Jackie Chan Returns in THE FOREIGNER (2017)

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Jackie Chan is back, and he’s taking on Pierce Brosnan in today’s thriller, THE FOREIGNER (2017).

Quan Ngoc Minh (Jackie Chan) is a quiet store owner living in London whose world is shattered when his daughter is killed in a terrorist bomb attack.  He seeks out answers, demanding to know who killed his daughter. A group identifying itself as a new faction of the IRA claims responsibility for the London blast, and so Quan’s search leads him to Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a former officer in the IRA who’s now working for the British government.

Quan isn’t the only one demanding answers.  The British government wants them, too, and Hennessy promises to find them.  He assembles a group of his IRA contacts and puts them on notice with his suspicions that someone in their circle is part of this new faction.

When Quan shows up at Hennessy’s doorstep looking for the names of the bombers, Hennessy tells him he doesn’t know who is responsible and quickly dismisses his visitor without a second thought.  But Quan is relentless, and soon he is bombing Hennessy’s home and threatening his family unless he is given the names of the terrorists.

Hennessy’s search for the terrorists leads to some  unexpected answers, while his efforts to apprehend Quan, who is a former special forces soldier, repeatedly fail.

THE FOREIGNER tells two different stories, and as such, at times seems like two different movies.

The emotional story is Quan’s, as he vows that nothing is going to stop him from finding the people responsible for his daughter’s death.

Quan Ngoc Minh is a serious somber role for Jackie Chan, and it’s not the usual lighthearted fun action role that Chan generally plays.  Quan is an older, more reflective character who goes all in to avenge his daughter’s death. Chan doesn’t play the character as unhinged but as extremely determined and focused.  He somehow manages to keep Quan a sympathetic character throughout, even when he is blowing up Hennessy’s property. It’s an impressive performance.

But while Quan’s story is emotional, it’s also just a simple revenge tale, and as such,  is far less interesting than the more intriguing story of Hennessy’s investigation into his IRA contacts.

As Liam Hennessy, the former IRA officer who’s now in the difficult position of siding with the British government, Pierce Brosnan delivers a solid performance, showing grit, determination, and eventually despair.  That’s because the deeper Hennessy digs, the more his world unravels.

Hennessy has the double whammy of learning some unsavory things about both his IRA connections and people very close to him, while being unable to fend off Quan who is hiding in the woods outside his home and is constantly attacking him.  The scenes where Hennessy expresses frustration and disbelief that his trained security detail cannot handle Quan are some of Brosnan’s best.

Both the IRA storyline and Quan’s vengeance story are dark, grim tales, but there is a disconnect between the two that prevents this movie from really taking off.  The two stories never really come together in a satisfying way.

One reason is that they are so different.  Quan’s revenge tale is right out of an old Charles Bronson movie, while Hennessy’s investigation into the depths of the IRA is more akin to a political suspense thriller.  They don’t mesh all that well, and the biggest reason for this is the film’s climax. For Quan, there’s only one solution, and in this movie just like in those Charles Bronson movies, whether or not he achieves it is never really in question, and for Hennessy, the answers he finds have less to do with what Quan wants to know and more to do with his own past.  And so their two stories aren’t exactly on a collision course with each other.  They connect, but only long enough to send each of them on their merry ways.

If you like Jackie Chan action scenes, you won’t be disappointed. Director Martin Campbell does a nice job with them, and they were probably my favorite part of the movie.  My only beef is that there weren’t enough of them.

The Hennessy scenes are taut and intriguing.  The investigation into who is behind the bombings is compelling and hard-hitting.

Director Campbell is no stranger to action thrillers.  He’s directed two James Bond movies, GOLDENEYE (1995) the first Pierce Brosnan Bond movie, and CASINO ROYALE (2006), the first Daniel Craig Bond movie.  Both films are excellent.  Campbell also directed GREEN LANTERN (2011), which was not so excellent.

David Marconi wrote the screenplay, based on the novel “The Chinaman” by Stephen Leather.  It’s an okay screenplay.  It has believable characters and tells two compelling stories, even if they don’t mix together all that well. Marconi also wrote the screenplay for LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (2007).

