Friday, 31 October 2014


(David Ayer, 2014)

Fury is, at heart, an old-fashioned b-movie. It follows a young clerk (Logan Lerman) in the last months of the Second World War as the US Army moves into Germany. Reassigned to the Sherman tank commanded by a tough, enigmatic sergeant called Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) as a replacement for a gunner killed in their last, terrible firefight, the clerk - given the distinctly un-macho name "Norman" - has to grow up fast, learn to fight, and also fit into the tight crew of brothers who have lived inside "Fury" and under Wardaddy since they were in North Africa. These hardened, cynical, traumatised men include Shia Lebouef's born again Christian, Jon Bernthal's animalistic mechanic, and Michael Pena's stoic driver, bickering and joking their way through battles and downtime.
Ayer handles the battles very well. Though the film is composed almost exclusively of cliches familiar from more or less every other war film you've ever seen, it is handsome, epic and visceral. The tale may be familiar but this kind of thing hasn't been done all that often in the years since Saving Private Ryan showed how modern sensibilities would effect the way we make and watch war movies. So whilst Ayer undoubtedly glories in the adrenalised spectacle of violence here -  in battle scenes that are generally coherent and impactful - his overall statement (and this is very much a film intent on making a statement, pumped up on its own seriousness and pomposity, with its cloyingly emotive Steven Price score and its stately Roman Vasayanov photography a symphony of browns, greys and greens, the usual colours of the European theatre of war) is that war is, well, hell, an unnatural crucible of terror and pain.
But the main constant in Ayer's work has been an appreciation for the pleasures of camaraderie and brotherhood, and here that colours his antiwar impulses; war may indeed be hell, he seems to say, but at least it makes men of boys and forges friendships deeper than any other emotional bond.
His film is accordingly at its best when these men are swapping insults and arguments, though a draggy mid-section interlude in a captured German town feels like an indulgent error, sapping the drama of some of its otherwise impressive dread.
It works for the most part. These cliches are cliches because they work so well, and Ayer and company deliver them well enough. The principals are all good, the action is exciting, the deaths as moving as they need to be. For a b-movie that wants desperately to be an a-movie, it works.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014


(David Fincher, 2014)

Something in the caustic, blistering satire of Gillian Flynn's novel is beautifully suited to Fincher's gifts; this film is slick and dark and funny and utterly entertaining and something about it feels effortless.
It has a pleasing ambivalence about each of its characters - Affleck nicely plays his protagonist, Nick Dunne, as variously a schmuck, a cheat, a bore, and a smug yuppie. The structure means that we partly see him through the eyes of the titular girl, his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike), as she recounts their meet-cute and perfect courtship in her diary, and partly as he suffers through the aftermath of her disappearance, when he is demonised by the media and becomes hunted and paranoid. As such, he is sympathetic - Affleck remains a charming presence - but is believably flawed and human. Amy is similarly complex, and Pike doesn't shy away from portraying her spoiled little rich girl vanity alongside her wit and intelligence. The supporting cast is just as richly populated with nuance and authentic tics - Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens play perhaps the two strongest characters as, respectively, Nick's twin sister and the detective working the case, both of whom seem cynical about everything the world throws at them.
Fincher textures the whole thing with that beautiful darkness he can sprinkle throughout a film. Here it is suburbia that is depicted with a clinical detachment, its dark corners illuminated by his camera, and the final act reveals this film as a devastating and hilarious critique of modern marriage, slickly hidden inside a twisty thriller, and drolly entertaining throughout.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014


(Yann Demange, 2014)

