WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT
Two of my favorite repeat-viewing movies, for wildly different reasons, are Broadcast News and The Hurt Locker. But as much as I love them, I would never have dreamed they’d wind up loving each other, getting married, and having a baby – which is kind of what we have in the new Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. On the surface, it would seem an uneasy, if not unholy, blend: James L. Brooks’ snappy workplace comedy meets Kathryn Bigelow’s intense war thriller. In the hands of directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, however, what results is a humane and thoughtful entertainment that, blessedly, doesn’t sentimentalize or cheapen the subject of Middle Eastern conflict. It’s the film last fall’s Rock the Kasbah could have been if it had a brain in its head.
Although based on international journalist Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot boasts a screenplay by Robert Carlock and is co-produced by Lorne Michaels and star Tina Fey. Collectively, that trio earned 12 Emmy Awards for 30 Rock, so you shouldn’t be surprised that their movie exudes more than a hint of Liz Lemon and company. This time, instead of a variety-show creator, Fey plays a TV-news writer (re-named Kim Baker) who, bored with her career and frequently absent boyfriend (Josh Charles), accepts a 2003 assignment to cover the war in Afghanistan. Comically inept at the start, Baker eventually takes to the job with professionalism and daring, and soon finds herself as dangerously addicted to the life of a war correspondent as Jeremy Renner’s Staff Sergeant William James was to the adrenalin of dismantling explosives. Like Holly Hunter’s news producer Jane Craig, she also builds a work-family support system of endearing eccentrics: Martin Freeman’s Scottish war photographer, Margot Robbie’s British TV journalist, Christopher Abbott’s Afghan fixer, Stephen Peacocke’s Kiwi bodyguard, and Billy Bob Thornton’s American Marine. (Unfortunately, we’re deprived even one meta-reunion between Fargo co-stars Thornton and Freeman, but having them in the same movie is treat enough.)
That character rundown may sound awfully sitcom-y, and there are certainly elements here that suggest a big-screen pilot for a potentially long-running TV series, from Fey’s engagingly blithe, witty-workaholic persona to Carlock’s penchant for zippy one-liners. (One of the funniest lands when Baker, wearing a burka for a trek to Kandahar, stares at herself in the mirror and says, “I’m so pretty I don’t even want to vote.”) There are also times in which the comedy feels forced, as in the overbearing hamminess of Alfred Molina’s Afghan attorney general, or genuinely misguided, as in the kidnapping rescue that’s oddly scored to Air Supply’s “Without You.” More often than not, however, the humor is offhanded and human-scaled; even the sequence that finds Baker stopping a convoy in order to urinate feels commendably organic. And when danger strikes, as it does in an early, scary assault that finds Baker leaping into the fray camera in hand, the film doesn’t make light of the threat. It may be structured in sitcom terms, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot – such a great title! – generally feels sharp-edged and honest regarding its war-correspondent milieu.
In truth, I wasn’t expecting a movie quite this subtle and intelligent. Why I wasn’t expecting that is beyond me, given that Ficarra and Requa directed three previous features together, and I adore every single one of them. The duo doesn’t yet possess a particularly distinctive visual style, and nothing about their elegant yet determinedly un-showy compositions suggests they ever will. Yet in the past, they’ve displayed a remarkable ability to elicit relaxed, effortlessly charismatic performances, and to guide co-stars to sizzling chemistry: Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor in I Love You, Phillip Morris; Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in Crazy, Stupid, Love.; Will Smith and Margot Robbie in Focus. Here, they perform similar wonders with the repartee between Fey and Freeman, whose awkward tumble into Baker’s bed is a hysterical pre-coital gab fest. All of the film’s portrayals, though, feel lived-in and truthful, with the sad-eyed Abbott particularly wonderful as the only person who sees Baker’s obsessiveness for the potentially destructive character trait it is. And if some movies are to be indistinguishable from feature-length sitcoms, I wish they were all as spiky, smart, and solidly crafted as Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, a salute to both wartime troops and wartime correspondents that more than deserves a salute of its own.
