Fury (2014)

★★★★

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Fury PosterDirector: David Ayer

Release Date: October 17th, 2014 (US); October 22nd, 2014 (UK)

Genre: Action; Drama; War

Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña

War is a nasty business. Of course, contemplating the nastiness of war isn’t a new undertaking, nor is it something that Fury director David Ayer feels compelled to shirk away from. His film is really quite horrendous. We see limbless bodies and bodiless limbs more often than we see rays of sunlight breaking through the clouds of 1945 Nazi Germany. Ayer’s intimate tale isn’t a fresh concept to the silver screen and it has absolutely been done better before, but there is a lot to admire here.

As World War II nears its conclusion, a Sherman tank troupe commanded by US Army sergeant Don Collier (Brad Pitt) is hurtled into the bloody doldrums of battle in Germany. Fighting through urban wastelands and disfigured countrysides, the ‘Fury’ group of five must survive via a combination of camaraderie and brute force, all the while depositing innocence at each rotation of their vehicle’s caterpillar track.

Ayer localises a grand story and his film is all the better for it. Often, the key to success in the war genre is engaging an audience in the plight of a few whilst also acknowledging the struggle of many. Fury manages this, no doubt aided by a stringently focused narrative that follows a particular group of soldiers. It’s their story and we’re always in their presence, allowing time (well over two hours of it) for us to empathise with the characters. And while the camera never ventures more than a few feet from at least one of the five, Ayer’s induction of a heavy and wearisome tone relentlessly captures the universal toil of war.

These characters don’t write the guidelines on positive morality either. In fact, their contribution to the Allied war effort has flurried any goodness purveyed by Collier and his crew. They each have a nickname — fittingly Collier’s is Wardaddy. That is not to say the man heralds a thirst for battle, rather it highlights Wardaddy’s efficiency in dark turmoil. (“Do as you’re told, don’t get close to anyone”). Brad Pitt plays him without immediate discernibility, casting doubt not over the sergeant’s motives, but over his methods. Ayer’s quintessential heroes are nothing of the sort. There are no good guys, only perceived bad guys.

The remainder of the group bear roles that are more clearly defined: Technician Boyd “Bible” Swan is the devoted religious type; Corporal Trini “Gordo” Garcia steers the tank with eccentricity; PFC Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis lacks moderation; and Private Norman Ellison carries the newbie status, a kid lost amongst a conflict in which he shouldn’t be fighting. Logan Lerman exudes ordinariness as Norman, reminding us of war’s infecting bullet wounds on humanity. Walking Dead alumni Jon Bernthal is also terrific as the gruff Coon-Ass but it’s Shia LaBeouf who wows more than any other. Scrubbing the stigma of celebrity from his face and replacing it with rotten dirt, LaBeouf displays a great deal of restraint, his eyes never far from filling with tears fuelled by a scarred mind. It turns out he can act, and act well.

LaBeouf’s character is the agent through which Ayer introduces a religious thread, one that doesn’t wholly endear itself to the narrative but does contribute towards an emotive punch. These faith-based overtones aren’t distracting as they only rear occasionally, and despite manifesting as a tad contrived, they do represent an attempt to manoeuvre proceedings away from any potential muscle bound machoness of battle. Indeed, the film manages to extract a large helping of connectivity from the audience through solemnity, a theme that runs along the piece like one of Nazi Germany’s seemingly endless mud trails. This helpless sobriety is first summed up in statement relayed by Jason Isaacs’ army Captain (“Why don’t they just quit?”), before revealing itself plainly in an extended Inglorious Basterds-esque dining room scene rightly devoid of any Tarantino quirk.

After 90 minutes of gruesome despair, the outing suddenly shifts its gaze in the direction of a more action-packed conclusion. The final act essentially wears the hallmark of a western standoff, trading cowboy hats for leather helmets. Granted in its final half hour Fury still maintains a gritty realism but this divergence in tone might not appease all. Tank jousts do occur before the lengthy concluding sequence, but frequently end in a matter of minutes. These battles are arduous in their execution, just as they should be, and do not glorify the mechanical face of war at all, whereas it could be argued that the long, underdog-ish rallying cry denoted in the final act does invite a semblance of glorification.

Technically, the film is a powerhouse. Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov turns the English countryside (where shooting primarily took place) into a bleak, putrefying Nazi Germany at the end of its tether. Two scenes stand out especially: a beautiful opening shot that patiently stalks a lone horseman as he tramples over smoky ruins and comes face to face with the fragility of tanks, and a dread filled moment nearer the end that involves a collection of simultaneously marching and chanting enemy troops. This uncompromising style meshes wonderfully with Steven Price’s score and pinpoint sound editing, and comes as close as any film to achieving the fist-clenching ambience of Saving Private Ryan.