Chan and Brosnan are helped by a solid supporting cast.  Michael McElhatton from TV’s GAME OF THRONES (2012-2016) plays Hennessy’s loyal right hand man, Jim, while Dermot Crowley from TV’s LUTHER (2010-2015) plays Hugh McGrath, one of Hennessy’s IRA brothers who may have his own agenda.

Charlie Murphy plays Maggie, a woman who Hennessy is having an affair with, and Orla Brady plays his wife Mary, who has her own issues with her husband.

And Rory Fleck Byrne is very good as Hennessy’s nephew Sean, a tracker and an assassin, who Hennessy eventually employs to find and take out Quan.

But the two best performances in THE FOREIGNER belong to the two leads, Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan. Chan is excellent in a far more somber and serious role than he usually plays, and Brosnan is just as good as the increasingly beleaguered Hennessy whose world is under constant threat.

THE FOREIGNER is a decent thriller featuring two veteran actors. Its two separate stories don’t always gel, but the acting, directing, and writing are strong enough to make THE FOREIGNER an enjoyable action movie.

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THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US (2017) – More a Love Story than a Survival Adventure

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Idris Elba is one of my favorite actors working today, but he just can’t seem to find that movie to catapult his career to the next level.

Sure, he was in the THOR movies, as well as PROMETHEUS (2012) and PACIFIC RIM (2013), and he played the villain in STAR TREK BEYOND (2016), and co-starred with Matthew McConaughey in this year’s misfire, THE DARK TOWER (2017).  He played Nelson Mandela in MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM (2013), and some years back he lent his talents to such horror movies as the remake of PROM NIGHT (2008) and THE UNBORN (2009).  He also supplied the voice for the evil Tiger Shere Khan in the remake of THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016).

But none of these movies have allowed Elba to fully utilize his acting chops, and they don’t come close to displaying his talents.  If you want to see Elba at his best, you need to check out the BBC TV series LUTHER (2010-2018), which is a great show, and Elba is phenomenal in it.

Today’s movie, THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US (2017), is also not that movie for Idris Elba, but on the other hand, it’s nowhere near as bad as critics are making it out to be.  In fact, it’s rather entertaining, thanks to amiable performances by both its leads, Elba and Kate Winslet.

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US opens at a crowded airport, where surgeon Ben Bass (Idris Elba) learns that his flight has been canceled due to a storm, which he finds particularly upsetting because he is trying to get to a surgery to save a young boy. Likewise, journalist Alex Martin (Kate Winslet) receives the same news, and she’s in a rush because she’s on her way to her wedding.  When Alex overhears Ben’s situation, she approaches him with the suggestion that they charter a small plane together so they can both get to where they are going on time.

Critics have complained that this one is simply not believable, and up to a point, I agree. For example, would Alex really approach a total stranger to charter a plane together? And why?  I assume it’s to save on the cost, but that’s not really explained.  And wouldn’t the small plane still have to deal with the storm?  You’d think, right?

Anyway, they do charter a small plane, flown by a pilot named Walter (Beau Bridges) and his dog.  Well, the dog doesn’t fly the plane, but he does make the trip.  The first thing I thought when I laid eyes on Walter was, “Gee, that guy doesn’t look very healthy.  I’m not sure I’d want to get inside a plane flown by him.”  And I would have been right. Moments into their flight, Walter suffers a heart attack, and the plane slams down onto a snowy mountaintop.

Walter dies, but Ben and Alex survive, as does the dog, and they find themselves stranded on top of this snowy mountain in the wilderness, miles away from civilization. Worse yet, Walter did not submit a flight plan, and neither Ben nor Alex had let anyone know they were taking a charter plane.  In short, no one knows where they are.  There will be no rescue team looking for them.

To survive, they’re going to have to rely on each other.

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US is much more a love story than a survival adventure, and that’s why it works. This is not an R-rated survival movie, filled with gritty scenes of bloody injuries and life-threatening encounters.  No, it’s a PG-13 romance about two people trying to survive in a situation where when push comes to shove, they both admit they believe they are going to die, and as such, they do not want to die alone.  Hence, the bond between them grows, and as it grows, their will to survive grows as well.

But the main reason THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US works is the acting of the two leads, Elba and Winslet.  They create two likable real characters, who at the end of the day, you want to see survive, and you don’t mind joining them on their plight through the mountains to find their way back to civilization.

Elba’s Dr. Ben Bass is the cautious, caring man who sees it as his job to ensure that they survive long enough to be rescued.  After the crash, he awakes first, and he immediately sees that Alex has suffered a broken leg. If he were a selfish man, he could have easily left Alex behind and gone off to save himself.

Winslet’s Alex Martin is the feisty journalist.  She believes sitting in the wreckage waiting to be rescued is a dumb idea, and that they need to get moving so they can save themselves.  Ben completely disagrees, and he reminds her that she would not get far in the snow with her broken leg.  But she’s not so easily deterred.  At one point, Ben laments, “Is it so difficult for you just to keep still?”

Since Elba and Winslet are pretty much the entire movie, other than the dog, the film relies heavily on their performances, and they do not disappoint.  I always enjoy Elba, and I also really enjoyed Winslet here, much more than the previous time I saw her, as a shallow Russian villain in the flawed thriller TRIPLE 9 (2016).

I also bought their romance.  Some have complained that it was not realistic, and that with a broken leg, and Ben’s cracked rib, and the fact that Alex was about to get married, and that they were starving and most likely filthy, the idea of a romance should have been the last thing on their minds.  But it worked for me because again, these are two characters who really believed they were not going to make it, and that they were going to die.  It comes down to their not wanting to die alone, and when they fall in love, it’s because they are in the moment, and they want to die in the presence and embrace of another human being.

I enjoyed the way Hany Abu-Assad directed this one.  The pacing is decent, the crash scene jarring enough, and the later sequences of peril just harrowing enough to make them satisfying.  There’s a scary encounter with a mountain lion, a slip by Ben that sends him on a dizzying slide towards a frightening precipice, and a sequence involving some thin thawing ice. And you can’t beat the mountain scenery.

Nothing that happens here is all that intense, but that’s not the emphasis of this movie. It’s about the connection that Ben and Alex make and share.  As such, the lack of intensity is easily forgiven.  The film is less about surviving the elements and more about the need for human contact in the face of death.

What I liked least about THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US is it tends to go on a bit near the end.  I would have preferred a tighter conclusion.

J. Mills Goodloe and Chris Weitz wrote the screenplay, based on the novel by Charles Martin.  It succeeds in that it creates two amiable characters and gives them realistic dialogue throughout.  Weitz is one of the writers who worked on the screenplay for ROGUE ONE (2016).

While it’s not going to win any awards or shatter box office records, THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US is much better than critics are saying it is, and as such, makes for an enjoyable visit to the movies.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) – Ambitious Sequel Overlong and Lifeless

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I guess I’m just not a fan of the BLADE RUNNER movies.

I was never all that into the original BLADE RUNNER (1982) film starring Harrison Ford and directed by Ridley Scott, based on the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? —- now, the novel I do like— that has a huge loyal following among science fiction fans.  The 1982 film just never moved me.

Now, here comes BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017),  starring Ryan Gosling and again Harrison Ford, a bigger and badder sequel to the 1982 movie, receiving high praise from both critics and fans alike.

I’ve finally been swayed, right?  This film is so good I’ve finally overcome my apathy for BLADE RUNNER, right?

Wrong.

Which is why I said, I guess I just don’t like these movies.

“K” (Ryan Gosling) is a blade runner, the name given to officers who hunt down and “retire” (yes, that means “kill”) replicants, the artificial life forms that the powers that be fear because they are becoming too human.  His latest target is somewhat of an unusual one, and it leads him on a search for Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the blade runner and main character in the first BLADE RUNNER movie, who’s been missing for thirty years.

Denis Villeneuve directed BLADE RUNNER 2049, which is another reason I’m surprised I didn’t like this one more than I did.  Villeneuve directed ARRIVAL (2016) and SICARIO (2015), two movies I liked a lot, and PRISONERS (2013), which was also very good.

There’s no shortage of ambition here.  This is a massive movie, filled with eye-popping special effects and a futuristic landscape that rivals the one created by Ridley Scott in the original.  All the technical stuff is there and works.

The story also has a lot to say.  Hampton Fancher and Michael Green wrote the screenplay, and it covers a lot of ground.  The best part of the Philip K. Dick novel is the exploration of the line between human and replicant, and the idea that a thinking sentient being, albeit an artificially created one, would fight for its own survival and not take kindly to the idea that it had an expiration date.  This has always been my favorite part of the BLADE RUNNER universe, and it’s more applicable today as great strides have been made in the field of artificial intelligence, and I believe that soon this concept will leave the realm of science fiction and become science fact.

