Allied

This movie feels really old fashioned and stilted. Usually a Robert Zemekis film is dynamic and the performances are energetic. The two quite attractive stars are mostly just being attractive and it frequently feels like they are play acting instead of acting acting. I am having a hard time putting my finger on it, but this film feels like a misfire to me. Maybe it would have been more intriguing if the premise of the film were not given up in the trailers, and instead we were allowed to find the drama on our own. Instead, I felt like I was watching for clues and waiting for a tell as the story played ourt.

So may shortcuts in story are necessary to keep a film going, but there are really a lot of steps missing in the opening of the film. Brad Pitt puts on his Paul Henreid white suit and traipses around Casablanca looking for the letters of transit. No wait, that’s a different and much better film. Instead he acts surly toward his contacts and disregards his own personal rules when operating behind enemy lines. The most attractive woman in the country is his implanted contact, and together they plot an act of terror that in war time counts as espionage activity. It requires a brutal disregard of emotions, except of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walked into his. Whoops, slipped again. In truth, nothing will bring characters with no common background together quicker than participating in an assassination.

The contrivances in the first part of the film that are designed to sell Pitt and Marion Cotillard as a couple are cute but don’t really make sense since her husband really is supposed to be a stranger to the city. Their romantic clutch in the car in the desert reminded me so much of that moment when she pulled the gun on him and demanded the letters of transit for her husband, damn, I keep slipping. The next thing you know they escape French Morocco and he awaits her arrival in Paris, I mean London.

 

A montage of events come by in a blur, including the birth of their child in the midst of a blitz that sees her delivering on the street while all around are being bombed. It is perhaps the second corniest moment in the film, and we are expected to accept it without much preparation or set up, it just happens. When the turn that was revealed from the very first trailer arrives, we get a sequence of events that is too cliched to believe. Pitt disobeys orders and conducts his own investigation. Peter Lorre shows up at a party at their house and begs for Pitt to hide him, no, sorry again, a guy who mysteriously sells jewellery to lonely housewives during the war, appears along with every horny couple in London looking for a place to shag. Pitt chases down leads in a reckless manner, including his own expedition into Nazi occupied France where Captain Renault lies for him to the German High Command. No, that’s not right, a local French policeman sells the resistance out to the Nazis and a battle occurs where our hero single handily defeats the Germans, before he flies back to England on a plane he commandeered from the Royal Air Force and managed to get to the Continent and back on without stirring any anti-aircraft fire.

True love triumphs in the end as the situation is resolved. I have done the best that I can to avoid spoilers but I will say that Boogie and Claude Raines do not walk off into a beautiful friendship. Instead another pair walks off into the future with the aura of love hanging over them. Maybe I make it sound like I did not like this film. I liked it well enough but not well enough to suggest that anyone else bother to see it. I frequently have low standards when it comes to romantic-WWII movies and desert intrigue. My guess is most of you do not.

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Rules Don’t Apply

Director Warren Beatty has wanted to do a biopic about Howard Hughes for years. After Scorsese put together “The Aviator”  more than a decade ago, I thought he would have abandoned the project. Instead, it seems he retooled it to focus on a different aspect of the legendary billionaire’s life, and turned it into a fantasy love story where the main figure is only tangentially a part of the romance. Hughes is the most interesting character in this film, but he is not the lead. Earlier this year I thought that “Swiss Army Man” might be the strangest film I saw in 2016, we now have a worthy competitor for that title.

This movie is a disjointed drama which takes strong comedic elements and focuses on them without maintaining the tone very well. Hughes’ eccentricities are a big part of what drives the story, and the greatest asset the film has is Beatty’s performance as the sometimes manic genius/playboy that could give Tony Stark a few lessons in arrogance. Beatty is sometimes genial and quiet as he interacts with the two young people who have entered his sphere. He seems quirky and charming but not particularly mad. As the story goes on though, the quirks become obsessions and the charm turns into dangerous mania. Beatty has been a notoriously odd interview subject for his whole career.  In a Rolling Stone story in the early 1990s, his pauses and quirks were the featured players and deserved their own story. What he has done here is turn those peculiarities into a character that fits the billionaire eccentric to a tea. His performance is a combination of befuddle silences and questioning expressions as he sits in semi-dark locations and frequently refuses to interact with his business associates and confidants. I’m not sure how much is acting and how much is just Beatty putting his real self in front of the camera.

