It’s not completely clear what the ultimate Cloverfield continuity encompasses, but producer J.J. Abrams’ answer to an anthology series a la Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories or Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story started with a 2008 found footage Godzilla thriller and in 2016 features a completely different set of characters and a storyline which may or may not occupy that same cinematic universe. Dan Trachtenberg’s eerie and suspenseful 10 Cloverfield Lane (B+) centers on a compelling performance by Mary Elizabeth Winstead held captive in a doomsday bunker by John Goodman in a sublimely creepy role with comic relief from John Gallagher, Jr., who is either a fellow captive or conspirator. Themes of gamesmanship are explored as the three characters play each other and confound audience expectations. There may or may not be a zombie apocalypse, alien invasion or full-out war breaking out beyond the survivalist lair. Trachtenberg succeeds in crafting a tense and taut succession of action set pieces within a confined space and with old-fashioned tools and techniques and a propulsive throwback score. He earns his scares and wins hearts with spot-on performances. The acting, especially by Winstead, is uniformly outstanding; and the thrills compound in the final act. You don’t need to know a thing going in, and don’t expect to know it all coming out; but this film is a rollicking good time. The rest is classified.
Wielding a war arsenal ranging from zingers to Zambonis, comfortable going commando for confrontations and partial to the musical stylings of Wham! to set the mood, the titular hero of Tim Miller’s Deadpool (A-) leapfrogs most recent films in the comic book genre in terms of both action and comedy in a single bound. Ryan Reynolds offers a career re-defining role breathing fleet-footed life into a wry, wisecracking mercenary that leaves Han Solo, Iron Man and Wolverine in the collective dust. His vulgar and animated antics are sensational. Morena Baccarin gives him a run for his money as his idiosyncratic lady love, and Ed Skrein is fantastic as the diabolical villain. The protagonist’s deal with the devil when facing a terminal cancer diagnosis sets the stage for a very different pathway into motivations ranging from romance to revenge that give the proceedings amped-up resonance. From the self-referential opening credits to musical montages that are note-perfect (you won’t soon forget the “Calendar Girl” sequence), Miller and the crackling writing team fashion a hipster antihero who is brash and brilliant. It’s a dark, profane, bloody and bonkers great time at the movies.
Note about Deadpool in theatres:
Whether it’s a high speed car chase or shoot-out, Dolby Atmos® puts the movie audience in the center of the action. Dolby Cinemas are only available in select markets, but they are the best places to see, feel and hear a truly immersive experience. Here is a link to all available Dolby Cinemas: https://www.amctheatres.com/amc-prime. For our Atlanta readers, the closest Dolby Cinemas location is AMC Prime North Point Mall 12 – Alpharetta, Georgia.
Please stop this franchise. A foreign soil-set follow-up to White House attack thriller Olympus Has Fallen, Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen (D+) is largely a load of bollocks. Najafi stages an elaborate British state funeral sabotaged by terrorist assassins followed by a breakneck series of escapes in which a Secret Service agent (Gerard Butler) endeavors to protect the U.S. President (Aaron Eckhart) from meeting a deadly fate. Let’s just say the Moldavia massacre on Dynasty inspired more suspense. The love child of Shrek and the red Angry Bird, Butler is cringeworthy as the goofball hero. Except for his apparent strength and sharpshooter skills, the miscast muscleman is not believable for a moment as having a lick of wit or wisdom. He and a wooden Eckhart phone in some of the most banal dialogue that four screenwriters can conjure, throwing in variances on the f-bomb as a creative way to taunt their adversaries. Old formulas apparently die hard. Aside from one inventively filmed helicopter chase, most of the action is routine. The villain even seems a bit bored by it all. Morgan Freeman and Angela Bassett are wasted in very small supporting roles, although girlfriend’s brows are on point. Kiefer and Claire could teach these filmmakers a thing or two about geopolitical adventures and the emotion necessary to make us care.
The general “WTF” sensibility exuded by a new film on the scene is actually the marker of something singular and subversive. Co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa help inject their wry war comedy Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (B) with moments of delirious adrenaline, but it’s leading lady Tina Fey who shoulders the load of a magnificent against-type role as an embedded TV correspondent in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. The underlying tone isn’t always sustained, but it’s a thrilling contact high watching Fey wrestle the plum part with such dexterity. Her sarcasm suits the heroine’s outlook, and she mines some unexpected depths to get to the heart of material based on the real-life memoirs of journalist Kim Barker. Sparring well with Fey are bombshell beauty and budding frenemy Margot Robbie, unconventional romantic interest Martin Freeman and a pair of actors who just played comparable parts in the thematically similar Our Brand Is Crisis – Alfred Molina as a sleazy political figure and Billy Bob Thornton as a swaggering operative, in this case of the Marines. More seasoned directors would have likely tightened some of the principal plot points into a more propulsive narrative, but their bet on an accomplished comedienne to master such a challenging dramatic role is the coup de grâce in the face of a sometimes spiraling storyline. There was also a nice recurring bit about war as an opiate and conversations with a doctor that paralleled the protagonist’s experience as someone who gets sucked deeper and deeper into the “Kabubble.” You can viscerally experience the lure of something that is simultaneously dangerous and intriguing. Fey’s proto-feminist musings and acerbic humor in the face of adversity ultimately make the movie.
