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American Sniper (2014)
American Pop Propaganda
The War on Terror has been raging on since the seminal moment of this millennium; September 11, 2001, a day that has quite simply changed everything since. No part of our lives has been entirely unaffected, and the fact that this holds true for every American citizen may help to explain the reason for the film's astounding success in its first weekend; just about everyone seeing this film knows exactly the details and events surrounding the conflict which Chris Kyle became known as 'Legend,' which only enhances his stature in most peoples' eyes as a bonafide American hero who risked his life four separate times to fight intense combat in Iraq, often forced to stay behind and cover his fellow SEALs and Marines who were deployed to more dangerous work such as house-to-house searches in war zones for information about al- Qaeda leaders. It is his story that has come to represent the accomplishment, at whatever price, of the early phase of this newfound type of conflict. Whether or not it has been worth the risk remains hotly contested.
It should be noted that it is almost impossible to review any film which covers any aspect of the War on Terror without comparing it to Zero Dark Thirty, Katherine Bigelow's masterful account of the ultimate mission for the United States in the Middle East: to hunt down and kill Osama bin-Laden. Chris Kyle himself has said in interviews that he wishes he had been assigned to SEAL Team 6, the team responsible for although he certainly did his share on Team 3 in killing various Iraqi insurgents. Nevertheless, on a filmic level, Clint Eastwood's steady, conventional and even-keeled style seems to underwhelm this material. Here we have the story of a man where the tagline is "the deadliest sniper in US military history," yet the bulk of the story seems to take this description for granted. In contrast to Zero Dark Thirty, the screenplay doesn't get into the specifics or details surrounding the complicated aspects of fighting terrorism on the enemies' home turf and the impact that has on American foreign policy as a whole. Indeed, much of the larger geopolitical themes are muted here in order to focus on the rather repetitive structure of showing Kyle's extraordinary ability to kill from astonishing lengths.
Of course, this is a much more focused type of story, but the character of Chris Kyle seems to be an archetype symbolizing American forces instead of a fully-realized individual. He exhibits typical behavior of any deployed soldier regarding guilt about dead soldiers as well as the conflict between needing to remain loyal to his family and his country. These are well-treaded conventions of recent war films, not the least of which is Bigelow's other intensified journey into the mind of the modern solider, The Hurt Locker. Kyle is very similar to Jeremy Renner's devoted and effective soldier who finds himself addicted to any form of combat as a drug, although the true story element does add a different understanding of the effects.
This is not to say that the film is made without a certain amount of professionalism and understanding. Bradley Cooper is very effective as Kyle, bulking up without looking too muscular or movie-hunkish. His acting focuses on the details of portraying a patriotic Texan, complete with the slow drawl, affection for beer and rodeo, as well as complete devotion to his wide-mouthed wife and growing family. Cooper's full range as an actor is on display here, complete with the dead-eye stare of a man who has seen horrors impossible to describe and feels an uncontrollable need to try and bring equilibrium to his life. Sienna Miller seems to have relegated herself recently to playing wives of real-life characters, having done so in Foxcatcher and here. She brings a glamorous quality to Taya, portraying her as a loving wife who puts the need for family stability above her husband's inner desire for combat and revenge.
It is this revenge element which many critics have leeched upon as evidence of Kyle's racist and jingoist attitude towards Iraqis and other Islamists. Although Eastwood does take a pretty apparent right-leaning view of the conflict, he nevertheless attempts to extricate any sort of moral judgment on Chris Kyle and his importance to the American hero mythology. The point of this story, to whatever effect it may have, is that one man saw himself not necessarily as the savior of freedom and democracy, but simply a soldier who followed the orders to protect fellow soldiers from behind, perched above with a high-powered rifle and an eagle eye. The impact this will have on the upcoming trial for Kyle's alleged murderer will undoubtedly be felt throughout the media. It will be interesting to note the recruiting effect of this movie as well. It's easy to imagine a lot of young men getting hyped for fighting through these images.
The Imitation Game (2014)
Imitation of Life
The Imitation Game follows in a recent tradition of both British-based historical dramas intended to invoke sympathy and knowledge about incidents or individuals previously unknown or under-appreciated to the general public. Like The King's Speech, The Iron Lady or The Theory of Everything, it has gained much critical acclaim, but it also leaves one feeling rather empty at the end of it all; you sit there and ask "Is that all they can invoke in us?" In the case of Alan Turing, portrayed here as a most eccentric mathematical genius attempting to crack impossible German military codes during World War II, there seems to be more emphasis on him and his hang-ups rather than his work. Of course, there are scenes discussing his attempts to fund and build an enormous electromechanical device capable of searching through innumerable possibilities of coded words in order to deduce what was more likely being used and what could be discarded. Thus, the possible codes are highlighted, allowing the Allies to use such information against the enemy.
