Movie Review ~ Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A journalist recounts her wartime coverage in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Stars: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina, Billy Bob Thornton

Director: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: I believe we’ve reached a point in our culture where it seems downright unpatriotic not to like Tina Fey. There’s something about the funny lady that just rubs us the right way, even if her style of comedy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. A star on Saturday Night Live before launching a successful prime time television career writing/starring in 30 Rock and eventually making the transition to film, Fey relied on her charming inoffensiveness, quick wit, and pointed observations to carve out a niche for herself as a performer and successful awards show host. It seemed like there was nothing she couldn’t do…except drama.

Now I realize that 2014’s This is Where I Leave You had problems way more severe than Fey being miscast as the caustic sister to Jason Bateman’s harried brother. Still, there was something about how out of place she seemed that just cut deeper than that film’s total lack of drive or point. Wisely, Fey retreated back to her comfy comedic shores and scored in December in Sisters with her frequent co-star Amy Poehler. The first time I saw the preview for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot I got this terrible pit in my stomach that another dramatic debacle was on the horizon.

Thankfully, I can write off my tortured stomach to a bad burrito because Fey hits a solid bulls-eye as a journalist that leaves the safety of her office writing copy for newscasters to become a war correspondent stationed in Afghanistan. Inspired by Kim Barker’s book ‘The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan’, the auto-biography has been adapted by longtime Fey collaborator Robert Carlock and produced by Fey’s former SNL boss Lorne Michaels into a veritable star vehicle. And it’s right up her alley.

I’ll admit to being more than a little overdosed on the mortar blasts, dusty locales, and terrorists in turbans found in the recent slate of war films so I was pleasantly surprised that Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was able to hold my attention the way it did. Telling a war story from a journalistic angle rather than a military one, the film succeeds best when it puts Fey on the frontlines bravely stepping into a firestorm of bullets to get a video clip for the evening news. As Fey/Carlock will have you believe, Barker surprised even herself in the gung-ho way she threw herself into the work and our star never treats it as an opportunity to mine for toothy comedy.

Eschewing the fish out of water approach that could have been taken, the film follows Barker over the four years she was stationed in the Middle East and episodically recounts the situations she encounters and the people she meets along the way. There’s a beautiful Lara Logan-esque blonde bombshell reporter (Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street, reteaming with her Focus directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa), given more depth than the character probably calls for, a surly general (played by a wigged man that looks like Billy Bob Thornton, The Judge…because it is) that’s given less depth than the character calls for, and a kindly local driver (Christopher Abbott, A Most Violent Year) that forms a bond with Barker even though societal norms keeps him from expressing his feelings of friendship.

Barker had several men in her life that cause the only real trouble the film has to offer. She starts off the in a long distance relationship with Josh Charles (Freeheld), is pursued by her Australian bodyguard (Stephen Peacocke, Hercules), wooed by a top Afghan official (Alfred Molina, Monsters University), and eventually warms to a hotshot photographer (Martin Freeman, The World’s End). Only Molina and Freeman register any kind of chemistry (romantic or not) with Fey and in particular it must be noted that Freeman gives one of his best performance, free of any of his heretofore constant nebbish line readings and meek demeanor.

In the end it’s Fey that really sells the film. It was nice to see the actress leave some of her trademark tics back in the US. Gone are the clipped one liners, anguished eye rolls, winking asides to the camera. If some of her lines are delivered with just a hint of her classic smirk, it’s easy to forgive seeing that it feels right in the context of the character.

Carlock’s script leaves a lot unexplained, fails to fully flesh out some of the supporting players, and there’s really no third act to speak of, but the film plays nicely with audiences and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Going in I wasn’t sure I’d like Fey’s further attempts at drama, coming out I was wishing this had come out later in the year so she’d be included in some end of the year recognition. It isn’t unheard of that it could happen seeing that it’s a worthy performance in a decent film.

Movie Review ~ Zootopia

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The Facts
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Synopsis: In a city of anthropomorphic animals, a fugitive con artist fox and a rookie bunny cop must work together to uncover a conspiracy.

Stars: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, J.K. Simmons, Idris Elba, Alan Tudyk, Tommy Chong, Octavia Spencer, Bonnie Hunt, Jenny Slate, Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister, Don Lake, Raymond Persi

Director:  Byron Howard, Rich Moore, Jared Bush

Rated: PG

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Here we are in the first week of March and I think I’ve found the first truly delightful film of the year. We’ve just emerged from a season of heavy dramas and a start of the year that featured a seemingly endless supply of disappointments and cheap cash grabs. So to find a film as breezy and bright as Zootopia is most welcome, it’s a place you’ll want to visit more than once.

Young Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is an idealistic young bunny rabbit that stands up to bullies and dreams of moving from her country life to Zootopia, an animal metropolis where predator and prey live in perfect harmony. With her sights set on becoming the first rabbit police officer, she overcomes the adversity of being 10 times smaller than her fellow police academy trainees and lands a job in the heart of the city. Relegated to the safety of being a meter maid, Hopps longs for more than just issuing parking tickets, though, and in short order gets involved with a plot to disrupt the peace between species.

It’s a surprisingly complex plot that’s dreamed up here, giving Disney Animation the opportunity to explore a world of anthropomorphic animals with no human presence. It’s also the longest fully animated film produced by Disney since Fantasia in 1940 and carries an earned PG rating for some scary moments. The length and rating may give parents cause for pause but I’d encourage families to get out and see this one because not only does it have a typically Disneyfied message of being true to oneself and kind to others it’s wonderfully animated and, at times, hysterically funny.

I like to laugh but don’t find myself often truly breaking down in movies so I have to admit that Zootopia hit my funny bone on several occasions. From a delightfully droll spoof of The Godfather to hilarious trip to the sloth-run DMV there are also references to Breaking Bad and a visit to an animal spa that really left me rolling. That the humor feels so genuine is a tribute to the script from eight screenwriters (the film went through some tweaking/reworking several times during production) .

It’s such a sunny romp that when there are dark turns, they land with the right amount of nuance instead of stinking of a laboriously false tonal shift. Zootopia is divided into several different sections meant to recreate the inhabitant’s native habitat. The city center is your typical city setting while there are occasional detours to a rainforest, desert, and frozen tundra. Each world is designed to look and feel different and Disney animators have gone all out with fine details that keep each section separate yet still related to the others.

The voice talent used here is also one of the most enjoyable casts that Disney has put together in quite some time. Goodwin is a bundle of joyous energy as Judy, as is Jason Bateman (Bad Words) as a sly fox who teams up with Judy in her investigation. Idris Elba (Prometheus) is commanding as Judy’s superior officer and J.K. Simmons (Terminator Genisys) pairs nicely with Jenny Slate (The Lorax) as Zootopia’s lion leader and his lamb second in command. And any chance to hear Bonnie Hunt (Monsters University) onscreen is welcome in my book.

Zootopia is being released in IMAX and 3D and while I normally go for the biggest and best presentation I can find, this is one that won’t suffer from a traditional viewing and in fact may be preferred as the 3D doesn’t have the same impact as other films of its kind.

Movie Review ~ London Has Fallen

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The Facts
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Synopsis: In London for the Prime Minister’s funeral, Mike Banning discovers a plot to assassinate all the attending world leaders.

Stars: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Alon Moni Aboutboul, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Jackie Earle Haley, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Sean O’Bryan, Charlotte Riley, Waleed F. Zuaiter

Director: Babak Najafi

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: Those looking to fill up on their xenophobia quotient for the year should look no further than London Has Fallen, an ugly, tacky sequel to 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen which prided itself on being merely tacky.

It’s been three years since Mike Banning (Gerard Butler, How To Train Your Dragon 2) single handedly saved the President of the United States (Aaron Eckhart, Erin Brockovich) and an assortment of White House staffers (Angela Bassett, Melissa Leo, Robert Forster, Sean O’Bryan) from a troop of North Korean militants that descended upon 1600 Penn Ave. Now older (and looking it), wiser, and about to be a dad, Banning is considering hanging up his gun and nesting with his wife (an underused Radha Mitchell) and new arrival.

Before he can send his resignation e-mail, though, Britain’s Prime Minister unexpectedly dies and his funeral calls many heads of state to the forefront to pay their respects in London. Before you can say bangers and mash, Banning and the President find themselves under siege again…this time by a Middle Eastern arms dealer out for revenge in a most public fashion. So begins a chase film where an unending bevy of bad guys pursue POTUS and his security man through the deserted streets of London.

There’s a serious lack of taste to the film. I guess I just get really skeeved out when the central topic of an American-made movie is a terrorist plot to capture and execute (by beheading) the leader of our country live on the Internet. Does it hit to close too home when we see/hear about these brutal murders broadcast for wartime propaganda? Sure does and it doesn’t mean I take any pleasure in seeing a movie about it. It’s also pretty sickening in terms of the Islamic panic created by the screenwriters and director who don’t waste any opportunity to have Butler graphically murder a terrorist while delivering a “America, F**K yeah!” quip. Hearing audience members applaud and cheer this on definitely made my stomach turn.

I’ve yet to quite figure out what makes Butler such a draw for audiences and studios. Though in demand much less these days, he’s still managing to get work despite his acting chops that are on par with the Segals and VanDammes of similar films. He looks terrible here, appearing as if he hasn’t slept in the years since the last film opened. Eckhart also is quickly taking a nosedive on the reliability department. Though saddled with some severely awful dialogue, a smarter actor would have found a way to make his performance interesting, if not at least consistent. Poor Bassett (Chi-Raq) is treated rather terribly by the writers and Leo (Prisoners), so astoundingly bad in the original, is featured in over a dozen scenes but has but two lines. She looks positively in pain to be appearing here…obviously contractually obligated to do so. I’ll love Morgan Freeman (Lucy) forever but to say he’s phoning it in here would be insinuating he even bothered to dial in. Actually, Freeman and Leo appear mostly in one boardroom set…it’s clear they filmed their scenes in one or two days. The only bright spots in the darkness (literally, most of the film is hard to see thanks to poor lighting designed to hide the cardboard sets) are Mitchell and Charlotte Riley (In the Heart of the Sea) as a MI-6 agent. Sadly, neither lady gets much to do.

Special mention must be made to the bargain basement level special effects that unfortunately feature heavily into the picture. Explosions look like they were lifted directly off of a Nintendo DS and the only time that Butler and Freeman are on screen together it’s clear that neither actor was in the same room. Poor green screen backdrops are the icing on the cake and make me wonder if the entire film wasn’t shot in a warehouse in Glendale.

Olympus Has Fallen was a hunk of cheese left on the kitchen countertop for a few hours but its sequel is positively rancid. Reveling in ugly American nastiness, cheaply made, and badly acted it’s a film likely to be positively received only at a Donald Trump rally.