Thursday, 25 December 2014

Fury

There are a lot of different kinds of war movies. There are movies about the air force, about bomb squads, about commando units, about great battles, about paratroopers, about radio units and about snipers. For some reason, there have been preciously little movies made about tank crews. But lo and behold, here comes “Fury”.

“Fury” is directed by David Ayer and stars Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal and Michael Pena as the crew of a Sherman tank, fighting their way through Germany in the last days of World War II.

There are two things that “Fury” has that make it stand out from others. First is the tank itself. A quick google search shows that there are at this point three movies that focus on a tank’s crew, which after seeing “Fury” seems like such a waste of potential. Five men trapped in a metal war machine, how has that not been the stuff of dozens of movies at this point?
The second is the setting. In the time that “Fury” is set, the war is basically over. The allied forces are advancing towards Berlin and cleaning up along the way. Only the Germans haven’t quite given up and are brutally fighting the Allies for every step they take.

The film is doing well on those two things already, but it doesn’t stop there. It also looks amazing and has a strong cast that delivers good performances all around. They manage to make you forget that the characters themselves are a bit thin (although not “The Loft” level bad).

The one thing that this film has working against it is its pacing. I guess the idea was to show the unpredictability of war and keep you on your toes, which works out nicely enough throughout most of the film, but in the middle, it just loses all of its momentum while Brad Pitt and Logan Lerman have dinner with a German family in a recently occupied town.

The action scenes though are spectacular, especially when we get to see four Sherman tanks take on a single Tiger in a field. This and other scenes make it forgivable that Ayer had to shackle his tank crew down to make a compelling climax, especially since it ends up being very engaging.


All in all, “Fury” might not be quite the awards contender that its makers wanted it to be, due to weak characters and pacing that’s slightly off, but it is still a damn entertaining film that does a lot of things you won’t necessarily see in other war movies.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

"The Lord of the Rings“ is to a lot of people my age what “Star Wars” is to those of the generation before us… although, let’s be honest, “Star Wars” has lost none of its fascination. So I feel very lucky that from 2012 on, we have been getting a new Middle-Earth film each year and will be getting new films from a galaxy far far away starting next year. If that doesn’t excite you, I frankly don’t understand. Many people on the internet have criticised Jackson for splitting the movie into three parts. Me, I was always happy for more Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves and what not.

“The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” is the final part of Peter Jackson’s Middle-Earth saga, that now spans six movies, an epic of epic epicness one might say. “The Battle of the Five Armies” concludes the journey of Thorin Oakenshield’s (Richard Armitage) company, who have now set up shop in Erebor, the old dwarven kingdom inside the lonely mountain. But the giant treasure inside the mountain has attracted the attention of more than just a small company of dwarves, and now they have to see if they can keep the hard-won mountain.

If you were wondering where Benedict Cumberbatch’s Smaug is in that synopsis, you probably haven’t read the book. Suffice it to say he doesn’t play that big of a role in this movie, although his presence is certainly felt.

If you have been one of the people criticising the Hobbit-Saga for being bloated and not getting to the point, then this is the one for you. “The Battle of the Five Armies” delivers on its name. The pace is incredibly fast. Within half an hour, the battle starts and from that point on, it doesn’t stop. Helm’s Deep and the Pelennor Fields set the bar for cinematic warfare pretty high, but the Battle of the Five Armies can hold its own by comparison. “The Hobbit” saga has been a bit more over-the-top than the “Lord of the Rings”, and that shows in the battle, both in the bombastic scale and the amazing creatures it includes. Seeing an elven king riding to battle on a giant elk or an army of dwarves on the horizon instills a sense of wonder in you, just as seeing the Mûmakil attacking the Rohirrim did in “The Return of the King”.

On the human/dwarfish/elvish/orcish side, the characters that have been added throughout the trilogy finally pay off. The battle would have no impact if we didn’t have recognisable faces on the different sides of it. Legolas and Tauriel play an important part in the battle, more than I would have thought, and they do so well. The young elven prince can once more show off that no man, orc or battle-hardened dwarf is his equal, with some scenes that rival the insanity of his mûmak takedown on the Pelennor Fields.

The most character-work goes to Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, who is going to some pretty dark places, greedily searching the gigantic treasure for the Arkenstone, the gem that would grant him the allegiance of the seven dwarf kingdoms. The dwarves quest to take back their home becomes distorted and it falls to Bilbo Baggins to keep the situation from derailing completely.

