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-

DEATH BECOMES HER (1992)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Nudity and Off-Color Humor

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Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Written by: Martin Donovan & David Koepp

Starring: Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, Goldie Hawn, Isabella Rossellini, Ian Ogilvy, Adam Storke & Nancy Fish

Between creating the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy and winning two Academy Awards for FORREST GUMP, director Robert Zemeckis helmed a darkly funny horror-comedy. Though it was a huge box office smash at the time of its release and won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, DEATH BECOMES HER has become a bit of an underrated gem these days. This dark comedy relies on smart writing, different styles of humor and a thoroughly macabre sense of whimsy. It also features Bruce Willis as you’ve never seen him before and Meryl Streep in one of her more cartoonish roles (which is really saying something). DEATH BECOMES HER is sure to delight those who have a penchant for morbid humor and want something a little out of the ordinary.

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Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep) is a Broadway babe who cherishes her youthful looks and enjoys stealing boyfriends away from her longtime rival Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). When her latest beau Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis) falls victim to Madeline’s charm, Helen grows fat and envious. Years pass by and an aging Madeline becomes desperate to preserve her fading beauty. Madeline’s money-sucking plastic surgery addiction puts her in the sights of the mysterious Lisle von Rhoman (Isabella Rossellini) who has connections to the fountain of youth. Just as Madeline seems to have found the secret to eternal beauty, the revenge-driven Helen re-enters the picture and hatches a murderous plot with wimpy, drunken Ernest. Gruesome gags, sinister silliness and lots of laughs ensue.

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I had a difficult time summarizing this film’s synopsis in a non-spoilery way, because there’s just so much that happens in the plot. The film jumps through fourteen years within the first ten minutes, but does so in a way that feels effortless and essential to the story. In many ways, the script is sort of brilliant as many solid jokes come in the form of character development before any youth potions and supernatural hijinks ever appear on the screen. Meryl Streep is fantastic as the viciously vain Madeline, while Goldie Hawn is hilarious in the role of beautiful psychopath Helen. Isabella Rossellini makes the most of her three scenes as the sexy, mysterious Lisle. The real scene-stealer is Bruce Willis though, who diverts from his expected tough guy persona to play a drunken wimp and frequently gets the biggest laughs in the film.

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Some of DEATH BECOMES HER’s technical aspects have noticeably aged and appear somewhat cheesy, but the early 90’s CGI remains pretty impressive for its time and occasionally blends in with macabre practical effects work. The film’s violence is cartoony to the point where this received a PG-13, even though bones are graphically broken and people receive other rather gruesome injuries. None of the film’s darker sensibilities ever overshadow the creative fun, mostly because they directly feed into the giddily ghoulish entertainment. After all, this is a comedy about an intense rivalry that boils over into supernatural territory and one poor schmuck caught in the middle of two bickering homicidal women.

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I’ve already mentioned that the screenplay’s character development is clever, but DEATH BECOMES HER has a way of going into places that you don’t expect. Certain plot twists are ballsy, while other expected developments (especially a big turn midway through) play out in satisfying ways. The film never takes itself too seriously and plays 99% of its scenes up for laughs, most of which work wonderfully. The script falters slightly when a few nagging plot holes emerge later on, a couple of which simply could have to be written off as wild coincidences. However, a surprisingly deep moral message (think something along the lines of DORIAN GRAY) packs in an extra layer of cleverness that you might not expect.

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DEATH BECOMES HER is one of the more underrated films of the 90’s. It’s not great in every department, due to some effects that don’t hold up and a few annoying plot holes. However, this horror-comedy delivers laughs and a macabre charm that’s pretty much irresistible. The humor includes awkward character interactions, memorable dialogue, over-the-top cartoony moments, and visual jokes that you may not expect (especially during the final act). If you want to see Bruce Willis like you’ve never seen him before and also watch Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn violently duking it out with murderous methods, DEATH BECOMES HER is certainly up your alley.

Grade: B+

THE WALK (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Thematic Elements involving Perilous Situations, and for some Nudity, Language, brief Drug References and Smoking

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Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Written by: Robert Zemeckis & Christopher Browne

(based on the book TO REACH THE CLOUDS by Philippe Petit)

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Ben Schwartz & Steve Valentine

Every year, there are films based on incredible true stories that fall by the wayside. Much like the visually stunning EVEREST and Ron Howard’s IN THE HEART OF THE SEA, Robert Zemeckis’s THE WALK is a drama that sounds primed for award nominations but likely won’t receive any. That’s not to say that THE WALK is a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, because it’s not. However, the elongated running time and so-so characters are a bit trying on the viewer’s patience. At least, this is true for the first half of the film. As soon as the wire goes up though, the movie becomes an incredible cinematic work of art. I imagine that THE WALK plays far better on the big screen than on the biggest TV set you could find on the market. This might be part of the reason for my somewhat underwhelmed reaction to this movie sitting alongside EVEREST as good but not great.

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In the early 1970’s, performer Philippe Petit made his living through circus-like antics on the streets of Paris. Philippe eventually finds a passion in wire-walking and quickly becomes obsessed with two massive towers that are under construction in New York City. After rounding up a couple of friends to join him, Philippe makes his way to New York and begins to enact a carefully calculated plan to string up a tightrope between the Twin Towers. Of course, Philippe’s small coup will encounter turbulence: setting up the equipment will be tricky, guards patrol the building, and the sheer life-threatening nature of his stunt is staggering. Philippe merely wants to perform something beautiful and something that nobody will be able to take their eyes off of.

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Director Robert Zemeckis has crafted plenty of great dramas in the past on what it means to be human (FORREST GUMP, CAST AWAY, etc.). THE WALK has a similar sense about showing off what one man can accomplish with the right motivation, incredible vision and unwavering nerve. As Philippe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt essentially becomes a living cartoon character (true to his real-life source of inspiration). He has a charm to him, in spite of being a complete and utter douchebag at times. There’s definitely an insane spark in Levitt’s performance and he convinces us that this French lunatic is more than willing to risk his own life in order to thrill others (as well as himself). The rest of the performers don’t stick out nearly as much. Philippe’s team members merely come off as bland means to an exciting end. Besides Levitt’s starring role, the only other cast members of note are Ben Kingsley (as a mentor during a handful of scenes) and Charlotte Le Bon (as a half-assed love interest who really deserved more screen time).

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THE WALK suffers from a pacing problem in terms of its story. The build-up during the first half of the film is a tad too meticulous, slow, and dusty. One only wonders what Zemeckis could have done to spice up the material a bit more, but then comes to realize that the first half is mainly filler for a two-hour running time. There are good moments, but the first hour mostly feels like forced C-level melodrama. However, all of this changes as soon as Philippe treks to New York and begins a carefully detailed execution of his elaborate scheme. These moments (in which disguises, sneaking around, and lots of special equipment are used) almost feel like a heist thriller where the money is replaced by attention from city onlookers.

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Finally, THE WALK reaches its height (quite literally) when Philippe steps out onto the wire. What started off as a C-level melodrama/B-grade heist thriller suddenly turns into an A-grade work of beauty. CGI and green screen are masterfully used to give the appearance that Levitt is really scaling a tightrope over 100 stories high. This final third of the film is incredible and translates the sheer joy that Philippe must have felt in pulling off his highly dangerous and incredible (as well as foolish and insane) stunt. This final act belongs among the best sequences of Zemeckis’s career and I can’t help but wish that the build-up to them had been more impactful. Still, viewers with a fear of heights are sure to find themselves on the edge of their seats during the stunning finale.

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As a whole, there are things to praise about THE WALK as well as flaws that keep the film from reaching its full potential. The 70’s New York atmosphere is captured very well with attention to detail and wholly convincing special effects work. Levitt’s performance as Philippe is pretty much everything you could hope for and seems true to the real-life figure. The heist-like scenes in which his crew trespass to elaborately set up the equipment are fun to watch and the finale is simply amazing to behold. On a sour note, every other performance seems sidelined and the first half drags at a glacial pace. I wish that the chemistry between Levitt’s Philippe and Bon’s Annie was given more time to develop as it might have made for a more impactful romantic angle (which feels half-assed in its current state). Pacing problems and unremarkable performances taken into consideration, THE WALK is a good one-and-done kind of film. More than worth a watch for the finale alone, but not a film I’m likely to revisit many times in the future.

