(Netflix Streaming, October 2018) The measure of great actors can often be seen at how they elevate standard material, and so we have Christian Bale single-handedly making Harsh Times a worthwhile watch. Well, OK, that may be overstating things. After all, this film is another one of writer/director David Ayer’s take on the seedier side of Los Angeles (his first as a director after a good run as a screenwriter) as it follows two young men, one of them a troubled combat veteran (Bale) as they attempt to do better with their lives. That’s easier said than done when jobs are scarce, police work isn’t for those with troubled pasts, and a tangled web of obligations holds down both men. As this wouldn’t be an Ayer film without tense gunplay and impossibly tragic choices, Harsh Times does not head in a happy direction—the third act becomes a dramatic ordeal to watch. Interestingly enough, the film has gained a bit of sustained attention in the decade-or-so since its direct-to-DVD release: the star power of Ayer and Bale (and Eva Longoria, here with a thankless role as a girlfriend trying to bring her husband back to respectability) have ensured that the film continues to get attention today. The uneasy mix of graphic violence and emotionally stunted characters may not make for an easy watch, but Harsh Times holds its own as a sombre LA crime film with good performances and a strong atmosphere.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) The good news is that Netflix is now able to finance big-budget spectacle films, going beyond simply acquiring other low-budget productions. With Bright, we have an urban fantasy film featuring no less a movie star than Will Smith and well-known director David Ayer, with a copious amount of special effects and top-notch technical qualities. The not-so-good news are that Netflix may want to re-read the scripts they approve, because Bright makes less and less sense the moment you think about it. Some of the dumbness is made inevitable by even blockbuster budgetary constraints: Even if you imagine a world in which fantastic creatures have always existed alongside humanity, it makes some sense to shoot the movie in contemporary settings. But there’s “affordable” and then there’s “dumb”: seasoned SF&F fans will be aghast to see a movie in which even the presence of elves, orcs, dragons and supernatural demons has ended up producing a Los Angeles undistinguishable from ours at the exception of a few extra skyscrapers. “Dinosaurs survive; how will this affect Nixon’s re-election chances in 1972?” is the usual SF-fannish wisecrack to describe this kind of incompetent parallel world world-building and it has seldom been more appropriate than in describing an alternate universe with orcs in which Shrek exists. Why does Bright have to be so dumb? Even if you’re willing to suspend disbelief for a while, it’s almost guaranteed that Bright will do something to snap it every ten minutes or so. Transposing David Ayer’s usual LAPD crooked-cop obsessions to a fantasy parallel universe still requires more thought and subtlety than the film is able to achieve: here the parallels with “our” kind of racism are broad and too obvious, whereas the script is so by-the-numbers that it doesn’t take much to predict the entire conclusion. Will Smith, at least, gets to play the dramatic-action-movie variation of his usual persona, whereas Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace and Edgar Ramirez all turn in fine supporting performances. The result is occasionally promising, and just as often disappointing. It suggests that Netflix can play in the big leagues of today’s franchise entertainment landscape (and Bright is obviously designed to spawn sequels), for better or for worse: the days when Netflix could do no wrong are obviously gone.
(On Cable TV, June 2015) It’s difficult to watch Fury without thinking that war movies always glorify combat even when they firmly take the position that “War is Hell”: Truffault’s assertion that there are no anti-war movies suggests that even the least heroic war films still portray the adrenaline of combat in ways that could be construed as exciting. Fury certainly tries to straddle the line: As a warts-and-all examination of the life of an American tank crew in the closing days of World War 2, it’s alternately merciless, heroic, brutal, exhilarating, miserable and mesmerizing. The Americans aren’t portrayed in a flattering light (the film’s most uncomfortable sequence is a simple conversation around a dinner table, as we are not sure that Something Terrible will happen to the German mother-and-daughter pair hosting the conquering soldiers.) Only a handful of combat sequences pepper the film, and I suppose that I’m showing my colors as a war-mongering moviegoer when I complain that I would have liked to see a few more. Much of the film is spent with the small band of soldiers fighting inside their tank “Fury”, and their interactions as a new soldier replaces one killed in battle. Brad Pitt is nothing short of mesmerizing as a hardened veteran, leading his team through terrible experiences, sometimes pushing their faces into the ensuing ugliness. Much like his previous End of Watch, writer/director David Ayer aims for realism, and the result is often hard to stomach. Still, Fury doesn’t really want to be an anti-war film: The action sequences are thrilling, many of the usual war movie clichés are presented again (albeit with a grimy patina) and the actions of the soldiers, reprehensible as they may be, are presented with a weird homage to the veteran experience. (as in; “had you been there, you would have done the same”) It may this tension between how to portray war that limits Fury from being as fully realized as it could be, either as a war action thriller or as a definitive statement on war’s toll. It’s too terrible to be fully entertaining, and too entertaining to be fully terrible. Still, Fury works well in five-minute increments, and some of the scenes and images are memorable. The subject matter is unusual enough to be fascinating on its own, but the execution on a strictly visual level is incredible. As for the muddled theme, well –sometimes, a film is worth seeing for its contradictions.
(Video on Demand, February 2013) Writer/director David Ayer has basically worked his entire career so far in the “LAPD thriller” genre, but the surprise with End of Watch is how the film seems determined to re-invent the police drama, in presentation if not necessarily in content. Seen from the street-level perspective of two LAPD officers, End of Watch deliberately creates its cinema-vérité atmosphere through the use of enough handheld camera footage as so not to distract when the entire film turns out shot more conventionally. This appeal to realism is reinforced by actions that go against the grain of how movie policemen usually behave, along with dialogue that sounds improvised and a lack of detail regarding the big picture of the film’s plot. The episodic plotting gets ludicrously flashy at times (our heroes get involved with enough drug stashes, imperilled kids, human trafficking rings, car chases and shootouts to qualify for the evening news several times over) but the direction of the film keeps everything grounded. It helps that in-between the action sequences, End of Watch spends time a lot of time with its characters and so ends up focusing on their day-to-day reality. Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t initially convincing as a tough police officer, but he gets more credible as the film advances. Still, it’s Micahel Peña who steals the show in a typically compelling performance. By End of Watch’s conclusion, it becomes clear that this is (unlike much of Ayer’s work-to-date) a film that celebrates the work of ordinary policemen: there are no corrupt cops here, no half-gangbangers, no superheroes: just two guys with badges, trying to do their jobs and make the world safer for their kids.