Thursday, October 16, 2014

Stuck in the mud of war

Brad Pitt leads a tank crew in a movie full of harrowing war imagery.
By April of 1945, U.S. troops had advanced deep into German territory. For Germany, the war already was lost. Humiliation and surrender loomed.

Despite being set on the eve of the impending Allied triumph, the mood of director David Ayer's Fury remains forbidding and dark. Seldom has victory looked quite this grim.

If there's freshness in Ayer's approach, it's found just here: It doesn't really matter whether soldiers are fighting on the first or last day of a war: Many will die. Brutality doesn't stop just because the end is near.

The opening image of Ayer's movie has a haunting, nearly surreal quality. A German soldier rides a white horse onto an open field. We don't know where the soldier's headed or why he's on horse back.

Seconds later, a lone figure springs from a U.S. tank. Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) leaps on the German officer, pulls him off his horse and stabs him to death.

In one image, Ayer vanquishes any thoughts we might have had about the romance of war.

Fury offers lots more unsettling imagery, sights presumably intended to make us see the war with fresh eyes, to absorb its intensity and fear in ways that we haven't yet experienced. To say Fury has a kind of bleak power may sound like a turn-off, but that's precisely what we're supposed to feel with a movie such as this.

Pitt's performance as an Army sergeant in charge of a war-weary tank crew inevitably will remind audiences of the character he played in Inglourious Basterds, but Pitt's Collier is more complex than Lt. Aldo Raine.

A hardened veteran, Collier parcels out his human impulses sparingly, almost as if he's afraid of tapping out an already depleted supply.

The rest of Collier's crew consists of Boyd "Bible" Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady "Coon Ass" Travis (John Bernthal). Scott Eastwood portrays Sergeant Miles, another member of the crew.

The plot -- hardly a groundbreaker -- begins when a newbie (Logan Lerman) joins Collier's tank crew in what seems a desperate or possibly haphazard move by the Army.

Lerman's Norman Ellison has spent most of the war as a clerk typist. He has no tank training, and makes a reluctant warrior, someone whose unwillingness to kill is seen as a threat by his comrades in arms.

Much of the story involves the ways in which Lerman's character is toughened -- at first against his will and later with vengeful relish.

In Ayer's world, the members of the tank crew are bonded, but they're not always admirable. Bernthal's Travis can seem like a borderline sadist. So does Collier, at times.

The point, of course, is that the savagery of war tends to turn men into brutes regardless of what uniform they happen to be wearing.

The actors all mold their performances to fit the dreary, mud-soaked landscapes that become another character in the hands of cinematographer Roman Vasyanov.

The movie offers up equal amounts of combat and desperation, although there's an interlude in which Collier and Ellison enter the apartment of a couple of German women (Anamaria Marinca and Alicia von Rittberg). The soldiers are in a town that just has been taken. Some of them are looking for sex and spoils.

At first, the scene humanizes Collier, but there's a terrible, growing tension when the rest of the tank crew shows up, wondering why they've been excluded from what appears to be a moment's pleasure and respite.

Ayer made his cinematic bones with viscerally charged movies such as End of Watch, which focused on cops in South Central Los Angeles. He makes full use of his talent for violent immediacy here, bringing it to scene-after-scene.

Fury also reminds us that shocking sights can become routine if seen in abundance: Dead bodies are flatted by tank treads, and the ugliness of war unfolds under dark, apprehensive skies.

The movie's finale involves a terrible battle in which Collier's crew (unbelievably, I think) decides to face an entire SS battalion, a decision that's tantamount to a death sentence. Is it courage or a death wish from soldiers who know they'll never again adjust to normal life? Will anyone survive?

When stripped of all its grim atmospherics, Fury may not seem radically different from lots of other war movies that follow small groups of men into the teeth of war.

But story arc may not be the point here: Ayer seems to be trying to give us a more vividly disturbing picture than the one sometimes associated with the so-called Greatest Generation.

