Director: Adam McKay
Starring: Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, John Magaro, Finn Wittrock, Brad Pitt
Seeing Adam McKay, the writer-director best known for his comedies with Will Ferrell (Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Step Brothers), as the Oscar nominated director of a Best Picture candidate about the housing market crash might seem strange to some. However, it is actually quite a logical extension of his talents. In a previous life McKay was a writer on Michael Moore’s series The Awful Truth and has written pieces for The Huffington Post. And anyone who saw the end credits of his comedy The Other Guys – effectively a PowerPoint lecture on Ponzi schemes and Bernie Madoff – will know this obviously is a subject about which he has strong views.
Based on Michael Lewis’s book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, the film follows a handful of stock traders, all loners and outsiders, who saw the 2008 housing market crash coming and managed to spin it to their advantage. Eccentric, mildly autistic, flip-flop wearing money manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is the first to spot that the housing market is being propped up by an increasing number of bad mortgages and is heading towards a cliff. Continue reading
Director: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal
Hollywood is long past the stage of glorifying war in its films. Once World War II finished the themes of heroism and adventure which home front morale demanded made way for a more honest approach, one which was further cemented in the cinematic response to the Vietnam War. Even still, there are few films which have shown war to be quite as hellish, gruesome and violent as Fury.
Sgt. Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier is a veteran tank commander. His tight knit crew of five came together in Africa and have stayed together, and alive, for a surprisingly long time. It is now April 1945 and they find themselves in Germany. With allied troops closing in on Berlin the end of the war is in sight, but the fighting is not done. When Collier’s assistant driver is killed in combat he is replaced by a young office clerk, Norman Ellison. Trained to type rather than to kill, Ellison has never even seen the inside of a tank. Collier has to break in Ellison fast, because the longer it takes him to fall into line and start doing his job, the more danger the crew is in.
The title Fury comes from the name given to their tank, painted on its gun barrel, but more significantly it reflects the emotional state of the characters. This is not a simplistic war of heroes and villains, good guys and bad guys. This is a war where the ends justify the means. This is a dirty, violent and messy war where it is kill or be killed and the desire for survival turns people into monsters. Different characters deal with the demands of their situation in different ways. Some, like Shia LaBeouf’s man of faith Boyd Swan, need to believe in the righteousness of their mission. For others, it is simply a matter of embracing and accepting the chaos.
Collier’s efforts to break in Norman and harden him for war confront us as an audience. On the one hand we know that unless he can learn to adequately do his job the others are in danger, yet we also don’t want to see this young man lose his innocence and sacrifice his morality. When we finally see Noman spraying the enemy with hateful profanity as well as bullets, are we supposed to celebrate? Fury reminds us that the line between good and evil is not one which runs between people or between sides of a conflict, but one which runs through each and every person.
Director David Ayer is best known as a screenwriter, having penned the screenplays for Training Day, S.W.A.T. and The Fast and The Furious, as well as writing and directing End of Watch. Across his body of work Ayer has shown a fascination with masculinity – particularly violent masculinity – and the relationships between men. In Fury, Ayer is able to pick up on those themes again, but transplant them from Los Angeles based police dramas to a European World War II setting. Collier’s crew enjoy a complicated relationship. They have been through a lot together and survived. Ayer treats them like a family. The first scene we meet them they are arguing and fighting, but you can tell that this is not evidence of division, it is just them blowing off steam, and Collier is very much in control of the situation. In this claustrophobic iron box they are forced to live in each other’s pockets. They bicker and squabble, but when the moment demands it they have each other’s backs.
In 1998, Steven Spielberg rewrote the book on how to shoot war movies with Saving Private Ryan. The use of handheld shaky-cam in its startling Omaha Beach sequence created a frantic and immersive combat experience unlike any we had seen before. This shaky-cam technique quickly became the standard approach to shooting combat scenes. Fury is a film of graphic and impactful violence, but it abandons that recent popular aesthetic in favour of a more classic look. Ayer opts for more carefully and obviously composed shots in his battle sequences. The film gives us tank battles like we’ve never seen before, taking us inside these cumbersome iron giants as they manoeuvre through the battlefield. That is probably Fury’s most notable contribution to the war movie genre.
The combination of these interesting visual elements and psychological focus makes it quite disappointing when the film reverts to cliché for its final act. When they dig their heels in with their disabled tank to fight a 300 strong SS platoon all of the attempted nuance of the film to this point is abandoned in favour of good old-fashioned heroism. This is yet another classic last stand. Therein lies what makes Fury such a peculiar film. It is at once new and old fashioned. It takes quite a modern approach to its psychological view of war and what it does to people, but it places all of that interesting character study on quite an old fashioned and increasingly unrealistic story.
