Wednesday, October 29, 2014

FURY Is Beautifully Brutal, But Not Quite Great

FURY Review:

FURY has a lot going for it, but ultimately, it seems torn as to what kind of movie it wants to be. Director David Ayer tends to gravitate towards pulpy, hyperviolent action. But his best film, the underrated End of Watch, went beyond that and mixed tense action with fleshed-out character drama and operatic storytelling. FURY looks to achieve something similar, but it feels like a message movie in search of a message. War is hell, we know, but what we don't know, really, is who the characters are that populate the movie's nightmarish battlefields. There's not quite enough there to give the film the poignancy it needs to 100% resonate. But even so, there is enough in FURY to make it well worth watching: namely, truly epic action and warfare that, thanks to a great cast, provides plenty of excitement.You sort of wish that Ayer had just gone full pulp, and done the comic book war movie that he seems to have wanted to make. But the part of the film that wants to be Saving Private Ryan won't let that happen. And so we're left with an entertaining mash-up of Private Ryan and Sgt. Rock that feels like something striving for, but just missing greatness.

The film takes place in 1945, during the final days of World War II. Hitler's armies are on the defensive, but rather than surrendering, Hitler decides to make one more desperate, bloody push as the allies roll through Germany. Helping to lead the allied charge is Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Bradd Pitt), a squinty-eyed tank commander who's been to hell and back with his battle-tested crew. The names read off like the roll call of an old war comic book: Wardaddy, Gordo, Bible. Oh, and The Walking Dead's Jon Bernthal plays a wild-eyed loose cannon nicknamed "Coon-Ass." It's a motley crew of soldiers, and after one of the unit is killed in a harrowing battle, he's replaced, sure enough, by a fresh-faced recruit - Norman - whose military experience to this point was mostly behind a desk. And so Norman - played by Logan Lerman of The Perks of Being a Wallflower - serves as our eyes and ears into this world of death and danger, swagger and scarred psyches. Norman is thrown right to the wolves, too. Nearly as soon as he joins Wardaddy's crew, the tank is dispatched to head straight into the abyss, to ward off the stronger and sturdier German tanks that stand between the allies and final victory.

Lerman is a fantastic actor, and he really is the heart and soul of this film. Sure, he plays a part that's all-too-familiar in these sorts of movies - the boyish, virginal, rookie whose moral compass has not yet been tainted by the harsh realities of war. But Lerman really elevates the part, keeping you hanging on Norman's every action and reaction. It also helps that the well-oiled tank crew he's thrown in with consists of such great actors. Pitt is at his best as Wardaddy - bringing a sort of John Wayne, stoic cool to the leader who, nonetheless, has that far-off look in his eyes that tells us he's seen some serious $#%& in his day. Michael Pena is also excellent as Gordo, the sane one in the group. His opposite is Bernthal's Coon-Ass, who amps up his Walking Dead shtick to eleven, playing the would-be badass who might hug you or kill you at any given moment, depending on how drunk he is. Bernthal is the new king of playing the unhinged loose cannon, and he does a great job with it here. Surprisingly, Shia LeBeouf is also pretty damn good as Bible, the soft-spoken preacherman who tries to keep the faith even in the seemingly godless arena of battle. Who knew - when LeBeouf is restrained and deliberate as he is here, he can actually act, and even bring a real sense of gravitas to the role. Suffice it to say, the cast is top-to-bottom fantastic, and seeing these actors interact is one of the best parts - if not the best - of the film.

Ayer gives the film a gritty look that lacks the grandeur of many war films, but still feels epic in a smaller, more confined way. The thing of it is that the movie - like its characters - loves the tank (named "Fury," hence the movie's title) that sits at the core of this tale. And the tank - with its cramped, unforgiving, claustrophobia-inducing interior and dusty, grey-metal exterior, is what gives the movie its central aesthetic. The movie makes great effort to put the viewer into that tank, and the film does a fine job of both making you feel like you're there in those cramped confines, and of showing the rhythm of the tank's operation. There's a certain pleasure in simply watching the members of Wardaddy's team operate this heavy machinery, and the movie revels in all the little details that make the tank go.

FURY is brutal. Ayer never shies away from hardcore violence, and he seems hellbent on showing us just how hellish war can be. But to what end? There's a slightly strange tonal inconsistency here. Read between the lines, and the message is that war is falsely glorified by would-be heroes and soldiers, but that ultimately it's ugly, deadly, and a waste of human potential. In a way, it's a fascinating statement to make in a World War II film, as so many films about "the last great war" tend to glorify it, and tend to gloss over some of the death and violence for the sake of not undermining the righteousness of the cause. So there is a potentially interesting and bold point to be made - that even this righteous war was brutal, ugly, and more so a human tragedy than a human victory. But that message that Ayer seems to want to convey never 100% resonates, and is mired in some thematic messiness and a lot of action that seems to strive to be cool rather than look-away ugly.

