I, TONYA (2017) Examines Assault On Truth As Well As On The Ice

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The best part about I, TONYA (2017) is it takes a story we all think we know— Tonya Harding and the “incident” with Nancy Kerrigan— and gives it depth and resonance, fleshing it out to the point where Harding is portrayed as a flawed sympathetic human being rather than just a stock villain and a punchline.

The script by Steven Rogers is exceptional.  It breaks the fourth wall as characters address the camera at opportune moments, and it makes full use of an interview style where characters have their say about events, often contradicting each other, and makes a concerted effort to— no pun intended— hammer out the truth.  In fact, truth is one of the central themes of the movie, which is exceedingly relevant today where basic truths and facts seem to be challenged every day, as things like “alternative facts” are rolled out by government leaders as if they are real and valid.

I, TONYA begins with Tonya Harding’s childhood.  She’s skating on the ice when she’s just three years-old, pushed by her demanding mother LaVona (Allison Janney, in a performance that is every bit as good as advertised).  We follow her as she grows up in poverty, a self-described “redneck,” and it’s as a teenager that Tonya (Margot Robbie) meets the man she will eventually marry, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

It’s a tough life for Tonya.  She’s constantly abused by her mother, both verbally and physically, as well as beaten by her husband, all the while thinking these actions towards her are her fault.  And she snarkily says at one point that Nancy Kerrigan was hit once and the world cried, yet she was hit nonstop her whole life and no one cared.

She faces similar obstacles on the ice.  She’s a phenomenal skater yet struggles to earn top scores from the judges, as they admit off the record that it’s not the skating but her persona.  Americans want their Olympic skaters to represent family, their county, and wholesomeness, and with her crass rough demeanor, Tonya espouses none of these things. Tonya responds that if someone gave her the money to buy her clothes she’d at least look the part, but since she can’t afford the expected wardrobe she has to make her own.

And when Tonya receives a death threat that leaves her shaken and unable to perform, it gives her husband Jeff the idea that if they did the same to Nancy Kerrigan, send her some threatening letters, for instance, that it might shake her enough to give Tonya a competitive edge, a misguided plot that leads to the infamous “incident” where a man smashes Kerrigan’s knee with a baton.

Margot Robbie is sensational as Tonya Harding. It’s a spirited performance that has the desired effect of evoking sympathies for Harding.  We really get to see the kind of life that Harding grew up in, making her successes on the ice all the more impressive. We also see, at least according to the movie, that she really didn’t know what her husband and friends were truly up to, that she believed all they were going to do was simply send some threatening letters.

And at the end, at her sentencing, you can’t help but feel the injustice as the judge imposes a lifetime ban on Tonya from the U.S. Figure Skating Association.  As Harding points out, the men involved received short prison sentences, and she argues that she’d rather do prison time instead, but the judge is undeterred.  As we learn, her husband Jeff received an 18 month sentence, but only served eight months.  Tonya remains banned for life.

My favorite Margot Robbie performance remains Harley Quinn in SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) mainly because it was such an energetic and inspired performance that lifted that otherwise mediocre superhero movie to higher heights, but Robbie is every bit as good here as Tonya Harding.

The other impressive item about Robbie’s performance in I, TONYA is she did most of her own skating, as she trained extensively for the role.  Of course, she couldn’t do Tonya Harding’s signature move, the triple axel jump, which only a handful of skaters have ever been able to do.  In an interview, director Craig Gillespie explained that he learned there were only two skaters on the planet who could perform that stunt today and they were both training for the Olympics and were thus unavailable, so he had to resort to some CGI help to pull off the stunt in the film.

Sebastian Stan is also excellent as Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly.  Like the other characters in the movie, he’s fleshed out and comes off as a real person.  He’s a rather unlikable fellow, and yet he’s not a one-sided cardboard cliche, as we catch glimpses of his humanity, as with a later admission that he knows that he was responsible for ruining Harding’s career, and it’s something he says with profound sadness.  Stan has been appearing in the Marvel superhero movies as Captain America’s troubled best buddy Bucky Barnes, aka Winter Soldier, and Stan’s work here in I, TONYA resonates much more than his work as Bucky.

