Frances McDormand Outstanding in Powerfully Relevant THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)

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Frances McDormand in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2027).

Can a bad cop be a good man?

Can an officer of the law who spends most of his time drunk and has been known to harass people of color have redeeming qualities? Can a woman whose teen daughter was brutally raped and murdered become so hated in her community that she receives death threats because she takes aim at the local police department for failing to solve her daughter’s case?

These are just some of the serious and complicated questions posed in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), a comedy drama by writer/director Martin McDonagh, a movie that does indeed produce frequent laughter but is driven by its serious themes, which by far are the best part of this film.

Mildred (Frances McDormand), an embittered coarse woman, spies three decrepit billboards on a lonely road on the way to her home and immediately hatches the idea to use them to combat the local police department.  She seeks out the young man Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) who runs the company that owns the billboards and pays for her messages to be put up, three simple statements which pretty much accuse the local police department of not doing enough to find the person who raped and murdered her teenage daughter.

Both the police department and the community as a whole take offense to Mildred’s billboards.  The very popular Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) tells Mildred that his department has been doing all they can to solve the case, but some cases are harder than others, and so far they just haven’t caught a break.  He tells her the billboards are not helping, but she ignores him.  To further exacerbate the situation, Willoughby has cancer and doesn’t have much longer to live, and with a wife and young children, he’s got the full support of his community, which makes people lash out at Mildred even more.

Most effected by Mildred’s actions is Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an oftentimes drunk officer with violent tendencies who is not above using threats and physical harm to get his job done, and he does indeed threaten Mildred.  But Willoughby defends his officer, claiming that deep down he’s “a good man.”

Mildred could give a care.  She only wants her daughter’s case solved.

With such a serious plot, you may be wondering how this can be a comedy.  The comedic elements come from the quirky townsfolk and from Mildred’s over-the-top way of dealing with them, from using a dentist drill on her dentist after he criticizes the billboards, to firebombing the police station.

The laughs also come from the language, which is vulgar and crude.  Everyone in this town, both young and old, talk like they’re related to Deadpool.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI tells a quirky story that gets better and stronger as it goes along, and its told well by writer/director Martin McDonagh.  His script is sharp and incisive with some truly biting humor, and even better, its serious themes like police brutality and vigilante justice are handled deftly.

Frances McDormand gives an outstanding performance as Mildred.  She has the weathered, determination of an army drill sergeant, and you can see in her drawn face the deep pain of having lost her daughter.  She’s particularly wounded because she and her daughter argued the night the girl was killed, and this was the last conversation she had with her daughter.

Sam Rockwell is equally as good as Officer Dixon.  At first, he makes Dixon someone you pretty much can’t stand, and Chief Willoughby’s comments that he’s a “good man” ring hollow.  But as the story goes along, and we learn more about Dixon, and we see that in spite of all his shortcomings, he really does want to do the right thing, his character becomes more sympathetic.  Rockwell is terrific in the role, and it’s saying something that he’s able to take this very unsympathetic character and give him significant depth to turn him into a guy who later in the movie the audience actually roots for.

And later when Dixon reaches out to Mildred with information about her daughter’s case, it’s not only a testament to the solid writing that this moment is believable, but to the two powerhouse performances by McDormand and Rockwell.

Woody Harrelson enjoys some fine moments early on as Chief Willoughby, but as the movie goes along the story really focuses more on Officer Dixon than the chief.

Other notable performances include Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s wife, Anne, and Caleb Landry Jones as Red Welby, the man who owns the billboards and catches just as much heat as Mildred for allowing the messages to go up.

Lucas Hedges, who was outstanding in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) and who we just saw in LADY BIRD (2017), has less to do here as Mildred’s teen son Robbie.  Clarke Peters enjoys some fine moments later in the movie as the newest police official in town, who, unlike Willoughby, has no patience for the volatile Dixon.

John Hawkes is sufficiently slimy as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie, and Samara Weaving is equally as good as his innocent, clueless nineteen year-old girlfriend Penelope. In one of the movie’s better scenes, Mildred looks like she’s about to verbally thrash Penelope in front of Charlie, but instead she recognizes Penelope’s innocence and she simply tells her ex-husband to be good to the girl.

The cast also features some familiar faces.  Peter  Dinklage has a small role as James, a local who has a thing for Mildred, and veteran actor Zeljko Ivanek plays the desk sergeant.  And in a very creepy performance, Christopher Berry plays an unsavory stranger in town who later becomes a person of interest in the case.  Berry was similarly creepy in a couple of episodes of THE WALKING DEAD as one of Neegan’s scouts, before he was blown up by a bazooka-wielding Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus).

Come Oscar time, you may see Frances McDormand as one of the final contenders for the Best Actress award for her performance here as Mildred.  She’s certainly one of the strongest draws of this movie.

But THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI also tells a relevant and powerful story and does so while interspersing genuine laughs throughout, thanks to some quality writing and directing by Martin McDonagh.

Its story remains genuine and true to life. There are no easy answers or quick fixes or nice neatly wrapped endings.  It’s full of people who mean well but screw up all the time, and others who don’t mean well and get away with their crimes. In short, it’s all rather ugly, but as in life, the things that matter don’t exist in a vacuum.  They’re oftentimes surrounded my muck and slime.  You just have to navigate through the mess to find what you’re looking for.

Or as is the case in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, you have to go above the muck and plaster your intentions on billboards, igniting a fight that you have no intention of losing.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

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LADY BIRD (2017) – Truthful Coming-of-Age Tale Quirky, Uncomfortable

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Saoirse Ronanter  as Lady Bird, and Laurie Metcalf as her mother in LADY BIRD (2017).

Critics are raving about LADY BIRD (2017), the new comedy-drama by first-time director Greta Gerwig.

Now, I’m a fan of Gerwig’s work as an actor, and so I was looking forward to her first film behind the camera.

LADY BIRD tells the story of high school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) who is hell-bent on getting out of her hometown of Sacramento, California.  She wants to attend college on the east coast, which is no easy task since her dad just lost his job, and her family is really struggling with money.  She goes by the name “Lady Bird” because she says she thinks it’s crazy to accept a name given her by her parents before she was born. Yep, you can see right away that Lady Bird is an intense young woman.

She gets along well with her father Larry (Tracy Letts) but not so much with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Marion is a nurse, and with her husband out of a job, it’s up to her to support the family, which includes Lady Bird’s older brother and his live-in girlfriend, who’s been taken in by Lady Bird’s parents.

Marion and Lady Bird butt heads constantly, and Marion can’t seem to talk to her daughter without criticizing her. We learn why when Marion says her own mother was an abusive alcoholic, the implication to Lady Bird being that her woes are nothing in comparison.  There is also a shadow hanging over the family, as Lady Bird attends an all-girls Catholic School, and most of her friends there come from wealthy families.  The stigma that Lady Bird and her family feel about living in relative poverty is nearly palpable.

When she’s not fighting with her mother, Lady Bird is attending school and becoming involved with boys, all the while doing everything she can during her senior year to get accepted to an east coast school, which is a challenge for her not only because of her parents’ lack of money but also because of her own mediocre grades.

LADY BIRD is a largely autobiographical tale.  Writer/director Greta Gerwig also grew up in Sacramento, attended an all-girls Catholic school, and her own mom was also a nurse. Gerwig definitely knows this material and is deftly able to tell this story, which is the best part about LADY BIRD, the honest fresh way it relays its narrative.

There are some truly remarkable scenes in this movie, including one of the more honest scenes dealing with a first sexual experience I’ve ever seen.  There are also some poignant moments between Lady Bird and her first boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges), especially one moment in particular when he reacts to a realization about himself.

The scenes between Lady Bird and her mother are painfully uncomfortable to watch, mostly because her mother is so relentless, and yet we know that aside from her relationship with her daughter, she is a very good person.  She was quick to take in her son’s girlfriend when her own family disowned her.

The other strength of this movie is Gerwig gets the most out of her actors.  There are some very strong performances here.

