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: Sisters

16 12 2015

The pure bliss of simply seeing Tina Fey and Amy Poehler reunited on screen for something other than an awards ceremony makes “Sisters” worth the price of admission. These two comediennes feed off each other in a way that no other pair can match, and there is never a dull moment since their live wire energy can always produce sparks.

Whether the material they work with is as good as they are, however, is another matter. “Sisters” piles on the raunch and the craziness, which is slightly out of their usual wheelhouse of safe for network TV antics. Paula Pell’s script is a hard R, and those laughs come somewhat at the expense of genuine characters.

The duo’s last big screen outing, 2008’s “Baby Mama,” found that sweet spot of believable exaggeration for both women, stretching responsibility and irresponsibility to rational extremes. “Sisters” casts Poehler as the good egg of the siblings, the youngest child who strove to overachieve out of genuine compassion for others, and it’s almost like getting to watch her play Leslie Knope again.

Fey, on the other hand, throws everyone for a loop by playing the callous, selfish older sister. It proves surprising, even jarring, to watch scenes where she is not the smartest person in the room. Heck, sometimes it even seems like it throws her for a loop. Tossing out insults and profanities – rather than receiving such barbs from the “30 Rock” cast – is something she gradually grows into over the course of “Sisters.”

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REVIEW: This Is Where I Leave You

20 09 2014

This Is Where I Leave YouIt took me until a college intro-level theater class to realize it, but the term melodrama actually means “music drama.”  In Shawn Levy’s adaptation of the novel “This Is Where I Leave You,” he really deploys that definitional dimension to convey all the film’s emotion.

As if we couldn’t already tell that two family members alone together was going to result in clichéd conversation, Levy cues each scene up with Michael Giacchino’s gentle piano score to softly amplify the forced profundity.  Or maybe if we’re lucky, Levy will treat us to a mellow Alexei Murdoch ditty.  (The singer is employed far less effectively than he was by Sam Mendes in “Away We Go,” for the few out there who care.)

The film seems to move forward solely on the logic that everyone needs to almost cry alone with each other.  It doesn’t matter to what extent the actors can manage authenticity – usually they don’t manage at all – because it’s impossible to escape the hoary hokeyness of the directorial heavy-handedness.

“This Is Where I Leave You,” which follows a family of four estranged siblings coming back to sit shiva for their deceased father, brings a lot more under its roof than it can handle.  Levy recruited a heck of a cast but seems unsure of how to deploy them in roles that require more than easy comedy.  The film’s dialogue makes more than a few attempts at humor, yet its talented players seem to timid to explore that element.

The reserve of the cast only serves to exacerbate the awkward blending of three distinct comic stylings: the reactionary stoicism of Jason Bateman, the strung-out loquaciousness of Tina Fey, and the live wire erraticism of Adam Driver.  (As for Corey Stoll, their eldest sibling … well, every family needs one serious member).  They don’t feel like family members so much as they come across as uncommonly adept scene partners who can feign a passable relationship until someone yells cut.

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REVIEW: Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

17 07 2014

Elaine StritchJust last weekend, I curled up in bed with my laptop to watch “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” on Netflix.  I found myself pleasantly entertained, but in the midst of an onslaught of new releases, I didn’t have a chance to bang out a quick review.  Then, I was checking the news at work this morning and saw the sad news that Elaine Stritch had passed away at the age of 89.

Suddenly, a review the documentary that had her at its center felt like the most important thing for me to write.  Though I may have to write in a different tense about Stritch’s life now, her legacy lives on and will certainly never be forgotten.  “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” gives Stritch the proper bow for her twilight years, and fans of an old era of Broadway stars will no doubt find it rousing.

Chiemi Karasawa’s film captures some of her final years as she prepares for a swan song cabaret of Steven Sondheim’s classic tunes.  Her camera catches the infamously blunt Stritch at her most cantankerously acerbic best on many an occasion, generating quite a few great laughs.  But as Tina Fey puts it, people are willing to put up with her curmudgeonly charm because she’s so great at what she does.

