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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Aloha

Writer/director Cameron Crowe’s movies, whether good or not so good, are always interesting and always have entertaining soundtracks. Aloha his both those marks and turns out to be an enjoyable film with characters who are hard not to like. It may not be as quotable or memorable or funny as some other Crowe films, but Aloha has a number of good things going for it.

Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) is ex-military, now a civilian, returning to Hawaii on a private sector gig. Upon landing he runs into ex-girlfriend Tracy (Rachel McAdams) and finds she’s married with two kids. Gilcrest’s Air Force liaison is Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone), a hardcore type-A.

Among Gilchrist’s objectives is to work out a deal with local natives to acquire land. He and Ng meet with the native leader. Gilchrist is the tough negotiator but Ng charms the natives with her personality and appreciation of Hawaiian culture.

As Gilchrist and Ng continue a low boil flirtation, Tracy and husband Woody (John Krasinski) invite Gilchrist and Ng over for dinner. Though they are not quite as intense as Rick and Ilsa from Casablanca, in a kitchen conversation, it becomes clear that Tracy and Gilchrist still have strong feelings for one another, even though she’s spoken for.

Other players in Aloha include Bill Murray as rich guy Carson Welch who provides private rocket launches for anyone with money, but with support from the military. Alec Baldwin is General Dixon, Gilcrest’s former commander, who’s on hand to help foster the deal making. It is always encouraging to see a strong younger actor who has great screen presence—Danielle Rose Russell is impressive playing Tracy and Woody’s daughter Grace.

Crowe has handed Cooper a character with a good backstory and an appropriate level of self-disgust. Stone is at her charmingly perkiest as Ng, a woman with loads of drive and ambition. McAdams’ Tracy is happy and but also frightened by the return of her ex. Krasinksi’s Woody is a quiet man who’s not oblivious to what’s happening. I like these characters.

Gilcrest’s interactions with these two women are the heart of the movie but Crowe does a neat job of stitching the private space mission story into the fabric. Aloha’s touching final scene may cause tears.

In the Cameron Crowe oeuvre, Aloha is no Jerry McGuire but it beats the heck out of Vanilla Sky.

Birdman

Birdman delivers. It is an amazing thing to see. Michael Keaton’s terrific performance in the title role is likely to earn him an Oscar nomination. Director Alejandro Inarritu (who co-wrote the script) should receive awards, as well.

Riggan Thompson (Keaton) is a well-known movie star who played a character called Birdman in a series of films before he stepped away from the franchise. Now he is starring in and directing a Broadway play whose script he adapted. The movie covers the few days spanning the time from final rehearsals to opening night. Yes, it’s a comedy, but one with a dark, often subtle, wit.

Is Riggan crazy? Is his inner voice—the voice of Birdman— just the conscience we all have or is it the voice a mentally ill person hears? Does he really (within the movie) have super powers or is that just his imagination? Can he possibly be as insecure as he often seems? And there are more questions that are not clearly answered, questions that can’t be referenced here without being spoilers.

Other key players include Mike (Edward Norton) who is a last minute replacement in the play’s cast. He’s a pro and Riggan knows it, but Mike’s on-stage confidence and Broadway pedigree rub Riggan the wrong way. Naomi Watts is Lesley, another on-stage cast member. She and Mike have a past together. Riggan’s girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is the 4th member of the play’s cast. His response when she tells him she’s pregnant reveals much about their relationship.

Samamtha (Emma Stone) is Riggan’s daughter, just out of rehab. She confirms to her dad that, yes, he is no longer relevant. She chides him for not being on Twitter and Facebook, equating social media presence to existence.

Jake (Zach Galifianakis), the show’s producer, is a different role for Galifianakis. He plays a less wacky, more normal guy, though one with some funny lines.

Because of its technical style, long takes and unorthodox camera angles, Birdman is film that will be dissected and analyzed by film classes for decades. The Steadicam used extensively in filming Birdman earns back every cent producers paid for it.

If you see Birdman with a friend, you’ll have plenty of things to talk about after the show, such as: Who, besides Keaton, had the most award-worthy performance? (I’d say Norton.) Were things Mike said to Riggan based on jealousy of his notoriety or were they sage wisdom? (Both, I think.) Was Birdman‘s “continuous take” clever or tedious? (For me, mostly clever.)

More discussion topics: How about that soundtrack, provided mostly by a single drummer? (It magnified the tension, but I detest drum solos at concerts, so I got tired of it quickly.) Is the alternative title Or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance really necessary? (No.) Was Riggan’s putdown of critics valid? (To a degree, yes.) What did you think of that ending? (No spoilers, so no input from me on this question.) We can talk after you see Birdman. And you must see it!

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

 

In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Andrew Garfield seems incredibly comfortable in the role of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Also, his version of Peter Parker enjoys being Spider-Man more than did Tobey McGuire’s. The Spidey angst here is more about his relationship with Gwen.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 pivots back and forth between Peter’s romance with Gwen (Emma Stone) and Spider-Man’s efforts to save the world from evil. Will the couple stay apart? Can they resist the attraction? And will Spider-Man be able to contain bad guys who bring new terror to the screen?

As usual, something catastrophic happens to turn a normal person into a creature bent on doing bad things. This time it’s nerdy Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) who, thanks to powerful electrical current, becomes Electro.

Honestly, I didn’t care for Electro as a villain. His powers seemed poorly defined though almost limitless. Jamie Foxx, as usual, is great but the character lacks qualities that would make him more memorable.

Harry Osborn (Dean DeHaan) is heir to the Oscorp organization and is about to segue into his Green Goblin identity. Like Foxx, DeHaan is a talented actor. But the evolution of the Green Goblin is less than satisfying.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 launches with Spider-Man trying to rein in a terrorist in a truck, Aleksei (Paul Giamatti), while also trying to make his way to a graduation ceremony where Gwen will be speaking. Giamatti’s character looks and acts like a refugee from The Road Warrior and the role fails to take advantage of Giamatti’s acting prowess.

