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

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

Sometimes I’m wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MOTHER! (2017) – Metaphor For Our Narcissistic Times

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MOTHER! (2017), the latest movie by writer/director Darren Aronofsky, is an ambitious and thought-provoking film that serves as a metaphor for our ever-increasing narcissistic culture that not only breeds and encourages narcissists but the radical zealots who follow them.

There’s a lot going on here, most of it not that easy to digest or decipher, and since the trailer for this movie makes it look like a modern-day ROSEMARY’S BABY, which it is not, I’m guessing there’s going to be a whole lot of disappointed moviegoers out there who decide to see this movie.  It’s not really a horror movie, in the traditional sense.

But that shouldn’t stop you from seeing this one.  Any time a movie makes you think and think hard, and goes about its storytelling in a way that is creative and out of the ordinary, that’s a good thing.  MOTHER! is a good thing.  It’s just not going to appeal to a wide audience.

MOTHER! tells a straightforward story.  A woman (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in her quiet dreamhouse with her author husband (Javier Bardem) who’s stuck in a writer’s funk and has been struggling to produce new material.  One night, a man (Ed Harris) shows up at their door, and to the woman’s surprise, her husband invites the man to stay the night.  It turns out that the man is a huge fan, and this pleases the author to no end.  Soon, the man’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives as well, and naturally, she’s invited to stay, too.

Things happen that result in more people showing up, people who make the woman uncomfortable, because this isn’t what she expects.  She wants her life in her house with her husband, but yet her husband is fine with opening up their house to these guests. She grows more distressed as more people arrive.  And later, when a lot of people come in, all hell breaks loose.

In terms of plot, the story is constructed very well, or at least the first half is, anyway. When Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer arrive, their arrival makes perfect sense. Likewise, when many of their family members join them, that also makes perfect sense. So, it’s not as if the audience is sitting there scratching their heads wondering why these people are there.  It strikes Jennifer Lawrence’s character as strange, but when Javier Bardem’s character explains things to her, we in the audience understand.

Later, in the second half of the movie, the film deviates from a straightforward plot and enters into the realm of pure metaphor.  And it’s here where the film will no doubt lose most of its audience.

But through it all, it remains truthful and has a lot to say.

First of all, this is not a good movie for authors who want to get married, because if there’s one message that comes through loud and clear, it’s what it’s like to be married to an author.  Now, this isn’t the point of the movie, but it’s certainly one of the parts I liked, because there’s truth behind it.

Javier Bardem captures what it’s like to be a writer.  You can see it in his face when he can’t produce, and alternatively, you can see him light up when the ideas come to him and when his fans tell him how much they like his work. The bottom line is for this character,  life is always about him and his work.  His wife, though he says he loves her and indeed acts like he loves her, is always secondary.  Jennifer Lawrence has a great line when she says that he never really loved her, and that he only loved the fact that she loved him.  A telling and truthful moment.

But MOTHER! is much more than a story about an author.  Javier Bardem’s husband character is a narcissist.  He’s driven by the attention he receives from his adoring fans. In the movie, it begins with the simple conversation between his character and the Ed Harris character, who admits to being a fan and who says “your words changed my life.” From there it grows, slowly at first, until during the second half of the movie it becomes full-blown insanity.

In the second half of the movie, people come to the house because they are fans, and it’s here that the plot becomes secondary and the metaphoric elements of the film take over. We see varying degrees of fandom, but most are radical followers.  The film then serves us images which are religious, militant, violent, and flat-out horrific.

In a nutshell, the film shows what life is like living with a narcissist.  But, more than that, the images at the end  of the movie, of violence, hatred, of opposing sides clashing, easily brought to my mind images that we have seen on the news of events here in the U.S. in 2017, which for me, lifted this movie to another level, because what I took from it by the end, was that it’s a metaphor for what life is like when you elect a narcissist.

But not all of the movie works.  I had an issue with the pacing.  It runs at about two hours long, and there were times midway through where it felt longer than that.

Jennifer Lawrence is fine as the young mother here, in a role where she spends most of the film barefoot and pregnant.  And since this movie is called MOTHER! after all, her character is the one audiences will identify with the most. The story is seen through her eyes, and so when she is upset about the things that are going on, the audience is right there with her. And by the time you get to the end, with all the different sides going at each other, she’s the one who’s hurt the most. She becomes the victim of both her husband’s actions and inactions.

I was more impressed with Javier Bardem as the author/husband, who always seemed to make sense when he spoke to his wife, yet at the same time it was maddening to watch him pretty much ignore his wife’s needs.

Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer add fine support in their roles as the annoying intrusive couple, especially Pfeiffer who exudes a coldness that really fits with the movie.  But Harris is just as good, as the more emotional half of this couple.

The rest of the cast is secondary.

The main guy here is writer/director Darren Aronofsky, who’s mostly known for the movie BLACK SWAN (2010), a dark movie that was well received and that I liked well enough.  Previous to MOTHER!, he wrote and directed NOAH  (2014), a re-telling of the Noah and the Ark story, starring Russell Crowe as Noah which tried to turn Noah into an action hero.  It was a misfire, but I actually enjoyed it.

MOTHER! is a film that most folks are simply not going to enjoy.  It’s not your standard horror movie or drama, and it becomes highly symbolic during its second half which is bound to turn off lots of viewers.

But I liked it.  It has a lot to say about narcissism in our culture, both about those who desire and command attention, and about those who relentlessly become their “followers.”

Better yet, it tells the truth, even when that truth is ugly and repugnant.

—END—

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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WIND RIVER (2017) – Taylor Sheridan’s First-Rate Thriller Satisfies on Every Level

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Taylor Sheridan is one of my favorite screenwriters working today.  He wrote SICARIO, my favorite film of 2015, and he followed that up with HELL OR HIGH WATER, one of the best films of 2016.

Now comes WIND RIVER (2017), which is every bit as good as his previous two films, and this time Sheridan directs as well.

WIND RIVER (2017) takes place in Wind River, Wyoming, a beautiful expanse of land that looks like a winter paradise with its snow-covered mountains and icy rivers. But looks can be deceiving.

Hunter and tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers the dead body of a young woman in the snow, miles from anyone’s home or farm. Cory recognizes the young woman as Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), who used to be best friends with his own daughter, herself deceased.

FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives on the scene and quickly determines that the girl’s death is a homicide.  As she begins her investigation, she asks Cory for help,  not only with transporting her through the snowy terrain via his snowmobile, but also with tracking down the girl’s killer, a request he agrees to without hesitation.

They then spend the rest of the movie trying to find out who killed Natalie and why.

WIND RIVER is much more than just a straightforward thriller.  For starters, it takes place on a Native American reservation.  As he did with the plight of economy starved Texans in HELL OR HIGH WATER, writer Taylor Sheridan takes us inside the minds and hearts of the Native Americans on the reservation.  They are a depressed lot, feeling they have little to live for, surrounded by snow and silence.

But as Cory tells Natalie’s brother Chip (Martin Sensmeier), whose life has been pretty much one problem after another, he’s had opportunities, from jobs to the military, and instead he chose his current situation:  he chose drugs over these other things.  Cory tries to tell Chip that it’s never too late to turn things around, especially in light of what happened to his sister.

Cory is good friends with Natalie’s and Chip’s father, Martin (Gil Birmingham), and they unfortunately share a bond, in that both their daughters have died.  Martin makes it clear that he wants Cory to track down and kill whoever murdered his daughter. The two actors Renner and Birmingham share some of the better scenes in the movie.

Cory himself is haunted by his own daughter’s death.  She, too, was murdered, her body also found in the wilderness.  Cory tells Jane that if she ever has kids, she can never blink.  Never.  Because no matter how carefully you plan, it’s not enough. It’s a solemn warning, one that resonates with parents.

