Mini-Reviews: Ben-Hur, War Dogs, Hell or High Water, & Sully

Hey everybody!

Welcome to the second edition of Mini-Reviews. This time, it’s more of a mixed than it was last time. So let’s get to it, shall we?

 

*As always, these will be spoiler free reviews*

 

Hell or High Water

Director: David Mackenzie

Writer: Taylor Sheridan

Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, and Gil Birmingham

Synopsis: A divorced dad and his ex-con brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family’s ranch in West Texas.

 

Hell or High Water may start off as a typical bank robbers vs. the law film, but underneath all that is much more. Brothers Toby (Pine) and Tanner (Foster) Howard start a string of bank robbers that are actually to save their mother’s ranch in the desolated West Texas for a bigger reason we don’t find out until the final act. On their trail is a on the verge of retiring Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) and his partner Alberto Parker (Birmingham). As the Rangers get closer, the risk for Toby and Tanner gets bigger and it leads to an explosive finale.

The film is written by Sicario writer Taylor Sheridan, which you can immediately tell once the film gets going. The themes of the film are nicely layered and scattered throughout, which may seem off or forced to many, but once you look at film as a whole, you’ll appreciate the nuances.

However, it’s the cast that really makes this film fantastic. Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges are reliable as ever with Bridges seemingly enjoying his more livelier role to date, while Ben Foster once again showing he’s a force that shouldn’t be forgotten.

All in all, Hell or High Water is a fantastic film with a great cast and story. The film is slow ride, but so worth it for the final outcomes that fits in today’s world.

Hell or High Water

4.5 out of 5

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War Dogs

Director: Todd Phillips

Writers: Todd Phillips, Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic

Cast: Miler Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollak and Bradley Cooper

Synopsis: Based on the true story of two young men, David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, who won a $300 million contract from the Pentagon to arm America’s allies in Afghanistan.

 

Todd Phillips has come a long way from The Hangover. War Dogs is a much more mature film for him that tackles a huge subject of the second Iraq War, but doesn’t do so in a way that says “war is bad,” but takes a conversational, or to some the real reason, “war is an economy.” The film even stars with a voiceover by Teller’s David Packouz telling us how much it costs to gear and arm every soldier in our military.

The film follows David, an unhappy massage therapist working in Miami in 2005, who reunites with his old junior high best friend, Efraim Diveroli (Hill). Unlike David, Efraim is living a rather successful life as an arms dealer who picks up government contracts. Efraim needing help, and David with a baby on the way with his wife Iz (de Armas), the two decided to grow their own business and take on government contracts. However, their partnership and friendship are tested as the money gets bigger.

I will say the film was better than I thought it would be, and it helped that Jonah Hill and Miles Teller were on their A-game. Hill almost steals the film with his sleazy performance as Efraim. While Brady Cooper pops in and out through the film after being introduced around the middle of the film. Although the film doesn’t really bring too much new to the table, you can pretty much tell how this film will turn out by the end. It’s not a bad thing – considering it’s based on a true story – and while the chemistry between Teller and Hill seems spot-on, the movie does go into a lull after a while.

All in all, War Dogs is much more of a drama than comedy, but the film has plenty of laughs to balance out the seriousness and crazy reality of the film.

War Dogs

3.5 out of 5

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Ben-Hur

Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Writers: John Ridley & Keith R. Clarke

Cast: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Nazanin Boniadi, Rodrigo Santoro, Pilou Asbaek, Sofia Black-D’Elia, Moises Arias, Ayelet Zurer, and Morgan Freeman

Synopsis: Judah Ben-Hur, a prince falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother, an officer in the Roman army, returns to his homeland after years at sea to seek revenge, but finds redemption.

 

I have no connection the old Ben-Hur films or novel since I never saw them or read it. I do know the cultural and film significance the film the property has had, so I was always going to go off what this new iteration bought to the table. I wasn’t really looking forward to the film too much since the trailers weren’t that great, but I gave it a shot and you know what? It wasn’t a complete waste of time.

Ben-Hur follows Judah Ben-Hur (Huston), a prince in Jerusalem, who lives his family including his adopted brother Messala (Kebbell) who knows his place amongst the family is at the very bottom. To find his own place in the world, Messala leaves and joins the Roman army, and after years have passed returns home as a successful soldier. Messala goes to Judah and pleads with him to name anyone that would think about attacking Pontius Pilate (Asbaek) when he passes through Jerusalem. Judah, not wanting to get dragged into anything, tells him he thinks Pilate will be safe. Of course, something happens and Messala seeing no other choice and viewing this as a betray sends Judah to be a slave.

