligence. This story covers some of that and even more. We see how trust and loyalty are so crucial, yet none of these men ever fully trusts the fellow agent sitting next to him. Very little is spoken, but much is communicated through a nod, raised eye brow, a slight cock of the head, or even the adjustment of one’s spectacles. Cigarettes and scotch are the common ground from which discussions spring.

 Swedish Director Tomas Alfredson delivered the exceptional vampire drama Let the Right One In a couple of years ago. Mr. Alfredson has a distinctive feel for the look of a film, and atmospheric is a word that fits this movie, as well as his earlier one. The tone, color and texture is key to this world, and we are immersed in blues and grays. His camera work is unique and wondrous as he massages the small, confined spaces and allow us to pick up the gestures of all involved.

 The cast is a group of wonderfully talented (mostly) men: Mark Strong, John Hurt (Control), Toby Jones (Tinker), Colin Firth (Tailor), Ciaran Hinds (Soldier), David Dencik (Poor Man)and Stephen Graham. Especially enjoyable are Tom Hardy as a rogue agent who breaks the “mole” theory wide open, Benedict Cumberbatch as the youngest agent, and of course, Gary Oldman as George Smiley. Oldman’s performance will awe many and bore a few. This is a man trained to say only what must be said. You can see the resolve in his eyes. These still waters run VERY deep. Some will compare him to the performance of Sir Alec Guiness in the BBC production, and both are terrific and strong (though different).

While a rousing recommendation would be nice, it’s just not in the cards. This movie will have a very specific audience … those who thrive on mental jigsaw puzzles and are inspired by juggling an endless stream of characters and possible plots. If that describes you, then get in line on opening day.

note: John LeCarre’ has a quick cameo during the Christmas party flashback

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are the type who likes to play six chess matches at a time OR your addiction to spy novels leans towards the most realistic of the genre, rather than the most action-packed

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: the Bond movies are your preference in spy thrillers OR needing a scorecard to keep track of the players ruins a game for you

watch the trailer: