October 17, 2014
Film Review: Fury

Dir. David Ayer
Score: 6.8

After more than two decades in the biz as one of the few remaining stars in the dwindling Hollywood constellation, Brad Pitt has taken on an increasingly rare additional aura. Because he tends to take long bouts between projects — his last leading role, in World War Z, was 18 months ago — and because he has retained his stature as a true leading man, an extremely small cabal that includes Cruise, Denzel, and Pitt’s good friend Clooney, among others, a Brad Pitt movie takes on an additional sort of sheen: It becomes a Brad Pitt Event.

Fortunately, unlike some of his other peers, he has also used his exalted status to be quite scrupulous about the films he does make. More often than not, in addition to starring in them, he also serves as a producer, leading to a greater degree of artistic control for the filmmakers. It’s quite a cache, and one that Pitt does not generally take lightly.

As such, it should come as no surprise then, that his new WWII picture, written and directed by the accomplished David Ayer, takes on a bit of its own sort of mythic status. The story, which concerns a tank commander and his small, beaten-up crew trying to survive ever-increasingly difficult missions as the Allies push towards Berlin in the last throes of the war, teeters precariously on heavily-treaded ground, but manages to keep its wheels on through a particularly intense climax.

Ayer, a screenwriter-turned-director whose previous film End of Watch was an under-the-radar police flick set in L.A. that also worked surprisingly well despite its familiar-sounding material, has a way of drawing more out of standard Hollywood genres than you at first imagine. His character work is more refined, his plot points slightly more convoluted, but he also maximizes the skills and abilities of his cast. End of Watch starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as a couple of happily mismatched partners, cruising the streets of L.A. as they work through their various shenanigans and endlessly repetitive conversations together. They were friends in the truest sense of the word, and unlike so many other films that purport to do a similar thing, you actually believed those guys deeply cared about one another.

Ayer pulls a similar trick here. Pitt plays a Sgt. nicknamed “Wardaddy,” leading his fitful crew through their last missions together by the force of his command and his gritty resolve. As we meet them, just after one hellacious looking battle, they’ve lost one of their auxiliary gunners, leaving “Bible” (Shia LaBeouf), a religious sort with a bushy punctuation mark of a mustache and Wardaddy’s lone confidant; “Gordo” (Peña), the rowdy Latino tank driver; and “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal), a redneck mechanic from Arkansas with bad teeth and a bit of a wild streak, as the lone survivors of their entire battalion. Returning to base, they pick up a wet-behind-the-ears recruit in Norman (Logan Lerman), a kid so fresh to the frontlines they don’t even have a nickname for him yet.

Over the course of things, the team, immediately dispatched back in the field, convoy with another group of tanks to clear out a nearby town, watch approvingly as Wardaddy forces Norman to forego his ethical morality and learn how to kill quickly and without remorse, take in a leisurely, almost pleasant dinner interlude with a German woman (Annamaria Marinca) and her fetching young cousin (Alicia von Rittberg), and eventually find themselves in the fight of their lives at a crossroads deep in enemy territory against a seemingly insurmountable number of SS troops.

While Ayer’s film dutifully follows in the footsteps of the high-prestige war drama — echoes abound from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, among others — he does have a way of making just enough alterations and mildly surprising diversions to make it something more uniquely his. The dinner interlude — which starts out with Norman and Wardaddy sharing their eggs, and affections, with the German women before being rudely interrupted by the rest of the team, drunk and bitter at being left out — has a curious pace all to its own. By the time the three other men barge in and start making a mess, you feel the consternation of their foul-mouthed, drunken banter, forcing their way in where they were very much not wanted.

Ayer also has absolutely no problem bringing us the true horror of armed conflict, where bodies become hunks of ravaged meat under a barrage of mortar shells and tank treads. At times, this proclivity becomes something a bit closer to indulgence (tanks running over bodies pressed down into the muck, more than one head torn off the shoulders and forcibly detonated), but it does serve to grip you even more tightly into your seat, not affording you the luxury of being able to pull away from its depiction of savagery.

Pitt, for his part, is more or less recreating the Lt. Aldo Raine bit from Inglourious Basterds, down to his cocksure southern lilt, and his undying hatred of the Nazis. It’s a good role for him, but the real showcase here is Lerman, who imbibes his babe-in-the-woods character with just enough common decency and incredulousness to work as a stand-in for the rest of us who have never had to experience the horror of this experience (returning to Private Ryan, he’s the Corporal Upham character, minus most of Jeremy Davies nervous tics).