If this sounds somewhat technical, that is because much of the dialogue here is filled with cryptological jargon, a language only understandable to those involved with such activities or otherwise interested in the usage of code-breaking as a tool to win the war. Such an idea is understandable and relatable, yet the film utilizes it only as a plot device, nothing more. Perhaps this is because the filmmakers felt too much technical language would turn audiences off, but it seems more likely they simply underestimate those interested in Turing's accomplishments. The man himself is reduced to another recent pattern of so many films: the antisocial yet brilliant genius capable of winning over adversaries through his work despite any effort to relate to others on a strictly human level. In some ways, this pattern exposes studios' belief in audiences wanting to see people who they believe are a type of ubermenschen, super-beings capable of thinking and acting beyond our middling, common understanding.
This is certainly how Turing is portrayed here, despite Benedict Cumberbatch throwing himself completely into the role. As affable an actor as in work today, Cumberbatch nevertheless gets caught up in Turing's supposed speech handicaps and nervous ticks without using them to explore the darker aspects of Turing's personality. His homosexuality, made such an issue in the trailers and advertisement of the picture, was in fact simply another aspect of his life he attempted to privatize only for it to become his undoing. Any connection between his attraction to men and his attraction to complex puzzles seems rather stretching, although the film makes attempts to do so. In particular, the name of Turing's ground-breaking machine which is used to break German codes is 'Christopher,' who is shown in flashbacks to be a boyhood crush from school and died when Turing was still young. Such a fabrication only exposes the film's desire to create something that never was; this movie has its own impossible codes that remain just that.
Despite all this, Cumberbatch is capable of creating enormous sympathy for this rather cold, unfeeling man who nevertheless somehow (through plot contrivance) manages to surround himself with die-hard supporters, including the brilliant Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) who Turing proposes to though it seems he may be attracted to her in some way. Again, this is merely used for plot extension, and despite there being no disrespect towards Clarke as a woman capable of holding her own against the male-dominated cryptography section at Bletchley Park, it causes one to question just what was the true nature of this peculiar yet symbiotic relationship. The movie never bothers to answer.
Perhaps, the questions not answered cannot be. Much of Turing's work was hidden by the British government until a few years ago due to its highly-classified nature, which only underlines just how far-reaching his ideas became. The movie ends with several title cards telling us what became of Turing; the final one saying that 'Turing machines' are known better today as computers. Whatever truth this statement holds still allows us little access to understanding just what exactly motivated Turing in his work. In this film, he does it simply because he is good at it and he seems unqualified for any other work. Such a simplification is hardly ever the truth, and indeed there are many other aspects of the film which have come under fire for either emphasizing the unimportant or otherwise completely misappropriating various facts to the wrong individuals. Specifically, Turing was not as autistic or antisocial as this film leads us to believe, which only goes to show how certain aspects of one's life often become the true motivation to make a film about someone and their achievements. It's not enough that Turing accomplished so much; he has to have done it through personal shortcomings which otherwise would have caused one of us 'normal' people to falter. How can we, then, sympathize with an ubermensch?
Inherent Vice (2014)
Given his wandering and seemingly aberrant focus in The Master, a story that could only truly be effective through a tightly-wound, coherent plot line, Paul Thomas Anderson may have decided to adapt Thomas Pynchon's novel next because it fits so perfectly with his current style of narrative interest. Starting with small-focused, character-oriented stories with ensemble casts that caused comparisons to Robert Altman, PTA has gradually drifted away from such into such diverse genres as bleak comic-tragedy, melodramatic early 20th century American ambition and the aimless lifestyle of post-World War II citizens. Now, he moves down one more generation into the drug- addled, loose-fit lives of California in 1970. Though this story comes from Pynchon, it would seem that Anderson has been ready to tell this type of story for years.
If Joaquin Phoenix needed paint thinner mixed with alcohol to calm his nerves and give him direction in trying to adapt to regular life after World War II, all he needs here is a ramshackled bungalow on the beach, plenty of cigarettes and weed and a few compliant women to satisfy his desires. Wearing giant sideburns and a curly, moppy hairdo, Phoenix once again immerses himself into this private detective role, 'Doc' Sportello, talking to himself incoherently, staring at various points around him and still somehow able to grasp all the information and informants who come barreling at him after his ex-girlfriend stops by unexpectedly to request his help in stopping an alleged plot to kidnap and rid Los Angeles of its wealthiest real estate developer. Yet, this may all be a simple excuse for both Pynchon and Anderson to explore such a fascinating time in recent American history; a time when the Manson murders hung heavily in the air, there seemed to be little if any worries about larger sociopolitical issues, and still most people are caught up in some way or another with illegal and lethal activities.
Such callous behavior may be the reason behind the intriguing title, which refers to physical objects losing their fundamental ability to stop deterioration. Indeed, at a certain point, Doc's ex-girlfriend returns once again surprisingly and declares herself to be inherent vice in the case. Of course, this could apply to nearly everyone he encounters, including himself, yet perhaps what drew Anderson to this story is how blissfully unaware everyone is of their decrepit state of mind. Anderson occupies much of the frame with a thin, hazy layer of smoke and mist, which may not only be from the copious amounts of marijuana but also the lack of care these people seem to have for their personal belongings and materials. Despite many mentions of Charles Manson, most people are quite laid-back and wander around southern California as if there was little, if any, care in the world. Even when something important does arise, such as a man trying to escape his present status and return to his abandoned family, there is a rather light-hearted touch to it all. Anderson, like Pynchon, is not interested in judging these people at all; he simply is intrigued by their indifference and susceptibility to get themselves into precarious situations, either personal or otherwise.
Many of the actors have commented on Anderson's chaotic yet controlled method of shooting, although all have remarked how pleased and satisfied they were with the end result. Such improvisation may not be considered a hallmark of Anderson's filmmaking, yet here it seems perfectly natural. The soundtrack consists of a healthy mixture of Jonny Greenwood original tracks as well as Neil Young and a slew of early 1960s doo-wop songs which continue the feeling of laid-back nostalgia. Phoenix ties it all together with his whimsical, yet focused perspective in trying to solve a case seemingly for his beloved ex, although he has no commitments to anyone. Various cameos also work without becoming a distraction. Reese Witherspoon has beautiful, surealistic chemistry with Phoenix and Katherine Waterston is eerily angelic in her role, looking much like Jennifer Lawrence probably will in ten years.
There really cannot be much to either approve or disapprove of in this story. The payoff is rather dull, but this is no ordinary Chinatown-like neo-noir. If Pynchon is only interested in such a story as a launching pad, Anderson is only interested to the point of being able to satisfy his own notions of what life must have been like during that brief period when the so-called "hippie movement" seemed to have failed its most ardent supporters and the call of capitalistic achievement turned the nation's attention away from its seemingly endless social and cultural issues. What is America's inherent vice? Doc could tell us if only he cared, or was sober enough, to remember.
Can a film be made with all the available technical prowess yet still fail in its ability to relate what it wants to the audience? It has happened before, though usually in science fiction or action- laced stories where special effects and mechanical devices override any characterization or human interest. Yet, in the case of Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher, the result is too much stylistic layout for the sake of not enough dramatic juice to let the story flow smoothly. Watching this film is like witnessing a car engine break down due to losing oil, transmission and coolant simultaneously; this movie needs its essential fluids replenished.
So much has been said already about Steve Carell's performance, but is it anything more than a well-known comic actor under a lot of makeup and prosthetics attempting to disguise himself as a 'serious' actor? Of course, other actors have followed similar paths like this before, but Carell's acting seems too subdued to allow us to be interested in what he is doing. Bennett Miller has always been a director who likes to keep the audience at arm's, or even a parking lot's, distance, so it is hardly surprising that Carell is directed to perform so. Indeed, John du Pont is the most potentially interesting character because he is a seemingly walking paradox. He possesses a doctorate in ornithology, is the heir to the fabulously wealthy and prestigious du Pont chemical corporation. Yet, he is presented, with whatever historical accuracy that can be managed, as a quietly malevolent control freak with serious mommy issues and some ambiguous form of mental illness. All this is deduction, of course. The film has no interest in exploring who du Pont truly was or what motivates him to act as he does. Here, he is merely the lone villain, the obvious bad guy we are supposed to both fear and be fascinated with. In this regard, Carell is creepily effective, but it bodes no goodwill upon the film or our rooting interest in him. He cannot, or will not, be penetrated by the audience.
