LFF 2014: Fury ****


War makes for a powerful cinematic theme. It’s the backdrop for many a personal struggle. End of Watch (2012) writer-director David Ayer’s Fury is no exception. While about the physical horrors of combat, it’s also a sobering coming-of-age drama, told through the eyes of a new tank recruit. It also addresses the psychological effect on the battle-hardened men who have begrudgingly made their Sherman tank their ‘home’.

In fact, that’s exactly how the metal monstrosity feels – a place of both danger and perverse sanctuary. Ayer juxtaposes the confines of the tank’s interior with the outer world that’s equally constraining, set behind enemy lines in Germany. It’s a very different take on WWII than we’re used to seeing.

It’s April 1945, a few months before WWII ends, and as the Allies make their final push into Nazi Germany, a US tank commanded by experienced and hardened army sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt who is also exec producer on the film) is central to securing the route along the way.

Tragically, Wardaddy has recently lost one of his five-man crew, but the Allies need his and his men’s help, so send rookie Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) to join them, totally unprepared for tank life or the immediate horrors of war. Ellison soon learns the hard way, toughening his resolve. The final confrontation sees the crew out-numbered and out-gunned with the enemy marching towards them.

You can really taste the blood, sweat, dirt and primal fear within the tank as Ayer vividly recreates the unimaginably cramp conditions – complete with pans across the interior’s ‘décor’. It’s certainly a unique dimension, but one Ayer is no stranger to with his leads riding around in a patrol car in the 2012 film. He is expert at revealing the interpersonal moments between characters, the camaraderie, before the action kicks in.

In the action stakes, Fury is a triumph. One of the most exhilarating scenes is a tank-to-tank standoff in a field that ramps up the tension to breaking point. In others, Ayer sets out to shock with cold, hard realism – no character is safe, it seems, and it becomes unclear as to whether anyone will be left standing to tell the tale. On the contrary, the resultant ending seems a little incredulous and very Hollywood-stylised ­– probably to win over American audiences, although Team Wardaddy should have heroically done that already without much effort. That said the parting post-battle aerial shot of the fallout mitigates any thoughts of stylisation.

The casting is exemplary. Pitt is his usual charismatic self, though as Wardaddy who has faced many demons, he switches from being deplorable and apathetic to protector and trusted mentor, as he witnesses elements of his former self in the terrified Ellison. So, still the good guy but he has to work at keeping the balance more here.

Lerman (of Percy Jackson fame) has clearly moved on from teen productions, making a significant impression in this serious role. However, the standout performance on the night – possibly career reinvigorating – goes to Transformers’ Shia LaBeouf as the faith-wavering Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan, one of Wardaddy’s loyal team members. LaBeouf redefines himself in this, playing a damaged character clinging to humanity and civility. It’s the most powerful performance of the lot, supported by some excellent turns from Michael Peña (of End of Watch fame) and Jon Bernthal as the rest of the motley tank crew.

Ayer excels at character pieces, and Fury is such, first and foremost. It’s compelling in every sense, a tank western to appeal to all those into final shoot-outs. This is also Pitt, grittier than Lt. Aldo Raine, just pure damaged goods playing out his own kind of rough justice, questionable even as survival tactics. Fury also serves as a stark reminder of the graphic horror of WWII – as Ayer puts us right in the middle of it, when the usual American portrayal of this period is very much romanticised. That’s the big whammy setting it apart from its wartime peers.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2014: ’71 ****


This is Northern Ireland Troubles behind ‘enemy lines’ (from a British military perspective), a powerful cat-and-mouse game that makes ’71 an exhilarating watch from the start. There needed to be a fresh angle, which writer Gregory Burke evokes, making sure that there is enough Belfast streets-located violence to establish and drum home the effects of the sectarian violence, but to also ensure that it’s not an action replay of other films in the same genre.

