War Dogs (2016): A Good Idea Not Fully Explored

war-dogs

      First I have two things I have to admit up front. Great comedies are hard to come by for me, I can’t think of many modern comedies that I’d say are truly amazing, most comedies I have watched in recent time have been overrated and not funny or simply decent. A movie needs more than jokes and setup, it has to have a larger point if the jokes and narrative can’t carry the film. The second is that I haven’t seen any of “The Hangover” films so I don’t know if this direct has other stuff or if his style is to ignore larger points and just got for large character stuff that lacks any sort of point. This movie was still enjoyable, but it was forgettable and it isn’t something I’d watch again for the non-spoiler thoughts before I jump into the review.

      “War Dogs” was directed by Todd Phillips who also was one of the writers and producers with the other writers being Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic. The story is also based off the book “Arms and the Dudes” by Guy Lawson.

    The story involves David Packouz (Miles Tiller) who is miserable in his life as a massage therapist in Miami until his friend from Middle School Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) pulls him into the arms business. All is not as it seems though as he begins to live a lie with his wife and finds that Efraim is hiding things from him.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Premise – The premise of two friends getting into the arms business, one of whom is anti-war is such an intriguing premise. There is so much you can do with this…from buyers and ending the war, to the reasons to and not deal with certain groups. None of that is done though…

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack has some great classic songs through the film that have some pretty cool war scenes. It helped make the experience of the film enjoyable.

Henry Girard – Bradley Cooper plays this dealer related to the Albanians who our protagonists deal with. He’s on a terrorist watch list and is in control of everything through most of the film, even though he’s a side character. If the film had been about him I have a feeling the film would be a 7 or 8 at least, Cooper does an amazing job in this role.

The Ending – David is given a choice to go back into the business as he covers for Girard and has the choice to take his money and the connections that come with it after it seems he’s moved on with his life. It’s powerful but the journey to get there takes away from it.

Okay: David – David is bland, you get he’s fed up with his job as a massage therapist and later selling sheets and that he loves his wife Iz…but she only exists as motivation for him and his relationship with Efraim never feels fully formed. We see his rise happen way too quickly and his heal turn is abrupt. It was predictable in the end and his character could have been played by anyone.

Efraim – Jonah Hill is fun but he is in a malformed character who we are supposed to sympathize with but at every opportunity we see he is only a selfish character out for himself. Even Hill’s charisma can’t make this character anything more than passable fun.

The Cons: Iz – She is there to motivate David’s actions and his eventual turn back to good. She has no motivation outside of their kid and David…she isn’t really a character just a plot device.

Morality is never Confronted – They sell weapons when one of them is supposedly anti-war. There is moral dilemma and confrontation right there…but we never get the why and David just goes along with everything.

Lack of Complexity – David is along for the ride of this very weak script, the film wants to be smart and humanize the Middle East but everyone in Albania and the Middle East are like Iz, they are plot devices to advance David and Efraim’s plot and from that what chance there was for complexity and tragedy is forgotten.

Lack of Consequence – Our protagonists don’t really face any consequences. David ends up back with his wife after she leaves him and even though Efraim goes to prison for 7 years, he is shown to be so wealthy and we never see him beat…so chances are he’s fine, 7 months in prison did nothing to David considering Girard’s cash.

What was the Point? – You have a gun about people selling weapons in the middle of a war. How can a film have a chance to explore morality, mortality and choice and forget about all of that…the comedy isn’t enough to make this film good or even great and the drama is predictable…What was the point?

  This is a movie that couldn’t tackle the big question. It never dealt with the wars in the Middle East even though our characters were right in the middle of all of it, David and Efraim face no consequences beyond a light sentence (months in prison for David, only 7 years for Efraim). The jokes didn’t really work either because we were never given reason to like Efraim, the guy is selfish from the beginning and never shows himself to be anything more than a selfish guy only out for himself, so his betrayal and somewhat fall had no feeling behind it. It wasn’t two friends falling out and that is what the film could have been. This lack of purpose and point when dealing with some pretty hardcore moral issues hurt it and the comedy wasn’t strong enough to make up for the lack of point to the drama. Still, this is a fun film if you don’t want to think…those are just the kind of films I don’t see again.

Final Score: 6 / 10

Hell’s Angels (1930): Great Action, Decent Leads But Uneven

Hells Angels poster

     The film “The Aviator” lead me to check out “Hell’s Angels” as the first part of the film is Howard Hughes making this film. I got to say, it is a great film but it isn’t a favorite. It has some character issues that keep it from perfection, though visually it’s stunning and the ending is powerful. This is a film, like any good war film that explores the cost of war and what it means to be a person having to make though choices within it.