 

The two young people who mix in the life of Hughes are Alden Ehrenreich’s Frank Forbes, an ambitious young Methodist from Fresno and Lily Collins who plays Marla Mabrey, a contest winner from Virginia. Both of them are employees of Howard but in very different capacities. She is a contract player for a film that Hughes appears to have no intention of ever producing, while he is a driver for her and eventually Hughes himself. When the story is about the budding attraction they feel for each other and the complications of their religious upbringing, is is a mildly dull romance. When Hughes stirs things up, it becomes more interesting but it takes so long to get to that point, and once we do, there are so many tangents that get followed, that the story loses any focus. Except for the song that Collins writes, we don’t really get why Howard is drawn to Marla, except that she might be venereal disease free.

The film is loaded with stuff that I would like regardless of the subject. Most of it is centered in Southern California and Las Vegas in the late 50’s and early 60’s. As stock footage of Hollywood Boulevard from the era is rolled out in the background, I could remember the look of the locations myself, having spent a lot of time in Hollywood as a kid. There are some very nice touches as the town becomes a player in the story. The house where Marla awaits her big chance is in the hills above the Hollywood Bowl, so he nights are filled with classical music from the L.A. Philharmonic. Palm Springs is referred to as a dream destination for weekends  out of town. And the Beverly Hills Hotel, which still looks much the way it did at the time, becomes a place where Hughes can play hide and seek from the people he needs to speak with but won’t. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel gives an appropriate romantic era look to the proceedings which also does a lot to sell the movie.

The problems with the film are it’s pacing and schizophrenic story telling. There are truly moments of pleasure as the story develops, but in the end it feels like the life Hughes himself must have lead, chaotic and neurotic.   The charm of the actors is not really enough to make the film come alive and it meanders around, showing a great sense of style but without any purpose. I’m glad I saw this but I can’t say it is a good film. For every moment of wonder and joy, there are two that just induce shoulder shrugging and impatience.

Movies I Want Everyone to See: Seven Samurai

No one should need my encouragement to see this masterpiece. It is four years older than I am and it is widely recognized as one of the greatest films ever made, in any language. In preparation for an extensive discussion on the new “Magnificent Seven” remake and it’s progenitors, I went to the library and checked out the Criterion version of this classic. I will probably never do that again because after watching it, I am simply waiting for my cash flow to be sufficient to obtain the bluray for myself. This movie is simply wonderful.

Set four hundred years ago, the well known story concerns a village of farmers under the threat of bandits raiding and stealing their crops, choosing to go in search of Samurai to help defend them. This three and a half hour film predates the epics of the 60s and was only challenged in the scale of the story telling by “Gone With the Wind”. From the village to a large city and back to a countryside with farms, mountains, temples and hidden forts of bandits, Seven Samurai is full of adventure, drama, humor and tragedy. It feels deep in many places without wallowing in self importance or histrionics. The characters are memorable and the film making will impress.

If I have any criticism at all, it concerns the opening section of the film where the villagers discover they will soon be targets of another raid. The wailing and hair pulling that goes on is loud and prolonged. One could almost lose sympathy for the downtrodden peasants who are on the brink of starvation in spite of how hard they work. Once they decide on their plan however, the story calms down and follows a well worn path of a group seeking a champion. Their attempts to find heroes are limited by the fact that all they have to offer by way of payment is food and shelter. Fortunately they come across an aging warrior who seems to fit their needs perfectly.

In an act of compassion, Kambei, shaves his head and dons the robes of a poor monk, to get close to a thief who has taken a child as hostage when trapped. He quickly resolves the problem which earns him the admiration of a young nobleman who is pursuing life as a samurai himself. Katsushiro wants to follow as an apprentice but Kambei has no need for such assistance, that is until he is approached by the emissaries of the village. The mocking the farmers have received from occupants of the inn they stay at,  for trying to hire a drunken samurai, evokes enough sympathy to get the old man to reconsider. One of the lessons of the film is compassion for those who are suffering. When someone makes a mistake, or is exploited, the samurai code seems to be strength thru unity. Kambei proceeds to recruit several more warriors to assist him.

