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Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad is a fairly derivative take on Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables: in this 2013 film 1940s Los Angeles takes the place of 1920s Chicago, and there are similarities between the two stories, both based on real life events, both involving honest cops tasked with taking down a well-connected and ruthless mobster with the help of a team of spirited misfits. I suppose one can hardly blame the younger, more inexperienced director for sticking rigidly to the same formula successfully employed by de Palma in the 1980s, but sadly, in almost every area in which the two films can be compared, Fleischer’s effort comes off as second best. To begin with, Sean Penn’s one-note crime boss Mickey Cohen is as boring as villains come, and the actor struggles to make anything like the same kind of impact that Robert de Niro delivered with his over-the-top and hugely enjoyable turn as Al Capone, though Cohen does at least exhibit some of Capone’s flair for inventing elaborate or unusual deaths for his underworld enemies. Josh Brolin, meanwhile, is this film’s noble Eliot Ness-alike, John O’Mara; a family man looking to do good, he narrows his eyes and stares off into the middle distance a lot while considering all the moral implications thrown up by his work, which involves disrupting Cohen’s empire by any means necessary. The team of incorruptibles working under O’Mara (played by Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick and Michael Peña) have been given precisely one skill or personality trait each, and they wander round dutifully in the shadow of their leader, each waiting to step out into the limelight for his own brief heroic moment. Gosling’s the only supporting actor who gets an ample amount of screen time, but he’s unwilling to break out of his quiet, cool enigma thing here, and as a result you know as much about his character at the end of the film as you do when he first appears.

Will Beall’s script, meanwhile, is full of clichéd, self-important cop phrases about ‘the honour of men who carry the badge’ and the like, and it contains a dispiriting emphasis on male barking and growling; at one point Brolin sets out the stakes by gruffly telling his men ‘you lose everything and you win the war – you’re a hero. You lose everything and you lose the war – you’re just a fool’ and, rather weirdly, no-one either laughs in his face or calls him a preposterous, overblown c*** afterwards. In fact there is a huge amount of macho, guttural man rumbling in this film. Both Brolin and Penn sound as if they’ve been getting through three packs of Marlboros before their daily morning muesli and yoga sessions, though they are like high-pitched choirboys next to the mighty Nick Nolte, who appears here in a supporting role as a man who has apparently lived a thousand lives with just the one set of vocal chords. Still, despite a lack of originality and all of the assembled masculine posturing Gangster Squad isn’t dreadful, and there’s some impressive noirish production design and costume design to enjoy. Unfortunately there are several dull patches, and Fleischer seemingly can’t break free of them; the action here – which ought to lift the film and make it more entertaining – lacks the flair and imagination that made the set pieces in De Palma’s earlier film so watchable and so enjoyable. Poor old Emma Stone tries to make the best of one of the film’s two token and completely under-written female roles (she’s Cohen’s squeeze, later shacking up with Gosling’s charmer Jerry Wooters), but the director seems to give up on her after a while to concentrate on the throaty man growls. These continue all the way through the film and into its risible epilogue, in which there’s even more self-important talk of honour and cops and cop honour and honourable cops and the honour of cops and how cops are honourable. Meh.

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer.
Written by: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless.
Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, Mireille Enos, Sullivan Stapleton.
Cinematography: Dion Beebe.
Editing: Alan Baumgarten, James Herbert.
Music:
Steve Jablonsky.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
113 minutes.
Year:
2013.

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martian-sitsOnce you have accepted the premise that NASA has successfully landed astronauts on Mars in the not-too-distant future, perhaps the most surprising thing about Ridley Scott’s The Martian is the upbeat tone of this castaway tale: Matt Damon’s stranded astro-botanist Mark Watney spends much of the movie cracking wise as he records video diaries and explains exactly what he’s doing in order to survive on the red planet, and there’s very little exploration of the post-traumatic stress, misery and doubt that Watney and the crew members who abandoned him would surely experience in such a situation. Perhaps retaining a sense of humour in the face of extreme adversity is the only way to survive on Mars, completely alone, without going insane. The frothy, light touch here certainly makes for an interesting comparison with Gravity or last year’s autumn sci-fi epic Interstellar, a bombastic outer space movie that took itself way too seriously (though there were occasional light-hearted moments involving that particular film’s robot). And what’s this? A disco soundtrack? Gloria Gaynor was one of the last acts I was expecting to hear.

