Thoughts on a Couple of Times Richard Brody Hits the Nail on the Head: War Machine (2017) and Colossal (2016)

The extremely well-read (and well-screened) and cerebrally articulate Richard Brody, who’s also a Jean-Luc Godard expert, is often led by his vast knowledge of films and experience in watching them to proffer up a major head-scratcher of a review—his take on Boyhood (2014) is a good example. It’s probably precisely because he’s seen so many films that his taste has become so refined, as the legendary Pauline Kael observed could happen (in section X) all the way back in 1969. But credit where credit’s due: He absolutely, positively, indubitably nails two recent films.

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First is War Machine (2017), a Netflix Brad Pitt vehicle poking fun at the Second Gulf War. It left me deeply unsatisfied, and I kept pondering why. Is it because I follow politics and know about all the targets of its satire? Is it because the meandering, even aimless structure was crafted on purpose to reflect the nature of the war, as Brian Tallerico suggests at the Roger Ebert website? Is it just a big ol’ scattershot of a film, and I’m overthinking things?

No explanation or interpretation struck home until I read Brody’s take: It feels scattershot and unfocused because it doesn’t dig deep enough, so what could’ve been unified in the depths is presented as a jumble of pieces. Sure, it might’ve been the result of its source material, a rather scattershot Rolling Stone article, but writer-director David Michôd had the chance to brush things up, and he didn’t.

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The second admirably spot-on review is of Colossal (2016), starring Anne Hathaway and a very scary-mad Jason Sudeikis. (Between him and the Rachel McAdams of Mean Girls (2004), I’m getting the notion that one should really never piss off polite people.) Unlike for War Machine, I knew more or less exactly what I’d seen by the end of the film. The wonderful experience of reading Brody’s almost spoiler-free review is one that I rarely have with his work, but used to have almost every time when reading the inimitable Roger Ebert. The review does what I try to do here: gather up the various strands of the film, entwine them into an interpretation, and weave the interpretation into a beautiful whole-cloth tapestry of words.

If you walk into this film blindly, your experience will differ a great deal from that of viewer who’ve seen the trailer. For the walk-in viewer, the first half is a slow crawl interspersed with clever and skillful cinematic reveals; for the viewer exposed to the trailer, the first half is joy at a job well done, seasoned with nervous anticipation of what the film plans to do with what it has. That anxiety is both warranted and unwarranted: The second half exceeds expectations, but does so in a way that you probably wouldn’t foresee.

It turns out that this comedy kaiju film is actually an allegory about domestic violence, hence the rare glimpse of an evil Sudeikis and the uncovered depth of Hathaway’s performance (which, after Brody pointed it out, I had to think over for a bit before I really got it). Viewed this way, the ending is unfortunate escapism, playing out revenge fantasies instead of gesturing toward a more civil and lasting resolution—which is why, in the very last shot, Hathaway still desperately needs a drink.

Final note: The great Matt Zoller Seitz points to the racist implications of having the kaiju attacking South Korea while being controlled from the US, but I think we can give it a pass for now; I do hope, though, that one day the kaiju subgenre will get big enough to outgrow even its racist conventions.

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