Eye in the Sky (2016)

★★★★

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Eye in the Sky PosterDirector: Gavin Hood

Release Date: April 1st, 2016 (US); April 15th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Thriller; War

Starring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, Alan Rickman

I often find that the most engaging films are those which, in one way or another, encourage viewers to invest more than just the alertness of their eyeballs. Films that oil the brain, that challenge you to weigh up testy themes or unfurl complicated arguments both in the cinema and later at home. Some of the best movies reflect the prevailing zeitgeist (Boyhood), while others re-evaluate histories (Bridge of Spies). There are also those which, having aged over time, can be examined under the guise of new perspectives (2001: A Space Odyssey). Eye in the Sky is one of the former, its content exclusively in tune with the woes of modern drone warfare and, unsurprisingly, it’s a heart-thumper.

A low key opening sequence outlines the active operation, the personnel involved, and the everyday atmosphere at play. There’s Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a senior intelligence official who has tracked down a group of terrorists residing in Nairobi, Kenya. She wishes to eliminate the group, one of whom is a former British national, and has the support of Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman). Evidently, the duo are used to navigating tough situations from afar — they are working from separate UK bases — though the situation Powell and Benson are about to encounter is probably as tough as it gets. That is, juggling the life of young girl selling bread in the vicinity of their prospective drone strike.

Gavin Hood’s film is formatted almost to match that of a 24 episode, which is to say it ticks along more or less in real time as people in suits number-crunch death percentages and debris projections. Foreshadowing is a factor too: Rickman, superbly authoritative yet typically human, drolly sweats over dolls and toys as the Lieutenant General, unaware his job will shortly have him deciding the fate of a child. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert colours his characters with titbits of everyday information in an attempt to humanise them, quite successfully given the amount on-screen. We learn, for instance, that American drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) is only monitoring the controls of such a weapon in a bid to counter his college debt.

These people are secure, detached from a teetering war zone in Nairobi, their most immediate danger apparently food poisoning — Iain Glen’s queasy British Foreign Secretary struggles with an upset stomach, a first world problem if there ever was one. You wonder if they actually care about the civilians caught in their crosshairs or whether it is all just a political game of Pass the Buck (there was a laugh of incredulity in my screening following one such buck-passing incident). Some do care, primarily those ordered to get their hands dirty: Watts and new recruit Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) wear the emotional baggage of their piloting well, while Barkhad Abdi’s undercover ground agent evokes conscientiousness despite having to navigate the tumultuous streets.

Others struggle with the dilemma too — as time goes on, it increasingly looks as though the terrorists are about to commandeer an enormous suicide attack, however their assassination in present circumstances would almost certainly kill the aforementioned young girl. We see timid bureaucracy in action; the chain of command gains branches by the second as nobody seems willing to make the final call, apart from Powell. This is militancy versus diplomacy and she is firmly aligned with the former, calculated and desperate, unwavering in her kill-or-be-killed motto. Mirren compels throughout and rules those around her with a cracked iron fist. At times you feel her judgement has been clouded by her innate desire to end what must be a years-long operation.

It’s possible too that she has been desensitised by process: surveillance technologies used by the conglomerate of global forces (borders are irrelevant in this inter-connected world) include spy cameras disguised as airborne birds and bugs (brick walls are irrelevant too). These trinkets embody the disconnect between tangible ground activities and those making the crucial decisions from afar, and such technologies likely lighten the load for senior decision-makers such as Powell. Interactions between UK and US agencies hint at the statistical and mechanical nature of modern warfare, a notion embodied by the varying systems of collateral damage interpretation between the two nations. It’s not a matter of saving every life, but rather reducing the total number of deaths.

Hibbert’s screenplay ties in real-world strands by referencing the ongoing migrant crisis (“Well let’s hope she’s not coming back,” bemoans Powell regarding the homegrown British terrorist) but really Eye in the Sky is all about the immorality of war in 2016. The best result the military’s facial recognition software can hope for is a “highly probable” match, which would be great in a university science lab but not ideal when lives are at stake. Any margin of error is amplified in battle and the debates between officials take on that extra weight, a weight that we also incur as we sympathise with various characters. Megan Gill edits Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography to full effect, highlighting the stark anomalies in Nairobi: Gill cuts from the young girl setting up her bread stall to the extremists preparing their suicide vests, mere metres separating the two.

