‘War Dogs’ explores rattling the reality

War Dogs

(Photo by Warner Bros. Entertainment) The way two 20-somethings (Jonah Hill, front, and Miles Teller) get a $300 million government contract is one interesting aspect of the movie “War Dogs.”

BY ROGER THOMAS
Film Critic

The new film “War Dogs” opens with some staggering statistics about the cost of war and peace. My mind was trying to wrap itself around these numbers while the plot was beginning to unfold.
Ultimately, we all probably sleep better because we are not aware of the things depicted in this film. But I have to say, the film held my attention for all 114 minutes of screen time.
“War Dogs” is a film that tells the true story of two young men in their 20s who end up getting a government contract with the United States. The contract was worth $300 million dollars.
The film does not start at the moment these young man get that contract. It starts with David Packouz (Miles Teller) who is in a job he detests. One day David runs into a friend from middle school, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), who offers David a job. Diveroli is a small-time weapons supplier. Together, their lives are about to get very insane.
This film reminds me somewhat of my favorite film from last year, “The Big Short.” Make no mistake, “War Dogs” is not as good a film as “Short” but the two share many traits.
First, the cast in this film is great. Teller has done good work since “The Spectacular Now.” His work in “Whiplash” and this film almost make up for his work in the “Divergent” series and “Fantastic Four.”
Hill’s character, Efraim, is a crude person and a driven salesman who almost always gets the contract. These two together work splendidly. Since there is a slim or no chance of there being a “War Dogs 2,” perhaps these actors could find another project which has lead roles for both. I liked this casting.
Another strength of the film, is that “War Dogs,” like “The Big Short,” explains things well. I obviously know nothing about the sale of arms to foreign countries, nor do I know if any of the language in the film is authentic. Regardless, I understood most of the time what was happening on the screen. I always want to be able to follow the plot, even if there are doing things I could never understand.
Ultimately, this is a rise and fall storyline. With the “Big Short” it was bankers or financiers who rose and fell. In this film, it is arms dealers, but in many ways the two are similar. In both films, the optimal words seem to be arrogant and greedy. How could two 20-somethings negotiate a $300 million dollar contract without possessing arrogance and greed?
Perhaps the moral of this true story of the “War Dogs” is the fact they did not live happily ever after. The house of cards they had worked so carefully to erect eventually collapses as did many of the relationships in their lives, including their own friendship.
“War Dogs” is not one of the best films this year, but it has its moments. The opening statistics continue to run through my mind, and each time I find it amazing. The story has great humor, tense and exciting moments and a clear narrative that leaves few behind.
And then there is the fact this film is based on a true story. I am aware that there is not absolute security anywhere, even in one’s home. However, when I see films like “War Dogs,” I find myself pondering how simple my life is.
I am glad of that. I would much rather sit in the cinema watching young arms dealers delivering their products than be living in a place on this planet where those arms will be used.

  Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.

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‘Ben-Hur’ remake: Why exactly?

Ben-Hur

(Photo by Paramount Pictures) The need for a remake of the epic classic “Ben-Hur” is one of the most confusing aspects of this film for critic Roger Thomas.

BY ROGER THOMAS
Film Critic

When I first heard that filmmakers were going to remake “Ben-Hur” I immediately said, “Why?”
The very idea is equal to remaking “Gone with the Wind” or “The Godfather.” Do we need new versions of these films? Absolutely not. Then do we need another version of “Ben-Hur?”
The original film won a record 11 Academy Awards. “Ben-Hur” was best picture for the year 1959. Not until 1997, 38 years later, did any film tie the record with “Titanic.” A few years later, in 2003 “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” tied the record with the two other films.
Simply put, though two have tied with “Ben-Hur,” no film has exceeded the praise the Academy gave that film nearly 57 years ago. So again, I ask the question, why did we need a remake?
The new version alters some of the elements of the story. It is not loose tiles from the roof that cause Judah Ben-Hur to fall from wealth to slavery. The filmmakers also present Christ differently in the film than the original. Some may think it is more effective, but I prefer the original way director William Wyler presented Christ in the 1959 version.
On the other hand, some of the changes that the filmmakers chose woredk better than others. I liked the casting of Morgan Freeman as Ilderim. The scenes at the end of the film when Jesus is being crucified are the most effective in the film.
There is also a subplot with a young radical who keeps attempting to thwart the Romans. By the end of the film, that character has become more appealing than Judah Ben-Hur. In fact, I think I would have preferred a film about that boy instead of a remake of the story of a rich Hebrew who falls from the Romans’ grace.
Then there is the absence of a great deal of the story. The original film is 212 minutes not counting the intermission that cinema-goers experienced in the late 1950s. This new version is 124 minutes, so it lacks the epic feel of the original and one never becomes as invested in Judah and his family as one does in the first film.
The elements that are present in this new film, such as the scenes when Judah is on a slave ship, seem briefer and less effective. On the other hand, there is nothing in this film about Judah going to Rome, being adopted by the Roman whose life he saves or Judah becoming a citizen of Rome. In the original, one of the three wise men continues to be seen throughout the film.
There is a lot left out of this new film that made the original so epic, so complex and yet so personal.
And then there is the chariot race. With all the amazing visual effects that can be created today, the chariot race would have to be absolutely stunning. Except, it is not. This climatic moment is no more spectacular than the one from 1959. Some scenes and some films are just too good to remake.
I am not sure how old my children were when we first watched the original “Ben-Hur,” but throughout their childhood we watched it many times. They asked for it specifically. They loved every element of the story, including that amazing chariot race. But most of all, they were captivated by the compelling story of a man who was wrongly accused, who suffered greatly and who always persevered and ultimately was blessed by God through Christ.
Show your children the classic if you want them to see the best version of the life of Judah Ben-Hur.

  Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.

This movie is bold, brillant and beautiful

Me, Earl and the Dying Girl

(Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight) Thomas Mann, center, and RJ Cyler learn a lot from Olivia Cooke’s character in the film “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”

BY ROGER THOMAS
Film Critic

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is not a film for everyone.
I know people who would say it is too artsy, tries too hard to jerk the heartstrings, ends wrong or a whole host of other issues. I can sum the film up simply with three little words: bold, brilliant and beautiful.
There are a lot of reasons why I loved the film. First, someone who loves film made it. There are more references to other movies in this 105-minute film than almost any I have ever seen. Greg (“Me” in the movie) and Earl have been remaking their favorite films since they were children. Now as high school seniors, they have a large collection of amateur remakes of classic films and these are displayed throughout the film, often offering humor in the midst of a story about cancer.
Another great strength of the film is the cast. The three leads – Thomas Mann (he plays Me of the title, who happens to be named Greg), RJ Cyler (Earl) and Olivia Cooke (the Dying Girl, who is named Rachel) – all give phenomenal performances. Beyond these three, Nick Offerman and Connie Britton as Greg’s parents and Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mother all deliver amazing supporting roles.
Then there is the story. Teenage cancer. Awkward friendship. The search to discover who you want to be and the pressures of high school to be someone else. Parents who want to understand, but fail. Anger, regret, joy, creativity, ignorance, selfishness and selflessness. And lots of quirky moments that leave one scratching their head until suddenly, it all makes sense. I did not particularly like every moment of this film, but I loved it as a whole work.
In fact, the only criticism of the film at all was that at the beginning, it took me a while to adapt to the rhythm of the movie. Once I was in sync, I liked it more and more.
I begin with three little words: bold, brilliant and beautiful. Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon boldly places bits and pieces of this film that immediately cause one to question why. At least that was my experience. The more times I saw that “claymation” moose, the more I liked what it was depicting. One of the many “bold” choices in a film filled with them.
The film is brilliant for the artistic choices, but also for the story. There are so many moments of clarity in this script, so many times the words spoken, the actions taken, ring so true and yet equally the script offers surprises and unique affirmations of the journey of life.
Finally, the film is simply beautiful. When Greg finally displays his most recent creative achievement, it is less and more in a way that only art can be. Or perhaps I expected more and found less to be tremendously satisfying and authentic.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is one of my favorite films of 2015. You probably have already guessed that. If your taste lean towards traditional narrative styles and simple concise plots (insert any Nicholas Sparks film here as an example), then “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is probably not for you.
However, if you want something that deviates from the mainstream, but ultimately satisfies, this is the film for you.

 Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.

‘Genisys’ is fun in spite of its flaws

Terminator Geniysis

(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures) Arnold Schwarzenegger continues to keep his eye on Sarah Connor (Emilia Clark) as the Terminator out to protect her in the latest installment of this franchise.

