Fury (2014)

2015 #89
David Ayer | 135 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, UK & China / English & German | 15 / R

FuryI don’t believe there are very many movies about tanks — there’s Kelly’s Heroes (which, I must admit, I only know of thanks to ghostof82’s review of the film currently under discussion), and I’ve heard Lebanon’s very good, but no others spring readily to mind. I suppose there are sound production reasons for this, to do with getting bulky movie cameras into tiny spaces and the logistics of choreographing tank battles. The dearth of other films on the same topic automatically gives Fury, about an American tank crew in the closing months of World War 2, something of a leg up in the memorableness stakes.

Specifically, we follow the crew of a tank nicknamed ‘Fury’, commanded by ‘Wardaddy’ (Brad Pitt), driven by ‘Gordo’ (Michael Peña), the cannon manned by ‘Bible’ (Shia LaBeouf), and Grady (Jon Bernthal) is the mechanic or something (I’m not really au fait with what jobs there were in a tank, this is just what I managed to glean from the film itself). After the co-driver is killed, this team who have been together for years are forced to accept a new member, Norman (Logan Lerman), who was trained to type 60-words-per-minute and, apparently, not much else. What follows is a mix of exciting action, men-at-war character drama, war-is-hell imagery, and something of a battle for the soul of the innocent new kid.

In some respects, then, Fury is a bit “seen it all before”. The desaturated photography, muddy landscape and slightly-ramshackle military campaign are all very post-Saving Private Ryan, though writer-director David Ayer lends enough of his own directorial flair that it feels more visually distinctive than most Ryan rip-offs. The “battle for the soul” story dates back at least as far as Platoon, but the thing is, it’s fertile ground. Here you’re contrasting men who’ve been fighting this tough war for years, who are accustomed to its brutality, with someone fresh to the fight, whose ideals haven’t yet been replaced by the practicalities of conflict.

Battle for the soulMost of the characters exist in a moral grey area, something which some reviewers seem to struggle with. From the off, our ostensible heroes are not shown in a particularly pleasant light, committing or encouraging acts we would view as unconscionable. As the film goes on, it seems like we’re being invited to bond with them, to respect or admire them. I’m not sure that’s a wholly accurate reading of it, though. I think we’re being shown different sides to them — much as Norman is, in fact. At first you see the depths they have reached; then, as you get to know them, you see a little more of their true (or at least their pre-corrupted-by-war) characters. Does this redeem them or excuse their actions? Well, that’s your decision. I don’t think the film is predicated on you coming round to their way of thinking. Without meaning to spoil anything, it’s not as if the meta/karmic world of plot construction lets them off scot-free by the end. Of course, whether we need our focus characters to be clean-cut heroes or whether complex morally-grey/black characters are preferable is another debate.

One of the advantages is that you can never be sure what the characters are going to do. Arguably the film’s strongest sequence comes after the tank column Fury leads has captured a town. The men are given some time off before they advance, which naturally means drinking, destroying German property, and whoring. While Bible reads and Gordo and Grady persuade a woman back to the tank to ‘share’, Wardaddy spies a woman (Anamaria Marinca) hiding at an upstairs window and drags Norman up with him. Inside, they find the woman and her pretty younger cousin (Alicia von Rittberg). As Wardaddy settles in, you have no idea what he’s going to do. He’s being nice, but does he mean it? Where is this going? No spoilers, but the unfolding scenes are among the film’s strongest; and as Wardaddy, Norman and the two women sit down to a meal, the rest of Fury’s crew arrive, kicking off one of the most uncomfortable mealtime scenes outside of a Tarantino movie. Tarantino mealThis is a scene most reviews seem to single out, I’ve since realised, but that’s for good reason: even watching it cold, the powerful writing, direction and performances mark it out as a sequence that transcends the movie it’s in. Again, it’s the unpredictability of what these men might do; the grey area of the guys we’re meant to think are the heroes not always being heroic.

