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SXSW ’17 Review: ‘BABY DRIVER’

It’s been a hot minute since Edgar Wright has graced us with his genius. The man responsible for such perfect fare as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Wright has long been a pioneer of the Trojan horse comedy, trafficking highbrow laughs in with genre trappings. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Wright is known for his masterful command of visual language, finding laugh-out loud moments in sharp editing, frame composition, camera operation and a great ear for music that amplifies the deadpan, pun-happy, tongue-in-cheek writing gushing from the page. As the mainstream moves more and more toward studio comedies disemboweled by flat visual palettes that fail to embolden jokes with any discernible directorial decisions, Wright has further articulated and championed his particular filmmaking flavour and the world of cinephiles has been the more fortunate for it. Which takes us to Baby Driver. Read More

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Out in Theaters: FURY

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You don’t have to consult Fury to know that brutality is an inherent vice in us humans. What started as an instinctual necessity built into our animal genetic programming – case and point, you never see a polar bear grant mercy to its victims – brutality has become a defunct and dangerous emotional appendage for humankind. Modern normative behavior tends towards passivity. The act of civilizing quells our need to destroy. As functionless as those pesky wisdom teeth and as potentially explosive as your appendix, the tendency towards violence is all but forbidden in 2014. Like planes into a building, fury is civilization’s undoing. In shaping the way of the modern world though, it was what separated the conquerors from the conquered. The writers of history from the victims of it. In a bit of “well duh” war wisdom, Brad Pitt‘s Wardaddy tells us, “Ideals are peaceful but history is violent.” This only scratches the surface. In the 236 years that America has been a nation, it’s been at war for 214 of them. That’s almost 90%. If our history were a soup, the stock would be so overpoweringly bloody any rational person would tuck their tail and go vegan. Brutality, it would seem, is all encompassing.

In Fury, David Ayer addresses the art of war with iron-knuckle tact and unrestrained brutality. He takes on wartime mentality and masculinity with an iron stranglehold, questioning what place brutality has in our lives. He delivers his answers like a punch in the face. Followed by a punch in the gut. If you’re not on the edge of your seat, you must be broken. Written and directed by Ayer (End of Watch), Fury is a rare he-man weepy; an unrelenting emotional powerhouse that’s part perfectly-paced marathon of mud-soaked barbarity and part meditation on the dopey writs of men of war. A scene where Pitt’s brusquely named commander forces a new recruit to execute a POW is Ayer’s visceral response to the cold chill of war. The devil is in the details, stopping a war is trumped up janitorial work. Clean up on aisle Berlin. Ayer’s aisle is the final Allied push in Germany as WWII runs to a close. The crew, a ragtag assemblage crammed in a junky USA Sherman tank.

Outmatched by the far superior German Tigers, the Shermans were a patchwork of scrap metal and bolts; a power keg waiting to be lit. Inside, our half-witted heroes bond. Their company the only solace afforded in war. And from LaBeouf to Bernthal, the ensemble is simply stunning. Each performance literally floored me. Floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee, the many top tier performances of Fury will beat you down and bruise your soul.

The film is devised of three well-articulated acts, each circling the inevitable inner transformation of newcomer Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) as he settles into his new life as a unwilling tank gunner. At first, Norman refuses to fight. He pussies out and almost gets his crew killed. He’s the laughingstock of half of Nazi Germany and a liability as dangerous as Mecha-Hitler and his legion of flying SS officers. Even benevolence cannot go unchecked, Fury suggests. Morality can only exist in a vacuum. Some men just deserve a bullet. Even if they’re on their knees. Crewman Grady Travis, for one, adheres to this callous sentiment.

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As the venereal Travis, Jon Bernthal is a rabid Lenny. He’s brutish and wild-eyed; a heavily armed savage dullard. Thick-skulled but just sentient enough to register as a legitimate threat, he slobbers like a beast foaming at the mouth. His guffaws are filled with malice and yet he’s willing to die for his brothers. In the confines of society, he’d be a menace. Here in the theater of war, he, like the rest of the crew, are tight on Wardaddy’s leash. Bernthal’s is a revolutionary performance in a film filled with them and as the least household-friendly of the bunch, his should be a name Fury launches into more pronounced roles.

Bible-thumper Boyd Swan, played by an overly committed but nonetheless revelatory Shia LeBeouf, is just as vivid and colorful. An uncommonly complex character, Boyd is one given equally over to the word of God and the spoils of war. He’s the kind of guy who will engage in depravity, almost as if a hostage to his own body, but weep through doing it. Tragedy reigns surpreme. But Boyd is such a compelling character because he can stand there and dish Bible verses while sharpening a knife or reloading tank armaments. He’s an inherently disjointed man. As a result, he’s a perfect representation of our incoherent national values.

David Ayer had the crew fistfight on set every day in order to create a sense of camaraderie amongst them. Maybe that’s what spurred Pitt, now famously, to comment that LaBeouf was one of the best actors he’s worked with. Overstatement? Sure. Is this his best stuff yet? Absolutely.

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Though Norman is the beating heart of the troop, I think I fell for “Bible” Boyd most and that’s a testament to LeBeouf’s spirited performance. And yet still, I couldn’t stop thinking about those self-inflicted facial wounds. The thirst for self-destruction is strong with this one. His recent arrest saga (and rich telling of the story on Jimmy Kimmel) should prove that the fury of man lives on in him.