     The film was directed by Howard Hughes who also produced it with uncredited directorial help from James Whale, Edmund Goulding and Fred Fleck. and was written by Harry Behn, Howard Estabrook and Joseph Moncure March.

     The story involves brothers Roy (James Hall) and Monte (Ben Lyon) who are pulled into World War I as pilots and called upon a special bombing run they may not come back from. As each has his own reasons for taking the suicide mission.

The Pros: The Cinematography – Tony Gaudio and Harry Perry did a great job with the cinematography. There is great use of color to show conflict as well as great use of clouds for the shadows of war. The cinematography is easily the strongest part of this film.

The Three Leads – The three leads are the strongest part as each of them feels fully defined and should have received more development. Their interactions are what really made the film for me outside of the actions.

Karl – Karl is a German student going to Oxford who ends up becoming part of the German Army during the war. He ends up being sacrificed by his commanding officer after he bombs England when his Captain is trying to escape. His story is a tragedy as he described himself as more English than anything else and you could see how his duty was killing him before his Captain finally did. John Darrow does a good job.

Roy – Roy is the womanizer who doesn’t see anything deeper beyond experiencing the now. He only cares about Monte but even that only goes so far as at his base he just wants to live. We see him experiment with anarchy at one point before he joins the suicide mission to destroy the German Munitions factory. In the end Monte kills him when he is about to confess the military plans to the German Captain who has them captured. James Hall does a good job.

Monte – Monte is the hero who is the way he is because he needs surety. That is destroyed when he finds out that Helen’s been cheating on him but he comes back for the mission and is so by the book he kills Roy when Roy is about to confess the plans. In the end he dies alone calling out his brothers name though his sacrifice made England assaulting German headquarters possible. Ben Lyon is the best actor in this.

The Cost of a Mission – We see the human cost through everything that goes down. From Roy giving up, Karl being sacrificed and all the folks who die in the battles we see through the war. The cost is always there even when victory happens.

Loss – The three leads die and show the tragedy of war and how the three friends who could have grown old together had it cut short when they became tools of something bigger them.

The Cons: Helen – She sleeps around and cheats on Monte and that is the extent of her character. She’s a plot device that is never allowed to come into her own and have her own motivations.

Lack of Focus – This mostly applies to the battles which often times go on way too long. This film could have been cut if the battles had been cut in half, they purposes are achieved and when we get back to the characters the story is back in focus, but before that the story takes a lot of side detours for action.

   This is a great film that is worth checking out, though I wouldn’t call it a favorite or perfect. It explores a lot of themes that give it a lot of power, but the romantic lead just being selfish and given no depth hurt the story as did the fact that some fight scenes kept going on and took us away from the human drama of the brothers and their friend Karl.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10

The Aviator (2004): A True Scorsese Biopic Masterpiece

aviator

     I think at this point “The Aviator” is my favorite Martin Scorsese film. It has an amazing soundtrack, cinematography, writing and cast and deserves all the awards it won. It is a film I definitely plan to watch again and it inspired me to check out Howard Hughes’s films, which will be some later reviews down the road.

      The film was directed by Martin Scorsese, written by John Logan and produced by Michael Mann, Sandy Climan, Graham King and Charles Evans Jr. It is also based off the book Howard Hughes: The Secret Life by Charles Higham.

     The story is a biopic of Howard Hughes and the conflicts he went through with the businesses he owned and his role as a director and producer in Hollywood while dealing with his obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

The Pros: The Soundtrack – It’s Howard Shore so the fact that the soundtrack is amazing doesn’t come as much of a surprise. He does a great job here of capturing the jazz of the era, the torment in Howard Hughes’s mind. He truly did a masterful job on this soundtrack.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is stunning, especially in any sequences where Hughes is flying in one of his planes. Robert Richardson did a great job and the film is beautiful.

The Writing – The writing is really solid in this. People talk like they would in the era and we get a lot of show rather than tell, which is the screenwriter John Logan doing  a great job at his job. This film is long but it doesn’t feel long because of the writing.

The Characters – The main characters and their relationships are really what drive the film and it is fascinating to see how they interact and react to Hughes, who is an unstable genius. His relationships are really what drive the film.

Katharine Hepburn – Cate Blanchett does a fantastic job as Katharine Hepburn. She’s eccentric and selfish just like Hughes, but we see does have a little more self-awareness and did try to deal with the problems in their relationship that he ignored since he was so focused on his job. She moves on and is happier for it, though in his darkest place she still reaches out as a friend, even after how cruel he was when they broke up.