The film avoids problematic whirlpools and discriminatory icebergs by riding a wave maturity — it would be very easy to take a side, but as the piece nears conclusion it shines a blatantly more rounded light on a number of brutes earlier seen authoritatively commanding vehicle checkpoints. Unlike London Has Fallen, which clumsily waded its way into the drone debate, Eye in the Sky sets out to discuss and not to distract. Clearly they are different films in a tonal sense, aimed arguably at different audiences, but both speak the same thematic language and only the latter does so with any credibility.

There is one issue that the film only manages to partially iron out. You’ll almost certainly enter this having already formulated an opinion one way or the other, especially given the relevance and significance of drone warfare in today’s political climate. And although it is possible you’ll be made to reconsider that opinion — it helps that Hood’s gripping direction increasingly positions you alongside the toiling decision-makers — chances are the events depicted will not shift anyone’s viewpoint. This isn’t necessarily a reflection on the movie itself, but rather the divisiveness of its real-world content.

People band around the phrase “spoils of war” in relation to any profits gained through military victory. But it is war that spoils, and here we see that spoiling in action: it spoils ethical frameworks established by the civilised strand of humanity; it spoils urban locales that have hosted and continue to host generations of livelihoods; and, crucially, it spoils the daily existence of normal people living their normal lives. Eye in the Sky suggests war spoils some people more than others, and while that mightn’t be a new conclusion, the method of warfare on display is as morally challenging as it gets.

Eye in the Sky - Aaron Paul

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Entertainment One, Bleecker Street

Beasts of No Nation (2015)

★★★

Beasts of No Nation PosterDirector: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Release Date: October 16th, December (UK & US)

Genre: Drama; War

Starring: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba

Beasts of No Nation, concocted almost single-handedly by Cary Joji Fukunaga — or that guy who brought us True Detective season one — has been touted as potential player at next year’s Academy Awards. The catch? It would be the first Netflix original to rub shoulders with Hollywood’s elite on their golden night. Its online distribution platform may well be the future of entertainment (hopefully not exclusively), but the film itself is rooted in the past and present, telling a story of violent civil war in West Africa.

Fukunaga (director, screenwriter, cinematographer) patiently paints youngster Agu (Abraham Attah) and his family with endearing strokes: once a teacher, his father is now a humanitarian clearing land for refugees; his mother evokes a loving aura, carrying out maternal and manual tasks with a smile; and his aloof big brother is your typical teenager, obsessed with muscle mass, girls, and having a laugh. Agu himself is smart egg, a kid full of sneaky creativity. He deconstructs his father’s TV and rebrands the empty frame an “imagination television” hoping someone will fork out some cash or food for it.

Granted, there is a significant military presence in the unnamed village and displaced groups are struggling to find a place to settle, but life for Agu is fairly good given the circumstances. That is, until war truly makes its presence felt. “Nothing is ever for sure and everything is always changing,” narrates Agu. And everything does change, horrifyingly so. Separated from his family, Agu finds himself lost in the bush and about to unwillingly travel down a path paved in unethical stone. For at this point Idris Elba’s Commandant swaggers on-screen, an eerily charismatic rebel leader who hypnotises with words, poisoning the minds of those too inexperienced to think for themselves. Elba suitably commands, persuasive in posture and delivery.

Head of the Native Defence Force, his followers parade a faux-macho exterior, wagging weapons and wearing the surrounding landscape as a battle uniform. Agu, now with nowhere else to go, falls in line and begins his training as a child soldier. As words such as “family” and “father” ring out, you can see Agu’s resistance collapsing and his loyalties shifting towards Commandant’s bloody policy. The latter trains his young army to understand stringent battle formations and inflict uncompromising punishments, all the while a soundtrack of propaganda wails out in the background. The soldiers also play football, albeit more aggressively than normal, a fleeting reminder of their humanity.

Once in battle mode, the situation turns to abhorrence: one particular execution is horrid, but thankfully (admirably) Fukunaga doesn’t gratuitously linger on the visual. It’s not that type of film. Rather, Beasts of No Nation wants to convey the very real dehumanisation of children via war and mind-warping. The sieges that we see are so impersonal, so chaotic, that it is difficult to tell who is killing and who is dying — and that’s the point. One such invasion is painted red even before blood has been shed, ominously predicting the inevitable while also projecting the drugged-up mindsets of the invading adolescents.