BY ROGER THOMAS
Film Critic

I had not seen “The Terminator” before I saw “Terminator 2: Judgement Day.”
My first exposure to the story of Sarah and John Connor (played by Edward Furlong in the second film) was with the sequel. I saw it in a mall in Knoxville, Tennessee, and I was amazed watching the evil liquid terminator transform from one shape to another. It was a startling good film and I was hooked on this saga.
I, of course, sought out the original as soon as I got home. Though the first film did not have quite the amazing effects of the second, it was still incredible storytelling. I hoped for more.
And, of course, we got more. There was “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” which I only vaguely remember. Nick Stahl became the second actor to play John Connor and Claire Danes was his future wife. This time, the evil terminator had a female form during much of the film.
Then came “Terminator Salvation” with Christian Bale, who ends up being the third actor playing John Connor. That is about the only element of the film that I can recall at this point.
Then there was the short-lived (two seasons) television series: “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” This series was the best imagining of the Terminator story since the second film. There was no Arnold Schwarzenegger and Thomas Dekker became the fourth actor to play John Connor.
Now we have “Terminator Genisys” with the fifth actor, Jason Clarke, playing John Connor. Throughout these films and the television series, John Connor has been the focus. The prevention of John’s conception is the intent of the first terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.
His second terminator is sent to protect the young John. Throughout the series, John Connor’s existence has been paramount and for me, that is the greatest downfall of the new film.
I object to the direction the film takes with respect to the John Connor character. It is almost like discovering that Luke Skywalker will become a Sith Lord in the new Star Wars film. That just is not cool.
But I have other criticisms as well. The first half hour or so moves really fast. I know this series specializes in amazing action, but even in the best film, “Terminator 2,” the action paused for meaningful conversations. There is little of that here.
Then there is the whole time travel element that gets very convoluted the more the characters discuss it. I am not asking for the film to be simpler, just have one character who is not quite catching on so someone can explain it to him, and the members of the audience like me who are still catching up.
Another distraction happens when the heroes are fleeing from the villains. There is an awful lot of collateral damage along the way. This is true in all the “Terminator” films. When you are trying to save humanity, innocent bystanders just have to be sacrificed. I get that about action movies, but every so often, I start wondering how many people die while the good guys are doing whatever they have to do to save the future. In this film, the off-camera death toll had to be pretty high.
By no means would I call “Terminator Genisys” a great film. In fact, I have spent most of this review explaining the weaknesses of it and the superiority of its predecessors, at least some of them. However, the effects are stellar, the humor is often quite amusing, and Arnold’s character is great.
I will close with a statement I said immediately exiting the theater: “Well, for all its shortcomings, it is a fun film, and what does one want from a big summer blockbuster if it is not fun.” If you want two hours of fun, ignore the lesser parts and go for it.

 Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.

‘Dragon’ nice, doesn’t quite soar

Pete's Dragon

(Photo by Disney) Pete, right, has quite the adventure with a dragon named Elliott in the remake of “Pete’s Dragon.”

BY ROGER THOMAS
Film Critic

I must confess that I have never seen the original “Pete’s Dragon.”
That film came out in 1977 and I was 14 years old and way too cool to go see a film about an animated dragon. If you are not familiar with the original, look it up. The dragon is literally a cartoon. Besides, a few months before “Pete’s Dragon” premiered in a theater near me, I had been introduced to a galaxy far, far away with “Star Wars.”
With that said, I went into the new film with no expectations and very little knowledge of the source material.
First, the dragon looks great. Of course, nearly 40 years later, visuals effects have progressed in numerous ways. The dragon, named Elliot, looks different than any dragon I could have imagined, and certainly looks different than the animated one from the original film. Certainly, the appearance of the dragon is one of the greatest strengths of the film.
Second, the film is filled with beautiful settings. Elliot and Pete live in a lush forest that I would love to visit. Throughout the film, there are wonderful shots of nature, especially when Elliot and Pete are flying. There is also a grand final shot that offers a glimpse of another place in our world that I would like to visit. Visually, the film is outstanding.
There are also some fine performances. Most of the film rests on the shoulders of young Oakes Fegley as Pete. The audience has to believe he is interacting with a dragon. Actually, they have to believe he has a friend who is a dragon.
Oakes pulls it off in every scene. There are plenty of moments with Elliot the Dragon. There are also other scenes where he interacts with people and times when he faces great obstacles. The scene with the school bus is probably the best. Oakes succeeds throughout the production.
Robert Redford and Bryce Dallas Howard also stand out among the cast. I did find myself wondering why Redford chose to be a part of this production. Perhaps he wanted to do something for the children in his life.
The film also offers a climax that is spectacular and moving. I applaud the cast and crew for those moments, which were the best in the film.
With all that said, I cannot fully recommend “Pete’s Dragon.” For me, it felt too much like it was made in 1977. Yes, the effects could not have been done then, but I have already praised the visuals. The problem is it oozes sweetness yet never offers the slightest edge. Even the villains are not menacing.
From the very beginning shots, I knew, and I suspect everyone else in the theater did as well, exactly where the film was going. That is true for a lot of films, but if the plot is predicable, then there has to something else that makes the film stand out.
I went to a lot of Disney films when I was growing up. I cut my critic’s teeth on Disney nearly 50 years ago. I rarely saw a film I did not like. I always enjoyed the happy endings when all was right in the world.
I am not sure what I would have added to “Pete’s Dragon,” I just know I needed for it to have something. The beginning, which explains why Pete was in the forest with a dragon, was tremendous. The climax was spectacular. The final shot in the film was inspired.
I just wish, somewhere in the middle, the filmmakers would have surprised me.

  Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.

‘Indignation’ both surprising, captivating

Indignation

(Photo by Roadside Attractions) Both Logan Lerman (Marcus) and Sarah Gadoj (Olivia Hutton) have good chemistry in “Indignation.”

BY ROGER THOMAS
Film Critic

One of the best experiences one can have in the cinema is the surprise when a film goes in a complete different direction than what was expected.
I say this often: “Too many times, trailers reveal too much and the film is already familiar before the studio logo comes across the screen.” I am happy to report the opposite is true about “Indignation.” In fact, the trailer actually tricks you into believing this wonderful film is about a great many things that it is not.
“Indignation” is defined as “anger or annoyance provoked by what is perceived as unfair treatment.” The film is about a young man going to college and finding that the experience is different than he expected. As many have experienced, there are the challenges of roommates, professors, fellow classmates, studying, responsibilities and learning to fit into a world quite different than the one left behind.
The film is set in the early 1950s, 30 years earlier than my experience in college. However, there were so many similarities that I could not stop thinking about those wonderful days of higher education.
I could make a list of the things the main character Marcus faces that are identical to my first year. Of course, as the film progresses, there are a great many things that Marcus encounters that are nothing like my personal experience.
Logan Lerman plays Marcus. I have watched this young actor since he starred in the television series “Jack and Bobby,” which is not about the Kennedy brothers. Lerman is captivating in this film.
Beyond Lerman, there are two other incredible supporting roles. Sarah Gadon plays a fellow student who takes a liking to Marcus when he finally gets up the courage to ask her out. Then there is Tracy Letts as Dean Caudwell. Letts and Lerman have one lengthy scene that is simply one of the best moments in cinema this year.
As I often write, the best films are about ideas. Plots are good, but a great plot also produces at least one idea to ponder. It does not have to be an original idea, it only has to be one worthy of contemplation.
At the very beginning of the film, as Marcus narrates, he offers up that idea which ultimately serves everything that happens on screen. The quote simply says, “Every choice we make ultimately leads to our destiny, whether we realize it at the time or not.” By early adulthood, there is an accumulation of things we would have done differently if we had the opportunity of a do-over. I believe Marcus would agree.
There are many technical strengths in the film. It looks great. The young actors in supporting roles all give nuanced performances. But in the end, it is the story, which has so many twists and turns and choices by the characters. I kept waiting for the film to falter, but it never does. It is always good when every moment makes one more and more satisfied with what is on screen.
I would point out, however, there are several scenes in the film that may be objectionable for some. There is no nudity at all, but there are two instances where sexual activity is obvious. There is also some dorm language that may be offensive to some. This language just reminded me of some of my past roommates.
“Indignation” is based on a book by Philip Roth. I have never read any of his novels but there are two films based on his books coming to theaters. The other is “American Pastoral.” After seeing “Indignation” I am inspired to seek out the novel. I may become a Roth fan.
As for “Indignation,” it is one of the best films of 2016.

  Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.

Nothing ‘Fantastic’ about this

Fantastic Four color

(Photo courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox) From left to right: The Thing, Johnny Storm, Reed Richards and Sue Storm come together to fight a deadly enemy.

