“War Dogs” belongs to the same category of tone-deaf comedy as “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Venomously despicable white thieves are celebrated for their blind lack of ethics and integrity because these characters are oh-so [hilariously] gangsta, except they’re neither amusing nor badass. They’re people for whom no well-deserved ass beating is enough because they’re so smug it makes you want to throw up. You can tell a lot from this film’s tagline, “Money, Corruption and the American Dream.” We already know that those are all the same thing.
But I digress. If you don’t know the 2007 era tale of David Packouz’s and Efraim Diveroli’s adventures in making millions from the U.S. military by selling illegal guns and ammunition, you should read Guy Lawson’s March 16, 2011 piece for Rolling Stone. This film is not an appropriate way to wrap your head around the depth of incompetence and greed at play in U.S. Military’s halls of power and the rogue’s gallery of shysters that feed on America’s endless wars.
Miles Teller plays David Packouz, the posited good-guy of a duo rounded out by Jonah Hill’s lying-and-stealing Efraim Diveroli. While Ellen Page has built her career on playing outsiders, Jonah Hill is carving out his thespian livelihood as an eternal frat boy with a taste for skank and cocaine. Lou Reed said there was a justice in this world. Perhaps.
This film is inundated with Miles Teller doing such a carbon copy of Johan Hill’s speech patterns that the audience gets tripped up every time the disembodied voice-over narration comes on.
Directed and co-written by Todd Phillips (of “The Hangover” franchise fame) “War Dogs” is political satire lite. It’s a far cry from “Lord of War,” Andrew Niccol’s scathing 2005 satire about an arms dealer played by Nicolas Cage.
Packouz hates George Bush; Diveroli just pretends that he does too. Diveroli habitually mirrors his mark’s beliefs in order to swindle their money away, and oh what a filthy swindler he is. If anything, this is an anti-buddy movie. The narrative follows our dippy protagonist Packouz — he’s a masseur — as his former best friend from Yeshiva high school, returns to Miami to rope him into going into the arms business for a 70/30 split. Money flows but the biz is doomed from the beginning because neither of these guys understands the first thing about [illegal] arms dealing. Not that there is any other type of arms dealing than that of the illegitimate variety.
Bradley Cooper turns in the laziest performance of his career as arms terrorist Henry Girard. Cooper appears in all of five scenes with a laughably phoned-in performance. Ana de Armas provides the eye-candy as Packouz’s Cuban wife Iz, but even her portrayal feels remarkably thin due to yet another by-committee script. Like Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street,” this film is tailor-made for Trump supporters. Regardless of how stupid, reckless, wrongheaded, and uninformed they might be, most of those people aren’t making the mistake of selling Chinese ammo to the Pentagon.
The reason for these schmucks getting caught is the only funny piece of a movie that makes you feel dirty for having seen it. Do the right thing. Skip “War Dogs, and see Werner Herzog’s Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World” instead. At least there you can feel equal parts bad and good.
Rated R. 114 mins. (D+) (One star — out of five / no halves)
Help keep Cole Smithey writing reviews, creating video essays, and making podcasts. Click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.
“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” (a.k.a. WTF) is such a bizarre title for a movie that it seems unlikely audiences will flock to see Hollywood’s first good film of 2016. I’ve seen it twice for good reason. Tina Fey blows the doors off this baby. So does the ensemble. Martin Freeman (as war photographer Iain MacKelpie), Christopher Abbott (as Afghan fixer Fahim), and Billy Bob Thornton (as a Marine General) contribute mightily to the film’s artistic success. Sure it's American white lady propaganda. You know that going in.
It’s a telling coincidence that the real Kim Barker, upon whose book “The Taliban Shuffle” this film is based, once described herself as “a Tina-Fey type. The heavens were listening. Fey got wind of it and optioned the book before teaming up with co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa to take a running start at Robert Carlock’s seamless adaptation of Barker’s book.
If anything, the movie is paced too evenly. It's missing a dramatic centerpiece, but pushes through on the inertia if its wealth of well observed details.
The movie squanders a potential key sequence that would show how Kim Barker handles herself alone. As fits the Hollywood formula a man, who represents her knight in shining armor, saves a drunken Kim from an unknown alley in the darkness of night. Can’t win ‘em all. This is a sign of how far Hollywood is willing to go in promoting an unapologetically feminist character; she needs a man to save her even if she manages to return the favor.
