“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”

LOUISA:  4 STARS  MATT: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is a refreshingly apolitical film based on real-life war reporter Kim Barker and her memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The book and film detail her years spent as a reporter in the Middle East in the early to mid 2000s. If there is a target audience for this film, I am definitely it. As a former student of journalism, I am drawn to movies about reporters; as a female, I gravitate towards movies with strong women characters. I think this one is going to divide audiences in a big way — you are either going to find it disorganized and chaotic, or you’ll really enjoy what this film is trying to accomplish.

First things first: this film is being grossly mis-marketed as a comedy. It’s not. This is a straight line drama with a few laughs interspersed throughout. Since this movie was based on a real reporter’s personal experiences while embedded in the war torn Arab world, it gives a deeply personal glimpse inside the world of wartime journalists. The writer’s lingo is everywhere and all of it (including the multitude of very creative swear words) feels completely authentic. I went in expecting a loaded subtext of U.S. government bashing and a blatant anti-war sentiment, but I was surprised that there was none of that on display. This movie simply presents a strong, character-driven story. It’s not a propaganda piece that’s trying to convince you of a certain point of view.

There’s a strong sense of humanity to this story, and the most effective scenes are those that deal with cultural gender politics. You get a glimpse into what it must be like to be a reporter in a foreign country, from the adrenaline rush of getting caught up in a lead story (or a dangerous combat shootout) to the alcohol fueled downtime in the foreign press corps’ barracks. The exploration of the addictive nature of war zone reporting and its subsequent high is all the more compelling when told from a woman’s point of view. (I absolutely loved, loved, LOVED the perfect end scene. It’s easily one of my favorite endings of any movie I’ve seen in a very long time).

Admittedly, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” becomes a bit of a muddled mess by the third act, where there are simply too many stories competing for attention. As a result, the better ones get lost in a bunch of noise. There’s a love story, a war time accident, kidnappings, workplace problems, drunken parties, and daring military rescues. The whip-smart dialogue and powerful supporting performances from Billy Bob Thornton (as a sage Marine general), Margot Robbie (as an earnest British correspondent), and Martin Freeman (as a lovably sexist freelance photojournalist) keep things afloat. Never do their characters seem phony or bogus.

I never thought I’d say this, but Tina Fey is absolutely fantastic in the lead role. There’s not one false note in her performance, and it’s evident that this was a passion project for the actress. It’s easily the best role of her career and it’s going to be hard for her to top this.

MATT SAYS:

Yet another example of where the trailer completely fails to match the movie, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is not a comedy. Yes, it stars Tina Fey, and yes, there are a few genuinely funny moments, but humor is a relatively rare commodity in “WTF.” In fact, I wouldn’t even call this a dramedy – it’s more of a straight-up drama.

“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” is the (apparently true) story of Kim Barker (played by Fey), a reporter for the Chicago Tribune who left her safe job in 2003 to become embedded with the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan. Having never even been to a war zone before, Barker is out of her depth but adapts quickly.

In “WTF,” we get to see a world of violence and conflict, mostly populated by men, through the eyes of a woman. While the movie was interesting for showing the life of a reporter embedded in a war zone, it was only marginally entertaining. Too much ground is covered, which makes the movie feel more like it was trying to complete a checklist of key events in Barker’s life as mentioned in her memoir (this movie was based on Barker’s book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan) without paying nearly enough attention to the lives of the characters being portrayed.

When the movie does get those things right, it doesn’t spend enough time on them, choosing instead to speed through to the next item on the highlight reel. In particular, I wanted to see more interactions between Baker and Billy Bob Thorton’s Gen. Hollanek. The few of those we did get in this movie were some of its best scenes; in fact, Thorton’s performance in this movie is one of my favorite for 2016 so far. Sadly, these genuinely compelling moments were overshadowed by a muddled storyline that simply tried to do too much.

This movie will be interesting to news junkies and those who want to know more about the life of the embedded reporter. To the rest, it will be met with a collective shoulder shrug.

“Zootopia”

LOUISA:   2 STARS   MATT:  4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Zootopia” is a darker, more serious take on the classic mismatched buddy cop movie. Make no mistake, this animated film earns its PG rating and may be a little too intense for some little ones. While I appreciate Disney trying to tackle some serious societal issues here, I’m sorry to report that the film, as a whole, fails miserably.

