Based on a popular Japanese manga and anime series, Death Note is an Americanized film adaptation that stars Nat Wolff as troubled teenager Light Turner, who discovers an ancient book with the title “Death Note” on its cover as it falls from the sky. Upon opening the text, he is encountered by an malevolent spirit named Ryuk (Willem Dafoe), who explains that the magical book has, among other things, the ability to end the life of whomever Light chooses to write down on any of its pages. After a successful trial that gruesomely dispatches the school bully, Light teams up with classmate and burgeoning love interest Mia (Margaret Qualley) to purge the world of those whom the two teens deem undesirable.
The mysterious deaths of criminals and terrorists across the world sparks interest from international law enforcement as well as an inscrutable detective named only “L” (Lakeith Stanfield), who has managed to pinpoint the source of the killings to Light’s hometown of Seattle. Meanwhile, Light’s father (Shea Whigham), a local police officer, continues to work with L and a host of FBI agents to track down the killer while being oblivious to the fact that Light is responsible for the emerging pattern of murders. L soon narrows his suspicions on Light and after a coffee shop confrontation, Light races to discover L’s true identity so that he can be named in the book and removed from the equation.
Being unfamiliar with the source material, I went into Adam Wingard’s effort with an open mind about how he chose to adapt the sizable comic collection but it’s not hard to imagine that there was quite a bit of material that was lost in translation. There are no shortage of plot holes and pacing issues within this story, which starts out pretty well as a sort of twisted YA love fantasy but goes steadily downhill after a poorly conceived montage transitions the film into a more by-the-numbers police procedural. It’s a busy film packed with plenty of story details and arbitrary rules but every plot element feels like it was condensed down to its most basic form, largely devoid of nuance or subtext so as not to lose any couchbound viewers along the way (lest they get distracted by their smartphones during the movie).
Wolff and Qualley do what they can in their severely unwritten roles but too often they’re relegated to inhabit angsty teen archetypes, even from the opening scene when Light is seen sulking on a set of bleachers while Mia stands triumphantly blasé atop a pyramid of cheerleaders. In worse shape is Lakeith Stanfield, who has been brilliant in smaller roles so far this year (Get Out, War Machine) but is utterly lost in this twitchy, self-conscious role that is a flat-out terrible fit for his low-key charisma. By far the most memorable performer is Dafoe as the voice of the CGI creation Ryuk, who is basically reprising the cackling menace from his Green Goblin role in Spider-Man but nonetheless effective in doing so.
Despite the growing issues that I had with plot or performances, Death Note is not often a boring endeavor thanks mainly to the typically stylized direction from Adam Wingard that utilizes campy genre elements and cheeky 80s-inspired soundtrack choices to liven things up a bit. Sadly, the script credited to three writers (I’ll spare mentioning their names) is ultimately too leaden to lift as it favors an inelegant unpacking of its most basic narrative mechanics over character development or moral complexity. Perhaps the team here was too constricted by the feature film medium and a mini-series or full TV series would have been a better fit but as a standalone movie, I doubt it will reach any of the unconverted.
Building upon the remarkable success that they’ve had with their original television series, Netflix has recently made a conscious effort to balance their programming with more original movies by releasing new feature films on a weekly basis since the beginning of this year. They’ve had minor triumphs in the form of smaller budget fare like The Discovery and Win It All but David Michôd’s War Machine represents an aggressive play by Netflix to compete against Hollywood and their first-run releases by nabbing one of its biggest stars. It’s a shame, then, that the end product is far from the crowd-pleaser that it should (and could) have been and is instead a would-be satire that’s constantly at odds with what it wants to be and how it wants to convey its message.
Brad Pitt stars as four-star General Glen McMahon (a loose variation on real-life General Stanley McChrystal), who is brought in by the Obama administration to resolve the increasingly tumultuous situation in Afghanistan by promoting counterinsurgency in vulnerable regions of the country. He is closely aided by a staff of men, including the hothead General Pulver (Anthony Michael Hall) and sleazy press advisor Matt Little (Topher Grace), who regard him as a living legend (their favorite nickname for him is “The Glenimal”) and would be happy walking to the ends of the earth if it meant pleasing him. The beats of their quixotic mission are framed in voiceover from a fictionalized Rolling Stone reporter who laments their circumstances and eventually enters the film as a tag along in McMahon’s military entourage.
Of the many miscalculations present in War Machine, the most glaring is the mannered and terribly overdone lead performance by Pitt, which strikes a wrong chord from minute one and only has glimmers of redemption for the remainder of the time. With his cockeyed facial expression and his mouth fixated in an overbite that forms something of a permanent grimace, it seems Pitt wants McMahon to be a sort of larger-than-life buffoon type but it doesn’t jive with the level of respect that his staff seems to show him. The movie also can’t figure out how we’re supposed to feel about this character; if we’re intended to laugh at Pitt’s cartoonish mugging and quirky tics, then why does it so often try to make this a more dramatic personal story about McMahon’s struggles?
The answer to that question, sadly, is brought forth from Michôd’s positively aimless direction, which casts the film in wildly varying lights from scene to scene and doesn’t have the clear vision to pull a satire like this off, much less give us a useful comedy or drama in the meantime. The cheeky opening monologue properly sets the stage for a satire on a certain type of hawkish military mentality but it loses its target early on and is rendered toothless by its lack of focus and by an absence of genuine comic payoffs. Michôd doesn’t know what kind of story he wants to tell us and he doesn’t have any sort of attitude towards the material that could have given the comedy the kind of edge that it needed or the drama the kind of poignancy that it could have discovered.
