At The Movies: Fury

There have been 204 movies made about World War II, according to ranker.com, which claims to have counted them all. The war may not have been a good experience for the Nazis but it’s proven quite profitable for Hollywood.

The latest to join the ranks is “Fury,” a movie about a five-man tank crew making its way across Germany as the war nears its end. It’s an often violent, sometimes odd film that paints a bloody picture of war and the toll it takes on the men who fight it.

Brad Pitt stars as U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collie. He’s been killing Nazis with his crew — Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf ),  Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) — since the Africa campaign and now they’re on their way to Berlin in their Sherman tank named Fury.

fury_ver6The film opens shortly after the death of Wardaddy’s fifth crew member. His replacement is Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a young clerk/typist who would rather die than shoot another human being. Needless to say, Norman changes his tune after a few days on the front lines.

It’s April 1945 and while the Nazis are down to drafting women and children, they’re not giving up the fight just yet. Wardaddy is one of four tank commanders rolling through the German countryside.

It’s fairly standard war-movie stuff until the crew stops to rest in a small town. Wardaddy takes Norman into a house where they find two women. He has the older woman fix them a meal while suggesting Norman take the younger one into the bedroom. The rest of the crew show up drunk and rowdy as the others are about to eat dinner. It’s the most awkward, uncomfortable dinner scene since “August: Osage County.”

Eventually the boys get back on the battlefield where they have a run-in with a more advanced German tank and later get into a “300”-style last stand against overwhelming odds.

Written and directed by David Ayer, “Fury” features solid acting by its cast, gripping war scenes, stark imagery and a bloody, no-holds-barred final battle sequence. Not sure where it would rank in the 204 movies about the second world war, but probably somewhere in the top 100.

 

 

At The Movies: Kill The Messenger

This week I had to choose between the over-hyped “The Judge” starring Robert Downey Jr. or the under-hyped “Kill the Messenger” starring Jeremy Renner.

This was actually a no-brainer, because not only does Hawkeye always trump Iron Man in my world, but while I like Robert Downey Jr., Jeremy Renner has yet to make a bad film that I’ve seen. Well, if you ignore “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.”

MV5BNDM5MDIxNzYyNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDUzMTk4MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_Renner stars as Gary Webb, an investigative journalist for the  San Jose Mercury News looking for his big story. It falls in his lap when a woman calls him with accusations that the federal government is working with drug dealers. She somehow has a copy of grand jury testimony that appears to back up her claims.

Webb’s investigation takes him from a filthy jail in Nicaragua to the halls of Capitol Hill. His accusations are white-hot: During the Reagan administration the CIA supported the cocaine-smuggling efforts of  drug lords in Nicaragua and used the money to fund the Contras rebel army. Most of those drugs wound up in the United States where they contributed to the nation’s crack epidemic.

It was an explosive story and initially the mainstream media were all over it, putting Webb on television and praising his work. But Webb had no official sources at the CIA to confirm his story and no one at the agency was about to offer any support. Instead the CIA begins a smear campaign against Webb. Sadly, both the media and Webb’s own editors turn on him.

Based on a true story, “Kill the Messenger” is  directed by Michael Cuesta and based on the books “Dark Alliance” by Gary Webb and “Kill the Messenger” by Nick Schou. It’s a powerful, fascinating and tragic story with another rock-solid performance by Renner. Webb goes through the whole gamut of emotions in this story and Renner really brings those emotions home. He’s assisted by an excellent supporting cast that includes Oliver Platt, Barry Pepper, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Ray Liotta.

“Kill the Messenger” isn’t a documentary on the Iran-Contra scandal — the focus is primarily on Webb and what he goes through to get the story and all the forces that align against him once he refuses to let go of the story. The movie is far more a condemnation of the media than the CIA.

At The Movies: Gone Girl

“Gone Girl” is either the strangest, creepiest love story ever told, or the strangest, creepiest murder mystery ever told. Or both.

Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, a writer from Missouri who moves to New York and doesn’t find success at writing but does meet the girl of his dreams, Amy Elliott (Rosamund Pike). Amy’s parents are successful writers who took their daughter’s childhood and turned it into a series of books.

173646H1When Nick’s mother becomes terminally ill, the couple leave the Big Apple for a small town outside St. Louis (the movie was filmed in Cape Girardeau). Nick is happy to be home but Amy doesn’t feel like she fits in. They both lose their jobs in the recession and Amy uses her trust-fund money to buy a bar for Nick and his sister Margo (Carrie Coon) to run.

As the film opens, it is Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary. The thrill has long since gone out of the marriage. After visiting with Margo at the bar, Nick goes home to find his wife missing and an overturned coffee table in the living room.

