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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THEIR FINEST (2017) – World War II Comedy Romance is Movie Making at its Finest

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Even though THEIR FINEST (2017) is mostly a comedy romance about the making of a propaganda movie about Dunkirk, what it does best as a World War II period piece is capture what life was like in Great Britain during the war, when men of age were off fighting, and left to pick up the slack at home were women, the elderly, and the injured.

It’s certainly the film’s strongest attribute.

It’s 1940, and the Nazis are bombing England relentlessly.  In this harsh environment, Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) shares an apartment with her struggling artist husband Ellis (Jack Huston).  Catrin lands a new job as a scriptwriter for a studio that makes propaganda movies for the war effort.  She’s hired to assist screenwriter Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) with her specific duties being to write female dialogue.

The studio decides to do a movie on the Dunkirk rescue, and they base it on the story of twin sisters who took their father’s boat without his permission in order to rescue British soldiers.  Aging has-been actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy) is hired to play the role of the drunken father, in the film changed to a buffoonish drunken uncle.  At first, Hilliard is not interested but eventually changes his mind when he’s reminded by his agent Sophie (Helen McCrory) that he’s no longer a young leading man and needs to take advantage of the roles now being offered him to keep his career alive.

When the Secretary of War (Jeremy Irons) informs them that Churchill plans to use their film as a tool to inspire Americans to join the war effort, the film takes on a whole new meaning and suddenly it becomes a major production.

I really enjoyed THEIR FINEST.  It’s full of fine acting performances, features spirited direction by Danish director Lone Scherfig, and has a literate script by Gaby Chiappe, based on the novel Their Finest Hour by Lissa Evans.

Gemma Arterton is wonderful as Catrin Cole. She plays Catrin as an independent intelligent woman who’s not afraid to ask for more money for her work when she knows she has to support her artist husband.  Arterton enjoys nice chemistry with Sam Claflin who plays fellow writer Tom Buckley.  Catrin and Tom grow closer together, even though Catrin tries her best to ignore her feelings since she’s married, but eventually fate intervenes.

Arterton has appeared in a wide variety of roles, but of the movies I’ve seen her in previously, QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008), HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS (2013), and RUNNER RUNNER (2013) this is by far the best role I’ve seen her play.  She’s smart, sincere, and sexy.

Sam Claflin also does a nice job as fellow writer Tom Buckley, who recognizes Catrin’s talent and eventually falls in love with her. Claflin played the young filmmaker in the underrated Hammer thriller THE QUIET ONES (2014).  Claflin has also appeared in THE HUNGER GAMES movies, THE HUNTSMAN films, and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN:  ON STRANGER TIDES (2011).

And Bill Nighy delivers a scene-stealing performance as aged actor Ambrose Hilliard who is so full of himself that when he first reads the script for the Dunkirk movie he believes he’s being offered the role of the young hero, not the drunken uncle. Nighy gets the best lines in the film, and he also enjoys some of its best scenes.

In a movie-within-a-movie scene, where Catrin rewrites the uncle as a more heroic character, Nighy plays the uncle’s dying moment on the boat.  He hallucinates and thinks the two soldiers with him are his sons, who were lost in the previous war, World War I.  It’s a brilliant moment.  The scene works in the fictional movie, and it works in the main film because Nighy nails Hilliard’s delivering the performance of his life.

And the most poignant moment in the film comes near the end, after Catrin has endured tragedy, and it’s Hilliard who’s there by her side to keep her from falling, and he tells her that they only have these opportunities because the young men are all at war, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t take full advantage of these opportunities, which sums up the main theme of the movie.

Jack Huston is also very good as Catrin’s husband Tom, struggling with both his artistic career and sense of worth since an injury has kept him from fighting in the war.

