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.

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THE LAST LAUGH (2017, doc)

March 5, 2017

last-laugh Greetings again from the darkness. The best comedy often touches a nerve. Jokes can make us feel uncomfortable and even a bit embarrassed for laughing. Although the best comedians are traditionally those who attack the politically correct world we live in, there are certain topics that remain taboo even to the bravest comedians: child molesting, rape, AIDS, 9/11, and the Holocaust. Director Ferne Pearlstein examines the issue of taboo comedy through numerous interviews with some well known and successful comedians, authors, and even Holocaust survivors.

Much of the focus here is on the Holocaust, and some of the familiar faces providing insight include Mel Brooks, Sarah Silverman, Gilbert Gottfried, and Rob and Carl Reiner. We learn the most important rule is … never tell a crappy joke about a dark subject – it better be really funny! We also learn that while the Holocaust is mostly off-limits, the Nazi’s are fair game. Bugs Bunny, Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, and The Marx Brothers have all mined the Nazi world for the sake of comedy and satire, though maybe none have done so as frequently or successfully as Mel Brooks (“Springtime for Hitler”)

One of the most interesting recurring threads of the film involves Auschwitz survivor Renee Firehouse. North of 90 years old, this remarkable lady is extremely sharp and understands the importance of laughter … while also never being shy about what she thinks is NOT funny. Ms. Firestone even meets up with the effervescent Robert Clary, a fellow Holocaust survivor, and known to many as LeBeau on the TV show “Hogan’s Heroes”.

A trip to the Holocaust Survivor Convention on the Las Vegas strip offers up more thoughts on the role comedy played in keeping these folks alive. We see rare footage of carefully staged Cabaret acts from within the concentration camps … who even knew this went on? The recently re-discovered footage of Jerry Lewis’ “The Day the Clown Cried” is also shown, and the commentary from Harry Shearer makes it clear that the rest should never find an audience.

Authors Etgar Keret, Shalom Auslander and Abraham Foxman each provide their thoughts on forbidden comedic topics, and clips are shown from “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Brooks’ The Producers, as well as scandalous moments from Louis CK, Joan Rivers, Chris Rock, and the most censured comic of all, Lenny Bruce. Laughter may be the best medicine, but sometimes it’s interesting to take a step back and determine exactly what is off-limits. When has a joke gone too far? It appears from Ms. Pearlstein’s project that the line in the sand is determined by personal taste, preference and judgment.

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I SMILE BACK (2015)

October 23, 2015

I smile back Greetings again from the darkness. The combination of Sarah Silverman in the lead role and the word “smile” in the title sets the stage for some shell-shocked movie goers who walk into this one expecting the side-splitting laughs this talented comedienne usually delivers. Drama seems an insufficient description for what director Adam Salky serves up, and Ms. Silverman is fully engaged with the bleak tone. It’s a Hollywood rite of passage that every comedic actor must go full bore drama before they are taken seriously as an actor. Welcome to the club, Sarah.

The opening sequence plops us right into Laney’s (Silverman) depressed state. We soon learn that she is far beyond the stereotypical disillusioned suburban housewife. She lives in a stunning McMansion with her wonderful husband Bruce (Josh Charles) and their cute kids. Unable to find joy in her life, Laney seeks answers in alcohol, pills, cocaine, and by trysting with her friend’s husband (Thomas Sadoski). We’ve seen it all before, but never by through the work of a fearless Sarah Silverman.

It’s not that we dislike Laney. It’s more that we feel helpless and somewhat disgusted watching her. We have seen the parents who put their career ahead of family, but it’s even more painful to watch such self-destructive emotional behavior. And when Laney finds release through her daughter’s teddy bear, it pushes us as viewers to accept just how near the edge she teeters.

Laney’s vacuous eyes are the obvious sign that she is simply unable to find any joy in the daily routine of family life. It’s not surprising when we learn of the childhood baggage she carries, and her attempts to confront the past provides a spark of hope for her recovery … as does the rehab stay. However, the script from Paige Dylan (wife of Jakob Dylan) and Amy Koppelman confirms that sometimes there is no redemption. The abrupt ending is both a kick in the gut and relief that our time with Laney is done … and also recognition that Sarah Silverman has arrived as a dramatic acting force.

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TAKE THIS WALTZ (2012)

July 15, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. We have watched Sarah Polley grow up on screen. She began as a 6 year old child actress and evolved into an indie film favorite. Now, she is finding her true voice as a film director … and what a unique voice it is. In Away from Her (2009), she told the heartbreaking story of a husband’s struggle with losing his beloved wife to Alzheimer’s Disease. Now we get the story of Margot, who just can’t seem to find happiness or fulfillment within the stability of marriage.

Margot is played exceedingly well by Michelle Williams. I would say that without the casting of Ms. Williams, this film would probably not have worked. There is something about her that prevents us from turning on her character when she veers from her loyal, if a bit lacking in passion, husband Lou (played by Seth Rogen). Williams and Rogen have the little things that a marriage needs … a language until itself and the comfort of consistency. What Margot misses is the magic. She thinks she finds that in her neighbor Daniel, a rickshaw driver played by Luke Kirby. Daniel is the type that every guy inherently knows not to trust, yet women somehow fall for. He is a subtle and slow seducer. The kind that makes it seem like everything is innocent … right up until it isn’t.

Margot has that most annoying of spousal traits: she expects everyday to be like a trip to Disneyland. The best scene in the movie occurs when Lou’s sister (a terrific Sarah Silverman) confronts Margot and tells her that life has a gap and that you will go crazy trying to fill it. It’s a wonderfully insightful line from writer/director Polley. Of course, we understand that this is Margot’s nature and she learns that sometimes broken things can’t be fixed.

Another great scene occurs in the women’s locker room after water aerobics. There is a juxtaposition between generations of older women and younger ones. We see the differences not only in physical bodies, but in the wisdom that comes with age. More brilliance from the script. The one scene that I thought crossed the line was the “martini” scene. I found it tasteless, vulgar and far more extreme than what was called for at the time. But that’s a small complaint for an otherwise stellar script.

As terrific as Ms. Williams and Ms. Silverman are, I found Seth Rogen to be miscast and quite unbelievable as a dedicated cookbook-writing guy who has pretty simple, yet quietly deep thoughts about how a marriage should work. Again, this didn’t ruin the film for me, but I did find him distracting and quite an odd choice.

It’s filmmakers like Sarah Polley that keep the movie business evolving. Her viewpoint and thoughts are unique and inspirational, and should lead to a long career as a meaningful writer/director. Oh, and the use of Leonard Cohen‘s “Take this Waltz” song fit right in over the credits.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of intimate indie films OR you want to follow the career build of Sarah Polley

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer light-hearted Rom-Coms to thought-provoking relationship insights

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