Film reviews: Fury | Jimi: All is By My Side

Left to right: Norman (Logan Lerman) and Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) in Fury. Picture: Contributed
Left to right: Norman (Logan Lerman) and Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) in Fury. Picture: Contributed
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BRAD Pitt is good as a ruthless tank commander but clichés leave this war story in no man’s land.

Fury (15)

Director: David Ayer

Starring: Brad Pitt, Shia LeBeouf, Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal

***

Once you’ve done a Second World War movie like Inglourious Basterds, why would you want to do one like Fury? Brad Pitt can point to the American weekend box-office grosses of his newest film in answer to that question, but Fury’s stateside success (it debuted at number one) says more about Pitt’s merits as a movie star than it does about the film’s actual achievements. The latest in a long line of post-Saving Private Ryan Second World War films to use the faux-verisimilitude of modern cinema to ratchet up the war-is-hell horrors endured by their protagonists, Fury excels at pummelling us with scene after scene of forensically detailed combat carnage, only to fall back on war movie clichés as it attempts to tell its story.

Revolving around the operatives of a Sherman tank embroiled in the final push through Germany to secure Allied victory in 1945, the film certainly makes a virtue of the cramped, slow-moving nature of the titular armoured combat vehicle (‘Fury’ is the name painted along the tank’s gun barrel). Writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch) uses it to amp up the close-quarter tension that exists between these men on a mission and to symbolise more generally the attritional nature of the Allies’ campaign to secure victory. It also provides an intriguing backdrop for a Second World War movie. In taking on a desperate enemy that still has superior firepower when it comes to tank-dominated ground warfare, the characters are operating on the understanding that death may well be around the next corner, even as victory is very much in sight.

That strange, limbo-like existence is bloodily and poetically evoked in the opening scenes as Pitt’s tank commander, Don “Wardaddy” Collier, takes out a German officer by plunging a knife into his eye. The setting is a churned-up, body-strewn, mist-shrouded battlefield in the aftermath of a firefight that has cost Collier a member of his crew. Returning to base with his temper-frayed men – the creepily quiet “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf); the stoic Gordo (Michael Peña); the confrontational Grady (The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal) – there’s no heroes’ welcome, no time for rest; just another set of orders, another mission to push forward. The war’s not going anywhere and neither are they.

Unfortunately, neither is the plot – or at least it’s not going anywhere new. The problems start with the arrival of Wardaddy’s newest team member, Norman (Logan Lerman), a tank driver with no combat experience, drafted in at the last minute from the typing pool. Though this last detail has something of the bureaucratic horror of Catch-22 about it, elegantly reflecting the merciless way the war machine will churn up anyone in pursuit of its objectives, it soon becomes apparent that Ayer is going to use Norman as the archetypal callow youth: the baby-faced kid who must become a man to survive the hell that awaits.

And so it proves. His pacifist leanings and unwillingness to assume the worst in others makes him a liability in a country in which children have been press-ganged into the Nazi cause. Consequently, Wardaddy makes it his mission to make this kid battle-hardened enough to do what needs to be done to secure their objectives.

Although this gives rise to one brutal initiation scene, the hackneyed nature of the relationship becomes the main thrust of the film, sidelining the more interesting story it could have told of weary men living on borrowed time, fighting for so long that their original cause has become too abstract to think of in terms other than what’s achievable on a moment-to-moment basis. “I started this war killing Germans in Africa, then I killed Germans in France, and now I’m killing Germans in Germany,” says Wardaddy, blankly outlining what makes sense to him.

Pitt, at least, is good at conveying this hollowed-out perspective, playing Wardaddy as a ruthless pragmatist, and only occasionally letting the on-the-nose nature of his character’s nickname telegraph his function in the plot. We learn too little about the rest of his men, however, with LaBeouf’s character almost nonexistent – something that makes his reported descents into method madness (he apparently had a tooth removed and scarred his own face) all the more pointless.

Naturally, the combat scenes are impressively orchestrated, but the episodic barrage of mud-and-blood-splattered chaos becomes a little deadening, something that could have been forgiven had Ayer not undercut it all with a cop out Hollywood ending.

Jimi: All is By My Side (15)

Director: John Ridley

Starring: André Benjamin, Imogen Poots, Hayley Atwell
****

Fans of boundary pushing musicians tend to be a conservative lot when it comes to movies about their heroes; hence why Walk the Line is garlanded with Oscars and more experimental films – such as Todd Haynes’ pseudo Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There – tend to be treated with hostility. Jimi: All is By My Side has already fallen into the latter category, which means it’s instantly more interesting as a reflection of what Jimi Hendrix actually achieved as a musician. Homing in on the year Hendrix (brilliantly played by Outkast’s André Benjamin) was discovered and brought to London, writer/director John Ridley’s film adopts a collage-like approach to the narrative that reflects the abstract way Hendrix thought about music. The power of this really comes through in the performance scenes, which are weirdly enhanced by the film’s inability to use original Hendrix compositions.

This is Where I Leave You (15)

Director: Shawn Levy

Starring: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver

***

“I’ve played it safe my entire life to avoid ending up where I am right now,” laments Jason Bateman in this comedy-drama about a Jewish family confronting its myriad dysfunctions. That’s something the film’s guilty of too, using its Shiva setting (the traditional Jewish seven-day mourning period) to force its characters to work through neatly constructed issues that don’t reflect the messiness of real life to which the script frequently pays lip service. That’s said, live-wire talents like Bateman, Tina Fey and Adam Driver do occasionally break through the set-up’s strictures to make this mildly entertaining.

Serena (15)

Director: Susanne Bier

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Rhys Iffans

**

Following the success of Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle it’s hard to believe a film pairing Jennifer Lawrence with Bradley Cooper could be dull. That, however, is perhaps why this Depression-era frontier drama has been sitting on a shelf for a couple of years. With Cooper cast as an unscrupulous timber merchant, and Lawrence as his barren but power-hungry wife, Danish director Susanne Bier has the makings of an intriguing tale of tormented love and vaulting ambition. Sadly, she spends so long getting to the dark heart of the story that by the time things do turn bloody – with betrayal and jealousy sending one on a path to redemption, the other damnation – any fire in her leads’ performances is all but extinguished.

The Babadook (15)

Director: Jennifer Kent

Starring: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Tim Purcell

**

There’s something about this Australian horror film that prevents it from satisfying as a genre piece. Revolving around a stressed-out single mother whose little boy is being terrorized by a demonic character from a children’s book, The Babadook mistakes arty solemnity for creepy atmospherics, simultaneously relying on child-in-peril tropes and wilful dog cruelty while trying to pretend it’s not a shameless exploitation movie.