Movie Review: “War Dogs”

Starring
Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Pollack
Director
Todd Phillips

It’s been three years since director Todd Phillips released the critically derided final installment in his “Hangover” trilogy, and in that time, his aspirations as a filmmaker have clearly grown. Phillips’ latest movie, based on the 2011 Rolling Stone article “The Stoner Arms Dealers” by Guy Lawson (which was later turned into a book titled “Arms and the Dudes”), is a measured attempt to showcase his serious side à la “The Big Short.” But while “War Dogs” occupies a similar space as Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning dramedy, providing an entertaining look at how a pair of ambitious twentysomething pals became millionaires due to the U.S. government’s own negligence, it doesn’t really have anything important to say – or rather, the important stuff feels like an afterthought compared to the highly dramatized events at the center of the film.

The year is 2005, and college dropout David Packouz (Miles Teller) is working as a licensed massage therapist in Miami Beach while trying to launch his own business selling bedsheets to retirement homes. When his latest scheme fails and his girlfriend Iz (Ana de Armas) announces that she’s pregnant, David decides that he needs to find a real job in order to support his family. Enter childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), a bottom-feeding arms dealer who’s moved back to town after working for his uncle selling police-seized weapons in California. Efraim has started his own arms dealing business in Miami, and it’s pretty successful, living off the crumbs of small military contracts that the major companies generally ignore. Efraim offers to bring on David to help with the day-to-day operations, and within six months, the pair lands its biggest deal yet. But when that contract leads to a more lucrative opportunity with the Pentagon to supply weapons and ammo to the Afghan army, the two friends quickly find themselves in over their heads.

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Movie Review: “Kubo and the Two Strings”

Starring
Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei
Director
Travis Knight

“If you must blink, do it now,” warns the narrator of “Kubo and the Two Strings,” a movie so confident in its eye-popping visuals and brilliant storytelling that it knows you won’t want to miss a single moment. It’s advice you’ll definitely want to follow, because after the disappointment of 2014’s “The Boxtrolls,” Portland-based animation studio Laika is back at the top of its game with this wildly inventive adventure film that’s packed with the kind of sincerity and heartfelt emotion you rarely find in the medium, Pixar excluded. But “Kubo and the Two Strings” is more than just a return to form for the studio; it’s their funniest and finest movie to date – an absolutely delightful fairy tale that will likely go down as one of the year’s best.

In feudal Japan, a young, one-eyed boy named Kubo (Art Parkinson) has been tasked with taking care of his sick mother in their remote mountain home. During the day, Kubo goes down to the nearby village to tell stories about the legendary samurai Hanzo with his magical samisen, a traditional, three-stringed Japanese instrument that can manipulate colorful sheets of paper into animated origami figures that move and dance with the strum of a string. When he doesn’t heed his mother’s warning and stays out after dark one night, however, Kubo inadvertently summons his evil twin aunts (Rooney Mara), who have been sent by his grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes), to steal his other eye. Kubo’s mother comes to his rescue just in time, sacrificing herself to save him and using her last bit of magic to bring to life a wooden monkey charm that serves as his guardian. With the help of Monkey (Charlize Theron) and a cursed man-beetle warrior (Matthew McConaughey) with no memory of his previous life, Kubo must embark on a quest to retrieve the three pieces of Hanzo’s fabled gold armor in order to defeat his vengeful family.

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Movie Review: “Hell or High Water”

Starring
Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham, Katy Mixon, Kevin Rankin
Director
David Mackenzie

“Hell or High Water” is one magnificently self-aware film. There is a strong Coen brothers vibe to both the plot and the dialogue (if “Blood Simple” and “Fargo” were forced to mate, the offspring would turn out a lot like this), which is why the casting of Jeff Bridges is a stroke of genius. As a Coen veteran, he understands the material, and is able to not just humanize a character that would be monstrous in the hands of a lesser actor – he’s able to make the character charming and likable.

In the bleak, seemingly waterless landscape of west Texas, Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his ex-con brother Tanner (Ben Foster) begin the day by robbing two small banks of all of their chump change. The Howards are in danger of losing their farm to the very bank that they’re robbing; the plan is to pay off their debt with the bank’s own money and put the land in a trust to benefit Toby’s children. Due to the amount of money being stolen, the FBI isn’t interested in investigating the case, but Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) has a week until he retires, so he drags his reluctant partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) along for one last rodeo.

There aren’t a lot of moving parts here, and that is a good thing. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”) keeps his characters focused on their respective prizes, with no unnecessary side plots about poor people foolishly spending their newfound riches, a common trap to these types of stories. The most pleasant surprise is how funny the movie is, and not solely of the pitch-black variety. There are some gut-busting moments here. The waitresses, in particular, bring the funny in spades.

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Movie Review: “Sausage Party”

Starring
Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Michael Cera, Jonah Hill, Edward Norton, Salma Hayek, David Krumholtz, Nick Kroll
Director
Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon

“Sausage Party” easily could’ve been a one-joke affair, but directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon’s R-rated animated film isn’t just 90 minutes of food products saying and doing dirty things – although a lot of its running time is dedicated to exactly that, in a good way. What makes “Sausage Party” more than a comedy about foul-mouthed food, though, is the questions it poses about our relationship with religion, and the filmmakers milk the funny concept (no pun intended) for all it’s worth.

The movie imagines a world where the food products and other items in your local grocery store are alive, and they’re all more than ready to leave their home with a god/human in order to enter the Great Beyond. Frank (Seth Rogen), in particular, can’t wait to be chosen so he can get inside a curvy bun named Brenda (Kristen Wiig). But when Honey Mustard (Danny McBride), who was initially purchased and then returned to the store, loses it and tells all of the food that nothing but death is waiting for them outside, he causes an accident that separates Frank and Brenda from their fellow sausages and buns. The food has been comfortable with their beliefs for so long, however, that they refuse to believe Honey Mustard – except for Frank, who goes on a journey through the grocery store to prove that their gods are angry, vengeful, and above all else, really hungry.

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Movie Review: “Pete’s Dragon”

Starring
Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford
Director
David Lowery

Like many studios these days, Disney has been reaching back into its archives to find movies that it can update for modern audiences, and though “Pete’s Dragon” is a film that didn’t really need to be remade, it’s one that most people can agree has plenty of room for improvement. The original 1977 musical was okay for its time, but it could hardly be described as a classic. Perhaps even stranger than the decision to remake it, however, is the involvement of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” director David Lowery, who’s not exactly the first person you’d think of to helm a family-friendly movie about a CG dragon. While Lowery’s soulful, more character-driven adaptation is a refreshing change of pace from the typical summer film, it never really goes anywhere.

After surviving a car crash that kills both of his parents (a classic Disney move), orphaned boy Pete wanders into the nearby woods where he’s almost devoured by a pack of wolves before being rescued by a large, green furry dragon that he names Elliot. Six years later, the now-feral Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his magical guardian Elliot are enjoying a quiet, isolated life together in the forest when a logging company encroaches on their land and Pete accidentally reveals himself. Brought back to town by kindhearted forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), Pete learns what it means to be part of a family when he’s welcomed into Grace’s home with her fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley) and his young daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). Meanwhile, Elliot believes that Pete is in danger and sets out to rescue him, but after Jack’s opportunistic brother Gavin (Karl Urban) encounters the dragon and plans to capture it for personal gain, Pete must assume the role of protector for once in order to save his friend.

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