GOING IN STYLE (2017) Provides Mediocre Comedy

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GOING IN STYLE (2017) is a remake of a 1979 film of the same name by writer/director Martin Brest that starred George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg as three senior citizens who decided to spice up their lives by robbing a bank.

This time around, the director is Zach Braff [from TV’s SCRUBS (2001-2010)] and the three elderly friends are played by Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin.

I enjoy these three actors a lot, and they’re the main reason I wanted to see this movie.

The story has been updated to 2017, and the plot has as its villain the “evil” bank which is responsible for taking away these men’s homes and their pensions.

Joe (Michael Caine) is unhappy because his bank was less than clear about his refinanced mortgage, and as a result, his monthly payment has tripled.  He can no longer afford the payment, and since his daughter and granddaughter live in the house with him, he does not want to lose his home.

To make matters worse, he and his buddies Willie (Morgan Freeman) and Albert (Alan Arkin) learn that the company they had worked for is shifting its workforce overseas, and as a result it’s cancelling their pensions.

When Joe visits his bank to argue about his mortgage, three masked men burst in and hold it up.  They get away with the money, which gets Joe to thinking:  if he and his friends robbed a bank, his bank, they’d get their pensions back.  Worse case scenario, they go to jail, which for them isn’t so bad since they don’t have a lot of years left to live.  As Joe says to his buddies, in prison, they’ll have a roof over their heads, three meals a day, and better health care than they have in the outside world.

While Willie and Albert don’t agree at first, eventually they change their minds and set their sights on robbing a bank.

GOING IN STYLE is a likable enough movie, but it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before or done better.

In spite of its realistic plot points of the manipulative bank giving Joe misleading information about his mortgage, and the company cancelling its pensions because it’s moving overseas, the film just isn’t very believable, which is surprising because the screenplay, based on the 1979 screenplay by Edward Cannon, was written by Theodore Melfi.  Melfi wrote the screenplay for ST. VINCENT (2014) and HIDDEN FIGURES (2016) two films that I liked a lot.  His script here for GOING IN STYLE is nowhere as crisp as his work on those other two movies.

The story just never becomes real.  I never believed that these three guys would really rob a bank, or that they’d actually get away with it.  The film is more a set-up to have Caine, Freeman, and Arkin interact with each other.

And sure, they’re fun to watch, but the problem is I’ve seen these actors far funnier in other movies than they are here.  Which brings me to the biggest problem with this movie. It’s one thing for a comedy not to have the most believable plot, but it’s quite another for it not to be funny, and I just didn’t find this film all that humorous.

Sure, there are lots of little bits here and there that caused me to chuckle, and Caine, Freeman, and Arkin did a fine job with these little bits, but I rarely laughed out loud.  Part of the problem is the film is rated PG-13, and so the language is tame, which really works against a guy like Alan Arkin who can be hilariously funny when his humor is untamed. He’s very reserved here, as are Caine and Freeman.

The plot also goes to the syrupy sweet aisle one too many times.  Scenes with Caine and his granddaughter made me want to gag they were so cliché, as well as a subplot where Freeman’s character befriends a little girl during the heist.

Christopher Lloyd is also on hand as another friend, Milton, and he does his loony Christopher Lloyd shtick throughout which like a lot of other parts in this film, seemed old and tired.

The most energetic performance in the film clearly belongs to Ann-Margret who plays a woman trying to seduce Alan Arkin’s character, and this provides the film with its most unintentional  laugh as he resists her!  Who in their right mind would resist Ann-Margret? And at 75, she still looks amazing!  I was flabbergasted by how good she looked in this film.  Wow!

Joey King is okay as Caine’s granddaughter Brooklyn, and Peter Serafinowicz does a nice job as Caine’s ex-son-in-law. John Ortiz plays a man name Jesus who teaches them how to rob a bank.

Matt Dillon also appears as a less than intelligent FBI agent.  Like the rest of the film, his performance is nothing I haven’t seen him do before and do better.

GOING IN STYLE is a likable enough movie, but sadly it didn’t possess enough biting humor or a believable enough story for it to completely work for me, even with the presence of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin.

It’s a strictly by-the-numbers comedy that could have benefitted from both sharper writing and directing.

A little more style would have been greatly appreciated.

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THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016) – Comedy-Drama Captures Intensity of Teen Years

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The best movies, regardless of genre, are based on truth.

And that’s what makes THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN (2016), a coming of age comedy-drama about seventeen year old Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld),  so enjoyable.  It comes across as oh-so-true.

