Allied Review

Yeah, I don’t have a Fantastic Beasts review yet. A mixture of being swamped with university work and large dose of apathy to watching the latest offering from JK Rowling means that it will be possibly a few weeks after it has come out when I finally get round to it. So instead, this week I have a film that I actually did have a passing interest in, from the director Forrest Gump and Back To The Future.

Allied stars Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard and Jared Harris and is directed by Robert Zemeckis. The film follows Canadian spy Max Vatan (Pitt) and French Resistance fighter Marieanne Beausejour (Cotillard) in Nazi-occupied Morocco. After falling in love and successfully completing their mission, they marry and move to London, but their life is shattered when rumours about Marieanne’s allegiance to the Allied Forces is questioned.

I was looking forward to Allied. There haven’t been many films set in the North African Theater of World War Two (the only ones I can think of are the fabulous Casablanca and Ice Cold In Alex), making Allied stand apart. While the opening half hour is set in Africa, the second part is relegated to London and French countryside. It’s such a let-down to move to an overused setting of WW2, and the film never really recovers. It’s also annoying that incredibly shoddy back projection has been used. It’s so easy to see that Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard are sitting in front of a green-screen rather than an actual sand dune, and makes the film worse for it.

Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard are fine in their roles. They have an old-school glamour about them, easily fitting into the time period and setting, but they aren’t helped by the script. It’s extraordinarily hammy, while also managing to be boring at the same time. There are moments of tension, but the script can’t keep the mystery of Marieanne’s allegiance going. One mystery, however good it maybe, cannot sustain a film’s runtime. You need other story arcs to be invested in, but Allied doesn’t deliver the latter part.

Due to both characters being fighters in the war, I was expecting some action scenes. We only get a measly two, and even those weren’t that long or thrilling. The assassination sequence and ensuing escape are barely built up, leading to a lacklustre climax. It would have been cool to see these two highly trained killers cause havoc inside the Nazi compounds, with some nice tracking shots of them moving through the buildings to their escape vehicle. But no, instead we have an incredibly short action sequence, a shame for how good it could have been. We have another action segment in the French countryside, but isn’t even worthy of merit to even talk about.

It’s not all bad. The film has its individual moments of brilliance, reminding us how good a director Robert Zemeckis is. The good parts are mainly in the Casablanca section; the first few hectic moments of the assassination and Marieanne and Max making love in their car while a sandstorm rages around them. The film has scenes with visual flourish, but can’t sustain them throughout an entire film.

It’s shouldn’t be hard to film a tense war-time thriller. Hollywood has been doing it since the 1950s. Heck, we just had one a few months ago in Anthropoid. And due to the lack of chemistry between the two stars, I’m not even interested in the ‘romance’ side of the ‘romantic-thriller’ that Allied has been billed at. ¬†Unless you truly love the actors, or have an affinity for war-time aesthetics, this one should be a miss.

Score: 5/10 Early good looks and scenes give way to a dragging second half.

The Big Short Review

Wall Street is good theatre. Several films have been set on what is basically the capital of the United States market and economy. In that sort of high-stress environment, good cinema thrives, with films like Margin Call, The Wolf of Wall Street and…well Wall Street. Does The Big Short (nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars) stand with these great films?

The Big Short stars Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt and is directed by Adam McKay. Based on the book of the same name by Michael Lewis, the film follows several brokers on Wall Street who predicted the 2008 Housing Crisis and decide to bet against the market and get rich.

If you don’t know the first thing about stocks, don’t worry I’m right with you. Top bond salesman Jared Vennett (Gosling) turns to the camera early on and says, “I know this is boring and confusing, so here’s Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to explain it.” The film does this several times, with celebrities such as Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain popping up and explaining what several of the market terms mean through simple analogies. It’s incredibly funny and is kept up throughout the entire film, with characters turning to screen to explain how things happened or drawing pictures in thin air. However, don’t think it’s a pure comedy like The Wolf of Wall Street (despite it being nominated in several awards under “comedy”), it’s more of a drama that a laugh-out-loud film.

You have to pay attention throughout, the film will stop and explain a term but it will then set off again and assume you got the gist of it. I missed a couple of lines of dialogue and for the next ten minutes I was confused over what was happening. It’s a film that isn’t afraid to talk about complex and deliberately puzzling exchanges and statistics. Luckily, with the help of those previously mentioned cut-aways to celebrities or a Jenga set to symbolise the housing market, the audience can follow along the winding trail of buying and selling dodgy commodities. It’s a riveting script, and McKay and collaborator Charles Randolph have done a fantastic job of making what could be an intensely boring subject into one of the most suspenseful.

