Screening Room: ‘War Machine’

One of the biggest feature film plays yet attempted by Netflix, War Machine is an Afghanistan War satire based in part on Michael Hastings’ nonfiction book The Operators. Brad Pitt (who also produced) plays a hard-charging general loosely based on Gen. Stanley McChrystal, though reportedly his character was eventually fictionalized to avoid legal hassles.

War Machine debuts this week on Netflix and in select theaters. My review is at PopMatters:

Things kick off in 2009, when McMahon, aka “The Glenimal”, charges into Kabul like George S. Patton’s less patient twin. Surrounded by a platoon of intensely loyal hangers-on, McMahon is looking to repeat the success he had decimating insurgent networks in Iraq. A cannier movie would have stood back a bit and allowed the audience to get sucked in by the presence of McMahon’s West Point, Ranger school, Yale graduate, warrior with a degree, armored carapace of confidence before making apparent his pride-blinded cluelessness…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Big Short’

thebigshort1When the housing market bubble started to implode back in 2007 and 2008, precipitating the latest financial crisis, it came as a surprise to much of the world. Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short tells the story of the analysts who saw the implosion coming and discovered that nobody wanted to hear about it. Adam McKay’s film adaptation is an awesomely angry screwball satire of the apocalyptic and short-sighted stupidity that lead to the crisis.

Big-short-inside-the-doomsday-machineThe Big Short opens in limited release today, then everywhere Christmas week. My review is at PopMatters:

So who blew up the economy back in 2007? One answer that’s often shouted on talk radio and social media is a moralistic tale about how poor (minority) folks took out mortgages they couldn’t afford, which caused the financial collapse, after which sober-minded middle-class (white) taxpayers had to pay for all those bad mortgages by bailing out the banks. It’s the Ant and the Grasshopper fable re-engineered with Tea Party fury.

Adam McKay’s blistering, righteously funny The Big Short offers another answer…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘By the Sea’

Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in 'By the Sea' (Universal Pictures)
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in ‘By the Sea’ (Universal Pictures)

Set in the 1970s, By the Sea stars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt as a couple traveling through France as their relationship nears collapse.

bythesea-posterWritten and directed by Jolie, By the Sea opened this week. My review is at Film Journal International:

A divertingly gorgeous mediocrity, By the Sea arrives onscreen pushing a trainload of expectations ahead of itself. After Angelina Jolie Pitt’s little-seen In the Land of Blood and Honey and last year’s Unbroken, this stands as her first broad test of her abilities as a writer-director. Unlike those war dramas, this chamber piece has no historical resonance or book-club fans to fall back on. There’s just a hotel room, some pretty scenery, and a couple whose marriage is disintegrating. Add to that a stealthy ad campaign, a vague trailer hinting at 1970s Bertolucci-like decadence, and the first pairing of Jolie and her now-husband Brad Pitt since they played another warring couple in Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and you have a movie almost guaranteed to attract all the wrong kinds of attention…

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: Franco Behind Bars in ‘True Story’

Jonah Hill and James Franco get at the ‘True Story’ (Fox Searchlight)

 

True_Story_posterIt isn’t every day that you see Jonah Hill and James Franco in a film and neither one of them is mugging up a storm. True Story is a long-gestating true-crime piece opening this week in which Hill plays a reporter and Franco a (maybe) murderer.

My review is at Film Racket:

Between the cold-case podcast Serial and Robert Durst’s wink-wink tease on The Jinx, true crime stories in the did-he-or-didn’t-he vein are having what they call a cultural moment. So it would seem time to tell the real story of journalist Michael Finkel’s borderline disturbing relationship with accused family murderer Christian Longo. If you can do it with movie stars, all the better. But the tentative and moody True Story doesn’t have the synapse-sparking fizz that marks the best true crime stories. It squanders more of the opportunities packed into this tale of worlds colliding than it takes advantage of…

Here is the trailer:

New on DVD: ‘World War Z’

Brad Pitt tries to save his family in 'World War Z'
Brad Pitt tries to save his family in ‘World War Z’

worldwarz-dvdIn case you missed the last zombie apocalypse to come running into theaters with bloody abandon, World War Z is out today on DVD, Blu-ray, and all other home viewing media.

My review of the summer’s surprise hit (all that talk of reshoots and budget problems), Brad Pitt vs. the Flesh-Eating Undead, can be found at Film Journal International; here’s part:

Zombies are people, too. That’s one truth understood by the better stories in the genre, from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend to Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake. At no moment in Marc Forster’s churning and unfocused World War Z are the rampaging CGI hordes of the undead made to appear like anything more than swarming bits of computer code. Many of the human actors don’t fare much better…

The rather vague ending left a gaping opening for a sequel, which is apparently being planned right now but has not been officially greenlit yet.

Here’s the trailer:

New in Theaters: ‘Byzantium’

Saorise Ronan deals with bloody eternity in 'Byzantium'
Saorise Ronan deals with bloody eternity in ‘Byzantium’

BYZANTIUM-PosterIt’s been a while since Neil Jordan tried his hand at the vampire game. With his newest, Byzantium, he is working on a smaller and more intimate scale than in Interview with the Vampire (Saorise Ronan and Gemma Arterton inside of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise). It’s gloomy and capital “R” Romantic; Keats, not Meyer), which could explain the limited distribution.

Byzantium opened in limited release Friday. My full review is at Film Racket; here’s part:

Just when werewolf armies, zombie hordes, and Stephenie Meyer’s affectless prose seemed to have done in the poor old vampire film, along comes this gloomy, glossy little oddity about the deathless from Neil Jordan. Like in his elegant take on Interview with the Vampire, Jordan’s vampires are a study in dichotomy; either happy to bury themselves in the bloody necessities of their survival or morally indecisive. In the meantime, they have eternity to deal with, and not a whole lot of money or options for living it…

You can watch the trailer here:

On Writing: Scare Yourself

When zombies attack.
When zombies attack.

Hard as it might be for viewers of the new World War Z to believe, the book that it was based on was neither meant to be tongue-in-cheek or horror. Its author, Max Brooks (the very lucky son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft), intended for the book to examine some extremely real concerns about pandemics and modern society, just as its predecessor The Zombie Survival Guide was inspired by the world’s long inattention to the AIDS plague.

worldwarz-bookcoverIn this profile for the New York Times magazine, Brooks lays out a few things that he believes differentiates himself from your run of the mill zombie writer. For one, his zombies are slow (not like in the very loosely adapted Brad Pitt film): “Brooks is an ardent believer in slow zombies. He doesn’t even want to try to comprehend how we’d deal with fast ones.” Also, he’s just normally a very scared person:

What he can’t understand is the horror fans.

“I’m not a horror fan,” he said. “I’m an anti-horror fan. I think horror fans feel deep down in the pit of their souls, they feel safe, and therefore bored. And therefore they want to be scared. I already have a baseline level of just anxiety about the world I live in,” he continued, metaphorically pushing the horror genre away from him on the table. “I don’t need to go seeking it out.”

No, his books aren’t horror, and he’s relieved that his books aren’t in the horror section. But he’s miffed that they’re in the humor section. “I would have put it in self-help. Or how-to.” He shakes his head. “I can’t think of anything less funny than dying in a zombie attack.”

The lesson here for aspiring writers of horror, zombie or otherwise, could be this: Try to terrify yourself first with what already scares you about everyday life. Don’t go looking for something absurd and unbelievable. Then worry about scaring your audience.