War Machine (Michod; 2017)

While they have been making original films and television shows for some time now, Netflix seems to have decided that with budgets of up to $100 million dollars and stars like Will Smith and Brad Pitt that 2017 is the year they are officially throwing down the gauntlet in Hollywood’s direction and declaring themselves a real player in the business of blockbuster movies.  War Machine, starring the aforementioned Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon, is arguably the highest profile film to come from the DVD rental and video streaming service to date due to the star power on display.  Brad Pitt is most certainly the most recognizable name and only A-lister among the cast, but you will also see Meg Tilly, Griffin Dunne, Anthony Michael Hall, Topher Grace, and Alan Ruck gracing War Machine with their presence in more than just cameos throughout the film’s story.

It didn’t take long, less than ten minutes, for War Machine to remind me of two other films: The Big Short and Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb due to the tone it uses to handle the very important issue of the War in Afghanistan.  Its similarity to The Big  Short is no coincidence as these two films have the same producers and its similarities to Dr. Strangelove, unfortunately, do not continue throughout the entire film and disappointingly really only rear their heads when Brad Pitt and Ben Kingsley (he’s in the movie, too, as Afghani President Karzai) are on screen together.

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When I say it reminds me of them, though, it is only because of tone and what it is attempting to do, not due to quality.  I felt The Big Short was a flawed and overrated film largely due to its tonal inconsistencies and the way it tackled big ideas without making sure we understood the foundation of those ideas first.  It was like it tried to teach calculus without first giving us basic addition.  I applaud it for what it accomplished and even more for what it was attempting to do, but I just felt it was a little off the mark in succeeding in its mission.  War Machine doesn’t have the second problem The Big Short did, but the tonal inconsistencies which reared their head due to tackling deadly serious subject matter with humor are even more exaggerated here.  War Machine has no idea if it wants to be a satire or honest look at The War on Terror and that unfortunately makes for a film which can easily lose your attention.

The film starts with voice over for almost the entirety of its first eight and a half minutes, and it will continue to return to this voice over again and again throughout its running time.  We learn the reason for this is that we are hearing the voice of a Rolling Stone reporter quoting the text of an article he has written about General Glen McMahon and the information being given in the voice is pretty dense, but no matter how good and relevant the reason, a voice over is a crutch which makes for an experience far more dull than if we could learn the same information by watching the characters act and react to the situation around them.  We are also given some scenes with greatly exaggerated acting, situations, and dialogue early on in the film before ultimately settling on a more standard narrative which certainly contains humor, but if not for the opening would most likely not be labelled a comedy.  Finally, add the fact that the first battle scene doesn’t take place until an hour and a half into the film, and the average movie goer is going to have to battle a bit to keep their attention glued to War Machine since there are usually plenty of distractions going on at home where the movie is most likely to be seen.

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Which is sort of a tragedy, because while the movie isn’t quite sure what genre it wants to be and relies too much on talk over action, the rest of this script is incredibly insightful, important, and fascinating.   I have never seen a film so well describe the difficulties and absurdities of fighting a war against an enemy which doesn’t have a standard military nor even a country or distinct ideology as this one does.  The civilian governments have their goals, the military has theirs, and the Aghan citizenry has theirs, and none are spared from either mockery nor sympathy.  When all is said and done, War Machine does an amazing job at showing the nuance and complication of what’s going on in Afghanistan and why even those most intimately involved with it are confused.  How can you fight a standard war when killing your enemy just makes more enemies?  How can you convince people to trust you when you have to do it at gunpoint?  How do you even know who the enemy is when people in the same household can be working for and against you at the same time?

One of my favorite scenes in the film shows a low ranking soldier addressing the general during a speech he is giving the troops.  The soldier asks McMahon if it’s true that they are giving out a medal for restraint.  The general confirms this and explains that since the enemy don’t wear uniforms, can be anywhere, and don’t stand out among the general citizenry that its important not to use violence until its proven to be warranted.  The soldier then declares, “So, we are getting awards for not being marines?  I’m confused.”

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This difference in viewpoint between the military and civilians shows up all over the film, and is quite interesting in the relationship between McMahon and his wife (Meg Tilly).  When we first see them, they are also seeing each other for the first time in a very long time.  Their encounter is awkward and uncomfortable, they are acting like they think a married couple should act but seem to have forgotten how or even whether the other person truly is their spouse.  While this relationship does change throughout the course of the film and they do become comfortable with each other again over time, this opening scene between the two just adds emphasis to what we have been seeing the whole film whenever McMahon and his men interact with government attaches, reporters, and the like which is that military men and civilians have very different mindsets and don’t seem to be able to fathom what the other side’s motivations are.

War Machine also remains very up to date and topical with the way it handles the topics of the media and military relationship to the President of the United States.  Obama is constantly mentioned throughout the film as a seemingly uncaring shadowy figure who would rather not get his hands dirty with Afghanistan and leaves that up to his generals while the media and leaks to said media make for some of the more entertaining bits in the movie, but also in the end make up the bulk of the film’s message.  And, before I move on to my final verdict, I have to mention that if you don’t understand the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan after the scene in which McMahon is speaking to an Afghan father and his young son in their home after a skirmish took place there, then I would suggest psychiatric diagnosis to make sure you are not a complete sociopath.

Final verdict:  War Machine is a slow paced, tonally inconsistent story, but it’s one that you should make an effort to watch – and it will take a bit of an effort for most – due to its much stronger than usual understanding of all the major parties involved in our military actions in Afghanistan.  It’s all talk, very little action, but that talk is some fantastic, important talk.   After all is said and done, you will never be able to look at that Rolling Stone magazine cover with Lady Gaga wearing nothing but assault rifles as a bra as anything other than the perfect metaphor for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan again.

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The LEGO Batman Movie (McKay; 2017)

Batman has had a very long and storied history in cinema.  His first appearance on the big screen goes all the way back to 1943, but the Batman we know today really made his first appearance as a campy, not at all to be taken seriously character in the movie titled simply Batman in 1966.  This was a time when comic books were seen as purely for children, and the character Hollywood gave us was more comedian than vigilante in a likeness which winks so constantly at its audience its a wonder the Batman of today hasn’t taken on a permanent squint.  The 1989 film by Tim Burton also called just Batman gave us a more gothic representation of the character.  Not a comedian, but still not entirely serious, this Batman showed Hollywood that the character can be enjoyed seriously by older audiences, a lesson which they promptly forgot 6 years later in Batman Forever and threw entirely out the window in 1997s Batman and Robin, widely considered one of the worst films ever made.

Then, in 2005, along came Christopher Nolan with Batman Begins to show general audiences that Batman, and superhero characters in general, could be real three dimensional characters with honest to goodness depth and could do it without giving up the action heavy story lines which made the characters popular in the first place.  This was something fans of comic books and animated series had known for a long time, of course, and these fans were arguably the reason Nolan’s film was greenlighted in the first place, but the success of Nolan’s films would forever change how live action superhero movies were made.  Gone was the camp, the genre could now be taken seriously, and for the last 11 years it has been.

Superhero movies were making so much money for the studios that everyone was trying to start their own franchise, though with only Marvel studios having real success, and we were (and still are) so inundated with superhero movies that people are starting to get sick of them and everyone wonders when the superhero movie bubble is going to burst, and that’s when early 2016 brought us Deadpool.  Deadpool set so many box office records it proved that the public wasn’t as sick of superhero movies as everyone thought, they are just sick of the same old superhero movies over and over again.  While many credit Deadpool‘s success to its hard R-Rating, I don’t.  I believe that its success comes from its tone.  Deadpool was the first comic superhero movie to come along in a very long time.  Movies like Guardians of the Galaxy have a light touch and a definite sense of humor, but Deadpool was a sort of modern throw back to that Batman of 1966 in which nothing is sacred and the sense of fun is more important than the plot or themes.

Which now brings us full circle to The LEGO Batman Movie.

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It’s about time you got around to me!

The LEGO Batman Movie is very much a kid friendly version of Deadpool.  Yes, there’s a plot and that plot has a point, but what it really sets out to do is be fun.  If self aware humor annoys you, then this movie will, I’m afraid, but anyone who can still find a film that satirizes its own genre and audience entertaining, then I can guarantee a good time.  From beginning to end if there is something to poke fun of regarding the character of Batman, the superhero action genre, LEGOs, and the people who like these things, then the writers found a way to goof on it, and on many other pieces of pop culture which LEGO has the rights to, of which the number seems endless.

The spoofing is usually clever, always funny, but it never leaves the realm of child friendly.  The makers of The LEGO Batman movie know very well that their target audience is families, not children – families, and while it actually may make people think on things that could make them uncomfortable at times, yes, it does go to thoughtful places on occasion, it never presents anything in a way that you wouldn’t want a young child to see.  I’m guessing the only reason it has its PG rating, and not a G, is that it is a superhero movie, so cartoony violence is often used to solve problems, but it never goes to a place darker or meaner than a Looney Tunes cartoon.

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In comparison to the original The LEGO Movie, The LEGO Batman Movie seems to always fall just short, but only just.  The new big song,”The Batman Theme Song”, is funny, toe tapping, catchy, and will make you smile as you sway in your seat, but don’t expect it to get nominated for an Oscar like “Everything is Awesome” was.  The jokes come at a fast and furious pace and most are hilarious, but every once in a while they do miss their mark here.  The themes of friends being family do hit home and they give the movie a lot of heart, but they just don’t have the heart string tugging power of the themes of true family the first film had.  The LEGO Batman Movie tries to have the cake of The LEGO Movie and eat it, too, but it seems the recipe of the first movie was just a tad too rich to truly duplicate, but damn if The LEGO Batman Movie didn’t come close.

