Friday, October 17, 2014

FURY Finds Brad Pitt Back In The Nazi Killing Business

Opening today at a multiplex near you...

FURY (Dir. David Ayer, 2014)

Business is again booming in the Nazi-killin’ business for Brad Pitt, but David Ayer’s World War II epic FURY is more SAVING PRIVATE RYAN than INGLORIOUS BASTERDS.

Pitt plays U.S. Army sergeant Don “War Daddy” Collier, who leads a five-man crew and their Sherman tank (the name “Fury” is crudely painted on its cannon) through the heart of Germany during the dying days of the war in 1945.

Pitt's crew consists of a mustached Shia LaBeouf as Grade Boyd Bible Swan, Michael Peña as Trini Gordo Garcia, Jon Bernthal as Grady Coon-Ass Travis, and Logan Lerman as Private Norman Machine Ellison.

Lerman, as a wet-behind-the-ears Army clerk yanked from his cushy desk job and thrown into battle having never seen the inside of a tank before, is the film's real protagonist. 

It's Lerman's coming-of-age story, not unlike his part as a high school freshman trying to get in with the cool kids in PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, but, you know, obviously under much more extreme conditions.

Basically the plot is Pitt's crew making their way through enemy territory, and getting into violent skirmishes every so often. The combat sequences are incredibly compelling - an open-field showdown with a German Tiger tank especially is a searing set-piece, and an ambush that has a screaming man on fire shooting himself in the head is not something I'll soon forget.

There is a downtime interlude between the battles, in which Pitt and Lerman discover two attractive German women (Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg) hiding in their apartment in a bombed out town that's just been captured by the US troops, and they sit down to have a nice meal, but it gets interrupted by the drunk, rowdiness of their fellow crew members. It's a standout scene that almost feels like it could be a short film on its own.

The chaotic climax, which pits Pitt's crew against 300-strong German army after a mine destroyed one of their tank's treads, is a spectacle of nighttime warfare, impressively captured by cinematograpHer Roman Vasyanov, who also shot director Ayer's great gritty 2012 thriller END OF WATCH.

FURY has so much going for it as WWII film full of bombastic action, blood, and male bonding that I'd definitely recommend it, especially to fans of war films, but I wish it had more character development and more of a layered narrative. 

The 50-year old Pitt is perfectly grizzled for the hard-as-nails part, he looks like he stepped right out of the pages of “Sgt. Rock,” but we learn next to nothing about his character. Lerman has the most fleshed out role among the other's army guy stereotypes (LaBeouf puts in a solid performance, but it was no revelation), but his arc is really standard and predictable. At least Pitt doesn't tell him to “earn this” at the end a la SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. 

In many ways FURY is a war movie like they used to make, except grimmer, less glorified and with a lot more guts - in both definitions of the word.

More later...

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Jason Reitman's Misguided And Meaningless MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN

Opening today at an indie art house near me…


(Dir. Jason Reitman, 2014)

Jason Reitman’s (JUNO, UP IN THE AIR, YOUNG ADULT) latest film, a comedy drama (hate the word “dramedy”) examination of relationships in the age of the internet based on a 2011 novel by Chad Kultgen, is easily his worst film. It’s even worse than LABOR DAY, and I hated LABOR DAY.

Just about every bit of it is misguided and poorly written, a pretentious attempt at cultural commentary that comes off like a guy complaining about everybody being addicted to screens and social media, but has nothing to say about it to say but ‘look at all these people on their devices, it’s awful.’ A rant by Bobby Moynihan’s SNL character Drunk Uncle is more profound than this.

It starts with voice-over narration by Emma Thompson telling us that while the Voyager satellite, which we see via CGI, is venturing through space carrying international music, pictures and greetings to extraterrestrial life, back on Earth, Adam Sandler is having trouble masturbating to internet porn.

Sandler, following the Robin Williams handbook by having grown a beard for this dramatic role, is an unhappily married family man who has to use his son’s computer because his computer is too infected with malware to use. Finding that his son has his own secret sex site fetish, Sandler reminiscences about how he discovered porn in his youth. Yeah, pretty creepy so far.

From there we head to the local high school (the film was shot in Austin, Texas) where we meet Kaitlyn Dever, whose mother (Jennifer Garner) obsessively monitors every instance of activity on her phone and PC, Elena Kampouris an anorexic high-school girl pining to be popular, Olivia Crocicchia, whose mother (Judy Greer) is always taking pictures and videos of in hopes of making her a star, and Ansel Elgort who gave up football for online gaming (in particular, the game “Guild Wars,” which I hadn’t heard of before).

Garner’s character is the film’s heavy, a cold, self righteous control freak who hosts an Internet Safety Parent group meeting in her home and deletes messages on her daughters account before she can see them.

While these threads weave in and out of each other, Sandler and his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt), both inspired by a commercial for that turns their heads away from their laptops in bed, begin affairs at exactly the same time, but luckily at different hotels. While Sandler hires a high price escort (Shane Lynch), DeWitt arranges a date with Dennis Haysbert, credited only as “Secretluvur.”

