Battle Of The Sexes

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In 1973, Billie Jean King faced off against Bobby Riggs in a tennis match in Houston’s Astrodome. King was near the top of her game. Riggs was over the hill but still playing. The film story of their match (and events leading up to it) is a drama/comedy with a huge splash of 70’s nostalgia.

The main reason to see Battle of the Sexes is Steve Carell’s performance as Bobby Riggs. He’s hilarious but also a bit pitiful and tragic.

Emma Stone is strong as King, fighting hard to get attention for women’s tennis while resetting her sexual identity.

Battle of the Sexes is being sold as a movie about the tennis match and the boost the contest gave to women’s sports. Which it is.

But it is also King’s coming out story, which is not a prominent part of the film’s trailers and other marketing. Is Hollywood afraid to promote that aspect of the film? Brokeback Mountain was twelve years ago.

Husband/wife director duo Johnathan Dayton and Valerie Faris neatly weave audio and video from the actual ABC broadcast of the event with the hyperbolic commentary of Howard Cosell. The clothing and hairstyles of the era—and the presence of cigarettes—are accurately recreated by the movie’s design crews.

The film’s supporting cast includes: Andrea Riseborough as BJK’s partner Marilyn Barnett. Jessica McNamee as nasty King rival Margaret Court. Fred Armisen as Riggs’s supplier of vitamins and supplements. Sarah Silverman as a chainsmoking womens tennis promoter. Elizabeth Shue as Riggs wife. And Bill Pullman as former tennis great Jack Kramer.

Battle of the Sexes is not a typical melodramatic sports movie a la Rocky, Rudy, etc. There’s melodrama, yes, but also a good dose of fun, mainly from Carell.

Could any of today’s top female tennis players beat one of today’s top men’s players? Hard to say, but it’s doubtful. Maybe one could score a win against an old guy. Would America tune in to watch Serena versus McEnroe? Would you? Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Logan Lucky

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If you could stand a bit of fun escapism right about now, here’s Steven Soderbergh to the rescue!

Logan Lucky is like his films Ocean’s Eleven (and Twelve and Thirteen), but different. Danny Ocean’s caper crews were slick and smart. The Logan brothers and their co-conspirators are West Virginia rednecks who do not appear to be all that bright.

The Logans are definitely not lucky. Jimmy (Channing Tatum) suffered a football injury back in the day and his resulting limp gets him fired from a construction job at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (“Liability” issues he’s told.) His brother Clyde (Adam Driver) lost half his left arm in Mideast fighting and tends bar.

Together they devise a scheme to steal a huge amount of money from the NASCAR track during the Memorial Day weekend race.

The caper is crafty, but the characters and cast members who populate those roles are the real charm here. Like Max Chilblain (Sean MacFarlane), a wealthy, obnoxious, egomaniacal NASCAR sponsor. Prison warden Burns (Dwight Yoakam) is the type of administrator who doesn’t like to acknowledge problems. There’s Jimmy’s ex (Katie Holmes) who has remarried rich and shares custody of their daughter. Also in the cast are Hillary Swank, Katherine Waterston and Elvis Presley’s granddaughter Riley Keough.

But the big casting story is Daniel Craig with bleached hair as explosives expert Joe Bang. When recruited for the job, he points out to the Logans that he is “in-car-cer-ated.” But the Logans have a workaround for that small problem. The usually taciturn Craig appears to enjoy letting loose in the role.

Logan Lucky is full of fun and funny surprises, which I won’t ruin here. As with his Ocean’s flicks, director Soderbergh keeps the action moving fast which lets certain less plausible plot elements zip quickly by. The end result is a satisfying two-hour break from real life, something many of us are in great need of.

 

 

The LEGO Batman Movie

In a movie that’s more fun than funny, The LEGO Batman Movie centers around Batman’s (Will Arnett) relationships: With longtime villain The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), with Robin (Michael Cera), with Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) and with Albert (Ralph Fiennes).

From all the live action Batman movies, particularly those directed by Christopher Nolan, we know that Batman/Bruce Wayne has an austere personality. Despite his wealth and luxurious surroundings, he is a private individual whose innermost thoughts are known to few.

The LEGO Batman Movie takes viewers inside Wayne Manor for a peek at Batman’s private life which includes an affinity for romcoms—one in particular. You may be interested to learn Batman enjoys eating Lobster Thermidor.

The film also touches on the rivalry between Batman and Superman (Channing Tatum) and a device Superman has that transports evildoers to the “Phantom Zone.”

The LEGO Batman Movie is ever kinetic with an abundance of energy and over-the-top effects including many explosions. As with 2014’s The Lego Movie, the depiction of characters both well known and unknown via Legos is exceedingly clever.

