The longer Fury goes on, the more surreal it becomes. The action takes place during a single day and night at the end of World War II, but there can’t possibly be enough hours in a day to accommodate everything that happens. Probably this was intentional on the part of writer-director David Ayer (End of Watch). Ayer’s goal here seems not so much a slice of realism but a distillation of hell, in which each new horror lasts long enough to prepare us for the next one.
Our world is a U.S. Army tank in Germany in April 1945. The leader of this crew is Don Collier (Brad Pitt), whose unsentimental ways have kept his men alive since North Africa. Most of them, anyway — as the film begins, a baby-faced typist named Norman (Logan Lerman) is abruptly conscripted to take the place of the soldier just killed inside the tank. Norman’s first job is to clean up the remains of his predecessor.
Transcendence(Warner, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD, Cable VOD) marks the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, Oscar-winning cinematographer to Christopher Nolan. His visual intelligence, however, doesn’t transcend the dead weight passing as a script in this confused science fiction thriller starring Johnny Depp as a computer science genius whose mind is uploaded to an experimental computer program with the potential capabilities of artificial intelligence. Sure enough, once the program loads, the intelligence is off and running through the interwebs, escaping the lab and making a fortune in the markets, enough to fund a secret site in the middle of the desert where… well, this is, after all, a film that opens with the end of the world as we know it, a technology dead zone where the human race becomes squatters in the husks of desolate cities, and flashes back to the events that brought us to this point.
Rebecca Hall stars as Depp’s nearly-as-brilliant but more socially-adept wife who embraces the cyber-Depp, whose voice seeps out of every corner of the wired world and whose digitized face emerges from screen, as if Depp 2.0 is still her husband but in digital form, not really taking over the world, just trying to fix it up to make her dreams of a better world come true. If that’s the case, you gotta give the guy points for going the distance to impress a girl. But the film itself isn’t so much ambiguous on the AI’s real’s identity and motivation as simply sloppy and lazy, straddling flat cliché and unconvincing sentiment without making either convincing. This virtual being of seeming unlimited power, which can sends bazillions of nanobots into the atmosphere and pull the strings on dozens of enhanced human soldiers in a guerrilla war, is faced with a dilemma that confirms that the screenwriter ran out of ideas early on in the screenwriting process. Pfister provides some really arresting imagery as the revolution is fought with nanobots and human drones and technology so advanced that it looks like magic to us, yet fails to make any of it interesting, let alone compelling. Even a solid cast – Paul Bettany as the best friend and nominal point-of-view figure, Kate Mara as the possibly mad anti-technology terrorist, Morgan Freeman as the Morgan Freeman character – can’t make us care what happens to anyone here. Suddenly, the idea of just shutting it all down and starting all over again doesn’t sound so bad.
Blu-ray and DVD, with the featurettes “What is Transcendence?” and “Wally Pfister: A Singular Vision.” The Blu-ray Combo Pack adds two addition featurettes (“Guarding the Threat” and “The Promise of A.I.”) and three viral videos, and includes bonus DVD and UltraViolet digital copies. Also available on Digital and VOD.
Sabotage (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD, Cable VOD) is strange creature, a violent cop thriller from David Ayer that combines the gritty urban sensibility and revenge-movie doom of Ayer’s excellent End of Watch with a high-concept corruption plot and a clumsy star-vehicle lead by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is tasked with playing a papa bear leader to a team of adrenaline-junkie specialists in a DEA tactical unit with military skills and firepower. Their discipline ends when the mission is over, which makes them dangerous and unpredictable. And not particularly likable either, though Mireille Enos is awfully fun to watch as the team’s sole female warrior and most out-of-control element. The rest of the team members are less memorable despite the casting of such genre veterans as Sam Worthington, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway, Terrence Howard and Max Martini, and they are certainly less memorable as characters than murder victims.
The film opens with them making off with a drug lord’s fortune during an official police raid and soon afterwards the money disappears and the team members get hunted down and murdered in splattery fashion. This isn’t the spectacular, oversized kind of violence of “Red,” where everything is just a little tongue-in-cheek or at least comic-book unreal. This is all about the meat left behind a death-by-train, the spatter of a bullet wound, and the spewing exit viscera of a head shot, all of it photographed in dripping detail. It all gets pretty numbing, just like Schwarzenegger’s one-dimensional performance. And that love scene with Olivia Williams? I hope she got hazard pay for it.
Blu-ray and DVD with a short, promotional-style “Making Sabotage” featurette, deleted scenes, and two alternate endings. The Blu-ray also includes bonus DVD and UltraViolet digital copies. Also available on Digital and VOD.
I’ve seen enough TV pharmaceutical commercials to diagnose symptoms when I see them. And I can confidently say that no one involved with Sabotage is suffering from “low T.” This is a very high-testosterone movie. The female characters score especially strong on that scale.
In the early going, the hyperactive macho joshing and intense gun-fondling threaten to wreck Sabotage completely. But writer-director David Ayer builds something sneaky along the way, and the movie turns into a smarter action flick than it first seems.
The obnoxious idiots at the center of the action are, I’m sorry to say, on our side.
David Ayer is something of a specialist when it comes to cop movies. And by that, I mean the day to day lives of cops on the beat, the kind of stories that tend to get overlooked in favor or big action movies or corruption thrillers.
End of Watch, which adopts a found-footage aesthetic by way of Cops, looks at the lives of two patrol officers and best friends: ambitious ex-Marine Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and married career man Mike Zavala (Michael Peña). Ostensibly we’re seeing video shot for Brian’s college course but that’s just a way to justify bringing his portable video camera and pinhole vest cams along his tour of duty. The film is really about their byplay, their job, and the everyday dangers and the extraordinary threats of life on the beat in Los Angeles.
I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Ayer in advance of the film’s release on Blu-ray and DVD. Along with questions about the use of video technology both on the job and in the film, he talked about the real-life inspirations for the stories, Jake Gyllenhaal’s commitment to the part and the film, and, of course, what he’s been watching.
“End of Watch” arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, January 22, with commentary by director/writer David Ayer and five brief, promo-style featurettes that run under three minutes apiece. It will also be available On Demand.
What are you watching?
An old World War II movie called “Attack.”
Was this simply for pleasure or are you working on a new project?
I’m working on a new project. It’s a World War II movie, with tanks involved.
You have become quite the urban cop movie specialist. Off the top of your head, besides your own movies, what do think are the best movies about cops on the beat?
On the beat. Interesting. Well, for me, one of my favorite cop movies is “Q&A,” the Sidney Lumet film with Nick Nolte. I like the old school stuff, like “Prince of the City,” more character-based works that don’t necessarily fetishize law enforcement but honor the people doing this stuff.
Do you find inspiration in those seventies cop films, those rougher dramas with more focus on character, the character of the community as well as the individuals themselves.
Yes, exactly. Showing the world and having the world become a character and this ecology of police and the people that they police is always fascinating.
Commandeering yet another police car to exploit dangerous days and ways in L.A.’s South Central badlands, David Ayer (TrainingDay) drives deep in End of Watch. Sadly, deep for Ayer is pretty shallow. What saves this cop show from its predictable tropes and clichés are terrific performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña, who’ve got each other’s backs as actors and as “brothers” in law enforcement. The rhythms of their bone-deep affection, played out in banter and in brutal action scenes, keep End of Watch moving and save it from entirely bogging down in Hollywood-macho vignettes of good guys going up against trash-talkin’ ghetto dregs.
Ayer’s a sucker for the stylistic fallacy spawned by Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity: the lazy notion (already old hat) that an unmanned camera, the mechanical eye, automatically ensures documentary reality and immediacy. So most of Watch‘s action is caught on patrol-car cams, cellphone cameras, lapel video recorders—a supremely irritating gimmick that batters the viewer with crazily dipping and bobbing camerawork. Messy and uncomposed doesn’t equal realism, but that approach is convenient cover for flat-out not knowing how to shape and move and give organic life to cinematic fictions.
Riding along with cops Brian Taylor (Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Peña), we’re often perched down under the dash to viddy the easy give-and-take between these very different comrades.Taylor’s an ex-Marine, clearly a striver in love and work. His shaved head and sculpted features contrast with his less driven Hispanic partner’s softer, darker face. Their talk—funny, raunchy, serious—ranges through love, sex, police work, family values, their cultural differences. Both are young, learning from each other about how a man lives honorably and survives on the job. Effortlessly, Gyllenhaal and Peña enact authentic friendship, the kind of camaraderie that looks casual but is cemented in stone.