Saturday, February 14, 2015

Movie Reviews: Fury, Rob The Mob, The Raid: Redemption

directed by David Ayer
"Better a Russian on your belly than an American on your head".
If American Sniper depicted the true life tale of a righteous soldier in what many Americans thought was a bad war, Fury tells a fictional story of flawed soldiers in what most Americans, Patrick Buchanan aside , still think of as the good war. People beatify the Greatest Generation and tend to overlook their foibles. They had the same flaws as any other human who must adapt to killing and other forms of brutality exercised in the cause of "good". Only someone who has actually been there or has studied what war does to people can speak authoritatively about what actually happens but humans are very observant. Since the times of the ancients, people have noticed that war changes people. War can take a mental toll on the surviving participants. Every veteran deals with this in different ways. Many have no issues reintegrating themselves into society. Others struggle. And a minority are never quite the same. 

There may be glory in war. But there is also fear, cowardice, viciousness, savagery, rape and any number of ways for soldiers or civilians to die slowly, painfully or suddenly. It's a sudden death which opens Fury. A German officer rides a horse through a smoking battlefield littered with debris, wreckage, shell casings and corpses. He is set upon from above and quickly and coldly dispatched by an American soldier who was playing dead. This soldier is Staff Sergeant Don "WarDaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt in high testosterone mode), commander of the Sherman Tank named Fury. It's early 1945 and much to WarDaddy's chagrin the Germans won't stop fighting. He's been killing them in North Africa, Italy, France, The Netherlands and now Germany but those slimy SOB's just won't quit. 

The WW2 era German tanks generally had an advantage in both armament and armor over the American tanks. There were numerous reports of American tank shells bouncing off the front armor of German tanks while a direct hit from the higher powered 88mm German gun could immediately disable or destroy an American tank. The Americans are nonetheless winning the war through attrition. While this may be acceptable to the American generals and politicians who have the luxury of seeing the big picture it's not something that the American enlisted men, junior officers and NCOs who do the majority of fighting and dying like to think about. They are beyond ready to quit and go home but their job isn't done. Against the odds WarDaddy has mostly kept his tank crew safe. 

This team includes "Gordo" (Michael Pena) the Mexican-American tank driver and primary machine gunner who dresses in what has come to be perceived as a stereotypically East L.A.Hispanic style, "Bible"( Shia Laboeuf) the ostentatiously religious tank gunner who thinks that Jesus will save the souls of the Nazis he kills, and "Coon-Ass" (Jon Bernthal) a thuggish bullying southern man who handles repairs, loads the tank gun and helps navigate. Fury is down a man, Red, who was lost in the opening battle. So WarDaddy is assigned Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) to be his new assistant driver and second machine gunner. WarDaddy and his team are not happy about this. 

No one likes rookies because rookies can get you killed. When the unit learns that Norman was previously the battalion typist (a job they consider somewhat effeminate) and discovers that he's unable to meet approved standards for ruthlessness they move from dislike and suspicion to outright contempt. Norman is upset at being plucked from relative safety to fight on the front lines against enemy soldiers too dumb to know they've already lost and too fanatical or vicious not to employ atrocities. Norman is initially shocked and bewildered that people are actually shooting at him.

The not so merry crew of Fury has new assignments to complete. Norman will have to deal with his new role as best he can. Fury has some very obvious similarities to Inglorious Basterds and Saving Private Ryan but this movie has its own messages to send and questions to raise about the nature of war and its effect on men. The quote at the top of this post is a darkly cynical joke which was supposedly shared by German civilian women during the waning days of World War Two. We should all remember that the capricious horrors of war are not just experienced by uniformed soldiers. Total war, which was taken to extremes in World War Two, impacts everyone, man, woman and child, soldier and civilian alike. Fury takes care to bring this to our attention in a tense set piece that is open to different interpretations. But whatever gender we're discussing, Fury is a very violent film. The fanatical SS have forced or recruited women and children to fight. The viewer may be repelled by the tank crew. In different ways they are all hard to take. 

