War Machine (2017)


War is an all-American pastime!

(2017) Dramedy (Netflix) Brad Pitt, Ben Kingsley, Tilda Swinton, Topher Grace, Anthony Michael Hall, Scoot McNairy, Lakeith Stanfield, Alan Ruck, Will Poulter, Nicholas Jones, Meg Tilly, Josh Stewart, Tim Downey, Richard Glover, Griffin Dunne, Andrew Byron, Daniel Betts, John Magaro, RJ Cyler, Emory Cohen, Rufus Wright, Sean Power, Sian Thomas, Paul Hickey, Georgina Rylance. Directed by David Michôd

 

Netflix has been producing original movies for several years but their Adam Sandler comedies aside, their first serious attempt at a blockbuster of their own was this fictionalized Brad Pitt film based on a non-fiction book about the War in Afghanistan. It is not a promising start, although they have several films that have been released since then that are far better and far bigger.

The movie is meant to be a black comedic commentary on the nature of 21st century war as practiced by the United States. It moves at a kind of snail’s pace (at roughly two hours long, it is about a half hour too much) through a bloated script full of unfunny bits. The fault here isn’t Pitt’s although this is perhaps his most deranged work yet; his General Glen McMahon is a walking tic machine, exhorting troops that “We WILL prevail” at the same time expressing frustration with the bureaucracy he has to deal with. His square-jawed expression is the epitome of every Hollywood American military commander yet his odd gait looks like he has some sort of wound in his genitals.

Despite having a cast of some of the best actors and character actors working today, there are simply too many roles and you forget who is who after about five minutes, leading to further confusion that the screenplay hasn’t already caused itself. This has all the earmarks of moviemaking by committee.

I liked the concept and thought that given the pedigree of Michôd (Animal Kingdom) that this project had promise but it pretty much falls apart of its own weightiness. I get the sense that the filmmakers were told to make a comedy, then told to make a commentary on war, then told to make a drama by the powers that be. What they ended up making was a mish-mash that is neither one nor the other but is a tedious waste of two hours. I expected much better

REASONS TO GO: Even at his most subdued, Pitt still exudes star power.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is bloated and dreadfully unfunny.
FAMILY VALUES: There is war violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film references actual events that took place during the command of Stanley A. McChrystal between 2009 and 2010.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wag the Dog
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Suburbicon

The Finest Hours


Romance by storm.

Romance by storm.

(2016) True Life Drama (Disney) Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Holliday Grainger, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, John Ortiz, Kyle Gallner, John Magaro, Graham McTavish, Michael Raymond-James, Beau Knapp, Josh Stewart, Abraham Benrubi, Keiynan Lonsdale, Rachel Brosnahan, Benjamin Koldyke, Matthew Maher, Jesse Gabbard, Alexander Cook, Danny Connelly, Angela Hope Smith. Directed by Craig Gillespie

The men and women of the Coast Guard have a thankless job. In many ways they are the most overlooked of the armed forces, but they put their lives on the line every day to protect our shores from smugglers and pirates, and to rescue sea craft that are in trouble. They have been doing that since America was brand new.

In 1952 there is a Coast Guard installation in Chatham, Massachusetts. Barney Webber (Pine) is a Boatswain’s Mate First Class for the Coast Guard, a quiet and perhaps a bit socially awkward man who is liked but warily; during an attempted rescue mission years before, he had been unsuccessful in navigating the infamous Chatham Bar during a storm and a local fisherman had died because of it. People think he isn’t a bad guy, but there’s that distance between the town and Barney.

One townie who doesn’t feel that way is Miriam (Grainger), a feisty beautiful woman who meets Ray and instantly falls for him. The two begin going out and end up falling in love. But that last step is lacking and the forward Miriam finally asks Ray to marry her. At first he is very reluctant – what he does is dangerous and he doesn’t want to leave a widow behind. Eventually he relents and the two become engaged pending the approval of the Coast Guard.

On February 18, 1952, a massive Nor’easter slams into the New England coast. The S.S. Pendleton, an oil tanker, is on its way in when the old ship breaks in half. The aft section sinks almost immediately, leaving 33 survivors in the stern section with Chief Engineer Ray Sybert (Affleck) in charge.