The recruiting sequence takes a while but it helps reveal the character of the various soldiers about to join this army. Some are wily, some cautious, and some are brash. The details of the process are one of the small joys that the film provides and it would be wrong to spoil it for anyone who has not yet seen the film. Toshiro Mifune arrives in the film in the form of a man claiming to be samurai but revealed to be a fraud. That discovery fails to discourage him and he worms his way into the group and ultimately commands their respect and friendship despite some of his eccentricities. As Kikuchiyo, Mifune prances and struts and generally tries to B.S. his way to status. While there are six other stories of the samurai, his is the one that commands center stage. Mifune is magnetic to watch and the character draws us in even as he seems to be a bit big for his britches, and that I mean literally. Kikuchiyo wears a dead warriors vestments and they are brief in the modesty department.

I will be doing a post on the 1960 “Magnificent Seven” and there are comparisons in story points everywhere. Kyuzo, the taciturn master swordsman, proves himself in a match that is repeated beat for beat by James Coburn  six years later. Kambei”s act of chivalry is mirrored with Yul Bryner’s defiance of the racist cowboys when burying a dead Indian. Horst Bucholz catches fish in the same manner as Mifune, by hand. The depth of Seven Samurai involves a more elaborate set of back stories for each of the samurai, and the villagers also have more character traits and histories. “Magnificent Seven” also condenses two characters into one by making the romance happen to the young outsider instead of tho another character.

The battle sequences in Seven Samurai are all easy to follow as is the tactic that Kambei is employing. The goal is to take out as many of the bandits, one by one as they can. Two of the Samurai go outside of the village to accomplish some of this but mostly, the plot involves allowing only one or two of the raiders to enter the village at a time. The time setting does allow for muskets but they are not plentiful and they become the first targets of the Seven since they represent an nearly invisible threat. Of course in the Western version, nearly everyone is armed with guns. The confrontations take place less frequently and the shootouts are not always as interesting as swordplay, especially when it starts raining. The photography in Kurosawa’s film is in glorious black and white and the scenes with rain and fire jump out dramatically in this medium.  Faces, especially Mifune’s are lit with dramatic shadowing and the intensity of the characters can be see, even when there are not close ups, but when there are, it is even better.

The samurai traditions of honor hang over the choices these characters make. They may be mercenaries but they are not likely to cut and run or be bought off. In the Western version, it would be expected that some of these characters would be less committed. The family traditions and cultural expectations in feudal Japan seem to preclude such treachery, at least as far as the peasants are concerned. In fact, one element this film contains is a sacrifice make by a woman. This is a moment and a motivation that did not make it into the Americanized version, the wife of one of the villagers, who has been taken as a “comfort” prisoner, allows the marauding samurai to gain access to the bandits hideout without tipping them off. She also accepts a death that would cleanse the unclean last weeks of her life with fire. It was a haunting image.

Kurosawa has filled the movie with images that will inspire and haunt us for years. Mifune stomping around the village, cursing the peasants and being bolder than is appropriate for samurai is one example.  When he raises the emblematic flag of the village defenders, it is a moment of chivalry that will bring a lump to your throat.

 

He defies the enemy and inspires his companions and the villagers with that one bold statement.  The other image that visually tells the story is the tally parchment on which  Kambei keeps track of how many of the enemy have fallen.

This is a glorious classic that deserves to be seen by everyone. The black and white photography and subtitles are a barrier to some, but five minutes in, no one will notice that they are watching a film set four hundred years ago, shot almost seventy years ago, and in a language that they don’t speak. Instead they will marvel at the accomplished direction and look of the film. They will have their eyes drawn to one of the great actors of the last century and they will be sucked in by an oft told tale that still works.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