Helen McCrory stands out as Sophie Smith, whose husband was Hilliard’s agent until he was killed by a Nazi bomb.  Sophie decides to take over her husband’s practice, and once she does, Hilliard’s career never looks back.  It’s a very strong performance by McCrory, and like Arterton and Claflin, she shares nice onscreen chemistry with Bill Nighy.

Likewise, Jake Lacy is memorable as Carl Lundbeck, an American war hero who is added to the cast to make the film more appealing to Americans, which causes some headaches as well as some comic relief because he has no acting experience whatsoever.  Lacy ‘s performance reminded me of something a young Christopher Reeve might have done.

The rest of the cast is solid and enjoyable.  There’s not a weak link to be found.

I loved the script by Gaby Chiappe. It works on several levels.  The most fun and rewarding level is the film within a film concept, and by far the liveliest scenes are the behind the scenes workings of the writers and film crew trying to get this film off the ground.  And the finished product, a Technicolor production entitled THE NANCY STARLING, which we catch glimpses of as Catrin sits in an audience of enthusiastic filmgoers, generates lots of emotion.

The movie also works as a wartime romance, as well as a World War II period piece drama. And just when I wasn’t so sure the romance part was working, the film delivers a menacing blow and at that point reaches a whole other level.

I also enjoyed the direction by Lone Scherfig.  The film looks great, and she captures the period of World War II England, bombed on a regular basis, perfectly.

There’s even a nod to Alfred Hitchcock..

The title, THEIR FINEST, comes from a speech by Winston Churchill, where he described England’s resistance to the Nazis as “their finest hour.”

THEIR FINEST is a wonderful movie.  In addition to being a love story and a comedy, it’s also a thoughtful and poignant look at the role women played in England during the war.

It’s movie making at its finest.

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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.  

 

 

 

 

CAFE SOCIETY (2016), Woody Allen’s Latest, Low Key Affair

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CAFE SOCIETY (2016), the latest film by Woody Allen, is a bittersweet love story set in Hollywood in the 1930s.

Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) leaves his family in the Bronx and sets out to make a name for himself, or at the very least, get a job, in Hollywood.  His mother  Rose (Jeannie Berlin) arranges for him to meet with his uncle Phil Stern (Steve Carell), who’s a successful Hollywood agent.  Phil hires Bobby as his personal errand boy, and he also introduces him to his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart).  Phil asks Vonnie to show Bobby around town, which she happily does.

It doesn’t take long before Bobby falls for Vonnie, but she’s up front with him and tells him that although she likes him, she has a boyfriend.  As Bobby’s confidence grows, and as he receives a promotion at work where he’s now reading scripts, he vows not to give up on Vonnie, and it’s clear that Vonnie has feelings for him, too.  Things get more complicated when it’s revealed just who it is who Vonnie is seeing, and suddenly a rather uncomfortable triangle is formed.

CAFE SOCIETY presents us with three rather real and sympathetic characters, Bobby, Vonnie, and Phil, who are all likable enough so that you want all three of them to get what they want, yet they can’t. This part of the story works, and works well.

I’m not the biggest Jesse Eisenberg fan, but I enjoyed his performances in ZOMBIELAND (2009), NOW YOU SEE ME (2013), and AMERICAN ULTRA (2015).  On the other hand, he did little for me as Lex Luthor in BATMAN V SUPERMAN:  DAWN OF JUSTICE (2016).  He’s OK here as Bobby, but in a role that Woody Allen himself may have played had this been written back in the 1960s, he’s much too subdued to make Bobby all that exciting.  Bobby clearly comes off as a nice guy, but not much else.  He’s nowhere near as manic or depressed as he needs to be, and for most of the film it’s a one note performance.

Kristen Stewart continues to grow on me as an actor.  Forgetting the TWILIGHT movies which I try as hard as I can to forget each and every day, Stewart has made good impressions in STILL ALICE (2014) which is my personal favorite Stewart performance, where she played the daughter of Julianne Moore’s alzheimer’s stricken Alice, and in AMERICAN ULTRA (2015) in which she also co-starred with Jesse Eisenberg.

