Broken Down Chemistry

Marla: “Lately, I've seen movies that lack a certain emotional depth. It’s a beautiful exercise in glamour, style, and format, but there is no diving into the deep end – like when a situation between two or more people feels emotionally gutting, or quietly crushing - I miss that. At least, I find myself unaffected by much of what I’ve watched in recent months.”

Sandor: “Yeah, but your expectation as a movie goer far outstrips that of a regular person just wanting to indulge in some escapism. You dissect everything and want everything to fit perfectly. You are like a baby bird starving for stand ins of intensity, passion, intimacy. Those movies have a tall hurdle to clear if you ask me. I don’t go to movies asking all that. It’s o.k. if they don’t vicariously fill me with what I am lacking.”

Marla: “Hey, who says I am watching movies so that I can fill a void inside? That’s not fair to say. I don’t think it’s too much to ask of movies to bring home what they set out to do, especially if you have the big Hollywood machine behind you, giving you all the mega props and star actors, all the freedom to execute your vision. I think it’s accountability, no, maybe that’s the wrong word, devotion, yes, devotion to the craft, to the entirety of the piece, not just to the details in the hopes that an array of exquisite ingredients is going to produce a smashing whole. I accuse some of those directors of relying on formula too much, or on aesthetics. Wouldn’t you agree that, at least in the drama movie genre, the intention is to reach the public emotionally? That has nothing to do with whether a person watching a film is starving for some intimacy in her own life. The beauty is to make the audience care, especially when it is absolutely unrelated to their lives. It’s about connecting them, plugging them into the protagonists, make them feel what they are going through. Transference, that’s what I am talking about. Pulling the audience in despite themselves. I normally cry easily in films, but lately, some of the more searing, emotionally intense scenes in films have left me with a pretty much unconcerned shoulder shrug. Do you know what I mean? It’s not about trying to vicariously live something on celluloid. I mean, sure, we can get drawn in by something we have been missing, something we feel we lost, but unless it’s executed in a way that feels authentic, that shows the actors’ commitment, their fearlessness toward what the role requires, it will fall flat and feel artificial as a result of it.”

Sandor: “Are you done with your diatribe? I didn’t mean what I said in a bad way. I know that you are a cinephile and to you cinema is not just a mindless pastime. You are seeing this as the art that it surely is, and so you have demands on it. You experience it with all your senses. What I am saying though is that I think directors nowadays don’t always think of their audience as someone like you. Some, yes, they are truly dedicated to their craft. They want to make each element work, they are the aesthetes but also the engineers, and the romantics and the nihilists (that somehow still care) out there intent, driven, almost obsessed with wanting the audience to feel something deep, something uncomfortable in some cases. They want to provide a silver line experience. I can think of Lars von Trier, for one. He is controversial but one cannot level criticism against him for being sloppy or formulaic, or just in it to make big bucks based on tired, repackaged story lines. I guess where I can understand your frustration is when a true and tried film director comes along, and he doesn’t deliver on something you know he or she can do better.”

Marla: “Exactly. That’s what I am trying to convey. I obviously am clumsy with it, but yes, that’s essentially it. I hate when expensive, and by expensive, we are really talking about exorbitant, resources are being utilized and spent only to end up with something at best mediocre, something good enough, but that you can so feel has missed the obvious mark.”

Sandor: “What movie comes to mind for you when you talk about all the elements being there but the end product being such a disappointment?”

Marla: “To be honest, I am immediately thinking of the new Brad Pitt movie “Allied”. It had everything, an Oscar-winning Director, A-list actors, a renowned scriptwriter, a cinematography evocative of "Casablanca", everything, and yet this story of espionage and cross-fire love between spies fell so flat for me. I couldn’t be made to care. I felt it to be utterly formulaic, like you could watch the puzzle pieces being assembled, and the whole didn’t even feel like a coherent picture. Some plot choices seemed hollow, tired, and barely believable, starting with Brad Pitt playing a Parisian husband to Marion Cotillard. I can command Pitt’s delivery of French phrases for being half good (or bad), but to make the audience believe that his clearly American accent could pass for native French, that’s laughable. That’s when I feel being taken for a fool.”

Sandor: “Makes you think that they simply wanted to squeeze this big Hollywood heavyweight down the director’s throat. You make it work around whom the production company wishes to cast, which name will ring big at the box office. I see what you’re saying. I, on my end, get upset when I see films like “Memoirs of a Geisha” and the Chinese actresses are speaking labored English. Why not have the movie subtitled and allow them to speak in their native tongue? After all, the movie plays in Japan. It’s because it will draw less of an audience. Or, the upcoming movie “Ghost in the Shell”. Shouldn’t the main character be played by an Asian actress? Instead they cast Scarlett Johannson. She’s great, I love her, and I believe she can pull off pretty much any role, but it feels forced. So I totally see where someone like you would feel that the material hasn’t been properly honored.”

Marla: “Yeah, I remember watching “Memoirs” and feeling the same. I love Gong-Li but when she speaks English something gets lost. The same with Penelope Cruz. I love her in the roles that Almodovar casts her in, but when she has to speak English, it feels like she needs to concentrate on pronouncing the English word correctly and in the process her acting chops get downgraded a notch or even two. Even Marion Cotillard in the film; I liked her best when she was firing off in French. She felt natural, in her element, the femme fatale wooing people into a narrative about her and her phosphate mining husband. But when she switched to English, I don’t know, some of the spark that she possesses just fails to translate, literally.”

