Tag Archives: movie

‘Girl on the Train’ Wastes Cast on Sluggish Melodrama

The_Girl_on_The_Train“Girl on the Train?” More like, “Girl, That Was Lame,” amiright?!

“The Girl on the Train” is based on the 2015 New York Times best-selling novel of the same name and follows an alcoholic woman (Emily Blunt) who gets involved with a missing person investigation. Rebecca Ferguson, Haley Bennett, Justin Theroux and Luke Evans also star as Tate Taylor directs.

When I saw the trailer for this I, like many people, made an instant connection to “Gone Girl” due to the feel of the film and the whole “missing wife” plot. Upon seeing the film, it has a few similarities to that film, including non-linear timelines and unreliable narrators, but doesn’t share anything else that made “Gone Girl” so good.

Emily Blunt has really come onto the scene and into her own in the previous few years. After starring in romantic comedies like “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” she headlined the action-thrillers “Looper,” “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Sicario.” So it makes sense that Blunt is the best part of this mystery, but the performances of her and her fellow actors aren’t enough to save the film.

Blunt plays Rachel, a divorcee whose life is spiraling out of control thanks in large part to her alcoholism. Blunt makes the character sympathetic, but at the same time there is an uncomfortable sense about her; when she tries to interact with another person we in the audience almost cringe because of how unnatural and awkward it feels. Justin Theroux (always welcome in my book) plays Rachel’s ex-husband, who remarried and now has a kid, and although he seems like the nicest guy in the world and is admittedly a victim to Rachel’s drinking, there is a tense sense whenever he is in the room.

That is the one thing the film does well, it establishes tones and feels, sometimes multiple at once based on what character is speaking, and being set in New York City during the autumn gives everything a brisk, dark orange glow.

However the performances get drowned out by a screenplay that is so intent on keeping everything in the shadows that is reveals nothing about the plot until the very end. While “Gone Girl” (or most any successful mystery) drops subtle hints throughout about the true nature of its tale, “Girl on the Train” keeps everything spinning and murky until it hits you over the head with the “twist” ending. Except it really can’t be called a twist because it wasn’t truly alluding to one outcome and suddenly flipped the script; it just spins you in circles until you barely know or care what is going on before jerking you to a stop and expecting you to just appreciate that you finally got some answers.

The dialogue doesn’t pop and the direction never is sure-handed enough to take any real chances. It plays out pretty much exactly how you would expect the guy who directed “Get on Up” and “The Help” helming a “Gone Girl” wannabe.

“The Girl on the Train” isn’t *bad* but there is no reason you should ever see it. There aren’t enough thrills to keep you engaged or enough mystery to make you think, and isn’t even so-bad-it’s-good; it’s just so-meh-it’s-boring.

Critics Rating: 4/10

Universal Pictures

Universal Pictures

‘The Birth of a Nation’ a Well-Acted but Heavy Handed Drama

img_8255Another 2016 film, another disappointment.


“The Birth of a Nation” tells the real-life story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion. Nate Parker directs (in his debut), co-writes, produces and stars as Turner, with Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King and Jackie Earle Haley in supporting roles.


This shares a title with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, and that’s no accident. That film is famous for its impressive and revolutionary technical achievements and is subjectively good but objectively racist, depicting the KKK as heroes and black men (some as white men in blackface) as unintelligent. This 2016 film attempts to take the name and give it a new meaning for the 21st century, but despite the best intentions and valiant efforts from its cast, it never rises to its grand aspirations.


Comparing this to “12 Years a Slave” is somewhat lazy but I feel inevitable. And it isn’t simply because both are tales about the evils of slavery in America, but because both feature powerful performances and gorgeous cinematography, however are narratively lacking and feature heavy-handed direction.


Parker is the main character and his Nat Turner is an emotionally conflicted man. He respects his master and is strong in his faith, never wavering that despite being enslaved, God is looking out for him and his family. Parker has several scenes that display his range, going from angry to in tears at the drop of a hat. Annie Hammer plays his master and is a quiet man, and you get the feeling he resents slavery but recognizes its importance to the world he lives in. Hammer has the most arch of any character, as he begins to drown his sorrow in liquor and succumb to the evils of the system.