Nadine is the ugly duckling in her family, forever living in the shadow of her near-perfect older brother Darian (Blake Jenner).  Through voice-over narration, we follow Nadine’s difficult childhood, from dealing with school bullies to butting heads with her mother Mona (Kyra Sedgwick) who gets along much better with her son Darian.  Nadine’s one champion is her father Tom (Eric Keenleyside), but in a tragic moment symbolic of her entire childhood, he suffers a fatal stroke behind the wheel of their car while Nadine watches helplessly from the passenger seat.

As she turns seventeen, the one positive for Nadine is her relationship with her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson).  The two girls are inseparable, and being with Krista is the one time Nadine feels happy.  This all comes to a dramatic halt when suddenly Krista starts dating Nadine’s brother Darian.  For Nadine, this is a betrayal and is something she cannot handle.

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Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) and her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson)

Now feeling absolutely alone, Nadine finds herself at her lowest point ever.  While she continually pours out her troubles to her stoic seemingly non-caring teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) who in spite of his constant snarky comments is always there to listen to her, she adores the hunky Nick (Alexander Calvert) from afar.  She also finds new hope in quirky Erwin (Hayden Szeto), a fellow student who is obviously very interested in her.  Trouble is, she’s not that interested in him.

Sure, this story is nothing new, but what is refreshing and incredibly satisfying about THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is the script and direction, both by Kelly Fremon Craig, and the excellent acting performances.

I loved Craig’s script.  The dialogue is sharp, frequently hilarious, and right on the money in terms of what it’s like to be seventeen.  It also especially nails the contentious relationship between Nadine and her mother.  One of movie’s best moments— and there are many of them— is when near the end of the film Nadine texts her mom that she’s safe, and her mother struggles to respond, writing and then deleting angry, fearful texts before finally settling on “OK.”  It’s a poignant moment, one that many parents have to deal with, that battle between being protective and letting go.

But the best part of the script is the humor.  I laughed out loud quite a bit during this movie.  Some of the funnier scenes are between Nadine and Erwin— their scene on the Ferris wheel together is a hoot.  The scenes between Nadine and Mr. Bruner are also very funny.

The serious scenes are equally as good.  The moment where Nadine becomes the punchline of a conversation about the movie TWINS (1987) is pointedly painful.  Likewise, the touching moment near the end of the film where Darian confronts Nadine is satisfyingly powerful.

Craig’s direction is just as good.  The film is lively, quickly paced, and full energy.  THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is not a superficial raunchy teen comedy.  On the contrary, it’s a deeply moving comedy-drama about a teenage girl dealing with her troubled life while searching for some meaning to it all.

The acting is wonderful.  Hailee Steinfeld is excellent as Nadine, and she easily carries this movie.  While Steinfeld was particularly memorable several years ago in the remake of TRUE GRIT (2010), I actually enjoyed her more here.  She captures the teen angst which Nadine experiences and makes it real.  She’s believable as a character who just wants to fit in, who wants to have friends, wants to have a boyfriend, but who feels so alienated from other people her own age.  One of the funniest and most insightful scenes is when Nadine goes off on her generation’s incessant use of texting on their phones.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN is Steinfeld’s movie and she owns it.  But she has a fine supporting cast as well.

Haley Lu Richardson is sincere and likable as Nadine’s best friend Krista.  It’s clear that she’s devastated that her new relationship with Darian has damaged her lifelong one with Nadine. In another powerful scene, the moment where Nadine forces Krista to choose between her and her brother is one of the best scenes in the movie.  Krista initially refuses, but with her back against the wall, she chooses Darian.

Hayden Szeto is particularly good as the nerdy Erwin.  Other than Steinfeld, I think Szeto gives the best performance in the film. Erwin is obviously a good person, but Szeto’s performance lifts Erwin above the cliched “nice guy.”  First off, he’s as uncomfortable about relationships as Nadine is, but unlike Nadine, he’s coming from a happier place inside.  You are really rooting for him to win her over.

Kyra Sedgwick is also excellent at Nadine’s mom, Mona.  It’s clear that the reason Mona and Nadine butt heads so much is because they are so similar.  Mona is absolutely lost after her husband dies, and afterwards she is just as miserable as her daughter.  Sedgwick does a fantastic job emoting her pain and unhappiness.  You can see it all over her face.  But Mona is not a hopeless lost parent.  Sure, she struggles and is not going to win any parent of the year awards, but she continues to fight.  One of her more telling scenes is when she gets into a shouting match with her son and she uses the line “I’m the adult here!” to which Darian replies, “Then why do you always call me?”  And at that moment Mona realizes that he’s right, and that she’s been relying on him too much, because as she realizes she has no one else.

