Thank You For Your Service

October 27, 2017 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Miles Teller, Beulah Koale, Haley Bennett
Directed by: Jason Hall (debut)
Written by: Jason Hall (“American Sniper”)

While war movies have been a part of the cinematic landscape for the last century, there are far fewer examples of post-war films that explore the harrowing issues of life after military service.
Post-Vietnam films like Oliver Stone’s critically-acclaimed 1989 classic “Born On the Fourth of July” and Emilio Esteves’ lesser-known 1996 drama “The War at Home” made an impact in their respective ways at the time, but civilian life after wartime has never really been looked at during more recent conflicts on foreign soil, specifically soldiers suffering from a mental diagnosis like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Jason Hall (“American Sniper”) makes his directorial debut with “Thank You for Your Service,” one of the first feature films in recent memory to confront the trauma of PTSD. Hall, who touched on the issue in 2014’s “American Sniper” with the story of late Navy S.E.A.L. sniper Chris Kyle, expands on the topic with heart, compassion and sensitivity, but also refuses to take it head on with kid gloves. It’s an effective portrayal of men fighting even in their weakest state, and each performance brims with authenticity and emotion.

In the film, which is based on a true story, Miles Teller (“Whiplash”) plays Adam Schumann, one of three U.S. soldiers the film follows as they return home after serving their country in Iraq. Finding it difficult to integrate back into civilian life, Adam, along with fellow soldiers Solo (Beulah Koale) and Billy (Joe Cole), try to put the horrors of war behind them and forget what they saw on the battlefield. Faced with their own personal demons, each man is forced to come to terms with their depression, all while doing the best they can to maneuver through a broken health care system that doesn’t seem to be working in their best interest.

“TYFYS” is a tough film to witness and process, specifically if you are one of the estimated 460,000 U.S. veterans currently with PTSD or a friend or family member of a vet who has seen first-hand how debilitating the disorder can become if not treated. Still, “TYFYS” is essential and inspirational cinema. It cuts to the core of the crisis and should be a wake-up call for anyone in a position of power who can make decisions on the post-war lives of these men and women.

Hall has presented a problem and almost seems to be challenging those in power to come up with a solution. We’ll have to see if “TYFYS” can actually create some kind of meaningful change. As a far as making a case for itself on a cinematic level, however, it makes a lasting impression.

War Dogs

August 21, 2016 by  
Filed under Brian, Reviews

Starring: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas
Directed by: Todd Phillips (“The Big Short”)
Written by: Stephen Chin (“Another Day in Paradise”), Todd Phillips (“The Big Short”), Jason Smilovic (“Lucky Number Slevin”)

If, upon watching the driving, energetic, rat-a-tat-tat trailer for Todd Phillips’s “War Dogs,” you found yourself thinking, “Huh — looks kinda like “The Big Short, Jr.,” rest assured: You were neither (1) alone nor (2) wrong in that assessment.

Just as you wouldn’t (necessarily) have been alone or wrong had you drawn a line of comparison/inspiration/theoretical parentage between “The Big Short” — last year’s Oscar quintuple-nominee and Best Adapted Screenplay winner — and 2013’s Oscar quintuple-nominee “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Or between “Wolf” and “Goodfellas,” for that matter. (Or “Casino” and “Goodfellas.” Or “Blow” and “Goodfellas.” Or “Boogie Nights” and “Goodfellas.” Or 2009 internet-porn origin story “Middle Men” and “Goodfellas.” And on and on.)

The point: If “War Dogs” is “The Big Short, Jr.,” and “The Big Short” is “The Wolf of Wall Street, Jr.,” does that mean, by the transitive property or some-such, that “Dogs” is “The Wolf of Wall Street, Jr.-Jr.?”

Or, to a lesser extent, “Goodfellas Jr.-Jr.-Jr.?”

More to the point: Yes, kind of.

Even more to the point: That’s not altogether a bad thing.

Based on a jaw-dropping, eminently Google-able true story, “War Dogs” follows David Packouz (Teller), a restless Miami Beach masseur who reconnects with high school best friend/stoner pal (and small-time weapons dealer) Efraim Diveroli (Hill) and is summarily drawn in, at the ground-floor level, to the latter’s nascent get-absurdly-rich-reasonably-quickly venture: Capitalize on an early-2000s, post-Halliburton-scandal “trustbusting” atmosphere — in which federal arms contracts were suddenly opened up via online marketplace to virtually anyone who could fill the orders — by becoming go-between munitions suppliers to the United States government at the ripe old ages of 19 and 23. As Hill/Diveroli puts it: “This is the job. To do business with the people and places the U.S. government can’t do business with directly. It’s as simple as that.”

And, for a while, it is. Of course, what seems simple at first becomes less and less so (I mean, come on: Not to belabor this, but … you’ve seen “Goodfellas,” right?), stakes and price tags spiral upward, allegiances are tested and strained, and our dude-bro DoD diplomats find themselves in well over their heads.