But society loves a louse. Nowadays, those brutal tendency that once kept us alive and outside the tangle of some saber-tooted creature or other is nothing more than a modern flaw. Kids are sent packing to therapy if they display aggressive behavior. Students are expelled for schoolyard brawling. Young girls are (finally) embarrassed of their Justin Bieber tattoos now that he’s a known scoundrel. Resolving any form of conflict through fisticuffs – be it at a bar or with Orlando Bloom on the streets of Ibeza – is entirely unacceptable and antisocial behavior. It’s a mark of the misanthropic. Were Bernthal’s “Coon-Ass” Travis outside the combat zone, he’d probably be padlocked in some jail. Violence is to be caged until it’s forcibly unleashed. Then what?

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Lerman’s Norman is a child of coddling; the anti-soldier. A learned youth. A wannabe pacifist. His moral integrity is respectable anywhere but on the battlefield. And yet here it’s as useful as a pin-less grenade on your belt. On a global scale, physical force is the only way conflicts are ultimately resolved. History (sadly) suggests there is no alternative. The self-propelling force of violence cannot be quelled. Fury requires force and force requires fury.

Hitler required more than a stern talking to. Mussolini needed that noose like Michael Fassbender needs an Oscar. The time for spanking Kony has come and gone. In schools, we punish the bullies. In war, they’re awarded metals of honor. In politics, they move their way to the top. The dichotomy of war and peace, of good and evil, becomes foggy in the midst of mayhem. Good and bad lose meaning. There’s victory or there’s defeat. Mussolini’s ragged body was displayed for the world to see. Even the pacificts cheered. Men abandon their Christian names in favor of war names like snakes shedding their skin. Only on the front line is Wardaddy an agreeable, if not entirely complimentary, moniker.

Less a southern drawl, Pitt steps into the similarly-sized Nazi-hating shoes that Aldo Raine once occupied and though less pulpy and chewy, Wardaddy is a character with three dimensions. He commands his platoon with the unrequited cool of a Mohawk. Each of his subordinates refuse to fight for anyone but him and we believe we know why. His battered war scars go unexplained. His search for goodness goes unrewarded. He is the crossroads of peace and war.

Just as his ragged band of brothers refuse to quit on “the best job they ever had”, Ayer refuses to speak with a whimper. Loose flaps of facial features debunk Spielbergian romanticization of the past. Tank-flattened bodies take it a step further, screaming out just how menacing (and nonchalant about its menacing) antiquity truly is. It’s so far worse than buck up or die. You have to shrug too.

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Half-way through, Ayer taunts us with a flicker of normality. Wardaddy and Norman play house with a pair of defeated German vixens. The holed up frauleins shutter at what Dennis Reynolds would refer to as “the implications.” But as Wardaddy disrobes from his camos, he becomes Don Collier. Humanity hides behind a uniform. Uniformity hides our humanity. Sans his battle wear, Don Collier is just another man in desperate search of normalcy. But entropy rules all and unless you’re Sergeant Keck blowing off your butt, you can’t contain a bomb in war. While War Horse neighed it’s way to an Oscar nom, Ayer presents War Whores before blowing it all up. Our orchestrated response is the difference between sentimentality and sin mentality. Only when every last sacred thing is destroyed do we fully become monsters.

To boil Ayer’s masterful Fury down to “war is hell” is to ricochet off the mark. To call it a movie without subtext is to poke holes in a block of swiss. The themes stare you in the face, they thump into your cranium and they sick in your soul. They bear witness to wartime masculinity pig-piling on itself in a nasty, self-fulfilling prophecy that causes and perpetuates war. The rally speeches become just as dangerous as the nuclear weapons. The hoorahs build into their own Manhattan Projects. It’s only when people are faced with making a humane decision out from under the proverbial spotlight that they can choose to not necessarily be the monsters that they pretend to be. A final moment circles this truth and provides a poignant and biting truth. Hope exists.

With Steven Price‘s smoky, chanting, eerie and entirely unsentimental score ripping through, we see but a faint gasp of humanity under the malevolence of battle. The largest blow back of war is not the death of humans, Ayer reiterates, but of humanity. With Roman Vasyanov elevated cinematography, Ayer shines a light into the maw of hell and but doesn’t necessarily report back what he sees. Maybe it takes silence to overcome the cycle. Because if violence begets violence, world politics is on an infinite domino track. The next 236 years of America will likely be uninterrupted wartime. The continuum is a Rube Goldberg of death and destruction that always circles back in the end. Fury rules all. The bullies in life may find themselves suspended but they’ll likely end up policing the world.

Fury harnesses the spirit of war, of unchecked testosterone, of sacrifice and mayhem, wads it up into a spitball and blows it in the face of the politicians, the warmongers and the jingoistic, all of whom, ironically enough, will probably love this film. Though my thoughts on it are yet to be fully fully formed, it’s a film that I absolutely loved every second of. I’m still working through some of the thematic elements that many others have hurriedly pushed off to the side. One thing is certain: Fury houses the best ensemble cast 2014 has yet seen. Each blew me away in one form of another. If my thoughts seem scattered, it’s because they was forged in an emotional whirlwind. Even five days later, I’m still spinning.

A+

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