At the start of the film we find Watney and his crew conducting experiments on the planet’s surface. There are early signs that Scott has opted for a bloated cast packed with familiar faces as Watney jokes with Jessica Chastain’s commander Lewis and Michael Peña’s astronaut Martinez; the crew is completed by characters played by Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan and Aksel Hennie, all three up-and-coming stars. Soon enough an extreme dust storm threatens their collective safety and forces the intrepid astronauts to leave for Earth, but an the-martian-jessica-chastainaccident occurs, leading them to believe that Watney is dead, and they depart without him. But no! Our Mark manages to keep oxygen in his ripped space suit thanks to some implausible nonsense about shrapnel blocking the hole, and soon enough we’re following Watney’s attempts to grow potatoes out of his own faeces and establish communication links with NASA, which is apparently headed up by just four people (Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean, Kristen Wiig). This small band of executives and spin doctors back on Earth plot rescue missions with Californian scientists (Benedict Wong and Donald Glover both make the most of their minor roles) and contact Watney’s old crew members. He’s alive! There’s hope! Let’s go get our boy! And so on and so forth.

You’re not supposed to over-think The Martian, which is fine, but the film simply fails to get to grips with the mental state of Damon’s character, and instead unquestionably embraces the triumph of the human spirit and the notion of good humour willing out in the face of adversity. Watney remains relentlessly chipper throughout, aside from one or two instances where he punches things after setbacks occur, and he only displays outward signs of emotional fragility at the end of the film. This is a man who has been left for dead (on Mars, no less), has little to eat except for potatoes for hundreds of days on end, can only entertain himself with a poor collection of disco hits or a Happy Days box set (although we never get to see what he does with his surplus spuds) and is the subject of a rescue plan that requires him to head into space in a tin can covered with tarpaulin. Surely we should see him weep about his lot once or twice, rather than simply joke about it?

That said, I must admit I enjoyed being surprised by The Martian, and part of that surprise derives from the uplifting and comic tone, which is completely contrary to the human perservation story norm. I haven’t read Andy Weir’s source novel (adapted for the screen here by Drew Goddard) but I gather both book and screenplay are united in ditching the typically melodramatic links with home one would normally find in such tales, however far away the stranded protagonist may be; as such there’s no worried wife or cute little moppet waiting for dad to return, just a brief mention of a message Mark would like to be passed on to his parents, who we never actually see. This, coupled with the breezy, jokey nature, confounded my expectations. But I also feel like I can’t give The Martian an easy ride: too often the narrative is clumsily driven by people reading emails aloud, and the film’s inherent cheesiness may eventually test your patience, as it did mine. The final five minutes are particularly mawkish, and I also found myself cringing through many of the NASA-centric scenes; a subplot involving the China National Space The-Martian-Donald-GloverAdministration is unintentionally amusing (even though the Chinese authorities help with the rescue, Scott’s film descends into an unapologetic exercise in ‘Murican flag-waving by the end), while there’s far too much whooping and hollering and high-fiving at Mission Control throughout. I’m also ambivalent about seeing actors who have been excellent in bigger parts recently (such as Wiig, Chastain and Ejiofor) in smaller roles here. They’re all fine, though Wiig’s comic talents are curiously underplayed in what is essentially a fairly comic film, but in the past two or three years you could argue that each actor has developed beyond the point of playing second fiddle to Matt Damon. And I say that as a fan of Damon; he is a proper, old school movie star and he carries this film commendably, especially considering he’s all alone for most of it (Watney has no HAL 9000 or GERTY for company, sadly). All said it’s an enjoyable crowdpleaser, and one of Scott’s better films of recent years, but let’s not get carried away by all the hype. It isn’t a patch on earlier sci-fi masterpieces like this or this.

Directed by: Ridley Scott.
Written by: Drew Goddard. Based on The Martian by Andy Weir.
Starring: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Peña, Kristen Wiig, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Benedict Wong, Aksel Hennie, Donald Glover.
Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski.
Editing: Pietro Scalia.
Music: Harry Gregson-Williams, Various.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 141 minutes.
Year: 2015.

