Brad is a more glorious basterd in his second run at WWII

by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


4 out of 5

For all its virtues — particularly those harrowing early 15 minutes — Saving Private Ryan was a traditional World War II movie: the goal is clear, the villains are obvious and common cause overrides any flaws or discrepancies among allies. Moral ambiguity isn’t a factor — this isn’t Vietnam, after all.

But don’t tell that to writer/director David Ayer. Better known for teeth-clenching police dramas (Training Day, End of Watch), Ayer loves to question both authority and the status quo. I didn’t know Ayer had Fury in him: his previous effort was the little-seen (and understandably so) Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Sabotage.

Set in 1945, Fury sees the Nazi cause all but defeated — but because of that, Hitler has called for total war, meaning the entire German population is supposed to fight the invading Allies. The forced resistance spells trouble for the American infantry, particularly the tank division, as their vehicles are far less resilient than those of the Germans.

Private Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman of Percy Jackson fame), a kid with zero war experience, is assigned to co-pilot “Fury,” a Sherman tank that’s seen better days. Under the order of grizzled Sergeant “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), Ellison faces both the surreal environment of war and the highly dysfunctional “camaraderie” of his fellow soldiers.

Fury works in two stages. The most obvious, the “men on a mission” level, is gripping. Collier, his four men and their rusty tank must face 300 well-armed Nazis to prevent the slaughter of Allied soldiers in the heart of Germany. Ayer knows how to shoot a tight action scene, and the siege is a thing of sick beauty.

The effectiveness of the action set-pieces is impressive, but it’s the depiction of men under the spell of war that lifts Fury above its peers. Compassion is prohibited because it might cost lives, prisoners have no rights and might be executed on the spot, and the chain of command is more a suggestion than a certainty. Oh, and pillaging knows no boundaries — national or otherwise.

A troublesome yet fascinating scene involves Sergeant Collier, Private Ellison and two German women from a recently liberated town. Collier wants a moment of civility among the chaos and encourages Ellison to pursue the younger gal, while he enjoys reading the paper and a homemade meal. The façade crumbles with the arrival of the rest of his men, who are less educated than he and the young recruit are. The scene is utterly theatrical, and even more tense than the carnage that precedes and follows it.

If Pitt was cartoonish in Inglorious Basterds, he’s brilliant as the stoic and reliable (but quite possibly breaking) superior in Fury. Shia LaBeouf, whose off-screen antics have eclipsed his acting career, is equally solid as the second-in-command and the most sensitive of the bunch, while Lerman is a revelation as the audience’s stand-in: his journey is brief and brutal, and shows a man transforming in spite of himself.

Fury may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but as war movies go, this one is meatier than most. Chew on.

zerotheoremThe Zero Theorem
October 16-19
RPL Film Theatre
3 out of 5

As much praise as Terry Gilliam deserves, it’s also true he can be a maddening filmmaker. His most recent films — The Brothers Grimm, Tideland, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus — have one foot in the commercial realm and the other in the art-house camp. The outcome is unsatisfactory in both counts.

The Zero Theorem continues with the same pattern: Wildly creative scenarios mix uneasily with provocative ideas, stretching the suspension of disbelief beyond its natural limits. Christoph Waltz takes a break from his preternaturally smirking characters to portray Qohen, a man consumed by his work yet unhappy with his lot in life. As a “reprieve”, Management (Matt Damon) allows him to work from home (a dilapidated church) as long as he agrees to take on the Zero Theorem project.

The task is, of course, an exercise in futility: Qohen must respond mathematically to a philosophic question, and prove that everything adds to nothing (the universe is an accident and has no purpose). To distract the drone from the hollowness of his task, Management uses sex and religion, sometimes food, but the existential void in Qohen is too enormous to be denied.

The fact Gilliam uses a church as the film’s main stage is by design. Qohen is a man of faith waiting for a call that should give his life meaning. The protagonist misses out on the small joys of existence waiting for a call that never materializes (isn’t that the peril of religion?) The ex-Monty Python member goes further by recommending to stop fearing chaos and let yourself go.

The many interesting ideas populating The Zero Theorem are not always forcefully addressed and don’t add up to a compelling narrative. Christoph Waltz goes out of his way to give sense to the many threads at play, with mixed results. A way into the film is the remarkable production design. In this particular dystopia, marketing is insidious and is constantly looking for a way into your everyday life.

Wait a minute… /Jorge Ignacio Castillo

stvincentSt. Vincent
Coming Soon
3 out of 5

The story of a grumpy old recluse who breaks out of his shell with the assistance of a spirited kid has obviously been done too many times, turning into a tired cliché.

But it hasn’t been done with Bill Murray. Until now.

St. Vincent is more effective than it has any right to be. Murray’s cantankerous persona is a perfect fit as Vincent McKenna, a reprobate living from loan to loan, legal and otherwise. Vincent gets a chance to make at least a few honest bucks babysitting Oliver (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher), the scrawny kid living next door.

It’s clear early on that Oliver is in dire need of company — and boxing lessons— while Vincent needs to admit that human interaction might not be completely unpleasant.

The script goes through the standard motions (hidden nobility, questionable associations, inappropriate environment for a kid), but the cast is so good that the stale premise doesn’t matter. Murray is engaged and willing to push himself a bit further than usual, while Melissa McCarthy tones down her act and becomes a sympathetic figure again. The revelation is Naomi Watts — no one’s idea of a comedic actress — as a pregnant Russian stripper. Her accent and demeanour alone justify the ticket price.

Towards the final third, the movie takes a dramatic turn that sets the ground for a tearjerker of an ending. Thanks to strong character work, the conclusion is surprisingly touching, with a reference to Stripes to boot. Nice. /Jorge Ignacio Castillo