Blake Jenner is okay as Darian, and Woody Harrelson does his job as droll Mr. Bruner.  He’s not a particularly effective teacher.  We see him showing movies to his class and teaching them with as much enthusiasm as a study hall monitor, and he speaks to Nadine in ways that could easily get him fired if overheard, but the bottom line is in his own way he’s there for Nadine.  He is her constant listener, and later when she finds herself absolutely alone, it’s Bruner who she turns to, and he doesn’t let her down.  One of his better lines comes late in the movie as he drives her back to her house:  “I know this has to be said, and there’s no other way to say it, so I’ll just come out and say it.  Get out of the car.”

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Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) with Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson).

I really enjoyed THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN.  While it reminded me of how happy I am that I’m not seventeen anymore, it also captured the promise and energy of what it feels like to have your whole life ahead of you.  Of course, it also captured the pressure, which gives an entirely different meaning to the “edge” in the title.  Rather than being on the verge of seventeen, “edge” here can easily refer to the intensity and sharpness of the age.

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Movie Lists: Gene Wilder

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Gene Wilder shrieking “Give my creation, life!” in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974).

Welcome to another edition of MOVIE LISTS, the column where you’ll find lists of odds and ends about movies.  Today, we look at films starring Gene Wilder.

Wilder, who passed away on August 29, 2016, was one of the most popular comic actors on the planet between 1974-1982.  Here is a partial list of his film credits:

THE PRODUCERS (1967)- Leo Bloom- if you’ve seen this Mel Brooks comedy, you’ll remember Wilder as the neurotic producer who can’t handle it when the sure-fire flop he and co-producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) plan— a musical about Hitler— becomes a surprise hit.  Wilder at his unstable best.

START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME (1970) –  Claude/Philippe – Having fun with Donald Sutherland during the French Revolution.

WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1971) – Willy Wonka – Wilder is excellent in the lead in this Roald Dahl fantasy.  I believe this is the first Gene Wilder movie I ever saw, although it’s not the movie that made me a fan.  That would happen with YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.

EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK (1972)- Doctor Ross.  Wilder is hilarious here as a man who falls in love with a sheep in this wacky yet uneven Woody Allen comedy.  I saw this years after it came out, probably in the early 1980s when I was in college.

BLAZING SADDLES (1974) – Jim – another Gene Wilder/Mel Brooks classic that I didn’t see until years after its release, again in the early 1980s.  I was only 10 in 1974, and BLAZING SADDLES was Rated R, which meant it was off limits to me.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)- Dr. Frederick Frankenstein – this one I did see shortly after it came out, as it was rated PG, and it’s the movie that made me a lifelong Gene Wilder fan.  So many amazing memorable moments in the movie, generated by Wilder and the entire cast, and of course writer/director Mel Brooks.  Among my favorite Wilder bits:  “You just made a yummy sound,” “Put the candle back,”   and “I thought I told you never to disturb me while I’m working!”  

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Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974).  Hello, handsome!

THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER (1975)- Sigerson Holmes- Funny film, but tried too hard to follow the same formula as YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN with inferior results.  Wilder’s directorial debut.

SILVER STREAK (1976) – George- Wilder’s first pairing with Richard Pryor.  Probably my second favorite Gene Wilder movie behind YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.

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Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder

THE WORLD’S GREATEST LOVER (1977) -Rudy Hickman- Not one of my favorites.  This was the second film Wilder directed, after THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER. The jokes just aren’t as sharp this time around.

THE FRISCO KID (1979)- Avram-  This has always been one of my favorite Gene Wilder roles and movies.  Wilder plays a rabbi on an adventure in the wild west in this unlikely charmer by director Robert Aldrich.  Co-starring Harrison Ford.

STIR CRAZY (1980) – Skip Donahue – Wilder’s second pairing with Richard Pryor might be their funniest.  Directed by Sidney Poitier.

HANKY PANKY (1982) – Michael Jordon – Wilder co-stars with future wife Gilda Radner in this box office disaster originally written to feature both Wilder and Richard Pryor again.  Once more directed by Sidney Poitier.  Wilder considered this to be one of his worst movies.

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Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder

THE WOMAN IN RED (1984) – Teddy Pierce – Another one of my favorites.  Wilder becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman in red played by Kelly LeBrock in this amiable romantic comedy.  Co-starring Charles Grodin and Gilda Radner.  Wilder directed and co-wrote this remake of a French movie, which might be his best directorial effort.

HAUNTED HONEYMOON (1986) – Larry Abbot-  Wilder once more directs himself and wife Gilda Radner, in what would be both his final directorial effort and last movie that he and Radner made together.  Not surprisingly, this unfunny film bombed at the box office.

SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL (1989) – Dave Lyons-  Wilder’s third pairing with Richard Pryor, directed by Arthur Hiller, who also directed Wilder’s/Pryor’s first pairing, SILVER STREAK.  Early film role for Kevin Spacey.

ANOTHER YOU (1991)- George/Abe Fielding – Wilder’s fourth and final movie with Richard Pryor.  This was also Wilder’s final theatrical release.  He would make four more movies, all of them made for TV.

Okay, there you have it, a partial list of the movies starring Gene Wilder.

Gene Wilder – June 11, 1933 – August 29, 2016

Thanks for reading everybody, and I’ll see you again next time for another MOVIE LISTS column where we’ll look at more odds and ends from the movies.

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

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BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986) marked the fourth time director John Carpenter worked with actor Kurt Russell,  following  ELVIS (1979), ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), and THE THING (1982).

Whereas time has been kind to both ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE THING—THE THING is often ranked #1 on horror fans’ “Favorite Horror Movie” lists— when they first came out, neither film was a hit.  In fact, THE THING was a box office bomb.

Kurt Russell wasn’t faring much better in 1986.  He had just come off a string of films that had performed very poorly at the box office, and the story goes that he was so worried about his box office slump that he told Carpenter to get someone else to star in BIG TROUBLE, but Carpenter told him not to worry, that he wanted him to star in the movie.

I wish I could say that BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was a huge hit and rejuvenated the careers of both these artists, but that’s not what happened.  Like their previous few films, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA also tanked at the box office.

But like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and THE THING, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA has enjoyed a resurgence.  Fans nowadays like this movie.   I saw it when it first came out, and I did not like it.  I liked it so little that I never bothered to watch it again.

Until now.

And that’s because I’ve been hearing fans say good things about the movie, and I thought it was high time I gave it a second viewing.

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is a strange movie.  It’s an action adventure that takes place in Chinatown, San Francisco and involves Chinese mysticism, which gives the film a supernatural element.  It’s also a comedy, meaning that the entire thing is played for laughs.

Truck driver Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) and his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) go to the airport to pick up Wang’s girlfriend, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai).  While there, Jack flirts with a woman named Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) which provides him with a few minutes of fun before a Chinese gang shows up and kidnaps Miao.

Jack and Wang give chase, but the gang eludes them and gets away with Miao.  Wang vows to get her back, and Jack agrees to help him.  I guess no one thought to call the police. Anyway, Gracie Law shows up at their doorstep and reveals that she’s a lawyer who knows all about the Chinese mystical underworld, and she wants to help Jack and Wang as well.  They also receive help from Egg Shen (Victor Wong), a bus driver who’s also an expert on Chinese sorcery.

They need all this help because Miao has been kidnapped by David Lo Pan (James Hong), a two thousand year-old sorcerer who’s cursed to walk the earth without his physical body.  To lift the curse, he has to marry a girl with green eyes, which is why he kidnapped Miao, because she has green eyes.  It turns out that Gracie Law also has green eyes.  Suddenly Lo Pan has more choices than he knows what to do with.  Life is good.  For a while, anyway, as soon Jack and Wang show up, and they’re all about taking down Lo Pan and his supernatural army.  Good luck with that!

As I said, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is played for laughs.  There isn’t a serious bone in this one’s body.

At first, I was really enjoying this one, and during the movie’s first half, I thought my opinion of it would change.  What wasn’t to like?  It was full of 1980s nostalgia, it had Kurt Russell, lots of colorful martial art action scenes, monsters, supernatural goings on, and a neat music score by John Carpenter.

But midway through, the movie runs out of gas, and I remembered why I didn’t really like this one back in 1986.  The martial arts action scenes start to get repetitive, and a major reason why is they’re simply not very good.

The script by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein also fizzles.  Early on, things are mysterious, and the dialogue is rapid fire funny, but later, once you know Lo Pan’s story, it’s pretty ridiculous, even it if is played for laughs.  I’ve seen more believable plots on SCOOBY DOO.  And the humor definitely loses its edge, mostly because after a while it’s simply Jack and Wang dealing with one unbelivable situation after another.

The film definitely gets goofier as it goes along, becoming flat our silly rather than focusing on the action and the adventure.  Had this one had more of an edge to it, and kept the humor in the background, it would have worked better.