With hindsight, idealism may be possible. On the battlefield, it's a forgotten luxury.

The salvation of a nasty old man

Bill Murray is at his scuzzy best in St. Vincent, but too much sentiment diminishes his accomplishment..
When we talk about movies that canonize their characters, we're usually talking metaphorically. Although St. Vincent, which stars Bill Murray, doesn't actually confer sainthood on the character Murray plays, it comes as close as possible without submitting its case to the Vatican, complete with two certified miracles.

Murray, who can look disheveled even when he's standing still, plays a man on the verge of dereliction. Financial troubles have put Murray's Vincent in danger of losing his Brooklyn home. But it doesn't look as if Vincent would need much by way of external pressure to have him heading for the local saloon or the race track.

Desperate for money, Vincent agrees to babysit for a kid who just has moved next door (Jaeden Lieberher). Newly separated from her husband, the boy's mother (Melissa McCarthy) knows no one in her new neighborhood and must rely on the acerbic Vincent for help.

So will a cute and very bright boy worm his way into Vincent's cold heart?

Come on, it's a movie, and no matter how gruff Murray plays Vincent, we know from the outset that he'll eventually prove himself to be a decent enough fellow.

The movie wastes little time reassuring us that hard-ass Vincent has a good side: Fairly early on, Vincent is shown visiting his wife in the upscale nursing facility where he's struggling to keep her.

Murray makes it touchingly clear that Vincent loves this woman, who's evidently stricken with Alzheimer's. Perhaps Vincent's life started its down-hill plummet when his wife was institutionalized.

Occasionally, Vincent has sex with a pregnant Russian pole-dancer and prostitute (Naomi Watts). He treats her with scorn, but we know that when the chips are down, he'll come through for her, too.

Late in the movie, Vincent suffers a stroke, which pushes him into disability territory, and perhaps opens an Oscar path for Murray.

It's clear that Murray, who knows how to play nasty, could have made a sentiment-free movie about a man who's going to spend the rest of his life stewing in his beer.

But director Theodore Melfi doesn't have the stomach for flat-out misery, and he pushes the film toward an ending that shamelessly tugs at happily-ever-after heart strings.

Murray keeps St. Vincent watchable, and it's refreshing to see McCarthy play a character who's not cut from the same crude cloth that seems to have characterized most of her work since Bridesmaids (2011).

Still, the main reason to see St. Vincent is to savor of the bitter tastes Murray brings to this character and to imagine the hard-bitten movie that could have been.

In the end, though, St. Vincent's sweet-and-sour mix doesn't totally compute: It's like getting a sappy Valentine's card from Charles Bukowski.

The Internet made them do it

Jason Reitman's Men, Women & Children grabs a techno tiger by the tail.
In Men, Women & Children, director Jason Reitman tries to latch onto something juicy and topical: the ways in which technology can push us apart rather than bringing us closer together.

Although hardly an astonishing insight, this caution about technology works its way into nearly every corner of Reitman's densely populated adaptation of a novel by Chad Kultgen.

Set in a Texas suburb, Men, Women & Children ups it creative ante by employing a large and talented cast, a bit of technological gimmickry (we read texts on the screen as characters type them) and a wry narration delivered by Emma Thompson , who's never seen on screen.

Thompson's narration offers an ironic reminder that the movie's collection of narrow, in-grown stories -- so feverishly important to most of its characters -- take place against a background of vast cosmic indifference.

That's an awfully grand reach for an essentially small movie that tends to focus on sexual relationships -- or the lack of them -- and which, one presumes, is intended as a snapshot of a contemporary reality in which we all are subject to distraction.

Tell me you've never been tempted to look at your phone while watching a movie or even during a face-to-face conversation with someone.

Following on the heels of Reitman's disappointing Labor Day, Men, Women & Children bounces from one story to another as if following links during an Internet browsing session.

The best of these stories involves a sexually dysfunctional family. Adam Sandler plays a husband who has substituted Internet porn and masturbation for a sex life with his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt).

