Friday, October 31, 2014

"Fury" - A Review in Which I Sincerely Praise the Acting of Shia LaBeouf...


Good acting, Shia, but I don't know about that mustache...
                  American tank movies are few and far between in cinematic history possibly because of the less than enthralling claustrophobic quality of a tank.  It might also have something to do with the fact that the German tanks were superior to American tanks during World War II so there aren’t many feel-good, gung-ho true stories to work with.  This might be why writer/director David Ayer decided to write a fictional story for his tank movie, Fury.  But while the film might be a bit gung-ho, there is certainly nothing feel-good about it.

                Fury, at its core, is a miserable story about the horrors of war.  It doesn’t dwell on the horror or even condemn it, however.  Instead, the focus is on what war does to a man, or group of men, in this case.  Fury is a warts and all depiction of brotherhood through war.  Most war films cover this unique relationship, but few filmmakers have realized that the tank is the perfect setting to condense that complicated situation into a film.  (The only film that came to mind as I watched this was The Beast, an under-watched 1988 film about a Russian tank crew in Afghanistan.)  While the inside of a tank does not make for a compelling visual, it does wonders for character interaction.

                The characters are what make Fury interesting, but also strange.  The plot of the film is essentially about a newcomer, Norman (Logan Lerman), to the crew of the titular tank, Fury, and his initiation by fire (quite literally) into World War II.  Since this is a fictional story, there is no historic grand battle for Fury to take part in, instead the plot is relegated to vague missions about “holding the line” and not giving up.  The story truly does not matter since this is a character study.  It is a strange character study because we learn almost nothing about most of the characters apart from their role in the war.  Some might see this as a weakness, but it is actually beneficial to the story.  Fury does not attempt to create complete characters, just men shaped by war.  It isn’t important to know what Brad Pitt’s character did before the war.  Perhaps it would add a level of complexity to the proceedings if it turned out that this brutal man was actually a librarian or something, but that would be cheesy and unnecessary.  No matter what jobs these characters had back home, there job now is to kill other people.  Fury attempts to show the disturbing effects war has on the soldiers.  Whether or not it successfully does that is up for debate.

                When we meet the tank crew, they are already battle-hardened and on edge.  Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt) is the tough leader, whose most important mission is to protect his men.  (There is actually no point in naming the other characters because their names are fairly forgettable and/or underused.  In fact, I didn’t know what Brad Pitt’s character’s name was until I looked it up on IMDb a few minutes ago.  This all goes back to the lack of character development beyond the moment of each scene.)  The other men in the tank are played by Shia LaBeouf (the religious one), Jon Bernthal (the redneck), Michael Peña (the driver), and Logan Lerman (the new guy).  Just because the names of the characters are not important does not mean that these are one-note characters.  It just means they can be identified more easily by their first impression. 

                Instead of getting to know these characters in depth, we just discover them in battle, which is the point of the film.  If Fury has something to say about the effects of war on a person, then knowing anything about that character beforehand belittles that point.  It does not matter what these characters were, look at what they have become.  And they have become brutal, cold killing machines.  This makes Fury more of a spiritual companion to Full Metal Jacket more than Saving Private Ryan.  Although, tonally, this film is even more depressing than Jacket.  All of the main characters say or do things that make you wonder whether they are “good” men throughout the film.  They are never meant to be hated, though, quite the opposite.  These men are meant to be pitied for what war has done to them.  Because of that, and because of casting, it’s easy to end up liking this crew, despite some of their harsher moments.

                Brad Pitt brings some natural authority to his role, and he’s as likable as always.  It was a bit hard to divorce this character from the one he played in Inglourious Basterds, however.  It’s not that they are all that similar (though they both are very good at killing NATzees…), it’s just that the roles are close together in his filmography.  Bernthal provides the sole comedic relief of the film with his almost cartoonish redneck antics, and that is certainly welcome in such grim proceedings.  Peña is proving to be a very diverse actor with this role (I know him mostly from comedies like Eastbound & Down and Observe and Report).  Lerman doesn’t get a lot to do aside from look scared/angry, but he handles it well.  Surprisingly (to me, at least), LaBeouf was the most impressive.  Perhaps it’s because of his off-screen behavior, but he’s hard to take seriously.  But here, he truly appeared to be in the moment, and his performance allowed his character to be the most complex of the film. 

                The performances in a war film are the most important aspect of it, especially if it is making a statement on war itself.  But it’s also very important to present the action in a realistic way, as well.  Fury has some of the most effective and tense battle sequences of recent memory.  It is also shockingly gory at times.  It does tiptoe that fine line between realism and glorification, but realism does win out, for the most part.  There are still battle sequences that the more gung-ho viewer can fist pump to, but most viewers will feel the brutality rather than cheer it on.  The only thing that hampers the action is the music.

                Normally, the score to a war film is naturally patriotic, somber, rousing, etc.  And that is as it should be.  But Fury is an anti-war film meant to display the real brutality of the violence.  There was no soundtrack during the real battles of WWII, and Fury would have been even more effective if the filmmakers would have left out the soundtrack as well.  The audience doesn’t need “sad” music playing when characters have died to let us know that it is sad.  It is just insulting to the audience to think that they wouldn’t know when to feel sad.  Also, using music that sounds borderline militaristic during battle scenes takes away from the realistic tone the film was going for.  It doesn’t ruin the film, but it certainly cheapens it from time to time.  When it comes to disturbing violence, silence is the most effective option.

