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

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war dogs poster

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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HAIL, CAESAR! (2016) Missing Spark

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It’s hit or miss for me with the Coen brothers.

For every Coen movie I like—TRUE GRIT (2010), NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), and FARGO (1996), to name a few– there’s another I don’t like—BURN AFTER READING (2008) and INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (2003) to name a couple.

Their latest movie, HAIL, CAESAR!, a comedy about the the film industry in the 1950s, is one of their misses.

It’s got good ideas, some clever writing, decent acting performances, and an attention to detail that’s second to none, but at the end of the day it’s lacking something, a cohesive spark to both keep the entire film together and lead it to bigger and brighter things.  As it stands, it’s a comedy without much to laugh about and worse yet, not many laughs.

It’s the story of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood fixer whose job it is to see that everything at Capitol Pictures functions properly.  He’s a problem solver who on any given day is dealing with one issue after another.  That’s Hollywood, for you!  And one thing is for sure, his job is not boring.

In HAIL, CAESAR! Eddie has multiple problems to deal with.  His biggest issue is studio star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has gotten himself kidnapped from the set of the biblical epic they’re shooting, entitled HAIL, CAESAR! 

Meanwhile, his boss has inserted bad acting cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) into a high profile drama directed by one of their top directors Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).  And if that’s not enough, studio “innocent” DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) has gotten herself pregnant, and an unmarried mother is not the image the studio wants for her, so Eddie sets his sights on getting her married.

HAIL, CAESAR! is a collection of little moments.  Some of them work, while others don’t.   For instance, the scene where Eddie assembles a group of religious leaders in a conference room to get their feedback on the studio’s depiction of Jesus in their movie HAIL, CAESAR! is hilarious- an instant classic.  Likewise, when George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock awakens from his drug-induced slumber and casually strolls into the living room and joins in on the conversation with his kidnappers, it makes for grin-inducing comedy.

Moreover, the film also includes scenes of genuine drama.  The scene near the end where Eddie literally slaps some sense into his star Baird Whitlock is poignant and painful, and sets the stage for Whitlock’s dramatic speech at the end of his Biblical movie, a speech that Clooney knocks out of the park, playing an actor acting over his head in a movie that’s nowhere near as good as his performance in the scene- until he forgets his last line.

The scene where director Laurence Larentz confronts Hobie Doyle and literally forces him to say the line “Would that it were so simple” repeatedly is pointedly painful.

But just as many scenes misfire.  Most of Channing Tatum’s scenes fall flat, and Scarlett Johansson, whose DeeAnna Moran is a really interesting character, is barely in the movie enough to make much of an impact. Her one scene with Jonah Hill is buzzing with energy, but it’s just one scene.

While Tilda Swinton, who was so icy cold in both the NARNIA movies and in SNOWPIERCER (2013), is very good in a dual role as sister reporters’ Thora and Thessaly Thacker, her scenes are neither comedic or all that dramatic.  They’re just sort of there.

Furthermore, George Clooney possesses tremendous comic timing, and yet it is barely on display here.  His kidnap tale has all the makings of a screwball comedy, yet that’s not the direction this movie decides to take.

And Josh Brolin, who I like a lot, is very good here as Eddie Mannix, but it’s a straight role.  He’s the straight man, and all the shenanigans of his actors, directors, and studio heads play off him.  While Brolin is excellent in the role, as he almost always is, the character Eddie Mannix as written isn’t really the strongest character to build a movie around.  Perhaps if he were more comedic- the type of persona which Peter Falk used to play- that might have worked better, but that’s not how the role is written. With his Catholic guilt, it reminded me of a role Spencer Tracy would have played.  The character just doesn’t seem to fit in with the oddball characters surrounding him.

You can’t really fault the actors.  They all do a very good job with what they have, and HAIL, CAESAR! certainly features a phenomenal cast:  Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Channing Tatum, and Jonah Hill.

I also enjoyed Alden Ehrenreich as singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle.

By far, the biggest weakness of HAIL, CAESAR! is that it’s simply not that funny, and for a comedy, that is definitely not a good thing!

Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have written a script that captures the flavor of 1950s Hollywood, and they have peppered it with interesting and quirky characters throughout, but what they didn’t do was give these characters in this setting a solid story in which to maneuver.  It’s simply a collection of little moments that never quite gel together in order to build something more.

And central character Eddie Mannix, in spite of a solid performance by Josh Brolin, just isn’t quirky enough to be that guy who holds a movie like this together.  I almost wish George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock had been the central character. Had that been the case, the comedy would have soared.  Clooney’s got that kind of timing.

The cinematography and costumes capture the period nicely, and HAIL, CAESAR! if nothing else is enjoyable to look at. But for a period piece comedy, aesthetics without laughter doesn’t really cut it.

HAIL, CAESAR! is an emphatic title.  Too bad its humor isn’t equally as assertive.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: 22 JUMP STREET (2014)

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22-Jump-Street-PosterHere’s my CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT review of 22 JUMP STREET (2014) which went up this weekend at cinemaknifefight.com, your place to read about movies, where you’ll find new movie content posted every day by L.L. Soares, myself, and a very talented staff of writers.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: 22 JUMP STREET (2014)
Review by Michael Arruda

(THE SCENE: A college lecture hall filled with young, energetic college students, chatting and socializing, until their professor asks for quiet. Camera pans to the front of the lecture hall and we see that the professor is MICHAEL ARRUDA.)

MICHAEL ARRUDA: All right, we’re ready to begin. Please have your books open to page 22, and we’ll pick up from where we left off last time. (Turns to address camera) Hey, if I have to go undercover at a college campus, there’s no way I’m passing myself off as a student, so I have to pose as a professor. In my case, it’s more like 52 Jump Street, rather than 22.

Welcome everyone to another edition of CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT. I’m Michael Arruda— L.L. Soares is off on another assignment— and this week I’m reviewing the new comedy 22 JUMP STREET, starring Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, the inevitable sequel to their hit comedy 21 JUMP STREET (2012) which was itself a comedic reboot of the classic hit TV series 21 JUMP STREET (1987-1991) starring Johnny Depp.

STUDENT (raising hand): Excuse me, professor? Who are you talking to?

MA (points to camera): I’m talking to the audience.

STUDENT: I thought we were your audience?

MA: Well, the truth is, I’m not really your professor. I’m really here to review the new comedy 22 JUMP STREET. Care to hear about it?

STUDENT: Why do you think we’re here? This is Film Criticism Class, and today’s movie is 22 JUMP STREET. And you’re our guest speaker.

MA: Why— of course I am! And let’s get right to it then, shall we? (Looks at camera and shrugs).

I liked the movie 21 JUMP STREET well enough, but in all honesty, I wasn’t really into seeing its sequel, today’s movie, 22 JUMP STREET, for the simple reason that most of the time, sequels aren’t very good, and some movies don’t really need sequels, and I’d have to say this is one of them.

But the theater was packed, and so obviously a lot of folks would disagree with me.

STUDENT: I definitely wanted to see 22 JUMP STREET.

MA: Well, good for you. And I would say the majority of the audience were people under the age of 25, so maybe I just don’t fit into the target audience demographic.

Anyway, in 22 JUMP STREET, we find our likable heroes Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) botching a drug arrest and letting the main baddie known as The Ghost (Peter Stormare) get away. As a result, they are sent to 22 Jump Street, the building across the street from 21 Jump Street, where they once more find themselves working for Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), who this time sends them off to college, where they will once again work undercover, this time posing as college students in order to find out who is dealing a new controversial drug on campus known as WHYPHY, pronounced “WiFi,” a set-up for one of the movie’s many gags.

While Schmidt befriends a beautiful young art student name Maya (Amber Stevens) in order to learn more about the young woman who died on campus from WHYPHY, Jenko follows another lead and joins the football team, developing a close friendship with the quarterback Zook (Wyatt Russell) who may or may not be a possible drug dealer. Schmidt also has to deal with Maya’s very strange and annoying roommate Mercedes (Jillian Bell) who always seems to be watching them at the most inopportune moments.

Of course, in a movie like this, the plot is secondary, serving only as a set-up for the movie’s gags, and this film is full of them from start to finish. Some of the gags work, while others don’t. For me, although there were jokes galore, most of them weren’t overly funny, and so while I did laugh here and there, it was a rarity that I laughed out loud. The nearly sold out audience was also relatively quiet.

One of the funnier gags involved the relationship between Schmidt and Captain Dickson’s daughter, or to be more specific, the discovery that Schmidt had unknowingly slept with his boss’ daughter. This entire sequence generated some of the loudest laughs in the theater.

I also liked the fight between Schmidt and Mercedes, where awkward moments of possible affection creep in and ultimately he’s forced to punch a woman.

FEMALE STUDENT: Punch a woman? What kind of a message is this movie sending?

MA: If you’d seen this woman, you’d want to punch her, too.

FEMALE STUDENT (shocked): What kind of a message are you sending?

MA: That it’s a silly movie without a message. Seriously, it’s a non-issue. It’s a completely goofy movie.

FEMALE STUDENT: I don’t know.

MA: Look, here we are, you and I, in real life, and I’m not about to punch you or even think about punching a woman because of what I saw in this movie, and I’m only going on about this because you brought it up. Why did you bring it up, by the way?

FEMALE STUDENT: Because I’m a college student and I like to think about everything.

MA: That’s good. It’s good to think about everything. You and I could think about everything together after class.

FEMALE STUDENT: That’s creepy.

MA: Well, I’m a horror writer. That’s what I do.

Let’s get back to the movie.

But a lot of the other jokes, while I wouldn’t say they misfire, simply aren’t all that funny. The banter between Hill and Tatum is amiable enough, but it’s not as fresh as it was the first time around. The slapstick sequences are mediocre, and in general the humor isn’t as biting or outrageous as it needs to be.

What does misfire is the running gag of Schmidt and Jenko being brothers, or that they share more than just friendship. When Jenko discovers he shares a brotherly bond with Zook, Schmidt becomes insanely jealous. This plot point just didn’t work for me. It seemed phony, and it wasn’t funny, and it goes on forever as the movie keeps coming back to it. Likewise, a huge chunk of time is also spent on Jenko’s and Zook’s relationship, as we watch them bond over one thing after another, and it’s supposed to be funny, but it all comes off as rather odd and generally falls flat.

And so overall I didn’t think the humor here was quite as sharp as it was in the first movie. The screenplay by Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, and Rodney Rothman tries hard and throws all kinds of jokes our way, but only a handful work. Bacall wrote the first 21 JUMP STREET movie as well as SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD (2010), and Rothman co-wrote GRUDGE MATCH (2013) the Sylvester Stallone/Robert De Niro comedy that I liked, although it didn’t perform all that well at the box office.

STUDENT: I really liked SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD.

MA: Me, too. It was one of my favorite movies from 2010.

The screenplay even pokes fun at how sequels can be repetitive, as there’s a running gag where the characters constantly talk about doing things differently, and not doing things the same this time, and that things will be different. Trouble is, things aren’t so different from the first time. The biggest difference is the film is less funny than the first one.

One of the more creative parts of the movie is the end credits, where we get to view a montage of potential future sequels putting Schmidt and Jenko in various undercover roles, in settings like culinary school, in Russia, in space, and on and on. This sequence was pretty funny. I wish the rest of the film had been as inspired.

Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are OK here, but I liked them much better in the first movie. They simply weren’t as funny or as enjoyable together this time around. It’s Ice Cube as Captain Dickson who gets to enjoy some of the funniest parts of the movie, and that about says it all: when Ice Cube is more comical than both Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, that doesn’t bode well for the movie.

I also thought Jonah Hill was more subdued here than normal. In the past, he’s made me laugh out loud with some of his performances. Compared to his work in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013), the first 21 JUMP STREET (2012) and MONEYBALL (2011), his performance here was somewhat of a dud.

Channing Tatum’s performance was also on the lackluster side. While it looked like Hill and Tatum had a good time making this movie, it didn’t translate into laughs. It was almost like “wink, wink. Here we are doing our same shtick again. Isn’t it funny?” They should have worked really hard on a new shtick.

I liked Jillian Bell as the oddball roommate Mercedes. Her best moments come early on, when she’s just the strange roommate. Later, when she becomes more involved in the plot, she’s less effective, as she’s better as a peripheral character than a major player.

The rest of the cast either play it straight, as in Amber Stevens as Maya, or are slightly goofy and ultimately fail to make much of a comedic impression, as in Wyatt Russell as Zook.

22 JUMP STREET was directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and they directed the first JUMP STREET film as well. They should have quit while they were ahead.

22 JUMP STREET is a silly film that plays out pretty much exactly as I expected it to. It’s fairly funny, and there are tons of gags throughout, but it suffers from being a sequel, as it’s nowhere near as fresh as the first film, nor is it as inspired, nor do the key players impress as much as they did the first time around. And most importantly, it’s simply not as funny as the first film.

For me, it was a lackluster movie.

I give it two knives.

(Turns to students)

Okay, that was my review. For your homework, go off and see a movie this weekend and have a review written for next class.

STUDENT: Can you assign homework? I thought you were just a guest lecturer.

MA: It’s your choice. But if you don’t do the assignment, you’’ll have to deal with him.

STUDENT: Who?

(MA sets up a computer and projection screen to show a live feed on the screen. L.L. SOARES appears in a close-up wearing a blood-stained tee shirt and holding an axe dripping with blood.)

L.L. SOARES: You better do your friggin homework or I’m coming for you! In fact, I just left the room of the last guy who didn’t write me a review.

MA: We have high standards here at Cinema Knife Fight. Don’t let us down.

(Students flee.)

MA: Well, you gotta weed out the ones who don’t have a stomach for this job.

Thanks for joining us everyone. We’ll be back next week with a review of another new movie.

—END—