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War Machine – Review

21 Jun

In 2012, a book titled The Operators by Rolling Stone editor Michael Hastings was released. It details the times that Hastings spent with General Stanley McChrystal, who was the commander of the International Security Assistance Force. Soon after Hastings published an article featuring McChrystal and his team, which featured a lot of trash talking certain high level government officials, McChrystal was pretty much forced to resign his position. Now we have another look at the story in a fictionalized, satirical account of what happened by writer/director David Michôd and his latest film War Machine. I’ve heard a lot of mixed things about this movie, so I was a little hesitant going into it, but I have to say I really had a blast with this movie, despite some of its minor storytelling set backs.

General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) is a man of principles, conviction, confidence, and opinions. While all of those words do perfectly describe the officer, he’s also loud mouthed, arrogant, and a buffoon. He’s also the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan at the tail end of the war. Along with his team of sycophants and cronies, McMahon has a plan to bring peace to the Middle East with the payoff being a huge boost of his ego. Of course, along the way he has to deal with bureaucrats and politicians cutting into his plans while also trying to manage relations with Afghanistan’s new president (Ben Kingsley). While formulating a plan to head into enemy territory in a major assault that will be the high point of his career, McMahon agrees to have Rolling Stone reporter Sean Cullen (Scoot McNairy) join the ranks to see the inner workings of his squad. This, along with every other bad decision of his career, will ultimately be his downfall.

The first thing that I really came to appreciate after watching War Machine is the film’s tone. It’s silly and often times over the top, but it never falls into the realm of stupidity. The dialogue has some corny jokes, but it also has some pretty whip smart moments of really good satire. While all of the humor is well and good, I was also surprised to find some depth and drama to the storytelling. I was really just looking to have some laughs with this movie but I felt a little more than that. By the end of the film, I started to analyze the character of McMahon and his intentions and the consequences of his action. There are even a few quieter moments that were actually kind of sad, and that’s an area I really wasn’t expecting the film to go based on the trailer. This isn’t just a surface level movie that exists to provide some cheap laughs. War Machine has a message and actual depth to it to support the laughs and the sillier moments in the movie.

So, War Machine is a movie with a message and it’s one that I can agree with. Unfortunately, the film’s biggest problem lies with how this message is conveyed at certain times. Throughout the movie we hear Scoot McNairy’s character doing a voice over and explaining certain things that are happening in the film or describing a character we are meeting for the first time. This helps since there are a lot of minor characters in this movie and everyone is constantly traveling around. While this helps with certain things, it also comes across as annoying more often than it should. The character of Sean Cullen is fine when he’s actually with McMahon and the other soldiers, but his voice over is so cynical and snide, while also beating the viewer on the head with the opinions being expressed in the movie. It was kind of annoying being told how I should be thinking. If the writing of the voice over was toned down just a little bit, that would have been great. I can figure out the messages and themes of movies, so I really don’t need them explained to me in this way.

One of my main draws to this movie was to see Brad Pitt in yet another role where he’s playing someone completely out of the ordinary. Pitt takes this part of McMahon and completely embodies it. From his odd posture, to his facial ticks, and even the goofy way he walks and runs, he’s perfectly believable as this character and it’s easy to forget you’re watching an actor, even if his face is so recognizable. Sir Ben Kingsley is also hilarious as the off the wall president of Afghanistan that McMahon is trying to cooperate with, even if they’re both not on the same page with each other at all. Kingsley is really hardly in this film, but most every scene has Pitt in it. Unfortunately, while everyone else around them do their jobs fine, they aren’t given a whole lot to do other than the bidding of McMahon, and while there are funny moments surrounding their characters they don’t really have too much that stands out.

At the end of it, War Machine is a pretty funny film with a memorable lead character and a sharp satirical look at America’s goings on in the Middle East. It isn’t really a heavy film, so if you’re looking for serious war and drama, look elsewhere. War Machine is packed with great satire and a tad too much cynicism for my taste. Still, as far as comedies go, it’s definitely one that’s worth a look.