And yet the problem I had with the original BLADE RUNNER, I have again here with BLADE RUNNER 2049, and that is the film has no soul.  It’s cold and lifeless, and its story, in spite of the scientific and ethical ramifications, fails to resonate.  Nothing that happens in this movie moved me one iota.

Which is too bad because a lot happens in this movie.  So much that it takes a whopping 2 hours and 43 minutes to tell its story.  That’s a long time to sit through a movie that doesn’t resonate, which is another reason I really did not enjoy BLADE RUNNER 2049.

There were parts I did like.  Its opening scene, for example, where “K” hunts down a replicant, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista) is a good one.  The fight sequence between the two is a rough and violent as they get.

Nearly all the scenes between “K” and his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) are not only watchable but for me were flat-out the best scenes in the movie, but their storyline is secondary to the main one in the film.  The scene in particular where technology enables Joi to enter the body of a prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) so she can physically love “K” is probably the best scene in the film

And the first encounter between “K” and Rick Deckard is memorable, but it’s an hour and 40 minutes into the movie before this meeting takes place.

So, for me, pacing was certainly an issue, but the larger problem was that the story never grabbed me, the characters never won me over, and so I sat there for nearly three hours being visually stimulated but that was about it.  The story and characters fell flat for me and pretty much bored me to tears.

I like Ryan Gosling a lot, and he’s certainly good here, but “K” is just such dull boring character I just never found myself all that excited about him.

In a strange way, I actually enjoyed Harrison Ford more in this movie than in the original BLADE RUNNER.  It’s too bad he doesn’t show up until 1 hour and 40 minutes into the film.  He’s got some good lines, though, and his character is integral to the main plot and main mystery of this one.

But hands down the two best performances in BLADE RUNNER 2049 belong to two of the women actresses in the film.

First, there’s Ana de Armas as Joi, who happened to be my favorite character in the movie.  Joi is a holographic creation, and yet through de Armas’ performance, she’s more lifelike and possesses more genuine emotion than any other character in the movie.  She previously starred in WAR DOGS (2016) and HANDS OF STONE (2016),  a film about boxer Roberto Duran that was panned by critics but was one of my favorite movies that year.  Ana de Armas was excellent in HANDS OF STONE, and she’s better here in BLADE RUNNER 2049.

Then there’s Sylvia Hoeks as Luv.  She’s the most effective villain in the movie.  It’s a dominating performance, one that I enjoyed more than Jared Leto’s.  He plays the main baddie in the film, Niander Wallace, and he just doesn’t resonate.  While I enjoyed Hoeks’s scenes, Leto’s scenes sadly put me to sleep.

Robin Wright has a couple of compelling moments as the stone cold police Lieutenant Joshi, and there are some other veteran actors on hand who add to the mix as well. There’s Barkhad Abdi, the Oscar-nominated actor for CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) who we just saw in GOOD TIME (2017), and there’s Lennie James, who plays Morgan on TV’s THE WALKING DEAD.

And both Edward James Olmos and Sean Young reprise their roles from the original BLADE RUNNER, but their presence is reduced to nothing more than brief cameos.

BLADE RUNNER 2049 is ambitious, cinematic, and loud, but it’s also cold, lifeless, and terribly long and dull, which is a shame because its main premise, the examination of the line between replicants and humans, and its exploration of the idea that artificially created replicants are so close to life that it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference between them and humans, which ultimately leads to the discussion of just what it is that constitutes life, is a thought-provoking idea that is worthy of an epic movie.

Unfortunately, BLADE RUNNER 2049 isn’t that movie.

And that’s because while technologically it scores points on all fronts, emotionally, it’s as barren as its futuristic landscape, filled with eye-popping visuals and ear-shattering noises, but without any life whatsoever.

The replicants deserve better.

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In Memoriam: TOBE HOOPER

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Acclaimed horror film director Tobe Hooper passed away on August 26, 2017 at the age of 74.

Most known for THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), Hooper directed a bunch of horror movies, but none more famous or influential than this 1974 classic.

