Movie Review – Fist Fight

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EXPECTATIONS: Something that would make me laugh in spite of how stupid it all is.

REVIEW: If there’s one thing everybody can say about this film, it is that the film is punchy. Studio comedies nowadays are very underwhelming the past few years, especially from studios like Warner Brothers (the less said about Hot Pursuit, the better), regardless of the comedic talent involved.

So when I heard about this film that has a wonderfully simple premise with a capable cast and the promise of Ice Cube, who is gleefully self-aware of his gung-ho persona, beating the crap out of Charlie Day, who alternately amuses as well as annoys, was enticing. So does the film amuse despite its minute ambitions?

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Charlie Day plays a mild-mannered English teacher who is currently working the last day of school. You would figure that this would be quite exciting for him to rest after the term is over but it is anything but.

The school he works at is incredibly chaotic, with unruly students, off-kilter teachers (consisting of Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell and Christina Hendricks) and total anarchy; his wife (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) is pregnant; his teenage daughter (Alexa Nisenson) is in need of his presence of her school talent show and his job (alongside most of the faculty) is at risk.

But his life is put to the test when a colleague (Ice Cube) who thinks he is trying to get him fired challenges him to a fist fight after school. With all the fuss that is going on, will Charlie Day have his…day?

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First off, the biggest laugh I had about Fist Fight is the fact that almost every synopsis of the film states that Charlie Day‘s character is mild-mannered. So when your film’s biggest laugh is in its synopsis, your film’s got problems.

Let’s get to the positives, which there are surprisingly more than some would think. The cast, mainly the two leads, are certainly talented and way overqualified for the material they have and they try to make the most out of it. Charlie Day does his loud-mouthed and high-pitched persona as he always does, but he fits it to his character quite well, making him almost pathetically human. It also helps that his chops in physical comedy is put to good use; particularly during a scene where his character has to hide.

Ice Cube‘s self-awareness of his persona still pays off with some amusing moments which actually makes his character morally upright, in an albeit ridiculously sublime way. Sure, his character brandishes an axe and wants to fight a staff member, but considering the fantasy world the film inhabits in and the insufferable environment the characters live in, the man’s got a point.

And what’s also a minor surprise is that the film actually has some storytelling chops. Charlie Day‘s character actually has an arc which does pay off quite well, and the film actually feels assembled, unlike most comedies, which feels like a bunch of sketches stitched together to make a film. Jokes, whether they were hit-and-miss, are thankfully character-based and are not overly reliant on pop-culture, just to pander to its demographic.

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What is unfortunate is that the film’s script isn’t that funny and the supporting cast are either on auto-pilot, given unfunny material or worse, given absolutely nothing to do. Tracy Morgan is just doing what he always does: Tracy Morgan. Which is fine in television and small doses but in Fist Fight and frankly, 90% of his films, it just irritates more than amuses.

Jillian Bell, who has given funny performances in the past like in The Night Before and 22 Jump Street, is given terrible material to work with, which revolves her character being horny towards her students. It’s not only unfunny due to its tiresome repetition, but it ends up being creepy, saying that teachers having sexual relationships with students is meant to be humourous. At least with a similar joke in 21 Jump Street, the audience obviously knew that Channing Tatum’s character wasn’t a student (which is the joke), but in Fist Fight, it just looks wrong.

As for Christina Hendricks, between this and Bad Santa 2, her talents are incredibly wasted, as she is given incredibly little to do. It’s hard to blame her for making such little impression, especially with the little material to work with and the small amount of screen-time to work in. I just felt sorry for her. Kumail Nanjiani also does what he can as a lazy security guard while Dean Norris, famous for Breaking Bad, is amusing as an angry principal, but his main running joke is one that was stolen from The Heartbreak Kid.

As for the fight itself, is it worth the wait? Surprisingly, yes and no. The fight scene itself is well-assembled and choreographed and clearly has a Jackie Chan-influence with the use of improvised weapons. But the fight unfortunately ends with a whimper, due to its lack of structure and pacing, making the conclusion feel like a cop-out.

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Despite the efforts of the cast and its simple yet ripe premise and some surprisingly coherent storytelling, Fist Fight just isn’t worth the wait, due to its very patchy script.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The two leads try their best

Surprisingly solid storytelling

CONS

Annoying/underused supporting cast

Unfunny script

Anti-climactic title fight

SCORE: 5/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Ice Cube, Charlie Day, Tracy Morgan, Jillian Bell, Dean Norris, Christina Hendricks, Kumail Nanjiani
Director: Richie Keen
Screenwriter: Van Robichaux, Evan Susser, Max Greenfield

Movie Review – The Edge of Seventeen

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EXPECTATIONS: A truly special teenage comedy/drama, with a standout performance by Hailee Steinfeld.

REVIEW: Teenage films have been quite a huge staple for me in the past decade. Whether they would be quality films (like Heathers, Stand By Me), plain fun (Mean Girls, Easy A, Say Anything etc.) or just plain silliness (Porky’s, American Pie), I’ve always found some enjoyment for entertainment reasons as well as nostalgic reasons.

But the past few years, the portrayal of teenagers have gotten a lot more artificial, a lot more fake to the point that it becomes obvious that these aren’t real characters, but caricatures. The situations and dialogue would comprise of many moments that could have only come out of committee meetings. Basically, teenage films are more about what people want to hear and see, instead of getting to the nitty-gritty of it.

Now we have the latest teenage dramedy The Edge of Seventeen, written/directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, starring the Oscar-nominated actress of the True Grit remake, Hailee Steinfeld and is produced by the renowned James L. Brooks. Will the film end up fixing the problems of portrayals of teenage life?

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Hailee Steinfeld stars as Nadine, a 17 year-old high school junior who is currently living the life of awkwardness as she trudges through high school. Saddled with a dramatic past, a much more successful sibling of a brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), a stressed out mother (Kyra Sedgwick) and her lack of social skills, her one solid rock in life was always her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), whom she’s been friends with since childhood.

That is until one day, Nadine’s life is about to take a turn for the worst when she finds out that Darian is dating Krista. Feeling more alone than ever, she again crawls through the excruciating minutiae of high school, with only a huge crush with the handsome boy at school, Nick (Alexander Calvert) to distract from her current situation.

That is until she develops into a relationship with myself a stuttering, yet thoughtful classmate, Erwin (Hayden Szeto) and along with having so-called help from her teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson), does she gradually realize that there might be hope ahead after all.

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When I heard that this film was written and directed by the screenwriter that wrote Post Grad, I have to admit, it did temper my expectations. But I am wholeheartedly happy to report that The Edge of Seventeen is one of the best films I have seen all year. And all of this goes down to Craig‘s grounded direction, her witty and authentic script and the wonderful performances of the entire cast.

What is great about the direction of the film is how authentic the script and the storytelling approach is. Most characters interact like real people and thankfully, teenagers talk like actual teenagers, which lead to some unapologetic and politically incorrect dialogue. And most of it is hilarious, witty and appropriately, real.

The only time that the film ends up sounding like a movie is whenever Woody Harrelson as the incredibly droll teacher, Mr. Bruner, shows up. But Harrelson slums his role (really, he looks like he’s putting zero effort into the role) so well, that he steals the show with his hilarious interactions with Steinfeld.

Another factor I liked about Craig‘s direction is how she either lends a soft touch or subverts the cliches and tropes of the genre. For example, the supposed jerk of the film is cleverly subverted, since the motivations of the character is actually quite understandable, if not quite respectable. Another example is that some of the conclusions in the final act are executed in the subtlest of ways that rings true, like the arc between Nadine and her mother.

And the best of all is that Craig and Steinfeld never soften the character of Nadine to the point where the character strives to be likable. Nadine is shown warts-and-all and the reasoning for her behaviour is also dealt with subversively, due to the fact that her behaviour was always present, and not suddenly triggered by some dramatic event.

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But none of the storytelling and direction would work if it weren’t for the fantastic performances. Finally having a lead role she can sink her teeth into since True Grit, Hailee Steinfeld nails the role of the highly opinionated, angst-ridden and socially awkward Nadine. Nuanced, genuine and sympathetic, Steinfeld shines whenever she’s on screen, which is awesome because she’s on it 95% of the time.

There’s a scene where Nadine reluctantly goes to a party with Krista and Darian, and when the two leave her to socialize, Steinfeld acts out loneliness and heartbreak without a single word. It also helps that she also works her comedic chops with aplomb, even when saddled with the most abrasive or the lamest insults involving calling someone out with a huge head.

The supporting cast are no slouches in their department. As already mentioned, Woody Harrelson is a hoot at Mr. Bruner, as he has some great interactions with Steinfeld and he does it so effortlessly, you’d have to wonder if he just performed the role in his sleep. The same goes for Kyra Sedgwick, who has played this type of role a thousand times, and is still great as the increasingly stressed out mother.

Haley Lu Richardson makes her role of Krista easy to understand why Nadine care so much for her as her best friend while Blake Jenner is convincing as Darian, particularly during the scenes he shares with Steinfeld. The sibling relationship between the two is nicely developed and it pays off in a emotionally cathartic fashion that honestly made me shed a tear of two.

And last but definitely not least, there’s Hayden Szeto as Erwin. He completely sells the anxiety, awkwardness, the nervous tics and subtle longing, that I thought I was watching myself on screen. It was actually slightly scary, to be honest.

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As for flaws, there aren’t really that much, except for the story being slightly predictable once you see the pieces of the puzzle being set out. But the tropes are all dealt with nuance and subversiveness that the storytelling feels refreshing and new again.

Insightful, thoroughly well-written, amazingly well-acted, deservedly touching and downright hilarious, The Edge of Seventeen needs to be seen if we want to get more movies of this quality. Highly recommended!

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Quickie Review

PROS

Refreshingly honest approach to portraying teenage life

Fantastic performances from the cast, especially Hailee Steinfeld

Earns all of its emotional beats effortlessly

Easily subverts cliches of the teenage comedy genre

Hilariously acerbic and politically correct humour hit their targets

CONS

The story is quite predictable

SCORE: 9.5/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson, Haley Lu Richardson, Kyra Sedgwick, Blake Jenner, Hayden Szeto
Director: Kelly Fremon Craig
Screenwriter: Kelly Fremon Craig

Movie Review – Your Name

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EXPECTATIONS: A film that lives up to its buzz.

REVIEW: Makoto Shinkai is an animation film-maker that has been earmarked to become the next Hayao Miyazaki with his spectacular animation. But in my opinion, he’s not really there yet. Although he gets the visuals right, his storytelling is quite flawed due to the slow pace and he never gets to end his films in a satisfying manner.

The endings are either abrupt, lack impact or at one point, incredibly overwrought. But the biggest problem with his films is the use of musical montages. Whenever a film of his reaches an emotional peak, he tends to play a song over it with the intention of eliciting poignancy. But unfortunately it ends up being lazy, cheap and ruins the cinematic panache of the film, making it look like a television episode at times.

So when I heard that Shinkai’s latest film was breaking Japanese box office records AND was chosen to be in the running for Best Animated Film at the Oscars, I knew I had to watch it to see if the film lived up to its hype. So does the film live up to its sterling reputation or will it end up being underwhelming?

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Edited and expanded synopsis from Madman: Mitsuha (Mone Kamishiraishi) and Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) are two total strangers living completely different lives. But when Mitsuha makes an impulsive wish to leave her mountain town for the bustling city of Tokyo, they become connected in a bizarre way. She dreams she is a boy living in Tokyo while Taki dreams he is a girl from a rural town he’s never been to.

The two realize the situation that they are in and decide to make the most of it until they develop an intimate relationship. But they suddenly lose contact with each other and Taki decides to personally meet up with Mitsuha over at her hometown. Little does he know, he ventures into something that will send both into an emotional journey that few could dream of. Will their relationship survive through the tumultuous turn of events?

