Thursday, 30 October 2014

Fury: the Pitts of the Ayerth

Fury contains one thing which has never been shown on screen before; an actual working Tiger tank. The go-to German tank in World War Two movies has always been the Tiger, but up until now it’s always been something else with - if they were feeling especially diligent - some plywood slapped on to make the shape less wrong. Even though Allied tankers thought everything they saw was a Tiger, and that it was a super tank which nothing could destroy, in reality the Germans only made about 1300 of them and less than a dozen actually survived the war. 

This is good news for a tiny number of people who’ve always grumbled under their breath “That’s not a real Tiger.” though they’ll still have plenty to grumble about while the Tiger’s on screen duking it out with Brad Pitt’s Sherman at ranges which actual WWII soldiers would have thought a bit intimate for bayonet drill.

For the rest of it, this is another David Ayer movie. This is the WWII one, rather than the LAPD one, but it’s the same old schtick of naive putz thrown into the company of a rampaging middle-aged arsehole who’s been let away with murder because he gets results goddamit. This week, it’s Brad Pitt in the Denzel role, and Logan Lerman in the role of Ethan Hawke. Neither Denzel nor Ethan will be losing any sleep. The only suspense is just how long it’s going to take before Pitt bites the big one, and how satisfying it’s going to be when he gets his comeuppance.

Blistering idiocy cuts in early, as Logan Lerman’s moping Norman shows up out of the blue to be assigned to Brad Pitt’s elite tank crew despite being a company typist with no tank training of any kind. Put to one side the questions about why high command would assign a complete waste of space to one of their highest performing tank crews; I accept that high command are easily that stupid in all wars. Just ask yourself how the hell high command even knew there was a vacancy to be filled. Norman shows up within minutes of Brad returning to a base that plainly had no idea that he was even alive, let alone that he’d just lost his bow gunner (the one job in a tank where conceivably an untrained man MIGHT be able to get by without getting everyone killed in the first five minutes).

Because magic, that’s how. Ayer’s formula requires a relateable audience surrogate, or Logan Lerman if that’s all that’s available. Pah.

Moving on. Brad and the rest of the US Army spend an hour or so apparently in a competition to see if they can make the audience root a bit for the SS for once, which is almost as much fun as it sounds for the audience. There’s a case to be made for a balanced look at the impact of total war on the people who fight it, but I’d argue that the way to go is to humanise the traditional bad guys, not dehumanise the traditional good guys. So Brad straight up murders a random German prisoner to make a point about the need for Norman to kill Germans, and once the US Army manages to take a German town they act like Hells Angels with candy bars. Combat starts to feel like a relief.

Finally, the mighty forces of the Wehrmacht manage to take down the war criminal Brad Pitt, after he decides to treat his broken down Sherman like a pill box and try to hold off an infantry battalion. It takes them ages, but they valiantly soak up all the bullets in the tank until it hasn’t any bullets any more, and then open the turret hatch and drop in two grenades. Which have such long fuses that Norman can get out of the tank through the belly hatch before they go off. Hours later, he clambers back in to the tank to pay his last respects to the rest of the crew. Miraculously, despite the fact that concussion and ricocheting shrapnel should have reduced everyone inside the tank to soup, Brad’s looking better than Norman. Which, in some ways, is not the weirdest thing about the grenades through the hatch plan. First, there’s the problem of that infantry battalion walking towards us on screen, with every fourth guy carrying a Panzerfaust anti-tank weapon. When they’re confronted with an actual tank, suddenly the only Panzerfausts are four in a packing case, and only one of them works. Second, precisely because it would be tremendously inconvenient if people could clamber onto your tank and just chuck stuff into the turret, hatches had latches. 

Still, it’s a once in a lifetime chance to see a real Tiger do something unrealistic. No, that’s really not enough. The completely fake Tiger in this is a better use of your time.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Dracula Untold; Nordor goes Transylvania

Dracula Untold might be the stupidest movie title of the year. It’s not untold at all; there the movie is, telling the story. "But, but, but," splutter the movie’s Renfields, sorry I meant to say producers, "it’s a story which has never been told before.” At which point I decapitate them with a sharpened DVD copy of Frank Ford Coppola’s Dracula I carry for specifically this purpose, and the argument has ended as all arguments with idiots have to end.

