Tuesday, November 29, 2016

In Theaters: ALLIED (2016)

(US/China - 2016)

Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by Steven Knight. Cast: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Simon McBurney, Lizzy Caplan, August Diehl, Matthew Goode, Daniel Betts, Camille Cottin, Charlotte Hope, Thierry Fremont, Anton Lesser. (R, 124 mins)

A defiantly old-fashioned throwback to glamorous star vehicles of yesteryear--except when it makes jarring modern concessions in terms of profanity and sexual content--ALLIED is an entertaining if occasionally implausible WWII espionage thriller that's equal parts wartime programmer and Alfred Hitchcock. In 1942, Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachutes into the French Moroccan desert for a covert mission in Casablanca, which gives you a good idea of what vibes ALLIED gives off in its early-going and throughout its superior first half. His assignment is to pose as a French phosphate engineer and team with Resistance leader Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), who fled France after she was the sole survivor of a massacre on a compromised outfit. Once she tutors him in making his Quebecois accent sound more Parisian, they're to go undercover as a married couple and blend in with other Nazi sympathizers, with the goal being the assassination of the German ambassador at an upcoming swanky dinner party. Their pretend marriage blossoming into real love during an afternoon desert sandstorm, Max and Marianne relocate to London and marry upon the completion of their mission, settling down into a domesticated existence with a newborn daughter, with family man Max taking a less dangerous office job at British military HQ.

That changes when his superior officer and friend Frank Heslop (Jared Harris) calls him in for a meeting with a high-ranking SOE official (the always sinister Simon McBurney). They have evidence that Marianne Beausejour was killed in 1941 and that the woman Max married is an impostor and a Nazi spy. He's to run a "blue-dye test" in which he gets a phone call, jots down some false intelligence info, then waits to see if decoders pick it up a few days later among their decryptions of German transmissions. If they do, then they know she's a spy and Max is to execute her immediately or be hanged for treason. Of course, Max refuses to believe their allegations and sets out to prove her innocence, even if it means disobeying direct orders and putting his own life at risk.

The script by Steven Knight (EASTERN PROMISES, LOCKE, PEAKY BLINDERS) does a nice job of refusing to pull punches and go for predictable, implausible twists in the name of pleasing the crowd. It's uncompromising in ways that movies for adults used to be, and it's one of the more effective ways that director Robert Zemeckis (BACK TO THE FUTURE, FORREST GUMP) establishes a vividly old-school mindset throughout the film. Going back to the groundbreaking WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, Zemeckis has been a pioneer in the advancement of visual effects, As demonstrated in films like FORREST GUMP and THE WALK, and in his several motion-capture animated works like THE POLAR EXPRESS and BEOWULF, the one-time Steven Spielberg protege is obviously an advocate of digital filmmaking and CGI, and, for better or worse, they're used extensively throughout ALLIED. The recreations of Casablanca and London are generally well done on a visual level, though it rarely feels like anything but a greenscreen, which is a similar degree of artifice you'd see on a 1940's Hollywood set, but just lacks the organic feel (or maybe it's just me), and the CGI sandstorm leaves a lot to be desired. Cotillard is tasked with most of the dramatic heavy lifting even though Pitt gets more of a focus by way of Max's extensive investigating. But there's just something distractingly off about the appearance of the 52-year-old Pitt. Sporting some visible thick makeup under his eyes to wipe away the years required to play a character who's probably 20 years younger, his face almost seems airbrushed, like Milla Jovovich in the third RESIDENT EVIL movie. The resulting CGI sandblasting make him look waxy smooth and disturbingly artificial, almost like a CGI'd Brad Pitt being motion-captured by Andy Serkis. His closeups are enough to take you out of the movie, which is otherwise engrossing (the assassination sequence is top-notch) even if a bit silly at times, such as the perfect family picnic about 20 feet away from a downed German plane whose wreckage is still smoldering.

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