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Let us get the obvious out of the way. From the looks of the screenshots alone, Your Name looks visually spectacular. Everything just has a pinkish/orange hue that gives the film such a warm, optimistic feel that made me smile. The music by RADWIMPS (a change from Shinkai’s usual composer, TENMON) gets the emotional pull of the film quite well, despite some major flaws.

As for the storytelling, Shinkai thankfully has improved in some ways. First of all, the editing (by Shinkai himself) has tightened up considerably, leading to a pace that is manageable for the story as well as keeping the emotional momentum going. Secondly, he actually sticks the landing and provides a satisfying, albeit predictable ending. Without spoilers, the ending does not feel abrupt, nor does it feel overwrought and it actually feels earned and rightfully so.

Thirdly, the fun sci-fi premise never interferes with the storytelling. There is very little spoon-feeding and exposition that slows the film down and it benefits greatly from it. And finally, Shinkai finally develops a nice sense of humour that provides the perfect offset from the potentially darker turns of the story.

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As for the voice acting, all the actors give great performances. Ryunosuke Kamiki, who is a veteran in voice acting as far as his projects for Studio Ghibli go, is great as Taki, as he provides the perfect balance between brimming anger and kindness. While Mone Kamishiraishi (who was fantastic in the leading role of Lady Maiko) is no beginner in voice acting due to her performance in Wolf Chidren, is great as Mitsuha, as she makes her character likable and compelling, with a great portrayal of both naivety and hubris. The supporting cast all add life to their roles from Masami Nagasawa providing a certain sultry appeal as Miki, Taki’s senior and romantic crush; to Kana Hanazawa as Ms. Yukino, Mitsuha’s teacher and is a reprisal of a character in one of Shinkai’s previous films.

But as much as improvements go, there is always room for it and Shinkai still has ample space of it. The lightest flaw is typical of films with this premise, which leads to some plot holes and lapses in the film’s logic, but I can’t really say further, since it would spoil part of the film. The other flaw, and this is a major one, is one I stated in the beginning of this review: the musical montages. Yes, they are still present and there are more present than usual, which really harms the emotional pull of the film, as well as unintentionally making the film cheap, looking like part of a TV episode.

But overall, Your Name is Shinkai’s most satisfying and complete film to date. With its amazingly beautiful animation, a fun yet familiar sci-fi premise, a great melding of genres (sci-fi, romance and disaster movie?) and great vocal talent, Your Name is a film that is worth seeing and remembering.

Quickie Review

PROS

Spectacular animation

Fantastic voice work from the cast

Little spoon-feeding and exposition about the fantasy premise

Great storytelling and editing, ensuring a good pace

A satisfying ending

CONS

The use of musical montages

Problematic subtitles

Some plot holes and lapses in logic

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Ryunosuke Kamiki, Mone Kamishiraishi, Masami Nagasawa, Ryo Narita, Aoi Yuki, Obunaga Shimazaki, Kaito Ishikawa, Kanon Tani, Masaki Terasoma  
Director: Makoto Shinkai
Screenwriters: Makoto Shinkai

Movie Review – I Am Not Madame Bovary

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EXPECTATIONS: A comedy/drama that suffers from China censorship with a great performance from Fan Bingbing.

REVIEW: Feng Xiaogang is one of the most popular directors in all of China, but unlike other directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, his work is not as well-known overseas. Also unlike the directors mentioned, he was not trained at the prestigious Beijing Film Academy, making him a self-taught auteur.

His films are well-known for their comedic timing, skilled storytelling as well as its satirical touch, which has resulted in great films like Cell Phone, a film that made fun of male statuses, technology obsession as well as having astute observations of the middle-class in China; as well as being commercial successes that worked well with audiences like the rom-com films If You Are The One and its sequel, the war film, Assembly and the disaster film/melodrama Aftershock.

In his latest film, he reunites with his collaborators from Cell Phone, superstar actress Fan Bingbing and author/screenwriter Liu Zhenyun for the comedy/drama, I Am Not Madame Bovary, based on a novel by the latter. Will the film be just as good and fruitful as their previous collaboration?

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Fan Bingbing stars as Li Xuelian, a village woman, who is scorned by her ex-husband Qin Yuhe (Li Zonghan) after being swindled into a divorce. She attempts to sue him but after a ruling is made against her in the divorce proceedings (resulting in a hilarious courtroom scene), she decides to seek justice from people who are higher up in the Chinese legal system.

But when she is ignored, rebuffed and pushed away by the infinite government officials that she seeks help from, she begins an annual trip of demanding reparations to Beijing not only in order to prove that her divorce was a complete sham but also in order to redeem her reputation, and most importantly to sue the Chinese officials who failed her.

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For those who have just seen the screenshots and the trailer, you’re probably wondering, does the entire film look like we are peering through a telescope? For the majority of it, it is true. In a recent interview, Feng Xiaogang said that in his current age, he wanted to branch out from his commercial works and into more art-house fare. And seeing his newest film, it’s not hard to see the results.

The circular image can be a bit off-putting at first, but for those accustomed to Chinese art works and literature, it makes sense, visually. It also helps that the compositions and cinematography by Luo Pan looks fantastic, like peering at paintings.

The aspect ratio also changes from the circular image to the 1:1 ratio (simulating an open scroll) during the Beijing scenes until the end of the film, which is the 2.35:1 widescreen image. The reasons for the change in ratios is not just for visual purposes, but it lends a point for symbolism i.e. the circular image being a Chinese symbol for feminism while the ending ratio symbolizes the revelation that Xuelian confesses.

The beautiful cinematography is also an amusing contrast to the frankly ridiculous story, which had me belly-laughing. The same goes for the musical score by Wei Du, which adopts a thrilling and intensive vibe that brought a huge smile on my face.

