You can see what George Clooney was trying to do with The Monuments Men. On paper it looks like a modern day Kelly’s Heroes, or some other war caper movie from the 1970s featuring an unconventional cast made up of normally serious actors, bankable stars, a couple of non-Americans – to pay lip service to the other nations who were involved in defeating the Nazis – and a few comic players for light relief. Joining Clooney here are Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville, and their collective job as part of the Allied Forces’ Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives program is to locate all of the precious artwork the Germans looted during the Second World War and locate it before the retreating, nearly-defeated enemy soldiers torch the lot. There was a chance to create an interesting story, here, and Clooney has evidently tried to make something different to the norm, but it all feels so flat and dreary and there’s very little drama. The decision to make a couple of the characters oddly fixated with just one artwork, as if to inject the narrative with some purpose, is a total mis-step. And just look at the charismatic figures within that cast! Not one of them comes away with any credit, though it’s hard to blame them individually; they’re all working with a turgid, dull screenplay. Balaban and Murray draw the shortest straws as they should be the most entertaining; they share lots of screen time and, bizarrely, when they appear it’s so turgid you feel like you’re watching in slow motion. A pity. (*½)
I have a soft spot for 1960s and 1970s adventure films set during the Second World War. You know the kind: big ensemble cast, some daring mission or other that needs to be undertaken with little or no chance of survival for the soldiers in question, and usually there’s lots of heroic derring-do to enjoy. Some of them have aged very well: The Guns Of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen spring to mind, and I’ve watched both within the past five years. Some of them haven’t aged well at all, and that’s the case for John Sturges’ final film The Eagle Has Landed, though it’s still far better than the worst dregs thrown-up by the genre (and by the same production company). Sturges was rightly respected going into this project, having helmed big hits like Bad Day At Black Rock, Gunfight At The O.K. Corral, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape during a long, impressive career. Indeed the notable names who signed up for what would turn out to be his last film – Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Jenny Agutter, Donald Pleasance – must have hoped that the veteran director was lining up yet another cracker. Sadly Sturges was only in it for one last paycheck, and confessed as much on-set to Caine, telling his lead actor that he only took the job to pay for a fishing trip. Reports suggest Sturges left as soon as filming wrapped, and had no involvement in post-production, leaving Editor Anne V. Coates to salvage the movie. Actually the film Coates helped to put together is structurally fine, even though it’s a little light on action until the grand finale (which is hardly her fault), and proved popular both with critics and the general public at the time of release. The plot – a bunch of German soldiers led by Caine’s General parachute into a sleepy Norfolk village to try and kidnap Winston Churchill – is paper-thin, and the premise is established within the first two minutes by an eyepatch-sporting Nazi (played by Robert Duvall, of all people). What follows is a slightly tedious 90-minute build-up in which the undercover German soldiers are joined in England by an IRA-supporting Irish academic (Donald Sutherland) and Jean Marsh’s sleeper agent; together they attempt to carry out the abduction after their cover is blown and a company of American soldiers stationed nearby is alerted to their presence.
Tom Mankiewicz’s screenplay is largely faithful to Jack Higgins’ original novel but the film is completely undermined by poor writing and some very dodgy performances (I’m looking at you, Sutherland, but Caine is poor here too). Part of the problem stems from the way the main protagonists have been ‘softened’ to make the characters and their actions more palatable to English-speaking audiences: Caine is a ‘nice’ Nazi – we first see him saving the life of a Jewish woman, who is shot by someone else seconds later anway – and Sutherland is the kind of IRA supporter who you could take home to meet the parents—a bit cheeky, drinks a lot of whiskey, prefers poetry to violence, seems to genuinely like English people. (It really doesn’t help matters that it’s one of the worst cases of an Oirish stereotype you’ll ever see in a movie.) It’s no surprise that these two actors struggled with their parts in light of Sturges’ own lack of interest in the film, though. Sadly it seems like the director couldn’t be bothered to ensure his cast followed a uniform accent policy, either. Even though everyone speaks English throughout the film some actors make an effort to adopt the accent relating to their character’s nationality, and some do not. During the one scene involving all three stars – Duvall, Caine and Sutherland – it means you have to watch an Englishman playing a German with an English accent, an American playing a German with a German accent and an American playing an Irishman with an accent that veers from full-on ‘Ah, t’be sure, t’be sure’ to some weird mid-Atlantic drawl. It’s possible that 1970s audiences didn’t care a jot and just wanted to be entertained with a few shootouts and a spot of implausible romance, but there’s no two ways about it: it sounds terrible today. It’s left, somewhat bizarrely, for two American actors in minor pre-fame roles to save the day: Larry Hagman and Treat Williams restore an air of slight respectability during the final act, and Caine’s performance also improves, but it’s too late to save the film. Even Lalo Schifrin’s score reflects the dourness of the piece, and has an air of ‘will this do?’ about it. Oh for something like this instead.
