Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Friday, May 26, 2017

Pitt Daddy Blasts Again: WAR MACHINE + All-Out War Acidemic Memorial / Father's Day Round-up

I never fought in a real war, but growing up we played war with cap guns or plastic Uzis and I had HO scale planes dogfighting over my bed; I don't have to tell you how bad things are today: toy guns are fake looking, made of yellow or orange plastic to allay the triggers of nervous cops. But in the 70s-80s our guns were real-looking, heavy and loud. Nowadays the squirt guns have way more range, so maybe it's a trade-off. We need George C. Scott as Patton and Nazis to fight; instead we got Afghanistan civilian insurgents and Brad Pitt as General McMahon. Yeah, I'm watching the released-today-on-Netflix WAR MACHINE, the true story of the crazy gung-ho general brought in to 'fix' Afghanistan not too long ago (?) and who was taken down by a snide Rolling Stone reporter and his own reckless urge to shoehorn the complexity of counter-insurgency into a war model he can 'win' (he's not the general taken down by an affair with his sexy biographer, he's taken down by a snide journalist --big difference!). Adopting a comical (and overused) bowlegged running style that lets him show off his barrel-chested burliness (as if he's always about to fall forward and give you twenty), Pitt's SLING BLADE-on-the-half-baked-pasta-shell voice and pillow factory energy makes watching him is like reading a paperback military biography on a long plane ride rather than living the history. After the coiled cobra calm be brought to David Ayers' FURY and Tarantino's INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (above), it's a bit of let-down how slack he is here - the calm is there, the cobra is gone. Looking back at those earlier films it's clear he had a few things going for him, trait-wise, other than a comically stiff Fearless Fosdick chin and an ostentatiously silver head of hair. One of the easiest to admire was the easy way he had with shooting unarmed prisoners (the kind of thing a Tom Cruise or Leo would worry might alienate their fan base). Where's that 'madness of war' gone, Brad?

As with Jolie's fall from feral madwomen grace, I blame their children.

In other words, WAR MACHINE's General McMahon is a bit too obviously the work of a beaucoup liberal screenwriter trying to be balanced while taking down as a well-meaning warrior blind to the fact that America hasn't won a war since 1945. A sniping journalist voiceover burdens itself with all the usual suspect hearts-and-minded critiques we all know by heart and never asks why we'd want to hear this 'embedded' opinion rather than the researched high of war by someone like Kathryn Bigelow, Mel Gibson, John Milius, or Clint Eastwood. It's pretty easy to throw Tilda Swinton in a German press briefing and have her deliver the 'Big Message' lines the rest of the film's too distracted to convey, but if it is supposed to be all based on a Rolling Stone piece we'd have been much better off going with a more nuanced 'gonzo' journalist approach, i.e. focusing on the journalist''s personal experience situated within the events, their observations, and the drugs they were on that may have distorted those observations, with background press and history folded into it rather than this kind of presumption that liberal bias equates truth.

The script starts out well but then wind up in situations no journalist could possibly be, like the generals date with his rarely seen wife (Meg Tilly - be in more stuff, baby! We miss you) or some 'typical' FUBAR moments of chaotic boots-on-the-ground implementation of the general's 'big' strategy.  Rather than focus on the war room or his base of command, or attempt anything remotely close to the lived-in professional atmosphere of a Bigelow or Eastwood, or the true satiric madness of a Milius or Southern, where there's admiration for the courage as well as savage critique (and a sense of eyes and ears embedded into the actual rhythm of a professional workplace), here we have the impression only that the writer-director has seen THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY and probably was unable to light a fire under Pitt's ass the way a more macho name like Tarantino or Ayers or Fincher has.

When I saw that Pitt was going to play an older man with silver hair, as stars often do to segue their advancing age within the mythic scope of their public persona, I was excited. Gone is the tiresome Pitt role of rear echelon for the Jolie traveling humanitarian circus, I thought, and now he can get back to being a wild man! Aging males rejoice! Alas, the Jolie-drained version of Pitt--all edges sanded down--is still with us. On the other hand, INGLORIOUS is up on the Netflix stream. It's always worth revisiting whenever the drums of war and remembrance sound.

Also worth revisiting:  my own humble (hah) writing on war movies I've seen, loved, tolerated, for I've always tried to honor both sides of myself, one the kid with the dogfight in his bedroom sky and arsenal of cap guns, and the satiric deadhead sophomore heading off to see PLATOON with a headful of mushrooms like goddamned Lance going up the Kurtzy river.