As the story unfolds, Sandler's Don Truby seeks out (via the Internet, of course) a high-priced call girl. His wife, who very much wants to feel desired, uses an Internet site to arrange a sexual liaison with a stranger (Dennis Haysbert).

Meanwhile, the couple's teen-age son (Travis Tope) spends so much time with Internet porn, he can't respond sexually to the advances of a willing cheerleader (Olivia Crocicchia).
Crocicchia's Hannah has preoccupations of her own. Encouraged by a stage-managing mother (Judy Greer), Hannah's the star of a Web site created by her mom in hopes of establishing her daughter as a celebrity and an actress, probably in that order.

Hanna isn't the movie's only cheerleader. Allison (Elena Kampouris), also a cheerleader, visits pro-anorexia websites and engages in acts of self-sabotage, allowing herself to be used by a football player who doesn't give a damn about her.

To say that the plot further thickens doesn't quite do justice to Men, Women & Children's complexity: Dean Norris (who played Hank on Breaking Bad) appears as a father who's upset that his son (Ansel Elgort) has decided to quit playing football. The young man apparently has reached a point of familiar adolescent despair: He has concluded that life is meaningless.

Elgort's Tim becomes involved with Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever), the daughter of an obsessively over-protective mother (Jennifer Garner), who charts her daughter's every on-line move.

Amidst the story clutter, Reitman obtains some fine performances. A surprisingly effective Sandler channels his inner mope to play a guy of quiet dissatisfactions; DeWitt is fine as his frustrated wife; and watching Norris made me hope that he'll find his way into more movies.

A word more on DeWitt: In a late-picture scene, her character faces her husband at a pivotal moment in their relationship. Watch DeWitt's face. She manages one of the most emotionally shattered expressions I've seen in a movie.

Reitman, who also directed Juno, knows how to work with young actors, and the film's many teen-agers acquit themselves well.

Men, Women & Children seems intended as a cautionary tale. I don't think it has the sharpness and brio that has characterized Reitman's best work (Thank You for Smoking and Up in the Air, and not all of the movie's accumulated moments are as telling as must have been intended.

The subject of technological tyranny in ordinary lives isn't quite as compelling as the filmmakers may think, and Reitman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) sometimes skim reads the movie's characters and situations.

Fair to say, I think, that Men, Women & Children doesn't always see deeply, but credit Reitman for trying to touch the sadness that seems to have descended on so many lives.

Surviving the Sudanese Civil War

Forget Reese Witherspoon; it's the story of war and its ramifications that matters.
Although sometimes burdened by a by-the-numbers approach, The Good Lie tells an important story about a group of young Sudanese refugees trying to start new lives in the U.S.

I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing The Good Lie, primarily because it humanizes the consequences of a tragic civil war that raged in the Sudan from 1983 to 2005. The movie also boasts a level of sincerity that's almost startling when compared to most movies.

Reese Witherspoon, who plays a woman assigned to helping Sudanese young men find employment in the U.S., is the only recognizable face in a movie that's at its best when she's not around.

Nothing against Witherspoon, who doesn't show up until the picture has been running for 45 minutes. She's fine, but the story of how these young people -- emblematic of some 20,000 refugees in all -- fled their village, hiked hundreds of miles in search of safety, languished in refugee camps, and ultimately developed into war-scarred young adults is far more interesting.

Canadian director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar) introduces us to two brothers (Arnold Oceng and Femi Oguns) and their sister (Kuoth Wiel). We also meet another set of refugees (Ger Duany and Emmanuel Jai).

Oceng's character becomes the group's leader after his older brother makes a sacrifice that saves the other kids from being taken captive.

When the Sudanese refugees reach the United States, they're forced to split up. The boys -- young men by now -- are sent to Kansas City. Wiel's character is assigned to a Boston family.

Once in the U.S., much of the story depicts the cultural adjustments demanded of young men who have grown up in refugee camps and who know little about American life. It's all a bit predictable, but the plight of these youngsters -- drawn from real stories -- lingers.

