Fury: a more effective anti-war drama than Saving Private Ryan?

Virtually every online blog I have read makes a reference to Saving Private Ryan while reviewing David Ayer’s Brad Pitt starrer Fury. A couple of reviews have gone so far as to call it as good as or better than the Spielberg Oscar-winner. There’s no escaping the influence of Saving Private Ryan on the look and feel of this film – right from the realistic production design to the dynamic between the world-weary team leader and the fresh-faced young soldier. But Fury is an edgier, rawer film than Spielberg would ever have been comfortable making. Nevertheless, it is just what one would expect from the man who wrote Training Day (2001), directed the acclaimed cop drama End of Watch (2012) and ultra-violent action-thriller Sabotage (2014). After years of writing (The Fast and the Furious and SWAT) and directing (the little-seen Harsh Times and Street Kings) contemporary cop-and-gangster movies set in LA, this is his first real foray into a different genre, but he brings a lot of the same gritty aesthetic from those earlier films to this WW2 setting.

To begin with, I loved the casting – Pitt’s tank crew consists of Michael Pena (who was Jake Gyllenhaal’s partner in End of Watch), Shia LeBeouf, Jon Bernthal and Logan Lerman (who played the title character in the two Percy Jackson movies) as the typist who is suddenly shoehorned into becoming a tank machine-gunner. Each of the actors has a distinctive face and personality; and this in itself provides a certain depth to the characters which could perhaps not be expressed in any other way, given the constraints of the script and setting. Of course, David Ayer cannot be called subtle, so right up front, it becomes fairly obvious that Lerman’s character is the only one who is going to come out of this war alive. Even so, I was pleasantly surprised by a key scene that takes place in the middle of the film, when the troops have just taken a German town and are engaging in a bit of R&R. This scene serves more than one purpose; it provides a breather for the audience between two battle sequences, with some moments of tenderness and humanity. But more importantly, it creates an unexpected bit of tension among this closely knit band of brothers, with all sorts of emotions on display – guilt, anger, anguish, betrayal – and just as quickly, the next call of battle arrives and it’s time to put the emotions away and get on with the business of killing.

The cinematography by Russian Roman Vasyanov, who also shot Ayer’s End of Watch (with a very different style) is a real treat. The tank battle in the open field and the climactic defense of the crossroads in the night are both spectacular, with the tracer rounds looking light energy bolts fired from X-Wings in Star Wars. At the same time, a couple of key moments in between (Pitt brutally makes a man out of the new recruit and the R&R scene in the German town) are also shot very effectively, the close framing of the characters fully capturing the emotions of the moment.

I marveled also at the production design – the mud, the military equipment, the uniforms, the mud, the inside of the tank with the little personal touches, the blood, the facial scars on Brad Pitt and Jason Isaacs, the mud…everything feels hyper-real. Inside the tank, one gets a real sense of the claustrophobia that we also saw in U-571, a WW2 screenplay Ayer co-wrote in 2000. Meanwhile, there are also some unreal, but stylistic touches like the cool haircuts everyone has and Brad Pitt’s permanently gelled hair look!

This film is unlikely to receive any Oscar nominations, because of course the Academy would never nominate any film so raw/ edgy/ explicit, unless it was directed by Martin Scorsese.

Unlike Tom Hanks and his men in Saving Private Ryan, the crew of Fury do not die in the noble task of bringing one young man home alive to his distraught mother. Instead they die in the defense of a crossroad in the middle of nowhere in a war which they know they are going to win in a few days. In both cases, the deaths really make no sense at all and that I suppose, is the point that both these films were trying to make. But unburdened by Spielberg’s sentimentality, I think Fury drives the point home more effectively.

PS: Keep your eyes out for a small role by Clint Eastwood’s lookalike son Scott.


Summer movie rankings and scorecard

With the summer half done, I thought it was a good time to take stock of the movies I’ve seen so far.

My #1 movie of the summer is World War Z (8.5/10): (SPOILERS AHEAD)

When I first heard that the film adaptation of Max Brooks’ celebrated novel was going to be substantially different from the book, I had my misgivings. What was the point of adapting a book, if you were going to change the story and potentially leave out everything that made it so good? The novel is structured as a series of interviews with the survivors of a 10-year long global war against zombies, which eventually the human race won. The interviews, which take place ten years after the end of the war, act as a commentary on the political, economic and social state of different countries across the world. The novel touches upon everything from black market organ trade to apartheid to fudging of test results by pharmaceutical companies. Then came the first trailer and I was appalled that the film makers had re-defined the inherent properties of zombies, making them fast-moving and seemingly capable of coordinated attacks. But after watching the trailer a few times, I had to admit, this version of zombies did behave like humans would if they had been infected by a mutated strain of rabies, which is what the novel indicates as the source of the plague. Anyway, I watched the movie earlier this week and if one puts aside all the comparisons with the book and the news about the troubled film shoot, it turned out to be a smart, incredibly plausible globe-spanning thriller giving the viewer a real sense of having to race against time before humanity is wiped out.

A lot of the credit must go to Brad Pitt, who like Ben Affleck in Argo, plays a capable, intelligent professional who calmly goes about his job and deals with crises without any sort of melodrama. Normally this genre of film is made by directors like Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich and is accompanied by all sorts of inane dialogue. In spite of the fact that the script had to be re-written and polished by multiple writers, the realistic behavior of the lead characters makes this feel like something that could happen to any of us.

The movie has 4 major set pieces, one in a Philadelphia traffic jam (scary and so real), one at a military base in South Korea, one in Jerusalem (tragic) and the last one in a medical facility in Wales. The film makers re-wrote and re-shot the entire third act of the film, switching from an epic battle in Russia to that tense cat-and-mouse game in Wales. I think it was a brave choice, because for a global disaster epic like this, the playbook says it must end in some sort of climactic battle. Instead, the change of pace really works without compromising suspense or the audience’s emotional engagement. I contrast this with the last act of Man of Steel, which surely takes the prize for the worst case of mind-numbing cinematic violence seen so far this summer.

There has been some online criticism of how overly calm some of the people are in the face of all this death and destruction, but I feel this is the reaction of critics who have become too used to the cinematic version of grief…very public and visual, never private. In fact, I feel that the small touches pack the biggest emotional impact – Brad Pitt’s character Gerry Lane reacts with a mix of shame and exhaustion after making an insensitive remark about another survivor’s family, Lane’s wife’s face silently crumples as she struggles to contact him via satellite phone, a team of Black Ops commandos stoically goes out to face almost certain death.

I’m hoping that WWZ makes enough money at the box office that they will complete the planned trilogy of films, perhaps even retaining some of the events from the book like the South African ‘solution’ and the Battle of Yonkers. But even if not, it stands on its own as one of the best disaster films made; at the same level as my other favorites like Independence Day, Deep Impact and War of the Worlds (all of which were much more American than global, in terms of storytelling scope).

Listed below are the remaining summer films I’ve seen in order of preference. Two big gaps in the resume are The Great Gatsby and Fast and Furious 6, all of which I hope to watch before the summer’s out:-

#2: Star Trek Into Darkness (8/10)

#3: Despicable Me 2  (7.5/10)- I just watched the preview this morning. It was as entertaining as the trailer promised it would be. Gru has to be sweetest dad in movie history (at least, in animation movie history) and the Minions must surely be one of the funniest supporting characters ever, ranking alongside Timon & Pumba as well as the Penguins and King Julien from the Madagascar films . The new character Lucy Wilde played by Kristen Wiig (who I’m not a fan of in her live action movies, by the way) is an excellent addition to the cast. To some extent, one could complain that the movie is just a series of skits/ comedy set pieces strung together, but when all those sequences are so funny, who’s to complain. I think I was laughing more than some of the kids in the hall today. And of course, my favorite part is when the head of the Anti-Villain League introduces himself “I am the league’s director Silas Ramsbottom”, followed by sniggers from two of the Minions. Steve Carrel’s voice acting of course, is beyond awesome.