When I wrote my review of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” five years ago. I  reported on the sadness that came with knowing the story was over and our time in the Wizarding World was at an end. I must have forgotten the times we live in because of course when there is money to be made and a hunger for stories, the film industry will try to find a way to produce more. Earlier this year, a widely acclaimed stage play of a Harry Potter story from post Deathly Hallows made it’s debut in London, and the script for that play became a bestselling book. Also in the woks was this piece of entertainment, a spin off story of the Potter books, featuring only a vague couple of references to characters we would recognize. The opening of the Universal Studios Hollywood version of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter earlier this year, making this a banner year for fans of the franchise. I’ve not seen the play, so I can’t comment on it (although I did read the script and had some reservations). I’ve not yet visited Potter World at Universal, although my daughter has an annual pass and seems to have gone a half dozen times or so, (she is very enthusiastic). I have however seen the new movie and that I can speak about.

“Fantastic Beasts” is mostly a delightful fantasy adventure that captures much of the essence of the magical world. It is also clear that there are many other stories to exploit in this thread and many others from the Magic worlds. The story is a bit convoluted but works out correctly in the long run. The biggest strengths of the film are some new characters, the production design and the title beasts themselves. The additional films that are planned may run a bit thin at times because there is not the rich backdrop of a single location or the evolution of characters over seven years,but as fantasy films they should be a treat. There are seeds of the Dumbeldore-Grindelwald story are here, as is a plot line that will lead to more exploration of the social taboos of “No-Maj” (Muggle) relations.

The lead character in the film is Newt Scamander, played by Eddie Redmayne. His look is perfect and the actions he plays out seem to fit the story nicely, but I do have to say he was the weak link for me of the main characters. Jeff Bridges is regularly criticized these days for the tendency he has to mumble his lines in that Texas grumble. Well Redmayne does a whole lot of mumbling as well, but he is supposed to be so reserved and shy that when he mumbles, not only can you not make out the words, you may not be able to tell he is speaking. There may be confusion over some key elements of the story because he has a lot of exposition in his character’s dialogue. Fortunately, the character is accompanied by a great trio of supporting characters that have the light touch and personality that his aw shucks boyishness sometimes misses. Dan Fogler, an actor I know from “Fanboys” and “Balls of Fury”, is impressively effective as the “No-maj” Jacob Kowalski, a bystander who gets sucked into Scamander’s adventure. He is a great audience surrogate and has a charm that belies his somewhat schlub like appearance. Unconventional casting results in a humorous side kick and a surprisingly believable romantic figure.  The magical sisters Tina and Queenie Goldstein are also great additions to the story. Katherine Waterson as Tina and Alison Sudol as Queenie are lovely women cast as ethereal beauties with much more than their looks to get them through this adventure.

I think everyone will enjoy the creatures that Newt carries around in his briefcase. An item that has magical dimensions to it much like the tents used by the Weasleys in their trip to the Quidditch World Championships. Some of the beasts are charming and will amuse the audience immensely, others are more difficult and present a threat at times but also a promise. All of the story takes place in a vividly realized 1920s New York setting. The decor and clothing styles are all right up my alley. It is a world vividly realized by the talented craftsmen behind the scenes and in the computers used to make this film. Colin Farrell’s suits are enough to make you want to be living in that period and wealthy enough to dress as the magic folk do. There are the usual magical battles and dramatic chaos that accompanies it. There are however several quieter scenes that make the story richer. I especially appreciated the apartment scenes where Newt and Jacob are taken in by the Goldsteins. The mixture of the mundane and the magical is great in that sequence. The more extended trip into Newt’s collection of animals is another standout moment from the film.

The idea of exploring the Magic world in another location on the planet is a solid start in making this series of films feel fresh. The Magical Congress of the U.S, as counter-part to the British Ministry of Magic is clever with some very American style twists.  I do think there is a great opportunity for these films to grow in stature and depth as we get deeper into the mythology and history of the characters and places in the stories. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” should be a successful start to a new line of stories, only distantly connected to Harry Potter, but hopefully as rewarding when we get to the conclusion.