The Good Lie may not be quite the powerhouse that was intended. It tries to raise the emotional stakes with a last-minute development that seems overly contrived, but -- at minimum -- reminds us that not all refugee stories ended happily in Kansas City.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Verdict on 'The Judge:' A disappointment

It has been 42 years since Robert Duvall played the impossibly tough Lt. Col. "Bull" Meechum in The Great Santini. In that movie, Duvall set a high standard for big-screen fathers who couldn't be pleased.

Duvall, who's now 73, plays another difficult father in The Judge, an shamelessly manipulative movie that's unsure whether it wants to be a taut courtroom drama or an emotional story about a strained relationship between a father and his son (Robert Downey Jr.)

David Dobkin, who has directed such regrettable comedies as The Change-Up and Fred Claus, scatters effective dramatic moments throughout, but his movie bites off more than it should chew, and the residue dribbles down its chin, often pooling into puddles of cliche.

After so many effects-laden movies -- from Iron Man to The Avengers to Sherlock Holmes -- you'd think that Downey would be eager for a role that allows him to keep his feet planted on realistic ground.

But in playing a slick, ethically dubious big-city attorney, Downey trods familiar ground as a glib, fast-talking character -- one Hank Palmer -- who returns to his Indiana hometown to attend his mother's funeral.

There, he reunites with his two brothers -- baseball wash-out Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) and mentally challenged Dale (Jeremy Strong).

The brothers are a side trip, though: Hank's relationship with his father -- a man everyone calls The Judge -- drives the movie.

Watching a grown man try to come to grips with a hard-ass father seems like drama enough for any movie, but The Judge contrives to have Duvall's character charged with murder in what appears to have been a hit-and-run accident.

There's a corpse and incriminating blood on the bumper of The Judge's car, but Duvall's Joseph Palmer doesn't remember hitting anyone. Is he lying? Is he suffering from dementia?

Not surprisingly, Hank eventually takes over his father's defense. In the process, he rediscovers a sense of humanity that he lost in a career that has focused on defending high paying clients, most of them guilty as charged.

To add yet another unnecessary level of complexity to the movie's two hours and 20 minutes, Hank is estranged from his trophy wife, but trying to maintain a relationship with his button-cute daughter (Emma Tremblay). About midway through, she visits Hank.

Hank also tests the waters of romance with an old flame (Vera Farmiga), who now owns a local bar and grill.

When the courtroom elements kick into high gear, a stoney-faced Billy Bob Thornton shows up as prosecuting attorney Dwight Dickham.

The idea of a movie starring actors as good as Downey and Duvall must have seemed irresistible, but The Judge trips over too many of the bases it tries to touch. Moreover, the trial fails to score high in the credibility department.

The cast is too good totally to be defeated by material that seems to plead for our tears, but The Judge can't overrule the deep mediocrity of its many conceits.

When a hero becomes the goat

A terrific Jeremy Renner plays a reporter who fights to get the story and then battles with the journalistic establishment in Kill the Messenger.
Though not entirely satisfying, Kill the Messenger has enough energy and intrigue to earn its place on a list of movie's that rightly give us pause.

In yet another electric performance, a terrific Jeremy Renner plays a newspaper reporter who rose and, then, fell with his story.

Renner's portrayal of mayor Carmine Polito in American Hustle was a small classic, and he's done fine, even scary, work in such tough-minded movies as The Town (2010) and The Hurt Locker (2008).

An actor of exceptional edge, Renner creates the impression that his characters could tilt in a hundred different directions. We're never entirely sure which way they'll jump.

In Kill the Messenger, Renner plays Gary Webb, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury who, in the 1990s, wrote a highly controversial story about Nicaraguan rebels who were smuggling drugs into the U.S. while the CIA apparently looked the other way.

Webb's story started strong and then got blurry: Major journalistic institutions -- notably The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times -- tried to poke holes in Webb's reporting. Even his own paper eventually said Webb had over-reached.