Armitage and Freeman have grown into their roles perfectly and it is a joy to watch them. Freeman injects some comedic moments, although this film is much more serious than its two predecessors. But when it comes to drama, both he and Armitage deliver in heaps. Most of the other dwarves stay in the background, with the notable exception of Balin, played by Ken Stott, and Aidan Turner’s Kili, who gets to explore the romance with Tauriel a bit more. This romance, which was one of the few problems I had with the second part, does get a nice payoff in here.

I don’t know what else I can tell you, I loved this movie. It looks great, there is an insane amount of spectacle in it and the end ties in with “The Lord of the Rings” perfectly.


I should mention that, while I don’t think that this is as good as any of the “Rings” movies, there is one Academy Award that can already be engraved in its name, if you ask me. Billy Boyd’s end-credits song “The Last Goodbye” skilfully blends the emotional impact of Bilbo’s adventure with the fact that this is the end to the brilliant Middle-Earth saga.

Friday, 12 December 2014

One page on an overlooked profession

So in honor of the conclusion to the Middle-Earth saga, I figured I would do something about the often overlooked second unit director of the Hobbit-trilogy. If you didn’t know what a second unit director does, he is basically responsible to film the scenes that need a lesser amount of attention by the director, like landscape or smaller sequences. However, for example Helm’s Deep in “The Two Towers” was 90% second unit, so the second unit director is an important person.

Oh, and also, the second unit director on the Hobbit is also none other than the godfather of motion-capture, Andy Serkis himself. If you are at all interested in movies, you have probably heard people championing him for an Academy Award, first for Gollum, now for his work on Caesar. So in the spirit of a fair discussion, I want to put together the main arguments for both sides, pro and con.

 Serkis himself has always stated that to him, motion-capture is basically a digital costume. He argues that he does the same thing other actors do, only his costume and make up gets put on later. There really is no point in arguing with that, this is the way it works. I would even go so far as to say motion-capture-acting is arguably harder in some aspects.

First, any actor, when asked will tell you that being in a costume is a huge help to get into a character. Playing Elizabeth Bennet gets a bit easier once you are in a dress that fits the period and on a set that is designed carefully by professional set-designers. In motion-capture, you have a grey motion capture suit with funny balls attached to it and a green screen. At least that is the way it used to be, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” was the first movie to actually take the motion-capture equipment, which is huge, on set, into the woods… and it was awesome. But still only grey suits.
And now imagine you have to become a dragon. No other actors, no set, just a director who tells you what’s good and what isn’t. The point is, everything has to come from your own imagination. That is insanely hard.

The second part is the kind of roles motion-capture enables. Acting students do a thing that is called animal studies, where they have to study an animal’s behavior and imitate it. Jack Reynor tells a great story about how he, pragmatically, as all his fellow students were studying monkeys or elephants, picked a turtle and spent the rest of the class being lazy. Because there really isn’t a way that this is something that would actually ever come up in a normal acting career, right? I mean, voice-work for sure, but actually having to play an animal on screen? Well, there is now.
For every great performance, actors look for a way into a character, shared experiences, things the actor can empathize with and then imitate. Well, what experiences do you share with an ape whose mother got experimented on, leaving you with a rapidly growing brain? Serkis had to look in completely different places for his performance than actors usually do.

So if motion-capture is like a good costume and is really as hard as I just laid out, (and please don’t take this as me saying normal acting isn’t hard in comparison, it really is) then why hasn’t Serkis got an Oscar yet? What is keeping the Academy from finally giving him the recognition he deserves?
Well, it’s basically one argument, and sadly, it is a very good one. It is true that you can compare motion-capture to a costume that is put on after the actual performance, but therein also lies the problem. If you put the costume and make up on digitally after the fact, what keeps a director from asking the effects team to change details of the performance? This reportedly happened on “The Two Towers” a few times, and that is an understandable reason to ban this from any best acting category.

However, don’t despair yet, as Serkis and other people working in the field are very aware of this concern and try everything to work against these allegations. For “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”, featurettes aimed at showing how closely the animators adhered to the original performance were released, showing Serkis and Kebbell (Koba) in their motion capture suits and their finished ape form, side-by-side. Of course, until they release the full movie in this format, there is still room for allegations of cherry-picking the moments that support their cause, but we can see a development into a good direction here.

