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tough war for years, who are accustomed to its brutality, with someone fresh to the fight, whose ideals haven’t yet been replaced by the practicalities of conflict.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.

Valkyrie (2008)

2015 #41
Bryan Singer | 108 mins* | TV | 16:9 | USA & Germany / English | 12 / PG-13

On the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s death, the true story of some people who tried to kill him…

ValkyrieAfter abandoning the X-Men franchise for a Superman reboot/continuation that was retrospectively branded a commercial and critical flop (it actually grossed $391 million worldwide (more than Batman Begins, for example) and has a fairly strong Rotten Tomatoes score of 76%), director Bryan Singer returned to more traditionally dramatic fare — and Nazis — with this true-story war movie about a German plot to assassinate Hitler.

Tom Cruise is Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, an army officer who believes Hitler needs to be removed for the sake of Germany’s future. Invalided home after an RAF raid, he discovers he’s far from alone in his beliefs when he’s recruited into a conspiratorial group who have already failed to assassinate Hitler several times. There he concocts a plan to take out Hitler with a bomb during his weekly briefing at the Wolf’s Lair, blame it on the SS, and use the Führer’s own Operation Valkyrie contingency plan to seize control before any of his cronies can do it first.

There’s no point beating about the bush: they don’t succeed. We all know that. The film’s marvel, really, is in making us believe they might. Well, not believe it — we’re not stupid, are we? — but invest in it. It’s also a revelation how far they got. No, Hitler isn’t killed, but the associated confusion engineered by the plan (they cut off communications from the remote Wolf’s Lair, meaning the news that Hitler survived takes a long time to come out) means an awful lot of Valkyrie is enacted. In the end, they’re done for by bad luck — some people make some decisions which undermine the plan, whereas if they’d gone the other way it might have succeeded even with the Fuhrer still alive. What might have been…

Edge-of-your-seat tensionOne of the stated aims of the conspiracy is to show the rest of the world that not everyone in Germany believed in what Hitler and his inner circle were doing. It may have taken us a long time to realise that, for fairly understandable reasons, but quality films like this help get the message out. Singer has crafted a proper thriller here, replete with scenes of edge-of-your-seat tension. Many a filmmaker can’t manage that with a fictional storyline, never mind one where we know exactly how it turns out.

A top-drawer cast help keep the drama ticking over too. Complaints that accompanied the theatrical release, about the German characters all speaking English, feel thoroughly bizarre. How many movies in history have foreigners all speaking English? I mean, what about Schindler’s List, for just one broadly-related broadly-recent example. Have we really reached a point where everyone is so accepting of subtitles? No, of course we haven’t. I think it’s a baseless criticism to latch on to; one that misses the point so severely it’s difficult to think how to rationally argue against. It’s just wrong. Anyway, most of the cast are British thesps — Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin McNally, David Schofield, Tom Hollander, even Eddie Izzard — so you’re guaranteed quality. Even Terence Stamp proves that he can act, in spite of what some other performances would have me believe. Cruise is a suitable leading man. This isn’t one of his greater acting performances, Brave men who tried to do the right thingbut nor is he in simplistic action hero mode.

Elucidating a sometimes-overlooked aspect of an over-covered era of history, managing to tell its story with all the thrills and tension of a narrative where we don’t know the outcome, Valkyrie is a film to be commended. It’s also a fitting tribute to very brave men on the ‘other side’ who tried to do the right thing.

4 out of 5

* I always try to list the running time of the version I watched, but I feel this one needs a quick explanation, because it’s a full 13 minutes less than the listed running time. Was it cut? Probably not. I watched it on TV, with PAL speed-up and end credits almost entirely shorn. PAL gets you down to 115 minutes; I can well believe there were seven minutes more to the full credits. So there you go. ^

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

It Happened Here (1966)

2010 #98
Kevin Brownlow & Andrew Mollo | 96 mins | DVD | PG

Alternate histories are always fun, and nothing seems to have provoked more than the Second World War. Which, as a defining event in modern history for a good chunk of the world, is understandable. It Happened Here is perhaps one of the earliest examples, depicting a 1940s Britain under Nazi occupation.

Co-directors Brownlow and Mollo use a dramatic narrative, as opposed to faux-documentary, to show off their vision of an occupied Britain. They shoot it in grainy, handheld black-and-white with a rough-round-the-edges feel that gives it the air of documentary even when it’s undoubtedly scripted and performed. How much this is deliberate and how much an accident of circumstance, I don’t know — they were both young, amateur filmmakers at the time, working on a small budget; United Artists spent more on the US trailer than was spent on the entire film. Whatever the cause, it works, because they’re also not trying and failing to convince us this is a documentary, simply employing the visual cues which help sell their history as real. Using a dramatic narrative also gives the viewer an identifiable character, nurse Pauline, which works nicely by drawing us into the story’s world, helping us feel and relate to the compromises and sacrifices that have to be made — and, as the film forces us to realise, would be made — under such circumstances.

Pauline is apolitical, which for the sake of the film means she can get buffeted around, seeing many facets of occupied life. She’s drawn into the regime without losing our sympathy, but when she legitimately disagrees with it she’s shoved out of the way to a country hospital — which allows us to see another aspect; namely, the quiet but methodical enacting of The Final Solution in an occupied territory. The whole film builds to this point, gradually showing the darker and deeper levels of cooperation — which starts out almost harmless and ends with organised mass murder — meaning it never feels like Brownlow and Mollo are pushing an agenda too hard, but still confront us with the reality: that we’d probably succumb too, and this is where we’d end up.

The film is distinctly anti-Nazi, then, though not without its controversies in spite of this. At one point, real fascists play themselves. I think you can tell, because I suspected as much before I looked it up to see: they’re not great actors, but they deliver their horrific polemics with a calm zeal. The argument that this merely gives some hateful people a platform for their views isn’t without merit — they’re certainly given a good chunk of time to discuss them — but it’s an ultimately effective sequence. Other characters ask questions — or perhaps other cast members do, because, knowing the fascists are real, it becomes hard to tell if it’s all scripted and in character or just a real-life Q&A that Brownlow & Mollo filmed. Either way, it works because any right-minded person is going to see the inherent ridiculousness of their views with ease.

Nazi EnglandAnother controversy arose over the villains being British collaborators — few German Nazis are seen — and the ease with which many agreed. But this is based in the facts of what occurred in other occupied territories; maybe Britain’s plucky spirit would’ve shown through, as many like to believe, or maybe many would have caved for the easier life — or, indeed, life at all. The film is examining several perspectives of occupation, and using the fictional context to good effect: this could have happened, the film says, however much we like to believe we wouldn’t have collaborated like (and/or resisted better than), say, the French.

Talking of the resistance, I presume the controversy didn’t stop with its depiction of collaborators: both sides are shown to be just as/almost as bad as the other. The film opens with occupying Nazis massacring women and children, including a hurried and confusing gunfight in which it’s unclear whether Pauline’s friends — all women and children — were slaughtered by the Nazis or a group of resistance fighters holed up nearby. Mirroring this, the film ends with a group of British resistance (and/or invading American and British troops) rounding up surrendered collaborators and gunning them down in cold blood. No one comes out of this well — and that is perhaps the most truthful part of all.

Nonetheless, It Happened Here is more anti-Nazi than pro-Nazi propaganda, in my opinion, though it’s easy to see why any material critical of the Allies could have outweighed the overall bias when the film was first released, just 20 years after victory in Europe. Generally, and viewed from a much more removed perspective, Brownlow and Mollo do a good job of offering conflicting perspectives with minimal comment, allowing the viewer to decide how ridiculous certain newsreels or opinions are, or how weak or misguided characters may or may not be — on both sides.

4 out of 5

Churchill: The Hollywood Years (2004)

2008 #4
Peter Richardson | 84 mins | TV | 15

Churchill: The Hollywood YearsWhat if the Americans made a movie of Winston Churchill’s life, prone as they are to re-write World War 2 history to show they won it all by themselves?

This is ostensibly the premise of this spoof from some of the team behind Channel 4’s The Comic Strip. I say ostensibly, because the film is bookended (for padding, I suspect) with scenes that suggest that the real Churchill was an American GI, and the British simply re-wrote history using a somewhat chubby actor called Roy Bubbles. Sadly, the joke was funnier when it was riffing on those US historical re-writes.

The problem with killing that joke is, it’s the best one the film’s got. It’s also just about suitable for a five-minute comedy sketch, or, at a stretch, a series of sketches. The strategy for drawing this out to movie-length seems to have involved those bookends, as well as bunging some outtakes at the end and including a bunch of ridiculous, irritating, and unfunny subplots with Hitler and his entourage. It’s a shame to see the talents of actors such as Antony Sher and Miranda Richardson frittered away on such material.

This is all being a tad harsh, because Churchill actually has its fair share of amusing moments. The supporting cast of British TV comedians are mostly very good, Neve Campbell’s posh English accent (usually such a stumbling block for Americans-as-Brits) is as good as anything a British actress could have delivered, and Christian Slater and Romany Malco make for a likeable pairing. But, again, most of the best bits are of sketch length, and so wind up spread out among the padding.

In that respect it’s quite a shame, because there’s a good idea, good potential, and some good laughs in here.

2 out of 5