Greyhound (2020)

2020 #164
Aaron Schneider | 92 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA, Canada & China / English | 12 / PG-13

Greyhound

In the early days of the US joining World War 2, ageing Navy Captain Ernie Krause (Tom Hanks) is finally given his first command, as captain of the lead escort for a convoy of Allied supply and troop ships crossing the Atlantic. As they enter the treacherous part of the ocean too far from land for air support, a pack of German U-boats begins stalking the convoy…

Perhaps the key word to describe Greyhound would be “efficient”. It spends about as much time setting up its premise as I did in the previous paragraph. There are no drawn-out scenes of Krause meeting with the higher-ups to be given his command; no introductions to a motley cast of crewmen before they board; no scene-setting stuff of the convoy sailing out from port… We first meet these boats in the middle of the ocean, their air support signalling “good luck” via Morse code as it turns to head home. There’s a brief flashback to the previous Christmas, when Krause informs his girlfriend (an age-appropriate Elisabeth Shue) of his new station, and then we’re off to the races: a radar contact suggests an enemy submarine, and a game of cat and mouse begins.

What follows over the next 70-or-so minutes is a lean, no-nonsense series of combat sequences. Character development is limited to expressions and glances, or incidental details. For the former, we know Krause is inexperienced, so as we watch his face we can read his silent internal battles about the best course of action; or we see that the eyes of the crew are always watching him, in shots that are held maybe just a little too long, implying the men’s uncertainty about their commander. For the latter, the ship’s cook regularly brings Krause meals that he never eats — he’s too busy being on guard to spend time on food. The rest of the crew are mostly faceless, just bodies to relay orders and information back and forth, or to man machinery. One man or another might get focus for a bit (the sonar operator is significant during the first encounter, for example), but the film doesn’t expend effort to unnecessarily bring individuals back later. Consequently, the feel is realistic: the crew hasn’t been streamlined for the sake of a movie narrative; a ship is staffed by dozens of men, sharing jobs so others can rest, the only constant being the very top men, namely Krause and his XO, played by Stephen Graham.

You sunk my battleship!

The impression of realism extends to the dialogue, the vast majority of which is naval jargon. I didn’t have a bloody clue what most of it actually meant (it’s all bearings and ranges and orders about direction and speed and whatnot), but you don’t need to because the visuals are telling the story. The film is adapted from a novel, The Good Shepherd by C.S. Forester, and if it’s at all faithful then I have no desire to read the book, because I don’t think I’d have a clue what was happening. But it works magnificently in the visual medium of film, where what the barked words signify is conveyed succinctly by the accompanying images. New sonar information leads to men with maps and rulers rushing to work out new courses; the ship turning this way and that in response to relayed commands; Krause rushing from one side to the other, binoculars always in hand, trying to spot any sign of their underwater foe amid the choppy mid-Atlantic waves. I have no idea how faithful it is to the reality of WW2 naval combat, but it feels genuine.

Some reviewers have found this unrelenting focus on the business of sea combat to be dull. I felt exactly the opposite. The threat of the U-boats is ever present, a constant danger that leaves our men pinging from one crisis to the next. The intensity is underlined by Blake Neely’s ominous, percussive score, which shrieks when the enemy is near and thuds throughout combat, in a good way. Combined with the brief running time, it feels like the film doesn’t let up. This isn’t some stately drama about men at sea who are occasionally forced to take potshots at an unseen enemy, but an action movie; only instead of men clashing with kung fu or guns, it’s boats and subs fighting with torpedoes and, um, trigonometry. The result is tight, tense, and thrilling.

4 out of 5

Greyhound is available on Apple TV+ now.

Their Finest (2016)

2018 #223
Lone Scherfig | 117 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & Sweden / English | 12 / R*

Their Finest

One of three Dunkirk-related movies released in 2017 (which is a bit random — it wasn’t a particular anniversary or anything), Their Finest is adapted from a novel by Lissa Evans called Their Finest Hour and a Half, which is a much better title. “Their Finest” is kinda bland and meaningless — slap it on any wartime film and it’d work just as well. The original title is a neat pun, though, mixing the famous saying (which comes from a 1940 Churchill speech, if you didn’t know) with the common running time of a movie, thereby indicating when the story is set (World War 2), what it’s about (the making of movies), and indicating a tone (it’s a pun, but not an outrageous one, suggesting lightness without going full-blown comedy). Maybe someone noticed this runs nearer two hours and didn’t want to give audiences the wrong idea…

Their Finest Hour and a Half stars Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole, a young woman in wartime London who finds work writing female characters’ dialogue in movies — “the slop”, as it’s derisively called by her combative superior, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). When a news story about twin sisters who took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk is fast-tracked into production, with a cast that includes fading leading man Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), Catrin and Tom wind up on location with the film, hastily rewriting to include changes mandated by the War Office. Despite Tom’s standoffish attitude and Catrin’s marriage to a good-for-nothing war artist (Jack Huston), who’s jealous of her newfound status as the breadwinner, affection begins to blossom between the two writers…

Hooray for the writers!

Yeah, much of Their Finest follows the expected shape of a story like this (the love triangle; the woman coming to be respected by her initially dubious colleagues; etc). Two things work to stop it feeling too staid: an engaging lead cast, and some weightier developments and subplots. The latter includes at least one wholly unexpected twist, which helps make this a more powerful film than the potentially-light “people go on a jolly to make a movie during the war” premise initially seems. There’s a somewhat classical balance of comedy and tragedy there, which is reminiscent of movies from the era the film’s set. Frame it in 4:3, shoot in black & white, and give everyone RP accents, and parts of it could almost be a ’40s melodrama.

Talking of accents, why oh why did they lumber Gemma Arterton with a Welsh one? It isn’t bad, exactly, but I did find it constantly distracting. Presumably it’s because the story is loosely based on the life of Diana Morgan, a Welsh screenwriter whose wartime work for Ealing Studios mostly went uncredited (though she does have one on the famous propaganda film Went the Day Well?, amongst a handful of others), but, considering it’s not actually a biopic, surely there’s no need for the accent? Well, other than to attract funding from the Welsh Government’s Media Investment Budget, I suspect… Anyway, it’s a minor complaint (as I said, her accent isn’t bad), and even with it Arterton is typically charming, generating good chemistry with Claflin, who plays a Mr Darcy-esque role as the initially-unlikeable inevitable love interest. As usual, Nighy threatens to steal the show, hamming it up just the right amount as Ambrose. He gets a significant subplot about his hard-fought transition from leading man to character actor, which also brings in Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory — just two more high-quality actors helping round out a strong cast, which also includes Rachael Stirling, Richard E. Grant, and Jeremy Irons, among others.

She's holding a pencil, she must be a writer

Ambrose is another man who initially misreads Catrin but eventually comes round to her. I suppose the “a woman proves her worth” element is another that’s been well-worn, but it seems fitting here, given that women in the film industry are still struggling to be treated equally. In this case, it’s using the “women suddenly in the workplace” reality of WW2 to make it both feel relevant to the present while remaining era-appropriate, unlike so many period movies that project present-day values onto eras where they don’t truly fit. It’s not as heavy-handed in its moralising as others can be, either.

Indeed, I’d say the entire film is very well pitched. It straddles the comedy-drama divide skilfully, entertaining as a jolly romance set in the world of moviemaking, but with enough grit from the reality of wartime to give it an edge. Everyone involved has, I’m sure, given it their finest hour-and-a-half(-and-a-half).

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Their Finest is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm.

* It’s rated R for “some language and a scene of sexuality” — there’s a couple of “fucking”s and a brief glimpse of one practically-silhouetted breast. God, the MPAA are daft. ^

Dunkirk (2017)

2017 #102
Christopher Nolan | 106 mins | cinema | 2.20:1 | UK, USA, France & Netherlands / English | 12A / PG-13

Dunkirk

Batman Begins. The Dark Knight Rises. Memento. The Prestige. Interstellar. Inception. The Dark Knight. Of his previous nine feature films, Christopher Nolan has seven on the IMDb Top 250 (in descending order as listed). I’m sure Following and Insomnia have their advocates as well. Nonetheless, many reviews are hailing Dunkirk as his best film yet. Some are even say it’s his first genuine masterpiece. Some that this is the film where he finally lives up to those endless Kubrick comparisons.

And some just harp on about how we have to see it in bloody IMAX, even though most of us can’t.

Personally, coming out of it I felt pretty much the same way I have about every Christopher Nolan film bar The Dark Knight: it was very good, but was it great?