Kurt Russell based Jack Burton on John Wayne, and it’s apparent right from the get-go. Russell is fun to watch here because he really does capture the Duke’s onscreen persona. Similarly, Russell based Snake Plissken in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK on Clint Eastwood, which is also clearly apparent.

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Kurt Russell as Jack Burton in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986)

Things would change for Russell with his next movie, the hit comedy OVERBOARD (1987) in which he starred with Goldie Hawn.  And a series of hits would follow Russell over the next five years.

While Russell is entetaining in BIG TROUBLE, Dennis Dun is just OK as Wang Chi.  He lacks Russell’s charisma and larger than life qualities, which is too bad because one of the movie’s jokes is that Jack thinks he’s the hero, yet he’s constantly messing things up, and it’s Wang who’s the true hero in the movie, but at times, Dun doesn’t make this notion all that believable.

Kim Cattrall is the epitome of 1980s actresses, and she fits right in here.  She’s got the 80s hairstyle, and she plays Gracie Law with a mixture of strength and ditziness.  She could easily walk into the CHEERS bar for a drink.

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Kim Cattrall as Gracie Law in BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986).

Victor Wong is sufficiently knowledgable as Egg Shen, but James Hong is rather ineffective as main baddie David Lo Pan.  He spends most of the time behind make-up and special effects.

The special effects are OK.  They run hot and cold, and they’re really cheesy.  I guess that’s part of the charm for some people.

So, after my second viewing, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA remains not one of my favorite John Carpenter movies. Sadly, Carpenter would follow this up with the even worse PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987).  It would be a little while before Carpenter would find his stride again, and that would be with IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1995).

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA means well.  It’s got tons of energy, and everyone looks like they’re having a grand old time.  But as the action becomes flat out goofy, the story doesn’t hold up, and the script doesn’t match the film’s inanity, as the dialogue and situations are never that funny, it all becomes rather tedious long before the end credits roll.

The trouble in Little China just isn’t all that big.

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WAR DOGS (2016) -Gritty Tale of Guns & War

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WAR DOGS (2016), the latest movie by HANGOVER trilogy director Todd Phillips, recounts the true story of friends David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli who became gun runners for the U.S. government during the Iraqi and Afghan wars.

The film opens with David Packouz (Miles Teller) lamenting that his life is going nowhere. He’s been working a thankless job as a professional massage therapist, and his business venture to sell bed sheets to nursing homes has fallen flat.  He does have a beautiful wife Iz (Ana de Armas) but once he learns she’s pregnant he fears he’s not going to be able to afford having a baby.

Enter his best friend from school Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who has returned to Florida to set up shop with his gun selling business.  Efraim takes David on as a partner, and he explains to David how his business works, that he has taken advantage of a plan set up by the Bush administration which allows small businesses to bid on U.S. military contracts. Efraim explains that most of the huge contracts still go to the large mainstream weapons manufacturers, but even with the “crumbs” as Efraim calls them, you can still make a lot of money.

And they do.  Within the first few months of working with Efraim, David is earning close to $300,000.  And things only get more lucrative for them, especially after they travel to Iraq to personally deliver a truckload of Italian made berettas to the U.S. military, driving through a dangerous stretch of land known as “the triangle of death”  to do it.  After this stunning delivery, their reputation begins to grow.

They travel to Las Vegas to a weapons convention which Efraim calls “Comic Con with guns” and they decide to go all in as they try to secure their largest deal yet, as they learn that the U.S. military is attempting to arm the entire Afghan army.  The job proves too large for them, until they attract the attention of the infamous and uber shady arms dealer Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) who tells them he can get them all the ammo they need to pull off the deal, as it’s stashed away in Albania where the Albanian government is desperately trying to sell off its stockpile of ammuntion.  Girard tells them he can’t do the job himself since he’s on a terrorist watch list.

Efraim and David agree to work with Girard, and they pull off their largest sale ever, earning them millions of dollars.  Of course, they also enter illegal territory here, which eventually attracts the attention of the U.S. government.

As I said, WAR DOGS was directed by Todd Phillips, the man who directed the three HANGOVER movies, but don’t let this connection mislead you.  WAR DOGS really isn’t a comedy.  Sure, there are parts that you will laugh at, but for the most part its a gritty captivating drama about the shady world of gun running during the Iraqi war.

As such, I really liked WAR DOGS.  The story works, thanks to sharp screenplay by director Phillips, Stephen Chin, and Jason Smilovic.  It tells a riveting story, has some memorable lines, and does a nice job with the characterizations.

