Fury – LFF Review

Fury

It is April 1945 and allied troops are slowly making their way across Germany. The crew of one tank find themselves one man down and rookie soldier Norman (Logan Lerman) joins as assistant driver. Norman is a former office clerk and wholly unprepared for battle. Reluctantly taking on new blood into their tank Fury are Wardaddy (Brad Pitt), Bible (Shia LeBeouf), and the unpleasant duo consisting of Coon-Ass (Jon Bernthal) and Gordo (Michael Peña). The job of Fury and its occupants are to move in convoy from village to village evacuating Germans who surrender and killing those that fight back.

Initially Norman is not accepted by his fellow soldiers. His reluctance to kill and desire to surrender or die make him a liability but through the toughest of love his team attempt to turn Norman into a real soldier. Each soldier treats Norman with utter contempt but as they are bonded together through the horrors of war mutual respect is found. As Fury and company moves from village to village the tanks come under attack as our band of brothers is truly put to the test and Norman is given a baptism of fire.

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As war films go Fury is perfectly acceptable but little more. The action scenes are suitable bloody, muddy, and violent as heads, limbs, and other extremities are shot off and numerous soldiers set on fire. Capturing the brutality of war is Fury‘s strongpoint and it does so with gusto, loud noises, and nerve-shredding frenzy. What threatens to weaken the action is the fact that our lead cast are always inside the tank during battles; while explosions and carnage rage outside the five main characters are mostly sitting and shouting. The final battle aside the inside of Fury always felt relatively safe, particularly in comparison to the war zone in the fields outside.

Writer/director David Ayers may have done well at making war seem like a bad thing but he does less well when it comes to making the characters feel like real people. Each of the five is a different caricature and yet their personalities still struggle to maintain consistency. In what seems to be an attempt to add layers of complexity to the characters they all have occasional flashes where they change their attitude completely. This normally takes the form of an unpleasant type suddenly being nice to Norman as if keen to let the audience know that they aren’t all bad really. The dialogue is riddled with clichés, patriotism, and variations on the “war is hell” theme. Despite solid performances, even from Shia LaBeouf, the script lack enough authenticity for the actors to come across as anything but actors.

Fury certainly passes the time and provides plenty of spectacle though not on a scale we haven’t already seen before. It’s hard to know what the film is trying to say and what it has to offer that is not just treading old ground. If we can all agree that war is unpleasant then you can probably give this one a miss.

Fury has a UK release date of 22nd October 2014.

BFI LFF 2014

Night Bus – LFF Review

Night Bus

Welcome to the night bus: a place where tired people returning from alcohol-fuelled nights out inflict their heightened emotions on their fellow passengers. Mild Concern is no stranger to this form of London public transport and I was intrigued to see what kind of film could be spun out from it. Turns out that it’s one that is very like its inspiration: bleak, a bit uncomfortable and filled with annoying characters.

All the action occurs on a bus taking the (fictional*) N39 route towards Leytonstone late on a rainy Friday night. As someone with more than a passing knowledge of east London, the complete disregard for its geography was very distracting. The bus essentially appeared to be circling Stratford and it definitely wasn’t going south, as the driver once claimed.

The film takes the form of dropping in and out on the various passengers and their conversations, and the timeline is fractured and jumbled up. All the typical passengers are there, from arguing couples, to singing drunks, to youths playing music through their mobile phones, to those who just want-to-get-home-with-the-minimum-of-fuss-thank-you-very-much. While occasionally clunky, the dialogue is structured well enough to give a solid sense of what’s going on in so many characters’ lives. Almost all of the performances are pitch perfect – realistic in both dialogue and tone. Unfortunately, as virtually everyone you’re forced to share a real night bus is very irritating, this means so is almost every character in Night Bus.

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There is no plot to speak of, just prevailing themes, and after a while only seeing snippets of the lives of these (mostly unhappy) people feels a bit pointless and sad. There are funny moments, particularly the many ways people who don’t have the bus fare try to get a free ride, but my overriding emotion by the end was sympathy for the bus driver.

Night Bus is a very London-centric film and as such it’s hard to imagine anyone without the same experience having much patience with these characters. As a Londoner myself, it served mostly as a reminder of how good nights out can end in a dispiriting manner; while bad nights out are capped off with almost unbearable journeys. I admire how well the film has represented the reality but this is also its downfall – it’s hard to think of a reason why anyone would want to spend more time on the night bus than they have to.

*The 39 actually shuttles between Putney Bridge and Clapham Junction in the south west and it doesn’t operate a night route.

Night Bus has no UK release date yet.

BFI LFF 2014

The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow – LFF Review

The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow

While I explain the plot of Korean animation The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow I ask that you have faith that I am not making this up.

A satellite is orbiting in space when it picks up a beautiful song. So moved is the satellite that it wants to seek out the source of the melody so crashes down to earth and transforms into a teenage girl with the ability to fly and fire her arms at enemies. Unfortunately the young boy who sang the tune is broken-hearted and has been turned into a cow. This has led to him being hunted down by both an incinerator robot whose fuel is the broken-hearted, and a human villain who uses a plunger to extract the livers of animals.

“How will this robot girl and talking cow survive?” I hear you cry. Fear not. Our dynamic duo have the aid of a powerful wizard called Merlin who has also suffered a transformation recently. Into a roll of toilet paper. I don’t think any film I have seen at this year’s festival has had quite such a tantalising set up and The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow is every bit as silly and enjoyable as you might imagine.

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The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow is not a film that requires too deep an analysis and I am struggling to think of much more to say than that it was a lot of fun. The visuals are reminiscent of Japanese animation with the style of a low budget Studio Ghibli film. This may not be the most original aesthetic but the plot certainly makes up for this with fresh ideas in spades. While undeniably a children’s film the humour is silly and funny without being too childish. Even the toilet humour has just enough sophistication to be actually funny and not repulsive. I laughed but never groaned and that is all I ask from a comedy.

What this film has in abundance is charm, heart, and magic. The bad guys are truly bad and the good guys are a little bit more complex. Our hero, the young boy in the shape of a cow, makes mistakes and hurts those who care for him but gets it right in the end. The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow is endlessly endearing and offers something a little different in familiar packaging.

Go on, indulge your inner child.

The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow has no UK release date yet but screens at the London Film Festival on the 18th of October 2014.

BFI LFF 2014

The Great Museum – LFF Review

The Great Museum

Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum is one of the world’s largest and most renowned art museums. Between 2011 and 2013 documentarian Johannes Holzhausen filmed at the museum capturing the day-to-day activities of the large art institution as it geared up for the reopening of the Kunstkammer collection. Setting himself the rule of not featuring any works of art unless in the context of the museum’s employees’ work Holzhausen avoided gratuitous shots of art in favour of capturing the minutiae of running the museum, managing the staff, and restoring its works of art. The documentary also lacks any narration or score instead relying on the actions and sounds of the museum to speak for themselves.

If this all sounds a little familiar then you might be thinking of Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery which is also showing at the festival. The two films are definitely related and share a similar style and rule set but where National Gallery failed to keep me engaged The Great Museum succeeded with flying colours.

While spending some time within the exhibition space of the museum Holzhausen only does so when following members of staff as they show people round or plan out exhibitions. The bulk of the time we spend at the museum is in departmental meetings, which I adore, and deep in the museums archives or restoration studios. In the meetings we witness managers debating the aggressive nature of the number 3 as printed on new promotional material and see how different departments feel isolated from the rest of the staff. In the museum’s archives it is revealed just how much art the museum owns that is not on display. Elsewhere we get a detailed look at just how painstaking the work of restorers is and how passionate they get when things do not go to plan. By the end of the film you feel as though you know the Kunsthistorisches Museum and its people. You know the effort that goes into every detail and the little dramas that take place every day.

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While I don’t want to linger too much on Wiseman’s rival film I think that The Great Museum comes out of the comparison well. This film has a more manageable running time of ninety minutes and as such has much less down time and filler. The Great Museum also has a more structured narrative, as much as an observational documentary can, as it follows the preparation of the Kunstkammer from the moment walls are knocked down to reshape the exhibition space to the grand opening of the collection. Finally and most importantly The Great Museum has a much greater variety of personality and roles to explore. We get to see every level of museum staff and how they spend their days; exploring everything from office politics to how pieces are obtained for the museum.