To me, Laurie Metcalf steals the movie as Lady Bird’s bitter mother Marion.  It’s a supporting performance, as this is really Lady Bird’s story, but whenever Metcalf is on-screen, the tension between mother and daughter is agonizing.

Tracy Letts is also very good as Lady Bird’s father Larry.  To Lady Bird, he’s the strong sensible member of the family, the person she leans on, and so she is completely surprised to learn that he has been struggling with depression for years.  The scene where he interviews for a job, and he’s interviewed by a much younger man, and it’s clear that the man isn’t taking him seriously, is brutally honest and sad.

Lucas Hedges does a fine job as Lady Bird’s first boyfriend Danny.  While not as impressive as his work in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) he does deliver a sensitive performance.  I also enjoyed Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, and Odeya Rush as Jenna, the wealthy popular girl who Lady Bird later befriends when she tries to move into a new crowd.

Timothee Chalamet does a nice job playing the cool, offbeat teen musician Kyle who Lady Bird later falls for.  Their relationship runs the full gamut from infatuation to disillusionment, at least from Lady Bird’s point of view.  Kyle remains coolly distant throughout, something Lady Bird at first finds attractive until she realizes that is how he is all the time.

Two other memorable performances include Lois Smith as Sister Sarah Joan, whose opinions often surprise Lady Bird, and Stephen Henderson as Father Leviatch, who runs the drama department.

In the lead role as Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan is completely convincing as the strong-willed high school senior.  She makes Lady Bird a force to be reckoned with, even when she’s vulnerable.

That being said, I really struggled to like Lady Bird.  There was something off-putting about her, something I simply couldn’t rally around.  I enjoyed her personality, enjoyed going along for the ride during her high school misadventures and her plight to get accepted to college, and her fights with her mom, but I never felt all that invested in any of it.  I never warmed up to her character.

The scenes between Lady Bird and her mother remain nearly unbearable to watch throughout, and I suppose that’s the point, that there are no happy endings with this kind of relationship.  And while we see proof separately that they indeed love and care for each other, we never see it when they’re together.

There are some moments that work in terms of generating emotion.  The scenes between Lady Bird and her father, especially when he works behind the scenes to get her financial aid for college, are noteworthy.  Likewise, the scenes between Lady Bird and Danny have some emotional resonance.

But most of the emotion here is reserved for scenes between Lady Bird and her mother, and those scenes are difficult to endure.

LADY BIRD is marketed as a comedy-drama, and it is, but the emphasis is more on drama.  The comedy isn’t at all laugh-out-loud funny and works more on the level of when-things-are-awkward they are humorous, which is often true.

LADY BIRD is certainly a successful debut for first time writer/director Greta Gerwig. She succeeds in creating three-dimensional characters and tells an honest, quirky and oftentimes uncomfortable story about a young woman’s senior year of high school, with heavy emphasis on the strained relationship between the girl and her mother.

While I would have preferred a lighter more humorous tone, I can’t deny that the strength of this movie is the truthful way it is told.

It’s just that as most of us know, the truth often hurts.

—END—

 

 

 

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) – Colorful Superhero Adventure is the Best of the Thor Movies

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It’s no secret that I love the Marvel superhero movies.

And while I have enjoyed the THOR movies, I’ve preferred the IRON MAN and CAPTAIN AMERICA films.  They’ve had more life, and I just haven’t been a fan of the THOR plots which have taken place in the doom and gloom of Asgard, Thor’s home world.

Until now.

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) sheds its seriousness within its first few seconds, and immediately becomes as playful and humorous as a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movie.

A lot happens in THOR: RAGNAROK, so the less said about the plot the better.  The very evil Hela (Cate Blanchett), the first-born of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), which makes her Thor’s older sister, sets her sights on conquering Asgard in order to make it her own, and it’s up to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to stop her.  But this is a fight that Thor cannot win alone, and so he enlists the aid of the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Heimdall (Idris Elba), his estranged oftentimes evil brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and even Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

The result is an action-packed often hilarious adventure that entertains from start to finish.