Sadly, we’ve been stuck fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since the early 2000s, but one positive—if you can call it that— that has come from this period is that it has provided a canvas for some pretty good movies.  A lot of stories, nearly all of them tragic, have come out of these wars, and filmmakers have done an admirable job telling them, with films like AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) and THE HURT LOCKER (2008).  You can add WAR DOGS to this list.

Both Miles Teller and Jonah Hill do fine jobs here.  Teller has starred in the DIVERGENT series and the recent reboot of FANTASTIC FOUR (2015) as a very young Reed Richards, and of course he received high praise in the Oscar winner WHIPLASH (2014).  He’s excellent again here.  He’s perfect in the role, making David the everyday “normal” guy who gets involved with his best buddy’s shady business dealings for the right reasons- to support his wife and baby- and who sticks to his guns–heh heh– when things go south and refuses to throw out his principles.

While Jonah Hill is mostly known for his goofy comedies, he’s already shown acting chops in such films as MONEYBALL (2011) and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) so I’m not sure if this is his best performance yet, but it’s certainly a good one.  In fact, Hill is clearly the best part of this movie.

He makes Efraim volatile, unpredictable, and a hoot to watch.  As David explains, Efraim’s gift is he can make himself into the exact person that the person he’s trying to con wants him to be. As such, you can never trust him.  Hill is great at capturing this part of Efraim.  He also gained a lot of weight for the role, and he really becomes this character.

And Bradley Cooper is actually very good in a small role as the shadowy arms dealer Henry Girard.  Sometimes when major actors appear in small roles you’re left wondering why?  Not the case here, as Cooper gives this guy a demeanor that makes you actually like him.

Director Todd Phillips also gives us some memorable scenes, like the suspenseful trek across the Triangle of Death.  I also liked the scene just before this sequence when David and Efraim have to negotiate with the help of a young boy translator to get their weapons into Iraq.  The scenes in Albania were also sufficiently gloomy.

All in all, I really liked WAR DOGS, a captivating and entertaining film that plays like a cross between THE WOLF OF WALL STREET and AMERICAN SNIPER.

Its story of how David and Efraim were able to weasel their way into the lucrative cutthroat world of weapons distribution  for the U.S. government and actually become major players in the arms dealing business will leave you shaking your head,  questioning just how it was that the government encouraged this to happen in the first place.

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CAFE SOCIETY (2016), Woody Allen’s Latest, Low Key Affair

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CAFE SOCIETY (2016), the latest film by Woody Allen, is a bittersweet love story set in Hollywood in the 1930s.

Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) leaves his family in the Bronx and sets out to make a name for himself, or at the very least, get a job, in Hollywood.  His mother  Rose (Jeannie Berlin) arranges for him to meet with his uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell), who’s a successful Hollywood agent.  Phil hires Bobby as his personal errand boy, and he also introduces him to his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart).  Phil asks Vonnie to show Bobby around town, which she happily does.

It doesn’t take long before Bobby falls for Vonnie, but she’s up front with him and tells him that although she likes him, she has a boyfriend.  As Bobby’s confidence grows, and as he receives a promotion at work where he’s now reading scripts, he vows not to give up on Vonnie, and it’s clear that Vonnie has feelings for him, too.  Things get more complicated when it’s revealed just who it is who Vonnie is seeing, and suddenly a rather uncomfortable triangle is formed.

CAFE SOCIETY presents us with three rather real and sympathetic characters, Bobby, Vonnie, and Phil, who are all likable enough so that you want all three of them to get what they want, yet they can’t. This part of the story works, and works well.

I’m not the biggest Jesse Eisenberg fan, but I enjoyed his performances in ZOMBIELAND (2009), NOW YOU SEE ME (2013), and AMERICAN ULTRA (2015).  On the other hand, he did little for me as Lex Luthor in BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016).  He’s OK here as Bobby, but in a role that Woody Allen himself may have played had this been written back in the 1960s, he’s much too subdued to make Bobby all that exciting.  Bobby clearly comes off as a nice guy, but not much else.  He’s nowhere near as manic or depressed as he needs to be, and for most of the film it’s a one note performance.

Kristen Stewart continues to grow on me as an actor.  Forgetting the TWILIGHT movies which I try as hard as I can to forget each and every day, Stewart has made good impressions in STILL ALICE (2014) which is my personal favorite Stewart performance, where she played the daughter of Julianne Moore’s alzheimer’s stricken Alice, and in AMERICAN ULTRA (2015) in which she also co-starred with Jesse Eisenberg.

