ALLIED** A Bomb


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This minor league outing is at least entertainingly watchable, in no small part due to the high wattage luminousness of its two glamorous stars, Brand Pitt and Marion Cotillard. Veteran director Robert Zemeckis (“Castaway”, “Forrest Gump”) also does a good job, with production designer, Gary Freeman (“Maleficient”), of summoning up the terror of living in war-time England. And there’s also the couture from Joanna Johnson (“The BFG”) to add some glitz to the Blitz. The Second World War never looked this glam.

It’s a starry list of big-hitter talent in service of a staggeringly dumb story: a poor-man’s combination of “Casablanca” and “True Lies”.

Brad is a decorated Canadian intelligence officer with the unlikely name of Max Vattan, sent by the allies to German occupied Casablanca, where he is to rendezvous with a mysterious French resistance fighter, Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard). They’re to pass themselves off as a happily married Parisienne couple (and who wouldn’t want to be passed off as a married couple with either of these two?), as they plot the assassination of the German ambassador. Her close friends…the snooping neighbors…the German authorities…everyone is to be duped by his appearance (a six week holiday) and their supposed romance. From their very first tete a tete, Steven Knight (“Eastern Promises”) ensures that there’s no ambiguity about the theme of the movie: IT’S ALL ABOUT DECEPTION.

But who’s deceiving who?

After a brief period of professional distance, the imminence of death and the swirling obscurity of a sandstorm removes the “supposed” from the “romance” even as it removes their clothes…faster than you can say Brangelina. Love and London and marriage (and divorce) follow, as does the shadow of doubt. Is she all that she claims to be, or is she, as the British Secret Service suspect, a German double agent?
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As if unsure where to go with that nifty conceit, Knight doubles down on the silliness in the hope that the theme of deception would carry all the way through to the audience…like a sort of meta fiction. Alas it doesn’t, and the story grows as desperate for salvation as Brad’s character; until in the end, even Alan Silvestri’s soaring romantic music (IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT DECEPTION, IT’S REALLY ABOUT LOVE!) cannot perfume the stench.

This really is a January/February type of movie, seemingly shoehorned by its high cost names into a November (Oscar month) time slot (and, financially humbled by Dwayne Johnson/Disney’s “Moana”). So…if you must go, lower your expectations to a big budget TV event type standard, leave your common sense in the foyer…and enjoy

 

ALLIED. Dir: Robert Zemeckis. With: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris (“The Crown”), Simon McBurney (“The Theory of Everything”). Cinematography: Don Burgess (“Flight”). Writer: Steven Knight (“Burnt”)

Magnificent William Kentridge at the Whitechapel


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The first exhibit in William Kentridge’s extraordinary exhibition now on at Whitechapel Gallery is, in formal terms, a sculpture; in informal terms, it’s a contraption. It’s a movie camera tripod, on which is mounted various sprockets and levers, connected to a bicycle wheel, on which is mounted two large megaphones.

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The object sets the tone and the themes of what are to follow in the six experiences that comprise the exhibition. The contraption appears whimsical…the sort of thing you’d find in the studio of a mad inventor. As it should: for every artist probably harbors the soul of a mad inventor (an image that recurs throughout). But there’s a darker side that threads the pieces: the idea that there can be a fine dividing line between the joyfulness of art and the darkness of propaganda (the megaphones), where the tools of the artist become the mere levers and cogs in the manufacture of sentiment and political perspective.

Kentridge is a South African (and you can feel this in his angst about censorship and propaganda) whose work mixes video, sculpture, animation, drawings, song, performance and audio collages, often mounted on the packing cases they were shipped in (as if the underline the ‘real-ness’ of the art). His pieces immerse the viewer into the action… which is -inescapably, like the State – all around you…on multiple screens, on canvases that seem to dance and make love with each other, through snippets of scratchy recordings reminiscent of Weimar Germany…all tenuously linked together through, often jokey, narratives.

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In the first experience (entitled The Refusal of Time), at the center of a large dark room sits a vast opening/closing wooden bellows, like lungs, attached to, and moved by a series of wooden cranes…wooden oil derricks, slowly, rhythmically pumping life into the room… indifferent to the passage of time shown in the assemblage of videos that make up the content of the piece. In them, black squares form themselves into various animals (from nothing comes something…willed into being by the deus maximus of the artist-creator). It may be his lungs in the middle, but there’s no doubt that we’re in his head now. And in his head, where time present and time past exist in an ontology separate and apart from the linear time of the room, we become privy to the mix of memory, dream, thought and emotion that profile the artist. The vignettes of storylines build toward a series of silhouetted figures that dance, trudge, walk, carrying their lives with them (one figure is scrubbing away in a bath born on by others; others are playing instruments; while some are simply lumbering along burdened by the baggage of their lives). They seem to move all around the room as if there were no corners. It’s an image of the refugees that now encompass our own lives and which oppress the artist. And then in a flash, a stroke of the brush, they’re gone…replaced by a comical image of a dancing man…the safe image the artist must show, perhaps to elude (maybe now, certainly in the past) the opprobrium of the State.

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In one environment (O Sentimental Machine, which is his most overtly critical of the corrupting influence of propaganda), he again plays with multiple ontologies. The central ‘event’ is of a woman walking past a vast mirror. But her image doesn’t quite reflect the ‘reality’. And so the real tries to accommodate the image…leading us to wonder to what extent who we are is a reflection of how we’re seen…and to what extent do we alter who we are to better reflect how we wish to be seen? It’s a kind of personal propaganda played out on the larger scene by the State.

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Kentridge is of course the genius behind it all. But these grand complex pieces are such masterpieces of computer wizardry, clever engineering and superb, old-fashioned musical compositions, that what shines through is the power of collaboration. Like a master conductor, Kentridge has harnessed and integrated a kaleidoscope of talent in service of thought provoking ideas.

And in these days where the gestalt of life seems to lie in political divisiveness and disintegration, it seems only the grand art of people like Kentridge can lead us back away from fragmentation to some sense of wholeness.

 

A United Kingdom**** Uplifting


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Amma Asante’s brilliant new movie, “A United Kingdom” is part tender love story, part virulent attack on (one of the many) ugly side(s) of the British Empire. She pulls off the delicate balancing act of engaging us in the very human, intimate story of a love, powerful enough to take on the anger of the empire (and the contempt of its citizens), while at the same time, telling the bigger story about leadership, nation building and freedom. To Asante, these two parallel stories embody the tensions of love/togetherness/nobility on the one hand, versus empire/division/dishonesty on the other.

The story is set in the period just after the war, in a perennially grey, foggy, cold London…where Ruth Williams (a compellingly strong Rosalind Pike) meets and falls in love with Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo, from “Selma”). The problem is, she’s White and he’s Black. And to the White society in which they lived at the time, this interracial cohabiting is an abomination. Because of her choice of a mate, Ruth slips from dutiful daughter and trusted worker to someone contemptible; someone to be expunged- from family (her father is the first person to reject her) and from society.

The more complex problem is that Seretsy is no ‘mere’ Black man: he is Prince Seretse Khama, the King in waiting to the British Protectorate, then called Bechuanaland (now Botswana). There, a parallel rejection occurs: Seretse’s uncle (Vusi Kunene), his de facto father, and the present ruler, will not tolerate a White daughter in law. As he puts it, just as there would be no tolerance for a British Royal to marry a Black person, so too there can be no tolerance for the Royal family of Botswana to accept a White outsider as the country’s queen.

Call it political pragmatism, call it tradition, bigotry begets bigotry.

What neither the uncle nor the British establishment counted on was the rock steadiness of Ruth and Seretse’s love, and of their mutually reinforcing determination to defy injustice, no matter the personal sacrifice.

Asante’s last movie, “Belle”, also dealt with the issue of bi-racial love, and sought to link its demands for equality with the move toward the abolition of slavery. As “A United Kingdom” suggests, one hundred plus years after its abolition, White disgust at Blackness (in those early post war years) remained unchanged.

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In the movie, the Empire, whether led by an amoral Clement Attlee or a bigoted Winston Churchill – both of whom would have no truck with this Black King and his White wife – is presented as generally mendacious, deceitful and lying. And its sneering, supercilious embodiment is Sir Alastair Canning (Jack Davenport better known as Norrington from”The Pirates of the Caribbean”). Canning is a minor historical footnote that, at Her Majesty’s pleasure, sought to divide Khama from his country and wife through any means at hand; all so as not to offend apartheid South Africa.

In the end, Asante suggests that the glue of love and unity (plus a hearty mixture of luck and Seretse’s cunning counter-moves) was a more powerful force than the cynicism of the British strategy of divide and conquer.

Love as guerilla warfare.

