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-

BURNT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout

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Directed by: John Wells

Written by: Steven Knight

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Omar Sy, Daniel Bruhl, Matthew Rhys, Alicia Vikander, Uma Thurman, Emma Thompson & Lily James

The Weinstein Company (notorious Oscar whores that they are) flaunted BURNT as a potential awards season offering before reviews were even in. Despite the heavy pre-release hype (opening in select theaters before expanding onto screens nationwide), showcasing many talented performers, and following a screenplay by Steven Knight (who recently impressed with LOCKE), BURNT is a half-baked melodrama that tastes a bit bland (pardon the obvious cooking puns). The film may be technically well-made (shot on location in London and using an almost Kubrickian shooting style) with a number of strong performances, but it crumbles under the weight of cheesy clichés and a generically by-the-numbers plot.

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Meet Adam Jones. He’s a former chef turned coked-up bad boy turned professional chef again. After running a pristine French restaurant into the ground, Adam Jones sentences himself to three years of shucking oysters before returning to London in hopes of adding a third Michelin star to his reputation. This is easier said than done as Adam finds himself beset by many obstacles. One of which is securing a venue, then there’s the process of employing a talented staff who are willing to follow his lead and tolerate his fiery temper. Finally, he must concoct a menu that equates the level of a culinary orgasm. Adam will face his demons, open himself up to others, and accept his faults…or fail horribly in the process.

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The best thing in BURNT is front and center on its poster: Bradley Cooper. Cooper has proven himself as a performer who can make even the most menial of characters into someone interesting. The role of culinary bad boy Adam Jones is no different. Adam Jones commands the screen with an authority that echoes of a young Gordon Ramsay, someone who clearly served as a real-life inspiration for this protagonist. Bradley Cooper’s performance is easily the best thing to be found in this film…well, that and lots of plates of gorgeous food. There are many shots of delicious looking dishes that will make your stomach growl. It’s probably not the best idea to watch this movie when you’re hungry.

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The supporting cast members don’t necessarily pale in comparison to Cooper’s dominating presence though as we get Sienna Miller as a frustrated mother/cook who also doubles as a potential love-interest for Cooper. As Cooper’s former friend turned co-worker, Daniel Bruhl is totally enjoyable and is doing his damndest to bring believable emotion to his scenes. Special mention should also be made towards Matthew Rhys as a rival three-star chef who adds more flavor into the mix. The chemistry between Cooper’s and Rhys’s characters is genuinely fun to watch as they both hate each other in an almost friendly way. Also on the sidelines are: Omar Sy (as a former enemy turned co-chef), Alicia Vikander (as a familiar face from Adam’s past), and Emma Thompson (as Adam’s frequently glimpsed therapist).

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The performances are definitely not the problem in BURNT. Instead the film’s big flaws primarily stem from a weak script. There’s plenty of interesting drama to be found in real-life kitchens. Just stick on any one of Gordon Ramsay’s reality shows and you’re bound to be hooked for at least one episode. Some of that drama and suspense translates into the plot as Adam desperately tries to earn a third star to his name and strives for constant perfection (a goal that doesn’t seem realistic). It would be nice if the script didn’t sweep Adam’s mistakes under the rug with haphazard explanations, vague exposition-filled conversations, and silly coincidences. After all, it seems like the film’s overall message is to face one’s demons and accept ourselves as imperfect creatures. The screenplay frequently undermines itself with frequent predictable plot developments and unbelievable clichés (to go into specifics would be delving into spoiler territory). BURNT’s script isn’t up to the level of its performances and that’s a noticeable (often distracting) problem.

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You can pretty much guess where BURNT is heading from the moment it starts and there’s nothing to keep the viewer hooked other than strong acting and food that will make you wish that you were eating instead of watching this film. Though the cast is great (especially the performances from Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Bruhl, and Matthew Rhys), they can only do so much with a script that frequently drags its feet and doesn’t reward the viewer for sticking through it. BURNT’s title is rather ironic, because the film is disappointingly undercooked.

Grade: C

LOCKE (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 25 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout

Locke poster

Directed by: Steven Knight

Written by: Steven Knight

Starring: Tom Hardy

One-location stories are always risky. The director throws up the possibility that the single setting might get boring and the dialogue driving the entire vehicle might wreck the whole thing. As far as the term vehicle, that’s more than appropriate in referring to Steven Knight’s LOCKE as the film revolves around a single car ride that forces one man to make some drastic life-changing decisions. Knight has become slightly known for covering some of the shadier sides of London in his previous work (REDEMPTION, DIRTY PRETTY THINGS). LOCKE follows the same kind of scenario but in a far more restrained, classy way.

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It’s the night before a massive concrete pour that Ivan Locke is in charge of and he’s received some distressing news. This news has sent his life spiraling out of control. He is taking a 90 minute car ride to London in order to take care of some unexpected business. Locke makes a series of phone calls on his drive that upend his carefully constructed existence in every possible way. Ivan Locke is the only character the audience sees on the screen and every other person is regulated to a voice on the phone. This entire film is essentially a series of conversations between Ivan and his wife, co-workers, boss, and a mysterious other person. It doesn’t take too long to figure out exactly what happened and Ivan Locke doesn’t come off in the best light to the viewer. However, something is to be said for how Knight gets the viewer to understand why this character would go to the lengths he does to make things okay.

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To say anything too revealing about LOCKE would be spoiling some of the surprises. The cinematography looks fantastic. Every frame looks crisp and the lighting is phenomenal. You might think that watching a guy drive down the highway would get repetitive and monotonous. However, Knight finds different angles and mixes up the visuals. Every so often a shot from outside the car appears, but other than those brief moments, this movie is confined inside a car with Tom Hardy. Speaking of which Hardy goes through a vast variety of emotions that range from sadness to anger, frustration to oddly calm, and the viewer is taken through every one of these feelings with him. There are small bits where things seem to going down a boring path. In the nick of time, Steven Knight throws in another gripping conversation or unexpected twist to shake things up. The movie is perfectly encapsulated within its short 85 minutes.

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LOCKE plays out like a short film that was turned into a feature after some deliberation. The movie does require a significant amount of patience from the viewer, but many (including myself) will find it to be a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Ivan Locke doesn’t walk out of his car (and the movie) looking like the best guy around and he’s the kind of character that’s more than willing to admit to that. Steven Knight makes the film work with his ever-changing visual style and Hardy glues everything together with an impressive performance. Like some reviews I’ve written recently, my compiled thoughts on LOCKE aren’t exactly lengthy. In this case, it’s not that there isn’t much to say about this film in a bad way. Instead, revealing too much would spoil the compelling story and ruin some of the entertainment. LOCKE is a compelling little drama set in the space of a single car ride. It has become a tad overrated at this point. Some stretches involving the construction plot-thread do get repetitive. LOCKE is recommended for cinephiles who will appreciate this kind of storytelling and film goers who want something out of the ordinary.

Grade: B

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