And, as with its predecessor, you don’t have to have spent time playing with Legos to appreciate The LEGO Batman Movie. Although, having watched my two sons and my grandson play with Legos for hours, I have a warm spot in my soul for these wonderful building blocks (and their accessories).

Whereas the earlier film ended with a heartwarming live action father/son interaction, the new release does not contain such warm and fuzzy emotion wrangling. The 2014 film exceeded expectations and delivered surprise after surprise. The LEGO Batman Movie does not outpace expectations but comes close to fulfilling them. As noted at the top, it’s fun if not overwhelmingly funny. (Although the four 12-year-old girls sitting behind me at my screening—and giggling often—might beg to differ.)

My Fave Movie Moments in 2016

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Due to family circumstances I missed many of this year’s best films.

So, in lieu of a 2016 top ten movies list, here are my ten favorite movie moments I enjoyed this year!

  1. The Nice Guys—Ryan Gosling on a public toilet when the stall door opens. His attempt to control his gun, manage his cigarette, fold up his newspaper and pull up his pants is a nice piece of physical comedy in an underappreciated movie.
  2. Deadpool—The opening credits. Best ever.
  3. Doctor Strange—His shoutout to the song Feels So Good by Chuck Mangione. (Prompted me to Google Chuck and learn that he’s still alive!)
  4. The Jungle Book—Bill Murray’s voice work as Baloo. (Honorable mention to Christopher Walken voicing King Louie.)
  5. Captain America: Civil War—The epic intramural fight scene. Also, Iron Man’s nickname for Spiderman. He calls the young webslinger “Underoos.”
  6. The Boss—The street fight between two groups of women is hilariously funny, although the rest of the movie disappoints.
  7. Zootopia—The sloth at the DMV scene was tipped in trailers but still is clever and memorable.
  8. Hail, Caesar!—The Gene Kelly-like dance scene anchored by Channing Tatum. Beautifully staged and shot. And funny.
  9. Sully—The scene depicting the Hudson River landing looks real. Great work by Clint Eastwood’s effects team.
  10. Finding Dory—All the screen time given Hank the shape-shifting octopus. Yo, Pixar, Hank needs his own movie!

Allied

It is not Rick’s Café Americain that Max (Brad Pitt) walks into shortly after the beginning of Allied. But it is in Casablanca in the period of German occupation during World War II. Inside this gin joint, Max meets, for the first time, his “wife” Marianne (Marion Cotillard).

Like Casablanca, the classic Bogart film of 1942, Allied features an impassioned request for a specific tune played on piano and has a climactic scene at an airport.

In this latest film from director Robert Zemeckis (Cast Away, Forrest Gump, Polar Express and Back To The Future I, II and III), Max and Marianne pretend to be a married French couple working for the Germans. But they are on the side of the good guys.

While waiting to accomplish their mission in sweltering Casablanca, they maintain the charade and live together, pretending to be man and wife. It’s no spoiler to reveal that they become attracted to one another. Consummation occurs in a raging desert sandstorm, a fitting metaphor to connote passion. (The tryst happens inside a car with the windows rolled up, so nobody ends up with sand in his/her navel.)

They escape Casablanca to England where they marry and have a child. Max, a Canadian spy, continues to work for the allies. Marianne, a native of France, becomes a housewife and mom. But is that all she’s up to? Could she be a double agent, working for the Germans?

When Max’s superiors mention their suspicions, he is stunned by the accusation. But soon he begins to have doubts. He even flies into France to query a Resistance leader about her history.

In Allied, Max and Marianne’s relationship is allowed to evolve gradually. Early on, the film trudges slowly between its few sequences of real action. The film seems however to sprint toward its resolution in its final half hour.

While Allied is unlikely to approach the classic status of several of Zemeckis’s other films, it has an engrossing story performed by a strong cast. The two leads, Pitt and Cotillard, are talented pros who carry the movie. Even though Brad may be a bit too old for the role—he turns 53 in December—his performance is likely to please all Pitt fans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

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A pleasant mix of whimsy and peril, Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them takes elements from the Harry Potter saga and places them in a new setting with new characters. This latest movie from the mind of J.K. Rowling—she wrote and co-produced the film—has a mostly adult cast and is set on our side of the Atlantic in the mid 1920s.

You don’t have to be familiar with the Potter universe to enjoy FBAWTFT, although it has numerous references to Potter people and things. The film introduces a new character, briefly glimpsed in a Johnny Depp cameo, who will surely provide darkness and evil in Beasts’ sequels. (Four more movies are planned.)

Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is a British wizard who arrives by ship in New York. In a classic switcheroo, his magical suitcase full of beasts gets mixed up with that of aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). Newt also meets fellow wizards Tina (Katherine Waterston) and her roommate Queenie (Alison Sudol). A hat tip to Dan Fogler as Jacob—It’s a role that could’ve seen him go full Oliver Hardy but he keeps it in check.

Tina is not highly regarded by the U.S. wizards organization, led by Seraphina (Carmen Ejogo) and enforcer Graves (Colin Ferrell). The wizarding group keeps a close eye on Mary Lou (Samantha Morton) who has a group of adopted children and preaches against witches and wizards. One of her flock is Credence (Ezra Miller), a troubled young man with dark secret and an awful haircut.

FBAWTFT has a bit of sexual tension bubbling under between Newt and Tina and especially between Jacob and Queenie, given Queenie’s mindreading ability. But everything is squeaky PG-13 clean.

The beasts? Yes, they are fantastic. Many are derivative, possessing the look of certain prehistoric bird/reptile creatures, as well as other beings witnessed previously in sci-fi movies. My favorite wizard world freaks are those seen in the speakeasy scene where a diminuitive bartender serves Jacob a drink called giggle water. He drinks it and he giggles.

Will Fantastic Beasts satisfy Potter fans now that that tale has concluded? Most likely yes, but it’s a different flavor of wizardry and magic. Like the Potter films, Beasts’ pace is breakneck, heavy with plot and characters. But Newt and crew lack the pure charm Harry and his gang possessed. A different flavor, to be sure, but tasty enough to succeed.

Hacksaw Ridge

Going into combat without a gun at Okinawa during World War II? This would appear to be a bad idea. But there is a reason Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield) refuses to tote a weapon.

It seems odd that Doss’s true story has not been widely shared in the 71 years since his heroic actions occurred. After seeing depictions of WWII’s key events (Pearl Harbor, D-Day, etc.) on film over and over again, it’s refreshing to learn about this previously lesser-known episode.

Hacksaw Ridge delivers all the gruesomeness of heavy combat but also provides the enjoyable backstory of Desmond Doss.

Doss is a redneck from rural Virginia whose family life is turbulent. His father Tom (Hugo Weaving) is the worst kind of alcoholic. He is abusive to Desmond’s mom. When Desmond and his brother fight, dad encourages them to have at it, even unto the point of serious injury.

When the U.S. is forced into the war, Doss sees other young men from his area join the effort and he, too, enlists. But with one condition: he refuses to carry a gun. He says he is not a “conscientious objector” but is a “conscientious cooperator.”

His military leaders, including his sergeant (Vince Vaughn) and his captain (Sam Worthington), are baffled by his refusal. When court martial punishment is waived, Doss’s training continues and he becomes a medic within a combat unit. Armed not with a weapon but with morphine to relieve pain, he is part of the attack on Okinawa’s Hacksaw Ridge.

Director Mel Gibson opens the film with a brief montage of bloody combat violence and death before returning to Virginia and Desmond’s story. Doss meets and marries nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) before he ships out. An hour or so into the film, the climb begins up Hacksaw Ridge to overtake Japanese troops.

The action is fierce. Doss sees friends die. He sees men suffer serious wounds. When his unit retreats, he stays and pulls to safety many men left behind to die.

Andrew Garfield’s wide grin is well suited for his role as the likable hayseed. But his big hair is a bit distracting. Wouldn’t a WWII inductee have been given a buzz cut in basic?

Hacksaw Ridge brings to mind the 2014 film Unbroken about another WWII hero, Louis Zamperini. I prefer Hacksaw Ridge because Gibson’s storytelling focuses as much on the central character as on the events.

One more thing: If you choose to skip this film because of director Mel Gibson’s alcohol-fueled unsavory behavior a few years ago, consider that he now claims to have ten years of sobriety under his belt. As a longtime fan (going back to The Road Warrior), I hope he stays clean.

The Girl On The Train

Emily Blunt is good. Her title role in The Girl On The Train as a sad, damaged soul is the kind that often nets awards nominations. She manages the role well, avoiding the temptation to overact.

But it is the storytellers—novelist Paula Hawkins, screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson and director Tate Taylor—who make TGOTT a compelling, suspenseful mystery. The unfolding of the film’s set-up is accomplished smoothly, revealing characters and situations in a manner that grabs one’s attention and doesn’t let go.

When Rachel (Blunt) mentions her vivid imagination in an opening voiceover, it’s a clue that what is seen through her eyes may not be accurate. Factor in the alcoholism that rules her life and she becomes an unreliable source for certain plot elements. She does, however, have voyeuristic tendencies, so she is highly observant.

Two other key female characters, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and Megan (Haley Bennett), are women that Rachel has watched from her seat the train that takes commuters into Manhattan from the suburbs. Anna is married to Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux). Megan is Anna’s neighbor who helps care for Anna and Tom’s baby.

Rachel often sees Megan embracing her husband on the upstairs deck of their home located not far from the tracks. She also sees her ex and his new wife—the woman he had an affair with while married to Rachel.

One day she notices Megan is on the deck with a different man. Soon after, Megan disappears. Rachel’s recollections may be of help to the lead police investigator (Allison Janney) determine what happened but the time in question is a blackout period due to her excessive drinking.

Among the talented cast are two favorite former sitcom stars. Martha (Lisa Kudrow of Friends fame) is a woman from Rachel and Tom’s past. Cathy (Laura Prepon of That 70s Show) gives Rachel a place to stay when her drinking problem is at its worst.

You may be able to solve this movie’s puzzle before the big reveal, but a lingering question remains unanswered after the end titles: is Emily Blunt’s performance awardworthy? Director Tate Taylor’s 2011 film The Help resulted in three acting Oscar nominations and a win for Octavia Spencer.

Blunt is a solid pro. Depending on what comes down the cinematic track during the next few weeks, that girl on that train may not be on the inside looking out come awards season.

 

 

Sully

When the real-life Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed that jet in the Hudson River in January 2009, it was an amazing “feel good” story. He became a hero. Not only was he a capable pilot, he was also a nice guy.

He’s portrayed in Sully by Tom Hanks, a capable actor who also seems to be a nice guy.

Yes, there was drama in the actual incident, but apparently not quite enough for director Clint Eastwood to build a movie around. The story needs… conflict! An essential ingredient for many narratives, the conflict in Sully seems contrived.

While America was enjoying the happy outcome of the emergency landing and Sully was becoming a media darling, that nasty ol’ NTSB had its doubts that the river landing was necessary. The three members of the National Transportation Safety Board played by Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn and Jamey Sheridan question Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) about their decision-making.

In informal meetings and in an official hearing, the NTSB team suggests that Sully could’ve made it back to LaGuardia or to Teterboro airport in New Jersey. They even produce flight simulations showing that they could have safely touched down at either airport. Sully cites the human element as the key factor in his choice.

The depictions of the river landing are realistic and provide the meat of the movie. Because of the incident’s happy ending, the film provides a reminder of the tension of the evacuation and rescue effort.

Sully’s concern is for his passengers as they make it safely from the plane and after all have been taken from the river to various locations. In a sweet segment during the closing credits, the real-life Sully and his wife visit with passengers from the flight. Laura Linney plays Mrs. Sullenberger in the film. Her role is small but effective.

Are Sully, its star and its director Oscar-nomination-worthy? Those, I think, will be borderline calls, based on the competitive field. Because Sully was a reserved, medium-key individual, Tom Hanks gives a medium-key performance. Even last year’s role in Bridge of Spies offered more opportunities for Hanks to display his acting chops.

Sully relives the events of that day in 2009 without major stylistic flourishes. This solid film should give American audiences a moment to be proud of and should rekindle the nation’s appreciation for this hero pilot.

The Shallows

Man versus shark. Or, in this case, woman versus shark. Yes, you’ll think of Jaws, but The Shallows is different. As with Jaws, the chills and tingles come early and often.

Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) is a 20-something med school student from Texas. She is also a talented surfer. She is dropped off at an out-of-the-way beach in Mexico. It’s the beach that her late mother visited when she became pregnant with Nancy.

In the water, she chats with a couple of locals on their boards. They ride waves together. After the locals head in for the day, Nancy senses something is amiss. An injured whale floats nearby, victim of an attack by an enormous great white shark.

It is not a spoiler to reveal that the shark attacks Nancy. She survives and takes refuge atop the whale. Later she manages to move to a nearby rock, just a few hundred yards from shore. Here she uses her jewelry to close her leg wound in a scene that’s not for the squeamish.

Those of us who saw Jaws 41 summers ago knew—due to reams of advance publicity for the film—that Spielberg’s shark was a dummy. The shark in The Shallows (who gets significant screen time) appears more real.

Nancy spends the night on the rock, along with a bloodstained bird that managed to escape the shark. When the two locals return to surf the next day, she tries to warn them away but their outcome is not a happy one.

As she prepares to spend a second night on the rock with the shark nearby and the tide rising, she plots her next moves that might ensure her survival.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra (who directed the 2014 suspense thriller Non-Stop and last year’s Run All Night) keeps the tension level at a simmer between moments of terror. Prepare to jump a few times during the film’s compact 85-minute runtime.

Blake Lively does an admirable job of communicating her upset/horror of the situation without overplaying the role. She’s not the only human character in The Shallows, but it’s her film to win or lose and she wins.