Final Grade: B+

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The Big Short – Review

5 Jan

If I had some choices about who would be responsible for making a movie about the financial crisis of 2007, my first thoughts would go to Martin Scorsese since he tackled Wall Street in his film The Wolf of Wall Street or Aaron Sorkin because of his countless works on politics, journalism, and business. One of the last people I’d think of is Adam McKay, who is known for some very funny movies like The Other Guys and the Anchorman films. Here we are, however, in the weird alternate universe where McKay is apparently just the right man for the job and the end result is The Big Short. This is one of those rare movies that takes very serious subject matter and makes something of a joke out of it, but this is also a very intelligent and upsetting film that has become one of the highlights of film in the past year.

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Over the course of a few years in the mid-2000s, there was a group of people who saw the inevitable collapse of the housing market, and decided to use that to their own advantages. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) is a hedge fund manager who first notices this and creates a credit default swap market to bet against the housing market. Because of this audacious movie, Jared Vennet (Ryan Gosling), a big shot trader, and Mark Baum (Steve Carell), another hedge fund manager, also start betting against the housing market. Baum, however, has a much more personal vendetta against the banks and makes it quite clear in his ventures. Finally, two young investors, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are hoping to get rich quick off this and enlists the help of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help with the major financial decisions, much to his chagrin. This is the group that got rich off of this, but also fought to show the real problems with the system.

A movie about this recent financial crisis has all the potential to be way over my head and not entertaining in the least, but McKay handles this material in such a way that everyone should be able to feel involved in the story. The characters, while all based on real people, are very vivid to the point of sometimes being a little over the top, but that sort of works in really illustrating who these people were. Another problem I thought I was going to have with The Big Short is that everything just wasn’t going to make sense to me. I know next to nothing about how all this stuff works, but the makers of this movie realized a lot people don’t. In a way that’s completely in character and funny, the characters of this movie often break the fourth wall to explain things in the most basic of ways. It’s an interesting stylistic choice and one that really helped the movie a lot.

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My only complaint with The Big Short is that sometimes it felt a little bit too over-stylized. The condescending voice overs were funny and the kinetic time lapses worked well, but there were a lot of unexpected jump cuts that I wasn’t really feeling. It was just weird to have a really good, dramatic scene happening and then it’s all of a sudden cut short for the sake of style. The emotions were working just fine in the scene, and a jump cut wasn’t needed as some strange exclamation point. Still, the editing was one of the stand out aspects of the movie. It helped to convey the confusing, nonstop, and almost ADHD kind of living that these people did before the big crash.

Finally, this movie is getting a lot of buzz for the acting. This Sunday coming up is the Golden Globes, and this movie has two nominations for acting. These are for Steve Carell and Christian Bale. Really, the acting in this movie is what makes it really great. The writing and humor is all spot on and the message really hits home, but seeing all of these actors transform themselves into different people yet again is really a treat. Steve Carell gives the most dramatic performance in the movie and really walks a fine line between being hilarious and tragic. Christian Bale does exceptional work as Michael Burry by using a lot of nervous energy to really make the character whole. Ryan Gosling also steals practically every scene he’s in with all of his character’s sickening machismo. The only person that is underutilized is Brad Pitt, which is upsetting since he could’ve done a lot more.

The Big Short succeeds in everything it set out to do. It’s both funny and upsetting, chaotic and quiet, large and personal.  The performances are all top notch and deserve major recognition while the writing really breaks the story down in ways that everyone can understand it. I’m really very impressed by Adam McKay and expect to see a lot more work like this from him in the future. While there are some minor flaws that can be nitpicked, The Big Short is a big success.

Fury – Review

12 Nov

In the latter days of World War II, much of the fighting involved the tactical brutality that was tank warfare. As any historian or buff of the second world war knows, the American tanks were completely outdone by the far superior Nazi tanks, and while this was terrible for the soldiers in the war, it makes for a great idea for a movie. That movie is finally here with David Ayer’s Fury. This is a movie that has its flaws in its predictability and a pretty messy middle section, but I’d still have to say that it is one of the best, if not the best, war film since Saving Private Ryan.

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The year is 1945 and victory for the Allied forces seems like a good possibility, but that doesn’t mean that the German army isn’t using everything it has to defend Berlin, including women and children. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) is a tank commander with the best team he could possibly ask for. There’s the gunner, Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf); the loader, Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal); and the driver, Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña). When one of the team dies, he is replaced by Norman (Logan Lerman), who has to work hard to prove his loyalty to the crew but also his bravery in battle. When the team receives the important mission to defend a vital cross road, they treat it as if it’s a mission that they’ve all gone through before, but this is the mission that will truly test their metal as a vast German platoon advances on their position.

