Sometimes, the toughest question to answer about a movie is “what’s it about?” Trailers almost always lie or mislead you if the movie is more complicated than transforming robots fight with each other. That’s why when people try to guess what a movie is about based on trailers, they always start with “It looks like…” Allied is a great example of this. Prior to seeing the movie, if you had asked me what it was about I would have said it looks like a World War II spy movie with Brad Pitt. That doesn’t really tell you what the movie is about, just its premise. Google “allied movie synopsis” and this is the first thing you get:
“During World War II, intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is stationed in North Africa where he encounters French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Reunited in London, their relationship is threatened by the extreme pressures of the war.”
Right away, you can see that the trailers are leaving out a ton of information, including that this movie is really two small movies lashed together. And, of course the trailers are made this way – they don’t want men to know that the second half of this movie is about relationships. It’s a war movie – keep your Nicholas Sparks out of it, thank you very much.
This is what you came for men.
However, that synopsis is misleading as well. They don’t tell you what the actual plot of the second half of the movie is about because they wrongly think that would be a spoiler. I’ll get to that in a minute, but the important thing you need to know about this movie is that you’re getting two movies for the price of one.
(I will have some SPOILERS that are actual SPOILERS, but nothing major.)
Allied is about two spies and their time together. The first half of the movie covers how they meet and the mission they undertake together – an assassination attempt of a high ranking Nazi official in Casablanca. Right away, you should be thinking about the movie Casablanca and that there are probably all kinds of parallels and homages to it by Allied. If you spot them, let me know, because I barely remember Casablanca.
A lot of time is spent getting to know Max and Marianne and this first hour has to sell you on their chemistry together in order to set up the second half. Unfortunately, it’s less than convincing, basically boiling down to them having sex in a car during a haboob (I know I could have said sandstorm, but come on…Sex scene. Haboob. Heh. I’m basically a man-sized child). Once the mission is over, he proposes marriage to her and the movie just cuts to “London. Three weeks later.” Because of what I knew from the trailers, my first thought was “wait – what’s this movie about then?” It’s also very jarring because when the mission is over, the mission becomes a plot device for the second half. If you wanted to leave the theater at this point because you thought the movie was done, I wouldn’t blame you. But, then you’d miss out on a rather good second-half matinee.
Wanna see my haboob?
The second part of the movie stays a spy movie, but Max gets a new mission. A year after Casablanca, Max’s boss, Frank Heslop (Jared Harris), summons him to the base and he’s informed by V-section (think CIA) that they suspect Marianne of being a German spy. They set up a trap for her to prove it and order Max to do nothing different. Naturally, Max ignores this order and investigates on his own to discover the truth before the trap is sprung. This half of the movie is much more dramatic than the first half. It also tells you that the last sentence of the synopsis I quoted you is a flat out lie. Their relationship isn’t threated by the extreme pressures of war, it’s threatened by her possibly being a German spy married to an Allied spy. Don’t worry – I liked this movie so I won’t tell you if she is or isn’t.
I guess this is one way to do it.
What I will tell you is that Cotillard makes this movie worth watching. For starters, she is a Frenchwoman in real life, but looks like she was lifted straight from the 1940s era. The make-up person responsible for her in this film had the easiest job in Hollywood during Allied’s filming. She also does duplicitous better than anyone. Think about her biggest roles. Mal in Inception and Miranda Tate/the-other-villain in The Dark Knight Rises. Again, I’m not saying she is a German spy in Allied, but you won’t be able to guess. She’s that good. At this point, she probably has the same reaction as Ron Perlman does when they get a script. He knows who he is when the script says “deranged freak walks in” and she knows that she’s getting the character “who isn’t who she seems.” When Robert Zemeckis was casting for her role, do you think he even bothered auditioning anyone else?
I mean, look at her.