Of course, the performance of the movie belongs to Allison Janney as Tonya’s mother LaVona. It’s as good as advertised, perhaps better, and she definitely lives up to all the hype her performance is generating.  She makes LaVona absolutely relentless, from her first scene to her last.  She is a complete monster of a mother, and she’s one character you won’t feel much sympathy for.  But the amazing thing is in Janney’s hands this lack of sympathy doesn’t make LaVona any less real.  She’s also absolutely hilarious, her vulgar remarks producing loud laughter from the audience.  Janney has enjoyed a long and productive career.  I most remember her for her longtime role as C.J. Cregg on the TV show THE WEST WING (1999-2006).  Her role here is probably the best performance I’ve seen her give in a movie.

Paul Walter Hauser is hilarious as Jeff’s friend Shawn, the man who cluelessly orchestrates the plot against Nancy Kerrigan. Shawn lives in his own fantasy world, and the ease and confidence with which he believes his own lies, in all seriousness, frighteningly, reminded me of a certain President of the United States. The two sound eerily similar.

Julianne Nicholson adds respectability as Tonya’s longtime coach Diane Rawlinson, the one person in the movie who consistently seemed to care for Tonya’s well-being, and not surprisingly, was often the person Tonya listened to the least.  And Bobby Cannavale is amusing as news host Martin Maddox, who through interviews, explains how the media of the time covered the story.  He also gets one of the best lines in the movie, when he says his show HARD COPY was the exploitative news program that the respected news outlets of the time condemned and then later became.

Director Craig Gillespie gets nearly everything right here with I, TONYA. He takes full advantage of the chatty, conversational style of the script.  The film is light and witty throughout, and the movie flies by, but make no mistake, in spite of the humor I, TONYA is no comedy.  Sure, there’s laughter, but it’s from things people say, and the conviction and honesty with which they say them.  But at its heart, I,TONYA is a sad, tragic story with no happy ending.

Gillespie also handles the skating scenes with relative ease which all look amazing and authentic.  Gillespie’s success here comes as no surprise.  I’ve been a fan of his relatively small body of work.  He previously directed THE FINEST HOURS (2016), an underrated rescue drama starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck about a 1952 Coast Guard rescue that sadly flew under the radar that year with little hype or fanfare.  It’s an excellent movie. Gillespie also directed the remake of FRIGHT NIGHT (2011) which wasn’t half bad.

I, TONYA also has a rocking soundtrack which captures the period from Tonya’s teen years in the 80s to her competitive skating years in the early 90s.

I, TONYA tells a remarkable story in a way that enables its audience to understand the motivations of its principal players to the point where it’s not unusual for even the most despicable people to come off as sympathetic.  That’s clearly the case with Tonya Harding, a person who was vilified by the press based upon actions that were clearly horrific, but yet here she’s portrayed as a real person with a horrific upbringing that makes her success on the ice all the more impressive.  As to the “incident,” it still remains horrible, but how much of that horror was of Tonya Harding’s doing gets a fresh hard look in this movie.

On top of this, the film also tackles the broader theme of the truth, as multiple characters all have their version of the truth as to what really happened that day.  The theme fits in perfectly with events of today, where truth is being attacked on a daily basis by those who feel completely comfortable with their own version of the truth, expressing little regard for those with opposing views, often labeling those folks as “enemies of the state.”

It’s an assault that is far more disturbing than the attack portrayed in this movie.  In fact, you could make the argument that the attack on Nancy Kerrigan as portrayed in this movie is symbolic of what happens when people who make their own truths get carried away with their own fantasies.

People get hurt.

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THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017) Is No Disaster

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THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017) chronicles the making of one of the worst movies ever made, THE ROOM (2003).  Not knowing much about this infamously bad movie, I wasn’t overly eager to see this one.

But you know what?  You don’t need to know anything about THE ROOM to enjoy THE DISASTER ARTIST.  James Franco’s film stands on its own.  And then some.

THE DISASTER ARTIST tells the story of two friends, Greg (Dave Franco) and Tommy (James Franco)  who meet in acting class and then move to Hollywood to pursue their dreams.  Greg is initially attracted to Tommy because of his confidence on stage, a confidence that Greg lacks.  But Tommy is strange beyond belief, as he is tight-lipped about his past, his age, and where he gets all his money. Yet there is an unstoppable drive about him, an unflappable positive attitude, and in spite of his mysterious past, he possesses an innocence and sincerity that Greg finds infectious.

Together, they set out to conquer the world— of acting, that is.

When they realize they’re simply not landing any jobs, they set out to make their own movie, financed by Tommy’s endless funds.  THE DISASTER ARTIST is the story behind the making of that movie, which has become a cult classic as the best “bad” movie ever made.