She’s very good here in CAFE SOCIETY as Vonnie, and it’s easy to see why Bobby falls in love with her so quickly. In a Hollywood society filled with egos and pretensions, Vonnie is down to earth and practical, and she’s a breath of fresh air for Bobby in this strange land so far away from his New York home.  And so when she makes choices that don’t go in Bobby’s favor, he not only feels disappointed but betrayed, because her decisions stray so far from what she had led him to believe she was all about.

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Bobby (Jesse Eisennberg) and Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) share a tender moment in CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

And yet it’s not hard to understand her decision.  She makes a choice which few women in her position in this time and place would be able to resist- to be with someone who had made it to the top in Hollywood and who would be able to give her a life she always dreamed of.

Stewart is also incredibly beautiful here, and the way Woody Allen photographed her throughout this movie, she has never looked more attractive.

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Kristen Stewart in CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

 

Steve Carell also plays it low key, delivering a much more subdued peformance than he did in last year’s THE BIG SHORT (2015).  But like Eisenberg and Stewart, he makes his character Phil Stern a genuine person.  Better yet, as Phil he rises above the standard Hollywood agent cliche.

Most of the laughs come from Bobby’s family back in the Bronx.  His very Jewish parents Rose (Jeannie Berlin) and Marty (Ken Stott) have some of the liveliest conversations in the movie, like when Marty tells his wife that she’s wrong, that he’s not clueless about death, that he won’t go quietly but that he’ll protest death, to which she says, “Protest to who?”  She also has a great line when their other son, a gangster, is facing the death penalty and as a result converts to Catholicism because it has an afterlife.  She laments “My son is going to the electric chair and he’s become a Christian.  I don’t know which is worse!”

Corey Stoll, nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair, plays their gangster son Ben, and he too enjoys some of the movie’s more lively moments.  Then there’s Bobby’s caring Aunt Evelyn (Sari Lennick) and her philosophizing husband Leonard (Stephen Kunken) who sums up the theme of the movie when he paraphrases Socrates saying an unexamined life is not worth living but an examined life offers no assurances.

The characters in CAFE SOCIETY make decisions, some good and some questionable, but they go forward and deal with the ramifications of these decisions, even when these choices make their lives more difficult.  As expected, it’s a smart script by Woody Allen.

Blake Lively is also in the cast, and she’s quite enjoyable as the “other” Veronica who Bobby meets when he returns to New York.

CAFE SOCIETY looks great.  As a period piece, the film is perfect.  Woody Allen captures the look and feel of 1930s Hollywood to a T.

As such, the script works best as a period piece love story rather than a comedy.  There are certainly funny moments in the movie, but they mostly serve as comic relief to the love triangle drama.  The funniest bits, as you would expect in a Woody Allen movie, come in the convesations about death.

I liked CAFE SOCIETY, as I like most of Woody Allen’s movies.  That being said, it doesn’t rank with his best films, as it is a low key affair, but it still makes for a relaxing and diverting 90 minutes at the movies.

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SWISS ARMY MAN (2016) Extraordinarily Original

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SWISS ARMY MAN (2016) is a remarkable movie.

Any film that can have a corpse as one of its two main characters and still be taken seriously is really something extraordinary.

SWISS ARMY MAN opens with a young man named Hank (Paul Dano) about to hang himself on a deserted island.  But just before he completes the deed, he spies a body of a man (Daniel Radcliffe) lying on the shore.  Desperate for companionship, he is disillusioned to discover that the man is dead.

Just my luck!

But Hank suddenly hears strange noises rumbling from the corpse’s insides and figures they’re gasses built up within the body after death.  These noises lead to extreme flatulence, which gives Hank the idea to use the body as a jet-ski and ride it off the island, which he does in a hilarious pre-credit sequence.  It’s an extraordinarily lively and bizarre way to open a movie.

Hank and the corpse wash up on another shoreline belonging to a place that also seems deserted.  Dejected once more and ready to end everything, Hank discovers that rain waters have collected inside the corpse and if he presses on the corpse’s chest, fresh water pours out which enables Hank to survive.  Suddenly Hank realizes that there is something special about this body, which he names Manny.

He begins to talk to Manny, out of a desperate need for companionship, and to his astonishment, Manny begins to show signs of life and even begins talking, asking Hank questions about the meaning of life, since he can’t remember being alive.  As Hank teaches the very innocent Manny about life, we learn firsthand Hank’s view on life, especially on loneliness, as we come to learn about the very sad and lonely life Hank had led.

To say that SWISS ARMY MAN is an odd movie is an understatement. It’s one of the strangest movies you’ll ever see. But more importantly, it’s also one of the more uplifting films you’ll ever see, in spite of all the flatulence and other weird occurences involving Manny’s body.

The main theme of this movie is a dead man coming back to life, and it’s not only referring to Manny.  It’s referring to Hank, who spent his days before running away pretty much dead, and it’s now through his relationship with Manny that he’s coming back to life.

The performances in the movie are phenomenal.

Paul Dano is wonderful as Hank.   He plays a young man whose life has been anything but rewarding.  It seems all he’s ever wanted to do is connect with people, but he’s been a failure at it, which is why he ran away from it all, found himself on an island, and prepared to kill himself.   When he meets Manny and begins to teach him about life, it’s clear that this is the first time he’s ever spoken to anyone else about these things.

And they talk about everything, from relationships, to masturbation, to erections, to overcoming shyness, and it’s all handled with incredible honesty and sensitivity.  It’s an amazing script by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who also directed the film under the name “Daniels.”  This is their feature film debut, after having done shorts and music videos, and it’s a very impressive debut at that.

Dano has appeared in a lot of movies, but is probably most remembered before this movie for his role in THERE WILL BE  BLOOD (2007).  He’s every bit as good here.

And Daniel Radcliffe is pretty amazing as Manny the corpse.  I don’t know if they give out Oscars for actors who play corpses, but it would be cool if Radcliffe received a nod for his performance here.  Sure, Harry Potter fans probably prefer him in that series, but for me, this might be my favorire Daniel Radcliffe performance yet.  You have to see it to believe it.

I thoroughly enjoyed SWISS ARMY MAN, up until the ending at least, which I thought dropped the ball in terms of how the story plays out.

Just how does one interpret a movie like SWISS ARMY MAN, in which a young man spends the entire film with a corpse that slowly comes back to life?  One way, and it’s what I thought from the outset, is that the entire film is a hallucination.  The film opens with Hank about to commit suicide.  Certainly, all that followed could be imagined in his mind in the moments before his death.  This meaning makes a lot of sense.

Of course, one can also take the film literally and accept that all that happens on screen, as ridiculous and outlandish as it all is, really happens!  This is certainly another intepretation.  I give this one less credence because to do this you really have to suspend disbelief.

The ending does little in the way of helping resolve these matters, which for me is the reason I wasn’t crazy about the conclusion to this one.

I would have preferred this one better had the true fate of Hank been more clearly revealed.  I enjoyed the character, cared what happened to him, and wanted to know his fate.  The film doesn’t really tell.  One can make inferences based on what happens on screen, but writers/directors Daniels didn’t provide any solid clues as to how interpret the proceedings.  My guess is they didn’t really know either.

Still, SWISS ARMY MAN is an incredibly uptlifting film, which sounds strange when you consider it’s a story about suicide, loneliness, and flatutlence.  But somehow it all works.

It’s also a visual treat, as the antics between Hank and Manny, and how Hank uses Manny’s body in variouis ways to survive—like a Swiss Army Knife— are both cinematic and memorable.

Once experienced, SWISS ARMY MAN is not a movie that you will forget anytime soon, and that’s a good thing.

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