Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Fury" Review

Though it lacks in genuine human emotion, Fury is as harrowing and well-acted as the very best war films ever made.

It also offers a refreshing look at World War II that isn't often seen in movies like this; Fury dares us to question American heroism. It left me with the feeling that war and violence conjure the worst of man's behaviors regardless of which side one fights for. At the end of the day, you're heralded as a "hero," but when you're placed in unfamiliar circumstances and forced to act in deplorable ways, how "heroic" are you really?

We follow a rag-tag platoon of five American soldiers operating inside an M4 Sherman tank during the Allies' final push into Nazi Germany. They're your classic "cross-section of humanity" bunch that typically populates these kinds of movies: Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt), the platoon's fearless leader who's never run away from a fight; gunner Boyd "Bible" Swan (a gripping turn by Shia LaBeouf), the born-again type who frequently leads the group in prayer; loader Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis (The Walking Dead's Jon Bernthal), the hot-head of the group; driver Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Peña), representing America's diversity; and assistant driver Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a timid newbie suddenly thrust onto the front lines despite being trained as nothing more than a clerk typist.

The crew operates like a dysfunctional family. They're all committed to one another, but they pick on each other like little kids - perhaps as a way of coping with the Hell they've been through.

Of course Pitt's character, in particular, will draw lots of comparisons to Lt. Aldo Raine, the down-home military man he played in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. To be fair, Fury is an entirely different kind of film than Basterds, despite the propensity both characters have for "killin' Nazis." In Fury, Pitt acts effectively with a kind of grizzled charisma befitting of classic, cinematic war heroes - recall Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan or John Wayne in The Longest Day. As such, the audience is hard-wired to root for "Wardaddy" every step of the way, no matter what lengths he goes to in order to get the job done, but it isn't the acting alone that makes Fury so good.

The action is tightly directed by David Ayer, who has experience with stories about men under fire (see Training Day, End of Watch). Combine Ayer's efforts with Dody Dorn's Oscar-worthy film editing, and you've got a master-class in staging and execution of set-piece action. Shots linger just long enough for maximum visceral impact. Despite an abundance of graphic, frenetic violence, I never felt overwhelmed by the movement. The viewer is constantly wary of what's going on. No shaky-cam or quick-cut editing here.

The action sequences truly are grit-your-teeth, edge-of-your-seat intense. I left the theater physically shaken by Fury's last 30 minutes, and I considered that a good thing. I felt like an adrenaline junkie eager for another fix, and as fun as that seemed, I now see my flaw. By making the violence so cinematically harrowing, Ayer indicts the audience in a similar way that his story indicts the mindlessly violent actions of the main characters. Despite Norman's scruples at the start, he seems to begin relishing in the fight as things progress. "Best job I ever had," he chimes in with his battle-hardened chorus. As an audience member, I could hear others in the theater wincing at some of Fury's grislier moments early on, but I can't imagine anyone leaving that theater unshaken or unmoved by the violent spectacle of the film's final act.


Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Annabelle" Review


Annabelle is a spin-off of last year's horror hit The Conjuring, but that's not to say the film is strictly for the series faithful. Although imperfect as a horror movie and certainly not on the narrative or technical levels of its immediate predecessor, there's enough here to let Annabelle stand proudly on its own merits with its freak-flag high.

The film picks up sometime before the events of The Conjuring with a young Catholic family listening to a Sunday sermon about what sacrifice means in the eyes of God - that it pleases Him and moves His hand to act in positive ways. The crux of the story, however, is the inverse of that; sacrifice to Satan conjures unspeakable evil. Our family, Mia (appropriately, Annabelle Wallis) and John (Ward Horton), are about to welcome a new baby into their lives. One night, Mia and John's next-door neighbors are brutally slain by their estranged daughter, Annabelle, and her boyfriend, who are members of a satanic cult. When John intervenes next door, he inadvertently sics the satanic sickos on himself, his wife and their unborn child. The police arrive just in time to quell the situation, and detectives later insist that this was a heinous act of violence for violence's sake. "Crazy people do crazy things," says Detective Clarkin (Eric Ladin). But Mia starts to experience strange happenings around the home, all seeming to originate from a rare doll in the baby's room that Annabelle took a liking to moments before she was killed.

It seems Annabelle sacrificed her parents in homage to the devil, thus conjuring a demon from Hell. (The other title makes sense now, doesn't it??) Upon her death, the demon uses the doll as a conduit, like a doorway into the sentient world. It preys on Mia and her family in search of another sacrifice - a soul that it can take back to Hell.

Myriad jump scares and Rosemary's Baby allusions ensue.

The acting isn't great especially from Horton as John, the young family patriarch. His character is never around when the bad stuff happens to his wife, so he consistently abandons his post as a med student in-training to come running to his wife's rescue. This is a narrative pattern which quickly grows annoying. There are times when you think John has real Guy Woodhouse potential but instead remains disappointingly one-note.

Some of the scares work and some don't, despite a consistent sense of dread throughout. I always felt like something bad could happen at any time, even during the day. There are plenty of cheap jumps like most horror movies, but there are also plenty of really freakin' scary ones too, in particular those involving the demon in the film's latter half. Genre fans will have to experience this one for themselves and decide if Annabelle is worthy or not, but my extremely low expectations were definitely surpassed.


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"Gone Girl" Review

I'll attempt to make this as spoiler-free a summary as possible. Just know that if you haven't yet read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl novel, then you should stop reading this review right now, reconsider your life choices and then go buy/borrow a copy.

Seriously, it's a great book that's translated into an equally brilliant film.

Anyone nervous about an adaptation of Gone Girl needs only to heed this advice: trust in Flynn. The author has practically adapted the screenplay for this neo-noir movie verbatim from the pages of her own source text, but that's not what makes this new version great.

Performances are spot on, and the pacing makes the film feel an hour shorter than its listed 2 hour-29 minute running time. Coincidentally, Gone Girl also happens to be perfect material for director David Fincher (Fight Club, The Social Network).

To get a sense of what the audience is in for, the tone is set with some creepy opening lines from Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck). Something to the effect of "when I think of my wife, I always think of her head. I picture cracking it open, unspooling her brains just to answer the question: 'what do you think about?'"

From there, we get a bleak tale about a perfect marriage gone so sour that accusations of abuse, neglect, rape and possibly murder run rampant throughout national media. With the police and the general public against him, the typically callow Nick is forced to change his nonchalant tune after the disappearance of his beautiful wife Amy (Rosamund Pike).

The disappearance/kidnapping angle has been done a thousand times in movies and on television. Prisoners is a recent example of just how intense and terrifying this concept can be when executed properly. Gone Girl takes a bit of a different angle, which is what makes the story so great.

As Entertainment Weekly's Chris Nashawaty put it, "the movie asks: How much did Nick know about his wife? But what it's really asking the audience is: How much do any of us know about our partners?" Tasty food for thought and discussion once the mystery unfolds before us.

Affleck is a guy that people love to hate, but his turn as Nick may be the most nuanced performance of his career. If trusted to other hands, this character might've come off too smarmy, but Affleck plays it with a cool, collected, everyman charm that makes his Nick believable.

Concerns have been raised in the past about the relatively untested Pike, but her turn as Amy catapults her straight into both the A-list and early Oscar discussions. Much of the tension comes from these two leads teetering on the brink of insanity, like two volcanoes about to erupt on each other, and Pike and Affleck play it so perfectly, so restrained, that it's difficult to picture anyone else succeeding so wonderfully in these parts.

Fincher orchestrates the action beautifully. This is the guy who made a movie about Facebook feel more gripping than a dozen summer superhero blockbusters. He adds to his ever-growing list of masterpieces by bringing to life a labyrinthine noir that Hitchcock would've been proud of.

Though the ending may not sit well with everyone (it was my only major gripe about the book), fans of Flynn's novel should be thoroughly pleased. More casual moviegoers will enjoy a dark, heady mystery with terrific performances and deft direction. Likely the most well-rounded, well-crafted studio thriller of the year.