Behind the Adaptation:
From The Taliban Shuffle to Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: The Movie
The movie Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was written by Robert Carlock based on the memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Kim Barker. My friend and fellow blogger Ashley Williams of The Book Fetish Blog has collaborated with our Silver Screen Capture site to help describe the book to film translation. Let’s call her the Siskel to my Ebert in lending dueling viewpoints to the film at hand. You can read her review now available on her site, and we answer a few questions about the film together here:
Question: What made this an important story to tell?
Stephen Brown: Although the characters and contours could be sharper, the film depicts men and women driven by destiny to be superb stewards of their craft, be it military peacekeeper or crusading journalist. The protagonist’s strong POV offers an unusual portal into the story and a meaty, unapologetic female lead role.
Ashley Williams: This is a great question because there are two broad aspects with which to answer it. The first is understanding the drive of someone to put themselves in a war zone and continual danger. Kim essentially becomes a junkie – addicted to Afghanistan, seeking out ever more dangerous assignments – until it nearly destroys her. And in the book, we get so much more backstory about Afghanistan and Pakistan and why our military efforts have been so protracted. It really highlights how much the American mentality is ineffective in dealing with the cultures of Afghanistan and Pakistan
Question: What about this work is effective on the page? What makes it cinematic?
Ashley Williams: The visuals in the film really bring this story to life, but there is a humanity in the story told on the page that really made this an interesting read to me. Kim really came to care for many of the people she met in these countries. She is also able to talk a lot in the book about the seeming contradictions in the culture. It’s this next layer, of really being able to glimpse what day to day life was like, that kept me turning the page.
Stephen Brown: The you-are-there quality is dialed up to great effect, with several of the close encounters with deadly assaults among the most jarring. I did feel more could be done with the atmosphere of the “fun house” where all the journalists were lodged and that some of the relationships with locals could have been more vividly developed.
Question: What were the biggest changes made from book to film?
Ashley Williams: I laughed when I saw this question. Because SO MUCH! First, in the book, there’s Kim was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, not a TV reporter. Aside from that, though, the film focuses specifically on Afghanistan. During the years Kim was over in Asia, she was based in India, and shuffled between Afghanistan and Pakistan with some regularity (hence the book title, The Taliban Shuffle). The whole Pakistan experience is missing from the film; but in the book, we get a good glimpse of the political climate in both places during the War and how that impacted our military effectiveness. Also, the Billy Bob Thornton character isn’t in the book.
Question: What did casting bring to the experience?
Ashley Williams: Tina Fey was spot on. Farouq, too. No one else really matters in going from page to screen because the other film characters are amalgams of people in the book.
Stephen Brown: Tina Fey owned the part with such command that I could imagine no one else in the role. I’m delighted she went out on this limb.
Question: Memoirs are notoriously tricky to adapt. They can range from cerebral (think My Week with Marilyn based on The Prince, the Showgirl and Me: Six Months on the Set with Marilyn and Olivier by Colin Clark) to adventurous (such as 127 Hours based on Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston). Where does this adaptation of The Taliban Shuffle fit in?
Stephen Brown: Despite the fact that it is very entertaining, this film won’t go down as among the best of this genre. I will say it compared favorably to Eat, Pray, Love and was an interesting examination about what an unmarried single woman in mid-life can do to shake things up considerably. These memoirs seemed destined to get the movie treatment.
Ashley Williams: I agree that the book won’t go down in history the way a memoir of say, Sandra Day O’Connor or Ruth Bader Ginsberg might. And I admittedly haven’t read many other memoirs of reporters embedded in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. The film and book are so different, I really am not sure they are comparable. But comparing this memoir to the book Eat, Pray, Love or the inexplicably popular Wild, the difference for me is that Barker doesn’t come out of this with an amazing epiphany or self-actualization moment. She’s an ordinary woman who ended up in this extraordinary situation and she learned a lot about herself, but I read this more as an exploration of how running from something can take us to places we never expected. That circumstances can drag us more deeply into something than we desire, and at some point, we have to decide how we want to live.
Did you have favorite plot points?
Stephen Brown: There weren’t that many standout moments, but I actually liked a sequence in the last fifteen minutes when a minor character is re-introduced, and a moment of catharsis ensues.
Ashley Williams: It’s so funny that Stephen mentions his favorite fifteen minutes at the end of the film, because this was glossed over in the book, awarded three to five sentences max. For me, in the book, it was Kim’s going away party, the resolution of her friendship with Farouq.
Question: So was it overall something you’d recommend?
Ashley Williams: Yes, both the book and the film. The book because it’s a perspective I don’t think we have seen a lot of in a tense region that is so different than our own. And the film because I was thoroughly entertained.
Stephen Brown: Absolutely. I was very pleasantly surprised and entertained. This isn’t one of those film experiences that stays with you a long time, but it is far more accomplished than expected.