So, Dracula, Haven’t We Heard This Before? is crippled coming out the gates. This is not a new story. This isn’t even a particularly new take on an old story. It isn’t even a new and improved version of something which a hack did years ago and which might benefit from new eyes and voices. This is a feature length version of the historical flashback in Coppola’s Dracula and pretty much every other movie which has ever tried to pad the running time with a a bit about Dracula’s training wheels years. (Honourable exception, the completely insane one where Dracula turns out to be Judas Iscariot using an assumed name only slightly less hated than Judas).

So here we are in a world where only acting and good writing will save us. Naturally, the producers turned instead to special effects and discount Orlando Bloom himself, Luke Evans. Luckily they were shooting in Nordor, so they could ring Charles Dance (who suddenly had a hole in his schedule along with the hole Tyrion Lannister put in his abdomen) to class things up a little, and for those of you who’ve been wondering where the hell Rickon Stark got to, he’s playing Dracula’s son. After that, the producers of Game of Thrones locked the cast back into their trailers and the Dracula - Untold team had to get the rest of their talent from elsewhere, which if nothing else gave Luke Evans his first chance in a long time to be the second best performer in a motion picture, even if it was only this one.

But wait, I hear you say. This was shot in Nordor? After a decade of crummy bits of Eastern Europe standing in for half the planet including Medieval England, a movie actually set in Eastern Europe was shot in Nordor? Yup. I admit, few people can stand in Nordor, drink in the atmosphere and NOT think “This place reminds me of Transylvania on a wet bank holiday in the 1950s.”, but when you could have shot the movie in the real Transylvania for half the price? Of course, only last week I saw a movie set in Belfast in 1971 which was shot in Yorkshire. The Yorkshire Tourist Board must have just loved that one. Come to Yorkshire! It’s just like Belfast was like, 30 years ago. I bet they all put on their biggest flattest caps and went dahn to throw paraffin heaters through the windows of t' Yorkshire Film Promotion Board.

Since it’s doctrine that all vampire movies are a metaphor for society’s worries, I had to fight the temptation to see Dracula - Untold’s plot as echoing some of the wonderful texture of Nordor’s history. But bloodthirsty maniacs making pacts with evil in an existential struggle with other bloodthirsty maniacs and succeeding only in ruining their entire country for generations - that’s pure Transylvania. Nordor will have to tell its own story. And so I concluded that Dracula - Untold was yet another allegory about the travails of the world’s most misunderstood superpower. Dracula makes a pact with evil, in an effort to save freedom. Dracula fights his enemies using airpower, in the form of clouds of weaponised bats. Dracula’s enemies are vast hordes of Muslims who hate his freedoms, although he’s had dealings with them in the past. To beat the vast hordes, Dracula must turn to his own hordes of evil auxiliaries, who turn out to be even more trouble than the vast hordes were in the first place. And when it’s all over, Dracula’s made a desert and called it peace. 

Mind you, his enemies are idiots. When Mehmet Bey hears that Dracula has fear-inspiring powers, he decides that "men can’t fear what they can’t see", and marches his army towards Dracula blindfolded. Men have been fearing what they can’t see since about twenty minutes after the invention of fear, so Mehmet Bey is with that one sentence the stupidest fictional commander of anything, ever. Backed up, as idiots so often are, by some really talented middle managers, since the men actually manage to march to their deaths, sorry, I meant destination, even with the blindfolds. As the bodies start to pile up, it’s worth pondering the strategic brilliance at work. Dracula has started this fight over Mehmet Bey’s demand for a thousand boy soldiers to train up as Janissaries. Within a matter of days, Mehmet’s lost more soldiers than he was looking to draft, and he ups the ante by boldly saying “Send 100,000 more!” On the one hand, he already HAD 100,000 soldiers and a plan to invade Europe and still let himself get distracted by one bozo who wouldn’t give him 1,000 trainees? And on the other hand, he could march 100,000 soldiers into position in just over a day. That’s slightly less believable than vampires. We live in a world with Goldman Sachs, so vampires don’t seem like much of a stretch.  But 100,000 man armies marching across Transylvania in a day? It would take a day for the back of the column to get to where the front started out from.

