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:

Advertisements

THE LITTLE HOURS (2017)

July 13, 2017

Oak Cliff Film Festival 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not often when the obvious comparison to a movie is the classic 1975 comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and it’s even more unusual for such a film to be making the rounds at festivals (I saw this at Oak Cliff Film Festival) where schedules tend to be loaded with serious and dark subject matter. This outlandish comedy won’t be to everyone’s taste, as it is profane and at times mean-spirited.

The year is 1347 when writer/director Jeff Baena’s story kicks off outside a convent where it takes less than a couple of minutes to realize that these aren’t your usual nuns. Profanity spews forth, as does laughter from the audience. Dave Franco plays a servant who has a good reason to flee from his King (Nick Offerman) and agree to a cockamamie plan suggested by the local priest (John C Riley). The plan has Franco working at the convent pretending to be deaf mute, while struggling to decline the advances from the aforementioned warped nuns played by Aubrey Plaza (the director’s long-time girlfriend), Alison Brie (“Mad Men”), and Kate Micucci (Unleashed).

Plot is barely an after-thought here, and most of the movie plays like interrelated “Saturday Night Live” skits. In fact, Fred Armisen and Molly Shannon are part of the ensemble, along with Paul Reiser and Adam Pally. Just as the characters begin to wear a bit thin, a new character is introduced, resuscitating our interest. Each of the actors deliver, but it’s Armisen and Micucci who are especially fun to watch, as is Riley’s tendency to turn communal wine into a community beverage.

Raunchy medieval comedies filled with debauchery and outrageously misdirected nuns could be classified as a bit of a stretch. However it makes more sense when you learn that Mr. Baena has adapted this from Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron”, and his use of modern day dialogue and attitudes, delivered by an ultra talented comedic cast, makes this one to watch after a particularly rough day or week of work. Expect an altar filled with f-words and blasphemy with a wink. If you are OK with that, you’ll likely laugh and enjoy the temporary reprieve from real life … even without any killer rabbits or Knights who say “ni”.

watch the trailer:

**I could only find a red band trailer – and ‘nun’ of that is appropriate.


BAND AID (2017)

June 1, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Where words fail, music speaks.” Danish author Hans Christian Andersen wrote those words more than 150 years ago, and he surely never imagined a 21st century California couple would prove true the adage. Zoe Lister-Jones (a regular on TV’s “Whitney”) has been acting regularly since 2004, and this is her first “all in” film project where she is writer/director/producer/lead actress. Her talent as a writer is evident in a topic assumed close to her heart: thirty-something angst.

Ms. Lister-Jones stars as Anna, a disenchanted Uber driver who is married to super slobby slacker Ben played by Adam Pally (Slow Learners, 2015). These two seem perfectly matched – or would be, if not for the constant bickering over anything and everything. Before you assume this is a remake of the ultra-depressing Revolutionary Road (2008), please note that the two leads are incredibly funny people and masters of witty one-liners. They make marital squabbles quite entertaining, once they decide to form a band with the sole purpose of singing their arguments.

Admittedly, it’s a shaky premise, but these two manage to pull it off with help from neighbor/drummer/sex addict “Weird Dave” (Fred Armisen). Along the way, they take shots at their friends’ exuberance over babies, the Holocaust, a kid named ISIS, pizza, dirty dishes, a mousetrap, sex, drugs, and art. They even bring levity to a marriage counseling scene featuring Retta (“Parks and Recreation”).

Just as impressive as the humor is how the film balances the drama associated with lingering depression tied to the trauma of a miscarriage. This and the couple’s inability to communicate their emotions are what drive their marital challenges. For a short time, the ‘argument music’ seems to improve their relationship, but it’s obvious that the real issue must be dealt with. Enter Ben’s mom (Susie Essman), whose only scene serves the purpose of explaining women to Ben and all the dumb guys in the audience.