We shall wait for them on the landing grounds

I don’t know how well the Battle of Dunkirk is known outside British shores (a lot better after this film, I’d wager), but I think it has a kind of ‘national myth’ status here; the sort of thing the phrase “our finest hour” was invented for. In 1940, British and allied troops retreated from the Nazi advance across Europe, ending up with their backs to the sea on the beach at Dunkirk, France, waiting for rescue from the British Navy. As their ships were plagued by German bombers and U-boats, eventually civilians were mobilised, with hundreds of fishermen and hobbyists sailing their tiny craft across the Channel to save as many as they could — in the end, over 330,000 troops. That’s ‘The Story’, anyway — I’m sure the truth is more nuanced. It’s also what provoked Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, which is probably even more famous.

So why hasn’t Dunkirk been more widely depicted on screen before now? Well, it didn’t involve the Americans, so I imagine that’s a big part of it. Also, it was technically a defeat — not exactly uplifting fodder. And where do you lay your focus? To take D-Day as a counterpoint: sure, it was a massive operation involving multiple beaches and thousands of troops, but you pick a handful of men to follow and you’re depicting the general experience. With Dunkirk, you’ve got the men who made it on to boats, those left on the beach, the civilians coming to their rescue, the sailors, the airforce… Or maybe I’m trying to make it sound more difficult to film than it actually is, and it all just comes back down to “the yanks weren’t there”.

Wherever did they find sand for all those bags?

But Christopher Nolan is allowed to basically do what he wants nowadays, and so Christopher Nolan is the one who’s finally made a film of Dunkirk. (I say “finally” — there have been others, a long time ago.) Despite it being the shortest film of his Hollywood career, Nolan gets round the perspective problem by making it an epic, driven by spectacular visuals and universal themes rather than a focused tale of just a character or two. In aid of this, it’s a three-pronged affair: in separate storylines we follow the soldiers on the beach and in the boats; a civilian craft on its way to rescue them; and a pilot providing air cover.

To complicate matters, Nolan stages each of these stories at a different time period — respectively, one week, one day, and one hour before the film’s climax — but intercuts them all as if they were happening at once. At times, literally: rather than limit each storyline to whole scenes one by one, events in each (like, say, a boat sinking with the soldiers on it and the pilot in a dogfight) are intercut as if they’re occurring simultaneously. It’s… an unusual choice. I’m not saying it’s bad, but I’m not sure what its goal is, exactly. For the film as a whole, it works effectively, especially spotting background details in each story that then crop up again later when other storylines catch up to them.

Background details

I think the main effect Nolan was aiming for is intensity. Not of war, so much, but of survival. That this is a PG-13 war movie caused some to balk — how can you depict war nowadays without blood and gore? But this isn’t a war movie per se, it’s an escape movie. It’s not about the reality of someone getting their arm or head blown off, it’s about escaping a sinking ship, or running out of fuel, or keeping going when the odds are against you. Couple this with the aforementioned visual spectacle, and a thunderous sound mix, and Dunkirk is definitely an Experience.

Indeed, for those without access to an IMAX — and, let’s face it, that’s the vast majority of viewers — the film’s sound is the main reason to see it in the cinema. It’s loud. I saw other people in my screening actually covering their ears at some points. That’s not just because my cinema had the volume too high (well, I don’t think it is), but I think it’s purposefully part of the effect. Of course, if you’ve got a decent sound system at home and are prepared to crank it up, maybe the Blu-ray will yet offer a similar experience. Certainly, in terms of the visuals, the disc release is likely to use the film’s IMAX Digital version, which features 80 minutes of 1.90:1 footage (vs. the constant 2.20:1 framing that you’ll see in most cinemas); and, if we’re lucky, they’ll include the IMAX footage in its full 1.43:1 ratio too (they did for Nolan’s Batmans, but not for Interstellar). It’s kind of ironic that this is a new-release film from a director hell bent on the sanctity of the theatrical experience (you probably saw his comments about Netflix earlier this week), where most of us will better see his intended visuals on a home video format than we will at the cinema.

We shall wait for them on the beaches

In trying to think how to sum up, I’ve come to the conclusion that early reviews have put too much weight on Dunkirk. I’m sat here pondering “is it Nolan’s best film?” or “is it the greatest war film ever made?”, rather than just “how was it as a film in itself?” On first blush, I wasn’t as enthralled by it as I was by The Dark Knight, or even Inception, but in some respects it’s a more mature, maybe even more cinematic, movie than either of those. As for being the greatest war film, I can’t help but instantly think of Saving Private Ryan, whose opening scene remains the one to beat, but also follows through with the rest of its story; and if we expand our scope to allow cinematic TV series, can anything top Band of Brothers? But, as I said earlier, Dunkirk isn’t trying to out-war those war movies.

