Allied film review

January 6, 2017

(This film review of “Allied” originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 5 January 2017.)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Steven Knight; starring Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Lizzy Caplan, Jared Harris and Simon McBurney

Wars are great for the movie business.  And there’s nothing like battling the Nazis to engage us even now, more than 70 years later: rarely has the world seemed so well divided into good and evil as it did then. The new film “Allied” brings one of the most powerful heroic war themes to the big screen – allied agents operating behind enemy lines.

“Allied” opens with a lone parachutist landing in the desert, with the short screen caption, “French Morocco 1942”.  The parachutist is Canadian Air Force Intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), there on a secret mission to assassinate the German ambassador in Casablanca.  He teams up with French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (French actress Marion Cotillard), as they pretend to be husband and wife, and operate in open society, he as a supposed chemical businessman from Paris. Danger arises in that Max’s reasonably fluent French (part of the film neatly uses subtitles and original languages) is hampered by his Quebecois accent, which will mark him out as an imposter to anyone actually from Paris.

At the time, Casablanca was governed by Vichy France (the Allies captured it in late 1942), and the film’s early scenes lovingly depict the architecture, culture and politics of that long-ago North African city.  At Marianne’s insistence, Max sleeps on the roof, because “that’s what men in Casablanca do” after making love with their wives.  Max and Marianne prove to be a powerful and successful team, leading Max to propose marriage.

The action of “Allied” then shifts to blitz-ravaged London, where Marianne eventually joins Max and they have a daughter, born during a massive air-raid in a hospital courtyard.  The film’s nasty plot twist – a spoiler that any viewing of the film’s trailer will tell you – involves the allegation that Marianne is a double agent.  If she is, Max must “follow the protocol” of intimate relationships and kill her, an “is she or isn’t she?” question with profound consequences that tears at the myths of wartime heroism. Thus the film’s title “Allied” operates with a double and possibly triple meaning.

The production values of “Allied” are definitely “big screen” (this is a film worth viewing in the cinema), with director Robert Zemeckis neatly blending special effects into the convincing action, working with cinematographer Don Burgess.  Although the result is not as exciting as their “Forrest Gump” collaboration, it is state-of-the-art Hollywood professionalism. Notable scenes include Marianne and Max’s mutual seduction in a car stuck in a sandstorm, and the London bombings.

In the lead roles, both Pitt and Cotillard do a fine job, with an excellent supporting cast that includes American Jewish actress Lizzy Caplan as Max’s sister, and a great set of supporting British actors including Jared Harris (son of Richard) and Simon McBurney. This is Brad Pitt’s third World War Two heroic outing: he played a tank commander in “Fury” (2014) and the head of Quentin Tarantino’s Jewish revenge squad in “Inglourious Basterds” (2009).

“Allied” consciously references its famous forebear “Casablanca”, the 1942 Oscar-winning film that starred Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, with specific references to the importance of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”.  “Allied” maintains “Casablanca’s” themes of self-sacrifice and heroism set against the wartime effort, but turns the plot in psychological Hitchcockian ways.

*****

If you have a taste for war dramas, Mel Gibson’s ultra-violent “Hacksaw Ridge” – a multi-award winner at last month’s Australian Film Institute’s “AACTA” ceremony – is currently playing in Australian cinemas.  Also opening later this year are two true stories:  “The Zookeeper’s Wife”, how the director of the Warsaw Zoo saved more than 300 Jews from the Nazis; and “HHhH”, from the Laurent Binet novel, recounting the 1942 assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich.

“Allied” is currently screening in Australian cinemas.

allied2(above: Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard in “Allied”)

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Film review of The Interview

February 12, 2015

(This film review of “The Interview” appeared in print edition of the Australian Jewish News on 12 February 2015 and online on 18 February 2015 with the title “Interview with a comic twist”.)

Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; Written by Dan Sterling; Starring James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park and Diana Bang

In case you missed the news, “The Interview” is the film that may (or may not) have brought the major film production and distribution company Sony Pictures to its knees. This did not occur, like disasters of yore, because it cost heaps of money and flopped (“Heaven’s Gate”, “John Carter”), but for another reason entirely. Many experts (including the United States Government) allege that this fictional comedy about the attempted assassination of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, resulted in a massive and unprecedented cyber-hacking of Sony’s computer systems by North Korean agents, revealing corporate secrets on an unprecedented scale.

In the movie, James Franco plays Dave Skylark, the host of sensationalist and low-rent television current affairs show called “Skylark Tonight”, with Seth Rogen playing his producer, Aaron Rapoport. When they realise that the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un enjoys watching their show, they propose to the North Koreans that they interview him. After Kim Jong-un surprisingly accepts, the CIA approaches the television duo with a plan that they assassinate the dictator. After some hesitation, they agree, in part because they are “honey potted” (seduced, in a way) by sexy CIA handler Lacey (Lizzy Caplan). Upon arrival in Pyongyang, however, Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) shows a warm and charming personality, successfully be-friending Dave Skylark, who in turn has second thoughts about the planned assassination. What follows is a fair bit of mayhem that even includes a possible nuclear war.

At its heart, “The Interview” is a B-grade film masquerading as a political satire of the American obsession with North Korea – or perhaps it is a political satire masquerading as a B-grade film: the result may be the same. Do not discount the schlocky, broadly comedic elements of “The Interview”: Seth Rogen – now widely recognised as one of America’s top comics – and his co-director Evan Goldberg are as close as we can get to this generation’s Mel Brooks: what was “Blazing Saddles” other than a broad satire on American race relations, under the guise of broad comedy?

Like so much of American political satire (and its intertwined cousin, American comedy), “The Interview” stems from a Jewish sensibility and outlook. Almost all of the major film-makers and actors (Rogen, Goldberg, Franco, Caplan) are Jewish, with Seth Rogen’s character clearly identified Jewish. In “The Interview”, Rogen further develops his on-screen Jewish persona: an intellectual (naturally), slightly overweight and highly sexed neurotic who over-thinks. His dalliance with a female member of the North Korean military elite (Diana Bang) is one of the cuter parts of the film. He is anything but an action hero, but is adept with physical comedy, which he performs here – at times with B-grade “gross-out” elements (be forewarned).

A particular delight is Korean-American actor Randall Park’s performance as the North Korean dictator, giving a wonderfully modulated and hilarious performance. There are also lots of fun cameos, with Eminem, Rob Lowe, Bill Maher, Seth Meyers and Joseph Gordon-Levitt all appearing.

Structurally “The Interview” is way less than perfect. There is at least major one device – the use of a killer poisonous bandaid-like strip – that is just left hanging (as it were). It’s a great set-up (one of the film’s best) that sadly lacks a punchline (or did I blink and miss it?). No matter, “The Interview” is good-humoured and very funny in parts, as well as a must-see for Seth Rogen fans.

*****

(The following is the original poster for the film, prepared prior to its postponed release.  According to Wikipedia, the Korean text reads: “The war will begin”, “Do not trust these ignorant Americans!” and “Awful work by the ‘pigs’ that created Neighbors and This Is the End“.)

The Interview original poster