War Machine *½|****

Brad Pitt in War Machine

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.

Alien: Covenant **|****

Katherine Waterston in Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant is a piece of franchise filmmaking that floats aimlessly in the cold and vast darkness of space, desperately seeking a reason for its own existence. Wedged chronologically between the ponderous Prometheus and the still unimpeachable Alien, it has neither the ambition of the former nor the genuine terror of the latter and further muddies the waters for those diehard fans who may still be thirsty for answers to questions that likely didn’t need to be asked in the first place. Like another recent flop Life, itself a ripoff of the Alien films, it features supposedly smart scientists making dumb decisions that lead them to square off against a creature that’s more frustratingly familiar than fearsome.

Taking place ten years after the events of PrometheusCovenant follows the crew of the titular spaceship as they head towards a habitable planet with a plan for colonization but when they cross paths with a seemingly more suitable planet, their captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides it’s worth an investigation. While on the initial expedition, two crew members come in contact with alien spores that cause a gruesome demise for those infected and imminent danger for the remaining crew by way of newly spawned skittering creatures. After being saved by a mysterious inhabitant (Michael Fassbender), he fills the Covenant group in on the secrets that exist within the ominous new world that they’ve chosen to uncover.

This is Ridley Scott’s third time in the Alien universe and I’d like to believe that he’s returning to these projects for passion above paycheck but there are indications here that he’s more interested in reveling in the glory of his previous successes rather than adding something meaningful to its mythology. He also falls into the increasingly common problem with prequels which involves unnecessarily demystifying aspects of the original work to the degree that their novelty becomes diminished in hindsight. There’s really no need to explain away every facet of how these alien creatures came to be or how they function and deconstructing the nature of their existence makes them less “alien” than they were intended to be in the first place.

Even though Prometheus was also guilty of these sins, at least it was committed to its inquisitiveness with a keen sense of wonder and a human sense of trepidation when exploring the universal questions that have kept mankind at bay for centuries. Aside from an excellent prologue that reunites Fassbender with Prometheus co-star Guy Pearce, Covenant forgoes any existential musing in favor of painfully conventional slasher-inspired horror sequences replete with gratuitous bloodshed and often unconvincing CGI. It’s also difficult to root for a group of seemingly intelligent people who make bafflingly bad choices; I’m no scientist but even I can tell you that setting foot on an uncharted planet without a space suit is probably a poor idea.

Before my screening, my theater played a promising trailer for the upcoming Blade Runner 2049, a belated sequel to another Ridley Scott masterpiece that could be counted among my most anticipated movies of the year. Besides a talented cast and a technical team that includes Johann Johannsson and Roger Deakins, the film is being helmed by visionary director Denis Velleneuve, who is looking to capitalize on the success of last year’s breakout hit Arrival. Perhaps it’s time to let another creative voice have control over the Alien franchise as well because if Alien: Covenant is any indication, Scott may have finally run out of story to tell in this sci-fi saga.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ***½|****

Chris Pratt and Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a game-changing moment for Marvel Studios, when writer/director James Gunn took a ragtag superhero team who didn’t have the notoriety of characters like Iron Man and Captain America and scored larger box office numbers than just about every other comic book movie at the time of its release. While it offered some welcome contributions to the MCU by way of its cheeky humor and offbeat retro soundtrack, it was also saddled with a terribly bland cast of villains and a perfunctory plot that too often got in the way of the fun. Fortunately, Gunn has made good on the promising elements of this predecessor and made a sequel that is not only better than the original but is also one of the most emotionally rich and rewarding movies that Marvel has released so far.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 reunites the titular group as they enlist themselves for interplanetary odd jobs like protecting valuable batteries from being eaten by a giant space squid but when one such mission goes south, they are saved by a mysterious figure who calls himself Ego (Kurt Russell) and claims to be Peter Quill’s (Chris Pratt) father. Upon traveling to Ego’s planet (aptly called Ego’s Planet), Quill is excited about the prospect of getting to know the father who was never a part of his childhood, while Drax (Dave Bautista) and Quill’s love interest Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are more apprehensive about their circumstances. Meanwhile, the mouthy raccoon-hybrid Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his tiny companion Baby Groot (a high-pitched Vin Diesel) repair the gang’s crashed ship while avoiding the Ravengers led by the menacing Yondu (Michael Rooker).