Sandor: “I don’t mind so much when foreign actors or actresses speak English with an accent. I don’t really notice that their acting becomes less efficient as a result. I felt that Marion overall owned the screen and the role much more than Brad Pitt did. He seemed so flaccid in his demeanor, stoic, no, that’s not even the word, absent with an almost vacant stare. If the filmmaker wanted to convey that we were in the presence of a deep, brooding person, I don’t think it came across well. I’ve seen Brad Pitt in better roles than that.”

Marla: “Exactly. Here we are talking about two top level spies having been recruited for a top secret, highly dangerous mission that they are not sure they will survive, and somehow I didn’t feel the sizzle of the buildup. Maybe the scene with Nazi General Hobart came closest when Pitt shuffles the cards and then has to write down the formula for phosphate. There should have been a lot more of these tense scenes. The entire mission, once unfolding, didn’t leave me on the edge of my seat. It came and went without any real hiccups, without the 60-40 odds against them. Oh, and don’t get me started on their first sex scene in the sandstorm. That felt so staged.”

Sandor: “I kind of liked how the camera was waltzing around them. Very artistic. It does take away from their passion though. It did feel like the camera was the more interesting movement to follow. Yeah, I failed to see true chemistry between the two as well. She was more convincing for sure, but he, even in all his nakedness and two butt shots I counted, it wasn’t really meaty. I didn’t feel sucked into it. They are going through the motions. I don’t know, but somehow his face betrayed too little.”

Marla: “In a movie like this, the two actors have to be believable both in their love for each other, whether real or faked, and in being ruthless contract killers for their respective governments. Neither really transpires, comes across. Even the Trailer does a better job at building suspense. That last scene when Pitt comes home, sits down at the breakfast table, and she looks at him, a bit suspicious, asking: ‘Where is my kiss?’ That’s pretty effective, but in the film the scene was not at all as impacting.”

Sandor: “You just wanted to swoon watching two beautiful people dance around each other in a suggestive tango until they finally clash, and consume each other voraciously. Well, this movie is a bit of old Hollywood revived. I read that it has clear parallels to “Casablanca”, and so maybe it’s Zemecki’s intention to bring us a bit of the old style, the old studio glamour. Back in the day, actors were simply pressing their lips against each other, and they called it rapture. Looking at those movies today, they feel totally staged and devoid of authenticity. Maybe that’s what he was going for.”

Marla: “Maybe, I don’t know. I happen to love old Hollywood, with all of its clichés and shortcomings, and I felt more when watching Clark Gable and Scarlett kissing despite melodramatic music swirling and oversized, lavish décor weighing down the scene. The way that their romance comes together, that made for an immersive movie experience. You can’t get enough of them. Here, Pitt and Cotillard, have a lot going for them, but it doesn’t translate. Those scenes on the rooftops of Casablanca could have been filmed with much more suggestion and innuendo, a clever cat-and-mouse game, but instead as Marion seduces and plays the adoring wife for the neighbors, Pitt looks on in a vapid, lethargic manner. So much more could have been reaped from this scene.”

Sandor: “There definitely are scenes that could have been shot and built differently. I agree. The scene that comes to mind for me is the one after Pitt takes the call, which is supposed to bait Marion, and they start making love. I feel that this change in sexual pace could have been depicted better. I think what Marion observes the next day, that Pitt made love differently the night before, could have been explored more. I think the scene should have built up to further invite the audience to viscerally feel Pitt’s dilemma, his doubts and growing fear that  what the V Section official said is the truth against his deep wish of it not being so.”

Marla: “Their whole relationship is not portrayed convincingly if you ask me. Unmet potential. We come back to that. It feels as if Zemecki’s did one take, looked at it, and thought, good enough. It doesn’t feel like the director knew how to - engage the actors. And here there are rumors about an off screen romantic dalliance between Cotillard and Pitt. If so, it surely didn’t show on screen.”

Sandor: “You know what they say. If there is no chemistry on set, it means they are getting it on off set. That certainly didn’t hold true with Jolie and Pitt while filming “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”. That was steamy.”

Marla: “I wonder what Jolie must think if she decides to watch the movie. This was certainly not her husband’s most stellar performance. When I compare “Allied” to “By the Sea”, what a world of difference. I read that audiences and critics pretty much panned the movie, but I was engrossed in it. I believed their agony, and the scene in the bathtub, when Pitt and Jolie touch each other for the first time on screen and you feel their longing for intimacy, for redemption, for each other, the melting down of the fortresses they had built around and against each other. It’s just so beautiful. I didn’t want this scene to end.”

Sandor: “Maybe this movie spoke to you because you like European cinema. I think that it has its own distinct sensibility, and it deals with emotions differently. The way they are approached, dissected and expressed – it’s more cinema verite, not enough escapism, not enough veneer. For Americans, well, the average American I presume, the sex scenes in “Allied” probably hit the mark. They are satisfied with that. It’s something they can follow. It’s not quite messy, it’s straight forward. I mean there is all this underlying mess about two people lying for a living, impersonating people, being in constant disguise and here they are unclothing each other, but to what degree? How much does each person let go, how much do they allow themselves to be seen? And yet, it feels almost like two regular tourists having met and fallen in love in Casablanca. The whirling sandstorm doesn’t seem to make their love making more dangerous, more foreboding, more tempestuous.”

Maria: “I mean, they could both be dying that same night. Honestly, the only roar that could be heard in the film was the howl of the desert wind. The fire inside never quite rises to the occasion if you ask me. Lukewarm coals from beginning til end.  I am telling you; I felt annoyingly detached throughout this entire cinematic exercise, a bit duped even. Sad, really. The movie had a lot going for it.”