So, if the film falls prey to a few of the more standard tropes — the loss of innocence, the horror of war, the ludicrousness of military protocols in contrast to the courageous of its participants — it has enough else working through its cannons that it still leaves a heavy amount of shrapnel in your guts by the time the end credits roll. Pitt, the eventful Hollywood star, soldiers on. 

October 17, 2014
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October 10, 2014
Film Review Link: The Judge

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Film Review Link: Kill the Messenger

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October 3, 2014
Film Review Link: The Skeleton Twins

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Film Review Link: Gone Girl

October 3, 2014
Film Review: Tracks

Dir. John Curran
Score: 6.1

The thing about doing something extraordinary is it’s going to sound utterly unreasonable at first. Back in 1977, when Robyn Davidson, a young, callow Aussie woman with a penchant for animals and getting away from clutter, decided to solo hike from deep in the Australia desert all the way to the coast — a distance of some 1700 miles — with only the company of a group of camels to carry her gear and her trusty black Labrador to accompany her, it was seen as the kind of brainless lark a young person decides upon without regarding any of the consequences. But Robyn Davidson was no ordinary explorer.

As played by Mia Wasikowska, she’s sturdy, stubborn, and above all other things, undeterred by anyone else’s expectation of her limitations. Holing up in a deserted shack on the edge of the desert town she intends to embark from, she learns about working with camels and training them for many long months with local camel trainers, and when a group of friends come by for a night of revelry during her preparations, she’s lucky enough to meet Rick Smolan (Adam Driver, whom has now released a mind-boggling five films in 2014 alone — the man must not sleep), a photographer for National Geographic, as it happens, whom he puts her in contact with to sponsor the story.

And so it is, some weeks later, with camels in tow, and a National Geographic grant to fund her, Davidson bids adieu to the remaining members of her family — her mother, we are eventually told, hung herself when Robyn was still quite young — and starts off on what will come to be a nine-month journey. 

With Rick popping in every few weeks to shoot her expedition for the magazine, Robyn makes her way across sacred aboriginal land with the aid of a kindly village elder (Roly Mintuma), endures a tragic loss, becomes completely sun-drenched and loses her bearings, and eventually encounters numerous tourists on buses and squadrons of journalists after her quest grows into both national and international news. 

She also seems to encounter a steady stream of truly decent and caring people, in fact, as the film would have it, with Robyn’s strong desire to keep planning to a bare minimum and rely instead upon the kindness of strangers, she essentially does exactly that and seems to suffer absolutely no negative repercussions for her lack of forethought. She’s constantly getting bailed out, if not by the affable Smolan — whom, after one romantic evening encounter, becomes besotted by her — then by the few kindly people, both Aboriginal and non-native, she meets along the way. Naturally, she suffers a fair amount as well, but considering the circumstances, not nearly as much as she could have.

 In fact, but for the slow pace and gritty naturalism of the film — there is much in the way of realistically harsh animal treatment and countless shots of the Outback itself, ineffable and pitiless — it could make a fine Disney treatment whose theme would revolve around one young woman overcoming terrific odds and the indomitable human spirit.

Which naturally leads to the film’s central issue: It doesn’t really have terribly much to say, either about Robyn, the Outback, or the human spirit. Curran dutifully follows her trail, documenting many of the incidents listed in her book of the same name, but as the film neither adds dramatic swirls, nor insightful meditation — its quite happy to leave the taciturn Robyn as a young, sun-blanched cypher; whatever she’s getting out of the experience remains either on the surface or largely unexplored — it doesn’t actually have all that much to do. Lip service is placed on giving us a psychological context for Robyn’s trajectory (the death of her mother and subsequent loss of her childhood dog, as her father had to move her away to live with an aunt), but it still doesn’t give us terribly much with which to work.

Given the lack of dramatic arc, Curran and DP Mandy Walker resort to countless artful shots of the landscape under Robyn’s feet and all around her. It’s a fair argument; it so happens that this part of the Aussie Outback is wondrous and varied, from scrub desert to large red cliffs, to the pure sandy white of the dunes leading up to the Indian Ocean, but with much less else to offer beyond its limited premise, the film never rises much beyond a simple travelogue, true to its roots as a National Geographic article, but with the sinking sense that you’d probably be better off just reading the original. 

