Mike at the Movies

Allied (R) *****

Wow! A thriller on many levels, this World War II spy drama keeps ratcheting up the tension under the sure hand of Director Robert Zemeckis. Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is a Canadian spy for the allies and Marion Cotillard plays Marianne Beausejour, a French spy. They meet in Morocco at the end of a plot to assassinate the German ambassador in a mission Max figures has a 40 percent chance of success. They get the ambassador, many more Germans and even a friend or two who are at the ball where the assassination takes place.

The story moves rapidly along a predictable but gritty path as Max and Marianne fall in love, move to London and, in the middle of an air raid in London, have a daughter, Anna. They have been warned by Max’s commanding officer, Frank Heslop (Jared Harris), “Marriages made in the field never work.” The Vatans seem to prove him wrong and get along famously.

There is humor along the way as Marianne tries to teach Max a Parisian French accent to cover the Québécois tinge he has. They get along better and better and celebrate their love in a tremendously erotic sex scene in a car in the middle of a sandstorm!

As well as things are going, you know that they can’t stay that way. In fact, V Section, in charge of counter-espionage, tells Max that they suspect his wife is a German agent. He has a few days to prove them wrong, and the suspense goes into high gear. Max cannot eliminate his suspicions that V may be right, Marianne senses that something is not right, and every frame gets tighter and tighter as Max goes to incredible lengths to prove his wife innocent.

I’ll leave you hanging at that point and only mention that music plays a vital part in the spinning out of the plot. In fact, the culminating musical moment, though subtle in the extreme, is one of the highlights of the film. The mixture of treachery, trust, love, loyalty and violence of war gets headier and richer with each moment as the movie rockets toward a rational solution. The acting is terrific, the moments of terror startlingly effective, the baby a sweetheart, and the whole seems shorter than its two-plus hours. This is one of the fall’s most enjoyable entries. But keep the ending to yourself, please!

Moana (PG-13) *****

This film led the Thanksgiving Day parade at the box office and deservedly so. Its animation is faultless and its music enchanting. Songs were contributed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and a wonderful casting of newcomer Auli’i Cravalho as Moana and Dwayne Johnson as the god Maui makes the chemistry magical and funny. Cravalho is in her first film ever but delivers her lines professionally and with great humor. Her turn to feminism at the end is both logical and well-constructed. Johnson is an excellent combination of braggadocio and humility, even though the humility has a tough time breaking through. Even his tattoos contribute to the story with independent comment on his actions.

The scene-stealer in the film is a chicken who accompanies Moana throughout her perilous attempts to return the heart of her people’s culture to her island-nation. It was stolen many years ago and nobody has had the courage to travel beyond the reef surrounding the island to recapture it. Moana is the one to do it, though she needs the help of the chicken, Maui and sea surges to keep her on track.

The film serves as a lesson in Polynesian mythology as well as language and customs. Lin-Manuel’s occasional ventures into rap seem to fit, and both Cravalho and Johnson sing them well.

The near-capacity audience on the day after Thanksgiving was clearly sad to see the story end and gave it a hearty round of well-earned applause. Even those of you who, like me, respond softly to animated features will love this film for its color, content and music. The youngest kids should be able to ignore the monsters because, by the time the worst of them come along, we have all become accustomed to the triumph of the Good Guys.

Manchester by the Sea (R) *****

This extraordinary film features characters trapped by their very natures. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) has anger issues and a stoic anti-social nature that keeps him from rising above a tragedy in his marriage. His nephew, Patrick Chandler (Lucas Hedges), is the victim of hormones—he is 16—and his own temper issues. His father, Joe (Kyle Chandler), suffers from congestive heart failure that does him in, leaving Lee and Patrick to get along together as Lee is Patrick’s legal guardian.

Neither brother is with his original wife. Randi (Michelle Williams) split with Lee after the fire that destroyed their home and their three little children. Elise (Gretchen Mol), Joe’s ex, turned religious and married Broderick Crawford (Jeffrey), a thoroughly unlikeable man. She is no bargain either.

