REVIEW: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

1 03 2016

There is no requirement that a war film – or a film set in a war – grapple existentially or philosophically with that conflict. But, at the very least, it should at least make for more than just wallpaper for another narrative. Such is the case in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” based on Kim Barker’s memoir about her experiences covering the dog days of the American presence in Afghanistan.

Very few people – except maybe a few U.S. senators – go to fictionalized accounts of wartime stories and expect the level of historical discourse that might accompany a documentary. (Looking for a great one about Afghanistan? Find “Restrepo” or “The Oath” online.) A certain level of simplification is expected, if not practically mandated to connect with moviegoers who might not know the locations of Iraq and Afghanistan on a globe. It’s not that “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” fails at providing context, like Michael Bay’s “13 Hours,” that proves so bothersome. It’s that the film doesn’t even try.

Were it not for the occasional gunshots and explosions, one could easily mistake the war zone of Afghanistan for any oppressive third-world country. Tina Fey’s protagonist Kim Barker bops around the “Ka-bubble” of Kabul less in search of a hard-hitting story and more in search of herself. She takes the wartime correspondent position in America’s Forgotten War as a means of rescuing herself from becoming forgotten as well. Facing a midlife crisis from her dead-end relationship and desk-bound career, she hops on the plane to Afghanistan with the same gusto of Elizabeth Gilbert in “Eat Pray Love.”

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REVIEW: Love is Strange

13 06 2014

Love is StrangeLos Angeles Film Festival

A film that puts a big conceptual catch-all phrase in its title, such as “love” or “American,” should certainly be prepared to make a grand statement.  Ira Sach’s “Love is Strange” certainly has the ambition, providing three generations of characters whose problems play out on the screen.

From what I saw, though, the strangeness and conflict within the film did not come from love.  It arises, rather, from the complexities of the real estate market and overbearing taxes.  Or, as I like to call them, fates worse than death.

That’s not to dismiss the two lead performances at the center of the film by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow.  Respectively portraying George and Ben, life partners who finally get to legally tie the knot around the same time they qualify for the senior citizens’ discount at the movies, their bond of affection feels tender and sincere.  The kind of deep mutual understanding that couples strive for years to achieve is recreated effortlessly by these two great actors.

“Love is Strange” is at its best when it focuses on the two of them trying to navigate living apart after losing a cherished apartment they shared together for decades.  While they attempt to find a new place, George stays with some boisterous neighbors and Ben shacks up with some extended family navigating tenuous times of their own.  Lithgow is the film’s revelation (if he can be called that at the age of 68), portraying senility without a histrionic hint of burgeoning Alzheimer’s.

To the film’s detriment, Sachs expands his film and tries to encompass more experiences than it can comfortably portray in a 90-minute runtime.  The parenting tussle between Ben’s surrogate son Ted and his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and the vague growing pains of their teenage son Joey feel like distractions from the film’s emotional core, George and Ben.  Had “Love is Strange” stayed a little more intensely fixated on them, the micro-level relationship might have satisfied the title’s promise of illuminating something bigger in the macro-level experience of love.

But Sachs insists on lingering and wandering through the lives of an ensemble, disrupting the intimacy of a two-handed love story.  Even though he is unable to satisfactorily accommodate them all into the narrative, “Love is Strange” still retains the feel of the piano sonatas that score the film.  There’s a gentility about the film, though that placidity seems to come at the cost of a more fulfilling emotional resonance.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Abduction

28 02 2013

A lot of people were looking to “Abduction” as a test of whether Taylor Lautner could carry a movie on his own.  Away from the comforts of the “Twilight” saga where Lautner could just rip off his shirt and no one seemed to mind, would he be a viable action star?  Or is Lautner nothing more than a set of good-looking abs, destined to have girls drooling on Tumblr for all of eternity?

The quick answer to that is no, and “Abduction” is an abysmal movie that struggles to be so bad that it’s good at times.  The ridiculous romance, the half-baked plot, and the characteristic Lautner sporadic shirtlessness definitely provide some fun moments of unintended laughter.

And most people pinned the failure of “Abduction” on Lautner.  That’s not fair.  Everyone else in this movie was just as bad.

Looking at you, Lily Collins.  My goodness gracious, she grated on my last nerve.  Maybe with enough training in an acting studio and not in a gym, Lautner could be a half-decent actor one day in the way that Channing Tatum surprised us all in “21 Jump Street.”  I don’t know that I have the same hope for Collins.

