The Hitman’s Bodyguard (Hughes; 2017)

Take two incredibly charismatic people, give them characters to play who don’t like each other for some reason, put them in danger, have them find a common bond through being forced to work together, and then happy ending.  It’s the most basic recipe in Hollywood writing history, and it’s what you are going to get in The Hitman’s Bodyguard.

The plot is that the former ruler of Belarus (Gary Oldman) is on trial at the Hague for crimes against his people, but all of the witnesses being brought forward are being killed or have no definitive evidence.  Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) is a former hitman currently serving time in a European prison who has some evidence on the former despot, but when Interpol agents try to get him to the trial the convoy is attacked.  With no other recourse, Interpol Agent Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung, Electra from Netflix’s “Daredevil”) calls up her ex-boyfriend Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) who works as a bodyguard to get him to the trial on time.

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The one saving grace in The Hitman’s Bodyguard is the raw charisma of its two stars.  Casting Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson in the two leads was partially an act of genius, in that it was probably the only move that could save this travesty of a script, and partially a tragedy, in that seeing these two do something that was actually good would be an amazing experience whereas here they were merely able to make the movie watchable.  In my review of Logan Lucky, I mention quickly the difference between movie stars and actors.  What we have with Jackson and Reynolds are two movie stars, as they are just being themselves for the most part (Reynolds is forced more often into the straight man role here, so while he isn’t really acting, he is restraining himself), but they are being themselves at their most entertaining and showing a true chemistry which amplifies the hilarity of their banter.

Past the stars charisma and chemistry, though, what we have is one hell of a mess.  First of all, the plotting is so by the book formulaic that there are no surprises to be had throughout the film.  To say The Hitman’s Bodyguard is predictable is practically an understatement.  The only questions asked while watching the movie is not if the next thing we see will be an overused action cliche’, but which exact cliche’ are they going to use next?

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Past the cliche’s we have the ludicrousness of the plot.  The hitman has to get to the Hague because all the other witnesses against Belarus’s former leader are being killed, so how does sending hordes of thugs with guns shooting up major population zones, blowing up speeding cars, and generally making a loud, deadly spectacle of themselves help the case of the defendant?  Wouldn’t someone on the prosecution make some sort of case that all the witnesses for the prosecution are very obviously being attacked by an army?  That’s only one of the more obvious logical problems in a plot filled with them just to give our heroes chances to give one liners while they shoot things and drive really fast.

The tone is also all over the place.  One scene will be practically Looney Tunes level comedy while others will give us actions which are downright disturbing.  Director Hughes seems more concerned with tone on an individual scene basis and doesn’t care how it will affect the flow of the film as a whole.  One scene will give us a gruesome mass murder including children while the next will give us violence more akin to what we’d see in Tom & Jerry as mellow 80’s music plays in the background.  It’s sloppy and distracting.

The action itself is hit or miss.  Some scenes will be well shot and exciting, while others make too much use of close up shaky camera work.  There is a boat chase scene through the streets of Amsterdam late in the film which, if you can throw logic out the window, is very well done and one of the few scenes which make The Hitman’s Bodyguard worth watching, but far too many action bits are shown with no attempt to ground our vision and the camera work’s intention is less to thrill us and more to hide the fact that Reynolds and Jackson aren’t really doing their own fight scenes.

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Finally, amidst the cliched themes of two opposites not really being opposites at all and becoming best of buddies by the end, a very interesting question is raised at one point in the film.  Jackson turns to Reynolds and asks him (I’m paraphrasing) “Which is more evil?  The man who kills the bad guys?  Or the man who protects them?”  It’s a really good question, and would be an excellent theme for this film to explore.  Unfortunately past that one line the question is never even touched upon again, serving only to frustrate with the knowledge that the writers did recognize that there could have been real depth to this story, but they decided to throw it out the window and give us brainless tripe instead.