(Though Botswana was fortunate: the Tswana represents over 80% of the population…so the possibility of a united kingdom was perhaps easier than most of British Africa whose tribes were arbitrarily reshuffled by the ignorant dividing pen of colonial cartography)

Guy Hibbert, the writer, who wrote the superb “Eye in the Sky”, allows us to be both wooed by the romance and outraged by the history. In “A United Kingdom” he manages to personalize Westminster politicking -whose smug haughtiness was the spark that fired up the Khama’s even as it lit the bonfires of independence around the Empire

And Streatham born Amma Asante offers us a view of Bechuanaland – honest; matter of fact – without the exoticism that so many other directors, either gob-smacked by the beauty of Africa or ostentatiously saddened by its poverty, tend to succumb to (Sydney Pollack in “Out of Africa”).

Though, in those few scene-setting flashes we saw of the magnificent Okavango delta, I wish she’d have been a little bit less restrained and offered us more. No matter, what was on offer in “A United Kingdom” was a full bounty of magnificent movie making

 

A United Kingdom. Dir: Amma Asante. With: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton. Writer: David Hibbert. Cinematographer: Sam McCurdy

 

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM****Fantastical


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Seventy five years before Harry entered Hogwarts, far far away, in a Prohibition-era New York, there was a secret community of witches and wizards and wands that wove spells. Who knew? And into this world, weaving his way between the New York hustle and bustle of the muggles, (or no-majs as the Americans called them back then) and the subterranean secret community of wizards, came writer/explorer Newt Scamander. He arrived carrying a small, weathered grip containing a menagerie of wonderfully fantastic beasts. But, as fate, or maybe some darker power, would have it, bags get switched, accidents happen and before you can say Pandora, the beasts and their magic burst unto a grey, unsuspecting Manhattan.

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Shazam! Their escape is our much needed escapism.

J.K.Rowling and veteran Potter director David Yates have, in “Fantastic Beasts and Where You Can Find Them”, unleashed a fantastical movie in this helter-skelter run up to Christmas. It’s clever, laugh out loud funny, stunningly well made (the best CGI since “Dr. Strange”) and, well, quite magical.

Eddie Redmayne is Newt, the slightly gauche, always amazed, very English Brit. And it’s up to him, with the help of a fellow wizard, Tina (Katherine Waterston) and Kowalsky (Dan Fogler) an understandably gob-smacked muggle, to recapture his escaped menagerie. But escaped beasts are the least of his problems: he must battle an evil one, Graves (Colin Farrell) whose dastardliness will no doubt bloom in the coming sequels (four of them); and he must gird himself for future battles with the Voldemort of this world, one Grindelwald.

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The plot twists and turns and seems to wander aimlessly from time to time. But Redmayne’s Newt is compelling watching. His character is part naughty schoolboy, part bumbling/ charming Hugh Grant, part Andy Serkis (his attempt to lure one of his beasts into the bag with a gangly beast dance is priceless) and part Harry Potter. A weaker actor would have disappeared in the mayhem. But Redmayne refuses to be upstaged by all the wiz-bangery of Yate’s exploding houses, thieving platypuses, swirling black clouds and sizzling magic wands; and, as if by sheer magnetism, he always commands your attention.

Almost stealing the limelight from him is Dan Fogler, as a portly baker who only wanted to get a small bank loan and who finds himself the unwitting and incredulous allay to all this wizardry. We experience much of the story through his eyes, as he/we are introduced to this new world where a grip is just a portal to a hidden world and where wizards can morph from one person to another.

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In this introductory salvo to the fantastical beasts’ world, Yates and Rowling scatter clues and characters throughout the story (cameos by Jon Voight, Gemma Chan and Johnny Depp) in what seems at times to be slightly irrelevant story asides, and which no doubt will bear fruit in later ‘chapters’.

Seasoned Potter production designer Stuart Craig and art director James Hambidge (who created the look for Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy) have created an immersive world which looks almost real…as though suggesting that the real world, the dull, everyday world is out there.

Here, there’s only magic

 

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM. Dir: David Yates. Writer: J.K.Rowling. With Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell. Cinematographer: Philippe Rousselot (“The Nice Guys”, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”) Production Designers: Stuart Craig (“The Legend of Tarzan” all the Harry Potter’s) and James Hambidge (“The Legend of Tarzan” “The Dark Knight Rises”). Composer: James Howard (“The Huntsman: Winter’s War” “Concussion” “The Hunger Games series”)

 

THE ACCOUNTANT** Doesn’t Add Up


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THIS MOVIE HAS made quite a decent profit so far. Ah, well, there’s no accounting for taste.

In sum, here’s the story: Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck) is an autistic maths genius CPA who is a one man PWC for sundry gangsters and terrorists groups. He’s also – a very calculating – Batman who can whup ass like nobody’s business. That’s ’cause his dad, a traveling Army man, turned him into a lethal weapon (to defend against childhood bullies; and, like the accountancy, that training stuck).