The conflicts are many and are played out in numerous flashbacks. We determine character by the flashbacks: Lee breaks windows with his hands and gets in bar fights for no reason. Friends try to fix him by fixing him up with women, but he is totally cold with all of them, as he is with almost everyone. Patrick resists attempts to get him to go to Boston with his uncle, Lee, instead fighting to stay on the hockey team, in his band and with his many girlfriends. Lee doesn’t soften at first, but he is totally bereft of ideas of what to do with a sulky, foul-mouthed adolescent who doesn’t want to be with him.

The frigid Massachusetts winter is the setting for the film, adding to its austerity and emotional temperature. It is hard to like Lee but difficult to hate him after all he has been through, as frustrating as he is. Having lived in Massachusetts for several years, I found myself not missing the winters there. The sea, however, is another thing. I relished whatever solace it could provide for the characters in the film. This is a very thoughtful, adult film, recommended to mature audiences.

Rules Don’t Apply (PG-13) ****

Warren Beatty wrote and directed this film and stars in much of it, though the story is really carried by Lily Collins as Marla Mabrey and Alden Ehrenreich as Frank Forbes. It is a romance, but its uneven pace makes it sometimes hard to believe.

Beatty is the extreme Howard Hughes. Many of his eccentricities are discussed and many are shown: his fear of children, his reclusive attitude toward the telephone, his failure to meet deadlines, his changing of deals at the last moment, his rapidly changing taste in ice cream flavors and much more. Indeed, much of his part in the film is spent in attempts to keep partners and the government from proclaiming him insane and putting him away.

Meanwhile, Marla, The Apple Blossom Queen from Virginia, and her driver, Frank, who has designs on some land in the Los Angeles area that he wants to develop, realize but don’t yield to romantic impulses. Both are intense Christians. Frank is also engaged to a girl back home, but we realize from the start that it’s never going to go anywhere. By the time Frank realizes it, Hughes has given Marla a ring and a new car and is well into proposing marriage to her in order to stay out of the insane asylum.

Meanwhile, Levar Mathis (Matthew Broderick) has his own designs on Marla, which she doesn’t even recognize, and Nadine Henly (Candice Bergen) frets about Hughes’ cruelty to the women and his employees.

The problem with the film is one of pace: Too many scenes featured Hughes to the detriment and cheapening of the basic love story. His eccentricities are emphasized to the point of distraction, and we long for a return to the screen of Marla whose skin is so radiant that it seems to have its own light. Collins is extraordinary, Ehrenreich is serviceable and the rest of the cast adequate. Beatty is at his scene-stealing best but this film didn’t need him to steal scenes. There were enough good ones by the rest of the cast.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (PG-13) ****

I will not catalogue the Fantastic Beasts. Google the movie for a list of them, but they are many and fantastic, as you might expect from the fertile mind of J.K. Rowling. Eddie Redmayne is precious as Newt Scamander, a character known for writing texts on magic for Hogwarts which comes later in time than this. The star who almost steals the picture from him with no particular effort is Katherine Waterston as Tina, an inspector for New York’s Division of Getting Rid of Fantastic Creatures and Wizards or some such. She is plain but radiant. Newt comes to town with a briefcase fill of things to inspect—12 different dragons, a Quintaped, a Niffler … the list goes on and on and it doesn’t really matter what they are called. The question is, are they on Newt’s side or the side of Graves (Colin Farrell)?

Graves, aka Grindewald, is out to dominate the wizard and fantastic creatures’ world with his own brand of evil wand-wielding when in comes Newt and his bag of friends. Fortunately for Newt, he runs into a pastry salesman named Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who has a case like Newt’s. This means, of course, that Kowalski ends up with the case of beasts while Newt has only pastry samples. Tina teams up with (but does not “hook up” with) Newt and guides him through New York. She has some wand power of her own but not enough to control Graves. Kowalski accidentally opens the case of beasts and sets them loose on New York—an excuse to destroy 1926 Manhattan as if they needed it with the destruction of monster movies yet to come! Newt spends the rest of the movie trying to round them up and get them back in the case. They can be remarkably small or remarkably large, depending on the space available.

