Playing Catch Up With The Films of 2016: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (dir by Glenn Ficara and John Requa)


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Some day, someone will get around to making the ultimate Tina Fey movie, which will basically just be 4 and a half hours of people talking about how much they love Tina Fey while Tina makes silly faces in the background.  Until that day comes, viewers will just have to settle for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

In Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Tina Fey plays Tina Fey playing real-life journalist, Kim Baker.  When the film starts, Kim accepts an assignment as a war correspondent in Afghanistan.  Though she starts out as neurotic and intimidated, Kim soon steps up and emerges as a passionate and committed journalist, one who is dedicated to revealing the truth — both good and bad — about what’s happening in Afghanistan.  Helping her along the way is a BBC reporter, Tanya Vanderpool (Margot Robbie) and a Scottish photographer named Iain (Martin Freeman).  Iain and Kim may be attracted to one another but Kim has a boyfriend (Josh Charles) back in New York.  How long do you think it takes for Kim to catch her boyfriend cheating via Skype?

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is one of those movies that you just know was made to be an Oscar contender.  Not only does it deal with a big important subject but it stars a popular performer in a change-of-pace role.  Except, of course, it’s not really that much of a change-of-pace.  Tina Fey’s a good actress but you never forget that you’re watching Tina Fey.  You never think to yourself, “Kim is caught in the middle of a firefight” or “Kim is getting addicted to the rush of being a war zone.”  Instead, you think, “Any minute now, Tina Fey’s going to start shooting a gun and it’s going to be funny because she’s Tina Fey.”  Towards the end of the film, when a U.S. soldier who has lost his legs tells Kim to never stop trying to tell the people the truth about what’s happening in Afghanistan, you don’t think, “Don’t give up, Kim!”  Instead you think, “Wow — so that soldier lost his legs so that Tina Fey could have an Oscar moment.”

If I haven’t already made it clear, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an extremely uneven film, one that never seems to be sure if it wants to be a relationship comedy, a media satire, or a serious look at the realities of war.  The film works best when it concentrates on the friendship between Tanya and Kim and it’s nice to see a film about two women who are colleagues and friends.  When Tanya first showed up, I was worried that the film would devolve into one of those “Women can’t work together” diatribes or that Tanya would immediately be set up as some sort of mean girl rival for Iain.  Instead, the film explores how women support each other through even the most difficult of circumstances.  But then there’s other scenes that just don’t work as well, like the scenes with Alfred Molina as an Afghan politician who has a crush on Kim.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has its moment but ultimately its too uneven to be of much consequence.

No Safe Space: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story Of The National Lampoon (2015, directed by Douglas Tirola)


Drunk_Stoned_Brilliant_Dead_PosterThe documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead pays tribute to National Lampoon.  Founded in 1970, National Lampoon was published for 28 years and, at the height of its popularity, its sensibility redefined American comedy.  When it came to National Lampoon, nothing was sacred and nothing was off-limits.  The success of National Lampoon led to a stage show called Lemmings and The National Lampoon Radio Hour, which featured everyone from John Belushi and Bill Murray to Chevy Chase and Harold Ramis.  Michael O’Donoghue, famed for his impersonations of celebrities having needless inserted into their eyes, went from writing for the Lampoon to serving as Saturday Night Live‘s first head writer.  National Lampoon’s Animal House, Vacation, and Caddyshack are three of the most influential film comedies ever made.  Everyone from P.J. O’Rourke to John Hughes to The Simpsons‘ Al Jean got their start at National Lampoon.

As influential as it was, National Lampoon is a magazine that would not be able to exist today’s world.  Just looking at the cover of most issues of National Lampoon would reduce today’s special little snowflakes to the point of hysteria.  In Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, National Lampoon‘s publisher claims that the Lampoon ultimately ceased publication because the religious right threatened to boycott any company that advertised in the magazine.  Today, it would be the “safe space” crowd complaining that the magazine did not come with proper trigger warnings.  Lena Dunham would look at one issue and go into a rage spiral.  Salon would publish a hundred hand-wringing think pieces about how National Lampoon was the worst thing since Ted Cruz.  Colleges would ban it and religious groups would still burn it.  National Lampoon was a magazine that went out of its way to be offensive to both the left and the right but, as editor-in-chief Tony Hendra puts it, the job of satire is to make those in power feel uncomfortable.  By poking fun at everything and challenging its readers, National Lampoon exposed the absurdity behind both the country’s prejudices and some of its most sacred beliefs.

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Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead follows the National Lampoon from its founding to its ignominious end.  Along with interviews with Lampoon alumni, it also features archival footage of both Lemmings and The Radio Show, providing glimpses of  Christopher Guest, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Harold Ramis before they became famous.  There are also interviews with celebrity admirers of the Lampoon who talk about how the magazine inspired their own work.  It makes sense that Judd Apatow was interviewed and Kevin Bacon made his screen debut in Animal House but what was Billy Bob Thornton doing there?

Unfortunately, drunk, stoned, brilliant, and dead describes some of the most important and talented figures in the Lampoon‘s history.  The documentary especially focuses on Doug Kenney, the Lampoon’s co-founder.  Everyone interviewed agrees that Kenney was a comedic genius who was also often emotionally troubled and who would vanish for months on end.  After the initial critical failure of Caddyshack, Kenney disappeared in Hawaii.  His body was later discovered at the bottom of the cliff.  Did Kenney jump or did he slip or, as director John Landis suggests, was he murdered by a drug dealer?  Nobody seems to know but Kenney’s ghost haunts the documentary.  This collection of very funny people get very serious when it comes time to talk about Kenney’s death.  Even Chevy Chase briefly redeems himself after years of bad publicity when he gets choked up.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead is tribute to both a magazine and a bygone era.  See it before it gets banned.

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Film Review: Cut Bank (dir by Matt Shakman)


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The image at the top of this post is taken from the film Cut Bank and features Teresa Palmer and Liam Hemsworth.  It’s a striking picture, isn’t it?  If there’s anything positive that can be said about Cut Bank, it’s that it’s a visually striking film.  Some of the film’s images compare favorably with the work of the Coen Brothers in  No Country For Old Men and Fargo.

(Perhaps not surprisingly, the film’s director, Matt Shakman, previously directed two episodes of the Fargo tv series.)

Of course, it’s not just the film’s visual style that will remind you of the Coens.  The plot is full of Coen DNA as well and that’s a bit of a problem.  The thing that sets the Coen Brothers apart from other directors is that only they seem to understand how to best pull off their unique brand of ironic quirkiness.  It’s difficult to think of any other director who could have done A Serious Man, Burn After Reading, or any other Coen film.  It’s telling that whenever other directors have attempted to film a Coen Brothers script — whether it was Angelina Jolie with Unbroken or Steven Spielberg with Bridge of Spies — the resulting film has almost always been overwhelmingly earnest.  (If you try, you can imagine a Coen-directed version of Bridge of Spies, one with Josh Brolin in the Tom Hanks role, Steve Buscemi as Rudolph Abel, and maybe Bruce Campbell as a CIA agent.)  The Coen style is one that has inspired many a director but ultimately, it seems to be something that only the Coens themselves are truly capable of pulling off.

(Though Ridley Scott came close with the underrated The Counselor…)

Plotwise, Cut Bank has everything that you would normally expect to find in a Coen Brothers film.  For instance, it takes place in Cut Bank, Montana and, much as in Fargo and No Country For Old Men, a good deal of time is devoted to detailing the oddness of life in the middle of nowhere.  Also, much as in Fargo and No Country For Old Men, the entire film revolves around an overly complicated crime gone wrong.

Dwayne McLaren (Liam Hemsworth) has spent his entire life in the Montana town of Cut Bank and is looking for a way to get enough money to move out to California with his beauty pageant-obsessed girlfriend, Cassandra (Teresa Palmer).  Dwayne learns that the U.S. Postal Service will pay a reward to anyone who provides information about the death of a postal worker.  One day, while filming one of Cassandra’s pageant audition videos, Dwayne accidentally films both the shooting of mailman Georgie Wits (Bruce Dern) and the theft of his mail truck.

Wow, what luck!

Sheriff Vogel (John Malkovich) throws up as soon as he hears about the murder.  After all, he’s never had to investigate one before.  Town weirdo Derby Milton (Michael Stuhlbarg) is upset that the stolen mail truck contained a parcel that he was waiting for.  Meanwhile, Big Stan (Billy Bob Thornton), who happens to be both Cassandra’s father and Dwayne’s boss, seems to be suspicious about how Dwayne just happened to be in the field at the same time that Georgie was getting killed…

Dwayne’s efforts to collect his reward are stymied by the fact that postal inspector Joe Barrett (Oliver Platt) doesn’t want to hand over any money until Georgie’s body has been found.  Unfortunately, it’s going to be difficult for anyone to find Georgie’s body because Georgie is still alive!  That’s right — Georgie’s been working with Dwayne the whole time…

Meanwhile, it turns out that Derby is not someone you want to mess with.  In fact, he’s just as efficient a killing machine as Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men.  And Derby is determined to retrieve his parcel…

Cut Bank got an extremely limited release in April of this year and it didn’t get much attention.  To a certain extent, I can understand why.  It’s a film that has its moments but ultimately, it’s never as good as you want it to be.  The best thing about the film is that it features a lot of eccentric actors doing their thing.  Any film that allows Bruce Dern to interact with Michael Stuhlbarg deserves some credit.  Unfortunately, Dwayne and Cassandra are not particularly interesting characters and Hemsworth and Palmer give rather one-dimensional performances.  Since you don’t care about them, you don’t really care if Dwayne’s scheme is going to work out.  William H. Macy may have been a despicable loser in Fargo but you could still understand what led to him coming up with his phony plan and you felt a strange mix of sympathy and revulsion as everything spiraled out of his control.  The same can be said of Josh Brolin in No Country For Old Men.  Dwayne, however, just comes across like someone who came up with a needlessly complicated plan for no good reason.

In 2013, the script for Cut Bank was included as a part of the Black List, an annual list of the “best” unproduced scripts in Hollywood.  What’s odd is that, for all the hype that goes along with being listed, Black List scripts rarely seem to work as actual films.  Oh sure, there’s been a few exceptions.  American Hustle was on the Black List, for instance.  But a typical Black List film usually turns out to be something more along the lines of The Beaver or Broken City.  Watching Cut Bank, I could see why the script generated excitement.  The story is full of twists and all of the characters are odd enough that I’m sure readers had a lot of fun imagining which beloved character actor could fill each role.  Unfortunately — as so often happens with Black List films — the direction does not live up to the writing.  Yes, the plot is twisty and there’s a lot of odd moments but the film never escapes the long shadow of the films that influenced it.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #96: A Simple Plan (dir by Sam Raimi)


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The 1998 film A Simple Plan reunites Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton.  After previously playing adversaries in One False Move, they played brothers here.  However, it’s not just the cast that makes A Simple Plan feel like a spiritual descendant of One False Move.  Both One False Move and A Simple Plan deal with greed and violence.  Both One False Move and A Simple Plan take place in a small town where everyone thinks that they know all there is to know about each other.  Both One False Move and A Simple Plan feature Paxton as a man who turns out to be something more than what the viewer originally assumed.  Perhaps most importantly, both One False Move and A Simple Plan are meditations on guilt, greed, and community.

A Simple Plan takes place in Minnesota, in a world that seems to exist under a permanent layer of snow and ice.  While out hunting, Hank (Bill Paxton), his well-meaning but dim-witted brother Jacob (Billy Bob Thornton), and their redneck friend Lou (Brent Briscoe) stumble across an airplane that has crashed in the woods.  Inside the airplane, they find a dead pilot and a bag containing 4 million dollars.  At first, Hank says they should call the authorities and let them know what they’ve found but he rather easily allows Jacob and Lou to talk him out of it.  Instead, they agree that Hank will hide the money at his house until spring arrives.  They also agree to not tell anyone about the money but, as soon as he arrives home, Hank tells his pregnant wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda) everything that has happened.

Needless to say, this simple plan quickly get complicated.  Sarah is soon telling Hank that he should not trust Lou and Jacob.  The local sheriff (Chelcie Ross) saw Hank and Jacob leaving the woods after discovering the plane and may (or may not) be suspicious of what they found.  Alcoholic Lou starts to demand his share of the money early.  As things start to spiral, Hank finds himself doing things that he would have never thought he would ever do.  Or, as Sarah puts it, “Nobody’d ever believe that you’d be capable of doing what you’ve done.”

And then, one day, a mysterious FBI agent (Gary Cole) shows up and says that he’s looking for the plane.  Except that, according to Sarah, he’s not really with the FBI…

It’s appropriate that A Simple Plan takes place in a world that appears to be permanently covered in snow because it is a film that is both chilly and chilling.  Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton are both perfectly cast.  (Thornton received an Oscar nomination for his performance.  Paxton undoubtedly deserved one.)  Bridget Fonda turns Sarah into a small town Lady MacBeth and Gary Cole, Brent Briscoe, and Chelcie Ross are all memorable in smaller roles.

(Brent Biscoe, in particular, is a redneck nightmare.)

The next time that you want to contemplate the evil that is done in the name of money, why not start off with a double feature of One False Move and A Simple Plan?

 

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #87: One False Move (dir by Carl Franklin)


One_false_moveWho doesn’t love Bill Paxton?

Seriously, he’s just one of those actors.  He’s appeared in a countless number of films and he’s played a lot of different characters.  He was a psycho vampire in Near Dark.  He was the underwater explorer who got stuck with all of the worst lines in Titanic.  In Frailty, he was a father who was driven to murder by heavenly visions.  He was the sleaziest of sleazes in Nightcrawler.  And, of course, in Big Love, he was an unrepentant polygamist.  In all of these roles, Paxton showed the quirkiness that has made him so beloved to film lovers like me.  Much like Kevin Bacon, it doesn’t matter what role Bill Paxton is playing.  You’re going to like him and you’re going to be happy to see him onscreen.

And yet, considering just how many popular films that he’s appeared in, it’s interesting to note that Bill Paxton’s best performance can be found in a film about which not many people seem to have heard.  That film is the 1992 Southern crime drama, One False Move.

Actually, it does the film a disservice to refer to it as merely being a crime drama.  I mean, it is a drama and it even has a properly dark ending to prove that fact.  And it is about criminals and police officers.  But ultimately, the film’s plot is just a starting point that the film uses to examine issues of culture, race, and guilt.  In the end, One False Movie is an unexpectedly poignant and penatrating character study of 5 very different people.

We start out with three criminals.  Ray (played by Billy Bob Thornton, who also co-wrote the script) is a career criminal, a white trash redneck who is not particularly smart but who is dangerous because he’s ruthless and he’s willing to whatever he need to do to survive.  (If you’ve lived in the country, you will recognize Ray’s type as soon as you see him.)  Ray’s girlfriend is Fantasia (Cynda Williams), a beautiful but insecure woman.  And finally, there’s Ray’s partner and former cellmate, Pluto (Michael Beach).  Of the three of them, Pluto is the most menacing, a knife-wielding sociopath with an IQ of 150.  Even though he’s working with Ray and Fantasia, Pluto always makes it clear that he considers himself to be both separate from and better than both of them.

Ray, Pluto, and Fantasia have just brutally murdered 6 people in Los Angeles, all of whom were friends of Fantasia’s.  Now, they’re making their way to Houston, planning on selling stolen cocaine.  Pursuing them are two LAPD detective, Cole (Jim Metzler) and McFeeley (Earl Billings).  When Cole and McFeeley come across evidence that the three criminals might have a connection with the tiny town of Star City, Arkansas, they call up the local sheriff.

And that’s where Bill Paxton shows up.

Paxton plays Sheriff Dale Dixon.  Dale’s nickname is Hurricane and it’s soon obvious why.  Like a hurricane, Dale never stops moving.  He’s a well-meaning but hyperactive good old boy who has a talent for saying exactly the wrong thing.  When he first talks to Cole and McFeeley over the phone, he amuses them with his enthusiastic bragging and briefly offends them with his casual racism.

Cole and McFeeley eventually end up taking a trip to Star City, so that they can investigate how the three criminals are connected to this tiny town.  When Dixon meets up with them, he asks them if they could help him get a job with the LAPD.  The two cops initially humor Dixon and laugh at him behind his back.  When Dixon’s wife (a wonderful performance from Natalie Canerday) asks Cole to keep Dixon safe, Cole assures her that Ray, Fantasia, and Pluto are probably not even going to come anywhere near Star City.

However, Dixon soon reveals to the two cops that Fantasia’s name is Lila and that her family lives in Star City.  What he doesn’t tell them, however, is that he and Lila have a personal connection of their own…

One False Move is a twisty and intense thriller, one that’s distinguished by strong performances from the entire cast.  (Even Metzler and Billings bring unexpected shadings to Cole and McFeeley, who, in any other film, would have been portrayed as being stock characters.)  But the film is truly dominated by Bill Paxton.  When we first meet Dixon, he seems like a joke.  We’re sure that he’ll somehow end up being the film’s hero (because that’s what happens in movies about small town sheriffs being underestimated by big city cops) but what we’re not expecting is that Dale is going to turn out to be such a multi-layered and fascinating character.  Just as Dale eventually starts to lower his defenses and reveal who he truly is, Paxton also starts to reign in his initially overwhelming performance and reveals himself to be a subtle and perceptive actor.  It’s a great performance that elevates the entire film.  Al Pacino won the 1992 Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in Scent of a Woman.  That award should have gone to the unnominated Bill Paxton.

It wouldn’t be fair to reveal One False Move‘s secrets.  It’s a film that you really should see for yourself.

Shattered Politics #63: Primary Colors (dir by Mike Nichols)


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Jack Stanton (John Travolta) is the charismatic governor of an unnamed Southern state.  After spending his entire life in politics, Jack is finally ready to run for President.  Even more ready is his equally ambitious wife, Susan (Emma Thompson).  Jack proves himself to be a strong candidate, a good speaker who understands the voters and who has the ability to project empathy for almost anyone’s situation. He’s managed to recruit a talented and dedicated campaign staff, including the flamboyant Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton), Daisy Green (Maura Tierney), and journalist Henry Burton (Adrian Lester).  Henry is the son of a civil rights leader and, as soon as they meet, Jack talks about the first time that he ever heard Henry’s father speak.  Within minutes of first meeting him, Henry believes in Jack.

The problem, however, is that there are constant hints that Jack may not be worthy of his admiration.  There’s the fact that he’s a compulsive womanizer who is given to displays of temper and immaturity.  When one of Jack’s old friends reveals that Jack may have impregnated his daughter, Jack and Susan respond with a pragmatic ruthlessness that takes Henry by surprise.

When one of Jack’s mistresses threatens to go public, Henry is partnered up with Libby (Kathy Bates) and sent to dig up dirt on her and her sponsors.  When the former governor of Florida, Freddie Picker (Larry Hagman), emerges as a threat to derail Jack’s quest for the nomination, Henry and Libby are again assigned to research Picker’s background.  Libby is perhaps the film’s most interesting character.  Recovering from a mental breakdown, Libby has no trouble threatening to shoot one political opponent but she’s still vulnerable and idealistic enough that it truly hurts her when Jack and Susan repeatedly fail to live up to her ideals.  As an out lesbian, Libby is perhaps the only character who has no trouble revealing her true self and, because of her honesty, she is the one who suffers the most.

First released in 1998 and based on a novel by Joe Klein, Primary Colors is an entertaining and ultimately rather bittersweet dramedy about the American way of politics.  John Travolta and Emma Thompson may be playing Jack and Susan Stanton but it’s obvious from the start that they’re meant to be Bill and Hillary Clinton.  And while it takes a few minutes to get used to Travolta’s attempt to sound Southern, this is ultimately one of his best performances.  As played by Travolta, Jack Stanton is charming, compassionate, self-centered, and ultimately, incredibly frustrating.  One reason why Primary Colors works is because we, as an audience, come to believe in Jack just as much as Henry does and then we come to be just as disillusioned as Libby.  Emma Thompson’s performance is a little less obviously based on Hillary.  Unlike Travolta, she doesn’t attempt to imitate Hillary’s voice or mannerisms.  But she perfectly captures the steely determination.

Primary Colors captures both the thrill of believing and the inevitability of disillusionment.  It’s definitely a film that I will rewatch in the days leading up to 2016.

Here’s What Won At The Golden Globes!


Film Awards

Best Film (Drama) — Boyhood

Best Drama Actor — Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything

Best Drama Actress — Julianne Moore in Still Alice

Best Film (Comedy) — The Grand Budapest Hotel

Best Comedy Actor — Michael Keaton in Birdman

Best Comedy Actress — Amy Adams in Big Eyes

Best Supporting Actor — J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

Best Supporting Actress — Patricia Arquette in Boyhood

Best Director — Richard Linklater for Boyhood

Best Screenplay — Birdman

Best Animated Feature — How To Train Your Dragon 2

Best Score — The Theory of Everything

Best Original Song — “Glory” from Selma

TV Awards

Best Drama Series — The Affair

Best Drama Actor — Kevin Spacey in House of Cards

Best Drama Actress — Ruth Wilson in The Affair

Best Comedy Series — Transparent

Best Comedy Actor — Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent

Best Comedy Actress — Gina Rodriguez in Jane the Virgin

Best TV Movie/Limited Series — Fargo

Best TV Movie/Limited Series Actor — Billy Bob Thornton in Fargo

Best TV Movie/Limited Series Actress — Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Honourable Woman

Best TV Supporting Actor — Matt Bomer in The Normal Heart

Best TV Supporting Actress — Joanne Froggatt in Downton Abbey