Hipsters in Iraq, Cops and Robbers in the Old West

Reviews of "War Dogs" and "Hell or High Water," plus local movie news and notes.

photo by Melinda Sue Gordon. © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC.

The director Todd Phillips is best known as the man behind the “Hangover” trilogy. The original film in that series was a decent idea for a madcap comedy bolstered by a particularly strong cast; its sequels suffered from diminishing returns in a remarkable way, as the second film failed to change anything of substance from the first and the third degraded into shockingly tone-deaf anti-humor.

The only other theatrical feature Phillips has helmed in the last 10 years was the comedy “Due Date,” an admittedly funny picture that nevertheless ripped off the classic “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” so blatantly that it is best thought of as an unacknowledged remake. So for a full decade, Phillips has trafficked in slightly crass, slapstick comedies.

Not the guy you’d want to make a nuanced film about arms trafficking. But he did, so here we are.

In “War Dogs,” Miles Teller stars as David Packouz, a smart-but-shiftless twentysomething working odd jobs in Miami Beach. When he is reunited with his high school buddy, a troublemaker-turned-businessman named Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), he’s sucked into his old pal’s current racket: Buying small quantities of military equipment then selling it to the government for a tidy profit. Big defense manufacturers snatch up all the giant contracts, Diveroli explains, but they don’t care about the tiny — but still incredibly lucrative — deals.

Diveroli fancies himself a modern-day Scarface, while Packouz just wants to stop working as a massage therapist and provide for his girlfriend and newborn daughter. What follows is a by-the-numbers Icarus tale; the pair meet with some notable success, fly too close to the sun and so on.

Teller and Hill carry the film, which maintains a dark-comedy tone when not reflecting on the actual implications of the boys’ actions. But they can only do so much with the stilted, artless script — by Phillips, Stephen Chin and Jason Smilovic — which relies heavily on unnatural voice-over narration, forces characters into bouts of hackneyed exposition and inexplicably breaks the film up via chapter titles. (Just to be a bit more baffling, those chapter titles consist of lines of dialogue that no one has said yet; a chapter will begin, and then you get to guess which character will say that line in a few minutes.)

It’s a somewhat interesting tale — probably more suited for the Rolling Stone magazine article on which it is based than a dramatic feature — and not entirely unenjoyable. But Phillips is not the guy to make this story work, and it shows.

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Most recent westerns are either set in the distant past (think “True Grit”) or less proper examples of the genre — more thrillers with western themes (“No Country for Old Men,” to keep these examples purely Coen). But “Hell or High Water,” the excellent drama from British director David Mackenzie, is an exception — a true, modern-day western, following bank robbers and lawmen across a much different Texas than John Wayne ever saw. Written by Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”), “Hell or High Water” follows the exploits of crooks Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner Howard (Ben Foster), a pair of brothers in divergent rough situations. They hit up small-town banks amid streets decimated by the Great Recession, only capturing a bit of money at a time to avoid detection. Nearing his forced retirement, Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) makes catching the bandits his final task, taking put-upon partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) along for the ride. Rarely do performances, script and direction all reach the levels that they do here; this is a captivating, entertaining and surprisingly beautiful film, in spite of its serious subject matter. Every time a film with a cowboy hat makes money, some critic declares that the western genre is primed for a return; unlike most of its predecessors, “Hell or High Water” makes that point by illustrating that conditions for the down-and-out in 2016 Texas aren’t much different than they were 150 years ago. In limited release, “Hell or High Water” might be flying under your radar, but seek it out; it’s a must-see.

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Due to some wonky scheduling of the preview screenings, I was boxed out of a number of new releases this week. Most notably, I can’t comment on the remake of “Ben-Hur” directed by Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov; early reviews indicate that this version is unremarkable at best. Track down the original, I suppose. I am sorry to have missed “Kubo and the Two Strings,” the already-acclaimed stop-motion animation feature produced by acclaimed studio Laika; the voice cast for the raved-over film includes Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey and Rooney Mara.

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The Montage: The Japanese Cannes contender “Our Little Sister” arrives in town this weekend. The drama, based on a manga series, is already a massive hit in its native country; it’s playing at the Harris Theater … A pair of local theaters are joining forces to celebrate the 50th anniversary of “Star Trek,” as the television series debuted in September 1966. Row House Cinema will show a quartet of “Trek” flicks from Sept. 2-8, while the Hollywood Theater Dormont is hosting a special “Wrath of Khan” screening and party Sept. 9. An exhibit of Star Trek art at the ToonSeum is forthcoming as well … The latest documentary from Werner Herzog, “Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World,” opens today at Regent Square Theater. The film explores the increasing connections between man and machine and features some interviews with Carnegie Mellon researchers.


Categories: Sean Collier’s Popcorn for Dinner