ALLIED (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, some Sexuality/Nudity, Language and brief Drug Use

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Written by: Steven Knight

Starring: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Matthew Goode, Lizzy Caplan, Anton Lesser, August Diehl, Camille Cottin & Charlotte Hope

On the surface, ALLIED sounds like a great film. It’s set during World War II and is rated R, meaning that we get graphic violence of undercover agents fighting Nazis. Robert Zemeckis has helmed many notable films in the past, meaning there was a sturdy hand behind the camera. Steven Knight has written stellar work in the past, turning a car ride into an intense drama and delivering one of the best gangster films of the 2000s. ALLIED also places Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard into a premise that sounds like it would make Alfred Hitchcock proud. However, this movie is just okay. Despite all of that promise and potential, this is a decent enough romantic-thriller that doesn’t really do anything remarkable.

The year is 1942 and the place is Casablanca. Canadian Air Force officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) has arrived on a top-secret assassination mission. Max has been assigned the role of “husband” to his French Resistance partner Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard). Though the two begin as a fictional couple, Max and Marianne become a real couple after their mission succeeds. The two are madly in love and have a child together, which makes it all the more strange when Max is called in on a top-secret mission. You see, the higher-ups at Max’s job believe that Marianne may be a German spy. With a ticking clock and crucial information at hand, Max decides to disobey his superiors and investigate whether his newest mission is only a test or if his wife is actually a deadly double-agent.

ALLIED had plenty of potential from its Hitchcock-esque premise to the staggering amount of talent involved (both in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes), but the film frequently falters under its own bloated weight. This period piece drama feels like a thriller that’s also trying juggle being a love story and potential Oscar bait. The end result is a mixed bag. There are strong moments though. Don’t get me wrong. A few sequences have a knack for turning everyday encounters and seemingly mild-mannered moments into something very tense. There is a palpable sense of a suspense and a ticking clock of urgency, while the script occasionally jerks the viewer’s suspicions around.

However, ALLIED takes a while to get into its thriller set-up. By a while, I mean that two-thirds of this film are actually the romantic thriller that was advertised, while the other third is dedicated to the couple falling in love amidst a war-torn country. There is enough believable chemistry between Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard to make you wonder if those tabloid rumors about an affair were true. Pitt and Cotillard play characters who are trying to go about their lives in severe circumstances (like frequent air raids as they try to tuck in for the night), but a few supporting faces stick out as well.

Jared Harris is phenomenal as Max’s commanding officer. His screen time may be limited, but Harris makes a strong impression as a tough-as-nails, good-hearted soldier who’s trying to do the right thing. Matthew Goode has a blink-and-you-missed it scene as a former veteran. Meanwhile, Simon McBurney is totally wasted as a “rat-catcher” for spies. His initial introduction was so strong that it made me excited to see more of this confrontational character. Unfortunately, that introduction is the only scene he’s present in. It also bears mentioning that German actor August Diehl played a scumbag Nazi in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLORIOUS BASTERDS and returns here…as another scumbag Nazi.

Even when ALLIED’s good performances, classy production values and so-so suspense works, the script gets bogged down in dull stretches of not much happening. Brad Pitt runs to one place and talks to a guy…only for that scene to be ultimately rendered pointless. So, he runs to another place and talks to another guy, but that might be a red herring. This process repeats throughout the film’s running time. Great thrillers can be made of dialogue and conversations. Just look at any of the recent John le Carre adaptations (e.g. A MOST WANTED MAN and THE NIGHT MANAGER). ALLIED isn’t one of these. Instead, it’s just poorly paced and lazily written.

This movie feels like it’s suffering from an identity crisis about what kind of film it wants to be. Is it a WWII drama? Is this a Hitchcockian thriller? Is this a beautiful love story or a star-powered piece of failed Oscar bait? It’s a combination of all of these and winds up as a mixed bag of a movie that’s okay at best. This film is watchable and has a handful of good qualities, but that’s not necessarily high praise. When you consider all of the talent that went into it, ALLIED seems like even more of a letdown. Not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but just disappointingly decent.

Grade: B-

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Action Violence, some Suggestive Content, and partial Nudity

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Directed by: Guy Ritchie

Written by: Guy Ritchie & Lionel Wigram

(based on the TV series THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.)

Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris & Hugh Grant

2015’s summer movie season is officially coming to a close and the last big blockbuster is THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. With the last few months being populated by Pixar, superheroes, dinosaurs, and post-apocalyptic warriors, I have to admit that MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. wasn’t exactly high on my list of must-see summer movies. However, Guy Ritchie hasn’t really let me down before and U.N.C.L.E. did look like an enjoyable spy adventure. This film wound up being precisely the latter. This is simple, stylish, big popcorn fun that serves as a nice closeout to a pretty great cinematic summer. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (based on the 1960’s TV series of the same name) may be a straight-forward spy thriller that hits all the expected notes, but it hits them in fun ways that are sure to thoroughly entertained.

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The time is the early 1960’s and the Cold War is in full force. Napoleon Solo is a CIA agent working on one side of the Berlin wall and Illya Kuryakin is a KGB agent working on the other side. When Napoleon is tasked with a basic extraction mission that is hindered by Kuryakin, it seems that a simple operation is actually a cover for something far bigger. International criminal Victoria Vinciguerra is hellbent on selling a nuclear bomb to some very bad people. In an effort to stop her plan from proceeding, Solo and Kuryakin are partnered up. While Solo is a suave ladies’ man with a big ego, Kuryakin is a hard-headed borderline-psychotic who likes to shoot first and ask questions later. The two are a mismatched pair and must look after Gaby Teller, a Russian woman with possible way into Victoria’s secret lair.

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Truth be told, MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.’s plot doesn’t exactly sound revolutionary or particularly special. You’ve seen this story play out many times before whether it’s with Ethan Hunt in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE or any one of James Bond’s adventures. I’m not going to lie and say that there are big twists afoot, because there aren’t. This is a standard spy story. You can predict where everything will go and how most of the film will play out. That really doesn’t matter, because U.N.C.L.E. executes its fairly standard script with a big sense of humor and (mostly) impeccable style. This film looks fantastic. The locations are beautiful. The costumes are gorgeous. There is a definite period-piece sensibility that hearkens back to the original Bond movies of old. While too much style (involving split screens) does slightly ruin a potentially cool sequence in the latter half of the film, U.N.C.L.E. is a great-looking movie and almost won me over on that part of its execution alone. However, the sense of humor also is great. There are many very funny scenes throughout the film and it never seems to be taking itself too seriously. One sequence in particular (you’ll know it when you see it) milks a joke for longer than you’d believe possible and manages to remain funny for that entire scene.

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Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer might initially seem like an odd pair of spies, but they play off of each other very well. I appreciated that both of their characters had unique quirks (which make for plenty of comedic moments), but also had personalities behind them too. An introduction between the two of them weaves some of the best exposition into a casual conversation that I’ve seen in quite a while. Alicia Vikander (who was dull in SEVENTH SON and fantastic in EX MACHINA) disappears into the role of Gaby, who serves as the level-headed member of the group…even if she’s also the bait/damsel-in-distress. Jared Harris and Hugh Grant make brief, but notable, appearances. The real scene-stealer comes in Elizabeth Debicki’s villainess. She’s just as cruel as she is beautiful and I wish more screen time had been spent with her…as opposed to her many underlings.

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THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is a genuine surprise of the summer for me. This film turns a rather unremarkable spy plot into something remarkable and entertaining thanks to sheer style, lots of well-executed comedy, and solid chemistry between the leads. Glamour and humor make a rather mediocre-sounding spy movie into something that’s worth watching. MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. is far from the best spy movie you’ll see this year (ROGUE NATION, KINGSMAN, and SPY are all superior), but it’s an entertaining blast from start to finish!