If you saw the first, riotous trailer for Zootopia – the one set in a DMV staffed entirely by sloths – you may have worried that the preview was giving away the cleverest scene in the movie, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But nearly every other scene could be a viable runner-up, because Disney’s animated comedy is utterly sensational – visually wondrous, endlessly imaginative, thematically resonant, and more hilarious than at least 90 percent of last year’s live-action comedies. Its title is taken from the city idealized by our heroine Judy Hopps (endearingly voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), a newbie police officer from the sticks who longs to fight crime as the first rabbit cop in the big, bustling, all-species-are-equal metropolis. When she arrives, however, Judy discovers that this seemingly perfect expanse with its carefully delineated ecosystems is actually a hotbed of suspicion, bigotry, and thinly veiled hostility between predators and prey. It also proves to be the land of roughly 1,000 jokes – some silly, some wickedly subversive, and nearly all of them sublime.
It’s almost unbelievably refreshing to see a Disney animation whose messages aren’t confined merely to “Just be yourself!” and “Follow your dreams!”, and that, in the guise of “kiddie entertainment,” actually speaks some important truths about racial misunderstanding and inequity. Yet while I appreciated the sensitively rendered good-for-you elements of directors Byron Howard’s, Rich Moore’s, and Jared Bush’s outing, I was even more knocked out by the gags; this is a movie that manages to make even the requisite dance number over the end credits funny. A goodly number of Zootopia’s biggest laughs are visual ones, such as the sight of Judy chasing a perp through the tiny streets of “Little Rodentia,” towering over edifices and traffic, and freaking out the passers-by like animated versions of Godzilla and Mothra. Far more often, though, the film’s humor is character-based, with already-dandy punchlines given added spin via humanely eccentric readings by Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, the inevitable J.K. Simmons, and the recognizable voice behind a “naturalist” yak who caused an adult viewer sitting near me to quietly exclaim, “No way! Tommy Chong!” (Pop diva Shakira also provides some delightful self-parody, as well as a pop ditty that your kids, soon, will likely be grooving to on a daily basis.) As visually resplendent as the most gorgeous Pixar releases, and boasting a detective yarn that’s wholly gripping and unexpectedly complex, Zootopia doesn’t quite transcend its family-friendly formula; the movie’s emotional beats, inventively handled through they are, still land pretty much when you expect them to. But I, for one, absolutely didn’t anticipate the Godfather parody as priceless as the one we get here, or the satiric school-pageant opener that could’ve climaxed any number of lesser comedies, or the underground, illegal-substance lab manned by furry creatures in hazmat suits – two of whom, I kid you not, are named Walter and Jesse. That may be the best Bad joke of all time.
LONDON HAS FALLEN
Gerard Butler is where charm and charisma go to die, and the confoundingly popular star’s London Has Fallen is where many, many Middle Eastern stick figures go to die, along with numerous heads of state, hundreds of innocent bystanders, and most of my hope for humanity. It’s almost unfathomable that 2013’s noxious action thriller Olympus Has Fallen – in which Butler’s Secret Service agent Mike Banning single-handedly foils a White House takeover attempt via heavy artillery, knives, and murderously awful wisecracks – could yield a sequel that’s even worse. Yet here we are with director Babak Najafi’s pornographically violent, dementedly xenophobic tale of terrorist retaliation that finds England’s largest city waylaid by explosives and gunfire while a constipated-looking Butler shouts at his nemeses, “Why don’t you head back to F---ghanistan, or wherever you’re from?!” (In the midst of the chaos, the president’s marble-mouthed muscle also tells his boss to trust only him, adding, “Every one of these guys is a terrorist asshole until proven otherwise.” I’m surprised the film didn’t find Mike Banning running for president.)
To my mind, Najafi’s ceaselessly crude film is indefensible both morally and when viewed strictly as entertainment, given the stunningly phony digital effects, total lack of coherence and wit, and insulting waste of talented pros including Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Melissa Leo, Jackie Earle Haley, and Radha Mitchell. (Only Charlotte Riley, as an intrepid and dryly funny MI6 agent, remotely resembles a human being.) Yet I know of a few dozen who likely would defend it, because they were all at my screening – a sizable crowd composed mostly of Adults of a Certain Age that cheered Banning’s sociopathic tendencies and cackled at his morbidly unfunny jokes, and even applauded the finale that threatened a third go-around with this thick-necked Scottish bruiser with the god-awful American accent. It was legitimately unsettling to hear the 70-something lady behind me mutter, “They should just blow him up” during a closeup of the chief terrorist. It was somehow even more disturbing to hear her convulsive laughter after the president popped out of his hiding place to save Banning’s life and the latter deadpanned, “I was wondering when you were gonna come out of the closet.” London Has Fallen is an insidiously bad movie. Loathe it or love it, it brings out the hater in everyone.
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