Friday, March 11, 2016

"Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" and The Week in Reviews

[I review the new Tina Fey movie "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" as well as DVDs "Room" and "Bridge of Spies."  The Book of the Week is actor Burt Reynolds' memoir.  I also bring you up-to-date on "My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project" with "Black Narcissus."]

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Based on the true story of reporter Kim Barker's three years covering the war in Afghanistan.

In 2002 Kim Baker (no, that's not a typo, but not sure why the writers made that minor name change for the film) was over 40, unmarried and working a dead-end job writing TV news copy for "pretty but dumb" news anchors (her words, not mine).  When the opportunity came to go to Afghanistan for three months to report on the war, she jumped at the chance, having no clue what she was getting into.  She not only stepped into a war zone but a hard partying, hard-drinking, hard bitten war correspondent zone, reporters who had seen it all and who were all in competition for a story that would put them on camera and add to their resume. 

Kim (Tina Fey) learned fast when she met the only other woman there, reporter Tanya Vanderpoel played by Margot Robbie.  Vanderpoel quickly clued Kim in to what it was like to be a woman reporter in Kabul.  She told Kim "In New York you would be a 6 or a 7. Here you are a 9." to which Kim replied to the glamorous Tanya,  "What does that make you?  A 15?"  Well, yeah.  Barker in interviews has called this "Kabul cute and mission pretty."

Kim had to deal with the issues women in Afghanistan had to deal with: head scarves, burkas, men only gatherings, and women not allowed to drive.  However, in a funny scene, Kim covered a story about the first woman allowed to drive and, wouldn't you know, she backed into something (Kim's response? "That sucks for women").  But in addition to the cultural issues posed by being a woman in Afghanistan, she also had to deal with the issues posed by a male-dominated world of war correspondents.

What was supposed to be a three month assignment turned into three years and Kim was still there starting to realize that this "kabubble" was feeling too normal and no one seemed to care anymore about what was going on in Afghanistan anymore, having turned their attention instead to Iraq.

Comedians want to be dramatic actors and dramatic actors want to be comedians...or singers.  At any rate, Tina Fey proves herself adept at both comedy and drama and doesn't put a foot wrong as a woman who is trying to find her place in a world that doesn't make much sense to her. Carrying this film is a long way from her SNL days playing Sarah Palin. With her deadpan, self-deprecating delivery, Fey can be funny and touching all at the same time. She follows Kristen Wiig, another SNL alum, as an actress who can play both comedy and drama.

Martin Freeman has emerged from Middle-Earth as Kim's love interest, a long way from his Hobbit ears and he is believable as Scottish war correspondent Iain McKelpey. Billy Bob Thornton has grown into his face and makes a quite handsome Marine general, and Alfred Molina as an Afghan official who wants to be more than friends with Kim, is also good. Robbie is gorgeous, as usual, if underused for an actress who we have come to expect in larger roles.

But the stand-out for me was Christopher Abbott, Kim's Afghan guide who is torn between his admiration for her and the cultural hand he was dealt.  A scene where he is reading "O" Magazine at Kim's behest, "so he can learn about women", is very funny and the scene where the two say goodbye is tender and touching, all due to the nuances Abbott is able to convey.

Co-produced by Fey and Lorne Michaels and based on the real Kim Barker's  book "The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan," this "fish out of water" comedy drama ticked all of the boxes for me.  It was a comedy that was actually funny (been looking for one of those lately) and a drama that made me feel something, thanks to a script filled with snappy dialogue tempered with pathos by Robert Carlock, another SNL-er and the direction of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa.

But this is all about Tina Fey, her best role yet.

Rosy the Reviewer says...a very satisfying and enjoyable film with a title that expresses what Kim must have been thinking as she tried to make sense of what she was experiencing in Afghanistan (you get it, right)?


***Some Movies You Might Have Missed***
(And Some You Will Be Glad You Did)!

Now Out on DVD

Room (2015)

Joy (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), escape the room where they have been captives but discover the difficulties of adjusting to life outside of "Room."

A mother and son wake up and go through their morning routine. After they get up and eat their cereal, "Ma" measures Jack's height, they roll up the carpet to do exercises, and since it is Jack's 5th birthday, this day they are going to make a cake. Jack greets each item in their tiny space that Ma has dubbed "Room."  "Good morning chair," "Good morning toilet..." "Good morning, table."  They have a domestic routine like any other mother and son, except we soon realize the limitations of their existence.  The two are captives, confined to a small shed, and part of their routine includes Joy enduring the nightly visits of her captor, Old Nick, with Jack tucked away in the wardrobe.