I know a lot of horror writers who not only swear by THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE but view it as the best horror movie ever made.  While I don’t share this opinion, I agree that it’s certainly one of the most iconic horror movies of all time.

Just as many writers I know choose it as their favorite horror movie.  Others cite it as the movie that inspired them to write horror.  All this attention and love poured onto THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, that’s saying something.

But Tobe Hooper made more horror movies than just THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.  Here’s a partial look at Tobe Hooper’s film career:

EGGSHELLS (1969) – Hooper’s first feature-length directorial credit, an allegorical fantasy involving hippies and a big house in the woods.

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) – Tobe Hooper’s signature film, and the movie that introduced Leatherface to the world.  Some good old-fashioned fun in Texas when a group of teens run afoul a family of psychopathic cannibals.  Yikes!  Some folks call this the greatest horror movie ever made.  I’m not one of them. Still, it’s classic, iconic horror.

EATEN ALIVE (1976) – Murderous psychopath feeds his victims to his pet crocodile.  Yummy!

SALEM’S LOT (1979) – Hooper’s made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King’s frightening vampire novel might be my personal favorite Hooper film.  Scary in all the right places, it’s not as good as the novel and is somewhat dated today, but still worth a look.  James Mason steals all his scenes as the evil Mr. Straker.

THE FUNHOUSE (1981) –  a poor man’s HALLOWEEN, this slasher flick which takes place at a carnival is must-see summer viewing, even if at the end of the day, it’s really not all that scary.

POLTERGEIST (1982) – a huge hit back in the day, but not a film I ever liked all that much.  The debate rages on.  Who directed this one?  Hooper or producer Steven Spielberg?  I’ve read compelling evidence that it was Spielberg, and it certainly seems like a Spielberg-directed picture, which is one of the reasons at the time I was lukewarm to it.

LIFEFORCE (1985)- wild, crazy science fiction thriller about a female alien/vampire who spends most of her time naked and killing everyone she encounters.  A truly insane movie which I happen to like a lot.  Somewhat of a cult favorite today.  Written by ALIEN screenwriter Dan O’Bannon.

INVADERS FROM MARS (1986) – remake of 1953 science fiction movie of the same name tells the story of a Martian invasion seen through a boy’s eyes.

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986)- Hooper’s sequel to his horror classic has never been well received by either fans or critics.

THE MANGLER (1995) – this one’s about a laundry folding machine possessed by a demon.  Stars Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund.

TOOLBOX MURDERS (2004) – Evil inside a historic hotel.

DJINN (2013) – Hooper’s final film.  This time it’s an apartment that’s haunted.

There’s no doubt that Tobe Hooper had an influential career, as I know writers and filmmakers who cite Hooper as inspiring their own horror careers.  I’ve never been a big Tobe Hooper fan, but he did make an impressive number of horror movies.  Regardless of how you feel about his movies, you’d be hard-pressed to watch them and not have a strong reaction to them, which for some folks, is what horror is all about.

Tobe Hooper – January 25, 1943 – August 26, 2017.

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BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017) – Gender Equality and Same Sex Issues Just As Relevant Today

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BATTLE OF THE SEXES (2017) is based on the true story of the historic tennis match in 1973 between Bobby Griggs and Billie Jean King, which at the time was billed as the “Battle of the Sexes.”

It’s a story that is every bit as relevant today as it was back then.

It’s 1973, and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is one of the top women tennis players in the world, but she and her fellow female tennis pros are only paid 1/8 the salary that the men’s tennis players are being paid.  When she confronts the head of the tennis association, Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), he tells her that equal pay will never happen because women tennis players are less popular than the men tennis players, an assertion she refutes by pointing out that ticket sales had been the same for both men and women players.  Even so, her request for equal pay is denied.

With the help of magazine publisher Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) the women pull out of Kramer’s tournament and set up their own, soon attracting a major sponsor with the Virginia Slims tobacco company.

Meanwhile, retired tennis pro Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) lives an eccentric life while being supported by his wealthy wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue).  He’s a compulsive gambler, and in spite of Priscilla’s entreaties, he can’t seem to kick the habit.  Riggs comes up with the idea of a tennis match between him and Billie Jean King, which he sees as a huge money-maker, but King refuses, not wanting to get involved with the flamboyant and unpredictable Riggs.