WarDaddy leads his unit not just because of the stripes on his arm but because he will kick a disobedient soldier's teeth out. And for some people WarDaddy believes that's the best way to communicate. As WarDaddy constantly reminds us he is there to kill Germans, not have philosophical debates. He is a very pragmatic man. In his job he has to be. I enjoyed this movie immensely. Any movie that can make Shia LaBoeuf look like a tough guy and not make me immediately break out laughing has something going for it. Fury featured the world's last working German Tiger tank so that was a treat. This is one of the better war movies which I've seen in a while. For my money it's right up there with Saving Private Ryan. Obviously I generally like war movies so if this isn't really your genre you may see this film differently. Some people got sidetracked by gender role discussions. Others couldn't tolerate the violence. 

The writing and pacing are taut. People only rarely do stupid things to move the plot along. A fair criticism of Fury could be that we already know that war is hell. Some might claim the film doesn't have much more to say than that. I still think it's worthwhile though. And you would have to see it for yourself but I believe there is a kernel of humanism buried deep in this movie, although it's somewhat heavy handed.

Rob the Mob
directed by Raymond DeFelitta
Pound for pound an individual mob member isn't necessarily any tougher than any other criminal. A lot of very powerful mobsters aren't really physically that imposing. Many are middle aged or even elderly. Quite a few are overweight. There are no bulletproof mobsters. John Gotti could talk a lot of racist smack when he was surrounded by his friends and flunkies in Howard Beach. When he did the same thing in prison he caught a pretty bad beating from a black inmate who evidently did not give a single flying Fibber McGee who Gotti was. 

What historically gave the mob its power wasn't just its recruitment of tough guys but its ability to corrupt public officials, its noted institutional capacity to always obtain revenge no matter how long it took to do so, and of course its size, secrecy and unity. If you were a forward looking mob leader you might eschew open violence as plebeian and costly. Once you have a solid multi-generational reputation for unparalleled savagery you can pension off most of your shtarkers and just take it easy. However you can't get rid of all of the mouth breathing low IQ leg breaker loyalists because criminals being criminals there will always be a few ambitious cold eyed men (and women!) who think that they have what it takes to knock you off the top roost. Most of these people are stupid, incompetent and mistaken. But a few of them are individuals that the wise mob boss would do well to keep a eye on.

Rob The Mob is the fictionalized tale of two real life small time criminals (husband and wife) named Tommy and Rosemarie Uva who decided that it would be a great idea to knock over Mafia social clubs. Tommy (Michael Pitt from Boardwalk Empire) is an ex-con who carries around massive grudges and abiding shame because as a child he watched Mafiosi humiliate, intimidate and beat his father, a struggling florist who was either behind on loan repayments or balked at paying extortion. When Tommy is released from prison he is delighted to hook up with his partner in crime, girlfriend and eventual wife Rosie (Nina Arianda). Rosie's gone straight and manages to get Tommy a job working the phones with her at a debt collection agency. But Tommy's restless and looking for bigger things. 

Skipping work to attend the John Gotti trial Tommy learns from turncoat Mafiosi Sammy the Bull Gravano's testimony that a lot of gambling occurs at Mafia social clubs but guns are strictly forbidden. A light goes off in Tommy's head. Tommy can scarcely tell one end of a gun from the other. But to prove to himself and Rosemarie that he's a real man, to attempt to support his estranged struggling mother and brother, to avenge his father's humiliation and finally for the cash and excitement, he convinces Rosemarie to join him in robbing Mafia social clubs and gratuitously degrading mobsters across Queens and Brooklyn.