Directed by: John Sturges.
Written by: Tom Mankiewicz. Based on The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins.
Starring: Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Robert Duvall, Jenny Agutter, Donald Pleasance, Anthony Quayle, Jean Marsh, Larry Hagman, Treat Williams.
Cinematography: Anthony B. Richmond.
Editing: Anne V. Coates.
Music: Lalo Schifrin.
Running Time: 115 minutes.
Irène Némirovsky didn’t manage to complete her three-part novel Suite Française as she was arrested by German forces in occupied France during the Second World War and sent to Auschwitz, where she would die. Her handwritten manuscript was discovered 60 years later, however, and it was published to critical acclaim in 2004, becoming something of a literary sensation at the time and ensuring that a middlebrow screen adaptation was somewhat inevitable. The screenplay draws from the middle book, which is about shifting loyalties in a small, Nazi-occupied French town outside of Paris, so technically the cinematic Suite isn’t a suite at all, though the title is also a reference to a prominent piece of piano music. The instrument and the piece in question are tied to the developing relationships between a few of the major characters here, but they’re also symbolic of the film’s stultifying good taste, which goes some way to ruining it in my eyes even if it doesn’t quite suck the life out of proceedings. This is one of those overwhelmingly British British productions, in which the Queen’s English is spoken well by all and sundry (even though they’re actually supposed to be French or German), the main German soldier cuts a dashing, clean-cut figure and there’s plenty of eye candy for anyone watching, lest they otherwise begin to engage with the notion that war is an ugly, nasty business and lots of people are being brutally blown to pieces elsewhere (and by eye candy I don’t just mean the beauty of the actors involved but also the impressive costumes, sets and landscapes that appear).
Michelle Williams stars as Lucille, a rich girl married to a French soldier who falls in love with a German officer (Matthias Schoenarts). His loyalty to the Fatherland is waning in tandem with Lucille’s loyalty to her husband, but there are plenty of other things going on to make up for what turns into a rather dreary, timid romance between the two: Sam Riley’s limping farmer-turned-resistance-fighter is hiding out after killing an oily German soldier who threatens to rape his wife, Margot Robbie’s farmer’s daughter is sleeping with the enemy just for the hell of it and Kristin Scott-Thomas’s ice maiden landlady is cynically kicking her old tenants out to make room for wealthy refugees fleeing Paris who can afford higher rents. It’s like a soap opera, and Suite Française does at least build into a rather tense, dramatic final act, although like a soap opera episode it ends and you’re none the wiser as to the eventual fate of most of the characters; only with this story we don’t get to tune in again tomorrow to find out more. Is she reunited with him? But what happens to so-and-so? And did that family survive? Etc. etc. It’s all tastefully realised, but it’s sort of like watching World War II as designed by Cath Kidston or Laura Ashley. Even when characters are shot there’s no sign of any blood, presumably in case anyone watching gets mildly queasy. As far as these things go I much preferred Testament Of Youth, in which the longing and suffering of those caught up in a world war is more keenly felt, and the mud and the blood and the wailing isn’t hidden away.
Directed by: Saul Dibb.
Written by: Saul Dibb, Matt Charman. Based on Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky.
Starring: Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott-Thomas, Matthias Schoenarts, Sam Riley, Ruth Wilson, Margot Robbie.
Cinematography: Eduard Grau.
Editing: Chris Dickins.
Music: Rael Jones.
Running Time: 107 minutes.
At the beginning of this World War II-era film by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, David Niven’s pilot Carter is plummeting to impending death, his plane having sustained damage during a bombing mission over Germany. Carter has allowed all of his crew to bail out in the knowledge that the last remaining parachute is unusable, and as he starts to descend over the English Channel his last conversation is with American June (Kim Hunter), a radio operator based on the south coast of England. This is the opening sequence of the film, after its otherworldly links are established, and it’s a fine beginning, even if Niven’s clipped accent and Hunter’s delivery sounds old-fashioned today. The rest of the film is a mix between romance and fantasy, and I’ll have a review up tomorrow, but I liked this scene so much I thought I’d post it first. (Incidentally, A Matter Of Life And Death was released as Stairway To Heaven in the US, but has since become better known under its original name.)
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.
Directed by: David Ayer
Written by: David Ayer
Starring: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBoeuf, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña
Running Time: 134 minutes