So, setting aside questions of its place in film history, Dunkirk aims to be an intense experience about trying to survive events bigger than yourself. In that regard, it’s as successful as the evacuation itself.

5 out of 5

Dunkirk is in cinemas everywhere now. It’s also been released in IMAX, donchaknow.

It placed 9th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

The Pianist (2002)

2016 #175
Roman Polanski | 143 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | France, Poland, Germany & UK / English, German & Russian | 15 / R

The PianistRoman Polanski’s semi-autobiographical biopic of Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), who survived the Warsaw ghetto in World War 2 primarily through luck and good fortune, is a subtly powerful work. It may not poke at your emotions quite so readily as, say, Schindler’s List, but that’s because Polanski and screenwriter Ronald Harwood dodge histrionics or an operatic envisioning of events. Instead this feels like a grounded relation of the facts, with everyday heroism (and cruelty) the order of the day — but, of course, there’s nothing “everyday” about it.

If this were fiction it would seem improbable; because it’s true, it’s extraordinary.

5 out of 5

The Pianist was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #79

The mission is a man.

Country: USA
Language: English, French, German & Czech
Runtime: 170 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 24th July 1998 (USA)
UK Release: 11th September 1998
First Seen: TV, c.2001

Stars
Tom Hanks (Big, Cast Away)
Edward Burns (She’s the One, 15 Minutes)
Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, Jason Bourne)
Tom Sizemore (Natural Born Killers, Black Hawk Down)
(The lead cast includes since-famous people like Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, and Giovanni Ribisi, and the supporting cast even more recognisable faces, but, still, Edward Burns is second billed.)

Director
Steven Spielberg (Empire of the Sun, War Horse)

Screenwriter
Robert Rodat (Fly Away Home, The Patriot)

The Story
In the immediate aftermath of D-Day, a group of soldiers are tasked to locate and rescue just one man: Private Ryan, whose three brothers have been killed in action, earning him a free pass home. As the squad trek across France, mindful of the waste of resources, they encounter first-hand the early days of the Allied invasion of Europe.

Our Heroes
Just a regular bunch of soldiers, co-opted into a PR mission that isn’t that easy. They’re commanded by Captain Miller, their respected leader with a secretive past… a past which is actually thoroughly mundane, and just highlights the bizarre, heightened world of the war.

Our Villains
Nazis!

Best Supporting Character
Matt Damon was cast as the eponymous soldier because Spielberg wanted an unknown with an all-American look. Unfortunately for that plan, before Private Ryan came out Damon won an Oscar for Good Will Hunting and became famous overnight. It certainly changes the effect to have the team rescuing Movie Star Matt Damon rather than Some Unknown Actor, but, on the bright side, he’s good.

Memorable Quote
Reiben: “Hey, so, Captain, what about you? I mean, you don’t gripe at all?”
Miller: “I don’t gripe to you, Reiben. I’m a captain. There’s a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. Always up. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superior officer, so on, so on, and so on. I don’t gripe to you. I don’t gripe in front of you. You should know that as a Ranger.”
Reiben: “I’m sorry, sir, but uh… let’s say you weren’t a captain, or maybe I was a major. What would you say then?”
Miller: “Well, in that case, I’d say, ‘This is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover, I feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and am willing to lay down my life and the lives of my men — especially you, Reiben — to ease her suffering.’”

Memorable Scene
The opening half-hour, which recreates the Normandy landings in shocking, brutal detail, and is supposedly very true to the actual experience. Surely the definitive modern combat sequence from any war movie.

Technical Wizardry
The heavily desaturated cinematography by Janusz Kaminski instantly lends the film a grim veracity, very appropriate to its tone. Such extreme colour palettes are commonplace nowadays, mainly thanks to digital grading, but when Private Ryan came to US TV providers had to deal with numerous complaints from viewers who thought there was a problem with their signal — which the broadcasters fixed by just upping the saturation of the film, of course.

Truly Special Effect
The involvement of ILM was downplayed so that the film didn’t come across as “an effects movie”, but they still had a key role — for instance, providing most of the bullet hits throughout the D-Day sequence. Not remarkable effects work in itself, maybe, but it’s appropriately invisible.

