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 ~ Secret in Their Eyes

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A tight-knit team of rising investigators, along with their supervisor, is suddenly torn apart when they discover that one of their own teenage daughters has been brutally murdered.

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Dean Norris, Alfred Molina, Joe Cole, Michael Kelly

Director: Billy Ray

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It’s always a funny thing to me when a well-respected foreign film gets remade for US audiences.  The US versions are frequently inferior, often lacking the risk taking afforded by films produced outside of the Hollywood system that’s more concerned with overall mass marketability than transferring the themes and ideas of its inspiration to American audiences.

So it’s no big shock that this North American remake of the South American thriller El Secreto de sus ojos doesn’t quite hit the same kind of riveting bullseye that propelled the original to be a surprise Best Foreign Film winner at the 2009 Academy Awards.  Based on a Spanish novel, the original film was a dark tale taking place in two different time periods with the same brutal murder the central focus of each.

Originally intended to feature Denzel Washington, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Julia Roberts when the remake took shape back in 2011, it would be another four years for Secret in their Eyes to finally see the light of day and by the time cameras were ready to roll Washington and Paltrow were out and Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman were in.  In some ways, the extra time and casting shake-up might have helped the film overall because by putting some distance between the original and altering the structure of its trio of leads (not to mention changing the gender completely of one character) I felt the movie was able to stand on its own quite capably.

In present day 2015, Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) is a former cop now working in private security for a NY baseball team that’s been haunted by a murder investigation involving his former partner (Robets, August: Osage County) 13 years earlier.  Thinking he’s stumbled upon a fresh lead for the case long since considered closed, he returns to California in hopes that his ally in the justice system (Kidman, Stoker) will re-open the case based on the new evidence.

All three players reunite early on and though they’ve taken different paths in the ensuing years, the lasting effect of this case clearly still holds something over them.  Roberts’ only child was the murder victim, found in a dumpster next to a mosque under investigation by the counter-terrorist unit she and Ejiofor are assigned to. Kidman was the young District Attorney supervisor new to her job that quickly gets in over her head with her colleagues when she strays too close to slicing through some political red tape involving her boss (a smarmy Alfred Molina, Monsters University).

Writer/director Billy Ray (Oscar nominated for his script for Captain Phillips and a helluva long way from his first script, the lurid Color of Night from 1994) adds some interesting hints of police corruption, but then again the past storyline is set in 2002 when the country was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks and law enforcement officials were tasked with getting answers no matter the cost.  At first, I felt that complexity took away some of the forward momentum of the case but Ray manages to tie it together nicely.

This seems like a passion project for Roberts (her husband was the cinematographer) and to her credit she dives head first into the mix as a woman preoccupied by the death of her daughter, riding the fine line between wanting justice and wanting vengeance…something the film makes very clear are two different things.  One character describes Roberts as looking “a million years old” and without a stich of make-up on Roberts is far away from the glamorous beauty that graces magazine covers.  Yet it never feels false, like she’s trying to be something she doesn’t have somewhere deep inside.  Roberts has to go to some dark places and she’s never anything but totally convincing with her pursed lips and tightly wound demeanor.

Ejiofor and Kidman have a trickier road to travel, nimbly working with the overt hints at a brewing romance rekindled as they work together to piece together the clues that might lead them to a killer.  Ejiofor favors overzealous reactions that feel showy but gets grounded when opposite Kidman with whom he has intriguing chemistry.  Kidman has the grace and poise to pull off the character and perhaps more than anyone feels like a wholly changed person in the present day sequences.

Viewers are advised to pay close attention to the time shifts because they can be confusing.  The best advice I can offer is to keep your eye on Kidman’s hair which is long in the past and short in the present.  The movie doesn’t always make it clear when action is taking place and at my screening several people were confused at the timeline of events.

The Spanish film had a whopper of a sequence set in a soccer stadium that starts as an approaching aerial shot then journeying into the stands before following a breathless chase between officer and suspect.  Seemingly captured in one long shot (it’s likely impossible but I can’t tell where the cuts happen) it alone was Oscar worthy in its execution.  Changing the sport from soccer to baseball, the remake doesn’t even try to attempt to recreate this, but the edge-of-your-seat chase still gets the job done.

It’s a tough film for all the right reasons.  I won’t reveal if the real killer is ever identified or how it wraps itself up but I had forgotten some of the details of how the original film ended, leaving me to discover the fine finale all over again.  I still think remakes are ill-advised, but once in a while one slips through that’s able to capitalize on why its inspiration was worthy of a Hollywood effort.

Interview ~ Ira Sachs

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Photo courtesy of Getty Images

 

Love is Strange is the new film from director Ira Sachs and it’s one that’s been getting major buzz since premiering earlier in 2014 at the Sundance Film Festival.  In the last few weeks the film’s ridiculous R rating has come into question from groups claiming the MPAA’s decision reeked of homophobia.  With no sex, nudity, violence the rating does seem, to this critic, to be another example of the secretive MPAA applying a double standard to films that may not follow their values.

No ratings or awards talk was discussed in my interview with the warm, genial Sachs early in the morning on August 12.  He was in town for a quick round of interviews and a visit to the Walker Art Center before taking to the skies spreading Love all around.

Love is Strange tells the story of New Yorkers Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) who find themselves newly married then separated after George is fired from his teaching post.  Only days after their wedding their family and friends now have to come together to help figure out how to help their two friends.

 

Your previous films (Leave the Light On, Forty Shades of Blue) seem to me to be cautionary tales regarding love with some dark, rough edges.  Love is Strange, however, seems to have a more positive outlook on relationships.  Was that an intentional shift?
That is completely true and I think it’s because I’m at a different stage in my life and I have different feelings about love.  For the first time I really feel optimistic about the possibilities of love to grow and blossom…and I think that’s been hard won, for me specifically also as a gay man it’s something that generationally we had to learn was possible.  So this film comes out of at time in my life where I’ve married my partner, we’ve had two kids, we’re raising the kids with their mom who lives next door…and I can imagine this being a good thing.  That’s where the film came out of…wanting to make a romantic love story.

In a recent interview you noted that your inspiration for the film were several long term relationships in your own extended family as well as films like Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (critics note: which I coincidentally watched right before popping in my Love is Strange screener).  Do you find people, gay or straight, identifying with these characters?
I think a lot of people identify with the film for a number of reasons. This is a picture about a couple in a long term relationship and it was as inspired by my mother and stepfather as much as anyone else.  I think they see themselves in little moments between Ben and George, certainly.  And the similarities are almost as interesting as the differences. Ultimately, I’m a cinephile and film becomes part of my collective memory.  If you do your job right you’re taking them all in and speaking with your own voice.

What was the collaboration like with your screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias?
I think Keep the Lights On was definitely a dark film but it was a film about self-discovery.   It came out of a time in my life that was not dark…meaning when I made it I was very open.  And I think that Mauricio and I meet at that point in our lives.  We’re now finishing a third in a New York trilogy and we have a wonderful shared interest in people, and stories, and movies.  He’s the godfather of my son and we share qualities and beliefs – it’s very important in collaborations that you share human values because it makes for a much easier time together.  Not just in creative relationships but in love relationships – right?  It’s so much easier if your basic values are in line.

What I found especially interesting in the film were the supporting characters, how richly etched they were.  Each seemed to have a moment that made me want to know more, want to watch whatever movie they were entering after leaving this one.
For me, every person in the frame really does have my interest.  To the point in which there is a concert scene where you see a bunch of portraits of people you don’t ever see again…but for that moment the film values them.  As a filmmaker I try to be attentive to each individual and that’s in line with humanist tone of the film.  There isn’t a hierarchy of importance among the characters.

Living in New York, you have access to a wealth of talented actors from the stage (like Adriane Lenox, John Cullum, Harriet Harris, etc) and I know that both John Lithgow and Alfred Molina have strong roots in the theater.  Was there a rehearsal process before filming began?
My background is actually theater; I was a theater director in college and high school.  When I got into film, one of the things I learned from Sydney Pollack (executive producer on Forty Shades of Blue) is that he gave me permission not to rehearse.  He didn’t tell me to do that but I began to understand that for myself I wanted the actors to be really ready, feel comfortable, confident, and well taken care of but not to know what they were going to do.  Not to pre-consider subtext, we don’t talk subtext at all because the minute you talk subtext you begin to play subtext.
So what I do is that I meet with everyone individually and spend time talking through the script.  John, Alfred, and I had dinner and a steakhouse and just talked about our lives, trying to get comfortable.  Then you get on set and a production day is you shoot one scene for eight hours…that’s enough rehearsal.  I like it all to be in the moment of shooting, and that’s the texture I’m able to get in my films through that process.

It seems in the last few years Hollywood has begun to embrace the fact that romantic leads don’t have to be hunks and starlets in their pre-30s.  That veteran actors in their 50s and 60s can tell/sell a story as rich (or richer) than their younger counterparts.  Do you notice that shift as well?
One thing I’ve noticed on the other side for example, (he speaks directly into the recorder) “Sorry John and Alfred” but you don’t get covers of magazines…because covers of magazines won’t go over 30.  I will say that this was an independent film, not financed even with this cast from Hollywood.  And now Hollywood has embraced the film because they see that there is a market for it.  But they don’t finance the film and that’s an interesting place as a filmmaker because you really have to find your way in order to keep going.

Do you have to think about that when making films now?  I mean, making films independently is great but with then having to sell the film and thinking about promotion, does all of that come into play when creating the final product?
I’m always trying to make a movie that people will connect to.  In this case, I also benefit by having wonderful actors that are also very good at comedy.  There’s an access point which is humor and that’s something we knew going into it that’s important to their roles — they really do have exquisite comic timing within a dramatic film…

…and that winds up lending the film dramatic moments that really feel sharp.  We know how John Lithgow can flip from comedy to drama but there’s a restraint on both ends of his spectrum here that winds up giving him one of the best roles of his career.
There is a restraint and that’s something John and I talked about very early on…that this would be a very different kind of Lithgow.  What we see now is that he is very good, brilliant really, at delivering a naturalistic performance.  It’s just not what he’s been asked to do previously, it’s not what Third Rock from the Sun wanted.  It’s such a different palette and yet, the skills are evident.

After the success of Keep the Lights On, was this an easier film to get made?
It was easier.  It wasn’t easy…but it was easier.  Ultimately it was 26 individuals, 23 of which were gay and lesbian.  The majority of those were retired lesbian businesswomen that connected with the film.  They saw it as the story of same-sex marriage and felt that it was also a film women would connect to and parents would connect to.  And they’ve been right…they’re businesswomen for a reason and they had a good assessment of what the film could be.

Though it’s not the main subject of the film, one event that becomes a catalyst for your characters is when George loses his longtime job as a music teacher at a parochial school when he marries his partner.  It’s a story that seems to be happening repeatedly all over the country.  George could have been fired for any number of reasons so were the particulars included as a way to highlight what’s going on?
We had read of a case in the Midwest and that seemed to be the starting point of the story but I knew it was not the story itself.  One of the things I find interesting about Ben and George is that they aren’t individuals who then fight back.  They’re not taking it to the streets or joining ACTUP; that’s not who they are.  There’s a humility to them that I think is very much about this kind of class and this kind of age that I see in a city like New York.  They’re average people.  They’re going to find a new way to live their lives…but as themselves.
The film is about a lot of things.  It’s about discovery but it is about loss too…and acceptance of that loss to some extent.  For me it’s written from the perspective of being in the middle of my life and seeing my parents’ generation coming to their later chapters and having to face that head on.  Being a parent, I look at my children and they don’t know anything about loss…which is why I have a young character discovering those emotions of something so fresh for the first time.

 

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Check back this weekend for my review of Love is Strange, opening at Landmark’s Edina Cinema on September 5.

Movie Review ~ Monsters University

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A look at the relationship between Mike and Sulley during their days at Monsters University — when they weren’t necessarily the best of friends.

Stars: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Alfred Molina, Dave Foley, Sean P. Hayes, Joel Murray, Peter Sohn, Charlie Day, Nathan Fillion, Bobby Moynihan, Julia Sweeney, Aubrey Plaza, Tyler Labine, John Krasinski, Bonnie Hunt, Beth Behrs, John Ratzenberger

Director: Dan Scanlon

Rated: G

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Back in 2001 when Monsters Inc. was released Disney/Pixar was riding high off of the boffo success of Toy Story 2 and looking for another megahit.  While Monsters Inc. lined the pockets of all involved, for me it was one of the lesser Pixar films (though I’d still rank it above Cars, Cars 2, A Bugs Life, and Ratatouille) and its not one I’ve revisited much in the following twelve years.

In the last decade Disney/Pixar has matured as a production company, creating and developing moving movies with a purpose and a richly beating heart that it proudly wears on its sleeve.  With films like Up, Wall*E, and Toy Story 3 the animators took just as much pride in tugging at our heartstrings as they did in tickling our funny bone.  2012 saw the release of Brave and though it went on to win the Oscar (somewhat surprisingly) for Best Animated Feature some naysayers felt that film was not so much a step back in progress but a standing of ground with forward motion.

It’s a year later and the next Disney/Pixar film is upon us and it wasn’t a film I was particularly chomping at the bit to see.  In the realm of sequels to their films I would have preferred a sequel to The Incredibles or Finding Nemo (I’ll get my wish in 2015 when Finding Dory arrives) over another visit with the scare makers who work at Monsters Inc.  I just didn’t think it was a film that was needed now.

Well it turns out I was wrong because instead of an outright sequel the filmmakers have made a prequel, following Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) in their college years as they experience a monster of a college life at Monsters University.  The uptight, studious Mike clashes with the laid-back slacker Sulley and it’s only when their future in school is threatened that the two bond together to show what they’re really made of.  Working with a fraternity of misfit outcasts, can Mike and Sulley get back into the Scare Program at school by winning the annual Scare Games?

Monsters University finds the creative minds at Disney/Pixar firing on all cylinders as they bring to life the college experience with an explosion of colors, ideas, and comedic bits that nearly all land exactly where they’re supposed to.  Taking the awkward freshman process to new heights, director Dan Scanlan works with co-screenwriters Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson to create a fully developed array of characters that interact with our two lovable leads in a series of honestly hysterical situation.  Everything on screen looks unique and thought-out…carefully planned for maximum effect.

For fans of the original film there’s a lot of nicely placed foreshadowing in place and certain major players from the first movie pop up here and there as secondary characters.  I wished I had watched the first film again before seeing this because I feel I’d have found several more of these moments that hint at what’s to come.

Returning voice talents Crystal (Parental Guidance) and Goodman (Argo, Flight, Arachnophobia) are top notch here, conveying a youthful exuberance without sacrificing the wise charm that made them such a good team in Monsters Inc.  Oscar winner Helen Mirren (Hitchcock, The Door) is pitch perfect as the imposing dean of Monsters University that takes a dislike to Mike and Sulley and others such as Aubrey Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed, The To-Do List), John Krasinski (Promised Land) and Steve Buscemi (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) have solid contributions.

What I’ve always appreciated about Disney/Pixar films are how economical they are…there’s rarely something on screen that isn’t engaging or interesting and when the film needs to make a point or highlight a lesson all of that extra business is pulled back to let the story shine through.  This is a film filled with larger than life characters and big laughs…a high water mark for all involved.  I found it better than the original because it makes more of an emotional connection to the audience with its themes of acceptance and finding value in others.

In the rash of summer movies that are about to be unleashed, Monsters University was nowhere near the top of my list of anticipated flicks.  Like a recurring theme in the film though, it’s important that I acknowledge that I was wrong and to say that I was surprised that the film surprised me as much as it did.  It’s a winning combination of creativity and talent that’s certain to entertain.  Enroll in Monsters University pronto and experience college life at its funniest finest.