Karasawa does a great job of showing Stritch’s incredible work ethic.  Even though disease and age hampered Stritch from being at full capacity, she still pushed herself to play a recurring role on “30 Rock” and give her fans one last chance to see her perform live.  The back half of “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” consists of mostly watching Stritch belt out some Broadway melodies, a delight for fans of musical theater (and likely a bore for anyone else).

The true strength of the documentary, though, is not watching Stritch’s pantless performances.  “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me” is so much more than filmed theater; it’s a look at a performer confronting her own mortality.  Stritch preferred to say that she was not getting old – she was getting older, just like everyone else.  She approached the prospect of her aging with humor in public, often quoting Bette Davis’ maxim “getting old is not for sissies.”

Karasawa’s extreme close-ups, however, penetrate deeply into Stritch’s psyche and show a startling vulnerability.  These moments are nothing short of stirring as they reveal her deep fears of disappointing her audience.  Fans of Stritch will undoubtedly be moved by seeing a consummate actress let her guard down.  Playing herself was perhaps the most gripping part she ever had.  B+3stars





REVIEW: Admission

24 08 2013

Some movies do not fit neatly into categories.  For some, this means a refreshing streak of iconoclasm.  For others, however, it means a wavering indecision on the part of the filmmakers that can prove quite frustrating to watch.  Paul Weitz’s “Admission” is definitely more of the latter.

The film is not quite a rom-com, not quite a comedy, but also not really a drama.  It’s just a strange mix of tonal swings tied together by a story.  Despite the presence of the very funny Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, “Admission” has very little to laugh about.  And surprisingly, in spite of the loving glances they shoot each other in the film’s poster, their sexual tension remains a set of undeveloped hints.

Fey’s character is also extremely similar to the one she played in the 2008 romp “Baby Mama.”  The slightly uptight career woman experiencing regret about not settling down to have kids is quickly on its way to becoming as clichéd as Reese Witherspoon’s perfect belle having two men fight over her.  In “Admission,” she plays a strung-out Princeton admissions counselor dealing with mommy issues when a potential new admit could be the son she gave up for adoption back in college.

Even though I’m three years removed from the college admissions process, watching the Princeton committees debate the merits of applicants by reducing them to test scores and résumés still sent shivers up my spine.  It’s tough and rather disheartening to watch Portia try to fight for an unconventional candidate and face an insurmountable uphill battle the entire way.  The whole process is rather strung out and tense, and the overall mood left after the dust settles is one of depression.

By the end, “Admission” decides it most wants to be a drama after all.  And it actually does produce a decent conclusion, one that satisfies by not coming to any neat and tidy answers.  Because that’s what life is – anything but easy (just like getting into Princeton, apparently).  Better the film come to this tough realization than make us sit through a clichéd one that we’ve already seen in more defined and self-assured movies.  B-2stars





Live Blogging the 2012 Golden Globes!

13 01 2013

10:00 P.M.  For those of you keeping track at home, “Les Misérables” ruled the Golden Globes tonight with 3 wins!  “Django Unchained” and “Argo” also won two trophies.  “Amour,” “Brave,” “Life of Pi,” “Lincoln,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Skyfall,” and “Zero Dark Thirty” each won a single award.

10:00 P.M.  HFPA awkwardly and unintentionally flips the bird to AMPAS tonight…

9:58 P.M.  BEST PICTURE – DRAMA: “ARGO

ARGO

9:52 P.M.  Unexpectedly humorous speech from Day-Lewis.  Although I laughed much harder at how most of the back of the room gave him a standing ovation … and NO ONE up front did.  Awkward…

9:50 P.M. BEST ACTOR – DRAMA: DANIEL DAY-LEWIS, “LINCOLN

Lincoln

9:50 P.M.  What a beautiful speech, Chastain looked truly humbled and honored.  To the Oscars we go, hopefully!  (Hey HFPA, didn’t appreciate your shot of the audience where we could see you all flashing “WRAP UP.”)