Overall, I believe that we will see motion capture work being recognized next to conventional acting at some point in the near future. Will it be this season, for “Dawn”? I hope so, but I’m not putting any money on it yet. There are a lot of people arguing for it, studios, actors, directors and animators, but the opposition is still strong as well and their argument is a strong one.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Absent One


„The Absent One“ is a Danish thriller based on a novel by Jussi Adler-Olsen, directed by Mikkel Nørgaard and starring Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Fares Fares as two police detectives who are trying to solve the murder of a young boy and girl, brother and sister, already twenty years past. Their investigations lead them to the alumni of a reputed boarding school, who are now all hugely influential people.

Scandinavian thrillers are often hit-or-miss. They can either be boring, joyless affairs, painstakingly slowly dragging from scene to scene, telling stories that have been told one too many times. Or they can be breathtakingly dark, shocking and disturbing affairs, bleak in their atmosphere and not exactly life-affirming. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” falls into the latter category, as does this film.

Our main characters are a work-a-holic detective, Karl, a man who has nothing but his work, and no joy in life, who neglects his son and spits verbal vitriol at anyone who dares address him, and his partner, Assad, a Muslim in a country that has some seriously racist tendencies. There is also a significant role for a female homeless drifter, whose involvement in the story ultimately leads to its chilling conclusion.

So we can check interesting characters, what about the story? A thriller without a good story doesn’t work, but luckily, this one has got you covered. While the story doesn’t necessarily impress by being unpredictable, it is not at all boring or unoriginal.

And what we see is portrayed in such a way that it grips our attention even if we expected it. This is one of the strength of those northern thrillers, they don’t pull any punches. None of the characters comes out of this with their moral integrity unscratched. Karl’s failures in connecting with his son are handled skilfully, no missed soccer practices in this film. There is a hint that Assad starts a relationship with the wife of one of the suspects. And Kimmie Lassen, the mysterious women, is unhinged and violent.

And that’s just our protagonists… the villains in this movie show such a disregard for life, it creeps you out from the first time you see them in action.

Overall, this is a good thriller, although it is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Outside Hollywood Episode VII - Trailers & Marketing

Alright, time for a new episode of Outside Hollywood! This week, Cinemartian and I are looking at the marketing of movies. No, no, please stay, it's important to talk about this. Odds are, most of you base your choice of movies around the trailer, which is a bit problematic, because the companies that sell the movie are the ones who put the trailer together, not the people who actually make the movie. That often results in either a bad representation of a good movie, or a straight-up misleading trailer for a crap movie. This is why we want to take a closer look at trailers in general, what we look for in a good marketing campaign for a movie, and precisely why Spider-Man went so wrong.

In the review section, we take a look at the latest movie news, from Bond to the Suicide Squad, tell you about the movies we've seen recently and give some recommendations for movies that you can catch at the theatre or on DVD.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Let's Be Cops

If every comedy was like this one, I wouldn’t have to write articles like this. Now don’t build up your expectations, “Let’s be cops” is not a comedic masterpiece, but it’s far from being shit as well.

“Let’s be Cops” stars Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr. as 30-something losers Ryan and Justin, who find that life can be so much better if you just put on a police uniform. It’s directed by Luke Greenfield, who takes the simple premise and a good ensemble and puts together a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable comedy.

Most of the dialogue in this film at least that spoken by professional comedians, is improvised. As I lined out in my article on comedy, too much improvisation isn’t always a good thing. It keeps the filmmakers limited in their comedic resources. This shows here as well. While there is some visual comedy, all the action-scenes are by-the-book. As is the case in too many comedies these days, the filmmakers never really try to find jokes in new places.

Apart from that though, you can’t really complain about mostly improvisational comedy if it works, I guess. And in this case, it does. Especially in the first half, which consists mainly of short skits showing Ryan’s and Justin’s exploits as new fake cops. Johnson and Wayans Jr. play on the chemistry that they already built on the set of “New Girl” and the supporting cast makes sure things don’t get boring.

The directing, as I’ve mentioned, isn’t spectacular, but functional, which makes the second half, that plays more on action than on jokes, slightly inferior to the first, but never so much that it is actually bad.


In conclusion, “Let’s be Cops” might not be a great comedy, but it is certainly entertaining. Johnson and Wayans Jr. have good chemistry and the film doesn’t overdo its jokes. It’s certainly more enjoyable than most other comedies out these days.