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End of WatchDirected by: David Ayer. Written by: David Ayer. Starring: Michael Peña, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, David Harbour, America Ferrara. Cinematography: Roman Vasyanov. Editing: Dody Dorn. Music: David Sardy, Various. Certificate: 15. Running Time: 104 minutes. Year: 2012. Rating: 7.4

David Ayer’s reputation as a writer – and more recently as a writer-director – has grown steadily since the appearance of 2001’s Training Day, despite one or two dips along the way. Although certainly not immune to box office failure, he is perceived as someone who can regularly ensure bums on seats while also occasionally enjoying a degree of critical praise, so there was little surprise when he was finally given a prestigious studio project last year (he is writing, directing and producing the upcoming Suicide Squad).

An ex-Navy officer himself, Ayer is clearly fascinated by men in service who are working under extreme pressure: his screenplays to date have mainly concentrated on male LAPD officers dealing with high-level crime (S.W.A.T.Training DayDark BlueHarsh TimesStreet Kings) or male soldiers operating in cramped, claustrophobic conditions during World War II (FuryU-571), but amidst all the rampant testosterone, raised voices and re-loading of guns his scripts have included several interesting, well-written characters and have provided a degree of insight into the motivation of such individuals, as well as the sense of brotherhood often shared by colleagues. There has, by contrast, been a distinct lack of memorable female characters; often Ayer’s stories feature women who exist simply to support the men he focuses on, and they are seemingly unable to transcend their clearly-defined and old-fashioned roles as wives or girlfriends. Most of Ayer’s female characters who are not stay-at-home partners tend to be women with accentuated ‘traditional’ male characteristics, as if that’s the only way their presence in Ayer’s male-dominated worlds can be explained, or legitimized. Success is only possible for men or for women who become less feminine and more masculine.

Though End Of Watch is another entry in Ayer’s growing list of LA-set police procedurals, it has been singled out as a counterpoint to the rest, which have broadly focused on corrupt or rogue officers. The two cops we follow throughout this story – Michael Peña’s Miguel and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Brian – are far from perfect, but they are about as honest and as ethically-sound as we’re likely to see outside of an out-and-out propaganda piece; these officers do not to shoot first unless it’s absolutely necessary, and never, ever kill anyone accidentally. An early speech by a superior indicates support will not be forthcoming if any of his charges fail to abide by certain rules of conduct, and though the duo joke their way through such station briefings it’s clear that the message is received. That said, within a few minutes we see Miguel engaging Blood member Tre (Cle Sloan) unprofessionally in a fistfight when following up a complaint about anti-social behaviour, but generally Miguel and Brian are seen to be doing the right thing).

Broadly, the film is shaped by a series of vignettes that show typical (and occasionally-linked) incidents faced by the duo while patrolling the streets of South Central. Many of these are gang-related, with the Bloods portrayed as a receding force while the Sureños, who have links to the powerful Mexican Sinaloa Cartel, expand their territory. Miguel and Brian tackle house fires, pursue suspects in car chases, respond to noise complaints, find dead bodies and uncover human trafficking operations, much of which is dealt with in a calm manner by the officers, who have apparently become desensitized through experience (though they are not emotionless). For reasons that are never made clear Brian has decided to make a film about his work, so both officers wear concealed cameras. These, along with a dashboard-mounted camera in their car, mean that the film is a mix of amateur ‘found’ footage and traditional photography; Ayer even takes this approach with the film’s criminals, so we are party to their own footage (filmed on smartphones), and even surveillance videos of cartel members ordering hits (fake, of course).

As such End Of Watch occasionally resembles a particularly polished and gripping episode of a TV show like Cops, and although the handheld approach has been extensively road-tested elsewhere it made me feel as if I was in close proximity to the action, and I thought it worked well here; it is initially overused but it does help you to relate to the officers as they enter potential crime scenes, and the nervous tension in the air is palpable. Each scene was filmed from at least four different angles, with Gyllenhaal often operating one of the hand-held cameras, and in this case it does actually imbue those police procedural staples we’ve seen many times before – the car chase, the drive-by, the bust, the stop-and-search, the discovery of a dead body, the defying-the-odds shootout – with a sense of realism and a considerable, welcome freshness.