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Feng still has his trademark comedy chops in check like in Cell Phone and his last film, the incredibly esoteric Personal Tailor, and it pays off with dark humour, hard-hitting satire and even some physical comedy. Feng makes sure that every actor plays their role straight-faced without a sense of irony nor self-awareness, and it pays off brilliantly.

But unlike the actors, Feng knows how ridiculous the story is and plays it more like a fable, rather than something factual. And like his previous film Personal Tailor, the Chinese government isn’t seen and portrayed in an admirable light, leading to some very funny blaming games. Between this, Shin Godzilla and the recent election, bureaucracy has turned into a running joke.

Also contributing to the film is Fan Bingbing. In my opinion, she is one of the most underrated actresses out there. Mainly seen as nothing more than a pretty face, she clearly has done great work in her career, like her dramatic turns in her collaborations with director Li Yu or her comedic turns in films by director Eva Jin. Reuniting with director Feng Xiaogang, she gives one of her best performances in her career.

Taking away her glamourous beauty away and the lack of close-up shots in the film, she really inhabits the look of a villager. Ferocious, headstrong and not willing to back away from a fight, Fan pulls off her dramatic scenes with aplomb while also nailing the deadpan tone of the film; displaying her comedic chops. The rest of the all-male supporting cast do fine with their roles, especially Guo Tao as Xuelian’s childhood friend, but Fan is a true force of nature in the role.

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Although I enjoyed the film overall aesthetically and humourously, there are some caveats that some will take issue with. The humour of the film is not of the politically correct kind which could irk some; one scene in particular involves rape and another one involves the act of suicide. And the second act does end up in a bit of a lull, and that is mainly because Fan is not on-screen for a certain amount of time, but the pacing overall is fine, though the running time is a bit stretched out.

As for the ending, it can be polarizing to some. While it does earn its dramatic peak and provides much-needed backstory and motivation for the main character, it does make you question what you just saw and it might evoke a sense of guilt; something that one might not want once they leave the theater.

But overall, I Am Not Madame Bovary was a funny, charming, satirical, feminist tale that shows both director Feng Xiaogang and actress Fan Bingbing at their best. How this film was NOT considered as a submission for the Foreign Language Film Oscar is baffling beyond belief.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Dry, satirical and hilarious humour, dealing with themes like infidelity, murder, rape, government bureaucracy

Beautifully surreal cinematography

Fantastic technical values enhance the humour of the ridiculous story

Fan’s fantastic performance as Pan Jinlian Li Xuelian

CONS

The ending and humour might polarize some

A slight lull in the second act

Slightly overlong running time

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Fan Bingbing, Guo Tao, Da Peng, Yin Yuanzhang, Feng Enhe, Liu Xin, Zhao Yi, Zhao Lixin, Jiang Yongbo, Liu Hua, Li Zonghan, Huang Jianxin, Gao Ming, Yu Hewei, Zhang Jiayi, Tian Xiaojie, Zhang Yi  
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Screenwriters: Liu Zhenyun, based on her novel “I Did Not Kill My Husband”

Movie Review – Wet Woman in the Wind (San Diego Asian Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something rather sexy and comedic at the same time.

REVIEW: The film is another entry of the Roman Porno Reboot (out of five) and if the film is as any good as the previous entry that I saw (Sion Sono’s Anti-Porno), then I will be a happy man. Director Akihiko Shiota is famous for his low-key dramas like Moonlight Whispers and Harmful Insect to his effects-driven blockbuster Dororo, but now he makes his mark in the pinku genre with Wet Woman in the Wind. Having already won awards at various film festivals, does the Wet Woman in the Wind live up to her reputation?

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Tasuku Nagaoka stars as Kosuke, a playwright who lives in the forest alone by choice, due to him being sick and tired by the company of women. One day, as he pulls his two-wheeled cart, a young woman, Shiori (gravure idol Yuki Mamiya) makes a hell of an entrance as she rides her bicycle into a river, trying to make an impression on Kosuke. She locks onto him like a snake binding onto its prey, but Kosuke is having none of it and tries to fend her off, with little success. And when you factor in Kosuke’s ex-wife, her acting troupe and the cafe owner lusting for Shiori (she works with him as a waitress), the increasingly conflicted Kosuke struggles to get out of his situation set between a rock and a hard one place.

Compared to Sono’s entry in the Roman Porno Reboot, Anti-Porno, Shiota’s entry is a lot more traditional to the pinku genre. But thanks to a game cast and Shiota’s fine-tuned script and direction, Wet Woman in the Wind is a stellar entry. The film is basically a screwball comedy where the sex is the physical comedy and the performers deliver it in spades.

Yuki Mamiya is endearingly spirited as Shiori, as she attempts to call the shots in the depraved game she sets up on Kosuke. Her energy and comedic chops are fantastic to watch; like in a scene where Kosuke directs Shiori to display a range of emotions, which eventually leads the two to involve a wooden staff that gave the scene palpable sexual tension. Tasuku Nagaoka is funny as the increasingly befuddled playwright, Kosuke. His reactions to the antics around him are spot-on and he has a nice chemistry with Mamiya. The rest of the cast are all incredibly game for the story and it certainly adds to the fun.

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Director Shiota has not only made a great pinku film, but he also makes fun of tropes with the romance genre. The trope of a soul-searching, sensitive artist is turned into a parody as it is revealed that the character of Kosuke only became that way was because he wanted to be away from women. And in a further reveal, the contrast of who he is compared to who he was is only made even more amusing. The trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is even ripped to shreds as Shiori is far from being a pixie, nor being anyone’s dream girl, but she is definitely manic.

Even sexual politics, including male fantasies, are turned on its head with pleasingly pointed effect, although it might understandably turn off some viewers. In a scene where a character confesses her first sexual experience, she says that her P.E teacher forced himself on her but what makes it stand out is Kosuke’s obliviousness to the story (he clearly does the same actions earlier in the film) and how it reflects the hypocrisy of where gender stands.

