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"Fury" is a conventional Hollywood action movie that wants to be a serious World War II drama, but it never quite reaches that level of importance. The technical presentation is alive and visceral, with piercing sound and imagery that place us directly in middle of the battles; while dramatically, the film contains strong performances, a fair amount of tension, and some quiet, patient scenes that trigger a deeper reflection of war and its consequences, both from an individual and historical perspective.
But for any big-budget Hollywood enterprise--not just those from the action genre--such qualities should be standard. It's up to the actual story to take things further and unfortunately writer-director David Ayer falls back on traditional narrative devices and character arcs to keep things moving, and these prove to be less exciting and resonating than he probably thought.
Brad Pitt plays Sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier, who heads a tank unit in the closing years of the war in Europe. He tells a younger solider he started out killing Germans in Africa and now he's killing Germans in Germany. For this war to end, he says, more people will have to die. He's right, and as rough and grotesque as Collier may seem, he genuinely cares about his mission and the men he leads, even though he warns them not to get too close to their fellow comrades because there's no guarantee any of them will survive.
It is April 1945, and as Collier's unit moves deeper into Germany, his squadron is depleting. When the story opens, he's just lost his assistant driver, whose decapitated body sits among Collier and his men in their bloodstained Sherman tank. Of course, each member of the group has his own distinct personality and nickname that make it easy for us to tell them apart.
There's Boyd "Bible" Swan (Shia LaBeouf), the tank's canon shooter who's also a devout Christian. When other soldiers are on the brink of death, he holds their hand and tells them, "Wait for Jesus." Trini "Gordo" Garcia (Michael Peña) is the primary driver and token Latino. He wonders why he shouldn't be allowed to speak Spanish if Collier is allowed to speak German, to which Collier responds with a practical answer. Finally, there's Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis (Jon Bernthal), a mechanic from Georgia who possesses all the typical Southern and hillbilly characteristics.
When they return to base camp, the army's lieutenant appoints the baby-faced Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) to be Collier's new assistant driver. Scared and inexperienced, Norman isn't shy about telling the others, "I've never even seen the inside of a tank. I'm a clerk typist." Norman is also expectedly naïve when it comes to combat and a moralist when it comes to killing the enemy. "It isn't right," he says, and at the beginning of the film, gentle Norman wouldn't hurt a fly, but in just a matter of days, he not only becomes an accurate shot but also starts screaming F-bombs at the Nazis. His transformation from virgin soldier to full-fledged killer was a bit too quick and sudden to be fully believable.
The film is more or less a series of scenes that show Collier and his unit moving from one German town to the next until the SS is completely wiped out. When they're not in battle, they're preparing for the next one, and these quieter moments allow the film to pause its brutality and reveal the human side of its characters, which we appreciate. An extended sequence finds Collier playing matchmaker to Norman and a hiding German girl (Alicia von Rittberg). "If you don't take her into that room, I will." Later on, the others interrupt and recollect a disturbing incident they experienced during their service. It's a powerful moment but I honestly wasn't sure what to take away from it.
And that feeling really goes for the entire movie, because as thoughtful as the movie wants to be, it becomes clear the plot will simply boil down to a typical action-movie climax in which these five Americans face off against an entire German battalion. Ayer employs all the usual methods, like the heroes being able to kill numerous enemy soldiers in a single blow while the Germans barely nick the good guys, who must either die sensationally or martyr themselves.
So what, then, is "Fury" good for other than showcasing savage violence and occasionally commenting on the chaos of war? Better films have already suggested just how bleak, miserable and terrible war can be, and while this one starts out this way, it gradually sensationalizes the violence to the point where it seems we're supposed to cheer when enemy soldiers die. Some shots come across like a video game as men's heads are blasted off or entire bodies are crushed by the tank's tracks. I've no doubt such devastation occurred during World War II and other conflicts, but here it seemed the movie was merely trying to stir us up with imagery in order to compensate for a lack of a concrete narrative or well thought-out message. What is the message, exactly? I walked away from "Fury" uncertain and I wasn't convinced war played out as narratively clean and action-oriented as it does here.
In this day and age, when a movie claims to be "based on a true story," we take it with a grain of salt because, as far as we can tell, the facts have been compromised for the sake of entertainment. But true stories still have value because we hope they keep the filmmakers in check to favor accuracy over Hollywood conventionalism. Had Ayer found a true account of a mission like this, one that more closely represents the tumultuous and unpredictable nature of war, we might have viewed it as a legitimate war drama rather than an action movie that happens to take place during a war.
"The Judge" is a long, laborious drama that will probably only appeal to those unfamiliar with dramas. Which is to say, not many. It's laden with so many conventions and clichés that I can't imagine it'll fool anyone into thinking it actually has anything original or genuine worth getting behind. And even though it's obvious where the story is going well ahead of time, we're still partially amazed by its nerve to go there. This is the type of film that has us asking, "Seriously?"
The problem lies mostly with the screenplay, which has its characters jumping through so many contrived narrative hoops that one of them probably should have asked, "Doesn't it feel like we're in a Hollywood screenplay?" At least then we'd know the filmmakers were hip to their own devices and it might have made the plot and dramaturgy feel less forced. But it seems writers Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, working from a story by Schenk and director David Dobkin, we're only interested in telling a straight story. The result, unfortunately, is a slow, tedious and ultimately silly experience that would have been better suited as a TV movie-of-the-week instead of a big budget Hollywood enterprise.
As a Hollywood enterprise, though, the production values and cast are all top-notch, which makes us wish even more they were utilized for superior material. Robert Downey Jr. plays Hank Palmer, a slick and merciless defense lawyer who makes it clear in the opening scenes that he knows the law inside and out-that it's just a game won by those who play it best. He defends and wins cases for those who should probably be in jail, but this doesn't necessarily make him a bad guy; he's just good at his job. If only he was as good at being a husband and father, maybe then he wouldn't be in the middle of a divorce and custody battle over his seven-year-old daughter (Emma Tremblay).
But Hank has other familial problems to sort out. During his latest case, he receives a phone call that his mother passed away and now this high-profile, hotshot attorney must fly from Chicago to Carlinville, a small town in Indiana that's about as stereotypically small-town as you can get, with its leafy streets, waving flags, fishing lake and single diner overlooking a raging river. It's one of the film's many ploys to shape our point of view-in this case to make us think city life has made Hank cynical and jaded and that he should rediscover his roots and values from rural America.
Upon arriving, Hank greets his younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) and older brother Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio). Dale still lives at home and is a bit on the slow side, although he manages to capture just about everything important with his 16mm film camera, which makes it very convenient for us to see images of Hank's past, nearly perfectly edited. Glen is married with two kids and we learn he once had a promising career in baseball before a car accident ruined his chances. Later we find out Hank was the one driving.
This latter incident, among others, drove a wedge between Hank and his cantankerous and seemingly bullheaded father (Robert Duvall), a judge and the title character whom Hank calls "Judge" instead of Dad. They have a rocky relationship to say the least, characterized by anger, grief and resentment. Given all this, Hanks's visit home would have preferably been short and sweet, but the story adds another layer when Hank discovers the Judge's prized Cadillac is damaged and stained with blood. The police also have a dead body, which belongs to a convict sentenced by the Judge years ago, and whose blood matches the stains on the car. Suddenly, the question becomes whether or not the Judge deliberately killed this man.
It doesn't take someone with a law degree to figure out where all this is headed: Hank must put aside his own issues and defend the Judge in court. And yet, the movie still goes through a gratuitous and offensive sequence to make us think otherwise. At first, the Judge hires an inept, fledgling lawyer (Dax Shepard) to represent him, but this is just a poor attempt at humor (the said lawyer sells antiques on the side) and a means to underline Hank's skills.
Once the trial gets underway, it predictably serves as a catalyst to deconstruct Hank and his father's past, accompanied by all the usual fights, conflicts and reconciliations we expect from the genre. We even get scenes with Hank's old girlfriend, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), and her sexy daughter (Leighton Meester), who show up just when the plot requires them, not to mention the evil prosecuting attorney played by Billy Bob Thornton, who's so clean-cut and finely groomed he looks like a caricature of southern plantation owner. To give you a sense of the movie's lack of subtlety, it underscores the prosecutor's wickedness and determination by showing him bring his own water cup into court. When he takes it out of his briefcase, it sounds like a knife coming out of a sheath.
