‘Inglourious Basterds’ is a World War II Movie Done The Tarantino Way

Inglorious Basterds movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written in 2009.

 “Nazis, I hate these guys!”

                        -Harrison Ford from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”

 “You know somethin’, Utivich? I think this might just be my masterpiece.”

                                                                                    -Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine

 Could this truly be Tarantino’s masterpiece? Hard to say, but it is indeed his most ambitious movie to date. “Inglourious Basterds” is another brilliant love letter to all things cinema from Quentin Tarantino, and it ends the rather crappy 2009 summer movie season on a high note. With this film, Tarantino has created his own version of World War II and has given it an ending many of us would have preferred to have seen happen. It is also his tribute to movies like “The Dirty Dozen” and other war movies of its ilk. It is not a remake of the film of the same name, but it uses the same title out of respect.

“Inglourious Basterds” is told in a series of chapters, and it features several different threads of story which eventually intersect at the film’s fiery climax. We meet our chief Nazi villain, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) as he questions a family as to whether or not they are hiding any Jews, but we soon realize he is asking questions he already knows the answers to. Then we are introduced to the Basterds themselves, and they are led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) who announces that they are being dropped into Nazi occupied France to do one thing and one thing only, kill Nazis. Not only that, they plan to take souvenirs to show the Nazis they mean business. Then we meet Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), the only Jew to escape Col. Landa’s deadly grasp, and she has since found a safe hiding place as the owner of a German cinema which will soon host the most powerful members of the Nazi party for a film opening gala. Little do they know of the act of brutal vengeance which will eventually greet them…

At a running time of 153 minutes, “Inglourious Basterds” is one of those rare movies which really takes its time. There’s no big rush to get from one big action set piece to the next which is usually case with just about every summer movie released from one year to the next. Even while The Weinstein Company had to work with Universal Pictures to get this film made, Tarantino still gets full creative control which is a blessing for those of us who love his films. We also get the great dialogue we have come to expect from him, and there are moments where words speak louder than actions. There are many verbal duels between characters as each one tries to outdo the other, and what is implied by them ends up generating an amazing amount of tension.

Tarantino also retains a keen eye for casting, and he has said one of the actors he chose did in fact give him back his movie. That actor would be Christoph Waltz who plays the intelligent but deadly Col. Hans Landa. Waltz won the Best Actor award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the way I see it, they should just hand him the Oscar come next March. Brilliant seems too subtle a description to describe his performance. His role is an extremely difficult one to pull off because he has to come off a certain way while allowing us to see in his eyes what he already knows. Waltz comes off with simple gestures which leave us deeply unnerved, and there is a key moment where he deals with a character that serves as a great cat and mouse moment as he tries to figure out the person he sees before him while she tries to remain calm and hide who she really is from him. Waltz’s opening scene with the French farmer is remarkable in how he psychologically tears him down to where he finally admits he has no choice and reveals what Landa already knows.

I’m not sure if I have seen Waltz in other movies before this one, but I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future. Seriously, his character is to “Inglourious Basterds” as Heath Ledger’s Joker was to “The Dark Knight.”

Then we have Brad Pitt who I am glad to see get down and dirty after being all cute and cuddly in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” As Lt. Aldo Raine, he starts off by giving a speech to his men which makes him come off like George C. Scott in “Patton.” It is clear Pitt is having a ball playing this character and saying the dialogue Tarantino has written, and he looks to have saved some of the manic energy he had in “Burn After Reading” for this role. While performance at times comes close to caricature, he has us rooting for Aldo throughout.

Tarantino also continues to be great at writing strong roles for women. Mélanie Laurent does great work here as Shosanna Dreyfus, the Jewish woman who is the only survivor of Landa’s murderous rampage. Throughout the movie, she goes from playing it cool around the Nazis to being terrified as she comes under close examination from them. She has managed to maintain her cover as a German while running her own cinema, and she also has to fend off the advances of Pvt. Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) who is something of a pop star in the Nazi party when he meets her. She also has a strong relationship with her boyfriend projectionist, Marcel (Jacky Ido), which allows her to show compassion she would otherwise have to keep hidden from the prying eyes of those out to eliminate Jews. Laurent gets to portray many different facets of her character throughout the movie’s running time, and her performance is every bit as memorable to me as Waltz’s was.

I also got a big kick out of Diane Kruger’s highly entertaining performance as film star Bridget von Hammersmark, a Marlene Dietrich type. Kruger is a wonderful presence as she goes from being an outgoing actress who always seems to enjoy the company of others to a tough woman who shares in the Basterds passion of doing in the Nazis, most especially Hitler. Best known for her work in “National Treasure” and “Troy,” she really comes into her own here.

“Inglourious Basterds” has a great cast overall with other memorable turns from actors like Michael Fassbender as a British spy posing as a German officer, and Sylvester Groth who portrays the irrepressibly snooty Joseph Goebbels. It’s also a hoot to see Mike Meyers here in a “guest starring” role as a British general, and it almost fully makes up for the mess he inflicted on us with “The Love Guru.” Eli Roth, the so-called “torture porn” director, is also on board as Sgt. Donny Donowitz, aka “The Bear Jew.” Although this role was originally intended for Adam Sandler, it almost makes sense the “Hostel” director would play a soldier who beats Nazis to death with a baseball bat.

Many of Tarantino’s favorite movie devices are on display here including the “Mexican standoff” and endless talk about movies, but here they feel much fresher and exhilarating to watch. The scene in the German bar where a Nazi soldier is celebrating the birth of his son may seem a bit too long, but Tarantino builds the scene to a fever pitch of tension as everyone has their gun on the other, and you watch in terrifying anticipation as to who will shoot first. With the character of Shosanna, he takes the time to express his love of foreign cinema. In his other movies, especially the “Death Proof” portion of “Grindhouse,” he mostly speaks of his affection for American movies and pop culture, but his love of cinema never stops there.

Tarantino also gives us another great soundtrack which is a collection of film scores from other movies, and of songs capturing the essence of his characters to the letter. Interestingly enough, much of the music is not from the WWII period, and he even uses David Bowie’s theme song from Paul Schrader’s 1980’s “Cat People” remake to perfectly capture Shosanna in her final preparations for her much deserved revenge. As with the “Kill Bill” movies, he makes effective use of the film scores of Ennio Morricone who remains a big influence on his own work. It didn’t take me long after seeing the movie to buy the soundtrack, but I do wish it was on sale.

Many will complain of how inaccurate this film is to the historical facts of WWII, but they are just wasting their time. We should all know by the time we head into the theater that Tarantino is not out to be anymore as historically accurate as Michael Mann was with “Public Enemies.” Every once in a while, you need a movie which breaks the rules, and it is such infectious fun to see “Inglourious Basterds” break down the normal conventions of the typical WWII movie. So many of them over the past couple of years tend to be depressing affairs which deal with the humanity lost, but Tarantino is out to do the exact opposite. “Inglorious Basterds” is a fantastic genre movie which borrows from many movies, and he is still genius at taking elements from them all and making them his own.

2009 has been a bad year for movies thus far, but “Inglourious Basterds” is one of the best and is yet another cinematic triumph for Tarantino as it shows he is no one trick pony. I just hope we don’t have to wait another 6 years for his next film.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

 

Advertisements

‘The Reader’ Features a Brilliant and Galvanizing Performance from Kate Winslet

The Reader movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

The Reader” has been getting mixed reviews, and I can’t understand why. I was expecting a good movie with great performances when I went in to see it, but I ended up getting a lot more than that. My father was with me when I saw the movie, and he confirmed it was astonishingly faithful to the book it was based on. Indeed, “The Reader” is an emotionally devastating journey through the beginning of an affair between a young student and an older woman, and of the aftermath it lays on both of them. Every single performance here is extraordinary, particularly the one given by Kate Winslet. If she does indeed get nominated for this movie or “Revolutionary Road,” she will certainly deserve the Oscar this time around.

Winslet plays Hanna Schmitz who works as a ticket taker for the local trains going in and out of the town, and she encounters young Michael Berg (David Kross) who is sick and depressed. She takes care of him and even walks him home. Michael later returns to where she lives to thank her for what she did, and from there the two have a secret affair which involves both sex and reading. Hanna asks Michael to read to her before they make love, and he does so with tremendous enthusiasm to say the least. This deepens their relationship even while it remains a secret between the two of them, and it lasts for several months.

Part of the movie’s success in affecting you may depend on how much of yourself you see in the character of Michael Berg. Many of us would not like to remember ourselves as ever being weak, but something deep in our subconscious would certainly have entertained the idea of having an affair with an older woman, let alone Kate Winslet. As a teenager, your hormones are jumping up and down on an ever-expanding trampoline in the realm of puberty, so thinking about something other than girls will be a bit challenging. All the same, common sense might kick in somewhere which can, and should, stop us from being involved in such a relationship.

In many ways, “The Reader” is an argument against this kind of a relationship as this one elicits even more heartache, confusion, and emotional scars which can last a lifetime. They say the first love is always the hardest because of the eventual break up which hurts like a son of a bitch. Clearly, there are not many break ups or separations which can hurt as much as the one experienced by Michael and Hanna.

2008 may be remembered as the year of Batman, the late Heath Ledger, Robert Downey Jr. and many other things. I do hope it is also known as the year of Winslet. On top of “The Reader,” she also has “Revolutionary Road” coming up which is directed by her husband Sam Mendes. She needn’t have been nominated for an Oscar five times already to convince us of what a superb actress she is. Winslet manages to do many things I cannot see another actress doing as effectively, and she superbly handles the aging of her character without overdoing it or falling into some caricature of an elderly person we may have preconceptions of. Winslet immerses herself into this role ever so fearlessly, and she gives us one of the most compelling and emotionally devastating performances of the year.

Winslet also does something which at first would seem unthinkable and horrifying; she gives a human face to the SS officers who were later prosecuted for their role in the murder of millions of Jews during the Holocaust. From a distance, we would simply shout down at these people because of the horrible things they have done. Winslet wisely does not make us sympathize with what her character has been through, but she makes us see Hanna’s pain throughout the trial as she is caught up in a situation she does not entirely understand. This later leads to a revelation about her which I will not reveal as it will destroy the mystery of her character for the audience this movie deserves. But this secret is something Hanna feels much more ashamed of than her role as an SS officer.

It also brings up an interesting point worth dwelling on. These officers are being prosecuted for their role in the worst kind of atrocity, and probably rightly so. I say probably because in the end, these are just soldiers who were ordered to do their jobs by a genocidal maniac named Adolf Hitler. As history shows, the hierarchy of an evil or highly immoral regime seems to get off somewhat easier than the soldiers whom, whether we agree with their actions or not, were simply doing the job they were commanded to do. For them to simply not do their duties would have led to their deaths by a simple bullet in the head. Obviously, the atrocity of the Holocaust brought on a strong need for revenge in its aftermath, and prosecutors went after perhaps the only ones who could be easily prosecuted as Hitler killed himself before he could ever be captured. While I watched the movie, my dad leaned over to me and said, “Just remember this when they prosecute those soldiers from Abu Ghraib and not Donald Rumsfeld.”

As much as “The Reader” may seem like the Kate Winslet show, there are many other performances to admire other than hers. The one performance which might come across as the most underrated is the one given by David Kross as the young Michael Berg. Throughout all the scenes he has with Kate, he more than holds his own with her as he conveys the hell of an emotional turmoil he goes through both as a teenager, and later as an adult. In retrospect, Kross has the hardest role in the movie as he has to convey many things about his character without saying a word. We know why Michael is going through so many conflicting emotions, but the characters around him don’t know this. Furthermore, they cannot know as this would implicate Michael in a situation he will not ever be able to escape from. I have not heard of Kross before this movie, and I am interested to see how he got the role as his performance is nothing short of astonishing.

And of course, we have the great Ralph Fiennes as the adult Michael Berg, and he conveys how the character never moved on fully from the affair he had so many years ago. Fiennes portrays him as a man who knows he is more emotionally distant from people than anyone should be, and he is aided by Kross’ performance as we see why this is the case.

Director Stephen Daldry previously directed the film adaptation of “The Hours” with Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore. Along with “The Reader,” he seems to be working with a recurring theme of women caught up in a world they are desperate to escape from. Even if such an escape lasts only a brief moment, they are caught up in a world not necessarily of their own making, and it threatens to kill their soul completely. Daldry certainly isn’t afraid to venture into emotionally charged material, or of material many will simply view as depressing.

“The Reader” is pretty certain at this point to have a place on my list of the best movies of 2008, and not just for the brilliant performance given by Kate Winslet.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Imitation Game’ Presents Alan Turing to a New Generation

The Imitation Game poster

Movies “based on a true story” keep coming at us like Election Day fliers in the mail, but “The Imitation Game” is one of the few that actually deserves our full attention. It portrays the life and work of Alan Turing, one of Britain’s most extraordinary heroes, whose efforts and accomplishments remained unsung for far too long. At the same time, it is a movie about secrets; how we keep them, the importance of keeping them and of the damage they can do when uncovered by others. What starts off as a typical biopic becomes something much more as we watch how Turing and his crew of code breakers helped bring an end to World War II, and of how his life came to a tragic end through needless and unwarranted intolerance.

When it came to finding the right actor to portray Alan Turing, the filmmakers could not have found one better than Benedict Cumberbatch. While other actors would have made the mistake of portraying Turing as some kind of Dr. House clone, Cumberbatch turns him into a fascinatingly complex human being who is brilliant, socially awkward, and very vulnerable in a time where being vulnerable could be a huge liability.

For those who don’t know, Turing was a brilliant mathematician and cryptanalyst who worked at Bletchley Park, the top-secret Government Code and Cypher School during World War II, where he created a machine which succeeded in breaking Germany’s seemingly unbreakable Enigma machine. Cumberbatch makes it clear just how incredibly smart Turing is during his first meeting with naval commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) as he turns a hopelessly bad job interview into an unforgettable demonstration of his deduction skills.

What I loved about Cumberbatch’s performance is how he makes Turing curt with people in a way which is arrogant but not necessarily mean. It’s no surprise his fellow co-workers have a tough time warming up to him as he is determined to do things his way and has little time for anybody who doesn’t think as fast as he does. But part of the fun is watching Cumberbatch take Turing from being an anti-social human being to one who is genuinely eager to involve the rest of his crew in breaking Enigma.

One of the colleagues who came to be a big help to Turing is Joan Clarke, a Cambridge mathematics graduate played by Keira Knightley. Her entrance in the movie is great as the other men consider her to be in town only to apply for secretarial work, but Knightley makes Clarke into a very confident character who is more than ready to prove her worth in a male dominated environment. She also becomes one of Turing’s best friends through thick and thin as she helps ease him into social gatherings and become one of the guys instead of such an isolated individual. Even as Turing’s life heads down the tubes, Clarke is still there for him as she understands him in a way few others do.

I figured “The Imitation Game” would climax with Turing’s machine breaking Enigma, and the sequence where Turing and the others succeed in doing so is intensely exciting. But in a sense, it marks the beginning of the end for this group as they come to discover how the secrets they have uncovered lead to other secrets being made and kept for the good of the people. There’s even a scene where Turing’s crew discovers when a cargo ship is going to be attacked, and they debate on whether or not they will stop it as doing so risks undoing all the work they have accomplished. I love it when dramatic movies provide characters with such difficult dilemmas to solve, and this film comes with some of the most agonizing.

Again, this is a movie about secrets, and it becomes fascinating to see how the keeping of these secrets comes to deeply affect each character. True identities are revealed and compromised, and while certain secrets are kept in the dark to give England an advantage in the war, others secrets come to destroy those who had the misfortune of living in a time where certain behaviors and orientations were criminalized. Turing is the one who suffers the most as his private life is revealed to the world which forces him to face an utterly cruel and unnecessary punishment.

“The Imitation Game” was directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum whose previous works include “Headhunters,” “Fallen Angels” and “Buddy,” and he also directed “Passengers” starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Tyldum has done an excellent job in transporting us back to the days of World War II in a way which feels unique and not overly familiar. His emphasis is on the characters just as it should be, and he succeeds in making this not just another traditional biopic. He pays great respect to Turing throughout as this is a man who made a huge difference not just in World War II but also in the development of future technologies we have become far too dependent on these days.

Cumberbatch has long since proved how great an actor he is with his work on the London Stage and on “Sherlock,” and he was prominently featured in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and “Star Trek into Darkness.” In “The Imitation Game,” he takes us on quite the emotional ride as we see him triumph in what he does best and suffer horribly in a time where he doesn’t quite belong. He makes you feel Turing’s pain as it is reduced to a shell of what he once was, and the scene where he is unable to even start a crossword puzzle is devastating to witness.

But Cumberbatch isn’t the whole show here as he is surrounded by a wonderful group of actors who are every bit as good. Keira Knightley does some of her best work yet as Joan Clarke, the woman who comes to understand Turing the best. Matthew Goode, so unnerving a presence in “Stoker,” is the epitome of perfect casting as Hugh Alexander; the chess champion and man about town we would all like to be in our everyday lives. Mark Strong makes Major General Stewart Menzies a deeply enigmatic (no pun intended) character who knows far more than he ever lets on. And then there’s Rory Kinnear who portrays Detective Robert Nock, the man who investigates Turing and becomes very eager to keep his life from being ruined. Kinnear is very strong as he shows us the detective’s inner conflict in convicting a man who is truly responsible for saving many lives.

Turing ended up taking his own life at the young age of 43, and it is only in recent years that he has people have acknowledged the terrible treatment he received. In August 2009, John Graham-Cumming started a petition urging the British Government to apologize for Turing’s prosecution, and then Prime Minister Gordon Brown acknowledged and described Turing’s treatment as “appalling.” A few years later, Turing received a pardon from the Queen under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, but many are still waiting for an apology over the way he was treated chemically. This man was responsible for helping to end the Second World War, and while he was alive he was treated with derision more than respect by many. Thanks to “The Imitation Game,” people will now see the kind of person Turing really was and why he deserves to be seen and celebrated as a hero. Believe it or not, his creation of his machine became the prototype for what we today call computers.

This is a terrific film.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Dunkirk’ is Yet Another Brilliant Masterpiece from Christopher Nolan

Dunkirk movie poster

Dunkirk” is the first Christopher Nolan film since “Insomnia” where you see the movie’s title on the screen at the beginning instead of at the end. This surprised me as Nolan always seems determined to suck you right into the movie instead of having you think about its title until the screen fades to black. When it comes to “Dunkirk,” however, I imagine he wanted audiences to have this title firmly implanted in their brains as this particular World War II story is one of character and bravery in the face of such agonizing defeat.

The title refers to the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, France where thousands of allied soldiers were trapped like sitting ducks as the German army closed in on them during the Battle of France. Now World War II has been a historical event which filmmakers have visited as often as they have the Vietnam War, but “Dunkirk” has a different angle than other films of its genre. There are no American troops to be found here, we never see Germans but feel them closing in on the allies throughout, and the allies are at a complete loss in terms of being able to fight back. What happened at Dunkirk was not at all about victory, but about survival, and sometimes surviving a war is all a solider needs to do.

Nolan, who also wrote “Dunkirk’s” screenplay, tells the movie from three different perspectives: the land, the sea, and the air. On land, we meet British Army Private Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who barely escapes a German ambush and arrives at the beach of Dunkirk where he befriends Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), another young soldier with whom he desperately tries to escape Dunkirk with on any boat that will take them. On the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) sails his boat out to Dunkirk in an effort to bring stranded soldiers back home, and he is joined by his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) who is curious to see the war up close. And in the air, Royal Air Force Pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) and two other Spitfire pilots battle enemy fighters in the sky who are determined to destroy any boat going away from Dunkirk. Everyone is busy as can be as they fight to keep their fellow allies out of harm’s way, and this is even though the situation is growing increasingly dire.

What’s fascinating is how Nolan ends up using very little dialogue throughout a good portion of the film. These characters are too shell-shocked to speak in full sentences after all they have been through, and Tommy and Gibson end up connecting in a way not only wordless but also totally believable. As “Dunkirk” goes on, more dialogue is featured, but Nolan has already managed to set up the atmosphere to where no one needs to say much because their faces and eyes say so much more than words ever could.

Watching all the soldiers on the beach, waiting for a boat, any boat, to take them, I was reminded of Tom Sizemore’s dialogue from “Saving Private Ryan” when he said, “I want plenty of feet between men. Five men is a juicy opportunity. One man is a waste of ammo.” These soldiers are stuck together in bunches, desperate to escape Dunkirk at the earliest opportunity. I felt horrible for them as they all just sitting ducks for German bombers who can pick them off ever so easily. All these soldiers can do, other than shoot back, is to play dead in the sand, but even this may not be enough to save them.

Much of the movie is focused on the endless ordeals of Tommy, Gibson, and another young soldier named Alex (Harry Styles) as they get on different boats to escape from Dunkirk. However, their successes are often thwarted by attacks which sink the ships they are on, and they soon find themselves in even worse situations. Like Adrien Brody in “The Pianist,” these characters are caught up in unthinkable circumstances and are just trying to survive by any means. Many will consider them cowards for trying to flee, but considering the dire situation they are trapped in, it’s hard to hold much of a grudge against them.

With Mr. Dawson and his two young companions sailing out to sea, we see the need these men have to help those in harm’s way. While Dawson is supposed to give his ship over to ship over to the Navy as they are commandeering private boats to help in the Dunkirk evacuation, he simply sails off as he feels it is his duty to rescue as many soldiers as he can since it was his generation who decided to send young men out into the battlefield. As for the two boys, both want to do something noteworthy in this war instead of just staying on the sidelines. In wartime, it doesn’t matter if you are a soldier or not because everyone is involved in one way or another.

For me, the moments in the air were among the most fascinating, and not just because of Hoyte van Hoytema’s beautiful cinematography. Once those pilots and their planes came up on the screen, I figured it would all play into the clichés of war movies or be something like “Top Gun” with characters infinitely eager to be seen as heroes and taking giddy pleasure in shooting the enemy down. But this is not the case in “Dunkirk” as these pilots are simply men doing their job without any fanfare, and they are well aware of the risks and of what could happen if the enemy wins. Farrier, in particular, has even a bigger risk to consider as his fuel gauge is cracked to where he can’t tell how much fuel he has left. He should turn back, but with the allies having little to defend themselves with, his concern for their well-being overrules any thoughts he has for his own safety.

With these three divergent plot points, Nolan has the Dunkirk evacuation surrounded brilliantly. This is not a story about victory in the slightest, but instead one of character and of what people will do in a most precarious situation. Some stand around as others suffer helplessly because they can’t save them, others are desperate to escape by any means as the miracle they pray for doesn’t look to be delivered to them any time soon, and there are those who sail out to the most dangerous place not because they want to, but because they have to. Like I said, “Dunkirk” is a movie about the character of a person and how that character is tested in wartime.

Nolan also ratchets up the intensity throughout as the situation these characters are in becomes increasingly dire as the Germans close in on them. This is especially the case when Tommy, Alex and Gibson join a group of Scottish soldiers who have discovered an abandoned boat in the intertidal zone which they plan to use for their escape when the tide rises. The Germans, however, have already begin using it for target practice, and the holes they put in the boat soon have water coming through them. To stay on the sinking ship is suicide as they will certainly drown, but to go out into the open is no different as they will be shot once they are out in the open. But Nolan squeezes even more intensity out of this scene as it is suddenly revealed one of the soldiers on board might be a German spy, and it becomes a question of not who will survive, but who will die first.

There’s not a weak performance to be found here as every single actor in “Dunkirk” brings their A game to the table. Mark Rylance remains an impeccable actor, and he makes Mr. Dawson into a man determined to do his national duty not just out of necessity, but out of guilt as well. I’m not familiar with Fionn Whitehead, but his work here is exemplary as he doesn’t have much dialogue and instead has to spend most of his performance showing the turmoil Tommy endures through his eyes and actions. Cillian Murphy also gives a strong supporting turn as a soldier who has seen the worst war has to offer, and it becomes clear he will never again be the man he once was. Harry Styles, whom many thought would stand out like a sore thumb, fits perfectly into this ensemble of actors without ever overshadowing them. Even the great Kenneth Branagh shows up as Commander Bolton who oversees the evacuation of soldiers, and the moment where his eyes water up at the sight of those private boats sailing towards the soldiers is a moment of beauty as I wanted to cry with him. To quote the movie’s tagline, these soldiers couldn’t get home, so home came for them.

But one performance I want to point out in particular is Tom Hardy’s as Farrier. Watching the actor here reminded me of his work in “Locke” as, like the character in that movie, Farrier spends the majority of the time in a moving vehicle with only his fellow pilots and his own sense of duty to keep him company. Not once does Hardy try to portray Farrier as some hotshot pilot like Maverick in “Top Gun” or Captain Steve Hiller in “Independence Day,” but instead as a soldier like any other. Even with his face covered by an oxygen mask, Hardy deftly shows the stoicism and determination of his character as he continues to battle his foes in the sky even as his gasoline supply continues to dwindle, and he makes Farrier into the hero this movie very much deserves.

Another big character in “Dunkirk” is the music of Nolan’s frequent collaborator, Hans Zimmer. The German film composer has given us some of the most thrilling music scores of the past couple of decades, and his music here helps to make an intense motion picture experience even more intense than it already is. It essentially acts as a ticking clock, reminding the audience of how time is running out for the allied soldiers as the German forces get closer and closer to their location. Even in its more hopeful moments, Zimmer provides ominous sounds reminding us how the danger is always around the corner, ready to strike without much warning. When Zimmer’s music breaks into a cue scoring the arrival of boats to take the soldiers home, I could help but let out a sigh of relief as he finally had a reason to slow things down a bit and revel in the heroics of those who came to rescue the stranded men.

Does “Dunkirk” stand as one of the greatest war movies, let alone World War II movies, ever made? You bet. Nolan continues to give us one brilliant cinematic masterpiece after another, and whether or not you think this film is his best, it is certainly the most important he has made to date. The story of the Dunkirk evacuation is one the British people were raised on, and the world needs to be reminded again of how important a story this is. On one hand it is a story about military defeat, but it is also about a nation’s character and of how citizens stood up in the face of disaster to help those trapped. All the characters featured here endure different fates, but what they endure says more about them than words ever can. And the movie also reminds us sometimes all you need to do in a war is survive. You may come out of a war not feeling like the hero everyone makes you out to be, but surviving really is more than enough. At the very least, it gives you a reason to carry the story on to the next generation so the sacrifices made by so many will never be lost in the backroom of history.

* * * * out of * * * *

Hacksaw Ridge

hacksaw-ridge-movie-poster

I want to start off first by applauding director Mel Gibson for using the term “A True Story” as opposed to “Based on a True Story” when he starts off “Hacksaw Ridge.” You all know how much I have come to despise the term “Based on a True Story” as it has long since lost its meaning, and I have to give credit to Gibson for altering this phrase here. As a director, you know he’s not about to take the easy way out or give us something which feels emotionally false. This continues to be the case with “Hacksaw Ridge,” his first directorial effort in ten years.

This movie tells the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist Christian who joined the Army in World War II to serve as a medic. The only thing is, he joins as a conscientious objector and refuses to carry a weapon of any kind into the battlefield. At the Battle of Okinawa, he succeeded in rescuing 75 wounded soldiers without firing a single shot, and he was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his acts which went above and beyond the call of duty.

Desmond is played as a young adult by Andrew Garfield, and he is very deserving of the Oscar nomination he received for his performance. From start to finish, the British-American actor imbues Desmond with an unshakable faith in a higher power, and I never saw this faith waiver for a single second. Seeing him square off with a fellow soldier who assumes he is a coward for not picking up a rifle is fascinating as Garfield’s eyes emit a hard-won bravery the others around him only think they possess. This even comes across as he pursues Nurse Dorothy Schutte (the luminous Teresa Palmer) as obsessively as Dustin Hoffman chased Katherine Ross around town in “The Graduate” to where you wonder if anything could stand in Desmond’s way at all.

We all know Gibson is a devoutly religious person, and not just because he made “The Passion of the Christ.” Indeed, “Hacksaw Ridge” could have easily looked silly if it took its subject far too seriously or tried to indoctrinate us or push some agenda, but Gibson doesn’t make those mistakes. The director treats Desmond with the respect he deserves, and he was clearly determined not to make him look like a joke. Desmond was the real deal, and he found the perfect actor to portray him in Garfield.

Gibson also wades through a wealth of war movie clichés which do take away from the final cut, but the scenes are elevated by a number of strong performances from a well-chosen cast. Hugo Weaving of “The Matrix” and “Lord of the Rings” fame (“Welcome to Rivendale, Mr. Anderson”) is a big standout as Desmond’s father, Tom. Being a war veteran himself, Tom has seen the vicious damage it has done to the soul and the psyche. Weaving makes Tom more than the average abusive drunk you see in cinema as he shows his character’s pain over the memories he can’t drink away, and of the terror he wishes to keep his sons from experiencing themselves.

Rachel Griffiths provides the yin to Weaving’s yang in her performance as Desmond’s mom, Bertha, who enforces in her son the importance of God’s commandments, especially the one which states “thou shalt not kill.” She also gives Bertha a strong gravitas which Garfield benefits richly from as the movie goes on, and you can see how her presence remained a strong one in Desmond’s life.

Then there’s Vince Vaughn who gives his best performance in quite some time as Army Drill Sergeant Howell. While his work may pale in comparison to R. Lee Ermey’s brutal performance in “Full Metal Jacket,” at least Vaughn invests Howell with a strong dose of human you wouldn’t often expect characters like these to have in war movies.

But the real meat of “Hacksaw Ridge” comes in the last section during the battle sequences. Now Gibson might not be able to match Steven Spielberg’s powerful realism when it came to those unforgettable opening minutes of “Saving Private Ryan,” but he tops him when it comes to bloody carnage. Bullets fly everywhere, limbs are blown off and guts are laid out for rats to chew on. This should be no surprise as this movie comes from the director of “Braveheart,” “The Passion of the Christ,” and “Apocalypto,” and like those movies, it features a protagonist who has to wade through body parts and blood in order to receive any kind of salvation.

Along with director of photography Simon Duggan, Gibson gives us some of the most visceral and best war movies I have seen in a long time as he shows you the damage war leave in its wake as well as what it does to the souls of those in the front line. It also gives a real-life superhero who selflessly risked his life to help those who could no longer help themselves. While certain sections are undone a bit by an innate corniness which comes with unavoidable clichés, Gibson gives us a war movie for the ages which, in the wrong hands, could have become silly and heavy-handed, but in his, it becomes a celebration of a man who saved so many without even firing a bullet.

“Hacksaw Ridge” had been in development hell for 14 years, and the rights to it were at one point in the hands of Walden Media which wanted to turn Desmond’s story into a PG-13 movie. Something tells me this would have been a mistake as sanitizing the struggles of war would have been an insult to those who fought for our freedoms. Yes, this is an ultra-violent motion picture, but for good reason. Could we have appreciated what Desmond without having a clear view of the chaos he and other soldiers put themselves into? I think not.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: Empire of the Sun

empire-of-the-sun-movie-poster

Empire of the Sun” is one of the few Steven Spielberg movies which has eluded my watching it for far too long. I remember when it was released back in 1987, and my brother and I watched a documentary on its making. What we saw did not make it look like the typical Spielberg crowd-pleasing movie people had come to expect from him back then. It also dealt with a young boy who is separated from his parents, and separation anxiety was a HUGE thing for me back in the 80’s. But with it now at its 30th anniversary of its release, and having the opportunity to see it on the big screen at New Beverly Cinema in 35mm, the time had come to give what is largely considered to be one of Spielberg’s more underrated films a look.

Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by J.G. Ballard, “Empire of the Sun” takes us back to the days of World War II where we meet Jamie Graham (Christian Bale in his film debut), a young schoolboy who lives a privileged life with a wealthy family out in the Shanghai International Settlement where he sings in the school choir, rides his bicycle everywhere and anywhere, and has a love of airplanes which knows no bounds. A key shot for me comes early on when we see Jamie taking some food out of an overstocked refrigerator which is filled with goodies as it shows how easy things come to this young lad to where he can boss the Japanese maid around like his parents do.

Of course, this all changes when the Japanese invade the settlement following their bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Jamie and his family are forced to flee their home and escape with their lives. In the process, Jamie gets separated from his mom after he picks up his metal toy airplane which he dropped on the ground, and he is forced to fend for himself as he is swept into a conflict far beyond anything he could have imagined.

When it comes to “Empire of the Sun,” it was no surprise to learn David Lean was originally going to direct this adaptation as Spielberg certainly made it look like a Lean movie with scenes filled with crowds of people struggling to survive in life during wartime. Spielberg ended up putting together scenes which must have made Lean proud as it brings to mind the epic shots the director pulled off in his masterpiece “Lawrence of Arabia.” Today, most of those shots would have been accomplished with the use of CGI effects, but “Empire of the Sun” was made back in a time where they weren’t so readily available.

Watching this movie reminded me of how brilliant Spielberg is at taking us back to a day and age many of us were not alive to see, and he does it so vividly to where we can never doubt his authenticity to the period. Spielberg has visited the era of World War II time and time again to amazing effect whether it’s the Indiana Jones movies or “Saving Private Ryan,” and he never seems to miss a detail in the process.

And then there’s Christian Bale who made his film debut in “Empire of the Sun,” and he brings to this role the same kind of intensity he would later bring to his work in movies like “American Psycho” and “The Fighter” among others. I could never take my eyes off of him as he takes Jamie from being a privileged young man to one who struggles for even the smallest reward like a Hershey chocolate bar. Was there another young actor who could have pulled off such a brave and emotionally honest performance as Bale does here? I think not.

Another great performance to be found here is from John Malkovich who plays Basie, an American ship steward stranded in Shanghai who befriends Jamie in his most desperately hungry state. Basie looks to be the Han Solo kind of character who befriends a young innocent who has yet to learn how cruel the world can be, but he turns out to be more of a manipulator than a hero in the making. Malkovich makes Basie into a fascinating study of someone who seeks to benefit themselves more than anyone else, and he constantly leaves you wondering if his character can rediscover whatever humanity he has left.

In addition, there are fine performances from Miranda Richardson as a neighbor of Jamie’s, Nigel Havers as a doctor who desperately tries to teach Jamie about humility, Joe Pantoliano has some choice moments as a companion of Basie’s, and Burt Kwouk, best known as Cato from the “Pink Panther” series, shows up in a small role which he is almost unrecognizable in. Heck, even Ben Stiller shows up here as an American soldier. Seeing him at first is a bit disorienting as he has since become a big comedy star to where he now seems out of place here, but I’ll chalk that up to one of the disadvantages of watching this movie at a later date.

Looking back, I feel “Empire of the Sun” was Spielberg’s first real foray into darker material which would soon pave the way for films like “Schindler’s List,” “Saving Private Ryan” and “Munich.” While it feels like he was taking baby steps here, as those aforementioned films proved to be much darker than this one, it was a giant cinematic leap for him to tackle something like this back in the 80’s.

Still, part of me wonders if he played a little too nice with the source material. Being that this was an adaptation of a J.G. Ballard novel, the same writer whose controversial books “Crash” and “High-Rise” were adapted into deliriously dark motion pictures by David Cronenberg and Ben Wheatley, I can’t imagine “Empire of the Sun” was any easier of a book to read. Ballard wrote some pretty dark stuff, and it makes me wonder just how dark his novel “Empire of the Sun” was compared to Spielberg’s film.

All the same, “Empire of the Sun” is an amazing achievement to watch today as he managed to pull off many epic scenes long before the use of CGI effects. Part of me wishes I had watched it when I was younger as it would have had a more powerful effect on me emotionally, but better late than never with a film like this. Along with cinematographer Allen Daviau, composer John Williams, writer Tom Stoppard and editor Michael Kahn, Spielberg created a World War II epic which stands out among the most memorable of them all, and it deserves more attention than it received upon its release thirty years ago.

* * * * out of * * * *

Das Boot

das-boot-movie-poster

With it out on Blu-ray, viewers can once again see that “Das Boot” is still the greatest submarine movie ever made. Other underwater sea adventures like “Run Silent, Run Deep,” “Crimson Tide,” and “The Hunt for Red October” may come close, but none of them can capture or match its power in unbearable claustrophobic tension. It remains Wolfgang Petersen’s crowning achievement as a director, and it has lost none of its power in sucking us into the inescapable terror people face in the deep dark sea.

“Das Boot” takes place in World War II as Commander Willenbrock leads a group of boys to sea on a U-Boat, the German version of a submarine, and covers the tedium of life at sea when no battles are fought. You feel the sweat and body odor of the crew quite vividly to where you will want to take a cold shower afterward. But it’s when they face off against destroyer ships when the intensity really goes into serious high gear.

Petersen does a brilliant job of conveying the terror and claustrophobic nature everyone on the U-Boat is forced to endure. You are right there with the crew and experiencing their frenzied emotions as the destroyers sail over them dropping depth charges which threaten to sink their boat in a heartbeat. The “ping” noises make the suspenseful tension even worse as the position of the submarine becomes easier to determine, and this becomes a film you experience far more than watch.

The director also does a really good job of getting viewers to know various crew members and the important roles they have on the ship. There is Chief Engineer Fritz Grade (the wonderful Klaus Wennemann) who finds looking at pictures of his wife too painful. Then there’s Chief Mechanic Johann (Erwin Leder) who is in love with his engines the same way Scotty loved the Enterprise in “Star Trek.” And there is also Senior Cadet Ullmann (Martin May) who is constantly worried about his fiancée who is French and pregnant. The more viewers know about the crew, the more emotionally drawn they are to their predicament.

There may some people who object to seeing “Das Boot” on the grounds the crew members were Nazis. Truth be told, not all of them are big fans of Adolf Hitler, and they are never seen wearing a Nazi insignia on their uniforms while at sea. But regardless of this, take away the politics of what’s going on and you will realize just how universal this movie is in what it portrays. Had it been the “good guys” instead, they would have endured the same crippling terror and fatigue so this crew could have been of any nationality.

It is also a powerful anti-war movie as well in showing not just the horrors and destruction of war, but also of the victories which become empty ones when soldiers see what is left behind. This is especially the case in one scene when the crew members are on the surface and surveying a freighter they successfully destroyed. They revel in their victory, but then they see survivors jumping off the ship into the ocean. They swim to the submarine pleading for help, but while the German crew members want to assist them, the Captain concedes there is no room for them onboard, and they are left to drown. It’s an emotionally devastating moment which captures the senselessness and the price of war.

“Das Boot” is based on the novel by Lothar-Günther Buchheim which was inspired by his own wartime experiences as a war correspondent onboard submarines. The character most resembling him here is Lieutenant Werner, and he is our guide through the chaos as his lack of experience aboard a submarine mirrors our own. What he discovers about life at sea, viewers discover along with him. Playing him is German singer Herbert Grönemeyer, and he does great work in conveying his naivety while covering the goings on of a German crew.

The best performance, however, comes from the great Jürgen Prochnow who plays Commander Willenbrock, the hardened sea veteran who looks like he’s seen everything war has to offer. The other officers freak out easily during an attack, but he keeps his cool because he needs everyone to do their jobs. It’s when he starts losing it, however, when things get really bad, and then the audience has a reason to freak out. Prochnow creates a multi-dimensional character which feels very much lived in, and he gives the Commander a subtle vulnerability which looks and feels effortless.

Petersen has been known best for making movies about people who are stuck in small places where there’s not much room to hide. He enthralled us when the American President’s plane was hijacked in “Air Force One,” he had Clint Eastwood chasing after John Malkovich during “In the Line of Fire,” and he has George Clooney and company trapped in the rocky sea in “The Perfect Storm.” “Das Boot” is where it all started for him, and it is a seriously intense and emotionally exhausting experience which thrills and terrifies you in equal measure. The accuracy to detail is never in doubt, and the audience will come up gasping for air once the credits roll.

There may be another submarine movie or two coming to movie theaters in the future, but after watching “Das Boot,” you can bet they won’t come close to topping it. Movies don’t get much more thrilling than this one, and it is a must see for those who are fans of Petersen’s work or war movies in general. It is also more preferable to some of the director’s more recent work like “Poseidon” and “Troy.”

* * * * out of * * * *

Note: There are currently many different versions of “Das Boot” available. The original theatrical cut lasts about two and a half hours. The director’s cut of it added an hour of footage which gave more depth to each character. And before it made its way onto Blu-ray, there was the uncut miniseries version which runs for almost five hours. You may want to start off with the director’s cut and then move on to the miniseries which perfectly captures the infinite tedium of the crew that feels endless.

Anthropoid

Anthropoid poster

Anthropoid” is kind of like a cousin to “Valkyrie,” another movie about soldiers looking to take out a high ranking Nazi. Like “Valkyrie,” it will not go down as one of the most memorable World War II movies ever made, but it is an entertaining film which engages us with noble characters, interesting questions about the price of war and a furious climax where resistance fighters make their last stand. More importantly, it deals with a true life event (yes, it is “based on a true story”) many probably don’t know about but should.

The movie starts in 1941 with two Czechoslovak exile soldiers, Jozef Gabčík (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubiš (Jamie Dornan), parachuting into their occupied homeland. Upon meeting the resistance fighters and their leader, “Uncle” Jan Zelenka-Hajský (Toby Jones), in Prague, they reveal that they are here to execute Operation Anthropoid which involves the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, a high ranking Nazi who was one of the architects of the Holocaust and whom Adolf Hitler described as “the man with the iron heart.” Do they succeed in their mission? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

“Anthropoid” gets off to a bit of a slow start as Jozef and Jan try to settle in and not stand out among everyone else in town. They even recruit two lovely ladies, Marie Kovárníkovasá (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka Fafková (Anna Geislerová), to help them carry out their mission, and they are more than willing to help. Just watch as Lenka makes clear to the men how she can handle a gun.

There’s a subplot where Jan ends up getting engaged to Marie, and it just comes out of nowhere to where this section feels rather awkward. A number of characters are not developed fully enough to where “Anthropoid” threatens to feel like a missed opportunity. But what elevates the material are the performances which are very strong.

You can never go wrong with Cillian Murphy as he has yet to give a bad performance in any film he appears in. As Jozef, Murphy’s steely eyes stare into others with an intensity which wipes the smiles off their faces as he makes clear this is no ordinary mission. He also makes Jozef a most determined soldier who is infinitely determined to carry out this operation, but even he can only take so much before he falls apart emotionally.

Jamie Dornan shows more life here than he ever could have in the dreadful “Fifty Shades of Grey.” This is especially the case when his character suffers a brutal panic attack which has Jozef desperately trying to calm him down from. It’s way too easy to look like a fool when portraying such an emotional moment as the camera never lies, and it says a lot about Dornan that he was able to make this panic attack such a genuinely anxiety ridden moment.

There are also a number of other terrific performances to be found in “Anthropoid” like the one from Toby Jones. Then again, seeing him in a World War II movie these days instantly reminds us of his “Hail Hydra” character from the “Captain America” movies.

“Anthropoid” really kicks into high gear when an assassination attempt is taken and the Nazis come down hard on a particular group of people to where sympathy isn’t much of an option. It gets to where everyone wonders if killing one Nazi will have any effect on the war. With the world closing in on the main characters, the intensity keeps building and building all the way to the very end.

The last half of “Anthropoid” has the protagonists holing up in a church, and they are discovered by the Nazis to where a violent standoff ensues. Director Sean Ellis, who helmed the Oscar nominated short film “Cashback,” stages an impressive standoff which has us completely riveted. While the first half feels routine, the last half really does keep us on the edge of our seats. With “Valkyrie” we had a very good idea of things would turn out, but with “Anthropoid” we don’t. Bullets fly all over the place and emotions are shattered to where we can’t look away, and this is aided by a pounding music score composed by Guy Farley and Robin Foster.

Parts of “Anthropoid” may not stay in the conscious mind long after you have seen it, but the parts which do make it worth the price of admission. Many made tremendous sacrifices which can no longer be swept under the rug, and this movie gives those soldiers the respect they have deserved for the longest time. It also looks at the many costs of war and of how soldiers can only keep their cool for so long until they break under the pressure. It’s a bleak movie in many ways, but it also shows just how far the resistance fighters were determined to end Hitler’s genocidal reign.

* * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

Fury

Fury movie poster

When it comes to David Ayer, you know he’s not going to slack off when it comes to researching his movie’s subject matter. His movies like the brilliant “End of Watch” and the underappreciated “Sabotage” had characters dealing with a vicious reality which they are forced to contend with on a regular basis, and Ayer makes us feel how frightening this reality is whether we want to be a part of it or not. That remains the case with “Fury,” a war film which takes us all the way back to the final days of World War II. It features all the usual characters we expect to see in a war film from the hardened Army sergeant to the innocent rookie, but you come out of it knowing what it feels like to be in a tank.

Brad Pitt stars as Don “Wardaddy” Collier, the commander of a five-man tank crew which is ordered to make a final push into Nazi Germany during World War II. Don is saddled with a battle ready crew which includes Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), Cpl. Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena) and Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal). After losing one of their members, they are suddenly saddled with the most baby-faced rookie imaginable in Army Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). Don doesn’t like Norman’s presence one little bit as he feels it threatens everyone’s safety, but his superiors force him to take him on regardless of his objections. As a result, Don is forced to make Norman grow up a lot sooner than he wants, and it’s all in the name of survival.

For a time, I thought that Norman was going to be like Jeremy Davies’ character from “Saving Private Ryan” in that he would be the wimp who wouldn’t have the nerve to kill the enemy until the very end. Don, however, doesn’t have the patience to wait for Norman to grow a pair and forces him to kill a Nazi prisoner early on. Lerman gives a tremendous performance as Norman, and it’s fascinating to watch him go from being an anxiety ridden soldier to a hardened war veteran who doesn’t hesitate to take out as many Nazis as humanly possible.

There haven’t been many tank movies in the history of cinema. The only ones I can think of are Kevin Reynolds’ “The Beast” which came out in 1988 and the Israeli war film “Lebanon” which depicted warfare as witnessed from inside a tank. It’ll be interesting to see how they compare to Fury which puts you right into these characters’ mindsets as they lay waste to their target without the benefit of ear protection. You come to feel as battered and hardened as the crew does during their patrol through enemy territory where they find themselves outnumbered and outgunned.

It’s hard to watch “Fury” without thinking of Pitt’s performance as Aldo Raine in “Inglorious Basterds,” but he does succeed in making “Wardaddy” distinct from that character whether he is sporting facial hair or not. I always enjoy Pitt’s performances when he’s all dirtied up and free of his movie star looks, and this is one of them. You believe Pitt as a war veteran who has seen countless battles and has long since been worn down by them. But for Don, his main concern is keeping his crew alive, and Pitt is great at making you feel his character’s barely hidden vulnerability which is always on the verge of being exposed for all to see

Pena is an Ayer regular, having worked with him previously on “End of Watch,” and he has yet to disappoint in any role he takes on. As Trini, he gives us a character who was one of the many Latino military officers who fought for America back in the 1940’s. From start to finish, Pena makes Trini a war weary character who is not far from falling apart, and it makes for an intense performance.

I also give applause to Bernthal whose performance as Grady may not get all the recognition it deserves. On one hand Grady is a loathsome character we cannot stand to be around, but on the other he’s just a soldier trying to survive this war anyway he can. It’s rare to see an actor who makes you despise and sympathize with a character simultaneously, and Bernthal succeeds in pulling it off.

Another impressive performance in “Fury” comes from Shia LaBeouf as Boyd. Like Private Daniel Jackson in “Saving Private Ryan,” this guy is a trained killer but also quick to spout off passages from the Bible. Even after taking out a Nazi tank, he will still quote passages from that book with a great passion. LaBeouf got a lot of press for the method work he did on “Fury” which included pulling out a tooth, but seeing this movie is to be assured that all the work paid off for him.

Whether or not you consider “Fury” to be one of the best World War II movies ever made, it is one of the strongest to come out in the past few years. Ayer makes you feel the anxiety and exhaustion these soldiers go through while in battle, and you come out of this movie feeling as battered as they do. I very much liked what it had to offer, and I liked how Ayer didn’t try to sugarcoat reality for anyone in the slightest. That’s what makes his movies so unique and visceral.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2014.

David Ayer Discusses an Unforgettable Scene in ‘Fury’

Fury movie poster

Fury” was written and directed by David Ayer, the man who gave us “Harsh Times,” “End of Watch” and “Sabotage.” This movie takes us back to World War II and stars Brad Pitt as Don “Wardaddy” Collier, the commander of a Sherman tank and its five-man crew. We follow them as they go on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines in Nazi Germany. They soon find themselves outnumbered, outgunned and saddled with a rookie soldier barely qualified to serve with them. But even as the odds continue to stack up against them, they stay with their tank which they have named Fury as they consider it the only home they have left.

I attended the “Fury” press conference held at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California, and among those there were Ayer and actors Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal and Michael Pena. For me, one of the most memorable scenes comes when Pitt and Lerman enter an apartment belonging to a pair of German women and proceed to make themselves at home by cooking breakfast. Then they are joined by the rest of their crew who treat the women and the gathering with a lot of hostility. But as the scene goes on, we see them slowly regain a part of their humanity as they share stories which reduce them to tears.

This scene reminded me of a similar one in Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” where a bunch of soldiers jeer a captive German girl when she appears onstage, but they begin to cry when she starts singing a sentimental folk song. I asked Ayer how the scene came about.

“That’s a really good question,” Ayer said. “I did a lot of primary source research, and you realize it’s a workaday world for these guys. It’s sort of a blue-collar existence for these tank crews at this point in the war. It’s go capture the town. Go get this town. Take this hill. Take this ridge. Capture that road junction. You’re given a laundry list of tasks and we think about all these famous battles and all these war-winning battles, but I liken these guys to coal miners. They put on their safety gear and go in and do their work and they come out at the end of the day. And a common pattern was they would capture a town and by early afternoon they’d be in control of it, and then they’d start kicking in cellar doors and looking for wine and looking for food, and they’d make… they locals would cook for them, and they’d do what guys do and pass out and get up the next day at 4 a.m. and take the next town.”

“Something is interesting about that, the idea that you’re in this war zone and there’s humanity and there’s people in there,” Ayer said. “In these movies there’s always a one-sided depiction of either side and of what happens when these people are together in this living room. I imagine this scene as the ultimate Thanksgiving dinner. I think we’ve all had those bad family dinners ourselves. The idea is this crew’s a family, and family can be love-hate. No one can wound you like a family member. No one can hurt you like your brother or sister who just says that one thing that spins you. That was what all the training and the boot camp and the rehearsal and the familiarity was all leading up to, for me, was really that scene. To get these guys as close as brothers so that they can go at each other like older brothers can.”

The other actors echoed Ayer’s sentiments about the dinner scene, and Pena, who plays Captain Trini “Gordo” Garcia, described it as the most intense scene he had to deliver in “Fury.”

“I remember we started shooting and I was an emotional mess,” Pena said. “David said, ‘Let me shoot the other guys first so you can get warmed up,’ and I was like, ‘Dude, I’ve been doing this for five months, buddy. Let’s just go right now.’ Everyone had big scenes and we’d know when the next scene was coming up or when somebody’s big scene was coming up, and we’d try to be as supportive as possible. These guys Bernthal and Shia—we shot it in a day and a half or something like that. I don’t remember. But they were always there tearing up at every take, really supporting me, because it was almost like us against them. It’s like our big brother is playing favorites to this guy (Lerman) and we all took it very seriously. So when I tell the story about the horses, which he never wants repeated, these guys gave me the green light, so to speak, and they were emotionally there for me as well. So that was the toughest.”

Bernthal, who plays Grady Travis, also talked about that scene and how the countdown to it and others that were equally intense loomed over the actors during production.

“We all had those scenes that we sort of circled on the calendar,” Bernthal said. “We could pretty much count down to the hour of when we were going to get to those scenes. It’s sort of like what we were talking about before like family and going for the jugular. For me it felt like, looking back on it, it wasn’t about those scenes, but it was that at any moment everyone here and Shia and Brad and the boss were armed with this information that could cut you down and break you. And because we were familiar and so close with each other, David and the way he kind of orchestrates the thing, he’ll set people loose on people. He’ll set the camera on somebody’s face, and then rip them apart. Sometimes it’s something that another actor says, and sometimes it’s something he comes up with and whispers in your ear.”

“I’ll be honest with you, after just a month of shooting when he would walk towards me, I’d start to shake and sweat, because I know what was coming in my ear was going to break me,” Bernthal continued. “And even though you know what he’s trying to do and it’s for a result, it scares me now honestly just thinking about it. Also, to do that to one of these guys that you love so much, to see them and to get the word to go after that dude, go get him, and like David said, it’s family, so I know what to say to you to press your button. And it becomes this kind of perverse, beautiful game. We’re trying to cut each other down and break each other. That’s what family does. It was uniform among every tank veteran we talked to. You don’t pick your family. You don’t pick your tank crew. These guys are as close as units can possibly get. That’s what we were going for, that familiarity and that bond. It’s just as dangerous as it is lovely.”

Copyright Ben Kenber 2014.