Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Fury of "Fury"


FJ's sum-up: gritty, respectful, uncompromising

When done right, I love me a good film that pulls its audience into a world controlled by claustrophobia. It seems like a cinema trend right now, more coming out than normal, and some films pull it off with restraint, finesse, and often terror. The most recent I saw was "10 Cloverfield Lane", contained a young woman, a young man, and an ominous land owner, all trapped in a bunker because the world around them is (possibly) at war. "Fury" is another of these, and they don't come much better.

It is the 1945, Germany. The Nazis nearly defeated, Hitler has ordered all Germans to come out and fight for their country. Meanwhile the Nazis haven't surrendered yet, and still have no shortage of fire power, artillery, ground troops, and most ominous in this film, tanks. With their prestigious German engineering, it's announced at the beginning of the film these are superior in all ways to anything the Americans can dish out, but the fight is on the Americans' side so they must press forward. Enter Sargeant Don "War Daddy" Collier (Brad Pitt), commander of a Sherman tank with a five-man crew, as they and other battalions make their final deadly push to take Europe back, plunging themselves behind heavily-guarded enemy lines. Collier doesn't take crap from anyone, no patience to spare for someone not doing their job, even if that's a terrified peaceful young little clerk who types 60 words per minute, and was suddenly drafted into the army, shoved into the bowels of Fury, Collier's tank, in the spot where their last turret man sat when he was killed. Utterly inexperienced and terrified through and through, Norman can't focus on the war or their goals, let alone imagine killing a person. When he gets his chance, his hesitance instead allows the enemy to kill men from a neighboring squadron, a thing which sets Collier off on him as if he himself were a Nazi. Norman's character also turns this film into an effective coming-of-age picture, the awful wakeup call known as war that most of us can be grateful we'll never have to experience. (I have three little boys now, and thinking on all this, I can say with the deepest thankfulness and even tears that the draft is currently shut down.)


As Collier comes to put it: "This is my home.", and he means it too. "Best job I ever had." he says, patting the inner lining of his Fury's belly. This is a similar but in many ways different experience from the film's counterpart "Saving Private Ryan", a story never been told by cinema, the unnerving vantage point of the battle through the tiny peep holes within the tank (though, if you thought you'd never see another war film as horrifically realistic as that World War II epic, see this film and stand corrected.) The battle sequences seem sometimes much more intimate than in Private Ryan thanks to the tight quarters within that seemingly small yet hearty vehicle (and by comparison, that much more believable with so many practical effects rather than CG recreations). The film also depicts how easy it could be for soldiers to pit themselves against one another when having to live and work together so closely, even when all around them the enemy may strike without warning. For Fury's squad you've got Shia LaBeouf as Bible (in a career-high performance by a landslide, refreshing as hell), Michael Peña as Gordo, Jon Bernthal as Coon-Ass, and young Logan Lerman as Norman (whose nickname I'll let the film reveal to you). One could reasonably compare this film to Wolfgang Petersen's submarine epic "Das Boot", except in this film the soldiers aren't encased by water but rather by the constant threat of enemy fire. In this way, the tank acts both as a room with no leg space but also as a haven. Fury is their lifeboat, and within it, you the viewer can also feel a sense of security, especially when you see what kind of cajones it's really got when it lets loose.

One of the most memorable lines in the film are delivered by Pitt: "See that smoke? That's an entire city burning. This war is gonna end, soon. But before it does, a whole lot of people are gonna die." Know that this is not a historical film, but essentially it is; it portrays events that happened exactly as we see them on the screen. This is the first film of David Ayer's I've seen and from me he gets full marks for it. He's currently wrapping the Batman v Superman follow-up, "Suicide Squad". I'm utterly uninterested -- Ayer, how about you do give us more of this and none of that. 4 stars. Running time: 134 minutes.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

"The BFG" Is Why Big Movies Exist

Joe's sum-up: scrumdidliptiously special

(2016) You may not recall your first viewing of "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial", or consciously noticed that with each viewing it dazzles the nerve endings of the imagination just like the first time or even better. But that's the experience I expect I'll always have with subsequent viewings of "The BFG". Perhaps it's that it was directed by Spielberg with a screenplay penned by Melissa Mathison, the two partnering again after their extra-terrestrial success 34 years ago. Perhaps it's the otherworldly cinematography and visual effects, perhaps the perfect JW soundtrack, or just the sweet moving chemistry between the two protagonists, the BFG (Mark Rylance, "Bridge of Spies") and his little companion Sophie (introducing Ruby Barnhill). As most always with the Spiel, it's all of the above.