For the viscerally inclined, Fury has much to commend it also. The aforementioned scarcity of tank battles on screen means almost every action sequence feels fresh and unpredictable, and Ayer stages them with requisite excitement and tension, too. The highlight is probably a three-on-one tanks-vs-tank fight that shows the might of the German opposition. The climax, in which the five men hole up in their mine-scuttled tank to take on literally a whole battalion of SS troops, is possibly too over-the-top for a movie that’s otherwise pretty realist in its aims, though even this is reportedly inspired by a real incident. Ayer again makes a fair fist of it seeming plausible, at least.

Beyond that, this is a very brutal depiction of war, to an almost horror movie level at times. Instructed to clean the tank on his arrival, Norman finds half the previous driver’s face lying inside; a man burning alive chooses to shoot himself in the head; various other limbs and faces explode as the movie goes on. Do we need to see such graphic detail? The old fashioned “get hit and fall over” style of being shot has clearly had its day, but do we need more than, say, a spurt of blood? Some would argue not. Some would argue part of the point is this ugliness, this inhumanity — it happens, or happened, and so it should be there; we shouldn’t be glorifying it by sanitising it. Nonetheless, at times Fury is a particularly extreme example of depicting the realism of violence, and some won’t feel up to stomaching it.

No rank in a tankI think Fury is a rather rewarding movie for those that can, though. The fact it provokes debate is no bad thing — I think it’s a misinterpretation to read the film, as some online commenters clearly have, as “these guys do horrible things, but they’re the main characters and the not-Nazis, so I must be meant to like them, so the film is bad”. Well, I suppose it’s not news that some people struggle with cognitive dissonance. On the flipside, I don’t think you’re meant to outright hate them — there’s an element of “the Allies did bad things too, y’know” about the film, but that’s not its sole aim. I think it’s more complicated than that, and, naturally, all the better for it. Even on a more surface level, though, there’s adrenaline-pumping excitement to be had from the well-realised action scenes. It’s a combination that worked very well indeed for me, and if my score errs on the side of generosity then, well, consider it redressing the balance.

5 out of 5

Fury debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 3:45pm and 8pm.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

2014 #56
Michael Bay | 154 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Transformers: Dark of the MoonIn an era where sequels seem to improve on their predecessors more often than not — building on established characters and mythology for a deeper experience, rather than rehashing the same plot/jokes/action sequences for a second-go-round money-grab — this Michael Bay-helmed series based on ’80s action figures is a throwback to… well, the ’80s. It’s almost appropriate.

This is the third Bay-guided Transformers flick (I liked the first, was generous to the second), and it starts off well, with a virtuoso eight-minute pre-credits sequence that reconfigures the past 50 years of Earth’s spacefaring in the story’s image. OK, so it contains a seriously ill-advised, incredibly poorly-realised CGI JFK, but we can let some things go. Unfortunately, from here on out the movie does its best to pile on stuff we can’t let go.

It’s difficult to know where to begin on Dark of the Moon’s flaws, because it throws them up so unrelentingly. The storytelling is appalling — it meanders through interminable tonally-suspect ‘comedy’ bits, but then skips over plot points so thoroughly it’s like somebody forgot to shoot some scenes, or possibly reconfigured the entire plot in the edit. Often it feels like watching a not-final cut, full of scenes and moments you’d normally find in the DVD’s deleted scenes section and think, “yes, quite right they cut that”. One of Bay’s (and his fans’) mantras is that these films are just about entertainment, not “winning Oscars or like whatevs”, so maybe he genuinely couldn’t give two hoots about plot? Storytelling is boring and to be brushed past in a race to the next “funny” bit or big fight, maybe?

Boring peopleThere are impressive visuals, it’s true, but that’s all they are: dramatic pictures. The characters, their motivations and actions that lead to these visuals often make no sense. And to say they “lead” there at all is generous, because just as often things begin to happen for no apparent reason. I swear no one’s thought any of it through — like the moment when the big honourable hero is offered a truce by the villain and, instead of accepting it, immediately executes him. Stay classy, Optimus Prime.

If this was a direct-to-DVD or Syfy Channel cheapy, everyone would rip it to shreds. But because it’s slickly shot with bank-breaking CGI, rather than on video with computer game rejects, some people still buy into the badly-told plot that doesn’t make a lick of sense, the poorly-constructed action sequences that are impossible to follow, let the weak acting and ludicrous tonal variety slide… One character even has the temerity to utter the line — and I quote accurately — “does it suck or what? I mean it’s like a bad sci-fi film.”