Grade: B

HAPPINESS (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: NC-17

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Directed by: Todd Solondz

Written by: Todd Solondz

Starring: Jane Adams, Elizabeth Ashley, Dylan Baker, Lara Flynn Boyle, Ben Gazzara, Jared Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Louise Lasser, Jon Lovitz & Molly Shannon

After burning myself on a lot of horror reviews for the month of Halloween, I’m craving covering other genres again. So I decided to throw in this dark comedy to give myself some sick laughs. For those who have seen HAPPINESS before, you might be snickering at this choice because this flick is way more depressing and emotional than light-hearted and funny. Directed by Todd Solondz (WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE), HAPPINESS blends the lives of various strangers and relatives together into one deranged montage of evil, abuse, and joy gained from suffering. This being said, the movie isn’t without a sense of humor. It’s not at all a laugh riot and treats its controversial subject matter with real emotion, but brilliant realistic comedy is present. Despite the laughs that come in the flick, some viewers may find themselves close to tears in the final scenes.

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Three sisters (Trish, Helen, Joy) and their parents (Mona, Lenny) encounter struggles that upend their carefully constructed existence. Mona and Lenny have fallen out of love and are going through an unofficial divorce. Joy is the constant target of ridicule from her family and finds potential love in a Russian immigrant (Vlad). Meanwhile, Helen is a writer suffering from creativity blockage that might be cured by her perverted neighbor (Allen). While Trish seems to have everything she could possibly want in life, her psychiatrist husband (Bill) is secretly a pedophile. These plot threads criss and cross through each other until everything comes to a fruition that can only end in some sort of tragedy for everyone involved. There’s no spoiler in saying that HAPPINESS is the exact opposite of its title and there’s a lot of controversy around this film for completely understandable reasons.

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Despite the film never once delving into outright on-screen scenes of graphic evil, these topics are present in many conversations that make up the overall plot. This is a movie that thrives on relationships between its characters who all know each other or are vicariously related in some way. This being said, those interweaving storylines can be a bit of a mess during a couple of stretches. Certain plot threads are far more interesting than others. The strongest and most disturbing of which is Dylan Baker’s Bill doing awful things. Every scene with him is purposefully hard to watch, especially discussions with his son about the birds and the bees. Besides Baker’s outstanding performance, Philip Seymour Hoffman also steals the show as Allen. We’re thrown into the depressing world of this unhappy man who’s obsessed with rape fantasies and takes no interest in the obvious neighbor with a crush on him. One plot thread feels like it could have been edited out entirely for a tighter final cut and that’s the separation between Mona and Lenny. Joy’s overall journey isn’t the most compelling either, but I really liked her story arc.

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Seeing as the film relies so much upon its characters for a plot, the performances are all rock solid. Besides the aforementioned Baker and Hoffman, a young Jared Harris has a memorable role as Vlad. Other familiar faces include Jon Lovitz and Molly Shannon in a couple of brief scenes, the former supplying one of the funniest openings to a movie that immediately sets the somber feeling of everything to come. The actresses playing the sisters (Jane Adams, Lara Flynn Boyle, Cynthia Stevenson) haven’t gone on to become anything huge, but they do a great job of playing these women with their own individual flaws (willful deception, gullibility, power complex). Director/writer Todd Solondz masterfully mixes drama with the comedy. HAPPINESS can be darkly hilarious, but it never loses the sense that these are real fleshed-out characters and their suffering is painful to watch. There’s a whole vibe of being uncomfortable that never disappears or lightens up for a single second and stayed with me a while after the film had ended.

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The title of HAPPINESS itself slapped on a film like this gives you the immediate impression of how the humor will play out here. There’s a nasty sense of irony around every scene and the film basically comes to a close with all of these characters broken, emotionally damaged beyond repair or just plain weeping with no positive end in sight to their sad existence. The narrative can be a bit jumbled at times and I’d attribute this to one plot thread too many. The scenes with the parents were unneeded and the film could have easily thrived much better if it were just focused on the sisters along with those around them. This being said, HAPPINESS is a really fucked up slice of life that will be permanently engraved into your memory.