Even if you don’t agree with the commentary, there are many comedic moments in the film throughout. Even with all the smut and prurience, there’s plenty of wit and intelligence involved. There’s a hilarious scene involving Kosuke seeing Shiori sleep with another man, but rather than getting angry, he not only moves past it with stride, but he offers the two a drink, resulting with an awkwardly funny conversation between the three.

Even the storytelling gets in on the comedy, as the film goes demure for the majority of the run-time as new characters settle in and are hastily given character arcs and are settled in the funniest ways a pinku film knows how: with vigorous sex. The third act of the film is almost wall-to-wall sex and Shiota’s direction makes it easy to be swept up by its energy, its arousal as well as its ridiculousness. Certain jokes early in the film are reversed (and foreshadowed) towards the final act, resulting with great payoffs and even throwaway jokes and lines are delivered well. The quirky, jazzy score by Shunsuke Kida certainly accentuates the humour and the tone of the film.

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As for the flaws of the film, there aren’t really any, to be honest. Unless if you aren’t familiar with the pinku genre, it is possible that one may think that the film is quite silly and there isn’t really that much of a plot as well as the fact that the commentary of the sexual politics will irk some people.

But overall, Wet Woman in the Wind is a hugely enjoyable entry in the Roman Porno Reboot with committed performances, a witty script and assured direction from Shiota. Alongside Sion Sono’s Anti-Porno, I really hope the other three films by Hideo Nakata, Isao Yukisada and Kazuya Shiraishi are up to par.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Incredibly game performances (especially from Yuki Mamiya)

A very funny and witty script

Shiota’s storytelling chops and direction

A wall-to-wall sex romp of a final act

CONS

Some of its sexual politics may turn people off

The story is quite ridiculous

Not much of a plot

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Yuki Mamiya, Tasuku Nagaoka, Ryushin Tei, Michiko Suzuki, Hitomi Nakatani, Takahiro Kato
Director: Akihiko Shiota
Screenwriters: Akihiko Shiota

Movie Review – Hime-anole (Japanese Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: Another pleasantly entertaining film from Keisuke Yoshida.

REVIEW: To be perfectly honest, I actually didn’t want to review Hime-anole. Not because it’s bad, as it is far from it. I didn’t want to review Hime-anole because I didn’t want to spoil any of its major events. Because revealing said plot points can rob such films of their power. Having said that, this film is such a surprise that it could end up being on of my 2016 top 10 list.

Keisuke Yoshida has been a director that has, for the most part, made films that can be seen as pleasant as well as quite powerful. Films like the slice-of-life drama Cafe Isobe (2008), his tragic-comedy My Little Sweet Pea (2013), and even the manga adaptation Silver Spoon (2010) are entertaining pieces, although some are quite forgettable. His first feature, however, was a pinku film called Raw Summer (2005) with former AV star Sora Aoi. Despite its exploitation trappings, the film ended up transcending its origins with substantial character explorations within its voyeuristic plot. Having recalled the latter, it did make me wonder if Yoshida would ever go back to those types of films that delved into darker subject matter. Now, we have Hime-anole, a live-action adaptation of a manga by Minoru Furuya, whose Himizu (2001-2002) was filmed by Sion Sono in 2011.

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The film starts off uneventfully with the barely present Okada (Gaku Hamada) an assistant cleaner making a mistake during his work task and being criticized by his superior. This is when the straightforward Ando (Tsuyoshi Muro), his work colleague backs him up and the two become better acquainted. Ando then tells Okada about his strong love for Yuka (Aimi Satsukawa), a waitress at a coffee shop, despite the fact that he has never said a word to her. Because of Ando supporting him earlier, Okada feels obligated to help Ando get the girl of his dreams. But things get a little slippery when they find that a stranger is apparently stalking Yuka, so the two help Yuka out to avoid the stalker whilst Ando having ulterior motives to woo and pursue Yuka. But as feelings develop into something more intimate and motivations become a little clearer, the characters soon end up into something a little more than they bargained for…

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The directing by Keisuke Yoshida is incredibly assured, considering his past films, which never felt that they had a tight rein on its film-making. Scenes in the first act all have a sense of warmth that makes its humour and characters stand out, even with Go Morita in the background. When the story gradually enters the second act, the film ends up being more substantial as the characters are gradually explored, like in a scene where a friend of Yuka’s rudely and insistently judges Okada and Ando as a pair of losers. But as the second act starts, the genre Hime-anole adheres to gets turn on its head and gets beaten to a bloody pulp. Characters start to get more depraved with their emotions; motivations become more crystal clear and this is when Go Morita steals the film.

The acting from the cast is top-notch. Gaku Hamada can play his hang-dog sympathy act in his sleep and it’d still entertain me. In this film, he does play a character with a little bit more inner conflict and he portrays that well, particularly when the film enters its second act. Tsuyoshi Muro is surprisingly sympathetic, despite the character’s actions towards achieving his version of true love. His stern honesty and chemistry with Hamada make him endearingly likable. Aimi Satsukawa does the cute and quiet act with ease that it makes it easy for the audience to understand why Ando would fall for her. As for Go Morita as the stalker, this is his film, that’s all I will say about him. The supporting cast are all fine and give their roles the much-needed sympathy to stand out.

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The production values of the film are great, like the musical score and the editing. There’s a scene that starts the second act that is fantastically edited that it makes the audience more anticipated of what’s to come. The cinematography is also interesting to see, as the shots of the film starts off as static until they gradually become more hand-held when the depravity sets in. The film is also refreshingly free of CGI, which is becoming a major hindrance in cinematic storytelling. How can you get into the story if you notice something extremely fake? Hime-anole has very little of that, and it is immersive in its intent from the get-go.

To say any more about the film will be a discredit to it so I’ll just say that Hime-anole was one of the biggest surprises for me in 2016 and I highly recommend this film to those who are adventurous in the unexpected. With fantastic performances, the subtly unhinged direction from Keisuke Yoshida and a refreshing lack of adherence towards mainstream storytelling, Hime-anole is a cult classic in the making.