The story is a dilly, and Phillips (who gave us the “Hangover” franchise, “Old School,” and “Road Trip”) handles it well. The presentation is largely slick, snappy, fun — the opening lags a bit, as it calls inevitably to mind other (aforementioned) films that are slicker and snappier — but once the yarn gets to unspooling in earnest, we clip along at a sprightly pace that both ramps up and relieves tension in appropriate and pleasing measures. The later portions of “War Dogs” hold a number of shocks, dumbfoundings, and flabbergasts, and Phillips sticks these critical landings admirably. (One is tempted to wonder — though the timelines probably don’t work out — whether seeing “Anchorman” and “Step Brothers’s” Adam McKay broaden his directorial purview and subsequently score with “The Big Short” made Phillips say, “I can do that.” Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome and ably-turned new leaf.)

The cast is watertight, as well. Hill, as Diveroli, cooks: He’s a hoot, dripping with charismatic, sleazy bravado and frequently emitting a curious (but effective and trademark-ish) high-pitched laugh, like air escaping a balloon, or a baked-out-of-his-mind comic book villain. Teller, tasked with the straight-man burden, is wholly believable, casually-but-adeptly comedic, and elicits much more sympathy than one would expect, for a character who says “bro” as much as he’s asked to. Ana de Armas is solid, Kevin Pollack charming, Bradley Cooper properly unsettling in a minimalist but intriguing cameo.

“War Dogs” will remind you strongly of films you’ve seen before — but they’re very good films, and there’s a strong enough combination of familiar structural/tonal elements, confidence in its own story and style, and harrowing ugly-truth-telling to keep things entertaining and eye-opening all the way through.

Fantastic Four

August 7, 2015 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan
Directed by: Josh Trank (“Chronicle”)
Written by: Simon Kinberg (“X-Men: Days of Future Past”), Jeremy Slater (“The Lazarus Effect”) and Josh Trank (debut)

During various stages of production, there were whispers that the reboot of “Fantastic Four” was turning into a bit of a mess. Though there were reshoots and rumors that director Josh Trank was causing all sorts of on set issues, it was hard to tell if this was true or just Hollywood hearsay. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Trank left his job as director of one of the upcoming “Star Wars” spinoffs. Again, reports cited his erratic behavior and directorial performance on the set of “Fantastic Four” as one of the catalysts for the decision. Fox entered damage control mode, but the chatter hasn’t subsided as Trank’s “Fantastic Four” finally arrives in theaters, mired in all sorts of controversy.

After finding a way to send objects through other dimensions and return them back, Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is given a scholarship to a research institute. Once there, he along with scientist Sue Storm (Kate Mara) and technician Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) finalize a full size model of the project. Under the threat of losing the project, the team sneaks out to claim their stake of the newly developed alternate universe. Disaster strikes, however, and the team find themselves altered, with unexplainable new powers.

It may seem like with Teller, Jordan, Mara and Jamie Bell, “Fantastic Four,” Trank put together a great cast of likeable actors who can each shine in their own way and as an ensemble. Unfortunately, that isn’t even close to being the case. Bell is barely in the movie and adds nothing, Jordan has almost no character arc, and Mara just kind of exists in the background. Teller is the only one that gets any semblance of character development, and even he is a blank slate compared to charismatic roles in many of his other films.

In fact, almost anything character related in “Fantastic Four” goes absolutely nowhere. There’s an attempt to find connection through friendships, family strains and relationships, but nothing ever develops in any meaningful way. It’s the fault of a pretty mediocre script that is somehow both slow developing and way too accelerated. “Fantastic Four” spends most of its 100 minute run time in exposition mode, giving the full origin story treatment. It then hits the gas and clumsily stumbles into the climax, which takes place over a span of merely minutes, wraps up neatly, and ends with one of the worst scenes in a comic book movie in recent memory.

The strange thing about “Fantastic Four” is that there are a few glimmers of hope. There is something oddly refreshing about its early scenes, where we see members of the team as somewhat normal people, working research jobs. There are no suits, no super powers, and most importantly, no super vague world ending threat. It’s a situation that is ripe for creating a character driven, intimate superhero movie that we haven’t seen much of. It isn’t great by any stretch, but there are moments where Trank creates almost an anti-comic book movie atmosphere. Of course, this is something that is short lived and once it takes off into generic comic-book movie territory, complete with obligatory gaining of powers, lame villain turns (minus the head-exploding powers of Dr. Doom which was, admittedly, awesome), super lame one-liners, and shoddy CGI, anything unique about the film vanishes into a puff of smoke.

“Fantastic Four” is perhaps best described as an incredibly frustrating experience. There are moments throughout the film where the viewer can actually see what Trank was trying to do. The problem is that they are fleeting, and have no lasting impact. The actual experience of watching “Fantastic Four” is not agonizing, but under scrutiny, and as soon as the credits role it becomes abundantly apparent that literally nothing about the film works. It’s a waste of talented actors, a well-known property, and perhaps most valuable, our precious time.

