Fury

 

Fury is a beautifully constructed WWII movie. The story, the script, the characters, the acting, the tanks, the effects are all top-notch. But is it special? That’s the big question about Fury. It’s a truly entertaining film, and maybe that’s enough.

Fury is a tank, commanded by “Wardaddy” (Brad Pitt). He’s fought Germans in Africa, France and, now, on the Krauts’ home turf. The film is set in spring 1945, just weeks before the war’s end. Germany is reeling, but the bloody battles continue.

When any war movie introduces its characters, you know: some will die; some will survive. Wardaddy’s group includes the religious Swan (Shia LeBoeuf), Latino “Gordo” (Michael Pena) and redneck “Coon-Ass” (Jon Bernthal).

The most interesting character in Fury is Norman, a callow youth played by Logan Lerman. Norman is a pencil pusher, just 8 weeks into his Army career, when he’s somehow assigned to Wardaddy’s crew. He is unprepared for witnessing death and certainly not ready to kill people.

A couple of battle scenes set up the final showdown. The faceoff between Fury (and other American tanks) against a bigger, stronger German tank depicts the intense effort of those inside the tank and the constant movement of the tanks for strategic positioning. (A note at the movie’s opening notes that American tanks did not quite measure up to German tanks.)

A sequence that follows the takeover of a German town shows Wardaddy and Norman enjoying a cordial visit with 2 German women. It’s a moment of quiet humanity amidst the horror of war. Later, the other 3 tank men crash the party and behave uncouthly until Wardaddy takes control.

When Fury is assigned to go it alone and defend a key rural intersection, they sit and wait for German activity. Norman scouts from a hillside and spots hundreds of Germans on their way for the film’s climactic battle, which is loud, intense and furious.

Writer/director David Ayer frames the film with memorable opening and closing shots and his overhead shots of the tank positioning are cleverly shot. In Fury, though most of the action occurs during daytime, the days are gray and dismal—appropriate for the grim business of war.

As Fury depicts it, war is hell. WWII, particularly so.

 

 

 

St. Vincent

St. Vincent is a movie whose outcome you can predict as soon as it begins. Even though the destination may be preordained, the journey is fun, sweet and, at moments, poignant.

Bill Murray is Vincent, a curmudgeon who lives alone in a non-descript section of Brooklyn. Single mom Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) make an auspicious arrival as Vincent’s new neighbors when their moving guys take out a tree limb and part of Vincent’s fence with their truck.

Maggie goes to work and Oliver goes to school. When Maggie has to work late, she hires Vincent to babysit the lad (who appears to be about 10 years old). While mom works, Vincent shares his world with Oliver, taking the kid to the horse track and a bar. He also introduces Oliver to pregnant stripper/hooker Daka (Naomi Watts with a bad Russian accent).

When Oliver is bullied at school, Vincent suggests a technique to take down his bigger intimidators. It works extremely well. (Charismatic Irish actor Chris O’Dowd is a priest who is one of Oliver’s teachers at school.)

As the movie proceeds, more of Vincent’s life is revealed and the grizzled old guy with a bad attitude is shown to have human emotions. He may not have a heart of gold, but at least he has a heart.

Bill Murray has been handed a role that’s perfect for him. His Vincent is not just a caricature, he’s a real guy, like you see on the street everyday. Murray should get awards consideration. But because he makes playing Vincent look so easy, he may be overlooked. The other performances are solid, but Murray carries the movie, so he is due the greater amount of acclaim.

First time director/screenwriter Theodore Melfi, a man with Missouri roots, has assembled a movie that’s funny but also brings real human emotion to the screen. You may not actually cry, but you’ll laugh. And you’ll ending up liking the key characters, too. (Stick around for the closing credits and Murray’s casual singing of Dylan’s “Shelter From The Storm.”)

The Judge

 

The two Roberts are terrific in The Judge. The rest of the movie is pretty good, too!

An estrangement between a parent and child is a painful thing to observe and, for those who have that situation in their lives, the hurt lingers every day. In the case of Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) and his father Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), the reasons for the resentments each carries appear, on surface, to be justified. But a series of events has the potential to result in healing of their emotional wounds.

Hank is a hot-shot Chicago defense attorney who learns that his mother has died. He returns to his small hometown in Indiana for the funeral and tense dealings with his father who has been the town’s judge for 42 years. On the evening following his wife’s funeral, the judge kills a man in a hit-and-run. As Hank prepares to return to Chicago, his brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) calls to tell him that their dad has been charged with a crime.

The judge/dad/Joseph chooses as his lead attorney local yokel C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard), an antiques dealer who just happens to have a law degree. C.P’s shortcomings are quickly exposed and in short order, Hank takes over.

