Review: Jonah Hill kills, but 'War Dogs’ misses its target
By JUSTIN CHANG | Los Angeles Times (TNS) | Published: August 19, 2016
Truth may be stranger than fiction, but that hasn’t stopped the makers of “War Dogs” from trying to tame that strangeness into submission. Set during the final years of the George W. Bush administration, this slipshod comic thriller purports to tell the wild and crazy tale of Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, two upstart war profiteers from Miami Beach who exploited the U.S. conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and temporarily achieved big-time status in the international arms trade.
It’s a scattershot, fitfully funny Hollywood treatment of a real-life American hustle, one that might have been well served by the likes of David O. Russell, a master farceur who already has one terrific Mideast war romp under his belt (“Three Kings”). Instead, it wound up in the hands of Todd Phillips, who has styled this passion project along the aggressively familiar lines of a buddy comedy, right down to the casting of Jonah Hill as the loathsome, larger-than-life star of the show.
It wasn’t a bad idea on paper. As the director of “The Hangover” movies, “Due Date,” “Old School” and “Road Trip,” Phillips has earned his reputation as a specialist in the many varieties of male misbehavior. As an extreme example of what can happen when two scheming dudes have too much time and weed on their hands, “War Dogs” upholds that lowbrow comic tradition even as it pushes it in a more topical, grown-up direction.
Adapted from a 2011 Rolling Stone article by Guy Lawson (who later wrote a book on the subject, “Arms and the Dudes”), this is Phillips’ first picture in a while to sell itself on more than just lines of coke and decapitated zoo animals. (It contains some of the former, but none of the latter.) It’s selling itself on the novel idea that it actually has a terrific, rip-roaring story to tell.
Which it would, anyway, if Phillips didn’t keep weighing it down with borrowed moves and banal ideas. After one of those pointless how-did-we-get-here prologues, the movie flashes back three years to 2005, around the time that David (Miles Teller), an amiable college dropout, is stuck working as a massage therapist in Miami. After testing out a lame-brained venture selling high-end bedsheets to retirement homes, he gets a much more lucrative lesson in supply and demand when he’s lured into business with his old yeshiva classmate Efraim (Hill). A genial con artist with a demonic chuckle and “Scarface”-fueled delusions of grandeur, Efraim heads up his own company, AEY Inc., and has already made a small killing peddling weapons to the U.S. military.
Phillips (who wrote the script with Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic) briefly sketches in the particulars of how the government’s “war on terror,” like most armed conflicts throughout history, became its own monstrous economy.
Specifically, we learn how the Bush-Cheney administration, after taking heat for farming out no-bid weapons contracts to major players such as Halliburton and Lockheed Martin, opened up the field to just about anyone with enough gumption and access to the government’s FedBizOpps listings.
With their scrappy, low-overhead operation, Efraim and David soon find themselves outbidding their bigger, more experienced competitors, even landing a highly coveted $300 million deal to supply the U.S.-backed Afghan National Army.
Efraim’s personal dislike for Bush is utterly immaterial; as he pragmatically notes, “It’s not about being pro-war, it’s about being pro-money.” But if he and his partner have no meaningful politics to speak of, the same could be said of “War Dogs,” which gleefully encourages its characters’ bumbling incompetence as well as their astounding moral idiocy.
Before long the two are rolling in dough and getting in way over their heads, whether they’re navigating the treacherous 500-mile road from Amman to Baghdad with a truck full of Italian-made Berettas (the movie’s most entertaining stretch) or flying to an Albanian storehouse where 100 million rounds of Cold War-era AK-47 ammo lie in wait. That deal is arranged for them by a notorious, high-powered arms dealer briefly played by an unsmiling Bradley Cooper, jetting in and out of the movie as though part of some frequent-flyer program for “Hangover” alums.
All these lethally absurd (if heavily fictionalized) complications should have been proper grist for a raucous, meaty chronicle of greed and American enterprise gone hideously awry. At times Phillips’ movie nods in the direction of Martin Scorsese’s nauseatingly brilliant “The Wolf of Wall Street,” in which Hill played a riotous second banana, as well as Adam McKay’s “The Big Short,” another example of a mainstream comedy director shifting gears and tackling a recent political outrage.