Opposing this, Channing Tatum may end up being the most revelatory element about the film. Known previously as a handsome but absent- minded meat-head-type actor receiving roles based upon his looks rather than acting ability, Tatum here finds the perfect role for himself, utilizing the typifications of his career in order to portray wrestler Mark Schultz as just what he has been stereotyped as: a mindless, muscular athlete with little to no ability to separate himself from either his brother or the past they share. He wants to individualize and prove himself to be more than a mere fighter of men for sport, but he simultaneously desires leadership and direction within the context of a team and common goal to be attained. This he had with his brother, Dave, and he soon finds it to a weird degree with John du Pont.
While the movie covers this unusual but symbiotic relationship, interest is maintained and Tatum proves himself to be a reliable and intense actor, walking in a slouch and keeping his lower jaw agape like a heavy-breathing animal. Then, the plot begins to gear forward, albeit with somewhat large jumps in plausibility or logic. Firstly, Dave comes to run du Pont's wrestling team with no explanation despite having rejected the same offer earlier. This is never cleared up. Then, the shift focuses from emasculated Mark to the unsettling strangeness of John du Pont as Carell continues to walk around, sometimes with a gun, but always lurking and watching hie beloved team of men and patriots training for American greatness in the upcoming Seoul Olympics. Finally, the inevitable element of this true story establishes its presence, forcing us to watch something that could have easily been left out in order to focus on the characters. Instead, it is presented as the denouement of a true crime TV special, shot abruptly and shockingly, but to no effect upon our sympathies or understanding.
In his review, David Edelstein referred to Foxcatcher as "a true crime story bloated into looking significant." He mentions Miller's most lauded film, Capote, as having a similar detached quality, although that film seems to understand better its obsession. It may also help that Capote is a far more interesting character than du Pont, as well as the fact that Phillip Seymour Hoffman is better- suited for these kinds of roles than Steve Carell. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that Miller has shown himself capable of visually expanding somewhat thin stories into depressing, but admirable dramas where the look of things trumps nearly anything happening within the frame. Perhaps the one conclusion to be taken from this is that you can get away with this type of storytelling provided you have a fascinating character portrayed by a competent actor. In this case, Carell's brave performance is only that; a gimmicky attempt to distance himself from comedy while simultaneously distancing himself from the audience of Foxcatcher.
The Virtue of Bemused Bewilderment
Has Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu reinvented himself through Michael Keaton? The director of films known more for their universally- connected narratives, ensemble casts and flashy but suffocating visual styles has kept only the flash and instead gone small-scale and intimate. Yet, even in reinventing his narrative methods, he has still maintained certain personal elements that keep one from being able to pin down exactly what type of movie Birdman is. At times, you may feel as if you have the rest of the film figured out, only for Iñárritu to do a near-180 spin that leaves you thinking about why and whether or not it works. Then again, whether it works or not may be a moot point when it comes to this director.
Every once in awhile, fate or some other external force graces film- goers with a pleasant experience by permitting circumstances to wed a particular actor with a particular role. Whether poetic justice comes into play is still to be determined, but few would be able to see the casting of Michael Keaton as a former blockbuster star attempting to reinvent his career on Broadway as anything but a marvelously innovative notion. Aside from noting the obvious imitations of art into life with Keaton's history as Batman, it is interesting to study how Keaton is able to unravel himself as an actor with more capabilities and dimensions than any of his previous roles have allowed him. He embraces age, the thinning hair exposing his round forehead, the facial hair sporadically spread over his face like vegetation in the desert. Aside from his brief tenure as the Dark Knight, Keaton has always seemed a marginalized actor; a familiar face but not noteworthy as a bona-fide star. This judgment no longer holds true.
As much of a revelation as Keaton is, he may have the dubious misfortune to be in the same movie as Edward Norton, whose interpretation of a method actor incapable of leading any semblance of a real life without resorting to thespian techniques is an astonishing triumph. Norton has always been understood to be a massively talented actor who for whatever reason has kept his talent to a smaller pool of roles which, nevertheless, have become indelible for many since he burst onto the screen 18 years ago. In some ways, this role mirrors his own career in much the same way as Keaton's does. Still, nothing has prepared us for this kind of Norton intensity. He is at once vain, empathetic, sweet and cruel. Such a memorable performance can be undone, however, if the film's focus becomes distracted and we lose sight of a great supporting role, which seems to be the case here. The last 20 minutes become completely about Keaton, yet our interest in Mike Shiner has only increased, leading us to be incredulous as to the conclusion of his importance. What exactly was it supposed to be? And are we supposed to ignore these feelings while following Riggan Thomson down his path of enlightenment?