There are actually quite a few familiar faces (many with ties to “Life in Pieces”) that appear in only one or two scenes: Chris D’Elia, Ravi Patel, the aforementioned Retta, Majandra Delfino, Jesse Williams, Colin Hanks, Brooklyn Decker, Erinn Hayes, Jamie Chung, Hannah Simone, and Angelique Cabral. These quick hit scenes serve as a dose of reality, as “moments” are what make up life … even if many interactions are “crazy” (D’Elia) or creepy (Williams).

The film was well received at Sundance, and it immediately marks Zoe Lister-Jones as a filmmaker to watch. Her comedic presence is a rarity, and is complimented nicely by her musical talent, and her willingness to hit serious topics head-on. Here, she offers a woman’s perspective on having kids, being questioned about having kids, and traditional women’s roles within society and marriage. Her inspired observations (a spontaneous jam session at the kid’s birthday party) are a welcome addition to today’s cinema, while also offering a west coast contrast to east coast indie film.

watch the trailer:

 


ADDICTED TO FRESNO (2015)

September 17, 2015

addicted to fresno Greetings again from the darkness. It’s not quite a unicorn, but it seems fair to call it a White Harbour Porpoise. Yes, it’s that rare to see a Comedy movie written by a woman, directed by a woman, starring women in a story about women. And it’s that rarity which makes it all the more disappointing when the finished product doesn’t match the expectation.

The cast is loaded with funny people, many of whom are best known for their work on TV. However, that’s not what makes this feel like an aimless TV sitcom straining too hard to make us laugh, often through cheap shock value. The movie leaves us with the feeling that writer Karey Dornetto (“Portlandia”) and director Jamie Babbit (But I’m a Cheerleader, “Gilmore Girls”) have spent too many hours studying the work of Judd Apatow, rather than letting their own voices speak. We are teased with glimpses, but mostly just left wanting.

On the bright side, Judy Greer finally gets a lead role after seemingly hundreds of support roles where she has often been the best thing about a movie. Yet somehow the filmmakers manage to dull Ms. Greer’s natural glow as she plays Shannon, a registered sex offender with little desire to break her sex addiction, or even become the least bit likeable. The very talented Natasha Lyonne plays Martha, Shannon’s younger lesbian sister who is her personality polar opposite, yet never can quite escape the “bad luck” following her around.

Martha decides to make Shannon’s recovery her mission in life, and secures her a job so they can work together as maids at a local motel. What follows is an accidental murder, a frantic attempt to dispose of the body, a mentally challenged housekeeping supervisor, multiple instances of sexual confusion, a sex shop hold-up, blackmailing pet cemetery owners, a profane rapping boy at his bar mitzvah, an inappropriate relationship with a therapist that breaks up a marriage, and a running gag with a chubby hotel guest in a Hawaiian shirt carrying a little dog. All of that zaniness leads to a disproportionately few number of laughs, although we do get a terrific Cousin It impersonation and an extremely rare (maybe a first ever?) Hammer-throw joke.

What’s lacking here, despite the best efforts of Ms. Greer and Ms. Lyonne, is any semblance of humanity or realism … necessities for comedy. We just never make any connection with the main characters. The supporting cast provides numerous diversions and feature the familiar faces of Ron Livingston (the therapist mentioned above), an underutilized Aubrey Plaza, Molly Shannon, the duo of Fred Armisen and Alison Tolman playing opportunistic small business owners, Jessica St Clair as one of the more emotional front desk clerks you’ll ever see, Jon Daly as one of the more unfortunate characters, and Malcolm Barrett as Shannon’s latest love interest/poet.

Of course, in keeping with the film’s title there is a never-ending stream of insults directed at the city of Fresno. If that much attention had been paid to the sister relationship and the forming of characters, perhaps the comedy would have been more effective. Instead, if you are all set on watching sisters working together in the clean-up business, the better recommendation would be Sunshine Cleaning.

watch the trailer: