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Friday, 24 October 2014

Fury

(MA15+) ★★★

Director: David Ayer.

Cast: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs.

"I'd kiss you, but they won't allow that stuff in the army for at least another 60 years."
WAR is hell, and movie-makers love to remind us of this.

From early classic war movies such as All Quiet On The Western Front and The Big Parade through to recent efforts such as Lone Survivor and The Railway Man, the futility and brutality of war seems to have been shot from every imaginable angle.

So it's somewhat refreshing to ride along in the tank named Fury for a couple of hours and get a Sherman's eye-view of WWII's final months - a viewpoint rarely seen in war movies.

But Ayer's film still can't quite escape the "seen it all before" sensation that comes with the territory, and as the clichés start to pile up around Fury like dead Nazis, this tank runs out of gas.

Pitt stars as Sgt Collier, commander of the M4 Sherman tank, who has led his crew of Bible (LaBeouf), Gordo (Peña) and Grady (Bernthal) since the campaigns of North Africa.

When their fifth crew member is killed, new guy Norman (Lerman) is thrown into Fury and it's through his eyes we see the dehumanising effects and harsh realities of war.


From its opening shot recalling Lawrence Of Arabia through to its increasingly ludicrous Rambo-esque final showdown, Fury can't escape the tropes of the war film, such as the cruel-to-be-kind commander, the sacrifices and last stands, the Saving Private Ryan-like massacres, the "loss of innocence" moment, men devolving to animals, and the vain attempts to recapture civility. Even the cramped confines of the tank recall classic submarine drama Das Boot.

This isn't necessarily a criticism - more the reality of the genre - but in this film's case, there is an almost overwhelming collection of clichés, leading to a strong sense of deja vu and an air of predictability.

Where Fury really excels is when it tries to give us something different, which is during its fantastic and fascinating tank warfare scenes. War films have regularly run through the trenches and battlefields, consulted with the generals, taken on secret missions, sat in the cockpits of fighter planes, and disappeared beneath the waves in a sub, but riding inside the armoured hull of a Sherman gives the film a novel perspective. The way it handles its "first kill" moment also stands out.

The cast is also great. The under-rated LaBeouf, who seemed like he'd gone off the deep end in recent times, gives the film's stand-out performance as the tank crew's teary-eyed religious zealot, although Lerman (in his meatiest role to date) and the always excellent Pitt are also stellar. The cast chemistry is strong, even if we hardly get to know the characters.

But under the weight of its familiarity and its strangely over-the-top ending, Fury's weaknesses become all too obvious.

It remains somewhat memorable for its armour-plated manoeuvres but also oddly forgettable at the same time due to its reliance on tropes. Fury is destined to be remembered as "that so-so tank movie" rather than a modern classic of the war genre.


Friday, 10 October 2014

The Judge

(M) ★★★½

Director: David Dobkin.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Billy Bob Thornton, Dax Shepard.

The Suit of the Year competition was on.
THERE'S nothing quite like a funeral to bring the family back together.

And if it's a funeral in a movie, that family reunion is bound to result in the airing of plenty of dirty laundry and a few skeletons falling out of the closets they were hidden in. It made up most of Death At A Funeral, we saw it recently in August: Osage County and it will be a central plot point in the upcoming This Is Where I Leave You, to name just three.

This overused trope also is the kick-off point for The Judge, where hotshot lawyer Hank Palmer (Downey Jr) returns home for the first time in 20 years to help bury his mother.

His homecoming reignites his troubled relationship with his father, local long-serving judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), whose authoritative standing in his family is exemplified by the fact they all call him "Judge".

The relationship takes an interesting turn when Judge is arrested the day after the funeral for allegedly running down and killing a known felon, forcing Hank to step up and defend his dad in court.


If a lot of those ideas sound familiar it's because they are. The Judge has to fight hard to overcome the fact its a big old ball of clichés all rolled together.

The funeral bringing the family together for the airing of grievances, the high-flying former local returning home to confront his past, the father-and-son team needing to put their differences aside and work together for the good of the family, and even the courtroom becoming a place to mend emotional family hurts - they're all here, piled on top of each other as if they're the double-episode opener for a new TV show called Small Town Lawyer or something.

Even Downey Jr's character feels like a cliché, one that's becoming his stock-in-trade - the arrogant, sarcastic hotshot who secretly has a heart of gold could be describing his roles in the Iron Man movies, Chef, Due Date, and Sherlock Holmes - AKA almost every movie he's been in for the last five years.

Having said that, Downey Jr does that type of character incredibly well, and here he dials his performance up to 11, giving one of the best performances of his career.

It's his turn, particularly when he goes head-to-head with Duvall's grumpy patriarch, that elevates this movie. Thanks to the efforts of the two Roberts and their solid supporting cast, The Judge is better than it should be and transcends its numerous clichés and resulting melodrama.

The aforementioned performances are the only degree of subtlety about The Judge. For example, the opposing lawyer (Thornton) has a history with Hank Palmer and a pointless affectation involving a metal cup that clangs and opens violently. Then there's the storm that blows in to town at the peak of the father-son turmoil, only to disappear with no ramifications other than serving as some overly simple symbolism. And then there's the relationship between Hank and his ex (Farmiga), which picks up like the last 20 years never happened.

Dobkin, best known for directing comedies such as The Change-Up and Wedding Crashers, can't do much in the face of these script contrivances except let the cast do its thing. He handles the rare comedic moments nicely, which does help to defuse the excessive emotive moments.

Having said all that, the clichés and melodrama are reasonably inoffensive and overall the film is relatively enjoyable. Its biggest problem is that it's way too long at two hours and 20 minutes - whereas the 149 minutes of Gone Girl barely drags, the 140 minutes of The Judge definitely feels like more of a slog.

If not for Downey Jr and co, The Judge could be a seen-it-before waste of time, but their performances help illuminate the colour and heart in the story and overcome its shortcomings.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Gone Girl

(MA15+) ★★½

Director: David Fincher.

Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Tyler Perry, Patrick Fugit, Neil Patrick Harris.

"Sancho bought a message from The Fatman/Sorry, boys, to leave you high and dry..."
David Fincher loves a good mystery, and no one does a mystery quite like him.

Take the depraved killer thriller Seven, or the methodical search-for-a-psycho Zodiac, or the highly effective if ultimately redundant American remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - all three of these films have been not only intense whodunnits, but also mesmerising journeys to the dark side that unravel with equal amounts of dread and intrigue.

Add to this collection Gone Girl, another gut-clenching mystery that doesn't so much unravel but rather corkscrew its way through some delicious plot twists.

And while Fincher is the master of this, credit is also due to Gillian Flynn, adapting her own novel into a rivetingly kinked screenplay.

It centres on the disappearance and suspected murder of pretty Baltimore housewife Amy Dunne (Pike) and the increasing suspicion that her husband Nick (Affleck) may have been responsible.

The ensuing media circus and police investigation raise more and more questions, as Gone Girl becomes less about the who and more about the how and why.


Perhaps more interesting is what all these queries say about its many themes, such as the nature of marriage and our dreams and goals, and what happens when they don't go to plan, plus there's a disturbing insight into the power of the media and the potential darkness that exists behind the closed doors of a seemingly happy home.

Flynn's plotting that takes the cake, but it's Fincher's direction that bakes it to perfection. Even though much of the film takes place in the sunny outdoors of suburbia or similarly everyday settings, there's an ominous tone that Fincher invokes with ease.

He's ably assisted by regular scorers Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch, who turn in their most discordant soundtrack to date, which is predominantly good and aids the sense of dread but unfortunately threatens to overpower the dialogue at times.

It would all be for nought with the wrong cast. Fortunately, we have Affleck in career-best form, which some would say is damning him with faint praise, but if you've ever doubted Affleck's talents, this is the movie that will change your mind. His naturalistic but nuanced performance is Oscar-worthy.

As is Pike's, who deserves to graduate to the A-list with her multi-faceted turn as Amy. No longer will she be written about as a forgettable Bond girl in a terrible 007 film, unless it's to remind you how far she's come when she starts collecting awards for performance in Gone Girl.

Dickens, Coon and Fugit are also good, Perry adds some much-needed tension-relief, while Harris is the only weak link in what is a blissfully small role.

Aside from Harris and some occasional issues with the score, Gone Girl's only other downside is its length. For much of its two-and-a-half hours there is no sense that things are dragging on too long, and it's only late into the final act that you wonder where it's all going and how long it will take you to get there. Fortunately, a gob-smacking ending will leave you knowing it was all worthwhile.

Is Gone Girl on the same level as Fincher's flawless masterpieces such as Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac and The Social Network? Not quite, but it's damned close.