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Reviews for August 19th, 2016


Directed by Timur Bekmambetov

      Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), a wealthy Jewish prince, refuses to join the Roman Army like his adopted brother, Messala (Tony Kebbell), does. Messala, now a Roman Army official, labels Ben-Hur as a traitor and forces him into slavery He leaves behind his wife, Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) and mother, Naomi (Ayelet Zurer), who gets taken as prisoner. After he ends up shipwrecked, Ben-Hur meets Ilderim (Morgan Freeman) who saves his life in exchange for him curing his horses' disease. Ilderim sponsors and trains him in chariot races. Messala agrees that if Ben-Hur will win the races, he will expunge his record and free him from slavery.

      Fortunately, Jack Huston is a capable enough actor to sink his teeth into the role of Ben-Hur with conviction. He not only has the right look for the role, but also exudes emotional fragility and charisma to boot. The always-reliable Morgan Freeman is also a huge asset to the film. Merely listening to his voice makes you already feel captivated. It's also worth mentioning that the actors' beards look real and probabl are---fake beards can almost always be noticed and end up being distracting. The female actresses, i.e. the talented Ayelet Zurer as Naomi, don't get enough screen time, but this is the story of Ben-Hur, after all, hence the title, so that seems fair.

      The first hour of Ben-Hur includes some exposition, a little action and drama. The drama feels a bit lethargic with stilted dialogue that slows the momentum down. However, once Morgan Freeman shows up midway through the film to help Ben-Hur seek revenge and freedom, Ben-Hur begins picks up a sudden burst of momentum and becomes a rousing, thrilling, exhilarating epic. In other words, Freeman not only arrives as Ilderim to rescue Ben-Hur, but also to rescue the film. The chariot races are beautifully-shot and edited because they fully capture the visceral intensity of the moment while allowing you to actually follow what's going on without shaky cam. You'll feel like you're right there along for the ride with all the twists and turns, literally. Prepare to be on the edge of your seat and cheering for Ben-Hur every step of the way. If only the film's dramatic scenes were as effective its action sequences, Ben-Hur would've approached the heights of the classic 1959 version. It's, ultimately, a far better remake than most of the current onslaught of remakes.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Paramount Pictures.
Opens nationwide.

Kubo and the Two Strings

Directed by Travis Knight


Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Focus Features.
Opens nationwide.

Line Walker

Directed by Jazz Boon

      Ding (Charmaine Sheh), an undercover cop, must investigate whom among two criminals, Master (Louis Koo) and Lam (Nick Cheung), is a mole who calls himself "Blackjack." She uses surveillance and other methods to try to solve the mystery. Meanwhile, crime boss Foon Hei Gor (Benz Hu), poses as a threat.

      Line Walker has the right balance of action, suspense, mystery, intrugue, comic relief and twists to make for a highly entertaining, wild ride. Director Jazz Boon includes breathtaking locations, i.e. in Rio De Janeiro, and interesting set pieces, i.e. a stadium where the action takes place. The car chases are exciting to watch and well-shot. While the plot does get increasingly complex with double crossings, the twists are logical with the help of some exposition. Both Louis Koo and Nick Cheung are suave and charismatic leads, but the real standout here is the scene-stealing Benz Hu who's also in the TV series version of Line Walker from 2014. At a running time of 1 hour and 49 minutes, which feels more like 1 hours, Line Walker is an exhilarating, taut, slick and intelligent crime thriller.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Magnum Films.
Opens at AMC Empire 25.

War Dogs

Directed by Todd Phillips

      Two friends, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller), win a $300 million Pentagon contract to arm the Afghan army with weapons. They get in over their heads and into trouble when they get into business with Henry Girard (Bradley Cooper). Also involved in the shady business is Ralph (Kevin Pollak) who runs a dry cleaning shop. David Leaves behind his worried wife, Iz (Ana de Armas), whom he lies to about what kind of work he really does.

      Part dark comedy, part drama, part action thriller, War Dogs never quite knows what it wants to be as it awkwardly blends those very different genres. It fails as a comedy, with the exception of one clever, timely and laugh-out-loud joke, because the humor is witless and juvenile more often than not. You would never believe that any what happens is based/inspired by a true story because Efraid and David seem like naive dolts and assholes who don't know squat about what they're doing. It seems highly unlikely that they'd be able to forge financial documents given their naiveté. The relationship with their family goes unexplored, so actresses like Ana de Armas get underutilized. On top of that, the character arc of David doesn't feel convincing at all. The screenplay co-written by three men, namely, Jason Smilovic, Stephen Chin and writer/director Todd Phillips (were no women available to co-write this film), never gets inside any of the characters' heads, although it's not like David and Efraim are likable---in fact they come across as mean and narcissistic, especially Efraim who's as annoying as nails on chalkboard. Neither of them have good comedic timing to boot.

      At least the direction by Todd Phillips is slick and fast-paced enough to not allow for scenes that drag too much. The soundtrack, cinematography, set designs and editing are all terrific while invigorating the film a little. Unfortunately, the same can't be said about the uneven, shallow and toothless screenplay. The running time of 114 minutes feels more like 2.5 hours. Wag the Dog and In the Lop are far more intelligent, funny and witty war comedies.

Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Opens nationwide.