Sarah Knight Adamson is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and a voting member for the Critics Choice Awards for Movies.

Sarah Knight Adamson and Jessica Aymond are both Members of the Chicago Film Critics Association

Film Rating Code:

★★★★ Outstanding Film- Run, don’t walk to the nearest movie theater.

★★★½ Excellent Film- Highly recommend seeing the film in a movie theater.

★★★ Very Good Film- Recommend seeing the film in a movie theater.

★★½ Good Film- Wait for the DVD, the film is still worth viewing.

★★ Wait for the DVD and proceed with caution.

★½ Wait for the DVD the film has major problems in most areas.

★ Can’t recommend the film.

War Dogs (R) ★★½

Jonah Hill and Miles Teller star as real-life arms dealers in War Dogs

Jonah Hill and Miles Teller star as real-life arms dealers in War Dogs. Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

War Dogs doesn’t know what it wants to be.

When I heard Todd Phillips was directing War Dogs, I became uneasy, even though I’m a huge fan of Old School and the first Hangover film (his other movies . . . not so much). I assumed that if Phillips was behind the camera, the true story of two guys who duped their way into becoming successful arms dealers would be given his typical “bros behaving badly” comedy treatment. I don’t know about the rest of you, but these days I just don’t feel like laughing about anything having to do with guns, ammo, war and violence.

It turns out that War Dogs isn’t really about any of those things. Instead it focuses more on exactly how screwed up the U.S. military’s weapons-purchasing system was in the very recent past. So much so that Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill)—a fast-talking, drug-loving twentysomething—figured out a brilliant way to win certain types of government contracts for guns and ammo. In 2005, he returned to his hometown of Miami Beach, just as his best bud from junior high, David Packouz (Miles Teller), is hitting rock bottom. David’s barely making a living as a masseuse for creepy rich dudes, his girlfriend is pregnant, and then he loses all of his money on a lame get-rich-quick scheme he dreams up. David needs a savior, and Efraim needs a partner he can trust. After the two friends reunite, it’s not long before Efraim brings David in on his hunt for government scraps.

Their business, AEY, grows and grows, thanks to bold moves the guys make, such as personally delivering weapons to a U.S. base in Baghdad (which didn’t actually happen, but was still one of the best parts of the film). They get richer and richer. Of course they can’t stop there—they have to try their hand at bidding for high-ticket contracts. And of course they end up winning one: a $300 million order for 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammo, among other things, for our troops in Afghanistan.

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Posted in Movies 2016, Reviews

Pete’s Dragon (PG) ★★★½

Elliott the dragon and Pete (Oakes Fegley) in Pete's Dragon. Photo credit: Disney Enterprises

Elliott the dragon and Pete (Oakes Fegley) in Pete’s Dragon. Photo credit: Disney Enterprises

Yes, it’s true! Dragons and honest-to-goodness family-friendly films still exist.

I love dragons. I was “the mother of dragons” (Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen) for Halloween, received “Dragonology” books for past birthdays, love the dragon-centric Eragon novel series, have little dragon figurines decorating my workspace, and proudly wore my Bay of Dragons t-shirt and sported a “year of the dragon”-inspired purse to the screening of Pete’s Dragon. And of course I was a fan of the original 1977 film. How many of you actually have Helen Reddy’s “Candle on the Water” from the old soundtrack on your phone right now? I rest my case.

So, as I am with all remakes of movies I loved as a kid, I was trepidatious about Disney’s 2016 version of Pete’s Dragon. Its first few minutes made my heart sink—as we watch a station wagon carrying a five-year-old boy and his parents flip over and crash, leaving the parents dead and the scared little boy alone in the forest, soon to be chased by FREAKING WOLVES—and I was like, “Whhhhhyyyyyyyy??????!!!! Curse you, Disney!” in my head. Rest assured that the parents aren’t actually shown after the crash, but I knew the scene was disturbing enough that I wasn’t going to be able to let my 4.5-year-old son watch it at the theater. (Other kids might not be bothered by that sequence, but I know my little guy would.)

