Movie Review: “Ouija”


“Ouija” is a dead teenager movie aimed squarely at a teen audience.
Universal’s effort to reclaim its place as the Home for Horror takes a step backward with this duller-than-dull 89 minutes of your life you’ll never get back. Frankly, the board game is scarier, but only if you break the rules.
“Never play alone…never play in a graveyard…always say ‘Good-bye.'”
As kids, Debbie (Shelley Hennig) and Lainie (Olivia Cooke) knew that. But as a teen, Debbie’s picked up a board, toyed with the magical “unseen hand” planchette, with its eye hole for spying ghosts. Next thing you know, she’s hung herself.
Lainie is beside herself. Well, not exactly. Ms. Cooke, the star of this cast of pretty bland young things, rarely suggests much emotion at all. And the others take their lead from her.
Because of course there are others. Lainie wants some closure, so she picks up Debbie’s board, rounds up her boyfriend (Daren Kagasoff), her Goth-brat sister (Ana Coto), the dead girl’s beau (Douglas Smith) and the exotic Isabelle (Bianca A. Santos) for a little seance.
When they chat, “As friends we gather, hearts are true, spirits near, we call to you,” and doors creak open and chairs slide away from the table, kids being kids, they don’t take the hint.
Lainie’s housekeeper, Nona (Vivis Colombetti) adds a warning.
“Do not go seeking answers from the dead.”
Death and terror ensue.
Three horror movies (she was in “The Signal,” “The Quiet Ones”) and one horror TV series (“Bates Motel”) into her career, and poor Ms. Cooke still doesn’t show any sign that she has what it takes to become a Scream Queen. She treats the supernatural goings on, the shock of seeing friends die and the lack of adults aware of what the kids are going through with little more than a pert little shrug.
Nobody else makes much of an impression, even horror vet and studio chief sibling Lin Shaye (“2001 Maniacs”).
The effects are generally as simple as the far superior ghost story “Annabelle,” which looks like “Psycho” when compared to “Ouija,” a cynical attempt to spend almost no money and cash in on board game sales.
But seriously, who’d buy that game after this? And after “Ouija” and “Dracula Untold,” who will buy Universal as a serious home for horror? Tod Browning and Bela Lugosi are rolling in their graves.


MPAA Rating: PG-13 for disturbing violent content, frightening horror images, and thematic material
Cast: Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto, Daren Kagasoff, Lin Shaye, Bianca A. Santos, Shelley Hennig
Credits: Directed by Stiles White, written by Juliet Snowden and Stiles White. A Universal release.
Running time: 1:29

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Movie Review: “Camp X-Ray”

xRAYMuch respect for Kristen Stewart, the “Twilight” star who could have contented herself with “Snow White” films or globe trotting, nibbling on bonbons and dating the rich and the beautiful for the rest of her life.
Instead, she’s doing daring indie fare like “Camp X-Ray,” an inside Guantanamo melodrama about a soldier, an Islamic inmate and the claustrophobic space they share, isolated from the world at America’s military prison for “enemy noncombatants.”
For Private Cole (Stewart), the first day at “Gitmo” is a chance to prove she belongs, to fit in with the men. It’s not combat duty, her comrades reassure each other. Left unsaid is the stress, boredom and the psychological toll this prison guard job takes.
The various Muslim men in her block are “detainees, NOT ‘prisoners of war.'” That distinction lingers, the U.S. government’s way of avoiding the Geneva Convention terms on treatment of prisoners of war. So uncooperative detainees can be sleep deprived, an exquisitely civilized form of torture.
The soldiers are not there to prevent escapes. Where could they go?
“You are here to prevent them from dying.”
Suicide watch, lights on 24 hours a day, daily exercise outside in a tiny cage. If these men weren’t wild-eyed, bearded caricatures of terrorists when they were captured, they certainly are now.
“They will test you and they will BEST you,” thick-necked Corporal Ransdell barks. The prisoners stay put, know the routine and vent their rage at their captors in the few ways open to them. Because the soldiers are rotated through frequently, contact is limited. Their maddening duty only lasts for short stretches.
Cole is small-boned, thin, sensitive and over-matched. Within minutes, she has a bloody lip. Within hours, she has feces flung on her. She won’t let them beat her.
But one prisoner, number 471, named “Ali” is on her case. He has a beef with the prison library.
“I think you guys don’t have last Harry Potter book ON PURPOSE!” he fumes. Their trick won’t work. “I am NOT going crazy!”
Cole sticks her head in windows every three minutes, making her circuit, and with each glance, this woman staring at them humiliates the Muslim men. But Ali (Peyman Moaadi, riveting to watch) tries to engage her. Where is she from? What is her name (name tags are removed on the block)?
“Cut the Hannibal Lecter (bleep),” she says.
“Who is this Hannibal Lecter?”
“He’s a guy in a movie who TALKS too much.”
First-time writer/director Peter Sattler finds a few surprises to throw at us in this somewhat conventional “Stockholm Syndrome” story. There’s in-unit sexual tension, bullying, chain of command friction (John Carroll Lynch is Cole’s commanding officer), the mom (Julia Duffy) who cannot understand why her pretty daughter chose the Army.
The novelty is the inside view of this prison and Sattler’s ability to take us there and make us appreciate this sort of isolated incarceration. Limited human contact, sensory deprivation, media deprivation and no hope for this ever changing would drive anyone mad.
And the ever-engaging Stewart, by her presence, got the movie made and builds empathy, both for the soldiers doing this thankless job, and the detainees, who don’t even have the hope of a quick death as an escape.