9:48 P.M. BEST ACTRESS – DRAMA: JESSICA CHASTAIN, “ZERO DARK THIRTY

Zero Dark Thirty

9:41 P.M.  Adorable Anne Hathaway stealing the microphone quickly to do a few more thanks and then tightly hugging Amanda Seyfried.

9:40 P.M. BEST PICTURE – MUSICAL/COMEDY: LES MISERABLES

Les Miserables (2)

9:39 P.M.  Jeremy Renner bleeped…

9:34 P.M.  What a charming acceptance speech, and so much love for his wife!  Maybe he can beat Daniel Day-Lewis?!

9:32 P.M.  BEST ACTOR – MUSICAL/COMEDY: HUGH JACKMAN, “LES MISERABLES

Les Miserables

9:22 P.M.  They talked about actors, and then the category was Best TV Series – Musical/Comedy?  At least it was “Girls!”

9:18 P.M.  Take that, Academy!  Standing ovation for snubbed Ben Affleck!

9:18 P.M. BEST DIRECTOR: BEN AFFLECK, “ARGO

Argo

9:11 P.M.  What on earth did Jodie Foster just say?  Seriously, my TV audio went out in what I assume was a bleep.

9:04 P.M.  OK, people, time for you to go watch “The Beaver.”  It has Mel Gibson, sure, but it also has Jennifer Lawrence!

The Beaver

8:59 P.M.  “Taylor Swift, stay away from Michael J. Fox’s son!” – Tina Fey, who needs to be on this telecast far more

8:53 P.M.  Lena Dunham may have won the Golden Globe, but Tina Fey got to wait with J.Lo and Amy Poehler got awfully close to George Clooney.  It’s debatable who the overall winner really was tonight.

8:51 P.M.  Hooray for Lena – NOT Lisa, Aziz – Dunham!  Go watch “Tiny Furniture!”

8:50 P.M.  Aziz Ansari being carried by Jason Bateman … fantastic.

8:47 P.M.  BEST ANIMATED FILM: “BRAVE

Brave

8:46 P.M.  What on earth did that introduction have to do with Best Animated Film?

8:45 P.M.  Goodness gracious, Sacha Baron Cohen is drunk…

8:39 P.M.  4 Golden Globes for Claire Danes in her career.  She’s halfway to Meryl Streep!

8:35 P.M.  BEST FOREIGN FILM: “AMOUR

Amour

8:27 P.M.  “Best Picture nominee ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen‘” just sounds so wrong.

8:25 P.M.  Really, Golden Globes?  Tarantino for screenplay?  Not OK with that. “Inglourious Basterds” blows “Django Unchained” out of the water.  And the speech was a total MESS.  Someone was overserved…

8:23 P.M. BEST SCREENPLAY: QUENTIN TARANTINO, “DJANGO UNCHAINED

Django

8:18 P.M.  Give us more time with Anne Hathaway’s acceptance speech – we love her!

8:15 P.M. BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: ANNE HATHAWAY, “LES MISERABLES

Anne Hathaway

8:07 P.M.  Yes, JLaw, to answer the question you were so desperately trying to ask during that speech, OF COURSE we can be best friends!

8:07 P.M.  “Does this say ‘I beat Meryl?'” – Jennifer Lawrence

8:06 P.M.  BEST ACTRESS – MUSICAL/COMEDY: JENNIFER LAWRENCE, “SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

Jennifer Lawrence

8:04 P.M.  The sad thing is, Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig are saying what a lot of Americans are to their television sets right now.  Wondering what this “Silver Linings Playbook” thing is and cursing them for not nominating “The Avengers.”

8:02 P.M.  Nice abs, Kristen Wiig.

7:59 P.M.  Clinton introducing “Lincoln.”  Oscar for Best Picture is now in the bag, in case it wasn’t already.

7:58 P.M.  Really, Bill Clinton?!  What?!

7:55 P.M.  Tina Fey and Amy Poehler going and impersonating the absent celebrities is PRICELESS.

7:49 P.M.  Looks like we need more Grammy-winners to come freshen up film awards.

7:48 P.M. BEST ORIGINAL SONG: SKYFALL, “SKYFALL

Skyfall

7:45 P.M. BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: MYCHAEL DANNA, “LIFE OF PI

Life of Pi

7:42 P.M.  Woah, real Tony Mendez!

Argo

7:36 P.M.  Awkward teleprompter flub with Salma Hayek and Paul Rudd … hooray for “Homeland!”  Don’t understand why they present Best TV Series – Drama before Best Actress in a TV Drama?!

7:33 P.M.  Wow, now “Homeland” is set to dominate the Golden Globes too after Emmys domination.  Weird not to hear Damian Lewis speak in his gruff American accent!

7:32 P.M.  Didn’t get to see much from the red carpet, but from what I can tell … Jessica Chastain wins.  Just as she did at the Oscars last year.  Ehh, didn’t really get to look closely enough.  She’s gorgeous, sure, but the dress wasn’t that great.

Jessica Chastain

7:30 P.M.  “Call Me Maybe” needs to be left in 2012, HFPA lady.

7:23 P.M.  Don’t sing again, Catherine Zeta-Jones, unless it’s “Chicago.”  Thanks.  That line of “Do You Hear The People Sing?” was awful.

7:21 P.M.  If “Game Change” had been released in theaters, Julianne Moore would be in contention for Best Actress.  Think about it…

7:18 P.M. Hooray for “Game Change!”   One of the better movies I saw this year in any format!

7:12 P.M.  C’mon, Professor McGonagall.  It’s one thing not to do press for yourself – but not showing up to receive the inevitable award?!

7:10 P.M.  Please, Academy, you’ve already awarded Christoph Waltz for literally the same performance.  And oh, here goes Waltz again with the poetic metaphors in his speeches.

7:10 P.M. BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: CHRISTOPH WALTZ, “DJANGO UNCHAINED

Django

7:08 P.M.  “This 70th anniversary celebration.”  OK.  Glad Tina and Amy mentioned that!

7:03 P.M.  “When it comes to torture, I trust the lady who spent 3 years married to James Cameron.” – Amy Poehler, much to the amusement of Jessica Chastain (who was DYING laughing)

7:02 P.M.  Already loving the Tina and amy combo.  Same humor, just with less bite!

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REVIEW: Megamind

7 11 2010

Pixar’s “The Incredibles” produced many great quotes, but I’ll never forget the grave statement that the villain syndrome made towards the end of the movie: “When everyone’s super, no one will be.”

The point I’m trying to make here is not to draw a comparison between “Megamind” and Pixar’s 2004 gem, and that’s not just because it hardly exists since the two aren’t even in the same ballpark in terms of quality.  What I want to say is that movies involving superheroes and supervillains have pervaded so far beyond the Marvel and DC universe that the word “super” has lost quite a bit of luster.

The latest creation from the minds at DreamWorks animation (their third in 2010) is following hot on the heels of “Despicable Me,” another supervillain movie that somehow managed to set the box office on fire in spite of its middling mediocrity.  The two do have quite a few similarities, largely the central characters who put on the façade of a villain when they are actually big softies.  Neither offer anything new for viewers who have sat through countless superhero movies for kids, and “Megamind” importantly raises the question of how long audiences will toleration this repetition before it all drowns into monotony.

There’s some nice humor throughout the movie to help offset the predictable plot, and it’s a bearable watch that could be marginally enjoyable given you watch it in the right disposition.  The talented voice cast brings their A-game to the table: Will Ferrell with his over-the-top schtick, Tina Fey with her brilliant sarcasm, Jonah Hill with his “Superbad” obsequious dork rambling, and Brad Pitt with his … well, he does the deep voice, and his kids will scream with excitement when they hear him.

I will give “Megamind” that it does attempt to jump into musings on the nature of good and evil and the inherent nature of man. However, these concepts are explored in the most basic, watered-down, “Sesame Street”-manner that they might as well have not been attempted.  Really, the whole movie could have just not been attempted to save us all some time.  Sure, it’s fine entertainment, but don’t we already have more than enough quirky superheroes and supervillains?  Do we really need a blue one with a giant cranium?  C+