MOVIE BUFF-ET: Energetic performances power War Dogs

War Dogs / Courtesy

War Dogs, the latest film by Hangover writer/director Todd Phillips, is an entertaining concoction with equal parts drama and humor that details the rise and descent of two fast-talking, risk-taking, twenty-something arms dealers, who ultimately find themselves in over their heads.

The film ultimately is a morality play, warning of the dangers of small fry swimming in dangerous and illegal waters and extolling the virtue of loyalty, even if it pays off in the oddest of ways.

New In Local Theaters

  • War Dogs (R) 1 hr. 54 min
    (AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle)
    » Watch trailer
  • Kubo and the Two Strings (PG) 1 hr. 41 min.
    (PG) 1 hr. 41 min.
    » Watch trailer
  • Ben-Hur (PG-13) 2 hr. 5 min.
    (AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Rogers Towne)
    » Watch trailer
  • Florence Foster Jenkins (PG-13) 1 hr. 50 min.
    (Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle)
    » Watch trailer
  • Hell or High Water (R) 1 hr. 42 min.
    (Malco Razorback, Malco Rogers Towne)
    » Watch trailer
  • Mohenjo Daro (NR) 2 hr. 35 min
    (Malco Rogers Towne)
    » Watch trailer

Phillips’ tight script sizzles thanks to the performances of co-leads Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, who play junior-high buddies who rekindle their friendship years later when Noah (Efraim) offers his struggling pal Teller (David) a can’t-miss business opportunity selling arms to the U.S. government, during George W. Bush’s administration.

Efraim knows of a website where U.S. defense contracts are posted up for bid. While the major players battle over the larger contracts, Efraim plans to make his fortune on gobbling up the crumbs. However, so much is falling off the table, it’s a natural for him to cut David in at a 70/30 split.

The work, money and drugs are exhilarating to David, who was attempting to make a living as a massage therapist prior to Efraim’s reentry in his life, but the lies involved leaves David at odds with young wife Iz (Ana de Armas) and their baby daughter.

Teller’s performance is high strung with his natural charisma breaking through, but Hill is absolutely manic as the amoral misanthrope Efraim. Hill’s performance lives in the neighborhood of his Oscar-nominated turn in The Wolf of Wall Street, but with even more bravado. Hill adds a shrill, tittering laugh to his character that’s always there to remind that Efraim’s a bit unhinged even in his most lucid moments.

Prior to watching the film, I thought the boldness both actors generally infuse into their parts might clash, but the Hill and Teller have excellent on-screen chemistry. I could legitimately imagine them fronting a string of successful buddy movies if they wished. When the duo find themselves driving a shipment of Berretta handguns across Iraq, the setup reminded me more than a little bit of a Hope and Crosby road picture from the 1940s, minus the crooning.

Bradley Cooper is understated but strong as the apex predator of arms dealers in film, who offers the boys a deal that’s too good to be true, but with a potential profit of $30 million or more, Efraim and David dive in headfirst into the deep.

While the film’s storytelling is more conventional, it’s tone is similar to The Big Short, and the bureaucratic baloney at the heart of the duo’s scheme is nearly as maddening, if not more so. The film also owes a debt to Martin Scorsese’s vastly superior Goodfellas, borrowing from its structure and even its first-person narration.

As basic as the basic plot may be, Phillips’ direction keeps the story rolling, and Hill and Teller make the most of the opportunity his script provides.

Grade: B

Rebooted Pete’s Dragon much more entertaining than the original

Pete’s Dragon

In remaking its 1977 children’s fantasy Pete’s Dragon, Disney Studios kept the name and the dragon, and wisely let the rest of it go.

I struggled to watch the original in the theater as a 9 year old and failed to make it through a recent home viewing, just to see if there was something I missed the first time. Sadly, there wasn’t. For me, the original movie represents a creative low point for Disney. Thankfully that’s not the case for the new version directed by David Lowery.

While not necessarily original, Lowery and his co-screenwriter Toby Halbrooks fashion a simplistic but winning fantasy adventure around the idea of a magic, green dragon, named Elliot, who can turn invisible at the blink of an eye.

Elliot, who has more in common with a lovable Labrador retriever than the ill-tempered lizards of Game of Thrones fame, is the protector and provider for Pete, a young boy who lives in the woods after a tragedy leaves him orphaned.

While visiting her dad (Wes Bentley) and uncle’s lumbering site, Natalie (Oona Laurence) discovers Pete (Oakes Fegley), and soon after Natalie’s Uncle Gavin (Karl Urban) discovers Elliot. Mayhem ensues, and the boy is separated from his dragon.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Grace, Natalaie’ loving step-mom, and Robert Redford plays Mr. Meacham, Grace’s father and Natalie’s adopted grandfather who actually had a run in with a Elliot as a young man.

The picture is as straightforward as a fairy tale and just as charming if you are willing to go along for the ride. The cast is warm, and while the film is geared for children, their performances seem authentic which only enhances the movie’s magic.

Pete’s Dragon is unapologetically a film for younger kids and their parents. It might be a bit tame for tweens, who at the moment are too cool to appreciate a fanciful tale told simply and well.

As an old guy who dotes on the movies of my youth, I’m a little bit jealous of the current crop of kids. Their version of Pete’s Dragon is so much better than the one Disney foisted on my generation.

Grade: B

Classic Corner

Knute Rockne, All-American

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish is the most polarizing college football program. You’re either for ’em or against ’em.

As good ol’ Southern boy, reared on Southwest and Southeastern conference football, I have never had much use for the Fighting Irish, despite their storied history.

I seriously won’t know which team to root for on the opening weekend of the season when the Irish face Texas. Too bad rules won’t allow a tie.

However, I can put those feelings aside for a couple hours every year or so to watch Knute Rocke, All-American, the stirring, 1940 biopic starring Pat O’Brien as the legendary coach and Ronald Reagan as star player George “The Gipper” Gipp.

To me, the film is to football what Pride of the Yankees is to baseball.

A Modern audience might find the movie cheesy as it extols only the virtues of collegiate football while glossing over the sport’s underbelly that was present even in what we like to think of as a more innocent time.

While I like a good exposé as much as anyone, I can also enjoy a bit of harmless pap, particularly when it’s as rousing as this film that lauds Rockne’s substantive gridiron achievements.

From the early scene when a young Rockne bursts into his home late for supper but joyous about his discovery of the sport that would define his life, to the classic scene where O’Brien recreates Rockne’s “win one for the Gipper” halftime pep talk, the movie encapsulates why so many love sports, particularly a game as visceral as football. It’s the camaraderie among players or “my boys” as Rockne refers to them in the film that makes the blood, sweat, toil and tears worth it.

Like many biopics, the movie doesn’t get all the history altogether right, but, it does nail the emotional core of the story.

It’s a perfect movie to set the tone for the upcoming college football season, even if it does feature Notre Dame.