Station chief Daniel Cluff (Bana) orders Webber to go an effect a rescue. Most of the Coast Guard’s bigger boats are in the midst of rescuing another tanker that had broken in half, the S.S. Mercer. All Barney is left with is a 36-foot motor lifeboat to go out into a squall that is producing 60 foot waves and high winds. With a small crew including Seamen Richard Livesey (Foster) and Ervin Maske (Magaro), he heads out resolutely into Chatham Bay to affect a mission that is almost surely suicide. With the compass wrecked and little or no navigation equipment, it seems like an impossible task, but little does anyone know that he is setting out into history.

Gillespie is a reliable director for Disney who has done movies based on fact before. This story because of how long ago it took place is essentially unknown today although there are those in New England who are thoroughly familiar with it. Most of the participants have since passed on (although Miriam is still alive apparently) so it is well that Disney is making this film now. While the tag lines tell us that it was one of the most daring small boat rescues in Coast Guard history tells us that because it is a rescue, we can assume that Webber is successful, we don’t know mainly how many got rescued and whether Webber himself made it home alive. We therefore have a sense of suspense as we watch the movie, not knowing what’s going to happen next.

The storm sequences are harrowing; if what the real crew went through was half as rough as this, it’s a wonder anyone made it home alive. Both the crew of the Pendleton and the rescue boat were heroic in extreme circumstances. It’s truly an inspiring story from that aspect. The CGI is impressive albeit not groundbreaking. Certainly it is enough to make that an integral part of the movie experience.

Pine is usually a lot more affable of a character than the one he plays here. Both Webber and Casey Affleck’s Sybert are a little bit socially awkward, somewhat reserved and not at all the types of characters we’re used to seeing from those actors and both do very well with them. I’ve seen it said elsewhere that Holliday Grainger already looks like she’s from that era and she does; the period dress and make-up only make her look more natural.

Because Barney is so awkward, the romance doesn’t have a lot of sparks. I don’t think it’s an issue of Pine and Grainger so much as how the characters are written. In many ways Miriam is forced to be the aggressor in the relationship which I don’t object to in and of itself but it just feels like there’s no chemistry, even though both actors are capable.

In fact in many ways that’s pretty much indicative of the film overall; it’s not anything that’s going to set the world on fire but it accomplishes what it needs to quietly and without fanfare. The story is certainly inspiring enough; however, you won’t go home thinking you’ve just seen a cinematic masterpiece.

REASONS TO GO: Keeps you on the edge of your seat. Mind-blowing storm scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Solid but not spectacular. The romance lacks fire.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of storm-related peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The boat the real Bernie Webber used in the rescue still exists and is maintained in pristine condition at the Rock Harbor in Orleans, Massachusetts – not far from Chatham.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Perfect Storm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Hotel Transylvania 2

Carol


A different type of Christmas Carol.

A different type of Christmas Carol.

(2015) Drama (Weinstein) Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Sarah Paulson, Jake Lacy, John Magaro, Cory Michael Smith, Kevin Crowley, Nik Pajic, Carrie Brownstein, Trent Rowland, Sadie Heim, Kk Heim, Amy Warner, Michael Haney, Wendy Lardin, Pamela Evans Haynes, Greg Violand, Michael Ward, Kay Geiger, Christine Dye. Directed by Todd Haynes

We sometimes look back at the 1950s as a kind of idyllic era, a time when America was the pre-eminent world power (although I’m sure the Soviet Union had a thing or two to say about that), when life was simple and the American way of life was at its peak. However, for all the affection we have for that time period, there were some undercurrents that were much more ugly than our collective memories would credit.

Carol is set in 1952 as America’s post-war paradise was in full flower. Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, it can be said that the movie is about the relationship between shopgirl Therese (pronounced as if it rhymes with “caress”) Belivet (Mara) and well-to-do housewife Carol Aird (Blanchett). While Christmas shopping for her daughter, the elfin Therese catches the patrician Carol’s eye and things evolve from there. Unfortunately, the kind of relationship the two women have in mind is frowned upon in that era.

To make things more complicated, Carol is in the midst of a contentious divorce with her husband Harge (Chandler) who has already endured a Sapphic affair by his wife with her friend Abby (Paulson) although that, we learn, actually took place before he married her. The thought that his wife has been intimate with another woman apparently drives him a little bit batty, but he loves his wife and wants her to stay, but his problems with alcohol and rage make that impossible. Carol is trying to keep things low-key between her and Therese but left alone and needing to get out of town, the two women hop in a car and head vaguely West, not really with any specific destination in mind although once they get to Chicago they stay at the swanky Drake Hotel. However, the repercussions of Carol’s actions will force her to choose between her needs and her daughter.