From a brilliant opening credit scene that is even more playful than that of the original to a poignant conclusion that feels fully earned, Guardians 2 throws plenty (admittedly, too much) out to its audience but delivers with such a high rate of consistency that its excess is often more virtue than vice. Whereas other guargantuan superhero movies have a tendency to ignore certain characters as the plot moves along, Gunn is careful not to turn his back on any of his heroes and is admirably thorough in giving a fleshed-out story arc to each of the five Guardians on top of the new additions to the cast. More importantly, these storylines don’t just correspond with how to get each player from one action setpiece to another; they expand on the emotional foundation laid out by the first film and give us more reason to care about the struggles of these characters.

None of this is to say that Gunn has lost his smart aleck brand of whip-smart humor in the process, as Guardians 2 offers loads of cartoonish visual gags, quotable one-liners and metatextual jokes to also make it one of the funniest films in the MCU lineup. I laughed loud and often throughout the movie, specifically during an extended sequence in which Baby Groot tries to help Rocket and Yondu break out of a prison by enthusiastically fetching various items that he deems critical to their success. In another scene that riffs on the diegetic soundtrack, Ego muses on the lyrics of the ’70s hit “Brandy” by Looking Glass with Quill in a way that would seem incredibly corny for a more conventional drama but in a knowing comedy like this one, the parallels between the song and the story somehow feel both comical and credible.

Beyond the clever writing, Gunn also steps up his directing game and contributes a great deal of visual flair to his space opera with a vibrant palette of neon-infused CG effects at his disposal that make DC’s efforts look even more dismal and drab by comparison. Credit cinematographer Henry Braham for not only providing action scenes that are easy to follow but for his compositional work on simpler shots like a close-up of Quill’s face in a key moment and a wide shot of Gamora sitting solitary admidst a sea of untouched desert. All of these details give Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 a leg up on the film that introduced these characters first and proves that sequels can correct the errors of an initial entry, especially when more creative control is given to the right people.

Their Finest ***½|****

Sam Claflin and Gemma Arterton in Their Finest
Based on the Lissa Evans novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, this delightful and often brilliant wartime drama stars Gemma Arterton as a Welsh secretary named Catrin who is recruited to be a part of a screenwriting team that specializes in propaganda movies intended to lift England’s spirits during the Battle of Britain. Her co-writer Tom (Sam Clafin) tells her that she was hired to write “slop” (or “girl talk”) to appeal to the female demographic but as she delves deeper into the writing process, it becomes evident that her skills stretch far past writing frivolous dialogue. After following a lead in a news article, she meets a pair of sisters who allegedly saved thousands of soldiers during the Dunkirk evacuation and brings the story to her team as the foundation of their new film.

When the script is written, the studio moves forward with production by casting the aging British star Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) in the lead role and the handsome American war pilot Carl Lundbeck (Jack Lacy) as his counterpart, even though the disparity between their acting chops becomes clear once it comes time to shoot the movie. As issues pop up on set, Catrin and Tom are called to fix them with extensive re-writes that keep up on their respective typewriters through all hours of the evening. A playfully combative relationship develops between the two and soon they develop a true affection for one another, even though Catrin appears to be married to a struggling painter named Ellis (Jack Huston) back at home.

For a film that focuses so intently on screenwriters and the integral part that they play in the movie making process, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the biggest strength of Their Finest is the excellent screenplay by Gaby Chiappe, whose previous credits include various BBC series but no feature films prior to this one. She effortlessly weaves all the movie-within-a-movie elements with the personal struggles and triumphs of each character into a script that’s crackling with loads of fresh dialogue (I imagine Catrin would admire it greatly). There are also resonant bits of philosophy about how can cinema affect us, as Tom paraphrases Hitchcock when referring to film as “real life with the boring bits cut out” and speaks to the comforts that films can give us, saying “when bad things happen [in movies], there’s a reason, unlike in life.”