Subtlety is nowhere to be found here. Parker is a rookie director and this is an ambitious story to take on as a first time project, but he feels the need to make sure no implications are missed. From slow-motion stare-downs to imagery of red blood falling on white cotton, Parker doesn’t miss a chance to make sure you get every point he is trying to get at. It comes off as in-your-face and is almost insulting because he doesn’t think the audience would be intelligent enough to figure things out themselves.


The film also takes a while to find its footing. For almost an hour, nothing happens. We know the film is building towards Turner’s rebellion, so for the first hour to have his life he relatively “good” (his owner was a childhood friend and Turner travels around with him) we never feel the evils that will inevitably push Turner over the edge.


When we finally start to see the true horrors of slavery, it is awful and graphic, and even they surely pale in comparison to the real life events. However nothing feels earned; we know Turner has seen awful things but even once he begins his rebellion, his actions still feel evil and horrific themselves, not fully justified.


Some historians call Turner a religious fanatic, not too different from modern day Islamic extremists, because he used his faith to justify slaughtering men, women and children. If it was Parker’s intentions to create a divide about Turner’s place in history then the film is to be commended; however I don’t think it was his goal to have Turner remembered as anything but a hero.


“The Birth of a Nation” features impressive performances, especially from Parker and Hammer, but it never builds up stakes and is heavy-handedly directed. It is an important story however I had a more engaging and interesting time reading up on Turner’s story afterwards than I did while watching the actual film. It’s an ambitious first project, with Parker as its strongest asset and biggest weakness; but it is his flaws make “Nation” hard to recommend.


Critics Rating: 5/10


Fox Searchlight\

‘Deepwater Horizon’ Big on Booms, Low on Story

Deepwater_Horizon_(film)It’s official: Peter Berg is a more toned down version of Michael Bay.

“Deepwater Horizon” is based on the true story of the 2010 explosion and oil spill by the titular drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Mark Wahlberg stars alongside Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien and Kate Hudson as Peter Berg directs.

I don’t think many people thought we needed a film based off of this tragedy; I mean, 210 million gallons of oil being spilled into Gulf of Mexico and 11 people losing their lives doesn’t exactly scream “Friday night fun.” And after seeing the movie I can tell you Wahlberg and Berg (teaming up again after “Lone Survivor” and before this year’s “Patriots Day”) certainly handle the subject with respect towards those involved and resentment towards BP Oil; however that doesn’t mean their finished product is as good as their intentions.

Mark Wahlberg is a movie star for sure, but I do believe he is underappreciated as an actor. I think he plays “everyday man” better than anyone, and if a muscular, handsome millionaire can make himself feel relatable to an average 20-something like me then clearly he is doing something right. Here, Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, but truly isn’t given too much to do. Williams is pretty much “Mark Wahlberg playing a drilling engineer” and by the time the disaster starts we know very little about him besides he has a wife and daughter and quips like Mark Wahlberg. By the climax he is able to show a range of emotion, but it’s a long journey there.

No characters, in fact, are given much development. Gina Rodriguez is shown having her car’s engine give out on her in the opening scene and that is the only character trait referred to her throughout the duration of the film. There are even characters (I won’t say who to avoid spoilers) who we don’t find out have wives and kids until they’re reunited with them at the climax! Would that have made for some (albeit forced) emotional heft? Yup, but Berg is more concerned with having things go boom.

Which brings me to my main point and circles back to my opening line: Peter Berg has way too much in common with Michael Bay. Berg is a more competent filmmaker, don’t get me wrong, but there are so many gratuitous shots of the American flag in this film it would make Colin Kaepernick’d knee get sore. The first hour of this film is pretty much nothing but explaining how oil drilling works, even though the film (brilliantly and without pandering) conveys in the first five minutes; I guess Berg really wants you to understand how we get stuff from the ground to tubes. The first hour is also filled with shoving it in our faces how negligent and ignorant British Petroleum was. Honestly the first half of this film is really monotonous and (dare I say) boring; I guess this should’ve been called “Deepwater HoriZZZon,” right?!

The second half is better, but it’s overly chaotic and things are constantly spilling and exploding and it is hard to figure out who is who and what is truly going on. Symbolic and a fair representation of the real-life event? Sure. But this is a film, not a documentary, you can take some liberties to streamline your narrative and clear up your sequences.