Jack's whole world is "Room," and he seems content. But Joy holds out hope for Jack and tells him about "the world," how wonderful it is.

When Old Nick cuts the power to the room because Joy has displeased him, Joy realizes they need to escape so she can protect Jack.  She hatches a plan and Jack makes a harrowing escape and they both are rescued.

But the story does not end there. 

It is just the beginning.  Imagine being a child who has never known anything but four walls, his Ma and TV for the first five years of his life. Even walking up a flight of stairs would be an adventure. Imagine a woman held captive since she was 17.  Joy and Jack return to Joy's home, but much has changed since her abduction.  Her parents, Nancy and Robert, played by Joan Allen and an underused William H. Macy, have since divorced and Nancy is living with her new sympathetic partner, but adjustment to life outside is difficult for both Joy and Jack. The world can be a scary place. Jack slowly adjusts, but it's harder for Joy and her parents.  It's not every day your daughter is kidnapped and then returned to you. The media, the nosy neighbors, the inability to ask the hard questions...all make life difficult.

When they finally go back to "Room," and see it in the light of day and the light of freedom, Joy realizes she is not only saying goodbye to "Room," but to her close relationship with her son as she loses him to growing up and to the world.

"When I was four, I didn't even know about the world.  Now Ma and I are going to live in it until we die."

Based on the best-selling book by Emma Donaghue, director Lenny Abramson, who was nominated for an Oscar for this, has done a great job showing the claustrophobia of "Room" and how that claustrophobia lingers even after Joy and Jack are released.  oy may be free physically, but it is not easy to be free mentally after an experience like that.  In some ways, she is still "Room."  So is Jack, as it is all he has every known.  We see him playing in a closet because that feels more like home.

Much was made of Brie Larson's performance, and it was indeed wonderful.  It was not a flashy kind of performance, like Cate Blanchett in "Carol," but a quiet one that was riveting in its simplicity.  Her performance was wonderful, but should not overshadow the film itself, which was also a wonderful film. 

Likewise Jason Tremblay was a revelation.  I am not a fan of child actors getting Oscar nominations, but if they were handing them out, Tremblay was certainly worthy.  This film is really all about him and his finally seeing how beautiful the world can be.

Rosy the Reviewer says...Brie Larson's Best Actress Oscar was well-deserved, but this film is also Oscar worthy and needs to be seen.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

An American lawyer is called upon to defend an arrested Russian spy and then to facilitate his exchange for the captured U2 spy plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers in this real life depiction.

In 1957, the height of the Cold War, there really were spies all over the place.

Mark Rylance plays Rudolf Abel, a man who quietly goes about his business painting and spying.  When he is arrested, he seems to accept his fate and then quietly goes about his business of being a prisoner.

Tom Hanks is James B. Donovan, the lawyer who is chosen to defend Abel.  He is an insurance lawyer now, but was once a criminal lawyer and was involved with the Nuremberg Trials.  He is a strange choice, but soon realizes he was chosen only to give the appearance of giving the spy a fair trial.  Abel is already considered guilty and the authorities just want to run this through as quickly as possible.  Donovan's wife is not happy, worrying that they will be reviled for helping this spy, and after shots are fired through their windows, she is sure of it.  But Donovan is a man of integrity and plans to give Abel as complete a defense as he can.  But in so doing, he falls under suspicion and is spied upon, because it appears that everyone is spying on everyone in the postwar world of the 1950's.

When the inevitable guilty verdict comes down, Donovan talks the judge into not applying the death penalty in case Abel might be needed for a trade in the future.  Funny he should think of that.

Because it just so happens that at the same time that Donovan is mounting a defense for Abel, Francis Gary Powers, a U2 pilot flying over Russia at 70,000 feet, taking pictures with high-powered cameras mounted on the bottom of his plane, is shot down by the Russians. And to make matters more complicated, an American student is arrested in East Berlin.

Donovan is asked to negotiate the swap and when he insists that the American student also be part of the deal, an intricate tug of war begins as the Soviets and the East Germans jockey for position.