It is certainly not as good as Spielberg’s aforementioned masterpiece, but not many outings born from this particular genre are. Fury is a visceral and effective retelling of war at its most desperate and least forgiving. If nothing else, it’s an example of high standard utility filmmaking.

Fury - Cast

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Transformers Revenge of the Fallen PosterDirector: Michael Bay

Release Date: June 19th, 2009 (UK); June 24th, 2009 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox

When it comes to giant robots hitting each other, this is more horrific and dim than Pacific Rim. After being punched illegally below the belt last time, we’ve carelessly staggered back for round two where everything is bigger, louder and even more insulting. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, then, hones in on a once universal toy that has moved on from mild swearing to juvenile leg humping. Michael Bay’s second instalment looks neat for a while but once the materialistic disguise wears away we’re left with an outing that makes up for in immaturity what it loses in efficiency.

There is no structure here. No beginning, middle and end. It’s just a mass of special effects that progressively squanders specialness and a bunch of indecipherable machines who relentlessly fritter away parts. At two and a half hours long and over $200 million spent, Revenge of the Fallen simply isn’t good enough.

A few years have passed since the events in Transformers. Sam (Shia LaBeouf) is heading off to college, Mikaela (Megan Fox) is fixing vehicles and the Decepticons are looking for another reason to attack. Fortunately, a piece of the cube from the last film innocuously falls from an old T-shirt in Sam’s closet (imagine that!), setting in motion a series of events involving odd symbolic visions, the Pyramids of Giza, Optimus Prime and stealing the Sun. Or something.

Humans and Autobots now work together as part of a military NEST branch that targets Decepticons. Straight away, we see Autobots project the form of attractive females. A few scenes and countless soaring fireballs later (Bay can only withstand five minutes without including an explosion this time) the focus shifts to Megan Fox suggestively bending over a motorcycle, because that’s how mechanics roll in her neck of the woods. At least we know where we stand. The Transformers trademark has transformed from a children’s plaything to an adrenaline-fuelled macho void, and for absolutely no justifiable reason. Bay even uses college sex as an excuse to unleash his beloved brand of action-packed booms. His woman characters — because, let’s be honest, nobody else would dehumanise the female gender like this — are sold as nothing more than window dressing to pull in adolescents who know no better. Rachael Taylor’s smart scientist is out, services no longer required. Too intelligent obviously. Her substitute is Isabel Lucas, who exists solely to have a thing for Shia LaBeouf. Do the Oscars give out an award for misogyny?

The film is even more of a mess than its predecessor. From start to finish proceedings play out as a constant battle where the only people who care about civilian fatalities less than us are the filmmakers. “Worldwide casualties are in the neighbourhood of 7000,” we hear before the outing hastily returns to what’s important (loud bangs). The conclusion of this continuous war is a human versus robot encounter that is outrageously implausible even within the context of maximum implausibility. Though, it is rather poetic that the main monster here takes the form of an enormous hoover, particularly given Revenge of the Fallen is a total moral-vacuum. A National Security Advisor shows up at one point to explain the details of what happened previously. The moment actually works on two pathetic levels: both as a quick fix for those who avoided the first film and as a driving force for this film’s narrative. Essentially, Bay relies on simplifying that which is already simple because he feels it’s the only way his audience can understand the plot.

The piece even begins to suffer in the only area where it normally impresses. Sure, the visuals are pristinely executed and rather impressive for a while, but the mystique soon dissolves in favour of splurging cinematic yuck. A spread of music videoitis is rife; the camera simply cannot sit still and instead consistently circles characters in tandem with puppet string musical interludes. There’s never a hair out of place as good looking people appear even better looking and the average Joe doesn’t exist. We’re even rewarded with moments of slow motion, bestowing a longer life span upon the explosions. Ben Seresin’s cinematography is so obviously trying to impress that it manifests as desperate. And still, sequences unfurl with ugliness — watch out for the Decepticons landing sloppily on Earth.

Revenge of the Fallen is actually at its best when the Transformers aren’t around, when what’s playing out on screen is an awkward family comedy. Driven by stupid humour, the sequences involving Sam and his parents are the most entertaining. Kevin Dunn and Julie White offer brief junctures of light relief as Mr and Mrs Witwicky. (In truth, these sparsely spread few seconds go down like a glass of ice cold water in the desert). Shia LaBeouf annoys a tad more than in the first film, but it’s unfair to chastise him for the all-encompassing faults strangling a severely lacking script. Megan Fox has even less to do than in the first flick, if that’s possible.

It might not be a total money-making scheme yet — that’s the next one — but Revenge of the Fallen is undoubtedly the grandest black hole in a star-destroying franchise. Nothing’s salvageable from the wreckage. This is cinematic homicide and Michael Bay is guilty as charged.

Transformers Revenge of the Fallen - Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures

Transformers (2007)

★★

Transformers PosterDirector: Michael Bay

Release Date: July 3rd, 2007 (US); July 27th, 2007 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel

It’s Transformers week everybody! Indeed, unlike you lucky people across the Atlantic who’ve had a whole seven days to digest Michael Bay’s latest installment of metal mayhem, for us cinema folk here in the UK Transformers: Age of Extinction is hot off the press. I’ve not seen it yet. (Admittedly, the robustness of the word “yet” in that sentence is questionable.) To tell you the truth, I’m not a great admirer of Bay’s adopted franchise. It all started in 2007.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is a stereotypical boy teenager. He’s into cars, girls and late-19th century exploration. Perhaps that last attribute isn’t the most applicable to a male adolescent, but it’s part of an eccentric mosaic that sets Sam apart from the rest. It could simply be a feeble plot point, but who am I to judge. Certainly, Sam has a crush on his classmate Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) but the only way he’s going to get her attention is with an engine.

Turns out his new car is a Transformer. There’s a multitude of other stuff going on — political struggles, technological misfire, a band of surviving soldiers in Qatar (that’s in the Middle East, by the way), the arrival of evil Decepticons, the arrival of friendly Autobots — but at its most basic, and this film is rather basic, Transformers is about giant robots punching and kicking and wheeling each other.

Director Michael Bay cannot contain himself. His immaturity spills out across the screen from the get-go: a gravelly, deep voice kicks off proceedings ushering in the overly macho tone; an array of snazzy camera angles each act as a sales pitch for the next military helicopter; it only takes six and half minutes for the first (and second, third, fourth) explosion to shake the screen. Bay absolutely has a way with visuality. He’s able to create carnage that looks impressive and that sounds impressive. But it’s all very movie trailer-esque, as if we’re watching a feature length advert for the next blockbuster only it’s stuck on a loud, grating loop.

Substance would take a back seat if the back seat still existed — Megatron probably crushed it. He, or it, is the villain. Adversary of the human-appreciating Optimus Prime who arrives promptly with his band of misfit car pretenders to save the day. They’re robots though, and they’re not blanketed in enough development to make us care. Nor are the human characters and, although the likes of Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox (she’s far from the worst thing in this film) amass their very best collective effort to generate some sort of viewer connection, one doesn’t exist.

It could be that goings-on shimmer with an unhealthy sheen of artifice. The CGI looks good but ultimately acts as a momentary veil over the real problem: shallowness. There are four female characters dotted throughout the almost two and a half hour runtime. That’s about one for every six male. (At least, males with lines.) We’ve got two mothers who seldom appear, a smart analyst played efficiently by Rachael Taylor who’s treated as though she’s dumb despite being the smartest of the pack, and Megan Fox whose role is almost entirely based on her cosmetic allure. The US President doesn’t make a full-body appearance but we do hear him mutter some chauvinist line to a flight attendant — oops, there’s a fifth female.

There’s arguably an even larger issue at hand here and it’s to do with us, the audience. But what audience? It’s eternally tough to care about giant car shape-shifters because they do little else but fight, so in that sense Transformers might not be for me. I’m not into meaningless vehicular smackdown, that’s fine. It’s a film for kids then, one for the younger boys and girls who do get a genuine kick out of that sort of thing. Only there’s Megan Fox bending over car bonnets. And hold on a minute, those child-friendly robots have started swearing now. It’s only mild here, but the defamation of what once was a children’s 80s cartoon flick and toy line is catapulted into the next stratosphere in Transformers 2 and 3. There obviously is an audience for the franchise, it’s already made over two billion dollars worldwide, but the respect between filmmaker and his viewership is seemingly only half-mutual. (Come on Michael, we know Qatar is in the Middle East).

The aforementioned runtime is also unnecessary, particularly when scenes involving irrelevant clothes removal and lamppost handcuffing take up five minutes of screen time. This is the director at optimum indulgence. It’s more boring than annoying. In Michael Bay’s material world where only good-looking people exist and big booming fireballs carry more weight than sturdy narrative, Transformers is probably a masterpiece. In the real world, it’s a film that alienates the young audience it should be targeting in favour of a guaranteed cash prize.

Early on Mikaela’s jock boyfriend says, “Oh no, this is not a toy”. He’s talking about a car and he’s completely right. Transformers ain’t a toy anymore. The innocence is gone.

Note: This was originally posted over at Movie Pilot, where you’ll find more articles and reviews from myself, plus the occasional poll. We all love polls, right?

Transformers - Michael Bay

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): DreamWorks, Paramount Pictures