One can't claim "The Judge" doesn't give itself plenty of characters and situations to work with, and if it was a more ambitious story, we might have wondered how it was going to see all of them through. But as it progresses, we realize the way it's going to accomplish this by settling for trite plot developments that require little imagination, along with patronizing tugs on our heartstrings like giving the Judge a terminal illness. By the time we learn this, though, we pretty much know where the story will end up and the emotional buttons it will continue to push as it makes its way there. As a result, we can't take it seriously, which sort of defeats the purpose of a drama in the first place.
"The Equalizer" probably would have been a better movie had it told us more about who the title character is rather than show us what he does. We know going in, just as the story suggests early on, that Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) has a complicated past, one that he's not particularly proud of. Nowadays, he's an austere yet gentle man who rises early, clocks in and out of his job at a Home Depot-like store, and waits until dark to go to a small, unassuming diner in Boston, where he brings his own tea bag, methodically arranges the silverware, and then quietly reads a book off the "100 Books Everyone Should Read" list, all by himself. This is Robert's day. It's just like the one before and no doubt the one after. Only later do we learn his routine is his way of keeping himself in check.
But then a wrench enters the mix in the form of an adolescent call girl who goes by the name of Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz). She's Russian and works against her will for the sleazy Slavi (David Meunier), a pimp whose organization has ties to the Russian mafia. Robert befriends Teri at the diner and when he sees she's suffering from both emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her employer, he tries to buy her freedom. After Slavi and his goons decline his offer, we see what Robert can really do, which is to utilize everything around him to kill with absolute precision and without mercy. He's so obsessed with accuracy and perfection, he event times himself.
Before long, Robert is in an all-out war with the Russian mafia, as well as a group of dirty Boston cops. Leading the fight for the Russians is the equally ruthless Teddy (Marton Csokas), "a sociopath with a business card" who's been sent by the big cheese to see that Robert gets what's coming to him.
This is the basic setup for "The Equalizer," and for its first half, it's a patient, interesting and surprisingly restrained film. Richard Wenk's screenplay, based on the 1980s television series, begins as a character study and although we know there will be the inevitable scenes of gritty violence and sensationalism, we were hoping these wouldn't completely take over, or if they did, they'd at least be credible.
Like Robert, though, the movie loses its balance. Just when it has all its ducks in order, it devolves from character-driven thriller to adequate police procedural to silly action extravaganza, eventually leading toward an over-stylized, even laughable climax in the hardware store. The ending comes across as sort of the R-rated version of "Home Alone," in which Robert uses every prop in sight to set booby traps and take out the Russians one-by-one, who at this point have become stock movie pawns whose only function is to shoot at (but never hit) the hero just so that he can kill them by craftier means. This entire sequence is so frivolous that it wouldn't have surprised me to hear Robert say with an Arnold Schwarzenegger-like accent, "You have been equalized."
It's a shame, too, since the first half is so promising. Granted, there have long been "killers who come out of retirement" movies, ("Unforgiven," "A History of Violence," "RED"), so the premise isn't exactly groundbreaking, but Denzel Washington is an actor with a presence and charm that make him immediately watchable. Even though he's treading on familiar territory, he makes it his own, and so it feels fresh. We want learn more about Robert's past and the promise he made to his dead wife that he would never go back to his destructive ways.
We figure we might get more when Robert visits the Plummers (Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo), his friends and former colleagues who hold some sort of position with the government. After meeting them, we assume Robert used to work for the CIA or some other intelligence agency, but such details are never revealed. In any case, the Plummers exists just expose plot information about the bad guys and Pullman and Leo's screen time is unfortunately cut short.
Another potential moment comes along in the movie's best scene, when Robert sits down with Teddy and tells him an important story. Washington and Csokas' chemistry is quite good here and we're hopeful the screenplay might develop Teddy beyond the standard villain characteristics and show that he's a human with a past.
But the movie ultimately abandons its substance and settles on being a routine, over-the-top vigilante picture that uses too many of the same old devices to get to the foregone conclusion, which, even in this day and age, is so preposterous that it's boring.