Grade: B+

THE BOXTROLLS (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Action, some Peril and mild Rude Humor

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Directed by: Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi

Written by: Irena Brignull & Adam Pava

(based on the novel HERE BE MONSTERS! by Alan Snow)

Voices of: Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Elle Fanning, Ben Kingsley, Toni Collette, Jared Harris, Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, Tracy Morgan & Simon Pegg

Computer graphics have really put a damper on other animation styles. The last mainstream traditional hand-drawn film I can think of was 2009’s PRINCESS AND THE FROG and the last wide released stop-motion animated film I can remember is 2012’s PARANORMAN. For this reason, I can easily find myself getting hyped up for any upcoming stop-motion film that promises to have a bit of potential. Having waited for nearly a year to see THE BOXTROLLS, I can safely say that it’s a unique fairy tale that strays into some risky territory for children but never fully loses the sense of whimsy around it.

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Bearing little resemblance to the children’s novel on which it’s based (which featured many different creatures and magical plot developments), THE BOXTROLLS follows a boy named Eggs. Eggs has been raised since he was a baby by underground-dwelling creatures known as Boxtrolls. These monsters are appropriately named because they are indeed trolls and do wear boxes for clothing. When the grotesque Archibald Snatcher begins fear mongering about the petty-thieving creatures living in the sewers, it appears that Eggs and his ragtag family of Boxtrolls may be in trouble. It’s up to Eggs to venture to the upper world, where he befriends the young neglected Winnie, trying to stop Snatcher’s plan that might mean the end for Boxtrolls and humans alike.

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BOXTROLLS is one of those rare cases where simplifying the plot and significantly changing things up from book to film works far better in the cinematic medium. The story is full of imagination and complex in unexpected ways. The movie has a lot of creepiness, gross details, and dark humor that might make it a little iffy for really young children. Some of the best family films are the ones that take risks with on-the-surface family friendly material. To add a stroke of awe to the pretty original story is that the film looks beautiful. This is some of the best stop motion animation I’ve ever seen and it sucks you into the world on-screen. The character design of the villains in particular is fabulous and everything moves smoothly as if it were actually alive. Clearly, a lot of effort, time and love was thrown into this project and it’s wonderful to see it all turn out so well.

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Plenty of talent is thrown into the vocal performances as well. Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Richard Ayoade play secondary characters and I couldn’t necessarily point of who they were while watching the film. It’s nice to see celebrities doing voice work that doesn’t necessarily distract the audience to spot them in the film. This can especially be said of Ben Kingsley as the main bad guy, who uses a deep gravely snarl that makes it nearly impossible for the viewer to recognize him. The only two that I did automatically notice (though that isn’t a bad quality) were Jared Harris as an upper-class royal (the character looks remarkably like him as well) and Elle Fanning as the constantly misunderstood child Winnie. Relative newcomer Isaac Hempstead-Wright is also compelling as Eggs. It helps that none of these characters are quite initially who they appear to be. Though the good guys remain good and the bad guys remain evil, there’s a little spin on each character by the conclusion.

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The problems I do have with BOXTROLLS are a few predictable moments and some muddled pacing. As solid as the prologue of Eggs being raised by the Boxtrolls is, the opening takes a little while to get fully going. Once momentum is built, the story rarely lets up on laughs, imagination and fun. However, there are a few scenes that are clichéd in ways and it doesn’t take a genius to see where things are heading. The most guilty of these moments is the stretched-out ending. It felt like three different conclusions were taking place. Though I don’t necessarily dislike where the film went (especially what happens to the villains), it almost felt like the screenwriters wanted to do too much at once.

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Despite this crack in an otherwise nearly great fantasy, this film is highly enjoyable for all ages. Full of colorful characters, a creative story, risks that you might not expect, and beautiful animation, BOXTROLLS is very much recommended for anyone of any age who is interested in dark fairy tales. Also, you’d be hard-pressed to find more lovable creatures on film this year than these box-wearing underground-dwelling trolls.