The police are called in and a search for the missing Amy begins. To say anymore about the plot would be to say too much.

Directed by David Fincher and based on the novel by Gillian Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay), “Gone Girl” is a dark, twisted tale that fits right in with Fincher’s other works “Seven,” “Zodiac” and “The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo.”

While there’s one scene of graphic violence, the movie builds its suspense in other ways. The smartly crafted story is stylishly shot and offers many twists and turns, few heroes and a lot of scarred individuals.

The film is expertly cast. Affleck and Pike are compelling in the lead roles with strong supporting performances by Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s ex-boyfriend, Tyler Perry as Nick’s attorney, Coon as Nick’s sister and Kim Dickens as the detective trying to make sense of it all.

At 2.5 hours “Gone Girl” runs a bit long — the ending feels especially dragged out. And that ending is certain to spark debate and strong feelings on all sides.

For The Record: Guardians of the Galaxy – Awesome Mix Vol. 1

Music is often an integral part of a movie. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the comic book blockbuster “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Marvel’s sci-fi/fantasy romp about five ragtag losers who team up to save the universe wasn’t supposed to become the No. 1 hit of the summer. Heck, most Marvel zombies don’t even care about Guardians of the Galaxy.

But then the commercials started to air. Some punk calling himself “Starlord” and dancing about to that long-forgotten ’70s hit “Hooked on a Feeling.” There was something about it… And the hits kept coming. Trailers showing spaceships fighting to “Spirit in the Sky.” By the time the film finally hit theaters everyone was ready for a good time. And as usual, Marvel delivered.

“GotG” had all the usual ingredients of a Marvel movie — compelling characters, humor, special effects, good versus evil — all that stuff. But it also had one other thing: a rollicking, rocking, smaltzy, terrible, infectious 1970s soundtrack. And the soundtrack isn’t just background noise. It’s as much a part of the story as in those other great sci-fi classics — “The Big Chill” or “Saturday Night Fever.”

ZBRK1acFor the Guardians-impaired, a brief recap: Young earthling Peter Quill is abducted by aliens. One of the few things he brings with him is a mixtape made by his dead mother. Twenty or so years later, Peter wanders the galaxy with his Walkman, getting into trouble while listening to his beloved cassette. The greatest mystery of “GotG” is not “How does that tree talk?” or “Why is that raccoon so smart?” but rather, “How has the Starlord managed to keep his tape and tape player up and running for all this time when he’s several light-years away from the nearest Radio Shack?”

Which brings us to the soundtrack album. A dozen tracks familiar to anyone within earshot of Top 40 radio in the 1970s. And to sum it up in two words: It’s terrible. Peter Quill’s mother had the worst taste of any fictional character whose mixtape I’ve come across. (Where’s Rob Gordon when you need him?) I mean, this was the 1970s — Led Zeppelin, Springsteen and Billy Joel were in their prime. The Who was recording “Who’s Next” and “Quadrophenia.” Bob Dylan released “Blood on the Tracks.”

And what does Pete’s mother leave him as a musical legacy of Earth? Blue Swede, The Raspberries, Norman Greenbaum, 10cc, Rupert Holmes and Redbone.  Seriously? That’s like an episode of “One Hit Wonders” on VH-1. Of the 12 songs on this album, I only have one in my rather vast record collection (“Moonage Daydream” from David Bowie’s classic “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars”).

And yet…and yet… when you put them all together in the context of the movie it really does become an awesome mix. I love listening to this stupid soundtrack with all these stupid songs that I would never listen to if I came across them on the radio but — for now — it works (Except for “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” — I will never like that piece of sap).

To prove my point, my wife picked this CD up for me at the library and listened to it on the way home.

“I didn’t care for it,” she says.

“Of course not. You haven’t seen the movie! That’s the only way these songs work, is if you have fond memories of the movie to connect them to.”

 

At The Movies: The Equalizer

There’s nothing remotely new about “The Equalizer.” Hollywood cranks out movies about quiet, unassuming men who turn out to be elite killing machines who go on bloody revenge sprees after being pushed to the limit on a regular basis.

In this latest version, Denzel Washington stars as Robert McCall, a quiet, unassuming man who works at a faux-Home Depot. Robert can’t sleep at night so he spends the early morning hours reading in a diner. It is there that he frequently chats with Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young prostitute working for ruthless Russian thugs.

hr_The_Equalizer_11When Teri’s boss beats her to the point of hospitalization, Robert can stand by idly no more. He offers to pay off Teri’s boss for her freedom but he’s not interested. Robert proceeds to violently kill Teri’s boss and his half-dozen, heavily-armed guards.