Even more jarring are the misguided cameos from the likes of talented actors like Tilda Swinton, who is given a one-note role as a pestering new reporter, and Ben Kingsley, who is completely lost in his portrayal as the figurehead Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai. Other actors, like Meg Tilly as McMahon’s wife and Keith Stanfield (who gave another excellent performance earlier this year in Get Out) as a disillusioned Marine, make the most of their small roles and even steal the spotlight from Pitt in the scenes that they share with him. War Machine is about a mismanaged conflict with no clear strategy, so it’s perhaps fitting that the movie turned out to be such a mess but if Netflix wants to go to war with Hollywood, it will need to bring more to the battle than this.
Joe Swanberg has been credited as a pioneer of the “mumblecore” movement, which is comprised of lower-budget films that often focus on largely improvised dialogue as opposed to a tightly crafted plot. While his new feature Win It All is more conventionally structured than previous efforts like Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas, it still retains the hallmarks of the genre by keeping the scope of the story small and by making the dialogue naturalistic and believable. It also stars frequent Swanberg collaborator Jake Johnson (credited as co-writer and co-producer as well), who extends past his typical comedic range and turns in his most compelling performance to date.
Johnson plays the down-on-his-luck gambling addict Eddie Garrett, who spends his days as a parking attendant at Wrigley Field and spends his nights lurking for any underground card games he can find around the city. He seems to catch a break when an acquaintance offers him $10,000 to look after a mysterious duffel bag, provided that Eddie doesn’t open the bag to peruse its contents, while he does jail time for the next 6 months. Going against orders, Eddie takes a look inside and finds $50,000 in cash, which sends his mind racing with how many different ways he can gamble it all away.
After celebrating a successful night of blackjack, Eddie meets a single mother named Eva (Aislinn Derbez) and the two form a relationship that unfolds at a pace that seems leisurely for a wheeler-dealer type like Eddie. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the hilarious Keegan-Michael Key steals all of his scenes as Eddie’s Gamblers Anonymous mentor who doesn’t mince words when dispensing advice to his struggling confidant. Also filling out Eddie’s support system is his brother Ron (Joe Lo Truglio), who’s the head of his own landscaping company and begs Eddie to work for him in an effort to straighten out his path.
Ultimately, the film’s focus is on Eddie and his unwavering compulsion to gamble away every last cent that he has; as another character puts it to him, he’s “addicted to losing”. Swanberg delivers this addiction with moments of lightheartedness but also with a palpable sense of the stakes at hand, which is made quite literal with a counter that appears intermittently in the bottom right corner which denotes Eddie’s monetary standing (if you hadn’t guessed, it’s frequently a negative number). Even though there are plot points and contrivances that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a gambling movie like this before, the story has an emotional undercurrent of desperation and loneliness that’s undeniable.
Credit to Jake Johnson for creating such an affable deadbeat who always seems like he’s on the edge of throwing away his life and running as far as he can from the problems he’s created for himself. There’s a constant anxiety and unease from his performance that made me feel on edge, along with an unending sorrow that comes across his face during every bad beat that he endures at the poker table. Indeed, there’s so much losing depicted in Win It All that it’s almost ironic how much of a winning formula Swanberg and Johnson have concocted with a movie that feels authentic and oddly endearing.
Writer/director Charlie McDowell follows up his heady, sci-fi romance drama The One I Love with another film that seems to fit neatly into that very same category. The difference with The Discovery lies in its tantalizing, elevator pitch of a premise: what would happen in a world where the existence of an afterlife was proven scientifically and considered as absolute as gravity? The answer to that question and the multitude of implications that it generates makes for a solid foundation of intrigue as this story’s jumping-off point but McDowell seems to get too lost inside the plot’s machinations to give us any satisfying conclusions to its queries.
The man responsible for the titular revelation is Dr. Thomas Harbor (Robert Redford), who opens the film by giving a television interview about the enormous impact that his scientific finding has had on a global scale. When asked if he feels even partially guilty for the large uptick in suicides that seem to have been spurred on by the new found guarantee of life after death, he argues that keeping such a discovery from the human race would be more criminal than divulging it. His principled stand on the subject finds a formidable counterpoint by way of a cameraman’s suicide caught live on the air, making Harbor’s stance seem even more calloused than it had before.
Also opposed to Harbor’s approach is his estranged son Will (Jason Segal), who journeys to his father’s estate two years after the discovery to dissuade him from further investigating his afterlife findings. On the ferry trip there, he meets the quirky but disturbed Isla (Rooney Mara) who is secretly planning to commit suicide once she reaches her destination on the island. After Will witnesses her attempt and intervenes, the two join Dr. Harbor and his other son Toby (Jesse Plemons) on their compound as they try to decode the mysteries behind Harbor’s research and prevent any further damage to society.
McDowell has drawn comparisons to Charlie Kaufman before but here, the similarities to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are a bit too close for comfort, especially in the way that both films introduce their central couples. A key difference is that The Discovery‘s examination of Will and Isla’s relationship is much more cursory by comparison, though it is rare to find a film with a more complete portrait of a romantic relationship than that Michel Gondry masterpiece. Still, it’s disappointing that the screenplay doesn’t spend as much time fleshing out a believeable chemistry between these two as it does positing philosophical quandaries to mentally digest.
Even if the blend of science fiction and melodrama doesn’t quite work in this instance, McDowell and his team do an excellent job of building a bleak world run amok with hopelessness and a quiet devestation that permeates every frame. Without a spiritual anchor and a meaningful way to guide the ship, every character in the story is essentially lost at sea and constantly searching for something new to grasp. If The Discovery had followed through with the promise of its premise, I have no doubt that it could have been a lasting achievement in existential sci-fi but with all of the other distracting elements in play, it’s a frustrating but admirable effort.