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Tag Archive: dark comedies


Review by C.J. Bunce

When Brad Pitt has another winning performance you find you’re glued to the screen.  From Twelve Monkeys to Meet Joe Black, Ocean’s Eleven to Inglourious Basterds and Moneyball, Pitt has range, plus the charisma and presence that translates to star power.  As with Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp, if you can strip away the celebrity and focus on the performance, Pitt seems like he just can’t fail.  Pitt is just as mesmerizing as any character in his past body of work in the new film War Machine.

In another time War Machine would be a theatrical release–it carries the production values, cast, script, and studio support as much as any other movie, and is produced by Pitt’s own Plan B Entertainment, the same company that garnered a Best Picture Academy Award for 12 Years a Slave.  But we’re now in No Man’s Land.  With Netflix making not only its own competitive, award-winning shows for the small screen, it has moved on to the theatrical film that simply isn’t intended for a theatrical release.  War Machine is based on Rolling Stone writer Michael Hasting’s book The Operators, a biographical account of now retired General Stanley McChrystal that was expanded from the piece he wrote when he was embedded with the general and his men.  You’ve heard the story, the one that took down the general’s career as he was attempting to gain traction in his efforts in Afghanistan in 2010.  McChrystal’s was an American story, one that has plagued leadership in wartime notably since World War II– how do you win a seemingly unwinnable war?  You’ll be hard-pressed not to find story elements from Vietnam days in War Machine, but also echoes of the Persian Gulf War, and other actions where data, facts, politics, economics, miscommunication, and personalities muddled direction and purpose.  Only War Machine isn’t about McChrystal really–Brad Pitt’s character is only based on McChrystal.  For storytelling purposes it’s close enough, and fortunately allows the viewer to enjoy the fictional story being told without the effort of comparing the story to the real events the underlying book was chronicling.  So throw out your own politics for a few hours and get ready for an interesting character study.

Were War Machine released in theaters, there’d no doubt be discussion of the film as the next chapter in a line of films with Twelve O’Clock High, The Best Years of Our Lives, Apocalypse Now, Patton, Full Metal Jacket, and Born on the Fourth of July.  Pitt’s General Glen McMahon is Pitt aged a decade or so, sporting gray hair and a fixed sideways sneer, a raised eyebrow, and a stature (especially when running exercise laps before the other troops awaken) that makes him almost unrecognizable.  McMahon is smart, fierce, determined, and strong–the perfect selection for someone who has been appointed to complete an impossible task–in essence, do all that needs to be done to fix Afghanistan and get ready to leave without bringing in more troops–when he should have known he was doomed to failure from the beginning.  Don’t we want our generals to be confident, strident, and to a certain extent, bold risk takers?  McMahon is quirky, just a little bit off, while exhibiting a bravado and charisma–albeit awkwardly packaged–that entrenches the picture in believability.  Pitt believes in his character so we do as well.  This includes the loyalty of his men, which begins to form the movie’s all-star cast, including McMahon’s obnoxiously loyal, angry, and mouthy#2 man played by Anthony Michael Hall (the film’s take on then-Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, who served 24 days recently as national security adviser) and an image guy played by Topher Grace.  The cast is rounded out on all sides by Ben Kingsley as President Karzai, Alan Ruck and Griffin Dunne as Administration policy wonks, Tilda Swinton as a German politician, and Meg Tilly taking on the role (brilliantly) of McMahon’s wife (plus a nicely handled cameo by Russell Crowe).

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Michael Keaton in Birdman

Review by C.J. Bunce

It always makes sense to be wary of movies that trickle out to the public in limited release.  If you’re not in the movie business, you may also want to be careful about seeing films about the movie business, especially shows about Broadway.  Sometimes knowing what is behind the stage door ruins the magic.  A Chorus Line, The Player, Barton Fink, are all about staging theater or film.  But it often seems like writers choose this topic as a crutch–these are the topics drama college professors praise, of characters full of angst, a script riddled with expletives and characters bantering long speeches full of dialogue and situations calculated to shock and surprise.  They hope the industry insiders will latch onto the movie even if the movie-going public could care less.  These movies come off as self-indulgent and trite, the stuff of drama school or Summer stock.  Birdman unfortunately is another one of those movies.

Michael Keaton plays an actor named Riggan.  You would never know Riggan was his name from watching Birdman as it sounds more like Reagan as uttered by the cast.  Riggan has some kind of schizophrenia, causing him to think he is being talked to by the Birdman, a costumed character Riggan played that once earned him fame.  There’s not enough of the Birdman in the film to understand whether Riggan simply has mental problems or he really has some magical power.  Or maybe it’s intended to be allegorical.  It’s hard to know.  Riggan is trying to produce and act in a play, doing something to get recognized, to make himself relevant, when in fact, he’s still a household name.

Keaton in Birdman

Behind Birdman is a variety of movie gimmicks, all arising out of an ambitious director.  Ambition is a great thing, to be certain.  Yet director Alejandro González Iñárritu throws too much at the audience at once, and although he is certainly getting noticed on the awards front, Birdman doesn’t have the balance to stand the test of time.  Slathered in tongue-in-cheek irony, Birdman relies on the misconception that Michael Keaton, who played Batman in real life, is a washed-up has-been who hasn’t had a good job in years and we will all have some nostalgic reaction to this.  (In fact, Keaton has hardly seen a year since he started in movies where he wasn’t in one film or another).

So the publicity folks want to spin this film as the next Sunset Boulevard, another story of a has-been actor struggling with self-worth.  It’s a mirror image of the New York film and theater industry looking back on itself.  A critique?  Poking fun?  Maybe actors care about that.  Maybe producers and movie moguls.  But why should audiences?  It just doesn’t come close to the subtlety and grand storytelling that made Sunset Boulevard so superb.

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