Monday, November 21, 2016

'Allied' review

I don't know if Brad Pitt intended to do this or not, but he has now effectively starred in a trilogy of World War II films. He kicked things off with Inglourious Basterds in 2009, Quentin Tarantino's comedic war masterpiece in which he played the brash Lt. Aldo Raine. Five years later, Pitt returned to the WWII genre with Fury, David Ayer's grisly tank film that featured some of the most explosive war scenes in recent memory. And now, Pitt is back in action with Allied, a romantic thriller set in Casablanca and London during the height of the war. As a huge fan of both Fury and Basterds, I was quite excited to see Pitt in another film set during this time period. In addition, there's an aspect of tabloid intrigue with Allied, as many speculated that Pitt's "steamy" sex scenes with Marion Cotillard could have contributed to the downfall of his marriage to Angelina Jolie. Throw director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) into the mix, and you have a movie that is quite the enticing proposition.

Sometimes, a movie just goes terribly wrong and there's no real explanation for why it happened. It's hard for me to put my finger on just where Allied went off the rails, but it's a movie that never even comes close to working. There's such a plethora of talent in front of and behind the camera, so I must admit that I'm still scratching my head over this one. Essentially, it boils down to the fact that Allied is an ambitious movie that has no clue what its ambitions are. Does it want to be a war-set romance movie in the vein of Casablanca? Part of the first act certainly indicates so. However, other sections seem to hint at a much more violent, stylized action thriller. And then by the time the third act rolls around, Allied is a full-on romance/morality play, with none of the necessary suspense, intrigue, or tragedy to pull it off. Instead, it's just a big jumble of tonally inconsistent scenes, hindered even further by Zemeckis' awkward direction, clumsy pacing, and surprisingly weak storytelling. Despite a few moments of visual grandeur and sweeping old Hollywood style, Allied is a major misfire that falls well short of expectations.

As Allied opens, we see a man parachuting into the Moroccan desert. That man is Max Vatan (Pitt), a Canadian intelligence officer tasked with assassinating a German official in 1942 Casablanca. Vatan is set to rendez-vous with Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard), a beautiful and talented French resistance fighter. Vatan and Beausejour are meant to convincingly play husband and wife, an act that is tested in the Nazi-infested streets of Casablanca. As the danger piles up and death becomes a more imminent threat, the pair of assassins begin to slowly fall for each other. Their romance begins mere hours before they're set to carry out an assassination that could get them both killed, so at this point what do they have to lose. After a successful mission, Vatan asks Beausejour to move to London with him to be his wife. She accepts and the two lovebirds get married in the middle of the war.

Max and Marianne have a child, move to the suburbs of London, and happily grow their family and their home. Max continues his work with British intelligence, serving under his good friend, Frank Heslop (Jared Harris). But one day, everything changes when Max meets with an official from a dreaded division of the intelligence sector. The man, played by Simon McBurney, informs Max that there's reason to believe that Marianne is not actually the daring resistance hero she claims to be. According to intelligence, Marianne is a German spy, sent to retrieve information from a high ranking official of the army. Of course, Max refuses to believe it. This is the woman that he loves, the mother of his child- she couldn't possibly be a spy, he says. The official gives him 72 hours to find out, so without hesitation, Max conducts an intense investigation with the hopes of proving his wife's innocence and saving the future of his family.

Casablanca is my favorite film of all time, and it's not even a close contest. To me, the 1942 Bogart/Bergman classic represents both the best of humanity and the best of filmmaking, a hopeful, optimistic, and iconic piece of cinema. The main reason I was intrigued by Allied was the Casablanca setting and the sweeping tone, which was clearly meant to evoke those romantic wartime classics of the 1940s. From a pure design perspective, Zemeckis and his team pull it off. The dusty landscapes, gorgeous costumes, and sun-baked locales are all impeccably crafted, which is a huge credit to the art directors, production designer Gary Freeman, and costume designer Joanna Johnston. For a moment, Allied almost convinces you that it's a film ripped from a bygone era. There's a nostalgic feeling that emerges in the first few moments that I really enjoyed, especially as a fan of classic cinema.