This one pains me, it really does; I really wanted “Deepwater Horizon” to be good. And I am sick and tired of 2016 films almost all exclusively being, “mehh like it’s fine, I guess?” because we deserve better than “meh, alright,” especially when ticket prices continue to rise. But that’s an argument and complaint for another day. As far as *this* “meh” film goes, it features solid enough performances from actors playing one-dimensional characters and you feel some attachment to the story. But that is purely because this is a real-life tragedy in which 11 people died and corrupt BP officials got off way too easy, not because Berg or Wahlberg earn anything with their big budget booms.

Critics Rating: 4/10

Summit Entertainment

Summit Entertainment

‘Magnificent Seven’ a Surprisingly Dull Western

Magnificent_Seven_2016Do yourself a favor and instead of watching this, go watch “3:10 to Yuma” and then “Seven Samurai” (after reading this review of course).


“The Magnificent Seven” is a remake of the 1960 western film of the same name, which in turn was a remake of the 1954 Japanese film, “Seven Samurai.” It stars Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier as seven outlaws in the 1870s Old West who are hired to save a town from a corrupt industrialist (Peter Sarsgaard). Antoine Fuqua directs.


Fuqua has always been a mixed bag with me. When he tries to make popcorn action films like “Shooter” or “Olympus Has Fallen” the results are good, and the films are fun. However when he tries to elevate his craft to a more serious tone like “The Equalizer” or “Southpaw,” the finished products are meh at best (the exception being “Training Day,” but I haven’t seen that film in a minute). And unfortunately, Fuqua tries to make “Seven” too serious but yet keep a playful tone, and much like “Suicide Squad” the end result is a monotonous mess.


Denzel Washington, much like Tom Hanks, will never turn in a bad performance, no matter what kind of role he is in and he again shows why he is one of the biggest actors of his generation. Washington plays a man with a clouded past and acts in his own self-interests, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a sympathetic heart. Chris Pratt, who is quickly becoming Hollywood’s next big action star, is pretty fun in his role and provides most of the film’s laughs, however at times his character comes off as annoying.


And that is one of the film’s biggest problems: most every character besides Denzel, to varying degrees, is a cartoon. Ethan Hawke hisses during a gunfight, Vincent D’Onofrio speaks in a high-pitch for the entire film and Peter Sarsgaard’s villain is straight out of a Western comic book. Often it gets tedious and at times it becomes laughable, because all these different and quirky personalities never gel.


Fuqua has always been able shoot action scenes well however he also is used to being able to play with an R rating, a luxury he is not allowed here. The film has two main shootout sequences and the final one at the climax (which runs for an ungodly 45 minutes) falls victim to “PG-13 violence,” meaning there is a lot (*a lot*) of rapid fire editing and close-ups of people getting killed.


And let’s talk about that end fight. I touched on how it lasts way too long but it is also the only thing to truly happen in the entire film. The first hour and a half consists of the Seven riding horses and training the townspeople to fire guns. It wasn’t until they were doing the obligatory “final supper before battle” that I realized we were about to enter the climax of the film and nothing had happened yet. The stakes don’t feel earned and since the one single event is dragged out for the entire runtime it makes it difficult for them to be acknowledged at all.


“The Magnificent Seven” is fun in small bursts, and there’s a “summer movie season” vibe about it that is inviting, but the whole film drags along and with its polished, attractive cast and elaborate set pieces, it feels very “2016,” not like a dirty, gritty Western. The film is not magnificent, nor does it score a 7, but look on the bright side: at least Pratt and Washington both get chances to redeem themselves with their new films come December…


Critics Rating: 5/10

Columbia Pictures

Columbia Pictures

‘Blair Witch’ One of the Worst Horror Films of All-Time

Blair_Witch_2016_posterThis was hands-down the longest, most grueling 89 minutes I have ever spent in a movie theater.


“Blair Witch” is the third installment of the franchise of the same name and follows a group of friends who set out to visit the woods where the first film took place. James Allen McCune, Callie Hernandez, Brandon Scott and Corbin Reid star as Adam Wingard directs.


I have never seen the original “Blair Witch Project” but am familiar with its place in cinematic history and unfortunately even more acquainted with what it introduced to mainstream horror films: found footage-style filmmaking. In my “Bridget Jones’s Baby” review I wrote how that was a sequel that was 15 years late but still had a meaningful story to share; “Blair Witch” achieves no such accomplishment and is instead quite honestly, no hyperbole, the worst horror film I have ever seen.


