By: Kevin Jordan
A case study.
When it comes to movies, writing is more important than everything else. Without writing, the stuff in a movie is meaningless. Costumes are being worn because actors get cold and the movie is supposed to be rated PG-13. Sets are just piles of wood, nails, and paint that actors run across because a guy with a bullhorn and a headset just gave the go ahead to blow up that car. Lights are turned on so the actors don’t trip over props while running from the explosion. In other words, nothing is happening for any reason, and nothing you are seeing has any meaning…without a story. Writing gives all of that stuff purpose and good writing ties all of it together in ways that make you glad you spent money and time to watch it. And that’s how we got The Dark Knight. But without a story or any decent writing, I guess a movie like that must simply meet its release date. And that’s how we got Suicide Squad.
But, this isn’t about DC movies. This is about a movie called War Dogs. War Dogs is the perfect example of how good writing makes a great movie. More specifically, it’s a perfect example of how to adapt source material into a screenplay. One of the biggest complaints by moviegoers about Hollywood book adaptations is that “the book was better.” In other words, Hollywood often screws up the source material in an adaptation. While there are countless examples of poor adaptations, there are also numerous examples of superior adaptations, and War Dogs is one of them.
War Dogs is based on a Rolling Stone article titled Arms and the Dudes telling the story of the rise and fall of two twenty-something American men who became international arms dealers and found themselves winning a $300 million defense contract to supply arms to the US military in order to arm the Afghan army.
If the screenplay writers had adapted the story with no changes, it would have made for a fairly uninteresting movie. Don’t get me wrong, the article is fascinating and worth the read, but it isn’t worth two hours in a theater. The two men, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller) are both greedy war-profiteers who have no qualms about the legality of what they are doing. The US government officials contracting them are well aware of what they are doing and simply don’t care. They work with several shady arms dealers who are all in it for the same reasons – money. Do you see the problem here? Not one character or entity discussed in the article comes off as the hero or even anti-hero in this story. So, in the movie version, who are you supposed to root for? After watching such a movie, you’d wonder why they spent $45 million on what amounts to a 60 Minutes segment.
Rather than bore you with an overly long night-time news segment, the writers took the characters, the bones of the story, and a couple of fun details (David was a masseuse prior to running guns) and turned it into something worthy of a theater. To start with, they made David the hero and improved his motivation. He also gets a pregnant wife, Iz (the gorgeous and scene stealing Ana de Armas), and is forced to work for Efraim because he is failing to earn enough money to support his family. In contrast, the writers bring Efraim as-is because being a sleazy, greedy, shitbag of a friend makes him the perfect villain. Now we have two well-defined characters whose roles are clear throughout the film.
Then, they embellish a couple of the contract stories and align them in a way that perfectly escalates the stakes and the tension as the movie approaches its climax. The best way to describe it is as a movie that plays out much like Two for the Money or 21. Our hero is brought into the lucrative business, finds early success which leads to more success, which leads to the ‘big one,’ which leads to the inevitable crash, which leads to a satisfying end. In addition, the US government doesn’t come off nearly as shady because the movie needs it to be the uncorrupt lawman (if only this wasn’t an embellishment *sigh*).
There were a few more tweaks, but that’s the meat of the movie and I’m not sure they could have adapted the story any better. On top of that, they nailed the casting. Hill was every bit the villain they needed him to be and you’ll want to punch Efraim as much as David does. Teller also proved that he can actually act when given a decent character and we can now forgive him for his abysmal Mr. Fantastic. As I mentioned earlier, de Armas manages to upstage Teller in their scenes together, especially when she calls him out for being a liar late in the movie. And then there’s the gorgeous and scene-chewing Bradley Cooper (playing arms dealer Henry Girard), every bit as engaging as we’ve come to expect from him. Even in his relatively few scenes, it’s hard to believe he’s not actually a slimy, dangerous arms dealer brought into this movie to make it more real. And that, my friends, is how you write a movie worth watching that is based on literary source material.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and go read that article.
By: Kevin Jordan
Here’s a little insight into predicting whether a movie will be good or not – if the production studio (20th Century Fox) puts an embargo on releasing reviews until two days before a movie (Fantastic Four) opens, and does not allow advanced screenings until two days before that same movie opens, it’s a pretty sure bet that the movie is going to be bad. And I don’t mean an entertaining kind of bad; I mean the kind of bad that makes kittens cry. I wouldn’t say the reboot of Fantastic Four is so bad you’d find it playing on the IMAX in hell’s theater (tonight, double-featuring Bridesmaids and After Earth and you have to walk through the uncleaned aisles barefoot to get to your seat), but there are definitely going to be some sniffling felines in your alley Friday on night.
In case you were wondering, “Didn’t they just make Fantastic Four a couple years ago?” the answer is yes, ten years ago (eight years ago for the sequel) and that is most definitely not enough time for people to forget how lousy both of them were (for the record, I liked Rise of the Silver Surfer, but yes, it was lousy). Like Spider-Man, a remake was done not because they thought they could do better, but because they had to do it within a certain number of years since Surfer or lose the movie rights back to Marvel. You’d think eight years would be enough time to write a decent script, especially given that there are 54 years worth of source material to mine from, but you’d be wrong. Really, really, really wrong.
(Note: From here out, the 2015 version will be referred to by title. Also, this movie was as rotten as the bottom of a dumpster, so SPOILERS!)
Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, and Josh Trank are the credited writers of this offense to pens, pencils, and paper, but I’m going to focus on Trank because he doubled as director. You’re probably wondering where you’ve heard his name before, but you should stop trying because you probably haven’t. His only other movie directing/writing credit is for Chronicle (2012), and while it was a very good/successful movie, it wasn’t in theaters all that long (February releases will do that). And, I’m guessing you won’t hear from him again after this movie releases and bombs (and if I’m wrong, the terrorists have won).
In the technical sense of the word – plot – Fantastic Four has one. Five people get super powers, one turns evil, the other four fight him to save the Earth. Unfortunately, that plot takes up roughly ten minutes (which contains 100% of the action scenes) of a ninety minute movie. The other eighty minutes are filled with exposition and some of the worst character development you will ever see (and not just in movies). Incidentally, it might be the shortest superhero movie ever made while simultaneously feeling longer than a three-day cricket test match in Calcutta in August.
You can tell right off the bat that the movie is going to suck because it starts with eleven-year old Reed Richards building a teleporter in his garage after basically being called an idiot by his teacher. Seven years later (it’s now 2014 in the film) and eighteen-year old Reed (Miles Teller) has improved the design and is showing it off at his high school’s science fair. For contrivance’s sake, Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his eighteen-year old adopted daughter, Sue (Kate Mara) – who just happen to be working on a government-sponsored, industrial-size version of the same device – chat with Miles and offer him a scholarship to the Baxter Institute to help them finish the device. As it turns out, Franklin runs the project, primarily employing teenage geniuses. This is where the movie obliterates your sense of disbelief because (a) why must they be teenagers and not just twenty-somethings? and (b) Teller is twenty-eight and Mara is thirty-two. I know casting choices do that all the time, but it’s impossible to believe Mara as a teenager after watching her get naked with Kevin Spacey in House of Cards.
The writing gets worse as the machine turns out to be a teleporter to a planet in another dimension rather than to somewhere else on Earth. Enter THE BIG, BAD GOVERNMENT and BIG, BAD BUSINESS EXECUTIVE (Tim Blake Nelson) who want to exploit Planet Zero (oh my god, is that really the best name Trank could come up with?!) for its resources (at least they don’t refer to them as Unobtanium). Reed, Sue’s brother, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) decide to take a secret trip after being told they couldn’t, bringing along Reed’s childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) because, why not?
(Note: The project is government-backed and almost assuredly classified, yet Ben is allowed to waltz into the facility and laboratories because “he’s with Reed.” I’ve seen better security at a Starbucks.)
While on Zero, Victor stirs up a green energy cloud, it chases them, Victor falls in, and the rest barely escape, though all are mutated, including Sue, who was trying to bring them back to Earth. Keep in mind, this all happens around the one hour mark of the film. At this point, the movie shows us their powers, Reed wakes up and escapes the secret facility they were transferred to (Area 57, in another fit of creativity), but is captured a year later, rendering the seven minutes in between completely pointless. With the exception of Ben, Sue and Johnny aren’t even mad at him for leaving, and Ben gets over it quickly. Plus, Reed literally does nothing during that year except globe trot, so why bother having him leave at all?
The film winds down with the machine being rebuilt and an expedition bringing Victor back to Earth, where he immediately starts killing people. Victor goes back to Zero, opens a new portal to Earth, and starts sucking the matter from Earth to convert to energy on Zero. Why does Victor do this? I swear to you I’m not making this up – because humans are destroying the Earth and don’t deserve it, so he’s just going to destroy it all the way. I told you this was shitty writing.
The sad thing is just about anything would be better than what Trank and team shat out as their screenplay. First, they should have ditched the terrible opening with the children and just started with the team in the lab as actual grown-ups who have been of legal drinking age for more than a year (and give Ben an honest reason to be there for chrissakes). After the accident, it would have been more interesting to keep the four of them together, have them learn their powers and be used by the government as a tool, but have them all become resentful of being exploited. Then, in the climax, have them go on their final mission when something goes awry and Victor leaves the group. Wrap it up; end of movie. No big showdown between Victor and the others – that’s for another movie. FYI – it took me roughly three minutes to come up with that; they had EIGHT years.
Now, I want to go back to how poorly developed the characters were. In eighty minutes, we learn that Reed is really smart. Ben is not. Johnny is black and races crappy cars. Sue is white and does not race crappy cars (she also recognizes patterns; ooooooh). And Victor started the project as a child (apparently, only children are capable of inventing trans-dimensional wormhole machines) and gets mad at Reed for having a laugh with Sue. That’s it. No development of a relationship between Sue and Reed, an extremely weak relationship between Reed and Ben, and definitely no chemistry between any of them, especially between Sue and Johnny who are supposed to be siblings. Forget about the fact that she is white and he is black (a certain radio personality in Atlanta couldn’t); I’ve seen jurors act more familiar with each other than these two characters.
It should be obvious now that I thought this movie was full-on crap. Even with the red flags of the review embargos and eleventh hour screenings providing ample warning, going into the film my main thought was that it shouldn’t be too hard to improve upon the 2005 version; that it would at least be entertaining. I just didn’t think it would be possible to make a Fantastic Four movie with less action than Sister Act. But I was wrong. Really, really, really wrong.
Rating: The one thing I’m sure I’m not wrong about is that you should definitely ask for all of your money back and hope that Trank is never allowed near a summer blockbuster again.