Arrival

Well, the title of this film could easily be announcing the start of the awards season as well as first contact with aliens. Amy Adams is a front-runner for acting honors and the film has an outside chance at being included on a honer list of nominees if the voting works out right. The last film I saw was the Mel Gibson directed “Hacksaw Ridge and along with this movie, we are now getting to the meat of the quality film season. “Arrival” is a cerebral science fiction film that manages to build tension with almost no violence at all, and it ponders some interesting questions about the nature of the planet and our future. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” from 1951 raised many of the same questions and used a similar style of tension to hold us in it’s thrall. “Arrival” has a story that is much different but themes that are similar and a tone that mirrors that sixty-five year old film precisely. We probably need that sort of message every half century or so.

Louise Banks is a linguist, who is recruited by the government to lead a team trying to communicate with the occupants of an alien craft that is located in one of twelve spots around the globe. The American team is working in Montana, a location that is remote enough to keep millions of people away, by also central enough that the whole country might feel threatened by the ship’s presence. If you remember the cover story used in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, you know that there might very well need to be secrecy when a first contact event takes place. The “X-Files” made the notion of secrecy a paranoid environment for intrigue, but this movie confronts the reality of what such an event would do to the planet. Panic, fear, riots and economic disruption of our way of life would be inevitable. The film shows these things only as news background though. The focus is not on how the social fabric of civilization might be torn by such an occurrence, but rather how it might be responded to by the leadership and scientific personnel that we trust.

I have a casual interest in linguistics as it relates to human communication. My problem is that I have no facility with language or patience with mathematics. So I am an outsider looking in on the process that was being explored here. I understood parts of it but frequently felt as if I should be getting more because after all, I am a communications person. Jeremy Renner is Adam’s counterpart from the math end of the team. As Ian Donnelly, he works with Louise to solve the puzzles of an alien language so that we as a planet can figure out whether to embrace the contact or fear it. The two of them have some great scenes where they in essence are acting against a screen, much like a giant aquarium, hoping to find a path and pattern to the linguistic puzzle. Adams must emote to light and early on through a hazmat suit. Inevitably, in order to make breakthroughs, the contact will have to be closer. In “Darmok”an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, the Captain must manage to communicate with a species that uses only metaphor. As complicated as that might be, this film quadruples the challenge because the communication issues involve four dimensions, and we ultimately discover that the key to understanding is in the dimension we have the least ability at the moment to function in.

There is a prologue sequence that at first seems to be setting up our main character. That five minute section establishes Adams as a person, but there is far more going on here than we first suspect. I always avoid spoilers but I feel safe in saying that the devastating sequence, nearly as effective as the opening of the film “Up” will be understood in greater depth as the movie goes on. Amy Adams is wonderful as she goes through a nightmare scenario, but also as she relives it in several spots in the film. In addition to the moments of wonder that she impresses us with, there are expressions of pain and memory that are just as significant. This film is very nicely put together by director Denis Villenevue, to give us a non-linear story that we don’t even realize is happening in front of us. There are however a few clues as we go through the film. The picture window that looks out on the property that Adams experiences the prologue events through, is nearly identical in shape and background as the window in the alien vessel. The disconcerting gravity and physics of entering the alien ship are similar to the distortion that comes in a dream or memory.

The music of the film is oppressive without being dour, and that gives the story a feeling of expectation that the visuals also live up to. It is a science fiction film, but not one based on spectacle. The ships are simple, the vision of technology is interesting and the alien design is not anthropomorphic but it is not frightening in the way we see in most films about invaders from another world. The thing that works the best in the story from my point of view is the depiction of human uncertainty. The various countries that have contact with the pods communicate through a network, but they also disengage and keep secrets. There are no “bad” guys per se, rather there are people making the best decision they can with the information available to them. The Chinese General who appears to be turning the contact into a conflict, is simply acting in the best interests of humanity as he sees it. The problem is that communication with the aliens is not the only communication problem that the governments and scientists face. Humans are limited in their ability to frame information by their experience. It takes a whole new kind of experience to change any perceptions.

There is not much humor in the film but there is a great deal of humanity. Not everything will be explained by the resolution of the story. There are blind spots and questions about how any of this could work. Having seen “Interstellar” for a second time just a few weeks ago, reminds me that there are tough questions that are hard to answer when you get to theoretical physics. I will say that I hope the answer to one of those questions is in fact a piece of humor found in the movie. I now want to check out the places in the world that Sheena Easton had a big hit on the radio in 1980.