Grade: B

BEOWULF (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Violence including Disturbing Images, some Sexual Material and Nudity

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Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Written by: Neil Gaiman, Roger Avary

(based on the epic poem BEOWULF)

Starring: Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Crispin Glover, John Malkovich, Brendan Gleeson, Robin Wright, Alison Lohman

Adapting the oldest known piece of English literature is a difficult task. This is made even more difficult by people taking creative liberties in order not to tell the same old story yet again. This version of BEOWULF was filmed in the motion capture style. The cast were in special suits with dots on their faces and then proceeded to act out the scenes on a blank stage. The character designs were then animated from the movements of the cast and the world around them was created by a group of animators. When examined as an exercise in style, BEOWULF is impressive on some levels and flawed on others.

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In a time of magic and monsters, a young warrior travels to a distant kingdom in search of glory and gold. The man is named Beowulf and he’s taken the task of slaying the vicious demon Grendel. This is easier said than done, because Grendel’s a near indestructible creature and is not the only monster lurking in the kingdom. Beowulf carves out a reputation for himself and receives glory, but it’s at his own peril. His legend is sung throughout the lands, but Beowulf has a dark secret that comes back to haunt him in his old age.

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From that brief synopsis, fans of the epic poem will notice changes to the source material. The original tale is a predecessor for things like LORD OF THE RINGS and the title character was a sort of medieval superhero. The movie stays true to the revered story for the first 45 minutes (the impending battle with Grendel). When Grendel’s mother surfaces is where things play out very differently. What was a poem of heroism, bravery, and conquering beasts turns into a cautionary tale about the flaws of men. While I don’t necessarily oppose this script entirely (as the original epic poem made Beowulf out to be a boastful braggart in places), it’s overly familiar in many respects. We’ve seen this type of movie many times before, so why turn a beloved fantasy epic into just another story about bad karma.

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To add another cliché to the mix, there are a couple of dream sequences that conclude in the same way of Beowulf waking up screaming with a quick jump scare. It’s yet another laughable element thrown into a story that didn’t need these additions. Though seen through animation, the performances are visible (it’s the actors’ emotions on the characters’ faces after all). Anthony Hopkins gets a little too hammy as the drunken king and John Malkovich chews the scenery as Unferth. In some places, it sounds like Malkovich is eager to be done with this film to receive his paycheck. There’s either a hint of him reading lines from a script or putting too much inflection into his dialogue. On a lesser degree of over-acting is Ray Winstone as Beowulf. He flies from 0 to 60 in the volume of his voice in a millisecond. Winstone goes from restrained in his delivery (his more effective scenes) to wildly yelling at the top of his lungs.

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Most of the animation is stunning. There are a couple of moments that look like a herky-jerky PlayStation 2 game, but those instances can be counted on one hand. The creature design of Grendel is very impressive. The poem wisely never tells you what he looks like and leaves it to the reader’s imagination to conjure up this monster’s image in their mind. I really dug the look of this demon, even if Crispin Glover gave an unneeded reason for him to be devouring the people (involving sensitive ears). The dragon is awesome as well, while Grendel’s mother is literally Angelina Jolie with gold covering her privates. The soundtrack is also really cool and gives the whole film an epic vibe, even with the flaws being very apparent.

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My biggest complaints with BEOWULF can purely be leveled at the changes in the script. It almost like two different stories were combined into one. If you’re going to retell the epic poem in an appropriately epic fashion, then don’t blend a completely unnecessary and familiar thriller formula into it. There’s plenty of excitement to be had purely from a tale of warriors, dragons, and demons. The acting ranges from good to very over-the-top, just as the animation is awesome in some places and shaky in others. Taken on a pure spectacle level, BEOWULF is enjoyable. Taken as an epic fantasy that could possibly go down as a great adaptation of medieval literature, it’s iffy at best. Overall, BEOWULF is a decent film, but suffers from messy storytelling in front of and behind the camera.

Grade: C+

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