Courtroom scenes have famously provided opportunities for talented actors to strut their stuff and give memorable performances. The two Roberts do not miss their chances to bring their best. With Billy Bob Thornton as the prosecutor and Ken Howard as judge, father Joseph takes the witness stand and son Hank does his best to create doubt about his father’s part in the incident.

The Judge provides laughter among the tension. The jury selection process is fun and C.P.’s ritual of puking before each courtroom session lightens the mood.

During his time back in town, Hank, whose marriage in Chicago is troubled, reunites with old hometown girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga). The attraction is still there.

The Judge contains a particularly gorgeous shot, taken from a copter or a drone, that shows Hank at the wheel of his car before the camera pulls back to show a panorama of unending verdant farmland.

The Judge is longish, clocking in around 2:20. But the complicated relationship between the father and son merits the time spent for examination of past events and current circumstances that have brought them to this point in their lives. The two Roberts make The Judge a movie worth seeing.

 

Kill The Messenger

 

Jeremy Renner is a talented actor but I’m not a big fan. Sometimes it seems he’s trying too hard. Other times he appears to be the wrong person for a particular role. In Kill The Messenger, Renner is perfectly cast and he delivers one of his best performances.

Kill The Messenger is the story of real life investigative reporter Gary Webb (Renner) of the San Jose Mercury News. He is handed a grand jury transcript that leads him to a very big story. When he publishes the story, he is praised. But soon, holes in the story are discovered and his reporting is discredited.

His story, published in August 1996, connected the CIA to drug trafficking in the 1980’s. The drugs, in the form of highly addictive crack cocaine, earned money to buy guns for the Contras in Central America. The paper, a small fish in the national journalistic scene, is elated to break something big. The CIA immediately went to work discrediting the story.

Certain media outlets misinterpreted key elements of the story. Bigger newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times published accounts disputing what Webb had reported. The people at his own paper—editors Anna Simons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Jerry Ceppos (Oliver Platt)—began to doubt that Webb’s sources were legit. The Mercury News bumped him down to working a suburban bureau.

Renner brings good energy to the role of this enthusiastic enterprise reporter who had the story of a lifetime fall into his hands. Renner’s Webb has the ability to get what he needs from all sorts of people, good and bad. He easily convinces his bosses to give him sufficient rope, resources and time to produce the story.

Shortly thereafter, they throw him under the bus and tell him of plans to publish a front-page letter to readers stepping back from the story. When the solid source he needs (Ray Liotta) steps forward, his editors have no interest in keeping the story in play.

Kill The Messenger does not cast doubt on Webb’s reporting and portrays him as a victim of a concerted effort to refute the work that his editors initially praised. It leaves certain questions unanswered: How much did the CIA have to do with Webb’s editors spiking his work? What did the CIA do to provoke the NY and LA Times and Washington Post to attack Webb’s reporting? What made key sources claim they’d never spoken to Webb?

I heartily recommend Kill The Messenger to all my friends who work in media, particularly the ink-stained wretches (affectionate term) at the Post-Dispatch and other print media. It’s great to see hard work and journalistic integrity get such generous onscreen treatment.

(One more thing: Don’t be late. The title sequence is excellent.)

 

 

 

Gone Girl

 

Gone Girl is one of the year’s best films. Unexpectedly strong performances from the leads Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are the centerpiece of the latest from consistently adept storyteller, director David Fincher.

Gillian Flynn adapted her own massively successful novel into a screenplay that reveals plot points gradually while giving shape and form to the complex personalities of Nick Dunne (Affleck) and his wife Amy (Pike).

Nick and Amy live in the river town of North Carthage, Missouri. (The film was shot on location in Cape Girardeau.) They moved from New York to Nick’s hometown to be with his mother as she faced breast cancer. Nick co-owns a bar in the town with his twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon).

On their anniversary, Amy disappears. Police find clues—including signs of a struggle–in the couples’ home, but no body. Because the home is a crime scene, Nick moves in with Margo. As often happens when a wife disappears, speculation about the husband’s guilt spreads. In Gone Girl, it ignites discussion on a Nancy Grace type TV show.

As the investigation proceeds, detective Boney (Kim Dickens) plays by the book to build a case but her sidekick officer Gilpin (Patrick Fugit) is eager to arrest Nick. When public opinion turns against him, Nick brings in attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) to advise him. Meanwhile, as the search continues, Amy’s old boyfriend Desi (Neil Patrick Harris) moves from the background to the foreground.

Among the supporting cast, Coon and Perry are strongest. Dickens delivers her dialogue in a truly authentic Southern accent. Harris is low key and coolly straightforward, almost distractingly so.

Apart from being a police procedural that causes a viewer to wonder about the outcome, Gone Girl paints a telling picture of a troubled marriage. Both husband and wife are shown to have character flaws. Their courtship and the early days of their marriage are shown via flashback. Amy’s diary entries, which she reads in voiceover, provide the audience with her takes on married life.

The soundtrack from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is genius. Early on, the sounds are ethereal, dreamily romantic. But as things get serious, the music turns darker.

Clearly, Fincher has not only assembled talented individuals on and off camera, but also has obtained supreme efforts from all involved. The result is an excellent movie which, despite its nearly 2-and-a-half hour run time, never drags. See it and be careful what you say afterward. No spoilers.

 

 

The Boxtrolls

 

The Boxtrolls is the best looking animated film to hit theaters in years. A combination of labor-intensive stop action filming and post-production CGI has brought forth a movie that’s filled with images of characters and settings that are brilliant in every sense of the word.

We are 20+ years into the Golden Age of Animation, which began with Disney megahit musicals (Aladdin, Lion King), gathered momentum with Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas and hit light speed with Pixar’s Toy Story. After those fallow decades when, because of TV’s less demanding visual needs, animators did their work on the cheap, studios began to deliver strong product and earned huge returns.

As has been shown over and over during this Golden Age, good looks and technical advances help the cause, but ultimate success still rests on a good story. Strong voice acting helps as well. The Boxtrolls hits the mark on all counts.

Boxtrolls are weird little creatures who live beneath the village of Cheesebridge. They come out at night and salvage junk to use in their underground lair. Because they wear boxes (and can hide within them, like a turtle in a shell), they are called boxtrolls. They may remind you in some ways of the minions in the Despicable Me movies.

A young boy called Egg (voiced by Isaac Hempstead-Wright) mysteriously appears among the boxtrolls who raise him as one of their own. Egg leads the boxtrolls to their confrontation with Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) who is the town’s boxtroll exterminator.

Snatcher’s burning desire is to share in a cheese tasting with the town’s elite. He has, however, a cheese allergy and his physical reactions are displayed with hilarious effects.

Winnie Portley-Rind (Elle Fanning), daughter of cheese connoisseur and leading citizen Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), helps Egg expose the true nature of Snatcher’s work and reveal the good side of the boxtrolls. Other voice talents include Nick Frost, Simon Pegg and Tracy Morgan.

The Boxtrolls, co-directed by Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, comes from the Laika production company, the outfit that produced Coraline and ParaNorman.

For fans of animated film, The Boxtrolls is a “must see.” All the creative work comes together beautifully in a movie that is filled with delights. Happily, the technology does not overwhelm the storytelling but, instead, enhances it. I’ll say it again: Brilliant in every sense of the word.

 

 

 

 

 

A Walk Among The Tombstones

 

Is Liam Neeson the new Charles Bronson? He’s out for revenge again in the dark new film A Walk Among The Tombstones.

Matt Scudder (Neeson) is an ex NYC cop and recovering alcoholic. When wealthy drug dealers have family members kidnapped for ransom, they call him. (Because, you see, they are engaged in illegal activity they can’t call the police.)

Scudder may seem to have no moral compass—he makes a surprising comment regarding police corruption—but, of course, he does. He relentlessly pursues the two kidnappers until their encounter in a cemetery during the film’s homestretch. (There’s key earlier scene in that same cemetery.)

Scudder is also shown participating in AA meetings. We learn via flashbacks why he is no longer on the force (despite apparent heroics at the film’s beginning).

Along the way, Scudder encounters a black teen named T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley. He was the constant videographer in this summer’s failed kid movie Earth To Echo.) Scudder’s relationship with T.J. gives the severe ex-cop an opportunity to show his human side.

After the cemetery rendezvous, Scudder and the victimized drug dealers (and T.J.) follow the kidnappers to their home where the final faceoff occurs. The climax of A Walk Among The Tombstones provides partial satisfaction to this gritty tale.

Lawrence Block has written 17 Matt Scudder novels. It’s safe, I think, to assume that this could become a franchise for Neeson, depending on responses from moviegoers to AWATT. Block co-wrote the script with director Scott Frank.

Neeson has become typecast as a burdened soul who rights wrongs. With the Taken films, this past winter’s Non-Stop and now A Walk Among The Tombstones, he has shown that he wears the role well. Why shouldn’t he continue starring in the kinds of roles his fans want to see?

Tusk

 

Tusk is an odd amusement. This is NOT a movie for everyone.

The story comes from a podcast featuring writer/director Kevin Smith and fellow podcaster Scott Mosier. Their brainstorm evolved into a tale about a man who is held hostage and turned into a walrus. When the film’s first trailer was released this summer, no hints were given that the film might be funny.

Tusk is funny. It’s also (at various points) weird, clever, dumb, frightening, gross, off-putting and lovable. But, as noted, this is not a movie for everyone.

Wallace (Justin Long) and Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) are L.A.-based podcasters who talk about a kid in Manitoba who injured himself severely with a sword. Video of the injury goes viral. Wallace goes to Canada to interview the kid, but finds that he is dead.

Wallace finds a curious note on the wall of a Winnipeg men’s room and, wanting some good audio for his podcast, heads out to find the note’s writer, Howard Howe (Michael Parks). Howe shares his story of being rescued at sea by a walrus. Wallace is drugged and awakens to discover just how disturbed Howe is.

Wallace manages to leave voicemails for his girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) and Teddy. They go to Canada to find and rescue Wallace. Along the way, they encounter an investigator named Guy LaPointe (Johnny Depp in an uncredited role) who provides a few of the film’s comedic highlights.

Tusk has some silly jokes about American/Canadian culture. (A convenience store is named “Eh-2-Zed.”) Stick around during credits for an audio clip of the podcast that spawned this bit of wackiness.

Kevin Smith is known for taking risks in his moviemaking. His Dogma is one I watch any time I flip by it. Tusk is strange enough that it’s likely to be embraced as genius by certain of Smith’s devotees. It is entertaining enough for me—I appreciate this film’s strangeness—but, as noted above, Tusk is not for everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Is Where I Leave You

 

This Is Where I Leave You tries hard but falls short. The film waffles between being a story about Judd’s (Jason Bateman) breakup with his wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer) and being an ensemble piece about a family whose father/husband has just died. It tries to be a comedy but is only partially successful. It tries to touch our emotions but is only partially successful.

The cast of TIWILY is impressive. The adult children of Hillary Altman (Jane Fonda) are Judd, Wendy (Tina Fey), Paul (Corey Stall) and Phillip (Adam Driver). Kathryn Hahn plays Paul’s wife Alice. Connie Britton is Phillip’s lover, Tracy. Wendy’s husband Barry (Aaron Lazar) gets very little face time.

The movie opens with Judd catching his wife cheating with his boss (Dax Shepard) who is an outrageous testosterone-fueled satellite radio host. This is where he leaves his wife. Soon after, dad leaves his family behind. So there’s your title.

When the siblings come home to bury their dad, mom tells them that his last wish was that the 4 of them spend a full week in the house. One might expect hilarity to ensue here, but the humor is weak and the film is not as funny as hoped for. TIWILY has its moments, but the overall chuckle factor is rather low on the scale.

Yes, there are those relatable family moments when long-buried memories and resentments resurface. There are those moments when perceptive family members figure out that another isn’t being completely honest. There are reconnections with the past, including Judd’s fling with Penny (Rose Byrne) who just happens to be working at the family’s sporting goods store.

Shawn Levy, who directed the Night At The Museum movies, Date Night and one of my kids’ favorites, Big Fat Liar, is director for TIWILY. He does a nice job of squeezing in numerous characters and plot points with only a handful of each getting shortchanged.

I keep comparing this film with 2005’s The Family Stone, which presented both the emotional moments and the funny stuff better. This Is Where I Leave You is not a “bad” film. If you’re a fan of Jason Bateman or Tina Fey, you’ll enjoy seeing them onscreen. But TIWILY is a middle-of-the-pack movie that, for me, inspires deep feelings of indifference.

 

The Drop

 

Bob Saganowski (Tom Hardy) is one of my favorite movie characters of 2014. He’s a bartender at Cousin Marv’s in the new film The Drop, a crime drama set in an Archie Bunker sort of neighborhood in Brooklyn. Marv, the bar’s former owner who still runs the place, is played by James Gandofini in his final film performance.

The bar is a place for money drops of ill-gotten gains. Various criminals throughout an evening hand over envelopes filled with cash. The cash is dropped into a safe. The story is kick started with an armed robbery of the bar.

Bob is a seemingly simple man. His life consists of tending bar, accepting the cash drops and going each day to mass, where he never takes communion. Bob’s rescue of an abused dog from a garbage can leads to his friendship with and attraction to Nadia (Noomi Rapace).

Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a small-time local hood who tells Bob the dog is his and makes threats against Bob and the dog. Deeds is in cahoots with Marv to pull an inside job and take all the money to be dropped at the bar on Super Bowl Sunday—a huge day for bookies.

Another key player is police detective Torres (John Ortiz) who investigates the first robbery and recognizes Bob from the daily mass. Torres appears to know what is going on with each of the characters, but chooses to let things happen.

The Drop is filled with strong performances from the actors playing each of the main characters. But it is Tom Hardy as Bob who soars. With his odd version of a Brooklyn accent and his slow, deliberate manner, Bob is revealed to have more going on than is initially obvious. Expect Hardy to be mentioned during awards season for his work here.

The script is by Dennis Lehane who wrote Mystic River, Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone. Belgian Michael Roskam directed. The story here is good, but it’s the characters—and the actors filling those roles—who provide the best reason to see and appreciate The Drop.