★★★ / ★★★★
Robert Zemeckis’ “Allied” wears the spirit of a 1940s picture, so beautifully detailed in nearly every aspect. With its ability and willingness to unfold slowly, it dares us to appreciate the minutiae, from the material of clothing and how it matches with or contrasts against walls or sides of buildings to the subtle interior changes a character goes through upon learning information that might lead to a reassessment of a relationship. Here is a film that has an intriguing story to tell where no easy solution is offered. Had screenwriter Steven Knight been less ambitious, it would have turned out to be just another spy thriller and a hunt for a mole.
Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard portray an intelligence officer and a French Resistance fighter in World War II, Max Vatan and Marianne Beauséjour, who are assigned in Casablanca to assassinate a Nazi ambassador. It is apparent that the two experienced dramatic performers enjoy their roles for they infuse a high level of energy behind every body language and between exchange of words. And coating their enthusiasm for the roles is a frisky elegance, so joyous to watch and think about because these are characters who at times do not say exactly what they mean. They come across as real individuals who just so happen to belong in a world of secrets and lies where differences could mean life or death.
The first half of the film comes across as an extended exposition. Although it may bother or annoy less patient viewers who crave action from the get-go, I was completely enraptured by its rhythm, long silences, and knowing glances. The material provides a realistic situation of how people may act around one another when handling a top-secret government assignment. Equally important during this hypnotic first hour, we get to a chance to ascertain who is the better tactician depending on the occasion. Max and Marianne’s respective approaches to complete a task differ greatly sometimes. And through their differences we recognize specific reasons why are attracted to one another eventually.
Although still intriguing, the second half is less strong by comparison. With the story moving away from exotic Casablanca to London, the locales are not as exciting visually. Perhaps the intention is to shift our focus from environment to increasing internal struggles, particularly of Max receiving news that his wife is possibly a German spy, but there is a way to pull off such a strategy. One way is perhaps to amplify the human drama. Instead, the dramatic core, while able to offer surprising details at times with its elegant screenplay, it remains as subtle as a flickering ember rather than a full-on blaze.
The suspense is embedded in how much we have grown to care for the characters. This is a challenge because we go in with the assumption that it is going to trick us somehow, or try to at the very least, since, after all, it is an espionage picture. But because those behind and in front of the camera choose to treat the material seriously and with respect, genuinely committing to a sub-genre that is not foreign to a spice of melodrama, it works somehow. Those who jump in with an open mind will be pleasantly surprised.
Christmas Carol, A (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
Ebenezer Scrooge (voiced by Jim Carrey) is an old man who holds onto his money so tightly, he eventually gets a reputation of being a parsimonious grouch around town. Christmas disgusts him because the very idea of people sharing food, exchanging good words, and being easy with money seem so foolish and false. Recognizing that Scrooge needs to change, Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman), Ebenezer’s deceased business partner, pays him a visit and announces that three ghosts— The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future—are going to show him why he needs to change his outlook on life and the way he treats others.
Directed and written for the screen by Robert Zemeckis, “A Christmas Carol” is a lively animated film that proudly takes some liberty in diverting from Charles Dickens’ classic novel. While others might criticize or dismiss the style of animation as “creepy” due to the characters’ blank and bug-like eyes, I enjoyed its artistry and level of detail.
I liked seeing the many wrinkles on Scrooge’s hand and face. By highlighting his physicality, the minutiae force us to look a little bit closer, especially on his facial expressions when another character says, does, or shows him something that pushes him to become emotional. It gives us a chance to look closely at the protagonist prior to his inevitable change of heart. For the record, I did not care if the animated humans looked convincing. (I did not they think were.) What matters is how well the story is interpreted, if its strengths overshadow its weaknesses, and if it entertains.
The film takes risks when it comes to embracing the scarier elements. For example, prior to Marley’s appearance, Scrooge is shown cowering in his chair when he hears strange noises in the other room. There is a dance between silence and a suspenseful score. I enjoyed the way the film takes its time to milk every emotion that Scrooge experiences: uncertainty, curiosity, and fear. When he hears creaking noises, he does not simply rush to the door and slam it close. His stubborn personality dominates even when his instinct urges him that something is very wrong.
