REVIEW: War Machine

30 05 2017

Admittedly, I am not that interested in how David Michod’s “War Machine” plays into cinema’s canon of films about the Middle Eastern conflicts of our century. I am, however, very interested in how it plays into Brad Pitt’s filmography over the last decade or so.

Pitt was once (and still is, to an extent) a major tabloid sex symbol with a charisma so potent that it could ensnare a co-star. His macho swagger could level city blocks in Hollywood. But now, he’s been playing a different type … over and over and over again. As General Glen McMahon, a lightly fictionalized version of infamously terminated General Stanley McChrystal, Pitt adds another chapter to what can most charitably be described as a moment of clarity. Some, less generously, might also call it a mid-life crisis.

McMahon follows in the footsteps of Billy Beane from “Moneyball,” Jackie Cogan from “Killing Them Softly,” and Ben Rickert from “The Big Short” – among other characters – as Pitt’s new favorite archetype. These ponderous veterans of their respective trades are straight shooters with a radical approach to their field greeted with skepticism by those still trapped by conventional wisdom. Gradually, they increase their risky maneuvers for personal vindication, only to meet fierce pushback from the established vanguard. And usually some kind of character flaw, usually pride, serves a major Achilles’ heel along the journey.

McMahon’s quest involves getting a broader sign-off on his counterintelligence strategy in Afghanistan, a cause for which he’s even willing to enlist a civilian PR director (Topher Grace’s Matt Little) in order to ruffle some feathers in the Obama administration. Michod mostly operates in a satirical mode to display his hubristic “hearts and minds” campaign, though “War Machine” has plenty of genuine moments of real introspection about America’s conflicted role in enduring conflict.

Perhaps to give the proceedings some groundings in actual war, the third act takes a huge detour into actual armed combat with characters we haven’t received enough information on to feel invested in. We do, however, have plenty to intellectualize the United States’ peacekeeping and democracy-spreading operations through McMahon. This comes from both the movie itself and everything Brad Pitt brings to the role with an earned stoicism and world-weariness – but a penchant for innovating and retooling moribund strategies. B

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REVIEW: Allied

26 11 2016

When asked how she has kept up a ruse among Nazis in Morocco, Marion Cotillard’s Resistance agent Marianne Beauséjour offers one trick of the trade: keep the emotions real. Precision is important – and she has plenty – but the feeling matters most.

In “Allied,” director Robert Zemeckis might not be trying anything nearly as daring as the espionage mission undertaken by Marianne and her Canadian companion, Brad Pitt’s Max Vatan, yet he heeds that core dictum all the same. His Old Hollywood throwback is a classically styled delight that succeeds largely on the dynamism of the two stars. Their transition from partners in crime to partners in life is gradual, then sudden, and it works because Zemeckis creates an environment where a series of sparks can believably ignite a blaze.

The golden-age romance turns on a dime in the film’s second half when British intelligence officers inform Max of their belief that Marianne is, in fact, passing classified information back to the Nazis. At this point, “Allied” shifts registers into an old-fashioned thriller; Zemeckis masterfully deploys his craftsmanship here. Small sonic details become searing motifs that comment on the tension ratcheting up between the couple. Brisk cuts sweep us from one scene into the next, echoing the whiplash Max must feel. In both themes and content, the film feels like it shares a close kinship with Hitchcock’s early American work in the 1940s.
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REVIEW: By the Sea

28 11 2015

By the SeaAngelina Jolie Pitt’s third film, “By the Sea,” feels like a bloated student thesis project. And, for once, I do not use that term in a completely pejorative manner.

Jolie Pitt’s last directorial outing, “Unbroken,” was such a formulaic piece of studio entertainment that it felt depressingly soulless in its mediocrity. (Her deeply misguided mess of a debut, “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” is best left forgotten.) Here, she seems to be grappling with some fundamentals of cinema: editing, shot choice, shot duration, camera movement. Since Jolie Pitt holds such a position of power in Hollywood that she will likely see many opportunities to step behind the camera again, watching her grow is inarguably a positive thing.

Admittedly, there are far more qualified directors – female or male – deserving of eight-figure budgets to make a personal project. It’s frustrating to think on who lost out on their chance because Jolie Pitt got this one. Still, if she ever wants to take the reins of “Cleopatra” herself, everyone should be thankful she got to make “By the Sea” as a stylistic exercise.