#4: Iron Man 3: (7/10)

#5: Epic: (7/10): Perhaps the most beautifully animated film of 2013 so far. Great eco-friendly concept, although the bad guys were very stereotyped. Lovely theme song “Rise Up” by Beyonce will definitely go into my iPod.

#6: Oblivion: (7/10)

#7: Man of Steel: (7/10)

It seems a bit unfair to have Man of Steel all the way at the bottom of the list, but the scores for the last 4 films are all level at 7/10 and if that last act had been handled better, then quite possibly MoS could have ranked as high as #2. For me, the summer season ends with the release of Elysium in early August. But the 3 biggies to watch out for before that are The Lone Ranger, Pacific Rim and The Wolverine…all worth spending the extra coin to see on IMAX 3D! Roland Emmerich’s White House Down starring Channing Tatum (the biggest box office draw of 2012, but yawn for me) is the possible joker in the pack.

World War Z trailer…forget about the book!

This morning, I watched the trailer for World War Z, the troubled movie adaptation of Max Brooks’ 2006 horror novel, starring (and co-produced by) Brad Pitt.

I read the novel a few months ago in preparation for the release of the film, which was originally slated for December of this year. The novel is structured as a series of interviews with survivors of a worldwide zombie epidemic, written by an agent of the United Nations and published 10 years after the end of the war. It is famous for weaving socio-political, cultural, religious and economic commentary into the narrative; the concomitant realism makes the story all the more chilling and believable.

If the book had to be filmed ‘as is’, then it would have featured a bunch of people talking into a camera, with perhaps some intercut footage of the events being described. This would have made it an interesting entry into the genre of ‘found footage’ films, could have been produced for as little as $10-15 mn and would have made a tidy profit at the box office.

Instead, the film makers have decided to convert it into a tentpole action film, looking like a mash-up of a Roland Emmerich disaster film and Will Smith’s I am Legend. Nothing wrong with wanting to make money, but I can’t understand why the producers bother calling the movie an adaptation of World War Z. They could have just gone out and made an original zombie apocalypse picture, because by the looks of the trailer, this film has very little to do with the book.

For starters, the zombies in the book follow the traditional behavioral traits of their ilk as popularized by George A. Romero in his seminal zombie films, i.e. they are slow moving, have no intelligence and reveal their presence by moaning. In the just released trailer on the other hand, one can see hordes of fast-moving zombies literally sweeping through the streets like a tsunami and attacking a fortified enclosure in an apparently coordinated attack. Besides that, the story is not about the lead character viewing the events of the apocalypse in retrospect through the memories of others, but instead has him smack in the middle of these events, as they unfold; and appears to have him play an active role in the government response to the pandemic.

No doubt, the trailer looks pretty impressive, featuring an audio signature very similar to that of the Prometheus trailer from earlier this year. I don’t think any of the social and political insights from the book would have survived, given the blockbuster ambitions of the filmmakers. Having said that, the trailer does look pretty impressive. The only bit of concern is that the director is Marc Forster, who made such a hash of the last Bond outing Quantum of Solace and given the delay of the film’s release from December this year, plus the rumors of logistical issues and cost over-runs, one wonders what the end product will look like.

All will be revealed in June 2013.

My year-end movie list

It’s that time of the year again when Hollywood rolls out their award contenders as well as some big-budget feel-good blockbusters.

There are 7 movies which are on my must-watch list, another 5 which I will watch, either because they will be Oscar front-runners or because they come from big names, but am not necessarily interested in the subject matter or actors involved. And there are 3 high profile releases which I have no interest whatsoever in (but will probably end up watching anyway at some point). I have also thrown in two films under the heading Guilty Pleasures!

