WAR DOGS (USA/15A/114mins)
Directed by Todd Phillips. Starring Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Kevin Pollack, Ana De Armas, Patrick St. Esprit
THE PLOT: Ephriam (Jonah Hill) and David (Miles Teller) were best friends in juniour high, but lost touch. When the two reconnect at a funeral, Ephriam brings David into his world of high stakes arms dealing to the US government, and it is no t long before the two are raking in millions of dollars in profits, and doing everything they can to make sure their income keeps getting larger.
THE VERDICT: ‘War Dogs’ marks the first time that director Todd Phillips has taken on a drama flick, and although it could be said that ‘The Hangover’ films, toward the end, were a war on comedy, a film dealing with war – or rather, the spoils of it – is also new territory for the director. The trouble is that ‘War Dogs’ should be a black comedy, and could have been in different hands, but as it stands, this true story is rather boring and ultimately, dull.
Miles Teller and Jonah Hill take on the lead roles in ‘War Dogs’, with Hill looking more and more like Marlon Brando toward the end of his life. This comparison also feels apt as Hill plays Efraim, the godfather of this caper; the man who pulls David (Teller) into the world of international arms dealing. Hill seems to base most of his character on an annoying and rather jarring laugh, but doesn’t do much else to make the character feel rounded or whole. Miles Teller plays the one with the morals in the film, but other than some early reservations, he doesn’t make the character much more sturdy than Hill’s. The rest of the cast features Kevin Pollack, Bradley Cooper and Ana De Armaz in smaller roles.
Based on the Guy Lawson Rolling Stone article “Arms and the Dudes”, the screenplay for ‘War Dogs’ was written by Stephen Chin, Todd Phillips and Jason Smilovic, but in expanding the story from an article, the film runs into trouble. War Dogs should be a black comedy about how two young men find themselves at the heart of international arms dealing – or at least have the light hearted tone of the original article – but although attempts are made to convey this, the voice over of the film murders any tension created in the film, and the characters are so unlikeable that it is hard to root for them when their legal dealings turn illegal.
As director, Todd Phillips tries to keep the film moving at a decent pace, but doesn’t do much in terms of establishing characters. The audience is never given a chance to root for these characters who find themselves wildly out of their depth; any morals that David has at the start of the film seem to disappear, and it is always obvious that the charmed life of beautiful apartments and fast cars is never going to last. There is a sense of fun that is missing in ‘War Dogs’, and without it, the film falls flat.
In all, ‘War Dogs’ does its best to be a caper about two kids who find themselves dealing arms to the US government, but it is never as fun as it should be, and it is difficult to root for the greedy and obnoxious characters at the heart of the film.
Review by Brogen Hayes
THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR (USA | France/16/109mins)
Directed by James DeMonaco. Starring Elizabeth Mitchell, Frank Grillo, Mykelti Williamson, Joseph Julian Soria, Betty Gabriel
THE PLOT: Eighteen years after the Annual Purge was introduced in the US by the New Founding Fathers, the backlash has finally begun. Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) is running for President on the grounds of abolishing the yearly fright night, when all crime is legal for the space of just 12 hours. As the date of he Purge approaches, the ban on targeting government officials is lifted – making Senator Roan fair game – and meanwhile, Joe (Mykelti Williamson) learns that his Purge insurance premium has gone up, so he vows to protect his deli himself.
THE VERDICT: The third film in ‘The Purg’e franchise is not only the most topical, but it is a film with something to say about hate and allowing political ideas to get out of hand. As well as this, the film ties neatly in with the previous two – Roan’s family was killed on the night of the first Purge, and her bodyguard Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) featured heavily in the second film – making this feel like a rather smart film, albeit with some dodgy dialogue and some even dodgier acting.
Elizabeth Mitchell is no stranger to playing a woman with grace under pressure who finds herself running from a terrifying threat – she starred in both ‘Lost’ and the ill-fated ‘V’ after all – and she does well with the character here, making her relatable and strong. Frank Grillo makes Leo Barnes a tenacious and rather foolhardy man, but one who you would want to have on your side on the worst night of the year. Mykelti Williamson makes Joe warm and caring with a tough side, and Betty Gabriel turns Laney into a badass, loyal character who is a lot of fun to watch. The problems with performances arise with the completely over the top bad guys, led by Raymond J. Barry as Caleb and Kyle Secor as Minister Edwidge Owens are completely over the top, and Brittany Mirabile as Kimmy, a school girl who tries to rib Joe’s store then comes back to take her revenge on Purge Night, feels as though she should be in a different movie – perhaps Spring Breakers – as her character is so ridiculous and her performance so wooden.
As writer, James DeMonaco has woven some very topical threads into ‘The Purge: Election Year’, including the idea that Kimmy and her friends are not without morals, they just have never known a world without The Purge, so while the audience thinks this behaviour is abhorrent, this is normal for her. As well as this, the idea of rage and repression boiling over in the US, in the run up to an election, feels topical and examines the wealth divide in the country, albeit subtly. That said, there is some truly woeful – and borderline racist – dialogue in the film and tons of profanity that seems to have been put in for the sake of it.
As director, James DeMonaco makes sure that the film keeps moving at a steady pace, and that the story is established just enough to get The Purge in motion. There are, as mentioned, some truly over the top performances that feel as though they belong to a different film entirely, and the crescendo of the story is almost laughable, but there is a lot of fun to be had with ‘The Purge: Election Year’, and some smart observations are made.
