A good guy comes under the spell of a less than good guy in the based on truth comic drama “War Dogs.” Miles Teller plays the good guy and has great chemistry with his high school pal Jonah Hill, the alpha male in this story. Jonah has stumbled on a scheme to sell guns and ammo to the U.S. military. Seems Uncle Sam need as many weapons as they can get their hands on for the various invasions of the middle east launched in the early 2000’s. At first, the money rolls in, then the boys bite off a little bit more than they can chew, aided by arms dealer Bradley Cooper. “War Dogs” is great fun thanks especially to Jonah Hill who excels as an immoral but likeable guy. An unknown Cuban actress named Ana de Armas makes a great impression as Teller’s disapproving wife. Kevin Pollak adds a lot of fun as a crooked dry cleaner. Seems everybody wants the easy money available in the gun business. Of course it all unravels and the straw that breaks the camel’s back is worth learning. “War Dogs” feels like “Wolf of Wall Street” meets “American Hustle.” That’s a way of saying it doesn’t do anything new. It does reflect another attempt at the style of filmmaking that made those two movies as well as ‘The Big Short” so watchable. 2 1/2 stars R rating for sex, drugs, and violence. Does it deliver what it promises? Comic drama. Is it entertaining? Familiar but entertaining. Is it worth the price of admission? Easy to watch and easy to like.
“Ben Hur” returns in a new version which will most likely irk fans of the 1959 Oscar-winning classic. But that’s ok because most movie goers weren’t alive in 1959. This remake serves up the famous chariot race in 3 D and does a grand job. Wheels crash, horses fall, drivers get crushed as the crowd cheers. Jack Huston, whom I have admired since his work on “Boardwalk Empire” plays Judah Ben-Hur, crown prince of a wealthy Roman family. Toby Kebbell plays Ben-Hur’s adopted brother, Messala, an orphaned Jew who joins the Roman army and rises to the position of leader, just a rung below Pontius Pilate. (Hmm, beginning to sound familiar?) Ben-Hur shows compassion to a religious zealot, who repays his kindness by firing an arrow at Pilate. The Romans blame Ben-Hur, seize his family and sentence him to a lifetime in a Roman galley ship. The rowing scenes rival the chariot race for harrowing action and excitement. You may remember “Ben-Hur” encounters Christ and ultimately adopts his teachings. ‘Ben-Hur” returns to the scene of his humiliation with the help of Morgan Freeman who sets up the chariot race. Unfortunately Freeman mouths some of the worst dialog of the year wearing a ridiculous wig that looks like an old fashioned mop. “Ben Hur” does fine in the action scenes, but when things get quiet a lot of bad acting comes through. “Ben-Hur” feels uneven, sometimes thrilling, other times laughable. This remake was produced by Mark Burnette and Roma Downey who specialize in Christian themed films. I imagine those most religious will find the new”Ben-Hur” satisfying. As a movie, I recommend taking a pass. 2 stars PG-13, for violence and a crucifixion. Does it deliver what it promises? Remake of a classic. Is it entertaining? Great action, lousy acting. Is it worth the price of admission? In general, no thanks.
Young actors Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri add heart and a bit of soul to the independent feature “Little Men.” They meet when Theo moves to Brooklyn after his father – played by Greg Kinnear – inherits his father’s apartment including the dress shop operated by Michael’s mother on the ground floor. As the new owner, Kinnear, spurred by his sister, insists on raising Paulina Garcia’s rent. This small development generates great tension as the boys friendship resonates in the hearts of those of us in the audience. “Little Men” features wonderful performances, particularly the boys and from Garcia who quietly argues her case with the hapless Kinnear. “Little Men” serves a slice of life in a small story that cuts deep. 3 stars. Does it deliver what it promises? Touching family drama. Is it entertaining? Great family drama. Is it worth the price of admission? An independent gem.
The “Texas Myth” of wide open spaces and unlimited opportunity gasps its last breath in the superb modern western “Hell or High Water.” Chris Pine and Ben Foster begin the story donning ski masks to burst into a small West Texas bank and clean out the cash drawers. We learn Pine and Foster are brothers: Pine the good brother who stayed home to nurse his dying mother, Foster the bad brother who did a prison stretch for standing up to his abusive father with the help of a loaded gun. As the robberies continue, they catch the attention of veteran Texas Ranger Jeff Bridges who begins to look into things with the help of his less than admiring partner Gil Birmingham. “Hell or High Water” gradually reveals the intent behind the robberies as it also reveals the poverty and desolation of West Texas. That myth of wide open spaces and golden opportunity masks the fact that most Texans and Westerners live in cities working at city jobs. The ranchers and farmers have grown weary of the life with no way out as their children leave them behind. “Hell or High Water” marries “Bonnie and Clyde” to modern issues of fracking, reverse mortgages, open carry laws, and changing times and a changing economy. Chris Pine earns new respect as the center of this story. Ben Foster adds frightening tension. Jeff Bridges combines age and world-weariness in an award worthy performance. “Hell or High Water” tells a Hell of a story in one of the best films of the year. 4 Stars Rated “R” for violence. Does it deliver what it promises? Compelling drama. Is it entertaining? Captures the last days of the “Texas myth” with humor and sadness. Is it worth the price of admission? One of the year’s must see movies.