The best part of THOR: RAGNAROK is its lively script by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost.  Evidently, the writers were influenced and inspired by the John Carpenter action comedy BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (1986), a flick that is not among my favorite Carpenter movies, as it’s downright silly at times, but that being said it’s still colorful and entertaining, and it stars Kurt Russell.

Now, I can easily see this influence.  In fact, even before I knew of this connection, while watching the movie, I felt that this THOR film was playing out as if it had been directed by John Carpenter.  And Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in this film reminded me of Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton character in BIG TROUBLE, from the over-the-top dialogue like “because this is what heroes do,” to the moments where the bravado and boasts come back to hit our hero in the face.  In short, it’s fun to see Thor not take himself too seriously.

The dialogue is fun throughout, the situations exciting and comical, and the characters are all well-written and fleshed out.

Also, like most Marvel superhero movies, THOR: RAGNAROK boasts a cast that has no business being in a superhero movie.  The combination of superior acting and strong writing creates both lively characters and compelling situations.

Chris Hemsworth can pretty much play Thor in his sleep these days.  He owns the role. And while previous THOR films haven’t been among my favorite Marvel movies, it’s not because of Hemsworth.  He’s always been excellent as Thor.  And he’s just as good if not better here.  He dials things up a few notches on the humor meter, which isn’t completely surprising, since he’s always given Thor humorous moments. Not only is he funny here, but he’s completely believable as a hero strong enough to tangle with the Hulk.

Speaking of the Hulk, the giant green guy is the “guest Avenger” in this film, and Mark Ruffalo is back once again playing the character.  This time around we see more of the Hulk and much less of his alter ego, Bruce Banner. This is also the first time that Ruffalo is voicing the Hulk.  In previous movies, it’s been Hulk veteran Lou Ferrigno providing the voice.  Ruffalo does just fine, and I actually preferred his voice this time around.

As I said, Tom Hiddleston is back as Loki, Thor’s villainous brother who continually shows up in these Marvel movies like a bad penny.  Now, I’ve never been a fan of Loki in these movies, so it’s saying something about THOR: RAGNAROK that this is the first time I’ve really enjoyed Loki.  Hiddleston seems to be having a good time playing him, and we get to see Loki taking stock of his character, as he joins forces with his brother to take on his evil sister.  It’s fun to see Loki fight for the common good while still not shedding his darker side.

Cate Blanchett is icy cold as Hela.  She’s the first major female villain to appear in one of these Marvel superhero films, and that’s long overdue.  In general, the Marvel movies tend to stumble with their villains, who are usually the weak link in the stories.  Not so here. Blanchett’s Hela is a formidable foe for Thor and friends, and she’s both sexy and evil when she’s on screen.

Even better than Blanchett is Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie.  Her tough warrior heroine would give Wonder Woman a run for her money.  She was one of my favorite characters in the movie.

Jeff Goldblum chews up the scenery in a scene-stealing performance as the Grandmaster, and his arena of death is right out of a John Carpenter movie.  I half-expected to see Snake Plissken show up.

It was good to see Idris Elba get more significant screen time as Heimdall, and Karl Urban also provides solid support as Skurge, a character who finds himself drafted by Hela to be her local enforcer.

I could keep going, as there are still more solid supporting players here, including Anthony Hopkins as Thor’s father Odin, who’s more enjoyable here in his brief screen time than he was in the previous two movies, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who’s on hand briefly as Doctor Strange.

Director Taika Waititi has made a colorful, action-packed superhero tale which fits in perfectly with the Marvel universe.  It’s closer in tone to a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY movie than a THOR movie, but that’s okay.  From its opening scene where Thor battles a giant villain and things don’t go as planned, to Thor’s first meeting with the Hulk and their subsequent banter, it gets the humor right.

The action sequences also do not disappoint.  The battle in the Grandmaster’s arena is a good one, as is the climactic showdown with Hela.

For most of the movie Thor is without his hammer, and he sees this as a disadvantage, and he questions his strength without it, but his father Odin tells him otherwise, which provides Thor with a telling and powerful moment later in the film.

But other than this, there’s not a lot of seriousness here. THOR: RAGNAROK is all fun and games, and this is a good thing.  It’s the perfect Marvel vehicle.