If this sounds like criticism of the director's capabilities, it is more a questioning of his intentions. There can be little doubt regarding Iñárritu's talent as a director. Indeed, his ability to utilize the illusion of one continuous take throughout the whole film seems like a cheap gimmick at first, though eventually we become used to its effect, which is never overtly flashy or self- conscious. In many ways, you cannot help but be amazed at how much Iñárritu is able to fit into each frame, considering how often it fluctuates. Still, its actual effect will puzzle some viewers. What is its intended purpose other than to show off Iñárritu's ability as well as the intimate setting, in front and behind the curtain, of a Broadway play? Some have claimed it breaks down filmic barriers in order to bring the audience closer to the actors as they relate to their surroundings but the effect has little to do with its practicality.
For all its technical prowess and intense acting, Birdman at its most bleakly poignant remains a well-tread tale of a man who put his career before family and relationships. Such themes add nothing new to the experience of watching the story of a man attempting to redeem himself but Iñárritu's methods are convincingly overwhelming. One critic described the film as "vacuous virtuosity." If ever there was a label for mixed feelings this would be it, and Birdman would be that movie.
Caretaker vs Pioneer
Interstellar is a paradoxical achievement. It will undoubtedly inspire and influence future generations to further personal interests in science and astrophysics due mainly to its unsuccessful attempts to make theoretical physics part of the popular culture dialogue. Such an objective seems like a Herculean task, and the film succeeds to a certain degree, but there can be little doubt of its difficulty to find a solid fanbase, especially in non-scientific circles.
Figures like Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein exist primarily as symbols of the highest accomplishments of human intelligence. This causes most people to understand their fields as out of the common perception and, thus, impossible to comprehend. Writer/director Christopher Nolan must be given credit for attempting to bring these highfalutin concepts to the mass population and doing so in a fashion so as to make it somewhat understandable and relatable. He does this by wrapping the highly complex material in a story filled with emotional connections, forcing audiences to pay closer attention than they would otherwise. This is made more apparent through the very effective acting of seemingly endless pedigree.
Matthew McConaughey, continuing his laid-back acting style, makes this material much more relatable than most actors could. He never forces emotions, even during climactic moments, and thus brings us closer to his perspective and understanding. The opening sequences, which set the foundation of his relationship with his daughter, are so warm and touching that we are willing to follow him through any adventure. Supporting roles of Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine and Matt Damon work well enough, but it is obvious that Nolan's real connection to this story is the father/daughter relationship, which McConaughey, Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain embody so well. No longer can people claim Nolan is a cold, objective filmmaker with little to no regard for his characters and their feelings.
What can continue to be a criticism of Nolan's film style is his inability to reconcile his erudite concepts and themes with dialogue and situations that are at the very least, digestible. Indeed, Nolan has made a career out of so-called 'mind-bending' movies like Memento and Inception which attempt to deliberately confuse the viewer until that moment of denouement when the reveal supposedly enlightens us to at least enough information to allow us to pretend to discuss the film intelligently. Certainly, like those aforementioned films, Interstellar will at the very least fertilize some discussion about high-mind concepts like black holes, event horizon, and tesseracts amongst those who would ordinarily never entertain such thoughts. In this respect, Nolan is trying to achieve the impossible, but he must be respected for attempting to bring these two seemingly unrelatable worlds together. No one else could or would try such a feat.
Whether or not individuals will appreciate Nolan's vision for the future of humanity ultimately depends on one's point of view regarding our own purpose on Earth. The question posited is are humans caretakers for this planet or pioneers to search out others? Obviously we know Nolan's belief, but if one feels more inclined to be connected with earthly situations, it may be uncomfortable to get into the spirit of this story. Still, it only takes imagination to be astonished at the style in which Nolan has crafted this highly possible future reality.
A lifetime too late.
Jake Gyllenhaal, perhaps known most for his role as Donnie Darko, the troubled teen with futuristic visions of destiny, may never truly escape that pigeon-hole. As Louis Bloom, he siphons similar traits of Donnie to bring us a character with the same intensity and psychological uneasiness. The main difference is that Donnie becomes a symbol of sympathetic teen angst amidst a growing world of discontentment and detachment. Louis' motive is purely out of survival, a man driven to succeed at any cost by his instinctive desire for rising above the average and middling.
It has been reported that Gyllenhaal lost 20 lbs and did extensive daily workouts to perfect the gaunt, eerie gaze he utilizes, drawing our eyes to his as we watch him survey his surroundings and react. This is an opportunist who seemingly has no conscience as to his actions, which is obviously the message of the movie; a message that is, regrettably, nothing new to this most cynical and knowledgeable of ages.