But in the end, there’s no outrage in “War Dogs” - no lacerating insight, no gonzo satiric energy, nothing more than warmed-over cynicism and some mild titters at boys being boys under deadly circumstances.
The filmmaking is surprisingly lazy, even listless, stuffed with obvious music cues and unnecessary chapter breaks that merely add to the lurching, episodic rhythm. Despite some welcome changes of scenery courtesy of Jordan and Iraq (actually Morocco) and Albania (actually Romania), the movie can’t build up a head of comic steam.
Much of Teller’s performance is consumed by a subplot involving David’s domestic woes, which include a neglected child and a long-suffering girlfriend (Ana de Armas) who can no longer swallow his stream of lies. (Here, as in “The Hangover” movies, women are little more than beautiful scolds.) But then, David is just along for the ride anyway as Efraim’s lackey and foil, and as their two-bit operation begins to crumble around them, there’s an unmistakable dark pleasure in seeing Hill devolve into a hurricane of self-centered petulance and dishonesty, untethered to even the slightest bid for the audience’s sympathy.
It’s worth noting that “War Dogs” was made without the participation of the real Efraim Diveroli, who in May filed a lawsuit alleging that the filmmakers and Warner Bros. had misappropriated his life story. He has a point, if not necessarily the one he has in mind.
Justin Change: email@example.com
Rating: R, for language throughout, drug use and some sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes
Playing: In general release
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PHOTOS (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194):
Sent: Wednesday, August 17, 2016 12:20 PM
To: Kiracofe, Danielle <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: RE: review for Friday
BC-KUBO-MOVIE-REVIEW-CORRECTION-ADV19:MS _ entertainment (550 words)
Movie review: 'Kubo' is a wonderful adventure fantasy
(EMBARGOED for Web use until Friday, 08-19) (CORRECTS spelling of 'Boxtrolls' in lede)
By Colin Covert
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Even in this heyday of computer-animated movies, the greatest special effect is creating emotionally resonant characters. The adventure fantasy "Kubo and the Two Strings" is seamless stop-motion storytelling, from Laika, the independent animation studio that gave us the darkly entertaining "Coraline," "ParaNorman" and "The Boxtrolls." Yet wizardly art direction isn't the film's most striking quality. It's the endearing, playful, touching, cantankerous and sometimes frightening individuals who supply this spectacular story about friendship, courage and sacrifice with its life force.
Set in feudal Japan, this is an original action-adventure story that can appeal to every film lover around the world. It follows Kubo, a lonely, creative kid raised by his widowed mother in a cave close to their seaside village. A skillful artist, he collects coins in the market each day, dazzling the locals with his lifelike origami animals and storytelling skill. He drives fans into a frenzy of excitement with his rock sensibility on his three-stringed lute. But he stops performing and heads home fast at sunset.
His mother's rule is that he must return before night, when the chilling Moon King takes possession of the sky. The monarch is Kubo's grandfather, who wanted to pull him out of humanity and into his unearthly domain as an infant. Kubo's magically powered mother barely survived the mystical battle in which the Moon King took Kubo's left eye, and she warns him that every night he's in danger again. The boy sets off on a Joseph Campbell-inspired hero's journey toward distant lands, a lowly yet heroic pair of allies and struggles against supernatural forces, traveling in a boat constructed of leaves and battling a giant skeleton.
Diverse human characters and fantastical creatures bursting with personality probably drew the movie's all-star vocal cast to play the parts of gorgeously sculpted clay figures. "Game of Thrones" fan favorite Art Parkinson turns Kubo into a thrilling young hero. His allies are a grumpy maternal simian called Monkey, played in gruff perfect pitch by Charlize Theron, and a man-sized insect called Beetle, given a charming comic relief turn by Mathew McConaughey. Ralph Fiennes brings a sense of emotional reality to the ghostlike Moon King, while Rooney Mara radiates a chilling menace as his eerie twin daughters, who sneer at Kubo's mother, "Love made her weak."
