Sunday, November 30, 2014

Southern Comfort

Southern Comfort (1981), directed by Walter Hill, is like Deliverance except instead of vacationers on a Georgia river running afoul of hillbillies, it involves a squad of National Guardsmen running afoul of Cajuns in a Louisiana bayou. Also, there's less Ned Beatty rape (most likely owing to the fact Ned Beatty is not in this picture).

It's violent, it's bleak, and it's mesmerizing in places, but it falls short of Deliverance and not just because John Boorman's picture came out first. I think the reason for that is because Southern Comfort has more than twice as many characters in peril (nine vs four), and they aren't as well drawn.  Plus, the defining characteristics of the squad members are how most of them are redneck assholes who do much to deserve the ire of the Cajuns. Still, as an action thriller centered on a clash of cultures, Southern Comfort is a tense story of survival.

The cast is packed with a who's-who of tough guy character actors. Peter Coyote is their leader, Fred Ward is the unstable violent one, and Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe play the relatively calm stable members. Marching through the bayou on an exercise and carrying mostly blanks, the squad gets lost and decides to steal some canoes they find. As a joke, one of the squad members uses his machine gun to fire blanks at some Cajuns they see on the other side of the river, and the Cajuns respond with lethal force. The rest of the movie writes itself as the Cajuns, who know the terrain better than these Weekend Warriors, pick off the guardsmen. There's also some in-fighting and one Cajun (Brion James) the men take captive when they assume him to be one of the killers.

The movie is set in 1973, and while Hill reportedly denied it was his intention, the film can be read as a commentary on the Vietnam War. The parallels are numerous: American soldiers with the latest in technology and firepower march through hostile territory, unable to tell friend from foe as a relentless enemy more familiar with the terrain sets traps and ambushes. Instead of winning the hearts and minds of the natives, the squad tries to bully them, taking and destroying their property and alienating themselves further. Even the bayou setting, with its elaborate river system and heavy green canopy, resembles the jungles of Vietnam to a fashion.

The bayou setting is important because it allows Hill to obscure the Cajuns. Like the Viet Cong, they move more easily through the foliage than their targets, and our glimpses of them are brief, sometimes limited to a figure darting from behind one tree to another or in a long distance shot that we can't make out too well. The effect imbues the Cajuns with an omnipresence: they can be anywhere and attack at anytime. Some of the more chilling scenes aren't the death scenes, but the little clues the Cajuns leave behind for the guardsmen to find, such as the dead rabbits strung up or the line of bear traps in the water. In the final moments of the movie, the last two survivors of the squad end up in a Cajun village after hitching a ride on the back of a truck with a pair of pigs; in the village, two nooses are set up, and we can't be sure whether they're for the men or the pigs.

But make no mistake: while not overwhelmingly graphic, Southern Comfort is a violent picture, and the deaths, while not as messy as they could have been, look quite painful and terrifying. One trap drives dozens of wooden spikes into one man's chest. Another man, in a blind panic, takes off through the swamp and ends up sinking in quicksand, his fate never known to his compatriots. The guardsmen are reasonably tough, but they're at the mercy of not only the natives but also nature.

All this is tense and exciting, but I can't help but feel I'd appreciate the movie more if more sympathy had been generated for the imperiled guardsmen. Outside of Boothe and Carradine and maybe Coyote, they're a stupid, self-destructive, hypocritical, clumsy, racist, ill-prepared bunch, and for most of them, it's hard to feel bad about what happens to them. One character burns down a hut full of supplies and ammunition they desperately need for no reason other than Hill's story needs a crazy character. And of course, the black guy is the one smoking weed while on duty. Deliverance got the notion of unprepared city folk transgressing on the wilderness much better and gave Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty, and Ronny Cox some dimensions, so while they made mistakes, the movie didn't beat you over the head with them.

Fury

War is hell, but you've got to man up, boy. That feels like the theme of Fury (2014), a movie that follows an American tank crew in the waning days of World War II in Germany. Since we are living in a post-Saving Private Ryan world, it is expectedly graphic with its depictions of combat. Heads are blown off, limbs are torn apart, men are burned alive, civilians die horribly when buildings collapse on them, fearsome war machines crush people under their gears, and it only takes one direct hit from a superior German Tiger tank to render the American Sherman a death trap.

Yet, other aspects of the film feel old-fashioned, more like a macho action picture than an unflinching gaze into the ugly side of war. It's a dirty, bloody job, but it takes real men to do it, and you better toughen up quickly because your crew members are counting on you. Fury is the marriage of these two sensibilities, and it's not entirely successful. It's hard to get pumped up when ghastly things happen to people, and it's difficult to accept the notion that some serious point or message is being delivered by the movie when the minimal plot, along with the characters, feel off-the-shelf. Still, in its depiction of action, atmosphere, and look, along with support from its able cast, Fury is an achievement.

World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle famously wrote from the "worm's eye view." He emphasized the grunts and their hard life as they slogged through the cold and mud, and Fury shares that perspective. There's no larger strategy or sense of what World War II was all about; Fury limits itself to the crew of a tank called "Fury" as they slog through the countryside trying to survive. Members include star Brad Pitt as Sgt. Don "Wardaddy" Collier, Shia LaBeouf as Boyd "Bible" Swan," Michael Pena as Trini "Gordo" Garcia, and Jon Bernthal as Grady "Coon-Ass" Travis. Early on, they are joined by a rookie, clerk Norman Ellison played by Logan Lerman.

Plot is minimal. The crew goes from one battle to the next, with a stopover in an apartment with two German women, before making a final stand against a column of SS troops. Mostly, the film is a depiction of life in the tank, and it does not look fun. It's cramped, dirty, noisy, and the armor is pretty much a joke when up against German firepower. Outside the tank is not much better. Germany is a cold, wet, miserable place. Roads are soggy, muddy trails that could be loaded with land mines, and being in enemy territory, it's hard to tell if citizens will be friendly or not, a lesson Norman learns the hard way when he hesitates to fire on a group of kids with guns who end up destroying the lead tank in the column. Norman can only watch as that tank's commander, screaming as fire engulf his body, shoots himself in the head. No slow motion, no dramatic style, the movie depicts that act in blunt matter-of-factness.

This event leads to the long-running intra-squad conflict. Norman feels he's not up for this job and wants out. Wardaddy tells he's got no choice and had better get his act together. Next time Norman freezes up, it might their own tank that goes up in flames. They got one job: kill Germans, and that's what Wardaddy is going to get Norman to do. Eventually, gradually, Norman finds himself fitting in.

The characters are straight out of World War II movies of yesteryear. You've got the grizzled leader, the kid, the religious one, the ethnic guy, and the redneck, and despite a good effort from the cast to bring them to life, they never emerge as anything more than types with little room for nuance. As a result, the movie feels stretched out and over long. Take the scene with the German women. It starts off strong as Wardaddy takes Norman inside their apartment and orders him to lock the door. We've seen him kill prisoners, and we know he hates Germans, so we're unsure of what Wardaddy has in mind, and the tension is palpable. Then, he sends Norman into the bedroom with one of the women, and the rest of the squad turns up for a meal around the table, and the scene drags on into tediousness.

Fury works better in its action scenes. Several American tanks drive through the countryside and through a town, their crews never sure when an ambush might happen. The first big battle shows the tanks advancing across a field as infantrymen hang behind them and use them as cover. Later, three (well, four) tanks square off against one German Tiger, and the Americans have to rely on speed, numbers, and maneuverability to get behind the Tiger to hit its weak point; when so many tanks in movies stay in one place and trade shots, these scenes display a strong, kinetic energy.

The final battle, as the men of the broken down Fury stand against hundreds of SS troops, goes on too long. It's hard to buy that five guys with dwindling ammunition and no mobility would be able to hold off an entire column of soldiers as long as they do, especially when the Germans have bazookas and sniper rifles (the Germans are shown carrying Panzerschrecks early,  but they wait a long time to deploy them). The initial surprise - playing dead to lure in as many as possible - works, but once again, the scene goes on and on until its impact is muted. The sight of Brad Pitt manning a machine gun turret as explosions go off all around him feels more like the posturing of an action movie than a desperate fight to death, especially when he takes to taunting the German attackers.

To be better, Fury needs either a longer running length or a shorter one. A longer length would allow more time and space for the characters to breathe and develop, and a shorter length would have focused on the action and been snappier. The period details, along with the grit and grind of tank life, are strongly realized and make the movie worth watching, but the film could have been more.

Night Moves

One of Gene Hackman's strengths as an actor is the rough, dogged determination he imbues his characters. Whether he's playing a New York City narcotics detective on the trail of a heroin dealer or an Indiana high school basketball coach leading his team through a state tournament, Hackman has granted a number of films authority and credibility with his presence.

Night Moves (1975), directed by Arthur Penn, finds Hackman once again as a detective, this time a private investigator on the trail of a has-been Hollywood actress's runaway daughter (a teenaged Melanie Griffith, not that that stops her from getting undressed fairly frequently), and he discovers things aren't as cut-and-dry as they appear to be. That's a similar setup to many film noirs over the years, dating back to the genre's golden period in the 1940s and 1950s. Hackman's PI, retired football player Harry Moseby, fashions himself as one of those old-time PIs like Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe: he has his own office, prefers his independence to working for a company, talks tough, doesn't mind getting his hands dirty, and doesn't like being played the fool by anyone. When he realizes there's some serious monkey business going on with this case, he won't rest until he gets to the bottom of it.

However, there is a difference between Moseby and those other detectives: he never really figures anything out. People wind up dead for reasons he can't quite grasp, and in the film's valedictory image, a wounded Moseby, stranded on a boat out on the ocean, can only circle endlessly, a metaphor for his ineffectiveness. Night Moves resembles Robert Altman's The Long Good Bye more than it does Roman Polanski's Chinatown; it's almost a parody of the detective genre by showing just how out of touch and outdated these old gumshoes really are, and Hackman's grit only enhances the point. Instead of getting closer to the truth, Moseby keeps missing it.

I can't say I blame Moseby. I don't think I can properly explain what happens or why. The film moves back and forth between Los Angeles and Florida as Moseby tracks down new leads, characters die in "accidents," and one character, a greasy and sleazy mechanic named Quentin (James Woods), has motive and opportunity to kill someone, but is he a killer or a fall guy? There's also business about the underbelly of Hollywood, what women have to do to make it in Tinseltown, coverups involving stuntmen, and some business involving smuggling.

I'm sure if I watched the film three or four more times and took careful notes, I could piece everything together, but at least I don't share the same distraction Moseby has. This private eye, a professional who makes it his business to know other people's business, discovers his wife Ellen (Susan Clark) is cheating on him with a man named Marty Heller (Harris Yulin). Can you imagine the wife of a detective played by Humphrey Bogart cheating on him? Moseby tries to be the tough, hard-bitten detective of the Bogart mold, but he's not as good at it, professionally or personally.

Night Moves is classified as neo-noir, so it is a more modern take on the film genre. While there is the usual paranoia and oh-what-a-cruel-world vibe running through it as well as the sexual perversions of its characters (now discussed instead of just being hinted at), Night Moves doesn't rely on deep, dark shadows or gritty, urban corruption for its setting. Many scenes occur during the day, often on a boat or dock, and out in the open. Without the cover of literal darkness, one can see just how lost and alone Moseby really is.