This is from Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett, the men who created the darkly funny slasher “You’re Next,” the pretty cool thriller “The Guest” and the “V/H/S” series, of which my roommate in college was a huge fan of. So it is proven that these two know how to write and shoot films that are self-aware, thrilling and have a creepy atmosphere. So what the hell went so wrong with “Blair Witch” is beyond me.


Nothing in this film feels earned or set up. It begins with “new” footage of the original film and how those hikers met their demise. But what a crazy coincidence, because the guy watching is the brother of the girl who went missing in that video and wants to go find her, convinced she’s still alive in the woods. A few things wrong with that: (1) the original “Blair Witch” is set in 1994 and this film takes place in 2014, meaning the main character has spent 20 years just waiting around not wanting to find her, and couldn’t have been more than five years old when she went missing and (2) there is no sane human who would think his sister who went missing 20 years prior would still be alive and chilling in a forest.


I get you need a reason for a new group of attractive young people to go into the woods to get slaughtered for our amusement, but don’t be lazy as to why that is. Just have a person who is obsessed with the legend and another who doesn’t believe in it, and they set out to prove the other wrong. It’s simple and it’s stupid but it would be more appealing and believable than what we are given.


But fine, they’re in the woods. Does scary stuff happen? Nope, not for the first 30 minutes it doesn’t. There isn’t even a few faux jump scares like a deer jumping out or a person tripping; there is not a single attempt at building tension for the first third of this film. It is just people walking around with backpacks spewing exposition dialogue. But once the ish does hit the fan, oh boy, watch out: nothing will continue to happen. People walk in circles with flashlights and annoying first-person cameras and yell the names of their lost friends (who went off by themselves in a forest at night, that’s natural selection trying to do its part and they’re getting in the way of it).


Stupid things continue to happen, from a girl with a broken ankle suddenly being able to sprint and climb trees to the good ole cliché of the flashlight running out of batteries just as the scary things begin to happen.


All of this could be forgiven if the film was scary but it is not, not even a little. There is one sequence where a girl is crawling through a tunnel but that only got to me because I am claustrophobic, and even that shot is in the trailer so I knew what it was building towards. The rest of the film is loud growling and sudden appearance of stick figures and none of it makes sense and even less of it is audible or visually coherent because of the atrocious shaky cam.


“Blair Witch” combines all the thrills of walking around with all the scares of an arts and crafts class. I cannot tell you enough how bored I was in this film and how bafflingly, laughably horrible the ending is, not that the first 88 minutes were any better. It is the worst film of 2016 (and 2016 has featured “Warcraft”), the worst horror film of all-time and quite possibly one of the worst films I have ever seen, period (I need to sleep on that, although sleep is something I won’t lose any of after watching this film).


Critics Rating: 1/10



Bridget Jones Delivers a ‘Baby’ and Some Charm

Bridget_Jones's_Baby_posterOf all the “it’s been over 10 years, did we really need a sequel?” films of 2016, this one is certainly the best.


“Bridget Jones’s Baby” (the grammar there hurts my brain) stars Renée Zellweger in the title role in the third installment of the franchise, and the first since 2004. This time around, Jones gets pregnant and either Colin Firth (also reprising his role) or Patrick Dempsey (making his first theatrical appearance since 2011’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”) could be the father. Sharon Maguire, who directed the original “Bridget Jones” film, returns to helm here.


The first “Bridget Jones” was innocent and fluffy enough but ultimately too hollow for me, and I tried to watch the second film as homework to prepare for this but despite my love of Hugh Grant I couldn’t even finish it. So that partnered with an awful trailer really had my bar for “Baby” set low; which may be why it surprised me.


What is impressive about this film is its dedication to be more than a fluffy, feel good comedy aimed at middle age women. It has f-bombs and raunch (albeit tamer than most R-rated comedies), as to be expected from a screenwriter of “Borat.”


