War Dogs

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2016

Warner Bros. Pictures

Directed by Todd Phillips

Produced by Mark Gordon/Todd Phillips/Bradley Cooper

Screenplay by Stephen Chin/Todd Phillips/Jason Smilovic

Based on “Arms and The Dudes” by Guy Lawson

Small time arms dealer Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) succulently explains the term ‘War Dog’ to his best friend David Packouz (Miles Teller) in such a way that it sounds extremely simple and lucrative to him. Put simply, ‘War Dogs’ make a profit selling ammunition and guns to whoever needs them and never set foot on the battlefield or get anywhere near the fighting, bombing and killing that is associated with war. David is seriously in need of money. His girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) is pregnant and he’s making $75 an hour as a masseur. Efraim seems like an opportunity that is way too good to pass up when he offers to make David his partner and show him the business. I’m sure that we’re all familiar with the old saying that if it looks too good to be true then it probably is.

WAR DOGS follows the slap-happy adventures of these two 20-something Jewish guys from Florida who got filthy rich on government military contracts. The key to their success? Efraim lays it out for David; they go after the smaller contracts that the bigger contractors don’t bother to look at. But even the small contracts are worth millions and these deals can all be done online. Efraim and David never even have to leave the office. Before you know it, the boys have matching condos in a luxury high-rise, matching Porsches, more money than they know what to do with and have become so successful they have to hire help and incorporate their business.

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As usual in stories such as this, greed begins to take hold and the boys chase after bigger and bigger contracts. They almost get killed running guns in Fallujah (“Hey, we’re gunrunners, bro…let’s go run some guns!”) as things go wrong and it turns out that they do have to get out of the office and out into the field.  Thanks to that job, their reputation blows up and leads to The Afghan Deal and a sketchy partnership with Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper) an Old School arms dealer whose background definitely gives David cause for concern. But The Afghan Deal is too good to turn down. If David and Efraim can pull it off, it’ll put a cool $300 million in their pockets. Where it leads them to is David stuck in Albania, kidnapped by gangsters and threatened with death with Efraim back in Miami, contemplating the best way to cheat David out of his money.

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How does it all end up? If you’ve seen movies like “Pain & Gain” “Scarface” (which WAR DOGS references heavily) “Boiler Room” you can guess with no problem at all how it has to eventually go down. In fact, if you’ve seen “Wolf of Wall Street” then this movie will seem very familiar to you. Just substitute guns for stocks. And Jonah Hill gets to be Leonardo DiCaprio in this movie. I swear he must have it into his contract now that there has to be at least one scene where he snorts coke off a hooker’s butt.

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Hill clearly walks away with this movie from start to finish. He reminded me a lot of Classic Joe Pesci in many of his scenes in that just like Joe Pesci, Hill can go from being charming to funny to coldly psychotic in three seconds flat. I’ve long had the opinion that Hill is better in dramatic roles than he is in straight comedies. He’s funny in his dramas but the humor he brings to a drama enriches the material rather than being an annoying distraction. He knows how make Efraim Diveroli funny without diluting the dangerous qualities of the character.

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Miles Teller is surprisingly good as David Packouz and I’m glad to see he’s continuing to get solid work after that “Fantastic Four” debacle. I think the screenplay bends over backwards to give David a respectable motivation for getting into gunrunning and make him a likeable sucker who just got into something way over his head. Ana de Armas is attractive to look at but unnecessary to the story as the real romance is between Efraim and David. Bradley Cooper pops in and out of the movie in what is a small but pivotal role, especially at the conclusion which ends the movie on just the right tone.

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Based on a true story, WAR DOGS really doesn’t do anything new or groundbreaking. It’s a story we’ve seen many times before in film but when it’s done well we don’t mind watching it. I do think that director Todd Phillips could have gotten a little crazier with the story and characters and sometimes it seems as if he’s trying just a little bit too hard to be Martin Scorsese (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) but his heart is in the right place. WAR DOGS isn’t the movie to save what has been a really dull and boring summer movie season but it’s a movie that knows what it is and what it’s supposed to do and most of the time, that’s good enough for me. Go see it for the performances and the goofy yet plausible story. It’s a solid and professionally crafted two hours of entertainment I recommend highly.