Fukunaga’s lens work gives character to the jungle; shots of mossy foliage landscapes wonderfully signify the denseness of the locale, parading this idea that there is no escape, not even for the rebels. It is a notion best captured early on as Agu attempts to escape a band of gun-toting killers: Fukunaga pulls his camera back, carefully revealing the contrast between the vibrant jungle ahead and the smoke-filled decimation in the youngster’s rear view. The environment transcends reality: the aforementioned coaching sequences, engulfed by mist, are loosely reminiscent of those swampy Dagobahian sessions in The Empire Strikes Back.

Blood Diamond is a clear cousin: the setting, the narrative, the relationship between Agu and his family — these are all shared characteristics. But Fukunaga’s piece doesn’t have said outing’s heart. While the lack of direct Western involvement is entirely justified (character or plot-wise), the lack of a determined, soulful saviour hurts. In Blood Diamond, that saviour is Djimon Hounsou. He plays the father of a young child solider and his stunning performance imbues Edward Zwick’s film with hope and humanity, traits that are somewhat lacking on this occasion. You find yourself yearning for a Hounsou-esque force in Beasts of No Nation, particularly as Commandant’s poisonous grip over Agu gains momentum, but there simply isn’t one.

There is also very little grace — some might argue rightfully — and this causes you to pull away from proceedings. Without a father figure valiantly attempting to save his son, there is nothing really to tow you back in. Abraham Attah is a true revelation as Agu, his transformation from bright boy to corrupt soldier disheartening, but also lacking in any semblance of goodwill. Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye is equally as good as Strika, another fighter with whom Agu bonds, yet unfortunately the duo don’t share enough screen time to truly generate a sense of collective humaneness.

I think the film is too long. Scenes reap repetition by the 80-minute mark, though this could be a measure employed intentionally to emphasise the gruelling nature of war. Fortunately, it does begin to incorporate some political elements in the third act; we hit an urban centre where Commandant engages in a verbal joust with another NDF head honcho. As they barter back and forth over payment, leadership, and resource deployment, The Last King of Scotland springs to mind. Had Fukunaga cherry-picked a tad more from his aforementioned genre ancestors, he could have been onto a classic.

Beasts of No Nation - Elba & Attah

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): NetflixBleecker Street

Macbeth (2015)

★★★★

Macbeth PosterDirector: Justin Kurzel

Release Date: October 2nd, 2015 (UK); December 4th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Drama; War

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard

Justin Kurzel’s ferocious take on Macbeth begins and ends with death. Though its Shakespearean format might isolate those who aren’t well-versed in the Bard’s prose, the film attains a degree of accessibility by dealing in brute force and thematic clarity. We see a Star Wars-esque information trail at the start, but this time the text is in blood red. Jed Kurzel, Justin’s brother, concocts a score that drills and hammers in tandem with bellowing battle cries, bestowing total discomfort upon us. Writers Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff, and Michael Lesslie opt to examine how the loss of innocence can incite the immoral side of power, and the results are unflinching.

Upon discovering he is destined to be king, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) weighs up the immediacy of his sure-fire thronage. Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) urges her husband to commit treasonous murder, to speed up the process by killing King Duncan (David Thewlis). Convinced, and perhaps driven by grief brought about by the death of his own child, the Thane of Scotland slays his superior. From then we see the man crumble, haunted by visions of dead clansmen he swore to protect in battle. He becomes a mad king increasingly propelled by unfettered impulsion and corrupted by power (“Full of scorpions, is my mind”).

Kurzel’s film will likely appeal to a specific audience; attempts to widen its potential reach are few and far between. Ye who enter devoid of prior knowledge, like myself, will have to contend with a movie that communicates entirely through the diction of Shakespeare. As such, it functions much in the same way a foreign language piece without subtitles would, which might alienate some viewers. It shouldn’t though. Blindly following the story is never too difficult as the actors offer a tangible, precise translation. It’s a testament to the performances of Fassbender and Cotillard in particular that the narrative is sold to us without a verbal parachute.

With Fassbender, it’s all in the eyes. His Macbeth, a brooding warrior at the fore, grows bags that darken beneath increasingly absent pupils as the pressure of sovereignty takes over. We never really know where we stand with him — his irreverent actions eventually hit a point of no return, but until then there’s a sorrowful tragedy surrounding Macbeth. In a case of role-reversal, it is Lady Macbeth who must take on the burden of regret. Cotillard is more subtle than her male counterpart. Her words, though often beautiful, are enshrouded in hysteria and pain; the camera unblinkingly lingers on her face during a scene towards the end as the actor speaks with utter command, evoking genuine heartbreak.

