Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Posted on March 3, 2016 at 5:20 pm

Copyright 2016 Paramount
Copyright 2016 Paramount

When Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times reviewed the book that inspired “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” the memoir of journalist Kim Barker about her days covering US military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, she wrote:

What’s remarkable about “The Taliban Shuffle” is that its author, Kim Barker — a reporter at ProPublica and the South Asia bureau chief for The Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009 — has written an account of her experiences covering Afghanistan and Pakistan that manages to be hilarious and harrowing, witty and illuminating, all at the same time.

It’s not just that Ms. Barker is adept at dramatizing her own adventures as a reporter — though she develops the chops of a veteran foreign correspondent, she depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character, who unexpectedly finds herself addicted to the adrenaline rush of war.

And now that book is a movie, and the role of Ms. Barker is being played by non-other than Tina Fey, who also co-produced. As always, her work is whip-smart and original. This is not Liz Lemon goes to war, it is an impressively sensitive dramatic performance.

But Barker’s story has been movie-ized, giving it the “inspired by” rather than “based on” designation, and removing the “r” from the character’s name to create some space. The real Barker was a print journalist, but making her a television correspondent to make it more cinematic. And the various love interests are fictional. It is disappointing that the movie makes the impetus for the assignment a combination of professional and romantic ennui. Barker was a dedicated journalist looking for a big story.

But much of the essence of it is the real deal, starting with Barker/Baker’s plan to spend three months in Afghanistan that turned into three years, and the ramped-up intensity of spending days embedded with the military, frantically editing the story, and then trying to obliterate memory and consciousness with some hard-core partying, only to start over again. Baker is inexperienced but dedicated and smart. She quickly impresses the cynical General (Billy Bob Thornton) who sees embedded journalists as a bother and a risk. And she quickly bonds with the other woman reporter (Margot Robbie), who shows her the ropes and asks very politely if she can sleep with Baker’s hunky security guy.

Alfred Molina is excellent, as always, as an Afghani official, though we should be past the time when European actors are cast as Middle Eastern characters. And maybe we do not need any more stories of Western characters discovering the mysteries of the other side of the world, with illuminating life lessons from exotic people. We don’t want this to be “Under the Tuscan Sun” but with war instead of sun-ripened Italian tomatoes, and it gets uncomfortably close at times. But the thoughtful script from longtime Fey collaborator Robert Carlock keeps the film from making war be just a growth experience for a reporter looking to shake up her life a bit, and the contrast between what the war does to the people trying to tell the story, knowing that the people back home just change the channel anyway give the story a sobering weight.

Parents should know that this movie has constant very strong, crude, and colorful language, drinking, drugs, smoking, wartime violence with some graphic images, characters injured and killed, sexual references and situations, and nudity.

Family discussion: What was the most important story Kim Baker reported? What did she mean when she said it “started to feel normal?”

If you like this, try: The book that inspired this film, The Taliban Shuffle, and the film “The Year of Living Dangerously”

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Drama Inspired by a true story Journalism War

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Posted on December 16, 2014 at 5:47 pm

Copyright Warner Brothers Studios 2014
Copyright Warner Brothers Studios 2014

Visually stunning, capably presented, and utterly unnecessary, this final in the six-movie Tolkien cycle is just for the fans.  I think even Tolkien himself would cry “no mas” at this point.  Remember how the third LoTR movie had about five or six endings because Jackson just could not bear to let go?  This whole movie is like that.

It’s not bad.  There’s just too much of it.

The second of the Hobbit movies remains my favorite because it had the most excitingly staged action scenes and the best characters.  And it left us with a heck of a cliffhanger as Smaug the dragon delivered on the promise of the title, leaving his lair to desolate the village of Lake-Town.  But that all gets resolved pretty quickly (and excitingly) and then, as this title makes clear, most of the rest of the time is not about the original quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain or the sub-quest to obtain the powerful Arkenstone.  It is about a battle of just about everyone, with shifting loyalties and heartbreaking losses.  If you are not a hard-core Tolkienite at the Stephen Colbert level, here’s the one key guideline to keep in mind: the worse the teeth, the more evil the creature sporting them.  The elves, dwarves, and men may have their grievances with each other and may even go into battle against each other, but as any crossword puzzle fan knows, Orcs are the bad guys, ugly cusses with terrible gnashy teeth, and nothing unites rivals and enemies quicker than the arrival of a much worse enemy coming after all of them.