This is exquisitely acted, with likely Oscar nominations coming to both Blanchett and Mara. While this is clearly not about Carol as much as it is about Therese, film title notwithstanding, Blanchett gives Carol an icy upper class veneer with a warm center when it comes to other women. She is graceful and a bit brassy; after a loud fight with her husband witnessed by (and to a large extent caused by) Therese, Carol in an exasperated tone exclaims  “Just when you think it can’t get any worse, you run out of cigarettes!” It’s the type of line that would have been uttered by a Joan Crawford or a Rosalind Russell, but not nearly as well as Blanchett delivers it.

Mara’s naturally gamine features have gotten her comparisons to Audrey Hepburn, although she is somewhat more sophisticated an actress than Hepburn. She does have Hepburn’s charming youthful inexperience, but beneath that is a sexuality that lights up the screen, particularly later in the film when the relationship between the two women begins to get physical. Mara is very much desired by a good deal of men in the story, not the least of which is her boyfriend Richard Semco (Lacy) who very much wants her to be his wife a little further down the line. His earnest delivery is perfect for a character who is completely puzzled that his girl simply isn’t behaving the way she’s supposed to.

One of the characteristics of the era was its elegance and from the exquisite fashions to the furniture and settings, the movie gets it down pat. They capture the speech patterns of Manhattan sophisticates, which was more genteel than we’re used to hearing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an evocation of 1950s New York that captured as well as this one for a film not made in that era. I think that an Oscar nomination is very likely for costume designer Sandy Powell, whose fashions here are beautiful, simple, stylish and perfect for the time period.

And yet for all the praise I’m heaping on the movie, you’ll notice the rating doesn’t seem to match and here’s why. The movie takes a very long time to go a very short distance. The addendum at the end of the movie is nearly pointless, as by that time we’ve emotionally checked out of the film. Haynes has a definite case of the on-too-longs and the film would have benefitted from some judicious editing.

But let’s be clear about this – I’m very much in the minority when it comes to the critical opinion of the movie, which you can tell from the scores below, so do take my remarks with a grain of salt but the thing that really makes me wonder about the universal critical acclaim is this question; would the movie have received the same kind of praise if the couple at the center been heterosexual? I have a very disturbing feeling that it would not.

This is a beautifully shot movie with superb acting performances, and on that basis alone you should likely go see it. Certainly if you’re an Oscar buff, you’ll want to catch the lead performances which are likely to both be nominated. However, be aware that you may find some of the movie a bit tedious and mannered, which while it fits in with the era it’s set in, may indeed not necessarily fit in with modern moviegoing audiences.

REASONS TO GO: Blanchett and Mara deliver award-worthy performances.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is much too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality, brief nudity and a little bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Highsmith said she was inspired to write the novel after a chance encounter with a blonde woman wearing a fur coat in a department store in 1948.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/13/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 95/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Far From Heaven
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Tomboy

The Big Short


Christian Bale is overwhelmed by script submissions.

Christian Bale is overwhelmed by script submissions.

(2015) True Life Drama (Paramount) Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, Adepero Oduye, Jeffry Griffin, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro, Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain, Melissa Leo, Karen Gillan, Margot Robbie, Stanley Wong, Rajeev Jacob, Vanessa Cloke, Leslie Castay. Directed by Adam McKay

The financial meltdown of 2008 was the worst economic event since the Great Depression. Millions lost their jobs and their homes. The repercussions of that event continue to be felt, but many don’t understand how it happened – and how it could happen again.

Dr. Michael Burry (Bale) is a one-eyed manager of a small hedge fund in San Jose, California who discovers that securities based on mortgages – once thought to be nearly recession-proof as the going wisdom is that most people pay their mortgages on time – are actually filled with mortgages that are much riskier, with balloon payments that will commence in 2007 that the homeowners will never be able to pay and create an economic meltdown. He wants to essentially bet against these securities as he knows they are doomed to fail; such securities don’t exist so he goes to Wall Street to places like Goldman Sachs to have them create those securities. He is nearly laughed out of the building but they are happy to take his money – in fact, nearly all of his fund’s cash which doesn’t sit too well with some of the investors.

Mark Baum (Carell) is also a hedge fund manager based at Morgan Stanley who has an anger management issue (Baum, not Morgan Stanley). His team discovers from investment banker Jared Vennett (Gosling) – who also serves as the film’s narrator – that these securities exist and that there’s a good chance that investing in these securities will result in runaway wealth. Baum, who has a hate on for the industry he works in, after talking to a number of bankers and securities industry insiders, becomes certain that Vennett is on to something and risks a good deal of his fund’s capital to buy these securities.