The life of Florence Foster Jenkins makes an easy comic target in the charming movie “Florence Foster Jenkins.” The story of the Manhattan socialite and music lover convinced of her talent has enough sweetness thanks to Meryl Streep to let us cheer the poor woman’s efforts. In real life, Foster Jenkins made light opera recordings and performed at Carnegie Hall shortly before her death in 1944. The movie does a nice job recreating wartime 1940’s Manhattan when Jenkins performed for her elderly sometimes deaf social set. The film’s supporting cast includes a nice turn by Hugh Grant as Jenkins husband and sometime ham actor St. Clair Bayfield. I especially enjoyed Simon Helberg as Jenkins bewildered pianist. “Florence Foster Jenkins” flows off the screen with easy charm. I imagine the truth of the real Florence Foster Jenkins’ life is more complicated and most likely much more narcissistic. For quirky fun and sheer entertainment, “Florence Foster Jenkins” fills the bill. Does it deliver what it promises? Meryl Street comic role. Is it entertaining? Hits all the right notes. Is it worth the price of admission? Great fun.
“Indignation” comes from a Phillip Roth 2008 novel and touches a lot of the themes of his “Goodbye Columbus” trading comedy for drama. Logan Lerman plays Marcus Messner, determined to leave his family’s Newark, New Jersey butcher shop and make his way to law school. Arriving at a small Ohio college in 1951, Lerman buckles down but then glimpses the blonde Goddess Olivia played by Sarah Gadon. She initiates the kind of sex Marcus never knew. Marcus is both thrilled and afraid of Olivia. She brings out his deepest anxieties. Pressure from his parents including a father who constantly reminds Marcus that “one little mistake” can unravel his world takes its toll. A meeting with the college dean turns into debate ending with the Dean musing what a great lawyer Marcus will make some day. This rich scene is worth the price of admission. “Indignation” has plenty to surprise, including a bout of appendicitis landing Marcus in the hospital and bringing his mother back into his orbit. “Indignation” often feels more like a play than a film. Even so, the movie’s slow build pays off powerfully. Does it deliver what it promises? 1950’s coming of age drama. Is it entertaining? Some wonderful scenes. Is it worth the price of admission? A grown up movie.
Suicide Squad starts with a burst of energy and fun. Shadowy government agent Viola Davis has a plan to keep America safe. She will recruit the meanest baddest most anti social criminals in lock up and in return for a few years off their sentence let me butt heads with America’s enemies. The introduction to the various characters gets more outrageous by the second, giving prominence to Will Smith, as “Deadshot” the sniper who never misses, and Margo Robbie as crazy hot psychiatrist turned circus star Harley Quinn. The rest of the characters include a guy who lives in the sewer, another guy who throws flames at will, a masked Chinese swords woman named Katana, a bunch of other people, and Dr. June Moore whose body has been taken over by the Enchantress, an ancient supernatural witch. The Enchantress leaves the team of good bad guys to become the chief bad girl, using her powers to blow up Gotham City and a lot of other places and things. Before she turned into a witch, she loved her boyfriend played by Joel Kinnaman, one of the great character actors floating around today. (Remember him in “The Killing?” In spite of a pretty good start and a lot of great 1970’s music plus a seething performance from Viola Davis, “Suicide Squad” suffers from overload pretty quickly. By the movie’s end, what started as giddy fun turns tedious. Jared Leto has a few juicy scenes as The Joker, the love interest for Margo Robbie. Ben Affleck turns up a few times as Batman but don’t blink. DC Comics made this with sequel and franchise dollar signs dancing in their heads. I hope they go back to the drawing board before they make another one because all they’ve got is the same old summer movie loud bang special effects laden thing. 2 stars PG-13 for violence, noise, death, and destruction. Does it deliver what it promises? Bad guy comic book characters fight to save the world. Is it entertaining? Same old same old. Is it worth the price of admission? No really.