The animation of this film is one piece that may actually be slightly better than the first.  As amazing as some of the things the animators were able to do with LEGOs in the first film was, they learned and managed to up the spectacle here.  Flames burn everywhere, things freeze over, machines morph and twist, and the film is constantly lively and in motion.  They may not do all the “Hey, we’re in a world made of LEGOs” tricks they perform in the first film, but the ones they do manage are clever and look amazing.

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Final recommendation:  If you have young kids, this one is a no-brainer, treat them and yourselves to this one, though maybe at a matinee if at all possible to keep the cost down.  For the rest, whether to see this one or not rests highly on what you thought of the first film or how much of a nerd you are.  The constant references that can actually get incredibly deep into Batman lore are fast and furious and will cause a comic book geek to fall in love with what they are doing here.  If you loved the original The LEGO movie, you will probably enjoy this one, too, just don’t set your expectations quite up to that one’s level and you will have a grand time.  This really is a Deadpool for kids so if you think of it along those lines, you should be able to figure out whether this is a movie for you.

Sausage Party (Tiernan & Vernon; 2016)

It’s no shock to anyone that an R-Rated cartoon 10 years in the making from Seth Rogan (screenplay and voice of Frank and Sergeant Pepper), Evan Goldberg (screenplay), and Jonah Hill (screenplay and voice of Carl) is rude, crude, and subversive.  What may shock you a little more is that they can write a movie with quite a bit of depth. There is  no subtlety whatsoever as the metaphors club us over the face the entire running time,  but the allegories run surprisingly deep in Sausage Party.

The main story line in Sausage Party is that all the food at Shopwell’s Supermarket believe that they are on the shelves so that they can one day be chosen by the gods to be taken out of the store and off to the Great Beyond where life will be a paradise.  Frank and Brenda (Kristen Wiig) are a sausage and a bun who are next to each other on their shelf, and they hope that one day they will be chosen by the same god so they can be joined together. They are chosen together as they’d hoped, but a freak mishap leaves them stranded together outside their packaging along with Sammy Davis Bagel (Edward Norton), Kareem Abdul Lavash (David Krumholtz), and a douche (Nick Kroll) and our foods have to make their way back to their shelves in the hopes they can be chosen again – but, along the way, Frank starts to learn the truth about what happens in the Great Beyond.

The main theme here is a look at religion, particularly monotheism.  Politics and culture are also jabbed at here and there throughout Sausage Party, but the focal point of the satire is the big three monotheistic religions.   It never even attempts to use subtlety in its skewering of religious belief, as I mentioned in the opening statement, but it’s also a far deeper look into religion than just the “religion is dumb” that you may expect.  Yes, it does show the dangers and stupidity inherent in religious belief, but it also looks at what could be the roots of how those beliefs came to be, and the very real purpose they serve, as misguided as they often are.  One of the final jabs in the movie, in fact, is turned around to point the finger at atheists, agnostics, and in particular those who mock others with religious faith, and even though everyone is covered, and nearly every belief system is mocked, Sausage Party always has a purpose and never falls into the trap of being mean satire purely for the sake of being mean.

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Yeah.  We’re mean with a purpose.

As to the humor in Sausage Party, if you can think of a sexual innuendo, racist slur, or raunchy pun that involves food in any way you can bet it is in here somewhere, and used pretty cleverly, at that.  While the jokes themselves are obvious, the set ups only occasionally are, and even on those occasions the writers were making it obvious for a reason.  It cannot be overstated just how crude the screenplay is, every four letter word in the book is used over and over again and every body part and function gets joked about on a regular basis, as well, so if you can not abide crassness, then you will not find Sausage Party funny.  For those who fall into the not easily offended camp, however, the jokes are the peak of foul humor. It’s rare that a movie can make someone grimace and belly laugh at the same time continuously for nearly its entire length, but Sausage Party is that rarity.

One aspect of Sausage Party that does fall on the underwhelming side, unfortunately, is the CGI.  There is nothing wrong with the quality of the animation itself, it’s quite crisp and fluid, in fact, but there is also very little imagination to it.  All the characters are very basic food stuffs with little arms and legs that nearly always face toward the audience in a neat little line.  There are exceptions to this, such is scenes inside shopping carts when food is piled on top of each other, but the majority of the time you are just watching boxes and tubes with spindly arms and legs making what may as well be a chorus line.  This is, in my opinion, a case where making the movie’s characters look so much like their real life counterparts was a mistake, and I wish the directors and animators had made some bolder and more creative visual choices to match the bold directions the script takes.

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We’re always used to facing toward people on our shelves.  It’s a hard habit to break.

Sausage Party is not a film I’d recommend to everyone, as it is immensely vulgar and less subtle than a jackhammer in a library, but to those who don’t mind those caveats there will be very little here not to like.  It’s both hilarious and intellectual, and that’s a combination that just isn’t seen often enough and needs to be taken advantage of when it appears.

Rating:  7 out of 10