Peña and Gyllenhaal, who undertook five months of training before filming, react in a believable fashion during each of these incidents. It’s abundantly clear that they understand the work involved, and the way in which real life police officers approach it, and this makes for entertaining and involving viewing. The bond that exists between cop partners is a clear feature of the film, and therefore there are some formulaic in-car chats containing the usual blokey badinage, but the two lead performances are strong enough to keep you interested in the friendship and the film’s ending carries weight as a result. Unfortunately Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez, playing Brian’s wife Janet and Miguel’s wife Gabby respectively, are both sidelined and only appear in a series of scenes designed to show the passing of time (wedding days, births of children, etc.). We learn little about them other than the fact they are ‘cop wives’, and Miguel’s Best Man speech at Brian and Janet’s wedding explicitly defines them as such, even though it is intended to be a tribute: these female characters have few opinions, do not appear to have hobbies, or jobs – or at least there’s no evidence of them during the film – and instead they are just there to offer loving, dutiful, unquestioning support for their husbands. America Ferrara and Cody Horn do not fare much better as a couple of female police officers who seemingly show up to every incident after their two male colleagues have dealt with the problem at hand.

Still, the film is indisputably about two men, and despite the fact on paper it looks like a standard police film – or even an unquestioning, unapologetic celebration of the LAPD – it is in fact reasonably balanced and streets ahead of most recent cop dramas in terms of entertainment, credibility and performances. The fact is many officers are inherently good, and heroic, but I don’t think Ayer owns a pair of rose-tinted glasses and certainly wasn’t wearing any while making this tribute. Meanwhile the threat posed by the gangs and the influence of Mexican drug cartels is eye-opening, presuming there’s a degree of accuracy behind the story, and the toughness and emphasis on the changing streets of South Central makes this film as fascinating to watch as Training Day.

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Considering Fury is a film that clearly sets out to deglamorize war, and to a certain extent is successful in doing so, David Ayer’s tale of an American tank crew at the end of World War II spends an unfortunate amount of time attempting to attract a mainstream cinema audience by offering flashes of brightness. For every grim, troubling sight here – and there are many – there’s a gratuitous shot of Brad Pitt showing off his muscular torso or contemplating the square-jawness of it all while staring off thoughtfully into the middle distance (framed, of course, to accentuate his good looks). For every scene in which the characters played by Jon Bernthal and Michael Peña do or say something startling or morally questionable, shortly thereafter there’s another that paints them in a more sympathetic, reasonable light. For every captured, unarmed, ordinary German shot brutally in the back there’s an act of unexpected kindness by another SS soldier. And when the chips are down and the odds of survival must surely be in the tens-of-thousands-to-one, there is of course hope for the film’s heroes and a (slightly) happy ending, all scored with the kind of uplifting strings that make you want to punch the air and shout ‘GIT SOME’ (before realising that barely an hour earlier you were contemplating the courage, heroism and death of the masses who actually did fight in these battles … none of whom required an orchestra to make their lives appear more dramatic).

While you can certainly argue that an attempt to balance the dark of truth with the light of entertainment isn’t the worst of all cinematic crimes – and hey, first and foremost, I appreciate that the $68 million outlay has got to be recouped somehow – it unfortunately ends up costing Fury ever so slightly; when Ayer’s film is entirely focused on the harsh realities of combat it really is a powerful and gripping work, bringing to mind the intensity of the dramatisation of the Normandy landings in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the relentless tension of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and the claustrophobic, impressive technicalities of Samuel Maoz’s less-well-known Lebanon. When it occasionally succumbs to the temptation of being A Brad Pitt Vehicle the film suffers by comparison, though I wouldn’t for one minute suggest it’s anywhere near as bad as escapist propaganda like, say, The Green Berets.

Not that Brad Pitt is at fault. Now in his sixth decade, he has gradually developed from a good actor with that movie star x-factor into a performer with more than enough gravitas to carry serious films like Fury, and he displays the requisite amount of troubled stoicism to render his character here believable. (He can’t help the fact that he still looks good even when he’s caked in filth and make-up artists have presumably spent hours trying to make him look as normal as they possibly can.) My cinema was packed, and undoubtedly some of the attendees were there because of the leading actor’s name, but at least he justifies the interest on a regular basis.

Pitt plays Staff Sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, a tank commander involved in the final push at the end of the war, his regiment running into heavy resistance in Nazi Germany. The crew of his lightly-armoured Sherman M4 – christened ‘Fury’ – are battle-weary and hardened by their time together in the North African campaign. In any other scenario these men probably wouldn’t give each other the time of day, and even here their relationships constantly threaten to buckle under pressure, but time and circumstance has ensured they have developed the strong bond necessary to carry them through the war; despite the relentless gravity of their situation they enjoy the usual soldier-to-soldier camaraderie, their traded jokes and drawled insults spilling out like an impenetrable slang or patois.