Steven Spielberg directs a great screenplay by Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers, and there even seems to be a bit of an homage to Hitchcock with a short black umbrella scene reminiscent of Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent."  This film also has a "Spy Who Came in From the Cold" feel as the Berlin Wall goes up and spy exchanges take place in that midpoint between freedom and imprisonment.  The Berlin Wall was a horrible symbol of oppression, and I couldn't help but think of that damn wall Trump wants to build between Mexico and the U.S. 

Spielberg showed his Baby Boomer roots and captured the Cold War climate of the 1950's with its mushroom clouds, duck and cover school drills and the gentlemen spies who didn't have the luxury of encrypted emails on the Internet, but rather had to get their hands dirty planting secret coded messages under park benches and taking on secret personas.  

Hanks is always good as a righteous defender of truth and justice, but no matter how good he is, I always think he is playing himself or Jimmy Stewart.  But it's the quiet brilliance of Rylance in his portrayal of Abel that is riveting.  No histrionics, no crying, no screaming, but you can't take your eyes off of him.  His Best Supporting Actor Oscar was well-deserved. 

Rosy the Reviewer says...This film's Oscar nomination for "Best Picture" was also well-deserved because it certainly was one of the best films of the year.

***My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project***

257 to go!

Have YOU seen this classic film?

Black Narcissus (1947)

Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) and four other nuns, members of The Servants of Mary, are assigned to open a school and a dispensary in an old castle high up in the Himalayas.

Sister Clodagh is promoted to Sister Superior and assigned to supervise the opening of a convent/school and medical facility for the local villagers in an outpost that was once a castle (The Palace of Mopu) high up in the Kanchenjungo mountains.  It has been given to the nuns by a local General and is overseen by a Mr. Dean (David Farrar) and a flighty native woman named Angu Aya (May Hallatt). 

The nuns name the outpost Saint Faith, but the convent used to house a harem and is adorned with explicit murals, which causes some uneasiness among the nuns. There is something in the air - the colors, the heady smells, the exotic nature of the place, a sensuality that is foreign to the nuns - and the nuns begin to struggle with their desires. Through a series of vignettes, we see how the nuns cope with this exotic location. In flashbacks, Sister Clodagh remembers her young love in Ireland and we slowly discover why she became a nun.  And Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) becomes obsessed, to the point of madness, with Mr. Dean.  That's how they handled repressed sex back in the 50's.  It drove women mad!

Based on a Rumer Godden novel, this film was released right at the end of WW II when Great Britain was barely recovering from the ravages of war.  The people needed something to help them recover, so a film with all of the color and lushness of the mountains of the Himalayas was just the thing.  Directors Powell and Pressburger did not disappoint.

However, ironically, despite the gorgeous scenes, not one frame was filmed on location but rather at Pinewood Studios, outside of London, with a few scenes set in the English countryside.  Everything was created by production designer Alfred Junge, special effects by W. Percy Day and wonderful cinematography by Jack Cardiff.  Junge and Cardiff both won Oscars for their work.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger formed a production company called "The Archers."  Their cinematic logo was an arrow piercing a target.  If they felt the film was good, the arrow hit it's mark, if not the arrow would miss the target.  Now that's self evaluation, if I have ever seen it.

Probably best known for the film "The Red Shoes," Powell specialized in directing and Pressburger in screen writing, but they felt they both overlapped enough to give themselves equal credit for everything, an early collaboration like Lennon and McCartney.

It's a young Deborah Kerr starring in this film (she was only 26), who had yet to achieve international stardom.  Likewise, we see Jean Simmons early in her career in a small role as a young errant bride who reminded me of Tup Tim in "The King and I," a film that also starred Kerr seven years after this one.  Sabu, a fixture in many British movies about India, plays the young General.  There is a lot of scenery chewing in this film, especially Kathleen Byron, who plays the obsessed Sister Ruth whose sexual obsession drives her mad.  Like I said, what do you do with a nun in the 1950's who wants to have sex?  You have to turn her into a madwoman!

It's a fish out of water story that is a metaphor for the end of Empire.  These nuns have good intentions, but they are not wanted nor are they prepared to live with people they do not understand.

Though I can appreciate the beauty of the P & P films, they just don't hold up today.  The acting is just too histrionic.  Even "The Red Shoes," which I loved so much as a girl, is just too over the top for me. 

