BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017)

September 29, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. At least two generations are too young to have experienced the 1973 media circus that was the tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. However, what matters is that the impact and social changes that began in earnest that night at the Astrodome are still being felt and evolving today. It might seem incredulous that the 29 year old top-ranked women’s player emerging victorious against a 55 year old who played his last professional match 14 years prior would have an impact on anything other than TV rankings, but in fact, it caused a significant societal shift.

Real life married couple and co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are well known for their collaborations on iconic music videos and TV commercials, and since joining the movie world have brought us LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and RUBY SPARKS. Their talent for visual presentation is on display here in both the tennis scenes and the more intimate character moments. And, oh my, there are some intimate moments thanks to the script from Oscar winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE). There is no shying away from Ms. King’s sexual confusion/awareness/preferences.

Emma Stone (Oscar winner for LA LA LAND) stars as tennis legend Billie Jean King and manages to convey three different sides: the ultra-competitor, the champion for equal rights, and the married woman coming to grips with her sexual identity. Steve Carell captures the essence and mannerisms of Bobby Riggs, the former tennis champ, floundering in middle-age and always on the lookout for his next hustle or gambling opportunity. Surprisingly, only a minor portion of the film deals with the actual tennis match. Instead, the film dives into the personal lives of these two polar opposite personalities, each with their own challenges and issues.

Despite the fun and outrageousness that the Riggs character delivers, the film might have been better served focusing even more on Ms. King. While she needed the “villain”, it was really her dedication to the cause and strength amidst the backlash that made the difference … along with her court skills. Watching her stand tall in confrontations with the chauvinistic and powerful Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) is something to behold. Again, those that weren’t around might not believe some of the outrageous claims by the men of the times.

Supporting work comes from Andrea Riseborough as the all-important Marilyn, who turns Billie Jean away from her husband Larry (Austin Stowell), Sarah Silverman as promoter Gladys Heldman, Natalie Morales as Rosie Casales, Alan Cumming as the colorful clothes designer, an underutilized Elisabeth Shue as Riggs’ wife, Fred Armisen as Rheo Blair – Riggs’ partner in the herbs and vitamins game, and Lewis Pullman (Bill’s real life son) as Riggs’ son, Larry. We are even treated to a Bob Stephenson sighting as the Sugar Daddy PR guy at the match.

This was the era when the Vietnam War was winding down, the Watergate scandal was raging, outside “the norm” sexual preferences were kept in the closet, prize money for men’s tennis was 8-10 times that of women, and the overall respect for women and their sports was excruciatingly misguided. Listening to Howard Cosell speak so condescendingly during the national broadcast merely confirms the inequity. Of course, these same issues are discussed and debated even today, as society evolution is often slow, even when moving in the right direction. The film might not add much to today’s cause, but it reinforces the early legacy of Billie Jean King as a difference-maker.

watch the trailer:

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SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD (2012)

July 2, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. First time director Lorene Scafaria is best known for her wonderful script for Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist. Directing her own script here, we are left wondering if the gaps are in the writing or directing, but it’s clear Ms. Scafaria loves long titles. Matilda, a giant asteroid, is headed towards Earth and life will cease to exist in 3 weeks. Upon hearing this news, Dodge’s wife Linda (played by Steve Carell‘s real-life wife) takes off running away from him and supposedly into the arms of her secret love affair partner.

Dodge (Carell) has little reaction to the bailing of his wife or even to the impending Armageddon. In fact, he strikes us as the guy who has had little reaction to much in life and has no idea who he really is. While he does have some acquaintances and a predictably boring job at an insurance company, Dodge shows no inclination to join in the festivities of excess (drugs, sex, religion, riots) enjoyed by others, and instead offers up a lame, sure-to-fail suicide attempt to go with his droopy demeanor and overall lethargy.

It takes little time for Dodge to be saddled with an abandoned dog named Sorry and a crying neighbor named Penny (Keira Knightley). This part of the film is actually its best feature. We get the forced partnership of this odd couple and a road trip that allows for some interaction with others. The others include standout scenes with William Peterson, Bob Stephenson and TJ Miller (below, left, the host at Friendsy’s, a TGIF themed diner that devolves into a lovefest that neither Dodge nor Penny care to partake.