Hiding in the margins of all this bombast, Charles Dance is running a one-man trailer for the movie they should have made, "The Adventures of the Dude Who Turned Dracula and What He Did Next". And judging by the epilogue, that might be coming out one of these days. Charles Dance gets about ten minutes of screen time and the movie’s last line (“Let the games begin.”) and pretty much undercuts the other 80 minutes without even breaking a sweat. Someone had to make Dracula what he is today; Dance makes that someone a lot more interesting than Dracula. I wanted to see more of that. That’s the story they should have, you know, TOLD.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The Equalizer: own goal

The Equalizer has Alonzo Harris! and Hit Girl! and together, they fight crime!

Just kidding. Chloe Moretz is in the movie in the role of chick victim, and her wigs get more character development; it was like watching someone using the Mona Lisa to wrap a Happy Meal. And while this film was brought to us by the Director of Training Day, Denzel seemed to be sending out a message to Hollywood “Morgan Freeman will be dead any day now! I too can play not quite geriatric wise old black guys with a minor in ass kicking! Choose me for your grizzled magical negro related performance needs!"

I had been thinking that Denzel chunks out a dumb thriller every year or so to cover the rent; then I took a look at his filmography and, well, how can I put this? I think that the Fresh Prince of Bel Air might have been making more of an effort to stretch himself recently than Denzel has been. It’s all rent-paying, all the time for Denzel. Hard to believe he used to get Oscars.

Even harder to believe that Antoine Fuqua ever came near one. He wasn’t even nominated for Training Day, but there hasn’t been a poster for any of the movies he’s made since that failed to mention that it was yet another effort from the man who directed Training Day. Depressingly, I’ve watched most of them, though not because they were Antoine Fuqua movies. Sometime in the next couple of weeks I’ll probably watch Fury, which is brought to us by the guy who wrote Training Day, and also won’t shut up about it. When I go, it will be in the hope that a war movie full of Sherman tanks can transcend the presence of David Ayer, Brad Pitt AND Shia LeBoeuf; my hope is that it will succeed despite those three names, not because of them.

It was only when I was doing my post-movie trivia hunt that I realised that not only was Robert McCall supposed to have OCD, but that Denzel Washington had put tonnes of research into the disorder so that he could play it properly. I’m not sure how well you’ve pulled something like that off when no-one notices it. That’s getting a bit too method in your underplaying.

Still, it gives Marton Csokas plenty of room to overplay his Russian mobster. Teddy seemed kind of fun at first, but it didn’t take too long before he got to be just as bad company on the screen as he would have been in real life. And there was the wonderful moment when I started to think that his back-story had a problem. Just like every other Russian mobster ever, he’s covered in prison tattoos. But half way through the movie, we get a full bio for the guy which had him moving smoothly from Spetznaz to the secret police to untouchable enforcer for even more untouchable oligarch; where was the jail time that would have created those tattoos? The guy had a whole string of churches across his back, each of which should have represented a jail term; his back-story didn’t match his back-story.

Well, his main purpose in the movie is to give the Equaliser something to equalise that’s big enough to justify using a whole Denzel Washington movie on. Back when it was just an Edward Woodward TV show, the Equalizer handled corner stores getting shaken down and that kind of thing. Denzel needs something more Denzel-scaled; an untouchable criminal conspiracy spanning oceans? That’ll do nicely. Except that Denzel’s relentless underplaying works much better in the little scores he settles along the way; get a co-worker’s ring back, or shake down some crooked cops running a protection racket. Everything felt in balance; the way that Denzel worked and the sense of “Yup, they had that coming.” which also made The Guest a guilty pleasure a few weeks back.