Sally Field returns as Aunt May and, although she’s still pretty at age 67, in one shot her neck looks just awful. (Pardon my being catty.)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has action galore. The sequences with Spidey using his web spinning to move rapidly through a cityscape are, to me, more enjoyable than the scenes showing Spider-Man trying to neutralize the villains.

Director Mark Webb delivers one of my favorite shots of the year in this film. It shows Gwen falling, in very slow motion. The contrast from the high energy pace of the rest of the movie is stark.

This is not a must-see film unless you feel a personal need to catch all the tent-pole movies this spring-summer in order to keep tabs on the super heroes. TAS-M2 delivers all the movie stuff that goes well with popcorn, and it entertains, but it has shortcomings that cause it to fall short of greatness.

 

 

 

 

Gangster Squad

With classic elements galore, Gangster Squad delivers the goods. Sean Penn turns in a killer performance as a boxer turned mob boss in mid-20th century Los Angeles. His character is almost cartoonish, like a Dick Tracy bad guy. Josh Brolin, as leader of the secret Squad, is not unlike Dick Tracy, with a Tess Trueheart type wife.

With a hint of the colors of retouched picture postcards and the requisite armada of late 40’s automobiles, Gangster Squad is drenched in nostalgia. The wardrobes (including men in hats), the red lipstick, the smoking, comments about WW II, the music all do a nice job of capturing the era. Josh Brolin’s opening and closing narrations echo another staple of this genre.

Penn’s character Mickey Cohen controls not only vice but also the majority of police and political leaders in metro LA. Nick Nolte, looking healthier than in his other recent roles, is the LAPD chief (not been bought off by Cohen) who anoints Brolin’s character John O’Mara as leader of a secret gangster squad.

O’Mara recruits a team of cops to shut down Cohen and his operations. Ryan Gosling is a cool LAPD detective named Jerry Wooters who successfully hits on Cohen’s babe, Grace Faraday, played by Emma Stone. He eases his way into the squad and becomes a vital team member.

The squad operates almost like the Mission Impossible teams of prior movies and TV shows. They even have a tech guy, played by the nerdy Giovanni Ribisi, who plants a microphone in Cohen’s digs and listens in from a remote shack.

The Gangster Squad and Cohen’s crooks trade punches throughout the film until the last round, when the knockout blow is finally delivered.

Gangster Squad is an entertainingly violent movie that’s not quite a classic, but has all the LA period piece cops and robbers stuff. One quibble is the casting of Emma Stone as the babe. A more mature, less innocent looking actress may have been more effective in the role.

Word is that the movie was originally slated for a September, 2012, release. But because of its violent content (and one particular sequence) was retooled and held back after the Aurora, Colorado shootings. Nonetheless, Gangster Squad is action-packed with great characters, a strong cast and a good story. I’m already looking forward to seeing it again.

The Amazing Spider-Man

Is it legit to retell an origin story that was told just ten years ago? Apparently the 2002 version of how Peter Parker got his powers wasn’t quite accurate, because the new movie changes some of the details.

The rebooted story of “The Amazing Spider-Man” stars Andrew Garfield of “The Social Network” fame. Unlike former Spiderman Tobey McGuire, he’s hunky and does not have a high-pitched voice. It’s much harder to buy Garfield as a weak, meek target of high school bullies. McGuire was a better wimp.

Not that Garfield doesn’t do a good job—he does. Garfield’s Spiderman embraces his new powers more readily than did McGuire’s Spidey. His powers first come into play in a memorable scene in a subway car when Parker is not quite yet aware of all he can do. It’s a fun scene.

His love interest is Gwen, played by Emma Stone. Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane in the ’02 movie took some time to figure out that Parker was Spiderman. Gwen gets hip quick. While there’s nothing quite as sexy as the upside down kiss in the ’02 Spidey flick with Kirsten Dunst’s nipples visible under her wet blouse, there is a bit of heat between Peter/Spiderman and Gwen. Emma’s got legs and they are given good screen time.

Gwen’s dad is a police boss, played by Denis Leary. Leary is leery (sorry!) of Spiderman and his intentions. When Gwen has Peter over for dinner, her dad and the unmasked Spidey have a contentious conversation about the Web-Slinger.

The villain is Dr. Curt Connors, played by Rhys Ifans. Parker’s vanished father had been a research partner of Connors. In an effort to check out the possibility of cross-species genetics, Connors injects himself and becomes a rather violent giant lizard. In lizard mode, he wreaks major civic havoc until our hero saves the day.

Martin Sheen and Sally Field are featured as Peter Parker’s aunt and uncle who raise him after his parents make a quick getaway. Cliff Robertson’s role as Parker’s uncle in the ’02 film was more poignant and meaningful than is Sheen’s. As for Parker’s parents, a post-credits coda teases that their fate may be learned in the next Spiderman movie.

It is true that this movie about a SPIDER man is directed by a man named… WEBB! Marc Webb previously directed “500 Days of Summer,” but has never taken on anything as big as this. He does an efficient job of storytelling and bringing freshness to story elements that have been presented on screen before. The effects are good but they do not “drown out” the plot line as happens in some tent pole type franchise movies.

Why so many comparisons to the ’02 movie with McGuire and Dunst in this review? Well, that first “Spiderman” movie is still #12 on the all-time box office list! It has not exactly faded from our collective memory.

Can the new version even come close to the $403.7 million US box office total of Spidey One? With a favorable opening date, just ahead of Independence Day, and eager anticipation from moviegoers, the outlook is good to go big.