The framework from which the duo perform is comparable to how Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones navigated The Theory of Everything: one exercises true physicality while the other evokes a delicate-yet-purposeful poise. There is often a lingering stillness that is only interrupted by Fassbender’s increasingly perturbed movement, and only Cotillard has the guile to reign in said eccentricity. Friend-turned-foe Macduff, played by an emotionally-wrought Sean Harris, christens Macbeth the “Fiend of Scotland”.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising might have been a touchpoint for Kurzel, especially in a visual sense: the unquenchable mist, the moorish setting, the breadth of visceral savagery, all invoked. Battle scenes could very well be taking place among the Dead Marshes on the boggy road to Mordor. The Scottish setting, not unlike modern times, is always cloudy, or rainy, or dank, but the aesthetic is never mundane — fog is crimson coloured and dynamic. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw mixes steady shots with a shaky cam effect, mirroring the vacillating levels of order and chaos afoot.

Arkapaw shot the soon-to-be iconic six-minute drug den raid in True Detective season one, and Macbeth revels in similar technical prowess. From sound, to look, to how the film is edited, it’s quite stunning. Scenes showing brutal murder, such as the death of King Duncan, are intercut with instances of solemn hush. A contrast is evident throughout, pitting light against dark (or perhaps it is dark against post-dark). The sound design is worth mentioning too: rallying howls echo with spine-tingling reverence around cavernous cathedral-like rooms.

To the credit of those on and off-screen, it never feels like we’re watching a play. In many ways this is a niche offering; much of the verbiage might not make sense, yet you can’t help but stare. And when what you’re staring at is this good, this impactful, words are almost inconsequential. Here are two more anyway: Hail Macbeth!

Macbeth - Michael Fassbender & Marion Cotillard

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company

The Lucky Ones (2008)

★★★

The Lucky Ones PosterDirector: Neil Burger

Release Date: September 26th, 2008 (US)

Genre: Comedy; Drama; War

Starring: Rachel McAdams, Tim Robbins, Michael Peña

In the upcoming season of True Detective, Rachel McAdams will play a prickly, stoical police sheriff (or if you’re reading this after August she already has, and rather brilliantly too, right?!). That sounds like quite the departure from her character in The Lucky Ones — a soldier, tough without doubt, but whose veins pulse with good-natured naivety. Her volcanic charm is the type that could turn a long road trip into a really, really long road trip. Not here though. Not on McAdams’ watch.

She is Private first class Colee Dunn, joined on a cross country excursion by Sergeant first class Fred Cheaver (Tim Robbins) and Staff sergeant T.K. Poole (Michael Peña). The trio meet at JFK airport having just finished their respective tours of duty, and opt to collectively hire a car since flights home are in short supply. What follows is a familiar voyage down the road movie genre, with periodic stops at comedic junctions and soul searching stations.

What this is not, is a war movie. The film has been criticised for not sufficiently addressing the complex issues of battle — but it simply isn’t a war movie. Certainly, the three main characters with whom we spent time are soldiers on leave, but that doesn’t mean the film has to ruminate about the war they’re presently separated from. Colee and company discuss it, sure. They feel the weight of its heavy baggage at times. But hey, maybe they’re just people. Two normal guys and one normal girl, each trying to reacclimatise to the real world. Struggling, often comically, sometimes painfully.

T.K. is the brash macho-type who subdues authenticity. We first see him inside a tank spouting tasteless jibes about women, before debris from an explosion renders him impotent. His lack of functionality becomes a recurring joke that eventually finds resolution in the film’s worst scene — a poorly executed tornado forces Colee and T.K. into a claustrophobic drain pipe, and it’s really cringe-worthy. Peña undercuts most of the unlikeable traits often attributed to those “macho-types” by delivering a fairly nuanced performance. At one point his character awakens suddenly in the middle of the night, clearly still troubled by the blast, and can only mutter a, “You know… sorry,” when questioned by Colee.

