REVIEW: War Dogs

16 08 2016

War DogsIt takes about an hour into Todd Phillips’ “War Dogs” to realize the true colors of the film’s subjects. As they discuss a deal to arm Afghani soldiers with millions of bullets, top Army officials look across their table.

On the left is a man who possesses an everyman-style swagger, a sharp knack for business and a reservoir of nobility should he choose to tap into it. On his right is a man who seems to have little in the way of conscience or prudence, a cunning manipulator who cares little for the body count left in his wake so long as his bank account grows. And then beneath these pictures of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney sit their respective counterparts in the film, actors Miles Teller and Jonah Hill as David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli.

“War Dogs” is the Bush-Cheney partnership reimagined as a buddy comedy of hapless warmongering and reckless profit hunting. If ever there were an indication that the military-industrial complex had officially jumped the shark, it would be this story during this war. As a way to offset accusations of cronyism, the Pentagon set up an online database that allowed all contractors access to military deals. While industry giants still nabbed the biggest deals, Efraim’s business strategy stems from picking up the crumbs – “like a rat,” in his own words.

Phillips along with co-writers Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic would have us believe that the company Efraim lures David into partnering with him, AEY Inc., is the equivalent of the geniuses of “The Big Short” who spotted the leak in the mortgage market. (The film certainly features gratuitous grafts from Adam McKay’s stylistic masterstrokes to make the parallels, too – down to the freeze-frames and quotation-fronted chapter divisions.) But while Phillips may have that film on the brain, the dark heart of “War Dogs” bears a far greater resemblance to another film about fools who wrecked the economic futures of hard-working people.

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REVIEW: Hail, Caesar!

8 02 2016

Hail CaesarThe kind of auteurism favored by most today places a high priority on repeated patterns and frameworks within a director’s body of work. I, however, tend to prefer filmmakers who can produce a consistency of mood, tone and experience without ever allowing themselves to be easily pinned down. There is perhaps no better example of this than Joel and Ethan Coen, the writing, directing and editing duo who can bounce across genres and budget sizes without skipping a beat.

Audiences most recognize the Coen Brothers for their trademark deadpan wit, with perhaps a little more emphasis on the “dead” part. They may well hold court as America’s greatest living ironists. In fact, their gifts in this realm are so well established that just seeing their names on a film imbues the proceedings with dramatic irony. Anyone who knows the Coens and their tendencies likely recognizes that the journey of the characters will not be determined by their own actions so much as it will be guided by their cosmic fate.

The brothers’ latest outing, “Hail, Caesar!,” bears many of their hallmarks. The dry humor begins with protagonist Edward Mannix (Josh Brolin) doing his best efforts at a confessional and scarcely lets up for an hour and 45 minutes. But underneath all the laughter, a very serious undercurrent of sacrifice, redemption and salvation runs resolutely. More than ever, the poker-faced Coen Brothers are tough to read. Mind you, these are the guys who got an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2000 for turning Homer’s “The Odyssey” into “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – and have claimed for 15 years now that they have not read the source text.

Where a gag ends and profundity begins provides the primary friction in “Hail, Caesar!” Their very interconnected nature seems to be the point of the film itself, and finding that point of intersection proves to be a joyous puzzle. It begins in each episodic scene as Mannix, studio head at Capitol Pictures, puts out fire after fire on the backlot for his pampered stars. This structure allows the Coens to dabble in the Golden Age of westerns, sword-and-sandals epics and musicals in both the Busby Berkley and Gene Kelly style. To call these a love letter to post-WWII Hollywood feels a little strong, but to declare it a satire or lampooning of the era’s excesses hardly feels appropriate either.

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REVIEW: True Story

21 04 2015

True StoryRupert Goold’s “True Story” begins with two men claiming to be Mike Finkel suffering from a painful, embarrassing exposure.  The first is Jonah Hill’s Mike Finkel – the man born with the name – losing his job at The New York Times after his editors uncover some dishonest reporting practices.  The second is James Franco’s Christian Longo – the man adopting the name Mike Finkel – getting arrested for the murder of his family.

Goold sets up the two men as doubles, practically dopplegangers, for each other.  This connection that extends beyond just a nominal level makes “True Story” quite a compelling story to observe unfold.  Finkel visits Longo frequently in prison and provides him with writing lessons in order to get the exclusive testimony from the accused killer.

The fascination quickly wears thin, however.  Goold utilizes hardly any variation to recurring scenes such as the interrogation scenes between the two leads.  He shoots Hill and Franco in tight close-ups and alternates between them in a predictable edit.  The performances of the duo are so sullenly subdued (which is admittedly somewhat admirable) that the unimaginative approach becomes rather monotonous.

Furthermore, “True Story” almost completely drops the line of thought about Finkel and Longo mirroring each other in the second half when the long-awaited trial of the latter finally begins.  At this point, the film veers into standard courtroom drama territory, a disappointing turn for a film that began with an intriguing cat-and-mouse thriller angle.  Since nothing too bizarre ever occurs between them, the torpid acting style never really pays off.

As a sidebar, “True Story” also features Felicity Jones in a shamefully underdeveloped role.  The film casts her as Finkel’s wife, one that is precisely the kind of conventional, passive spouse that Jones so brilliantly eschewed in “The Theory of Everything.”  Hopefully her new prefix of “Academy Award Nominee” will allow her to avoid such thankless parts in the future.  B-2stars





REVIEW: How to Train Your Dragon 2

15 06 2014

Stay long enough through the credits of “How to Train Your Dragon 2” and you’ll see an interesting member of the crew: Roger Deakins, on board as a visual consultant.  That name may not mean much to the casual film fan, but he’s the cinematographer responsible for the look of some of the past two decades’ most iconic films.  An 11-time Oscar nominee, Deakins has done remarkable work on films as varied as “The Shawshank Redemption,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “Skyfall.”

His presence on the film signals that DreamWorks Animation is giving the franchise the kind of serious attention that ought to be paid to all their products.  “How to Train Your Dragon 2” may very well be the most gorgeous animated film I have ever seen, no doubt thanks to Deakins’ keen eye.  The film is like a ballet of the skies where humans and dragons soar through the skies with stunning aerodynamic agility.

It’s not just the flight sequences that show off DWA’s fixation on fine details.  The film has a remarkable texture, particularly in the design of the dragons themselves.  I felt like I could envision just what they would feel like if my 3D glasses weren’t an illusion and I could reach out and touch them.

In fact, I loved looking at the film so much that I often found myself lost in the visuals and not in the plot.  For whatever reason, I just felt somewhat less engaged with the proceedings than I was in the original “How to Train Your Dragon.”  The sequel is still sweet and entertaining, though, and the addition of Cate Blanchett to the cast certainly doesn’t hurt.  But it didn’t capture my imagination in the same way, perhaps because it seemed more interested on action sequences and effects and less focused on characters.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: 22 Jump Street

11 06 2014

The archetypal model for the comedy sequel can be summed up in one line from “The Hangover Part II,” perhaps one of the most disparaged to date: “It happened again.”  Comedies, for whatever reason, seem to recycle their material with a particularly accelerated velocity.

22 Jump Street” essentially takes the model of the sequels to “The Hangover” but makes it not just tolerable but also enjoyable by injecting a level of self-awareness akin to only “This is The End.”  The framework of Michael Bacall’s script, co-written with Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman (with story by Jonah Hill), merely inverts “21 Jump Street” and swaps out college for high school.

This time, Channing Tatum’s Jenko gets to ride atop the social order of Metro City State, immediately accepted by the jocks and gaining an inroad for the all-important fraternity bid.  Jonah Hill’s Schmidt, on the other hand, gets caught up in tricky collegiate sexual politics and experiences the isolation that often comes with being transplanted into a sprawling campus. And more or less, the events play out just like they did in high school.