P.S – Did I note that the film was rated R-15 in Japan? I probably should’ve mentioned it earlier.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances (especially from Go Morita)

Assured direction and unhinged storytelling chops from Keisuke Yoshida

Surprising twists in the story

CONS

Some moments which could take the audience out of the film

Those expect anything mainstream will be concerned and even shocked

SCORE: 9/10

Readers in Australia want to watch the film? Book tickets for it at Japanese Film Festival 2016! Press the logo below for more details!

Cast: Go Morita, Gaku Hamada, Tsuyoshi Muro, Aimi Satsukawa
Director: Keisuke Yoshida
Screenwriters: Keisuke Yoshida, based on the manga “Hime-anole” by Minoru Furuya

Movie Review – Top Knot Detective

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EXPECTATIONS: Some amusing one-joke premise that would run out of steam by the film’s end.

REVIEW: For those who live in Australia, the 90’s were a great time to watch the weird and wonderful culture of Australian programming. Consisting of surreal shows and films like Eat Carpet from SBS to the Journey to the West series Monkey on ABC, I’ll always be thankful to them for providing the huge amount of enjoyment that make us nostalgic for similar programs.

And now we have Top Knot Detective, a mockumentary about an incredibly bad TV show of the same name and its creator/mastermind Takashi Takamoto (Toshi Okuzaki) who is director, lead actor, writer and editor…well, self-proclaimed anyway. Will it succeed in evoking the same feels that people have had back in the past?

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The TV show Top Knot Detective (also known as Ronin Suirai Tantei) revolved around a samurai seeking vengeance on the shadowy conspiracy that murdered his master. With his swords, and the power of deductive reasoning (one of the many great catchphrases), he wanders through feudal Japan, killing ninjas, robots, aliens, penis monsters, you know, the typical creatures one can find in feudal Japan.

While behind the scenes, the show is actually a tension-filled back and forth between its ego-maniacal and unruly star, Takashi Takimoto, his co-stars (most of them having negative feedback) and their corporate masters at Sutaffu.

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The story takes us through the development of the show and the story is so surrealistic and random, that it comes off more endearing rather than grating. The filmmakers’ enthusiasm and knowledge is seething throughout and it is very infectious. The over-the-top violence, the crazy characters, the catchphrases, the random occurrences, the shoddy film-making provide lots of laughs.

The research in Japanese culture is also well-done, as directors Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce explore other TV shows, the tokusatsu genre, J-Pop, cosplay and other themes that it adds a lot of verisimilitude to the story. There is a cameo from a particular Japanese musician that people will certainly appreciate. The actors all plays their roles (behind the scenes) so straight that not only does it make the film funnier, but it also adds a surprisingly emotional core that few would expect. Pathos is the last thing that you would expect from Top Knot Detective, but it is there and it works.

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The directors genuinely want to tell a story as well as create an homage/deconstruction of Japanese media genres and thankfully, it succeeds in both parts. It certainly helps that the filmmakers try to make it as realistic as possible, that it could’ve been an actual show. The VHS-look, the notable people like Des Mangan and Lee Chin-chin (associated to SBS [Special Broadcasting Service]) as well as Danger 5 Director Dario Russo making contributions, the trademark yellow subtitles, it’s all here and it adds an air of nostalgia as well as authenticity.

I really enjoyed Top Knot Detective not only as a comedy, but as an homage and surprisingly, even as a drama. It made me feel exactly how I felt back in the early 90’s of watching the surreal late-night programming that it, quite honestly, almost made me shed a tear. Definitely one of the biggest surprises I have seen so far this year and it surely deserves a wider audience. Highly recommended.

P.S – There is an after-credits sequence that had me so pumped that I wanted to see a mockumentary of it immediately.

Quickie Review

PROS

Deadpan approach to the insane premise of a TV show works wonders

The amazingly committed actors engender sympathy more than the script allows

The world-building (in this case, TV show building) is so well-realized that you would wish the show actually existed

Incredibly well-researched and articulated in its details of Japanese culture

CONS

Does drag a little bit in the second act

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Toshi Okuzaki, Denis Mangan, Mayu Iwasaki
Director: Aaron McCann, Dominic Pearce
Screenwriters: Aaron McCann, Dominic Pearce

Movie Review – Trash Fire (Sydney Underground Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something darkly comedic and horrific like the director’s previous films.

REVIEW: Richard Bates Jr. is a film-maker that I admire ever since I saw his first film; the wonderfully acidic and biting film Excision. The melding of horror elements with a heavy dollop of dark comedy set within a grounded story helped by a wonderfully talented cast with career-best performances from Traci Lords and AnnaLynne McCord made Excision one of the best films I have seen in 2012. Since then, I have followed his work and had enjoyed his second film, the horror-comedy Suburban Gothic. The lighter approach to horror and comedy (compared to Excision) and the likable characters made Suburban Gothic a very fun experience, similar to watching old Scooby-Doo cartoons. And now, we finally have his latest film, Trash Fire, which seems to be following the same path as Excision. And knowing that the cast has AnnaLynne McCord and Matthew Gray Gubler coming back for more, I was psyched. Did Trash Fire meet my high expectations?

The film starts off with Owen (Adrian Grenier) telling his life story to his increasingly weary shrink (Sally Kirkland) and how he wanted to kill himself ever since his parents died in a freak fire that also left his sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord) permanently scarred for life. After that, we go into a dinner setting where we see his long-suffering girlfriend Isabel (Angela Trimbur). They clearly have issues (not helped by her side of the family) and Isabel has had enough of him and decides to break it off. Fast-forward to avoid spoilers, something major happens and the two decide to patch things up and try harder on their relationship by revisiting Owen’s surviving family, consisting of his grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) and Pearl, who has been living under her care. Owen is really reluctant on the matter, but decides to go along with the plan due to his love for Isabel. Little do the two know that the past always comes back to bite them in the ass and boy, does it bite. Hard.

