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 ~ Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A look at the history of the American comedy publication and production company, National Lampoon, from its beginning in the 1970s to 2010, featuring rare and never-before-seen footage.

Stars: Chevy Chase, Kevin Bacon, Al Jean, Billy Bob Thornton, Ivan Reitman, John Landis, Judd Apatow, P.J. O’Rourke

Director: Douglas Tirola

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Though I’ve watched quite a few of the big screen offerings boasting the name National Lampoon, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the bawdy, rule-challenging magazine that started it all. Those in the same boat as me will be well served to devote some time to Douglas Tirola’s Lampoon love letter Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon because it gathers nearly every living member that was a major contributor to the magazine and films, detailing how the magazine rose to record high circulation before crashing and burning near the turn of the century.

The ground-breaking publication had a 28 year run starting in 1970, born as an offshoot of sorts to the Harvard Lampoon, a chaste satire magazine that I’m pretty sure didn’t feature as many bare breasts as its wicked cousin. Attracting some of the best and brightest in young comedic talent, the magazine grew to phenomenal popularity in pop culture and found its players turning up on a radio shows, stage plays, and, eventually movies.

The timing seems right for this documentary, coming on the heels of the numerous retrospectives that surrounded the 40th Anniversary of Saturday Night Live. Looking at the members of the National Lampoon that were eventually lured away to form the original cast of SNL, you get an even greater sense as to where they cut their satiric teeth before achieving the national spotlight every Saturday night.

It’s a fairly straight-forward documentary with good sound bites presented by people with names we recognize more for their behind the scenes contribution than anything onscreen. Though they are now older and (maybe) wiser, the wealth of timeworn photos show that in their heyday these people partied hard and produced a ribald humor magazine that was a counter-culture phenom of its time. It’s hard to know if such a thing could happen in this day and age, making the National Lampoon a time capsule of sorts for how things (and people) (and humor) used to be.

The Silver Bullet ~ Our Brand is Crisis

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Synopsis: A feature film based on the documentary “Our Brand Is Crisis”, which focuses on the use of American political campaign strategies in South America.

Release Date: October 30, 2015

Thoughts: Since winning her Oscar for The Blind Side in 2009, Sandra Bullock has chosen her projects cautiously.  Many a Best Actress winner followed up their wins with one or more (coughcoughHalle Berrycoughcough) disappointing outings and Bullock wisely steered clear of making any hasty decisions. She took a supporting role in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, tried playing the straight man in The Heat, and found herself in the Best Actress race again with Gravity. In 2015 she voiced a villain in the animated Minions and she’s closing out the year in an adaptation of the 2005 political documentary Our Brand is Crisis. I have faith in Bullock and producer George Clooney, even if our first look at their collaboration leaves much to be desired.  Maybe it’s because we can’t tell if it’s a high stakes drama or a goofball comedy and it certainly doesn’t help my interest at all that Billy Bob Thornton (Entourage) shows up (teeth first, cueball head second).  Director David Gordon Green has an iffy record in my book but Bullock and good buzz sell it for me…still it’s not at the top of my fall movie list.

Movie Review ~ Entourage

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Movie star Vincent Chase, together with his boys Eric, Turtle, and Johnny, are back – and back in business with super-agent turned studio-head Ari Gold on a risky project that will serve as Vince’s directorial debut.

Stars: Jeremy Piven, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara, Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Haley Joel Osment, Billy Bob Thornton, Rex Lee, Perrey Reeves, Emily Ratajkowski, Rhys Coiro, Nora Dunn, Debi Mazar, Constance Zimmer, Ronda Rousey, Scott ‘Kid Cudi’ Mescudi

Director: Doug Ellin

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I’ve been a loyal HBO subscriber for years but I’m one of the select few that’s never seen an episode of True Blood or made it through the entire series of The Sopranos. I especially avoided Entourage which seemed a little, well, douche-y for my tastes. I’ve known about the big screen continuation of Entourage (which had a successful run on HBO from 2004-2011) for a while and I tried to do my homework on this one, I really did. I even had the discs of the first season staring me down on my night stand each evening before I made the judgement call to watch Friends on Netflix instead.