It's a tough line to walk, and FURY at times feels torn as to what sort of movie it is and what, exactly, it wants to say. But if looked at solely as a semi-pulpy men-on-a-mission movie, it's pretty damn good. Guys like Pitt, Bernthal, and Lerman are good enough and charismatic enough that you don't necessarily need a ton of backstory or character-centric moments for their characters to feel compelling. And the "mission" itself - the journey of this movie - is in and of itself a pretty captivating and riveting one. I just think that extra oomph and thematic focus is missing that would have elevated this from "very good" to "great."

My Grade: B+

Monday, October 13, 2014

GONE GIRL Is Dark Satire and Riveting Filmmaking


- With a David Fincher film, you know you're going to get dark. But GONE GIRL, adapted from the novel by former Entertainment Weekly writer Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the film's screenplay), is dark and darkly funny. GONE GIRL is satire - a pitch-black comedy about modern marriage and media spectacle, an over-the-top send-up of a mutually-abusive relationship that downward-spirals to absurdly depraved places. Flynn's sharp sense of humor, of-the-moment zeitgeistiness, and pop-culture obsessiveness are all there on screen - and so this is a Fincher film that feel like few others in the director's cannon. And that makes it a bit of a tough nut to crack. The impulse at the outset is to view the film's central mystery with the same sort of grim seriousness as, say, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But soon enough, the unraveling layers reveal a story less grim and more fun - a story that becomes increasingly crazy and satirical as it goes. Though the film is lengthy, it remains consistently engrossing. Each new twist of the knife is delivered with cool, unflinching style from Fincher and team - but also with the keen sense of a self-aware airport-thriller page-turner. All that is lacking is a feeling of psychological completeness. As the central couple, Nick and Amy, unravel, they begin to feel less like real people and more like characters in a primetime soap. Fitting, in a story all about the ways we spin our lives into deceptive narratives. But not 100% satisfying as we, the viewers, attempt to understand what goes on inside the heads of Nick and Amy. Still, the film begins and ends with narration wondering just that - and so too are we left to wonder just what these characters are thinking as they manipulate each other in increasingly extravagant fashion. What goes on behind closed doors in all of the crazy, mixed-up tabloid-fodder relationships that consume our pop-culture news-feeds? It's a fascinating thought-exercise, and you can't help but admire a film that raises so many interesting questions about the couples that fuel these types of stories. As crazy and unreal as Nick and Amy seem, every day we're surrounded by real-life stories that echo this seemingly-over-the-top fictional one.

GONE GIRL gets a lot of mileage from playing with perspective and unreliable narrators. When we meet Nick and Amy, it feels like we're being set-up for a somewhat conventional troubled-marriage scenario. Amy's diary entries spin the narrative one way, and Nick's frustrated venting to his twin sister spins things another way. But what Fincher and Flynn do rather brilliantly is to hint that all is not as it seems. The film zig-zags through time, methodically allowing us to put the puzzle pieces together. But from the moment we learn that, in the present, Amy's gone missing, on her five-year wedding anniversary - potentially kidnapped, or worse - we know that something is clearly off ... we're just not sure what. And so begins a very well-laid-out guessing game, trying to figure out what and who to believe, even as we strain to understand the bizarre (yet disturbingly familiar) relationship between the two.

Rosamund Pike, as Amy Dunne, is the clear breakout here. In last year's Jack Reacher, she was a standout, perfectly tailoring her performance to that film's pulpy tone. She pulls of a similar feat in GONE GIRL, except that the role of Amy evolves into something much more complex and layered. The Amy we think we know at the start of the film is not the Amy we come to know by its end - and in between, there are several different iterations of the character - masks worn by Amy to deal with different people in her life. Pike keeps us guessing as Amy, but in between the character's soapier and more melodramatic moments, there are also moments of real pain, anguish, rage, and despair. Of particular note are some of the scenes late in the film between Amy and a scorned-but-still smitten would-be lover, Desi, played by Neil Patrick Harris. At this point, we know more about the true Amy, but still, seeing her interactions with Desi proves shocking. It helps that Harris does a fantastic job of portraying the character as a delusional and needy obsessive, oblivious to the fact that he's being played.

