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Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - Fury

Directed by: David Ayer

Produced by: Bill Block
John Lesher
Alex Ott
Ethan Smith
David Ayer

Screenplay by: David Ayer

Starring: Brad Pitt
Shia LaBeouf
Logan Lerman
Michael Pena
Jon Bernthal
Jason Isaacs
Scott Eastwood

Music by: Steven Price

Cinematography by: Roman Vasyanov

Editing by: Dody Dorn

Studio(s): Le Grisbi Productions
QED International
LStar Capital
Crave Film

Distributed by: Columbia Pictures

Release date(s): October 17, 2014 (United States)
October 22, 2014 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 134 minutes

Country(s): United States
United Kingdom

Production budget: $68 million

Box-office revenue (as of publication): $153, 850, 826

October finally got out of the way with a well-belated posting of my review for the month there, but even if I've been a bit slower of late with regards to the words on the proverbial page, I've been to the cinema a number of times recently, and can guarantee as such upcoming reviews for both Nightcrawler and Interstellar, and no doubt I will get to see some more down the line. Speaking of movies, of late I've started taking down a little list of movies that I watch in my own free time which I consider to be masterpieces. Recently, I saw Fritz Lang's Metropolis for the first time during the Belfast Film Festival's Sci-Fi Now programme, and was instantly hooked on it. Much as I have admiration for silent cinema, I think it is a natural thing, even for cineastes, to have to make an effort to get into the pictures from the silent era, almost as a default. I did not have that issue whatsoever with Metropolis, which is a two-and-a-half hour long masterpiece of science-fiction cinema, and I was gripped throughout. Call me preemptory, call this a spoiler alert, but I reckon this is going into my Hall Of Fame this year. So, with that being said, for all the latest and greatest according to the movies, keep your eyes posted!

Today's film up for review is Fury, a war film directed by David Ayer, his third picture over the past two years, and starring Brad Pitt in the lead role. Ayer is arguably at the middle of a creative peak, and Pitt has for many years been farming projects for himself, in that he usually takes only one lead role in a film per year, which makes him less prolific, but I would argue makes him a more lucrative land for the project as a whole, using his star power to raise the picture's profile as opposed to his own. Ayer had the cast undergo a strict regimen to prepare his actors for the conditions of war, a four-month process including a boot camp run by Navy SEALs, encouraging them to spar with one another, and live for extended periods of time in a tank together. On a side note to that, Shia LaBeouf, he of contemporary meta-modernist plagiarist performance art and general douchebaggery, incurred the wrath of cast and crew, for in his 'dedication' to his role, he pulled out his own tooth, cut his face and would refuse to shower "understand what his character would have been through." Speaking as someone who plans on growing a beard and trying to lose some weight for a part in a short film I plan on shooting this coming Spring, I wish I could say I understand, but really I don't. Shia, just stop! Ayer's shoot, which took place largely in the Oxfordshire countryside in England, also caused controversy because a scene being shot on Remembrance Day 2013 featuring extras in Nazi uniforms. So, yes, I'm sure that it was an interesting shoot. Anywho, lets get down to plot synopsis: as the Allies make the final push into Nazi Germany, we follow U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Don 'Wardaddy' Collier (Pitt), who commands an M4A3E8 Sherman tank, christened Fury, in the 66th Armoured Regiment. It's five-man, all-veteran crew of Boyd 'Bible' Swan (LaBeouf), gunner, Grady 'Coon-Ass' Travis (Jon Bernthal), loader, and Trini 'Gordo' Garcia (Michael Pena), driver, are one short when their assistant driver/bow gunner was killed in their last battle, and his replacement is a recently enlisted Army typist, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), which causes much tension among the crew, as he initially seems unfit for the job and is deemed unworthy by the crew to fill their recently deceased colleagues boots. Got it? Good!