It’s easily the best of the THOR movies.

—END—

 

VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) – Light But Ultimately Superficial Tale of Unlikely Friendship

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There’s a funny line in VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) where Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) receives a mango from her entourage, and hearing her friend Abdul’s comments about the fruit, tells them, “This mango is off.”

The same can be said for the movie itself.  It starts off well, but as it goes along, I couldn’t help but notice it was all just a little “off.”

VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) begins playfully, as the first words on the screen are “Based on real events—- mostly.”  Good for a chuckle, it’s the first of many humorous moments during the movie’s first half.

It’s 1887, and Queen Victoria has been ruling for fifty years.  She’s pretty much bored to death with all the ceremonies and pomp and circumstance which surround her life. Enter Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), an Indian clerk who has been sent to present her with a ceremonial coin, a gift from the queen’s colony in India.  The queen notices Abdul, later quips that she found him terribly handsome, and the next thing Abdul knows he’s invited back.  Soon, Victoria is taking to speaking to Abdul privately.  Bored with her life, she is fascinated by his fresh positive outlook on life, and she even makes him her “Munshi,” a spiritual advisor.

These decisions absolutely enrage the officials surrounding the queen, including her whining son Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard). It doesn’t take long for the plots to begin, plots to remove Abdul from the Queen’s confidence.  And it’s here where the film started to lose me.

The relationship between Victoria and Abdul is quite charming at first, but as the story goes along, it becomes less so because the movie does not give its audience reasons to really understand why this relationship is so important to them.  In terms of the queen, sure, she finds her life boring, and Abdul is like a breath of fresh air, and this works at first, but it only goes so far.  Abdul’s motives are far less understood.  In fact, of all the characters in the movie, he’s probably developed the least.

And then there’s the undercurrent of racism and imperialism.  The British officials disdain Abdul mostly because he is an Indian peasant, and they look down at him throughout the movie.  While this keeps the story real and relevant, it also doesn’t really mesh all that well with the lighter, fun tone of Victoria and Abdul’s friendship.  As the movie moves forward, the ugly imperial undertones grow stronger while the witty friendship tale reverts into the background, paving the way for Abdul’s eventual fate. The film does not end the way it begins.  In fact, the ending seems like quite the different movie.

I saw VICTORIA AND ABDUL because of Judi Dench, and she does not disappoint one iota.  She delivers a solid performance as Queen Victoria, and she is the main reason to see this movie.

I was less impressed with Ali Fazal as Abdul.  There was just something less real about Abdul than pretty much all of the other characters, and I believe the fault is a combination of the acting and the writing.  I just never really understood what Abdul really wanted.  Supposedly, in real life, he used his relationship with Victoria to be a voice for Muslims and their rights, but that kind of motivation is absent from this movie.

But the supporting cast here is very good. Adeel Akhtar, who was also memorable earlier this year in a supporting role in THE BIG SICK (2017), plays another Indian peasant named Mohammed who also meets the Queen with Abdul.  Early on, Mohammed provides plenty of comic relief as he criticizes what he sees as the barbaric English society, and later, he has one of the better dramatic moments in the film when he rejects the British officials’ plea to him to help them get rid of Abdul.

The recently deceased Tim Pigott-Smith is excellent as Sir Henry Ponsonby, the queen’s long-suffering handler who receives most of the pressure for not being able to rid the royal household of Abdul.  Eddie Izzard is both comical and menacing as Victoria’s whiny son Bertie.

Then there’s Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury, Paul Higgins as the queen’s personal physician, Dr. Reid, and Olivia Williams as Lady Churchill, who all can’t wait to rid themselves of Abdul.  They all give very effective performances.  And Simon Callow even show up in a comical bit as the famed singer Puccini.

Stephen Frears directed VICTORIA AND ABDUL, and in terms of period piece photography, there aren’t any complaints here.  The film looks terrific.  The pacing is a bit slow, and while naturally entertaining, it doesn’t really take advantage of its more powerful moments.  The disturbing parts of the story are not explored as deeply as they could have been. Frears has had a long and successful directorial career, from films like MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (1985) to THE QUEEN (2006).