However, when Judah’s ship does down, Judah finds land and is employed by a wealthy African named Ilderim (Freeman) to help him and become his chariot rider for a big race coming soon. Of course, the chariot race will have Messala in it. Along the whole way, Judah has small run ins with Jesus (Santoro).

One of the good things the film does is make the relationship between Judah and Massala a big part before we mostly follow Judah for the rest of the film. We see the love they have for each other, but you can see Messala is conflicted with his position in the family, and knows Judah will always first in the family’s eyes. It also helps that Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell have descent chemistry together, and Kebbell has enough acting chops to not make Messala a villain, but enough to make us not root for him in some way.

The rest of the cast does okay with what they given. Freeman doesn’t show up until the final third of the film, and does his typical reliable Freeman performance. Nazanin Boniadi plays Esther, Judah’s wife who tries to play Judah’s moral compass, and Rodrigo Santoro’s Jesus is nicely scattered through the film.

The film does bring up some political issues into the film, and thankfully aren’t shoehorned in. However, when Judah gets free from the ship, that message is gone and focuses on Judah’s journey of revenge, and from there the performances do take a bit of a dip, but thankfully come back near the end of the film.

All in all, Ben-Hur isn’t that bad of the film. It’s not perfect, and I’m sure most people will say it’s not like the other iterations, but something tells me that’s okay for this one. Also, the much advertised chariot race was a descent enough action set-piece.

Ben-Hur

3 out of 5

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Sully

Director: Clint Eastwood

Writer: Todd Komarnicki

Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Mike O’Malley, and Laura Linney.

Synopsis: The story of Chesley Sullenberger, who became a hero after gliding his plane along the water in the Hudson River, saving all of the airplane flights 155 crew and passengers.

 

I barely remember the actual event of “The Miracle on the Hudson” on the news, but I never actually knew, many most of us too, what happened afterwards. So who better to tell that story on screen than Clint Eastwood and everyone’s favorite actor Tom Hanks. Hanks is, of course, not untested playing real people as he already did it in Captain Phillips and Saving Mr. Banks. But there is something a little different about playing the man that saved 155 people in a forced water landing.

Sully follows ‘Sully’ (Hanks) as he deals with the aftermath of landing on the Hudson River. Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles have to deal with an investigation by the FAA and the insurance company. Despite Sully pulling off the impossible and viewed as a hero by many, he’s viewed as reckless to the investigators for putting everyone and the plane in danger since the simulations all show he could have made it back to the airport or make it to another one.

For what it’s worth, Sully is a very engaging film that keeps you hooked from beginning to end. The plane sequence is tense to watch, and will probably make you a little afraid of flying now, and it’s interesting to see it play out in multiple ways. We see the sequence in two different ways that are completely different, but they are a thrill to watch in their own ways. I will say the film does lack a certain something that keeps the film from being a more powerful film, not saying the film isn’t powerful, but for me there was something missing.

Of course, the main draw here is Tom Hanks. Hanks is – once again – reliable in every way possible and carries the film on his shoulders. I wouldn’t say it’s his best performance, but you believe him as this conflicted man that probably risked the lives on everyone onboard. Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles is pretty good here too and might be a performance some will forget. Mike O’Malley plays Charles Porter, the lead investigator in the case against Sully. O’Malley is a surprise choice for the role, considering he’s known mostly for his comedic performance, but has put on some dramatic roles as of late and nails the performance here. Laura Linney feels almost wasted here as Sully’s wife Lorraine, as her whole performance is talking on the phone to Sully, but does have one moment near the end of the film that makes it work.

All in all, Sully isn’t that bad of a film. It’s not Eastwood’s or Hanks’ best film, but it’s not their worst.  The film is engaging and tense throughout to keep you invested more than you think, and it shines a light on a hero. The CGI plane moments do take you out of the film a bit, but Eastwood hasn’t really worked with too much CGI before, so we can probably let it pass.

Sully

3.5 out of 5

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‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ Review

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Director: Burr Steers

Writer: Burr Steers

Cast: Lily James, Sam Riley, Bella Heathcote, Ellie Bamber, Millie Brady, Suki Waterhouse, Douglas Booth, Sally Philips, Charles Dance, Jack Huston, Matt Smith, and Lena Headey

Synopsis: Jane Austen’s classic tale of the tangled relationships between lovers from different social classes in 19th century England is faced with a new challenge – and army of undead zombies.

 

*Reviewer Note: This will be a spoiler free review.*

*Reviewer Note 2: There is a very short scene in the middle of the credits*

 

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies has had a very troubled and long production. Natalie Portman was originally set to star until she dropped out because of scheduling conflicts – although she stayed on as a producer – and David O. Russell was going to direct until he dropped out due to scheduling conflicts as well. Lily Collins was then going to replace Portman but turned it down, and then the studio landed on Burr Steers to finally direct. What we finally ended up getting was a better than expected adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s take on Jane Austen’s classic story of “Pride and Prejudice.” Of course, one has to get over the concept that zombies are added into a classic novel, and if you can get over that, then you’ll enjoy the film a hell of a lot more.

Just like the original – the Jane Austen story – Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is set in 19th century England and places its focus on Elizabeth Bennet (James) and her sisters: Jane (Heathcote), Lydia (Bamber), Mary (Brady), and Kitty (Waterhouse). Their mother, played by Sally Phillips, is determined to find them wealthy and eligible suitors so they can get married, since once their father dies, they get nothing. Of course, Elizabeth is very independent and headstrong with little to no interest in giving up her swords and martial arts training to be a married woman and to follow the norm of society. However, during all this, zombies – a term they actually use in the film – are overtaking England. This is where changes into the Austen’s story take place and where Grahame-Smith’s take kicks in.

From Left to Right: Ellie Bamber, Bella Heathcote, Lily James, Suki Waterhouse, and Millie Brady

The Bennet Sisters have been trained since they were girls and thanks to their father, played by Charles Dance, were sent to be trained in China, were the “wise” parents send their children to train as opposed to the rich parents who send their children to Japan. Certain families have gone the countryside to hide under their lands which includes the Bennet’s. When Mrs. Bennet finds out a new wealthy suitor in Mr. Bingley (Booth) has arrived from the warfront, they go to a ball where Bingley and Jane fall for each other. At that same party, Elizabeth meets Mr. Darcy (Riley), now a general in the army against the undead. The love story between them starts off as standoffish and trying to up one another every chance they can get. However, when George Wickham, a lieutenant in the army and one that has a past with Darcy comes into town, Elizabeth starts to fall for him, and where the love story starts to take place. Of course, everything comes to head once the story picks up in the final act that leads to an explosive and its own spin on the love story ending.

Sam Riley and Douglas Booth

Again, if you can get past the concept of zombies being injected into the story and the fact that now all the characters know martial arts and fight with swords, then sitting through the movie will be a hell of a lot better. However, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a pretty enjoyable and fun movie anyway. Director Burr Steers and Co. do a great job of balancing the different tones of action, horror, and comedy and make them blend together fairly well. The tonal differences could have really hurt the film, but thankfully Steers control the tones and make them work for the film instead of against it.

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That’s not to say that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn’t without its faults and missteps. The film is good, but could have been better with some better pacing in the middle of the film and expanding some of the new concepts they bring in that includes a Horsemen of the Apocalypse angle that leads nowhere expect some nice visuals. Some visuals do work, while others fall flat especially an early one in the film, but for some it doesn’t help that some scenes are very poorly lit. The low lighting really makes one particularly scene hard to see anything, which doesn’t help since the scene feels like it’s important scene, but since we can’t see anything, the scene just fails.

Lena Headey

Jack Huston’s Wickham also falls a bit flat, although his story with Darcy is solid, it’s a bit rushed so the emotional impact and feeling fails to grab a huge amount of attention. Also felling underwhelming is Lena Headey’s character Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Heady also has a few scenes in the film, but none of them really stick out too much. It’s a shame really since her character is described as one of the deadliest and most skilled swordswomen in England, which is accompanied with a nice visual, but other than that, the character doesn’t really go anyway.

Riley, Matt Smith and James

As for the rest of the cast, they all do well with the material presented in front of them. Lily James nails Elizabeth Bennet is every way possible, making her easy to root for and a kickass character at that. Sam Riley’s Mr. Darcy is one of the characters you grow to like as he comes off as a bit full of himself, but sees his actions as necessary to protect everyone from the zombie plague. Bella Heathcote’s Jane Bennet gets really the third billing of the movie since her arc with Douglas Booth’s Mr. Bingley is the main arc in the first act of the film, although they both disappear during the middle of the film in order to drawn Elizabeth and Darcy’s arc. The other three sisters are a bit interchangeable unless you remember who’s playing who. Matt Smith, who plays Parson Collins, is a big highlight in every scene he’s in and could easily steal the film for some people.

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All in all, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies a hell of a lot of fun and more enjoyable than some will give it credit for. While it fails on some levels, like pacing and some underdeveloped scenes, that stop it from being great, everyone involved make the crazy concept worth the watch. If zombie action with a little classic romance is your thing, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies should fill that right up.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

4 out of 5