In fact, the ending could be staged on any sink housing estate, and it’s this sense of ‘reality’ and possible familiarity that really grounds proceedings. In addition, ’71 stars one of the most exciting Brit actors to date, Jack O’Connell, who highly impressed with his angst-ridden portrayal of ironically-named Eric Love in LFF 2013 gritty prison drama Starred Up.

O’Connell plays young soldier Gary Hook, newly posted to Belfast in 1971 to assist the Ulster Constabulary in carrying out searches for IRA activity. He leaves a younger charge behind in the UK (this part of the story is unclear as to their relationship), as he experiences his first day on the streets. Tragedy mixed with lack of military command – accidentally abandoned by his unit – propels disoriented Hook into a dangerous situation, hunted by Sinn Fein while trying to get back to his barracks. A further explosive situation means he is also at danger from those supposedly on his own side.

This nail-nibbling drama has O’Connell’s magic touch to thank for its full impact. The actor seems to ooze violence and pent-up frustration like a ticking time bomb. His character here is no more vulnerable as in the 2013 film, only this time, Hook’s actions are mostly reactionary to his current situation. Amidst the storm there are brief snatches of reflection from Hook as he meets a cocky young boy who tries to help him. The rest of the film is a dangerous chase through open and confined spaces, accompanied by a feeling of hopelessness but propelled forward by the will to survive. It’s infectious as you want Hook to survive at all costs, if not for rendering the former futile if he does not.

Resident nasty Sean Harris stars as Sergeant Leslie Lewis, again proving his physical and acting prowess in such a role that will forever have him typecast but will bring him regular work for decades to come. Like O’Connell, his forte is putting his audience on edge as he has us wondering as to the full extent of his character’s capacity for malice. Lewis is no exception, turning out to be the biggest threat. In a sense, debut feature-film director Yann Demange has the right tools in place to coax out the best – and he does a fine job that is pure tension on tap.

The hard-hitting drama totally captures the surroundings of the decade too, shot in subdued, grainy tone to make it more relevant. However, because of the estate setting, this gives ’71 a surprisingly current, ‘street-wise’ feel, perhaps opening it up to a wider, younger audience who could empathise while make comparisons with life at the height of the Troubles. It’s an interesting take on the genre.

’71 will have you on the edge of your seat throughout. Like its lead character, there is no respite, even when Hook gets wounded. Adding a brilliant score from David Holmes further cements a cracking first feature for Demange and O’Connell’s natural flare for such action-drama parts.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Maze Runner ***


What do you get when you cross Lord of the Flies with Lost? The answer is The Maze Runner, a screen adaptation from the first novel in the trilogy series by James Dashner. It has an appeal for all – the idea of living hand to hand and fending for ourselves in some great dystopian existence, but it’s certainly a ‘first film in the saga’ crafted flick, designed to prick the interest of those not familiar with the books as to what lies behind the maze. Who is in control? With snippet flashbacks and an intriguing ending, it’s guaranteed to get return visits for the sequel, if only to find out what the hell is going on?

Sixteen-year-old Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) wakes up to a crowd of similar-aged boys looking down at him in a cage lift that lands in what’s known as ‘The Glade’, a lush area of land/woodland surrounded by the high rocky walls of a maze. He has no recollection of who he is, and he wants to know why he is here – as does each boy. The answer seems to lie in the maze, but the only people allowed to enter are ‘Runners’ to collect more answers. They must return before the maze closes at dusk and transforms.

This has fantasy, sci-fi and social drama all mixed up into one film. Naturally, the hook is the very same thing that the lead character wants to know: who put him there and why? Unlike Lost that cleverly throws in the odd puzzle to keep us occupied and things ticking along evenly, this is a one-trick pony of ‘finding a way out of the maze’ to find the answer. It means that the mystery dulls at points, where our interest in the living arrangements should pick up.

