Adam McKay capped off his 2010 absurdist comedy starring Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell with an out-of-field infographic featuring the numerics on Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi Scheme, bailout statistics and insulting ratios between executive and average employee compensation. A strangely politicized move at the time, especially considering chasing the heels of a movie where ho bos band together to have coitus in a Prius, but one that makes sense in the context of McKay’s star-studded passion project The Big Short. Read More
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
“12 Years a Slave”
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Quvenzhane Wallis, Sarah Paulson
Biography, Drama, History
12 Years a Slave opens somewhere around a decade into Solomon Northup’s enslavement. He’s mushing blackberries to a paste, attempting to write a letter home using a whittled mulberry stick. Scribbling like a fugitive to the crackle of candlelight, this is the first time he’s put pen to paper in years, and must do so under the cover of night. For all the horrors he’s suffered and witnessed, the most impossible task is keeping his true identity, and intelligence, under wraps. For a learned slave is a troubling slave and a troubling slave is a marked man – a truth he’s seen manifested many times before.
More than a decade gone for something as simple as not being allowed to produce his “free papers,” Solomon’s journey draws empathy from the audience like water from a well. More than just a story of the horrors of slavery, this is the story of a man who knew a better life – he abided the law, owned a house, had a family, and was a respected part of his Saratoga, New York community – and yet, down in the bowels of the hellish South, was stripped of his humanity like tattered clothes from his back.
Director Steve McQueen is a particular type of dark visionary. Employing patience and human degradation as a litmus test of how much we can emotionally bear, McQueen peels back all the curtains of our collective American history, revealing the inky black turmoil stirring in the human soul. But torture is no new game for McQueen.
In his first film, Hunger, McQueen explored a prison-bound hunger strike but his craft was not yet refined, too raw, cold, and indulgent to raise the welt he was hoping for. In Shame, he arm wrestled sex addiction out of romanticized glamor and into a pit of emptiness and human despair. Although fantastic acting and gruesome body horror prevailed, it continued the same dour tendencies that make his films so hard to sit through. In his third go around, he’s perfected his art, making a film that’s both impossible to watch and impossible to look away from.
However difficult 12 Years a Slave may be to watch, it’s absolutely necessary watching. It’s long been positioned that it’s our American duty to process, or at least understand, slavery. As a means to sift the political hand of slavery from those participating in it, McQueen demands you to think long and hard about what you would do in a similar situation. Even the good men in this film, such as Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Ford are stained by the cultural pollution manifest in slavery. It may just be impossible to be a moral man in a land drained of morality, McQueen’s film says.
As Solomon adopts his new name and role as Platt, he holds onto hope – however tucked away in a dark corner it must remain; hope that someday he’ll be reunited with his family, hope that one day he’ll meet a white man who wants more for his than a closed mouth and fast working hands, hope for freedom. In a Kafkaesque metamorphosis, Solomon becomes Platt, his days transformed from living to surviving.
Despite the barbarity of Solomon’s unlawful enslavement, the mentality intact in the age is a scourge most difficult to stomach. Packaged in caravans like sardines, sold stripped nude, and man handled at every turn, there is little to distinguish slaves from live stock.
Chiwetel Ejiofor leads a sensational cast that brings Solomon’s true story to the screen with deadly seriousness. As our guardian through this hellish descent, Ejiofor is stunning from start to finish. His decision to play Solomon as a stone gradually pared by the tide of slavery rather than a thistle bending at the first breeze will cement an Oscar nomination. His final heart-rending scene will secure the win. Michael Fassbender is similarly committed to his role as devilish plantation fiend Edwin Epps. Despite his character’s despicable traits, he’s an equally complex man, torn by his own sinful passion for Lupita Nyong’o‘s Patsey. Expect Oscar nominations, if not wins, all around.
Wowing cinematography from Sean Bobbitt (Shame, The Place Beyond the Pines) is haunting yet beautiful. Gorgeous waterfront properties impose their menacing statue – demonic in their association with America’s great shame. Captured under Bobbitt’s lens, the land itself takes on a stifling quality. No matter how scenic the willows peppering the plantation are, they always seem to weep – graves of the crushed souls haunting the confederate flag-totting South.
12 Years a Slave will make you want to run the retributive justice of Django Unchained but the sad truth is, this is more fact than fiction. Even when freed, American blacks were paid the respect of subhumans. You want Solomon to strap dynamite to his prison, to rip it down to the studs and burn it but you know that it’s not that type of movie. No, it’s too gravely serious for that, for this is an epitaph to American slaves, penned centuries late.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt, Dean Norris, Sam Spruell, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic
Crime, Drama, Thriller
When we think Ridley Scott, typically big, lavish spectacles pop up in our minds, which is why The Counselor comes as such an admirable surprise. Much more interested in cautionary talks than fits of physical violence, The Counselor plays mind games with its audience, toying with us intellectually and emotionally. One long con bleeds into a slow climb towards a heady climax of inescapable comeuppances, and we have front row seats to the scramble. If Scott’s former films are a series of taxing somatic workouts, The Counselor is the glistening sweat beading from his forehead once the Western dust has settled. Like a man with an agenda tucked up his sleeve, Scott wields an unblinkingly grim look at the allure of the international drug enterprise and the heartless abandon of cartel justice. As a piece of purely adult entertainment, it’s fearlessly mature and irreverent – the antithesis of studio expectation.
