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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‘Fantastic Four’ Review

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Dir: Josh Trank

Writer(s): Josh Trank, Jeremy Slater, and Simon Kinberg

Cast: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Tim Blake Nelson and Reg E. Cathey.

Synopsis: Four young outsiders teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe which alters their physical form in shocking ways. The four must learn to harness their new abilities and work together to save Earth from a former friend turned enemy.

 

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

 

The Fantastic Four aka “Marvel’s First Family” is very beloved by many fans. However, 20th Century Fox has never really been able to nail down the characters. Tim Story’s 2005 film, and its sequel in 2007 were not received well and came off as too goofy and campy. Enter the age of gritty and darker comic book movies and Josh Trank brings his take – sort of – to the Fantastic Four with a movie more connected to science instead of science-fiction, with elements of experiments gone wrong and familiar characters. However, it’s all the behind-the-scenes drama that most people will probably remember from his reboot.

 

I don’t want to focus on the behind-the-scenes drama because if you walk in to the movie with all that in your head, as much as you want to enjoy the movie for what it is – which you should always do that – it will get to you. However, Trank isn’t completely to blame, at least according to some well place and reliable people. That being said, this review will ONLY focus on the movie and not things that unfortunately happened. I will just say this, Trank and Fox may take the hits, but at the end of day, it’s the fans that lose.

 

The movie starts off by showing us a young Reed Richards (Owen Judge) building a machine that he believes at the time to only be a teleporter. With the help from a young Ben Grimm (Evan Hannermann), the two pull it off. Up ahead seven years, an older Reed (Teller) and Ben (Bell) try to show off their invention at a science fair only to be disqualified because they think it’s a magic trick. However, Reed and Ben meet Dr. Franklin Storm (Cathey) and his adopted daughter Sue (Mara), who sees Reed’s invention as the last piece of their own project they’ve been doing. Reed gets to go work at the Baxter Institute where he continues his work.

 

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Franklin Storm eventually brings in a resentful former worker and co-founder of the project they bought Reed into do, Victor Von Doom (Kebbell) and Johnny (Jordan) to help finish transporting to another dimension. Seeing that the machine works, and it is possible to travel safely to the alternate dimension, the project takes a bump that they didn’t see coming. So Reed calls Ben so the two, along with Victor and Johnny, can go and see their work for themselves. However, disaster hits as the four try to return and as they try to head back the four – along with Sue by accident – becoming affected with abilities they don’t know and can’t explain.

 

For all intent-and-purposes, Fantastic Four is an origin story. The characters are new version from what you’ve seen before. In fact, the movie tries to play them as teenagers. Yes, teenagers: Miles Teller, who is 28, and Jamie Bell, who is 29, are treated as that and when we see the “adult” versions of them, they are in a science fair in school. Sue is apparently the same age or maybe older, and Johnny is able to drive – the first time we see him he’s street racing – and tells his father during an encounter later in the movie that he’s in adult. Victor is the most notable adult of the five. The age issue is probably a small thing, and not the worse part of this movie, but it is odd once you think about it.

 

The nice thing about the film is, for the most part, you know who these characters are. Reed wants his work to mean something and do good for everyone, he’s not doing it for the fame. Sue wants the same thing, but goes about it for own way. Johnny wants to be his own man and doesn’t want to really follow in his father’s footsteps although he could. Victor is driven by ambition and doesn’t want his work to be messed with by anyone, especially the government.

 

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The least developed character at the start is Ben Grimm. The only thing we get from his character is that he comes from a poor income family and gets beaten up by his older brother. Once he gets turned into The Thing he becomes angry, but, he uses his anger. It’s hard to talk about it because I don’t want to get into spoilers, but there is a single shot that connects to what he’s been up to since turning The Thing, that I thought would be a great place to go and have that be a new character trait or something that can change the character that we’ve known for ages. But, no, instead it gets tossed aside and it never mentioned again.