I rarely post a review of a high-budget Hollywood blockbuster, as they get their own press from the press, for better or worse. Can't help it this time. I sat with my beautiful wife and my three darling little boys last night as the film poured over our senses from start to finish, like music from another dimension. We've all been plowing through Roald Dahl books for years now, finished this one late last year before plunging headlong into The Hobbit. The boys delighted in both novels, along with the other six or so Dahl books we've read. We always make a point to enjoy each of the adapted film after finishing its book, and not once has any of us been disappointed by the adaptation. Roald Dahl was so repulsed and infuriated by the first film ever adapted from a book of his, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (Wilder not Depp, the one we skipped) that he said he would never let another of his children's books be made into a movie. Just before his death he did make two exceptions, an animated rendition of "The BFG", for which, when the credits rolled, Dahl stood and applauded. ("The Witches" film was made the year he died -- he called it applauding.)


The story arc is simple, and beautiful for it. Sophie, a London orphanage's perky little insomniac, spies an ominous shadow on her street one night, followed by its owner, a tall cloaked figure with ginormous ears, who from a distance can hear her heart beating inordinately fast and thus scoops her up, bringing her to his home across the sea for fear she would send the Royal Navy knocking on his door. She is little terrified of him, though he likewise immediately proves altogether harmless, clumsy, protective, sweet, and yes friendly. Living in an orphanage with a nasty matron, Sophie warms to him and his simple yet wondrous world. Dangerous too -- for neighbors he has nine child-eating giants, each twice his size (and he stands over 30 feet), who make sport of bullying him and attempting to sniff out his new friend. He meanwhile makes his profession in the dream business, catching them, mixing them, and blowing them into the rooms of people who could use them. His meals comprise of one of the most ghastly food items in cinema history, snozzcumbers, countered by the delightful frobscottle (I can only imagine the laughs Roald Dahl gave himself when concocting that particular beverage). She comes to call him BFG (for big friendly giant).


This film could never have been made into a live-action feature far long before now. Thank heavens no one attempted it, because the CG technology is finally such that the entire story is realized more through the stunning visuals than any other thing. Whether your eyes are being filled with wide magical landscapes, deep caverns in the BFG's home containing thousands of jars of dancing, luminescent, multicolored will o' wisp dreams, the two of them bounding in the magical wild as they go to catch them, or a close-angle of the deep introspective conversations they often have, you should be doing so in the biggest movie theater in town. John Williams described his score thus: "The BFG tries to capture dreams with his net and does something that almost looks like a Ray Bolger or Fred Astaire dance; It is an amazingly musical and choreographic sequence which required the orchestra to do things that are more associated with musical films." The orchestra never disappoints for this film. John Williams' more recent scores are admittedly less memorable than those of his earlier career (no surprise after Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T., among many others). The feelings of this score are distinct and more complex, sprinkling the film with a free natural spring of life throughout. I'm still counting the days before this 83-year old icon finally calls it quits.

Enough said. Either I've sold you on this film or I haven't. It did not do well at the box office for its first two weeks due to other big family films emerging, but no excuse. Nutshell: If you enjoy Spielberg the director, you'll love this film. If you enjoyed any of his other children's features such as "The Goonies", "Jurassic Park", "E.T.", "Hook", "Jurassic Park", "Tin-Tin", "Jurassic Park", you'll love this film. If you enjoy Roald Dahl's works, you'll love this film. If you enjoy family adventure movies in general, you'll love this film. Basically, if you don't love this film, crawl back into your little Gollum hole because the world must bore you most pitifully.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Riding with "The World's Fastest Indian"

FJ's SUM-UP: delightfully fun, perfect feel-good

How it is I’ve been blogging about indie films for years and this one has gone untouched, I can’t be sure. Suffice it to say, it’s long overdue for a review.