There is a very minor subplot involving a would-be congressman who gets in the way of the most evil of the beasts, Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), but we hardly pay attention to that because Kowalski has won the eye of the very attractive party-girl, Mary Lou (Samantha Morton). Even she has some supernatural powers. That is one of the problems with the plot: It is hard to tell who has the powers and who does not until a character disappears in a puff of smoke or waves a wand that actually does something to somebody or a building or train or car.

Kids who don’t care about plot points and who can keep the beasts and people straight will eat up this film. Adults with no familiarity with the Potter series and Rowling’s way of looking at the world may be totally lost. One tip without spoilers: Watch carefully the arrest of Graves at the end of film as he morphs into another persona played by an entirely different actor. Parts 2 and 3 are already under pre-production. Another franchise is born!

Bleed for This (R) **

The problem is that we have seen this film so many times that the ending is telegraphed with the opening scenes. Boxer, reaching his height, wins the title, gets injured, rehabs (mostly on his own) and returns to the ring to fight again. I could tell you the ending without really spoiling things because there are only two choices for an ending in such a picture: He wins or he loses.

Miles Teller as Vinnie, “The Pasmanian Devil” Pazienza, does a remarkably accurate job of imitating Pazienza who now goes by the name of Paz. That said, there is a formula for these pictures and he follows it well. Now 53, he was in his early 30s when the car in which he was a passenger was hit head-on by a driver swerving into his lane. His vertebra was fractured at C-3 and he was told he would likely never walk again. Sure.

Aaron Eckhart as the drunken trainer, Kevin Rooney, is Paz’s alter-ego and savior. He helps him rehab and train for his ultimate fight with “Hands of Stone” Roberto Duran. That was his second title fight with Duran and he won them both. That was in 1995. His last fight was with a nothing named Tocker Pudwill in which he won the same WBC International Super Middleweight title that he took off Duran. Think: signs of the decline of boxing in the US.

The casting and plotting has other clichés. Pazienza was from a large, loud Italian family in Providence and they suffer with every punch. There also are desultory attempts to get Vinnie a marriage partner but he never marries. The fight sequences are OK, though at one stage an announcer says Paz got hit in the neck by a punch in the first round and the next we see of him he has a bruise on his cheek. There was a man in the audience with a two-year old daughter in tow. Why? Don’t ask. This is a bloody, brutal boxing film. Strange tastes. Leave your kids at home while you skip this one as well.

Bad Santa-2 (R) *

The Curse of the Sequel rules again. After a side-splitting Version 1, 2 comes off as derivative, unimaginative, clone-like and dull as well as filthy. Billy Bob Thornton reprises his role of Willie, the decrepit drunk who is Bad Santa 2, while Tony Cox (Marcus Skidmore) does his midget street thug routine again. Even the untrustworthiness of the gang that is assembled to knock off a charity is maintained from the original, which means that Kathy Bates as Willie’s (Santa’s) mother, Sunny, gets to do her foul-mouthed best to make us all ill. The rule of the Bad Santa franchise is to not pass up a raunchy, X-rated bit of dialogue if it is available and if it is not available, make it up.

This time around the trio is after a couple of million dollars stolen from “Giving City,” a Salvation Army-like charity. Willie finds his mother in time to hear her describe his birth. Sunny says, “I didn’t know I’d delivered him until I tripped over him.” That’s motherhood.

Christina Hendricks (Diane) works for the charity and gives a wonderful example of how actresses with large breasts keep getting roles for which their structure is the only notable thing about them. She is woefully inept at comedy. Of course, given lines like “I’m a good girl, but sometimes I need to be bad,” there’s not much wiggle room.

Brett Kelly as the rotund and innocent Thurman Merman, obsessed with Willie, almost gives the picture some heart, but he is too regularly abused to be very interesting.

The movie is so filthy in its dialogue that obscenity rules make it impossible for me to even hint at Sunny’s nickname for Willie and most of the gags are not for the newspaper. Even as a helpless drunk, Willie is portrayed as a champion lover with both Diane and the receptionist at the charity, Gina (Jenny Zigrino), who, by sheer coincidence, also features a Grand Canyon-size cleavage. (Odd, how that keeps happening). There is plenty to see this holiday season that is much more worthy of attention than this, I am sorry to say. I was looking forward to a couple hours of laughs and landed about three in the whole two hours.

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