The cast is a major strong point. A lot of the main players are playing against type; Steve Carell is a surly man with emotional baggage, Christian Bale is a doctor with Aspergers who walks around his office barefoot and plays music obnoxiously loud and Brad Pitt is quiet retiree who is paranoid the government is spying on him. Most of these men never meet face-to-face, but they all figure out at some point that the market is going to collapse and the joy comes from their different methods and approaches to how they will get out of it without losing money or their jobs.

By far the best performance is Ryan Gosling. Sure, I might be a fanboy, but in The Big Short he is fantastic. He’s obviously channelling Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort and looks like he’s loving playing the part of a ruthless salesman. The moments where he verbal puts-down his underlings, or clears an entire men’s bathroom so that he can have a private phone call are funny and create an interesting character, and serve as a good distraction in-between the major money-conversations.

As soon as I finished The Big Short, I knew that it had majorly shaken up my predictions for the winner of this year’s Oscar. It’s riveting and often hilarious but it’s painfully fast. When your problem with the film is “there should be more of this”, you have something good. If you think you can keep up with its rapid pace, then The Big Short get’s my recommendation.

Score: 9/10 Thrilling, funny, thought-provoking and totally deserves it’s nomination.

Killing Them Softly Review

Preface

Killing Them Softly has been on my list of films to watch. I always see it on sale but never actually buy it, saying I’ll get it next time. But eventually, I went and got it after hearing great things about it, so here’s my review.

Review

Killing Them Softly stars Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta and is written and directed by Andrew Dominik. Based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, the film follows mob enforcer Jackie Cogan (Pitt) as he is brought into solve the economic crisis that has hit the mob world.

While the original novel is set during the mid 1970s, Killing Them Softly updates the story to late 2008, using the banking crisis and the election of Barack Obama to parallel the main story in the film. This dual narrative is played throughout radio and televisions in the world, almost giving a subtle commentary that the mobsters and racketeers at the bottom of the ladder are just as sleazy as the bankers at the top.

Despite being tied to the banking crisis, the story almost feels timeless, with the clothing styles of the characters, the cars they drive and especially with the choice of music that plays throughout the film. The music flits between decades with songs like Johnny Cash’s “When The Man Comes Around“, “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong and “Love Letters” by Kitty Lester, making the film a mash up of the 2000s and of the early 50s and 60s. This reuse of music ties in with how the central story is about characters doing the same things over and over again, it’s a clever way to tell us, the audience, that this is just a routine occurrence and it’s a normal day for the characters on screen.

Brad Pitt is at the top of his game as hitman Jackie Cogan, a man who observes everything, doesn’t get involved and is somehow oddly delicate about his job of murdering people. As he remarks to Richard Jenkins during the film, when tasked with killing someone, he likes to “kill them softly.” James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta are the most fascinating characters, who are so high on their own machismo and place with the male-dominated world of the mafia that when they are in turmoil they start crying and wailing, turning into scared little children. Richard Jenkins plays the role he has done in a million other films, as the older man who has stuck around for longer than he should have, but his interactions with Brad Pitt in the film make up for the rather stereotypical casting.

I counted only four women in the film (two of which aren’t on screen, and the other two aren’t on it for less than a few seconds), all of whom are described or characterised by sex or their gender. It’s a film that focuses on the male characters and how they talk to each other and how they describe the women around them, showing that these men (unlike the more romanticised gangsters of years before) should not be looked up to and are rotten to the core. They are despicable, idiotic and diseased, but that makes the film even more enjoyable to watch.

For once, I don’t have to say the film was either too long or too short. Much of my criticism with films nowadays is that directors don’t know how to pace their films, leaving it over-bloated or insubstantial. Killing Them Softly only clocks in at around 90 minutes and it’s the perfect length for the film. Every scene feels like it’s been thought out methodically and has an actual reason for belonging in the film, whether it adds a little bit of back-story to a character or adds more to the puzzle of the story. The last part of dialogue between Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins is an excellent way to end the film by tying in the banking crisis storyline without becoming preachy, and the last line by Brad Pitt is like a bullet in the way in punches to the heart of his character and his motivation.

In conclusion, Killing Them Softly feels like it takes some of the most overused genre conventions of the gangster film but creates a completely different take on them. If you can stand the hateful characters, the explosive and bloody violence and the ever present swearing, you’ll have a blast.

Score: 10/10 One of the greatest gangster films ever created.