Director: Joe Wright
Starring: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristen Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelson, Ronald Pickup
Sometimes the movies offer up strange coincidences where multiple people have the same idea at the same time. There were two blockbusters about meteorites headed to earth in 1998 (Armageddon and Deep Impact) and two animated movies about insects (A Bug’s Life and Antz). 2013 gave us two action thrillers about attacks on the White House (White House Down and Olympus has Fallen). What is true of blockbusters can also be true of dramas, and we currently find ourselves in the midst of a moment of fascination with the figure of Winston Churchill. In the last twelve months the legendary British Prime Minister has been portrayed by Brian Cox in Jonathan Teplitzky’s Churchill, by John Lithgow in the Netflix series The Crown, and now by Gary Oldman in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. Focusing on the difficult first weeks of Churchill’s prime ministership, Darkest Hour also serves as a nice companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, presenting a different angle on the Miracle at Dunkirk. Continue reading
Director: Morten Tyldum
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Rory Kinnear
Used by the Nazis in the Second World War to obscure their communications, the Enigma Machine was the greatest encryption device in history. With 159,000,000,000,000,000,000 different combinations and a code that reset every evening, it appeared uncrackable. But a small group of British mathamaticians, linguists, chess champions and crossword enthusiasts did manage to achieve the impossible and their efforts are believed to have shortened the war by more than two years and saved up to 14 million lives. This amazing achievement was kept a military secret for 50 years, but now comes to the screen in The Imitation Game.
In 1939, MI6 brought together a small team of Britain’s best and brightest in Bletchley Park to try and decipher the Enigma Machine’s code. Among them was Professor Alan Turing. An infuriating character, Turing was brilliant but arrogant and horribly condescending. While the rest of the team immerse themselves in the futile work of trying to decipher the daily codes, Turing wants to invent a machine to crack Enigma. 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.
Director: Aaron Wilson
Starring: Khan Chittenden, Mo Tzu-Yi
Canopy is an Australia/Singapore co-production shot on location in the beautiful Singaporean jungle which announces debutant director Aaron Wilson as a potentially interesting new voice in the Australian cinema.
It’s 1942 and Singapore is under attack from the Japanese. An Australian fighter pilot, Jim, crashes into the jungle and finds himself alone and unarmed in enemy territory. He crosses paths with a Singapore-Chinese soldier, Seng, in a similar predicament and the two join forces in the hope of getting out alive.
A far cry from the adventures, epics or men-on-a-mission stories we usually get from the war genre, Canopy endeavours to tell a smaller more human story in these most trying of circumstances. In their fight for survival, Jim and Seng experience a basic human connection despite the fact two men don’t speak each other’s language so communication is limited.
While Canopy is the first feature from young Australian director Aaron Wilson ,he has previously made a number of short films and it shows. Canopy has a bit of a short film feel to it (it has a runtime of only 84 minutes). It is a very simple story told in a minimalist fashion. A smaller budget war film is naturally going to be restricted in what it can show on screen, so must come up with other devices. In the case of Canopy the sound design is very important to the film’s effectiveness. Wilson’s use of sound creates an immersive cinematic experience as we are placed in Jim’s subjectivity. We only see the things he sees, but we also hear the things he hears; birdsongs, the rustling of bushes, the pops of gunfire, the overhead hum of fighter planes, the far off sounds of explosions. The terror and uncertainty of his experience in the jungle comes from the fact that he can hear things that he can’t see, and the film allows us to share that experience.
This subjectivity extends to the relationship between the two characters. As mentioned, there is very little dialogue in the film as the two characters don’t share a language. While Seng talks significantly more than Jim, we are not given subtitles for his dialogue so we don’t come to know him any better than Jim does.
The film’s conclusion is a bit disappointing, not as a result of providing an unsatisfactory resolution to the narrative but rather due to its lack of clarity. It was not until scrolling through the names in the final credits that I was actually able to decipher what the ending was seeking to represent.
While Canopy is unlikely to make an impact at the box office – its business will be done on the festival circuit – the recent success of Gravity and, to a lesser extent All is Lost, has seen the subgenre of the single character survival drama achieve some prominence recently, and while Canopy is a significantly more modest film that either of those, it is none the less an interesting addition to the subgenre.
Rating – ★★★☆
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: George Clooney
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett, Hugh Bonneville, Dimitri Leonidas
The most significant moments in our history are made up of many, many stories. These stories provide the colour and the detail that give the greater narrative its significance. The story of the Monuments Men, a small group of experts who headed into war torn Europe to preserve a culture, is one of these stories and it has been brought to the screen by actor/director George Clooney.
As the Third Reich marched through Europe in the Second World War they collected important artworks and cultural artefacts from churches, museums and homes with the intention of displaying them in the planned Führer Museum in Hitler’s hometown of Linz. By 1944 the tide had turned in the War, the Nazi’s were retreating and fears started to arise that they would destroy their stockpiles of artworks as they moved out. “You can wipe out an entire generation,” explains Clooney’s Frank Stokes, “You can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they’ll still find their way back. But if you destroy their history, you destroy their achievements and it’s as if they never existed.” Even with the War seemingly all but won, were a history to be lost in its final stages the victory would be an incomplete one. So Roosevelt green-lit the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program, in which a small team of art historians, architects and curators were sent into the warzone with the job of finding, retrieving and returning the stolen works.
The Monuments Men is George Clooney’s fifth feature film as a director. It has an old-fashioned adventure story feel to it. They are, after all, treasure hunters. But in creating this tone, Clooney seems to have sacrificed his own unique style in favour of something which feels like it is merely trying to imitate an older form. The narrative is episodic in nature. As the Monuments Men split up and head to different points of the European continent on different missions we move between their different stories. Some of these episodes are amusing, some are touching, some are exciting. However, with our attention being split between eight co-protagonists, none of the characters are given enough time or depth to really engage us. There are simply too many of them for a two hour movie. That being said, Clooney has assembled an all-star cast, with the likes of Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett and, of course, Mr Clooney himself. While it may not have the wow factor of the Ocean’s 11 cast, it is none the less an impressive collection of talent and it is the charisma of these actors, more so than their characters, which keeps you engaged in the film and represents its greatest strength.
The Monuments Men looks great. It is beautifully shot by Pheldon Papamichael and the production design is top notch. It focuses in on a really fascinating and unique story, but unfortunately it fails to reach the heights that story deserves. It is not quite as funny and irreverent as it could have been – especially considering its cast – but neither is it as serious and gritty as it could have been. Instead we are left with a very earnest and sentimental film which at times is just a bit bland.
Rating: – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean