Thursday, 23 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: FURY



Sony Pictures

War is hell. It's a sentiment that's been at the heart of almost every war film ever made so there's little to distinguish David Ayer's Fury in that regard from the battalion of movies which have preceded it.

Not even its focus on the one Sherman tank and the five-man squad which inhabit it is an entirely novel concept: the 2009 Israeli film, Lebanon, took place within the claustrophobic confines of an army tank during the Lebanon War of 1972.

Fury is the name given to the Sherman tank captained by Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), a take-no-prisoners leader who stands strong for the men under his command and does all his doubting in the rare moments he's alone. Boyd (Shia LaBeouf), the Bible-basher, Trini (Michael Pena), the Mexican-American, and Grady (Jon Bernthal), the redneck, have seen all of their action in North Africa and Europe in Wardaddy's company and now, in the final months of World War II as the Allies push further and further into Germany, they're joined by newbie, Norman (Logan Lerman).

A military clerk, Norman has not seen any action but he's about to undergo a baptism of fire; Wardaddy keen to impress upon the young man that it's 'kill or be killed', with no room for sympathy no matter the age or sex of your enemy, nor even if they appear to be dead or not. An extra round of fire into a lifeless body can't hurt either way.

Episodic in structure, Fury excels in its action sequences -- the film's third act comprised nearly of one entire 'last stand' scenario -- but splutters somewhat when it stops to focus on the men inside the war machine.

And things aren't helped any by the at-times indecipherable dialogue. While the highly effective sound design has you rattled by shell fire and jumping at exploding land mines, it's often a struggle to understand Grady's thick Southern accent or Boyd's recitation of Bible verses when the men are at rest. We get subtitles whenever Wardaddy spricht Deutsch, but we could use them for some of the English too.

Never as overwhelmingly claustrophobic as Lebanon but intermittently tension-filled, Fury succeeds when in the midst of battle but fails to win hearts and minds when a ceasefire is called to focus on the less than convincing human drama.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: WHIPLASH



Sony Pictures

The two most harmful words in the English language, according to Terence Fletcher, the God-like teacher at the New York Conservatory of Music, are 'good job'. For Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), mediocrity breeds contempt and Hell hath no fury like this music instructor underwhelmed; his temperament is more Zeus than Jesus, and he's more likely to throw thunderbolts -- or a drum cymbal -- your way than a compliment.

Understandably, Fletcher's students live in fear and awe of the man; desperate to be selected for his jazz band, desperate to please him and equally desperate not to incur his wrath. Andrew (Miles Teller) is one such student. A first-year pupil on scholarship, Andrew has a way with the drums and a desire to be recognised as one of the greats. Being chosen as a member of Fletcher's jazz band -- which competes in State competitions -- is a sure sign he's on his way.

It's also the beginning of a nightmare in Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, a film that makes drumming seem like a vocation as fraught as bomb disposal, and an experience which will leave Andrew's -- and the audience's -- nerves completely frazzled.

Chazelle, making just his second feature with Whiplash, and expanding upon his own similarly titled short film, explores themes about the pursuit of perfection in art, and the giving over of one's self completely in that pursuit. It's similar territory to Black Swan (2010), but unlike Natalie Portman's ballerina, it's all but Andrew's mind that is left unscathed.

For Andrew, the pursuit of greatness involves the abandonment of a life outside of music; dumping his sweet girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) in a brutally honest break-up scene, because he doesn't want her to come to resent his focus on drumming nor he to resent her for holding him back. He also puts his body on the line on more than one occasion.

Miles Teller is a young actor who continues to impress. After Rabbit Hole (2010) and The Spectacular Now (2013), he again proves that he is the real deal. Teller is no pretty boy headed for matinee idol status but the guy can act. As charming as the best of them, he also possesses a steeliness which allows him to be tough and unforgiving when required.

J.K. Simmons' Fletcher is equally unforgiving. There's perhaps one too many homophobic missives fired off by Fletcher -- lest you forget he truly is an awful person -- but there's no denying the fun to be had in hearing the maestro tearing his pupils a new one, nor the fun Simmons must have had in playing him. Perhaps best known as the kind-of-cool dad in Juno (2007), here he plays the drill sergeant teacher from Hell, sinking his teeth into the role and the scenery.

But as sadistic as Fletcher is, Andrew is equally masochistic: drumming until his fingers bleed and coming back time and again for more of his teacher's abuse. Even after they part ways, Andrew can't help but be drawn back to Fletcher to seek, and hopefully win, his approval.

If the love of Andrew's father (Paul Reiser) is unconditional and undemanding, Fletcher's is hard-won and all the more rewarding for it. It's tough love in extremis but Fletcher, it seems, completes Andrew in what might just be the most dysfunctional movie romance of 2014.

Whiplash is definitely one of the better films of the year, even as, like Andrew's drum solo in the film's tension-filled climax, it goes on a little too long and slightly wayward. Perfect it may not be but when it's on a roll and in full flight, Whiplash is much, much more than a job well done.

Monday, 20 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU



Roadshow Films/Warners Bros.

Dysfunctional family comedies -- or 'dramadies', depending on the level of drama involved -- have become a dime a dozen since first appearing as a resolutely American indie filmmaking genre in the 1990s in the wake of the Sundance Film Festival, so it requires something special to standout from the pack.

An all-star cast -- Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, and the ubiquitous Adam Driver -- was no doubt intended to be the draw card for Shawn Levy's This Is Where I Leave You, but it proves to be its downfall. Or rather, it is the screenplay -- adapted by Jonathan Tropper from his own book -- which is most at fault for it gives this impressive ensemble very little to do -- thus dashing audience expectations of them -- and even less that is remotely believable.

Upon the news of the death of their patriarch, the Altman siblings return to the family nest to sit Shiva -- seven days of traditional Jewish mourning -- as much to fulfill their lapsed Jewish father's final request as to appease their grief-stricken mother, Hillary (Fonda).

The kidults aren't too pleased to be observing a tradition which they had little time for growing up (the Shiva seats are set-up where the Altman Christmas tree usually resides), nor to be taking time out from their own lives to serve house arrest with their therapist mother who used her children's lives for fodder for her books.

Judd (Bateman) especially has little time for other people's problems given his recent separation from his wife (Abigail Spencer) following the discovery of her year-long affair with the radio shock jock (Dax Shephard) for whom he acts as producer.

But then most of the Altman brood seem to be less than happy with their lot in life: only-daughter Wendy (Fey) has a workaholic husband and a ton of guilt over the former high school boyfriend (Timothy Olyphant) permanently injured in a car accident and who conveniently still lives across the street; Paul (Corey Stoll) who now runs the family sporting goods store and is trying desperately to have children with wife, Annie (Kathryn Hahn), who just happens to be a former ex of Judd's.

And then there's the family baby, Phillip (Driver). The carefree, career-swapping n'er-do well who drives a sports car bought for him by his former therapist turned girlfriend, Tracy (Connie Britton); a woman smart enough to know she can do better in the relationship stakes, and who should also have known better than to attend the pity party of her young lover's family.

Throw in Judd's high school sweetheart (Rose Byrne), a shock pregnancy, familial misunderstandings and the smoking of some joints and you have the recipe for a top-notch comedy. Or so you'd think. But the laughs are few and far between in This Is Where I leave You, and not particularly laugh-out-loud. Nor is the drama particularly engaging or affecting.

There are revelations, sibling rivalries reignited and familial bonds reaffirmed, and tears before almost every bed time during the week-long stay under the Altman roof. But there's very little to warrant spending 103-minutes with this family and their first world problems, and even less of it memorable.

Unlike the recent sibling dramedy, The Skeleton Twins, This Is Where I Leave You fails to bring the funny or the pathos so you may not want to rush to RSVP for this family gathering.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

FILM REVIEW: FORCE MAJEURE



Sharmill Films

The snow cannons which fire periodically at the French Alps ski resort -- the pristine yet chilly setting for writer-director Ruben Ostlund's Force Majeure -- act as both a warning shot and as symbolic thunder for an impending emotional storm for the holidaying Swedish couple at the film's centre.

When a man-made avalanche barrels down the slopes and towards the outdoor restaurant where Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two children are sitting down to lunch on day two of their week-long vacation, curiosity soon turns to fear as it looks as though the controlled snow dump may actually wipe the restaurant out.

Faced with a 'fight or flight' decision in the oncoming avalanche, Tomas makes the wrong choice: grabbing his iPhone and running; leaving Ebba and the kids to fend for themselves. It's a decision which results in a series of emotional aftershocks that will have Tomas and Ebba questioning what kind of people they are and what kind of marriage they have.

At first the couple don't discuss what happened but it's eating away at Ebba (every emotion playing across Kongsli's face). In the company of fellow vacationers at dinner, she recounts the events and Tomas's actions. Tomas, in his defense, says that's not what happened but each is entitled to their own perception.

But it's when hosting a dinner party for visiting friends Mats (Kristover Hivju) and Fanny (Fanni Metelius), where Ebba again raises the issue -- and forces Tomas to confront his actions -- that a seismic shift in the relationship occurs.

Ostlund's black-ish comedy takes an unblinking look (Fredrik Wenzel's camera is always still, observant) at the emotional fall-out of this event; raising questions about masculinity as both a genetic predisposition and a social construct. Does man's desire to survive outweigh his desire to protect his offspring? Is it the role of the man or simply a parent to protect those offspring? Is a man defined by his words or his deeds? And by whom is he more harshly judged -- society or himself -- when he fails to live up to these responsibilities?

Amusingly, after trying valiantly to defend his friend's honour, Mats (who resembles a Viking but believes himself to be a 'sensitive new age guy') begins to question his own masculinity, and what he would have done in the exact same situation.

Indeed, Force Majeure -- Sweden's submission for this year's Oscars (Best Foreign Language Film), and already a prize winner at Cannes (Un Certain Regard) -- may not be a wise choice as a 'date' film but it makes for a great debate film: whose side are you on? What would you have done in Tomas's situation? Or what do you think you would have done? Careful now, it's tricky out on the slopes.