September 27, 2014
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Must-see list for N.Y. festival

September 19, 2014
Film Review: This Is Where I Leave You

Dir. Shawn Levy
Score: 3.8

God lament the Hollywood family ensemble. Of late, these films seem to take one of two divergent paths: Extreme melodrama, bordering on pathological (August: Osage County); or weak-minded, simpering comedies, which strive to be equal parts mirthful and heart-felt. Shawn Levy’s limp dramedy is clearly in the latter category, pulling together a bunch of wacky siblings along with their outspoken mother, to sit Shiva for their dearly departed father for the requisite seven days. Such is the nature of this film that only two of the sibs even seem remotely like they could be related, and all their accumulated emotional baggage gets washed away in a giant wave of well-meaning platitudes. Wade through this muck at your own peril.

As typical of the genre, the filmmakers have at least cobbled together an impressive cast. There’s Jason Bateman as Judd, in the kind of role he has perfected over the years: a peace-keeping middle brother who tries desperately to keep his more wild sibs in check as they rail and fight and crash against each other. He also may still be harboring longings towards a beautiful childhood friend, Penny (Rose Byrne), who’s living in the area. There’s Tina Fey, playing Wendy, the lone sister in a squadron of boys, a mother of two young children, a wife to a flatly unemotional type-A workaholic (Aaron Lazar), who has exactly one scene where his phone isn’t pressed to his ear.

There’s also Paul (Corey Stoll), the fiery oldest brother, whose wife (Kathryn Hahn) and he can’t conceive a child, despite their ever more desperate attempts. This leaves Phillip (Adam Driver) as the young wildcard brother, who shows up for his father’s funeral late, careening down the cemetery road in a black Porsche, blaring out dance music, with his much older former therapist (Connie Nielson) in tow as his new near-fiancé. And holding the whole nutty clan together, Hillary (Jane Fonda), the author of a popular tell-all memoir about the raising of her family, and who has a propensity to speak openly about her late husband’s sexual prowess in unconventional settings because her character needed something to do.

Naturally, everyone has a problem at the beginning of the film: Judd has just found out his wife has been sleeping with his boss, the tiresome radio blowhard Wade (Dax Shepard); Wendy has a contemptible husband and a still-yearning love for Horry (Timothy Olyphant), their across-the-street neighbor, permanently brain damaged after a car accident back when they were madly in love as teenagers; Paul has infertility issues; Phillip sleeps with everything that moves, and so on. Just as naturally, each and every one of these matters is addressed and brought to a close, ad nauseum, by the end of film in a series of ever-more unendurable scenes of denouement. Director Levy working from a script by Jonathan Tropper, based upon his own novel, is determined to leave no stone unturned, and no ham-handed symbol not fully realized by the closing credits.

It’s the kind of film that inexplicably keeps the candles on a birthday cake perfectly alight despite being whisked all across a large apartment until such time as the man holding the cake — in this case Judd, who has walked in on his wife and boss physically bonding in his marriage bed — sees fit to dutifully blow them as a last paean to his eviscerated marriage. And that’s not even the worst the film manages to conjure up: In the course of things, we’re treated to an impressive array of totally hackneyed symbols and totems. Judd, ever risk-averse, laments that he’s never swerved off the interstate to head up north to Maine, even though he’s often wanted to try it (and when this moment does indeed come to pass — and God knows, it’s coming — the interstate signs have been changed to read “New York” and “Maine” as your directional options, just to hammer the incredibly obvious point home with one last suplex); the house has a faulty fuse box that serves as a kind of magic conduit between Judd and his dead father, who insisted on doing all the electrical wiring himself.

Even if strong casting is the one thing the film firmly establishes for itself, you have to question some of the production’s tactics. The siblings bear no resemblance to one another, in their physical nature as well as their emotional dealings. Tina Fey, while a phenomenally gifted comic writer and limited performer, still isn’t, technically, an actress, so giving her a deeply emotional roll that forces her to emote through several tearful scenes is absolutely not playing to her strength. Nor is giving Olyphant, a handsome, charismatic man given to quick deadpans and jolting energy, the thankless roll of emotional mascot, the one who suffers irrevocable loss and still can’t remember what to do with the wrench he just got out of the toolbox.

In fact, as derided as the aforementioned August film might have been, I would personally take its take-no-prisoners venom and family vitriol over this kind of simple-minded “Modern Family” style pabulum in a trice. Neither one is particularly much good, but at least one isn’t insulting your intelligence with the most blandly uplifting possible outcome in every scenario, all while “challenging” its main protagonist to change up his game and avoid the too obvious and safe approach to life. Of the two, I’ll gladly take the film that (at least up to its dreadful, tacked-on ending) stuck to its formidable guns and at least attempted to practice what it preached. 

September 19, 2014
Film Review Link: A Walk Among the Tombstones

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September 17, 2014
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