She’s very good here in CAFE SOCIETY as Vonnie, and it’s easy to see why Bobby falls in love with her so quickly. In a Hollywood society filled with egos and pretensions, Vonnie is down to earth and practical, and she’s a breath of fresh air for Bobby in this strange land so far away from his New York home.  And so when she makes choices that don’t go in Bobby’s favor, he not only feels disappointed but betrayed, because her decisions stray so far from what she had led him to believe she was all about.

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Bobby (Jesse Eisennberg) and Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) share a tender moment in CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

And yet it’s not hard to understand her decision.  She makes a choice which few women in her position in this time and place would be able to resist- to be with someone who had made it to the top in Hollywood and who would be able to give her a life she always dreamed of.

Stewart is also incredibly beautiful here, and the way Woody Allen photographed her throughout this movie, she has never looked more attractive.

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Kristen Stewart in CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

 

Steve Carell also plays it low key, delivering a much more subdued peformance than he did in last year’s THE BIG SHORT (2015).  But like Eisenberg and Stewart, he makes his character Phil Stern a genuine person.  Better yet, as Phil he rises above the standard Hollywood agent cliche.

Most of the laughs come from Bobby’s family back in the Bronx.  His very Jewish parents Rose (Jeannie Berlin) and Marty (Ken Stott) have some of the liveliest conversations in the movie, like when Marty tells his wife that she’s wrong, that he’s not clueless about death, that he won’t go quietly but that he’ll protest death, to which she says, “Protest to who?”  She also has a great line when their other son, a gangster, is facing the death penalty and as a result converts to Catholicism because it has an afterlife.  She laments “My son is going to the electric chair and he’s become a Christian.  I don’t know which is worse!”

Corey Stoll, nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair, plays their gangster son Ben, and he too enjoys some of the movie’s more lively moments.  Then there’s Bobby’s caring Aunt Evelyn (Sari Lennick) and her philosophizing husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken) who sums up the theme of the movie when he paraphrases Socrates saying an unexamined life is not worth living but an examined life offers no assurances.

The characters in CAFE SOCIETY make decisions, some good and some questionable, but they go forward and deal with the ramifications of these decisions, even when these choices make their lives more difficult.  As expected, it’s a smart script by Woody Allen.

Blake Lively is also in the cast, and she’s quite enjoyable as the “other” Veronica who Bobby meets when he returns to New York.

CAFE SOCIETY looks great.  As a period piece, the film is perfect.  Woody Allen captures the look and feel of 1930s Hollywood to a T.

As such, the script works best as a period piece love story rather than a comedy.  There are certainly funny moments in the movie, but they mostly serve as comic relief to the love triangle drama.  The funniest bits, as you would expect in a Woody Allen movie, come in the convesations about death.

I liked CAFE SOCIETY, as I like most of Woody Allen’s movies.  That being said, it doesn’t rank with his best films, as it is a low key affair, but it still makes for a relaxing and diverting 90 minutes at the movies.

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Quirky MAGGIE’S PLAN (2016) Has A lot to Say About Relationships

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MAGGIE’S PLAN (2016), a new comedy drama by writer/director Rebecca Miller, has a lot to say about relationships, so much so that its story is richer in its poignacy than in its comedy.

Maggie (Greta Gerwig) is a young a career advisor for art and design students, and when the movie opens, she laments that she can never seem to remain in a relationship for more than six months.  She tells her friend Tony (Bill Hader) of her plan to have a baby and raise it on her own without the help of a father.  She has a plan because that’s what Maggie does- plan for everything. She’s arranged for one of their college friends, Guy (Travis Fimmel) to provide his sperm so she can artificially inseminate herself.  Tony is none too happy about this because he remembers Guy as a weird math major in college, but Maggie assures him that Guy is fine, as he is now a successful pickle entrepeneur.

Maggie’s plan gets derailed when she meets John Harding (Ethan Hawke) an adjunct professor at the college, and the two hit it off immediately, especially since John is having a difficult time with his marriage, having to deal with his domineering wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) who’s a professor at Columbia University.  John feels trapped in the marriage, as Georgette is so focused on her career, he has to take a back seat with his, plus raise their two children pretty much on his own, and as such he cannot write the novel he’s always wanted to write.

Besides falling in love with John, Maggie also sees herself as being able to rescue him from his manipulating wife.  Since John has fallen in love with Maggie as well, he divorces Georgette and marries Maggie.  They have a daughter, John can now work on his novel, and they can enjoy their perfect life together, except that things are not perfect.

John soon finds himself focusing only on his novel, pretty much ignoring Maggie and their family, and before you can say “Jack Torrance,” Maggie finds herself wondering if perhaps her marriage to John has been a mistake.