Andy Garcia is a mob boss who understands that the old ways are gone. But he also knows that if you're gonna live in the jungle you are better off being a lion than an antelope. If other criminal groups get the idea that the Mafia can be robbed with impunity the entire underworld structure will come crashing down. Even an old lion can still bite. I remember when Garcia was playing the leading man or the well dressed up and coming youngster. Well he's still sartorially splendid but now he's playing grandfathers. Time waits for no man. The FBI also gets involved in the story. This movie was uneven but I liked the Uvas' emphatically blue-collar dreams and aspirations. Rob the Mob is a poignant film. Even small scores are big money for Tommy and Rosemarie. They don't make much money at their legal jobs. 

They aren't master criminals. They lack long term goals, something that crime reporter Jerry Cardozo (Ray Romano as a fictionalized Jerry Capeci) tries to point out to them. Their big plan is to move to Florida to open a floral shop. In terms of acting, lighting, and sets this film is gritty and dark but not at all very explicit or violent. It has a small look which really fits the story. This film ran a little long but as far as I can tell (I'm not from New York) it did a good job at capturing the less wholesome flavor of late eighties and early nineties New York City. From what I hear from friends and relatives who are NYC residents, much of Manhattan and the outer boroughs has been transformed demographically and physically from just a few decades ago.

The Raid: Redemption

directed by Gareth Evans
Imagine ducking dozens of gunmen trying to turn you into pink slime, a thug trying to to kick you right in your muyerfuying head, a criminal throwing power packed punches with VERY bad intentions to your gonads and an insane crackhead attempting to chop your face off with his machete. And if you somehow manage to escape all of that some other goon is trying to throw you down three flights of stairs just because he doesn't like the look of your face. Now for some people that's just the normal Thursday office status meeting. But for the rest of us who live more staid lives, the closest we will come to such activities will probably be seeing them depicted in films like this. And that's likely a good thing. The Raid is a throwback to those Saturday afternoon kung-fu movies that I enjoyed watching when I was growing up way back in the day. There isn't really much plot or acting. 

This is action distilled down to its simplest core. Kill the bad guy before he kills you. This film is virtually a live action video game. I don't mean that as any kind of insult. This movie doesn't pretend to be much more than that. So if you're in the mood for no hold barred do or die beatdowns where you have to put your back to the wall and sneer at your enemies to come and get one in the yarbles, if they have any yarbles, then this is definitely a film that you need to see.
In Indonesia a police officer named Rama (Iko Uwais and that is the only actor I care to name) is practicing his silat (martial arts) moves while his pregnant wife sleeps. He's getting serious with the heavy bag. When his wife wakes up she asks Rama to promise he will return to her. Rama's a man on a mission you see. The greenlight has come down from the very top. The police bosses and ranking politicians have had it up to here with crime lord/drug dealer Riyadi. Riyadi has taken over an entire apartment building and filled it with various violent lowlifes, all of whom are armed and eager to prove their loyalty to their boss. Rama, his team and supervisors have been tasked to infiltrate the building and bring Riyadi in. 

They're supposed to try to take him alive but dead is fine. Riyadi has two dangerous lieutenants who are almost as vicious as he is. One lieutenant is named Mad Dog. You have to earn that name. I mean no one is going to nickname you Mad Dog unless you really are a savage bloodthirsty killer who enjoys punching a cop in the solar plexus, ripping out his liver and making him eat it without benefit of fava beans or a nice chianti. So the police try to quietly enter the building. But you know what they say about the best laid plans of men. I really liked the way this movie was shot. The action and camera work are frantic and even paradoxically realistic (well realistic for a kung-fu movie). When the action stops intermittently the suspense cranks up quite a bit. 

There are some moral questions raised which are usually more applicable to soldiers than to police. Do you kill a child lookout who could give away your position? If you're hiding from the bad guys and your mortally wounded partner is about to scream from pain and let everyone know where you are, what do you do? Do you ease him into the next life or say the hell with it and come out blasting? You might be surprised by what you can use as a weapon when necessity dictates. The film's dialogue is available in the original Indonesian or dubbed English. There is also the choice of English subtitles.
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