So I approached the screening of the film with some trepidation. Would I be completely lost with the characters, not knowing their backstory? Would the bro-tastic vibe I got from the trailers send this one up, up, up into the macho testosterone grunting stratosphere? Most of all…would I enjoy myself?

The answer to these questions of world importance were no, not really, and, surprisingly, yes.

Sensing that their movie may be playing to a specific niche crowd of loyal fans, Warner Brothers and HBO have wisely made it clear in the ads and promos for Entourage that even if you never watched the show you’ll get a kick out of the raunchy debauchery of a bunch of L.A. living dudes that party hard, love the ladies, and work for the kind of bank bucks that keep them living the big life in spacious mansions that seem to always have a naked starlet in the pool waiting for them when they come home.

Truth be told, this isn’t my kind of movie at all but in many ways it’s one of the smartest (if slightest) comedies of the year so far. Its insider look at Hollywood and numerous celebrity cameos rival Robert Altman’s 1992 film The Player but the comparisons end there. While Altman’s film is a twisty noir that savages the entertainment industry, Entourage keeps things sunny and free spirited.

Playing like an extended episode of the series, the film follows star Vincent Chase (Adrian Grenier) and his entourage: half-brother Johnny “Drama” (Kevin Dillon), manager E (Kevin Connolly), driver/assistant Turtle (Jerry Ferrara, Lone Survivor), and former agent now studio exec Ari Gold (Jeremy Piven, Edge of Tomorrow) as they scramble to finish Vincent’s directorial debut that Ari greenlit and is now way over budget. The film in question is a sci-fi take on Jekyll & Hyde for the new millennium and everyone that sees it thinks it’s great. Not being familiar with the show I’m unsure if it’s normal in the series to ape on Hollywood vanity projects by having everyone fawn over a film that’s fairly terrible looking but yeesh…the little we see of Vincent’s Hyde is overproduced goulash.

The film nicely divides it’s time between the pressure Vincent has to finish the film, newly promiscuous E’s impending fatherhood with his former flame (Emmanuelle Chriqui, Fort Bliss), Drama’s insecurities as he struggles to get out of his famous siblings shadow, and uber-wealthy Turtle’s romantic pursuit of mixed martial artist turned actress Ronda Rousey (Furious 7, The Expendables 3). All four actors know these characters inside and out and the years between the series finale and the film hasn’t seemed to lessen their interest in taking things to the next level.

Piven, who nabbed three Emmys for the show, is the unquestionable star of the show. The actor has had his fair share of being put through the Hollywood wringer and maybe that’s the reason why he’s able to sink his teeth into Ari so well. Short-tempered and hot under the collar, he’s especially amped up when he has to beg for more money for Hyde from the film’s financer, a deep-pocketed Texan (Billy Bob Thornton, The Judge, looking like a withered bobble head of his former self). When the Texan sends his nebbish son (Haley Joel Osment, Tusk, who has now completed his transformation into a Garbage Pail Kid) out to Hollywood to get a feel for the film, it causes a bunch of problems for Vincent, Ari, and the gang.

Though he hasn’t directed a feature film since 1998’s forgettable Kissing a Fool, Doug Ellin’s experience behind a camera on the Entourage series made him the right choice to write and direct…also helps that he’s the creator of the show. I liked that the film takes place almost entirely in the bright California sun and features a swell soundtrack that is easy on the ears. Though it does feel like a super-sized episode, it doesn’t feel like a quick cash-in on the popularity of the television show however it’s squarely targeted at fans…which can make the rest of us feel a little left out at times. That’s not the fault of the film, per se, and I’m not sure really what could have been done to fix that piece short of requiring viewing of the eight seasons before admission.

Better than I thought it would be, Entourage makes a solid bid for the attention of audiences that need a break from the bonkers mayhem of San Andreas, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. And after making it through the Pitch Perfect 2 festivities, men can hopefully get their girlfriends/wives to repay the favor and tag along to their Entourage party.

Movie Review ~ The Judge

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder. Hank sets out to discover the truth and, along the way, reconnects with his estranged family.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shephard, Billy Bob Thornton, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Sarah Lancaster, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare

Director: David Dobkin

Rated: R

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: I can imagine the script for The Judge came together by accident.  Perhaps a pair of screenwriters were both walking around a local coffee shop with two scripts, one was about a big city lawyer defending his estranged father on a murder charge and the other was about a hot-shot attorney who retreats home after discovering his wife was cheating on him.  Maybe the two writers stumbled into one another, sending their loose-leafed scripts up in the air in a flurry of white paper and when they picked themselves up they couldn’t discern what pages belonged to which script so they decided to just combine them and sell the unified work as The Judge.

I mean, that’s one theory right?  And it’s a lot more acceptable than knowing full well and good that The Judge was no accident, made with purpose. No amount of revisionist history can save this film from being one of the worst motion pictures in my recent memory, squandering the talents of its able-bodied cast for 141 of the most ghastly minutes you’ll spend in a theater this year.

Reminding me a lot of the equally awkward This Is Where I Leave You, The Judge miraculously ups the unpleasantness factor by offering not one moment that feels genuine; at least This Is Where I Leave You had a few redeeming qualities about it …and was forty minutes shorter.

Seeing early trailers, I thought The Judge held some promise considering the pairing of two Roberts in a courtroom drama.  Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3) seemed like the perfect actor to be matched with Oscar winner Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies, The Paper) and sparks were expected to fly.  I’m not sure any combination of actors could have risen above the tone-deaf script that veers schizophrenically from comedy to drama, never succeeding in either arena.

Returning to his all-American hometown after his mother’s unexpected death, legal eagle Hank (Downey Jr., looking disturbingly skeletal…where’s the full faced lad from Less than Zero?) clashes with his father (Duvall), a respected town judge.  As he reconnects with his brothers (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) and an old flame (Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring, totally wasted though she’s miscast in the first place), he’s drawn deeper into the unresolved past with his dad after the judge is arrested on suspicion of murder and put on trail by a vengeful prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton, wearing a Colonel Sanders wig and flashing his receding gum line every chance he gets).

Now I’m not going to deny that there’s a good idea somewhere in the plot and perhaps if director David Dobkin wasn’t so interested in wringing the ever loving emotional life out of every single scene then The Judge may have fared better overall, serving as a minor distraction for Downey Jr. between his Marvel superhero commitments.

Nearing the end of this folly, I turned to my companion and exclaimed “There are so many emotions in this movie!” and it’s the God’s honest truth.  No emotional well is left undrained by Dobkin and co. as they move us through self-serving scene after self-serving scene.  I began to wonder if the entire movie wasn’t some elaborate prank where every acting clip shown on the Oscars wasn’t recreated in one film. There are courtroom confessions, tender moments bizarrely played out in front of masses of people, tough good-byes, difficult hellos, old wounds reopened, and healing apologies delivered as one single tear rolls down a cheek.  It’s all simply too much.

It’s an ugly film too. When the backdrops aren’t horribly digitally inserted the film takes place in houses, bars, and courtrooms that have “natural” light coming through the windows by way of 1000 watt search lights, suggesting cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Lincoln) has shot the movie like a Christopher Nolan directed episode of Judge Judy.

Culminating in a borderline offensive finale that wears its manipulation as a badge of honor, I can’t recommend enough steering clear of this mish-mash of a missed opportunity.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Judge

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Synopsis: Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder. Hank sets out to discover the truth and, along the way, reconnects with his estranged family.

Release Date: October 10, 2014

Thoughts: Though I’ve seen the poster and the trailer for The Judge several times now, I still fight with telling myself that it’s not the latest adaptation of a John Grisham thriller…not that the preview doesn’t suggest something similar to Grisham’s sweaty courtroom dramas that were all the rage in the mid-90s. With a nicely meaty role, star Robert Downey Jr. (The Avengers) ,may have found a nice antidote to the Iron Man/Sherlock Holmes track he’s been on for the last few years. Paired with Oscar winner Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies), I’m looking forward to seeing the two generationally different actors work alongside one another.