'War Dogs' misfires into wrong territory
* War Dogs (15A, 114mins), 2 Stars
* Julieta (15A, 99mins), 4 Stars
* Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village (PG, 80mins), 4 Stars
In War Dogs, which is based on a true story, Todd Phillips investigates the murky world of freelance arms dealing. Among the many novel initiatives of the Bush/Cheney axis was the deregulation, not just of soldiering, but of government weapons contracts. This left the way clear for a group of bottom-feeding entrepreneurs to supply arms to US allies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Miles Teller and Jonah Hill play two such 'war dogs', David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli, childhood friends who fancy themselves as high-flying arms dealers. Efraim is the dynamo, a smooth-talking maniac who's obsessed with the Al Pacino movie 'Scarface'; Packouz is a feckless geopolitical innocent who wants to make enough money to support his pregnant girlfriend. Initially, they make a lot, but when a major arms dealer enters their orbit, things get out of hand.
War Dogs is an odd film, a sort of comedy (Mr Phillips made the 'Hangover' movies) that seems to have serious intentions. But it treats arms dealing as a heady adventure, ignores its consequences, and Hill and Teller manage to make their characters even more dislikeable than they were intended to be.
Julieta finds Pedro Almodovar in sombre mood. The Spanish director abandoned his shock tactics and sexually themed provocations some years back in favour of more arch, stylish and soul-searching dramas. This has resulted in truly great films like 'Talk to Her', 'Bad Education' and 'Volver': Julieta belongs in their exalted company.
Emma Suarez is Julieta, a middle-aged woman who's about to leave Madrid for Portugal with her boyfriend when she meets a ghost from her past. Beatriz was the best friend of Julieta's daughter, Anita, who ran away years before. The sight of Beatriz plunges Julieta into despair, and she begins remembering the tribulations of her younger years.
Adriana Ugarte plays the younger Julieta, who's on a train to Andalusia in the 1980s when she falls for a handsome fisherman called Xoan (Daniel Grao). A daughter, Anita, arrives, but their relationship is precarious, and will be marked by tragedy.
Time and again, Almodovar has mined the tensions and depths of mother/daughter relationships, and here he delves into the bottomless pit of a mother's grief. His film is both melodrama and meditation, his two leading ladies rise to the task brilliantly, and the director unfolds his sometimes unlikely tale with the ease and skill of a master.
Documentary-maker Aoife Kelleher impressed many with her last film, 'One Million Dubliners', an intimate portrait of Glasnevin Cemetery. And in her latest documentary, Ms Kelleher tilts her lance at another quirky Irish institution, Knock. In Strange Occurrences in a Small Irish Village, we hear the story of the apparitions of 1879 from direct descendants of the people who reported them. Those sightings transformed a sleepy Mayo village into a booming place of pilgrimage for much of the 20th Century, though the shrine's popularity has declined of late.
Knock's parish priest, however, is certainly doing his best to reverse that trend: an energetic and charismatic man who reminded me distractingly of Fr Ted Crilly, Fr Gibbons is making connections between the shrine and Irish-America which could make a huge difference for the community's future. He's very much the star of this show, but Ms Kelleher's film also profiles those who visit the shrine, the shopkeepers whose income depends on it, and one woman who claims to have been miraculously cured by it.
Strange Occurrences doesn't set out to poke fun, but instead lets Knock and its devotees speak for themselves, sometimes to their detriment.