The Wall: Movie Man Jackson

I’ll let someone else make a witty connection between this film’s title and the 45th president of the United States of America. In 2007, the Iraq War isn’t exactly over, but the pullout of American troops is beginning. Called to lookout after U.S. contractors building a pipeline are killed, Army sniper “Eyes” Issac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and spotter Sergeant Matthews (John Cena), make a move away from their protected positions to scope out the site. It’s been 22 hours, and they’re ready to be evacuated.

Shortly after inspection, all hell breaks loose. Scrambling from the open space fire, Issac finds protection in the form of an unsteady wall. Desperately trying to request help, his radio is not only damaged in the attack, but tapped by the enemy sniper. It becomes clear that Issac and Matthews are in grave danger, but their stalking assailant wants to play wretched mind games before launching a fatal salvo.

In the vein of 2016’s lean thrillers such as The Shallows and Don’t Breathe is The Wall. Director Doug Liman’s most recent film uses the backdrop of Iraq and the war to provide a movie that is technically a war movie, but sharing much more in common with those aforementioned films than a Hacksaw Ridge, Saving Private Ryan, and the like. The Wall ends up summer 2017’s first 100% lean thriller.

Liman, who knows his way around big-budget features in The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow, seems to relish in directing on this minuscule scale that The Wall carries, reportedly made somewhere in the neighborhood of 3-5 million dollars. The minimalist approach is deployed, and it does immerse the viewer into its setting rather quickly. Music is entirely absent in the movie; one may forget they’re watching one. Swirling winds, the desert heat, and just the general fear of being in a person’s literal crosshairs make for a harrowing viewing experience, and Liman chooses to give little away as it pertains to his villain’s position. It’s a clever use of space, illustrating that distance between characters may be far, but still very claustrophobic.

However, even at a tight 81 minutes, I’d be lying if I failed to say that The Wall did not meander occasionally. Gradually, the audience does find out more about Issac and his reason for still being in Iraq as the war is winding down, giving a little bit of an emotional component. As the film goes on, some attempts are made to parallel—and in the case of the antagonist, somewhat humanize—the characters who lie on each side of the wall divide through Edgar Allen Poe and Shakespeare lines. At best, these parallels are broad, at worst, nonexistent. Not exactly painful-to-listen-to dialogue, but the type of dialogue that doesn’t accomplish as much as it wants to, either. As for the ending, it’s a bold direction, if a little farfetched for a realism-focused movie.

Keeping up his hot momentum after his marvelous turn in Nocturnal Animals is Aaron Taylor-Johnson here. His performance isn’t so much character-driven, but draws more upon the overall fatigue and hopelessness, mental, physical, and emotional, soldiers may find themselves into. This is unequivocally his movie, with the bulk of the camera focused on him, though John Cena provides adequate dramatic support in what is easily his best dramatic performance to date. Laith Nakli is the standard, sinister voice that’s needed for this type of feature when a mysterious character is unseen, think Kiefer Sutherfland in Phone Booth and Ted Levine in Joy Ride.

The first real surprise of the year? With a pretty limited script, a good director and strong performances keep The Wall from toppling over, ultimately making for an efficient war-set thriller.

B-

Photo credits go to Youtube.com, muscleandfitness.com, and liveforfilms.com

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War Dogs: Movie Man Jackson

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Every dog has its day. David Packouz (Miles Teller) hasn’t had his yet. He’s a college dropout who massages Miami’s biggest clientele (which sounds better than it seems), and a failing entrepreneur who hitched his wagon attempting to sell blankets to unneedy retirement homes. Cash flow is sparse, and he’s going to need more of it with a baby on the way from his girlfriend, Iz (Ana de Armas).

Just at the right time, his old best friend Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) returns to the cocaine capital, doing very well for himself. Efraim has gotten into the arms dealing business, bidding on U.S. military contracts to supply wartime squadrons. He’s a one man operation, but needs another guy to get this operation humming. David makes the decision to work with Efraim, eating off of the crumbs that other guys brush off to the side. Before you know it, the duo are rolling in dough, and taking on progressively bigger, and progressively more dangerous and unethical, contracts.

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An evolution, in any arena of life, rarely happens overnight. Rather, it is gradual and incremental. While striking out with some, possibly most, comedies here and there, director Todd Phillips has helmed some of the more memorable ones of the 21st century in The Hangover and Old School. His latest in War Dogs still retains some of the style that those movies had, but also is a tad more serious. Though not flawless, the final product indicates that there is some real potential for Phillips to tackle something really substantial down the line.

Even in Hollywood where many biographies take liberties, War Dogs takes the cake and might as well be an original screenplay. Okay, not exactly, but it is clearly less about the facts and more about the “unfathomable-ness” of the whole ordeal. Hell, it doesn’t carry the requisite character facts at the end of a feature that accompany so many biographies! Perhaps any real emotional impact or stabs at political commentary is lost, but looked at as another story of how the largest American dreams are often seized by the people who lack morality the least, War Dogs works just fine script-wise.