As shown in the movie, Webb persisted in his quest because he understood that the story, which tracked events that unfolded during the 1980s, had had devastating, on-the-ground impact: Drugs were being funneled into South Central Los Angeles, where a crack epidemic was ruining lives.

Director Michael Cuesta (L.I.E.) doesn't canonize Webb, who we learn had a devastating incident in his past, a tragic episode that caused him to leave the Cleveland Plain Dealer and head for California.

When Webb's story -- entitled Dark Alliance -- broke on the Internet, it pointed to a tarnished part of the recent American past and, subsequently, raised interesting questions about whether some in the journalistic establishment were being motivated by timidity and envy.

Although the movie encourages us to side with Webb, it doesn't entirely settle the issue of whether he dotted every "i'' and crossed all his "ts."

If it's a bit indecisive, pacing and intrigue keep the story humming, as does a large and powerful supporting cast.

A seductive Paz Vega plays Coral, a woman who pulls Webb into the story. Tim Blake Nelson portrays an attorney for a crack dealer (Michael Kenneth Williams) who knows the real story of how cocaine is reaching the ghetto, and Barry Pepper appears as a prosector who doesn't seem devoted to finding the truth.

We're also introduced to Webb's editors. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Webb's immediate supervisor, and Oliver Platt portrays the paper's editor. Andy Garcia has a nice, small turn as an imprisoned drug lord who becomes one of Webb's sources.

The movie supplements its main story by showing the toll Webb's work took on his family, notably on his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt) and the older of his two sons (Lucas Hedges).

Unfortunately for Cuesta, this may be a case where the arc of the drama, derived from real events, diminishes its power: Triumph precedes a downward spiral. Webb's story trades victory for defeat, and winds up knocking the air out of itself.

Still, I wouldn't dismiss Kill the Messenger. We may not always be able to find our moorings in this complicated tale, but two things seem clear: Major institutions -- the government and the press -- can be tainted by self-interest. And no matter where you look, heroes probably will be in short supply.

Another adaptation of a Highsmith novel

I'm not sure where The Two Faces of January ranks in the work of novelist Patricia Highsmith, whose work has enriched the movies with the Ripley stories and also with Strangers on a Train. In the hands of director Hossein Amini, the Iranian-British writer who's making his directorial debut, the big-screen adaptation of Two Faces comes off as a mixed achievement. Amini tells the story of an older man (Viggo Mortensen) who's traveling in Greece with his young wife Colette (Kirsten Dunst) in 1962. There, they meet a knock-about tour guide named Rydal (Oscar Isaac). Mortensen's Chester MacFarland has a dubious financial history. Rydal, whose morals aren't rock solid, either, begins to fall for Colette. Cinematographer Marcel Zyskind does right by locations in Athens, Crete and Istanbul, but the movie probably needed more volatility beneath its surface. Amini, who wrote the screenplays for Snow White and the Huntsman, Drive and Wings of the Dove, proceeds intelligently enough, but never brings the movie to sufficient boil. The performances, particularly from Mortensen are a plus.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

She's gone -- but to where?

Director David Fincher takes on a bestseller with lots of trashy but entertaining twists.
In the beginning, the marriage seems idyllic. An attractive young magazine journalist teams up with a gorgeous woman who earns her living writing quizzes for magazines. They live in New York City, and appear to be clued to a power-couple track.

Then, comes the derailment.

He loses his job: She doesn't have a whole lot happening in her life. They decide to abandon New York City and head for his hometown in Missouri. There, he'll run a neighborhood bar, and she'll have entirely too much time to wonder what happened to her life.

So goes the setup for director David Fincher's eagerly awaited adaptation of Gillian Flynn's 2012 best-seller, Gone Girl, which stars Ben Affleck as the husband and Rosamund Pike as his wife.

Gone Girl is the kind of movie about which much can't be said. To discuss the plot in any detail puts one knee deep into spoiler territory.