Furthermore, there are some exciting and beautifully rendered chase sequences between The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, a shadow in the shape of the Grim Reaper, and Scrooge. While the scarier elements can potentially force younger kids to want to look away or leave the room, they are effective and necessary because the main character’s intractability needs to be shaken out of him.
However, the picture’s enthusiasm in featuring what it can do with its style of animation is not always for the better. There are a handful of scenes when it takes on a little too much like when Marley leaves and Scrooge sees a lot of suffering translucent green ghosts outside his window. Marley’s appearance and exit are executed just right but adding other ghosts just because they are pretty feels like an overindulgence. This problem persists in scenes where Scrooge must interact with the three ghosts. Instead of following a formula that works sans flashiness, the picture occasionally goes off on tangents in terms of its visual effects and I wondered when it was going to get back to simply telling a story.
“A Christmas Carol” is an optimistic exercise of an evolving technology. Since it offers some good humor, the more sensitive moments are believable. It just needs to pull back when necessary so the magic it wishes to show does not lose its power.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Having led ten flights in just three days, some might say that Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is not in the best of shape to fly a plane. Add him having consumed high levels of alcohol and cocaine the night prior to flying an airliner from Atlanta to Orlando the next day through a portentous rainclouds, some would say that not only does he choose to be irresponsible, his behavior is downright criminal.
But SouthJet Flight 227 is meant to crash due to a faulty machinery. Capt. Whitaker just happens to get on that plane. Through intense aircraft acrobatics, he manages to minimize the casualties onboard by landing the plane onto an open field. But there is a problem: a tragedy of this magnitude has the National Transportation Safety Board investigating what went wrong, beginning with the crew’s blood samples. Someone is responsible.
Written by John Gatins and directed by Robert Zemeckis, “Flight” is superficially about one man’s addiction to alcohol and how it consumes his life from the inside out. Although a topic that has been taken under a microscope many times before, the material is elevated by a carefully measured lead performance in front of the camera as well as ace talent from behind the lens. It paints a scary portrait of the beast in the bottle that takes control of the mind without relying on typical “down in the dumps” scenarios. That is a feat worth noting.
Whitaker is a man of pride who is deeply hurt that his ex-wife and son want nothing to do with him other than times when they are in need of money. Right from the opening scene, Washington tunes into the pain of his character through anger. But not just anger. Anger with a thin layer of regret and yearning to at least have some kind of connection, one that is rewarding, with his family. I liked the way Washington pulls himself back from lashing out completely at his former wife on the other line because it communicates clearly that Whip values her even though she talks to him like he is less than nothing. It is amazing how we can feel their history when we do not even lay eyes on the two of them sharing a space until much later on in the picture. That is telling of a great script.
We can take the gymnastics that the plane goes through as an example of the director’s level of control. Logically, flying the plane upside down in order prevent it from losing altitude requires a leap of faith. I’m not sure that jet airliners are designed to function that way. However, we cannot help but buy into it completely because Zemeckis pays close attention to the details of a typical flight: stewardesses making announcements while most passengers do not pay attention, people walking about on board, and the stresses on people’s faces when a plane goes through convulsions that can attributed to rough clouds. We also get detailed shots of what happens in the cockpit like what is being relayed between pilots and technicians at the command center. It is an isolated environment and since the elements are in place to align, when a jolt is applied, our eyes are glued on the images. We are thrilled, we are horrified and bemused, and we demand how it will all turn out.
Many people are convinced that the alcoholism defines the picture. I thought about it and I’m not convinced. I think the void that Whitaker has nurtured from within is the spotlight. Yes, we see him drink a whole lot, but why is it that he drinks? Because he wishes to fill in that emptiness. The alcohol and the drugs just happen to be there, the alcohol being most available. There is a reason behind someone being an alcoholic. Look closely during the denouement. The attention is on the person who is making a choice.
Cast Away (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) was very dedicated to his job. As a FedEx engineer, time was very important to him. In fact, we met him while delivering a speech to his workers in Russia. Everything had to be carefully planned because he was on high demand. Even his pager was busy during Christmas, a short amount of time that was supposed to be reserved for his girlfriend, Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt), and her family. But when Chuck’s plane plunged into the ocean, he not only learned what it meant to survive sans technology in an undiscovered island, but how it was like to be enslaved by time, the uncontrollable element that he thought he had control over. “Cast Away,” directed by Robert Zemeckis, was a meditative film because the majority of its running time was dedicated to Chuck attempting to adapt to his new environment. His situation was scary, but there was something amusing with the way he sloppily tried to catch fish, broke coconuts by bashing them against a rock, and foolishly made his way toward a light source with nothing but a paddle and a yellow floatie. Admittedly, by watching him struggle, I had a laugh to myself because I knew I probably wouldn’t survive in an uninhabited island even for a week, let alone four years. What made the film’s core fascinating was Hanks’ layered performance. My favorite scene wasn’t Chuck having conversations with Wilson, his volleyball companion, or the moment he successfully made fire. It was when he learned how to obtain water using a leaf. During that shot, the camera was focused on the plant. But Hanks’ expression was priceless. There was utter joy drawn all over his face, not just in his smile, but down to the wrinkles on his forehead and the excitement contained in his body language. It was like watching a child figuring out how a specific tool worked for the first time. The decision to jump four years into the future was risky but necessary. It was necessary because the subsequent scenes provided a stark contrast between how he was like a few days upon his arrival on the island and how he became an effective hunter, someone who used his hands, not solely his commanding voice and busy pager, to survive. It was risky because Hanks had to look different. I loved that the filmmakers didn’t rely on just Hanks’ hair to convince us that there was a significant passing of time. In the beginning, Chuck looked a bit pudgy. His obvious weight loss after the “Four Years Later” message was surprising. Written by William Broyles Jr., “Cast Away” was not just a story of a man who was stuck in an island. It was moving because of the lessons he learned involving how to live a more meaningful life. Jobs, even careers, come and go. Being laid off or getting fired, we learn to get over such things. But the feeling of losing the people we love is an entirely different matter. The pain, though we learn of ways to hide them, is deeper and permanent.
What Lies Beneath (2000)
★★★ / ★★★★
After Claire (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Norman (Harrison Ford) dropped their daughter (Katharine Towne) off to college, strange things started to occur in their lakeside Vermont home. After hearing her neighbor (Miranda Otto) cry while tending the garden and the woman suddenly disappeared the next day, Claire was convinced that the wife was murdered by her husband (James Remar). Claire concluded that she was being haunted by the wife’s ghost. But was there really a ghost or was it simply that were we watching a woman with a fractured mind? After all, there were some memories she didn’t have access to because she had been involved in a major car accident a year before. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, “White Lies Beneath” had a very suspenseful first half. The camera was almost always fixated on Claire as she moved about the house. We saw the story through her eyes so every time she turned a corner and someone (or something) happened to be there (or worse, when we saw some weird happenings behind her through a mirror), we, like her, couldn’t help but react. The scares were earned. There were some eerie scenes such as when the dog wouldn’t go into the water to fetch his favorite toy and when Claire decided to spy on the man of the house next door in order to gather some sort of evidence that he killed his wife. The scene with the Ouija board was also a stand-out because the characters acknowledged the ridiculousness of the situation. It was funny, but it generated uneasy laughs because perhaps there really was a ghost. Sadly, the second half was convoluted. Cheap false alarms were abound and the explanation regarding the supernatural left something more to be desired. I also had a big problem with Ford’s acting. When he expressed his many frustrations regarding his wife’s obsession, I felt like I was watching a play. Ford’s tendency to overact did not complement Pfeiffer’s more natural approach despite the fact that she felt like she was dealing with the paranormal. Thankfully, the movie was saved by the truly scary bathtub scene in which the paralyzed Claire awaited the water to rise until she could no longer breathe. The silence was menacing. We could hear every drop of water and feel Claire’s determination to survive. “What Lies Beneath” was eviscerated by critics upon its release. It may have its weak points but I stand by the picture because of its more classic approach to the scares and references to Alfred Hitchcock’s repertoire. Compared to most horror pictures of the mid- to late 2000s, which were mostly uninspired, this movie was able to deliver good scares without relying on blood.