Indeed, there are some nice performances from some of the leads, including the Brits, with an all-grown-up Thomas Brodie-Sangster of Love Actually fame as the affable, level-headed Newt, and Will Poulter as feisty, paranoid Gally showing his exciting acting talents once more. O’Brien more than ticks the attractive lead box too. The politics in The Glade are interesting enough to carry the film – the idea of breaking down social conditioning to rebuild a simpler existence. However, even though we need to remain more in The Glade to establish the order and the role playing, this does slow the pace down – our interest in danger of waning. Hence those who have not read the books naturally questioning what’s not translating well to film? Are we missing out on key suggestions as to the characters’ psyches?

The action in the maze is fun enough, complete with the Grievers, great spider-like hunters that seem to be the boys’ initial first-line enemy. These Terminator-style entities hold far more clues than first thought. However, before challenging them, what is fascinating is the boys’ varied reaction to their ‘imprisonment’ by them. It’s the ‘fight or flight’ scenario; some are ready to confront them to get to the faceless ‘authority’ behind them in order to bring about freedom and change, and others wish to live in a gilded cage, a captive environment. It’s this predicament that the story explores through the boys’ actions that is far more interesting than action in the maze itself. Though the latter has its moments, it’s been seen and done many times before.

So we will just have to wait and see in Part II. It’s the hope of being rewarded for our patience, and the ending has enough fascination to drive that curiosity until next year with The Scorch Trials. Meanwhile, like the other futuristic utopia, The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner needs to gather more pace in the next installment to make any lasting impression. Though once this first film is seen, it’s a guaranteed money spinner at the box office, ironically with what is essentially, an old hap plot done better in Lost.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Gone Girl ****


Imagine the person you thought you knew best was not that person at all. It’s the perfect screenplay twist to what is essentially wrapped up in a standard missing person’s crime drama. Added to which, this mystery, Gone Girl, is directed by none other than Se7en director David Fincher, a master of the downbeat, edgy and moody cinematic screen. What fans of the 2012 best-selling Gillian Flynn novel of the same name should know is the author and screenwriter has rewritten the book’s ending, supposedly to better ‘fit’ to the whole sordid situation. It makes for uncomfortable but engaging viewing.

After bar owner Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) gets a morning call to say his front door has been left open, he returns home to discover his living room in disarray and his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), has vanished. Nick’s world is then turned upside down as her disappearance is investigated and he becomes the prime suspect amid an intense media circus.

Fincher favours his somber palette throughout, creating a feeling of foreboding before there is anything to feel wary about. We are instantly put in the mindset that the outcome is going to be bleak. The intriguing thing is, there is a mounting suspense within a calm and controlled pace that is brought to fruition by punctuated moments of action. In a sense, it’s contrary to the urgency of finding the missing person. In fact, the ‘momentum’ is actually provided by the growing media frenzy – Dunne himself has a rather non-proactive attitude that seems strange considering his spouse is missing. It’s these contradictions that keep things alert.

Affleck is well cast as Dunne, a tired guy who’s aspirations have long been shattered and the chance of an ‘easier lifestyle’, downsizing to his hometown from NYC, broken as his ghosts come back to haunt. Affleck delivers ‘average, ordinary guy’ easily, one with obvious faults so that we can judge then doubt him but also sympathise.

However, the real surprise delight is Pike. Having read the book, this critic had initial reservations about her in the role; could she convey a satisfactory darker side that the part needed? She has probably delivered one of her finest acting moments, playing with our ingrained perceptions of her capable, likeable personality then taking us down a deeper, darker path as Amy. Being apt at portraying a natural reserve, Pike demonstrates an exciting new niche here for more sinister roles. Her moment of triumph as Amy is actually the very end as we’re still left mesmerized by what could happen next?

In this regard, the new finale should not disappoint fans – it could be argued the novel’s ending was too much of a reveal into Amy’s mental state. This one leaves things more ambiguous and threatening.

Gone Girl makes for a perfect screen adaptation as we doubt and redoubt events and character motives. It’s provocative and suggestive but never as dull as any wait to find a loved one would be in reality. You won’t particularly like anybody in this film at the end of it, but you will sympathise with certain elements of their struggle. With Fincher at the helm, the material gets extra malice injected.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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