Finding the sweet spot between a visually poetic art house drama and an adrenalised action thriller, '71 is a beautiful, gripping, supremely pared-down experience.
It's first 20 minutes or so may be the most impressive passage in the film. With little dialogue we are introduced to Hook (Jack O'Connell, as good as ever), training with the British army in 1971 in scenes captured with a beautiful feel for tone and texture by Demange and cinematographer Tat Radcliffe. Hook and his comrades spar, run, attempt obstacle courses and bond in the bleakness of Northern England. Here David Holmes' sublime, atmospheric score rises up on the soundtrack, while we have the bland conformity and uniformity of our protagonist made evident as we struggle to distinguish him from all of the other young squaddies, young men in green with shaven heads.
Sent to Belfast in 1971, just as the Troubles began to get truly nasty, these young men, led as they are by an equally youthful, clueless rookie Officer (a later line of dialogue defines the army as "Posh cunts, telling thick cunts to shoot poor cunts") are thrust into a hideously complex situation.
In their first operation, Hook is separated from his unit and his weapon and soon finds himself on the run from everybody - IRA, undercover British agents - on the nocturnal streets of West Belfast.
'71 is therefore a quite unrelenting action-thriller, filled with suspense and a couple of riveting, visceral set-pieces, but it manages a few surprisingly articulate comments of the subject of Northern Ireland too. It never simplifies its portrayal of the politics of the region or the era, instead depicting, well, everyone as diabolical and scheming. The IRA is split between the old-school organisation and a younger, more aggressive generation (who are the main predators hunting for Hook), while the UVF and the RUC are just as anti-Catholic as one another, and the undercover agents seem to play everybody off against each other for their own unfathomable reasons.
Hook stumbles from one situation and character to another, always vulnerable, never quite in control of what is happening to him, generally uncomprehending of who anybody is. The two branches of the IRA play out a power struggle while the undercover men, lead by the terrific Sean Harris in another of his long line of terrifying sociopath roles, do deals on each side and work their long-term schemes.
All of this fills in the world Hook moves through, but it is the way he moves that keeps this film so electrifying. With nighttime scenes shot digitally - its rare to see a film that captures so well what the light looks life like beneath halogen streetlamps, all deep shadows and sickly yellows - Demange maintains an almost queasy sense of tension as Hook tries to make his way back to barracks.
The action scenes are fantastic, but what works best of all are those first minutes on the streets of Belfast. We can feel the bewilderment and dislocation of these young men to see streets that look so familiar littered with destroyed cars, to encounter young boys who throw bottles of urine at them.
This world has never been captured quite so vividly before.

Friday, 3 October 2014


(Antoine Fuqua, 2014)

Is it Denzel Washington's unique star persona that makes so many of his vehicles feel like '90s throwbacks? He chooses projects which skew older in terms of target audience than perhaps any other major movie star, and that means that his action-thrillers in particular have a strangely retro "mature" feel. The Equalizer is no different. Over-long and over-familiar, it spends most of it's time setting up the world of Robert McCall, an ex-something-deadly-or-other-for-the-Government who has escaped his old life after the death of his beloved wife and lives an anonymous, normal existence, working in a DIY store.
That is, until, of course, the young prostitute (Chloe Moretz) he has bonded with over his nocturnal visits to a local coffee shop is beaten almost to death by her Russian pimp. So McCall - until now a perfectly normal bloke, albeit one with Serious OCD - confronts the Russian and his gang and, and when they mock him, he kills them all in more or less 20 seconds, shot by Fuqua in a meticulously fetishized slo-mo manner that goes on for about 2 minutes and is undeniably satisfying in time-honoured "they messed with the wrong guy and what a way to find out" style. So the Russian Mob send legendary psycho-fixer Teddy (Martin Csokas, hamming it up as ever) to figure out who has destroyed their Boston operation, which ultimately leads to McCall taking on the Russian Mafia single-handedly.
To the extent that it works at all, The Equalizer works because of Denzel Washington. He gives McCall a mournful intelligence crossed with a subtle sense of humour - not unlike Edward Woodward's performance in the tv show on which the movie is loosely based - and though there is never really any tension (his character is too smart to lose to these gangsters) it is pleasurable watching him kill many many goons in various creative ways.
Fuqua owes his journeyman career to Washington's star power turning Training Day into a huge hit over a decade ago, and he directs with slick, anonymous competence.