War Machine (15) **
The Other Side of Hope (12A) ****
Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (12A) *
The Red Turtle (PG) ****
Spark (PG) *
Since Netflix began challenging traditional cinematic distribution with Beasts of No Nation, the streaming platform has been consolidating its position by steadily buying up indie movies and funding modestly budgeted star vehicles to premiere on its site. Theatrical distribution is no longer the Holy Grail it once was and to prove the point, Netflix is starting to bring out the big guns. Already in Cannes this past week it has premiered – not without controversy – Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories and Bong Joon-ho’s Okja. But before those films become generally available, subscribers will have full access to Brad Pitt’s new movie War Machine, which is being launched online globally this week, with a token release on a handful of UK and US screens as well.
With such a high-profile A-list star involved, it feels very much like Netflix is throwing down the gauntlet, so it’s too bad it’s not a better film. An alleged satire of the egotistical nature of leadership in wartime, it stars Pitt as Glen McMahon, a four-star General sent to Afghanistan to bring the war to an end at the start of the Obama administration. A decent man confronting his own obsolescence, he soon finds his plan to effect a decisive victory bumping up against the new administration’s determination to withdraw troops without any further American casualties.
Written and directed by Australian auteur David Michôd (Animal Kindgom, The Rover), the film is a fictionalised take on Rolling Stone journalist Michael Hastings’ non-fiction book The Operators. Unfortunately Michôd doesn’t seem to have the temperament for what he’s attempting and, somewhat disastrously, takes a lazy approach to the material by filling the film with reams of explain-all voiceover delivered by a journalist (played by Scoot McNairy) who isn’t even introduced until midway through.
The result is a passive film that completely undermines its big star performance. Not that Pitt feels particularly right for the role. Making literal McMahon’s cock-eyed view of the situation by spending the movie contorting his face into a distracting Popeye squint, he ends up writing a comedy cheque the rest of the film can’t cash, especially as it lurches into a serious-minded combat movie in the final 30 minutes. The big guns might be out in force, but for the moment they’re misfiring.
Relentlessly deadpan Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki’s new film The Other Side of Hope is his best since 2002’s The Man Without a Past. Like that film it’s about a stranger arriving in Helsinki with a shaky sense of his own identity, only this time Kaurismäki gives the film an added political dimension by making it about a Syrian refugee who’s been separated from his sister while fleeing their war-torn home. As is the way with Kaurismäki, he mines deeper truths about humanity by giving all his characters inscrutable poker faces. Here, though, he makes the joke even funnier by having the potential saviour of his most vulnerable character, Khaled (Sherwan Haji), an actual poker player: a travelling salesman turned restaurateur called Waldemar Wikström, wonderfully played by Sakari Kuosmanen. The two characters’ stories converge in hilarious ways, but it’s the empathy the film generates – accomplished without speechifying or sentimentality – that lingers longest.
It came as a shock to be reminded that the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie, 2011’s instantly forgettable On Stranger Tides, grossed more than a billion dollars at the global box office. That explains why Disney have opted to revive the series six years on with Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge. Alas, this latest in the saga isn’t so much a reboot as a regurgitation, one that brings back Orlando Bloom and – briefly – Keira Knightley and gives them an adult son who weirdly looks the same age as them (he’s played by Brendan Thwaites, who at 27 is only five years Knightley’s junior). Johnny Depp is back too, of course, replenishing the coffers as Cap’n Jack Sparrow, the drunken pirate whose Keith Richards-meets-Buster Keaton swagger was funny and innovative first time round but now resembles a turn from a particularly self-indulgent street performer. Elsewhere, Paul McCartney provides the obligatory pop star cameo as one of Jack’s relatives, Javier Bardem is the cursed villain with magical powers, Geoffrey Rush’s once villainous Barbossa comes out of retirement for nebulous narrative reasons, and the patchwork mythology continues to make no sense. But if you’re willing to pay to see the fifth instalment of a movie that began as a theme park attraction you can’t really complain about being taken for a ride.
Teaming up with Studio Ghibli, Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit makes an auspicious debut after years of shorts with The Red Turtle – a lovingly crafted animation film about a shipwrecked man stranded on a desert island. In the Ghibli style, the film’s wordless story exists at the intersection between dreams and reality and boasts plenty of fantastical twists as the nameless protagonist discovers his escape attempts are being thwarted by a giant red turtle with an agenda all its own. It’s a film about loneliness and the steps we take to overcome it, wrapped up in a delightfully simple story for all ages.
Spark on the other hand is only for the very young. Even then, its bright colours and celebrity voice cast (which includes Hilary Swank and a Scottish-accented Patrick Stewart) can’t really disguise how cheap-looking and muddled this animated film about a teenage space chimp embarking on a galactic adventure to save his home really is. Avoid.