Skip to main content

Would you do that? Would you wrap a lizard in cashmere?

War Dogs
(2016)

(SPOILERS) The news that Martin Scorsese and Todd Phillips will be collaborating on a Joker origins movie (most likely not starring Leonardo DiCaprio, if he has any common sense) elicits a secondary reaction after the initial “Why ever would you want to make a Joker origins movie?”; What does Marty get out of the deal? He’s only producing, after all, so lending his name to a Todd Phillips written and co-directed effort will inevitably bear fruit tantamount to every other Todd Phillips comedy vehicle. Because War Dogs is essentially Phillips trying on a Scorsese overcoat for size, of a The Wolf on Wall Street variety, and delivering something closer to The Hangover.


When Marty makes something that approximates traditional Phillips fare, he delivers After Hours (possibly his best movie, but whisper it); he can’t help but class up material. Phillips can’t help but make his more cartoonish, broader, emptier, less demanding. Added to which, he veers towards the gleefully amoral anyway, so asking him to depict conscience-free capitalism run riot – “This isn’t about being pro-war. It’s about being pro-money” – is inevitably going to tend towards revelling in the misdeeds than proving cautionary (hence Miles Teller’s character being rewarded at the end with a suitcase full of cash; not something that actually happened).


So it is with War Dogs. It’s well made (Phillips is a pretty good comedy director, which isn’t damning with faint praise as most of them have little in the way of visual imagination), well cast, has fertile material in the account of twenty-something arms dealers Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller) acting most unscrupulously in order to cater to a morally bankrupt industry (like attracts like), but it has no real impact. It doesn’t linger in the mind. As Guy Lawson, from whose 2011 Rolling Stone article this is adapted, opined, “you watch the end and you think it’s about these [two] guys. It’s not. It’s about the system”. But then, Phillips isn’t a deep guy.


One wonders whose decision it was to cut the third party to the events depicted, Alex Podrizki. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Phillips, wary of comparisons to The Hangover that another central trio up to drug-fuelled no-good might encourage. Except that he’s inviting unflattering comparisons throughout. With Wolf by casting that movie’s Jonah Hill (very good nevertheless, particularly so when revealing Efraim’s sociopathic underbelly – the best businessmen often are so equipped, of course –  although the tendency to improv means the comedy throws the balance off at times). With other diluted War on Terror fare by making light of war zones (The Men Who Stare at Goats, Rock the Kasbah), which don’t, despite continually getting greenlit, equal box office. With any biopic that uses the voiceover to guide the viewer (see Scorsese again; when Teller explains “Ephraim never paid the box guy”, Ray Liotta swims into view). All washed down with a resolutely by-the-numbers soundtrack and tiresome pot-smoking montages.


Diveroli and Packouz (and Podrizki) took advantage of the requirement to put military contracts out to tender, post-scrutiny of Dick Cheney’s Haliburton spin-off KBR Inc eating up Iraq commissions – this operated more as window dressing than having any real effect on the majors, although this isn’t exactly an industry where one would be prone to protesting the cause of level playing fields in aid of enabling someone else to provide the instruments of death – and did indeed attempt to repackage banned Chinese munitions so as to sell them to the Afghan National Army (Chinese arms being embargoed post-Tiananmen Square).


Much of the movie’s more dramatic meat never actually happened, though – there was no dangerous drive through the Iraq “Triangle of Death” (the berretta deal was actually fouled), and it was Podrizki who ended up in Albania (but he wasn’t threatened at gunpoint). I’ve no issue with such material being invented, but the net result is Phillips shifting ever broader in tone and becoming less clear about what he’s actually saying. Throw in a rote subplot about Packouz’ girlfriend (it may be pretty much true, and Ana de Armas, shortly to be seen in Blade Runner 2049, is very winning, but that doesn’t make it any less inessential).


Adapting real events into black comedy can be tricky territory – look no further than Michael Bay with Pain & Gain to see how easy it is to screw up if you aren’t a funny guy. Phillips does know his funny, but this might have been funnier if it had been played straighter. And let its canvas billow a bit; Lawson has a point when he notes how fruitful it might have been to include the ineptitude of the Pentagon in all this. So I’m doubtful the Joker movie will find the right tone. Even less so that Phillips’ buddy Zach Galifianakis will play the lead character (he’s been there, done that). Mind you, I could see other buddy Bradley Cooper (who services a memorable cameo here) taking it on. If it wasn’t an origins tale.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Stupid adult hands!

Shazam! (2019)
(SPOILERS) Shazam! is exactly the kind of movie I hoped it would be, funny, scary (for kids, at least), smart and delightfully dumb… until the final act. What takes place there isn’t a complete bummer, but right now, it does pretty much kill any interest I have in a sequel.

I have discovered the great ray that first brought life into the world.

Frankenstein (1931)
(SPOILERS) To what extent do Universal’s horror classics deserved to be labelled classics? They’re from the classical Hollywood period, certainly, but they aren’t unassailable titans that can’t be bettered – well unless you were Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan trying to fashion a Dark Universe with zero ingenuity. And except maybe for the sequel to the second feature in their lexicon. Frankenstein is revered for several classic scenes, boasts two mesmerising performances, and looks terrific thanks to Arthur Edeson’s cinematography, but there’s also sizeable streak of stodginess within its seventy minutes.

Can you float through the air when you smell a delicious pie?

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
(SPOILERS) Ironically, given the source material, think I probably fell into the category of many who weren't overly disposed to give this big screen Spider-Man a go on the grounds that it was an animation. After all, if it wasn’t "good enough" for live-action, why should I give it my time? Not even Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's pedigree wholly persuaded me; they'd had their stumble of late, although admittedly in that live-action arena. As such, it was only the near-unanimous critics' approval that swayed me, suggesting I'd have been missing out. They – not always the most reliable arbiters of such populist fare, which made the vote of confidence all the more notable – were right. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not only a first-rate Spider-Man movie, it's a fresh, playful and (perhaps) surprisingly heartfelt origins story.

Only an idiot sees the simple beauty of life.

Forrest Gump (1994)
(SPOILERS) There was a time when I’d have made a case for, if not greatness, then Forrest Gump’s unjust dismissal from conversations regarding its merits. To an extent, I still would. Just not nearly so fervently. There’s simply too much going on in the picture to conclude that the manner in which it has generally been received is the end of the story. Tarantino, magnanimous in the face of Oscar defeat, wasn’t entirely wrong when he suggested to Robert Zemeckis that his was a, effectively, subversive movie. Its problem, however, is that it wants to have its cake and eat it.

Do not mention the Tiptoe Man ever again.

Glass (2019)
(SPOILERS) If nothing else, one has to admire M Night Shyamalan’s willingness to plough ahead regardless with his straight-faced storytelling, taking him into areas that encourage outright rejection or merciless ridicule, with all the concomitant charges of hubris. Reactions to Glass have been mixed at best, but mostly more characteristic of the period he plummeted from his must-see, twist-master pedestal (during the period of The Village and The Happening), which is to say quite scornful. And yet, this is very clearly the story he wanted to tell, so if he undercuts audience expectations and leaves them dissatisfied, it’s most definitely not a result of miscalculation on his part. For my part, while I’d been prepared for a disappointment on the basis of the critical response, I came away very much enjoying the movie, by and large.

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…