The film also points out that statistics are not kept on the disappearances of Native American women, and no one really knows how many Native American women have gone missing over the years.

Jeremy Renner is excellent as Cory Lambert.  He has some truly emotional scenes, both when talking about the loss of his own daughter, and also when he reaches out to his friend Martin over the loss of Martin’s daughter. Renner is also very believable as a hunter and a tracker. It’s a rock solid performance.

Likewise, Elizabeth Olsen is just as good as FBI agent Jane Banner. She’s sent to Wind River alone, as she just happened to be the closest FBI agent in the area when the call came in about the discovery of the body, and she quickly realizes she’s in over her head, but she retains her professionalism and does the best job she can do, which is actually pretty darn good, considering the circumstances.  I like Olsen a lot, and this is one of her better roles.

While she and Renner have both starred in the Marvel superhero films, Renner as Hawkeye and Olsen as Scarlett Witch, they both do much better work here and share strong onscreen chemistry together, which says something for characters who aren’t involved in a sexual or romantic relationship.  I also enjoyed Olsen’s performance here better than her roles in GODZILLA (2014), OLD BOY (2013), and the horror film SILENT HOUSE (2011).  She was good in all these films, but she’s better here.

Veteran actor Graham Greene is on hand as police chief Ben, and like Renner and Olsen, he’s solid throughout.  In fact, he may have been my favorite character in this one, and he certainly gets most of the better lines in the movie. At one point Jane asks him if they should call for back-up, and he tells her “this isn’t the land of back-up, but the land of you’re on your own.”  Ben’s a likable character, and he patiently is there every step of the way during the investigation. with Cory and Jane.

Gil Birmingham, who was excellent in a supporting role in HELL OR HIGH WATER, where he played Jeff Bridges’ Texas Ranger partner, is superb once again here in another supporting role as Natalie’s grieving father Martin.  The scene where Cory talks to Martin about how to deal with the loss of his daughter is one of the best scenes in the movie.

And Kelsey Asbille does a fine job in a key flashback as Natalie. Likewise, Martin Sensmeier is very good as Natalie’s troubled brother Chip.

The acting is superb all around.  Jon Bernthal also shows up for a key sequence, and he doesn’t disappoint.

With WIND RIVER, Taylor Sheridan demonstrates once again the he is a superior screenwriter.  He writes more than just straightforward thrillers. There are layers to his stories and themes that serve not only to educate but also to substantiate the characters’ actions and motivations.

In WIND RIVER, Cory is only too happy to assist Jane because of the unfinished business over the murder of his own daughter.  He’s still haunted by the fact that he wasn’t able to protect his daughter nor was he able to find out who killed her.  These layers establish emotions, and these emotions drive the story forward and give it much more impact.

Sheridan also writes phenomenal dialogue, period.  His characters come to life, and they’re believable, as are the situations they find themselves in.  There’s a great scene where Jane and Ben are at the coroner’s office, and the coroner informs them that he can’t list murder as the cause of death for Natalie because she died from the cold temperatures.  At first, Jane thinks the coroner is stonewalling her, but he tells her point-blank that it’s clear she’s been raped and murdered, but officially he can’t list her death as a homicide if that’s not how she died, to which Jane responds that unless he lists it as a homicide, her superiors are going to tell her to go home.  And then Ben basically pulls her aside and tells her that the coroner is a good man who’s just doing his job, and she should cut him some slack. It’s a refreshingly honest scene.

Sheridan also directed WIND RIVER, and he proves to be every bit as talented behind the camera as he is writing screenplays.  The photography is beautiful and captures the grandeur of the snowy mountains of Wyoming.  And WIND RIVER is a chilling thriller as well.

There is a sequence near the end that is every bit as suspenseful and nerve-racking as some of the nail-biting sequences in SICARIO.   WIND RIVER does not disappoint on any level.

And while this isn’t Sheridan’s directorial debut— he directed the horror movie VILE (2011)— it’s still an impressive piece of work, combined with the fact that he wrote the screenplay.  Sheridan is also an actor, and in fact the first time I saw Sheridan was on the TV show SONS OF ANARCHY where he played Deputy Hale.

WIND RIVER is Taylor Sheridan’s third straight superior screenplay, and it’s a thriller you certainly do not want to miss.

I can’t wait to see what he writes next.

—END—

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.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017) Reminds Us Atrocities Need Not Be Accepted

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THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (2017) is based on the nonfiction book of the same name by Diane Ackerman and tells the true story of how the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo hid, protected, and ultimately saved hundreds of Jews during the Nazi invasion and subsequent occupation of Poland during World War II.

The film opens just before the Nazi invasion, in the summer of 1939, and we are introduced to the couple who run the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain).  It’s a remarkable place, and the Zabinskis treat the animals like family.  Antonina in particular has a way with the animals that enables her to share a special bond with them.  We see this firsthand in a touching scene where she tries to save a dying baby elephant while its nervous and frightened parents stand nearby, ready to pounce on her, and yet, because of her sensitivity towards them, they allow her to treat their baby.

We also meet a German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) who brushes off talk of an imminent German invasion, as he says he’s a zoologist and keeps out of politics.

But on September 1, 1939, the invasion happens, first with bombs which decimate the zoo, and then with soldiers, and once the Nazis take over, they herd the Jews into ghettos and force them into deplorable living conditions.  Jan sees these actions firsthand and is horrified by them.

The bombs destroy most of the zoo and kill many of the animals.  Later, their former friend Lutz Heck, now a prominent member of the Nazi party, informs Antonina that all the animals will have to be killed for food for the war effort.  However, he tells Antonina that with her permission he will remove her prize animals and bring them to his zoo in Germany where they will be safe, and she agrees.

However, Jan is outraged, believing that Lutz is simply stealing their animals, and when Antonina says that at least Lutz asked her permission, Jan testily answers that as a Nazi Lutz doesn’t need her permission.  And as winter approaches, the Nazis kill the remaining animals anyway.

Jan tells Antonina of the horrors of what’s going on inside the ghetto, and they decide they cannot stand by and do nothing.  Since the animals are all gone, there is plenty of empty space in the basement beneath the zoo, and they decide to use these empty areas to hide people.  With help, they come up with a system of removing people from the ghetto and secretly bringing them to the safety of the zoo, which is no easy task with Lutz and his fellow Nazis constantly on the prowl.

There no doubt will be comparisons between this movie and SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) because they tell similar stories, and while SCHINDLER’S LIST is a more powerful movie, THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is effective in its own right.

Beautifully shot by director Niki Caro, we at first glimpse the wonderful life the citizens of Warsaw experience before September 1, 1939, in particular the harmonious haven created by the Zabinskis at the  Warsaw Zoo.  And when things turn harsh after the invasion, the camera does the same.  Looking out their window, the Zabinskis see what they at first believe are snowflakes falling from the sky, but upon closer inspection they see that what is falling is ash.  The Nazis are burning the ghetto to the ground.

The screenplay by Angela Workman based on Ackerman’s book doesn’t overplay its hand.  The Nazi atrocities are well-known— or at least they should be— and the story  while not sugar-coating things does not go out of its way to show these horrors first hand either; hence the PG-13 rating.  Yet, there are still some jarring scenes, like when two Jewish women are shot in the head at point-blank range.

I’m a huge fan of Jessica Chastain, and I really enjoyed her performance here as Antonina Zabinski.  She especially captures the sensitivity Antonina possessed which allowed her to work so closely with the animals; they trusted her. Likewise, when it’s up to her to work closely with Nazi Lutz Heck, her skills once more come into play.  She has a way with him as well, and like the animals in the zoo, he trusts her.  This allows them to continue to hide the Jews under the noses of the Nazis.  For a while, anyway.