                Despite that slight misstep, Fury should go down as one of the better war films in recent decades.  While it wasn’t memorable enough to be considered one of the best ever (the topic of war has just been covered too much for new ground to be broken…), it has certainly earned its place as one of, if not the, best tank film ever made. 

Fury receives a:

Thursday, October 23, 2014

"Gone Girl" (I have no witty title for this one. Also, I know it's really late, but I still felt like putting it on here.)

Gone Girl
That smile is the best evidence of Affleck's perfect casting.

                 A local man’s wife goes missing.  There is evidence of a struggle.  The man, over the course of the first days of the disappearance, acts strangely and appears to be increasingly guilty.  Does this sound like the set up to the year’s smartest, most biting comedy?  Strangely enough, it is.  Gone Girl, the insanely popular novel by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay), had its darkly comedic moments, but overall the novel maintained an acerbic tone as it dissected a toxic marriage and the media circus of disappearances/murders.  The film maintains that tone but also elevates the source material by becoming a somewhat absurdist comedy.  It’s almost as if Flynn realized as she was adapting it that a lot of the plot, simply over the top on the page, would become silly on the screen.  It’s a good thing she did because it made Gone Girl not only interesting, but entertaining as well. 
                The specific story of Gone Girl concerns Nick Dunne (a perfectly cast Ben Affleck), a failed New York journalist who returns to his economically down-turned Missouri home with his beautiful wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), a New York woman through and through (and the subject of a children’s book series written by her parents titled Amazing Amy).  Their marriage deteriorates over the course of a couple years in Missouri, and on the day of their fifth anniversary, Amy goes missing.  That sounds more like the plot to your typical Lifetime movie, but to say much more would spoil the bulk of the film. 
                The film jumps around narratively so both sides of the relationship are featured, and this allows for plenty of fears of marriage to be tossed around (cheating, money, complacency, bitterness, etc.).  It ends up being a darkly funny look at all the fears married couples (or just people in relationships in general) go through.  The basic question being: how much can you really know anyone?  This isn’t a new question for a film.  (The Rules of Attraction comes to mind, when James Van Der Beek’s character flat out says, “No one ever knows anyone.”)  And marriage is often the subject of a film (my favorite film about marriage, or rather, the fears of marriage, would have to be Eyes Wide Shut).  But Gone Girl is unique in that it doesn’t present itself as a case study about marriage.  It’s an absurdist dark comedy about marriage. 
                Who better for an absurdist dark comedy than David Fincher?  Director Fincher may not be the first name brought up when it comes to comedy, but when you check his filmography (Fight Club, Se7en, Zodiac, The Social Network), you see that a number of his films are flat out comedic or at least contain quite a few darkly comedic moments.  Some questioned his decision to take on such a popular novel for his latest film, but once you see it, you understand why the director, famous for filming dozens of takes for particular scenes, is perfect for this source material.  On the page, Flynn wrote dialogue in many scenes as sparsely as possible.  On the screen, reaction shots are necessary.  This is why Fincher was perfect for this; his multiple takes allowed him to capture the best facial responses to the insanity of the story.  Hats off to Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) for providing the funniest nonverbal reactions.  Because of this, the audience is so used to seeing these silent reactions that when Nick’s lawyer (portrayed by a great Tyler Perry) states, “You two are the most f-ed up people I’ve ever met,” it gets a huge laugh (or at least it did in my theater) because someone finally said it out loud. 
                Those people Perry is referring to are impressively portrayed by Affleck and Pike.  Everyone knows who Affleck is, and we’re all on board with his career resurgence of late.  I never found him to be lacking in acting ability (his role choice is another question), so it was great to see him in a part seemingly written exclusively for him: a character that many people seem to want to hate (just look at the typical internet reaction to Affleck’s casting as the new Batman), but really can’t help his nature.  To be certain, Affleck is not Nick, but it’s easy to confuse the two, which is a credit to his performance that will almost certainly get ignored in the coming awards season (they already gave him Oscars for writing and directing, it’s doubtful they’ll add acting anytime soon). 
                Rosamund Pike is lesser known but her work here is just as impressive.  Without spoiling anything, she gets a bit more to do than the other characters, and she handles it all very convincingly.  The film opens with Nick narrating, wondering what goes on in Amy’s mind, and Pike does a great job at conveying that mystery.  There’s so much going on in her eyes and reactions.
                The supporting cast is just as perfectly cast as the leads.  The aforementioned Fugit and Perry surprised in their roles (it’s hard to imagine the kid from Almost Famous as a detective or Madea as a lawyer).  Kim Dickens (under-appreciated in nearly everything she does), as the lead detective, is effective as she puzzles through the story, providing a cipher for the audience.  Carrie Coon provides another cipher role for the audience as Nick’s sister and provides plenty of comedic relief, as well.  You get the idea; it’s a great cast through and through.
                The writing, directing, and acting are all great, but the music truly completes this film.  The score (by recent Fincher mainstays Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) for Gone Girl gets under your skin.  While the film is funny, it is also filled with tense moments.  The tension created by the script and performances is already apparent, but that distracting score adds the finishing touch.  A good score isn’t necessarily supposed to be noticed, and Reznor and Ross concocted a perfect blend of…well, noise that pervades throughout the film cutting off just at the moment it becomes impossible to ignore. 

                If Gone Girl accomplishes anything, it presents a certain despairing mood about a toxic marriage.  It’s truly a nihilistic, somewhat angry film peopled with (mostly) unlikable/despicable characters.  Somehow, however, Fincher and company have turned this into one of the year’s funniest, most enjoyable film experiences.

Gone Girl receives a: