Movie Review ~ Wildcat (2021)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After militants ambush her convoy in the Middle East, an ambitious reporter is taken captive and held hostage. Now forced to confront her troubled and traumatic past, she desperately searches for a way to bring down her captors and survive with her life intact.

Stars: Georgina Campbell, Luke Benward, Mido Hamada

Director: Jonathan W. Stokes

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Sometimes, the mantra “It’s just a movie” works not just to help you through watching a particularly hard sequence in a film but also at the end when you need to summarize it for yourself.  It’s neither dismissive nor offering of praise, it’s short but not too short, it’s open-ended for you to add more if you want or just slap a period on at the end and call it a day.  It’s not the deepest evaluation/critique you can give a film, nor is it the worst (that would be “Eh.”) but it might be the most utilitarian when a filmmaker hasn’t left you much to digest by the time the credits roll.  This week, I can give some examples for the new Middle East set war thriller, Wildcat

It’s just a movie. A reporter (Georgina Campbell) has been ambushed in Iraq by extremists that have killed all but one solider (Luke Benward, Life of the Party) in her party and both have been brought to a secret location where they are held hostage. While the solider is routinely subjected to the kind of vicious torture in an adjacent room we only hear at times, we get a front row seat for several of her fingernails being yanked out with a pair of rusty pliers.  Using her exposed nailbeds as pressure points, the leader of the group (Mido Hamada, American Sniper) seeks to discover her true purpose in the city and if she’s actually a CIA agent traveling undercover.  The activists want codes to the American embassy, and they believe either she or the solider can provide them…and both know once they obtain that info their lives will be useless.  So begins a one-room cat-and-mouse game, mostly between the captive and her captor as she plans an escape while feeding false information to bide her time, information that if found to be fake would mean certain death. 

It’s just a movie. For all the tension this summary would seem to rouse, writer/director Jonathan W. Stokes strangely never lets you forget you’re in your own home watching this play out on screen.  There’s nothing transporting about the ambience of the piece, save for some mighty committed performances from Hamada and especially Campbell.  The film opens with that genuinely unnerving fingernail pulling and I had hoped some of that energy level would/could be maintained, considering Wildcat didn’t have a robust running time.  Unfortunately, the rest unspools almost in little vignettes between Campbell and Benward as the last solider alive, peppered by appearances of Hamada and another, more proficient torturer (Maz Siam) who handles the unpleasant dealings as if he’s plucking out an eyelash. 

It’s just a movie. I half expected to find that Wildcat was an adaption by Stokes of some play because it’s so self-contained and feels like it would lend itself well to the urgency of a one act theatrical experience.  That way, the tension could easily be ratcheted up with more plausibility because live audiences tend to suspend their disbelief at a greater rate than movie audiences will for these types of films.  Some of the contrivances of the plot, especially in its disappointingly conventional third act and even more traditional conclusion, just don’t work if you aren’t fully swept away by the action.  Stokes never manages to get our attention long enough to bring us to that place. 

It’s just a movie. One movie can make the difference in a career, and this could definitely serve as a calling card for Campbell in the near future.  While she’s been an active presence onscreen for over a decade and received good notices before, she anchors Wildcat with such strength that my opinion of the movie improved after a reconsideration based solely on her performance.  She’s onscreen for nearly all 93 minutes and must juggle several different priorities throughout, maintaining a detailed gameplan for each.  That’s hard work for just one person and while Hamada is a strong scene partner throughout and Benward gets better as the film goes on, Campbell is on target from the moment you see her. 

It’s just a movie.  So there you have it.  Wildcat joins a long litany of war films that have one large goal but forget to mark small victories along the way.  These are just as important as meeting your end target and getting from Point A to Point B.  You can tell from the get-go where this one is headed but spend some energy over the first forty or so minutes figuring out if anything will deviate from the expected.  When it doesn’t, you settle in to watch it follow a well-worn course. After all, it’s just a movie. 

Movie Review ~ Life of the Party

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After her husband abruptly asks for a divorce, a middle-aged mother returns to college in order to complete her degree.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph, Julie Bowen, Matt Walsh, Molly Gordon, Stephen Root, Jacki Weaver, Adria Arjona, Debby Ryan, Luke Benward, Jessie Ennis, Heidi Gardner

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I’ve got good news and bad news for you if you’re considering making a trip to the movies to see Life of the Party this Mother’s Day weekend. The bad news is that most of the jokes have been spoiled for you in the previews, the good news is that the two best jokes haven’t. A semi-refreshing twist on the old fish-out-of-water/parent-going-back-to-school storyline, this isn’t a movie out to reinvent the comedic wheel but it does manage to capably overcome initial tone problems. What results is a sweet, if completely predictable, comedy that has its heart and brain in the right place.

The third collaboration between star Melissa McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone (What to Expect When You’re Expecting), Life of the Party represents the best of their work together so far. Their first outing was 2014’s Tammy, a movie so godawful I don’t permit its name to be uttered in my presence. They bounced back in 2016 with The Boss, which found more humor, less aggravation, and an overall better script. Writing together allows the couple to play off McCarthy’s strengths but continues to show Falcone’s weakness as a director – I’d love to see what another director would do with one of their screenplays.

Frumpy housewife Deanna (McCarthy, Spy) and her husband Dan (Matt Walsh, Into the Storm) have just dropped their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon, Love the Coopers) off for her last year of college when Dan announces he wants a divorce. He’s fallen in love with a realtor (Julie Bowen) and is selling their house, leaving Deanna without a home or an income. In a surge of confidence, Deanna decides to reenroll at the same college she dropped out of in her senior year 20 years earlier…the college her daughter now attends.

Going back to school to finish her archeology degree, Deanna finds that while the times have changed the people getting the college experience haven’t. There’s still the mean girl (Debby Ryan) who tears down anything she doesn’t deem cool, the parties are drunken ragers, the sorority sisters have the same doubt about their futures, and Deanna’s fear of public speaking hasn’t dissipated over the last two decades. That proves especially hard during the film’s funniest sequence by far, when Deanna has to give an oral presentation that quickly devolves into a sweaty, knee-buckling, nightmare.

Still, a few things in her homecoming to co-ed life catch her off-guard. Unexpected bonding with her daughter tops the list as well as a realization she can reclaim some of the years she feels were spent in a troubled marriage by returning to finish what she started. Then there’s the romance with Jack (Luke Benward), a younger frat boy which takes some surprisingly genuine turns as the movie progresses. Eventually, even with one nice twist involving Jack, the movie works toward its predictable conclusion yet even though you know where it’s all heading it’s not hard in the least to sit back and be entertained.

That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have moments that call for a markdown on the final grade. As is usually the case with these McCarthy/Falcone features, there’s an overabundance of periphery characters that serve no purpose to any of the characters or the story. Usually friends (or family!) of the director and star, these annoying additions pad the running time and bring down some of the solid funny framework that has been created. Even the usually dependable Maya Rudolph (The Way Way Back) is given far too long a leash as Deanna’s friend – I almost wonder what things would have looked like had Rudolph and the tightly wound and miscast Bowen had swapped roles. There’s also at least one too many sorority sisters for my money. And Deanna’s parents (Jacki Weaver, Stoker, and Stephen Root, Trumbo) could have been removed all together and no one would have been the wiser.

You also have to ding the couple for not editing their films better or providing information to fill in large gaps that go unexplained. It’s never clear until far too late how Deanna is paying for college or what hoops she had to jump through to get back to her studies in less than several weeks. Timelines are also fuzzy, with events either happening too close together or too spaced out and, as with most college movies, everyone seems to only go to one class or not attend at all.

Yet the film is getting high marks from me because even with all these nitpicks, there’s a certain whiff of clean air and good intentions that keep this one afloat. McCarthy again carries an entire film on her shoulders and while that might get exhausting after a while she’s got the boundless energy to pull out all the stops when called upon to do so. While she’s never one to shy away from physical stunts, this is another pleasant example of McCarthy’s continued maturing as a performer with her comedy coming from situational happenstance instead of corporeal humor. Whether she’s dancing in ‘80s-inspired couture, trashing a wedding reception, or performing alongside a pop star’s amusing cameo, there’s always a human being underneath it all.