Episodic in form, and contained in mainly medium and close-up shots, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” blends America’s pointless Afghan war, comedy, intersecting political and cultural mores, with a thematically meaningful romantic thread. The nuanced tone of the movie is reflected in a military rescue mission that occurs at Dutch angles of blue and green lighting to the strains of Harry Nilsson’s “Without You.” The action is stylized to fit the genre, and the moment.
One of the film’s clearest themes states that gender doesn’t matter much; we all become products of our environment. In Kabul, “sex with strangers in restaurant bathrooms” comes with the territory for foreign journalists, and their bodyguards, regardless of whether they are men or women, much less pretty or average looking.
Once leaving her relatively sheltered life in the States, Kim Barker embraces her wartime environment in the “Ka-bubble” of Afghanistan. A watershed event occurs during her first embed outing. Her Humvee’s bulletproof windshield absorbs the first bullet fired by a group of angry Afghan warriors. Without missing a beat Kim jumps outside to videotape the action as she shadows an American marine like a monkey on his back. Her bravery (or professional rashness) earns her an “Oo Ra” from Billy Bob’s General Hollanek. Later, when Kim explains the reason that Marine-built wells keep being destroyed in a tiny village, we see a woman speaking truth to power in a way that has never before been shown in cinema.
The disorienting storyline spans more than three years, during which time the fearless Baker becomes a battle-tested war journo looking for her next adrenaline fix. So much so that her Afghan fixer Fahim is compelled to read her the riot act over her irrational actions of late. Kim Barker hasn’t had much cultural sensitivity training.
Kim gets a brief, and comical, introduction to Afghanistan from the first Western woman she meets, television reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (played by the impossibly lovely Australian Margot Robbie). Tanya hates to be “rude,” but just has to ask Kim for permission to have sex with Kim’s supposedly New Zealand-born bodyguard Nic. Kim gives her consent. She’s only thinking of her boyfriend back in New York. Still, Tanya encourages Kim to share in the practice of shagging your peers. When Kim demurs, Tanya blurts out the unthinkable, “Talk to me in two months when you pussy’s eating your leg.”
Normally I wouldn’t spoil a joke, but trust me; you’ll still laugh when you hear it. The irreverent zinger reflects the film’s precise use of coded ways that journalists, military officers, security forces, and afghan civilians and military communicate. When Alfred Molina's Afghan bureaucrat Ali Massoud Sadiq says he wants Kim to be his "special friend," we know what he means.
The movie explicitly addresses American media’s nonexistent coverage of the war in Afghanistan during a meeting between Kim and Geri Taub (Cherry Jones), the head of the network that funds her reporting. Geri blames it on the public’s lack of interest in the war rather than even pretend to have an editorial mind of her own. The economic signal is clear. War is money, but the media can’t sit at the big table to profit from it anymore.
“The Navy says Who Ya, the Marines say Oo Ra; don’t mix them up.”
Rated R. 112 mins. (B+) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)
She: Not Right
Celine's Strange Distribution
By Cole Smithey
Presented as a "performance" rather than a documentary of her 2008-2009 "Taking Chances" world tour, "Celine: Through the Eyes of the World" is an insult to your intelligence on many levels. Television writer/director-turned-glorified-editor Stéphane Laporte spastically splices together performances of the same song from various concerts in diverse global locations like Cape Town and Dubai so that you don't get the continuity of a single Celine Dion show. Back stage shenanigans, photo-ops with foreign children, teary-eyed press conferences, and saccharine moments with her family, bodyguards, and dance crew substitute for a storyline. Perhaps the most glaring example of corporate pop music on the planet today, Celine plays to the lowest common denominator masses who have sipped from her egomaniacal Kool-Aid and are only too happy to blabber on about it.
Like an amped-up cross between Ann Coulter and Sarah Jessica Parker, the singer gesticulates and pulls faces like a circus clown as she exaggerates the literal import of every oh-so-spirit-lifting power ballad. Think of her as the anti-Sinatra. Distrustful of her abilities, Celine smothers every song with cloying histrionics tilted to make you feel like you're being force-fed a giant box of gooey chocolates with a rhinestone-encrusted funnel. There's nothing smart or natural in her performance. Even as a skilled vocal technician, here is a singer who doesn't know the first thing about phrasing or mood. Perhaps a few years with some Graham Parker records would help. I'm not kidding.