Making of
The D-Day sequence alone cost $11 million. It was filmed over four weeks (almost half the entire shoot), gradually moving up the beach to film the whole thing in chronological order. Spielberg personally operated the camera for many shots, none of which were storyboarded. The shoot involved up to 1,000 extras, 20 to 30 of whom were amputees fitted with prosthetic limbs to simulate them being blown off. Reportedly, many veterans have congratulated Spielberg on the sequence’s accuracy, including actor James Doohan, aka Star Trek’s Scotty, who participated in the Normandy landings.

Next time…
HBO’s Band of Brothers is basically Saving Private Ryan: The Series, taking the film’s visual style to tell the true story of a company of soldiers from their training, through the invasions of France and Germany, and right up to the end of the war. Often topping lists as the greatest TV series ever made, it certainly belongs in consideration.

Awards
5 Oscars (Director, Cinematography, Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing)
6 Oscar nominations (Picture, Actor (Tom Hanks), Original Screenplay, Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Makeup)
2 BAFTAs (Sound, Special Effects)
8 BAFTA nominations (Film, Actor (Tom Hanks), Director, Music, Cinematography, Editing, Production Design, Make Up/Hair)
1 Saturn Award (Action/Adventure/Thriller Film)
1 Saturn nomination (Special Effects)
3 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Action Sequence for the Normandy landings. It lost to Armageddon.)

What the Critics Said
“hands-down the best film of 1998. Spielberg has clearly stated in recent interviews that he made the film as a monument to the brave men who fought and died in that terrible war (and on D-Day, in particular), but he’s also done something morally heroic in the process. Private Ryan clearly illustrates, once and for all, that war — the real, appalling thing, not the flag-waving glorification that you usually see at the movies — is hell on earth. Spielberg accomplishes these goals with a technical virtuosity that no other director, arguably in the history of the cinema, can even approach. […] He’s a director whose work has grown right before our eyes from that of a precocious whiz-kid to the complex, humanistic statements of a true artist. Whether or not you always appreciate how he utilizes his skills, the man is an undeniable genius.” — Paul Tatara, CNN

Score: 92%

What the Public Say
“the opening 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan – where [Spielberg] thrusts us into the 1944 D-Day landings of Omaha Beach – is arguably his most impressive and certainly his most visceral work. It’s absolutely exhausting in its construction and sense of realism and the realisation soon sets in, that this cinematic auteur is not about to pull any punches in portraying a time in history that’s very close to his heart. The opening is so commanding that some have criticised the film for not living up this grand and devastating scale but Spielberg has many more up his sleeve. He’s just not able to deliver them too close together – otherwise, the film would be absolutely shattering and very difficult to get through. To bridge the gap between breathtaking battles scenes the film falls into a rather conventional storyline about men on a mission but its only purpose is to keep the film flowing and allows Spielberg the ability to make the brutality of war more personal.” — Mark Walker, Marked Movies

Verdict

Is Saving Private Ryan the greatest war movie ever made? Maybe. The relatively simple story allows it to explore the mindset of the soldiers making the first forays into Europe after D-Day, both their camaraderie as a group of men and the actions they took to function through the experience. It’s certainly the most influential World War 2 movie of modern times — nearly 20 years later, its desaturated colour palette remains de rigueur for films set in the war. So too its realistic depiction of combat, which is more plausible than some of the Boy’s Own adventures that came before, though not so ridiculously gruelling as some that have come in its wake. Personally, the only superior WW2 ‘film’ I can think of is Band of Brothers, and considering that has ten hours to explore its characters and situations, it’s not really a fair comparison.

#80 will be… a very different Spielberg/WW2 story.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

aka Hotaru no haka

2016 #67
Isao Takahata | 90 mins | DVD | 16:9 | Japan / Japanese | 12

Grave of the FirefliesOne of the most praised animated films of all time, this Studio Ghibli feature tackles grim subject matter: it’s the story of Seita and his little sister Setsuko, a pair of Japanese children who are orphaned and eventually left to fend for themselves in the closing months of World War 2. It begins with Seita dying of starvation and joining the spirit of his dead sister, so you know it’s not going to end well. A Disney movie this is not.

It’s kind of hard to avoid the praise Grave of the Fireflies has attracted, which is why it ended up on my Blindspot list this year. It’s the third highest-rated animation on IMDb (behind Spirited Away and The Lion King), which also places it in the top 25% of the Top 250, not to mention various other “best animated” and “great movie” lists. I mention all this because I fear the weight of expectation somewhat hampered the film for me. It’s by no means a bad film, but, despite the subject matter, it didn’t touch me to the same degree as, say, My Neighbour Totoro (which, coincidentally, it was initially released with).

So where did it go wrong for me? Perhaps my biggest issue was with Seita and the choices he made. I guess part of the point is that he is still a child and so unable to adequately care for himself and Setsuko, but I don’t get why he resorts to stealing, looting, and allowing them to starve when, as it eventually turns out, they still have 3,000 yen in the bank — enough to buy plenty of hearty food when it comes down to it. Why didn’t he turn to that money much sooner? Why did it take a doctor telling him his sister was malnourished and refusing to help before he thought, “you know what, I could always use that money we have saved up in the bank to feed us so I don’t have to steal and nonetheless be short of food”? When he does eventually withdraw that cash and buy some decent supplies, it’s a very literal case of doing too little too late.

Another thing is that the film is often cited as a powerful anti-war movie, because it depicts the ravaging effects on innocents. However, director Isao Takahata insists it isn’t, saying it’s about “the brother and sister living a failed life due to isolation from society”. I’m inclined to believe him, because, from what we actually see on screen, these two kids are the only ones to be so badly affected! Okay, we do see people have died, and we’re told that food is running out… but there’s a gaggle of kids who seem to be having a fun day out when they stumble across the siblings’ makeshift shelter; or, right at the end, people who merrily arrive home and pop their music on. The film doesn’t try to claim that only these two kids suffered, but — aside from a few other destitutes at the start, and the bodies we see after the first bombing (later bombings don’t make any casualties explicit) — we don’t really see anyone else suffering. I’m not arguing that Takahata is saying no one else suffered, nor that these observations make it pro-war (I mean, any children dying, even if others are surviving, is not a good thing), but I didn’t get an anti-war message that was as powerful or as overwhelming as other viewers seem to have.

I’m an advocate of animation as a form (which must sound like a ridiculous position to have to take in some countries, but in the West “quality animation” begins and ends with Disney musicals and Pixar’s kid-friendly comedy adventures), but I think the fact this particular story is being told with moving drawings is detrimental. I’ve seen online reviews that say it makes the film more bearable because it creates a kind of disconnect from the real world — and, really, this story shouldn’t be “bearable”. That’s not to say you can’t feel an emotional connection to animated characters, but, as a medium, animation regularly deals in fantastical subjects, so with material this gruelling it does make it seem less real.

Despite these issues, Grave of the Fireflies does still pack a punch, but I wasn’t as bowled over as I’d expected to be.

4 out of 5

Grave of the Fireflies was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

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.

The Good German (2006)

2010 #103
Steven Soderbergh | 103 mins | TV (HD) | 15 / R

The film was shot as if it had been made in 1945. Only studio back lots, sets and local Los Angeles locations were used. No radio microphones were used, the film was lit with only incandescent lights and period lenses were used on the cameras. The actors were directed to perform in a presentational, stage style. The only allowance was the inclusion of nudity, violence and cursing which would have been forbidden by the Production Code.

So says the IMDb trivia page for The Good German, Steven Soderbergh’s delightfully thorough attempt to create a 1940s-style film noir in the ’00s. It’s even in 4:3, donchaknow.

But is this a case of style over substance? Some critics accuse it of just that, saying it concentrates more on the look & feel than the characters. They do have a point, but the style is, if not incidental, then still not the sole purpose. The tale is more about the mystery — indeed, mysteries — than the characters. Films like The Third Man and Casablanca spring readily to mind; tales where characters cross and double-cross, where you can’t be certain who’s on whose side, or why, or when, or for how long. Though, yes, The Good German does lack the depth of character found in either of those examples.

Still, this isn’t merely a pastiche — or at least not as much of one as it could have been in lesser hands — but instead is a work that conforms to the genre conventions and the filmmaking style of the era it’s both set in and sets out to emulate. It’s very believably done too, so much so that the very modern levels of violence, sex and swearing are uncomfortably incongruous. Perhaps this was Soderbergh’s intention, but you can’t help but think that it’s a misstep. If you’re going to all that trouble to recreate The Good Rainthe visual, audio, acting and plot styles of the era, why not ensure the dialogue and action follow suit? There’s no need for the violence, sex and swearing in this particular tale; at least, no need for it in a way that couldn’t be conveyed as effectively using Production Code-friendly methods. I’m uncertain if I like the film less for failing on this measure, but it does add to its inherent oddness.

Thematically the film is quite strong, though thanks to an assortment of almost red-herring-ish mysteries it might take more than one viewing to tease them all out. The setting, in both place and time, gives away the central issues: Berlin, after the war, as the Allies decide who will be prosecuted for the atrocities Germany committed and who will be allowed to escape without a trial. Who was responsible — the ringleaders, their underlings, ordinary people? Every character is connected to this somehow, every one has their morals tested or examined.

We’re certainly given a fair look at each of the three leads, as the film switches its focus between them around-about each act break, signalled by a brief voiceover from the new central character — one of which casually reveals the answer to what had, for a while, seemed to be the central mystery. The Good BlanchettBut how much do we get to know them, really? It’s easy to see why critics said “not very well”, because they’re too busy uncovering the conspiracies and revealing their part to actually show us much about themselves. But then why should that be a problem? It’s a noir thriller, not a character drama. Surely it’s about the mysteries and, if you like, the themes, rather than letting us understand the people caught up in them?

Indeed, the array of mysteries distracts from thematic pondering, or the wider conspiracies that the tale is ultimately concerned with. To list them would spoil plot twists, but each in turn seems to be the Main Story — until all is revealed and we have a chance to see the bigger game that’s been played all along. I suppose in that respect it’s like some of the best classic noirs — The Big Sleep springs to mind in this field, not that The Good German is quite as unknowably complex.

Soderbergh’s exercise in era-recreation can be deemed a success: if you can ignore the famous modern cast and the pristine visual quality of a recently-produced film, it looks and sounds exactly like something from the ’40s. Is that enough to sustain a feature? No. But the accompanying story — which, as this is an adaptation, surely inspired Soderbergh’s The Good Referencesproduction intentions rather than being invented to slot into them — provides meat on the stylistic bones.

And yet, having seen it, I can’t help but feel that The Good German is little more than an interesting curio; one that deserves to be seen but, following that, viewers would be better off sticking to real noirs.

3 out of 5

1945-1998 (2003)

2010 #66a
Isao Hashimoto | 14 mins | streaming

1945-1998 title cardIs 1945-1998 actually a film? Or is it a piece of video Art? Or just another online video?

Its setup is quite simple: it charts every nuclear explosion between the titular years; the total, by-the-way, is 2,053. These explosions play out as flashing dots on a world map; different colours indicate which country was responsible for the explosion, accompanied by running totals. You might note at the end that the US are solely responsible for over half.

The film begins with close-ups: the first test by the US; then the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II. Then it zooms out, to a map of the whole world (arranged differently to how we’re used to seeing it here, with the UK and Europe off to the far left and America on the right. I suppose this is neither here nor there, but it took me a bit to get my bearings on where the explosions were happening). From then it progresses through time at a precise rate of one month equalling one second. If that sounds quite reasonable, the maths holds that it’s 636 seconds, aka ten-and-a-half minutes; or, quite a long time to look at a static map with flashing lights.

There are long gaps between explosions to begin with, but as it heads into the ’60s things pick up (so to speak). As time wears on further, the initially lifeless map transforms into an almost hypnotic array of multi-coloured flashes and variously toned bleeps (provided your 1945-1998: the first testattention didn’t already wander, that is). There are ultimately so many flashes and bleeps, and the effect is so lulling, that I had to force myself to remember these represented Big Nasty Bombs that were Not A Good Thing. Perhaps something more aurally grating would’ve been appropriate; the counter argument going that this would cause even more viewers to abandon the work.

Sadly, it’s become outdated: the bleeps all but stop after 1993 but, as the webpage you can view it on notes, North Korea have since tested nuclear weapons several times. Perhaps Hashimoto needs to add another 2 minutes and 24 seconds, just to ram home that the issue of nuclear weapons is still depressingly relevant.

So is it a film, or video Art, or just another online video? It’s all of the above (of course). 1945-1998 isn’t exactly fun viewing — really speaking, it’s a kind of moving graph — but, if one sticks with it, and despite its outdatedness, Hashimoto makes his point reasonably well.

3 out of 5

1945-1998 can be seen at CTBTO.org.