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For the most part, Phillips paces War Dogs well, moving at an efficient clip. The narration done by Teller’s character is a nice addition, the cultivated soundtrack fits nicely at the right times, and the visual direction approaches fourth-wall breaks without going all of the way there. It is only at the end where the movie begins to drag on the inevitable fallout and consequences, and the last 15-25 minutes become very elongated. Again, Phillips sort of struggles with the resonating aspect of the film. Unlike, say, The Big Short which really stuck with me personally a few days/weeks after viewing, despite Phillips’ best efforts, War Dogs never comes close to leaving an emotional imprint.

But who cares about emotions when what is being viewed is constantly entertaining? Credit really goes to the cast. It would be fair to call Miles Teller a little dry and dull in this one, but it works perfectly for who he plays off of, and near the end he does have some great dramatic moments. Ana de Armas is just begging to be unleashed in the right role; her housewife isn’t though she does what she can with it. Bradley Cooper adds more name value than anything, but he actually appears interested to be in a Phillips production again, and his character is a big part of the movie. With more screentime, he really would have left a mark.

But undoubtedly, “fat” Jonah Hill (because there is a difference between the rotund version and the svelte version) makes War Dogs worth remembering. He goes all in as his Efraim character, and imbues the events on screen with an infectiousness that is hard not to appreciate and fall for, just like the many he comes across in the movie do. Teller is certainly important here, but Jonah Hill is first billed for a reason. As much as this may seem to be a buddy movie, this is purely Jonah’s vehicle for the first time in his career.

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War Dogs never truly hits introspectively or emotionally, and yet it is pretty intriguing from beginning to end. Tasty crumbs. Anyone else feel like this is going to be a staple on HBO for years and years?

B-

Photo credits go to hollywoodreporter.com, rollingstone.com, and metacritic.com.

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American Sniper: Movie Man Jackson

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“You can only circle the flames so long.”

Behind almost every pull of a trigger lies a lot of weight and impact. Not just on the person pulling it, but those connected to said person. American Sniper is the story of Texan Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper). As a youngster, it is clear Chris has a desire to protect those around him, a value instilled in him by his father. Still, the Texas lifestyle lends itself to making a good and fun living as a cowboy, a living Kyle enjoys.

It isn’t until he sees a television report of a terrorist attack that he begins to question what he is really doing with his life, which leads to enlisting into the Naval program. In training, Chris hones his raw and already-existing marksman skills, and finds a woman in his down time in Taya (Sienna Miller) who eventually becomes his wife and mother of his children. Shortly after marriage, Chris is deployed to Iraq, where he quickly makes a name for himself in combat; being hailed as “The Legend.” But the horrors of war are real, and no matter how many times Chris is home, each tour takes a little something out of him.

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Films about war and patriotism seem to pierce viewers different ways. With any, there are those who may be offended with said war film’s message and deride it as propaganda, while others may not see one. Yours truly can only speak for himself, but American Sniper is pretty devoid of—let’s call it a visible slant. It is tense, tightly directed, well-acted, and one of the best of 2014/2015.

Instead of focusing on the politics or the glory that comes with performing miraculous deeds, director Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima) chooses to focus upon the man and the mental aftermath that arises because of the acts he commits. He accomplishes the former by presenting a substantial yet still brief look at what made Kyle who he is and why he is so. During this beginning part of the movie, the investment into the main character is forged. He isn’t perfect by any means, but the duty he possesses towards protecting others is one to connect with. This duty factor is a question that is continuously asked as the movie progresses. To where should Kyle’s duties lie, and are they nestled together like he believes?

And for the latter, while the reasons of fighting will never be universally agreed upon, almost everyone would likely agree that war more often than not leaves an indelible mark that is a struggle to deal with for all involved. Nothing here is glorified or lessened in effect. The realities and subsequent effects of war are cold, harsh, and unforgiving.

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With that said though, the movie looks and sounds pretty splendid. Eastwood certainly knows how to capture full-scale warfare. No dazzling flair, which would have likely cheapened the intended grounded effect, is found, but the approach is suitably straightforward. Every trigger squeezed and RPG launched carries audible weight, but the moments where nothing but silence exists are true high marks. They carry insane amounts of tension and make the firefights all the more impressive. It all adds up to effective pacing, with the only misfire being near the end. The last 15-20 minutes do feel a tad rushed.

Bradley Cooper completely immerses himself into the role of Chris Kyle. His adopted Texas accent never wavers, he physically looks the part, and he superbly displays the difficulties Chris has to grapple with, often in split seconds, throughout. He is a killing machine, but not a completely soulless one. He never relishes in carrying the title of “The most lethal sniper in U.S. History,” he just goes about his business. Cooper has been gaining praise for his skills for a while now, but if anyone were looking for another, perhaps really serious and transforming role from him, this work would be the evidence shown.

Of course, this vehicle is Cooper’s, but Sienna Miller is good and does what is needed as Kyle’s wife. The role is somewhat cookie-cutter and there are one or two moments in which she is sort of wooden, but for what the character is nothing is glaringly off-putting. This sentiment can be said for most everyone else in the movie as well, with the only difference being they don’t stand out like the wife does. Sure, a few are remembered more so than others, but the large majority just fill out the spaces needed.

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American Sniper is basically the film yours truly expected it to be after viewing that initial trailer where so much silence was utilized. Gripping, intense, and a no-frills take at what the warzone does to one’s mental state. 132 or so confirmed minutes of exceptional drama.

Grade: B+

Photo credits go to heavy.com, blogs.wsj.com, and Collider.com

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