Martin Freeman (television’s “Sherlock” and “Fargo”) returns as Bilbo Baggins, the heart and the moral center of the story.  While my mind wandered at times to consider such questions as who does all that intricate hair-braiding that the characters sport?  It must be like a middle school slumber party around those campfires, with everyone in a circle doing the hair of the person in front of them.  Isn’t that total turnaround by Thorin Oakenshield a little unbelievable? And I can never figure out exactly the scope of the powers and jurisdiction of characters like Gandalf and Galadriel. Plus, the snively traitor guy gets much too much screen time.

But I never stopped admiring the gorgeously imagined visuals or the subtle complexity of Freeman’s performance. As we see on “Sherlock,” there is no one better at showing us a thoughtful and deeply honorable struggle over how to respond to terrifying and complex challenges. There may be epic battles, shifting loyalties, elaborate stunts, and a lot of gnashing of very scary-looking teeth, but it is the part of the title before the colon that is what matters.

Parents should know that this movie has extensive and graphic peril and war violence with many sad deaths and some disturbing images.

Family discussion: What was the most difficult decision made by Thranduil? By Bilbo?

If you like this try: The other Hobbit and Lord of the Rings films by Peter Jackson and the books by J.R.R. Tolkien

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3D Action/Adventure Based on a book Drama Epic/Historical Series/Sequel War

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Posted on December 12, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 For extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive and intense fantasy-style violence with characters in peril, monsters, weapons, and fights, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, some
Date Released to Theaters: December 13, 2013
Date Released to DVD: April 7, 2014
Amazon.com ASIN: B00BEJL75I

The_Hobbit_The_Desolation_Of_Smaug_36556Everybody ups his game in this second of the three-part Peter Jackson version of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again.  The first one courageously tried out the new hyper-clear technology with twice as many frames per second that felt disorienting, chilly, and a little thin.  More seriously, it got bogged down in the storytelling.  A book about a journey became a movie that spends 40 minutes at home before anyone goes anywhere (with two different songs).  This second chapter starts right in the middle of the action and never stops.

Here’s a summary of the first film to get you up to date in case you skipped it or don’t remember: Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the title character, is accompanying a brave group of dwarves on a quest that will take them to the mountain lair of an angry dragon named Smaug who sleeps on an endless pile of stolen gold and jewels.  In part one, they made it part of the way there.  Part two begins in the midst of the action.  They are still far from their destination but every step is treacherous and every stage in the journey brings more trouble.  Middle Earth is deeply troubled by its divisions.  Dwarves and Elves do not trust one another.

Martin Freeman returns as Bilbo, whose epic travels inspire an inner journey toward meaning and purpose.  We see his struggle when he cannot bring himself to tell Gandalf (Ian McKellen) the truth about what he found.  He wants to tell the wizard about the magical golden ring he discovered.  But when the moment comes, and he can only say that what he found in the cave is his courage.  That is an intriguing statement, partly true, partly self-evidently false as he does not have the courage to tell Gandalf about the ring. But as we know from the Ring trilogy, part of the power of that plain gold band is the way it works on those who — at least temporarily — possess it.  Perhaps it is the ring that tells Bilbo to keep the secret.

But Bilbo, reluctant to join the dwarves in part one, is fully committed now, so in that sense he has found his courage, and finding it, now sees himself differently.  And it is that inner journey that holds the story together amidst the arrows and giant spiders and swashbuckling and guy with bird poop on his head and portentous statements like, “The fortunes of the world will rise and fall but here in this kingdom we will endure” (when we know they will) and “This forest feels as though a dread lies upon it” (when we know it does), and “It’s not our fight” (when we know it is).

Purists may object to the insertion of a brand-new character, but Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel, a warrior elf, is such a welcome addition that even Tolkein should be glad to add her to the cast.  And then, finally, there is Smaug, a scary monster who can see where humans, hobbits, dwarves, and elves cannot.  Benedict Cumberbatch, in his fifth major film appearance this year, provides the voice of ultimate predatory evil, and a cliffhanger that leaves us eager for the final chapter.