One could accurately quote me saying: This is my favorite feel-good indie film of any. There are a lot of reasons why. First, this is a story of my home state. It’s no secret to anyone, Utah and I have a true love-hate relationship. But if there’s something I would hope would put Utah on the map in a different direction, it’s this true story of a self-made man and his lifelong dream of visiting this mystical state. You may be wondering why mystical — don’t get ahead of me.

Burt Munro (played by the immortal Anthony Hopkins) is a happy old codger from Invercargill, a small hamlet on the south island of New Zealand, and there’s only two things he absolutely needs in his life, as it were: a few ladies for flirting with or dating, and his old powerhouse motorsickles. In the early 1960s, there he was, working everyday (usually at six in the morning, to the irritation of his neighbors and the delight of their son) on his old faithful 1920 Scout, an Indian motorbike known for being the first ever produced in America. Munro should've probably been offered a job with Indian long prior, because he seems to know more about getting the most speed out of their bikes than they did. But that wasn’t in the cards, his ambition went far beyond. He wanted to know just how fast his bike could possibly go, given no limitations and all the modifications he made this advancing its ability. He is challenged by a local biker gang to a race on the Invercargill beach — no surprise that he smokes them all. One of the only places on earth to test an motor vehicle's true speed is a few hours west of Salt Lake City, on the Bonneville Salt Flats, where they stretch dead flat for miles and miles. This and other natural phenomena, including Utah's magnificent red rock, are some of what make it such a unique and mystical-looking place (used in more movies than I could count). So at past age 60, with heart troubles and little money, this man yet sets off on achieving this dream. Hopping on a cargo ship where he pays his keep by playing chef, carrying him and his bike across the Pacific and landing them in LA, he seems to pay no notice to the journey or the setbacks. And golly but the setbacks he has, every step of the way, though they hardly seem it, what with his good attitude and his natural likability — to the point that nigh well every person he meets is suddenly a new friend.



Hopkins lands a perfect performance in this film, one he would later say is the best thing he’d ever done. Whether speaking sentimentally or seriously is irrelevant — he made a great film, written, produced, and directed by Roger Donaldson, a New Zealand-born lifelong devotee of Munro’s legacy. This story is like no other, and the tone of the film ought to leave viewers with a deep sense of satisfaction — all the more so because we feel like we're there on that journey with him from start to finish.

(No I’m not about to tell just how Munro cooks his own leg, you’ll have to catch it.)

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

"10 Cloverfield Lane" and Spiritual Sequels

Joe's Sumup: creepy and mysterious

(2016) Officially time I got movie-blogging again. Thanks to the three gents of Cinemajaw for providing an impetus in me to really want to get talking about movies again in general, and specifically about quality small-budge indie films. Figured I'd start out with a recent one.

This is the creepiest John Goodman you'll see this side of Barton Fink, which is saying something. If he had a more psychotic role, I don't know of it and I should (ok, Walter was more psychotic with his gun popping out of his shirt at the drop of a pin, but Walter made us laugh -- this guy definitely makes us cringe.)

The stage is set with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a girl packing up her things angrily and driving off from her home down a highway. Her boyfriend Ben (a brief Bradley Cooper cameo) rings her up, trying to make amends -- when out of nowhere comes a rogue truck smashing into hers and leaving her unconscious. Next she knows, she's in a concrete bunker, IV in her arm and cuffed to the bed she's sleeping in. Naturally she begins attempting her first escape from this unknown dungeon. Enter Howard, a John Goodman-sized rustic male, a full beards, easy to tell there are a few screws loose with this paranoid individual. He claims to have rescued Michelle from her wreck and wants to protect her from the ensuing apocalypse he claims is happening on the outside -- that the air is now toxic and has killed off everybody, that the military is launching a counteroffensive against some foreign entity, and that there's no leaving the bunker. Michelle's clearly not buying it and after meeting another fellow Emmett, also captured there underground by Howard, she tries making another break for it, especially after hearing noises above ground. Howard isn't having any of it.

