Allied (2016): WWII Spy Romance and Brad Pitt’s Still Face

Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard in Allied

Written  by Steven Knight and directed by Oscar winning Robert Zemeckis,  Allied is a romantic spy tale set in WWII. Starring the beautiful and talented Marion Cotillard  and the somewhat still-faced Brad Pitt. The story, one of love and betrayal in England during the second “big” war, is well done and entertaining, although perhaps a bit too transparent in places. 

The main problem with Allied is Pitt’s immobile face. Whether the recently divorced male half of “Brangelina” has opted for plastic surgery to erase those signs of character, aka crow’s feet and laugh lines or gone the botox and collagen route to plump out and freeze his features is unclear.

What is certain is that there is no real physical chemistry between Pitt and his romantic lead. To her credit, Collitard evokes enough emotion to almost make up the lack of response from Pitt, but it is not enough.

To be fair, cinematic acting is on the “down-low,” in other words; the best acting is down played and low key. However, the complete lack of expression on Pitt’s face removes any nuances of romantic interest. In fact, the actor has no facial reaction to anything.

Because of this lack of reaction, it seems that perhaps Pitt has opted for botox, which freezes the face and done some plumping up with collagen. While he looks years younger, it has hurt his performance in this instance. The end result is a one-sided love affair, with Cotillard convincing the audience that as a suspected double-agent, she really has given it all up for Pitt (Wing Commander Vatan).

While the film can be seen as a variation on Mr & Mrs Smith, without the humor, or indeed, the former Mrs. Pitt,  it was entertaining enough that I never found myself looking for the old English electric sockets during the domestic scenes.

(I did, however, find myself noting that the set designers made sure that every thing was glossed, with multiple layers, including the older stair post seen in several scenes.)

There are some gaffes, such as having a party during the Blitz with all the window shades wide open and there were other black out conditions that were ignored, but overall things moved along well enough that these moments did not distract too much.

The biggest problem with Allied is the film’s male lead. Pitt could almost be sleepwalking through his role and it is this, combined with that immovable face, that lets the film and his co-star Cotillard down badly.

From the very start of the film I spent more time on wondering what was going on with Pitt’s features, and their lack of movement and previously spotted lines and creases, than the plot or the storyline. This preoccupation almost kept me from noticing the relevancy of the Casablanca storyline.

There are nice touches in the film. Pitt’s character reads a Graham Greene novel in one of the scenes, where he has to plant evidence to convict his wife, and it is a clever addition to the film. Greene was a brilliant writer who turned out a number of spy stories; each one a cracking tale, and this nod and wink was well done.

Overall, Allied is a 4 star film. Despite Pitt’s painfully obvious lack of emotion, the tale entertains. Cotillard convinces, as does Jared Harris, but the main male protagonist badly lets the side down here.

The film is available on DVD and can be streamed via the major platforms on the internet. Have a look at the trailer below:

The Handmaiden (2016): Simmering Sex and Dirty Books (Review)

Publicity still from The Handmaiden

Directed by critic favorite Chan-wook Park, The Handmaiden (inspired by Sarah Waters‘ depiction of Victorian England in her book “Fingersmith”) is, for all intents and purposes, a “bodice ripper.” In other words there is a good amount of simmering sex and a lot of dirty books.

Updated to fit the time frame of Japan’s occupation of Korea, it features a beautiful pair of women who share an unhappy past. Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim) has a lot of money and is orphaned. She lives with her uncle who has a large library of pornographic books that he forces her to read to an appreciative audience. 

Jun-su (Tae-ri Kim), a young pickpocket – whose male mentor is a thief of the highest order – becomes Hideko’s handmaiden. The mentor becomes Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) and he “tricks” Hideko into marrying him.  

But all is not as it seems in this film. The uncle (Jin-woong Jowho forces Hideko to read porn to his paying guests may be the only character who flies his true flag’s colours. His only real artifice, if it can be called that, is to affect Japanese ways.