The Great Museum offers a unique perspective behind the scenes of one of the world’s greatest museums. By not including any commentary the audience is allowed to really take in everything we see. The background hum and clatter of the building is all the soundtrack we need. The film allows for subtle moments of humour simply by letting people be themselves in a non-self conscious way. By not asking anyone to speak to the camera Holzhausen allows his subjects to forget the camera is there and behave in an uncensored fashion. In amongst grand works of art people are still human and end up being far more fascinating than any of the artifacts on display.

A fascinating and entertaining documentary which allows its subjects’ personalities to dictate the tone.

The Great Museum has a UK release date of 12th December 2014 and screens at the London Film Festival on the 18th of October 2014.

BFI LFF 2014

Foxcatcher – LFF Review

Foxcatcher

Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is an Olympic wrestling gold medalist who, despite his success, is struggling to get out from under the shadow of his fellow wrestler and brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). While training for the world championships and 1988 Olympics Mark is approached by millionaire wrestling enthusiast John du Pont (Steve Carell in heavy prosthetics) with an offer he can’t refuse. Du Pont offers Mark a home on his estate, Foxcatcher Farm, where he will have excellent training facilities, a salary, and the ability to hire whoever he likes for his team. Mark readily accepts and asks Dave to join him but Dave declines as he has a family to consider and cannot be so easily bought.

Mark is a simple man of few words and is happy to have been chosen by du Pont though suffers without his brother to train with. It is clear that du Pont is lonely as despite his wealth he has no friends and his mother (astonishingly wasted Vanessa Redgrave) is his sole remaining relative. As such du Pont sees Mark as a son and insists on Mark looking up to him as a father-figure. Eventually Dave is convinced to bring his family out to Foxcatcher Farm to work as a coach under du Pont. How he is persuaded is never really clear, nor is why Mark suddenly stops talking to du Pont. Foxcatcher is a slow burning film in which nothing happens before long stretches and when something does happen there seems to be no reason for it. This is most evident in the film’s violent conclusion, a matter of public record but not one I was aware of, which the filmmakers never seek to explain.

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Despite being based on real events Foxcatcher does not feel authentic or logical. While there are a series of events that definitely happened writers E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman have not connected the dots effectively. The gaps between what we know to have taken place are not filled with scenes attempting to provide motivation or explanation just more tedium in which du Pont is showcased as being a little bit weird, his mother so distant she doesn’t get a single line of dialogue, and Mark as a piece of meat slowly moving from room to room. The film’s only moment of consequence, that of the final ten minutes, is actually truncated rather than fleshed out as a police capture that in reality took place over two days is taken care of in minutes. Why stretch the plot so thinly elsewhere only to rush the ending?

The BFI have described the film as a nerve-jangling thriller but I would argue that as it focusses on the relationship between an almost mute athlete and an introverted millionaire there is less a sense of foreboding and more a sense of boredom. Steve Carell and Channing Tatum both put in “proper” acting performances offering subtlety not normally present in their comedic roles but they play uncharismatic characters who, when left alone in a room together, struggled to hold attention. Let’s not even talk about Carell’s facial prosthetics and the mask-like look they give him. Mark Ruffalo is gifted the only part with any character and as such I felt nothing but sympathy for Dave being pulled into the awkward atmosphere of Foxcatcher.

Director Bennett Miller has worked hard on creating a specific tone for the film and that tone is one of being slightly uncomfortable. Imagine the sensation of not being able to get comfortable in your seat for two hours before suddenly falling off it without warning or explanation. That is Foxcatcher in a nutshell.

Foxcatcher is a humourless film populated with impenetrable characters, despite some decent acting efforts, and a plot with no rhyme or reason to it. An odd, unpleasant, and often dull film.

Foxcatcher has a UK release date of 9th January 2015 and screens at the London Film Festival on the 17th of October 2014.

BFI LFF 2014