Final verdict:  The power of personality is the only thing which elevates The Hitman’s Bodyguard to the level of mediocrity.  If you want to shut your brain off completely and just enjoy two very humorous men bantering and shooting things, then The Hitman’s Bodyguard will scratch that itch.  However, with this summer delivering us so many smart action movies and comedies, I can’t recommend even to those The Hitman’s Bodyguard unless you’ve also seen all the others first.   Never dull but always dumb, that’s how I’d describe this movie as succinctly as I can.

Brigsby Bear (McCary; 2017)

Kyle Mooney is both the star and writer (along with Kevin Costello) of Brigsby Bear, the film which was featured at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is getting a good deal of buzz due to its creatively charming use of obviously very low budget visuals.  Mooney plays James, a man who for reasons I won’t go into has had a very stunted development, and who is obsessed with a children’s show called “Brigsby Bear”, a show which teaches lessons from the alphabet and counting to advanced factorials, why you shouldn’t masturbate more than once a day, and how to respect the personal space of others.  When James can suddenly no longer watch his beloved “Brigsby Bear” once a week, he takes it upon himself to write and film the show’s finale.

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The first thing to say about Brigsby Bear is that it is utterly charming.  This movie does not have a metaphorical mean bone in its entire metaphorical body.  Even the subjects which could take on a very dark tone, of which there are quite a few, are handled with a light touch.  The story could take on many dark and twisted turns to add drama and heft, but it wisely never goes down any of those roads giving us instead a wink letting us know the writers are fully aware they could have handed us a very dark film and purposefully decided not to.

The genre of Brigsby Bear defies description as it is a little comedy, a little drama, sort of a coming of age movie in which the person coming of age is already an adult, sort of a family drama, but the element the many different facets of Brigsby Bear have in common is that is always optimistic.  No one is ever mean to anyone else in Brigsby Bear, even though you would think the subject matter is screaming out for someone to play the curmudgeon, and the only real conflict is in the people surrounding James disagreeing with each other how best to help James overcome his unusual past and join the rest of society.   It’s a friendly world full of friendly people, and that on its own may be the most unusual and creative thing about Brigsby Bear.

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That is also Brigsby Bear‘s greatest weakness.  While it is highly unusual to see a film made up almost entirely of nice people doing nice things, that doesn’t make for gripping drama.  The biggest conflicts to be seen here are the younger sister getting a little snitty that her brother is a weirdo and the psychiatrist insisting that James stop thinking about “Brigsby Bear”, even though we know that’s not going to happen.  While it’s an interesting exercise to see a film that relies almost entirely on charm over tension, an hour and forty minutes is a long time for what is essentially a well written sit-com episode.

The cast of Brigsby Bear is an excellent mix of actors we haven’t seen around much in too long a time.  Other than Kyle Mooney who is in nearly every scene of the film, we also have Mark Hamill, Greg Kinnear as a police detective who left behind his dreams of being a theater actor a long time ago, Claire Danes as James’ psychiatrist, Matt Walsh and Michaela Watkins as James’ parents, and even Andy Samberg poking his head in for what amounts to barely more than a cameo.  All do an excellent job at making us like them and communicating the “Always follow your dreams” message of the movie, but none really have a lot of meat to work with in the script, truth be told.  Again, everyone is great at being charming, but that’s all that is really asked of the cast.

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Final verdict:  Brigsby Bear with its seemingly endless supply of optimism and charm is a welcome diversion away from the standard Hollywood film, especially of late.  However, its lack of any sort of real conflict makes for an experience which does nothing more than make us smile at just how damn cute it is.  If you’re feeling especially down on people, Brigsby Bear may actually go a long way toward helping you out of that funk, and I expect that is largely the point of the film.  But, know that the only real adventure to be found here, is the adventure of seeing normal daily life from an unusual perspective.  Brigsby Bear does get a recommendation from me primarily because so many of us need some restoration of faith in humanity right now, but don’t expect this movie to be remembered long after it leaves theaters, it has the spark of creativity, but not the spark of greatness, unfortunately.

 

Logan Lucky (Soderbergh; 2017)

The very first scene in the latest film from Ocean’s 11s famed director Steven Soderbergh gives us a man doing repair work on an automobile as a young girl, roughly 8-10 years-old, chats with him and helps.  It’s apparent nearly immediately that this is a father and a daughter, that the little girl knows a lot about tools, and that her father is honestly interested in helping the girl with a beauty pageant she’ll be participating in soon.  This short, simple set up is a perfect introduction which says a lot more than it would seem possible about the film you are about to see, for Logan Lucky at its core is a movie about characters who seem to be a stereotype on the surface, who constantly surprise us with the seemingly out of character knowledge they possess, and who have this knowledge because of their strong, genuine familial connections.

Logan Lucky stars Channing Tatum as Jimmy Logan, the central figure of the Logan family, which includes his brother Clyde (Adam Driver) a bartender who lost an arm in military service, Mellie (Riley Keough) his younger hairdresser sister, his aforementioned daughter Sadie (Farrah MacKenzie), Bobbie Jo Chapman (Katie Holmes) his ex-wife, and Moody Chapman (David Denman) his ex’s current husband of some indeterminate but long time and owner of several car dealerships.  The Logans seem to have some sort of family curse, though only Clyde seems to really believe this wholeheartedly, and are further set apart from your standard movie extended family by being largely drama free.  Everyone seems to like each other, even the two fathers, and do what they need to keep the others in their lives happy.  However, when Jimmy loses his job at the exact same time Moody decides he is taking their family out of state to open a new dealership, Jimmy decides drastic measures need to be taken so he can maintain his close relationship with his daughter, and those drastic measures involve robbing the local NASCAR track, the same NASCAR track which had just fired him from his job.

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You need to go into Logan Lucky knowing that this is more than just a heist film, and I don’t mean that in an artistic “this is deeper than it appears” way, I mean it literally.   While it is billed as a heist film, largely due to Soderbergh’s direction I imagine, the heist is only one part of a much larger story which is also part family drama, part prison break,  and part police procedural.  After the heist portion of the film was over, I’d guessed the movie itself was pretty much over with just loose ends left to wrap up, but the movie kept going and going for quite some time afterward, long enough to weave in an additional major character and an entire subplot.  This threw me as for the last 40 to 50 minutes of the film I kept expecting it to wrap up at any time, and had me leaving the theater thinking the film had serious pacing problems, but in actuality it was my expectations of Logan Lucky I’d gotten from its marketing campaign that was the real problem.  Part of me wants to see the film again (and, I’m sure I will one day) to verify if the issue is honestly one with the film or with myself, but I can say for sure that knowing about this quirk of the plot’s structure will make for a smoother experience.

Aside from that, I have little but praise for Logan Lucky.  The script by Rebecca Blunt combined with Soderbergh’s direction give us a story which, while not that creative, is hilarious, charming, and often surprising.  Much like the characters, the story is one that on the surface is very, perhaps overly, familiar, but the individual pieces that make the story move are a constant source of offbeat epiphany.  The source of both the humor and the drama in Logan Lucky come from our own discoveries of why the unexpected make perfect sense with nary a fart joke nor artificial dramatic contrivance to be seen.

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The most impressive element of Logan Lucky, though, is the fact that the entire cast is made up of real actors.  For a long time the A-List movie stars in Hollywood have been movie stars, not actors.  They have enough charisma that we love watching them, and we pay to do so over and over again, but we are really just watching them be their magnetic selves with minor variation.  The cast of Logan Lucky are actors.  Real actors.  Daniel Craig transforms into country bumpkin chemistry savant Joe Bangs so thoroughly that his speech, his body language, and even the look in his eyes won’t give even the slightest of hints that he is also James Bond.