 

I’ll say this, the first two-thirds of the movie work, even with the middle of the movie being a bit sluggish and unbalanced. Fantastic Four is a filled with action. Instead it brings the focus to the characters and dealing with their newfound abilities. Instead of automatically embracing it, they are actually scarred, especially Ben, who of course gets the worse of it. The film jumps a year after they get their powers and sees them be able to use them. It did irk me that we couldn’t see the actual scenes of them learning how to use their powers because it would have given us an extra layer to attach to, but as is some of the rest of the movie, a missed opportunity.

 

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Now, that’s the first two-thirds, and again, it isn’t that bad as many are saying it is. It’s not perfect. However, the final act of the movie is what really hurts Fantastic Four, so much so that no matter how hard I tried to not think of the behind-the-scenes problems, I thought of them, and you can clearly see some of the problems. Moreover, the final act is way too rushed and kills any sort of potential and monument the movie had. It’s almost a shame to say, because you obviously you want a movie to end strong, but Fantastic Four’s ending feels like they were doing too much in little time.

 

The cast does okay with what they are given. Miles Teller is pretty reserved here and doesn’t step foot into the typical leadership role until the very end. Kate Mara’s Sue Storm has her very brief moments to shine, but gets a little stronger as the movie goes on. Jaime Bell, again, is one of the most underdeveloped characters as human Ben Grimm and even The Thing. There was some great potential for his character, but they don’t do anything with it. Also, the CGI-d Thing isn’t too bad. It’s probably the best effect the movie has, which is saying something because some of the CGI is a bit wonky in areas.

 

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Michael B. Jordan is okay as Johnny Storm aka The Human Torch. He a certain attitude to him that makes sense when you look at everything that he goes through. Of course, everyone was up in arms when he was cast as Johnny and the question of race came up – along with some disturbing and disgusting comments – but no one batted in eye when Reg E. Cathey was cast as Franklin Storm. Anyway, the stupid argument of race doesn’t even matter at the end since Sue is the one that’s actually adopted. The adoption is bought up about twice, never to full effect, but it almost doesn’t matter. Which brings me to my next point.

 

The four never really feel like a full fledge team. Instead when they face Doom at the end, it feels like they are just teaming up because Doom is trying to kill everyone on Earth. Even when the movie tries to make it seem like they’ve always been together as a group, it feels forced. Yes, the argument could be made that it is an origin story and this is how they become the team or they haven’t earned the team at this point, but considering Sue and Johnny are supposed to be siblings, and Ben and Reed are suppose to be best childhood friends – although they only have a few scenes together and some don’t even work – the group doesn’t blend well together.

 

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As for Toby Kebbell’s Victor Von Doom aka Dr. Doom, or just Doom, well, let’s just say that it isn’t all that great. Kebbell is a great actor and is finally getting some recognition for that, but wow, did Fox mess this up. I’m even going to say that Victor is a better character than Doom, and Doom has superpowers! Maybe it was because there isn’t enough Doom in the movie, and even his short screentime isn’t the best. I think if his look was different, than the scenes of him using his powers could have been more terrifying. I’m indifferent about the look, only because of the way they went about making the look. Unfortunately, even Kebbell couldn’t save the character.

 

Reg E. Cathey is highly misused here and no thanks to some weird editing – most likely by Fox when the kicked Trank out of the editing process – is robbed of what could have been a great scene with Jordan before the final act. Tim Blake Nelson plays a greedy government official that chews up any scene he’s in, but the role is wasted on Nelson, who is a great actor, because it really adds nothing, other than have a human antagonist opposite Doom.

 

All in all, Fantastic Four is not as bad as people and critics are saying. The movie isn’t fantastic (sorry, I had to), but it isn’t terrible either. The final act of the movie does hurt the film a lot because of how rushed it feels and the terrible structure of it. The behind-the-scenes drama coming out does hurt the film a bit, but only because it is extremely noticeable in a lot of places. Also, there are quite a few shots in the trailer that seemed really cool that aren’t even in the movie! So be ready for that. Yes, Fox and Josh Trank will take the hit, but it is us the fans that suffer from all the drama. So is Fantastic Four worth watching? In most cases it is, and then the ending comes around, and then it isn’t.

 

Fantastic Four

2.5 out of 5

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‘Divergent’ Review

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Dir: Neil Burger

Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Jai Courtney, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Ray Stevenson, Tony Goldwyn, Ashley Judd, Maggie Q, and Kate Winslet

Synopsis: In a world divided by factions based on virtues, Tris learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in. When she discovers a plot to destroy Divergents, Tris and the mysterious Four must find out what makes Divergents dangerous before it’s too late

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

Based off the popular Young Adult Novel of the same name by Veronica Roth, Divergent is set in a dystopian, post-war Chicago where its citizens are divided into five factions, each one emphasizing a particular personality trait: Abnegation (selflessness), Amity (kindness), Erudite (intelligence), Candor (honesty), and Dauntless (bravery).  Each one is assigned certain jobs, e.g. Abnegation runs the government, Erudite handles science, and Dauntless are the soldiers.  Every citizen must choose their faction and are given a test to see, which faction suits them best.  When Abnegation citizen Beatrice Prior (Woodley), who later calls herself Tris, takes the test, she comes up as “Divergent”, which she has to hide because it will make her a target against the higher ranks that including Jeanine (Winslet).

Divergents “threaten the system,” as we’re told over and over by various characters in urgent and cryptic whispers. Why they pose such a danger is not revealed until later in the movie and even then it doesn’t pack much of a punch (at least for me).  Despite that, the movie has an interesting world, but we never fully grasp what it really is. We see a somewhat ruined Chicago (which is cool because it’s the home city) with some futuristic touches and we get the idea of the Fraction-less.  But the only real concept we see is Beatrice’s Abnegation house when the family eats dinner around a single, tiny light bulb.  There are conflicts between the fractions, Erudite and Abnegation, although we don’t see it and are only told through Peter (Teller), who bashes Tris any chance he can get.

Of course being based off a young adult novel, Tris has a love interest in her instructor and Dauntless member Four (James). I’ll admit Woodley and James’ chemistry is one of the best things about Divergent but at the same time it takes away from the other relationships that Tris has with spunky Christina (Kravitz), Will (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) and Al (Christian Madsen).  Even her “rival” Peter and ruthless instructor Eric (Courtney) don’t feel bad, although Eric is menacing at times.

Again, Woodley is probably one of the better parts of the movie. She brings her A-game when need be and adds some depth to the scenes, even when it’s not necessarily needed.  Theo James adds some mystery to Four and tries to lead Tris in the right direction.  On the other hand, there is some wasted talent when it comes to Kate Winslet’s Jeanine, who feels like she’s evil for the sake of being evil.  Even Ray Stevenson’s Marcus, the leader of Abnegation, and Ashley Judd who plays Tris mother feel like they could have gotten other people to do them and it wouldn’t have made a difference.

Thankfully, it does make an effort to deliver on the action, although some feels a bit anti-climatic.  The zip-lining across Chicago skylines is pretty cool.  Even the “fear tests” have some vivid imagery and is the only time the movie allows itself to go into “dark territory” which I kind of wish the movie had more of.

All in all, Divergent is kind of all over the place. For a movie that’s about two and half hours long, it kind of feels like it’s running fast to get through a lot of story that it misses the details that could make it come alive and the plot points that could help it make sense. Although it sounds like I’m bashing it, there were some moments that I did enjoy. While it’s not any different from the other Young Adult Novel adaptation, I’m guessing fans of the book will enjoy seeing the story on the big screen. I know the five pre-teen girls sitting behind me did.

Divergent

3 out of 5