Unfortunately, Teri was working for goons who were working for Russian mobster Vladimir Pushkin (Vladimir Kulich). When word gets to Moscow that one of Pushkin’s lieutenants was murdered, he sends his top man — Teddy (Marton Csokas) — to investigate.

Teddy is every bit as cunning and uncompromising as Robert. It will take all of Robert’s skills as a former intelligence officer to stay ahead of the mobsters and the corrupt cops working with them.

Based on a 1980s television series, “The Equalizer” deals out satisfying but graphically violent vigilante justice. Director Antoine Fuqua launches the film with a slow burn, spending what feels like a good bit of time leading us through Robert’s humdrum life. But when Robert finally gets down to business, the action and tension doesn’t let up.

It may be a familiar story but it’s worth watching for the strong performances by Washington and Csokas. The movie clocks in at a little over two hours but it feels longer. While it seemingly takes forever to get the action started, it also seems like it takes forever for the final action sequence to end.

This film is available in IMAX but I don’t know why. I didn’t notice anything about it that made it worthy of the big, big screen treatment.

 

 

At The Movies: This is Where I Leave You; The Maze Runner

I’ve been slacking off lately so to make up for it — a double feature.

This Is Where I Leave You

This new comedy/drama from director Shawn Levy and writer Jonathan Tropper  is like a lesser version of last winter’s “August: Osage County.” The family is slightly less dysfunctional and the story is slightly less compelling. Still, I found it slightly more entertaining.

Jane Fonda stars as Hillary, matriarch of the Altman family. She’s a celebrity psychologist who naturally has caused his children all kinds of embarrassment by making them the subjects of her best-selling books. When her husband dies, the children are all called home to spend seven days sitting Shiva, per their father’s last wish.

MV5BMjkzNzQ2NDMyNl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTY3MTcxMjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Corey Stoll stars as Paul, the oldest son. He’s the no-nonsense, responsible one who has been running the family business. His wife Alice (Kathryn Hahn) desperately wants a baby. Since Paul has the least problems he gets the least amount of screen time.

Tina Fey plays daughter Wendy, stuck in a loveless marriage with two small children. Her true love is next-door-neighbor Horry (Timothy Olyphant), who suffered brain damage due to a car accident way back when they were dating.

Jason Bateman plays Judd, the central character of the piece. Judd’s life was actually going pretty well until the day his father died — which also happened to be the day he discovered his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) was cheating on him with his boss (Dax Shepard).

 Finally we have the youngest sibling, Phillip (Adam Driver). Phillip is immature and irresponsible. He arrives late for the funeral and brings with him a girlfriend.  Tracy (Connie Britton) is a psychologist like mom. She’s significantly older than Phillip.

Take these characters, toss in an old flame of Judd’s (Rose Byrne), toss them around for seven days condensed into a couple of hours, and that’s your film. There are scenes to make you laugh, scenes to pull at your heartstrings, but it all felt pretty insubstantial. The emotional tug of the story wasn’t there.

If you’re a big fan of infidelity you’ll enjoy this movie. There’s a twist at the end that had me more confused than shocked because for the entire film I was assuming the woman who was around all the time was Hillary’s sister since she was never properly identified.

I did like the cast and they are the main selling point for “This Is Where I Leave You.” The actors deserved a better story.

The Maze Runner

After suffering through five “Twilight” movies I decided I was going to be far more selective before attending a film based on a young adult book series. Call it a moment of weakness or just a really slow few weeks of new releases, but I broke down and went to see “The Maze Runner.”

Based on the first book in a trilogy (thank God there are only three) by James Dashner, “The Maze Runner” takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where kids are being used and abused for the benefit of adults (see also, “The Hunger Games”). You’d think kids today would have enough to worry about with Ebola, ISIS, global warming and the inevitable collapse of Social Security.

Dylan O’Brien stars as Thomas, a teenager who awakes one day to find he’s on a freight elevator that deposits him in a large green field surrounded by other young men. Thomas has no memory of who his past life, an affliction everyone there shares.

MV5BMjUyNTA3MTAyM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTEyMTkyMjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Thomas’ new home, known as The Glade, is surrounded by tall, immense walls that open once in the morning and once at night. Behind the walls is an intricate maze that changes every night. There are also monsters — cyborg spiders known as Grievers– who wander the maze. No one knows what’s on the other side of the maze.

The teen and pre-teen males who populate The Glade have formed a somewhat self-sufficient society led by Alby (Aml Ameen) and his second-in-command Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). Everyone has a role to play and at the top of the food chain are the maze runners — boys who go into the maze every morning and map out as much of it as they can before the gates close at night.

Not content to grow crops, Thomas wants to go into the maze and get to the other side. His rebellious actions create a great deal of trouble for the group but eventually he convinces enough of them to make a run for it.