MPAA Rating: R for language and brief nude images
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Peyman Moaadi, Lane Garrison, John Carroll Lynch, Julia Duffy,
Credits: Written and directed by Peter Sattler. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:52

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Movie Review: “John Wick”


A single uniformed cop shows up in the hitman-out-for-revenge thriller “John Wick.” He sees blood on the title character’s face and hands.
“Evening John,” he says, all friendly even though there have been “some noise complaints.” Then he leans over to see inside the man’s Architectural Digest home and spies a body.
“You, uh, working again?”
A non-denial denial.
“I’ll uh, leave you TO it then.”
That’s the world screenwriter Derek Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski have created. There’s a fraternity (and sorority) of hitmen and women. They all stay at the swank Continental Hotel when visiting Manhattan. The silky and discreet concierge (Lance Reddick, perfect) knows them by name and anticipates their every need. The owner (Ian McShane, spot-on) keeps them up to code.
And everybody who sees John Wick wants to “leave you TO it, then.”
The hitwoman (Adrianne Palicki) and men pay for everything with single gold coins — contracts, the services of a mob surgeon or the “cleaner” crew which hauls away the bodies and wipes up the blood.
And there’s a lot of it. Because John Wick is another one of those guys with “particular skills” the movies seem overrun with these days.
Keanu Reeves is Wick, whom we meet — bloodied — as he crashes an SUV into a loading dock. A five minute, almost dialogue-free flashback shows us the love of his life (Bridget Moynihan) and her untimely death. Condolences come from the only colleague (Willem Dafoe) to show up at her funeral.
Everybody knows John Wick. As in a Western, a bloody-minded young punk (Alfie Allen) messes with the “retired” man of violence. As in a Western, the punk crosses the link when he “shuts up” Wick’s puppy.
And anybody who ever saw a John Wayne movie knows what happens when you mess with a man’s dog.
Mayhem ensues, which is fitting because one of the supporting players is Dean Winters, a certain insurance company’s “Mr. Mayhem,” cast here as the sidekick to an alarmingly good, wonderfully expressive villain.
Michael Nyqvist of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” has his best Hollywood role, as Viggo, the Russian mobster who son just crossed the wrong ex-employee.
“I once saw him kill EIGHT men in a bar…with only a PENCIL!”
“Babay,” Viggo calls Wick. Not just “The Bogeyman,” but “the guy you call to KILL the bogeyman.”
What ensues is pure, unadulterated slaughter, delivered in a style similar to Luc “The Transporter” Besson’s action films, with a touch of John “The Killer” Woo. Reeves is a bit rough in a few moments where he has to make a speech, but convincingly enraged in others. And fight choreographer Jonathan Eusebio makes great use of him in action. Watch how Reeves holds a gun — two hands, head-high, elbows bent. Notice how he flicks through every clip-change, how he finishes off a mobster with a cursory head-shot. The fights grow bloodier and more personal as the vengeance is dealt.
As fodder for fiction, this is strictly C-movie material. But Reeves animates the action and the filmmakers surround him with wonderful co-stars; the quietly menacing McShane, the chop shop operator (John Leguizamo), the dapper “cleaner” (David Patrick Kelly of “The Warriors”) and the spitting, hissing Nyqvist. Listen to the way the Swede sputters about having his treasure hoard trashed.
Swedes playing Russians make the best bad guys. Everybody knows that, just as surely as everybody in this world knows John Wick and the slaughter that’s coming. Because everybody knows that you don’t mess with a hitman’s dog.