The story is a cut above most junk animated movies, but this crime caper lacks the sophistication of animal-centric cartoon classics like “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Shaun the Sheep,”and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” First off, the animation is just plain ugly. The backgrounds feel incomplete and lacking in detail, and the color palette is completely ‘off’ (as if the animators argued about which color scheme to use throughout; check out the still photo above: see how the background is nothing more than browns muddled with other browns?). I love films where animals exist in their own world but I couldn’t enjoy the movie from the start because of the unsightly animation. Was most of the movie slapped together at the last minute? A good majority of “Zootopia” sure looks as if that’s the case.

Another big problem with the movie is the voice talent (Jason Bateman, Jenny Slate, Idris Elba); I found it to be irritating across the board. Grating voices coupled with ugly looking characters sank this movie for me. Perky bunny cop Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) is one of the most annoying animated characters in recent memory (yes, almost as bad as Bing Bong from “Inside Out“). I found no character to be lovable.

The funniest bits were spoiled in the film’s preview trailers. There is a particularly horrible groan-inducing scene with a mole as a Godfather-esque mobster. It’s so dreadfully dumb that I was squirming in my seat. I think the writers threw in too many “this one is for the grown-ups” pop culture references masquerading as jokes — yes, I “get” that the other two lab partner sheep are named Walter and Jesse but that’s not a joke, that’s a pop culture reference. Of course that line resulted in a few knowing chuckles from the adults in the audience but they were laughing because they recognized the reference, not because it was genuinely funny. In this film you’ll find many instances of this type of lazy writing and paltry attempts at humor.

“Zootopia” is not all bad. I did like the positive girl power, tolerance and anti-bullying messages — but get ready to get continually beaten over the head with them. The messages are good ones, but herein lies the major problem with the film: while the story is filled with the suggestion that all animals (read: humans) can live in harmony, it muddles its “can’t we all just get along” message by filling the movie with stereotypes of its own!

As a person who grew up in a very small rural town, it bothered me that the film presented the idea that country bumpkin animals are less sophisticated and tolerant than their big city counterparts. When our heroine bunny Judy Hopps is in her rustic natural habitat, all of the animals stay segregated and in their “rightful” place (in Judy’s case, she’s a bunny who lives and works with other bunnies on a carrot farm, selling carrots to other bunnies.) Of course the rabbits sometimes work with a token fox and mingle with some other animals, but let’s just say they’ve never had a polar bear as a customer. When Judy moves to the big city, she lives in harmony with all species of animals, from so many different habitats! Big city folks sure are more tolerant because wow, they live in the big city! What on Earth could simple country farmers know about tolerance and acceptance? 

Another big stereotype portrayed in the film is the undeniably funny DMV scene where all of the verrrrry slow workers there are sloths. It’s funny, but it’s still a stereotype. Want more? How about the wolves who just can’t resist a group howl, the unnecessarily sexy pop star gazelle, or the weasel who is, well, “weasely”? Most distasteful is the overweight leopard who works at the police department. He is repeatedly shown doing silly, clumsy things and he’s always eating donuts. Let’s all point and laugh at the fat cat because all he likes to do is eat because he’s FAT! How on Earth is this contributing to a message of tolerance?

The last straw for me (and the reason behind my rating) is that the movie suggests that wild animals need to be tamed. That bothered me most of all. When predators are suddenly reverting to their biological wild nature and attacking prey, the Zootopia police department officers immediately want to figure out how to make it stop. Can’t animals just be wild? Why do they need to be tamed? Why can’t they live naturally?

Before you dismiss this as being “just a movie” or decide that my review is too serious or harsh,  stop and consider how kids tend to soak up things like a sponge. “Zootopia” could have and should have done a much better job with its inventive premise and big ambition. I’m sure the film set out with good intentions but it ultimately sank into a divisive stereotype of its own.

MATT SAYS:

Donald Trump would hate this movie. If you’re a Trump supporter, you will probably hate it, too.

Why? Because “Zootopia” is about acceptance. Acceptance of other races; acceptance of other cultures; acceptance of other personalities; and acceptance of people who are simply just different from you. It is also about the politics of xenophobia and fear of the “other,” and its central lesson is that we should not place labels on others based on how they look, what gender they are, or their cultural identity. Whereas Trump’s campaign is about using jingoistic nationalism based on fear of the “other” to separate us from other nations, cultures, and people, “Zootopia” is about tearing down those walls (literal and figurative) that divide us, respecting one another, and finding a way that we can all work and live together.

What surprised me about “Zootopia” aside from its high-minded messaging is that it wasn’t at all what I expected based on the previews. I thought I was going to see another mindless throwaway talking animal movie for kids layered with dumb not-so-subtle jokes to keep parents interested. There was some of that, to be sure, as well as annoying winking references to other Disney movies that were basically just audience laugh cues (hey, he just referenced “Frozen,” didya get it? Huh? Huh? Didya?), but I was surprised to find that this movie actually had a fairly interesting plot with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. For once, the movie wasn’t just about cute and fuzzy anthropomorphic animals doing cute things. The nature of the different animals – as well as the stereotypes that we all have about them – played an important role in actually driving the story.

Not everything about this movie is outstanding. As with many of these movies, some of the voice talent was great, and some was just stunt casting. I particularly liked Ginnifer Goodwin‘s protagonist rabbit, Judy Hopps, and Jason Bateman‘s fox Nick Wilde (his delivery is perfect for the character). Some of the other voices were just so-so. The animation was okay, not great. There are a few too many lazy allusions that were played out long ago (I mean come on, how many more times are we going to have to sit through heavily-borrowed references to “The Godfather?”).

Overall, though, I liked this film quite a bit. I liked the lesson about racial, cultural, and gender relations. I liked this movie’s more traditional Disney-esque “you can do anything you set your mind to” message. I liked the story. I want you and your kids to see this movie, particularly if you are one of the aforementioned Trump supporters.

“London Has Fallen”

LOUISA:   4 STARS  MATT:  4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Gerard Butler is back as tough-as-nails secret service agent Mike Banning, protector and best friend of U.S. President Ben Asher (Aaron Eckhart). After a massive, impeccably orchestrated terror attack in London leads to the assassination of nearly every world leader, it’s up to our hero to protect and defend the President at all costs. If this “Die Hard” style plot excites you, keep reading: you are the target audience for this preposterous yet entertaining film.

“London Has Fallen” is full of so many plot holes that I lost count at well over a dozen, and many of the situations that our heroes face are unquestionably absurd. Some of the one-liners are cringe-worthy, yet they are delivered with aplomb. The special effects are laughably dismal; I’m talking some of the worst I have ever seen in any disaster movie, period. I laughed out loud at some of them, most notably the scene where the Tower Bridge in London is bombed and it gradually falls apart. It’s a master class in terrible computer-generated animation (CGI).

But is any of this really worth criticizing? This movie never promises to change the world and it doesn’t hold itself out as one of the highest examples of the art form: it’s a satisfying, old-fashioned action flick and it delivers! You’ll quickly find that all suspension of disbelief is easy because it’s such an overstuffed bag of boisterous fun. This hard-R rated movie is an energetic commotion of blood soaked violence. Like its predecessor “Olympus Has Fallen,” it is also elevated with some truly touching dramatic elements, earnest performances from a very talented supporting cast (Angela Bassett, Morgan Freeman, and Melissa Leo), and plenty of edge-of-your-seat nail biting excitement. The violence on display is brutal and bloody: we get scene after scene of creative kills as the good guys wipe out the terrorist thugs one by one.

I have been criticizing Gerard Butler a lot lately (most notably for his poor choices in acting roles, including his recent performance in “Gods of Egypt“), but this tough secret service agent who is made of “bourbon and poor choices” is the role I would love to see him play forever. He’s perfect in the part and his rapport with Eckhart is credible and engaging. It was great to see him back in action and kicking ass. Of course his character breezes through the most dire of situations with nary a scratch so he’s also one lucky SOB.

A lot of people have criticized the movie for being “racist” against Arabs. I say the complainers are nothing more than victims of the hyper-politically correct environment that’s currently controlling our society. A fictional movie needs good guys and bad guys. To these folks I say: Get over yourself. This is a fictional piece of entertainment!

I think you already know if you are the target audience for this film and if you are, you will not leave the theater disappointed.

MATT SAYS:

“London Has Fallen” is the cinematic equivalent of junk food: there’s not much substance and you feel guilty enjoying it, but in a single serving, it’s oh-so-satisfying.