A silent, furry green dragon scares the snarling wolves away and rescues the boy, whose name is Pete (Oakes Fegley). Then the film fast-forwards, and we see that Pete has continued to live in the forest with Elliott (named after a character in Pete’s favorite book) for the last several years.

Aside from the fact that there’s a boy named Pete and a dragon named Elliott in both, the 1977 and new versions of Pete’s Dragon have pretty much nothing else in common, storyline-wise. Truth be told, now that I’m an adult and think about all of the dark overtones in the original, the remake is quite mild by comparison.

This time around, Pete’s curiosity about forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and lumber mill crews led by Jack (Wes Bentley) and Gavin (Karl Urban) leads to both him and Elliott being discovered. Gavin represents “humans that suck” in that he immediately gets his gun and tries to shoot and capture Elliott in the pursuit of fame and fortune. Whereas Grace, who hasn’t actually seen Elliott but still doesn’t discount Pete’s claims thanks to her dragon-legend-believing dad (Robert Redford), just wants both the boy and his supposed mythical beast of a friend to be safe.

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Posted in Movies 2016, Reviews

Equity (R) ★★½

Equity. Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics.

Equity. Photo credit: Sony Pictures Classics.

A compelling financial thriller, but still not the “women on Wall Street” film I was hoping for.

As possibly the only film critic in the world who has two business degrees, used to work in the financial services industry, has been through tech IPOs and also happens to be female, I approached Equity with great interest. There have been several memorable financial thrillers over the years, but I can’t recall any that were directed by a woman, written by women, produced and financed by women and revolved around female characters.

Equity kicks off by introducing us to Naomi Bishop (the always fantastic Anna Gunn), a seasoned investment banker who’s reeling from being blamed for screwing up the deal of the decade. Now she’s desperate to rebuild her once-sterling reputation by landing the IPO for the Next Big Thing, an online privacy firm called Cachet. Naomi often relies on a younger and equally ambitious banker, Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas, who also helped develop the story), who may or may not have her own All About Eve-ish agenda.

The problems pile up quickly: Cachet has disgruntled employees who might want to throw the company under the bus. Cachet’s CEO is an arrogant tool. Naomi’s boyfriend Michael (James Purefoy) is being pressured by his hedge fund buddies to get insider intel about the Cachet IPO. Naomi’s old college friend Samantha (Orange is the New Black’s Alysia Reiner) is now investigating sketchy Wall Streeters (like Michael!) on behalf of the U.S. government. The cast is excellent, the plot is easy to follow (but still intriguing to those who understand the industry), and I found nearly every single thing about the film to be completely realistic. The problem is that even if every single thing a film portrays is realistic, it still doesn’t mean that those things should all be in the same film together.

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Posted in Movies 2016, Reviews

Suicide Squad (PG-13) ★★

Jai Courtney, Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Joel Kinnaman and Jay Hernandez star in Suicide Squad. Photo credit: Clay Enos/ Warner Bros

Jai Courtney, Margot Robbie, Will Smith, Joel Kinnaman and Jay Hernandez star in Suicide Squad. Photo credit: Clay Enos/Warner Bros

Suicide Squad makes very little sense.

When I was at Comic-Con a few weeks ago, I couldn’t believe there were hundreds of people—many of whom were in full Joker or Harley Quinn costumes and makeup—standing in the sweltering San Diego sun for hours, waiting to get into the Suicide Squad virtual reality experience. “People are really that into Suicide Squad?” I asked my friends. (Never mind that we were across the street in a five-hour line for the Game of Thrones exhibit, because that’s totally different.)

And then like some sort of Forrest Gump, cluelessly trying to make my way around the massive Comic-Con Exhibit Hall a few days later, I wandered smack dab into Will Smith, Margot Robbie and the rest of the Suicide Squad cast as they arrived at the DC booth for autograph signings. I have to admit, that got me a little pumped. (See photos at the very end of this review.)

But I still went into the film with hardly any expectations, and I had only watched its trailer once, more than a year ago. I am aware there are DC vs. Marvel fandom wars going on right now and that the angriest of DC diehards want to shut down Rotten Tomatoes because of the film’s negative reviews. Quite frankly, I just don’t care about any of that. All I was hoping for is pretty much what I’m always hoping for when the lights go down in the theater: to totally forget about reality for a few hours.