Ben Affleck is also quite good as Nick. The actor is a natural to play the part - in particular, he brings the real-life meta element of being a tabloid star whose troubled romances have made headlines. But Affleck's dude-bro affability is a match for Nick's similarly affable, bordering-on-glib personality. And Affleck does a good job - similar to Pike - of letting real moments of rage and frustration peak through the facade of camera-ready chillness that Nick projects. Indeed, there is something "off" about Nick from the start, and Affleck skillfully keeps us guessing. That said, the enigma of Nick is perhaps the most troubling part of GONE GIRL. Whereas Amy's true self is revealed to us in grand, so-that's-what's-really-going-on fashion, Nick remains a bit of a mystery. It's hard to say too much without spoiling the plot, so I'll just say ... I was left just a bit wanting with regards to Nick. For a good portion of the film, I got him. But by the film's finale, I was just a bit baffled at where he ended up. My issue is that Flynn and Fincher seem to operate with a definite - and admittedly attention-grabbing - ending in mind for this story. But only one character's journey to that endpoint - Amy's - feels entirely plausible within the (very heightened) reality of the film.

The film is filled with some really great and notable performances, aside from its two main leads. I already mentioned Neil Patrick Harris, but another standout is Kim Dickens, as the dogged detective tasked with investigating Amy's disappearance. In a film rife with morally-compromised characters, Dickens plays one of two who is interesting for her relative dedication to truth and justice. The other positively-portrayed character is Margo, Nick's sister - played wonderfully by Carrie Coon. Margo's journey parallels that of the viewer. At first, she is a sympathetic ear to Nick, as he complains about his Type A wife. Then, she is a staunch defender of her brother, as accusations circle him following Amy's disappearance. However, her faith is shaken as more ugly truths about Nick's character come to light. It's a great performance from Coon that really helps to ground the film to an extent. Tyler Perry is also quite good as media-friendly celebrity lawyer Tanner Bolt (great character name), who takes on Nick's case and helps try to turn the media circus around Amy's disappearance in Nick's favor.

The cast is good, though some characters do seem a bit underdeveloped. In particular, I was curious to better understand Amy's parents. They are portrayed as rather frigid one-percenters, but there is clearly something more to them that isn't quite fully explored in the film. One of the story's most intriguing elements is Amy's status as "Amazing Amy," the real-life inspiration for a series of children's books written by her mother. Clearly, growing up in parallel to the fictional Amy did some damage to the psyche of the maybe-not-as-"amazing" actual Amy. But the parents seem wholly oblivious when it comes to the awkward position they've put their daughter in.

Still, the movie does a good job of drawing the parallels between Amy having been forced to play the part of "Amazing Amy" as a child, and her adult self's ability to play other parts to fit other needs. Here is where Flynn's sharp writing really crackles - in Amy's embittered interior monologues about needing to play the part of the "cool girl" for Nick and other guys like him, about having to be, in essence, a woman that only really exists in pop-culture-infused male fantasy. But what is GONE GIRL saying about the battle of the sexes, if anything? With so much of the film about he-said, she-said, and about how Nick and Amy's stories are perceived by their friends, family, the media, and the public, it's easy to make the movie into one giant think-piece about men, women, feminism, misogyny. Nick is a jerk, in his own way - no question. But I think the story is less about Nick's individual flaws than it is about the flaws of Nick and Amy's relationship. The film seems to say that in a me-centric world, the reality of a relationship becomes less important than the way that it helps tell a story to the outside world. The relationship becomes less about love and more about securing a personal "win." For many, marriage is the ultimate Facebook status update, the ultimate life promotion, the ultimate status symbol. But viewing things in those terms has an undeniable dark side, and that to me is what GONE GIRL is really about - ensuring that our own personal story is perceived as one of triumph, no matter the actual truth or cost to ourselves or others. This is, and long has been, the guiding principal for any number of celebrity couples - think the Kennedys, the Clintons - but in an age of social media broadcasting, it also becomes the way in which all of us, to an extent, lead our lives.

And so GONE GIRL becomes the ultimate bad date movie - a sordid look at the modern relationship that, in its own way, is as much about the darkness within as Fight Club or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, as as much about who we are today as The Social Network. Like I said, I do think that the movie misses the mark just a bit when it comes to giving us a clear view of what makes some of these characters - in particular Affleck's Nick - tick. But the achievement here is that it takes the framework of a trashy thriller and makes it about something more. Pike kills it as Amy. And David Fincher delivers another must-see.

My Grade: A-