Zellwegger is solid in the title role, however to me her character has never really come off as real; she seems like a caricature of a woman who can’t get her life together. And speaking of people who don’t act like a real human, Patrick Dempsey’s character is…something else. He’s an American who runs an online dating site but talks like Rob Lowe’s character from “Parks and Rec” (in fragmented. Sentences. And. All about. Negative. Energy.) Hugh Grant he is not, and Grant’s charming gentleman way is missed here. Firth’s character has always been intentionally awkward and at times it’s funny, at others it’s grating.


All three actors have solid chemistry together and occasional moments of hilarity, although you never get a real feel for why they would every truly interact or like one another were they not connected by a baby. Emma Thompson (who also co-wrote the script) steals every scene she is in playing Bridget’s gynecologist, and is so fun and charming that, as my friend so eloquently put, “I just really want to get drinks with Emma Thompson.”


The film’s largest problem is its pacing. It clocks in 123 minutes and you feel every second of it. The first half of the film is mostly exposition, reintroducing us to Bridget and then acquainting us with side characters. Not much happens and if the first 45 minutes were wiped out altogether we would have a much tighter, coherent film.


“Bridget Jones’s Baby” is the type of movie where if you saw the trailer and wanted to see it, then you will love it despite its overly quirky characters and monotonous pacing. If you just want a fluffy, feel-good film that features a fun as hell performance from Emma Thompson (really can’t understate how much she elevates this) then this should also do the trick.


In a year where “Zoolander” (2001) and “Independence Day” (1996) both got long-delayed sequels, this one actually has a story worth telling and wasn’t made simply as a cashgrab, and the fact that it is a relatively enjoyable film at that is commendable enough.


Critics Rating: 6/10



‘Sully’ Gets Oscar Season Off to Solid Start

Sully_xxlg.jpegOh, Oscar season. How we’ve missed you so.


“Sully” stars Tom Hanks in the titular role of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549 which was forced to perform an emergency water landing on the Hudson River in January 2009. Aaron Eckhart stars as Sully’s co-pilot and Laura Linney plays his wife as Clint Eastwood directs.


On paper, this has all the workings of a major Oscar player: a real-life story about an American hero, with Tom Hanks on the poster and Clint Eastwood behind the camera. So it may be a little disappointing that “Sully” is good-not-great, but it is still a confidently made adult drama that gets the fall movie season off to a steady start.


It may be somewhat lazy to do, but I find myself comparing this to Eastwood’s last directorial effort, 2014’s “American Sniper.” That was also a good film that had greatness escape its grasp due mostly a shifting narrative; however a strong central performance and powerful set pieces hold it together.


To say Tom Hanks is the reason this film works would be a waste of ink (well, characters on a keyboard). His Sully is a soft spoken, polite-to-a-fault man who hates that people think he is a hero for doing what he views as simply his job. There isn’t much to his character and if this was most any other actor than Hanks it would probably be a boring one; however as we know by this point in his career, Hanks is not most any other actor.


Eckhart turns in a quietly great performance as Sully’s co-pilot and confidant, never questioning Sully’s decision to land the plane in the Hudson but you can see the fear in his eyes. Linney simply has a few scenes talking and crying to Sully on the phone as the obligatory worried wife and she is fine, but unlike Hanks you could slip any actress into the role and it would be unchanged.


As I said earlier, the film’s biggest problem is its narrative. It is based off an event that lasted two and a half minutes but is stretched into a 96 minute movie (very short by Eastwood standards) and although the film is paced well, the way it is constructed is a tad disjointed. The film constantly jumps between the present day investigation against Sully and different perspectives of the crash, and it get a little messy at points. At other times it comes off as underwhelming, as some viewpoints of the crash simply aren’t as engaging as others.


There also isn’t a whole lot on the line, as we know historically that Sully made the right choice (despite what the film wants you to think people think). The trailers also try and paint a Denzel Washington “Flight” plot of Sully being questioned about possible alcoholism or troubles at home, but those are questions answered in one breath and never touched on again.


“Sully” has a strong performance from Tom Hanks and the main crash sequence is invigorating and looks and sounds as real as anything. It may not flow as evenly as one may like or hope based on the talent involved, but just like the white haired seasoned professional on which the film is based, Eastwood shows that even at 86 years old, he still is as capable as anyone in Hollywood to craft a solid drama.


Critics Rating: 7/10

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

‘Ben-Hur,’ Done That

Ben-Hur_2016_poster“Ben-Hur?” I hardly knew her! [cough] Well now that I got that out of my system (and I’ve wanted to use that line for a while now), on with the review!

“Ben-Hur” is the fifth adaption of the 1880 novel and the first live-action version since the famous 1959 film starring Charlton Heston. Jack Huston takes over the titular role as a Jewish prince who is betrayed by his adoptive brother (Toby Kebbell) and forced into slavery for the Roman Empire. Morgan Freeman also stars as Timur Bekmambetov directs.

There really is no reason for this film to exist, but if this summer has taught us anything it’s that sequels and remakes will always be made, even if there is no demand or purpose for them. But hey, it’s directed by the man who gave us “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” stars a guy who is best known for a small supporting role in an HBO series and is from the writer of “Undercover Brother” (in John Ridley’s defense, he also wrote the overrated “12 Years a Slave”)! The studio gave this picture a $100 million budget, so surely they had faith in it, right? Well if that were the case, any and all faith was horribly misplaced.

“Ben-Hur” the novel has been praised for nearly 150 years for its story, and rightfully so. At this point there are cliffnotes of things we have seen in films before (brother vs brother, slave against empire, etc) but somehow this latest “Ben-Hur” manages to squash all those interesting and possibly emotionally investing storylines beneath sluggish pacing. It takes nearly an hour for anything of note to truly occur, and even then still nothing truly engaging happens until the chariot race in the film’s climax.

This falls on the shoulders of director Bekmambetov, who all too often lets scenes drag on. He also implements *way* too much use of handheld shakycam, and for a film with a $100 million he sure loves to use GoPros. There was a film earlier this year, “Risen,” that cost $20 million and was set during the same time period, 33 AD; that film wasn’t very good but that’s not my point. What I’m getting at is “Ben-Hur” looks no better than that film yet it cost $80 million more.

I genuinely have no idea what all that money went to, because it certainly wasn’t on stars. Jack Huston is serviceable in the main role but he doesn’t convey the brutality or at least rage that the character of Ben-Hur should feel towards his brother and the Romans. His face is too pretty and his voice too soft (except when he’s growling) to really be taken as a threat; it is a role designed for Russell Crowe. Toby Kebbell is fine but he needs to stick to motion capture; he was great in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and the bright spot of “Warcraft” but live action isn’t his thing. Morgan Freeman, the film’s only recognizable name to mainstream audiences, cashes a paycheck while wearing hilarious dreadlocks. That’s really all I can say about him.

A few moments are genuinely thrilling and there are a couple scenes that do make you feel for the characters, but these are quickly stomped out by Bekmambetov’s heavy-handed attempts to create an epic story but try and keep it personable at the same time. The film also falls victim to being too “Hollywood.” Prior to the chariot race, Huston cuts his long hair and scraggly beard with a knife; the next scene he has a trimmed, gelled hairstyle and clean 5 o’clock shadow. It is just lazy filmmaking.

There is nothing special or truly great about “Ben-Hur” and it just feels like every other generic sword-and-sandal ever made (I guess you could say we’ve “Ben-Hur, done that”). It is going to flop hard at the box office for a dozen reasons, and it being a bad film is just one of them. It is boring, a lot of the time ugly to look at and doesn’t have any charismatic or gripping characters to hold your hand along the way.

Critics Rating: 3/10



Hill Steals the Show in ‘War Dogs’

War_Dogs_2016_posterI know Jared Leto spent months in psych wards trying to get his Joker cackle just right, but Jonah Hill’s laugh in this is the best one cinema has had all year.


“War Dogs” stars Jonah Hill and Miles Teller as two 20-somethings who get government contracts to supply weapons to soldiers in the Middle East during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Todd Phillips co-writes and directs.


The trailer for this had a real “Pain & Gain” vibe, with a little bit of “The Big Short” thrown in. Now this was partially a compliment, since both of those films had solid trailers that made it seem like they would be colorful, irrelevant fun, but it also was a bit worrisome, since neither of those movies are very good. Well “War Dogs” is better than those two films and even if it isn’t as much fun as it could have been, it is still a mostly entertaining, slightly intelligent commentary on the Middle East wars.


Much like Adam McKay and “The Big Short,” “serious social commentary filmmaking” doesn’t come to mind when you think of Todd Phillips, the director of “The Hangover” and “Old School.” And while he technically has an Academy Award nomination (I mean, I say “technically” because it was a five-way nom for “Borat,” a film with basically no script), he has never really given us any actual quality films (“Hangover” and “Old School” are funny but they’re not great pieces of cinema). “War Dogs” is arguably Phillips’ best film and is by far his best directorial effort; take both those statements with as big a grain of salt as you like.


To Phillips’ credit, he never beats us over the head with any message here. He lets the audience decide for themselves when our main characters have crossed the moral line of no return, and if what the U.S. government is doing by holding open contracts is ethically alright. He for the most part balances his comedy and serious moments with surprising finesse, even if there are times an unfunny joke is played up to an awkward degree.


This film would be nothing, however, without two time-Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill (I just love typing that). Hill steals the show by playing a money-hungry gun runner who will not flinch at the idea of selling his own mother for a nickel. The entire film we get the uneasy feeling he could snap at any second and his laugh, a half chuckle partnered with a sinister grin and gleam in his eye, brings some very hardy laughs early on, even if by the end Phillips realized this was Hill’s bread and butter and milks the laugh dry.


What holds “War Dogs” back is its middle portion. After Hill and Teller (as charming as ever but never rises above serviceable) set up their company and make their first big arms deal, the film takes its foot off the gas and it shows. We see Teller with his new baby and Hill trying to make his gun running business legit, and you just want to shake the two and yell for them to get back to driving around foreign countries with illegal merchandise in the trunk (which they eventually do).


I didn’t love “War Dogs” but I was never bored, and every scene Hill is in it is impossible to take your eyes off the screen. It may not be able to carry the same amount of high energy throughout the entire film that it shows flashes of throughout, but if you just want a film with enough chuckles and brain to coast by an August evening (you know, in the DOG days of summer!!), then this may be your ticket.


Critics Rating: 6/10

Warner Bros.

Warner Bros.

‘Sausage Party’ as Funny as it is Thought-Provoking

Sausage_PartyFor an animated movie about swearing hot dogs, this thing has a surprising amount of intelligence.


“Sausage Party” is a (very) R-rated animated film about food who believe humans are gods sent to save them, but begin to realize what actually happens to them once they are taken out of the supermarket. It stars an ensemble voice cast, including Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Nick Kroll, Edward Norton and Salma Hayek, among a half dozen others. Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon, best known for their work on other raunchy comedies like “Thomas the Tank Engine” and “Shrek 2,” respectively, direct.


I was excited for this, because I love Seth Rogen but also the premise of this film is brilliant and the red band trailer may be the funniest trailer of all-time, no hyperbole. And while “Sausage Party” is never laugh-out-loud hilarious, it is a very funny, consistently entertaining and surprisingly thought-provoking piece of adult cinema.


One of the great things about the film is it pokes fun of every race, religion and creed, so that way no one can call foul. The entire premise of the film is that the food’s installed beliefs in gods and a “great beyond” is a sham and all who believe in it without proof are fools, however it will then flip the script and insult those who question it just because that is the easier thing to do. There’s plenty of jokes about Middle Easterns not getting along and how foolish those feuds are, as well as more racist jokes than PC people will care to count. There are also some brilliant food puns and references, like a Hitler-esque character wanting to destroy the juice (get it?).


Even when the film isn’t making you laugh you are still entertained, as the all-star cast keeps things going at a light, breezy pace, even if at times things do begin to feel a bit repetitive and aimless.


And that’s one thing that does hold “Sausage Party” back from being great, is that after a while a hot dog saying the c-word or a bun making jokes about her buns gets old, and as much as I love food puns (or any kind of pun), Nick Kroll’s talking douche makes so many they begin to become forced (which is the point, but awareness doesn’t excuse it). Speaking of Kroll, his Jersey Shore bro voice gets annoying after a while, and his revenge plot is inserted into the plot purely to get it to a theatrical runtime.


I really had a good time with “Sausage Party.” I never had a riotous laugh out loud moment, but I had a lot of well-earned chuckles, and the film does make you think about how our own world works. Much like “Popstar” (which I please implore you to see) the film is very stupid and irrelevant yet very intelligent and self-aware all at the same time, and it is a great way to end the summer.


Critics Rating: 7/10