If this plot sounds rather serious and sad, that’s because it is.  However, that’s not to say the film isn’t funny.  It has its moments.  There’s a light tone throughout, and the characters are quirky enough to keep things lively.  Just don’t expect to be laughing out loud.

The best part of MAGGIE’S PLAN are the characters and what their story has to say about relationships.  The acting’s not so bad, either!

I thoroughly enjoyed Greta Gerwig as Maggie.She makes Maggie such a sincere and well meaning character, you can’t help but like her.  She also possesses an adorable innocence about her.  At one point, Georgette questions Maggie’s personality and wonders if there isn’t something just plain stupid about her, but Maggie isn’t stupid.  She just wants to do right by people.  The trouble is, the more she tries, the worst things get.

Take her first plan, for instance, where her geeky math friend Guy agrees to provide her with his sperm.  The two characters are each so quirky you can’t help but chuckle when they’re on screen together, but the story keeps you from laughing out loud because it’s obvious that Guy likes Maggie a lot and wants to be more involved with her, yet he’s too awkward to do anything about it.  When he asks Maggie how much involvement she expects from him, she answers, “I was going to say none.”  She then offers to change her mind if he feels otherwise about it, but all Guy can muster is “None.  Yeah.  That’s great.”

Within seconds of seeing Maggie and John married on screen, it’s clear that there is trouble in paradise.  Gerwig does a terrific job showing us Maggie’s internalizations, and when she realizes that their marriage is doomed, that perhaps John really does belong back with Georgette, and she approaches the icy Georgette with a proposition, it doesn’t come off as manipulative or calculating, but completely sincere. Of course, Georgette doesn’t agree.

Yet, later, when the two characters find themselves liking each other, it plays out in a perfectly natural fashion.

Julianne Moore has an absolute field day as Georgette.  She’s never been icier.  As you would expect, Moore lifts the role above the cliche as she makes this seemingly cold-hearted character someone you actually like.

Only Ethan Hawke struggles to connect as professor-wannabe-author John, and he stands out because nearly every other character in the film does connect.  Part of it is John is something of a self-absorbed cold fish.  I understand why both Georgette and Maggie want to be with him.  For Maggie, she’s initially enthralled by his intellect and she feels she can save him from his wife and empower him in his life.  Georgette loves him because he defers to her dominance and supports her every move.  Yet, she’s smart enough to realize later in the movie that she was too selfish with him and should have been thinking about his needs.

But as a character, John is wishy-washy and noncommital, seemingly changing his mind every time the wind blows.   He’s a difficult character to like.  Yet Hawke does make him sympathetic-finally near the end- when he correctly realizes he’s being manipulated and doesn’t like it all that much.

The supporting cast is a good one and provides the film with its quirkiest characters and moments. Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as Maggie’s husband and wife friends Tony and Felicia come closest to being straight out funny.  Tony is brutally blunt, and generally has Maggie’s best interests in mind, even though she doesn’t always want to hear it.  Maya Rudolph’s Felicia calmly and  drolly puts up with her husband’s outspoken antics, and she’s more than capable and comfortable putting him in his place.Both Hader and Rudolph are alumns of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

Travis Fimmel is charming in an oddball geeky sort of way as Guy, Maggie’s math genius turned pickle entrepeneur who’s ready to donate his sperm to her, and like Maggie, his character exudes raw honesty to the point where he seems a bit dumb, although like Maggie, he’s anything but.

The screenplay by director Rebecca Miller, based on a story by Karen Rinaldi, works more as a quirky drama than a comedy because the story is seeped with honesty and pain.  The characters in this movie are not calculating and cold-hearted, although Maggie likes to plan and Georgette has ice in her veins, but both characters come off as three dimensional and genuine.

Even when some scenes enter into comedy, laughter is difficult to come by because of the sincere tones of sadness underneath.

That’s not to say there aren’t funny moments in the movie.  The sequence where Maggie tries to inseminate herself is nicely paced as it goes from slightly awkward to full blown embarrassing.

And in a near perfect moment, it’s both ironic and telling that the liveliest and perhaps only laugh-out-loud moment in the movie comes when John and Georgette find themselves stranded together in a lodge in snowy Canada.  It’s ironic because Maggie is the liveliest character in the film, yet for the movie’s liveliest moment, she’s absent, and it’s telling because it’s what’s true about Maggie’s life:  she’s always trying to help, but things tend to work best when she’s simply out of the way.

Subtlety reigns throughout MAGGIE’S PLAN, and as such, you won’t find yourself laughing too much.  But that won’t stop you from enjoying this low-key tale of a love triangle that never seems to go as planned.

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