I enjoyed the hell out of the first movie in this series, “Olympus Has Fallen,” and as a sequel, this one lives up to its predecessor. It’s a bit slow out of the gate — there is a little too much focus on the personal life of Gerard Butler’s character, Mike Banning, and on the reason why Banning and President Asher (Aaron Eckart) are in London — but when it starts rolling, the momentum stays consistently strong throughout. As in the first film, the relationship between President Asher and Banning is a convincing one, and their reactions to the imminent peril they are facing are believable, for the most part.

That’s not to say that this movie is built on a strong foundation of logic — it’s not. You absolutely need to be willing to suspend disbelief in a BIG way to enjoy “London Has Fallen.” The manner in which the terrorists are able to attack the capital city, their apparent omnipresence on the city streets, and the lack of a credible and appropriate response from a British government that has seen their largest city fall victim to a massive and coordinated attack are all plot points that you will have to just accept at face value.

If you’re able to go with it, you’ll have a good time watching this movie. There are some nice moments that effectively use its “R” rating without being over-the-top in either gore or violence. There are plenty of fun (if not particularly inventive) ways that we get to see the bad guys get their comeuppance. Butler makes for a likable action hero in Banning, and his single-minded focus on keeping the President safe and secure is sympathetic and compelling. There are plenty of moments to cheer here, and really, that’s all I ever hope for when I go to see a movie like this one.

For what it is and what it’s supposed to do, “London Has Fallen” does the job very well, which makes for a fun night at the movies.

 

“Race”

LOUISA:   2 STARS    MATT:  1.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

The true story of American Olympian Jesse Owens is such an interesting subject, and “Race” attempts to tackle it from the starting line of Owens’ first day as a college student at Ohio State. What a shame that his story is wasted on such a disappointing movie. I feel a bit un-American for having to write a negative review of this movie because Owens broke so many barriers at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, Germany, but this overly long and poorly made film is a bust.

How poorly made is it? Well, in several scenes you can see the boom microphone used by the film crew. In another you can clearly see the reflection of a modern-day cameraman in a mirror. If the filmmakers had such little care and respect for their movie, how can they expect audiences to? The mundane direction and overuse of slow motion and sound gimmicks from director Stephen Hopkins adds to the snoozefest. Stephan James does a fine job as Jesse, and Jeremy Irons and William Hurt add some prestige in their supporting roles. As much as I adore Jason Sudeikis, the guy isn’t strong enough for a big dramatic role like this. There were times when I felt sorry for him and just had to look away from the screen.

You’d think that in a two and a half hour movie we’d see much more of Owens’ story. I wanted a deeper exploration into what would’ve happened if he had decided to boycott the Olympics as the NAACP suggested. I wanted to know more about his relationships with his Olympic teammates. I wanted to learn about his feelings of the German culture. There’s a lot to admire about this tremendous athlete and I wanted to know more. Instead, the movie gets sidetracked with several secondary plotlines that focus on the American Olympic Committee, coach Larry Snyder (Sudeikis), propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), and a bizarre narrative about the struggles that Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten), endured while filming her classic Nazi propaganda documentary “Olympia.”

I didn’t hate everything about the movie: the scenes at the Berlin games were intriguing and the history presented made me want to research more after it was over. But the clever title suggests an interesting dialogue will be presented about race relations throughout history and today — and it is, sort of. But so much more could’ve been done with the movie. In the end, I found the message that you can and should simply “tune out” any unpleasant racist comments pretty offensive.

MATT SAYS:

After just having seen the excellent “Eddie the Eagle” — another story about an Olympian — I had high hopes for this one. Most of us know something about the Jesse Owens story, and I was excited to see what they would do with it on the big screen. Unfortunately, I was sorely disappointed.

It’s not the subject matter that makes this movie bad; it’s the choices of the filmmakers. This movie feels like it was slapped together in a hurry. They’ve taken the amazing story of one of the greatest-ever American athletes, who traveled to the hyper-racist Nazi Germany in 1936 to represent his country in the Olympics, and made it a dull, also-ran, by-the-numbers biopic.

There were some good points in the movie and genuine moments of tension, but they were largely outnumbered. If you’re interested in the Jesse Owens story, buy a book about him and skip this movie.

“Gods of Egypt”

LOUISA:   2 STARS   MATT:  1 STAR


LOUISA SAYS:

“Gods of Egypt” is truly a spectacle of badness, but it’s far from unwatchable. It’s like the wreck that you just can’t turn away from; it’s nearly impossible to avert your eyes to this bizarre adventure tale. This big budget movie is full of bad acting (oh Gerard Butler, you have fallen so far that you may never recover), really bad computer generated animation (did that god just transform into an aluminum eagle?), screechingly bad music, hilariously bad dialogue (with some lines that seem destined for cult status), and is just plain strange. You can call it the mythological version of “Showgirls.” Oddly enough, I didn’t hate it and I found that the more corny it got, the more enjoyable it was (I’m sick, I know)!

The how and why of this movie is a mystery: how on Earth did it ever get made? Why would anyone pay to actually see it? I’d tell you more about the ridiculous plot but why bother? The chances anyone will ever watch this are so low that I hate to waste brainpower writing a review. At least it seems like everyone involved in this fiasco didn’t take themselves (or the film) too seriously, and that’s why it worked for me.

There is one bright spot to the film: the costumes are awesome.

MATT SAYS:

If you like seeing giant, indistinct computer generated creatures battle one another in a variety of computer-generated landscapes, then “Gods of Egypt” is the movie for you. Everyone else should skip this one.

“Gods of Egypt” plays like “300” mashed together with “Aladdin,” “The Immortals,” and “Indiana Jones.” It seems like it was re-written roughly 250 times after being focus-grouped to death. In other words, despite ancient Egypt and Egyptian lore having a somewhat timeless appeal, the filmmakers drew from this potentially fertile ground to tell a boring story with uninteresting characters. While I know the studio had some franchise hopes for it, unfortunately this one is dead on arrival.

It doesn’t help that the movie is populated with actors that range from just okay to terrible. I love Gerard Butler and his role might have been fun if he was able to ham it up and chew some scenery, but unfortunately his middle-of-the-road performance is just yawn-inducing. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (you might know him as Jaime Lannister) probably wasn’t the right choice to play opposite of Butler because he isn’t a commanding enough presence to play a larger-than-life god. The two mortal leads weren’t any better. The real stars of the show were the effects, and you can tell from my introduction how I felt about them. Nothing bores me more quickly than watching giant cartoons battle one another, and that essentially sums up “Gods of Egypt.”

Don’t waste your time on this one.

 

“Eddie the Eagle”

LOUISA:   4 STARS   MATT: 4.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Eddie the Eagle” is loosely based on the inspirational true story of the real-life British ski jumper Michael “Eddie” Edwards, a bespectacled nerdy weirdo who fulfills his childhood dream and makes it to the 1988 Olympics. This sweet and endearing movie tells a classic underdog sports story in the most formulaic way possible, as if director Dexter Fletcher went down a checklist and marked all the required boxes when making this biopic. The film is overflowing with inspirational clichés about never giving up, always doing your best, and never ceasing to believe in yourself. It’s cinematic fluff, no doubt. But it’s fluff that’s endearing, captivating, and an all-around feel good crowd pleaser.

Taron Egerton proves that he is truly a chameleon when it comes to acting; he can play just about any character and make them completely plausible. He makes Eddie instantly loveable from the moment he appears onscreen. (This role is night-and-day different from Egerton’s previous work, my favorite being his role as Eggsy in my #1 movie of 2015 “Kingsman: The Secret Service”). Hugh Jackman plays the perfect American cowboy who becomes an ally, coach and friend (and he has a really funny scene that rivals Meg Ryan’s diner ‘performance’ in “When Harry Met Sally”).

Egerton and Jackman have a natural chemistry and rapport that I found 100% believable. Their charisma made the movie very enjoyable, and they were extremely convincing in their student and coach relationship. You could tell that these two were friends off-screen and had a great time making this movie.

Another standout was the enthusiastically rousing, triumphant original musical score by Gary Barlow as well as some carefully curated classic rock tracks. The music helped set the jubilant tone of the story and served to set the timeline of events (the early 80s scenes were scored with synthesizer-heavy pieces).

Everyone loves a good underdog story, and this is no exception. Eddie remains optimistic even in the worst of situations and refuses to give up on his dream. It was hard not to find myself cheering him on, even when he was dangerously risking life and limb to simply prove that he could be an Olympian. Even if you think you’ll be bored by a movie about the sport of ski jumping, I guarantee you’ll be won over in the end by the film’s undeniable charm.

