As a self-professed cinephile, I try to be a student of film. Admittedly I’m not as well versed in the finer points of film history and avant-garde genres as some others, though I pride myself on at least knowing the masters, from Kurosawa to Kubrick. Moreover, I try to view the classics such as Citizen Kane and Casablanca (I enjoyed the latter more than the former). The films of yesteryear give a glimpse of the glamor of Old Hollywood, replete with dashing leading men and captivating leading women. Allied harkens back to that golden era in its stars Brad Pitt (The Big Short) and Marion Cotillard (Macbeth), two spies who fall in love amidst the danger and turmoil of World War II.

Pitt stars as intelligence officer Max Vatan, whom we first meet parachuting into the middle of the Moroccan desert. Cotillard features as spy Marianne Beausejour, Max’s mission cohort who has been laying the groundwork for his arrival. Posing as husband and wife although only having just met, I was enchanted by the delicate dance between characters, Marianne taking the lead as a compliant Max deferred to her expertise. Having to play the role of lovers (of course) leads to real feelings between Max and Marianne, but their focus is razor sharp – and in one scene Max reminds the audience that even though he is maintaining an outward charade, he cannot afford to let his guard down, as any momentary lapse in judgment could not only cost him the mission, but their lives.

It’s tempting to glance at this film and compare it to Mr. & Mrs. Smith, another film in which Pitt and his female co-star are featured as married spies. That would be a mistake, as any comparisons are superficial. Allied is a far superior film, though to be fair both movies have their place. Not purely a love story, Allied should appeal to an array of viewers with its air of romance and intrigue. Writer Steven Knight (Burnt, Locke) punctuates the story with suspense and danger, equal parts action and love story. Pitt and Cotillard’s chemistry is undeniable, both organic and intentional. Pitt hasn’t been this magnetic on screen in years, and veteran director Robert Zemeckis (Flight) depicted every detail beautifully, effectively capturing every passionate, dangerous moment between the two sizzling leads. In one unforgettable scene Max and Marianne make love in the middle of a sandstorm, the swirling sands rocking their car to and fro as they reach their pique within.

I can’t find a single fault with Allied, a well-acted, well-written, beautiful film with something for everyone: action, suspense, love, and mystery. Stylish and atmospheric, it was reminiscent of a bygone era but will undoubtedly appeal to contemporary audiences. This was one of the better films I’ve seen in 2016. Grade: A.


2 Guns

What do movies and sports have in common?  Match-ups.  It’s all about the match-ups baby.  Some cinematic pairings just get us excited, like the prospect of Mark Wahlberg (Pain & Gain) and Denzel Washington (Flight).  Washington is a living legend, and Wahlberg has cemented his place in modern cinema with critically acclaimed turns in films such as The Fighter and The Departed, for which he received Oscar nominations.  The action comedy is on the rise lately, and 2 Guns tantalized moviegoers with the rare opportunity to see Washington bring levity to a performance.  Unfortunately, even charismatic leading men can’t save a goofy script.

Washington and Wahlberg are Bobby Trench and Michael Stigman (Stig), respectively.  When we meet the pair, they are hatching a plot to rob a small bank to swindle a drug lord named Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos) out of his holdings.  They each have distinct reasons for wanting to pull this caper, but each is keeping the real reason a secret.  At first blush we think these two are criminals, after all who else would be robbing a bank?  In actuality they are both “undercover” in their own way, with Bobby being a DEA agent and Stig having firsthand experience with naval intelligence, despite the appearance of being a career criminal.

As each plays fast and loose with the law, the viewer is left wondering if our protagonists are corrupt or just deep undercover.  Bobby tries to convince fellow agent Deb (Paula Patton, Mission:Impossible – Ghost Protocol) that the robbery will serve as a way to nab Papi, while Stig is beholden to corrupt superior officers (James Marsden, Straw Dogs) within the Navy.  Their plan goes awry when they find out Papi’s bank vault yields a much larger heist than expected.  Not only do they need to ascertain the origin of the surplus money, they must ward off several factions who will stop at nothing to retrieve it.  Complicating matters is the fact that Bobby and Stig can’t really trust each other after having lied about their true identities.

I’ll start with the positive.  Washington and Wahlberg have tons of chemistry and good comedic timing.  I don’t have an issue with their performances at all; my issue is with the source material.  The storyline was simply foolish and muddled, and much of the characters behavior was far-fetched.  The screenplay marks the big screen debut for writer Blake Masters, who has previously worked in television.  Maybe his next effort will be more successful, although 2 Guns appears poised to have a solid opening weekend.  Nevertheless, it takes more than two talented leading men to make a successful movie, even if the pairing looks like a “slam dunk.”  Even a dynamic duo like Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro aren’t a sure-fire success if the script is wanting (see Righteous Kill).  If those two legends can team up for a dud, no tandem is above reproach.  The rest of the cast did little to bolster the movie, and it will not be remembered as a summer standout.  I’m not saying it was horrible, just very mediocre – in spite of its two stars.  Grade: C

This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission


The Internship

Movies make us laugh, they make us cry, and they make us angry.  But every now and then a movie surprises us by inspiring an unexpected emotion. We expect to laugh at comedies, but occasionally one touches us in a special way.  It may sound odd, but that’s exactly how I felt about The Internship, a comedy that was both hilarious and heart-warming.

Vince Vaughn (The Watch) and Owen Wilson (The Big Year) team up for the first time since 2005’s Wedding Crashers, starring as Billy and Nick, two best friends and salesmen whose time has passed.  When they attempt to close a big account, they learn they their company is folding.  Their boss (John Goodman, Flight) tells them that they have been rendered obsolete in a changing work environment.  Faced with the limitations of their age, Billy and Nick are left reeling at the prospect of unemployment.

Nick thinks he’ll be stuck selling mattresses for his sister’s boyfriend (Will Ferrell, The Campaign) until Billy comes up with the idea for their next gig.  How often do you Google something?  It’s second nature for me, as it is for many people.  While Googling job possibilities, Billy found himself staring at the computer screen until it hits him.  Why not work at Google?  After fudging a few details on their resumes, Billy lands the pair an interview.  Their lack of traditional IT knowledge is painfully obvious, but the two manage to impress the hiring panel with their unconventional approach.

After beating the odds and landing the internship, the guys arrive in Silicon Valley.  Google’s campus looks like an adult theme park, and the employees are positively delighted to be working there.  Quirky inventions abound, and it looks like the place where creative ideas are birthed.  Billy and Nick are out of their depth, surrounded by college students with high IQs and low social skills.  The interns are divided into teams, and only one team will be announced as winner at the program’s conclusion.  Cementing their ‘reject’ status, Billy and Nick are left with the other undesirables to form a team comprised of the leftovers who weren’t chosen.

Despite their shortcomings, Billy and Nick are natural leaders and bring a sense of realness to their privileged, awkward teammates.  Neha (Tiya Sircar) is surprisingly sassy and outgoing, Yo-Yo is tightly wound thanks to a domineering mother, and Stuart keeps his eyes glued to a smartphone.  Their fearless leader is Lyle, a baby-faced twenty-something whose faux ‘cool guy’ posturing makes him about as hot as a pair of footie pajamas.  The teams must compete in a series of challenges, from creating an app to manning phones in Google’s call center.  In addition to impressing the bosses, the team has to contend with Graham (Max Minghella, The Ides of March), a pretentious douchebag and rival intern.  Every movie needs a villain, and Graham is the fly in the ointment.  Can Billy and Nick rise to the top amidst younger, stiffer competition, or are they severely out of their league?

The Internship was a very enjoyable movie, because it was a story most of us can relate to.  Anyone who’s ever felt stuck in the “rat-race” of life or been unhappy at a BS job will understand Billy and Nick’s frustration.  The movie was funny throughout, and the cameo appearances (Ferrell and Goodman) were well timed and didn’t feel forced.  Besides the laughs there were tender moments as well, particularly as Vince Vaughn’s character played concerned big brother and bonded with the younger interns.  I didn’t expect any heart-warming moments, but surprisingly it all blended perfectly.  The corporate sponsorship of the movie is obvious, but that was unavoidable given the plot.  June looks to be a funny month at the box office, and The Internship is a nice way to get things started.  Grade: A.

This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.

Star Trek Into Darkness

It can be a risky move to reboot an old television franchise.  Occasionally the magic of the original show gets lost in translation when updated.  Sometimes it works (Mission: Impossible, Charlie’s Angels) and sometimes it doesn’t (Dukes of Hazzard).  2009’s Star Trek is another example of a successful TV reboot.  It was fairly entertaining and did pretty well at the box office, so of course Paramount Studios went back to the well again; it’s only right.

Star Trek Into Darkness finds the cocky young James T. Kirk (Chris Pine, This Means War) back at Starfleet as Captain of the Enterprise.  The movie opens with Kirk and company on a recon mission on a foreign planet.  The natives are “uncivilized,” and the Enterprise has a directive to keep its presence undetected.  There is a volcano on the planet, threatening to erupt and destroy everyone on it, unless Spock can set off a device to prevent it.  Spock plants the device, but is unable to escape the scorching lava.  The only way for Kirk to save Spock is to disobey the directive and save him with the Enterprise, rescuing him from the volcano’s peak.  Spock is emotionless about his impending doom, and he doesn’t mind sacrificing himself to execute the mission.  Kirk is a wild card, and he doesn’t mind breaking the rules, even if it’s a Starfleet directive.  He rescues Spock, and in doing so exposes the highly advanced interplanetary spacecraft to a people who haven’t even invented the wheel yet.

This act of defiance leads to Kirk’s demotion and his ordered return to the Academy, courtesy of his superior officer and mentor Commander Pike (Bruce Greenwood, Flight).  His exile is short-lived though, as emergencies call for reinstatement to the Enterprise.  An act of British terrorism at a Starfleet Records location implicates a treasonous officer named John Harrison.  Harrison takes it a step further with an attack on Starfleet, and now the crew must hunt him down and make him pay.  Their quest to apprehend him takes them throughout the galaxy, to the forbidden planet of Kronos – a planet they dare not visit, as tension with the Klingons is at an all-time high.  The remainder of the movie centers around the battle with Harrison, who is a much greater foe than Kirk and Company anticipated.

JJ Abrams (Super 8) has done it again.  Star Trek Into Darkness was everything you’d want in a summer blockbuster: non-stop action and entertainment, and cool special effects.  I’m starting to hate the entire concept of 3D, because 90% of the movies that are released with this “special feature” are not enhanced by it at all.  The difference is negligible, and audiences should smarten up and stop falling for the trick.  Studios are shameful with this blatant money-grab.  I digress.  Despite the useless 3D aspect, I have no real criticism of the movie.  The plot made sense and it was easy to understand.  I don’t want a plot that’s completely dumbed down, but give audiences something they can wrap their heads around.  I want the plot to make sense; I don’t just want to be entertained by stuff blowing up, although that works for me too.  Chris Pine is a likable leading man, and he’s ably shouldered the load in the few performances I’ve seen from him.  Abrams brought an emotional backstory to the movie, adding an unexpected heft to the movie’s tone.  With him at the helm, Star Trek should be a summer franchise to watch for a few years to come.  Grade: A

Iron Man 3

It’s time for the summer movies to start rolling in, the popcorn fare that entertains us during those dog days.  Iron Man 3, the third installment in Marvel’s popular franchise, kicks off what should be a promising season for super hero movies.  This time around we find Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) recuperating from the otherworldly showdown that capped off last year’s Avengers.  He is physically fine, but his shaken mental state leaves him in a reflective mood.

The movie opens with Tony thinking back to a chance encounter on New Year’s Eve 1999.  After attending a glamorous party with then girlfriend Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall, The Town), Tony runs into a scientist, a developer named Aldrich Killian, who wants to discuss some exciting new ideas for his technology company.  Aldrich (Guy Pearce, Prometheus) appears nerdy and disheveled, not the kind of person who leaves an impression.  Tony snubs the man, unwittingly setting him on a course of scornful retaliation.

Fast-forward to the present day, and Aldrich has reinvented himself.  Gone is the meek intellectual who could barely a muster a sentence. With a new hairdo and some much-needed dental work, he is confident and bold.  His intentions have grown more nefarious since Tony spurned him all those years ago.  He has created Extremis, a chemical that could restore limbs to maimed soldiers returning home from war.

Unfortunately, Extremis can have terrible side effects, including spontaneous combustion, which would sort of defeat the purpose of regenerating a lost limb, wouldn’t it?  These spontaneous explosions are related to a series of terror attacks that have been charged to a radical extremist known as “The Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley, Hugo).  His relationship with Aldrich isn’t immediately clear, but the pair is up to something fishy.  When Aldrich kidnaps the president in a misguided attempt to further their twisted terrorist agenda, Tony and his buddy Colonel James Rhodes (War Machine aka Iron Patriot) (Don Cheadle, Flight) come to the rescue.

Hope I didn’t give away too much; I tried to keep it simple.  Iron Man 3 was exciting and entertaining, and I understand why it opened at number 1, given its format and the time of year.  The special effects were cool; particularly the way the Iron Man suit strategically broke away from Tony and then quickly reattached itself, piece by piece.  The movie was funny, and even though he’s a billionaire, Stark is one of the more accessible superheroes because he doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously.  There were lots of one-liners, and Robert Downey Jr. will be missed if it’s true that this is his last outing.  You know what though?  I was rather underwhelmed.  I actually dozed off for a quick second.  I can’t quite put my finger on it, but maybe I like a darker protagonist.  This was a feel-good movie for all audiences, which is great.  I’m sure I have the minority opinion, but I just didn’t love it.  Good movie, but no big deal. Grade: B+