MPAA Rating: R for strong and bloody violence throughout, language and brief drug use
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Bridget Moynihan, Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, Lance Reddick, Daniel Patrick Kelly
Credits: Directed by Chad Stahelski, written by Derek Kolstad . A Summit release.
Running time: 1:40

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Movie Review: “Laggies”


Call them slackers or adults with or “arrested development” issues. Or call them “Laggies.”
As the new comedy “Laggies” suggests, some of us are just a little late growing up. Even after we’ve taken those tentative steps into adulthood, we’re hearing the sirens’ call of our irresponsible teens-to-early-20s.
That’s what Megan realizes when she buys some “cool” teens booze they’re too young to purchase themselves. Annika (Chloe) asked so sweetly. And the pushing-30 Megan (Keira Knightley) was having such a bad day.
She has college degrees that she doesn’t use. She just helps daddy’s accounting firm by sexily spinning a sign on a street corner during tax season.
Her reliable, dull live-in-lover (Mark Webber) is ready to pop the question. Her dad (Jeff Garlin) is cheating on her mom. Her peers are married, mommies who have started to roll their eyes at her jokes. She is alone in her irony, because her girlfriends have abandoned it.
“Maybe actually,” she wonders, “they’re the ones telling the jokes and I’m the one who’s missing them.”
She flees that world when she hooks up with Annika and her crew. One kid’s parents are divorcing, but all their concerns are teen concerns. Megan could use a few of those. She can handle them now. Annika needs her to impersonate her mother a meeting with the school guidance counselor? Sure.
That leads to a sleepover and that becomes something more permanent, right under the nose of Annika’s single-parent (Sam Rockwell), a “cool” dad, a smart-aleck divorce lawyer who’s a little disconnected from the kid’s life. He’s troubled by the presence of this odd influence on his daughter living under his roof.
“Please don’t let this decision become bad parenting on my part.”
Whatever “Laggies” had going for it up to that moment, it becomes a better movie when Rockwell’s character Craig steps into it. The banter turns sharper, the observations about adulthood, parenting and neglected kids more pointed and spot on. There’s a romantic spark, a greater potential for hurt, betrayal and a possible parenting disaster.
Is Megan cut out for motherhood, foster motherhood or even being a godmother to her girlfriend’s new baby?
“There’s no such thing as ‘The Cool Mom.’ Cool Mom’s really just a bad mom, or the mom that’s become a joke.”
“Laggies” covers familiar ground — kids trying to grow up too fast, adults trying to put it off — with just enough wit and warmth to make us push thoughts of how inappropriate everyone is behaving into the background. Moretz is as real as ever, and Knightley manages Megan’s transition from annoyingly naive to adorably confused. But for that she has help, and for that she and we should thank Rockwell. In this case, the actor most accomplished at playing slackers is the one who gets everybody — and the movie — to grow up.


MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual material and teen partying
Cast: Keira Knightley, Chloe Grace Moretz, Sam Rockwell
Credits: Directed by Lynn Shelton, screenplay by Andrea Seigel. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:39

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Movie Review: “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me”


“Cheerful” and “triumphant” aren’t words that come to mind when you think of Alzheimer’s, the debilitating illness that destroys memory, mind and body. But darned if country star Glen Campbell doesn’t manage that in “Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me.”
It’s a moving documentary that follows him through the last halfway good year or so of his life. He was diagnosed in the spring of 2011. He hit the road later that year, a decision with the potential to tarnish his legacy.
When actor-turned-director James Keach film Campbell and his wife, Kim, on the sofa for a session of home movies viewing, he blurts out “Who IS that?” at every face that pops up.
“That’s you, honey.”
And what’re they’re doing with all these cameras?
“It’s a movie abut you.”
“No kidding!” he grins. Reflexively, a joke comes to mind. “I’ll be me!”
Keach sums up Campbell’s career through clips of his concerts, his old TV show and his guest shots on “The Tonight Show” and interviews scores of performers who put the 70something legend on a pedestal. He follows Campbell from his doctor’s office to the Mayo Clinic. And Keach captures a 100+ date farewell tour that was both a victory lap and an object lesson in the progression of Alzheimer’s.
Those performances — filled with happy accidents, meandering, complaining monologues and still-stunning musicianship, are where the “triumphant” kicks in. He may not be able to remember the names of his three good-looking, musically-adept kids, who play in his band. But for much of this 2011-2012 tour, Campbell was in tune and teleprompter sharp.
Even when that teleprompter tells him, “Glen play a long guitar solo here,” which he reads out, mid-song, he delivers. And tearing through an improvisation on electric or acoustic guitar or battling his banjo-playing daughter Ashley in “Dueling Banjos,” he reminds us that the one-time Beach Boy, one of Hollywood’s greatest session musicians, was a picker par excellence and still is.
His doctor says “the music is the last thing to go.” So even with all the off-camera obsessing over something stuck in his teeth, or names and faces that he’s forgotten, lyrics he cannot recall without prompting and mild tantrums over the memories he’s lost, the shows themselves come off.
Keach’s film relies most heavily on Kim, Campbell’s fourth and final wife, a stunning blond who is Campbell’s voice for the film, explaining the decision to let him tour, the various issues with his illness and its treatment, the symptoms we see onstage and off. The most touching moment comes when Ashley breaks down in tears, testifying with Dad before Congress, trying to get money for more Alzheimer’s research.
But Campbell himself is just inspiring. The public may have wearied of him 30 years ago, a hard-drinking womanizer who never measured up to the corny, wholesome “gee whiz “image, something the film barely mentions. But onstage, laughing at the miscues he doesn’t realize he’s made, losing track of what he’s supposed to be singing or doing, and then getting it back through his firmest memories — his songs — is amazing to see.
The tunes — “Gentle On My Mind,” “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “Try a Little Kindness” — hold up. And from Springsteen to Paisley, The Edge to Sheryl Crow, his peers sit in awe.
Keach wisely saves some surprises for us, ones beyond “The Last Show” and a trip to the studio to record “The Last Song.” Those come from the peers who reveal how their lives have also been touched by the disease.
And through it all, for as long as he can manage it, the Rhinestone Cowboy croons, picks and grins and works the audience, just an old pro putting on a show, the last memory he has to share with us.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and brief language
Cast: Glen Campbell, Kim Campbell, Ashley Campbell, Bruce Springsteen, Brad Paisley, Steve Martin, Bill Clinton, Keith Urban
Credits: Directed by James Keach. A PCH Films release.
Running time: 1:44

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Movie Review: “Exists”