Meanwhile, Sandler’s son (Travis Tope) is itching to have sex with Crocicchia, who’s his partner on a class project about 9/11 (yep, they went there too), while a relationship blooms between Dever and Elgort, who’s dealing with learning (from a social networking site, of course) that his mother is remarrying. But that’s good news for Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris as Elgort’s father, who begins dating Greer. Reitman regular J.K. Simmons is also on hand as the anorexic girl's kindly father.

There’s a lot of internet meddling by parents – Greer decides that selling soft-core pictures of her daughter online isn’t such a good idea after it gets them rejected by a reality show, Norris cancels his credit card so Elgort can’t play “Guild Wars” anymore, and Garner freaks out when she finds the one site that Dever had secret (Tumblr), ransacks her room, and drives Elgort to suicide by intercepting his messages to Dever and telling him she’ll block him if he texts again.

It’s all so heavy handed and incredibly cringeworthy in its whole ‘internet bad’ statement, and overuse of bubbles for texts (or sexts), and blocks of chat cluttering up the screen. Yeah, I get that its point is that these things are cluttering up our lives, but with its flashy aesthetics and Voyager imagery, something seems off in its thematic ideal that too much technology is threatening our interactions with other people.

And Thompson’s narration so much recalls her writer role in STRANGER THAN FICTION, that I wanted the characters to yell to the heavens for her to shut up.

The film seems to oddly elaborate on a joke in Woody Allen’s 1977 Oscar winning classic ANNIE HALL in which a flashback has the 9-year old version of Allen’s character Alvy Singer explaining to his physician and mother that “The universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that will be the end of everything.” His mother says that because of this, “He’s even stopped doing his homework,” to which the young Alvy replies “What's the point?”

Blending that cosmic comic comment on insignificance with Carl Sagan’s “Tiny Blue Dot,” which both Elgort and Thompson quote in the film, must’ve seemed like a poetic notion to Reitman, but his awful, drawn out, and uninspired execution here makes for an excruciating experience. Come back, Diablo Cody! Everything is forgiven. (YOUNG ADULT, which I was a bit mixed on initially is looking better and better every day).

In its wanting so desperately to be a movie of the moment, as well as an ensemble rom com, MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN is a dreadful mash-up of AMERICAN BEAUTY and CRAZY STUPID LOVE. It’s for sure, the most meaningless and hard to stomach 119 minutes I’ve spent in a theater this year. 

More later...

Monday, October 13, 2014

KILL THE MESSENGER: The Film Babble Blog Review

(Dir. Michael Cuesta, 2014)

This thriller/biopic, now playing at an indie art house near me, comes off a bit like JFK Jr., and I’m not talking about John-John, the late offspring of John F. Kennedy. 

KILL THE MESSENGER plays felt like a lesser offspring of Oliver Stone’s 1991 classic of political paranoia in its depiction of a story based on real events involving a truth-seeking everyman uncovering a vast conspiracy involving a powerful governmental agency that could squash him like a bug. 

Here, a scruffy mustached Jeremy Renner passionately portrays investigative reporter Gary Webb, who caused quite a stir in the mid 90’s when he exposed the CIA’s involvement with the U.S. crack epidemic in a series of articles for the San Jose Mercury News.

The first half of the film, scripted by Peter Landesman (PARKLAND) has Renner's Webb following leads about drug trafficking through interviews with Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire) as infamous '80s LA drug kingpin “Freeway” Rick Ross, Tim Blake Nelson as Ross's lawyer, Robert Patrick as an accused drug dealer whose property was seized by the feds, and Andy Garcia as an imprisoned drug lord who Renner travels to Nicaragua to speak to.

The second half deals with Webb publishing his story and initially being hailed as a hero, on both the homefront with his wife Rosemarie DeWitt and kids, and at the office with his editors (Oliver Platt and North Carolina native Mary Elizabeth Winstead), but then getting investigated and gradually discredited by the CIA. 

These sequences of Webb's decline, involving his estrangement from his family and being holed up in a sleazy hotel room with its walls lined with photos, newspaper articles, strings-tying-suspects-together, etc, (you know, like crazy yet righteous people like Carrie from Homeland do?), are tedious in their over familiarity. 

The case that the CIA worked with Central American drug dealers with profits from cocaine sales in the U.S. used to arm the anti-communist Contras in Nicaragua is a compelling one, but we're never given more of a breakdown of the mechanics that were at play. We, like Renner, are just supposed to take folks' words on these things, but a scene that intensely takes us into the operation would've been nice. I don't feel like I learned anything more about the inside workings than I did seeing the trailer.

Director Cuesta, who’s produced and directed episodes of Homeland, Dexter, and Six Feet Under, gets a good gritty mood going, but the power of the material dims as it tracks Webb’s decline. It sort of peters out.

And, again, like JFK, it has a scroll of text at the end that tells us that this guy was right about everything all along.

On the surface, this adaptation of Nick Schou’s 2006 book “Kill the Messenger: How the CIA's Crack-cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Web” and Webb’s “Dark Alliance” series of articles, is a solidly structured film with a powerful lead performance by Renner (possibly his best to date), but its overdone conspiracy thriller framework renders it into just a cinematic footnote to what really went down.

At least this'll have moviegoers looking up stuff on the real guy online. Maybe there they'll actually learn something.

More later...