Category Archives: 6/10

War Dogs

war dogsNote: This is the first part of a review double-header!  Jesse sent two recommendations in a single shot so I’m reviewing them at the same time.  Click here for the other review.

What Jesse said:

Two movies for you to watch: War Dogs, and Manchester by the Sea. Very different but excellent flicks. War Dogs is so absurd it will make you laugh and then wonder if the grownups really are in charge… also, it was funny ’cause it’s true (based on a real case). Manchester by the Sea was a pretty intense slow burn. Casey Affleck plays the main character. Watch out for the BAHS-ton accents. Family drama.

Mike’s verdict:

When does telling the truth ever help anyone?

This is not my kind of movie and I knew it right from the beginning. A ‘true story’ about arms dealers, Afghanistan, and the US government – it’s going to be fairly predictable and I have no doubt about Jesse’s ‘absurd’ label.  Indeed, guns, drugs, war, and banking movies are always the same kind of absurd: someone essentially good makes a series of obviously terrible decisions for the good of family or to get a friend out of a jam, or to just be comfortable for once in their life.  This movie fits the pattern perfectly and it means that there are no surprises as the plot develops.

Granted, that doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining.  The kid from all the Shailene Woodley movies is okay as the naive ‘good guy’ just trying to get ahead. But I initially had trouble accepting him in the role because the life he starts with doesn’t seem that bad.  Jonah Hill is definitely effective as the unsavory partner. He seemed very similar to the character he played in The Wolf of Wall Street, but without the excess.  I can’t say that I liked either character very much; certainly not enough to be on their side.  I knew things would go poorly for them and I didn’t care.

On the other hand, Bradley Cooper‘s role is intriguing.  It’s a fairly small role in terms of screen-time, but he manages to steal the show.  I’d like to see a prequel about him that sets up the Albanian connection and perhaps presents a clearer justification for his involvement in the subsequent scheme.

In most other ways, this movie was entertaining enough to continue watching, but not so interesting that I would be upset if I was interrupted mid-viewing and had to stop watching.  This last thought explains how it is that I managed to watch three quarters of the film before it finally dawned on me that I had actually already watched it once before.  It must have been on the second or third leg of a really long flight because I obviously slept through most of it the first time.

In any case, I did not fall asleep during the second viewing and I was reasonable entertained all the way through.  I even enjoyed the sparse but well chosen music.  There’s always a danger with this type of movie to use overly aggressive music to reinforce themes, but that wasn’t the case here.

Overall,  War Dogs isn’t a great movie, but it isn’t a bad one either.  I was entertained and I think that’s all I would ask of it.



The Big Short

the-big-short-movie-posterWhat Jesse said:

You need to watch The Big Short. Fantastic movie about the 2008 economic meltdown that manages to infuse just enough humour to balance the insanity of the world being on the brink of economic disaster. Christian Bale is amazing in it. Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell… awesome. My favourite scene involves an odd discussion between Carell’s character and a ‘dancer’ about real estate. So much cringe.

Mike’s verdict:

At first I couldn’t understand why Jesse cared to watch a film about banking. Sure, it’s got some notable people but it’s still about banking!  Then it all became clear – his favourite dreamy Brad is in this.  Funny how Jesse mentioned all those other notables but left out Brad Pitt again.  At least in this one Pitt’s role is fairly subdued; and he’s actually believable as the jaded banker turned rich hippy who hates the game but will play it again anyway if you just ask him. Classic Pitt.

This film is an odd format.  It starts out almost feeling like a documentary, but only partially. It flips back and forth between wanting to be a history lesson, indicting the banking industry for its lack of humanity, and a funny story about tangentially connected funny characters who have no respect for the forth wall. And it kind of works.

With such a complicated subject as the basis of the plot, there would inevitably need to be some means of clarifying exposition – and the writers decided to take the easy road: pause the movie and give the explanation.  It works, because as jarring as these moments are, they are handled brilliantly by the characters who not only break the fourth wall but also introduce unrelated cameos from celebrities being themselves.

Jesse is right about Christian Bale; his character is so believable that by the end I felt like I knew him – his awkwardness is completely authentic without being over the top. Steve Carrel’s angry jerk who just cares too much has a rocky start, but eventually becomes a highlight as well.

It’s not all good though: the narrative is choppy at times, making it hard to follow the connections as they as developed.  A number of scenes feel like they happen in the wrong order, but not in an intentional way.  And then there are the magical Jenga blocks that go from tower to pile to tower again without any help.

The discussion with the ‘dancer’ isn’t nearly as interesting as Jesse suggests.  The only cringing on my part was at how forced the scene felt – it doesn’t fit into this film at all and I suspect Jesse has other reasons for enjoying it…

About the halfway point I realized the biggest issue with this film:  I was much less interested in the story or characters than I was in trying to understand the mechanics of the financial crisis. How come all these people saw the problem, independently, years ahead of time, but nobody did anything to stop it?  How does debt become an investment? How do banks even keep their multi-level fraud schemes straight?  The social math is just fascinating.  But this movie won’t answer those questions – it feels like it will, but it won’t because it’s not a documentary. It’s entertainment.

And it is entertaining, but nonetheless disappointing because of everything that it won’t explain.

At the end, I still don’t understand the housing crisis at all; however I am now also very concerned about water.

6/10 – because it failed to live up to my unreasonable expectations.

Transcendent Man

What Jesse said:

Back in my electronic music days I used some gear by a company called Kurzweil. Turns out that the guy who started that company is a fascinating (and rather sad) human being named Ray Kurzweil and there’s a documentary about him called Transcendent Man. The topics covered are quite profound and reminded me of Her starring Joaquin Phoenix. Go watch Transcendent Man. It’s one of those rare movies that manages to be uplifting and depressing all at once. I liked it a lot.

Mike’s verdict:

I’ll agree with Jesse on one point for sure: Raymond Kurzweil is a rather sad human being. Transcendent Man isn’t so much a documentary as it is a biography. It presents the story of a man who, after bearing witness to the slow and all too foreseeable death of his father, becomes terrified by his own mortality. As if that isn’t bad enough, Kurzweil is an engineer – he’s used to thinking about ways to solve problems – and (because he’s an engineer) he doesn’t realize that death is not a problem he can just engineer a solution for.

Kurzweil has spent the better part of his life looking for ways to ensure that the he lives forever. He takes somewhere in the neighbourhood of 200 pills each day – basic supplements and vitamins as well as his own brand of ‘anti-aging’ chemicals. He also has his blood tested every few months to check on his progress. To be fair, at one point Kurzweil was diagnosed with Type-2 Diabetes – definitely a condition to take seriously – and he managed to reverse it. Whether or not he beat diabetes because of his daily drug routine is very much open to debate though.

Of course, Kurzweil doesn’t limit himself to the traditional remedies of medical science. He is, after all, an engineer – and he has been looking at technological advances as the next step to defying death. He’s spent decades inventing and researching in a broad range of fields and he’s witnessed first-hand the way that technology has exploded over the last 50 years. He thinks of the world he was born into, compares it with the world he lives in today and imagines the world he’ll experience in another 50 years. Kurzweil has convinced himself that, within his lifetime, technology will advance to the point that death will no longer be a concern – he just needs to live long enough to make use of the technology.

As a response to his fears, Kurzweil has prophesied a pseudo-religious utopian future where humanity and machines intertwine such that there is no way to distinguish between the two. First science will advance nano-technology to fix everything, then it will advance convergence technology to bridge the gap between mind and machine. Then we will travel the stars.

Eventually, we will be sentient machines and as we spread the universe will ‘awaken’ as a single entity.  He calls it The Singularity but there are corollaries found in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Bahá’í, Buddhism, and nearly all other religions.

As it happens, Kurzweil isn’t just another crack-pot with a vision – he is actually a brilliant engineer who is responsible for, among other things, the CCD flatbed scanner and text-to-speech synthesizers. He is a director of engineering at Google.

And that’s why his story is so sad. Technology is moving at blistering speed, but it’s not going to continue fast enough to save Kurzweil. You know it, I know it, his doctors know it. And on a certain level Kurzweil knows it too. But he lives in a world that wants his delusions to be true – and is constantly recognizing him for his very real accomplishments. Everyone knows he’s crazy, yet despite his delusions he is helping people. His delusions are riding the coat-tails of his otherwise brilliant career.

I would have like to see more dissenting opinions in this film – particularly from technology experts who could speak to the validity of Kurzweil’s beliefs. The producers chose to include interviews with two people who questioned Kurzweil’s prophecy but they were clearly straw-men – one’s argument was lost in his own completing religion while the other came across as the caricatured cold, unsympathetic scientist.