2 hrs.

Rated R

The LEGO Movie

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2014

Warner Animation Group/Village Roadshow Pictures

Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Produced by Dan Lin and Roy Lee

Screenplay by Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Story by Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman, Phil Lord and Chris Miller

Based on Lego Construction Toys

The only people I can see having a problem with THE LEGO MOVIE are the same Batman fans who had a problem with the animated TV series “The Brave and The Bold.” Like THE LEGO MOVIE, “The Brave and The Bold” wasn’t afraid to poke fun at Batman and lighten up the character. Plenty of Batman fans absolutely detested “The Brave and The Bold” as they thought it was outright blasphemy that any trace of humor or comedy should or could be associated with Batman. Those are the ones who need to stay away from this movie, then. Me, I got a kick out of a Lego Batman who flies around in a Lego Batplane with his girlfriend composing heavy metal songs about how cool it is to be Lego Batman.

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Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is a construction worker living in Bricksburg, a Lego city that apparently is one huge construction project. He cheerfully follows the instructions for his daily routine as laid out in his instruction manual and goes to work singing the only song that exists in this world; “Everything Is Awesome!” I song I guarantee you will absolutely not be able to get out of your head once you’ve heard it.

One day at work Emmet finds a mysterious red brick that seems to speak to him and gives him visions. He passes out and upon awakening finds the brick attached to his back and himself in the custody of Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson)  the chief henchman of Lord Business. (Will Ferrell) Lord Business has possession of The Kragle, a superweapon that he intends to use to freeze the various realms of The Lego Universe in place forever. The only thing that stands in his way is a prophecy that was spoken to him eight and a half years ago by the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman) that a person called The Special would use The Piece of Resistance to stop The Kragle.

Emmet is rescued by Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) from the clutches of Bad Cop/Good Cop and takes him to Vitruvius who explains that there are Master Builders fighting against Lord Business, so named because they are capable of building anything they need out of Legos without need of an instruction manual, simply using their own creativity. Other Master Builders are Lego versions of characters we’re familiar with such as Batman (Will Arnett) Superman (Channing Tatum) Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) Wonder Woman (Cobie Smulders) Shaquille O’Neal (Shaquille O’Neal) Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte) William Shakespeare. (Jorma Taccone) And a few other characters we’re meeting for the first time such as Metal Beard the Pirate (Nick Offerman) Benny The Space Guy (Charlie Day) and Princess Unikitty (Alison Brie) a unicorn/anime kitten hybrid whose unrelenting optimism and upbeat cheerfulness borders on the frightening.

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Can Emmet overcome his lack of creativity and come up with a plan to unite The Master Builders into a team and defeat Lord Business? What is The Piece of Resistance and how exactly is it supposed to be used to stop The Kragle? And what is the secret of The Man Upstairs?

Finding out the answers to these questions is a delight for the audience to find out as the characters do and you’ll have a good time doing so. A movie like this walks a fine line in entertaining kids while keeping adults engaged and the adults at the showing of THE LEGO MOVIE Patricia and I attended sounded like they were having just as much fun as their kids. I know we were.

The more cynical among you would say that THE LEGO MOVIE is simply a 100 minute commercial to sell toys and you’d be wrong. The filmmakers have actually taken their time to tell a real story about creative freedom. Lord Business wants to lock everything into a set form, following a rigid set of rules and instructions while The Master Builders want everybody to be free to explore whatever it is they can dream up and create. But it doesn’t beat you over the head with that message and never forgets it’s supposed to be entertaining and funny as well. Chris Pratt is utterly charming as Emmet. Between this and “Guardians of The Galaxy” 2014 was a good year for him. Will Arnett walks off with the voice acting honors in this one as his Batman is so wickedly pompous. And Jonah Hill is right behind with his Green Lantern who so desperately wants to be Superman’s best bud and is constantly rebuffed by the Lego Man of Steel.