Spiritual sequels are kind of like step-siblings -- not necessarily from the same blood, but still with stark similarities and also stark differences. I love a good spiritual sequel. This one gets a moderately good review from me for what it was. The hardest part to swallow was how hard a time I was having, even after it was over, justifying its relation to the 2008 hit Cloverfield, a bouncy camcorder-filmed story about kids escaping Manhattan during the attack of a highly-disgruntled baby-zilla who also has smaller babies of her own. I thought the film was fabulous, saw it multiple times sheerly for the terrifying fun of the suspenseful pandemonium throughout -- also enjoyed the characters and their relationships in it. Cloverfield was the cinechild of Godzilla and The Blair Witch Hunt, and executed by J.J. Abrams it was done just right. "10 Cloverfield Lane" is more the cinechild of War of the Worlds and Misery. Similar to its predecessor in that it does not tell the audience much for most of the movie, a gripping and exciting gimmick, yet you know it has secrets it will reveal before the end. Different in that it is far more subtle in its suspense, having a much more uncomfortable Hitchcockian claustrophobia contained within the terror of the bunker, Howard's gun, Howard's psychosis, and Howard. The man feels a little bit like Norman Bates in a way -- obliging on the outside, dark secrets in the middle. You know something must be happening outside that can't be right within the title of the movie, so what are these captives complaining about when being fed, given shelter, even entertainment, in this microcosm? Howard comes to even convince them he's only trying to help at a point. Turn the page.

I give 10 Cloverfield Lane a solid 3 stars for its suspense, shying away from more because, well I guess my Facebook post sums it well:

""10 Cloverfield Lane" was good, 
A fine directorial debut,
But for all the wait, I would
Still wanna see a frikkin kaiju!"

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Seeing The World Through "My Left Foot"

JOE'S SUMUP: Sincere, powerful, delightful

(1989) Step into your imagination for a moment and think of what it would take to go one day, accomplishing all the mundane and important things of life, using only one appendage, and nothing else.  And it can't be your right hand -- has to be your left foot.  Take a think on that for a moment.

My wife and I recently watched "There Will Be Blood", chiefly to experience once again the matchless performances of Daniel Day-Lewis (same reason as everyone else, right?).  We both came away rather bewildered by the sad strange experience, and Melissa in particular didn't like it at all, so much so that she said she didn't want to see another DDL performance, not wanting to be reminded of Crazy Mr. Plainview.

I recently got around to watching the Oscar-winning "My Left Foot".  Haven't shown it to Melissa yet, but last week I told her with a smile, Honey I think I found a performance to clear Mr. Lewis' slate for ya.  We'll see how she responds, but I think I can say, for the general public, you'll get your money's worth with this surprising work of art (on Netflix Instant, has been for some time).

Every once in a while a screenplay is concocted with great potential, yet for successful fruition everything depends on the casting of one actor or actress equal to its formidable tasks.  I don't know whether the screenplay based on the life of Christy Brown was written with DDL in mind, but it should've been.  He didn't take home his first Oscar for his performance for nothing.

Mr. Christy Brown was born in the 30s, inflicted with cerebral palsy at a time when only tentative medical research had been done on the defect, let alone available to the working class in middle Ireland.  In consequence, everyone thought he was mentally retarded to the point that he was another mindless vegetable.  That is, until his family witnessed him pick up a piece of chalk with the toes of his left foot at the age of 9, and write "mother" on the wooden floor of their little home.  His father, a gruff hardworking man with four other children, is shocked and ecstatic, as are all of his siblings.  Only his mother watches, teary-eyed and perfectly placid, because she alone always believed he could.  Christy goes on in his life, determined to show the world how unfair it would be to think any less of him for his defect.