While I did like this film and recommend people give it a view, I think it would have been much better if they’d woven the two stories together. That would have allowed them to do a better job building the chemistry and relationship between the two and also would have allowed them to stage the reveals better rather than just having a mysterious V-section guy just tell us everything in an interrogation room. The flow of the movie would have been much better instead of the intermission we ended up with. But we at least got a decent movie and a good movie without having to pay twice. That’s far better than one dull Nicholas Sparks flick. Am I right, men?
Rating: Ask for two dollars back for the first half and fifty cents back for the second half.
The Harry Potter universe is like having a dog. At first, it’s very exciting. For the first few months, you have a lot of fun. You go to sleep happy and look forward to the next day. Everything is fresh. Eventually though, the novelty wears off, but if you’re lucky you have a well-behaved dog that doesn’t crap behind the couch when you’re not looking. You have a pleasant relationship that falls into a routine for a few years, with only the normal hiccups along the way. When the end starts to draw near, the poor dog is slowly and aimlessly wandering around the house and you wonder if it’s time to take the dog to the proverbial farm. When it’s over, you miss your friend, but you’re in no hurry to get another dog. A few years later, a friend offers you a puppy from their litter and you accept because you remember how much you liked your previous dog. Is that a tortured metaphor? Yes it is. But it’s also apt. It’s been five years since the last Harry Potter movie and you definitely wouldn’t mind a new movie set in the same universe as long as it’s not actually another Harry Potter movie and as long as it doesn’t crap behind your couch.
I reread my reviews of the last three Harry Potter movies and the final one is far funnier now. I sarcastically lamented that Harry Potter was over forever and not only do we have a new movie (albeit one that has nothing to do with Potter), but multiple additional stories have been written, including a play. Like I said, that review was sarcastic – I didn’t actually want more Potterverse, especially if J.K. Rowling was doing the writing – so I guess I got what I deserved. Not that I didn’t expect it to happen. Rowling is a one-hit wonder and a fame-junky; of course she wasn’t going to stop. And that’s not even a bad thing, but she insisted that book seven would be the end. Plenty of authors live in their singular literary worlds for decades (hello George R. R. Martin), but they usually don’t keep telling us how they are done with it while continue to write more of it. But, like I said, we remember the movies were at least fun until the last couple, so getting a new one is probably okay after five years. And this one turned out to be pretty okay, but not without its flaws.
The good guys.
(I never read the book this movie was based on, so I don’t know if anything in the movie can be considered a SPOILER. But here’s your SPOILER warning anyway.)
Fantastic Beasts is set decades before Harry Potter, but not so many decades that there aren’t still connections to Potter. If you think Rowling can go an entire story without mentioning Dumbledore, as is done in this film, you haven’t been paying attention (and can someone please explain to me why Rowling is obsessed with Dumbledore’s sexual preference?). Anyway, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) has travelled from London to New York in search of someone who can help him breed a particular rare and magical beast. Newt carries with him a suitcase containing what can only be described as a portal to his personal zoo. For whatever reason, this suitcase has some serious security flaws in that creatures can escape when it is open. But only sometimes. It doesn’t make sense, but you just have to accept it.
While chasing around one of his escaped critters, Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former auror, arrests Newt for violating a magical law. She takes him to the unimaginatively named MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) for processing, but they ignore the both of them and send them on their way. However, one auror, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) takes an interest in Newt’s case and demands to see inside it. When they open it, it’s filled with pastries and Newt realizes that a non-magical person (also unimaginatively referred to as no-maj’s), Jacob (Dan Fogler), accidentally switched cases with him. Much of the movie is then spent with Newt, Jacob, and Tina trying to round up the rest of Newt’s creatures. This is the fun part of the movie and enjoyable part of the movie. As it turns out, the beasts really don’t have anything to do with the actual plot of this movie, which is pretty much par for the course with Rowling’s stuff.
We’re looking for some lost animals. Dangerous? No – they’re fine.
Backing up all the way to the beginning, the movie starts by showing us newspaper articles of a dark wizard named Gellert Grindelwald running amok. This occurs some indeterminate amount of time prior to the actual events of this movie, but Grindelwald basically vanishes without a trace. Cut to the events of this film and if you can’t guess who Grindelwald is within the first five minutes of the film, then you’ve never seen a movie in your life. If that’s true, welcome – movies are fun.
Graves has been tasked with tracking down a mysterious force that is rampaging through the city. Crossing paths with Newt provides a convenient excuse to lay the blame on Newt and his creatures while he continues his search for the real culprit. Now, just in case you missed the previous SPOILER ALERT, you might want to avert your eyes – Graves is up to no good. This is almost comically obvious from the moment you see his slicked-backed black hair, aka the Slytherin look, to his manipulation of Credence (Ezra Miller), a young man he only meets with in alleys as he tries to find the MacGuffin. I mean, as he tries to find the rampaging force that will allow him to start a war between muggles (I refuse to use the other term) and wizards. Yes, he is most definitely a precursor to Voldemort, but without the big snake. Graves also appears to be quite powerful, so one wonders why he needs the force to start a war when he could just…start a war without it.
If I was a good guy, would we be meeting in an alley?
So, if you’re counting, this movie has two separate plots that only intersect at the end and a third subplot that I didn’t even bother wasting your time with (Credence’s mom beats him and is on a literal witch hunt to expose the wizarding world). Even knowing all that, the movie is still quite entertaining. Until the end, that is.
Two things happen at the end of the film that, in my opinion, were awful artistic choices and were really the only two things I didn’t like about this movie. The first involves Jacob and the President of MACUSA insisting that his memory must be wiped, no exceptions. Considering a theme of this movie is discrimination between the wizards and muggles, accepting a muggle into the wizarding community seems like a good first step towards resolving that issue. Unfortunately, it’s easier to Brexit the decision. I mean Trump the decision. I mean put your head in the sand and continue discriminating for no reason other than bias. The worst part of this choice is that Jacob is the most interesting and endearing character in the entire movie and the movie immediately decides to go back on the decision by walking Tina’s sister into Jacob’s bakery (the two were basically in love by the end of the ordeal).
The second is the inclusion of Johnny Depp. I’m not annoyed that Johnny Depp got to be in this film, it’s how he was inserted. (Again, SPOILER) When Graves is finally captured, his face changes into Grindelwald’s and it’s Johnny Depp. Why? WHY? And how shitty does Colin Farrell feel about this move? They are almost literally telling Farrell that he is an inferior version of Depp. Just, ouch.
I realize that this review sounds pretty negative, but I enjoyed the vast majority of this movie, even with the weak plot lines. The characters were all very good and the actors really brought them to life. Fogler and Waterston were especially fun to watch and I hope we get to see more of them in future movies. Heck, even in a future sequel to this movie (which you know is coming) because we just got this new puppy. Just keep it out from behind the couch.
Rating: Ask for a dollar back. The end is just inexcusable.
I wanted to shoehorn in some jokes about the now-completed Presidential election, but I decided that wound isn’t worth poking right now. You’ll just have to believe me when I say I was planning on a good segue into a dumb political point in Arrival, but I didn’t want the worst of the Internet hijacking a movie conversation so they can continue to bitch about emails and Russians. Just remember that no matter which way the election went, half the population was going to say we’re fucked and the other half was going to say neener-neener. Yes, that is most of America right now. That is also how I know aliens have never been here. They monitored our airwaves and decided it was best to steer clear, much like you do when you see a couple fighting with each other in the frozen aisle of the grocery store. HERB – CLEANUP ON AISLE 7.
Arrival is a movie that will probably get missed, opening between Doctor Strange and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. That is a shame because it’s better than Doctor Strange and most likely better than Fantastic Beasts. It’s also very different from those movie. Actually, it’s even different than your typical alien invasion movie. In Arrival, there’s only one explosion, no laser guns, no space scenes, and the aliens do not resemble humans, not even a tiny bit. It’s a quiet movie in which twelve alien ships show up in Earth’s skies and park themselves in random places. And I know it’s random because the movie verbalizes this more than once. They even show us a globe with bright red dots. In fact, the bulk of the movie takes place in a field in Montana.
Excited now? No? What if I told you the main plot of the movie is that the government hires a linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), to learn the aliens’ language? Ehhhh? Wait…where are you going?
Where is my assistant?
Well, now that the short-attention span people have left, you’ll be happy to know that this movie is a throwback to classical science fiction. It’s much more interested in exploring a concept like two species that don’t even think the same way laboriously learning how to communicate with each other than space battles or podracing. Kind of like Kevin Costner and the Sioux in Dances with Wolves, but without the dead bison. A large amount of time is spend with Dr. Banks as she is deciphering the aliens’ language, which is a series of circles with splotches around the edges (just picture a water ring left by your coffee mug) repeating the words she has shown them on a white board. Wait….where are you going?
In place of chase scenes and shootouts, the movie builds a palpable tension. The entire mission is to find out why the aliens have come to Earth, meaning Dr. Banks’ goal is to get them to understand the question “What is your purpose on Earth?” Think about it for a moment – what was the last alien invasion movie that spent more than eight seconds on that question?
This is where gravity gets weird.
Now you should be wondering what’s at stake in this movie that makes it so tense. Well, other countries are also trying to communicate with the aliens (and everybody is sharing, at least for a while), but they, like those readers who left this review, got impatient. And some of those countries have itchy trigger fingers. It’s paramount that Dr. Banks get an answer to the question before some idiot starts a war with intergalactic travelers. And this would be where the stupid political content comes in.
(SPOILER ALERT BEGINS)
Four soldiers decide to let their hatred and fear of foreigners get the best of them, so they decide to plant a bomb in the spaceship. This scene sucks for so many reasons, not the least of which is a commentary on a certain group of Americans who hate immigrants for wanting a better life and a shot at the mythical American dream. Yes, that first group sucks, but making them four soldiers who start shooting at their fellow soldiers to ensure the bomb is not disabled? Really? The film includes news clips of people rioting and states of emergency, providing plenty of evidence of fear and anger without stooping to making four soldiers stupid enough to believe attacking super advanced aliens is a good idea. Compounding this awful scene is the cliché of our heroes being saved as the bomb timer shows 0:01. I get that this scene was there to catalyze the conflict, but there are so many better ways they could have done this. Not to mention the aliens conveniently develop telepathy only when the bomb timer is down to a few seconds. Did you learn nothing from Galaxy Quest?
(SPOILER ALERT ENDS)
Aside from that scene, my only other complaint is that Jeremy Renner’s character, theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly, is there for no reason. You’d think he’d be there to study the alien technology, but he just giggles at their ability to manipulate gravity and his job appears to be secretary/assistant to Dr. Banks. All we ever see him doing is setting up equipment, holding Dr. Banks’ whiteboard, and occasionally staring at a computer monitor. Did the military really need a physicist for this job? On the flip side, the film pulls a gender role reversal that makes you wonder if the filmmakers deliberately made Donnelly a superficial character who only matters to one small subplot, but is otherwise pointless. In other words, he’s the minimized “other gender” who is only there for emotional support. Well played, filmmakers.
This is pretty much his whole job.
I don’t want you to think those two things ruin the movie because they really don’t. They’re just minor flaws. Nearly everything else in this movie is fantastic, from the music to the stunning visuals to the introduction of the aliens to the way the aliens’ arrival is depicted (we watch people’s reactions to the news rather than watch the news itself) to the terrific performances (rounded out by Forest Whitaker, Tzi Ma, and Michael Stuhlbarg) to the excellent screenplay and story (Eric Heisserer and Ted Chiang, respectively). Mostly, I’m glad that the filmmakers, including director Denis Villeneuve, are patient people who made a patient movie that painstakingly builds the suspense while keeping the audience in the dark on the aliens’ purpose until the end of the film. If you stayed with me for this entire review, then you’ll like Arrival as much as I did.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and hope we stop fighting so the aliens don’t avoid us forever.