The film begins as it finishes, in the aftermath of a skirmish; we first see the crew of Fury, exhausted, catching their breath in a battlefield in which they appear to be the only survivors. Smoke rises from burnt-out vehicles and corpses all around them. They have lost their long-time gunner and friend in the battle, and he is replaced by a wet-behind-the-ears soldier named Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who acts as our eyes and ears. Norman – a trained typist – does not want to kill and is understandably scared and horrified by what he sees amid the chaos of Hitler’s last stand. He is quickly and cruelly brought up to speed by the experienced Collier, whose extreme teaching methods are deemed necessary due to the dangers associated with hesitation. Collier needs all of his charges to be mentally strong, desensitized to the sights that greet them, and the crew is too small and the stakes too high to carry a passenger in this respect. Thus Norman’s initiation job is to mop up the remains of his predecessor inside the tank, and before long he is forced into other depressing acts, first shooting an unarmed prisoner of war under orders and secondly bedding a young German woman named Emma (Alicia von Rittberg), an act which requires much less duress.

As the tank trundles on from one muddy path and field to the next, permanently short on supplies and low on ammunition, Ayer incorporates an array of surreal, harrowing images that show just how grim and unpleasant a battlefield can be: corpses are piled up high by vehicles; there’s the sight of a bride in full gown among a group of refugees; the tank drives over a dead body in the mud which pops out again after the vehicle moves on. Every now and again the crew of Fury comes up against a platoon of Wehrmacht soldiers or some other force, so there’s little let-up in the action, which is fine as Ayer’s battle sequences are very good indeed. When the Allies roll into one town, the opposing force – mostly children conscripted by ruthless SS officers – quickly surrenders, enabling the Americans to enjoy some much-needed R&R. Yet even here the tension doesn’t magically disappear; the threat of rape hangs over the German women of the town, and one extended and magnificent scene around a kitchen table shows that, really, there’s no true downtime to be had. (Incidentally, I’ve seen this scene come in for criticism in some places for being overlong, but I thought it was very well acted by the principal cast members; the threat of an explosion of violence hangs in the air and I was on the edge of my seat during it. So there.)

The action sequences are intense, the fighting is bloody, and each small victory is met with knackered, mud-caked relief rather than triumphant celebration. A battle with a fearsome German Tiger tank across an open field is one highlight, with Fury and two other Allied tanks desperately trying to scuttle round the back of the more powerful enemy, while an attack on an anti-tank post and trenches is equally suspenseful. Unfortunately all the hard work is undone by a final act in which the soldiers of Fury take on several hundred Waffen-SS soldiers, lifting the concept of ‘defying the odds’ to new and unrealistic heights. Credibility is tested even further when it transpires that the supposedly experienced crew have left all of their spare ammo sitting on the outer rear of the tank, and must courageously pop outside to stock up during the firefight, despite having some time to prepare for the incoming enemy. Hmmm. At least the stupid oversight makes for some exciting on-screen derring-do, and it also enables Ayer to focus on a few pre-battle clichés – a swig of booze for every crew member, a rousing show of loyalty to the man in charge, a general acknowledgement that they’re all doomed, etc. etc.

I don’t wish to be too harsh on Ayer, or his film, as frankly it is one of the better (best) war movies in recent memory. It’s relentless, downbeat (and rightly so), moving, and when it felt realistic to this inexperienced viewer it really did hit the mark. Unfortunately there are a few predictable elements that just linger in the memory afterwards. When Norman reads the palm lines of Emma, for example, and tells her that she’ll have one great love in her life, we can guess what’s in store for the young German. Then there are the war film clichés that seem unavoidable: a young recruit lumped in with the veterans, a noble officer hiding his true feelings of fear and, by the end, the age-old assumption that every American soldier is able to mow down 50-100 Germans before any returned fire troubles him … although, to be fair, they are in a tank for much of the firefight.

In summary, there are good performances by Pitt, Lerman, Bernthal, Peña and Shia LaBoeuf, who plays a religious member of the crew (religion is as prevalent in Fury as the mud) who believes he is doing the work of God; the rest of the support is also impressive, though it is at times difficult to distinguish one grizzled senior officer from another. Despite one or two faults Ayer has made an impressive, action-packed war film that is at its best when it is pulling no punches. It is a nerve-jangling movie with a heavy, trundling, tank-like rhythm.

The Basics:
Directed by: David Ayer
Written by: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBoeuf, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 134 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 8.0

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