War, what is it good for? Men. It's good for men. And prosthetic limb-manufacturers.

"We've seen this PC young typist character before, in Saving Private Ryan (played by the ever-mugging Jeremy Davies), though there we also had the chronic complainer (Ed Burns), and the "Wardaddy" there wasn't a mighty Pitt but 'decent guy' Tom Hanks. Pitt had proved he could be wild and liberated even whilst a young scrap of a fella, back in Thelma and Louise, so that's never been in doubt, but even so, here we got some extra layers of toughness as borne out by his scarred and diesel oil-stained face. We see him get kind of cleaned up when a nice little breakfast served up by a couple of scared frauleins is invaded by the rest of his motley tank corp, and we see Pitt forced into a weird no-win zone between solidarity with his rapey crew and an innate gentlemanly spirit, it's the most tiresome scene in the film, and I'll confess I FF-ed part of the way, but it's almost worth it for the brutal pay-off, which finally brings things to bear for our milquetoast. Eventually the lad even learns when to let a kraut fry to death and when to chop him in half. Hell yeah, Sgt. Rock loves this movie, wherever he is. (more)

In the land of no morality and bullets flying overhead, it's a man like Fuller you depend on to deliver the sense of security that a strong, good man is holding the tent up, even if he's just acting tough to keep the children from crying. No wonder his men love Marvin and follow him around all throughout BIG RED ONE (and why Fuller became lifelong friends with everyone from Godard to General Omar Bradley). In the end, the kids getting blown to bits come and go, but old paragons of salt like Marvin keep the world turning. You love him even as he sends you to your death with a silent pointy gesture. (full)

"The most essential (we desperately need it back) yet dangerous of the unassimilated abject pantheon tends to be defined by his utter lack of social graces and his surplus of animal power; he's a bit too large for ordinary civilization so he lives--by choice and necessity-- in the wilderness (until he's needed for war); his hair and wild beard and maniacal eyes give him away... he's the wild man. Any hero's journey requires a visit with him for the wild man holds onto the element that is 'circumcised' or castrated to make a civilized man, and that element is required for success. When the rest of his tribe was being declawed for city living, the wild man stayed behind, and kept his claws. His isolation represents a possible outcome for the hero's journey if the hero decides not to return to the social order with his beanstalk prizes and instead shuns the company of soft-handed mortals and stays in the forest where nymphs and satyrs run free. The wild man can be terrifying or gentle but either way he lives larger than the average bear, and way larger than the civilized schmuck." (5/12) (full)

"..Fuller's actual war experience makes his spirituality move far beyond religions or borders, or even life and death. When Sgt. Zack (Evans) watches his young war orphan guide Short Round (Spielberg used the name for Indy's sidekick in TEMPLE OF DOOM) turning a Buddhist prayer wheel or singing "Auld lang Syne" which is also the Korean national anthem, for example, you can feel Zack's respect for even the simplest gestures. He knows they are so much more important than things like dog tags, burials, objectives and rank. Fuller's awareness of the power that little motions like this can have--butterfly wing tsunami-style--in the greater scheme of war makes the film hum past the parameters of its situations. In a world where every movement might be your last, everything is imbued with profound significance, the moment expands and enlargens past any map, and in Zack's strange integrity we begin to even understand how Buddhism works." 5/11 (cont)

Is it any wonder that cinema fans in our media-saturated 21st century prefer the cool macho alienation of THE DEER HUNTER? COMING HOME challenges us to be more open and loving with one another and it does so by practicing what it preaches; it gets all sticky and gooey, it "lapses into melodrama;" it asks us to feel deeply. Conversely, THE DEER HUNTER asks us only to pop open another cold one and turn up the game, to drown out that soft voice that would point us towards the love we'd prefer to think irretrievable. If things get too intimate, just drown that sensitivity in another game of Russian roulette, like a real man would, if he ever played it -which he didn't.  (12/07) (full)

But that's the thing, most of us don't have to submit to this once we are 21 and/or out of our parent's house. But the poor devils in Tarantino's last two films each have to contend with whole dinner times going past, or lengthy conversations, with people trying to be their parents, with laws that remove rights already instated and strip classes and races of social equity. A parallel might be trying to get through a whole dinner with strict parents as a ten year-old trying to hide the fact that you're stoned and drunk out of your gourd, and by dessert you think you've got them won over so your mask starts to slip a little, and you keep hitting the wine even though your mom glowers at the water level. And your friend who stayed for dinner is like dude, ixnay on the ineway tilunway erway outway the oordway. (more)

