WAR DOGS (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language throughout, Drug Use and some Sexual References

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Directed by: Todd Phillips

Written by: Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips & Jason Smilovic

(based on the book ARMS AND THE DUDES by Guy Lawson)

Starring: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, J.B. Blanc, Kevin Pollak, Bradley Cooper & Barry Livingston

After directing eight sex comedies and a few documentaries, director Todd Phillips takes a hard left turn into true-crime/political territory with WAR DOGS. This film is based on the true story of Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, though details have been changed and exaggerated to make a more interesting movie. The film’s strongest elements are its story, the chemistry between Jonah Hill and Miles Teller, and a manic energy that keeps things interesting. However, this movie occasionally suffers from trying too hard to replicate the style of a Martin Scorsese crime flick and never fully becoming as great as it could have been.

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David Packouz (Miles Teller) is going nowhere in life. His job as a massage therapist barely pays the bills and attempts to start up his own business have drastically failed. Low on cash and with a child on the way, David reunites with former friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who makes bank as an international arms dealer. David is intoxicated by Efraim’s lavish lifestyle and soon becomes his business partner. However, things get complicated when the two young dudes find themselves in over their heads with dangerous people and the U.S. government. What follows is lots of cash, cocaine, bullets, and illegal activities that forced the U.S. Army to reexamine its contracting procedures.

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The premise of WAR DOGS sounds like a lot to take in. After all, what if you know next to nothing about defense contracts? Well, have no fear because the script (written by three people, including Phillips) gently takes the viewer by the hand and lays out details in an easy-to-understand manner. We are also shown how illegal dealings and shady business practices can easily be made behind the curtains. WAR DOGS doesn’t tackle all of this as light-hearted comedic fodder (as the trailers suggest), because the film may cause audience members to think long and hard about what they’ve seen afterwards.

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As you might imagine, David and Efraim aren’t good people. The film knows this and makes that clear. We’re watching scumbags get away with doing scumbag things, until it all comes crashing down on their heads. Miles Teller is somewhat sympathetic as David, because he has a family to provide for and seems like the more level-headed nice guy of the two. Jonah Hill is an out-and-out asshole as Efraim. This coke-snorting, back-stabbing, morally bankrupt stain of a human being represents everything that’s wrong with this world….and he also has an obnoxious laugh. Efraim is someone who will take advantage of anything and anyone to make a few extra bucks and Hill plays him to perfection.

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As for the supporting cast, there are only three big recurring faces. Ana de Armas (one of the most beautiful women alive) puts in a solid performance as David’s innocent wife. Her relationship is deeply affected by her husband’s newfound career, though she doesn’t exactly get a ton of screen time to show that. The focus is more on the international arms dealing and crimes, whereas David’s personal life is just a subplot. Bradley Cooper plays a threatening guy who works from shadowy places. Cooper is fantastic in the part, but doesn’t receive more than five brief scenes. For those five moments, he completely steals the show. Kevin Pollak is a welcome presence as a local businessman with ties to Efraim and David.

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WAR DOGS has a very interesting story and Todd Phillips attempts to execute it with grandiose style, though this doesn’t come off entirely successful. Phillips tries too hard to replicate a Scorsese-crime flick. For example, the movie uses voiceover narration from Miles Teller which isn’t exactly uncommon…but also accompanies this with frequent freeze frames to character’s faces. It’s obvious that Phillips was trying to do GOODFELLAS and CASINO, but with international arms dealing. It sounds great in theory, but the style is unnecessarily forced. The film also has title cards with quotes of dialogue that seem more distracting and pretentious as opposed to cool and artsy.

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WAR DOGS is hindered by its wannabe Scorsese style and never becomes as great as it should be. The performances are solid across the board. Some scenes are humorous, while other plot developments are shocking (especially if you don’t know the true story). The pacing moves quickly and never gives the viewer time to get bored. I was interested and entertained throughout. Even if the film never reaches its full potential, one fantastic scene perfectly sums up this entire movie. As the greedy millionaire arms dealers frantically drive away from gunfire, a brave band of underpaid soldiers rush into eliminate the threat. As David and Efraim gleefully dance in the truck, a passing soldier angrily glares and flips them off. That about says it all, right there.