Noah Dietrich – John C. Reilly plays Hughes’s second in command and is the one making everything happen behind the scenes. Reilly is a great actor, which I really didn’t realize until this film. His arc is learning to put his foot down with Hughes so that Hughes won’t destroy the companies he created with his different projects.

Juan Trippe – Trippe is the owner of Pan Am Airlines and the main antagonist in the film. He is played by Alec Baldwin who does a good job in the role and manages to imbue the character with honor, humanity and ruthlessness. His arc is when he stops the fight after the hearing becomes an attack against him rather than the attack against Hughes it was meant to be.

Senator Brewster – Alan Alda is one of my favorite actors and it is wonderful seeing him in an antagonistic role as he works with Trippe to keep Hughes’s airline from competing with Pan Am. He’s ruthless but has a kindness to him as you see that even though he’s corrupt there is still a humanity to the character.

Ava Gardner – Ava is the one Hughes keeps wanting to marry but who continues to turn him down since his crazyness (paranoia, etc.) keep her from feeling safe around him. She is there to help him get back together though and we see she loves him as a friend, just knows that she could never marry him or be in a relationship with him. Kate Beckinsale does a good job.

Howard Hughes – DeCaprio is fantastic as Hughes. He really does a great job as the eccentric millionaire (Hello Gatsby) though this time we get to see the full depths of a very flawed genius. DeCaprio captures his passion, fear, anger and stubbornness and seeing him complete his arc and face his those fears is powerful.

Making “Hell’s Angels” – Making the film “Hell’s Angels” (Which is a pretty good film) is fascinating as we see how Hughes needed everything to be perfect and to be a certain way. Each year see what is going on, whether it is getting more cameras for filming, editing it so that it will be in sound or trying to find clouds to film the flight scenes. This could have been the film and us given more details and it would have been just as great as the film we got.

The Flights – The flights are beautiful. We see fighter planes, spy planes and even a crash that Hughes goes through over the course of the film. In each case the freedom and danger. The planes are beautiful and the shots from the sky are stunning.

The Hearing – They do a good job of overlaying the hearing where Hughes calls Senator Brewster out for business relationship with Juan Trippe and Trippe’s monopoly on the airlines and with it we get the conclusion as he finally pulls himself out of his depression and funk in order to be there and not to panic.

   There isn’t really anything I can say wrong about this film. It hits all the right notes, all the main characters are explored and grow and change or deal as the film progresses and the story has excellent payoffs. I’d highly recommend this film. It is the best film I have seen from Martin Scorsese and deserves all the awards it won. Not only does it give the snapshot of a person during an era, but it also manages to capture the freedom in flying and the passion it takes to make projects a reality.

Final Score: 10 / 10

Kingdom of Heaven (2005): Redemption and a Secular Society as the Road to Peace

Kingdom-of-Heaven_3

        “Kingdom of Heaven” is a great film! I’m at the point now where with historical films…I know there won’t be a truly historically accurate films, but how goes the story and how well is it capturing the world of our characters? I’d say on these counts “Kingdom of Heaven” captures this wonderfully. This film is also a good “Spot that ‘Game of Thrones'” character. I must say Ridley Scott does know how to do Epic as well as personal and this film manages to do both really well.

     The film was written and directed by Ridley Scott and produced by William Monahan.

      The story involves Balian (Orlando Bloom) seeking redemption in Jerusalem and the Crusade after the suicide of his wife and his learning from Baron Godfrey (Liam Neeson) that he is his bastard and heir and must go to serve the King of Jerusalem. Once he arrives he finds himself pulled into the politics as the Templars seek to break the peace with Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) while Balian seeks some sort of peace after he spares the life of Saladin’s second-in-command Nasir (Alexander Siddig) and to protect the Queen Sibylla (Eva Green) who is the woman he loves.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is stunning and Ridley Scott knows how to cast memorable scenes. From Balian being lost in the desert or the darkness of Jerusalem during the siege or time of trial. John Mathieson did a wonderful job on this and created stunning visuals.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is truly epic! It is good at incorporating traditional Arabic instruments and classic instruments and creating rising tension throughout the piece as well as some truly amazing fight music too. Harry Gregson-Williams was the right guy to choose for this soundtrack.

The Action – The battle scenes are amazing! The final battle of the Siege of Jerusalem is really well done as we get to see both siege weapons and a whole bunch of other styles of attack including the final attack after Saladin destroys the wall. Each of the action scenes has purpose too and it is only a few times where it feels like it drags.

The Characters – The characters are one of the strongest part of this film. I wanted to spend more time with them and not getting enough time in a 3 hour film really says a lot for how well they were written and acted. There are not many films that can make me say that, and “Kingdom of Heaven,” did.

