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-

SELF/LESS (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Violence, some Sexuality, and Language

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Directed by: Tarsem Singh

Written by: David Pastor & Alex Pastor

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ben Kingsley, Matthew Goode, Michelle Dockery, Natalie Martinez, Victor Garber & Derek Luke

SELF/LESS doesn’t exactly have the most original premise in the world, but that doesn’t mean the film didn’t have potential. The marketing and promotional material had me sold on seeing this movie. All I could think was that it looked like an updated version of a TWILIGHT ZONE episode or the super underrated Rock Hudson flick SECONDS. It certainly helped that Tarsem Singh was behind the camera, because that meant the film would probably have good visuals. The cast, consisting of Ryan Reynolds (who showed acting chops in BURIED), Ben Kingsley (who has delivered plenty of quality performances), and Matthew Goode (who is very good at playing bad), made this look like it could be a surefire winner. I walked into SELF/LESS with hope in my eyes and a spring in my step. Cue me walking out as the end credits rolled two hours later. The film isn’t the travesty that some have apparently been making it out to be online, but it certainly is a letdown. Sacrificing a quiet and intelligent approach to a creepy idea in favor of generic action scenes and spoon-fed answers, SELF/LESS is serviceable…but that doesn’t make it any less of a disappointment.

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Damian is a wealthy businessman dying from cancer. It seems that his wealth and power can’t save him from the approaching shroud of death. That’s when he receives a mysterious business card and is introduced to the super-secret process of “shedding.” This procedure involves Damien switching his consciousness out of his dying old body and into a healthy young body grown in a lab. Damien deludes himself into thinking that there could be no possible downside to “shedding” and decides to go through with it. Turns out that swapping bodies has its side effects, including hallucinations that seem oddly like memories from a stranger. It turns out that the body Damien is in might not be the lab-grown empty vessel he was promised and the sinister mad scientist behind shedding will do anything to keep that a secret. Cue car chases, gun fights, and clichés.

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There are things about the cast that can be criticized as well as praised. As much as I enjoy Ben Kingsley and was looking forward to seeing him in this flick, he really seems to have taken this role for a quick paycheck. His performance is contained to the first fifteen minutes and then he disappears from the movie entirely. This was to be expected, but felt like a bit of a letdown as soon as he was out of the picture. This leaves us with Ryan Reynolds playing Damien in the “empty vessel.” Though he’s starred in big-budget failures in the past (GREEN LANTERN and R.I.P.D. immediately spring to mind), Ryan Reynolds actually put in a fairly good performance. I saw Damien in his old body (Kingsley) and Damien in his new body (Reynolds) as one character and that’s to be commended. Reynolds is good in the serious role that occasionally turns into an action hero, the latter of which is clichéd and a bit bland. Meanwhile, Matthew Goode (who has played evil people in the past) shows up once again as a psychopathic villain. He’s good in this sort of role and he doesn’t exactly seem to be phoning it in, but he does flirt with 007 villain territory.

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The biggest problem with SELF/LESS is the screenplay. The film’s decision to make this more of an action movie as opposed to a brooding thriller seems like a big mistake. The marketing that misleadingly excludes any significant footage of gunfights and car chases seems to know this too. By resorting to cheap well-traveled clichés, SELF/LESS settles for easy answers and scenes that feel tonally out-of-place with the story it’s trying to tell. Would-be bombshell plot developments can be correctly predicted early on, one of which seemed entirely obvious but is later shown to be a failed surprise twist. The conclusion is anti-climactic and stupid…even when taken on the dusty action clichés this film so desperately relies on.

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There’s a good movie lying somewhere inside of SELF/LESS. With a few more drafts and fine tuning, this could have been an updated and chilling take on SECONDS or an unnerving thought-provoking feature-length TWILIGHT ZONE episode. The quiet and smart approach would have made for a haunting sci-fi thriller. While the film is merely okay (serviceable performances, a few enjoyable scenes, and some cool ideas), SELF/LESS feels like a phoned in version of a really good story. It really is two different genres competing for the same movie…which is sort of ironic given the plot of this film.