THE DISASTER ARTIST is absolutely hilarious.  Sure, the story behind the making of THE ROOM is interesting and amusing, but the driving force behind THE DISASTER ARTIST is James Franco’s performance as Tommy Wiseau. It’s brilliant.  Franco becomes Wiseau, from his unusual accent and way of speaking, to his awkward mannerisms,  to his unceasing drive to make a movie about “real life.”

Part of the comedy is that Tommy is such an oddball. He’s incredibly funny to watch. He seems to believe that he will be perceived as a great filmmaker even though we the audience see that he’s not even close and that his film is heading towards a disaster.  And there’s some sympathy here, because as strange as Tommy is, he’s not a bad guy.  He’s extremely likable.

James Franco steals the show, both in front of and behind the camera.  THE DISASTER ARTIST is not at all like a typical comedy, yet the audience was howling with laughter at parts, more so than in most comedies I see.  Franco is in so many movies, it’s difficult to pick his best roles, but his work here as Tommy Wiseau in THE DISASTER ARTIST certainly ranks up there with his best.

His brother Dave Franco does a fine job as Greg, the character most in the audience will identify with.  He likes Tommy a lot, and he enjoys their friendship, and he’s excited about making their movie, but as Tommy becomes more difficult to work with, as his weird behavior puts a huge strain on the cast and crew, their friendship is tested.

The entire cast is a treat, and there are plenty of familiar faces, some in major roles like Seth Rogen, Zac Efron, and Alison Brie, and others in small roles or cameos, like Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffith, Bob Odenkirk, and Bryan Cranston.  Alison Brie, Dave Franco’s real-life wife, plays his girlfriend Amber here, and she is very good as well.  I’ve been a fan since her role as Trudy Campbell on the TV show MAD MEN (2007-2015).

The screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based on the book “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made” by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, is a hoot.  The characters are fleshed out— in Tommy’s case a bit too much, as he insists his bare butt be shown on camera or else his movie won’t sell, a scene that produced one of the biggest laugh-out loud moments of the film— the story is fresh and interesting, and the situational humor is nonstop amusing.

The majority of comedies these days bore me, mostly because they follow the same formula. Nowadays, it’s usually a bunch of drunk friends getting into mischief.  THE DISASTER ARTIST is anything but formulaic.  Sure, it’s a biography of Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero on how they made THE ROOM, but it’s a story that is so darn funny, I don’t know how else you would describe it as other than a comedy.

THE DISASTER ARTIST is a completely unconventional movie about an off the wall character and the movie he and his best friend made.

You definitely want to check out THE DISASTER ARTIST. You’re in for a real treat.

It’s no disaster.

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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.

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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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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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LOGAN LUCKY (2017) – Light and Fun but Short on Laughter

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Director Steven Soderbergh has enjoyed a long and varied career.  He’s made dramas [SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (1989)], comedies [MAGIC MIKE (2012), science fiction [SOLARIS (2002), thrillers [SIDE EFFECTS (2013), and of course the George Clooney OCEAN 11 movies.

With LOGAN LUCKY (2017), Soderbergh returns to comedy in this lighthearted tale about two brothers planning an improbable heist at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. And while it appears that everyone involved is having a great time, it doesn’t always translate to full-throated laughter.

Things are not going well for Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum).  He loses his construction job because of a bad leg, and his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) is about to move out-of-state with her new husband, which will make it more difficult for the out-of-work Jimmy to see his young daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) on a regular basis.

So, Jimmy plots with his bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver) to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. He chooses the race track because he had been working there on the construction crew repairing sink holes, and he had seen firsthand the vault underneath the stadium which holds the cash from the concession stands.

To pull off the heist, Jimmy and Clyde turn to the their friend Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who is an expert at blowing open safes. Trouble is, Bang is in jail, and so Jimmy and Clyde concoct a plan to break Bang out of prison so he can do the job and then get him back inside again without anyone noticing. To do this, they employ the help of Bang’s two oddball brothers, Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson), as well as their own sister Mellie Logan (Riley Keough).

Then it’s off to the races, or so they hope.

LOGAN LUCKY reminded me a lot of a Coen brothers movie, only without the dark edges. It features quirky characters, puts them in some ridiculous situations, and lets things fly. The only difference is with a Coen brothers movie you expect something bad to happen, some bloodshed perhaps, while here, the loose ends are all tied together nicely, perhaps a bit too nicely.

Incredibly, the story manages to remain grounded in reality. In spite of how wildly inane the plot becomes, it all remains believable, and the characters in spite of their eccentricities remain real. It’s a smart script by Rebecca Blunt.