While due to his fame, Craig’s transformation may the most impressive, it’s Riley Keough’s performance that really makes me sit up and take notice as I think this is a girl of incredible talent who we will be seeing a lot of in the near future.  Her most famous role was as the red headed wife Capable in Mad Max: Fury Road.  Earlier this year she played the wife in the young family who join the main characters in It Comes At Night, and that performance was made impressive in that she had to not only play the role straight, she also had to play the role as a fantasy of one of the other characters, and neither of those portrayals was even a bit reminiscent of Capable.  Here she is again, in another completely different role again so different from her others that I probably would not have immediately recognized her had her talent not caught my attention in her previous acting work.  I’m waiting for her to do a musical, because if she can sing as well as she can do drama and comedy, then the amount of talent she has is downright unfair.

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Final verdict:  Logan Lucky is easily the best crime movie of the year, so far, ranks right up there with the best comedies, and shows some real heart on top of that.  The well written script isn’t without its flaws, but the acting is award worthy.  The only reason I don’t list Logan Lucky as a must see film is because it does have a lack of true depth, and that may bother those who go to see a movie primarily for intellectual reasons, but if you’re looking to laugh, cheer, and emote, then Logan Lucky will push all the right buttons, and its ending will even give you something to think about once the final frame has flashed by.

 

 

Girls Trip (Lee; 2017)

Tell me if you’ve seen this movie before, four people who have been friends since college, and who have drifted further and further away from each other over the years but still keep in touch, decide to take a trip together to a festival in New Orleans to reunite and blow off some steam.  The “leader” of the foursome is successful in both career and marriage and writes self help books on how you too can have it all, the leader had a falling out with the one who had success as a journalist and who now has to pay bills with a celebrity scandal blog, one of the four is a parent, straight-laced, and is uncomfortable with the whole situation, and the final of the foursome is a partier and instigator constantly getting into trouble but is incredibly loyal to the group.  It’s an overly familiar plot with overly familiar archetypes, except this time, the cast is made up entirely of African American women.

The four actresses playing these women are Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish, and the chemistry between the four is fantastic.  It’s not just believable that these four have been friends since college, it seems like practically a given.  The actual performances are a bit of a mixed bag, with Queen Latifah’s being the best of the lot, but the writing is actually top notch for this type of story so this adds some nuance and realism to the foursome and to those who surround them that the performances might otherwise not.

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This script is the reason to see Girls Trip, and is also the reason that it stands among the best of this sort of film alongside movies like The Hangover and Bridesmaids.  For, while all of the characters are an archetype, in addition to those listed above we also have the cheating spouse, the booking agent who seems a bit too friendly, and the old crush from high school, none of them are stereotypes.  The cheating husband, for instance, is always respectful, never loses his cool, and actually has an understandable, if not forgivable, reason for cheating.  He’s not just an asshole philanderer.  The straight laced character does let loose on the trip, but only once and afterward she does loosen up a bit, but doesn’t transform into a different person.  This honesty of character can be seen in everybody on screen, making those in the story relatable not just because we recognize a type, but because they act like and have the motivations of real people, not over the top caricatures.

Most importantly, though, the humor in this movie really hits.  I am not the target audience for Girls Trip, and I was laughing so hard I had to wipe the tears from the corners of my eyes when the lights in the theater came up.  This may have been because laughter is contagious, for I did see the film with the target demographic – I was the only white male in the entire movie theater, and of the women in the theater only a handful were white – and everyone else was in hysterics to the point where I couldn’t hear the final lines of quite a few scenes, but I know that couldn’t have been the entirety of the reason for the laughter.  While the actors in the film may not have been the most subtle when it comes to the portrayal of their characters, they know funny, particularly Tiffany Haddish and Jada Pinkett Smith who steal every comic scene they are in, which is the majority of them.

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Final verdict:  Girls Trip may not contain anything we haven’t seen many times before,  hell we had Rough Night just last month, but it does the best that can be done with its too familiar pretense.  You could probably summarize the plot from beginning to end without seeing the film, and I’d bet you could get pretty close to the real thing, and yet, this is still a movie worth seeing.  These four ladies are hilarious, the writing they are given to work with has a lot more realism then most films of this type, and the subplot surrounding Queen Latifah’s Sasha Franklin may be the most fascinating I’ve seen in a debauchery focused plot.  Girls Trip may not need to be seen in the theaters to be enjoyed, though my audience certainly made my experience better, but it should be one to keep an eye out for when you get a chance.