She is the most engaging of the three. McAdams has real presence, lighting up the screen every time she appears. Colee is the buffer between humour and emotion, her wide-eyed lack of cynicism both refreshingly authentic and solemnly disheartening. “That girl’s living in a dream world,” T.K. asserts, and it’s true. She lugs around the guitar of her close friend Randy who died on duty, aiming to return the instrument to his family in Las Vegas. Though Colee has never met them, she is driven by the hope that they’ll let her stay. She exudes so much positivity that we start to buy into her crazy plan. It’s the potential prize at the end of the rainbow, a treasure that differs from the materialistic hoards prevalent in other road trip movies such as O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Rat Race.

Quite the opposite is Tim Robbins’ Fred, or Cheaver, since he is the elder statesman of the group. A modest guy looking to get away from active combat, Cheaver rolls into family despair near the beginning of the journey. He is definitely the unluckiest — though the other two aren’t exactly wearing rabbit’s feet — and Robbins succinctly captures this turmoil. There are similarities to be drawn with Sam Jaeger’s Take Me Home as far as character relationships go, where petty squabbles inevitably evolve into admiration and understanding.

That film’s aimless quality is also apparent — the men constantly say they “don’t have time” to indulge Colee’s sight-seeing desires, but they’re not actually going anywhere. In a way they have all the time in the world, but the guys are too obsessed with achieving an end goal that probably doesn’t actually exist. Though their plot construction could be questioned, director Neil Burger (Limitless, Divergent) and co-writer Dirk Wittenborn’s character creation is effective. Just like in the army, the trio grow to rely upon each other — monetarily, emotionally, and intellectually — a conclusion arrived at with sincerity.

To the film’s credit it doesn’t spend two hours achingly debating the woes war. However, it opts not to ignore the pitfalls either. America becomes part of a clinical world that the army-goers aren’t used to (“You’re at a disadvantage if you don’t master your computer skills”). Bystanders and acquaintances constantly thank them for their efforts abroad, but it’s all platitudinal. Yet it doesn’t feel like The Lucky Ones is trying to emulate the rich verve of something like a Sideways. When the movie threatens too much seriousness it quickly scrambles back under its light-hearted comfort blanket, embodied in a scene where life reflections are interrupted by a penis balloon joke.

Nibbles of narrative stupidity are glibly accepted as a given by the screenwriters. A customer service employee grants the group a car due to their army credentials, even though the only vehicle remaining belongs to the employee’s airport boss. Problems that arise often bear very simple solutions, these problems too easily erected in the first place (Cheaver’s son gets accepted into Stanford University but needs to cough up $20,000 in tuition fees). The film chooses to manoeuvre its way around simple answers through comedy: Randy’s guitar would solve Cheaver’s monetary problems, but Colee amusingly decides to cry rather than oblige.

Though the actual trip part of The Lucky Ones does run into a few roadblocks — it’s not as funny as it should be, nor as emotionally-involving — the characters behind the wheel are wholly accommodating. Besides, who doesn’t want to watch a movie where Rachel McAdams plays an impulsive Southerner with more charm in one glance than a machine gun has bullets?

The Lucky Ones - McAdams & Pena

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions

American Sniper (2015)

★★

American Sniper PosterDirector: Clint Eastwood

Release Date: January 16th, 2015 (UK and US)

Genre: Action; Biography; Drama

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

The problem with American Sniper is not necessarily that it’s controversial — though that train of thought is somewhat justified — but that it’s rather dull. In regurgitating a story set almost entirely during the worst of the conflict in Iraq post-9/11, and one based upon real events, you’d expect director Clint Eastwood to have something potent to say about war. At the very least, it’d be fair to expect a consistently taut human drama. We get neither from American Sniper, a film weighed down by overt patriotism and silly writing.

Bradley Cooper (now the recipient of three consecutive acting nominations at Academy Awards) stars as US Navy Seal Chris Kyle, a former rodeo cowboy so pained by news reports of terrorist attacks on his home soil that he enlists to fight abroad. It’s nothing more than a solid performance from Cooper, certainly not one on the same level as his two previous Oscar nominated stints in both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle.

As the film progresses the bulked up actor’s role becomes an increasingly emotionless one, and consequentially quite thankless. Buying into the personal struggles of a man who spends his time in a place littered with death and despair — he, frankly, contributing to the mess — is a struggle in and of itself. This isn’t a critique of the real Chris Kyle, nor Cooper, and instead of the poorly conceived writing underpinning proceedings.