I’ll hold back on some extremely harsh words for her, but know that she tried really hard to put on her big girl panties.  However, Collins just falls face first into the pavement, and no one bothered to tell her that her face is busted up and she’s bleeding everywhere (in a strictly hypothetical sense, I mean).

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REVIEW: An Education

25 11 2009

In the age of the booming blockbuster, independent cinema is in dire need of a movie that can appeal to a blooming generation of teenage moviegoers if sophisticated cinema is to survive.  I couldn’t be more pleased to report that “An Education” is that movie.  Although it is the type of movie that typically plays best with adults, it has the power to resonate among younger viewers unlike any movie of its kind.  Director Lone Scherfig’s clear understanding of the mind of teenagers radiates from as early as the opening credits, where sine graphs and frog diagrams devolve into hearts.  Thankfully, her vision is complemented by phenomenal performances and a sensational script that easily makes for one of the best moviegoing experiences of the year.

Jenny, the film’s heroine played with a stunning mastery by Carey Mulligan, is a character with struggles that people at crossroads in life can still appreciate many decades after the movie is set.  Sadly, she faces the same problem of creating a “college identity” separate from her regular identity that still plagues teenagers today.  Her parents (Alfred Molina and Carey Seymour) make sure that she has all the interests and hobbies necessary for her to fit the Oxford bill, obliging her to partake in activities that she loathes.  Through the process, Jenny begins to feel somewhat uneasy about going to spend four years doing something “hard and boring” with her nose in a book at a university only to end up in a “hard and boring” career for the rest of her life.  She reasons, however, to go against the grain would mean throwing away years of her life dedicated to looking impressive on an application, but still the desire remains for something beyond the education that a textbook can provide.

Almost as if an answer to an unspoken prayer, a chance encounter with the charming, older David (Peter Sarsgaard) gives Jenny a taste of a captivating world where the formalities of her schooling rank substantially below the proclivities for enjoyment.  Gradually, David’s outlook rubs off on Jenny, and she becomes willing to throw out what she has worked so many years for to enter the materialistic world that he inhabits.  For all those who think Jenny’s judgement is being impaired by an infatuation for love, what is she doing other than indulging a yearning that all students have had?  Her curious exploration into a very adult world ultimately leads her to a course she had never expected to be enrolled in – a crash course in adulthood.

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Oscar Moment: “An Education”

14 10 2009

This edition of “Oscar Moment” concerns “An Education,” a coming of age story in 1960s Britain.  The movie has been generating massive buzz since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, particularly around leading actress and breakout star Carey Mulligan.  She plays 16-year-old Jenny, dead set on going to study at Oxford.  However, things change when she meets the magnetic David (Peter Sarsgaard).  He is much older than she and offers her a glimpse of a world that she has never imagined.  After being introduced to a new lifestyle, her old ideals and values begin to fly out the window.  But their relationship is unable to transcend societal norms, and they come crashing down on unsuspecting Jenny.  Will she be completely broken?  Will the old Jenny return, or will a new and independent woman be born from the ashes.

I knew that the story involved coming-of-age since I first heard of it back in January, but I had no idea that it involved someone my age.  This is so thrilling to hear because no one makes good, independent, thought-provoking movies about people my age!

Some Oscar prognosticators I read have boiled the Best Actress race at the Oscars down to Carey Mulligan vs. Meryl Streep for “Julie & Julia.”  Others have gone as far as to say that she already has the statue in the bag.  Although I do like an exciting and unpredictable race, I love when a performance so magnificent comes along that allows people to call the race in January.  My humble prediction is that if other female performances fizzle and it does boil down to Carey and Meryl, the Oscars will choose the former just because Meryl already has two.  Not to mention recent trends show a tendency to honor up and coming actresses, such as in 2007 with the stunning victory of Marion Cotillard.

But the buzz isn’t around Mulligan solely.  Alfred Molina, who plays Jenny’s father, has been acknowledged as a strong candidate for Best Supporting Actor.  Some say that if the film hits big with the Academy, goodwill could result in nominations for some other cast members, like Rosamund Pike in Best Supporting Actress and Peter Sarsgaard in Best Actor.  The latter seems improbable just due to how stacked the Best Actor category appears this year.  The film’s director, Lone Scherfig, could find herself nominated due to the nature of the year and its spotlight on female directors.  Nick Hornby, author of the source material for “About a Boy” and “Fever Pitch,” penned the script based on Lynn Hornby’s memoirs; his chances seem somewhat more auspicious.  And the film itself, provided it registers as a blip on the public’s radar, seems likely to land itself in the Best Picture category.