King is also struggling with her personal life, as she finds herself attracted to her hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).  King is married, and she is confused by her feelings towards Marilyn.  When she loses a major match to Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), Court becomes the top-ranked women’s tennis player in the world.

Riggs then challenges Court, and in what became known as the “Mother’s Day Massacre” easily trounced Court and declared that his victory was positive proof that men were better than women.

Unable to stand on the sidelines any longer, King changes her mind and challenges Riggs in what would become one of the most hyped and most watch tennis matches of all time, the “Battle of the Sexes.”

I really enjoyed BATTLE OF THE SEXES.  The script by Simon Beaufoy , who also wrote SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), covers a lot of ground, tackling gender equality, gay and lesbian relationships, compulsive gambling, sports, and through it all manages to keep a light and humorous tone.

Women not being paid as much as men remains relevant today, as does the stresses and tensions involving gay and lesbian relationships.  There’s a line in the film where wardrobe designer Ted Tinling (Alan Cumming), who’s gay, tells King that one day she’ll be able to love whoever she wants and not be afraid to tell people about it.  At the time, King knew that an admission of being a lesbian would pretty much ruin her tennis career.  And while that wouldn’t happen today, there is still a long way to go towards acceptance.

One of the funnier scenes in the film takes place at a gambler’s anonymous meeting, where Riggs tells his fellow gamblers that their problem isn’t that they gamble too much but that they lose, and what they really need to be doing with their time is not attending these meetings but learning how to win.

And the film does a nice job covering the actual event, the “Battle of the Sexes,” complete with real footage of then announcer Howard Cosell calling the match.  You really feel as if you have been transported back to 1973 during these scenes.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who also directed Steve Carell in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006) do a fine job here.  Again, the climactic match is expertly crafted, generating as much tension as any Sylvester Stallone bout in his ROCKY movies.

Emma Stone has followed her Oscar-winning performance in LA LA LAND (2016) with a very different but equally successful performance as Billie Jean King.  Stone is marvelous in this movie.  She captures King’s emotions, fears, and shows her grit and strength of character.  It’s a wonderful performance.  Stone is one of the most talented actors working today, and her work here only solidifies that ranking.  She’s clearly at the top of her game.

Steve Carell enjoys the liveliest scenes in the movie as Bobby Riggs, and he’s perfectly cast as the retired tennis pro.  Riggs was a tireless self-promoter, and all the crazy shenanigans he pulls to promote the “Battle of the Sexes” are captured brilliantly by Carell, who’s very funny here.  But, as he so often does, Carell goes deeper with the character, and we really feel for him, especially as he battles his gambling demons

It’s also made quite clear both by the script and by Carell’s performance that the male chauvinist comments he endlessly spewed out in the weeks leading up to the match were simply an act to promote the event.  In fact, in real life, he and King would become good friends.

If there’s one flaw the movie has it’s that it doesn’t do the best job developing its supporting characters.  We get to know some more than others.

Andrea Riseborough, for example, who plays King’s love interest Marilyn Barnett, doesn’t quite match the same intensity as Stone and Carell do here.  Part of this is the writing, which really doesn’t tell us a whole lot about Barnett.  We know very little about her, other than she and King generate sparks pretty much as soon as they see each other.  We also learn little about magazine publisher Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman).

On the other hand, Bill Pullman pretty much blew me away in his small role as Jack Kramer, the man who refused to pay King as much as the male tennis players.  Unlike Carell’s Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer’s sexism was not an act.  Pullman plays him perfectly. He doesn’t come off as a man who hates women or wants to put them down. He simply believes he’s right, and he is blind to the fact that his actions are putting women down. It’s one of Pullman’s best performances in a while.

Alan Cumming is equally effective as Ted Tinling, the gay wardrobe designer who offers advice to King.  Likewise, Elisabeth Shue is very good as Riggs’ wife Priscilla.  She has a great line when she chastises her husband for his chauvinist talk when for years now she has been the one supporting him.  But she’s not a bitter woman, and even though she leaves Riggs for a time, later, when he’s alone, she’s the one who helps him pick up the pieces.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES is more than just a movie about a tennis match.  It’s a movie about gender inequality, about sexual self-awareness, about compulsive gambling, sports, and life in the early 1970s.