After seeing the movie, it has become more obvious that Fury means a lot more than just the tank’s name. While I figured this going into the movie, I wasn’t sure exactly how Ayer was going to treat the war. It’s easy to make a war movie where you sympathize with the good guys and cheer them on, while it’s much easier to hate the bad guys and hope their soldiers will be defeated. This is even the case in Saving Private Ryan, what I consider to be the greatest war film ever made. Fury takes an interesting stance in this case. It isn’t easy to like the characters in the American tank, even Pitt’s character which you would think would be the knight in shining armor. Every character, other than Lerman’s, has been changed by the war at the start of the movie, making them seem like vengeful, bloodthirsty warriors rather than the heroic soldiers marching into battle, as World War II movies often depict them.

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Probably the best part about this film is actually the sound design. When I found out the sound was done by Paul N.J. Ottosson, I realized why it was so good. Ottosson is responsible for the near deafening, if not astoundingly perfect sound work in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, having won the Academy Award for both of those films. If he wins again for Fury, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. Shells whistle and machine guns roar with such depth and power that it feels like you’re really in the middle of a tank battle. Sound can make or break a movie, and it really bolsters this one. The costume and set work are also really excellent, especially at the various American camps and the claustrophobic interior of the tank. It’s an effectively depressing looking movie.

Now, as I stated before, there are some major problems with Fury that made me pretty uncomfortable in my seat. For one thing, it’s a very predictable movie. For all of its unconventionality, the films still follows a core formula where you can more than guess the ending. That was something I could live with, but there is a section in the middle that lasts about 15 minutes that was almost unbearable. There’s so much intensity in the first part of the film that when it slows down, it feels like somebody slammed on the breaks without thinking to slow down a little bit first. While this is a short part of the movie, it’s so boring and drawn out that it feels a lot longer. Luckily, the insane third act more than makes up for this awkward middle section.

Fury is an intense war film that takes the glamour out of everything Hollywood ever tried to put into a war movie. While we cheer for the American soldiers, it’s hard to like them at the same time while there is signs of humanity in the opposing forces, something that hasn’t really been seen except in a film like The Pianist. This is a brutal, devastating, but really entertaining movie that is worth seeing more than once. The sound, sets, and score were all equally fantastic and it does my heart good to see a film that’s so easy to like.

Kalifornia – Review

11 Apr

There are times when I’m browsing the bargain bins that are filled with a mountain of some of the most random, and often obscure movies that I could possibly find and I get surprised. One of these surprises was when I found a film from 1993 that I’ve never heard of called Kalifornia. The packaging seemed interesting and it starred David Duchovney before he became known for his role in The X-Files and a young Brad Pitt before his career even took off. I really know nothing about this movie so getting it was a complete gamble, but sometimes it’s possible to find a small gem in a container filled with trash.

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Brian Kessler (David Duchovney) and Carrie Laughlin (Michelle Forbes) are an artistic yuppie couple with dreams of moving to California, where they feel all of the jobs and inspiration will be, especially since Brian can’t get his new book on serial killers started. Unfortunately for the two artists, they don’t have the money to get to California, which makes Brian think he can find someone else trying to get to California to come with them and help them pay, while stopping at famous murder sites to get pictures and information for his book. Enter the lower class hillbilly couple Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) and his childish girlfriend Adele Corners (Juliette Lewis), who also have dreams of moving to California. While the relationship between the two couples is strained at best, but what Brian and Carrie don’t know can hurt them. A subject for Brian’s book may be closer than he thinks with Early being an ex-con who’s breaking parole, but who is also wanted for murdering multiple people.

I want to get the bad out of the way, because this movie really did have a positive effect on me. First of all, Duchovney’s performance is rather flat, and I feel like part of that is because the character is pretty flat. His voice over is pretty bad as well, but that’s mostly due to his monotone voice which works well for Fox Mulder on The X-Files, but not so much for his character here. Another problem I had here is that the writing is pretty baffling at points, which means that things happen and I really have a hard time buying some of the things that happened in this movie.  Along with this is that there is really a lot of material to work with in terms of suspense and conflict, but it isn’t really used to its full potential.