Matt Damon returns as “Jason Bourne” in another adventure based on “The Bourne Identity.” Fans thrilled to the original films based on the 1980 Robert Ludlum thriller. In the original CIA trained killer Bourne wakes up with amnesia and gradually must discover his identity while fighting the many forces out to kill him. As the film series progressed, the Bourne movies set the standard in fast paced quick cut non-stop action, so quick in fact that viewers who blinked could miss something. The “Bourne” series benefited from the casting of Matt Damon, who made the role his own. A few years ago Damon said three Bourne movies were enough. He was right. The new “Jason Bourne” doesn’t advance the series because it has nowhere new to go. Bourne learns a few more things about his past and about his father’s identity but begins the movie somewhere off the grid with not much explanation other than to showcase his new life as a back alley bare knuckle boxer. Julia Stiles emerges from the third film to access a CIA computer which puts the agency on her trail. Her action brings Bourne out of hiding and off we go. “Jason Bourne” turns into one long eye-popping chase, in which assassin Vincent Cassel chases Bourne, at the direction of snarling CIA director Tommy Lee Jones, whose demeanor falls somewhere between one-note and laughable. It makes me sad to see Jones used so poorly. Speaking of not doing much with an actor, the rising star Alicia Vikander doesn’t fare much better as an assistant who decides her boss is part of the problem and that Bourne has value alive. A subplot involving a computer billionaire and an internet spying scheme doesn’t add much except for a scene reminiscent of the original “Manchurian Candidate.” Director Paul Greengrass does too many things to amp up the tension–the music pounds and the action scenes fly. After a while “Jason Bourne” gave me a headache. It also gave me no reason to look forward to yet another movie which the filmmakers clearly hope to produce. Matt Damon was right — three Bourne adventures is plenty. “Jason Bourne” 2 stars – PG-13 – Extreme violence and a high body count. Does it deliver what it promises? Another Bourne whether we want it or not. Is it entertaining? Loud, jumpy, and nothing new. Is it worth the price of admission? If you must.
“Nerve” feels contemporary what with everyone going around looking at their smart phones bumping into things while playing “Pokemon Go.” “Nerve” presents as an on-line game that rewards players for successfully completing dares. Shy high schooler Emma Roberts decides her life in the corner has come to an end and joins the fun. She starts by kissing Dave Franco – a total stranger – and teaming up with him. Since this is a movie we soon learn he’s a plant with his own agenda. The dares increase in intensity and if you fear heights as much as I do you will have plenty to make you squirm. “Nerve” has some great moments but doesn’t quite pay off. In fact, the “Hunger Games” style ending makes very little sense. Several things struck me watching “Nerve.” Emma Roberts is 25 and Dave Franko about 30 while the woman who plays Emma’s best friend Emily Meade is over 30, yet we’re expected to believe they’re 18 or 19. I guess that’s a compliment to the actors but their age difference made it a lot to swallow. Also, to drive home the point we’re in a high schooler’s social media world, the screen fills with all kind of computer messages and other stuff that basically gave me a headache. I like Emma Roberts and Dave Franco. I hope the next time I see them they play someone their age. 2 stars PG-13 for violence, frightening situations, and a few sexy moments. Does it deliver what it promises? High school kid computer game movie. Is it entertaining? It zips along at 90 minutes. Is it worth the price of admission? Nah.
“Weiner” documents former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s disastrous campaign for mayor of New York in 2013. You may remember Weiner resigned from the House of Representatives when a woman revealed a text he sent showing a bulge in his underwear. Weiner’s marriage to Huma Abedin, the longtime aide to Hillary Clinton, provides an important and contemporary element to the scandal. Must I remind you that Hillary and Huma are close and that Hillary had to contend with her own husband’s admission of sexual exploits? Weiner appears to be on the road to a comeback until another women reveals texts and sexts sent by Weiner. As the story plays out, shock jock Howard Stern brings the woman (Sydney Leathers) to New York to confront Anthony Weiner on election eve. The chase between the woman and Weiner’s campaign is cringe inducing and jaw dropping. The camera captures Huma Abedin’s pain in a series of breath-taking moments. One scene between husband and wife plays out in complete silence and will resonate with any spouse who finds him or herself shamed and embarrassed. “Weiner” also reminds us of the Congressman’s passion to improve society. At one point the documentarians ask “Why are you letting us do this?” Weiner has no answer, but this study of talent, and vanity and narcissism and shame is like watching a car crash. You can’t take your eyes off the screen. “Weiner” 3 1/2 stars. Does it deliver what it promises? Stunning documentary. Is it entertaining? Fascinating. Is it worth the price of admission? The must see documentary of the year.