Grade: B

HOSTAGE (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Graphic Violence, Language and some Drug Use

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Directed by: Florent Emilio Siri

Written by: Doug Richardson

(based on the novel HOSTAGE by Robert Crais)

Starring: Bruce Willis, Kevin Pollak, Jimmy Bennett, Michelle Horn, Ben Foster, Jonathan Tucker, Marshall Allman, Serena Scott Thomas & Rumer Willis

HOSTAGE was coming out during a string of flops from Bruce Willis. HART’S WAR, TEARS OF THE SUN, and THE WHOLE TEN YARDS preceded this action-thriller and this bombed domestically as well. I can’t really blame the general public for not supporting what is by all means a generic plot trying to stay fresh with convoluted twists. HOSTAGE has its fair share of solid moments, but they mostly come out of the simple parts of the story as opposed to plot holes springing up from a screenwriter and novelist trying to over complicate what could be the equivalent of an entertaining B-movie.

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Jeff Talley is a former hostage negotiator who botched a job that cost three people their lives…kind of like plenty of cop movies. Traumatized by the event, Jeff Talley has gone back to being a regular old police officer. This doesn’t exactly take him far from extreme situations…kind of like John McClane. He’s thrust back into his old line of work when a hostage situation escalates into something more and he holds the keys to solving it. Three teenage hoodlums have taken a rich family hostage and don’t realize that they’re sitting on top of a dangerous secret inside of the house…sort of like PANIC ROOM. To make matters even more dire, McClane’s, er I mean Talley’s family is taken hostage by even more dangerous people. This cop must do whatever it takes to end the hostage situation safely. He also needs to save his family….sort of like every movie of this kind ever made.

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If that plot set-up didn’t make things sound overly complicated and familiar at the same time, then I didn’t try hard enough when writing it. HOSTAGE falls flat on its face plenty of times to its own detailed set-up. There are way too many twists that don’t add up or are mighty convenient. It wasn’t at all necessary to add Talley’s wife and daughter being taken hostage at all. It only seems to pad out the running time further than it needed to go, only paying off in a familiar and silly final scene. For a good section of the film, I forgot that Talley’s family was even in danger because he almost seems like he’s just trying to diffuse an intense scenario to save the lives of two captive kids. Therein lies the kind of film HOSTAGE should have been to begin with. Bruce Willis doesn’t add anything to the bad-ass lead action hero role he usually plays, nor did he have to as this is pretty much a generic flick from the get-go. Sometimes, these kinds of movies can be a lot of fun in spite of their familiarity.

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Keeping things relatively simple might have still retained quite a few clichés, but it would have run 90 minutes and been better in its simple entertainment factor. The kid characters are a bit annoying, but the teenage thugs (two of which are Jonathan Tucker and a psycho Ben Foster) are interesting to watch. I was more concerned about their struggles as unintended super criminals (all they wanted was to steal a car and things spiraled out of control) then I was about Bruce Willis taking down bigger guns running the show. The movie is also slick-looking and does get surprisingly graphic in its violence. There’s a good deal of bloodshed here and a fiery climax at the house is glorious. The mansion itself is a really creative setting. It’s one thing to put a story like this in a mansion, but quite another to set things in an ultra-mansion that has a super special lockdown system (ala THE PURGE). The good moments come strictly from the kids being held hostage and Bruce Willis trying to save them from unstable teenage punks. That’s where the focus should have been the entire time.

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HOSTAGE is a mixed bag with a handful of generic clichés, but actually suffers more from trying too hard to be new and special by adding way too many tiny plot twists that don’t matter in the long run. This flick would have been far more enjoyable as a 90-something minute to-the-point action-thriller that was just Bruce Willis (playing John McClane under a different name) trying to save two kids against increasingly dangerous odds. The plot thread with his family being kidnapped only pads things out for 20 minutes longer than it needed to go. HOSTAGE is a potentially great action flick held hostage by stupid plot twists.

Grade: C

MIDDLE MEN (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual Content, Nudity, Language, Drug Use and Violence

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Directed by: George Gallo

Written by: George Gallo & Andy Weiss

Starring: Luke Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi, Gabriel Macht, James Caan, Laura Ramsey, Jacinda Barrett, Kelsey Grammer, Terry Crews, Kevin Pollak & Robert Forster

MIDDLE MEN plays out like the gooey mess of someone throwing THE SOCIAL NETWORK, BOOGIE NIGHTS, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET in a blender. That description should tell you if this film is in your wheelhouse or not. Based on the real-life experiences of Christopher Mallick (a morally questionable businessman in internet history), the film seems to jumble a bunch of different events into a coherent storyline that begins with a fast-pace and a lot of dark humor. Somewhere along the line, things get fumbled as the film significantly deviates into more familiar (probably entirely fictional) territory and ultimately becomes far less interesting.

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Jumping from 1980’s to 1990’s and ultimately to the mid-2000’s, the plot revolves around (fictional character) Jack Harris who proves to have a talent for fixing difficult problems and being an equally skilled businessman. After turning a friend’s night club into a goldmine in the short period of a few months, Jack is called in to help two morons (Wayne and Buck) responsible for creating a revolutionary internet program. This program allows for anyone living anywhere in the world to enter their credit card information for a monthly subscription to online pornography. What else would be so popular on the worldwide web? Unfortunately, Wayne and Buck have gotten themselves in bed with the Russian mob and a crooked lawyer. Jack fixes their problems in the best way in can, but also finds himself immersed in the glamorous lifestyle centered around perversion, sex, and drugs. This puts his personal life in danger of falling apart, whilst also building tension between him and his long-distance family. The Jack’s (along with his two partner’s) problems only steadily increase into bigger issues…

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MIDDLE MEN sounds like a recipe for success on many different levels. For the first half of the film, it delivers. The story is equipped with a rip-roaring fast face that jumps all over the place with ease. Frequent dark humor litters every scene and provides some much-needed comic relief that totally works. The use of the soundtrack is absolutely fantastic too. The whole film really does reek of a Scorsese-inspired filmmaker (in this case, George Gallo) and unlike most others who wind up ripping off the man’s style, Gallo works this all to his advantage. I absolutely loved the first 50 minutes of this film. It nailed everything one would hope for from a movie like this. Then things quickly turn in the opposite direction.

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Everything that worked so well in the introduction and set up is slowed to a crawl for the remainder of the film and sometimes even forgotten. It seemed as if the filmmaker and co-screenwriter weren’t content with the already complicated story they were telling. The resulting solution being to throw in a bunch of unnecessary (most likely entirely made up) plot points that have been seen in plenty of crime thrillers. Every single one of these felt completely out-of-place in this would-be drama about the complicated inception of internet pornography. The tone also dives into decidedly darker territory and loses the likable sense of humor in the process. The laughs were so frequent in the first half that the rest of the film (again) seems to have forgotten what worked so well in the beginning. The tone jumps all over the place and things ultimately conclude in an ending that left me unsatisfied.

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As far as the big name cast goes, nearly everyone delivers good performances across the board with one exception. That stick in the mud would be Luke Wilson. He’s enjoyable enough in comedies, but his dramatic side seems to be a mixed bag (e.g. VACANCY). In MIDDLE MEN, he’s taking center stage as the Ray Liotta role in GOODFELLAS. His voice-over narration lacks the charisma that Liotta delivered in Scorsese’s masterpiece. I didn’t mind this at the beginning due to how fascinating and entertaining everything else was, but Wilson winds up being an almost nobody of a leading man. His performance comes off as wooden. I was more interested in seeing everyone else around him.

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Kelsey Grammer has a brief one-scene role. Kevin Pollak and Terry Crews show up as seldom seen side characters. As Wayne and Buck, Giovanni Ribsi and Gabriel Macht are a blast to watch. Their screen time seems to be significantly cut in the latter half, which adds yet another reason for the film to take a dip in quality halfway through. Their characters also make some far-fetched decisions that I didn’t buy, even seeing how dumb they had shown themselves to be in their actions leading up the final 30 minutes. A welcome James Caan is the best presence on-screen as a loathsome lawyer that has a shady side to say the least.

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I really wanted to love MIDDLE MEN and I thought this might be an underrated gem from just how awesome the first half was. The humor was very funny. The pace was quick and flying by. The soundtrack was awesome and appropriate for each given time period. Then the movie takes a huge switch flip and things go downhill. A jumbled tone, overly familiar twists and some final notes that didn’t satisfy me in the slightest make MIDDLE MEN into an overall disappointment. It’s far from a terrible film. Everyone, except Luke Wilson, gives a solid performance. The film is competently shot and directed. Sadly, the end result is a mixed bag. If I saw this playing on cable and nothing else was on, then I’d switch it over to kill some time. I just don’t see myself going out of my way to watch this film again.