Yes, it does suck, but it’s not “like” a bad sci-fi film — it is a bad… well, sod the “sci-fi” bit: it’s a bad film. For a movie made by experienced filmmakers, Transformers: Dark of the Moon is shockingly inept.

2 out of 5

The fourth film in the series, Transformers: Age of Extinction, is released in UK cinemas tomorrow (yes, on a Saturday).

Transformers: Dark of the Moon featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2014, which can be read in full here. However, when I rewatched it in 2017 I had

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

2008 #32
Steven Spielberg | 122 mins | cinema | 12A / PG-13

This review contains major spoilers.
For a spoiler-free view, see my initial thoughts.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullI’ve grown up with Indiana Jones around. Not in the way Harry Knowles may have (apparently if you weren’t old enough to see the original trilogy in the cinema, at precisely the right age, then this film isn’t for you), but they’ve always been there. I was so young when I first saw Last Crusade (on video) that, even though it can only have been two years old at most, it was a film that had Always Existed as far as I was concerned (much like Ghostbusters and Back to the Future, or so many other ’80s movies that I love). I remember directing a recreation of Last Crusade in the playground (with me as Indy, of course, and one of my best friends hating me for days because he’d been Brody and I’d melted him at the end, my 6-year-old memory having confused the character with Donovan); loving Young Indiana Jones whenever they showed it on BBC Two; visiting the absolutely fantastic stunt show at DisneyWorld Florida; churning through a couple of the tie-in novels (carefully selected from the gift shop based on their blurbs); having the Raiders poster on my door for at least a decade; running around with my Indy hat and Nazi cap gun (wow, we must’ve bought a lot in that gift shop); wishing there were action figures for me to play with (and appropriating an Alan Grant from Jurassic Park for the task, because he had a vaguely similar hat)… There are many more Indy memories locked away in my head, but I think those examples will more than suffice.

And so, about 17 years or so since I first encountered Dr Henry Jones Jr, I finally get to see him in the cinema. I don’t think I’m one to be easily suckered in by that thrill factor, however. I wasn’t one of the people who came out of Phantom Menace extolling it’s virtues only to later realise how disappointing it was; heck, I came out of Two Towers not with the feeling that after a whole year (wow!) of waiting Lord of the Rings was back and wasn’t it great — I thought it dragged for at least the first half and found Helm’s Deep somehow anticlimactic. I say this in defence of the fact that I enjoyed Crystal Skull and think it’s a good film, an opinion that seems oddly rare at the minute. I suspect this will change with time.

That’s not to say the film isn’t flawed, mind. The opening’s a bit slow for my liking, there are few lines that are as funny or as quotable as in the other films, and some moments push things a bit too far — I’m thinking specifically of Indy escaping a nuclear test in a lead-lined fridge. It’s not as bad as Bond surfing the wave from a melting ice shelf in Die Another Day, but it’s not really in-keeping either. Another oft-cited problem is the amount of material the film awards to some of its starry cast members. Actors of the calibre of John Hurt, Jim Broadbent and… well, most people say Ray Winstone, but I think he’s overrated as an actor… still, they don’t get a great deal to do. The problem here is that they’re John Hurt, Jim Broadbent and Ray Winstone — replace them with unknowns and far fewer people would whinge about the size and point of their roles. Quite why an actor like John Hurt would accept such a small, almost one-note role (while there may be more depth to the character, it’s all revealed in Mutt’s memories rather than Hurt’s performance) is a different issue, but he does play the part well.