 The road trip does have the outline of a purpose. Dodge wants to re-connect with his high school sweetheart and Penny wants to get home to England in time to say goodbye to her parents. However, it’s pretty clear that the main reason for the road trip is to allow Dodge and Penny to fall in love. Just another apocalyptic rom-com.

I totally get the “opposites attract” approach, but I found Knightley to be far beyond quirky (John Cale and Leonard Cohen vinyl) and closer to her mentally unstable character in the first hour of A Dangerous Method. As for Dodge, he may be the nice guy that Penny sees, but mostly his life force hovers just above zero, while wearing sweaters that would fit right into Mr. Rodgers’ neighborhood. It’s not until he visits his estranged dad (Martin Sheen) that he shows signs of a pulse.  It’s kind of interesting to pay attention to the names in the film.  Dodge is ironic given what’s headed toward Earth.  Penny may or may not be lucky depending on your interpretation.  A survivalist named Speck, who doesn’t get that his preparations make no difference.  And, of course, a dog named Sorry.

2011 brought us two fascinating end-of-the world films in Melancholia and Another Earth.  This one avoids the manic depression of one or the science fiction of the other. While I never really bought into the heightened attraction of these two who miraculously become kindred spirits thanks to the time constraints, their relationship does provide fodder for thought. What would you do if you knew things were ending in 3 weeks? Would your true self finally make an appearance? If so, what are you waiting for? The message really is … our time is limited so don’t waste it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you wouldn’t mind a little Herb Alpert with your apocalypse OR you need a primer in the greatness of vinyl records, even if the knowledge won’t help once the asteroid hits

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: a hyper, twisted-faced Keira Knightley is not your ideal partner at the end regardless of the pristine condition of her John Cale and Leonard Cohen albums

watch the trailer:


OUR IDIOT BROTHER

August 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you have seen the trailer, you might have the wrong impression. This is no laugh riot. Sure there is plenty of humor and you will laugh, but it’s not the slapstick goofy movie the trailer leads us to believe. Oddly enough, one could make the case that it’s actually a “message” movie.

Director Jesse Peretz has teamed with his writer sister Evgenia Peretz to dive into the often strained relationships between siblings – especially brother and sister, or in this case, brother and 3 sisters. There are numerous examples of how we often cheat or lie our way through life, or at a minimum, trick ourselves into believing (or not) certain things about ourselves and our loved ones.

 The movie begins just like the trailer. Ned (Paul Rudd) is working an organic vegetable booth and is approached by a UNIFORMED police officer to buy some pot. Ned laughs it off until the officer says “It’s been a really rough week“. See, Ned is an incredibly nice and trusting guy. He always wants to help people and treat them kindly. This scene sets the stage … is Ned really an idiot or are we the idiots for not being as open and trusting as he? Once Ned is released early from jail (good behavior, of course), he naturally returns to the organic farm and his girlfriend of 3 years (Kathryn Hahn). To his surprise, he finds she has moved on to Ned’s apparent replicant Billy (TJ Miller). Even worse, she has no plans to let Ned take his beloved dog, Willie Nelson.

 So Ned heads off to re-connect with his mom (Shirley Knight) and 3 sisters. Miranda (Elizabeth Banks) is a hard-driving career woman trying to break into the magazine writing world. She believes in stopping at nothing to nab a story, or even take advantage of her neighbor (Adam Scott). Liz (Emily Mortimer) is a dedicated Mom and frustrated wife married to Dylan (Steve Coogan), a documentary filmmaker and scoundrel. Natalie (Zooey Deschanel) is the world’s worst stand-up comedian as well as a quasi-lesbian in love with lawyer Cindy (Rashida Jones in ridiculous wardrobe and glasses).

 Not going to ruin the individual story lines, but obviously Ned spends time with each of his sisters and manages to wreak havoc for each, and anyone else within ear shot. At least that’s how they see it. All he really does is act nice, be open and tell the truth. The chips then fall where they may. Each of the sisters learn a bit about Ned, but even more about themselves.