Sadly, that feeling evaporates almost as quickly as it appears, as I soon realized that there's absolutely nothing under the surface in this film. No dynamic characters, a storyline as tedious as it is clunky, a lack of thematic interest or relevance, and weak direction that does the movie no favors. Allied is a shiny black hole of nothingness, an old Hollywood epic that is flat and dry in all the wrong ways. Zemeckis and screenwriter Steven Knight clearly knew what kind of movie they wanted to make, but they had no idea what story to tell or what characters should inhabit this world. Allied is an inconsistent movie in just about every way, and watching it flail around onscreen trying to accomplish something is a true chore. With this film, Zemeckis tried to make a love story, a mystery, and a spy thriller at the same time. It's an ambitious cocktail of ideas, and in a different film, things could certainly have turned out differently. But when none of the stories and none of the ideas work in the slighest, your movie is in trouble.

The romance is brutally boring- there's no chemistry, no sexual intrigue, nothing to invest the audience in these two characters. Brad Pitt's Max Vatan is reserved and quiet, and while it initially seems like Zemeckis and Knight will later reveal more compelling elements to Vatan, that never happens. It's hard to blame Pitt since there's just nothing to work with, but he does the film no favors with a performance that feels static and disinterested. Marion Cotillard is basically playing Marion Cotillard in this film, and while she manages to inject a healthy dose of her trademark sultriness, Marianne Beausejour is never as mysterious as she should be. Their romance is basically "Hey, we might die, so why not amirite?" which is not a good basis for an iconic movie love story. The love scene between Pitt and Cotillard in a car during a desert sandstorm is one of the most laughable moments of the year, so awkward, strange, and just miserably ill-conceived. And when the time comes for the tragedy and sadness (including an ending that is baffling, depressing, and shocking all at the same time), you just really don't feel anything for these two. They're both ciphers, and not in a good way.

So if the romance fails, the spy and action movie elements must work, right? Nope. It's almost stunning how poorly directed Allied is, considering Zemeckis' body of work as a whole. Remember, this is the guy who directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Back to the Future, and Forrest Gump, three movies that were revolutionary in their time. He's a talented filmmaker with a keen eye for time and place and a remarkable gift for mixing pop culture and historical fiction into a very entertaining hodgepodge. He drifted away from his wheelhouse in the last decade, focusing more on motion capture work that eventually imploded with Mars Needs Moms in 2011. Zemeckis returned to live-action filmmaking with Flight and The Walk, and on the surface, Allied seems like a film that fits directly in his wheelhouse. I don't know if Zemeckis just lost the movie at some point during production, but every scene of Allied feels uninspired. There's no movement, no energy- just passive, weak camerawork and a total lack of momentum.

Zemeckis does nothing to elevate the film, but Steven Knight deserves a good deal of the blame here as well. Knight, who directed Locke and wrote the screenplay for Eastern Promises, has crafted a story that has no flow and no real point. Not every movie has to be about something, but it helps if there's at least something going on in your movie. Allied feels like a collection of flat, stodgy scenes, accompanied by a variety of tones and some bizarre bursts of life that are totally out of place in the grand scheme of the movie itself. Allied's choppiness is somewhat fascinating at the start, but eventually, you have to find a sense of propulsive momentum in a film like this. That never happens in Allied, and the fact that Knight and Zemeckis have nothing bubbling under the surface from a thematic standpoint makes matters even worse. They had a bunch of ideas and they just threw them on the paper in the hopes that some would stick. Unfortunately, very few do.

Allied is a total misfire from start to finish, a beautiful-looking movie that manages to be one of the most mundane disappointments of the fall season. With the excellent talent involved and the classic style, this movie should have been great, even as a mere nostalgia trip. Instead, it never gets off the ground, sputtering as it tries to get the wheels turning on its plot machinations. In the end, Allied is ultimately an exercise in cinematic futility, a forced, awkward, and messy drama that feels like a major missed opportunity. Maybe I'm being too harsh on a movie that is meant to be pure Hollywood escapism, but the unfortunate truth is that Allied can't muster the strength to be fun or enjoyable in any way. It's exceedingly beautiful and dreadfully lifeless.

THE FINAL GRADE:  D+                                           (4.7/10)

Image Credits: IMDB, Paramount, Coming Soon

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