The narrative structure in which this ill-mannered tale of thoughtless vengeance unfolds is laid out like an eight-course table settings. A series of foreboding set-ups piece together a pilgrimage through the stages of greed, wealth, and power, all bonded by prosaic speeches. Various supporting characters all leaning against the post of lawlessness forewarn our hero, a man trying to dip his toe into the drug business, known only as the counselor (Michael Fassbender), of the potential gravity of the situation he’ll be marrying his money and his mouth to. No matter the caution tape they place, telling him to settle with hamburger while he can, the counselor’s taste can’t be satiated with anything less than Kobe beef. As it is, each rehearsed soliloquy is a trap set to spring later in play.
Stepping into a new role as a screenwriter, author Cormac McCarthy is a maestro at establishing these simmering ideas that later erupt in bright bursts of bloodshed. Doling out a class of ironic justice, McCarthy defies civil expectations of “fair,” parsing romanticized ideas of criminal proceedings from the stark actuality of border politics. Standing on some dusty line in the sand and glancing into the sun, there is no line, no limit, no “fair” – only gory messes and dutiful cleanups.
In revealing this harsh reality, McCarthy and Scott know exactly how and when to play their cards. As the adage goes, if you show a gun in the first act, it better go off by the time the credits roll. Throughout The Counselor, McCarthy and Scott show an arsenal of guns and give each a moment in the sun to pop off in the film’s home stretch. Though some may feel taxed by the grueling nature of Scott and McCarthy building this house of cards, the payoff is well worth the wait.
Although McCarthy’s talky script flirts with being overly showy, like the teachers pet showing off, his larger-than-life dialogue works to convert this tale of untold tragedy into a thing of grit-toothed folklore, transporting it like smuggled heroin from the blood-in-the-sand shoot-em-up it might have been to a more uncharted territory. But make no mistake; this is entirely McCarthy’s intention – entirely his rodeo. His fingerprints smother the dialogue, fueling the jet black tone and unrelenting bleakness dripping from the screen. Dangling characters at the end of his puppet strings, using them as mouthpieces for his prosaic tact for conversation, McCarthy’s pithy word play is the star of the show.
To the chagrin of those expecting a guns blazing actioner, The Counselor is only violent in rare fits, so for those going for a bloodbath – beware. When it does shift to the grisly side, it’s more of the full-stop violence of Refn’s films than anything this side of Kill Bill. This is violence as reality; violence as horror; not some glamorized Hollywood spectacle. But the elements that will really haunt you are the ones that slink into the shadows, the ones that are suggested, talked about in whispers, but never shown.
With a screenplay that exchanges high-octane thrills for moments of stressful self-reflection and one-on-one character conversations, Scott keeps the proceedings lively by punctuating them with anecdotal scenes that offer some of the lighter and more engaging moments. Between the gasps, the laughs, and the many talks, there’s not too much room for adrenaline. Much more a mentally stressful film than one that will have your blood pumping in thirsty gushes, all may be quiet on the western front, but it’s not in the minds of those living there.
For a movie that depends so much on the weight of these character chats, a rock solid cast is an absolute necessity. To the benefit of all, the top-tier cast lined up fully rises to the occasion. As the titular counselor, Fassbender continues to flex his thespian muscles, showcasing a spectrum of trade tricks that really makes his performance pop. Although still unconvinced of her true talent, at least in the English language, Penélope Cruz manages to be more than just eye candy and displays a woman who humanizes beauty and love requited. Brad Pitt continues to hit his mark in a solid streak of winning performances, although his Southern drawl may have started to wear a little thin. Cloaked in gaudy clothes and rings the size of dinner party costume jewelry, Cameron Diaz puts in the role of a lifetime. Sadly, that’s a low bar to hit and her performance fails to become the true stunner that it could have been.
As the gold-toothed Malkina, a sexual minx of any sinner’s fantasy, Diaz is on the precipice of something great but never trusts herself enough to take a true risk. In many ways, Malkina is a feminine ode to McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh. Though lacking the brute force of Chigurh, they share comparable devilishly savvy elements. It’s as if they are long separated siblings or lovers who will never be. Ironically, Malkina’s love interest here is played by Chigurh actor Javier Bardem, although his role here is more a thing of kooky-clothed comic relief than the stuff of day terrors. While Chigurh was driven by a distorted cosmic sense of justice, Malkina is ruled by authoritative greed. Too secure in her old image to take a blind leap of faith into the mysterious recesses of something fresh though, Diaz flirts with being great but doesn’t commit. Although I originally had her as a potential Oscar nominee, those chances are all but slashed.
As is becoming a trend for him, Scott throttles the line of brilliance but allows himself to get bogged down in the execution of it. Illustrating his potential for staggeringly intelligent storytelling, there are explosions of excellence scattered throughout The Counselor and a surgeon-steady backbone of thoughtful inspiration, it still gets a little muddled along the way. The wealth of intriguing ideas are there but I’m not convinced that they are fully realized.
Stepped in the tradition of the Old West, The Counselor leaves you wanting to know more, curious if you’d missed anything, and thirsty for another viewing. With the magic of a red pen and another few months spent on pre-production, this could have been an astonishing product, as it is, it’s Prometheus in the desert – brilliance pocked with gaping holes. With a little more polish and another couple edits, this could have been as solid gold as the cap on Cameron Diaz’s canine.