Writer/director Dan Gilroy seems to have attempted to stay loyal to the family modus operandi, that is to build quickly and quietly to an effective climax intended to challenge preconceived notions and foster thorough questioning of our understanding. His brother, Tony, did this to great effect in Michael Clayton, a similar story about a man driven to fight for survival, only in this case it was out a sense of moral righteousness. Louis' determination to succeed seems to stem from a desire to cement himself not only as a winner and accomplished businessman but also for fame and recognition from the larger community. This makes it rather apparent why Gilroy set the story in Los Angeles; not only for its endless supply of criminal activity but also its cult of narcissism and self-promotion.
Alas, Gilroy never seems to drive to the heart of this matter, or at least drive into an area which we haven't already been exposed. There is a great deal of time devoted to Louis' interaction with the ruthless and desperate TV producer (Rene Russo) who lives by the ratings, which means she wants more graphic violence and less journalistic emphasis. She is, however, a pale imitation of Faye Dunaway's great performance in Network, who was far more ambitious and had more of an impact on the men in her life than Russo does.
Additionally weak is the handling of violent crimes and accident scenes. Sequence after sequence point out how newscasters and news outlets want the story which sells above all else, which in this case consists of more violent and upsetting information. Even for a huge metropolis like LA, the amount of serious crimes within this narrative is very unsettling (although Louis uses the falling crime rate as a bargaining chip for his increasingly intense coverage of these scenarios). Yet, Gilroy sweeps all this aside in order to emphasize his righteous message. Instead, we get a gratuitously extended violent sequence that stretches plausibility and simply confirms our beliefs about these characters instead of evolving them.
There is a great deal of dark comedy attempted in this story. Indeed, the audience seems to laugh right along with Gyllenhaal's bizarre and creepy intensity which also happens to be border-line parodist acting. Yet, how much does Gilroy intend to be comedic and how much is intended to be dogmatic? Whichever the case, the end result remains the same. How terrible it is that television news praises ratings and showmanship over honest and straightforward reporting? David Simon gave us this same message in a much more effective manner in The Wire (ironically, the weakest of all five seasons). Couldn't Gilroy, with the expansive potential of cinema, have at least delved into slightly darker, more provocative territory? As it stands, Nightcrawler remains a less-than-powerful expose on a subject with much more potentiality in this digital era, an angle Gilroy mysteriously neglects.
FUBAR in the ranks
In this post 9/11 era, war has reinvented itself as a morally righteous act, no matter the outcome or manner in which it is executed. The movies have reinforced this notion with films like Fury, a World War II adventure attempting to scale the heights of Saving Private Ryan or Platoon though ultimately regressing to its own variation of gratuitous carnage and destruction. Such films seem to have a chip on their shoulders; how does one portray an event so ubiquitous to modern culture and so thoroughly researched by historians as to give us a new angle and understanding of the dimensions of such an atrocious existence? This answer may never be reached, although Fury does make a noble endeavor to proclaim the bravery and courage of the American military, in this case the US Armored Division.
Writer-director David Ayer, who has progressed from writing pulpy action scripts like The Fast and the Furious and S.W.A.T. to those of a more serious tone, nevertheless cannot seem to forget his roots as an action first, character second kind of filmmaker. Ayer has constantly focused on the 'brotherhood' of his characters, but that may be all he has to say about them. The four men occupying the tank in this film say they have been together since the Allied invasion of Africa, yet little else is mentioned about this. Furthermore, the script borrows far too much material outright from Saving Private Ryan, right down to the main characteristics of the main roles. Brad Pitt's Wardaddy is the quiet, unspoken father figure whose troops are willing to die with him (just like Tom Hanks). Shia LaBeouf is the Bible-quoting gunman who seems to have almost supernatural-like aim (just like Barry Pepper). And Logan Lerman is the young, totally inexperienced new addition to the tank who has not been trained for such an assignment but ultimately proves himself through a baptism of fire (just like Jeremy Davies).
Does Ayer believe most of those who go to see this will have never seen Spielberg's earlier film, or does he simply not care about the similarities? It may be that he feels the message of such a story overrides any other details, ultimately rendering them unnecessary and minimal. However, other sequences are either taken directly from Saving Private Ryan and other such films, or seem to have little to no basis in reality or logic. One that many will call to mind is when Wardaddy and the newly hired Norman invade a German apartment after taking the town. They stake out the room, find two young women, force them to cook breakfast until the rest of the tank crew, drunk and disorderly, barge in and cause discomfort and awkwardness. What does Ayer believe this sequence says about the relationship between American soldiers and German civilians? The film says nothing, although given the manner in which it is shot, this seems to be a badge of honor rather than a criticism.