In all, ‘The Purge: Election Year’ has a message at its heart, and a strong enough story to sustain the running time. The performances vary in quality, but the film is well paced and, although the final crescendo verges on accidental comedy, there is a lot of fun to be had with ‘The Purge: Election Year’, which surely cannot be the end of this lucrative franchise.
Review by Brogen Hayes
POPSTAR: NEVER STOP NEVER STOPPING (USA/16/87mins)
Directed by Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone. Starring Andy Samberg, Sarah Silverman, Maya Rudolph, Joan Cusack, Tim Meadows
THE PLOT: In the run up to the release of his second solo album Conner 4 Real (Andy Samberg) finds his charmed life beginning to fall apart; critics slate his new album, his tour is not sold out and his friends are beginning to drift away. In a desperate attempt to hold on to his celebrity status, Conner and his management team turn to more and more desperate measures.
THE VERDICT: ‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’, brought to us by the Lonely Island Boys, is not a particularly subtle comedy, and it is reminiscent of ‘This is Spinal Tap’ in more than one way, but there is a charm to Andy Samberg’s lead character, and although there are times when the film runs out of steam, it is sharply observed and often very funny.
Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer take on the roles of Conner and the former members of the boyband that shot them all to fame before they split and Conner went solo. They all do fine in their roles, with Samberg coming off the best as the bratty, spoiled pop star who is all too happy to forget about the friends he rose to fame with. The rest of the cast features Sarah Silverman, Maya Rudolph, Imogen Poots, Joan Cusack, and Tim Meadows, and they are joined by a host of musicians in cameo roles, including Ringo Starr, Pharrell Williams, Seal RZA, Danger Mouse, Arcade Fire, Michael Bolton and Mariah Carey, as well as a small but hilarious performances from Emma Stone, Will Arnett, Justin Timberlake and Bill Hader – basically, all the friends that Samberg has made from ‘SNL’ and ‘Brooklyn Nine Nine’.
The story, written by Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone, is more than a little reminiscent of ‘This is Spinal Tap’, even using a similar story arc to the classic mockumentary, but obviously the lead character is inspired by Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber and any other bratty pop star you care to name. The jokes come thick and fast, many of them landing better than others, and some of the cameo moments are real standouts. The comedy is not subtle or particularly smart, but it is well observed and well timed, and there is not a lot more that could be asked. The songs are ridiculous but work, and the many references to pop culture incidents give the film a fresh feel, and allows the audience to feel as though we are in on the joke.
As directors, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone do well with their first feature in several years, both have recently directed for TV, and Schaffer previously brought us ‘Hot Rod’, while Taccone helmed ‘MacGruber’ in 2010. The film is well paced and the jokes are carefully placed to hit at the right time, while being set up in such a way that references back to them work well. The cameos come thick and fast, but they work for the tone of the film, and Will Arnett’s parody of TMZ’s Harvey Levin is a stroke of comic genius.
In all, ‘Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping’ is about as mature and subtle as you would expect from an Andy Samberg film, but it is also funny, well observed and has some of the best celebrity cameos since ‘Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie’. OK, so not that long, but still great.
Review by Brogen Hayes
STRANGE OCCURRENCES IN A SMALL IRISH VILLAGE (USA | Italy | Ireland/PG/80mins)
Directed by Aoife Kelleher
THE PLOT: In 1879, fifteen villagers from Knock, Co Mayo, claimed to have seen apparitions of the Virgin Mary, St Joseph and St John near the village church. Now, over 135 years later, Knock is still a place Catholic pilgrims to visit, but in the wake of the scandals that have rocked the Church, and falling numbers of the faithful Knock is struggling to keep afloat. Filmmaker Aoife Kelleher takes a look at this small rural town and its most famous tourist attraction.
THE VERDICT: ‘Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village’ takes its name from a UK headline at the time of the apparitions in 1879, but the film could easily refer to this being what feels like the last bastion of staunch Catholicism in Ireland. Interviews with Knock priest Father Richard Gibbons, business owners, pilgrims and Knock handmaids make up the heart of the film, but without a strong throughline, this film, which could have been an examination of rural Ireland trying to survive the devastating recent financial crash, but ends up feeling like an ad for Knock.
The interviewees are balanced in their views. The parish priest seems to be honest in the way he talks about his vocation; Knock was never a place he wanted to be stationed, but he understands not to push religion on people, but to be open to those who are open to it. Descendants of those who witnessed the apparitions – Brendan Byrne, Pio Flatley and Jarlath Walsh – are more varied in their religious views, with some of them being staunch in their faith, and others – like Pio Flatley – recognising that the Church needs to change with the times. Other people who speak in the film include business owner Declan Waters who spouts some old fashioned and rather interesting views on abortion and prayer, Knock Handmaid Mildred Beirne, who believes that Handmaids are as capable as priests, and Rev. Joseph Cooney who runs the rather quaint matchmaking service Knock Marriage Bureau. The people included in the film offer a range of opinions, but there is a quaint and outdated feel to this twee story.
It seems that director Aoife Kelleher is less clear in what she is trying to achieve with ‘Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village’ than she was with her previous film ‘One Million Dubliners’. This is obvious throughout the documentary, which feels less an examination of rural Ireland than an advertisement for Knock and its religious shrine. There are some twee curiosities in the film, but this, in the wake of scandals throughout the Catholic Church in Ireland and beyond, feels rather old fashioned and backward looking.
In all, ‘Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village’ is well meaning, but without a strong examination of the apparitions themselves, or the nature of faith and belief on the island of Ireland as a whole, the film turns into an advertisement for Ireland’s national Marian Shrine. Try as the film might, it cannot shake this feeling off, and this is its downfall.
Review by Brogen Hayes