Grade: B+

THE QUIET ONES (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence and Terror, Sexual Content, Thematic Material, Language and Smoking throughout

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Directed by: John Pogue

Written by: Craig Rosenberg, John Pogue, Oren Moverman & Tom de Ville

Starring: Jared Harris, Sam Claflin, Olivia Cooke, Erin Richards & Rory Fleck-Byrne

The revival of Hammer studios hasn’t been as big of a splash as one might have initially hoped. The production company was known for making top-notch British horror flicks back in its heyday and disappeared after a steady decline that took place during the 1970’s. The resurrection of this horror label made many fans of classy old-school scary movies excited to see what they would do in this modern age. Thus far, their best efforts have wound up being two so-so remakes (LET ME IN, THE WOMAN IN BLACK) and disappointing original projects (WAKE WOOD, THE RESIDENT). With THE QUIET ONES, there’s some sort of attempt being made to get back to the slow-burn supernatural freakiness that was so popular in Hammer’s classic efforts, but it winds up being for not. THE QUIET ONES is a disappointment that is made even more disappointing by the glimmers of the good movie that might have been.

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Wasting no time in kicking things off, the story introduces us to the experiments of Professor Coupland. The abnormal psychology teacher is indulging in the notion that supernatural powers might actually be the root of some mental illness. Brian, a camera man and one of his students, is instantly intrigued by this radical theory and wants to document these experiments. So doing the most rational non-dangerous thing in the world, Coupland and his three assistants take a dangerous schizophrenic patient and move her to an isolated house in the middle of nowhere. The patient’s name is Jane Harper and as an orphan, unexplained bad things occurred in every foster home that took her in. With the urging of Coupland, Brian and two other researches perform some elaborate experiments, some of which are downright unethical and harmful to Jane. Turns out that their attempts to cure Jane might not be benefitting her, but rather pissing the deadly supernatural presence that surrounds her off to their own harm.

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There are some interesting ideas at the core of THE QUIET ONES and one might argue that the premise itself is pretty original. The studio known for taking the less bloody approach to horror doesn’t stray from their usual execution here either. Hammer delivers this film as a deliberately paced slow-burn with some good characters. Despite some low production values and other problems (of which I will address in a moment), I was always interested in seeing where the story was heading next. There’s some credit due in that. The acting is really solid from every cast member and elevates the film as a little better than one might expect in that field alone. However, this doesn’t excuse every single sloppy decision or lame cliché that has been thrown in as well.

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There are kernels of a really terrifying film within the story of THE QUIET ONES, but the script itself (penned by four different writers and based on the screenplay of an unrelated writer) keeps things very vague. The force surrounding Jane seems to be changing from scene to scene. There aren’t any solid rules for this supernatural entity and one might argue that it makes it scarier, but I actually found it less frightening that I was at the mercy of screenwriters who seemed to be making some things up on the spot left and right. This unseen being didn’t do a whole lot until the final 30 minutes (a lot of which have already been briefly glimpsed in the trailer). The scares of THE QUIET ONES are mainly in the incapable hands of annoying fake-outs that pissed me off more than made me jump. It’s completely cliché to include fake-out scares in horror movies these days and most have wisely learned from that. Apparently, director John Pogue hasn’t because there was a lame jump-scare (due to a colleague popping up unexpectedly or a radio blasting) every five minutes or so. This is about as annoying as it sounds.

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Two different attempts are made at shocking revelations showcased in the final act. One of these surprises worked very well and the other seemed half-assed. Hence the problems of the underdeveloped premise and the presence of four screenwriters throwing in whatever they felt might freak out young people, while not really caring to finish the potentially cool movie hiding within THE QUIET ONES. The effects themselves look very cheesy and consist of really bad CGI. The narrative also jumps between found footage (of the recorded experiments) and the traditional movie. This approach might have been well-done in certain hands, but it’s jarring when seen here. It felt like there were too many cooks in the kitchen with this film and none of them cared to fully finish the dish before serving it.

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By the end of THE QUIET ONES, I felt like everybody involved had a different idea about what kind of movie they wanted to make. The blending of found footage and a traditional narrative is done so sloppily that it made me wonder why they just didn’t go for a single approach. With a proper script, this might have been a decent found footage movie or a decent enough traditional narrative. The acting (especially from Jared Harris and Olivia Cooke) elevates the film a bit. I was always interested in seeing where things would ultimately wind up, but disappointed to find they wound up in a lame mess confused with its own identity. For a film called THE QUIET ONES, it certainly relies on a lot of loud blast-you-right-out-of-your-seat sound effects. I can’t recommend this one at all. THE QUIET ONES is an intriguing failure.

Grade: C-

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