One of the greatest strengths of the film was how entirely non-sugarcoated it was.  Don't mistake me, I love a good feel-good as well as the next sentimental fool, but Hollywood loves taking a great story, true or fictional, and drizzling it down into honey and syrup to the point that we're sticky with disinterest in the protagonist.  Too many heroes and heroines are also far too deified, until they are so great they're no longer human.  The director Jim Sheridan made the brilliant move of doing just the opposite, portraying Christy just as he was, first as a regular young boy (yet with a head tough enough to block even the fastest coming football!), then later as a man with all the regular passions, including a big one for woman and alcohol, and a rather short fuse.  In not hiding those flaws, the filmmakers allowed me a personal acquaintance with a truly remarkable man who went on to do things no persons with cerebral palsy had ever done before, to our knowledge.

Props go too to all the cast, especially Brenda Fricker who also took home an Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress.  The Oscars aren't the bottom line, but when a film wins two acting Awards, is nominated for Best Picture, Best Screenplay (based on the novel by its own Christy Brown, believe it or not), and Best Director, I generally suspect I'll walk away glad I saw it.  I'll recommend this one over P.T. Anderson's highly acclaimed oil epic any day.  Running time: 103 min.

Friday, May 8, 2009

"The Illusionist": Another Indie One-Ups the Big Boys

JOE'S SUMUP: Undiluted magic

(2006) Some films contain real magic, like Harry Potter.  Others contain fake magic, such as The Prestige.  This is a film that, simply put, is magic, in and of itself.  What's magic then, in this case?  Such a film to me will entrance its audience with a story both believable and impossible, containing characters doing combat with more than guns and swords, and of course quality enduring romance.  "The Illusionist" goes above and beyond all that.  It offers up its tale with an artistry from which one may feel swept right into the magic of 19th-century Vienna.  The art direction and costuming are period-perfect, the cinematography has a sepia-toned storybook quality to it, Philip Glass's score is so haunting and penetrating it makes me feel absolutely vulnerable.  And, special effects have never looked less like special effects.  "The Illusionist" at 
times has a decidedly creepy tone to it.  As I always say, keep watching.  As both a peasant child and a professional adult, Edward Abramovich (aka Eisenheim The Illusionist) has a gift for conjuring magic so real, that he is capable of convincing entire audiences of anything he wishes. After his sweetheart, the Duchess Sophie von Teschen, is torn from his side while both young children, he proceeds to travel the world to learn the greatest illusions as one may only find far away from the common trickery of Vienna (no, no spoiler alerts so far).  Upon his return as an adult opening a new act, he enchants his audiences, until he is soon himself enchanted again by his childhood love, who is then dating the conniving Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  The plot thickens... and I can say no more here, lest I give away the great illusion.

Let me make mention of the cast and performances for a moment.  Flawless.  I'll also reemphasize here, I write mostly to recommend great movies, the best of them.  So if my constant zeal comes off as hyperbole, let me assure you it isn't.  I have little interest in giving press to mediocre films, so I don't.  That said, flawless.  And I do mean absolutely flawless. 
I was introduced to Edward Norton by this movie, playing the calm and pensive Eisenheim. His perfect role here.  Jessica Biel was an unlikely choice for portraying the feminine and bold Von Teschen.  Her perfect role here.  Rufus Sewell takes on the Crown Prince Leopold.  No surprise there, he was born to play the part of sinister villain.  His perfect role here. Finally, perhaps the most enjoyable performance of all is delivered by a beefy Paul Giamatti, playing a gruff Chief Inspector with a childlike delight for the ethereal.  Absolutely perfect.

Where are the flaws in this film?  Well obviously it's a romance, so if you're squeamish at a rather sensuous love scene showing no nudity but sensuousness nonetheless, fast-forward for 15 seconds---you'll know when, with plenty of warning.  Other than that, you tell me.  Now we always like to say we're rooting for the underdog, but let's face it, when push come to shove, too many still patronize Wal-Mart, McDonald's, and IBM.  Don't yell "Hypocrite!" at me---I already know I am one. But as an idealist, and while I do love a good Warner Bros. action flick, I have a great affinity for indie films.  Especially ones which make Hollywood look stupid.  One would never guess that "The Illusionist" was made by Bob Yari, an Iranian-American independent producer, on a budget of 17 mill.  It appears less interested in its successful revenues, and offers up something more for its audiences.

