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: The Rover

25 06 2014

The RoverUnlike many “apocalyptic” movies of our era, David Michod’s “The Rover” does not weigh itself down in giving the audience details of the calamity that befell civilization.  We get a few vague hints along the way, sure, but Michod lets us know all we need to know the characters populating the frame.  An opening close-up of Guy Pearce’s Eric, sitting motionless with anguish while flies land sporadically on his face, tells us far more than fake stock footage ever could.

For once, it’s the characters, not the catastrophe, that drive the action.  Without highly specific circumstances explaining their actions, “The Rover” assumes the feel of a tone poem.  It mulls over the trials of the human spirit amidst a desolate landscape as well as the need for connection in isolating times with its sweltering cinematography and pared-down screenplay.

Michod’s script, co-written with Joel Edgerton, follows Eric as he hunts down his stolen car in the unwelcoming Australian desert.  We don’t know why he wants the car back until the very end of “The Rover,” and a part of me almost wishes his motivation wasn’t realed.  Since Eric doesn’t seem to place any extreme importance on the vehicle, the quest takes on an existential dimension that yields far more insights into Eric’s character.

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REVIEW: Animal Kingdom

19 01 2011

A poor man’s version of Martin Scorsese’s crime classic “GoodFellas” with Australian accents, “Animal Kingdom” is a tale from down under that’s quite a few rungs down from the movies it so desperately wants to be.  Considering that it’s a debut film from writer/director David Michod, it’s somewhat more impressive, and I have a feeling that we can look for big things in the future.  But for now, we’re left with a movie that’s filled with one-dimensional characters played by actors without any gusto.

After the death of his mother, twenty-ish J (James Frecheville) is forced to take up residence with his estranged grandmother “Smurf” (Jacki Weaver), the matriarch of a crime family who’s grizzly enough to make Sarah Palin cower.  He unwittingly gets caught up in the exploits of his uncles, whose activities jeopardize his chances for a normal life with his girlfriend.  J is recognized by a cunning police officer (Guy Pearce, the movie’s only familiar face) as pliable, and he is faced with the choice between blood loyalty or the comforts available within the law.

The problem with “Animal Kingdom” is that it starts off really slow, and it takes a long time to get acquainted with the characters enough to care about them.  The movie starts getting really interesting around the hour mark, but by then, it feels like we’ve spent an abysmally long time in the Aussie underworld.  Michod throws plenty of action and twists at us in the second half, yet without dynamic characters, it ultimately goes in one ear and out the other.

As for Jacki Weaver, the reason I plopped this movie in my DVD player, I saw why she needed an Oscar campaign but not why she deserved a campaign.  She plays a one-note character that doesn’t play much of a part in the storyline until the conclusion.  Her big emotional scene falls pretty flat, unless, of course, you consider changing her facial expression ever so slightly compelling enough for an award.  Had I not heard all the buzz around Weaver, I would have forgotten about her as quickly as I’ll forget “Animal Kingdom.”  Neither have any teeth, something necessary to make a crime thriller bite.  B