Nasir – Alexander Siddig (Bashir of “DS9”) is wonderful as the second-in-command of Saladin and the mystic perspective in Islam as we see he cares about the Christians and sees that it is the good a person does that matters in the end. He attributes that good to God’s will but unlike one of the advisers he is always looking for another way as he has seen the humanity of the people he fights, for example Balian sparing his life and refusing to enslave him lead to him returning the favor and always acting with virtue wherever he was and whatever situation he was in. He was one of my favorite characters.

Sibylla – Eva Green brings a lot of depth to this role as we see someone torn in her role as she loves her brother the King who is a leper but also wants freedom and feels trapped in her role as she is seen as others as a political tool, except for the bastard Balian who never wanted power to begin with. Eventually she finds freedom giving up her role as Queen and becoming Balian’s wife while caring for her people who are now refugees after Saladin spares them.

Guy de Lusignan – Martin Csokas is the main villain in this as he believes God wants the destruction of the heretic and the ascension of the Templars. He is a good antagonist too and nearly succeeds in the assassination of Balian. His life is spared at the end so he still has the chance to become a good person, but given his scheming I think he’d most likely rebuild the Templars who Saladin destroyed and join with King Richard for the next Crusade.

Baron Godfrey – Liam Neeson plays Godfrey, a man who seeks redemption in his son and bastard who he eventually convinces to come to the Holy Land and who he defends against the corrupt local authority. He is injured in the process but is able to point Balian on the right path. He is the man who almost killed Saladin and is respected by all the factions in the region besides the Templars. Neeson plays the flawed wise man really well.

Balian – Orlando Bloom plays the broken noble hero really well. In this he is seeking redemption for his wife who committed suicide and in the end finds himself and realizes that a good God would not put her in Hell, especially as she is still in his heart. After the death of his father and releasing of Nasir he rules over his Baron which is a religiously plural land. This informs his perspective and why King Baldwin respects him as they work towards a peace with Saladin. It is knowing the danger that religion can bring that leads him to threaten to destroy all the holy places too so the fighting will stop…and Saladin agrees showing they both see that the places are hot-spots for instability among both their populaces. After the Siege he leaves with Eva who has become his lover and they give up their titles in order to live with peace simply and care for the refugees. It’s a cool arc and his denial of his role as Baron to King Richard shows that he has finally found peace away from the “Holy Land.”

Saladin – Saladin in the warrior king who we learn is conquering in order to appease the locals who want power and prestige (like the Templars). He is smart though and we see him try to make just decisions while dealing with his own fanatics. Eventually he does attack Jerasulem as he promised but he spares the populace after Balian negotiates terms as we see they both have a similar perspective and that there can’t be real peace if there is only death and loss.

King Baldwin – I didn’t even recognize Edward Norton in this role until I looked it up after. He is wearing a mask and does a wonderful job as the secular king ruling a religiously plural land. He is willing to to anything to keep the peace with Saladin including punishing his own religious fanatics (The Templars) and it is his example and strength that rubs off on both Saladin and Balian as he proves that you don’t need physical strength to have moral strength, and that morality doesn’t come from religion or the rules of religion.

The Importance of Secularism – Secularism is the point of this film as all the good leaders know that only in a place where Christians, Jews and Muslims can live in peace can there be peace…and this means no religion ahead of the others or passing laws against and oppressing the others. This is something the protagonists understand while the antagonists are driven by religion and the power they get from their position within the religion, be they Muslim fanatics or the Templars. Only in a society where there is room for multiple ideas and freedom to express those ideas, can there be peace.

The Danger of Religious Fanaticism – The danger of religious fanaticism is a huge theme too as it is this that leads Saladin to eventually attacking Jerusalem and it is the Templars who keep trying to start the war too as they see the Muslims as heathens and that only those who fight for God will be rewarded. Saladin and King Baldwin in the end are unable to control these factions which eventually leads to war and a breaking of the peace.

The Cons: Pacing – Sometimes it feels like it stretches for too long of time. For example when Balian first becomes Baron over his lands. These scenes stretched too long when we could have got more character moments with the Templars and the other factions in play. For example, I would have loved more time with Saladin.

  This was a powerful film with a message I fully endorse. The dangers of religious fanaticism cannot be warned against enough and this film does that while telling a powerful story and showing just how diverse this region of the world has always been religiously, politically and racially. It is also beautifully filmed, acted and written and is one of the best films to be created by Ridley Scott. If you are looking for a truly epic tale with a message that is timeless and will always ring true, you will probably like this film.

Final Score: 9.4 / 10