Hacksaw Ridge

Mel Gibson and his cast and crew, deliver what I want in a movie in this amazing true story of a conscientious objector who shows more courage than seems humanly possible. That World War Two is still ripe with stories to tell, more than seventy years after it ended should not be a surprise. Sixteen million Americans had a part to play in the conflict at one point or another, so there have got to be many stories still to tell. Medal of Honor winner Desmond Doss certainly deserves to have his story told and boy what a story it is. War is the ultimate location for violent conflict to be depicted, and there is certainly no shortage of violence here. Before the crux of the story appears however, we have the background to get through and a love story to tell.

Andrew Garfield has been a successful young actor in prestige pictures like “The Social Network” and in popcorn films like the rebooted “Spiderman” series. Based on the results so far, he should stick to the dramas and skip comic book films for a while. His earnest face and sweet voice seem made for a film like this. He portrays a kid who comes from a hardscrabble family background but one who is steeped in religious beliefs. After some strong experiences with violence himself, he moves to a true pacifist belief system, rooted in his Seventh Day Adventist dogma. Desmond Doss comes across as a naive but incredibly sincere waif who is confronting the greatest upheaval in violence in human history, with little more than a smile and an aw shucks attitude.  That this film and the story it depicts don’t get laughed at is a credit to the script and the actor who plays the part. Gibson does not over do the religious themes but he does give Doss the chance to express how deeply his faith motivates him, well before he becomes battle tested. That is why his accomplishment is all the more credible to us (in spite of the fact that is is based in reality). There is only one moment of histrionics when Doss punches a wall in frustration. The rest of his determined approach is shown through his willingness to fight on without using violence. to be able to make what he sees as a moral contribution to the war on his side.

 

Earlier this year, Teresa Palmer was not that memorable in “Lights Out” , she is much more believable as a 1940s nurse who catches the eye of our hero than she was as the tattooed rebel in the ghost story. She and Garfield form a strong emotional backbone that helps justify our interest in his character and how he manages to cope in the face of overwhelming violence. I imagine there were a great many men who fought in the war who manged to get through the traumas they saw by keeping the hope of love alive in their hearts. Although Doss had a contentious relationship with his father, there is also a family at home that wants him to be safe as well. The personal sacrifice that his mentally scarred father makes to allow Desmond to serve was one of the noble elements of the film. I don’t know how accurate it was but I can say how effective it was in the movie. Hugo Weaving gets a chance to play a flawed man who  is driven by his tragic experiences in the Great War.  It is not a large character part in the film but it may be the most real person Weaving has ever played in a movie and he was wonderful. There is a line of dialogue that he speaks which will cause a shudder of fear and pride at the same moment.

Flavor of the month eight years ago, Sam Worthington, finally shows that he is an actor as well as a face. Every moment he was on screen reminded me of character actor Ed Lauter, and that is a good thing my friends. Vince Vaughn is maybe a little harder to accept because of roles he has played in the past, but I was able to see past the face and recognize a solid performance in a part that is still a great deal of cliche. All of the other actors seem credible and the usual diversity of characters shows up on the screen, but it never feels like it is a stereotypical WWII film. Gibson has directed bloody action/battle sequences before. There are many shots here that will match “Saving Private Ryan” for brutal honesty and cinematic shock. Anyone tempted to think that they go on for too long should remember that the real events went days and offered no opportunity for a soft drink or a bathroom break. The battle of Okinawa as shown here was hard fought and vicious. That the result helped end the war and Americans managed to return home and lead decent lives is also miraculous.

Frankly, I have said it before on numerous occasions in these posts, I am a sentimentalist who wants to be moved by the stories I see in the theater. This story and the film makers moved me in the way I think a film should. They tell an ennobling story with craftsmanship and passion. The actors convince me that I am glimpsing something proximate to the events being depicted. I leave the theater buoyed by the fact that in the world, there are people who have stories like this and there are film makers who can tell these kind of stories. When this film is the subject of awards speculation in a future post, maybe I will spend more time talking about technique. Right now I am simply grateful once again to the greatest generation and satisfied that the talent behind this film have done them credit.