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While Duchovney’s performance and some of the writing may be questionable, these things don’t ruin the movie at all. In fact, I thought this movie was surprisingly entertaining. I like looking at this movie like a road trip film with a sadistic twist. Looking at it only as a horror/thriller may the wrong way to go. Being a road move/horror film is a cool and interesting combination. Another surprising thing was the questions and points that the movie brought up, topics that I wasn’t expecting to be explored. One is the difference of two cultures, one being the yuppie/art culture and the other being the lower class/hillbilly culture. Both of the couples are hammed up and portrayed as stereotypes, but it works well for the sake of a plot device and a possible discussion point. More interesting to me are the brief moments of dialogue and questions on the psychology of serial killers, and if they should be locked up or killed, or if they should be put in a mental institution and treated. Kalifornia doesn’t answer these questions, but allows the viewer to have their own opinions on the topic.

There’s nothing entirely special about the directing by Dominic Sena, who started with music videos (and that occasionally shows), but there are a few moments that were pretty cool. What makes this movie seeing more than anything else are the performance by Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis. Pitt seems really deep in his role, and there’s a story where he chipped his tooth opening up a beer while in character and decided to keep the tooth chipped because it worked well for his character. He does seem a bit over the top at times, but he keeps that level throughout the entire movie and I believe that he became Early Grayce. As great as Pitt is, the real scene stealer is Juliette Lewis. While I have always considered her a good actor, her performance in Kalifornia can easily be called great. Her character is played to perfection and is the deepest and most tragic aspect of the entire movie. She is fantastic and plays childish innocence very well, and her and Pitt’s chemistry are note perfect.

Kalifornia was a great find and having spent five whole dollars on it, I definitely feel like I got more than I payed for. This movie is by no means a classic, nor is it going to be remembered and talked about for the years to come. However, as far movies go, this is a really fun movie that is actually a lot better than I thought it was going to be. The whole idea is great, but unfortunately can’t achieve that greatness because the elements aren’t used to their full potential. If anything, you should see this movie for Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis alone, but as a whole I can still recommend this movie. It isn’t anything special, but it works just fine.

 

12 Years a Slave – Review

12 Jan

Well, ladies and gentlemen, that spectacular time of year called award season is upon us. It’s a time when film lovers get together and argue or agree on the nominations and predicted winners of all the major awards. It’s also a time where I have to catch up on all the great movies of the year that I may have missed. This is where 12 Years a Slave comes in. Being nominated for over 100 different awards, this is a film that is getting some major recognition, and I was really excited to see it. Well, it was a really good movie that showed terrible things in an uncompromising way. While this may be required viewing, I have major problems with the artistic execution, and the flaws in its presentation made 12 Years a Slave more disappointing than I would have wanted it to be.

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Solomon Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and two children. After two white men drug him and illegally strip him of his freedom, he is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) where he works on his plantations as a slave. After a violent altercation with one of Ford’s carpenters, Tibeats (Paul Dano), Northup is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) for his own protection. Unfortunately, Epps isn’t as understanding as Ford. Epps is an alcoholic and violent towards his slaves, especially to Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a slave woman who is constantly abused by Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson). As Northup waits for his opportunity to free himself from Epps, he must watch and be subjected to the horror that was slavery.

It needs to be said that this is a great movie. There really is no doubt about it. The acting is the shining beacon of this entire things. Everyone, and I mean everyone, give amazing performances. Ejiofor carries the weight of his role was superb talent, proving that this part couldn’t have been casted any better. His facial expressions alone speak more words than any line of dialogue written. Fassbender deserves an Academy Award for his work as Epps, the character that strikes as much fear into his victims as Ralph Fiennes did in Schindler’s List. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o has set a career in motion that I’d love to see blossom. These are just a few of this huge cast that struck hard with their performances. Without these believable and talented actors, 12 Years a Slave wouldn’t be as powerful as it is.

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Along with the powerful acting comes powerful imagery. Director Steve McQueen is no stranger when it comes to visual punishment. Hunger was not an easy movie to sit through, and Shame, although visually tamer, was no picnic either. Both are still fascinating films and great to look at, and 12 Years a Slave is no different. There are beautifully executed long takes, amazing nature shots, and other camera work that makes it feel like it is another character in the film. This is a really great addition to the film, but it’s also where 12 Years a Slave begins to fail.