MATT SAYS:

In the grand tradition of sports underdog movies comes “Eddie the Eagle,” the true story of an unlikely hero who was able to represent his country in the Olympics through sheer determination and force of will.

“Eddie” stands on the strength of the charisma of its two leads, Taron Egerton (a standout from last year’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service“) and Hugh Jackman. It’s not necessarily that these are great performances; it’s that these actors bring to their characters such affection that it’s impossible not to root for them. I get the sense that “Eddie the Eagle” was a passion project for all involved, starting with Producer (and Screen Zealots Supreme Deity) Matthew Vaughn right down the line to the actors, cinematographer, composer and crew.

It’s easy to empathize with Eddie. He’s socially awkward, he’s inexperienced with women, and his best friend is his mom. He’s obsessed with going to the Olympics, a goal that seems out of reach. He experiences setback after setback, disappointment after disappointment, but he never gives up. Through focus and dogged determination, he wins over his detractors and accomplishes what everyone has always told him is impossible. He’s basically a walking, talking version of those inspirational posters hanging in your office breakroom. And he’s the real deal.

It would have been easy to make a hokey, emotionally false version of this movie, but that’s not what we have here. The character struggles seem real, as does the relationship between Eddie and his coach Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman). Jackman is clearly enjoying himself in the Mr. Miyagi role and he’s a pleasure to watch. Even the cynical among us may find it a challenge to detach from this story.

Is it a perfect movie? No. Are there plot points where we know the filmmakers must be taking massive liberties with the truth? Sure. But those are minor quibbles when compared to how effective the movie is at telling a genuinely inspiring story about a couple of guys that the world wrote off beating the odds and proving everyone else wrong.

“Triple 9”

LOUISA:   3 STARS    MATT:  4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

This formulaic, Michael Mann ripoff isn’t bad — it’s quite entertaining — but the plot is virtually non-existent and any audience member well versed in police dramas will have figured out how it all will end well before the final scene. It’s easy to watch and will keep you engaged, but there’s nothing really smart or groundbreaking with its classically dull “and then this happened” storytelling style. It’s just another run-of-the-mill dirty cop movie.

The film is flashy, stylish and well made by director John Hillcoat, but looks aren’t everything. Sadly, he was woefully unable to elicit great performances from the star-studded cast. How great is the cast? We’ve got Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., Anthony Mackie, Norman Reedus, Woody Harrelson, and Casey Affleck. (You’d be a fool to not want to see this movie based on the actors alone)! Problem is, this movie is so stuffed with talent that most of it is completely wasted. I wanted to see more of Affleck and Harrelson (channeling his far superior role as Marty Hart on “True Detective“). And poor Teresa Palmer, she’s just in the movie as screen dressing for a few scenes (and she’s half naked in most of them). There’s just too much going on for any of the characters to have a chance to be fully developed, and that’s a shame.

I got a very anti-cop vibe from the whole movie too. I didn’t like any of the police officers in the movie and it was unclear if I was supposed to be rooting for them. Most of the cops in the film are portrayed as having serious moral issues (and of course the obligatory drinking / drug problem). Not helping this perception was the movie’s closing track: Cypress Hill’s “Pigs.”

MATT SAYS:

In “Triple 9,” celebrated indie director John Hillcoat gives us a world populated with corrupt cops, war heroes, criminals, and gangsters where there is no solid line dividing the good and bad; instead, there are only shades of grey. Supported by a who’s who list of actors — including Anthony Mackie, Casey Affleck, Aaron Paul, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Woody Harrelson and Kate Winslet — “Triple 9” is an ideal fit for the lover of crime dramas.

Hillcoat knows these characters and the world they live in. We have been here before in his previous movies, “Lawless,” “The Road,” and “The Proposition.” As in those movies, we are challenged with picking one character to identify with and root for. For most of his characters, we can understand their motivations and sympathize with them on some level, at the same time we dislike them on another.

While heists drive the story, they do not control it; the characters do. As for the latter, we have a number of chances for brief glimpses into their backstories that give us just enough — but not too much — information to help us understand why they do what they do. We care enough about them that when they are in peril, we are invested and worried for their safety. It is our investment in these characters and their survival that drives the suspense. We want them to do the right thing, and we want them to survive.