The intricacy of the detail everywhere you look is more than gorgeous.  It lends a timelessness to the story.  It tells us that there is a history here, that the people who created these structures intended them to be permanent and beautiful.  The fight scenes, staged as well or better than any other this year, are more than graceful violence.  They, too, communicate a seriousness of purpose and meaning that these characters bring to their lives — and inspire in ours.

Parents should know that like the other “Lord of the Rings” films, this one includes intense and sometimes graphic fantasy violence with monsters (dragon, giant spiders), weapons, fights, and constant peril, and characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion:  What title would you pick for yourself?  Why does Bilbo agree to get the Arkenstone?  Why doesn’t he tell the truth about the ring?

If you like this, try: the book by J.R.R. Tolkien and the “Lord of the Rings” Trilogy

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3D Action/Adventure Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Epic/Historical Fantasy Series/Sequel

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Posted on December 13, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for extended sequences of intense fantasy action violence, and frightening images
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Extended fantasy violence and peril with swords and arrows, characters injured and killed, scary monsters
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 14, 2012
Date Released to DVD: November 4, 2013
Amazon.com ASIN: B00E8S2JZ4

As the second in the Hobbit trilogy is about to be released, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Extended Edition).  Director Peter Jackson returns to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth for this “Lord of the Rings” prequel, the adventure of young Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit we meet in the LoTR trilogy as the middle-aged uncle of the heroic Frodo.  We see many familiar faces, especially Ian McKellan as the wizard Gandalf, the sepulchral Christopher Lee as Saruman, Cate Blanchett as the ethereal Galandriel, Hugo Weaving as the regally gracious Elrond, and Andy Serkis plus CGI as Gollum, and the now-familiar but still marvelously eye-filling New Zealand locations.What is most different here is that Jackson has doubled the frames-per-second for a new hyper-clarity.  The 24 frames per second standard that has been in effect since the beginning of the sound era has been upped to 48, giving the film a depth of detail that is so fresh it can be a little unsettling.  We subconsciously associate the quality of light and focus with the video used for news programs and lower-budget sitcoms (think of the difference between the indoor and outdoor scenes in the old “Monty Python” episodes), so it can take a while to get used to it in a richly imagined fantasy, especially when close-ups reveal the pores of a character’s skin like a magnifying mirror at a department store makeup counter and the quality of light seems chillier and more sterile.  We get so much visual information that it takes a while to re-calibrate our ability to separate the meaningful from the superfluous.

It does not help that Jackson himself seems to miss the forest of the story for the literal trees.  Blowing out the shortest and most accessible of the books to a projected trilogy of nearly nine hours suggests that Jackson has fallen so in love with the project that he has lost touch with what it feels like not to be completely obsessed with it.  Of course, he is enabled by the intensity of the fans, who are famously dedicated to every leaf, twig, and Elvish declension.  But he seems to have lost track of the thread of the story and dulled his sense of how to communicate with those who are not as deeply involved with the story as he is. He glosses over the important discussion of Bilbo’s two competing heritages, one open to adventure, one devoted to home and hearth, which makes it hard to understand why he changes his mind about accepting Gandalf’s challenge.  Since it is a prequel, we are all familiar with the destructive power of the One Ring to Rule Them All, which makes it confusing when we see it 60 years earlier as a simple and benign invisibility ring.  Meanwhile, it takes all of 40 minutes before Bilbo leaves his house as what should have been a 10-minute scene about the unexpected arrival of a bunch of rowdy dwarves is expanded to include two different musical numbers.  And yet, it still does not give us enough of a sense of who the individual dwarves are.

The action scenes are filled with vitality and dynamically staged, but the film assumes a commitment and understanding on our part that it has not earned.  In a story about a quest of honor, that is an unexpected disappointment.

Parents should know that this film includes many battle sequences and scenes of peril, scary monsters, characters injured and killed, some disturbing images, smoking, drinking, and some potty humor.

Family discussion:  Why did Bilbo decide to join the adventure?  Why did Gandalf pick him?  Why didn’t Gandalf use his powers to help the dwarves sooner?

If you like this, try:  The book by J.R.R. Tolkien and the “Lord of the Rings” films

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3D Action/Adventure Based on a book DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Epic/Historical Fantasy Remake Series/Sequel
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