Why it's a Must See:  "Film Historian David Thomson probably understates the case when he refers to [this film] as 'that rare thing, an erotic English film about the fantasies of nuns."
---"1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die"

Rosy the Reviewer says...Mmm, I suppose that's enough reason to see this film, but if you are a diehard fan of British films from this era, even with the over the top aspects, it's still a gorgeous film that you will enjoy.

***Book of the Week***

But Enough About Me: A Memoir  by Burt Reynolds (2015)

Actor Burt Reynolds shares the ups and downs of a life well-lived.

The title is an irony which speaks volumes about the man himself.  He has a huge ego (you have to if you want to be an actor), but not so big that he doesn't indulge in self-deprecation.  I remember him fondly for his stints on the late-night talk shows.  He was hilarious. Always a treat.  And I have always had a soft spot for him because my Hubby looked just like him when I first met him.

Burt Reynolds is probably best known as a leading man in comedies like "Smokey and the Bandit" and the TV show "Evening Shade,"  but he proved his dramatic ability in "Deliverance."  Younger people probably don't realize what a huge star Reynolds was. He was number one at the box office for five years in a row and shocked the world with his "nude" spread in Cosmo. However, that photo is one of his big regrets, and he believes it was why "Deliverance" did not get the respect it deserved.

Here he shares stories of his childhood as a high school football hero, his admiration for his strict father, what he had to go through to make it as an actor and the joy of teaching acting to students. 

But he means what he says when he says "Enough about me." 

Though this memoir gives insight into Reynolds' growing up years and lots of behind the scenes anecdotes from his acting life and films, most of the book talks about other people, people whom he admired or who were big influences on him as he made his way up the fame and fortune ladder, people like Bette Davis, Johnny Carson (Burt was the first actor to guest host on "The Tonight Show"), Orson Welles and others. 

And, yes, the famous romances are here - Dinah Shore (probably the love of his life, but he couldn't shake the age difference), Sally Field (they both wanted to get married but never at the same time) and Loni Anderson (he married her but didn't really like her).  And speaking of people he didn't like, there are some anecdotes about those folks too.

At the end of the book, Reynolds shares roles that were offered to him that he wishes now he had taken. 

Can you imagine Burt Reynolds as the TV Batman instead of Adam West?  Can you imagine Reynolds as the husband in "Rosemary's Baby (the part went to John Cassavetes) or as McMurphy in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nestinstead of Jack Nicholson?  And he also turned down the Jack Nicholson part in "Terms of Endearment" to do "Stroker Ace!" 

He turned down all of those (and other iconic parts). Like I said, when he was hot, he was hot!!!

But there is one more role he turned down that I want to leave you with. 

"Bond, James Bond."

Rosy the Reviewer says...Reynolds isn't really the smart-ass character he liked to portray on film and on talk shows.  He is a serious guy who is very candid  in this memoir, which is a fun read that celebrity watchers will enjoy.


That's it for this week!
Thanks for Reading!
See You Tuesday for
"Some TV Shows You Might Not Know About - but Should!"
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  1. I did get to the movies on St Pats' Day to see Bridge of Spies! Last day before it left the theater and I had to travel far to see it. It was worth the trip. All the retro background was a feast for the eyes. Didn't you look around at the bathroom when Hanks was talking to his son? I had the same thought as you when watching the Berlin Wall go up. I think I like this movie even better than Spotlight. The award to Rylance was well deserved. Did you see him in Wolf Hall on PBS? Another exfcellent performance. He's someone to watch.

    I loved Black Narcissus as a kid and as an adult. I also loved Rumer Godden's books when I was young. I used to debate with a much older friend of mine about this movie every time it was on TV. She thought it was the silliest movie ever. I still can be entranced by it.

    I recently read her book Greengage Summer. You drink in each and every paragraph of that's beautiful but I know you are not a fiction fan. It's also hard to find but an old old copy was still at my library. Don't you love those old well worn and loved books at the library?

    I ran out and bought the Burt Reynolds Cosmo spread....just cuz it was so wildly different to have a male centerfold in those days. I guess it still is.


    1. I need to read Rumer Godden. I don't know how I missed her growing up when I was an avid fiction reader. And good for you, sazzy. Reading Burt's book I saw his centerfold again after 30 years. He was a handsome guy. It makes me sad he regrets it so much. My Hubby looked like him so I will always have a soft spot for Burt. That and his stints on the Tonight Show which were hilarious!