While it’s far from a perfect movie, “Triple 9” is a strong and worthy entry in the corrupt cop / crime drama genre, and definitely one worth seeing.

 

If We Picked the Oscars

Oscar statuettes

If we were Academy voters, here’s a peek at what our ballots would look like (based on what was nominated). This isn’t what we think will win (so don’t base your Oscar pool picks on this list) but it’s what we personally would vote for in each nominated category. Enjoy the Oscars!

BEST PICTURE

  • Louisa
    Mad Max: Fury Road

  • Matt
    Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST ACTOR

  • Louisa
    Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs)

  • Matt
    Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

BEST ACTRESS

  • Louisa
    Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)

  • Matt
    Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

  • Louisa
    Christian Bale (The Big Short)

  • Matt
    Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

  • Louisa
    Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs)

  • Matt
    Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs)

BEST DIRECTOR

  • Louisa
    George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)

  • Matt
    George Miller (Mad Max: Fury Road)

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

  • Louisa
    Shaun the Sheep

  • Matt
    Shaun the Sheep

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

  • Louisa
    Roger Deakins (Sicario)

  • Matt
    Roger Deakins (Sicario)

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

  • Louisa
    Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Matt
    Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

  • Louisa
    The Revenant
  • Matt
    Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

  • Louisa
    Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Matt
    Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST SOUND EDITING

  • Louisa
    Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  • Matt
    Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST SOUND MIXING

  • Louisa
    The Revenant
  • Matt
    The Revenant

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

  • Louisa
    Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  • Matt
    Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

  • Louisa
    Johann Johannsson (Sicario)
  • Matt
    Ennio Morricone (The Hateful Eight)

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

  • Louisa
    “Writing’s On the Wall” by Sam Smith (Spectre)
  • Matt
    “Writing’s On the Wall” by Sam Smith (Spectre)

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

  • Louisa
    Alex Garland (Ex Machina)
  • Matt
    Alex Garland (Ex Machina)

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

  • Louisa
    Nick Hornby (Brooklyn)
  • Matt
    Adam McKay (The Big Short)

BEST ANIMATED SHORT

  • Louisa
    Bear Story

“The Finest Hours”

LOUISA:   3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“The Finest Hours” is a classic tale of good old-fashioned heroism. It’s refreshing to see a story where the audience can quickly identify with lead characters who genuinely want to do the right thing and help others in their time of need. These are normal guys living a normal life who find themselves suddenly thrust into an extraordinary situation. They are quietly courageous, not looking for recognition or glory. They are simply doing their job.

This entertaining movie tells the true story of a 1952 Coast Guard rescue off the coast of New England. The inspiring yet slightly corny tone is perfectly paired with the thrilling action sequences (yes, the special effects of savage seas are computer generated but they are still, for the most part, stellar).

The most intense part of the movie comes from watching a group of sailors trapped on a giant oil tanker that has been cut in half due to a killer storm and is gradually sinking. Yes, you read that correctly. The seamen have to come up with creative ways to try to stay afloat – and alive. Chris Pine is fine in his role as a Coast Guard man, but he’s overshadowed by Ben Foster, Kyle Gallner and Holliday Grainger (as the spunky love interest). Casey Affleck isn’t a favorite of mine but here he reminds me of a young Marlo Brando; his masculine, charismatic performance is a standout and the main reason to see this movie.

I was surprised to learn that this wasn’t a faith-based movie because it was dripping with pronounced religious overtones (Disney obviously wants to cash in on that trend). There’s a lot of implied praying, discussions of faith (“it’s not luck”), cleverly placed Bibles, mentions of church and God, and the obligatory scene of the non-believer rudely interrupting a group prayer. (Have to say I agreed with his character: when the crew was standing around praying, he told them that they were wasting their precious time and should instead focus on figuring out a way to get off the ship. Smart man!). The religious references were so over the top that they quickly became off-putting and cost this movie half a star.

“The Finest Hours” is sappy and sentimental yet also manages to be a real nail-biter. The positives far outweigh the negatives here, and this movie is worth seeing. Is it historically accurate? Probably not. But it’s still a fun ride.


Matt was unavailable for review.

