BINGE-R #48: War Machine + More New Netflix Movies
(Netflix, 2017, 122 minutes)
In War Machine, an obtuse black comedy about soldiers who don’t get to fight, Brad Pitt plays a U.S. Army general with Ken doll hair and a weird, purposeful walk that comes from his arms and legs being locked at a slightly bent angle; the character’s body has no pliability and neither, you realise, does his life. It’s a hugely mannered performance, pushing back against Pitt’s movie star charisma and sometimes sucking the momentum out of a scene, and yet it feels right for what Australian writer/director David Michod (Animal Kingdom) is trying to achieve. The movie doesn’t just want to have fun with the military mindset and the ludicrousness of winning over a country you’ve previously invaded, it wants to pick apart the people who flourish in such a situation.
The film, a $US60 million investment for Netflix, is very loosely adapted from The Operators, journalist Michael Hastings’ non-fiction book about the service in Afghanistan of U.S. Army general Stanley McChrystal. There’s a version of Hastings here, played by Scott McNairy, whose narration laconically describes an unwinnable war and crippling political expediencies that only a commander with delusional hubris could believe they’re capable of besting. That’s Pitt’s McMahon, who has an entourage of uniformed true believers who buck him up by calling him “Glenimal”, and while Pitt and Michod have genuine affection for the decorated soldier they make clear that his counter-insurgency strategy is useless and his plans are based on nothing but his belief in capturing names on a map.
Most of the story is about prepping to exercise command, whether meeting with Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley) or buttering up European allies, and it’s only near the end that shots are actually fired. Michod’s previous features turned on grippingly intimate intensity and transformative monologues, but both the scope and the tone of War Machine work against that and there’s a lack of a directorial signature. There are withering exchanges, such as a perplexed Marine (Keith Stanfield) querying the introduction of medals for “courageous restraint”, and fascinating interludes, like the sudden appearance of McMahon’s wife, Jeanie (Meg Tilly), but they never quite adhere into a satisfying whole. This is not the blockbuster that’s going to win a war for Netflix.
NEW NETFLIX MOVIES
If you want a charmingly loose comedy…
Tramps (Netflix, 2017, 83 minutes): Another Netflix original, snapped up off the film festival circuit, Adam Leon’s appealing independent comedy is about a pair of barely there adults, tough cookie Ellie (Grace Van Patten) and aspiring chef Danny (Callum Turner), who have to go on the run together when an illicit briefcase delivery goes wrong and the miffed recipients demand answers. Set amidst the working class boroughs of New York and later the swanky suburbs outside the city limits, the film has a comic deftness and crime flick charm – there are hat tips to both Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild. Amongst the pleasures is the flipping of roles: it’s Ellie who calls the shots and Danny who hangs in there because she just might be the one.
If you’re after a new dose of zombie mayhem…
Train to Busan (Netflix, 2016, 117 minutes): The undead – and movies about them – always need fresh blood, and this South Korean box-office hit does a decent job of delivering a new zombie apocalypse. Striking just as a high speed train, carrying a distracted corporate father (Gong Yoo) and the daughter who believes in his inherent goodness (Kim Su-an), departs Seoul, Yeon Sang-ho’s film unfolds in the confined spaces of carriages and tunnels, as the running zombies barrel down on their human prey. Doors, luggage racks and flickering morality are all put to good use, although devotees of the genre may quibble over the validity of the survivors punching their way to momentary safety. You can virtually pick the order the supporting cast will be taken down in, but that’s part of the genre’s attraction.
If you prefer a warmly intimate drama…
Little Men (Netflix, 2016, 85 minutes): As with 2014’s Love is Strange, the new film from Ira Sachs pits the warping values of real estate against the character’s best intentions. In a gentrifying corner of Brooklyn a struggling actor and his psychiatrist wife, Brian and Kathy (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle), inherit a building whose shopfront has long been rented by a dressmaker, Leonor (Paulina Garcia). Both parties have 13-year-old sons – respectively the taciturn Jake (Theo Taplitz) and the exuberant Tony (the terrific Michael Barbieri) – and the boys’ budding friendship is observed, as every relationship is here, with naturalistic care and emotional nuance, especially once Brian moves to triple Leonor’s rent to fairly reflect market rates. Sachs, a low-key optimist, doesn’t want to assign blame. He’s more interested in the hopefulness that might transcend the division.
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