Overall, the film was interesting – I hadn’t ever heard of Kurzweil before and now I know a great deal about his life. But it was slow in parts, and it became clear that the producers didn’t have a lot to work with in terms of presenting Kurzweil’s imagined future. Just as with any other religion, it’s impossible to provide real evidence to justify his utopian predictions so the producers had to rely on clips of his impassioned speeches – entertaining, but ultimately empty. What I would have liked is a documentary discussing the (im)possibilities of the technology he imagines rather than a biography of the man. I’d like to know more from biologists, chemists and other engineers.

I guess that’s a different film though.


The Spanish Prisoner

What Jesse said:

You should watch The Spanish Prisoner. It’s another movie where I had no idea what was going on until the end. Once it’s over you’ll think back through everything and realize how much you missed. This is a movie that you have to pay attention to the whole way through, and even then you won’t understand it until it’s done.

Mike’s verdict:

The Spanish Prisoner is mostly how Jesse described it – except for the fact that it’s brutally obvious.

Anyone who understands the reference in the title knows exactly what this movie is going to be about – there’s no hiding the fact that something sneaky is going to happen to our protagonist.  So the key then is to make sure that the audience can’t guess who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Red herrings should be everywhere, and they should be believable. The good guys should look like good guys, the bad guys should look like good guys, and the completely irrelevant characters should look like bad guys. It’s the only way to make the twists work; unfortunately, that didn’t happen. I won’t ruin the story for anyone that wants to watch it, but know going in that the mystery is in how the trick is pulled off rather than who is in on it.

But it’s not all bad. I did enjoy seeing the setup and delivery of the con, which was entertaining even if the hero’s mistakes were blatant and superficial. I also enjoyed the style of dialog which is more often found in a stage play. It’s peculiar and has an odd cadence that at first feels unnatural, but it grows on you. This was especially true for Rebecca Pidgeon‘s character Susan who is fantastically awkward to watch.

This film immediately reminded me of House of Games. It has a very similar dialog style and con-artist motif too. I didn’t realize it until starting to write this review, but the two films have a very good reason for being similar. They were both written and directed by David Mamet; House of Games coming a whole decade earlier. If I had to choose, I’d say the earlier film is better. It’s got a gritty, low-life con-artist feel where The Spanish Prisoner tried to be slick.

For its dialog and clever scheme, The Spanish Prisoner gets a 6/10. But if you’re going to watch it, watch House of Games first.

Time Bandits

What Jesse said:

If you’re going to watch 12 Monkeys, you might as well watch Time Bandits too. They were both directed by the guy who wrote Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and they form a loose trilogy with Brazil. Don’t bother with Brazil though.

Mike’s Verdict:

I probably would have enjoyed this a little more if I had seen it 25 years ago. For most of the movie I felt like I was actually watching Holy Grail but with short people substituted for witty dialog. What can I say: it’s a children’s movie from the early 80s.

I did really like the undertone commentary on theology though, and I suppose I wouldn’t have caught any of it had I watched this when I was a kid.


Dragon Day

What Jesse said:

I saw a trailer for a movie with a great premise, but I know that it’s going to be awful – so you should watch it for me.

Mike’s verdict:

Dragon Day is not awful. It’s low budget for sure, but not awful.

To start, I really liked the cyber-attack apocalypse premise. The technical explanation of how the attack was supposed to have been carried out was a little nonsensical (nanocore duplex microwave transmitters??) but plenty of big budget movies have nonsensical technology – I’m looking at you, Pacific Rim.

In fact, this movie isn’t even supposed to be about the technology anyway. It’s about what happens to our society when the things that we have come to rely on are very suddenly taken away. The fact that 50 years ago we could live without all our technology doesn’t matter – we probably can’t live without it now, and definitely not if it was taken away without warning. Dragon Day does a good job of creating a believable atmosphere in the wake of a complete technology shutdown.

Likewise, the movie isn’t about the attackers either. Aside from some fairly brief exposition to bring things into (very important) context, little time is spent dealing with the ‘real’ bad guys.

Admittedly, the acting is below average. This has a lot to do with fairly bland writing though and I think for the most part it’s still passable given the budget. The same goes for the cinematography. Someone apparently wanted to play around with some depth of field tricks, but they were more annoying than anything else.

A few other reviews I’ve read have criticized Dragon Day as xenophobic American propaganda. I can see how this might come across in the trailer – I was initially concerned about it as well. However, those reviewers either didn’t watch the whole movie, or they missed a very crucial part of it.

Overall, I give Dragon Day a 6/10 because the story is there even if the budget isn’t.