“The Maze Runner” has a few things going for it. I liked the young cast and the design work of the maze and it’s surroundings. I was less impressed with the Grievers and the way most of the action sequences took place in the dark so you couldn’t make out what was going on.

But the film really falls apart when you get to the other side of the maze. I won’t blow the explanation here, let’s just say it left me slightly confused but mostly unimpressed.

And then the movie commits the ultimate sin for the first film in (what the filmmakers’ hope is) a franchise: it doesn’t come with a satisfying ending. After almost two hours we learn that we haven’t really watched a movie, we’ve just watched an extended trailer for the next movie.

Bad move. Always make that first film self-contained because you never know if you’re going to get to make that second film (see ‘Eragon” and “The Golden Compass,” among others).  I should want to watch a sequel because I want to spend more time in this world and with these characters, not because I want to know what the point was of the previous film.

Born At The Right Time

Someone near and dear to me marked a significant birthday this week. She wasn’t happy about it and so to cheer her up her friends and I took her to Augusta to spend the day at a winery. This usually works, even if only temporarily.

100_2276

Now, I get it. Growing old sucks. I’ve spent enough time in nursing homes (although I don’t think they call them that anymore) these past few years to know that for many people old age is not a blessing — not for them, not for their family, not for anyone around them. Some people grow old gracefully and die in their sleep at 94 with all their faculties and that’s great. Many don’t.

The thing is we’re only given one shot at life on Earth. And we have no control over when we’re born, where we’re born, who our parents are, if we’re born rich or poor, if we have great genes or wimpy genes. But regardless of our circumstances, we all start out young and stupid and, if we’re lucky, end up old and wise. Some of us will end up old and not able to remember anything and some of us won’t even make it to old.

So, what can you do? Make the best of it, I suppose. But the one thing I want to impart on my dear, sweet wife as she faces the other side of the hill is this: We were born at the right time.

And timing is everything. Born too early and you miss out on the good stuff still to come. Born too late and you miss out on the good stuff of the past. I’m convinced that we came along at the right time in human history. Well, except for having to change my music collection from album to 8-track to cassette to CD to digital download — that has been a pain in the ass.

First of all, anyone born before electricity, indoor plumbing, antibiotics and refrigeration had it worse off than you do. I go mad if my electricity is out for 24 hours. The richest king of England back in Days of Olde still had to crap in a bucket and have his maids take it away. Is that the life you’d want to live? Did King Louie ever know the joy of a Mexican Villa burrito? No, no he didn’t.

And who would want to live through The Great Depression? Not I. And the Second World War? Again, no. And who wants to grow up in the ’50s when the schools are practicing nuclear war safety drills?

I was born in the early ’60s, along with The Beatles and Marvel Comics. It was a decade of turmoil and change and I was right there in it. In my diapers for the most part, but still, I get to claim being a child of the ’60s and actually mean it while avoiding Vietnam and race riots and assassinations.

I grew up in a world where you could play outside and not have to worry about drive-by shootings or “stranger danger.” We could only watch cartoons on Saturday morning because that’s the only time they were on. We didn’t have video games. We didn’t have phones in our pockets. When we ate dinner we had to look at each other instead of down at our phones. We didn’t take photos of every goddamn moment of our lives and post them on the Internet. You could fly across country without 70 levels of security. The news was delivered in half-hour increments at 5:30 p.m. by Walter Cronkite because that’s the way it was.

The military draft ended in 1973. I was 11 years old. Born at the right time. I’m pretty sure if I had been drafted that I would have died in basic training.

The first time I saw “Star Wars” it was on a movie screen, not a television screen. I heard “The Stranger,” Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Synchronicity” and “The Joshua Tree” when they first came out. I was exposed to that music as it was meant to be heard, not stripped out for some Greatest Hits package.

See, that’s the thing with being born too late. Sure, kids today have all the modern conveniences but is it a better life to be constantly online or easily at someone’s beck and call? Not to me. I look on Facebook and I’m inundated by photos and videos of people’s kids. How narcissistic are these kids going to be as they grow up? And I get the appeal. I can post a clever thought on FB and no one will respond. I post a photo of Andrew and get 50 “likes.”

I have no baby pictures of me. There may be a few in existence but I don’t know where (I was the youngest and apparently parents get tired of baby pics after the first three kids. That or I was a really ugly baby.). I know there’s no video of me. I’m good with that.

And let’s face it, the world is on the downside of the hill as well. We’ve got terrorists everywhere, climate change, staggering debt, deadly viruses and Fox News. Better to clock out early than be here for the apocalypse.

Most important, if I hadn’t been born when I was and where I was I wouldn’t have had the parents I have or the family I have or the friends I have. It really has been a wonderful life.

And it ain’t over just yet.