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From the synopsis, it doesn’t seem to hint that the story has anything that could be considered as horror. But like Excision, that’s the beauty of the horror. Richard Bates Jr’s direction starts off with a grounded story that could happen to anyone and yet builds the horror from it to the point that the mood and atmosphere can be increasingly uneasy. The relationship between Owen and Isabel is well-developed and portrayed and it never backs off from or tones down the ugliness that plagues it. And Bates intelligently mixes the drama from the relationship with the horror that is yet to come very well to the point that it comes off not only as scary, but also quite insightful.

But in case that the story sounds like it is grim and depressing, Bates also brings back the dark comedy that made his other films earn cult status. Religion (like in Excision) is the target here and boy, does it take a lot of hits. All of the characters who are religious are shown to be either self-righteous or are hypocritically blind or lack of better words, utterly insane. And through all that, Bates squeezes the humour for all of its worth. Plus, all the interactions between family members are hilarious to witness, with all the passive-aggressive attitudes, the evil eyes and the mean remarks that ones can treasure. I know I did.

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But none of it would be anywhere near as effective if it weren’t for the committed cast. Adrian Grenier is far away from what you expect from his performances in Entourage, and he seems to relish the darkness and nihilistic behaviour of the character of Owen, but he never overdoes his performance to the point of losing the audience. He retains enough humanity that he makes Owen empathetic, if not quite sympathetic at times. Doing a 180 turn from her high-energy performance in The Final Girls, Angela Trimbur does great as Isabel, showing easy dramatic chops along her proven comedic chops and she has great chemistry with Grenier. The two have a sex scene together that must be seen to be believed and I have to admit, it made me do a spit-take.

The supporting cast are no slouches and the most with what they got. Matthew Gray Gubler is funny as the religious brother of Isabel and has great interactions with Grenier, which pays off with some hilarious barbs. While AnnaLynne McCord is again unrecognizable (like in Excision) and is having a whale of a time as Pearl. Whether peeking through a hole while doing something the Lord wouldn’t like to playing with guns, McCord still frightens and entertains, even in a smaller role. But the MVP of the film is Fionnula Flannagan as the grandmother of Owen. Deranged, toxic, rude and upfront (much like the film), Flannagan is a pure delight whenever she shows up. It is definitely her scariest role since Yes Man. Yes, that is a joke. Or is it?

As for its flaws, the tone can be a bit imbalanced (fittingly, so are the characters) since the drama and comedy can be a bit apart from each other; and the gloriously over-the-top ending may not be satisfying for everyone, but Trash Fire shows that Bates (not related to Norman Bates, I swear) hasn’t lost a step and I look forward to his next film.

Trash Fire: Luckily, more fire than trash.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances

Hilariously dark sense of humour

Palpable tension

CONS

Tone shifts can be a bit abrupt

The ending can be a bit over-the-top for some

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Adrian Grenier, Angela Trimbur, Fionnula Flanagan, AnnaLynne McCord, Sally Kirkland, Matthew Gray Gubler, Ezra Buzzington
Director: Richard Bates Jr.
Screenwriter: Richard Bates Jr.

Movie Review – The Love Witch (Sydney Underground Film Festival 2016)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something of a groovy, dreamy and sexy experience.

REVIEW: Ooo-ooo, witchy woman! Sorry, got the song in my head. After my viewing of Blair Witch, it’s only fitting that my next review will be about The Love Witch. Hearing the incredibly positive buzz from many festivals around the world, especially from the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), I was so excited to see this film for this year’s Sydney Underground Film Festival. Also considering the fact that it hearkens back to the erotic melodramas of the 60’s and the occult films of the 70’s in terms of every facet of film-making, my eyes were watering. So was the film worth the buzz that it achieved?

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Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a beautiful, narcissistic love-starved young witch, is determined to find a man to love her. After her ex left her (or so she says in her blissfully selective memory), she moves into a new neighborhood. In her gothic Victorian apartment she makes spells and potions, then picks up men and seduces them. But though her desperation, her spells work a wee bit too well, and she ends up with a string of increasingly hysterical victims. When she at last meets the man of her dreams, her desperation to be loved drives her to the brink of insanity and murder.

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Just within seconds of the film, the viewer will be swept up by the incredibly gorgeous cinematography. Filmed on 35mm by cinematographer M. David Mullen, the film is just soaked with colours that will make your eyes crying for more. And let’s not forget the use of musical scores from the 60’s and 70’s consisting of works by Ennio Morricone, it’s clear that director Anna Biller has done her homework on the subject.

But there are some small and amusing modern touches that ensures that this story is set in the present, like a modern police car and the usage of mobile phones, but it just goes to show that the themes the story conveys can be told in any time period and still be relevant, timely and quite thought-provoking. There are also some subversiveness of the genre, such as the equal nudity of both genders in the ritual scenes as well as what fits the definition of being a witch.

Sexual politics, feminism, desires of both genders are all examined with wit and humour and Biller seems to be having a ball with her meticulous, yet somewhat indulgent direction. All the tropes of 60’s and 70’s films are here. The use of rear projection, the costumes, the make-up and especially the narration are all put to good use. But the film is not a parody or a spoof of any kind. The film is played absolutely straight and it only makes the film funnier and more genuine.

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And the performances are fantastic to witness in its stilted and deadpan glory. Samantha Robinson is a pure delight as Elaine, as she conveys her narcissistic side and her lovelorn side with a perfect balance of poise and subtle enthusiasm. You can tell that she has a wonderful time playing the role and the fun rubs off on the audience. And the same goes for the supporting actors like Gian Keys as the playboy cop investigating the mysterious deaths and Laura Waddell as the trusting landlord.

Every actor in the film looks the part of the film genre and it really does resemble a time machine back to the past, and it is glorious. The male actors in particular are all hoots, especially when they suffer from an absence of Elaine in their lives to the point of becoming hysterical. They all squeeze their roles with reckless abandon and it’s quite uproarious.