It’s also the story of two very different people, connected by a sport at two very different moments in their careers. At 55, Bobby Riggs was retired and acting like a one-man tennis version of The Harlem Globetrotters, while at 29, Billie Jean King was at the top of her game.

Riggs was a compulsive hustler and gambler who couldn’t control his outlandish lifestyle and so  decided to embrace it.  King was a voice for women’s rights, unintentionally at first, until after the Battle of the Sexes, when she would become a rallying cry for women’s equality and liberation.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES is entertaining, educational, and informative, and since the gender equality and gay and lesbian issues it touts are still relevant today, it’s an important movie as well.

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PICTURE OF THE DAY: BORIS KARLOFF In THE BODY SNATCHER (1945)

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Boris Karloff as John Gray, the body snatcher, in, no surprise,  THE BODY SNATCHER (1945)

The film is THE BODY SNATCHER (1945), the character is John Gray, and the actor, of course, is Boris Karloff.

THE BODY SNATCHER is one of my favorite Boris Karloff movies.

Karloff plays John Gray, the man who robs graves for Dr. Wolfe “Toddy” MacFarlane (Henry Daniell).  This story is loosely based on the true story of Dr. Knox and grave robbers Burke and Hare.

Karloff’s John Gray is basically Burke and Hare put together.  It’s one of Karloff’s scariest roles, and it’s certainly one of his best roles in a non-Universal horror movie.  He’s got some great lines in this one.

The screenplay by Philip MacDonald is based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s an atmospheric thriller, well-directed by Robert Wise.

This one also features Bela Lugosi in a small role.

But it’s Karloff who dominates this movie, who’s as frightening here as John Gray as he ever was. The photo above captures perfectly Karloff’s interpretation of Gray’s persona. Fearlessly robbing graves, he’s only too happy to collect his money, and happier still to torment his employer, the proper Dr. MacFarlane, reminding the good doctor that he’s every bit as guilty as those robbing the graves.

If you haven’t seen Karloff in THE BODY SNATCHER, you’re missing quite a treat.

Just look at that smile.  Makes you want to visit a cemetery late at night, doesn’t it?

So, if you get the sudden urge in the middle of the night to take a nature walk through a graveyard or to venture across the countryside in search of dead bodies, you can thank Boris Karloff in THE BODY SNATCHER, featured in today’s Picture of the Day.

Thanks for reading!

—-Michael

STRONGER (2017) – Gripping Tale Is Incredibly Fresh and Honest

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I often have pre-conceived notions about movies.  So, when I hear that a film tells an inspiring story about a real life hero, I have an idea as to what that movie is going to be like.

Sometimes I’m wrong.

Such is the case with STRONGER (2017),  which tells the true story of Jeff Bauman, the man who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and later became a symbol of hope for an entire city as he fought back to regain both his life and his ability to walk.

I expected it to be good, but STRONGER is better than all of my pre-conceived notions about it.

Why?  For one thing, Jeff Bauman had no interest in being a model of hope to an entire city.  He had no interest in getting his life back, mostly because he saw himself as a loser. So, when these things ultimately happen, they’re not just examples of teary-eyed sentimental storytelling.  The story here is real, gripping, and incredibly fresh and honest.  Jeff Bauman doesn’t just rise up and decide to become an inspirational human being.  If anything, he pushes back against the notion. His is a truly heroic journey, one that takes him down into the depths of despair and darkness before he ultimately rebounds and climbs his way back to the road to humanity.

Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is at the finish line at the Boston Marathon to cheer on his girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) who’s running in the race that day.  Jeff and Erin are in an on-again off-again romance, which lately had been off-again.  The irony of Jeff’s being at the finish line that day is that he is notorious for not showing up or being where he is supposed to be, which is why Erin continually gets frustrated with him.  But on this day, Jeff shows up, and he’s there at the finish line when the bombs go off.

The film kicks into high gear when Jeff’s extended family arrives at the hospital. This is not a scene where there is a group of folks sitting and sobbing, while sad music plays in the background.  No, the minute we see these people they are shouting and arguing and hurling accusations like it’s nobody’s business. It’s a refreshingly honest scene showing people who are scared and angry that their son has had his legs blown off by a terrorist on their home turf in Boston.