Adapted from Kyle’s own autobiography, Jason Hall delivers a screenplay severely lacking in nous or subtlety. Bearing no stance on the Iraq War that hasn’t already been exhausted on the big screen, or any screen, what we’re left with instead is a film trying desperately to convince itself that war is necessary. Men, women and children are all cast under the same umbrella marked “our enemy” and though this non-discriminatory outlook may well be a sporadically accurate reflection of reality, the film never suggests such a thing. Many of those whom the US soldiers meet in Iraq are carrying weapons with a view to kill. The suggestion is all civilians have been evacuated from the area of conflict, thus the ones who remain aren’t innocent. The fact that this wholesale evacuation hasn’t taken place compounds a lazily devised screenplay; as such, locals are placed on a morality gauge ranging from untrustworthy to terrorist.

In between head-scratching scenes that show Kyle conversing with his wife in the middle of a war zone — his attention should probably be on shooting all those baddies, right? — there’s a cat and mouse game playing out. An enemy shooter referred to as Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) is essentially the domestic Chris Kyle. Granted, the film is called American Sniper and therefore isn’t a piece that was ever going to pay as much attention to the non-American sniper, but the lack of dispersed humanisation is off putting. Kyle’s rapidly burgeoning Call of Duty kill count is celebrated with gusto amongst his peers whereas any damage done by Mustafa is vehemently denounced as the work of a “savage”. Of course it’s savagery, but there’s hardly even a nod towards the ambiguity of Kyle’s actions — when the film does venture down this route it only juggles the immorality of child-killing as opposed to people-killing.

The picture is at its most tense and best when Kyle is staring down the barrel of his deadly weapon, honing in on said infants and fuelled by uncertainty. Unfortunately any good work is undone by a laughably glorifying final sniper showdown. Intrigue edges up a tad when we’re back on home soil, where the military man feels more and more out of place as each tour ends. Sienna Miller plays his wife but doesn’t get enough to do as the narrative always chooses to follow Kyle when he goes overseas. She’s good though, infusing a bit of steel into Taya whilst also relaying the mental and physical exhaustion brought on by her husband’s constant displacement. Miller just about manages to overcome her unnecessarily bit-part function.

It’s this lack of urgency that hampers American Sniper, more so than any controversial portrayal or underwhelming performance. You’d expect it to be well made, and it is, but it doesn’t have the musky atmosphere of a Hurt Locker or the gruelling presentation of a Fury, nor does it bear the rich characterisation of those films. Tom Stern’s projection of a war zone is almost conventional, which is surprising given the cinematographer’s accomplished portfolio (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, The Hunger Games). Eastwood doesn’t do an awful lot to alleviate this encroaching mundanity, he generating a tone that stops short at implying the possibility of danger lurking around every pile of rubble.

American Sniper has done extremely well at the US box office and, despite a more conservative reception over here in the UK, has undeniably been a success — particularly when its financial clout is coupled with awards recognition. This review is a bit superfluous in that regard, but I don’t think it’s without merit. It is entirely probably that the patriotic element is something that works well in America but not as well elsewhere. We all suffer as equals through blandness though, and this is bland filmmaking.

American Sniper - Bradley Cooper

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros. Pictures

Fury (2014)

★★★★

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

CBF’s Genre Toppers: Thriller

Today I am focusing on some of my favourite films in the thriller genre. Just before I begin, I would like to be clear on how I make the distinction between thriller and action, because sometimes they seem to mesh into one. This is just my own personal way of telling both genres apart and there really is no right or wrong answer here — you may think something completely different!

Firstly, the main similarities between the two genres are the typically a fast-paced plot and, more often than not, a heroic character fighting off a villainous one in one way or another. For me, the separation tends to occur in the tone of the film. For example, a thriller seeks out suspense and jeopardy as the driving force, whereas an action film is all about excitement and liveliness. Also — and again this is just the way I see it — action films tend to be more light-hearted than thrillers (not always, but generally).

Anyway, on to five greats!

Skyfall (2012)

The newest film on the list, Skyfall was released in October 2012 and declared instantly by the vast majority of viewers to be the best Bond film ever. Helmed by Sam Mendes and with Daniel Craig reprising his role as James Bond, the film follows Bond’s relationship with M (Judi Dench) throughout his investigation of a violent attack on MI6 at the hands of former agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) who is out for revenge.