To start off with the good, what Fury does best a whole is present a wholly unflinching depiction of the horrors of war. It is no holds barred savagery that refuses to hold back to typical war film stereotypes. For anyone who didn't like the heroism of Lone Survivor, this offers an alternative viewing suggestion, for there is no sense of glamorisation or attempt to make war in any way look heroic. In their respective departments, regular Ayer collaborators Roman Vasyanov and Dody Dorn attain a distinctive visual look and montage aesthetic as cinematographer and editor. Also contributing to the overall atmosphere is the superb production and costume design. Unlike Child Of God, which was just a nasty looking film, Fury is a picture where everything onscreen seems to have grime, dust, dirt under the fingernails. There are no squeaky clean uniforms (after an interlude in the film when the rookie Norman and Sergeant Collier make the acquaintance of two German village women, it's quite startling the visible change in Pitt after he cleans up) and the tanks/main tank in the film are shown to have all been through the wringer, showing the wear, tear and spoils, if you will, of war. All of this is done with specific purpose and drive towards a goal, which, although nothing new, is a vivid depiction that, yes, war is indeed hell. Also, the choreography of the tank battle sequences, which could have been really dull, are done out with, despite the Shermans and other tanks' slow treading, all the flair of a speeding car chase, the only difference being that the vehicles are fitted with mounted cannons. At these points, the presentation of violence is not dissimilar to that of Sam Peckinpah, unflinching, explosive and very, very Bloody. In particular, the relentless of the final battle sequence is reminiscent of the bombardment and insane camaraderie in bloodshed present in Cross Of Iron (although Peckinpah's film is much more overtly stylised, this is the previous work which Fury most resembles), Pitt's Collier being reminiscent of James Coburn's Corporal Rolf Steiner, which brings me to my next point, in that Fury is a well cast film. I think that Brad Pitt gives a strong sense of pathos to Collier who, although curt and harsh on the surface, is really dealing with deep trauma from his many battles in war. He's also at exactly the right age to be playing the role; he could not have done a part like this in his period of largest prominence during the 1990s to mid-2000s. Although for the past ten years he has not been the go-to matinee idol, he's always been a credible actor, and indeed since Mr. And Mrs. Smith, unlike Tom Cruise, who never seems to age, Pitt's career went a different path which includes the best work of his career. From 2005-2014 you can include Babel, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford, The Tree Of Life and Killing Them Softly as quality lead performances, and his work in Fury this is of the same ilk. It's also the best I have seen Shia LaBeouf in quite a while. I cannot remember the last time I saw him deliver such a naturalistic and unforced performance, for in the past he has had a habit of being too showy an actor, someone who visibly tries too hard. There's nothing wrong with trying, that's what actors do, but making the effort 'visible' onscreen is another matter. Acting, getting into character is not about a performance of an actor trying to get into character, but simply being the character. That's is what LaBeouf does here, which is just fine and hopefully it's a sign of better things to come. With Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal and Michael Pena rounding out the central tank crew, they're a fairly likeable bunch. Also, Steven Price, who came to prominence last year with his excellent score for Gravity (for which he won an Academy Award and the Ennio Morricone Award from yours truly), is on board as the film's composer, and he delivers a suitably atmospheric piece of work. Finally, as a director this is quite a work for David Ayer. Deviating from his usual forte of urban crime flicks, Ayer delivers a unique and interesting perspective on the war film. While he may not be saying anything new, he does it with the same confrontational panache that we have seen before in films like Training Day and Harsh Time. He is a perfectionist, both in presenting an authentic truth (Ayer went as far as to get the last surviving operational Tiger I tank for a tank battle) and his own brand of aesthetic truth in presenting the horrors of war. Although it is by no means perfect (which I will get to), Ayer delivers an assured film in Fury which is one of the better depiction of war in the five years since Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker. 

Now, while I think that Fury is a distinctive and interesting war film, I do not think that it is a great film on account of the fact that while it has real strengths, it also has a number of weaknesses which detract from the potential it had. The crux of these problems lies within the script, which was written solely by director David Ayer. It's obvious that Ayer has a specific place he wants to take his film, and while it doesn't say anything new that we haven't seen before, that's all fine and good. However, density and layers have to be developed from the bottom up, and what's problematic here is that while the house might look good and well, the central foundations are weak. Any film, in my opinion (unless it's something abstract like Koyaanisqatsi), has to start with characters, and while they are well-played by a likeable cast of actors, the characters themselves are underdeveloped. You never get the sense of them as people but rather as tropes (I'm so sick of the whole 'rookie/youngster as audience identification point') dragged out for Ayer to explore whatever commentary on the war he wants to make. He can say what he wants to say, but before that I have to have a reason to give a damn about these characters, to have empathy with them in their plight in the midst of a monstrous litany of atrocity exhibitions (wink wink, J.G. Ballard!), and I just can't figure one out. That's not a fault on my part, that's one on Ayer. For instance, in the course of researching for this review, as I do with all reviews, I had Wikipedia open to help me fill gaps, but in this case, it was more so, because I failed to remember a number of the names of the film's key characters. With Oliver Stone's Platoon, which I would say is among the five best films ever made in the war film genre, I could remember the names of the majority of an entire ensemble of characters, right down to minor parts with minimal screen time. Each time we lost a character in that film, we felt the loss of morale of each member remaining in that platoon; here, someone dies, they feel like throwaway, expendable hunks of meat. It's a similar problem to that which I found in Lone Survivor, and to me this is indicative of the fact that it really isn't enough to just say something or have a message: you must have characters and/or a reason to care for a film to fully succeed.

Aside from that issue with characterisation, which I must say is a glaring weakness that detracts in a major way from what could have a really great film, it still remains a very good piece of work. Technically, from a cinematography and editing standpoint, it's astute, and the stunts/choreography has something of the explosive vivaciousness of Sam Peckinpah about it. It's a well-cast film, with the primaries all good in their roles, even if their characters aren't particularly memorable. Steven Price crafts a suitably atmospheric score, and David Ayer as a director has an assured and distinctive vision of his portrayal on the horrors of war. By no means perfect or even great, but still one of the better war films of recent memory. 

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 7.7/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Chilled (long few weeks of work, this week is looking a lot calmer, which is just fine as the impending insanity of Christmas dawns!)

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