The timing of this release might give the impression that Fury is an Oscar contender. Unfortunately it does not quite reach those heights. But Ayer’s film is visually exciting as well as being, at times, insightful and thought provoking.
Review by Duncan McLean
Have you seen Fury? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.
The Western is the great American cinematic form, a uniquely American genre. More than that, some have suggested that it stands alongside jazz as America’s great contribution to the arts. It is America’s equivalent of the Greek tragedy, where filmmakers replay and reimagine stories of America. The Western genre was at its height in Hollywood’s studio era, from the 1930s to the 1950s. Its conventional storylines and reusable sets and props made it one of the backbone genres of the mass production machine that was studio era Hollywood. Before World War II, at a time when the major studios were churning out approximately 500 films a year, B-grade Westerns accounted for 15% of all Hollywood production. As well as these quick and cheap B-movies the studio era gave us great Westerns such as Stagecoach (1939), Red River (1948), High Noon (1952), Rio Bravo (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) and the greatest of them all, The Searchers (1956). But by the 1960s the classical Western was starting to grow tired, audiences were growing tired of it, and the genre went out of fashion in Hollywood for a while in the 1970s and 1980s. While the Western has never quite re-established itself as a prominent genre in post-classical Hollywood, there have been a number of notable and interesting films that have employed the Western form. Here are six of the best of them…
George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a disarmingly likeable film, and possibly the greatest buddy movie ever. Butch and Sundance are part of the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang, but are forced to go on the run after a botched train robbery. With an unshakeable posse on their tail, they head for South America to start afresh as Bolivian bandits. Butch and Sundance are the perfect pairing. Butch is a charismatic, smooth-talking, sharp-minded leader. Sundance is cool, quiet and deadly. Paul Newman and Robert Redford (who would again team up with Hill in 1973 for The Sting) give the film genuine star power, while William Goldman’s Oscar-winning screenplay gives it its charm, humour and intelligence. The final freeze frame is one of the iconic shots in American film.
In addition to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969 saw the release of another film about the Hole in the Wall Gang, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and they could hardly have been more different. The Wild Bunch is a key film in the history of screen violence. Changes to American film censorship regulations in 1968, with a move from the all-encompassing Production Code to a ratings system, allowed for greater representations of violence on screen and Peckinpah took full advantage. The film is a masterpiece of excess and spectacle, with approximately 90,000 rounds of blanks fired in the production. The film’s final shootout is truly something to behold. But rather than spectacle for spectacle’s sake, violence penetrates this film at a thematic level. The Wild Bunch is a film about violence, about the passing on of violence from one generation to the next, as demonstrated through the evolving roll of children throughout the narrative.
Little Big Man is a comic Western saga which continued director Arthur Penn’s engagement with the strong counter-culture movement of the time. It tells the life story of 121 year old Jack Crabb, played by Dustin Hoffman. Having been captured by the Cheyenne as a child, Crabb spends his life jumping back and forth between living as a native American and as a frontiersman, and thus experiences both sides of a very transformative period in America’s history. Little Big Man provides a debunking of the classical Western myth, portraying the pacification of the West as an act of genocide. The Cheyenne people are shown to be a kind and peaceful people, and Penn’s dramatization of an attack on their camp by Custer’s Cavalry is an obvious commentary on the Vietnam War at a time before Hollywood films were ready to openly discuss the conflict.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the lowest point for the Western as a film genre, it was Clint Eastwood who almost single-handedly kept it alive. Unforgiven is both a love letter and farewell from actor-director Clint Eastwood to the genre that made him a star. Set in the 1880s, when the days of the frontier were fading and a new world was rising, William Munny is of the old world. A retired gunman and a widower with two children, he is coaxed to pick up his gun once more by his old friend Ned to go after a bounty put up by a group of prostitutes in the town of Big Whiskey. Rather than a Wild West romp, Unforgiven is a dark and melancholy film. Where once Eastwood played a part in romanticising the West, here he shows it for its grim reality. Beautifully shot in Alberta, Canada, and featuring a tremendous cast including Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman in an Oscar winning performance as sheriff Little Bill. Eastwood dedicated the film to directors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.