“Looks like it’s gonna rain.”

As I mentioned earlier, Skyfall has been touted as the best Bond film ever by audiences and critics alike, and has now grossed well over $1 billion which makes it — as of writing — the eighth highest grossing film of all time. That tells you that Sam Mendes done something right. In fact, he done just about everything right in this emotional roller coaster ride. For the first time, the audience is invited into the ins and outs of the relationship between Bond and M which makes this instalment more weighty and heartfelt, yet it still maintains that slickness that has always been associated with the franchise. Mendes has a stellar cast at his disposal — joining Daniel Craig (who plays his best Bond to date opposite Judi Dench, in my opinion) in Skyfall are newcomers to the franchise Ralph Fiennes, Ben Wishaw and Naomie Harris who each add their own nuances to the film (Wishaw is particularly good as Q). However, the star of the show is Javier Bardem with his charismatic, extravagant portrayal of villain Raoul Silva. On a par with Mads Mikkelsen in Casino Royale (we will just ignore Quantum of Solace for now) Bardem is hugely effective opposite Craig and the two flourish as a result.

Although Bond has become a genre on its own essentially, Skyfall claims a spot in my top thriller films for its crisp, free-flowing script and interesting characters.

No Country For Old Men (2007)

“Do not insult my hair again.”

No Country For Old Men is an Academy Award winning 2007 film directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (or just the Coen brothers). The plot surrounds Josh Brolin’s character, hunter Llewelyn Moss after he uncovers over $2 million worth of cash at a drug deal gone wrong and is pursued as a result by vicious hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who has been hired to recover the stolen cash. Meanwhile, almost retired sheriff, Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) finds himself thrust directly into the cat-and-mouse chase between the two.

It is not often the Coen Brothers get it wrong and, true to form, No Country For Old Men is a knockout. This marks Javier Bardem’s second appearance on my list, and for the second time he steals the show. Bardem is excellent at portraying a psychotic, emotionless killer and his aura throughout the film adds to the creepy, on-the-edge, thriller-ish atmosphere. Both Josh Brolin and Tommy Lee Jones are terrific in their depictions of a desperate war veteran and a straight-to-the-point county sheriff respectively. The 1980s Texas setting truly adds to the grit (wink) and once again proves just how good a pair of eyes the Coen Brothers have at selecting locations for their films — have a look at Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? if you do not believe me.

No Country For Old Men is captivating and intense, just two of the many characteristics which make it a very enjoyable thriller.

Argo (2012)

“Screw the Oscars, man”

Ben Affleck’s third directorial feature, political thriller Argo, opened in cinemas a few weeks before Skyfall in October 2012 and stars Affleck, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston. The film is a dramatisation of the Iranian hostage crisis in the 1980s where six fugitive American diplomats require assistance in the form of extraction out of Iran from CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck).

I cannot wait for Affleck’s next film, because this one is absolutely outstanding. Argo defines the thriller genre — every characteristic required to make this film a success is in there. Gripping, intense, polished and stylish, Argo delivers on all fronts. For a political thriller, the plot is not difficult to follow, yet it remains shrewd and without any glaring mishaps. One of the more surprising elements here, particularly following the terrifying opening sequence, are the pockets of dark comedy splattered throughout the film which by no means feel out of place. Affleck manages to equate the frantic goings-on with enough dark humour to ensure the film does not become too lifeless or overbearing. Each of the performances from the cast are solid, with Alan Arkin standing out in particular, but the constantly flowing nature of the plot is the key to this film’s success.

How Ben Affleck was snubbed by the Oscars (he did not receive a nod in the Best Director category) is beyond me. Argo is a must-see film and definitely one of the best released in 2012.

Inception (2010)

Directed by Christopher Nolan, the summer blockbuster of 2010, Inception, stars a jam-packed ensemble cast lead by Leonardo DiCaprio, who receives his support from the likes of Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cillian Murphy and Marion Cotillard (the list goes on). DiCaprio plays Dom Cobb, an extractor — or plainer terms, a thief — who enters his subject’s dreams in order to carry out an extraction. When he is offered the chance to see his children again, Cobb must assemble a team of specialists together in order to plant an idea into his target’s (Cillian Murphy) subconscious — a process known as inception.

“My bad.”