2stars1It comes as no surprise that some of the folks who made “The Blair Witch Project”, the definitive “found footage” horror film, do a solid job with “Exists,” a found footage bigfoot thriller.
But in the decade and a half since the much-imitated “Blair Witch,” cellphone cameras and the nearly as ubiquitous GoPro sports video camera have made the idea of “finding” a movie in footage people have shot less far-fetched. A GoPro — attached to a helmet, a car windshield, a bike’s handlebars, set up as an impromptu security camera — is going to give you something that’s polished and yet realistic.
That’s why Brian (Chris Osborn) has packed a few GoPros for a trip to the wilds of East Texas. He’s the obligatory “video nerd” in a group of five college-age friends headed off to a “cabin in the woods.”
Like most horror movie victims, they’ve apparently never heard of the beach.
With Dora (Dora Madison Burge) and Brian’s brother Matt (Samuel Davis), and another couple, Todd (Roger Edwards) and Elizabeth (Denise Williamson), and their mountain bikes, stoner Brian hopes to make “the best Youtube video ever!”
Then they hit something with their truck in the dark. They don’t see anything, but they hear mournful, otherworldly yowls from the woods.
“It sounds like it’s crying.”
When they finally get to the cabin — “It’s like a love-making palace up in here!” — they won’t have time to christen this “palace.” They’ll be too busy barring the doors, covering the windows and cowering. Something’s out to get them.
“Blair Witch” co-director Eduardo Sanchez throws a lot of tricks at us to maintain the tension in a seriously recycled script. Writer Jamie Nash, a frequent Sanchez collaborator (“Seventh Moon” was their best) works in the occasional joke between the by-the-book shocks.
“Do you even KNOW how to use a gun?”
“I play PAINTball!”
Mostly, though, this is a subgenre genre piece, full of stock characters yelling “Don’t go OVER there” and other stock lines. People get scared, but not as freaked out as you’d think they’d be over the idea that bigfoot “Exists,” and that he or she wants revenge.
Convincing shaky cam or not, in the end all we’re left with is what we started with, just another bigfoot movie.

MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some violence, sexual content and drug use
Cast: Dora Madison Burge, Denise Williamson, Samuel Davis, Roger Edwards, Chris Osborn
Credits: Directed by Eduardo Sanchez, written by Jamie Nash. A Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:40

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Movie Review: “Force Majeure”


3stars2Chilling, cruel and funny — in an icy, Swedish way — “Force Majeure” is a drama about a relationship challenged by an extreme “what would you do if” moment.
Ebba and Tomas, played by Lisa Loven Kongsli and Johannes Kuhnke, and their two small children are enjoying a nice holiday in the French Alps. The kids, being Swedish, are already skiers, though the youngest, Harry, is a bit of a ninny.
We watch them slip into their ski resort routine — up for breakfast, out on the slopes, kids asleep while the parents socialize later in the hot tub or the bar with Americans, Frenchmen and fellow Swedes.
Writer-director Ruben Östlund gives every ski lift ride an air of menace — mostly silent skiers, hanging from a chair in a wall of white. The steep mountainsides are packed with snow, and we and the family learn what those lovely but deadly flashes and booms rippling across the slopes at night are — avalanche prevention cannons.
It’s an austere winter wonderland and cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel makes it look picture postcard pretty. But as Östlund breaks the days down with inter-titles, “Ski Day 2,” and so on, we know something’s coming. All that foreboding and foreshadowing cannot be for nothing.
The “something” is a planned avalanche that hurtles down the slopes, mesmerizing everybody dining on the chilly outdoor patio looking up at the mountains. The wall of snow bears down on them and they freeze. And then it becomes obvious there’s been a miscalculation and the screams and scrambling skiers are covered in a cloud of white.
It’s not that anybody gets hurt, it’s how everyone reacts that is the crux of “Force Majeure.” We see Ebba turn a little cold to Tomas, who is either confused or sheepish. Tensions boil over when she calls him out in front of one and all for running for safety while she gathered up their kids to flee. Dinner dates turn sour. Drinks by the fireplace become accusatory.
Friends take sides and everybody starts to question “What would YOU do if that happened to us?”
“Force Majeure” is the French phrase from the world of insurance and investment means “greater force,” as in no one is responsible when a natural catastrophe or the like is involved in a loss. Is that a good enough excuse for Tomas, that all bets are off and it’s every man for himself when reflexes are involved? Ebba doesn’t think so and even Tomas seems unconvinced as he descends into guilt, grief and depression over failing a very basic manhood test.
But did he?
Östlund’s film wanders as it ponders this stress on a man and a marriage during a vacation that goes on and on, in spite of this alarming near-miss and what it suggests about the relationship.
Like witnesses to an avalanche, we are transfixed by the beauty, power and fury of nature. Like Tomas and Ebba and every other couple Ebba humiliates Tomas in front of, we wonder how we could react, not just to the fight-or-flight moment, but to a loved one’s reactions.
That lets “Force Majeure,” in Swedish, French and English with subtitles, become one of the cinema’s more revealing portraits of manhood and marriage and the slippery slope that a simple reflexive act can send them down.

MPAA Rating: R for some language and brief nudity
Cast: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren
Credits: Written and directed by Ruben Östlund . A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:58

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Movie Review: “White Bird in a Blizzard”


Shailene Woodley, a young actress so engagingly real on camera that she can do no wrong, gets a lot wrong and a bad film out of her system with “White Bird in a Blizzard,” an overwrought coming-of-age mystery drama that is an embarrassment for most everyone involved.
As Kat, the heroine of Laura Kasischke’s heavy-breathing YA novel, Woodley strips and seduces an older man (Thomas Jane), keeps a beau her own age (Shiloh Fernandez) around for the sex and narrates her life with a blase lack of interest that undercuts the mystery the story is built on.
“I was 17 when my mother disappeared.”
Woodley’s Kat is all “flesh and blood and raging hormones.” But director Gregg “Mysterious Skin” Araki turns ex-Bond babe Eva Green, into some sort of Bette Davis vamp as the hysterical-mercurial mother that Kat doesn’t miss.
Mom is unstable on a good day. She brazenly flirts with Kat’s next-door-neighbor teen sex buddy Phil (Fernandez) and shows nothing but contempt for Kat’s wimpy pushover of a father (Christopher Meloni). Their marriage is “a long drink of water from a frozen fountain.” Green’s every testy, furious, can’t-hide-my-accent scene is laugh-out-loud awful.
Then there’s the cop Kat and her Dad go to to see about tracking down Mom. Thomas Jane (“The Punisher”) as Det. Scieziesciez (!?), is an unkempt 40something who looks like 50 miles of rough road, which apparently catches Kat’s eye. Must. Have. Him.
Kat confesses all to her obligatory gay BFF (Mark Indelicato) and overweight African American BFF (Gabourey Sidibe). When she goes to see a shrink (Angela Bassett), her narration is an insult to both performances. She “reminds me of an actress playing a therapist.”
Seriously, is the Kasischke novel this bad? Or is that just Araki’s obsession with the lurid and the sexual?
Because we start to wonder what DID happen to that mom, tipped by Kat’s white-on-white inside-a-snow-globe nightmares. Not that the film frets over this as it jumps back and forth through time.
Whatever its intent, “White Bird in a Blizzard” misuses most everybody involved, especially the dazzling young star of “The Descendants,””The Fault in Our Stars” and “Divergent.” The laughs, intentional and otherwise, don’t disguise the feeling that we’re watching the big screen equivalent of a young star’s nude selfie stolen from her cell phone.

1half-starMPAA Rating: R for sexual content/nudity, language and some drug use
Cast: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Thomas Jane, Shiloh Fernandez, Angela Bassett
Credits: Written and directed by Gregg Araki, based on the Laura Kasischke novel. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:36

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Box Office: “Fury” opens big, “Book of Life” solid, “Best of Me” is the End of Nicholas Sparks movies?

boxThe David Ayer/Brad Pitt/Shia/Michael Pena combat movie “Fury” is blowing away the competition this weekend at the box office.

Well, maybe that’s an overstatement. It’s not doing blockbuster numbers, or horror blockbuster numbers even. Based on late Thursday and all-day Friday, it’ll clear $25 million by midnight Sunday. “Gone Girl” did over $35 in opening, remember?

But that movie appealed to more than just guys.

“Gone Girl” is still #2, with the animated “Book of Life,” another very good toon opening to less than Dreamworks/Pixar/Disney numbers. Only the $teens. I hope Saturday does better for it. It’s lovely, original, a delight.

“The Best of Me” didn’t cost much, and it won’t earn a lot. Even by Nicholas Sparks adaptation standards, it’s an under-performer. Poor reviews won’t help it clear $12 million.

“Birdman,” perhaps the most critically acclaimed movie of the year, is earning some $90K per screen in limited release. Expect that one to roll out wider in the next few weeks and stick around until Oscar time.

“Dear White People” is riding swell reviews to second place in the per-screen average race. It looks to earn over $33,000 per screen in limited release. Bill Murray’s “St. Vincent” opens a little wider and is doing OK, not great, in limited release.

“Meet the Mormons” and “Addicted” and “Dracula Untold” have dropped after their opening weekends, and dropped far more than “The Judge,” which is holding audience well.

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Deconstructing “Fury,” or The Art of the Tank Combat movie


David Ayer’s new combat film “Fury” is, as I said in my review, a very entertaining B-movie, an old-fashioned WWII movie of the sort Hollywood used to crank out for the generations that could never seem to get enough WWII movies.

It is not “Saving Private Ryan,” though it borrows plot tropes (“keep my men alive”) from that one. It is not “The Big Red One,” with, as my friend Matt Olien likes to say, Brad Pitt in the Lee Marvin (grizzled, gruff star a bit old for the Army) role, though again, lots of plot kernels seem spun off from that one.

Fun movie, gory, with R-rated violence that seems suggestive of first-person shooter video games. It brought to mind my first-ever chat with Jeff Bridges. He was playing video games on the set of “Tron,” the original film, and his favorite was my favorite, a primitive first-person shooter tank game called “Battlezone.” .  The game’s strategies revolved around how slow a tank or its turret turns. Could you get in position to kill the other tank before it gets into position to kill you? That comes into play in one scene in “Fury.”

War movie conventions are something that we and Hollywood just don’t have the handle on the way we used to. I, for instance, was puzzled by the turret, hull shape and profile of the tank named “Fury” in the movie. After digging around, I ID’d it as a Pershing, a late-war American tank introduced because the Sherman tanks commonly deployed by the U.S. were no match for most German tanks.

There are real Shermans in column with Fury in several scenes — shorter cannon, different turrets. They look like this.

ShermanKinda dinky, rounded edges, etc. The tank in the film the studio calls a Sherman M4A3E8 borrowed from a British Museum.

And even though I visited Danville Va.’s now-closed Tank Museum many times, I defer to their expertise. Still looks a lot more like a Pershing than  a Sherman to me.  I expect, any day now, to be deluged with vets or experts in militaria correcting me. But the WWII generation has mostly died off, and certainly don’t go to war movies any more. I know. I dragged scores of vets to see “Pearl Harbor,” “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Saving Private Ryan” with me for newspaper stories. Their ranks shrank remarkably by the time the Eastwood movie came around.


What about the movie’s military components? The horrors of war are immediate — bloody, brutal, personal combat that makes men so hate their foes that “No prisoners” becomes a grunt-level practice if not official policy. David Ayer gets that stuff right. I have no doubt Germans, especially S.S. troops, were executed in the field. “Fury” is set well after the Battle of the Bulge’s Malmedy Massacre, which, contrary to a blundering Bill O’Reilly tirade a few years back, was carried out by Germans against Americans, not the other way around.

But again, we’re all further removed from that war, so the history grows fuzzier.

Ayer’s crew contends with a mine, at one point. As anybody who has ever watched a WWII movie before can tell you, mines were and are typically laid in “fields,” as in “Where there’s one, there are others.” The crew of the Fury doesn’t seem to know that.

The finale of the film has come under criticism from many critics as laughably far-fetched, a battle against impossible odds.  Agreed. Until you read reports from the ISIS/ISIL combat zone, where armed villages and units of various flags complain they are overmatched because ISIS got its hands on tanks. The guys with the tank win. They’re hard beasts for infantry — lightly armed and ill-equipped (mentally, too, in terms of training) — to kill. Why wouldn’t a tank be able to fend off overwhelming numbers of infantry, at least for a while?

Even at its most militarily suspect, “Fury” never falls to the level of Spike Lee’s laughable “Miracle at St. Anna” or even Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.”

B-movie that it is, “Fury” is the greatest American tank combat movie. I remember Sherman tank battle sequences in “The Battle of the Bulge,” starring Henry Fonda among others, that were pretty good. “The Beast,” about a Soviet tank crew, captured the claustrophobia and fearful limited field of view of such fighting machines.

But the Israeli film “Lebanon” (2009) is still the gold standard. It’s “Das Boot” in a tank, and worth renting if “Fury” has whetted your tanking appetite.

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