But it’s not really fair to single out one or two because everybody gets a chance to shine with their characters and get their funny lines or scenes as the rollercoaster plot takes us through various Lego worlds and to the final confrontation with Lord Business that definitely did not end the way I thought it would.

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So should you see THE LEGO MOVIE? By all means. It’s got terrifically colorful animation and and an outstanding voice cast. The story is simple enough for kids to grasp but witty enough that it doesn’t insult the intelligence of adults. This is the best kind of movie. One that does not want to do anything but entertain, make you feel good and send you home with a smile on your face.

Rated PG

100 minutes

The Wolf Of Wall Street

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2013

Paramount Pictures

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Produced by Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, Emma Tillinger Koskoff

Screenplay by Terence Winter

Based on “The Wolf of Wall Street” by Jordan Belfort

I suppose it had to happen sooner or later. With THE WOLF OF WALL STREET this now makes five movies Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have collaborated on and I’ve enjoyed all of them (yes, even “Shutter Island. So there.) up to now. It’s not that THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is a bad movie. At this point I don’t think that Scorsese or DiCaprio are capable of making a bad movie. But for me this wasn’t a very enjoyable or even satisfying movie.

It’s the story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) who in 1987 becomes a stockbroker at a well-established Wall Street firm. He’s as green as a Christmas tree until he’s mentored by his boss, Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey in a totally hilarious extended cameo) who introduces Belfort to cocaine and encourages him to adopt a lifestyle totally dedicated to making money and then spending it in as lavish a lifestyle as that money will buy.

To achieve this, Belfort decides to open his own firm, going into partnership with Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) and hiring his friends, most of them petty drug dealers who Belfort trains to become as ruthless as he is in selling penny stocks. What are penny stocks you ask? Don’t worry if you don’t know. In one of the many breaking the fourth wall scenes in the movie, Belfort looks right at us in the audience and explains what they are and how he is able to manipulate them to grow his firm from working out of a dilapidated garage into a billion dollar company.

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And as the company grows, so does the excess. Belfort throws lavish parties in his home and in the office. Parties with plenty of drugs, hookers and booze. Belfort quickly becomes hooked on coke, Quaaludes and prostitutes but his real addiction remains making and spending money. Money that comes in so quickly and in such quantity that he soon is being investigated by FBI agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) With the help of Brad Bodnick (Jon Bernthal) another one of his drug dealing friends, Belfort begins transferring money out of the country and into a Swiss bank. Belfort is starting to hear words from friends and family he doesn’t like. Words like “securities fraud” and “stock manipulation” which can earn you a twenty-five year government sponsored vacation, if you know what I mean. With the threat of the FBI breathing down his neck and his home life in shambles, what’s a multi-millionaire drug addict to do?

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 THE WOLF OF WALL STREET isn’t a story with a lot of surprises or twists and turns in the plot. We’ve seen it all before in other movies. In fact, if you’ve seen 2000’s “Boiler Room” starring Giovanni Ribisi, Vin Diesel and Ben Affleck then you have seen it as that earlier movie was also based on Jordan Belfort’s story. But for me it really isn’t a movie with much of a story at all. And even though I enjoy scenes of debauchery as much as the next guy, after the ninth or tenth scene of DiCaprio and his cohorts banging hookers while snorting blow offa their boobs I was tired of it already. You don’t have to keep hitting me over over the head with it. I get it, these guys like getting high and screwing prostitutes. Okay, fine. Let’s move on and tell the story.

I will say that when the movie goes into comedy mode it is very funny. There’s a scene where Belfort overdoses on Quaaludes that is absolutely hysterical and had not only myself but the entire audience Patricia and I saw the movie with crying with laughter. Yes, it’s that funny. As I mentioned earlier, Matthew McConaughey is also very funny in his brief but pivotal scenes. Jonah Hill continues to amaze me as I don’t find him funny at all in his comedies but he always makes me laugh when he’s being funny in a drama. Rob Reiner and Kyle Chandler also provide more than able backup in supporting roles as does Margot Robbie as Naomi Belfort. She’s a triple threat in that she’s unbelieveably gorgeous, wonderfully talented as an actress and gloriously uninhibited. I was pleasantly and delightfully surprised to see Jon Favreau and Joanna Lumley also show up doing their usual excellent work.

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But this is a movie that has a story that we’ve all seen way too many times already. It’s the rags-to-riches story of a guy with no conscience who rises to the mountaintop of power and wealth and brought down low by his flaws and weaknesses. There are plenty of individual scenes I liked a lot and made me laugh but taken as a whole, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET disappointed me. Still, it is a Scorsese/DiCaprio collaboration so that makes it worth one viewing at least. But if I were you, I’d wait to Netflix it. This isn’t a movie you have to rush to the theaters to see unless you’re a major Scorsese or DiCaprio fan.

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One word of advice: the movie is rated R but I honestly think that it earned and should have gotten the NC-17. There are many scenes with graphic language, drug use and explicit sex. This is a movie that pushes the R rating as far as it can go and I ain’t lying. In fact, I can’t remember the last movie I saw before this one that used the ‘F’ word and it’s variations so many times. So don’t go see it and then complain about the language, nudity, sex scenes and drug usage ‘cause I’m telling you. It’s there, there’s a lot of it and Martin Scorsese ain’t the least bit shy about showing it to you.

Rated R

179 Minutes

 

 

 

 

Django Unchained

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2012

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Produced by Reginald Hudlin, Stacy Sher and Pilar Savone

At the end of the day after we’ve finally put to bed all the complaints about Quentin Tarantino’s use of the word ‘nigger’, the stylized ultra-violence and placing the story of DJANGO UNCHAINED in the pre-Civil War, slavery infested American South ultimately it comes down to one thing: is DJANGO UNCHAINED a movie worth your time and money seeing? I think it is. And I recommend it highly. But you have to keep in mind that I’m a confirmed Quentin Tarantino fan and so I tend to overlook a lot of the flaws in his movies. And they do have flaws, as do all movies as there’s no such thing as a perfect movie. It’s just that Tarantino gets so many things right in his movies I’m totally willing to cut him much slack on those flaws. And I just love his attitude about making movies. He just goes ahead and puts it all out there, manically throwing in so many influences from so many things that you can’t rightly point at a Tarantino movie and say that it’s strictly a crime story or a revenge drama or a war movie. And in the case of DJANGO UNCHAINED it’s a spaghetti western, a comedy, a romantic quest, a revenge saga and a surprisingly honest look at slavery as it existed in the period before the Civil War. That honesty comes with a whole lot of brutality and pain and Tarantino doesn’t turn away from it.

DJANGO UNCHAINED has nothing to do with the classic 1966 spaghetti western “Django” save that the protagonists share the name. There is a subtle passing of the torch in a nice little scene between Jamie Foxx and the original Django, Franco Nero himself but it’s not at all necessary to have seen the earlier movie. This new Django is a black man, a slave with no future save to work and die. But he’s given a new life when he is freed by Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) a dentist turned bounty hunter. Schultz is hunting three men who have sizeable bounties on their heads. He’s never seen them before but Django has. Schultz makes a deal with Django who is frankly bewildered by this loquacious, articulate white man who treats him with respect and speaks to him as an equal. If Django helps him find the three men, he’ll give Django his freedom and part of the bounty money.