I have a feeling "The Equalizer" began as a grounded and character-oriented story before being retooled as a full-fledged action picture. Studio executive probably figured this latter approach would make it more sell-able. Director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") is a competent filmmaker and he convinces us that he and his crew can harness their resources effectively, be them the actors or high production values. We know this because "The Equalizer" starts out as something we feel we can really get into, but it eventually spins out of control and we end up seeing it merely as a wasted opportunity.
The trailer for "Gone Girl", and indeed the first half of the movie itself, makes it seem like a traditional crime thriller. Husband reports his wife missing; detectives investigate; suspicions arise; the press formulates its own theories; the local community, let alone the entire nation, becomes obsessed not so much with the truth but with the ensuing drama and gossip. You know the drill. The movie sets itself up as a standard whodunit, with the question of whether or not the husband had anything to do with his wife's disappearance driving the narrative.
Thrillers like the one I've just described often work effortlessly as entertainment because we're naturally curious about their outcomes and we're compelled to keep watching just to see how they end, even though it's usually easy to guess. But interestingly enough, "Gone Girl," based on the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn, isn't wholly like the thriller I've just described. It's fresher and more audacious. It'll probably leave many viewers thinking it's too bizarre, outlandish and unbelievable for its own good, or at least to be taken seriously, but I think this will just be an initial gut reaction simply because it doesn't play out the way we expect. Over time, I think most viewers will come around and appreciate its boldness.
Like any thriller plot, "Gone Girl" begins on a seemingly normal day. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) takes the trash out to the curb, grabs a coffee and paper, and heads to his place of business, a bar he co-owns and where his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), tends. They're in the middle of playing a board game when Nick, who's currently out of work, gets a phone call from his neighbor, who tells him his cat has gotten out and the front door is open. Nick rushes home and expects to find his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), who's also unemployed, in the middle of her own daily routine. But Amy is nowhere to be found and their glass coffee table is tipped over and shattered.
Nick calls the police and Detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Officer Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) show up. Rhonda starts asking questions and leaves Post-it notes around the alleged crime scene. They open a formal missing persons investigation and within a day, Amy's parents (David Clennon and Lisa Banes) set up a search party headquarters, a telephone hotline and a website, beseeching the community to help them find their daughter. The police also schedule a press conference for Nick to make a statement, although he doesn't seem to be all that worried or distraught over the recent events.
From here on out, the film goes back and forth between the past and present, showing us, among other things, when Nick and Amy first met in New York City seven years ago. Both were successful magazine writers and we learn Amy already came from a wealthy family (she was the inspiration for her mom's successful children's book series, "Amazing Amy," which is something Amy ultimately resents). But when the 2008 recession hit, Nick and Amy both lost their jobs and her parents had to borrow from her trust fund. On top of that, Nick's mother fell ill, which prompted the couple to leave New York and move back to Nick's hometown of North Carthage, Missouri. Granted, they're now living in an impressive home in an otherwise modest neighborhood, but they're struggling financially and Amy's diary passages suggest their marriage went from loving to abusive. We're led to believe Nick isn't telling the police everything.
That's about as much as I can reveal about the plot without giving away crucial surprises and developments, which are key to the movie engaging us. I haven't read Flynn's novel, but her screenplay functions like a page-turner. It's erotic, suspenseful, sometimes funny, and borders on being a trashy soap opera, aided by additional characters played by Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris. Nevertheless, it's effective and tantalizing and we almost feel like it's wrong to enjoy it.
At times, it may seem like "Gone Girl" is jerking us around with all its twists and misdirection, but again, the only reason we might feel this way is because we're too used to thrillers operating in terms of pre-defined rules, the kind that stipulate things are "supposed" to be a certain way. But director David Fincher has never been one to follow the rules. He makes genre films, but he merely uses the genre as a platform to be cunning and the results often feel like a small cinematic breakthrough ("Fight Club," "Zodiac," "The Social Network"). Fincher makes a habit of turning conventions upside down, and not necessarily for upside down's sake, but because he knows we've reached a point in cinema, particularly thrillers, where conventions need to be shaken up to keep things moving.
That's what "Gone Girl" does-it shakes us up. And even though it's sometimes absurd, it's very well made and calculating, not to mention enormously entertaining. If most thrillers hold our attention because we take comfort in the fact we know where they're ultimately going, "Gone Girl" thrills us because we don't.