Whatever the director's attitude towards such scenarios, the actors certainly give their fullest involvement. Pitt has ensured his lasting stardom through roles like this: brash, tough, yet endearing to the younger generation looking up to him. LaBeouf, for the first time in quite awhile, shows his true acting ability when he can remain focused and under control. His role is not huge but he plays it as serious and focused as can be expected. Lerman may be the weakest link, overreaching in his portrayal of an inexperienced, frightened clerk thrust into the deepest and ugliest recesses of the battlefront. He has his tough moments to be sure, but ultimately becomes somewhat cartoonish.
The strongest aspect of the film is its action sequences, which may be all Ayer and audiences will care about or take from watching the film. Certainly they leave one completely entranced and utterly aghast. The showdown between our beloved American tank and an advanced German Panzer is fully engrossing and great fun to watch. Yet, is it supposed to be this enjoyable? The final sequence as well shows our heroes surrounded by an SS brigade trapped in their broken-down tank as they attempt to fight their way out, willing to die but only by taking as many Germans with them as possible. Such scenes ultimately begin to feel like video game set-ups. We cheer quietly and feel relieved at the sight and sound of every enemy soldier whose head explodes or is cut down by bullets at such a speed as to look like a fight scene from Star Wars.
The greatest difference between Ayer and Steven Spielberg is that Spielberg never tries to excite the viewer through carnage. He is able to do this with less emphasis on grotesque shots of mutilated bodies and fiery crashes and more of a focus on the psychological and spiritual effects of war on the individual. Fury, for all its artistic merit and genuine entertainment, would rather bombard the audience with gore than invite a thought-provoking stimulus. For Ayer, the humanity of war remains out of reach, or perhaps not near at all. This film ultimately tells us war is hell; such a statement is one of the great understatements of history. Will future war films, with all the knowledge and understanding of hindsight at their fingertips, ever give us more than such a simplistic denouement or a visual repetition of events which need not be pounded into the brain?
Gone Girl (2014)
The institution of marriage, being a foundation of civilization since the dawn of man, has adapted to subsequent eras but, in some aspects, not necessarily improved. Problems between men and women abound regardless of the type of their relationship, resulting in various commentaries and insights as to possible solutions, either temporary or permanent. Yet, the central question remains: can two people, often complete strangers when initially meeting, remain faithful to one another and build enough trust to establish a meaningful and fulfilling relationship? There have been several notable examples but, as time seems to reveal, knowing more may result in understanding less.
At last, we have a cinematic representation of the perilous ups and downs of the journey from courtship to romantic climax to marital pitfalls, all within the context of an increasingly cynical social construct. Certainly, the subject of strained marriages is nothing new to the movies, but David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's best-selling novel goes deeper, bleaker and more harrowing than any other film of its kind. Fatal Attraction was a childish affair compared to the Dunnes.
As the film opens, with a rapid and nervously jumpy energy, Fincher gives a masterclass on how to establish mood in a thriller. Every scene is impactful, every shot built to further the tension and tighten the air. The conclusion seems fairly certain, and Fincher wants us to want that conventional denouement. After all, wouldn't that be easier and safer to digest than anything else?
Yet, Fincher refuses to gratify our simplistic expectations. Flynn, in adapting her own novel, tightens up the pace and slightly alters the ending to create a remarkably paced and exquisitely fashioned narrative, but it is Fincher's trademark cool, detached visual style complete with complex shadows and hints of blue and gray that put the finishing touch on this experience. One simply cannot look away from this film. At the halfway point, the 'reveal' utilized deflates any and all expectations we may have had, only to overwhelm us with endless questions as to how, what and why. The rest of the film covers those inquiries, yet still retains a level of ambiguity and forlornness. We continue to watch because it is in our interest as thriller-fans to do so, but on a subconscious level, there is the knowledge that conventionality is out of the question.
Fincher's stylistic, sometimes smug, modus operandi is exemplified through his extraordinary ability to cast perfectly. Long understood as an overtly-handsome, sometimes aloof actor, Ben Affleck carries this film thanks to the control and forced exactness of Fincher's directing. His aloofness, as several critics have noted, is utilized here to the greatest effect, causing the character of Nick Dunne to remain an enigma and a sympathetic man simultaneously. Very few actors could pull this off, but Affleck makes it look easy, using his broad, muscular body structure, puppy-dog eyes and down-turned smile to keep everyone guessing as to his true motive.
Motive is more crucial here than in most thrillers. Flynn's story questions the deepest expectations and assumptions we make about other people, particularly those we think we would like to spend a significant portion of our life with. Affleck can reflect this as can Rosamund Pike, whose Siamese eyes, creamy skin and sultry voice give nothing away about herself, keeping our guesses constant throughout. Early scenes between Nick and Amy, showing their attempts to win each other over, can only truly be understood in light of the entire film, an aspect of Flynn's novel Fincher exploits particularly well. If nothing is as it seems, what are we supposed to presume could or will happen?
As the authorities track the clues as to the whereabouts of Amy Dunne and Nick's involvement, the notion of the simplest answer being best arises. This is frequently a logical error, yet on a certain level that may be the best method of approach. Applying this train of thought to the director, it has been argued that nearly all of David Fincher's films have been an attempt for him to overcome the frustrating and creatively-retarding experience on his first feature, Alien 3. While remaining a simple critical tool to find thematic relations amongst an otherwise diverse career, this notion is tempting to grasp. If there is any truth to it, it may be that Fincher has finally gotten the quality of clout needed to be able to make exactly what he envisions. He has often said he usually gets about 70% of his vision on screen, the rest being compromised out. Somehow, this film feels uncompromising. It is exceedingly dark, foreboding in its attitude not just towards marriage but humanity in general. Questions will abound, but answers often remain just out of reach.
Mysterious Skin (2004)
A subject such as the sexual abuse of children will always be one cast down to the independent filmmakers with far less money and far less at stake. Greg Araki, always an outsider looking in due to his graphic and intentionally shocking style, may have felt an intimate connection with the material, not necessarily because of the child abuse so much as the isolation and alienation experienced by the two main characters. Even in a place like Hollywood, it cannot be easy being a gay Asian-American director with a penchant for explicit stories and characters.
Despite this treacherous foundation, Araki was able to gain funding on the basis of adding two up-and-coming actors of their time, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michelle Trachtenberg. Interestingly, the scenes these two share together garner the best emotional elements of the film, conjuring up feelings of unrequited love as well as a kinship expressed without words, instead based on implication and shared past experience and secrecy. However, Trachtenberg has far too little time on-screen, making her character close to obsolete and nearly ruining the sweet chemistry her scenes with Gordon-Levitt create. Curiously, Araki maintains a strict editing style of crosscutting between two young men on very different pathways who nevertheless will inevitably come together since they always do in these types of stories. Brady Corbet, in the film's best performance, plays the shy, introverted and perpetually skittish Bryan, a marked distinction from Gordon-Levitt's Neil, who is sexually self-destructive and unafraid of whatever crosses his path.
Corbet, looking like a young, more passive Jeffrey Dahmer, brings a quiet sensibility to the film through his tousled blond hair, thick and bulging glasses and a still, intimate voice that can boom when necessary. His scenes involving a search for aliens as a possible solution to his nightmares are both quirky and seductive, giving us an off-balanced portrayal of isolated teens in a faraway town doing what they feel is absolutely nothing of importance or value. In the same area, Gordon-Levitt's Neil, with a strangely shaped black mullet and lips curled slightly down to give off a sexual charge, reacts to domestic insecurity by being as irreverent and adventuresome as possible. This decision eventually takes him to New York City and back home again where he is forced to confront something he has known his whole life but has kept from everyone except Trachtenberg's Wendy, despite it involving Bryan.
Without going into the full details, it requires one to say that the last few minutes of the film will certainly challenge almost everyone watching. Yet, for some, it may be a challenge of logic rather than taste and acceptance. Gordon-Levitt recounts the film's early events so plainly that it makes it impossible for us to feel any sympathy for his character and how he turns out. After all, he seems to feel no trauma, so perhaps he wasn't? Furthermore, his decisions of vocation as a young man leave one feeling he gets what he deserves rather than empathy and victimization. The only true victim of this film is Bryan, who reacted in such a starkly different way that it makes us more interested in his case rather than Neil's, whose story has been told before in other films.
This disconnect leaves Araki with the irony of having a story line that he does not need but cannot get rid of if he stays on the course he wants. In the end, he holds onto his straight and narrow path, giving us almost exactly what we expected from the beginning. This causes the early scenes to be uncomfortable but not for the reasons Araki intends. They are uncomfortable and unnecessary, a most lethal combination. Whatever Araki's intentions with this story, it can be safely assumed that his message was already widely accepted beforehand, rendering anything he had to say all but useless and redundant. Even though one may have the reputation for being provocative and graphic, this may not always be the best course of action in order to lure in a consistent audience.