That being said, I wouldn’t have minded more zaniness, as the film isn’t as funny as it should be.  More laughs, and sharper ones, would have definitely made things better.

The story jumps back and forth between Jimmy’s West Virginia home and the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, and the whole film is steeped in southern country atmosphere, helped along by Jimmy’s favorite song, John Denver’s “Country Roads.”

Director Soderbergh also gets the most out of his strong cast in LOGAN LUCKY.

I’m not a Channing Tatum fan, but he’s excellent here as Jimmy Logan.  He’s pretty much the straight man in the story, and while he’s surrounded by oddball characters and takes part in a ridiculous scheme, his character remains pretty real.  This might be my favorite Channing Tatum movie performance, mostly because it reminds me of nothing he has done before.

Likewise, Adam Driver excels as Jimmy’s brother Clyde.  Seriously, all Driver has to do in this movie is stand there and he gets laughs.  It’s a much more satisfying performance than his troubled Kylo Ren in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015).  I enjoyed Driver much more here.

And then there’s Daniel Craig as safe cracker Joe Bang, looking as far removed from James Bond here as ever, with his southern accent and quirky personality.  It’s probably the most fun performance by Craig- who always looks so serious- to date.  The scenes where Tatum, Driver, and Craig appear together are very funny, and the film soars during these moments, like the sequence where Joe Bang explains to Jimmy and Clyde the chemical formula for his bomb, writing the formula on the wall of the motor speedway tunnel and speaking to them as if he’s a classroom chemistry teacher.  But sadly there aren’t as many scenes with all three actors together as you might expect.

I’m quickly becoming a big fan of Riley Keough.  I first noticed her in the excellent horror movie IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017).  She’s superb again here as Jimmy’s and Clyde’s sister Mellie.  She’s wonderfully real, and terribly sexy at the same time.

Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson are also very good in smaller roles as Joe’s brothers Fish and Sam. Katie Holmes’ role as Jimmy’s ex-wife Bobbie Jo is pretty standard.

Two other stars appear in smaller roles.  Seth MacFarlane is unrecognizable with his long hair, mustache, and a beard in a thankless role as a NASCAR promoter and TV personality Max Chilblain. And Hilary Swank shows up late in the game as FBI Agent Sarah Grayson who investigates the heist.

When Swank’s FBI agent shows up to investigate the robbery, it’s at a point in the film where it naturally seems to be winding down, but it doesn’t, and it continues to go on for some time, a bit too long. The final reel of the film seems tacked on and unnecessary.

Other than this, LOGAN LUCKY is a well-made, well-directed, well-acted, and smartly written comedy that is light and enjoyable. The only thing missing, and it’s a big thing, is the laughter.  While I chuckled here and there, the comedy simply isn’t as sharp as it needs to be.

Granted, the film has its moments, but for a movie that feels like a screwball comedy, the limited laughter came as a surprise.  That being said, LOGAN LUCKY has an intelligent script that keeps things believable throughout, and with a solid cast delivering exceptional performances, it’s a hard movie to dislike.

I just wished I had laughed more.

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THE BIG SICK (2017) – Hilarious and Honest Take on Cross-Cultural Romance

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If you like to get emotional at the movies, then THE BIG SICK (2017) is the film for you.

It’s both hilarious and moving, a comedy that will make you laugh out loud, and a love story that will tug at your heartstrings.

THE BIG SICK is based on the real-life romance between actor/writer Kumail Nanjiani and his wife Emily V. Gordon.  The film is a fictionalized account of their courtship.

Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) is a young stand-up comedian trying to launch his career in the comedy clubs in Chicago.  One night he strikes up a conversation with an audience member, a young woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan) and after the show he joins her for a drink.  They hit it off instantly, and the next thing you know the two are involved in a romance.

Kumail, however, comes from a strict Muslim family from Pakistan, and as such, they practice arranged marriages and fully expect Kumail to marry a Pakistani woman. It’s a recurring event at Kumail’s home for there to be a knock at the door during dinner, prompting his mom Sharmeen (Zenobia Shroff) to say, “Look who just dropped in,” as she introduces these available  young Pakistani women to her son.  But Kumail just isn’t interested in these women or the idea of an arranged marriage.  He feels trapped, because his parents feel so strongly about arranged marriages that if he were to tell them the truth, that he was in love with an American woman, they would disown them, and this is something he doesn’t want to happen.