The story is brought to life with wit and charm by a fantastic ensemble cast spearheaded by the lovely Gemma Arterton, who has previously starred in dispiriting dreck like Prince of Persia and Runner Runner but here finds a breakout role that’s worthy of her eminent talent. Her Catrin is smart, sassy and sensitive in equal measure and serves as a protagonist that’s nearly impossible to turn your back on, even when the story calls on her to make difficult decisions on behalf of herself and the studio producing the film. Every bit as excellent is Bill Nighy as the past-his-prime matinee idol who initially has an air of haughtiness that should make him insufferable but instead makes his rascally and unpredictable Ambrose one of the most watchable characters on screen.

The Danish director Lone Scherfig tells this tale with all the whimsy that it deserves but she also doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life during war in a region where air strikes were often a brutal daily occurrence that could claim bystanders at any minute. Prolific film composer Rachel Portman ties the movie together with a plucky and sentimental musical accompaniment that never calls attention to itself, a trait that seems to be diminishing among most of the scores coming out of Hollywood these days. Their Finest is enchanting historical fiction that will give Americans different perspective on the Second World War but it also may give all audiences a brand new reason to fall in love with the movies all over again.

The Circle **|****

Tom Hanks, Emma Watson and Patton Oswalt in The Circle
It seems Hollywood is always a step behind when it comes to addressing our rapid shifts in technological development and this occasionally thought-provoking but narratively inert thriller is a perfect example of that disconnect. The Circle warns of the dangers of digital interconnectivity and full immersion into social media but it takes these concepts to such hyperbolic highs that it feels more alarmist than enlightening. Besides coming across as technologically tone-deaf, the movie also introduces more plot points and storylines than it can possibly keep up with and cuts many of them off with an abrupt ending that’s lazy and unsatisfying.

The story involves a bright young woman named Mae (Emma Watson), who gives up her dead-end job to join The Circle, a nebulous Apple/Facebook/Google-type digital conglomerate headed up by the charismatic Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). She soon distinguishes herself among her cohorts (“guppies”, as they’re affectionately titled) and rises up the ranks to become one of the company’s chief creative strategists, pitching ideas to improve their TrueYou platform. After spending more time at The Circle, Mae begins to peel back the picture-perfect corporate culture to reveal darker secrets that lurk under the surface with the help of a mysterious employee played by John Boyega.

Director James Ponsoldt, who’s responsible for winning indie dramas like The Spectacular Now and The End of the Tour, has a talent for bringing out the intimate and human dimensions in his stories, so it’s no wonder that he’s such a poor match for this material given its preference for machine over man. Save for a pair of performances by Glenne Headly and the recently deceased Bill Paxton as Mae’s parents, the movie is sorely lacking any kind of emotional anchor upon which to tether any kind of techno-paranoia that may develop from the story. Mae’s doting boyfriend Mercer, played with a stunning lack of conviction by Boyhood star Ellar Coltrane, could be seen as the film’s moral backbone if it bothered to take a defined stance on the role technology should play in our day-to-day lives.

Ponsoldt doesn’t get much help from a Dave Eggers-penned script, adapted from his 2013 novel, that introduces far too many plotlines that seem to come out of left field (Mae’s story, for instance, takes a complete 180 around the halfway mark) and negate whatever narrative momentum has already been established. He has so much that he wants to say about how this kind of new technology could affect how we live and yet very few of his points are woven into the story with the kind of cohesion that would make them salient or intriguing. It plays like a half-baked episode of Black Mirror that has all of the neat gadgetry and starring roles figured out but doesn’t have enough new insight on its subject material.

Despite its apparent lack of focus, there are nuggets of inspired concepts buried within the needlessly convoluted story that suggest a more pointed or satirical take on how interact with our plethora of devices. There are visual cues like the slow proliferation of screens at Mae’s desk to the sea of illuminated emblems in an audience enamored with their tablets that subtly remind us just how inundated we are with bright new distractions every day. In the film’s best scene, Mae tells an employee conducting her job interview that her greatest fear is unfulfilled potential and if that’s the case, there’s no doubt that The Circle would have terrified her.