 

“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”

LOUISA:    2 STARS    MATT:   1.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

In what could have been a sophisticated war movie, an examination of foreign policy ideas, a serious analysis of the nature of the conflict, or a poignant memorial honoring America’s servicemen and women, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” instead chooses to take the low road.

This big, loud, overly long movie about the 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya feels like it’s doing nothing more than preaching to the Fox News choir. Instead of honoring the fallen Americans, this movie did more to dishonor them. There’s no exploration of the “why” of the conflict, there’s only a simplistic dividing line of “bad guys” and “good guys.” All of director Michael Bay‘s signature shots are here: the point-of-view from a bomb sailing through the air, bullets and blood splattered about, and lots and lots (and lots) of big, fiery ‘splosions.

Get ready for an endless parade of movie cliches, from the final phone call to the wife and kids (where one blurts out that she’s pregnant), teary-eyed soldiers and of course the American flag shot full of bullet holes. U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Most offensive was the presentation of our testosterone loaded, bearded heroes, military elite with big muscles and even bigger guns. Of course they can’t do their jobs to the fullest because these darn Ivy League educated, clumsy CIA agents keep getting in the way! Boo for higher education and fancy book learnin’! Yay for physical fitness and blowing shit up! I have no disrespect for our military but come on, this was just a ridiculous plot point. I’m also not saying that elite military soldiers aren’t whip smart and highly educated — but this movie seemed to take the opposing position and it irked me.

The unnecessary, gimmicky hand held camera work made me super queasy and detracted from the story, but the extended action sequences and shootouts were done well, and there’s a fine roster of actors at work including John Krasinski (Jack), David Costabile (Chief), Pablo Schreiber (Tanto), James Badge Dale (Rone), and David Denman (Boon). As a result, “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” works solely as a mindless action movie. The movie is mildly entertaining but it’s a shame that more wasn’t done with the story.

MATT SAYS:

I used to be a Michael Bay defender. Not based on the “Transformers” movies, mind you (those are almost universally terrible) but based on the rest of his body of work. “The Rock” and “Armageddon” are damned good movies, and “Bad Boys II” is one of the best action movies released in the last 20 years. “Pain and Gain” made my Honorable Mention list in 2013. Hell, I was even one of the few people who liked “The Island.”

Based on those selections from his filmography, I viewed Michael Bay as one of the best action movie directors. His action sequences are larger than life. His jingoistic, pro-military view can be appealing. Even his trademark lens flares and dramatic upward angles are effective at raising stakes and giving his heroes an almost-mythic quality. What he does, he used to do very well.

Given this background, I had high hopes for “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.” I want to be able to think of the “Transformers” movies as craptacular diversions for Bay; exceptions to the overall rule of workmanlike and solid direction that I thought informed most of his other efforts. I’m sorry to say that if “13 Hours” is any indication, I think Bay has lost what talent he once had for making these types of movies.

The first hour of “13 Hours” serves to set up the second, where we see the titular soldiers defend a secret CIA compound from a siege by largely unidentified militants. I think I’m a pretty intelligent film-goer, but I had an extremely difficult time following what was happening during the first half. The scenes changed from the CIA compound to the nearby official diplomatic one, but they shifted so quickly that it was hard for me to tell what was happening, where.

Worse yet, “13 Hours” takes shaky-cam quick cutting to a whole new level. Not only did the camera’s constant movement induce nausea, but it also made it nearly impossible to tell who was shooting at who, and when. I get it — part of the point of the movie is that when the combatants aren’t wearing uniforms, it’s difficult to tell who is on your side. But that point was much more effectively made in the second half, when we could finally tell (for the most part) what was happening, where. There are plenty of Baysplosions here, but Baysplosions only work when I can tell what it is that’s exploding.

Bay used to be one of our best action filmmakers. Now he only serves to punctuate how terrible most American-made action movies have become. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Paul Greengrass / “Bourne” shaky cam shots with fast cutting don’t make fight scenes more exciting, they make those scenes more confusing. They are the tool of the lazy and untalented filmmaker. Anyone can jostle a camera around and create quick cuts; actually choreographing fight scenes so that the audience always knows who is hitting or shooting at whom, and where they are standing in relation to one another or their surroundings takes actual talent and skill.

My advice: if you want to see a good action movie, watch “The Raid,” “The Raid 2,” or “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Don’t waste your time on this one.

 

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