As much as I enjoyed Chastain, the best performance in the movie belongs to Johan Heldenbergh as Antonina’s husband Jan.  As Jan, Heldenbergh displays a wide range of emotions, from strength, to horror and outrage at what the Nazis are doing to his Jewish friends, to jealousy over his wife’s and Lutz’ relationship, even though he knows that its integral to the success of their efforts.  It’s a deep resonating performance, and while Antonina spends most of her time at the zoo working with Lutz, it’s Jan who’s active in the streets of Warsaw and who is personally responsible for whisking the Jews out of the ghetto.  As such, he sees much more of the atrocities than his wife does, and it takes a heavy toll on him.  The scene where he watches children being loaded onto the box cars of the crowded train is one of the more powerful images in the film.

Daniel Bruhl  makes for a sufficiently villainous Nazi, Lutz Heck.  However, since he’s for the most part “tamed” by Antonina, he’s nowhere near as despicable as some other movie Nazis.    His actions are somewhat muted because of his feelings for Antonina.

The rest of the cast does a nice job in support of these three main actors.  Iddo Goldberg is memorable as their Jewish friend Maurycy Fraenkel, and Shira Haas stands out as a young girl Jan rescues from the ghetto after she is raped by Nazi soldiers.

Michael McElhatton is memorable as the Rabinski’s loyal employee Jerzyk who stays with them through the whole ordeal and risks his life for them on numerous occasions.  And while McElhatton appears on GAME OF THRONES, I just saw him in a horror movie I liked, THE HALLOW (2015).

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE is a potent movie about a horrible time in our world’s history, and it tells an uplifting story about bravery in the face of unspeakable horrors and says a lot about the human spirit.  In spite of the Nazis threat, the Rabinskis refused to stand by and do nothing.

As the world continues to be a sadly dangerous place, it’s a message people the world over should take to heart and remember.  Atrocities need not be accepted.

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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.  

 

 

 

JACKIE (2016) – Haunting Look Back at JFK Assassination

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JACKIE (2016) is the most haunting film I’ve seen in a while, and Natalie Portman’s extraordinary performance as Jackie Kennedy is a major reason why.

Even before the first camera shot, we hear Mica Levi’s dramatic and unsettling somber music, setting the tone for the entire movie.  Levi wrote a similarly effective score for the underrated Scarlet Johannson science fiction flick UNDER THE SKIN (2013)

A reporter (Billy Crudup) visits Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, shortly after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. He is there to write her story, to give her an opportunity to tell the world what she is thinking and feeling after the horrific events of November 22, 1963.

The interview begins with the reporter commending Mrs. Kennedy for her superior job the year earlier when she took part in a televised tour of the White House for CBS.  The conversation inevitably turns to the day of the assassination, as Jackie recounts what it felt like to be there in that car as her husband was murdered by her side.

The bulk of the story revolves around the aftermath of the assassination, how Jackie wanted JFK to be remembered, and it shows Jackie researching the Lincoln funeral and planning the services for JFK in a similar fashion.  Her idea for a long procession through the streets of Washington, D.C., are met with resistance by the Johnson administration, worried about security, as the feeling at the time was that the world had gone crazy.

JACKIE is a film filled with powerful little moments, from a quick glance by Jackie at LBJ as he is sworn in as President shortly after JFK’s death, to Jackie’s sadness and disillusionment at being asked to quickly move out of the White House because the Johnsons need to move in.

JACKIE belongs to Natalie Portman, and she is the reason to see this movie.  Her performance is so steeped with grief and pain you leave the theater nearly exhausted from the experience.  There are so many moments where she knocks it out of the park.  There is one quick shot in particular where we see her crying uncontrollably as the presidential motorcade races through the streets of Dallas on its way to the hospital where President Kennedy would be pronounced dead on that fateful day of November 22, 1963.  It’s gut-wrenching.