Movies shouldn't just entertain us.  OK, maybe some should.  But hopefully most will get us thinking a little too, on the world and our lives, our surroundings and our encounters, our 
interactions, our flaws and our strengths, our loves and our hates, the very subterfuge of life which demands our interest.  When I see a man balance a monarch's sword on its tip, then make subtle mockery of the ruler's inaptitude for true greatness, I too feel like I can
see through the trick. Money is not enough, gadgetry is not enough, impression is not enough, authority is never enough. True greatness is rooted and cultivates through principle and idealism, indifference rejected. It is then that intangible simulacra may transcend authenticity.  Spare me some indulgence as I say, let everyone's ideals be enveloped by a consummate spirit of progress, determined to discover what greater treasures like in store for those who will reject the greatest illusion known as reality. It's a nice illusion for this idealist anyhow. Running time: 110 min.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

"Tora! Tora! Tora!" An Eye-opening Docudrama

JOE'S SUMUP: Long, and worth the wait

(1970) In 2001, a cute little romance flick came out, you may remember it, called "Pearl Harbor".  My but what a misnomer.  This film was a high-action romance with about as much substance as Napoleon Dynamite (not to dis Napeleon---that kid had class).  As written by Randall Wallace (Braveheart), one might have expected it to contain a bit more than superficial war drama cliches, sappy romance triangles, exaggerated dog fights, etc.  Three hours worth.  Ugh, worthless.  Want to see an actually smart movie about December 7, 1941?  Try this one.

"Tora! Tora! Tora!" (literally translated "Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!") were the code-words used by Japanese aircrafts to transmit that complete surprise was achieved on the Hawaii naval base.  The film "Tora! Tora! Tora!" is the collaborative effort between Japanese and American cinema, made to depict this event historically accurate as possible, and with the juxtaposed viewpoints of both ends.  The transitions are smooth, yet we are frequently switching back and forth between American and Japanese non-fictional officers, watching the tension growing betwixt them, and the eventual cataclysmic catalyst which changed the direction of the war.  The lion's share of the first act is given to the Japanese (all done in Japanese with subtitles).  During this time we are let in on exactly why and how they planned this attack, America's strategies to prepare for it, and what went wrong.  No bias is apparent from either position.  One example is, just before the attack occurs, the Japanese' attempt to officially warn the Pentagon the morning of, which warning is not transmitted to Pearl Harbor in time, thus throwing America into a fit of rage over a "surprise attack".  This film is an example of brilliant and unbiased filmmakers getting over differences (only 25 years after the atomic bombs) and making a movie of real events in as close a measure as possible.  They didn't get it exactly exact of course, how could they---numerous details were left out (hence the idea of dramatization).  But that's still true synergy to me, and it's what makes this movie interesting.

Now then, on to the good stuff.  Some skeptics might questions these filmmakers' aptitudes for portraying a sequence as large scale as this, wayyyy back in 1970.  Hang on to your seats, is all I can say.  A small sampling...

This 20-minute sequence is spectacular, and these pics do not do justice.

The attack scene is also accurate.  I sat back relishing these Oscar-winning visual effects, knowing there were no models nor CG images throughout, all done in live-action.  This film is not three hours, but it is two-and-a-half.  The majority is dedicated to the buildup, but the attack sequence wouldn't have been so amazing without it.  Films like this are made for the sake of education in and of itself, holding no national or political agenda.  I think it's a great film.  Having said that, let me make it clear, this is strictly a war drama.  There is very little emotion to grab hold of, no romance, no deep character development or big plot surprises.  It is all done in a straightforward and objective manner, which I think was the idea.  Fluff (even good fluff) would've inevitably biased its viewers one way or another, depending on whose side you're rooting for.  One would hope that films like this one will immortalize human conflict and remind us to stop making them.  Enough said---if you like historical drama, this classic sleeper ought not to dissatisfy.  Running time: 142 min.