BY ROGER THOMAS
Film Critic

I do not remember much about the plots of old Saturday morning cartoon versions of “Fantastic Four.”
I am not sure how old I was when I begin to watch the series. But I vividly remember that I never wanted to miss it. I loved those characters. I even had “Fantastic Four” pajamas. Those four were my introduction to the world of superheroes. Well, those four and the campy “Batman” series with Adam West and Burt Ward.
There have been two previous “Fantastic Four” films. The first, entitled simply “Fantastic Four,” came out in 2005 and the sequel, “Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” released in 2007. Neither of those films was very good. “Silver Surfer” is better but very weak in comparison to many of the superhero films we have had in the last decade.
So with the revealing of my historical relationship with Reed Richards, Johnny Storm, Sue Storm and Ben “The Thing” Grimm, allow me to offer my opinion of the new version of the “Fantastic Four.”
First, the film moves at a snail’s pace. This is the origin story (again) with a whole new cast. However, the audience is there for the action, not the science. The film is 105 minutes long, which I endorse as a good idea for all superhero films. I have often criticized the ones that go over two hours for being bloated. However, with “Fantastic Four” the problem is not the length of the film, it is the fact that the first 49 minutes are leading up to the transformation of the heroes.
I applaud the film for the brevity of length, but the front half of this movie could have been reduced even more to create a better film.
Then there is the cast. I have watched the career of Jamie Bell (The Thing) since his starring role as the title character in “Billy Elliot” when he was 14. Michael B. Jordan (Johnny Storm) was the lead in my favorite film of 2013, “Fruitvale Station.” And Miles Teller (Reed Richards) delivered great work in last year’s “Whiplash” and 2013’s “The Spectacular Now”.
This trio of great actors are left with so little to do in this film, that they can never create a bond with the audience. I never cared about any of them or any of the other characters that populated this world. There is just no emotional connection here, while so many films of this genre have successfully excited and moved the audience.
Another crucial element of hero films is the humor. Most superhero films have clever humor. Almost unanimously, hero films have great wit, from skilled screenwriters who know how to enhance the plot and get the audience chuckling. A recent example of this is “Ant-Man.” The humor in that film is one of the greatest strengths of the screenplay. I am not sure I laughed more than twice in “Fantastic Four.” Quite simply, the laughs never came.
To add to these flaws, there were moments when the special effects did not impress, the villain was not menacing enough and the early sets were supposed to be like 2007 but these looked more like sets for a film depicting the 60s.
I really hoped this film would be better than the previous ones, but alas, it was less. There is no good reason to recommend this film to anyone. There are too many good, and a few great, films playing in cinemas now. No reason to patronize the “Fantastic Four.”

  Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.

‘The Gift’ proves to be a real treat

The Gift color

(Photo courtesy of STX Production) Joel Edgerton proves to be pretty creepy, especially around Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall in “The Gift.”

BY ROGER THOMAS
Film Critic

The Gift is a different kind of film.
It is a thriller with very little violence or blood. There are no supernatural elements to it, yet it offers the audience several jolting scares. And in the end, a group of 10 people could see it together and reach different conclusions about the climax of the film. Not necessarily what happened, but what and who made things ultimately play out as they did.
This is the story of a young couple that moves back to California where the husband grew up. On a day of shopping for items to decorate their new home, a man approaches the husband and re-introduces himself. The two men were in high school together. A few days later, the man shows up at the couple’s home and seems to want or possibly need friends. One can conclude this much from the trailer, and perhaps a little more, but I will stop there.
As I watched “The Gift,” I found it too often be a quiet film. Even most of the conversations are subdued, spoken softly, at least until tempers flare.
I especially enjoyed the three main performances in the film. Jason Bateman, who picks many great projects, plays the husband, Simon. His performance here is constantly changing, as we understand more about his character.
Rebecca Hall plays the wife and she is the heart of this story. If anyone in this story is completely sympathetic, it is Hall’s Robyn. Her character also travels the longest emotional journey throughout the film.
Then there is Joel Edgerton as the former acquaintance, Gordo. Edgerton has been in several films that I really admire, but I have to admit, I did not recognize him here. This character seemed very distant from anything he has chosen to do in his prior work.
If Hall is the heart of the film, Edgerton is the driving force. Collectively, these three deliver a powerful collaboration.
There are a few bumps along the way. There are a couple of things I question in the plot development. There are issues that arise, or at least arose in my mind, but then again, most thrillers have some weaknesses.
But in the end, the film kept surprising me. It went in directions I did not expect. And it was about far more than one lonely man preying on a couple. As much as anything it is about identity, who one is and what one will do.
Does our past dictate our future? And how much do we change who we are from who we were? These are deep thoughts for a thriller, but they are all there, if you look for them.
As the film reached its climax, I did notice there was a buzz in the audience as people were beginning to realize what was going to happen. The knowledge swept through my mind along with them. Just because you realize a truth in no way diminishes the power of those last few minutes. “The Gift” is a small intimate thriller that satisfies.
I have realized as I write this review that most of my favorite films this year are about the characters’ feelings. The best film of the year for me is still “Inside Out” and it is all about feelings and emotions.
“The Gift,” though a thriller and a mystery, is also a film about feelings, from the past and the present. It is a film filled with emotions and is also one of the better films I have seen this year.

  Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.