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During the course of their hunt for the Brittle Brothers, Schultz teaches Django how to shoot and how to track men as he discovers that the ex-slave in his words is “born for this line of work” and shortly the two men are full partners in bounty hunting. Their friendship grows such a degree that Schultz agrees to help Django rescue his wife Brunhilde/Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) who was separated from her husband and sold to Calvin J. Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) master of the fourth largest plantation in Mississippi, Candyland. Candyland is famous for the Mandingo fighters Candie trains and it’s by pretending that they are interested in buying one of his fighters that gets Django and Schultz inside Candyland. But due to the suspicious nature of Candyland’s majordomo Steven (Samuel L. Jackson) the partners may not make it out alive, much less accomplish their mission.

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I have to admit again that I’m a sucker for the reckless operatic nature of any Tarantino film and DJANGO UNCHAINED is no different. It looks and feels like a big movie should and it has the acting power to back it up. And in addition, Tarantino has put away his toolbox of his usual stylistic visual effects to just tell his story and trust the strength of that story and the performances to back it up. Christoph Waltz I fell in love with five minutes into the movie. At first I thought it was a little risky for Tarantino to put the beginning of this film on his shoulders the way he did in “Inglourious Basterds” but Waltz quickly establishes that this is a totally different character and does it very well with a quirky edge that is both very funny and very dangerous.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson appear to have some sort of private side bet to see who can out-ham the other in their scenes together and I mean that in the best possible way. They’re having fun with the material and their characters and it shows in their outstanding performances. I’ve never been much of a Jamie Foxx fan but I liked his performance a lot here. His transformation from raggedy slave to professional bounty hunter to avenging angel is thrilling to watch. And I thought it really refreshing to have as a protagonist an heroic black man who is motivated by the love he has for his wife and wants her back. It gives the movie an emotional core that puts it on a level above a simple revenge or hunt for gold plot.

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If there’s anything in the movie I can point to and go, “say wha now?” it’s Kerry Washington’s performance in the movie. Not that it’s a bad one. Or even a good one as there simply isn’t enough there for me to say one way or another. Considering that it’s her character’s plight that gets the story going, Kerry Washington has surprisingly few lines and even fewer scenes. Oh, trust me when I say that she works with what she’s been given but it just struck me as odd that more wasn’t done with her character.

What else? There’s the parade of familiar and not so familiar faces in the movie. I didn’t recognize Lee Horsley, Tom Wopat, Robert Carradine, Tom Savini or James Remar. But I did recognize Dennis Christopher, Bruce Dern, Walton Goggins and James Russo. And I most certainly did recognize Don Johnson and Jonah Hill in an absolutely side-splitting scene  involving The Klan and a discussion about the proper way to cut eyeholes in a hood that is hilarious enough to be worthy of Mel Brooks.

Two more things and I’ll let you get back to what you were doing. The language is extremely raw and graphic and ‘nigger’ is used freely, often and by every member of the cast. If you are offended by the word then I strongly urge you to give the movie a pass. However, if you can accept the usage of the word considering the period of American history the movie is set in as one where the word was used commonly, fine. Mind you, I’m not condoning or condemning the use of the word. But I do consider it my duty as a reviewer of the movie to inform you that the word is used and used a LOT.

The violence. I’d heard a lot about the violence in DJANGO UNCHAINED and maybe I’ve become desensitized due to all the violent movies I’ve seen but I actually didn’t see anything in DJANGO UNCHAINED I hadn’t seen before. The gunfights are obviously inspired by Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch” and there are some grisly scenes of mayhem and torture that actually could have been worse if Tarantino had lingered on them. But he stays on the shot just long enough for you to get the idea and then he cuts away to let your imagination fill in the rest.

So should you see DJANGO UNCHAINED? Chances are that if you’re a Quentin Tarantino fan you’ll already made up your mind to see it and if you’re not then I doubt anything I’ve said here will change your mind. But for me, it’s another home run for him. Quentin Tarantino hasn’t yet made a movie I haven’t enjoyed and I immensely enjoyed DJANGO UNCHAINED.

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Rated R

165 minutes