It is this affectation that allows the “Count” access to the man and Fujiwara’s pretending to be Japanese royalty is both his plan and downfall. It could be said that Fujiwara’s intentions are also pretty clear, he is like the uncle in this respect…

Hideko pretends to be an innocent in the ways of love and sex and Jun-su, of course, pretends to be a handmaid versus a thief. The latter’s instructions are to aid Count Fujiwara in his quest to bed and wed Lady Hideko.

Through the course of the film, which runs in three parts like the source novel, we are treated to the two women falling in love and some “soft porn” depictions of sex. We also learn that Hideko is not the wallflower that Jun-su thinks she is and that the reader of books is desperate to escape her uncle’s iron rule.

The film looks spectacular, even without all the lovingly lit and framed female nudity, and the set pieces, along with the costumes, help to bring the film’s setting to life.  The story, broken into three parts, reveals what is going on behind the scenes, although the final act really wraps things up.

Behind all the subterfuge and the nefarious doings of various characters, the film really is a romance. It chronicles, at the start, the two women and their gradual awareness of each other. What starts as an infatuation graduates to full sexual congress and they bond completely before the “Count” ever arrives.

We learn of Jun-su’s (whose name is changed to Sook-Hee when she starts work at the house) background and what makes the young woman tick.  Leaving out the lovemaking (there is not a huge amount anyway) the romance between the two women takes second place to the mystery of who is really doing what.

In many ways this feels like a combination of Stoker with a touch of “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.” For those who never heard of the book, it was a sensation “back in the day” as a story regaling the reader of a “lady” who fancied a bit of “rough.” A lot. In this particular tale, the “rough” is a young pickpocket and not a stablehand. (This really is down to the author of “Fingersmith” however and not Park Chan-wook.)

The film is a long one, clocking in at two hours and 24 minutes.  It does not, however, feel long. The story is interesting enough that it keeps the attention transfixed on the events in each of the three parts, or acts, as  presented.

The Handmaiden is a full 5 star treat and it is available on Amazon Prime, for free or can be rented/streamed if one is not a Prime customer. Head over and catch this one, if you can live with sub-titles, and enjoy this mystery/romance.

 

Passengers (2016): Lost and Found in Space (Review)

Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in Passengers

Written by Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Doctor Strange) and directed by Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game, Headhunters), Passengers is a spectacular offering that runs the gamut from a Robinson Crusoe theme to one of heartwarming romance. In-between these two scenarios the film offers some brilliant action and soul searching moments. 

Chris Pratt is Jim Preston is the “everyman” engineer who wakes 90 years early because of the spaceship hitting a very large meteor. His existence is lonely, frustrating and desperate. In the year he faces life on his own, he finds Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence) and after an agonizing time of indecision, opts to wake the writer up early. 

Michael Sheen is Arthur, the ship’s robotic bartender. (A clear nod and wink to the film Arthur which was  about an alcoholic millionaire played first by Dudley Moore and later by Russell Brand.) The three spend their days interacting until another person wakes early; Gus Mancuso (Laurence Fishburne). 

Gus, the only crew member to wake early, tries to find out what is wrong with the ship and works to fix it.

Passengers skillfully and deftly moves between its four acts and allows us the opportunity to really care for each character as they appear. Preston grabs our sympathy from the very start and later, when he and Aurora bond we feel for each person in this unlikely romance.

As the characters grow and change the atmosphere melds into one of unease as things go on in the background.  Each shift in the tale increases our interest in the people and their fate.

Each actor in the film knocks it out of the park. Fishburne is brilliant as the last minute guest. The casting of the actor must have been a homage to his doomed captain from the 1997 space film Event Horizon

Michael Sheen manages to not only shine as the android bartender who seamlessly blends in with the only two passengers on board but he also offers a delightfully odd air throughout the film. His drink and wisdom dispensing robot, with those overly pink lips, comes dangerously close to stealing every scene he is in.

Passengers offers up moments that feel like loving homages to scenarios in other films. Basketball, from Prometheus, the robotic cleaners; a nod to Silent Running, and other nods and winks are there for the movie fanatic to pick out at their leisure.

Tyldum, who specializes in the offbeat tale, manages to put everything together perfectly. The film looks brilliant and epic. The sets are spectacular while the editing and lighting are absolutely spot on.

This is a visual treat that may rely too heavily on a few cliches in order to offer up a pleasing payoff. Overall the film entertains, pleases and thrills so the manner of delivery does not, in the end, matter.

Rather interestingly, Andy Garcia has a cameo as the ship’s captain and his silent presence is somewhat puzzling although welcome. One can only assume that whatever lines the actor may have had wound up in the cutting room floor.

At almost two and a half hours long, the film could have drug in places but Tyldum keeps things interesting and the pace, while not too fast, works to keep the interest of the viewer at a constant rate.

This is another 5 star film. It could have suffered a half star loss, just for that “Hollywood” ending, but because we care about the characters there really was no other way for the film to finish.

Passengers is available on a number of platforms, i.e. Amazon, i-Tunes, et al and should be viewed immediately if not sooner.

The Story of 90 Coins (2015): Sheer Perfection (Review) [Update]

Zhuang Zhiqi as Chen Wen

[Update] We have included a link to the film on Vimeo and the film’s Facebook page at the end of this review.

Every once in a great while someone will create something that is sheer perfection. An effort that marries concise storytelling with an unsurpassed beauty that speaks to the romantic heart beating in our chests. The Story of 90 Coins, helmed by first time director Michael Wong and starring a cast of relative unknowns is nigh on perfect.

Running just over nine minutes, the short film tells the story of Wang Yuyang (Dongjun Han) and Chen Wen (Zhuang Zhiqi) and, later, peripherally Andre (Jose Acosta) who intrudes on the couple’s relationship.

The film starts with Wang trying to convince a hesitant Chen Wen of his love. She resists a proposal by saying she does not feel the same way. He then suggests a 90 day period in which he proves his love to her. Chen Wen agrees.

Each day, YuYang gives his love a coin. At the end of 90 days, he says,  if she accepts him he will use the money to purchase their marriage certificate.  If she does not choose him, Wang says,  they can buy a few drinks where they first met and never see each other again.

Chen Wen narrates the 90 day process, where Wang gives her a “gift wrapped” coin every single day. She relates that they became a couple almost unconsciously. They do not,  however, marry as originally planned by YuYang, she is not ready just yet.

Enter the presence of Andre, a fashion designer who has his own designs on Chen Wen. Wang is concerned and jealous of this hopeful suitor. This leads to a break in relations and Chen Wen decides that perhaps Wang is not the soulmate she agreed to marry.

As she prepares to leave, she learns that inside each carefully wrapped coin is a love letter from YuYang. We are treated to a montage of funny, loving and touching moments that show just how special that 90 day time period really was.

In his first time in the director’s chair, Michael Wong has hit, in sports parlance, a home run. The Story of 90 Coins takes us through a plethora of emotions all in just over nine minutes.

The tale, and the actors who tell it, takes us back to that  one true love we all worked so hard to keep. We feel the euphoria of young love, the pain of breaking up and the bitter regret that follows.

Written by Bai Xuedan the short film is a thing of beauty. Cinematographer Liwei Jian presents each frame flawlessly. The trio of this intimate cast come across as gorgeously young creatures that we fall in love with. Even the interloper Andre is seen as an unbelievably attractive threat to Wang’s relationship with Chen Wen.

The editing is perfect and the ending, which according to the trivia found on IMDb was not as planned, leaves us forlorn and pinning for what we may never have.

At its very core, Wong’s romantic drama can be seen as an intricate take on the old bon mot of “women never knowing what they want until it’s gone.” Michael gives us a punchline presented so beautifully that we might just miss the implications at first glance.