Grade: C+

CASINO (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Brutal Violence, Pervasive Strong Language, Drug Use and Some Sexuality

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Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese

Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone, Frank Vincent, Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollak, James Woods

The problem with putting directors up on pedestals is that we automatically expect something great from them. Sometimes they will go above and beyond to deliver a film that ranks among their best work ever. If I had to pick three films by Martin Scorsese that I would call his best work ever, they would be GOODFELLAS, TAXI DRIVER, and HUGO. All three are different, but they all showcase the love this man has for filmmaking and just how brilliant he can be at it. Then something like CASINO comes along.

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This film came a mere five years after GOODFELLAS (which many hail as the number one gangster movie of all-time). CASINO came at a bad time. It was still on the heels of GOODFELLAS and some would probably consider it to be a bit of a sequel to that film. This would be a fair assumption, because a few of the actors from that film appear here and it rife with everything from the voice overs to the style. Even some of the soundtrack choices and the basic set-up of the movie are the same. It should also be mentioned that the same two writers who penned GOODFELLAS, also wrote CASINO and it shows. Does this make CASINO a bad movie? Absolutely not. It just makes it a poorly timed movie. It may be considered GOODFELLAS-Lite, but it’s still a phenomenal piece of work any way you slice it.

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Mostly based on a true story, CASINO takes place from the 70’s to the early 80’s, detailing events that took place in a mob controlled casino. Sam is a successful sports handicapper and has been somewhat awarded for his efforts by a head position at a luxurious casino. In the confines of this building, a huge scamming operation is taking place. The mob is paying off the cops to look the other way, while they skim a bit off the top of the casino’s earnings. It’s a bit of a foolproof plan, but in the world of crime, one should always know better. Things begin to get shaky when a mob enforcer (and childhood friend of Sam) named Nicky is sent to protect Sam’s casino. Nicky’s violent temper begins to earn some unwanted attention. From there on, Sam finds love, Nicky’s temper brings down a world of hurt upon both of their reputations, and the intricately executed plan begins to fall to pieces in front of their very eyes.

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If you were to watch CASINO in a double feature with GOODFELLAS, I’m willing to bet that the similarities would be uncanny. There are a few big differences in terms of the scale though. While GOODFELLAS was set over a period of decades, CASINO is placed within a space of about a single decade. Somehow, the film is packed with three full hours worth of material and GOODFELLAS was about 40 minutes less. Instead of two voice overs (much like in that other film), we are treated to not one, not two, but four different narrations that coincide with each other. Surprisingly, this technique pays off. We get both Sam and Nicky’s perspectives on the same situations, which makes for some slight laughs and steadily mounting tension as their friendship falls apart too.

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Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci have shown in the past that they could play off each other as gangsters and their roles here are pretty similar to their roles in GOODFELLAS (not to keep comparing the two). De Niro is a calm, collected guy, but can also turn violent in the right situation, while Pesci is a psycho with a bad temper. The real standout here is Sharon Stone though. She was so aggravating as a hooker turned love interest turned back into pretty much a hooker that I was actually grinding my teeth at one point. I wanted to jump into my TV screen and end her. That’s how well she played the part of her character. James Woods also shows up as a slimy ex-pimp of Stone’s character and is appropriately scummy.

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As far as the violence itself goes, the MPAA originally gave CASINO the dreaded NC-17 rating and some cuts were made to the gore. After watching this, I can safely say it’s very graphic and pretty disturbing throughout. I wasn’t expecting it to be as dark and gory as it wound up being, but this was a brutal movie (e.g. the final scenes with Pesci). The mark of a truly great film is that the viewer wants it to continue on, even after it’s done. This has happened to me on some occasions (namely THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) and it also happened with CASINO. I wanted the film to keep going, even as it neared the three-hour mark.

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One might say that Scorsese was ripping off himself with this film, but to hammer the point that the movies are similar and different entities is that both films are based on real events regarding the mafia in two different locations. It’s crazy how the fall from grace can be so alike, even though the time period and mobsters themselves are different. Scorsese may have also single-handedly turned me off of visiting Las Vegas ever again (for fear of running into the mafia, which realistically could still have a hold in certain operations there). CASINO isn’t up there on the same level as GOODFELLAS, but it comes very close.

Grade: A

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