The film is almost pure style, like a sleek perfume or cologne ad drawn out to feature length. Jolie Pitt and her husband, Brad Pitt, play the bitter married couple Vanessa and Roland, estranged practically to the point of their union dissolving. “By the Sea” follows their trip to the luxurious beaches of France from arrival to departure, chronicling their manifold frustrations in languorously broad strokes. Roland galavants off attempting to write his next novel, while Vanessa mostly just lingers around their hotel room smoking cigarettes and throwing shade through her Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses.

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REVIEW: The Counselor

25 10 2015

Ever wondered what it would look and sound like if Aaron Sorkin took a pass at adapting “No Country for Old Men?” It might resemble Ridley Scott’s “The Counselor,” a film taken from a script by great novelist Cormac McCarthy himself. For someone so sparse and minimalistic in prose, his first screenplay sure feels bombastic.

It’s hard to fathom that someone so widely lauded as one of the most significant writers of our time could turn in a work full of fortune-cookie dialogue and overwrought, self-serious drama. (Wait, maybe this was the blueprint for season 2 of “True Detective.”) At times, it even feels like McCarthy has to be pulling some kind of elaborate prank on his audience. How else could anyone possibly explain why “The Counselor” goes on a bizarre tangent to depict Cameron Diaz’s Malkina sexually pleasuring herself on the windshield of a Ferrari?

Or perhaps McCarthy needs a strong authorial buffer like the Coen Brothers to translate into the medium of cinema. (John Hillcoat really just didn’t cut it on “The Road.”) Ridley Scott assembled quite the cast to bring the writer’s vision to life, but none of these talented thespians can transcend the schlock of the script. It even renders Michael Fassbender almost ineffective, and that’s really saying something.

In somewhat of a change of pace, McCarthy goes heavy on conversation and light on characterization. His saga of greed, money and jealousy set along the U.S.-Mexico border plays as little more than a collection of connected events since the various personalities involved never get explored in much depth. There’s at once too much and not enough happening in “The Counselor.” Rather than trying to resolve these contradictions, I’d rather just forget that all involved even spent their time on this.  C2stars





REVIEW: Fury

4 11 2014

FuryThe “war is hell” thesis argued by David Ayer’s “Fury” is certainly nothing new under the sun.  But as the amount of viewers with personal connection to warfare dwindles daily, cinema must continue to provide this myth-making service to provide those images for our culture.  Ayer’s film serves as a reminder of the sacrifices that soldiers make as well as the brutality to which they are exposed on a consistent basis.

“Fury” begins at the end of the journey in 1945 Germany for a tank division under the leadership of Brad Pitt’s Don “Wardaddy” Collier, an equally red-blooded but less caricatured version of Aldo Raine from “Inglourious Basterds.” He commands a group of men who have all been visibly demoralized by fighting the inhumanity of the Nazis, particularly Shia LaBeouf’s world-weary Boyd “Bible” Swan.  His sobering nihilism marks the first clean break the actor has made from his goofy Louis Stevens persona, which has been an unwelcome legacy looming over all his work.

After one of their drivers is gunned down, the unit receives an unwelcome replacement in Logan Lerman’s green, babyfaced Norman Ellison.  Prior to stepping in the tank, his only experience of World War II had been from behind a typewriter doing clerical work.  Norman becomes the entry point into “Fury” as well as its emotional core, two roles that Lerman performs astutely.

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REVIEW: World War Z

22 07 2013

I will say, I do admire the inverted structure of Marc Forster’s “World War Z” (if you choose to give him ownership in spite of the film’s troubled production, which reportedly saw he and star/producer Brad Pitt at the point of not speaking). It’s bold to decrescendo over the course of a movie, bringing out the big guns in what could be considered exposition and then end with a muted but suspenseful climax.

But while it’s definitely not ordinary, “World War Z” most certainly is not extraordinary.  The film is an uninspired hybrid of “Contagion” and “I Am Legend,” capturing neither the intelligence of the former nor the intensity of the latter. It skimps out on characterization, expecting us to root for its main character because … well, he’s Brad Pitt. Relying on iconography can help with identification, but it’s never an excuse to provide scant details or motivations for a character. Pitt’s Gerry Lane is quite possibly the most bland protagonist of a movie with such a whopping budget. He’s just a through-line for the film’s events, boasting no inner life or personal complexity.

While Gerry travels from Philadelphia to Korea to Israel to the UK, the movie never really feels as global a film as the name “World War Z” would imply. Nor does it ever really feel like much of a conflict because the zombies are mostly kept at bay the entire movie. By the end, it all winds up feeling like a self-congratulatory “Thanks, Brad Pitt for saving the world!” show.

Granted, if I was writing the checks for an extravaganza such as “World War Z,” I would want to give myself a pat on the back too. But such a proclivity makes the film a remarkably inconsequential affair for everyone else. We are denied the vicarious thrill of adventure and salvation, just as we are unable to grasp the fear and trepidation of the other billions affected by the scarcely seen zombies.  B-2stars





LISTFUL THINKING: 10 Performers Who Will Win Oscars in the Next 10 Years

26 02 2013

Before it’s too late and no longer topical, I wanted to share a list that has been floating in my mind for a while.  On Sunday night, the Academy welcomed Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway into their club.  Now, they can join Daniel Day-Lewis and Christoph Waltz in adding the phrase “Oscar Winner” before their name is mentioned.

But within the next 10 years, who will join them in the pantheon of acting?  I have a few suggestions…

Male

Gatsby

Leonardo DiCaprio
3 Oscar nominations
9 Golden Globe nominations, 1 win
8 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY:  The question isn’t “if.”  It’s “when.”  And that could be as early as this year.

JGL

Joseph Gordon-Levitt
2 Golden Globe nominations
4 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY:  With the boy-next-door turning into a renaissance man as he heads behind the director’s chair, JGL is headed towards golden child status.  Now it’s just time for the Oscars to catch up.

Ryan Gosling in The Ides of March

Ryan Gosling
1 Oscar nomination
4 Golden Globe nominations
2 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY:  I don’t really think I need to elaborate here as Gosling is one of the emerging Hollywood leading men.  The only thing keeping him from an Oscar, in my mind, is his eclectic role selection.

Brad Pitt in Moneyball

Brad Pitt
4 Oscar nominations (3 as actor)
5 Golden Globe nominations, 1 win
5 SAG Award nominations, 1 win

COMMENTARY:  As one of the highest-wattage stars of the past decade moves into a slower, more retrospective phase of his career, the role that will land Brad Pitt his Oscar should materialize.

George Clooney

George Clooney
8 Oscar nominations (4 for acting), 2 wins (1 for acting)
12 Golden Globe nominations (8 for acting), 3 wins
13 SAG Award nominations, 4 wins

COMMENTARY:  Yes, Clooney has already won his Oscar(s).  But I am convinced he will win his trophy for a leading role as he is such a prominent leading man in Hollywood.

Female

Amy Adams

Amy Adams
4 Oscar nominations
4 Golden Globe nominations
5 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY: 4 nominations in 7 years.  That’s impressive.  It’s going to happen, soon.  Perhaps the first time she gets a big leading role?

Linney

Laura Linney
3 Oscar nominations
6 Golden Globe nominations, 2 wins
4 SAG Award nominations, 1 win
4 Primetime Emmy nominations, 3 wins

COMMENTARY:  Though as of late Linney has been more television oriented, I still don’t think the cinematic community is done paying its dues to this talented actress.

Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right

Julianne Moore
4 Oscar nominations
7 Golden Globe nominations, 1 win
10 SAG Award nominations, 1 win
1 Primetime Emmy win

COMMENTARY: If “Game Change” had been released in theaters and not on HBO, Moore would have her Oscar.  It’s been over a decade now since her last nomination, but I don’t think that means the impetus to give her award has disappeared.

10 for '10: Best Movies (The Challenge)

Emma Stone
1 Golden Globe nomination
1 SAG Award win

COMMENTARY: She’s a new Hollywood “It” girl.  Once she lands the big and flashy role, she will get an Oscar.  (Heck, they had her announce the nominations this year, something usually reserved for prior winners/nominees.)  She’s a beloved figure with all the charm and accessibility of Jennifer Lawrence with a little more polish and refinement.

Michelle Williams

Michelle Williams
3 Oscar nominations
3 Golden Globe nominations, 1 win
4 SAG Award nominations

COMMENTARY: Williams showed she had some serious range in “My Week with Marilyn.”  Not that her mopey characters weren’t good, but now we know she’s the real deal.

What do YOU think?  Who else is destined for Oscar glory in the next decade?