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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‘Focus’ Review

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Dir: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa

Writer(s): Glenn Ficarra & John Requa

Cast: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Adrian Martinez, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong, Brennan Brown, and Gerald McRaney

Synopsis: In the midst of veteran con man Nicky’s latest scheme, a woman from his past – now an accomplished femme fatale – shows up and throws his plans for a loop.

 

 

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

 

 

Con Artist films are always tough. The cast and crew have try their best to not give too much away, but gives us enough that they don’t lose the audience. But, if they do lose the audience, they have to get them back right away. Basically, con artist films have to play a con on the audience, but do it in a great way or the audience will turn on them. Focus, surprisingly, keeps us engaged enough that we don’t turn on the film, but it struggles from time-to-time to keep us engaged.

 

Focus follows Nicky (Smith), a lifelong conman who hires an eager protégé Jess (Robbie), after a failed attempt to scam him. However, he sees the potential in her and decides to take her under his wing. He doesn’t hold back and the two go down to New Orleans for Super Bowl to show how big Nicky’s operation, and eventually they start falling for each other, which goes against Nicky’s rule of “there’s no room for heart in this game.”

 

I’ll be the first to admit that I was not really suspecting much from Focus, but I was mildly surprised how much of the film actually worked. The film even works as two parts, I don’t know if directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa divided the work, but the first half of the film focuses on Nicky teaching Jess everything he knows and setting the ground work for their relationship especially for things later on. The second half of the film takes place in Buenos Aires where Nicky reunites with Jess after a fall out in New Orleans and where he is doing a job.

 

Ficarra and Requa create some great tension when need be and that is when the film is at its best. When the film starts to slow down it does take away from film and leaves little to be desired. Nothing against Smith or Robbie, because they do have some great chemistry but after great tense filled scenes, the slowing down scenes are just that: slow. There is also some technical things, like the Super Bowl game, isn’t really the Super Bowl even though they are playing it at the Mercedes Benz Stadium and it’s a championship game. Small stuff I know, but still.

 

The supporting cast is also great, sometimes stealing the spotlight from Smith and Robbie. Adrian Martinez plays Farhad, an old friend of Nicky’s and the comic relief, and while his character is a bit thin but whenever he shows up it does add some air to the scenes. BD Wong appears as a Chinese high stakes gambler, in one of the better scenes of film and really does steal the show a bit from Smith. Rodrigo Santoro is a racing millionaire who hires Nicky for a job and is the weakest of the supporting roles, probably only because he doesn’t have much to do. Finally Gerald McRaney is Santoro’s character security agent, and McRaney is always reliable and is the same here.

 

However, Focus belongs to Will Smith and Margot Robbie. Will Smith brings back the usual charisma that we all loved about him and proves that he could still lead a film, if the doubt was in anyone’s eyes. Margot Robbie holds her own against Smith and continues to prove she is a star on the rise and is here to stay.

 

All in all, Focus might stumble from time to time, but with a great cast and standout scenes, it becomes more than an average con artist film.

 

 

Focus

3.5 out of 5

‘300: Rise of an Empire’ Review

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Dir: Noam Murro

Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Callan Mulvey, David Wenham, Jack O’Connell and Rodrigo Santoro

Synopsis: Greek general Themistokles leads the charge against invading Persian forces led by mortal-turned-god Xerxes and Artemisia, vengeful commander of the Persian navy

 

*Reviewer Note:  This will be an almost spoiler free review. Reason being is that the movie serves as prequel, side-story and sequel to 300, so some stuff will come up. However, I won’t spoil anything from Rise of an Empire.*

 

As stated above in the Reviewer Note, 300: Rise of an Empire is a prequel, side-story, and sequel to the 2006 hit 300.  The movie starts with Queen Gorgo (Headey) giving a speech about fallen 300 Spartans and gives a brief history of the Battle of Marathon. We then go witness the Athenian army, led by hero Themistokles (Stapleton) attacking King Darius’ men. From there we get the origins of the “god king” Xerxes (Santoro), who is Darius’ son (not a spoiler since IT’S HISTORY).  But we also find out that the only reason for Xerxes plans of revenge of world dominance comes from a ruthless general Artemisia (Green).

As you’ve probably seen in the trailers and TV spots, the action mostly takes place at sea.  The Athenians, which are the heroes this time around, are skilled sailors and battle Artemisia’s much larger army across the ocean.  But during all the action we occasionally cut to moments from 300 to get a concept of the timeline or even scenes with Themistokles going to Sparta to meet Queen Gorgo or a pre-Hot Gates injured Dilios (David Wenham).

Themistokles is very different from King Leonidas. Themistokles is fighting for a united Greece and wants to spread the new Athenian concept of democracy as opposed to Sparta’s self-preservation.  Also, opposed to the Spartan soldiers, the Athenian navy is made up of farm-hands, tradesmen, and more.

Artemisia, on the other hand, is ruthless, quick-tempered, and at times blinded by vengeance. Which is a recurring theme in the movie with most of the characters driven by revenge of something.  Her plan “to erase Athens from history” is an extreme one however, as are her actions throughout the film – which makes her one, if not, the best character of the movie, but Artemesia is given some real context, and when you discover the reason for her wrath, she becomes somewhat sympathetic.

Director Noam Murro’s only previous credit is romantic comedy Smart People, so it’s a bit of an unusual choice for the director’s chair. Thankfully, Murro makes Rise of an Empire into an enjoyable and fun action movie.  He makes some stand-out sequences included a fiery sea battle, the last fight and even the love scene is filmed like a brawl. A literal battle of the sexes that’s more erotic than you would think (and probably should be).

Acting wise, Eva Green owns the role and like I said before is probably one of, if not the best, character in the movie. She has a femme fatale quality to her but is very manipulative toward Xerxes. Anytime she’s on screen she isn’t chewing the scenery but pushing the story forward or ready to kill someone. She’s truly an amazing character. If Green wasn’t on anyone’s radar she will be after this.

Sullivan Stapleton heroic Themistokles plays his role as a man that is driven to bring the nation together to fight the greater threat but is also a character filled with guilt over his involvement in the starting of the war, and his regret at sending so many young men to early graves. Being a fan of his from his Cinemax show Strike Back, it’s nice to see Stapleton on the big screen and he definitely has a leading man screen presence.

In smaller roles, Lena Heady who returns as the Spartan Queen Gorgo delivers some of the film’s best lines but isn’t really anything more than a cameo.  Jack O’Connell, plays Calisto, a young warrior who wants to make his father Scyllias (Callan Mulvey) proud of him. Rodrigo Santoro’s Xerxes really takes a back seat in this, only appearing in a few scenes mostly with Artemisia, but doesn’t really do much.

But, the real highlight in the movie is the action. The sea battles are pretty cool to watch although some will probably be thrown off by some of the wonky camera work (I’ll admit I did at times). The sword battles are also pretty cool this time around and some are fast hitting that you loose yourself in the action. They’re, dare I say, more hard hitting and extreme this time around than 300.

All in all, 300: Rise of an Empire is a great action movie and thankfully it doesn’t completely try to copy what made 300 what it was, although there are some things that are welcomed. The way the story is set up and told really works as it all comes together (obviously) at the end. For a sequel that some people wanted, I’d say some will be happy with the outcome.

 

300: Rise of an Empire

4 out of 5