When Emily learns that Kumail has no intention of telling his parents about her, she flips out and tells him she cannot be in a relationship with him.  They say some pretty hurtful things to each other.  Shortly thereafter, Emily becomes very sick with an infection in her lungs due to some unknown virus.  She is admitted to the hospital where doctors are forced to put her in a medically induced coma in order to save her life.

It’s at the hospital where Kumail first meets Emily’s parents, Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano), who both know about the break-up and so aren’t too keen at first about having Kumail stay at the hospital with them.  But when Kumail decides he’s not going to leave Emily’s side, Beth and Terry relent, and the three end up spending time together.  They get to know each other as they deal with the unknowns and dangers of Emily’s decreasing health.

THE BIG SICK has a phenomenal script by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.  It’s witty, insightful, and refreshingly honest.  There are countless laugh-out-loud moments, like when Terry sits down with Kumail and starts asking him about 9/11.  The scene where Emily suddenly has to run out in the middle of the night to visit a diner is honest and funny.

The film does a nice job with how Kumail views his family.  He desperately wants them to approve of his American lifestyle, but they won’t, and he feels so torn by this that he can’t bring himself to tell them about Emily.  And the scenes during the second half of the movie where Kumail gets to know Emily’s parents are some of the best scenes in the movie.

The film is full of memorable characters, from Kumail and Emily themselves, to Kumail’s family, to Emily’s parents, to Kumail’s colorful comedian friends.

THE BIG SICK also sports a strong cast.  Kumail Nanjiani does a nice job playing a fictionalized version of  himself.  As depicted in the movie, Kumail is a likable character, and you want to see him achieve his dreams.

Likewise, Zoe Kazan (the granddaughter of acclaimed film director Elia Kazan) is excellent as Emily.  She’s exceedingly quirky and energetic.  She’s the spark which drives the first half of the movie.

And one of the reasons THE BIG SICK is such a strong movie is that when Emily goes into a coma and suddenly is removed from the action, the film doesn’t skip a beat. In fact, it gets better.

This is mostly because both Holly Hunter and Ray Romano nail their roles as Emily’s parents, Beth and Terry.  Hunter plays Beth as quirky as her daughter Emily, and at first she is openly hostile towards Kumail because she knows he has hurt Emily.  Terry is more open to having Kumail stay with them at the hospital, and as the three of them get to know each other, it makes for some of the better scenes in the film.  Romano and Nanjiani in particular share a bunch of humorous scenes together.

Hunter is perky and energetic, and Romano is laid back and lethargic, and you wonder how they got together in the first place.  They really do bring this troubled married couple to life.

Kumail’s parents are just as interesting. Zenobia Shroff is very good as Kumail’s mother Sharmeen, who is relentless in her pursuit to have Kumail marry a Muslim woman. Anupam Kher is also very good as Kumail’s father Azmat.  He has some particularly powerful scenes near the end when he desperately pleads with Kumail to honor and respect his mother.  Kher was also memorable as Bradley Cooper’s doctor, Dr. Cliff Patel, in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012).

Adeel Akhtar also stands out as Kumail’s brother Naveed, who is constantly sparring with his brother, trying to get him to see things his parents’ way, arguing for instance that Kumail needs to show his parents’ respect by growing a beard.

The film really showcases the cultural differences between this Pakistani family and their Americanized son.  Kumail’s pain really comes through, as you can see that he wants no part of his family’s beliefs, but he does want to be part of his family.  They are important to him.  He wants them to accept him the way he is, but because of their strong cultural ties and religious beliefs, it’s something they are not prepared to do.

Then there’s the whole stand-up comic scene in Chicago, which is also an integral part of this story.  Kumail has a colorful group of comedian friends, including his hopeless roommate Chris (Kurt Braunohler) whose Charlie Brown luck and awful comedy is the butt of many of his friends’ jokes.  For instance, he has the misfortune of calling on Emily’s parents in the audience, and he asks them what brings them to Chicago, to which Holly Hunter’s Beth replies, “Our daughter is in a coma.”  The audience goes silent, and Chris fumbles and hesitates, before awkwardly addressing someone else:  “So, what brings you to Chicago?”

THE BIG SICK has it all:  fine acting, perceptive writing, and solid directing by Michael Showalter.  It’s one of those movies where after it ends, you just want to see it again.

It’s funny, poignant, and refreshingly honest. It has a lot to say about relationships, cultural differences, and the lengths people will go to make a relationship work when they’re in love.

I loved THE BIG SICK.  It’s one of my favorite films of the year.

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