Friday, October 24, 2014

Rohan: Tanks for nothing, Fury

(Always happy to welcome our friend Rohan Morbey to the Jaman blog, even if he's less than effusive over Fury, the new WWII movie starring Brad Pitt. But he's letting us cross-post his review, which appears over at his site Closing Credits - do follow him on the Twitters!)

War is hell. War is unforgiving. War is unrelenting. War for a soldier is dirty, grim, and each day could be your last. Movies have showed us this for decades now, even if they barely even scratch the surface of what it might be like in reality. I thank God I’ll never have to experience it; and as a film lover I thank brilliant film makers like Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Francis Ford Coppola, and Ridley Scott for making some truly stunning war movies in the modern era.

David Ayer is not one such recipient of my thanks, and what frustrated me most about his WWII effort Fury is the missed opportunity it represents. Perhaps I had the wrong expectations but I assumed a talent like Brad Pitt, an actor who is so often drawn to quality and challenging material, would attach himself to a war movie which had something new to say. Fury is about five members of a tank crew towards the end of WWII, lead by Pitt, but Ayer spends little time showing the audience the day-to-day life of the men whose figurative home is a Sherman tank, and focuses all his efforts on making a viscerally impressive but emotionally and creatively empty film.

So void is Ayer's screenplay of any drive in story or narrative you could walk into a screening of Fury at any moment and have not missed anything. The film is full of stock characters (tough leader, new and scared recruit, man driven to the edge, token ethnic) and clichés we’ve seen countless times before which render the story dead by the hour mark. More time devoted to these men, their backstory and actually seeing how a tank is a vital part of the war effort, as opposed to just a machine which can shoot large calibre rounds which make for a fantastic sound and explosions, could have made this a unique war movie. There’s a scene where the caterpillar track is detached and the tank stranded; I wanted to see the track getting fixed, or any side of a soldier’s duty when he’s not carrying a gun, but this never comes. Instead the film is just one action scene after another, punctuated with one extended scene in a house (which deserves special mention later) without any real sense of purpose. Why do we care about these men other than the fact that they’re not Nazis? We don’t.

I won’t deny that the film looks terrific in its attention to detail, and the sound design is superb throughout; it’ll make a great demo disc for Blu-ray and home cinema no doubt. Ayer also directs the film with a professionalism not seen in his previous efforts and I didn’t spot a handheld camera (which is a small mercy for anyone who saw Sabotage earlier this year). One standout action scene, in which the US Sherman squares off against a single German Tiger, treats us to the kind of unique battle sequence which Fury, I hoped, would be all about. The tactics, movements, timing and teamwork is all on show with Ayer covering all the angles. I loved it.

The problem is Ayer is a pretty bland director when he’s not being creative, yet he’s intolerable when he is being creative. The finale is a forced, overlong and preposterous sequence where the tank takes on a few hundred German soldiers who only decide to use anti-tank missiles towards the end. Pitt and his crew stage an Alamo-style face off because the film was in need of an ending and for no other reason, and it is here where Fury shows just how confused it is; Nazis are mown down against a backdrop of over-stylized yellow smoke and red flashing lights (it’s hell, I get it) by our American heroes in typical Hollywood movie style, yet the final shot is of the tank and the mass of bodies surrounding it, with the score rising complete with choir voices to give it that heavenly, Godly quality, and Ayer asks his audience; “Isn’t war hell, guys? Just look at all these bodies.” That might have some impact if those same bodies weren’t being used as cannon fodder just minutes before.

The one standout scene, as mentioned above, was one which was so nearly great, so nearly a sign of well observed and subtle commentary on war, men and reality. I won’t spoil it here as it’s the key scene in the film and the one which most people will talk about; but Ayer shows he doesn’t quite have the ear for dialogue and understanding of how and when to change the dynamics of a scene like a Quentin Tarantino, whose style the scene evokes. It simply goes on too long, hammers home its message quite clumsily and is followed immediately by the most predictable of all clichés.

Fury offers precious little we haven't seen before from war movies, and ends up getting lost in the cracks between ‘gritty’ action movies and thoughtful commentary on war. It isn’t good enough as either to be considered one of the greats it so desperately wants to be.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Recommended!: The Lair Of The White Worm (1988)

So that thing where you find out that an actor you really like for his current work turns out to have starred in a movie that you loved back in the day? It happened to us this week when we discovered (uncovered? it was staring us in the face, after all) that Peter Capaldi, whose work we adored in the political comedy In The Loop and now enjoy in the title role on Doctor Who, starred in one of our favorite genre movies from the 80s: the insanely camp, gorgeously creepy, and very funny The Lair Of The White Worm.

Capaldi's charming and (in this admittedly outre context) believable as a Scots archaeologist who unearths the skull of an ancient worm creature while digging on a Derbyshire estate. An early-career Hugh Grant is also fine as the young and pleasantly assholish Lord of the Manor, who joins the battle against a growing coven of acolytes of a religion dedicated to worshipping said creature. But the movie unquestionably belongs to Amanda Donohoe, who plays Lady Sylvia Marsh, the smooth and slinky high priestess of the worm cult who steals the skull for her own depraved rituals. Donohoe is very much the engine that powers this thing, effortlessly able to drop the high-class veneer for an earthier persona. Or a fanged and body-makeupped snake creature!

The Lair Of The White Worm is one of a few low-budget genre pictures director Ken Russell turned out in the 1980s. One suspects that it's a very loose adaptation of Bram Stoker's original story, but so determined is it to be its own thing, a vehicle expressly made for the titillation and freaking out of open-minded cult audiences that its probably-substantial infidelities to the text that spawned it are cheerfully overlooked. There are probably freakier movies you could engage this Halloween but we doubt most of them are as fun or sexy as The Lair Of The White Worm.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Happy Birthday, Bela Lugosi!