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As much as I am raving about the film, there is one problem that dials my praise back quite a bit. Basically, the film is too long. At 120 minutes, the film can start to drag, especially for those not accustomed to the pacing of the film’s throwback feel and the intentionally stilted line readings, meaning that the film can be a bit too indulgent with itself. But then again, considering the film’s story and its characters, it feels strangely appropriate.

The Love Witch is a sweet and spicily entertaining tribute to the films of the 60’s and 70’s, with fantastic performances and such meticulous detail from multi-tasking director Anna Biller, that feels both nostalgic and timely at the same time. Although the running time shows that you can have too much of a good thing, it again reflects the film itself, as it is a lovely spell that works too well.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances, especially from Samantha Robinson

Meticulous detail towards all facets of film-making

Subversive details towards genre

Thought-provoking in its thematic impact

CONS

Overlong and indulgent in its running time

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddell, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, Jared Sanford, Robert Seeley, Jennifer Ingrum, Steve, Randy Evans, Clive Ashborn, Lily Holleman, Jennifer Couch, Stephen Wozniak
Director: Anna Biller
Screenwriter: Anna Biller

Movie Review – War Dogs

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EXPECTATIONS: A dark comedy along the lines of Pain and Gain.

REVIEW: Pain and Gain. The Wolf of Wall Street. Scarface. What do these films have in common? The characters are all on a quest to achieve their own versions of the American Dream. And they are all about greed and the seduction of power that shows that absolute power corrupts absolutely. But what makes the first two films stand out is there is a satirical and comedic bent towards its story and it just so happens that the films are based on true events. And Todd Phillips‘ latest film, War Dogs, follows that trend. And with talented actors Jonah Hill (who has the moniker ‘character actor’ written all over him) and Miles Teller (fresh off the Fant4stic slump) as the leads, this could be a potential winner. But considering The Hangover sequels, the expectations certainly dip, but War Dogs fortunately qualifies as a pleasant surprise.

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Miles Teller stars as David Packouz, a massage therapist who is sick and tired of being stuck in a mediocre life, despite having a beautiful wife, Iz (Ana de Armas) who loves and supports him. After a failed attempt to start his own business selling bed sheets, his junior high school classmate. Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) inexplicably shows up and the two pick up their friendship where they left off. Then Efraim offers David a chance to make big bucks by becoming an international arms dealer. Together, they exploit a government initiative that allows businesses to bid on U.S. military contracts and make a raking out of it. But they soon find themselves in over their heads after landing a $300 million deal to supply Afghan forces, a deal that puts them in business with some very shady people.

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If anyone has seen the trailers for this film, you wouldn’t be  wrong if you expected this film to be an all-out comedy, along the lines of The Hangover films. But as the final product turns out, it actually is more of a crime drama that just happens to have comedy in it. Todd Phillips‘ last film was The Hangover 3, which was derided by critics and audiences alike (including myself). The main reason it was derided was because it was more of a thriller than an actual comedy.

The same exact feel is in War Dogs, but in this case, it suits the film’s story a lot better. The true events of the story are so ridiculous that it suits the screen treatment it gets, as Phillips’ direction makes it fun to watch. It also makes the film quite unpredictable and alongside the fast editing, frenetic cinematography, colorful settings, it all ends up in blackly comic fun. But when you compare to films like The Wolf of Wall Street and Pain and Gain, War Dogs is more subtle and it works to a degree, but when it comes to the condemnation of the characters, it seems a bit slight and it hinders the ending.

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It is immediately obvious that director Todd Phillips was inspired by Martin Scorsese‘s work as well as Scarface, as it has all the hallmarks: narrations, scenes in the third act that start the film, the soundtrack etc. But that just balances out the absurdity of the story as well as how incredibly appalling the plot gets. Scarface in particular, has a presence throughout the film as well as an influence on Hill’s character as his office has the exact same wall painting and his lamps are gold AK47 assault rifles.

And speaking of AK47s, nothing fires as many rounds and hits as many targets as Jonah Hill as Efraim Diveroli. Building on his promise as a masterful character from films like Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street, Hill plays the comedic bent with ease but he also digs into the darkness of the character really well. Playing a sociopath with the kind of empty-eyed smile and the smooth talk of a salesman, Hill creates a monstrous character that will draw you in and repel you in equal measure.

As for the other members of the cast, Miles Teller still shows the average-joe charm that made audiences like him in the first place and again in War Dogs, it still works. It certainly helps that he has great chemistry with Hill and he convincingly portrays the naivety of the character. Ana de Armas (whom I enjoyed in Knock Knock and Exposed) makes the most out of her thankless role as the supportive wife while Bradley Cooper portrays the sinister edge of his arms dealer character well, especially when he reveals his ironic feelings in the final act.

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As much as director Phillips tries to make a crime saga, there are some storytelling problems that take it back a notch. The title cards that appear throughout the film seem quite insistent when they could have been removed without affecting the film at all. The use of narration is nowhere near as good as other crime films, mainly because it is used mainly for exposition rather than gradually developing the characters. The story also dwells into cliches like as the supporting wife, and it stands out like a sore thumb alongside the entertainingly unbelievable events. And it is very noticeable that whenever Hill is not on-screen, the film suffers from his lack of presence.

But overall, War Dogs was a much more substantial film than I ever expected from the trailers. With a great source material to work with, a fantastic performance from Jonah Hill and Todd Phillips‘ directorial change of pace, War Dogs is a appallingly comical experience that shows another delusional and depraved side of what the American Dream could be and how low the U.S Government can actually stoop down to.

Quickie Review

PROS

A fantastic performance from Jonah Hill

Great, unpredictable source material to play with

Fast editing, frenetic cinematography and colorful settings add to the fun

CONS

Some cliches

Questionable storytelling devices

Understated feel hinders the ending

SCORE: 7/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Miles Teller, Jonah Hill, Ana de Armas, Kevin Pollak, Shaun Toub, Steve Lantz, Gregg Weiner, Bradley Cooper
Director: Todd Phillips
Screenwriter: Todd Phillips, Stephen Chin, Jason Smilovic