Patton's discipline is intended to create that condition of initiation, Stockholm syndrome in the service of country - there's still going to be the odd soldier who resists the comfort of berserker madness and thinks clinging to the crumbling shards of his childhood persona will preserve rather than destroy him. In the end all the military drilling and exhaustion is to weaken the ego's dogmatic hold, so you can actually be molded into a killing machine who can then run into the path of flaming bullets--against all self-preservational logic. But as long as one soldier can get away with pretending to be sick to get out of combat, the morale of the whole unit is in jeopardy. Hence a little bitch-slap, which he performs in a sense as performance for the other men. Watching this with my dad as a child I used to think Patton was being a bully for slapping the soldier. Later, as a hippie, I thought he was existentialist and square. Now I'm all into his heart of darkness. Patton must necessarily be excused from any consequences that may stem from disrespecting boundaries, for the best defense is a good offense and therefore disrespecting boundaries is the mark of a good general.
3/10 (more)

PLAY DIRTY (1969) goes for the existential vibe where that's concerned: tire repair, driving stolen trucks up a mountain, weathering a sandstorm, and other SORCERER-waiting-for-Godot-style existential tomfoolery. Michael Caine is the by-the-book officer, Nigel Davenport the hardened cynic, Nigel Green the dissolute, cynical and well-worn Colonel who plans the mission (another fuel dump, by Jove!) Together they shoot unarmed Red Cross workers, (nearly) rape a German nurse, kill innocent bystanders and otherwise commit egregious and unclean deeds in the name of 'the mission.' Also anachronistically, they blare tons of music on the jeep radio like it's goddamned Top 40. The acting is all good but the existential vibe a bit souring. Part of my yen for WW2 movies is that they provide a rare chance for noble Hawksian male camaraderie but PLAY DIRTY denies that fantasy, trying to shoehorn post-1969 Vietnam bitterness into pre-1945 history - 5/10. (full)

The film is all allegedly true, but you know espionage tales, you'll never get straight facts. Just enjoy the luridness, the Enno Morricone score, and the first rate B-movie international cast: Suzy Kendall as the title spy (a confederate of Mata Hari), Capucine (above) as a lesbian poison gas designer; Kenneth More as the head of British Intelligence; Nigel Green (COUNTESS DRACULA) as the head of German Intelligence, and a large crew of extras marching around in gas masks for the big finale, making me wonder if Ralph Bakshi used this movie for 'rotoscoping' backgrounds in WIZARDS. Best of all, it's World War One, not World War Two, so the German were still 'sporting' and 'gentlemanly' to a degree. You don't have to hate them as badly as you would in a few years. (Full)

If you want to scoop deep into the real murky moral ambiguity of war, the heart of the heart of darkness, take to the air and hunt the pre-code 1930s WWI flying ace movies written by John Monk Saunders, where dogfights and aerial maneuvers are performed in the era's rickety biplanes by day and mortifying guilt, terror, and despair is drunk away with rousing camaraderie by night. Using recycled aerial footage (and shots of the Red Baron) from the silent film Wings (1927- based on Saunders' book) the dogfights are conveyed via quasi-kabuki anonymity as pilots are shot at through rear projection, adding to a sense of depersonalized, out-of-time aloneness 'up there' in the deadly skies. Since all the pilots wear the same evil-looking goggles it becomes important to cast actors with differing jaw lines, leading to some pretty strange specimens and accentuating the anonymity of death. The same Red Baron-type hun shoots and dies and salutes either way, in the same footage, in almost every one of these films but that only serves to unite them, and together they make a startling picture of a moment in time in between the advent of sound and the arrival of Hitler and Tojo, whose combined barbarity crushed-out Hollywood's anti-war sentiment like a brief candle, or at any rate made it seem willfully naive. (full)