He’s your typical autistic maths genius hit man. (The autism factor is there, supposedly, to add intrigue, depth and differentiation from all those other Hollywood action heroes. Buyer beware: this is not a character driven movie)

Wolff (What’s in a name?) has been hired to do what he thinks is a straight forensics audit of a firm that seems to have ‘lost’ $60+M. But the books are more than cooked; and when Wolff finds that he must protect whistleblower Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick as the chaste, chemistry-free love interest), he suits up (masses of guns hidden in a trailer) and goes into battle.
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On the positive side of the ledger, he really only kills bad guys; and, deep down, is a pretty decent, if inhibited guy. On the negative side, clearly Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick and J.K. Simmons (as the lawman chasing him down) figured out half way through the filming (the full script must have been withheld from them prior to signing their contracts) that this one wasn’t going to be on the plus side of their movie CV’s. Our loss is, no doubt, their net profit.

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Director Gavin O’Connor hasn’t had a great year: earlier on in the season, he unveiled “Jane Got a Gun” – the Natalie Portman movie that only her family went to. That said, O’Connor’s workman-like directing delivers a decent, if suspense-free, flow of set-piece action encounters that staves off sleep and boredom (Originally the movie, apparently, had the Coen Brothers at the helm. What a difference that would have made!). And Bill Dubuque’s screenplay (his last movie was the equally ‘business-themed’ The Headhunter’s Calling with the nuanced acting of Gerard – “I am Spartan” – Butler) is un-inspiredly adequate.

The blame for this mid-budget creative loss leader has to be placed squarely on the buffed, broad shoulders of Ben Affleck (no doubt too preoccupied with scripting the next Batman movie). For an actor you can usually bank on, in The Accountant, Affleck’s eyes remain dead. What we see in these windows of the soul aren’t the social phobias of an autistic accountant, but an actor who’d rather be anywhere but here. He runs and jumps and feigns emotion more, probably, at the behest of his financial consultant than of the character. He’s the least exciting hit-man to have come along in some time. Call it net deficit acting.

Net net, if you wish to invest your time at the movies, perhaps, on balance, it were better spent somewhere else.

 

THE ACCOUNTANT Dir: Gavin O’Connor (Warrior). With: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K.Simmons, Jeffrey Tambor. Writer: Bill Dubuque. Cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey (Fifty Shades of Grey)

 

ARRIVAL****Stunning


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This is a thoughtful, hugely engaging movie about the power, the desperate need for communication…as the -only- weapon that can ensure our past is linked to a clear vision of our future.

This is Amy Adams (“American Hustle”)  at her most compelling…it’s almost a one person show.

The story centres around the arrival of a dozen huge alien spacecraft that hang like dark pendants, scattered randomly across the throat of the world. No one knows why they’re there…what kind of threat, or opportunity, they represent. And unlike the city-destroying invaders of almost every other sci-fi movie about alien arrivals (“Independence Day”!), these arrivants disturb nothing around them….but our apprehensions and fears.

Amy Adams’ character -Dr. Louise Banks, a highly respected communicator and linguist, who seems to be burdened with memories of a tragic loss – is recruited, along with a physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to help an Army team (along with similar teams around the world) figure things out.

And as Luise and Ian bury their petty differences (which is more important, science or communication?) to invent – clever- ways toward their Rosetta Stone of comprehension (the aliens communicate in weird squid ink sprays that look like Rorschach test ellipses), the forces of fear and the need to take preemptive military action rise. Forest Whitaker, as the Army captain in charge of things, is himself a kind of interpreter: translating Luise’s and Ian’s need for patience, cooperation and deliberation to an Army command that, like the armies in Russia and China, view their protective mission solely through the lenses of war.

It’s jaw jaw v war war.

The movie, at times a bit slow, but always nervously thrilling (after all, we the audience also know nothing of the intention and potential malevolence of these octopus-like aliens, so we’re on edge all the time) builds toward a brilliant, Shyamalan-esque denouement (the old M.Night, when he was making clever movies) that’s as satisfying as it is mind expanding.

Canadian Director Denis Villeneuve has a growing list of tremendous movies (intelligent, exciting, character-driven): in 2013, he gave us “Prisoners” and last year, “Sicario”. In “Arrival”, the overriding tone he manages to communicate, largely through Amy’s ever shifting expressions, is one of wonder. He also has the ability to zero in on little, very human moments (Louise’s trembling hand) to dial up the drama…and the verisimilitude. There’s an aura of moodiness that dominates the movie (the first stunning shot of the spacecraft sees it hovering over a roiling cloud formation that just takes your breath away), created by Canadian production designer Patrice Vermette (“Sicario”) and cinematographer Bradford Young (“A Most Violent Year”) who, as cinematographers go, is a bit of an anomaly: he’s Black. And Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson (“The Theory of Everything”) completes the feeling of otherworldliness with a dense, atonal score.

I can’t say there can be any effective, escapist, antidote at present to the other alien who’s just arrived at the White House. But this, in its breadth of vision (an understanding of how learning to communicate with “the other” reconfigures the mind in a way that enables dialogue and understanding) does remind you that, as a species, our odyssey is far more grand than the pettiness and xenophobia of the new American narrative.

 

ARRIVAL. Dir: Denis Villeneuve. With Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker. Cinematographer: Bradford Young. Production Designer: Patrice Vermette (“Sicario”)

 

DOCTOR STRANGE**** Mesmerising


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IT’S A WINNING combination: tremendous acting, a very witty script, marvellous special effects and a director’s touch that manages to take the silly story seriously enough so as not to patronize viewers.

Marvel’s new superhero is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange, a brilliant, insufferably arrogant surgeon. After a dreadful, finger-mangling, career-ending car crash, he journeys to Nepal in search of the miracle cure he learns of from a tip-off. There he encounters The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and their team of spell-meisters. They all form a sort of weird mirror image to the Avengers. As he’s told, if the Avengers defend the world from physical dangers, they safeguard it against “more mystical threats”: in this case, in the form of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and the threatening Darkness.

Strange, with his photographic memory and prodigious intelligence, is a quick learner: Once he has learned how to put aside his ego (along with “all that he knows”) he soon masters the secrets of controlling time, conjuring weapons of laser light, diving through portals that link worlds and – natch – leaping across the surfaces of shape-shifting cities made to twist and turn by the forces of evil. Greenwich Village never looked better.

It’s Inception meets The Matrix meets Harry Potter.. on acid. Mesmerising.
But it’s not just the meticulously well-executed special effects that mesmerise, it’s the sheer magnetism of the three leads…it’s worth the price of admission simply to spend some time with this very classy bunch. Cumberbatch’s rich-voiced charisma (he has one of the best voices in cinema) is a compelling guide to this parallel world. He effortlessly seduces us away from his hissingly nasty overbearing surgeon persona, so that we come to eagerly root for his transformed self – a swaggering cape swirling, martial arts, high kicking sorcerer. His teachers are a Shakespearean sounding Chiwetel, who looks and sounds as though he’s a time traveling Othello, strutting upon the multiverse version of a Stratford stage. And the androgynous, bald Swinton, weird at the best of times, as The Ancient One. She has a look, a sternness of visage that I’m convinced could do as much damage as her spinning fans of light. These characterizations are so strong that the usually compelling Mads Mikkelsen, as the baddie (as usual), seems just OK.

As you’d expect, there’s a battle royale when the bad guys meet the good. But what lifts this movie away from the usual, and increasingly tiresome summer super-hero blockbusters, is the freshness of imagination that director Scott Erickson (“Sinister”) and Marvel regulars, production designer – Charles Wood (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy”etc) – and cinematographer Ben Davis, have dreamed up. It’s an ‘origin’ story (and these have often been the best the franchises can offer) – that’s as interestingly inventive as the first Christopher Nolan, Batman (Batman Begins) .

And this inventiveness resides not just in the big show-stopping set pieces (cities that collapse in on themselves as if sucked together by massive gravitational forces, or journeys to the outer reaches of the parallel universe) but in the smaller, often whimsically funny touches, like Strange’s weaponized coat (in this universe, you don’t choose your weapon, it chooses you) whose collar insists on tickling his cheeks.

Some of the dialog – written by Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) and C. Robert Carghill (Sinister) is also equally funny, mixing stentorian mumbo jumbo about evil sorcery with the unexpectedly banal (When Dr. Strange informs Kaecilius that his name is “Strange”, Kaecilius’ response is “Maybe. Who am I to judge?”)

As the nights more quickly leach into the days and the cold snaps of winter warn of snows to come, this is a fitting Indian summer blockbuster; the final comfort food movie before the nourishment of the Oscar season begins

 

DOCTOR STRANGE. Dir: Scott Derrickson. With: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams. Writers: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, from the comic by Steve Dikko (“Spiderman”). Cinematographer: Ben Davis (“Avengers: Age of Ultron”)