I am probably going be referring to film critic Mark Kermode a lot during this next paragraph, because his review of Inception is one of the best I have heard. Massive summer blockbusters are sometimes tarred (often justifiably) as being big money-making schemes with very little for their audience, who have become accustomed to seeing films where absolutely nothing happens other than some pointless, soulless action sequences (I am looking at you Michael Bay). Kermode attributes this to a small percentage of filmmakers perhaps assuming their audience is too ‘dumb’ to be able to watch a film and at the same time… think. Yes, think. It really is absurd, but it does appear to happen. Look at Transformers for example: the whole franchise is nothing more than robots hitting each other, which is fine once (I suppose), but not over and over again until it becomes so intolerable it hurts to watch. Inception, however, is a perfect example of a massive blockbuster that provides enough action and thrills to appease everyone, but also makes its audience think during the film — and it worked, because the film has taken over $825 million. Why? Because people appreciate that Christopher Nolan is looking out for his audience and making films that will challenge them, but that are also highly enjoyable (The Dark Knight trilogy being another example). Also, because Inception had a number of different layers to it (both literally and figuratively) and because people enjoyed it, some then had to go back and see it again in order for them to fully understand it! That does not mean those people are dumb, quite the opposite in fact: it means they are thinking.

But I digress. Inception is a show-stopping thriller stuffed full of ideas, great performances, amazing visual effects, comedic moments and even some emotion (look it up, Bay).

Blood Diamond (2006)

“Is my accent really that bad?”

The oldest film on my list (albeit not very old), Blood Diamond is another political thriller starring Leonardo DiCaprio. This time he accompanied by Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly in a Sierra Leone setting. At the height of the Sierra Leone civil war (1996-2001), smuggler Danny Archer (DiCaprio) teams with a local fisherman (Hounsou) and a reporter (Connelly) in an attempt to seek out and gain possession of a large diamond, with each of the three boasting different motives.

Leonardo DiCaprio (incidentally, my favourite actor) gets a bad rap for his South African accent in this film — it sounds great to me, but maybe I am touch biased. I doubt that. The performances are very strong, with all three protagonists providing a combination of fury, optimism, emotion and anguish to accompany the desperate situation they find themselves in (particularly DiCaprio and Hounsou). The story moves at greater-than-steady pace which provides the thriller-ish aspect which the film has in abundance, with Edward Zwick’s narrative ensuring the audience remains grasped throughout. Part of the formula which contributes to Blood Diamond’s success in my eyes, is its realism as it depicts some of the hardships most civilians staying in Sierra Leone (and elsewhere) were going through during the civil war. A few of the scenes are harrowing, not in a particularly gory way, but because they dramatise atrocities occurring around the world. I would say, however, that Zwick does not make these scenes exploitative in away way — they are an essential part of the story. On a last note, the African setting is absolutely stunning and almost becomes a character itself during the film.

Blood Diamond really hits home in its realistic nature, and at the same time serves up a gripping tale of two very different men with one common goal.

 

And now for some honourable mentions:

Se7en (1995) — This is a very accomplished horror story about two men tracking down a serial killer who leaves them clues in the form of the Seven Deadly Sins… only, with people involved. Morgan Freeman and a young Brad Pitt excel in their roles.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) — At times you get obsession, then you get Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley. What opens as a fairly innocent thriller closes with just enough menace to fill anyone for a day. Or a lifetime.

Inside Man (2006) — A very underrated film in my opinion, Inside Man sees the charismatic Denzel Washington tasked with rescuing a bunch of civilians caught up in a bank robbery masterminded by Clive Owen. Very intriguing action with a wonderful twist.

Taken (2008) — I think just about everybody has seen Taken — it’s on the TV at least once every week (and weirdly, it costs exactly three pounds in just about every shop in Scotland). Often brutal, always entertaining and the birth Liam Neeson: action star.

Wrecked (2010) — A small, independent thriller starring Adrien Brody as a man who wakes up in the middle of a forest after a car accident he cannot remember anything about. Interesting, dramatic and unique.

Source Code (2011) — This may make an appearance on another list, but as a thriller it just about misses out my top five. Therefore, I will refrain from saying much more for now (but it is very, very good).

What are some of your favourite thriller films?

 

(Note: Mark Kermode reviews each week’s new film releases between 2-4pm on Fridays with Simon Mayo on BBC Radio 5live, so check them out if you like films, or flappy hands. You will not regret it.)