Since breaking onto the scene in the early 90s, the auteuristic work of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has been celebrated by audiences and critics alike. With his illustrious yet controversial career soon coming to an end, his penultimate piece is comedy drama Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Set in 1969 Los Angeles, the plot follows fading actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his trusty stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) on their quest for superstardom. When rising actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband move in next door to Rick, a dark chain of events are set in motion.
After the burst of the housing bubble led to a global financial crisis in 2007-2008, the last person you would expect to make a film about it would be Adam McKay, the goofball director known for his work on The Other Guys and the Anchorman movies. However, the comedy filmmaker has applied his mischievous directorial style to The Big Short, a biographical drama based on Michael Lewis’ book of the same name, based around four men who saw the collapse happening before anyone else. Boasting one of the most star-studded casts in years including Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell and Brad Pitt, a stocks-and-shares saga is sold as an energetic jest-fest.
The Second World War has provided a platform for a lot of cinema, exploring many different facets and angles of battle through various styles. In its subject matter, focussing its attention on an American tank crew heading into Nazi Germany in the spring of 1945, David Ayer’s action drama ‘Fury’ covers ground that is, to my knowledge, relatively untouched. Brad Pitt stars as Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, the fearless leader of the pack and is joined by a solid cast including Shia LaBeouf and Michael Peña. We join them in their tin can of terror just as they’ve lost a man and picked up a replacement in the sorely inexperienced Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a trained typist who has been in the army for just eight weeks. As he is thrust into conflict along with four bruised, war-torn figures, the differing perspectives of war are observed and the dynamics of the group are severely put to the test against all odds.
The film is just as much about five men living through their shared and personal struggles as it is about the canvas of war that surrounds them. Outside the tank, limbless bodies lay in their hundreds on vast battleground illustrating an achievement in Roman Vasyanov’s cinematography and inside, it is just as scary, due to the intensely claustrophobic atmosphere. The combat scenes which, apart from wildly bright bullet trails that look would look more at home in a sci-fi movie, are fairly run-of-the-mill and the strength should lie in the solidarity between the five soldiers, built up through their emotional journey. However, I felt the characters, despite their likeable ingredients, lacked the necessary depth to achieve an authentic sense of togetherness. By the end, we should be completely invested in them but instead, due to the absence of emotioneering, we have an isolated squad of stereotypes. The narrative treads the line aimlessly between brutal anti-war elements and glamorisation through camaraderie but gets lost somewhere in between.
‘Ideals are peaceful, history is violent’ is just one chunk of cheddar in Ayer’s script full of cheesy one-liners. In one quite cringeworthy sequence, each inhabitant of the Fury tank in turn shout out ‘the best job I ever had’. It attempts to accomplish the same all-for-one, one-for-all mentality that Band of Brothers excelled at but it is hard to get there in just over two hours. Brad Pitt is well cast and his usual undeniable screen presence is suited to the role. He looks the part with a razor-sharp cut and scarred physique, and is probably enjoying himself way too much, though from Tarantino’s unorthodox WWII picture ‘Inglourious Basterds’ we know how much he loves killing Nazis. Lerman also impresses with a great performance that transforms a terrified office boy into a Kraut-killing machine. A brief encounter with a young German girl is powerful and provides a short but pivotal turn in his rather rushed transition from boy to man.
The story trudges through unforgiving mud and turmoil up until an entertaining and suspenseful finale that doesn’t quite make up for the confused direction which mars the success as a whole. The ambition to make the film both grittily realistic and heroically valiant, as well as implementing aspects of religious symbolism is admirable but overstretched, and the one-dimensional set-up results in a more sensationalised outcome than the potential of the premise deserves. While the 76mm ‘Fury’ tank gun fires wide of the target, there are more World War II stories to be told on-screen in ‘The Imitation Game’ and ‘Unbroken’ later in the year, meaning that this vital part of history will continue to be immortalised in cinema.
Highly regarded as one of the best filmmakers of his generation, Ridley Scott has brought us classics such as Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator yet his reputation has strangely taken a beating of late. Last year, his sort-of prequel to the Alien series Prometheus failed to satisfy the loyal fans of the franchise and his latest piece, ‘The Counsellor’ has been poorly received to say the least, though I for one, thoroughly enjoyed it. It stars Michael Fassbender in the eponymous role, as a man who gets in over his head in the drug trafficking industry around the Mexico/Texas border succumbing to greed and temptation with very little persuasion. He heads an all star cast which includes Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt, who all revel in delivering well constructed passages from veteran novelist Cormac McCarthy’s complex screenplay as The Counsellor’s glamorous lifestyle collapses around him.
It seems that the recurring criticism is that as well written as McCarthy’s script is, it is said to struggle to translate to the big screen. In the past, his dark novels have been adapted into screenplays, with the most acclaimed example of this being No Country For Old Men, which the Coen brothers transformed into a multi-Oscar winning delight, but this is his first attempt at writing for the cinema. This results in an intelligent dialogue driven film and the A-list cast lap up every sentence, articulately conversing with one another brilliantly. I liked the flow of the dialogue, my personal favourite line belonging to The Counsellor himself as he lovingly tells his adoring fiancée Laura (Cruz) over the phone ‘life is being in bed with you, everything else is just waiting’. The on-screen spark between the two is electrifying from the explicit pre opening credits scene.
The excellent script is accompanied by wonderfully sticky cinematography, as if every frame has been dipped in a sticky gloss. The shallow almost cartoon-like characters are well suited to the plastic environment that Scott creates, where money is everything, morals mean nothing and every room of every house looks like a page ripped out of a designer catalogue. The narrative does have gaps, and virtually no sign of back-story or character arcs, but I enjoyed piecing it together whilst allowing the visuals to wash over me. The structure reminded me greatly of equally stylish Brit crime thriller Layer Cake as I drew comparisons between the unnamed leads – both opportunistic charismatic males who like to dabble in a criminal underworld believing they are too smart to suffer any consequences, and both terribly, yet predictably, underestimate the realities of their actions.
A gangster flick with such an established crew was always likely to attract an equally established cast, and the list of names does not disappoint. The utilisation of the female stars raises eyebrows as if filling places of both a feisty femme-fatale and a naive innocent lover, it’d be easy for one to assume that Penelope Cruz would take on the former and Cameron Diaz the latter, but here the stereotypes are reversed with a pleasing outcome. Cruz’s vulnerability is stunning, and Scott’s use of the extreme close up is successful in getting the most out of her natural beauty, whereas Diaz plays ‘the bitch’ in a way I could never have imagined, her cheetah obsessed diamond witch is like a younger version of Kristin Scott Thomas’ sadistic blonde matriarch in Only God Forgives. She also gives us one of the finest film moments of the year, involving a Ferrari windscreen, that is hard to forget.
Of the male members, Brad Pitt is expectedly solid, but unfortunately underused, though his part is integral to the plot and he takes centre stage in one of the films best scenes. Bardem’s portrayal perhaps has the least depth as he fills the boots of the generic kingpin, his segments are so clunky that they are vaguely reminiscent of GTA cut scenes where you are nearing the end of the game play and are introduced to the end of level boss. The least sensationalised is Fassbender who gives a powerful turn as a man losing control but he is so responsible for his actions that it makes it difficult to empathise. No matter how flawed or underdeveloped the characters are presented, they all look amazing, except Bardem, and do justice to a uniquely mesmerising script.
This is far from the expected crowd pleaser the cast and crew suggested, and will not be to everyone’s taste. McCarthy chooses to keep the audience guessing, refusing to offer up a spoon fed plot and Ridley Scott directs in a way that is pleasing to the eye, and occasionally terrifically violent, but this is well judged and he handles the graphic elements perfectly. Ultimately, he presents the film in an attractive package and lets the script most of the talking which bring out well measured performances all round and is chockfull of cleverly formed philosophical snippets commenting on the dirty Juarez layer in the which a group of cheap selfish individuals inhabit an expensive, materialistic society.