Grade: C+

THE IMITATION GAME (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Sexual References, Mature Thematic Material and Historical Smoking

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Directed by: Morten Tyldum

Written by: Graham Moore

(based on the book ALAN TURING: THE ENIGMA by Andrew Hodges)

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allen Leech & Matthew Beard

When one usually thinks of World War II movies, they picture battlefields full of dead bodies and soldiers engaged in bloody combat. THE IMITATION GAME offers neither of these and that’s part of the reason it stands out so much from hundreds of other historical dramas made about this time period. Instead, this non-linear drama focuses on Alan Turing, a mathematician who secretly helped end the war by cracking an seemingly impossible Nazi code. Seeing as this film combines a biopic and a WWII drama, it seems like the ideal candidate for Academy Award attention (whether it wound up being good or not). The film is more than just good because IMITATION GAME is an emotionally engaging and compelling story through and through.

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The UK has declared war on Germany and it’s the outcome doesn’t look good. This is partially because the Nazis use an unbreakable code known as Enigma. Alan Turing is a brilliant mathematician hired to help decode Enigma. While his fellow staff members scramble through various unreadable messages on a daily basis, Alan is working on a machine that could very well help win the war. His complicated invention (the basis for computers) is constantly bombarded by an inability to connect to those around him in a normal way and his commanding officers hassling him as a waste of time. The film follows Turing from childhood to his amazing contribution to the war and his eventual fate at the hands of government regulations. It’s a true, tragic, and wholly emotional life brilliantly brought to film.

THE IMITATION GAME, seated: Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing; standing from left: Keira

THE IMITATION GAME is told in a non-linear fashion. We flash through Turing’s later years (as he’s being investigated by a police officer), his long process in breaking Enigma, and his childhood years at a boarding school. This style of story-telling works extremely well given this context. If it were told in a purely linear way from his childhood to his death, IMITATION GAME might come off as boring as opposed to the interesting and fresh film that it really is. Benedict Cumberbatch fully disappears into his role as Alan Turing. He was undoubtedly a genius, but was also a secret homosexual (which was illegal in England at the time) and clearly autistic. The former contributes more tension being built up around his hidden identity and the latter is not focused in too much detail but is obvious. Cumberbatch makes this unique hero into someone who the viewer can fully relate to, regardless of their own sexuality or mental state.

THE IMITATION GAME, Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing (second from left), 2014. ph: Jack

Supporting cast members deliver in their roles too. Keira Knightley might have delivered her best performance yet as Joan Clarke. Matthew Goode and Allen Leech are equally fantastic as Turing’s co-workers. Mark Strong and Charles Dance aren’t given much screen time as higher-ups with polar opposite personalities, but make the most of the scenes they have. The biggest compliment that can be given to IMITATION GAME is making a story about a group of people stuck in a hut trying to crack a code feel like they are on a battlefield with gunfire and explosions. While the movie cuts to shots of war-torn landscapes to illustrate battles are being fought as this group struggles to crack secret messages, there’s a solid amount of tension built between these characters. The suspense becomes even more intense as suspicions of a Soviet spy hiding among them heighten.

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If there any complaints are to be leveled at this film, they come in a couple of scenes becoming the tiniest bit cheesy. Maybe, this is especially demonstrated in an epilogue that throws one or two title cards too many at the viewer. This is a minor flaw that I had with an otherwise fantastic film. The movie is remarkably well shot and written. It seems to have done justice to the life of a dedicated hero whose work lay in secrecy for 50 years and hammers home just how upsetting the tragedy was in Turing’s fate.

THE IMITATION GAME, Benedict Cumberbatch, 2014. ph: Jack English/

THE IMITATION GAME is a war story unlike any that I’ve seen before. Most WWII films center around battles, the Holocaust or POW camps, but this movie reminds the viewer that those working in an office to fight against the Nazis had just as much of an important role in winning the Big War. Benefitting from a brilliantly constructed script, a fascinating true story, and stunning performances, THE IMITATION GAME is absolutely worth your time!

Grade: A

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