Whiplash

November 14, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

That Awkward Moment

January 31, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Zac Efron, Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan
Directed by: Tom Gormican (debut)
Written by: Tom Gormican (debut)

Over the past few years, it seems the market has been saturated with “guys will be guys”-type movies. Specifically, this is the type of film that typically features a group of men in some state of arrested development and tries to portray realistic conversations between friends about love, sex, and relationships. In “That Awkward Moment,” this archetype is once again explored, this time with a group of single guys shying away from relationships and making a pact to stay single.

Though they are in different stages in their relationships and lives, friends Jason (Zac Efron), Daniel (Miles Teller), and Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) find themselves in situations where they are questioning where their relationships are going. As two of them find themselves getting closer to girls than they expected and one becoming more distant, they must decide if their pact to stay single is worth keeping.

As far as the cast is concerned, Efron, Teller and Jordan often struggle under the constraints of a mostly unfunny script. This, unfortunately, also means that Efron is extremely inconsistent in delivering laughs as he displays some questionable natural comedic ability. Conversely, this also means the very naturally funny and charismatic Teller is the shining member of the trio. On more than one occasion, Teller is able to pull a laugh using well-conceived timing as opposed to Efron who relies on the written screenplay and the occasional bit of physical humor.

Like many similar films, “That Awkward Moment” comes with its characters presenting a litany of new vocabulary terms and shorthand that describe certain situations.  This time around, the guys discuss the “so…” period, the time in which a girl will start a sentence with “so…” and question where the relationship is headed. This sets the table for a film that has a vein of adolescence running through it. It isn’t just in the lack of commitment by at least two of the three leads, but also in the seemingly arbitrary justification of their actions, which is to stick to their pact.

When it all comes down to it, “That Awkward Moment” feels sophomoric in many ways. The film feels unpolished, the script, while occasionally funny, is formulaic, and often times, the conversations between these friends feels either unnatural, forced, or just plain overdone. Teller, whose career trajectory will be interesting to watch, has his moments, but can’t save a poor script and a faulty premise.

The Spectacular Now

August 23, 2013 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson
Directed by: James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”)
Written by: Scott Neustadter (“(500) Days of Summer”) and Michael H. Weber (“(500) Days of Summer”)

As we meet our protagonist, high school senior Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), he’s drinking a beer, writing a curse word-laden college essay he’s clearly not taking seriously. It not only serves as a placeholder for his character later in the film, but it introduces the audience to some darker themes, chiefly underage drinking and borderline alcoholism. As the film continues, we see bits and pieces of these themes, although nothing really scratches below the surface. It’s an issue that plagues the new coming-of-age drama, “The Spectacular Now.”

After some heavy drinking, popular high school slacker Sutter wakes up to find he has passed out in the lawn of less popular albeit sweet schoolmate Aimee (Shailene Woodley). As their friendship blossoms into something more, Sutter finds himself surprised with how much he cares about Aimee, and how difficult their relationship could possibly become because of the heavy baggage he carries.

Woodley, who was absolutely robbed of an Oscar nomination for her outstanding performance in 2011’s “The Descendants,” is in top form here. Aided by her plain clothes and lack of make-up, she is able to encapsulate the attitude and personality of a girl who is totally comfortable in her own skin, but also the naivety that goes along with being a girl who never had a rambunctious childhood. Her scenes with Teller bring forward a natural on-screen relationship that really grounds the film.

Teller, while good, is only marginally believable as a super-confident, slick and fast-talking teenager. He oozes coolness, but at times it’s difficult to understand why. Kyle Chandler, who is very slowly starting to reap the benefits of his Emmy win for the final season of “Friday Night Lights,” gives the strongest performance of the supporting cast as Sutter’s father. From the second his character appears on screen, Chandler is dialed in and adds little nuances in speech patterns and attitudes that make his scenes a joy to watch.

Frankly, the acting is solid all around. The problem, however, is that despite a wealth of interesting characters, director James Ponsoldt (“Smashed”) doesn’t spend enough time to get to know them. Sutter’s boss played by Bob Odenkirk or his good friend Ricky played by Masam Holden are just two examples of characters who have a lot to add in their brief moments on screen, but then disappear for large chunks of time. We don’t get to truly know these characters, which is disappointing considered the depth they appear to add.

As mentioned before, “The Spectacular Now” presents a lot of darker themes that might not be in a typical coming-of-age film. Sutter, who is finishing high school, is essentially an alcoholic, who drives drunk on several occasions during the film. There’s also the slow corruption of Aimee, who goes from a straight-edge teen to taking swigs of hard alcohol from a flask. The problem, however, is that while these themes are presented and touched on, they’re never fully explored. We see minor consequences of Sutter’s drinking problems, but the stakes are never high and true darkness is never revealed

If nothing else, “The Spectacular Now” is a well-made film featuring fine performances, but the lack of depth in many different facets leaves the viewer wanting more. With such promising elements, it’s a shame the final product is decidedly unspectacular.