Review: War Dogs

Directed by: Todd Phillips
Written by: Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips, Jason Smilovic
Starring: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, J.B. Blanc, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Pollak
Released: August 18, 2016
Grade: B

War Dogs
I heard someone describe this as the lighter version of The Wolf of Wall Street and it’s an apt reference.  It’s a film that highlights the dark side of capitalism.  Efraim Diveroli (Hill) and David Packouz (Teller) are two twenty-something-year-old entrepreneurs who have started a small business and are selling arms to the United States to be used by the military.  They both admit that they’re anti-war but the overriding factor if that they’re both “pro money”.

A few details have been changed to make it fit the traditional movie narrative (e.g. their trip to Iraq never happened) but this based on actual events.  When we first meet our two protagonists, the year is 2005 and they’re catching up for the first time in years at the funeral of a friend.  David admits that life isn’t going as planned.  He dropped out of college, got fired from his first 6 jobs, had a falling out with his parents, and is now a 22-year-old masseuse getting paid $75 an hour.

Efraim has been a little more successful.  He started out by buying weapons at police auctions and then on-selling them to the public.  It’s a lot of work though and he’s decided to transform his business by focusing on the world’s biggest “gun nut”.  That single customer he is referring to is the United States Government.  Efraim acts as the middle man.  He bids for small weapons contracts through the government’s tendering system and if successful, he tracks down the suppliers who can supply the arms that are required.

For a while, things are great.  These guys stick to small, simple deals and it’s not long before they’re driving around in Porches and living in luxurious, high-rise apartments.  That’s not enough though and I can’t help but think of a line from Mr. Burns in The Simpsons – “I’d trade it all for a little more.”  Efraim and David win a $300 million contract to provide bullets to the Afghan military and now appear to be out of their depth.  To get the job done, they’ll need to commit fraud and deal with dodgy individuals.

Directed by Todd Phillips (The Hangover) is largely framed as a comedy.  There’s a scene for example where the two guys are trying to negotiate the release of weapons from a customs warehouse in Jordan and end up using an 11-year-old as part of the negotiation process.  While I don’t mind the comedic approach, it does feel like these characters aren’t being judged harshly enough.  The finale is also messy in that certain actions aren’t well explained.  For example, why wasn’t Efraim paying the box maker in Albania?

This is still an interesting “truth is stranger than fiction” tale though.  It’s hard not to be surprised by the simplicity with which these guys were able to exploit the government’s procurement system and disregard international laws.  It’s not explored enough but Phillips and his co-writers also touch on the theme that wars create their own “economy”.  There are plenty of conflicted individuals who profit from the human tragedy.

Miles Teller (Whiplash) and Jonah Hill (Moneyball) are both strong in the leading roles.  They’re a big part of the reason why this film will entertain many who take the time to see it.


Review: The Shallows

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Written by: Anthony Jaswinski
Starring: Blake Lively, Óscar Jaenada, Brett Cullen, Sedona Legge, Angelo José Lozano Corz, José Manuel Trujillo Salas
Released: August 18, 2016
Grade: B-

The Shallows
It feels like we get a new shark thriller every couple of years.  Jaws set the benchmark back in 1975 and recent films that have tried to match its intensity include Deep Blue Sea, Open Water, The Reef, Shark Night, and Bait.  You could also throw a bunch of Sharknado-type spoofs (e.g. Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus) but they’d be found in the comedy section of the few remaining video stores.

The Shallows is a minimalist effort from Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (Non-Stop) in the sense that it’s shot entirely in a single location and is focused on just the one actor.  Aside from the shark and Blake Lively, the only other member of the cast who gets a decent amount of screen time is a bird who is listed in the credits as Steven Seagull (a humorous reference to the well-known American actor).

Writer Anthony Jaswinski has crafted a simple backstory to help audiences cheer on the hero.  Nancy Adams (Lively) is a young surfer from Texas who has travelled to a secret beach in Mexico.  She’s not there solely for the big waves.  Her mother recently died of cancer and Nancy wants to honour her memory.  She carries a photo of her mother who stood on that same beach 25 years earlier.