In fact, this is one of the best parts of the movie, the dynamic of Jeff’s family.  They are a dysfunctional group, but they always have Jeff’s back, and he swears by them, at one point saying after cussing them out that he still wouldn’t trade them for anything.  They are exactly the way many families are:  flawed but united.

Jeff returns home to the small apartment he shares with his mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), who spends most of her time drunk or hung over.  Jeff soon asks Erin to move in with him, and she does, which is a good thing because he needs her help to recover.

But Jeff is struggling with everything.  Everyone keeps reminding him what a big hero and inspiration he is, but he can’t see it.  He still drinks way too much and slowly begins to distance himself from Erin once more.

It’s not until he finally agrees to meet with the man who saved him, the man in the cowboy hat, Carlos (Carlos Sanz), that things change.  Up until that moment, Jeff had only been able to see things through his own eyes, but when he hears Carlos’ story and learns the reason Carlos was there that day in the first place, and what it meant to Carlos to save him, Jeff’s eyes are opened.  It’s a telling moment in the film, a reminder that all too often we only see things through our own prisms and perspectives, and we forget that others we interact with have their own issues and agendas.

STRONGER has a superior screenplay by John Pollono, based on the book “Stronger” by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter. The dialogue is first-rate, natural, cutting and incisive, and at times laugh-out loud funny.   The combination of the writing and acting brings Jeff’s family to life.

I’ve always been a fan of Jake Gyllenhaal, and while he has delivered a lot of memorable performances over the years, his work here as Jeff Bauman ranks as one of his best. Sure, he captures the obvious pain the man went through after losing his legs, but more so, he shows what it’s like to be a guy who didn’t really want to be in the limelight, who didn’t want to be a hero, a guy who really struggles when people cheer for him, because he feels he doesn’t deserve it, because he knows he’d rather be out drinking with his friends or at home playing video games.

Tatiana Maslany is just as good as Jeff’s girlfriend Erin. She feels incredibly guilty that Jeff was there that day because of her, and she really loves Jeff and is more than willing to move in with him and help him, even with her reservations that he so often drops the ball and leaves her hanging.  I really enjoyed Maslany’s performance, and she has some of the more emotional scenes in the movie.

Miranda Richardson is excellent as Jeff’s mother, Patty.  She makes Patty more than just a down and out drunken mother.  She really cares for her son.  More often than not she screws things up, but she always puts her son’s needs first.  For example, soon after Erin moves in, Patty catches her leaving Jeff’s room wearing just a nightshirt, and she glares at Erin and asks her, “Did you sleep with my son?”  To which Erin casually replies, “Yes.” And that’s that.  No insane Norma Bates ravings.  Sure, later there is a messy painful argument in front of Jeff between Erin and Patty in their car, and Patty shrieks “You’re off the team!” but later when Jeff decides he can’t live without Erin and meets with her to get her back, it’s Patty who drives him there.

All the actors who play Jeff’s family members stand out.

Veteran actor Clancy Brown plays Jeff’s father Big Jeff, who’s no longer with Patty.  In that first scene in the hospital, it’s Big Jeff who’s aggressively arguing with nearly everyone.

And longtime Boston comic  and RESCUE ME (2004-11) star Lenny Clarke delivers a scene-stealing performance as Uncle Bob.  He has humorous lines in nearly every scene he’s in, and he serves as that much-needed comic relief as the family scenes are often very tense. It’s a memorable performance.

Danny McCarthy has some fine moments as Jeff’s former Cotsco manager Kevin, and Carlos Sanz delivers a sensitive, moving performance as Carlos, the man who saved Jeff’s life that day at the finish line, whose own story is just as emotional and inspirational.

Director David Gordon Green does an excellent job here.  I especially liked the way he handled the bombing scene.  When the bombs first go off, there’s minimal coverage in the movie.  It isn’t until much later, when Jeff looks back at the moment and remembers what happened, that we get in close and see firsthand what Jeff saw shortly after the bombs exploded.  The images are not easily forgotten.

There’s also an effective scene where the doctors are removing the dressings from Jeff’s legs that really give the audience the idea of just how much pain Jeff was experiencing at the time.

The film is not slow, nor overbearing, nor syrupy-sweet inspirational.  It’s nicely paced, funny and hard-hitting at the same time, and most importantly, brutally honest.

STRONGER is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and I definitely recommend it.

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