For those who haven't read Flynn's book, all that really needs to be known is that Affleck's Nick Dunne arrives home from work on the day of his fifth anniversary to discover that his wife is missing.

Signs of violence suggest that he should call the cops: The rest of the movie concerns the search for Pike's Amy as Fincher provides us with various views of the marriage at the film's tricky heart.

After a slow and somewhat awkward start, Fincher eventually gets down to business, playing with our sympathies as Nick comes under suspicion in his wife's disappearance.

One minute, we feel Nick may be getting a raw deal. The next minute, we're leaning toward Amy's version of things and wondering whether Nick isn't a monster who killed his wife.

Each character gets a turn at narrating the story. We hear Nick in voice-over fragments: Amy's view is presented in the form of excerpts from her diary (read by Pike).

Affleck's performance isn't showy, but it's effective. He's playing a guy whose life is spinning out of control. Affleck's Nick does his best to cope and to combat what seems to be a long-standing depression.

Pike confronts a different problem: Amy tends to be more of a sketch than a fully drawn character -- albeit the sketch gets more interesting as the movie progresses.

The supporting cast is first rate. Kim Dickens, familiar from HBO's Treme, does nice work as a detective in the Francis McDormand, Fargo mode, and Patrick Fugit (who starred in Almost Famous as a kid) plays her skeptical sidekick, Officer James Gilpin.

Tyler Perry nails his role as an attorney whose confidence stems from his unquestionable slickness. He specializes in defending accused husbands. Neil Patrick Harris portrays one of Amy's former boyfriends, a preppie type who never gave up his crush on her.

Carrie Coon deserves special mention: She plays Nick's twin sister, a woman who's entirely devoted to him, but who also knows his weak spots.

Fincher (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network, Zodiac and Se7en) is not a breezy director: He moves deliberately, and he may be guilty of letting an hour and half's worth of movie stretch into two hours and 25 minutes.

But in the end, Gone Girl's many twists and turns -- Flynn wrote the screenplay -- carry the day, turning the movie into fun with a trashy tilt.

Beyond that, Fincher lands some nice -- if obvious -- satirical blows to the media solar plexus: In the 24-hour news cycle, commentators often treat crime stories as morality plays that demand constant blameworthy targets.

To be honest, I wasn't sure that Fincher didn't take the material more seriously than is warranted: In some ways, Gone Girl struck me as glorified and bloodier version of some episodic TV shows, and it's probably unwise to generalize about the state of marriage from what see of Nick and Amy.

Still, Gone Girl provides enough mordant humor and intrigue to keep us engaged right up until the movie's provocative and, I suppose, cynical finale. It's a movie for anyone who's ever said the words "I love you" through clenched teeth.

The chaos surrounding Saigon's fall

Director Rory Kennedy goes back in time to recapture a particularly painful moment in the history of American failure, the chaos that followed withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. The movie tells us it was assumed that the North Vietnamese, fearful of a devastating Nixon response, would not invade the South. Watergate took care of that fear, and the North began marching toward Saigon. As the North Vietnamese approached Saigon, South Vietnam went into full panic mode: Many of those who had aided the American war effort sought an escape route. Kennedy (Ethel and Ghosts of Abu Ghraib) masterfully combines newsreel footage and interviews to tell a story full of pain and betrayal. We meet Americans who worked hard to help their Vietnamese associates, many of whom had become friends. Some of these Americans took matters into their own hands, throwing policy aside to do what they thought was morally right. Some of the stories are chastening: Having lost a son in combat in Vietnam, U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin couldn't bring himself to admit that Vietnam had become a lost cause. Kennedy chronicles the last day of evacuations with sequences that are as tense as any you'll find in most thrillers. Kennedy remains true to her story: She never suggests that what happened in Vietnam in any way corresponds to any current situation in which the U.S. finds itself, but it's difficult not to wonder about the fates of Iraq and Afghanistan as you watch this revealing documentary.