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Posts Tagged ‘Shia LaBeouf’

I know it’s not something to really be proud of, but I’m as prone to a touch of the old schadenfreude as the next person. Watching someone spectacularly torch their own career has a strange fascination to it, not to mention a peculiar and terrible beauty. Young movie stars are kept under pretty strict control these days, so they have to be quite determined to really do themselves some damage, career-wise – but someone who managed it was Shia LaBeouf, whose ill-chosen comments on the last Indiana Jones film, while admirably candid, apparently seriously ticked off Steven Spielberg. These days he’s not even allowed to be in the Transformers movies, a franchise so beyond the critical pale that not even I go to see them. A move into performance art has just been bemusing, more than anything else – last year he spent a whole weekend just going up and down in the lift in an office building round the corner from where I work, while a queue of admirers lined up to go up and down once with him. (He should have used the lift where I work: our building has twice as many floors, so everyone would have got a longer ride.)

And yet here he is, popping up in Janus Metz Pederson’s Borg vs McEnroe (the movie has a variety of other titles, depending on where you see it; we will return to this). This looks like being a bumper autumn for tennis-based historical drama, but apparently Borg vs McEnroe is struggling at the box office, rather: I can’t say I’m completely surprised. This movie reminds me very much of Ron Howard’s Rush (an account of a different sporting rivalry of yesterday), a rather fine film which did okay money-wise but was hardly a smash hit. This is a film much of which is in Swedish, without a really big star to carry it, or a big name director, and sheer quality just doesn’t guarantee success these days.

The film is set in 1980 and concerns the famous clash in the Wimbledon men’s final, between the Swedish player Bjorn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) and the American John McEnroe (LaBeouf). Quite apart from the fact that the two men are both supremely gifted athletes, there is a clash of styles and personalities – Borg is renowned as an iceman, his game characterised by an almost robotic perfectionism, while McEnroe is a much more turbulent, provocative figure, famous for his explosive temper on court. Borg is loved by the crowds; McEnroe routinely booed.

Borg is campaigning for his fifth Wimbledon title on the spin; McEnroe is seeking to establish himself as a major figure in the sport. The pressures on both men are enormous – in private, Borg’s relationship with his coach (Stellan Skarsgard) and fiancee (Tuva Novotny) come under strain, while McEnroe’s fractious relationship with the media is another distraction. But as Wimbledon begins and the two men begin to battle their way through the draw, perhaps each of them sees a little of himself in the other…

I suspect that the one thing you really need to know in order to understand Borg vs McEnroe is the fact that this is a Scandinavian-financed film, known in Sweden simply as Borg. Bearing this in mind, it’s not exactly a surprise that the film is not completely even-handed in its treatment of its two principals. It’s not that McEnroe is smeared or disparaged in any way, more that the focus of the story is much more on the Swede than the American (the sense that this is the authorised biography of Borg only increases when you learn that playing the athlete as a youth is a lad by the name of Leo, ah, Borg – I wonder who his dad might be?).

The film has one of those slightly tricksy constructions where scenes from the ’present day’ of the film (i.e., 1980) are intercut with flashbacks to the youth of the characters – well, the extreme youth of the characters, given they are 24 and 21. There are many more of these for Borg than McEnroe, and – it seemed to me – more of an attempt at psychological insight and a fully-rounded characterisation. We see that McEnroe was clearly pushed to excel by extremely ambitious parents, but not really very much more – whereas in the case of Borg, we see in much more detail his troubled early years in the junior game, his discovery by Lennart Bergelin, and so on.

As a result, the film feels a bit unbalanced, and I have to say that the casting of LaBeouf is arguably a bit of a mistake that does not help matters much. We can skip over the fact he’s a decade older than McEnroe was at the time (the age disparity between Gudnason and Borg is even greater), but it still remains the case that there really isn’t much resemblance between the two of them. McEnroe was and remains a well-known public figure; at the time his various touchline rants at the umpire (’You cannot be serious,’ etc) were hugely famous, the raw material for dozens of jokes, cartoons, and even novelty pop songs. Everyone feels they already know John McEnroe already; bringing him successfully to life on screen would require a more nuanced and powerful performance than LaBeouf provides here. If nothing else, LaBeouf has the same problem that Tom Cruise suffers from these days – his peculiar behaviour away from the camera gets in the way of his work in front of it. He is known as a celebrity rather than an actor, and so when he appears he is only ever really Shia LaBeouf in a wig rather than any version of John McEnroe. (LaBeouf-watchers may be slightly alarmed to hear their man likening himself to the tennis player, saying he feels they are both ’misunderstood’. Hmmm.)

Anyway. I used to be very cool about sports-based movies, feeling that sport had no business muscling in on what’s supposed to be an art form. What I realise now, of course, is that both are in the business of storytelling, and the main appeal of sport is its potential to deliver a totally unpredictable narrative. The match at the end of Borg vs McEnroe is an unpredictable narrative to which the climax is already well-known, which presumably counts as a neatly-squared circle. Both the climax and the rest of the film are very competently assembled, even if the film’s ’inspired by true events’ style is hardly particularly innovative.

I’m just old enough to remember being vaguely aware of the events of this film when they happened, and I’m aware of the significance of the 1980 final. And the least you can say about Borg vs McEnroe is that it is a worthy, entertaining, and surprisingly insightful recreation of these events (it goes without saying, of course, that the 1981 encounter is dismissed in a single caption at the end). Not a perfect movie, but by no means a bad one, either: worth watching even if you’re only marginally a tennis fan.

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Not usually a one for war movies, to be honest, and a friend roundly told me off this week for not even having seen Inglourious Basterds (I have been fairly Tarantino-intolerant since about 2004). Then again, the prospect of seeing something which seems to have a genuinely new angle to it, plus some glowing reviews from proper critics, is usually enough to make me consider trotting along to see almost anything. So this week I went along to David Ayer’s Fury.

fury

Ayer’s movie is set during the death throes of the Second World War, at a time when any potential glamour and nobility the conflict may have had has long since dissipated, and all that remains is a bitter, grubby, futile bloodbath. Brad Pitt plays Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier, a veteran soldier in the US Army, whose experiences across North Africa and Europe have made him a lethally effective tank commander with an obsessive hatred of the Nazis.

As the film opens, Collier’s crew have taken a casualty, and the vacancy is filled by very green new recruit Norman (Logan Lerman), who has been trained as a clerk rather than a tank driver. Most of the first half of the film is devoted to showing us the reality of war through Norman’s eyes, and a horribly grim reality it is too: practically the first job he is assigned is to scrape the remains of his predecessor out of his seat. The rest of the crew have become thoroughly brutalised by their experiences in the war – Fury is not a movie which makes any attempt to depict the American army as in any way heroic. Any German is a potential target, and in some ways the ‘initiation’ Norman receives from his comrades resembles the indoctrination suffered by child soldiers in more recent wars.

At the centre of this is Collier himself, who would no doubt argue that his own safety and that of the rest of the crew depends on Norman’s ability to do what’s necessary in the midst of battle. He is part mentor and part tormentor, slightly more than just another of the damaged bravos he commands. I must confess that in the past I have nearly always seen Brad Pitt as either an identikit leading man or just a pretty boy juvenile lead, but here his performance is genuinely impressive, and worthy of a film in which every moment, line, and shot seems well-judged to convey the sheer awfulness of the subject matter: the characters are in the midst of a pointless slaughter, and one in which they are personally in the most terrible danger. The script spells it out in a number of memorable lines: ‘We’re not here to do good. We’re here to kill Germans,’ Pitt states tersely, near the start, while later he is in a more philosophical mood: ‘Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.’ The Allies may be days away from an historic victory, but the Nazis are putting up a monumental fight, and their own armour massively outclasses the American tanks: one of the little-known historical facts Fury brings to light is that American tank losses outnumbered Nazi ones by a factor of about five, the brutal truth being that they were content to rely on their massive numerical advantage rather than invest in constructing a new main battle tank capable of taking on the German Tigers on an equal footing.

Perhaps bravely, in its first half the film is relatively light on action, choosing to concentrate on establishing the characters and atmosphere. This it does with a journey through a nightmare landscape: mobs of dispossessed civilians roaming fields, hanged ‘traitors’ on every telegraph pole, burning cities in the distance. Things have reached the point where liberated German women offering themselves to American soldiers has become a joyless ritual for both sides, but one which continues to be acted out nevertheless. One of Fury‘s most daring choices is to pause for what feels like ages in a supremely uncomfortable sequence in which Pitt and his men take advantage of the reluctant hospitality of two young German women. The performances of Logan Lerman and the other actors are also excellent, even – perhaps surprisingly – Shia LaBeouf, who has managed to claw second-billing from the more deserving Lerman.

Soon enough, though, Collier and his men are ordered back into action – their mission, to hold a strategic crossroads and protect the flank of the Allied advance on German. However, luck is not on their side, and they find themselves caught in the path of an advancing enemy column which massively outnumbers and outguns them – do they do their duty, or make a pragmatic withdrawal?

There aren’t a great many surprises at this end of the film, but it’s still thoroughly engrossing stuff, with a couple of absolutely exceptional battle scenes – the best of these is a close-quarters encounter between Pitt’s Sherman and a German Tiger, the two tanks almost like roaring, wallowing steel beasts as they desperately struggle to bring their weapons to bear on each other. The combat sequences are gruelling, but also utterly convincing.

Once again, I am a little surprised that Fury has been released as early in the year as it has: this is not just a blood-and-thunder action movie – though it is supremely accomplished in this department – but one which takes pains to work as a serious drama and commentary on the effects of war: somewhere where even victors can also be victims. This is an excellent film.

 

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