In case you’re wondering, you don’t need to travel to Mexico to lay your eyes on this beautiful location.  The exterior shots were filmed on Lord Howe Island which is located 600km east of Port Macquarie, New South Wales.  One might think it’d be great for tourism but the population of the island is limited given it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The remaining scenes were shot in a tank at the Village Roadshow Studios here on the Gold Coast.

Let’s cut to the chase though.  This is a shark movie.  Nancy spends the whole day surfing and is ready to catch that “one final wave” before heading back to her hotel.  Lo and behold, she is attacked by a giant shark that leaves a deep cut in her left-hand thigh.

She seeks refuge on a tiny rock in the middle of the bay but is now stranded.  The shark is circling and there’s no way to swim to shore.  There’s no one in the area that can hear her screams for help.  Her injured leg is in desperate need to medical attention.  Oh, and the tide will eventually rise to a point where her rocky safe haven will be engulfed.  The bottom line is that she has big problems.

The script itself doesn’t have much to offer.  There’s a silly, unnecessary subplot at the start where Nancy is called by her father who is unhappy that she’s dropped out of medical school.  Some of the “battles” that Nancy has with the shark are borderline comedic.  A particular scene involving glowing jellyfish springs to mind.

The film has its moments though.  It offers intrigue as you wonder Nancy is going to extricate herself from this situation.  Collet-Serra makes good use of music and camera angles as the shark makes it move.  He also throws in a few red herrings to keep audiences on their toes.  Two fellow surfers make a brief appearance and their demise is one of the film’s highlights.

Jaws this is not.


Review: Suicide Squad

Directed by: David Ayer
Written by: David Ayer
Starring: Will Smith, Margo Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Jared Leto, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Cara Delevingne, Jay Hernandez
Released: August 4, 2016
Grade: C+

Suicide Squad
Having seen the trailer umpteen times, Suicide Squad had the appearance of something fresh and new.  Instead of a traditional “good guys versus bad guys” action spectacle, it was going to blur the lines and make everyone a villain.  Regrettably, the finished product did not align with my expectations.  This is a tiring film that is low on laughs and high on confusion.

Following on from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, it begins with government official Amanda Waller (Davis) offering a chilling warning to her military counterparts – “the next Superman might not share our values.”  She wants to assemble a team of powerful “bad guys” that can be used to save Midway City if it should ever be attacked by another supernatural being.

The idea didn’t make a lot of sense to me.  In the opening scenes, we learn how some of these villains were captured and incarcerated in the first place.  Deadshot (Smith) is a marksman who never misses his target.  Harley Quinn (Robbie) was a leading doctor in a mental asylum until led astray by the Joker (Leto).  Both were apprehended by Batman and hence my bewilderment.  If Batman can outsmart these two, why hasn’t Amanda enlisted the services of Batman instead?  Further, if he wasn’t available, why take the risk on these lunatics over the loyal, hardworking soldiers already at their disposal?

The contrived narrative gets even messier when it comes to the film’s actual villain.  It’s not the Joker as advertisements lead you to believe.  It’s apparent that more will be made of his character in future instalments.  It therefore falls upon Cara Delevingne (Paper Towns) to wreak havoc as a not-so-intimidating witch who has been locked up for hundreds of years.  She’s created a bizarre “floating ring of trash in the sky” and is keen to annihilate the planet for no reason in particular.

It’s a shame the movie amounts to so little because there are some great performances.  Will Smith (Ali) and Australian Margo Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) get the most screen time and the best of the one-liners.  You’re never quite sure where they fit on the scale between good and evil.  Robbie isn’t the only Aussie in the cast.  Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher) plays Boomerang, an expert thief who apparently has robbed every bank in Australia.  He’s appropriately introduced using the iconic AC/DC song “Dirty Deeds Done Dirty Cheap”.

There are way too many characters here though.  Just when you think you’ve got your head wrapped around them all, another enters the mix (e.g. Karen Fukuhara who pops out of nowhere as a martial arts guru).  Writer-director David Ayer (Fury) isn’t afraid to kill people off (that’s a good thing) but it’s hard to care when you don’t know their backstory and when the action scenes have been so chaotically assembled.

Changes were reportedly made to Suicide Squad following the huge success of Deadpool back in February.  The studio was looking for more humour and less drama.  They can’t have made too many alterations as the finished product is still a largely bland affair.  As is tradition, the closing credits provide a tease of the next instalment.  It has to be more entertaining than this.


Review: Bad Moms

Directed by: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore
Written by: Jon Lucas, Scott Moore
Starring: Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Christina Applegate, Jada Pinkett Smith, Jay Hernandez
Released: August 11, 2016
Grade: A-

Bad Moms
It’s not easy being a mother but things have seemingly spiralled out of control for Amy Mitchell (Kunis).  She works for a coffee company where she’s paid a part-time salary and asked to work full-time hours.  She has two kids that she has to take to school, to soccer games, and to piano lessons.  She has a husband that “feels like a third child” and offers no support when it comes to grocery shopping and volunteering for the local Parent-Teacher Association (PTA).  Amy concedes that because of her over-committed schedule, the only thing she’s good at is being late.

Her frustrations reach a tipping point when she intends an emergency meeting that has been called by Gwendolyn (Applegate), the domineering PTA President.  She’s trying to organise a bake sale to raise money for the school and has a seemingly endless list of demands.  She even wants to create a Bake Sale Task Force to monitor “treats” to ensure they don’t contain products that might be bad for children.

After getting up in front of everyone and telling Gwendolyn to effectively get stuffed, Amy heads to a bar and meets two other women in search of help.  Carla (Hahn) is a single mum with a teenage son who she battles to connect with.  Kiki (Bell) is a struggling mother of three with a controlling husband.  The trio vent about the “pressure to be the perfect mum” and release their anger by going on an all-night bender.

When the dust settles and the hangovers dissipate, Amy, Carla and Kiki decide to transform their lives.  They are no longer going to be tired, quiet servants who are continually at the disposal of everyone else.  They want to spread the workload around so that they’ve got more time for themselves.  High on Amy’s agenda is having a spare half-hour of a morning to have a proper breakfast.

There’s not a lot of depth or nuance to this story.  There are a few stereotypical characters such as Amy’s deadbeat, one-dimensional husband.  It therefore makes it an easy choice when a new heartthrob (played by Jay Hernandez) sweeps Amy off her feet.  The kids in the film also seem to disappear at opportune times.  It’s okay to be a “bad mom” at times but you don’t want to slip into “neglectful mom” territory.

All of that said, my mild criticisms are more than compensated by the amazing comedic chemistry generated by the film’s three stars – Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn.  Their respective characters couldn’t be more different.  Guided by writers John Lucas and Scott Moore (who wrote The Hangover), they have crafted a number of “laugh out loud” moments and shrewd one-liners.  It’s hard to pick a favourite scene but a moment where they all go through Amy’s wardrobe is still stuck in my memory.

I’ll acknowledge that the film’s message is drummed home a few times too often but Bad Moms is still one of the best comedies of 2016.  I can only hope that others feel the same way.


Review: Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

Directed by: Mandie Fletcher
Written by: Jennifer Saunders
Starring: Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley, Julia Sawalha, June Whitfield, Jane Horrocks
Released: August 4, 2016
Grade: C+

Absolutely Fabulous
As someone completely new to Absolutely Fabulous, I look at these much-loved characters in a mild state of shock.  Edina Monsoon (Saunders) is a hapless, struggling PR agent who is mocked by her colleagues in the industry.  She rarely works and spends most of her time shopping, drinking and socialising.  Her best friend, Patsy Stone (Lumley), is no better.  She’s the party-loving, cocaine-snorting, chain-smoking fashion editor for a leading magazine.

Their lives up until this point have been funded by Edina’s wealthy ex-husband but unfortunately, those days are about to come to an end.  There’s no money left.  Their expansive champagne cabinet is empty and there are no new clothes for their wardrobes.  Edina laments that the credit cards “are broken” as if they’re some kind of fixable toy.  She tries to sell her autobiography to a publisher but that too ends in failure.  Edina is told that “her life may be worth living but it’s certainly not worth reading about.”