It's been interesting reading about Dracula, the play that made the rounds of theatres in the 1920s. It is from this adaptation of Bram Stoker's classic that we receive the popular vision of Dracula as a smooth, urbane supernatural menace.

It seems Stoker had long tried to interest Sir Henry Irving (the famous stage actor that Stoker had long assisted/toadied for) in playing Dracula onstage, only to be continually rebuffed by the actor. After Stoker's death, his widow Florence entered a deal with Deane to allow him to adapt Dracula for the stage. Playing to the conventions of the day, Deane retooled the title character into a suave, exotic foreign presence who could easily mingle with polite society, unleashing his menace from within it. Deane's initial adaptation, though not a critical success, proved extremely popular with audiences from 1924 onward. And thanks to the somewhat exorbitant financial demands of the widow Stoker, the only way Deane could turn a profit from his adaptation was to tour it. Extensively.

For its 1927 Broadway run the play was extensively revised by writer John Balderston (one of many things streamlined out of the Balderston rewrite was, intriguingly a female Quincy Morris). A new actor was sought for the title role, preferably a non-name who would work for cheap. As luck would have it, an experienced Hungarian actor with nothing to lose came up for the role, and though no one could have expected it, this actor, born Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, would come to be a very personification of movie horror.

The rest is history, with Universal's 1931 Dracula drawing heavily on the Broadway production, even enlisting Lugosi for the title role. (The play's Van Helsing, Edward Van Sloan, wasn't far behind.) Bela Lugosi became a horror icon overnight, but, much to his consternation, he became typecast as a horror villain almost as quickly. The disrespect suffered by the horror genre over the years, combined with some severe health problems and addictions, would plague Lugosi to an early grave. But he defined Dracula at a crucial period in film history, and remains fondly remembered by horror fans to this day. And his surprisingly extensive stage career speaks to actor capable of far more than even the iconic roles for which he's best known - wouldn't you LOVE to have seen Lugosi play Jesus?

It is of course the perfect season to reacquaint oneself with Lugosi's work, and we're delighted to call him out on this, his birthday.  Dracula, as we've argued before, is always worth revisiting, and you could even chase it with Son of Frankenstein, one of our favorite Universal horrors, with Lugosi in another villainous but otherwise completely different role. Or see him take on a rare comic role in Ninotchka.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Happy Birthday, Udo Kier!

How do we keep missing this? This iconic occasion keeps going by us (unthinkable, especially as a milestone in the run-up to Halloween), but dammit, we're taking notice this time. Because he's one of our favorite actors, because he's style, grace, and more than a little sexiness on screen, because he's clearly willing to act in anything, anywhere, anytime, we are delighted to say Happy 70th Birthday, Udo Kier!

The man's cult status is assured, given his appearance in a number of A- to Z-grade horror movies. But we've seen him cameo in a number of Hollywood affairs, including Armageddon and the Pamela Anderson vehicle Barb Wire (a movie once described good-naturedly by Kier himself as "high-paid trash"), and he's worked with a diverse slate of some of the finest directors in world cinema, including Paul Morrissey, Dario Argento, Lars von Trier (who must find him something of a muse), Gus Van Sant, Werner Herzog, and Monika Treut. He brings elegance, fearlessness, and a gentle willingness to do whatever crazy shit he's asked to do, from studiously avoiding the gaze of Kirsten Dunst to losing body parts to a gate closed on them.

Frankly we don't think Udo Kier has ever made a terrible movie. Because even a terrible movie with Udo Kier in it...HAS Udo Kier in it. We are so delighted that he's still making movies, still embraced by so many collaborators. Udo Kier is acting royalty, as far as we're concerned. Long May He Reign.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Recommended!: Key Largo (1948)

In the wake of the lamented passing of screen goddess Lauren Bacall earlier this year, a number of retrospectives in rep theatres across the country have resurrected her classic movies. We had a chance to revisit Key Largo, John Huston's 1948 drama (and Bacall's fourth and final film with co-star/husband Humphrey Bogart) and were delighted with how well it holds up, and how engrossing it remains.

Bogart is Frank McCloud, a former Army officer who heads to Key Largo to visit a hotel run by the family of a close friend killed during WWII. But McCloud finds himself right in the middle of a powderkeg, as gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his gang are the sole guests of the place, awaiting a crucial rendez-vous. And there's a powerful storm coming in, sending tensions to fever pitch even as Frank finds himself curiously attracted to Nora, his dead comrade's widow.

Liberally adapting Maxwell Anderson's play, Huston mines powerful suspense in the story's single setting, and the dialogue builds tension effectively as the storm escalates outside the hotel. The cast is uniformly strong; Claire Trevor, as an alcoholic moll who can't seem to escape Rocco's clutches, earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role. But the Bogart-Bacall chemistry lingers in the mind. Though their characters' attraction isn't a straight-up romance, the tension of their attraction is conveyed without a word. Watching Nora and Frank wordlessly tie off a boat in a nearby harbor there's much that isn't spoken - the weirdness of Frank literally taking his dead friend's place on the boat, the wrongness of the attraction that Frank and Nora feel even as they're feeling it. It's a deftly navigated love scene, all the more powerful for letting its emotions be felt, rather than explained.

In this and so many other ways it may be the kind of movie they simply don't make anymore, but happily you can still watch it. You should.

Blog archive