Suicide Squad failed in this mission, because about every 20 minutes I had to lean over and ask a fellow critic if I’d missed something. (Sorry, Dave!) I’d been mostly digging the opening act, which shows how and why Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) brings together a group of “bad guys”/“metahumans”—Deadshot (Will Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Enchantress (Cara Delevingne)—to act on the U.S. government’s behalf, should there ever be another Superman-like figure who isn’t so friendly. I’m a sucker for flashbacks and origin stories, so to learn the background of each member in the self-named Suicide Squad was fun. The soundtrack was a fairly nonstop playlist of catchy songs, and there were some inventive pops of animation here and there. I was enjoying myself. Who cares if the flashbacks that were supposed to explain things like the ride-or-die romance between Quinn and the Joker (Jared Leto) seemed full of holes? Surely this stuff would become clearer later in the movie. I just had to be patient.

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Posted in Movies 2016, Reviews

GHOSTBUSTERS (PG-13) ★★★½

"Ghostbusters" stars Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

“Ghostbusters” stars Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures.

Undeniable Ghoul Power In The Latest Installment of “Ghostbusters”

When the cast was announced for the long-awaited next film in the Ghostbusters franchise, some short-sighted fans were upset that the Ghostbuster team would not star the original cast but would be played by female actors in what seemed like a gimmick. All of these criticisms were entirely speculative however, as director Paul Feig and the hilarious female cast deliver a comical and unique spin on a beloved franchise, yet still manage to pay the appropriate respect to the original films without it feeling like a copy.

Ghostbusters opens in an old Manhattan mansion, where a guide (Zach Woods, Silicon Valley, 2016) is leading a tour through the house and describing the history including how the owner’s daughter had murdered a number of people in their sleep. After the tour concludes, he is startled by strange sounds and movements in the basement. When he goes to investigate, he is ultimately attacked by the girl’s ghost.

The house’s owner pays a visit to Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig, Martian, 2015) a physics professor at Columbia University, who had written a book earlier in her career stating her belief in ghosts and her scientific theories regarding paranormal activity. Erin, who is trying to hide her interest in paranormal activity from the faculty as she is up for tenure, first denies that she wrote the book, but ultimately cannot hide that her face is on the dust jacket. She discovers that the book is now appearing online again despite her attempts to remove any trace of it. Erin heads over to the run-down laboratory of her old friend and the book’s co-author Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy, The Boss, 2016) who she believes is responsible for the book remerging.

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Posted in Movies 2016, Reviews

Life Animated (Documentary) ★★★½

life_animated

Image caption: Owen Suskind in Life, Animated. Photo credit: The Orchard/A&E IndieFilms

An inspiring, hopeful documentary about one family’s experience with autism.

I knew what Life, Animated was about before I saw the film, and so I was not surprised to find my eyes welling up only five minutes in. This documentary is based on journalist Ron Suskind’s memoir about his autistic son Owen, and it details how Ron’s family learned to communicate with the once-silent Owen through Disney movies. Now Owen is 23 and preparing to move into an apartment of his own in an assisted-living complex. To tell the story of how Owen made it to this point, director Roger Ross Williams switches between present-day interviews and scenes of the family getting ready for their big transition, old family footage of when Owen and his brother Walt were young boys, and fantastic animated sequences (by visual effects company Mac Guff) that bring Owen’s thoughts and stories to life.

As a parent, my heart broke for Ron and Cornelia Suskind when they recounted Owen’s early years. At age three, he completely stopped talking—Ron described it as if Owen had been “kidnapped.” For a full year, he did not say anything intelligible. One day when he was four and continually wanted to replay part of The Little Mermaid, Cornelia realized that a jumbled phrase Owen always repeated was actually a line of dialogue from the film.

They rushed to Owen’s doctors with news of the breakthrough, only to have their hopes crushed again. They were told that this sort of mimicking (termed “echolalia”) was common with autistic children. Read more…

Posted in Movies 2016, Reviews

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