 As previously stated, there are plenty of laughs in this one, but also moments of drama and reality that work like a bucket of ice dumped on your head. The above cast is excellent and also includes Hugh Dancy and Bob Stephenson as the police officer from the opening. Mr. Stephenson is underrated and very talented. He can do much with little. For proof stay for the outtakes over the closing credits. His is a gem.

While the sisters are all quite annoying in their own special ways, it is Paul Rudd who makes the film work. He has the eyes, nature and smile to pull off this character as someone who could actually exist. Someone we all wish we could be a little more like.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you see the genius of Paul Rudd OR you are intrigued with the idea of living your life with complete honesty

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a raunchy slapstick Apatow-type OR you prefer to miss the worst ever lesbian wardrobe captured on film

watch the trailer:


LARRY CROWNE

July 3, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. I view Tom Hanks as one of the all-time giants among movie actors. He is true Hollywood royalty. When I heard he was producing, directing, co-writing and starring in a new film (his first directorial outing since That Thing You Do), I assumed it was his first step in becoming the new Clint Eastwood. Sadly, Mr. Hanks broke the number rule of movie-making: have a point to make or a story to tell. What we get is a time warp when mainstream movies could be successful just by putting nice people on screen.

 And nice people is what we get. Tom Hanks plays the ultimate nice guy as Larry Crowne. Crowne is the type who attracts nice people and makes them even nicer. Even when he loses his job, we never doubt that this nice guy will land on his feet and even be better off eventually. Oh no you don’t … stop trying to guess the ending! Other nice people are … EVERY STUDENT in the speech class taught by Julia Roberts, the L.A. scooter club that recruits Crowne, the Marine owner of a diner who hires Crowne, the lottery-winning neighbors of Crowne and the dean of students at the community college. The nicest one of all is Talia, played delightfully by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (from the awful “Undercovers” show that lasted less than one season).

The closest thing to a bad guy is Roberts’ husband played by Bryan
Cranston (“Breaking Bad”). His fault? He is a bit lazy (after writing two
books) and he likes to look at swimsuit models on the internet. Sure,
when the movie starts, Ms. Roberts character is at her lowest. She
clearly drinks too much to mask her misery, though it’s never obvious
just why she is so miserable.

But this is not a movie about conflict or tension or anything not nice
… even though it begins with a nice guy getting laid off from his
job. The story and screenplay are co-written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos.
You will remember her as the creative force behind the gem My Big Fat
Greek Wedding. Unfortunately, this film is nowhere close to the level
of that one (conflict with Greek traditions).

 If Mr. Hanks’ goal is to become an important filmmaker in the vein of Clint Eastwood or Frank Capra, he will need to study the films that have made him rich and famous. Or at least study the best screwball comedies or rom-coms. A good story must have CONFLICT! There needs to be something that creates interest for the viewer. Even children’s books give us something – a mean raccoon, a wicked witch.  Simple, bland, generic, nice, likable and swell can all play a part … but they can’t be EVERY part! My two favorite things about the film are George Takei and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Mr. Takei (of “Star Trek” fame) provides some of the few laughs in the film as a very meticulous Economics professor. His voice and mannerisms inspire us to smile and ultimately laugh outloud. Gugu is just terrific as the idealistic free-spirit who transforms Crowne and lights up her every scene. Can’t wait to see what she does next.

 As you might expect, supporting actors lined up to work with Hanks and Julia. Among those not mentioned above are Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji B. Henson (Crowne’s neighbors), Wilmer Valderrama (Gugu’s boyfriend), Rita Wilson (the mortgage officer), Pam Grier (professor), Grace Gummel (Meryl Streep’s daughter as the ‘pasta’ speech student), and it’s always nice to see Bob Stephenson on screen. He is one of the more underutilized deadpan comedic talents around.

There is little doubt that this film will find an audience. An audience
that demands little from a movie. There is nothing wrong with two hours
of back-slapping and giddy smiling … as long as you get a story to go
along with it.  The best way I can describe this movie is that it’s like looking at a family photo album.  Everyone is smiling.  Everyone looks happy.  But nothing is really happening.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you believe thinking and movie watching should remain separate activities OR you simply want to see a lot of nice people onscreen for two hours

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe filmmakers owe us something and shouldn’t cash in on their reputation … even if their name is Tom Hanks.