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And, Hollywood, take note.  I saw three films this weekend at three different theaters, with Girls Trip being the third, and in every single case the lobby of each theater was as crowded as I had ever seen them and 95% of the people in each of those theaters were African American women.  This is not a film you would expect to draw gigantic crowds for, and yet there they were.  You have an audience starving for some attention and representation on screen.  When I did research for an article on racism in Hollywood which I have not yet published, I found that less than 1% of leading roles in Hollywood are portrayed by African American women, or women of any other minority for that matter, and that is criminal.  Love of film is something that can unite us all, but we love it most when we see someone who is a stand in for ourselves, and minority women get that stand in so far, far too rarely.  Sit up, take notice of the box office for Girls Trip on its opening weekend, and do the right thing, which also happens to be a profitable thing.  Win-win.

The Big Sick (Showalter; 2017)

Kumall Nanjiani stars in the autobiographical film The Big Sick which chronicles the story of how he met and fell in love with his then girlfriend, now wife and head writer of the movie, Emily Gordon (Zoe Kazan – granddaughter of Elia).  For the rest of this review when I refer to Emily or Kumall I am referring to the characters in the film unless stated otherwise.  Kumall is working as a stand-up comedian and an Uber driver, and he meets Emily when she shouts out at one of his shows.  After the show he approaches her inside the club, and after a pleasant introduction chides her for heckling him.  This leads to a relationship in which both are obviously far more attracted to and in love with the other than either are willing to admit, even to themselves, and we are treated to a fairly typical will they or won’t they love story until Kumall’s Pakistani culture and upbringing get in the way, leading to their break up shortly before Emily comes down with a disease so serious that she needs to be placed into a medically induced coma to stabilize her bodily systems.  Enter Emily’s parents, Beth Gordon played by Holly Hunter and Terry Gordon played by Ray Romano, and the meat of The Big Sick as Kumall comes to realize that he made a huge mistake, and now he has to work and live closely with the parents of the woman he loves and whom he has hurt so badly.

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I admit to having a general dislike of romantic comedies.  It is the genre I least enjoy watching as, ironically, I find them to most often be the most unrealistic films of all with the way they too often portray love as a magical thing that once you overcome an obstacle will solve all your problems and never take any work again.  All fiction is ultimately a form of wish fulfillment, and this is a form of wish fulfillment I just cannot relate to.  I felt I needed to put that clarification out there before I say that I absolutely adored this movie and everything about it.  This is a love story, most definitely, but it’s one that has no passionate proclamations given during a sweeping musical crescendo.  There is no leaping into arms, staring into eyes, and weeping as three magic words are spoken.  No.  This is a movie that is incredibly authentic, and makes the phrase “fall in love” make sense as even our two sarcastic and way too cool romantic leads look at one another with glances that say “how exactly did we end up here?”

The Big Sick looks at love in a very mature way, but it does far more than just that.  It’s also a look at race, culture, and the grand, boiling melting pot that is the United States.   The greatest threat to the budding relationship between Kumall and Emily is not her disease, nor is it racism, though that is looked at here and there throughout the movie – how could it not be in a film about a Pakistani man dating a white American girl.  The greatest threat is the effect growing up in an Islamic Pakistani household has had on Kumall’s mindset.   This conflict between Pakistani culture and Kumall’s more American way of thinking makes for the true heart and message of the movie, and also for many of the biggest laughs.