"This is Where I Leave" is another one of those dysfunctional family comedy-dramas that never quite works as a comedy or as a drama. Like the people in it, the movie is at odds with itself and doesn't really know what it wants to be. It plays a constant tug-of-war between "silly & outrageous" and "genuine & insightful." Such a quality of uncertainty is fine when it comes to characters (in fact, this tends to make them more human and interesting), but when it describes the movie itself, it often spells trouble. To be sure, there are moments in "This is Where I Leave You" that are funny and dramatic, but these get lost in the shuffle of too many others that simply try and fail.
Like many movies of this sort, the event that unites the family is a death, and in this case, it's the father, who's passed away after a long illness. Although Mr. Altman was Jewish on paper, his beliefs were atheist, which is why it's so strange that his dying wish be for his wife and four adult children to sit Shiva. This Jewish ritual, I've come to learn, is a weeklong mourning period when the deceased's immediate family members gather in one room, sit on short chairs (to be closer to the earth), and receive visitors.
Of course, such a custom proves difficult for the Altmans, not least because the siblings "don't like each other." But then, it would probably be hard for any family-loving or not loving, Jewish or not Jewish-to sit in a confined space for a week without cooking up fresh conflicts, opening up old wounds and speaking harsh words.
It's especially trying for the Altmans though, since the patriarch's death, like any death I suppose, has come at a most inopportune time. Each of the characters in Jonathan Tropper's screenplay, based on his novel, is already facing his or her own crisis; this just adds fuel to the fire.
The middle son, Judd (Jason Bateman), recently walked in on his wife (Abigail Spencer) and boss (Dax Shepard) having sex and suddenly finds himself at the beginning of a divorce. Wendy (Tina Fey), the only daughter, is a mother of two and stuck in a loveless marriage of her own with Barry (Aaron Lazar), although she still has feelings for Horry (Timothy Olyphant), a former boyfriend who permanently lives at home after suffering brain damage from a car accident. Paul (Corey Stoll) is the eldest brother and feels frustrated and inadequate because he can't get his wife (Kathryn Hahn) pregnant. Then there's Phillip (Adam Driver), the youngest of the bunch, who never seems to get his life in order or take responsibility for his actions. He's a kid at heart and compensates for his insecurities by driving a Porsche and dating his much older (and richer) therapist (Connie Britton), although he's hardly loyal to her.
In spite of everything going on in their lives, their mother (Jane Fonda) insists they stay and fulfill their father's wish and staunchly says, "For the next seven days, you're all my kids again, and you're grounded." And so the movie gathers everybody up and lets the familial criticizing, insulting and verbal and physical abuse begin. During this window, there's also some heart-to-hearts; forgiveness and acceptance; a potential new romance courtesy of Penny Moore (Rose Byrne), the local girl who never left; and various other affairs and revelations.
All of this is fairly standard stuff and indeed one of the movie's underlying problems is that it never bothers to venture beyond where other movies and TV shows with similar plots have already gone. In fact, the similarities between "This is Where I Leave You" and, say, "The Family Stone," "Death at a Funeral" or "Arrested Development" seem almost deliberate. Jason Bateman, as capable and likable an actor as he is, more or less plays the same part here that he did in the latter series. He's sort of become the go-to actor for the "straight man in a family of crazies" role.
So the movie is devoid of any real surprises, but that's not to say it couldn't have still been worth our while. Some scenes work, like when the three Altman brothers gather in temple and make sure their Dad's leftover "medicine" doesn't go to waste, or when Judd attempts to maneuver the foldout sofa in the basement. The reason these scenes work is because they ring of truth and remind us of our own quirky families and homes.
But unfortunately these scenes are surrounded by others that are too unbelievable for their own good-ones that try to turn the movie into a raunchy or slapstick comedy. I could have done without the constant (and mostly lame) jokes about Mrs. Altman's breast implants; or a sex scene that's broadcast over a baby monitor; or a fight in a hospital waiting room; or a discussion about one of the boys playing with his genitals as a kid. It's these types of moments that made the movie seem desperate and diffident, and even though I think it's possible for a comedy to be both silly and genuine, director Shawn Levy's approach isn't successful. In its attempt to be two different types of movies, "This is Where I Leave" ends up as a lesser version of each, and that leaves us with little to take away from it.