"Kubo" feels like a gorgeously illustrated Japanese fable, with gloriously crafted images serving strong narrative points. It resembles an intelligent, strong-scripted mash-up of "Harry Potter" and Hayao Miyazaki's dazzling fantasy "Princess Mononoke," balancing a childlike sense of wonderment with subjects possessing a much more complex, mature and serious tone. Director Travis Knight trusts his audience, introducing moments of sorrow and thoughts about the transience of life that most animated films would avoid at all costs.
The dreamlike tone creates a dense cinematic experience that carries us to a world that is harsh yet stunningly beautiful. Of course no competitor is allowed to surpass Pixar in the annual Oscar derby, but if they were, this would be a very tight race. It's easily a contender for any list of best films of the year.
'KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS'
4 out of 4 stars
Rating: PG for thematic elements, scary images, action and peril.
(c)2016 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
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PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): Kubo
From: Kiracofe, Danielle
Sent: Wednesday, August 17, 2016 12:18 PM
To: Kiracofe, Danielle <email@example.com>
Subject: review for Friday
Movie review: New ’Ben-Hur’ is a good ride, but you won’t forget the original
(EMBARGOED for Web use until Friday, 08-19) (PHOTO)
By Cary Darling
Fort Worth Star-Telegram (TNS)
“Ben-Hur” and Charlton Heston go together like sword and sandal, the two being inextricably linked in the public mind.
But the new, $100 million version of Ben-Hur owes less to the well-known 1959 big-screen epic in which Heston starred than to the 1880 Lew Wallace novel, “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” on which both are based. The result is a film that is a surprisingly non-campy, more explicitly Christian meditation on slavery and freedom, revenge and forgiveness that also happens to have that climactic chariot-race thrill ride that helped make the Heston film famous.
The slightly different approach shouldn’t be too surprising since one of the film’s co-writers is John Ridley who wrote the 2013 slavery classic “12 Years a Slave” and co-producers are Mark Burnett and wife Roma Downey, known for their many faith-based projects. But it’s not until the very end that “Ben-Hur” threatens to collapse underneath the weight of a heavy hand. Until then, it’s a mostly well-acted, straightforward, period drama free from the stylistic quirks for which director Timur Bekmambetov (“Wanted,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) is known.
It’s the time of Jesus Christ and the place is Roman-dominated Jerusalem. Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell, “Dawn of the Planet of Apes”) and Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston, “Boardwalk Empire” and “American Hustle”) are brothers in every way but blood. Messala, a Roman, was adopted as a boy by Judah’s well-off Jewish family and the two are inseparable. Near the start of “Ben-Hur,” the two are racing their horses, foreshadowing a much more dangerous race the two will be competing in near the film’s end.
That brotherly bond is sundered when Messala goes off to fight for Rome, returning years later with the Judean governor Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek) and an army of soldiers to show the Jews of Jerusalem who’s boss. There’s been unrest lately as many Jewish “zealots” (early Christians) are turning against Rome.
This is the beginning of the rift between Messala and Judah and it only widens when Judah refuses to turn over names of suspected zealots. After someone tries to assassinate Pilate, Judah is blamed and Messala completely turns on him, sending him into slavery.
The fuse of revenge is then lit and it will detonate on the chariot track several years later. The race - a blast of charging horses, broken wheels, and fallen riders - is a visual rush and a nice tip of the toga to that famous Heston sequence. That Bekmambetov can now stage it in 3D doesn’t really add much.
Huston and Kebbell flesh out these characters and Morgan Freeman brings a sense of wise solemnity as an African named Ilderim who becomes Yoda to Judah’s Skywalker. There are times when everyone looks a little too modern, though at least they’re more characters than caricatures like those in Ridley Scott’s 2014 biblical-era misfire, “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” On the other hand, Rodrigo Santoro (“The 33,” “300: Rise of an Empire”) as Jesus doesn’t have much to do but look alternately peaceful and pained.
Bekmambetov as well writers Ridley and Keith R. Clarke resist the temptation to camp it up. For some, this might be the film’s ultimate flaw, that it takes the material too seriously.
The new “Ben-Hur” doesn’t eclipse its predecessor and so it may lose in this cinematic chariot race. But it doesn’t crash and burn either and that in itself is something of a miracle.
2.5 out of 4 stars
Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Rodrigo Santoro
Running time: 124 min.
©2016 Fort Worth Star-Telegram
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