When a movie with a storyline as moving, horrifying, and tragic as this one is, I expect the director to keep a focused eye on the plot. Unfortunately for this film, McQueen gets a little out of hand with showing the beauty of the South. There are way too many shots of trees and lakes and flowers, which only became a distraction as the movie went on. I understand his showing a beautiful South as a backdrop for such horror, but that only goes so far. By the third act, I was getting sick of the unnecessary shots of nature, and long takes for the sake of long takes. Some just never ended. These problems drag the movie down so much and make me really disappointed. These may seem trivial, but if you’ve seen the movie you may know what I mean.

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12 Years a Slave tells a story, not just of one man, but of the struggle of an entire race in a very dark time of American history. I applaud the movie and McQueen for showing such an uncompromising look at this time, and I also applaud the actors for giving such incredible performances, be they human or horrific. I’m still disappointed, and I really don’t want to be. This is in no way a bad movie, it’s a great movie. Unfortunately, the over-stylization of certain scenes make the movie slow down and lose focus of what is actually happening. I still stand by my point that this is required viewing, even with its artistic flaws.

Killing them Softly – Review

15 Apr

I have preconceptions of what a “gangster” movie is going to be like, even though maybe I’m making a mistake with that. This isn’t a negative thing, because most narratives in film have a pretty traditional narrative arc with archetypal characters. What’s the best thing about Killing the Softly is that it takes all these expectations that you have about these crime/gangster films and completely throws it out the window. This is a completely unique film that is both ridiculously entertaining and a new inspiration to my work that I do.

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Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) has an idea that involved two small time crooks, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), and a card game run by Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta). The plan is for these crooks to rob Trattman’s game, with all the blame being placed on Trattman due to his history with these games. The heist itself goes off without a hitch, but the shockwave the results is anything but favorable. Enter Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), a hit man who specializes cleaning up particularly messy situations. Now no one involved in this heist is safe, and Cogan is not about to show any mercy. It might get in the way of his paycheck.

From the get go, this doesn’t feel like an average gangster film. All of the tough talking dialogue is there, but it was so unique that it almost reminded me of early Tarantino. The conversations about sex, violence, drugs, and life are so convincing and at the same time, seem so foreign. These dialogue scenes aren’t quick little moments either. Be prepared for some very long and drawn out scenes of two people talking in a bar or in a car. What saves this is that the dialogue and the delivery are so great and different that I couldn’t help but be sucked in.

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When I first started seeing previews for this movie, I thought that it was a pretty strange cast. First of all, I never heard of Scoot McNairy before this movie, but I hope to see him a lot more. His boyish naïvety masked by a false sense of confidence was so much fun to watch. Ray Liotta takes the whole idea of what a gangster should be, tough and raw, and turns him into a whiny little brat who is full of bad decisions. Some of my favorite scenes, however, involve Brad Pitt talking to James Gandolfini, who like Liotta’s character, is anything but traditional. This strange combination of characters and actors makes for very original interactions and situations.

I’m going to combine the violence and the themes into one paragraph because they go hand in hand. Killing them Softly is not a subtle movie in any way. It leaves nothing to the imagination and the message is clearly stated. This may put some people off, but I was able to easily decipher the real world metaphors and comparisons. By playing sounds of governmental speeches and gripes about the economy over scenes of violence and crime is simple but brilliant. Now we come to the violence. There isn’t a lot of it. 90% of this movie is talking, talking, talking. When there is a burst of violence, it is very unapologetic and in your face. It’s almost like Andrew Dominik, the writer/director, was saying “LOOK LOOK!” There is one flashy scene, which I really enjoy, but the ones that just show brutality at its most human are sublime.

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Different. This is the best way to describe Killing them Softly. As a mainstream release, it didn’t do to well in the box office. I feel like a major contributing factor to this may be the fact that it is a borderline art house film complete with unconventional camera angles that are made to jar the viewer, uncomfortable violence, and lengthy dialogue. This isn’t a movie that serves only to entertain. It’s a political allegory, a journey into the philosophy of crime, and an artistic piece of brilliant film making.  Know what you’re getting into before watching this, but it is a wild ride that I don’t just recommend, but require.