The very power of this film to make us weep, both for joy at young love and for the loss of it later on, is a testament to the talent of this new director.

Out of the 5 star scale used by Mike’s Film Talk to score films, The Story of 90 Coins is a clear 6. Concise, stunning and poignant, this film does it all. With 11 festival awards and a further six nominations this is a brilliant first time effort. We cannot wait to see more from Michael Wong.

For more information about the film head on over to the official Facebook page. You can watch the film here:

The Story of 90 Coins from Michael Wong on Vimeo.

Shadowhunters: Parabatai Lost – Jace and Alec (Recap/Review)

 DOMINIC SHERWOOD, ALISHA WAINWRIGHT

Shadowhunters “Parabatai Lost” picks up after last week’s escape from Valentine’s boat. Clary is missing from the shore, but Jace and the dead body of Gretel are laying beside the water. Jace has lost his stele.

A jogger believes Jace to be responsible and shouts for someone to call 911.

Jace runs off and ends up in a werewolf bar. Maia recognizes Jace and after allowing him to use the bar’s phone, lets the other wolves in the bar attack him  for killing Gretel.

Jace escapes and Maia follows the shadowhunter. He falls and a mundane calls 911 for the wounded young man.  Simon wakes to find that he has received 30 calls from his worried mother. He calls off his search for Camille to see his mom.

Raphael is not pleased at this and tells Simon that not only will he outlive his mother, but he will soon forget her. The new vampire goes to see his mother only to find that she has apparently been drinking. She is also missing. He panics and calls Clary for help.

At the Institute Magnus is failing to bring Alec back from his parabatai search. His partner is semi conscious and Magnus’ magic is not working apart from sustaining the fallen shadowhunter.

Aldertree refuses to allow Alec to leave the Institute and Izzy, along with Magnus, spirit him out leaving Raj in his place. The new leader of the Institute is furious but allows Izzy to make a deal to keep Alec and Jace alive.

Luke and Maia find Jace at the hospital. Maia turns to attack the shadowhunter and Jocelyn manages to get him out of harm’s way before the werewolf can harm him. Jace rushes to help Alec but is stopped by Maia and her little pack.

Luke, Clary and Izzy step in and Luke backs the pack down.  Jace then tries to bond with his parabatai at Magnus’s. At first it does not work, but at the last moment Alec returns from the limbo he was trapped in.

The second  that Alec recovers Aldertree and his follows arrive and take Jace captive. The new leader charges him with treason against The Clave.

Throughout the episode, there are flashbacks that show a younger Alec and Jace bonding and then undertaking the parabatai ceremony.  It serves as an excellent reminder that Alec has loved Jace since they were kids.

Alec loves Jace so much that he tries to stop the parabatai bond from happening. It is a young Izzy who convinces him to continue with the ritual.

Meanwhile, Simon starts to tell his mother the truth, that he is a vampire, after Clary persuades him to. When he finds Elaine, Raphael has beaten him to the punch and lied. Claiming to be Simon’s band manager, he tells the woman that they have been on tour.

Raphael makes a veiled threat, indicating that he will harm Elaine if Simon does not find Camille.

This season sees the former leader of the vampires out of sight but definitely not out of mind. Camille’s presence looms large in the verse as she builds an army to fight the shadowhunters.

Kudos to the writers and Harry Shum Jr. for that touching moment where a desperate Magnus tries that fairytale kiss to bring Alec back. It was tenderly done and spoke volumes of his love for the younger shadowhunter.

Shadowhunters airs Mondays on Freeform. Tune in and see what will happen to Jace now that the Institute have him.

Cast:

 

Guest starring Alisha Wainwright as Maia Washington, Leonidas Castrounis as young Alec, Alex Eling as teen Alec, Christina Cox as Elaine Lewis and Joanne Jansen as Gretel.