A day visit for Celine, her husband, and child to Hitler's Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin provides an opportunity for Celine to experience some deep feelings that she'll repurpose in that night's duet with a German opera singer. Whew! While in a South Africa, a visit to Nelson Mandela's former prison cell provides yet another chance for Celine--sans make-up--to pull sad faces like a vaudeville child actor seeking applause. The film also loses points for stealing part of its title from "Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World" (2001). The most satisfying moment of the film arrives in a backstage scene with Celine doing an imitation of a horse that is spot-on. Oh yes friends, we've got a "special" one here.
The irony is that Celine's overkill act might work better as an off-off-Broadway performance art piece about greed. In New York City, cinemas that charge $12.50 for films that screen several times a day, "Celine: Through the Eyes of the World" costs $15.00--because it's a "performance"--and is shown only once a day in a logic-defying schedule that switches from 7:30 at night to two-o'clock in the afternoon depending on the day. The unspoken reason is that the film is scheduled to screen only eight times at each cinema it plays for its limited week-and-a-half run to work fans into a tizzy of anticipation for her upcoming tour. The Associated Press reported recently that Celine is due to return in March of 2011 to Caesars Palace in Vegas where her new show will feature songs "incorporating the romance of classic movies."
Not Rated. 117 mins. (D) (One Star)
A Sampler You Don't Want to Give
By Cole Smithey
"Valentine's Day" is yet another date movie that's less than the sum of its parts. The sheer number of A-list actors involved spells trouble. Jessica Biel, Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx, and Anne Hathaway provide cast padding for the likes of B-listers Taylor Swift, George Lopez, and Emma Roberts. Intertwining romantic threads weave a haphazard pattern in the City of Angels where Ashton Kutcher plays Reed, a pink-shirt-wearing flower shop owner who prematurely proposes to Jessica Alba, playing a typecast role as Morley, a snooty little minx who rejects his offer. Reed's platonic gal-pal-since-childhood Julia (Jennifer Garner), is dating a doctor with big secrets, and has her own love lessons to learn. Anne Hathaway falls on her actor's sword as Liz, a temp office receptionist who has a sideline as a phone sex entertainer when she isn't pursuing a "simple" relationship with Topher Grace as her doormat-to-be. With half as many sub-plots the filmmakers might have been able to keep the plates of passion spinning atop their spindly knees. As it stands, by the time Liz's office boss Queen Latifah experiments with some off-hours phone sex as an African dominatrix, there's far too much broken china for anyone to escape without bloody feet. Screenwriter Katherine Fugate, whose credits include "Xena: Warrior Princess" and "Max Steel," should stick to her day job as a TV writer. Hollywood is full up with hacks as it is.
"Valentine's Day" so wants to be a platform for Ashton Kutcher to inhabit a cupid who gets shot with his own arrow that the film all but collapses around him. The disparate narrative sampler starts out with Reed rolling out of bed with his fresh-faced girlfriend Morley. He gets down on his knee at bedside to propose to her. When Morley refuses to wear the ring, for fear of attracting too much attention at work, we know Reed will not be having the Valentine's Day he imagines. With this single scene, the filmmakers unknowingly paint the movie into a corner because Kutcher's energetic comic touch is better suited to the confection than every other character. Julia Roberts is Grace, a soldier flying home on a leave that will give her only a handful of hours to spend with her significant other before she has to return to duty. Bradley Cooper plays Grace's seatmate Holden, who imposes his kinder-than-thou personality on her so that the audience is left waiting for the other shoe to drop. The filmmakers hoard personal revelations about Grace and Holden for a miscalculated emotional climax that discharges the last bit of helium from this heart-shaped fiasco.
Most of the film has a perfunctory going-through-the-motions kind of vibe that reflects the way many people think of Valentine's Day. Everyone knows that florists jack up the prices on flowers for an occasion built around initiating consumer spending. We're already used to watching Ashton Kutcher sell cameras in commercials that repeat the same kind of whispered flirtation that momentarily erupts from the half-eaten chocolates of "Valentine's Day." That his florist character has to suffer the emotional indignities of his profession is the perhaps the best consolation of sitting through this romantically inept film.
Rated PG-13. 117 mins. (C) (Two Stars)