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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Granger at the Movies: ‘War Machine, ‘Alien: Covenant,’ ‘Snatched’

By Susan Granger

Special to WestportNow

Over the last few years, Netflix has established itself as a premiere steaming service. Now, Netflix is breaking new boundaries by debuting Brad Pitt’s provocative “War Machine” for home viewing on Friday, May 26, the same day it opens for Oscar-qualifying runs in New York and Los Angeles.

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Written and directed by David Michod (“Animal Kingdom,” “The Rover”), it’s a black comedy, loosely based on Michael Hastings’ nonfiction best-seller “The Operators: The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan,” expanded from a 2010 “Rolling Stone” expose that led to President Obama’s dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal.

Pitt plays cocky, charismatic Glen McMahon, the fictional, four-star General who struts in to command U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, deploying a controversial military strategy called counterinsurgency or COIN.

“We are here to build, to protect, to support the civilian population,” he says. “To that end, we must avoid killing at all cost. We can’t help them and kill them at the same time.”

The humor is savage, skewering the absurdity of this particular war — which toppled the Dutch government, forced the resignation of Germany’s president and is propelling both Canada and the Netherlands to withdraw troops.

So Gen. McMahon flies to Paris with his rowdy, booze-soaked entourage (Topher Grace, RJ Cyler, Anthony Michael Hall, John Mangaro, Emory Cohen, Daniel Betts, Anthony Hayes) and a reporter (Scoot McNairy) to reassure the French and, incidentally, celebrate an anniversary with his long-suffering wife (Meg Tilly).

Initially a clownish, clichéd caricature, Brad Pitt develops delusional McMahon into a tragic figure, while Ben Kingsley is farcical as Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai and Tilda Swinton scores as a skeptical European politician.

“In the last several decades, we have not been as good at extricating ourselves from wars as we are at waging them,” notes Michod, “so it becomes increasingly messy as wars begin to look perpetual and unwinnable.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “War Machine” is a slyly satirical 7, the first big-budget, day-and-date theatrical release that you can stay home and see.

Back in 1979, Ridley Scott helmed the shocking sci-fi thriller “Alien,” starring Sigourney Weaver, and containing one of the most terrifying moments I’ve ever seen on the screen, heralded by the memorable slogan: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

In 2012, he made the mythology-heavy prequel “Prometheus,” introducing Michael Fassbender as the enigmatic British “synthetic” — aka android — David, created by Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce).

Fast-forward 10 years to “Alien: Covenant,” as the massive spaceship Covenant — transporting 2,000 passengers and 1,140 embryos — is headed on a colonization mission to a planet still seven years away.

An android named Walter (Fassbender) is at the controls when a violent stellar flare jolts the crew out of their cryo-sleep pods. The Captain (James Franco) is killed, leaving his widow (Katherine Waterston) to cope with this catastrophe and survive on her own, instead of settling down in a cabin on a lake.

Out of necessity, First Mate Oram (Billy Crudup), assumes command, immediately making a grievous mistake by diverting the Covenant to Origae-6, where the Prometheus disappeared, when he hears a distress signal containing a plaintive John Denver song.

On this vast, verdant but seemingly uninhabited planet, they encounter ruthless David, who lures them into a trap, filled with those vicious, ravenous creatures called Xenomorphs (designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger) that begin as spores and then burst forth in quasi-humanoid form with an eyeless helmet-head and a mouth dripping with slime.

Working from a script by John Logan, Dante Harper, Jack Paglen & Michael Green, Ridley Scott adroitly frames existential speculation about the creation of human life and projections for its survival. But, aside from the hyper-intelligent androids, the human characters lack both delineation and development.

On the Granger Gauge, “Alien: Covenant” is a splattering 6, another slithery creature-feature.

Goofy comedian Goldie Hawn (“Overboard,” “Bird on a Wire”) hasn’t made a film in 15 years, so I eagerly anticipated her teaming up with fearlessly funny Amy Schumer in “Snatched.

Reviving her obnoxiously neurotic “Teamwork” persona, Schumer plays Emily Middleton, a potty-mouthed loser whose rock-star boyfriend (Randall Park) dumps her just after she’s splurged on a ‘nonrefundable’ vacation-for-two in exotic Ecuador.

So Emily convinces her uptight, overprotective, divorced mom Linda (Hawn) to go, whining, “Put the fun back in nonrefundable,” leaving her nerdy, agoraphobic brother Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz) at home.

At the posh resort, they’re befriended by Ruth (Wanda Sykes) and Barb (Joan Cusack), who caution them about kidnapping when Emily convinces Linda to go on a ‘sightseeing’ jaunt through the Amazon jungle with a James (Tom Bateman), a handsome stranger she met swilling cocktails at the bar.

Once they’re abducted by Morgado (Oscar Jaenada), a stereotypical Latino villain, and thrown into a filthy cell, the mother/daughter comedy grinds to a halt, as Emily learns to be less self-centered and stodgy Linda opens up to taking risks.

Throw in a chivalrous pseudo-adventurer/explorer (Christopher Meloni) and a disgusting tapeworm which takes center stage for far too long. Taking a jab at the ineptitude of the US State Dept., there’s also an ineffectual bureaucrat (Bashir Salahuddin) whose only advice to the victims is: “Get to Bogota.”

Scripted by Katie Dippold (“The Heat,” “Ghostbusters” remake) and directed by Jonathan Levine (“50/50,” “Warm Bodies”), it’s crude and vulgar — and only fitfully amusing. Perhaps because Levine lets vacation-from-hell scenes go on too long and there’s little fractious chemistry between Hawn and Schumer. At 91 minutes, if feels interminable.

On the Granger Gauge, “Snatched” is a flashy, flimsy 5. Cancel this trip.


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(Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)

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Posted 05/23/17 at 11:50 AM  Permalink



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