It pains me to know that I have to wait until October 30th for “An Education” to hit a theater in Houston.  But until then, I will be enjoying selections from the soundtrack, which is stellar.  If you wonder what the catchy tune from the trailer is called, it is “You’ve Got Me Wrapped Around Your Little Finger” by Beth Rowley.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Actress (Carey Mulligan), Best Supporting Actor (Alfred Molina), Best Adapted Screenplay

OTHER POTENTIAL NOMINATIONS: Best Director (Lone Scherfig), Best Actor (Peter Sarsgaard), Best Supporting Actress (Rosamund Pike/Emma Thompson/Cara Seymour)





What to Look Forward to In … October 2009

29 08 2009

We give the movie industry late August and all of September to recover from the busy summer season, but in October, it starts to kick it into gear again.  Unfortunately, my most anticipated movie in October, Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” was pushed back to February.  But the month still puts forth several great movies for all tastes.

October 2

This week, I can promise you that I will be throwing my money not at a new release, but at the re-release of two staples of my childhood.  “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” will hit theaters again for a few weeks.  1 ticket.  2 movies. 3-D.  Need I say more?

The week also gives us “The Invention of Lying,” which could be a sleeper comedy hit. The movie stars Ricky Gervais, who was the lead of the British version of “The Office.” Around this time last year, he starred in “Ghost Town,” a comedy with a heart that you need to go rent now, that was dismissed by audiences. I have high hopes for his latest, in which he plays a man who tells the world’s first lie on an alternate Earth. He continues to wield the power to suit his own selfish needs. The movie also features Jennifer Garner, Rob Lowe, and the always funny Tina Fey.

And not to mention, the week delivers Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, “Whip It.” The movie stars the irresistible Ellen Page (“Juno”) as Bliss, a teenager weary of the beauty pageants that she is forced into by her parents. One day, she discovers the world of roller derby and she finds the happiness that she has been so desperately seeking. The movie boasts a hilarious supporting cast including Kristen Wiig (“SNL”), Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden, and Barrymore herself.

And it just keeps getting better.  The Coen Brothers (“No Country for Old Men”) are back with their latest feature, “A Serious Man;” they also wrote the original screenplay.  The movie seems to be a big risk.  It features no marquee names other than the Coens themselves. The trailer is cryptic, giving no indication of what to expect from the movie. I don’t mind an aura of mystique, but this is an aura of confusion. The movie is being marketed as a dark comedy, and I pray that it is the polar opposite of the Coens’ last foray into the genre, “Burn After Reading,” which I didn’t find funny at all. The movie starts in limited release and then will slowly expand from New York and Los Angeles.

The other major release of the week is “Zombieland,” a horror-comedy with Woody Harrelson.

October 9

The only exciting movie hitting theaters across the country this weekend is “Couples Retreat.”  A comedy centered around four couples at a luxurious tropical resort that is revealed to be a marriage therapy clinic, it appears to provide something for everyone.  It has pretty women (Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell, Kristin Davis) AND funny guys (Jason Bateman, Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau).  The movie is the directorial debut of Ralph Billingsley, best known for playing Ralphie in “A Christmas Story,” and the screenplay is written by Vaughn and Favreau.  Hopefully it can provide some good laughs in a season usually replete of hilarious comedies.

Opening in limited release is “An Education,” a movie that has been garnering massive Oscar buzz for months now.  Most of it has centered on the breakout performance of lead actress Carey Mulligan.  In the movie, she stars as Jenny, a 17-year-old in 1960s England who is set on going to Oxford.  However, an older gentleman (Peter Sarsgaard) comes along and sweeps her off of her feet, introducing her to a lifestyle that she immediately loves.  But reality bites, and Jenny is left at a crucial crossroads.  The movie has also generated buzz around supporting actors Alfred Molina and Rosamund Pike (the red-haired villain of “Die Another Day”).  Raves are also flying in for the screenplay, written by author Nick Hornby, writer of “About a Boy” and “Fever Pitch.”  And with the 10 nominees for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, many people say it has a good chance of claiming one of the ten.

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