Two ambitious young Colorado-based hedge fund managers – Charlie Geller (Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Wittrock) also discover these securities through happenstance but their fund is too small and too unknown to be able to get a seat at the table to bid on securities like that. They enlist Ben Rickert (Pitt), a disillusioned former Wall Street titan who has become something of a paranoid recluse, out of the game until Geller and Shipley manage to reel him back in.

All of these players discover first-hand the venal stupidity of the banking industry whose blindness led to the near-collapse of the world economy; the corruption and absolute greed that was behind that blindness staggered even these members of the same financial industry.

Based on a nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, the film takes some real-life people involved in the market (Burry) as well as creates fictional ones – some out of whole cloth and some based on others (Baum, based on real-life hedge fund manager Steve Eisman), McKay does a credible job in taking some fairly esoteric financial market concepts like CDOs and credit default swaps.

He has gathered an eclectic but solid cast that brings to life the arrogance and testosterone-infused world of finance. It is definitely a boys club with an aggressive attitude with an absolute focus on money. Carell gives Baum a moral compass – maybe more of one than the other characters in the film – but also an angry streak that comes from a family tragedy. In many ways, Baum is the most compelling character in the movie because while all of the characters have an agenda, Baum’s is more than just making money.

I also like Bale as the real-life Dr. Burry, who prefers to be barefoot, rarely wears a suit and tie, and blasts metal in his office when he’s stressing out. His characters is a little bit more complex than the others and we don’t really get a decent grasp on him, which something tells me is true of the real guy. Pitt brings a little bit of New Age gravitas here as well.

McKay is known for his comedies and there is a kind of black humor here. His tongue is often planted firmly in cheek as he uses various celebrities in incongruous situations to explain various things in the script (like a naked Margo Robbie in a bathtub explaining the subprime mortgage market, or singer Serena Gomez in a casino talking about CDOs) and we are told that certain things actually happened but more interestingly, that some things actually didn’t as depicted in the film. You have to give him points for honesty.

I imagine your political outlook will drive how much you enjoy the film to a certain extent; those who are fairly left-wing in nature and distrustful of industry will no doubt find this film much more to their liking than those who are right-wing and who might look at this as tarring an entire industry with the same brush because of the actions of a relative few. The Big Short takes the point of view that the stupidity, shortsightedness and corruption was industry-wide and implies to a large extent that the culture of the financial industry of the bro-tastic almighty dollar have a big hand in driving that corruption.

The Big Short does a credible job of explaining a fairly complicated and often confusing situation that brought the economy to its knees, and warns that many of the same factors remain in place that may yet again take the economy down for another plunge. It reminds us that despite the blatant fraud that took place, only one person – and he relatively low on the totem pole – ever was tried and jailed for his role in an event that created so much human misery. This is an outstanding movie that may disturb some because the “heroes” of the story made enormous profits from that misery (a fact pointed out by Pitt’s Ben Rickert) and that the tone overall is somewhat snarky. I found that the tone made the events somewhat easier to bear and while I don’t condone profiting from the pain of others, I can say that at least none of the protagonists broke any laws, which is a fairly low bar for cinematic heroism but given the industry depicted here, probably about as high a bar as can be expected.

REASONS TO GO: Really explains some of the very confusing information about the 2008 crisis well. Extremely solid performances from the cast. Occasionally funny.
REASONS TO STAY: A very dry subject matter.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of profanity, some nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film directed by Adam McKay in which Will Ferrell doesn’t star.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Margin Call
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Point Break (2015)

Liberal Arts


Liberal Arts

Happy to be hipsters!

(2012) Dramedy (IFC) Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Allison Janney, Zac Efron, John Magaro, Elizabeth Reaser, Kate Burton, Robert Desiderio, Kristen Bush, Ali Ahn, Ned Daunis, Gregg Edelman, Travis Alan McAfee, Angelic Zambrana. Directed by Josh Radnor

 

For those who attend a small liberal arts college (as I did), it becomes a benchmark that takes on a kind of bleary glow through which when looking back suffuses the time in a kind of mellow haze. Certainly I did a lot of growing back then and I learned a lot both in the classrooms but more importantly, outside it. What leadership skills I possess today began their evolution there, at Loyola Marymount (and a shout out to all my fellow Lion alums).