When it’s time to shut down the mob, it all gets a bit trickier to root for. Yeah, the Russian mob looks like they could do with a whole lot of killing. But you know that a movie’s taken a wrong turn when the hero’s killing a whole bunch of complete bastards and all you can think is “Man, that was a bit unnecessary.” McCall gets a set piece early on when he kills half a dozen gangsters with whatever he can find handy; he seems to be enjoying himself a little bit too much, but he’s in a corner and these guys are all swinging for him at once. Then we get to the big finale, when McCall has to take on a bunch of machine gun toting special forces armed only with whatever he can find in a hardware store. And we get; first guy noosed and hanged with barbed wire. Next guy stabbed in the throat with a billhook. Next guy gets the back of his head cored out with a power drill. OK, this is not the Equalizer. This is Jason. This is Freddy. There ought to be some plucky final girl getting ready to schwack Denzel about now. Nope, he’s the hero. He banks a couple more interchangeable mooks, and then shoots Teddy to bits with a nail gun from twenty feet [1] before travelling to Moscow and electrocuting his boss. 

Put the Freddy stuff to one side. This a compulsively neat individual who likes simple solutions that won’t muss his shaved head up. In the hardware store the very first person he kills is carrying enough guns and bullets to massacre the church of scientology. Take the gun, shoot the other bad guys. What is wrong with you? I just googled Equalizer and every picture of Edward Woodward had a gun in his hand. The Equalizer does not have a problem shooting people. Denzel’s Equalizer just seems to have a problem. Good thing this isn’t going to be another TV show.

[1] Nail guns don’t work this way. Mythbusters spent a while demonstrating what a nail gun won’t do. It boils down to a) nail guns won’t hit what you’re aiming at unless the nail gun is touching the thing you’re aiming at b) whatever they do hit, the nail will hit side on.

The Strain; yes, that's pretty much what it's been

There’s a great moment, about half way through the TV version of The Strain when the cool vampires turn up, all tactical and covered in firearms and just rule the screen for a couple of minutes. It’s an end of episode cliffie, and I switched off the TV and went off to work thinking “Finally, this thing is rolling out the good stuff”. Then del Toro and crew played Lucy with the football on me for the next six or seven episodes and we didn’t see the cool vampires until the last two episodes, where they wander back in briefly to make Gus the most ridiculous job offer ever, and honestly by that stage I was just glad they’re all going to get butchered off screen next season, because if you’re going to make that little use of the concept, why even bother?

I’ve made no secret of my contempt for the books, although early on I had nursed the hope that del Toro would take some of the ideas buried in them and make three half way good looking movies out of them. There was about one movie’s worth of stuff in each book, I reckoned. That works out to a hell of a lot less than 13 TV episodes of anything worth looking at, even if you’d done the honest thing and made all three books into one 13 episode event. Trying to stretch the first book into 13 TV hours; that’s a strain, is what it is.

I was watching the thing side by side with Penny Dreadful, which is pretty much of an overstuffed baggy mess with too many characters and not enough plot, but which survives on the strength of characters you want to see more of. Eva Green holds the whole thing up even when it’s threatening to collapse all around her, but the other actors rise to their material. The weakest link is probably Josh Hartnett, who’s just flat and mopey when everyone around him is intense, but if you put even Josh Hartnett into The Strain, everyone else would just fade out by comparison. There’s no-one to root for in The Strain; the villains are either awful or interchangeable mooks, and the heroes? Oy gevalt. Abraham Setrakian is Armenian Van Helsing being played by Canadian Morgan Freeman. Vassily Fet, a role reportedly written specifically for the great Ron Perlman, is played by a ringer who gives the good guys pretty much the only person the viewers can root for. After that, it all goes off a cliff. If you’ve got the entire end of the world, you don’t need a family drama as well, but even if you did, no-one needs the Goodweather family. I was watching the new Homeland last night, and Corey Stoll got stomped to bits by a mob; I couldn’t help wishing the mob had found its way to New York.

The books had a couple of neat ideas, and a lot of terrible writing. The TV show’s got all the ideas, and way more of the writing. How did I not see that coming?