The rest of the cast fare better: Shia LaBeouf continues to be a star on the rise, here blessed with a teen rebel who isn’t also incredibly irritating. Mutt has a heart, and we don’t have to suffer a two-hour ‘emotional journey’ to find it. He pairs well with Harrison Ford too, and one can see why George Lucas suggests a future for the franchise that emulates the father-son dynamic from Last Crusade. That said, Ford gets his best partner in Karen Allen’s Marion. She was always the best ‘Indy girl’, and while her return may be as surprising as Indy wearing that hat and carrying a whip (not just because we’ve seen her in all the trailers, but who else is it going to be when Mutt first mentions a Marion in the diner?) she plays a vital role in injecting some verbal humour and banter into proceedings. The only other noteworthy female cast member is Cate Blanchett as a villainous Russian psychic (maybe). She’s clearly having bags of fun with the part, and is rewarded primarily with a death scene that is pleasingly in line with those in the rest of the series. This is another moment some reviewers have whined about, saying we’ve seen it before, but personally I’d’ve been disappointed with anything less from an Indy film.

Of course, this is all without really mentioning the man himself. Make no mistake, Harrison Ford is still Indiana Jones. The hair may be grey, the face covered in more lines, but the attitude and humour is still there. This is an older Indy, of course — he’s not only aged nearly two decades since we last encountered him, he’s also lived through the Second World War. The snippets of dialogue that explain what he’s been up to since we last saw him are all very nice for fans too, I think, but are pleasingly not dwelt upon for too long — this is a film that will work just fine for anyone who somehow hasn’t seen the first three. Ford can still hold his own in the action stakes too, running, swinging and punching his way through a variety of thrilling sequences. The screenplay could have used his age as a crutch, leaving him with some comedy running away while the much younger Mutt got stuck in; this isn’t the case, and that’s great.

As for those action sequences, they’re a lot of fun. The best by far is an extended chase through the jungle, including a fantastically conceived sword fight on the back of two moving vehicles. There’s a good deal of silliness in it — Mutt’s Tarzan-like vine swinging, or Marion’s use of a handily-placed tree to get their car into a river — but this is a franchise explicitly inspired by the B-movie thrills of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, in which context these things are more than acceptable. It’s a little daft, but it’s all such fun that if you’re worrying about the realism you’re not entering into the spirit of things. More disappointing is some lacklustre CGI, which is used far more often than Spielberg might have liked us to believe. There’s also a bit with some large ants that may be a little too close to the use of beetles in The Mummy, but as that’s basically an Indiana Jones rip-off it seems only fair to return the favour.

Finally, there’s the MacGuffin: the eponymous Crystal Skull (the “Kingdom of the” prefix isn’t really needed). It’s alien, as long-rumoured, which has undoubtedly angered some fans. Personally, I don’t find it any sillier than the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, equally unreal items (in fact, less real — maybe the aliens are too likely to be true for some viewers?) with equally fantastical powers. It also fits with the mid-50s setting, post-Roswell and heading into the Space Race. The design of the aliens and their saucer is pleasingly retro, though obviously achieved with CGI, and it does tie to theories that ancient monuments and civilisations had contact with aliens (again, true or not, they’re no worse than the religious artefacts of the other films). Like everything else about the film, the MacGuffin may not be quite as good as the equivalent elements in Raiders and Last Crusade, but it pushes close enough.

Speaking of which, it’s worth quickly mentioning the UK rating. For some reason, Crystal Skull is a 12A while Raiders and Last Crusade are both only PG. I swear there’s nothing worse in this film than those; in fact, I’m sure there’s nothing here that’s as likely to be traumatising for youngsters as Donovan melting at the end of the third film. I expect it says more about our variable rating system than it does about the films themselves, but in the unlikely event anyone reading this is wondering about its suitability for a younger audience, there’s my thoughts.

As I mentioned earlier, reaction to the film, both from critics and the general viewing audience, has been somewhat mixed. It seems plenty of fans have left their rose-tinted glasses with their DVD box set and viewed Crystal Skull with the all-too-critical eye of one who isn’t aware they don said goggles to watch the older films. Crystal Skull is a suitable return to the Indiana Jones series — full of fun and excitement, and a good chance to be reacquainted with old friends. It can’t beat Raiders because that came first, automatically embedding itself as the best in the minds of many; and it can’t beat Last Crusade, partly because it lacks the wonderful dynamic between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, and partly because I just love that film. But, crucially, it is in the same league as them, and that’s fine by me.

4 out of 5

My initial reactions to Kingdom of the Crystal Skull can be read here.