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It’s hard to say which is more of a crowning glory for The Big Sick, its writing or the acting on display, but these two elements married together are the reason The Big Sick demands your attention.  While this is not Kumall Nanjiani’s first acting gig, he has done a lot of television shows and voice acting, this is his first leading role in a feature film and it’s also a role in which he’s playing a fictionalized version of himself, which I can tell you is not as easy as you would think.  He absolutely carries this film beautifully showing off his charm, humor, introspection, and vulnerability in just the right doses to make a character we truly relate to and adore.  Zoe Kazan has a probably even more difficult role as she has less time to make us fall for her portrayal of Emily before she ends up spending the majority of the movie in a coma, and she does just that giving us a young woman with a razor sharp wit and a confidence which never even gets close to the realm of arrogance who we can’t help but adore.

The true show stealers, though, are Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as Emily’s parents.  Until they arrive the movie is light romance that starts to dip its toe a bit into cultural introspection, but The Big Sick transforms into something truly smart and new when Beth and Terry arrive on the scene.  I don’t want to give any spoilers away except to say that the relationship between Kumall, Terry, and Beth, the way it starts and the way it develops is one of the most authentic and meaningful looks at human relationships I have ever seen in a film.  This is because, again, there are no big speeches, revelations, and musical cues to be found.  Everything surrounding these three is understated and completely human, from first impressions, to stumbling, awkward conversations, to the ultimate realization that they all love the same person, and beyond even that.  This is not drama, this is real, and that’s what makes The Big Sick so funny, so heartwarming, and so relatable.

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Final verdict:  If you were to ask me to sum up The Big Sick in word, though why would you do that?  I just wrote a whole review, that word would be authentic.  It makes sense since this is a true story written by the people who actually lived the events and even starring one of them as himself, but it can’t be expressed strongly enough how much that authenticity adds to the power of the film’s message and story.  This summer is handing audiences an overabundance of great movies to see.  Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, War for the Planet of the Apes, and Baby Driver are films still showing that I strongly recommend.  The Big Sick is a film that doesn’t need to be seen on a big screen to be enjoyed as it is intensely intimate and devoid of spectacle, but it stands with, and even above those others when it comes to story and message.  This may not be a must see in the theater if you have a limited budget, but it is a must see, and it would be great for as many as possible to see it in the theaters to send Hollywood the message to give us more like this.  If you need even more incentive to see The Big Sick, though, it’s made this cynic believe at least for a little while that love truly can conquer all, just not necessarily with a lot of fanfare.

 

Rough Night (Aniello; 2017)

I had some serious reservations regarding seeing this movie despite really liking the cast.  How many mishaps at a party comedies do we really need?  This looked to be a remake of Weekend at Bernies, The Hangover, Very Bad Things, Bridesmaids or any of a number of other more forgettable films along these same lines.  Plus, it has a title so rote and uninspired you have to wonder how good the writing can possibly be, and bad writing makes for a film which is D.O.A.  However, the other films coming out this week were Cars 3, talk about rote and uninspired ideas, and All Eyez on Me, which did interest me the most initially, but its complete lack of critic screenings in addition to some very bad word of mouth made me decide to take a chance on Rough Night.

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Rough Night is the story of Jess played by Scarlett Johansson who is running for state senate and whose wedding to Peter (Paul W. Downs) is impending, so Jess’ four closest friends from her college years played by Jillian Bell, Zoe Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, and Kate McKinnon throw her a bachelorette party in Miami complete with palatial beach house, cocaine, a stripper, and various penis shaped party favors.  When one of the five ladies accidentally kills the stripper, we find that each of the women has a good reason why they don’t want the police getting involved and so hilarity ensues as they try to dispose of the body in a manner no one can find it.

Rough Night‘s tone is all over the place.  We have sly humor as we see the juxtaposition of the wild party atmosphere of the bachelorette party versus the more cultured bachelor party going on back in Jess’ unnamed home town.  We have the over the top characterizations of the always horny and very open neighbors of the beach house played by Demi Moore and Ty Burrell.  Jillian Bell is also very much playing a stereotype more for laughs than character, but Scarlett Johansson, Zoe Kravitz, and Ilana Glazer give us some performances that toe the line between comic and dramatic, and McKinnon’s performance can go in any old direction depending on the scene and her mood.

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But, while the tonal inconsistencies do stand out like a sore thumb, I can’t say that they don’t work.  The film’s story does go all over the place.  The death of the stripper and the immediate aftermath isn’t played for laughs, and that actually gives the situation some gravity.  While the acting styles are all over the place, they all work for the character actress combination.  You look to Bell and McKinnon for the belly laughs, to Kravitz and Glazer for the smarter, more subtle comedy, and Johansson is the anchor that holds it all together.  It doesn’t work perfectly, some scenes such as a bit where Jess’ fiance panics over not being able to get a hold of Jess and decides he must get to her as soon as possible is completely out of character for everything we’ve seen earlier and is not funny largely because of this, but the tonal shifting works well enough that it seems to be the right fit for this particular film.

The rest of the writing in Rough Night is just as inconsistent as its tone, in a way.  We have one of the most worn out, mundane stories in existence with the raucous party gone wrong plot, and nothing about the story itself elevates it all above the banality of the premise, but the dialogue and the deft handling of the overused situations are actually very well done.  Each of the characters really is a character beyond just being a different level on the slapstick scale.  The lesbian and bisexual issues are handled without delving into stereotype and are nuanced, sensitive to the topic, but still absolutely hilarious.  McKinnon and Bell despite being the closest characters to caricature actually end up having very nice payoffs and we find there is a reason they acted the way they did which makes sense.  The only poor writing to be seen here is, again, with the character of Jess’ fiancee who never seems to have any consistent personality aside from the fact that he’s madly in love with Jess.

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Final verdict:  Rough Night is a mundane film, that fortunately manages to overcome its own mundanity much of the time.  The plot is nothing special in the least, and is ultimately completely forgettable, but the charm of the characters and the actors portraying them in addition to the snappy and often truly insightful dialogue make Rough Night a film worth seeing.  It’s not worth running right out and seeing it in the theater, however.  There is nothing about the visuals that would make this any better on the big screen, and while Rough Night is better than I imagined it could have been, it’s still nowhere close to a great film, so waiting for it to come to Redbox or Netflix is probably the way to go, except possibly for a group girl’s night.  Then the theater could be a blast.

War Machine (Michod; 2017)

While they have been making original films and television shows for some time now, Netflix seems to have decided that with budgets of up to $100 million dollars and stars like Will Smith and Brad Pitt that 2017 is the year they are officially throwing down the gauntlet in Hollywood’s direction and declaring themselves a real player in the business of blockbuster movies.  War Machine, starring the aforementioned Brad Pitt as General Glen McMahon, is arguably the highest profile film to come from the DVD rental and video streaming service to date due to the star power on display.  Brad Pitt is most certainly the most recognizable name and only A-lister among the cast, but you will also see Meg Tilly, Griffin Dunne, Anthony Michael Hall, Topher Grace, and Alan Ruck gracing War Machine with their presence in more than just cameos throughout the film’s story.

It didn’t take long, less than ten minutes, for War Machine to remind me of two other films: The Big Short and Dr Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb due to the tone it uses to handle the very important issue of the War in Afghanistan.  Its similarity to The Big  Short is no coincidence as these two films have the same producers and its similarities to Dr. Strangelove, unfortunately, do not continue throughout the entire film and disappointingly really only rear their heads when Brad Pitt and Ben Kingsley (he’s in the movie, too, as Afghani President Karzai) are on screen together.

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When I say it reminds me of them, though, it is only because of tone and what it is attempting to do, not due to quality.  I felt The Big Short was a flawed and overrated film largely due to its tonal inconsistencies and the way it tackled big ideas without making sure we understood the foundation of those ideas first.  It was like it tried to teach calculus without first giving us basic addition.  I applaud it for what it accomplished and even more for what it was attempting to do, but I just felt it was a little off the mark in succeeding in its mission.  War Machine doesn’t have the second problem The Big Short did, but the tonal inconsistencies which reared their head due to tackling deadly serious subject matter with humor are even more exaggerated here.  War Machine has no idea if it wants to be a satire or honest look at The War on Terror and that unfortunately makes for a film which can easily lose your attention.

The film starts with voice over for almost the entirety of its first eight and a half minutes, and it will continue to return to this voice over again and again throughout its running time.  We learn the reason for this is that we are hearing the voice of a Rolling Stone reporter quoting the text of an article he has written about General Glen McMahon and the information being given in the voice is pretty dense, but no matter how good and relevant the reason, a voice over is a crutch which makes for an experience far more dull than if we could learn the same information by watching the characters act and react to the situation around them.  We are also given some scenes with greatly exaggerated acting, situations, and dialogue early on in the film before ultimately settling on a more standard narrative which certainly contains humor, but if not for the opening would most likely not be labelled a comedy.  Finally, add the fact that the first battle scene doesn’t take place until an hour and a half into the film, and the average movie goer is going to have to battle a bit to keep their attention glued to War Machine since there are usually plenty of distractions going on at home where the movie is most likely to be seen.

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Which is sort of a tragedy, because while the movie isn’t quite sure what genre it wants to be and relies too much on talk over action, the rest of this script is incredibly insightful, important, and fascinating.   I have never seen a film so well describe the difficulties and absurdities of fighting a war against an enemy which doesn’t have a standard military nor even a country or distinct ideology as this one does.  The civilian governments have their goals, the military has theirs, and the Aghan citizenry has theirs, and none are spared from either mockery nor sympathy.  When all is said and done, War Machine does an amazing job at showing the nuance and complication of what’s going on in Afghanistan and why even those most intimately involved with it are confused.  How can you fight a standard war when killing your enemy just makes more enemies?  How can you convince people to trust you when you have to do it at gunpoint?  How do you even know who the enemy is when people in the same household can be working for and against you at the same time?

One of my favorite scenes in the film shows a low ranking soldier addressing the general during a speech he is giving the troops.  The soldier asks McMahon if it’s true that they are giving out a medal for restraint.  The general confirms this and explains that since the enemy don’t wear uniforms, can be anywhere, and don’t stand out among the general citizenry that its important not to use violence until its proven to be warranted.  The soldier then declares, “So, we are getting awards for not being marines?  I’m confused.”

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This difference in viewpoint between the military and civilians shows up all over the film, and is quite interesting in the relationship between McMahon and his wife (Meg Tilly).  When we first see them, they are also seeing each other for the first time in a very long time.  Their encounter is awkward and uncomfortable, they are acting like they think a married couple should act but seem to have forgotten how or even whether the other person truly is their spouse.  While this relationship does change throughout the course of the film and they do become comfortable with each other again over time, this opening scene between the two just adds emphasis to what we have been seeing the whole film whenever McMahon and his men interact with government attaches, reporters, and the like which is that military men and civilians have very different mindsets and don’t seem to be able to fathom what the other side’s motivations are.

War Machine also remains very up to date and topical with the way it handles the topics of the media and military relationship to the President of the United States.  Obama is constantly mentioned throughout the film as a seemingly uncaring shadowy figure who would rather not get his hands dirty with Afghanistan and leaves that up to his generals while the media and leaks to said media make for some of the more entertaining bits in the movie, but also in the end make up the bulk of the film’s message.  And, before I move on to my final verdict, I have to mention that if you don’t understand the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan after the scene in which McMahon is speaking to an Afghan father and his young son in their home after a skirmish took place there, then I would suggest psychiatric diagnosis to make sure you are not a complete sociopath.

Final verdict:  War Machine is a slow paced, tonally inconsistent story, but it’s one that you should make an effort to watch – and it will take a bit of an effort for most – due to its much stronger than usual understanding of all the major parties involved in our military actions in Afghanistan.  It’s all talk, very little action, but that talk is some fantastic, important talk.   After all is said and done, you will never be able to look at that Rolling Stone magazine cover with Lady Gaga wearing nothing but assault rifles as a bra as anything other than the perfect metaphor for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan again.

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