In some ways, the similarity is frustrating, but it also rings true to life itself.  I’m approaching my senior year in college, and I’ve learned that the same narratives that I thought people had outgrown in high school have tended to repeat themselves.  We all rush so quickly to the next stage of our lives that the reflection necessary to gain maturity seems lost sometimes.

That’s probably not what the filmmakers of “22 Jump Street” had in mind, especially given all their winks and nods to the very nature of the events taking place in a movie – in particular a sequel.  This meta humor is quite clever, and the tongue-in-cheek sensibility pervading the film makes the shameless repetition worth another spin.

Yet while this newfangled irony gives the film some justification for existing, it ultimately does not power the movie.  That job is still carried out by the strengths of the 2012 reboot: the spot-on portrayals of social orders, the nuanced dialogue, and the relationship between the leads.  Rather than going bigger or broader like “The Hangover” series, “22 Jump Street” dives deeper into its own world and pulls out rich observations.

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REVIEW: The Wolf of Wall Street

11 01 2014

Sex. Cocaine. Hookers. Profanity. Quaaludes. Destruction. Money. Orgies. More profanity. More sex. More cocaine. More destruction. More money.

Normally these are the kinds of things that liven up a movie, but in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” it’s pretty much all that’s being served. The movie is three hours of high-intensity bacchanalia in the life and work of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort. With a piece being played at such a prolonged forte, it’s quite frankly an exhausting and draining film to watch. While obviously satirical and darkly comedic in tone, the sheer amount of repetition dulls outrageousness into monotony.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is not without its profound moments of insight, however. Yet I was so exhausted by the relentless onslaught of anarchical madness that I lacked the stamina to really analyze Belfort’s speeches and Scorsese’s curious stylistic choices. Screenwriter Terence Winter and Scorsese present Wall Street as a synecdoche for America, and I’d be curious to re-watch some scenes again and subject them to further criticism.

But that dissection is going to have to be on video or as YouTube clips because I simply don’t think I could sit through “The Wolf of Wall Street” in its entirety again. The film may not condone the behavior it presents on screen, yet it’s so drunk on its own energy it luxuriates in all these obscene shenanigans. It doesn’t really matter if Scorsese communicates disgust for Belfort’s actions; by including such a large volume of his antics, he glorifies Belfort’s narrative over those left ruined in his calamitous wake.

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REVIEW: This Is The End

13 06 2013

Now that I know the kind of deep analyses I can write on films, I’ve grown cautious of over-intellectualizing.  It’s like learning to reign in a superpower; just because you can use it doesn’t mean that you always should.  And, often times, I feel like many film reviewers and critics pull meanings out of films that might not even be there.

This Is The End” poses quite a conundrum for me.  I’m weary to read into it too much, but I think the apocalyptic comedy could be subversively smart.  Or it’s just another culturally-savvy product of the Apatow gang (although Judd himself had no part of this film).  Whichever it is, however, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s feature-length directorial debut is an outlandishly good time that packs some killer laughs.

I go back and forth on whether Rogen and pals are brilliant minds … or just stoned out of those same minds.  The fact that stars like Rogen, James Franco, and Jonah Hill are playing themselves certainly seems to indicate a certain level of self-reflexivity.  After all, no one would mistake “This Is The End” for a documentary as everyone seems to be playing an exaggerated version of themselves: Rogen the jovial teddy bear, Franco the off-kilter artiste, and Hill the slightly fruity sass-pot.

But then again, Rogen and Goldberg could easily have just been thinking of a way to make the ultimate end of the world comedy (lest we forget, there has already been the morose “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World“).  When it came time for their silver bullet, perhaps the idea popped into their head that rather than characters, the film should feature real celebrities.  Indeed, there are times that the real comedians feel a little gimmicky.  I’m not going to complain, however, so long as I get to hear Rogen and Franco weigh the relative merits of “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness.”

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