Lee Hall wrote the screenplay, based on the book by Shrabani Basu.  Early on, the humor works, but I never completely understood the relationship between Victoria and Abdul, mostly because I didn’t get a good sense of Abdul’s background and motivations.

And later, when things grow ugly, events just happen without there being much thought or reaction to them.  Again, it comes down to Abdul.  When things go badly for him near the end, his thoughts and feelings barely register.

VICTORIA AND ABDUL is a fairly entertaining movie.  Judi Dench gives a professional performance as Queen Victoria, and she’s aided by a strong supporting cast.  But there’s more to this story than just a lighthearted friendship between two unlikely friends. There’s a tale of racism and imperialism, but the film barely explores these darker more cynical parts of the narrative.  They’re there, but they remain superficial.

As does the entire movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, Bela Lugosi!

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October 20 is Bela Lugosi’s birthday.

Lugosi was born on October 20, 1882.  And what better way to celebrate his birthday than by watching one of his movies this Halloween.  DRACULA (1931) is the obvious choice, but if you’re looking for something different, there is no shortage of classic Bela Lugosi movies, films like MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932), WHITE ZOMBIE (1932) , and THE RAVEN (1935), with Boris Karloff, to name just a few.

You could watch him in his second most memorable role after Dracula, as Ygor in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) and THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942).

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Bela Lugosi as Ygor.

Or if you really want to have fun, watch Bela in one of the many Grade Z horror movies he made, films which would be long forgotten if not for Lugosi’s appearance in them, films where in spite of their non-existent budget, bad acting, and often silly writing, Lugosi would bring his “A” game and save the show.  Films like THE DEVIL BAT (1940), THE APE MAN (1943), THE CORPSE VANISHES (1942), or Lugosi’s only color film, SCARED TO DEATH (1947).

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Bela Lugosi in SCARED TO DEATH (1947).

Or maybe you want to see Lugosi play a vampire in movies other than DRACULA.  In that case, check out MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935) or THE RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE (1943), two films in which Lugosi delivers memorable performances as an undead.

Or you could watch Lugosi’s only other screen appearance as Dracula, in the comedy classic ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948).  Lugosi delivers a commanding performance here, and like his fellow horror actors in this one, remains dignified and scary throughout, allowing Bud Abbott and Lou Costello to get all the laughs, although truth be told, Bela does get to deliver a few comedic zingers here and there, and they work.

Whichever you choose, be sure to invite Bela into your home this Halloween.  Light some candles, eat some cake, make a wish, and settle in for a fun night at the movies with the Bela Lugosi movie of your choice.

Happy Birthday Bela!

 

—Michael

 

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.  

 

 

 

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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THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD (2017) – Simple-Minded Movie Has No Business Being This Funny

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THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD (2017),  a new action comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson, reminded me a lot of the buddy comedies from the 1980s.  You know the ones I’m talking about.  Films that paired the likes of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and even James Belushi and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It’s slick, violent, and hopelessly forced and stupid, yet that didn’t stop me from laughing.

A lot.

I had no business liking this movie as much as I did.

Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is one of the most sought-after bodyguards on the planet, but that all changes in the opening sequence in the movie when his client is shot dead by an unseen assassin in front of Michael’s eyes.  Two years later Michael is down on his luck, unable to restore his reputation as one of the world’s best bodyguards.  However, that’s about to change.

A deadly Russian official Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman) is on trial, and the key witness is hitman Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson).  While en route to the international court, the motorcade transporting Kincaid is ambushed by one of Vlad’s hit squads, and while there is lots of death and destruction, Kincaid and the young woman in charge of his security detail, Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung) escape.

Amelia suspects someone on the inside is working for Vlad, and so she turns to an outsider for help, and that would be Michael, who just happens to be her ex-boyfriend. It’s Michael’s big chance to redeem himself, to get Kincaid to court on time, as the judge has given the lawyers until 5:00 to produce their star witness.  All they have to do is survive the efforts of Vlad’s seemingly infinite supply of henchmen and assassins.