The second feature film from Australian writer-director Andrew Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an epic Western with an almost art-film sensibility. The film uses the story of the final chapter of the life of one of the American West’s most iconic characters to show us the active process of the mythologising of the West. The young Robert Ford has grown up on the tales of the legendary exploits of Jesse James, so when he has the opportunity to join the James gang for their last robbery he idolises James. Theirs is a strange relationship built on Ford’s intense devotion, which can really only end one way. While this slow-paced, contemplative film is probably a bit longer than it needs to be, it is beautifully shot by Roger Deakins and features some very interesting performances from Casey Affleck and Brad Pitt.
Adapted from Charles Portis’ novel, the story of True Grit has a beautiful simplicity to it which has been missing from the Western in recent decades. Despite this old-fashioned quality, the direction of the Coen brothers and the beautiful cinematography, again from Roger Deakins, gives the film a modern feel and aesthetic. Hailee Steinfeld’s debut performance as Mattie Ross, the young girl who sets out with a hired Marshall to catch her father’s murderer, is simply brilliant with the role being undoubtedly one of the great young female characters. When the story was previously brought to the screen in 1969, John Wayne won his only Oscar for his portrayal of the drunken US Marshall Rooster Cogburn, but rather than simply imitate Wayne’s performance, Jeff Bridges brings his own characterisation to the part.
It technically isn’t a movie so wasn’t included in the six but no conversation about the Western genre in recent years would be complete without…
Created by David Milch, for three 12 episode seasons HBO’s gritty series Deadwood was arguably the best show on television and the best single piece of work the Western genre had seen in decades. Set in the 1870s, the show followed the development of the town of Deadwood, annexed from the Dakota Territory, from a basic camp into a thriving, organised, but incredibly uncivilised and corrupt community. Marvellously written, the show’s dialogue was at the same time almost Shakespearean in its poetry and the most horrendously coarse thing you’ll ever hear. Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen, owner of the Gem Saloon and puppet-master over the citizens of Deadwood, was one of the great television characters of that decade. Tragically the show was cut short after three seasons, and while there was talk of two television movies being made to complete the story they never eventuated.
By Duncan McLean
Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Brian Blatt, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt
In 1853 Solomon Northup published his memoir 12 Years a Slave which told the story of how, as a free man living with his wife and children in upstate New York, he had been kidnapped and sold into slavery, spending the next twelve years of his life working on the cotton plantations of America’s South before finally being reunited with his family. The book was hugely influential in the years leading up to the American Civil War, exposing the inner workings of slavery and opening the public’s eyes to what it really was to be owned by another person. Now, 160 years later, British director Steve McQueen has brought Northup’s story to the screen in a film with the potential to be equally influential.
Despite being one of the defining periods of American history, antebellum slavery has not been widely explored cinematically, particularly from the point of view of the slave. The significance of 12 Years a Slave comes not only from the fact that it is a vivid portrayal of American slavery from the point of view of the slave, but also that it is the product of a the collaboration between a black British director and an African American screenwriter.
With his previous films Hunger and Shame, McQueen has established himself as a filmmaker who does not shy away from difficult and provocative subject matter and does not pull his punches. It should therefore be no surprise that his exploration of 19th century slavery is brutal and unrelenting. McQueen uses a number of long takes, holding the image and forcing us to take it all in. A lot of screen time is given to faces, allowing us to watch emotions unfold and develop within characters.
British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a powerful performance as a man thrust into an intolerable situation. Part of the appeal of 12 Years a Slave as opposed to other slave narratives for McQueen was that the narrative was the inverse of what we usually get, with our protagonist going from freedom to slavery. Having Northup start the film as a free man made him an effective surrogate for the audience. Slavery is as foreign and horrific to him as it is to us. It does, however, make for a less all-encompassing tale as in the confines of this narrative the injustice is that a free man has been kidnapped into slavery, not simply that any human being might find themself in slavery.
Northup’s story has the quality of an odyssey. This story of hope, of overcoming and refusal to surrender to injustice, is the story of Solomon Northup’s journey home to his family. It is a journey which takes place over a long period of time with constantly changing circumstances as he is sold from one owner to another, some seemingly benevolent, others ruthless.
McQueen regular Michael Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, the plantation owner under whom Northup spent the majority of his time. Fassbender is a brave actor unafraid to take on difficult characters, but the violent, hate-filled and insecure Epps might just be his most repulsive character yet.
The significance of this project, along with McQueen’s steadily growing reputation, has helped in assembling a tremendous supporting cast including the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt, who was also one of the film’s producers.
A harsh but incredibly powerful film, 12 Years a Slave is one of the finest films of the year and could already be the most important film made on this important subject.
Rating – ★★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean