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Catching Up Reviews: FURY (***½), JOHN WICK (***½), STRETCH (***) and MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN (**½)

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So let's begin with Keanu and a puppy. ()

So let’s begin with Keanu and a puppy. (Source)

All right, let’s just get down to business (to defeat the Hun). Here are four films that I’ve seen in the past month and never got around to writing up. Two are good, one is fair, and one is a pretty massive disappointment–and I’m not the only one who felt that way.

The second-best Brad Pitt WWII film I can think of. And the second-best film titled "Fury" that I can think of. ()

The second-best Brad Pitt WWII film I can think of. And the second-best film titled “Fury” that I can think of. (Source)

Fury, set in April 1945, tells of a tank unit in Germany who are contending with the last gasps of the Nazi war effort. The film focuses on one tank in particular, named “Fury”, and the men who operate it:

  • Staff Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt);
  • Tech. 5th Grade Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf);
  • Cpl. Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña);
  • Pfc. Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal);
  • and the newest member of the team, Pvt. Norman “Machine” Ellison (Logan Lerman).

Assigned to hold a particular crossroads with several other tanks, Fury sets out, but loses one tank along the way to an ambush, which may have been amplified by Machine’s hesitation; he is extremely uncomfortable with what he is being asked to do (he was trained for another department entirely), and his baptism-by-fire is the film’s main emotional through-line.

Taking a village, the men enjoy a respite from battle; Wardaddy and Machine go to the apartment of Irma (Anamaria Marinca), where they have her cook a meal for them and provide water for washing. Irma’s cousin Emma (Alicia von Rittberg) is also present, and she and Machine connect emotionally despite the language barrier; it is implied they sleep together. Later, as they sit down to eat, the other Fury crewmembers arrive; Gordo and especially Coon-Ass harass the women. They leave, and a German air raid moments later destroys the apartment building, killing the women.

The tanks face off against a sophisticated German tank, which destroys all of the tanks save Fury, which manages to prevail. Coming to the crossroads, Fury strikes a mine which disables it; the crew plan to leave and seek safe territory, but Wardaddy refuses to, and they realize they must follow their orders and hold their position. A German division is en route, and the men soon find themselves under siege, horribly outnumbered…but they’re not about to go out quietly.

Once upon a time, the war film (especially the World War II film) made a significant portion of Hollywood’s output. Now, when they crop up, they tend to seek a distinctive approach to war: the Tarantino stylings of Inglourious Basterds, the hitherto unexplored aspect of the war in The Monuments Men, and so forth. But Fury never wholly distinguishes itself, though it has a few aspects which try. I am no expert on war films as a genre, but I can’t think of another film which focuses specifically on tank warfare (Battle of the Bulge had quite a bit of tank action, but the focus there was the Battle itself).

Not the hoped-for tour de force, though still a solid performance. ()

Not the hoped-for tour de force, though still a solid performance. (Source)

What stuck out in Fury for me, though, was its look at what war does to the human body, how combat reduces the body to something almost beyond our understanding. When Machine first enters Fury, it’s to clean out what will be his mount inside; there he finds part of the face of his predecessor. Later, when the tank in front of Fury is ambushed, one of the men riding on it is caught on fire (by a grenade, I believe), and, writhing in agony, grabs his pistol and kills himself. Later, a heavily decomposed body lying in the mud is pushed deeper in by a tank’s treads. It doesn’t shy away from the literal physical cost of war.

Beyond that, however, Fury just doesn’t resonate. A lot of that has to do with the characters, and given the cast writer-director David Ayer assembled, it’s surprising how little there is to them. Perhaps the biggest letdown in this regard is Machine, whose character arc in the trailer seemed to be the backbone of the film, and had spurred some Oscar talk for Lerman. But as it is, he goes from being the naive, jumpy newcomer to being, if not as hardened as the other men of Fury, a good deal harder than he was without much in-between.

The film’s oddly shortened time-frame doesn’t help; it seems to take place over a couple of days. While an epic depiction of Fury’s entire career over the years would be the ideal rendition of this story, logistically, it would likely be unfeasible. Still, unless the point was to show how quickly war can change a man–and in that respect, the film was not a great success–an extended timeframe, allowing the characters more room to breathe and develop, would have been welcome.

And what to make of the extended interlude with Irma and Emma? Looking back on it, I’m not sure; it displays the differing ways in which soldiers treated civilians, and shows how moments of tenderness and peace can come through even in the midst of war–but beyond that, I’m not totally sure what Ayer was trying to communicate.

For my money, the real standout. ()

For my money, the real standout. (Source)

Ayer’s direction is good, though not quite to the level that would compensate for the gaps in the script. The battles are well-staged, especially the final siege, and the 134-minute film moves pretty well. Roman Vasyanov’s cinematography has some fine moments, especially at the opening, and one brilliantly chaotic moment where tanks thunder across the screen, tracer rounds rip by, glowing horribly, and soldiers race through–it is a well-staged film. Just not a brilliantly-staged one. Steven Price’s music is fine, and the makeup, sound mixing, and sound effects are, as you might expect, excellent.

The acting is solid, though no one does their best work here. Pitt is properly worn and embittered, but convincingly determined to fight on; Lerman does what he can with the role, and is certainly convincing in communicating Machine’s embattled humanity; Bernthal is wonderfully gross (at one point he grabs a fried egg off Irma’s plate and licks it before putting it back), yet manages to balance grotesquerie with humanity most effectively. His is probably the best performance in the film. Peña and LaBeouf, though, are largely wasted.

Perhaps a second viewing will allow me to discourse on Fury at greater length and with greater clarity. As it is, it’s a film that straddles the line between *** and ***½; for now, I grant it the higher rating by a narrow margin, based on its thorough competence and its undeniable high points. I will not argue that it is a good film. But why it was made and what it is trying to say elude me. Score: 77/100

You kill a puppy, this is what you deserve. ()

You kill a puppy, this is what you deserve. (Source)

Seeing the trailer, I expected great things from John Wick; the line “That dog was a final gift from my dying wife!” promised a certain level of campy madness I had no intention of resisting. And I’m not saying it didn’t deliver. But there’s not much to be said about it. I’ll see what I can do.

John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has lost his wife to a sudden illness. After her funeral, a puppy is delivered to his door; it was arranged by his wife before her death that he should not be left alone. He immediately takes to the dog, but trouble comes in the form of Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), the hot-headed son of Russian mob boss Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), who wants John’s vintage car. John refuses to sell it, and that evening, Iosef and his henchmen break into John’s house, beat him, and kill the dog before stealing the car.

When Iosef attempts to have the care fixed up at a mob-owned chop shop, the owner of the shop refuses and alerts Viggo to what has happened; Viggo beats Iosef in anger on seeing him, informing him that John is not the “nobody” Iosef assumed, but was once Viggo’s most brutal enforcer. He sends Iosef into hiding and puts a bounty on John’s head, knowing that John will come looking for revenge. He does so, and much blood is shed before it’s all over.

What sets John Wick above the average revenge thriller is partly its wit, and partly the gleeful intensity of its action. The former manifests itself in the odd line (“How good is your tailor?” “No one’s that good.” “I thought not.”) and in some of the narrative concepts; it really is a film about a man killing his way through the Russian mob because his dog was killed (which, if you like dogs, is eminently reasonable), and it posits that there exists a hotel which is a kind of haven for hitmen and other criminals, which imposes severe penalties for those who “conduct business” on the premises.

I was having a hard time finding good stills for this one, but this one shows off the lighting real well. ()

I was having a hard time finding good stills for this one, but this one shows off the lighting real well. (Source)

The latter manifests itself in a great many action scenes where Reeves kicks ass in almost every way one can think of. With a gun, with his hands, with his feet, with random loose objects–he accumulates quite a mountain of bodies here, and it would be abjectly tragic if it weren’t so exhilarating. One wonders why Viggo is compelled to protect Iosef, seemingly having little parental affection for him, but there must apparently be some justification for the bloodshed, so there we are.

Reeves, despite his reputation for woodenness, can give a good performance when he’s allowed to, and here he adapts his somberness into a kind of deadpan viciousness; John is not a mad dog, but a lethally skilled perpetrator of mayhem, a good man to have on your side, but the worst kind of man to set against yourself. Reeves does not make John one of the great action heroes, but he rises to the occasion and justifies his continued career. The rest of the cast is fine, though no one really stands out; Clarke Peters (of the underrated Red Hook Summer) as a gentlemanly veteran hitman is perhaps the best of them, though Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane are always worth watching.

Chad Stahelski’s direction is vigorous, Derek Kolstad’s script gives the film a most adequate backbone, and the technical aspects are wholly professional (Jonathan Sela’s cinematography does some nice things with the nightclub scenes). Kind of like a stripped-down B-movie equivalent of The EqualizerJohn Wick is exactly what it needs to be. I don’t know if it really has much long-term potential, but it’s thoroughly engaging in the moment. Score: 80/100

"Has anyone ever referred to you as a punk-ass motherfucker?" "Not to my recollection." "You are a punk-ass motherfucker." ()

“Has anyone ever referred to you as a punk-ass motherfucker?” “Not to my recollection.” “You are a punk-ass motherfucker.” (Source)

I had hoped Stretch would be great crazy fun. The clips I’d seen, especially David Hasselhoff’s profane rebuke of the protagonist and Chris Pine’s spacey madness, suggested it. The generally good reviews, including one from IndieWire which compared it to the incredible Holy Motors, heightened my enthusiasm. The film’s underdog story–meant for theatrical release, Universal ended up dumping it on the home market–had me rooting for it. And when it came up on Netflix, I eagerly sat down to watch.

The comparisons to Holy Motors are only partially apt–it evokes David Cronenberg’s equally impressive Cosmopolis to a greater degree–but it reaches the manic heights of neither, suggesting nothing so much as those films remade by…CollegeHumor? That sounds about right. It’s not a bad film, but a few choice moments aside, it never dares to go truly insane, and in the end has a weirdly ugly tone to it which makes it less fun. I’ve never seen any of Joe Carnahan’s other films (though The Grey is on my to-do list), but based on this, I’m not in a rush to check out his more comedic work.

The film deals with a day in the life of “Stretch” (Patrick Wilson; the character’s name is Kevin and I swear he’s only called Stretch a couple of times, but whatever), a failed actor turned limo driver in L.A., who’s forced to come up $6,000 by midnight to pay off his bookie. With the help of dispatcher Charlie (Jessica Alba), he secures a client (Pine), who is noted for giving out enormous tips–enough to cover Stretch’s debts–but the client asks his complicity in a night of debauchery which ultimately brings Stretch into conflict with his employers, the police, and a rival company led by the mysterious “The Jovi” (Randy Couture).

Let’s take a look at the Hasselhoff scene:

It’s a great scene. Probably the best in the film. It has the kind of go-for-broke wit that I hoped the whole film would have. But it also hints at the film’s uglier side; the use of the phrase “forcibly sodomized” in particular seems gratuitously unpleasant–“shoved a stick grenade up his ass” would’ve communicated the point just as well–it’s not a rape joke, per se, but it adds to the film’s often off-putting tone. That’s not to say it’s anywhere in the neighborhood of Grown Ups 2 or other such audience-loathing films, but the film as a whole keeps the viewer at a distance; it’s hard to really get swept up in it or to really root for Stretch.

The actors do what they can: Wilson, who I’ve long felt was one of Hollywood’s more underrated leading men (I really need to rewatch and review Watchmen one of these days), does adequately with the sad-sack who eventually comes out on top, and the moments where Stretch impersonates a policeman (using some props Ray Liotta left in his limo!) allow Wilson to have a little more fun with the part, but ultimately, it’s not one of his great performances. Pine (who’s uncredited for some reason) steals the show as the crazy Roger Karos, who for the most exists on his own wavelength–here’s his silent, NSFW entrance:

He really throws himself into the character and clearly has a lot of fun with it, which raises it solidly above the average wacked-out performance. It’s soured a bit by the scene near the end when Karos reveals himself to be an out-and-out douchebag (though he’s ultimately proud of Stretch for saving his own ass with a Karosian tactic), but, like Joaquin Phoenix in The Immigrant, he becomes by far the best reason to see the film. Ed Helms also adds some zest as the ghost of a fellow limo driver, whose total devotion to his customers masked his inner emptiness. The character is one of the film’s few authentically crazy touches, and Helms is often amusing, though he too is saddled with some obnoxious material.

Carnahan’s direction is fine. The cinematography is pretty good (like John Wick, it makes good use of club lighting). It’s overall pretty well made, given the low budget. But it’s never quite as crazy or as fun as I wanted it to be. Score: 66/100

That’s the trailer which got me excited for Men, Women & Children. Then the reviews hit, and while the film has its ardent defenders, overall it was regarded as a failure. Considering the strength of the trailer and the reviews of those who championed the film (and my general desire to seek out underappreciated films), I went ahead and gave it a shot. I was one of the few; the film was in release for just 4 weeks and made just $700,000–or a little over 5% of the gross of Labor Day, Jason Reitman’s previous film, which had been considered a sizable disappointment. For a film by a major director with a name cast, that’s beyond disastrous.

Let us consider the trailer again. It’s a great trailer–one of the year’s very best. In a series of silent tableaux, it portrays the social and emotional disconnect of its characters, as facilitated by social media. There’s no dialogue; it’s almost like Tati’s great Playtime re-imagined as a drama. The haunting choice of song only adds to the melancholy. (The poster is pretty good too, with its vivid use of color.)

I’m not sure the film could be called a betrayal of that fine trailer, but it comes nowhere near the impact of it. Where the trailer was silent, the only words coming from text messages and social media posts, the film has as much dialogue as any other film, and most of it is unmemorable or heavy-handed. The narration by Emma Thompson has widely been criticized as extraneous; with its extended discourses on the Voyager satellite and Thompson’s deadpan readings of often-vulgar communiques, it seems to come from an absurdist comedy rather than a drama, and does little to illuminate the film.

The actual stories and characters in the film are too often clichéd or pretentiously conceived; when Tim (Ansel Elgort) seemingly drops out of life (and football, which earns him the ire of his entire high school) because the Pale Blue Dot photograph has convinced him of the futility of existence, are we meant to see his point? To recognize that this is at least in part a mask for his angst over his mothers’ abandonment of him and his father? To laugh at him for his juvenile pretension? If Carl Dreyer could barely make a man going insane from his study of Kierkegaard work in Ordet, Reitman doesn’t even come close here. And when the film tries to explore the uglier side of things (Adam Sandler’s suburban father using his son’s computer to look at porn; a cheerleader (Elena Kampouris) losing her virginity in an impersonal, unromantic fashion with her biggest crush–admittedly one of the film’s more effective scenes), one is only reminded of how much better Harmony Korine explores similar territory.

Seriously, what happened here?

Seriously, what happened here?

Yet the greatest sin of Men, Women & Children is how boring it is. It’s not that long of a film (right around two hours), and with its large cast of characters and numerous story threads, there should’ve been enough here to fill the time. But the film almost never achieves a sense of urgency or momentum, and it sort of plods along until it ends; none of the storylines go anywhere especially unexpected, and too many end without anything of consequence having occurred. If the idea was to make a point about man’s cosmic insignificance, Interstellar did the same thing and managed to be a great time at the movies.

That’s not to say that MW&C is without its moments. There are flashes here and there of the film it could’ve been. I had at one point thought this could be a great dramatic comeback for Adam Sandler, and near the end he has a good scene with his wife (Rosemarie DeWitt); both have committed adultery, and DeWitt knows that Sandler knows (whether she knows about him, I can’t recall), and she tries to talk to him as he’s preparing breakfast. And he asks her what she wants for breakfast. And she presses the point, and he responds that they could talk about how they’ve both been unfaithful, or they could eat breakfast and move forward with their lives. It’s a subtle scene, one which would’ve manifested greater power in a better film, but still an effective portrait of the desire to move on, to put past mistakes behind oneself. It shows that one’s failures need not be one’s undoing.

And Dean Norris, as a suburban father, probably a former jock, who has been abandoned by his wife and who must deal with his troubled son (Elgort), likewise manages to find the heart and emotion in the uneven material. He brings to life the awkwardness, the dreamy ambition, the ever-more forced air of masculinity, all the warring elements of an essentially good man. His performance is easily the best in the film–though Judy Greer, as a mother who tries to further her daughter’s acting career by taking questionable photographs of her (for the edification of anonymous online patrons), also brings some life to her moralistically conceived character, and her romance with Norris (which is crushed by the revelation of her activities) is believable, and sweet in its way.

The best part of an underwhelming film? ()

The best part of an underwhelming film? (Source)

I’ve never much taken to Jennifer Garner, and here, playing an absurdly over-protective mother, it’s hard to tell if she’s playing her character’s insanity for camp or not. This is, after all, a character who unironically hands out a pamphlet entitled “The Dangers of Selfies”. Garner certainly makes the character monstrous, but is she believable? I’m really not sure. As her daughter, Kaitlyn Dever is nowhere near what she accomplished in Short Term 12, but she is, all things considered, adequate. Elgort, however, who was so likable in The Fault in Our Stars, is shockingly flat and affected here, and whether the issue was the writing, the directing, or simply an ill-considered performance, he ends up letting his part of the film down (though his character’s rather pretentious angst would be a hurdle for any actor).

Kampouris is fine, though her character is rather oddly conceived: an anorexic, she suffers a medical crisis near the end which is only tangentially related to her anorexia; J.K. Simmons is wasted as her doting father. As Greer’s daughter, Olivia Crocicchia is solid, but she has a rather absurd exit from the film, telling Greer off when she shuts down the website and deletes the pictures, before storming off, as I recall never to be seen again. Oh, and Dennis Haysbert has a small role as DeWitt’s illicit lover. He’s always good value, even if he doesn’t really have a character to play here. Is that everyone? I think that’s everyone.

Reitman’s direction has a few flourishes (Eric Steelberg’s cinematography is solid), and the film is technically perfectly solid; the effects of the omnipresent texts and Facebook messages and Tumblr posts and so forth are actually pretty well-executed. It’s just at the service of a mediocre script (by Reitman and Erin Cressida Wilson, based on a novel by Chad Kultgen), which all things considered is less about social media than you’d think. It’s just…suburban angst and shit. With a guy drilling a hole in a Nerf ball so he call fill it with hand lotion and screw it.

To sum it up, Men, Women & Children has been called a Reefer Madness for the Facebook generation. But that’s not really accurate. That film would be less boring. Score: 55/100

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One thought on “Catching Up Reviews: FURY (***½), JOHN WICK (***½), STRETCH (***) and MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN (**½)

  1. Pingback: My Most Anticipated Films of 2017 v. 1.0 | If you want the gravy...

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