I’m going to start with the 3 big ones which I am not interested in:-

  • Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 – I have watched the entire series so far. I really enjoyed the first film, but I feel the acting and actors have increasingly looked more suited to a daytime soap than a big-screen film…nothing against it, but not really my cup of tea. And I am now thoroughly irritated with the Kristen Stewart approach to acting which mainly consists of furrowing her brow. No doubt, being the last in the series, the film will have a monster opening weekend. Stephanie Meyer fans can next look forward to the film adaptation of her scifi novel, The Host in March 2013.
  • Life of Pi – I am a huge fan of Ang Lee’s work, but have no interest in a story about a boy named Pi stuck on a boat for 227 days with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. I don’t see the point at all and the trailer did nothing to help me change my mind. I can understand that Ang Lee would want to push his own boundaries just as he did when he directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hulk, so I hope for his sake that the film is at least a critical success if not a commercial one.
  • Frankenweenie – I had already covered this in a post soon after the trailer came out. I have watched every single Tim Burton film, except the latest Dark Shadows and his animated 2005 film Corpse Bride, but I haven’t really enjoyed one of his films since Sleepy Hollow back in 1999. And I find his stop-motion animation style too creepy, unless taken in small doses like in Beetlejuice.

Then come the 5 obligatory viewings:-

  • The Master – I have no real interest in this story of a man (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who creates a quasi-religious cult and has a troubled relationship with his most fervent disciple (Joaquin Phoenix). Having said that, I had no real interest in the story of a man who discovered an oil field and had troubled relationships with his son and with an over-zealous preacher, but 2007’s There Will be Blood remains one of my all-time favourite films, so I am certainly going to give Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest effort a fair chance, not to mention that it is most likely to win the Best Picture Oscar in February.
  • Cloud Atlas – I was so looking forward to the return of the Wachowski siblings, but was quite underwhelmed by the trailer. This hard-to-describe novel by David Mitchell was always going to be a challenge for any one director, so the producers hired a team of 3 directors, i.e. the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer to bring it to life. I hope that audiences are able to decipher the plot consisting of 6 nested stories beginning on a Pacific Island in the 1850’s, progressing to a distant post-apocalyptic future and then concluding back where it began. All of this spread over 3 hours with each actor playing multiple characters across the nested stories. I so want to like this movie, but something tells me The Wachowskis will continue the search for their first hit since the Matrix trilogy.
  • Les Miserables – Musicals have never been my cup of tea, but they are so few and far between these days that there is always a big buzz when a Moulin Rouge or Hairspray or Chicago is released. I’ve watched them all, but wouldn’t care for a repeat viewing of any of them. In this case, I certainly can’t say “No” to a film starring Hugh Jackman, Russel Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Sascha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter…and directed by Tom Hooper (director of The King’s Speech and the outstanding 2008 HBO mini-series John Adams)!
  • Silver Linings Playbook – I am not a Bradley Cooper fan and his presence in films like the Hangover series have done nothing to improve the situation, but I am intrigued by the buzz from this film which won the People’s Choice Award at the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival. I absolutely loved director David O. Russell’s Desert Storm-set action-comedy Three Kings from 1999, but haven’t seen his critically acclaimed boxing drama The Fighter from 2010. This film represents a change of pace, a dramedy, somewhat similar to his I Heart Huckabees from 2004.
  • Killing Them Softly – New Zealander Andrew Dominik has directed just 3 films in his career. The first was Chopper in 2000, which introduced the world to a certain Eric Bana. Then in 2007, he released The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford starring Brad Pitt to great critical acclaim. He now reunites Brad Pitt in this crime-thriller which is already generating awards buzz, having been nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes.

Guilty Pleasures

  • Jack Reacher – After the embarrassment of Rock of Ages this summer, Tom Cruise returns to a more comfortable setting in this screen adaptation of crime novel One Shot, one of a series of novels by Lee Child featuring former Army Major Jack Reacher. Having said that, I cannot imagine what the studio was thinking when they cast the 5’7” Cruise to play a character described as being 6′ 5″ tall with a 50-inch chest and having ice-blue eyes and dirty blond hair. Why even bother to call it an adaptation of a Jack Reacher novel and risk upsetting the hard core Reacher fans? Anyway, I am a big Tom Cruise fan, so I count this film as a guilty pleasure.
  • Taken 2 – In early 2009, Liam Neeson had his biggest career hit as a leading man, playing former CIA operative Bryan Mills who creates mayhem among East European human traffickers after they take his daughter. There is nothing as enjoyable as a good old-fashioned action thriller where the good guy takes apart the bad guys one by one. Fans have been looking forward to seeing more of Neeson’s character, so writer-producer Luc Besson has come up with a new adventure, this time the bad guys specifically target Bryan Mills’ family in revenge for the people he took out in the first movie.

And finally, the 7 movies I am really looking forward to:-

  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – A few months ago, Peter Jackson delighted his fans with the announcement that he had shot enough footage of The Hobbit story to produce 3 films, not the 2 as originally planned. The films are adapted not just from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but also depict incidents from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings books and from Tolkien’s companion-piece publication The Silmarillion, hence the over-abundance of available material and the opportunity to feature characters from LOTR like Galadriel and Legolas. The build-up to the release of the first film has been perfect, with the release of a number of photos of the 13 hobbits comprising the Company of Dwarves and recently the release of an iPad App with lots of goodies. I expect/ hope this will be the biggest box office hit of the fall season and also that it will be as critically acclaimed as the original trilogy. The latest trailers with their four different endings are superb.
  • Django Unchained – I raved about the Django Unchained trailer when it first came out. It’s a new Quentin Tarentino film, not much more needs to be said.
  • Skyfall – I am really looking forward to seeing Daniel Craig chug a can of Heineken in the upcoming Bond film…and of course, eager to see if they can get the Bond franchise on track after the mess that was Quantum of Solace. I am looking forward to some of the gritty storytelling that director Sam Mendes put on show with Road to Perdition back in 2002 (interesting bit of trivia here – Road to Perdition featured a then-unknown Craig playing the cowardly son of mob boss Paul Newman).
  • Lincoln – Daniel Day Lewis brings his famous method acting chops to play the great American President. I expect to see the full bells and whistles which we have come to expect from Spielberg, hopefully it doesn’t become another Amistad. I was surprised at Lincoln’s nasal voice after years of hearing him portrayed with a deep sonorous voice. There has been a fair bit of internet chatter about the voice, which is apparently historically accurate. I think a lot of viewers will really have a problem with this, but hopefully the rest of the movie will be engaging enough.
  • Argo – It’s interesting that Ben Affleck, an actor I have taken such a dislike to, has directed two of the most gripping films in the last 5 years – Gone Baby Gone and The Town, both set in his native New England. This time around with Argo, he goes across to Iran for a fact-based drama-thriller in which he also acts (and looks quite good in that beard, by the way).
  • Hyde Park on the Hudson – I am a sucker for period dramas – Downton Abbey being my current favourite – and there has been steady buzz building up about this FDR biopic, featuring funnyman Bill Murray as The President and directed by Roger Michell of Notting Hill fame.
  • Flight – This is Robert Zemeckis’ first live-action film since Cast Away in 2000. It features Denzel Washington as a pilot who becomes a hero after safely landing a flight in distress, but the subsequent investigation reveals that he may not be a hero after all. Denzel does this sort of role very well (remember Courage Under Fire?) and I am hoping Zemeckis has not lost his edge after making only motion-capture pictures for the past decade.
  • On the Road – Jack Kerouac’s beat-era cult classic finally gets the big screen treatment, directed fittingly by Brazilian ‘road movie expert’ Walter Salles, famous for the touching Central Station and the delightful Motorcycle Diaries. On the Road features a great cast of actors including Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, Amy Adams and oh…Kristen Stewart. Well, if I needed a good omen on that last one, it could be the fact that Kristen Stewart played a very short and sweet role in her last road movie Into the Wild. Hopefully the same will be the case here.

Altogether, there is an incredible array of award-winning directors and actors on show in the next few months. Looks like I will have to watch multiple movies on some weekends if I am going to fit in 17 movies from now till end-December!