"Bigelow's unflinching feminine eye for what war is shows how much damage the male psyche--man's need to prove himself against real physical danger--has suffered over the years trying to be "nice" in the long twisted, never-ending, ever-more draconian and litigious wake of early 80s PC thuggery and "bare life" fearmongering. No pain, no gain, goes the slogan --but while women are born into a cycle of menstruation and the agony of birth, what do men get to do? No wonder they've grown anti-dirt. But our James here has passed this by; he's materialized from a breed of men that seem unfazed by the dubious comforts of peacetime (as brilliantly portrayed in a simple shot of James powerless in the face of a gigantic supermarket cereal aisle)." (more)

"Time and again we see in [HOMELAND] how men believe whatever narrative will make them look like they're in charge, that nothing can slip by them; they fall in love with caution, the ritual of work, the process, the secret handshakes. Women threaten this slow steady safety not only by diluting the male bonding epoxy with their estrogen and logic but by their incessant pointing out of the men's blind spots. The men don't want to think outside the box, but if needed for her own success, women will drag them out, breaking the bones and resetting them correctly like a patient but resolute (and unconsciously sadistic) mother." (more)

Twice the action of Hot Shots Part Deux, twice the laughs of Saving Private Ryan, say what you want about  STREET FIGHTER, like BOMB (Maltin), ** (imb), or 13% (rottentomatoes) I declare it a delightful romp for a lazy Saturday when you can't summon the will to vacuum or go out in the rain. If you haven't seen it you might confuse it with all those first person shooter films like Doom, where everyone's trapped in a locked-down maze of drippy subterranean tunnels, and breaking bones, but it's pretty sunny and merry a lot of the time, with a dry wit and divine art direction (I love love love the black-red look of bad guy's boudoir) It's got that international style, the Jackie Chan film aesthetic, but is also populated with crazy steroidal villains and a stunning international portfolio of a cast: Kylie Minogue as Van Damme's right hand; Raul Julia laughing maniacally, longing humbly to hold the world in his "loving grip" while worrying about the size of his future city's food court and showing off his groovy post-SS cap, black cape and silver gloves, demolishing the awesome customized tail fin/red skull scenery as the bad guy. In addition to ransoming a bin full of hostages, Cool Raul is making a Carrot Top/Hulk hybrid monster (from one of JCVD's former buddies) in the basement of his evil fortress. But the fortress also is full of high places and chain pulleys to swing down from in ripped derring do. Great lines ("you got... paid?"), hilarious bits (Bison punching a video monitor when it shows a boy frolicking with a dog), and wry orchestral, foley, and set design touches, like Bison's wall portraits ranging in style from Napoleon to a John Wayne Gacy-style clown version--all great little termite touches." (full)

There's nothing wrong with adding fantasy / fictional elements into war films, ala, say INGLORIOUS BASTERDS but we know from the beginning that BASTERDS isn't about war but about war films. We presume from the beginning that THE DEER HUNTER is about war's victims, 'real people' from small American towns who play with fire and get burned, but it turns out it's not about them at all. It's about Cimino's desire to morph blue collar alcoholics into Slavic mountain gods who are then consumed and brought low by gibbering Asian devils and their own thousand yard staring contests. Suicide may be painless, but make a habit of it and you become a pain... in the ass... of valor. (full)

"APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) is the ultimate trip for Vietnam, the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY of war films, updating the original acid story, Joseph Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS to accommodate a broad spectrum of black comic situations. Brando's ambiguity as Kurz in the last section is always a bit of a let-down to what came before (Brando wasn't 'experienced). But before that, the peaks happen often: the Colonel Kilgore scenes of course, and the scene that's preceded by Lance mentioning to Frederic Forrest as they're cruising up to the final checkpoint, beyond which is Cambodia. "You know that last tab of acid I had? I dropped it." Forrest replies, as if barely listening, "Far out."

Willard (Martin Sheen) gets off the boat at the bridge, bringing Lance with him like a magic protection symbol, like the white cloth pinned to the nurse's jacket in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. Everyone fighting at this bridge seems lost and abandoned ("Who's in charge here?" / "Ain't you?") until they find a taciturn spectral presence named Roach (the Duane Jones zombie figure equivalent from IWAZ) who they bring out of his pot smoke and Hendrix-filled cubby hole so he can take out a crazed VC sniper in the black night distance. "He's close man... real... close", says the Roach, his eyes glazed over with the 1000 yard stare. He loads his grenade launcher and just fires it straight up into the air without even looking, BAM, all is quiet, no more sniper. Roach's face barely changes except to snarl a bit as he whispers, "motherfucker." 

Says it all, man. (full)

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