Nostalgia is one thing but at some point everyone has to un-tether the umbilical cord no matter how painful. We can’t just graduate and then stop growing – growth is a lifetime occupation.

This isn’t something Jesse (Radnor) learned in his small liberal arts college. With a degree in English (and a minor in History just to make sure he’s fully unemployable), he has taken a position as an admissions counselor in a New York university. It’s not a job he’s in love with and he kind of goes through life drifting through a sea of disaffection. He surrounds himself with books and thinks himself educated; his girlfriend breaks up with him and isn’t very nice about it.

When he gets a call from his college mentor, Professor Peter Hoberg (Jenkins) asking him to come back to campus and speak at his retirement dinner, Jesse jumps at the chance. Once there, all the memories come flooding back – the days of intellectual stimulation, the feeling of unlimited promise and of course the distinct lack of any sort of responsibility.

He meets 19-year-old sophomore Zibby (Olsen), the free-spirited daughter of a pair of friends of Professor Hoberg. They quickly hit it off, aided and abetted by Nat (Efron), a guy who walks his own path quite deliberately. After irritating Zibby’s roommate (Ahn) by their obvious May-July romance, Jesse returns home.

The two continue exchanging letters and Jesse listens compulsively to a disc of classical music that Zibby burned for him. She invites him back to visit her and he returns but things don’t go as planned. A further encounter with Professor Judith Fairfield (Janney), a romantic poets professor cements Jesse’s confusion. It seems he has a lot of growing up to do after all.

Radnor, who currently enjoys a spot in the popular sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” previously directed, wrote and starred in Happythankyoumoreplease which had some of the same themes of growing up and aging, but this is a far better movie than that. He has likable enough onscreen but not super-memorable; he might be able to carry a movie on his own someday but not at this point in his career.

I liked Olsen a lot in this movie. She really captures the kind of 19-year-old attitude in which the world is her oyster but she’s not quite sure how to crack it open. She sounds wiser than her years but makes some mistakes – one of which might be hooking up with Jesse. Olsen captures the vitality of youth and its accompanying heartbreak. It’s not a “real” performance – Zibby is a bit too self-consciously indie for that – but it’s a real good performance and she’s the one I’ll remember most from the movie.

That’s not to say that Jenkins and Janney don’t have their moments. Their screen time is pretty minimal but both make the most of theirs, Jenkins with a heartrending performance of a man fighting his age, Janney with that arch and imperious but deliciously funny delivery that she specializes in. Efron is surprisingly good as the Yoda-meets-indie hip Nat even though the part is a bit overwritten, and Magaro who plays a tortured genius sort makes good use of his limited onscreen moments.

There is plenty of heart here but maybe a bit too much. The Jesse character is pretty much excoriated by other critics who have disdainfully characterized him as effete and unmanly (using a word synonymous with kitty cats). I disagree; while Jesse is a bit wishy washy and overly romantic in the poetic sense, he’s more of a talker than a doer which some men find to be similar to nails on a chalkboard. I’m not necessarily that way; while he can be incredibly clueless at times, he simply overthinks things and is a bit of an intellectual snob, spending a long portion of the movie debating the merits of reading for fun (which Zibby does with books that are meant to be Stefanie Meyers’ Twilight trilogy) which Jesse is apparently against. Jesse isn’t metrosexual but if he hung out in the Village more, he might be.

This is a flawed movie but ultimately one with its heart in the right place. I found myself thinking of my college days and I imagine if I went back there now and hung out I might be tempted to let myself fall back into that sensibility, although to be honest I don’t much want to which is probably why I don’t think about it much. Those days were pleasant, but they are gone. The people that I met there who touched me are still either in my life or in my heart. The important things I learned in college will be found with them, in those places.

REASONS TO GO: Olsen is invigorating. Janney and Jenkins turn in some solid performances, as does Efron and Magaro.

REASONS TO STAY: Radnor a bit too “mushy.” Lots of heart but maybe too much. Doesn’t have the courage of its convictions.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some thematic concerns as well as implied sexuality, some smoking, some teen drinking and a few bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The book that Dean carries around with him is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Wallace delivered the commencement speech at Kenyon in May 2005.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/14/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100. The reviews are pretty much mediocre.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Could Never Be Your Woman

SMALL COLLEGE LOVERS: The college scenes were filmed at Kenyon College in Ohio which is not only Radnor’s alma mater but Janney’s as well.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Three Backyards