And, oh yeah, Michael and Kincaid have a past, and they hate each other.  But they put aside their differences to work together, even bonding to the point where they give each other relationship advice.

As I said, this one’s a throwback to the 80s buddy movies, where it’s all about action, swearing, and silly comedy.  The only thing missing is the obligatory nude scene. Other than this, it’s all there: guns, explosions, car chases, heroes who can’t miss and villains who can’t shoot straight.

THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD tells as stupid a story as they come, yet it somehow works. It’s that rare example of a story that really isn’t believable, and yet the comedy works and works well.  I can’t deny that I laughed quite a bit during this movie, more than I expected to, and as a result, I liked the whole movie more than I expected, as well.

For starters, director Patrick Hughes does a nice job at the helm.  Hughes directed THE EXPENDABLES 3 (2014), which was probably my least favorite film of that Sylvester Stallone action series, a series that for the most part I’ve liked a lot.  I enjoyed THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD more than THE EXPENDABLES 3, and one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was in addition to the comedy, the film also does not skimp on the action.

There are some fun car chases, and one fight scene in particular between Michael and a Russian hitman that is almost as good as the memorable fight sequence in ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) from several weeks back.  While the story itself is not very believable, the action scenes are.

Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson also share decent chemistry here.  Reynolds plays the straight man to Jackson’s over-the-top unstoppable hitman, and while I prefer Reynolds as the raunchy foul-mouthed superhero Deadpool, he’s still very good here as the bodyguard who knows he’s still the best.

While I’ve always enjoyed Samuel L. Jackson, for me, his performances are often hit or miss.  His performance here as hitman Darius Kincaid is more of a hit.  I certainly enjoyed him more here than in the last couple of films I saw him in.  His role earlier this year as military man Preston Packard in KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017) never rose above the cliché, and in last year’s THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016) his sympathetic George Washington Williams, while being one of the more enjoyable characters in an otherwise flat movie, was simply okay and far too reserved to make much of an impact.

Here as Darius Kincaid, Jackson lets loose.  He seems to be having an awfully good time, and he’s terribly funny.  Sure, most of the humor stems from Jackson hurling F-bombs, but that doesn’t make it any less hilarious, and Jackson is so good at capturing this type of persona.

Gary Oldman can play villains in his sleep, and his performance here as Vladislav Dukhovich is nothing we haven’t seen him do before, but like Jackson, he’s so good at it. Any film that has Oldman in the cast is going to benefit from his performance, and HITMAN’S BODYGUARD is no exception.

Elodie Yung, who played Electra in Season 2 of the Netflix TV show DAREDEVIL (2016) and who is currently reprising the role in the new Netflix Marvel show THE DEFENDERS (2017) is decent here as security agent Amelia Roussel.  She’s completely removed from the comedy and appears only in the straight action scenes in this one, and as a result she’s not in the best parts of the movie.

On the other hand, Salma Hayek has a field day as Darius’ imprisoned wife Sonia.  While all her scenes take place in her prison cell, she, like Jackson, lets loose and lets the F-bombs fly, in a funny spirited performance, a far cry from her reserved dramatic performance in BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017) earlier this year.

The cast is excellent, and this is a good thing since the screenplay by Tom O’Connor is about as sharp as a butter knife.  The story is farfetched and simple, the characters cliché, and the humor driven by four letter words.  Yet, in this case, it somehow all works.  Again, I laughed a lot during this movie.

But the main reason for the success behind THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD is the presence of stars Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson.  I’m not the biggest Ryan Reynolds fan, as other than DEADPOOL (2016) I haven’t really enjoyed his movies all that much.  But he strikes the right balance here between likable guy and down on his luck bodyguard, and he makes Michael someone the audience can easily root for.

Paired with Samuel L. Jackson’s over the top larger than life unstoppable Darius Kincaid, the two actors chew up the scenery and keep things entertaining throughout.

THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD is a movie where the sum of its parts is better than the whole, and that’s a good thing because in this case the “whole” is pretty lame-brained.

The “parts” however, are a hoot.

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