This is clearly a film for those who are fans of the series.  There have been 32 episodes and 7 television specials since it debuted on the BBC in 1992.  Many characters return for this feature film including Julia Sawalha as Edina’s daughter, June Whitfield as her mother, and Jane Horrocks as her dopey personal assistant.  There are also cameos from the likes of Jon Hamm and Rebel Wilson (which I haven’t spoiled since they’re already shown in the trailer).

After about 30 minutes of character reintroductions, the film finally arrives at its key plot point.  Supermodel Kate Moss (playing herself) is looking for a new agent and Edina has her sights on the role.  She rushes up to her at a soirée in London and in the blink of an eye Moss falls off a ledge into the River Thames.  She is presumed drowned and a “well-coordinated lynch mob” goes after Edina.  Whatever reputation she had left, is now in tatters.

It becomes apparent in the later stages that this is a film to be enjoyed for its utter craziness than its coherent narrative.  Supporting players slip in and out of the picture and it culminates with a trip to the French Riviera.  By this point, the Kate Moss storyline is almost forgotten.  Long-time supporters of the show will enjoy catching up with the eccentric characters.  Others may be left scratching their head and wondering if this is the female equivalent of a Hunter S. Thompson novel.

It’s obvious that the cast had fun making this.  My enthusiasm levels were not quite has high.


Review: Down Under

Directed by: Abe Forsythe
Written by: Abe Forsythe
Starring: Lincoln Younes, Damon Herriman, Rahel Romahn, Alexander England, Fayssal Bazzi, Michael Denkha
Released: August 11, 2016
Grade: B+

Down Under
In 1905, Italian philosopher George Santayana penned the famous phrase – “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  History is littered with examples of prejudice, racism, discrimination and persecution.  Just when you think the human race has taken a few positive steps forward, fear takes hold and we regress back down the ladder.

The release of Down Under feels appropriate given the intense public debate that is currently taking place about Muslims in Australia.  As part of her policy platform, recently elected Senator Pauline Hanson wants to stop Muslim immigration, wants surveillance cameras installed in all Mosques, and has called for a government inquiry to determine if Islam is a religion.  The support for her party shows that she’s not alone in sharing such views.

Down Under takes us back ten years when a similar debate was taking place.  In late 2005, racial and ethnic tensions were building around the Sydney suburb of Cronulla.  There were regular altercations between “white” Australians and those of Middle Eastern descent.  It reached a tipping point on 11 December 2005 when riots began at North Cronulla Beach and more than 100 people were arrested.  The event became international news and it represents a not-so-great chapter in Australia’s history.

Writer-director Abe Forsythe (Ned) opens this film with actual news footage from that day.  It provides a quick reminder of what took place and the number of people involved.  He follows that with a fictional tale set against the backdrop of the riots.  It provides perspective and also helps us understand the mindset of the rioters.

There are two distinct “car loads” of characters.  One features a group of white Australians who are looking to take the riots to neighbouring suburbs.  They are led by Jason (Herriman), a middle-aged guy who feels emasculated at home and is keen to “beat up some wogs.”  The other group consists of four Lebanese men.  They include Nick (Romahn) who is out for revenge after the previous day’s riots and Hassim (Younes) who is trying to locate his missing brother.

This is a film that doesn’t take a particular side.  While all these characters show glimpses of intelligence and likeability, there’s an underlying stupidity that has set them on a collision course for disaster.  It also highlights the danger of peer pressure within adult groups.  A dominating, misguided leader can impair the viewpoints of those who think differently.

Forsythe has taken a big chance in framing his movie at a dark comedy.  The early scenes had me worried that I was watching another Housos vs. Authority sequel.  Some will be lured into laughing with these characters as opposed to laughing at these characters.  Thankfully, my concerns were dispelled by a gutsy finale that pulls the rug from under the audience.

Complete with a few unexpected soundtrack choices, Down Under packs a strong emotional punch and asks us to take a good, hard look at ourselves.

You can read my interview with writer-director Abe Forsythe by clicking here.