I’ve enjoyed Portman in lots of other movies, but I’ve never seen her as focused and as dominating as she is here in JACKIE.  Her performance as Jackie Kennedy is potent and powerful.

There is a strong supporting cast as well, but you hardly notice them as Portman is so dynamic here.  Peter Sarsgaard plays Bobby Kennedy, and he’s very good.  In fact, some of the better scenes in the film are between Sarsgaard and Portman.  The dynamic between Jackie and Bobby Kennedy is fascinating to watch.  At times, they are united, with Bobby fiercely defending Jackie and the legacy of his brother, but at other times they are at odds, like when Jackie flips out that Bobby kept secret from her the news that Lee Harvey Oswald had been killed, allowing her to take her two children out in public when such an action put them at risk.  Bobby declares that he would never put her and her children at risk, to which she blasts him, blaming both him and her slain husband for thinking they can control the world when obviously they cannot.  Bobby repeats his assertion that he would never put her at risk, and if you know anything about Bobby Kennedy and his sense of family, it’s a statement that rings true.

Sarsgaard has been in tons of movies and plays all sorts of roles.  He just played the villain in the remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016), he was also in BLACK MASS (2015), and probably my favorite Sarsgaard performance from recent years was his turn as Linda Lovelace’s slimy husband Chuck in LOVELACE (2013).  He’s solid here as Bobby Kennedy.

Billy Crudup is particularly good as the nameless reporter who in addition to writing Jackie’s story often trades barbs with her in the sometimes testy but always respectful interview.  Crudup was similarly memorable in the small role of Boston attorney Eric Macleish in SPOTLIGHT (2015).

Greta Gerwig adds fine support as well as Jackie’s social secretary Nancy Tuckerman, although if you really want to see Gerwig strut her stuff, see the quirky comedy MAGGIE’S PLAN (2015), in which Gerwig really shined.

John Hurt, who just passed away on January 27, 2017, enjoys some fine scenes as the priest who Jackie confides in.

And Caspar Phillipson, with a little help from the right haircut and  the proper clothes, is a dead ringer for JFK.

Chliean director Pablo Larrain has saturated this film with dramatic and melancholy images.  The entire film feels like a funeral.

The assassination sequences are particularly well-done.  Shown in several different flashbacks, often with the camera in close, sometimes at ground level with the racing motorcade, other times in the back seat with Jackie and her mortally wounded husband, these sequences are raw and real.

These scenes borrow heavily from the Zapruder film, that iconic 26 second home movie fortuitously shot by amateur photographer Abraham Zapruder who was just trying to film a home movie of President Kennedy, and instead captured the brutal assassination on film, providing a historic document that otherwise would not exist.  For instance, the image of the President reaching for his throat after being struck by the first bullet, you can’t see that image without thinking of the Zapruder film, and without the Zapruder film, we wouldn’t have that image.

The somber shots of the funeral procession, juxtaposed with earlier shots of the young Kennedy household in the White House, hosting parties which celebrated the arts, and with the young Kennedy children playing in the background, showing a time of unparalleled hope and promise, makes the finality of what happened, of what could have been, all the more disturbing.

For the most part, the screenplay by Noah Oppenheim is very good. It especially captures the point that Jackie through the elaborate funeral procession and through allowing her children to take part, was trying to make, that she wanted to show the world just what the murder of her husband meant, that a father of two young children had been brutally killed, that two young children were now fatherless, and for what?

We learn a lot about Jackie’s motives, which can be summed up by a fierce need to protect and even shape her slain husband’s legacy.  She wanted the world to remember her husband as a great President, as someone who accomplished much in his brief stay in the White House, because she believed he had.   This is in direct contrast to another moment in the film, where we see Bobby Kennedy lamenting that their time had been cut short, that they had so much more they were going to do, and now it was over, and he asks, what have we accomplished?

If there’s a weakness, it’s that the scenes between Jackie and the reporter never evolve into anything more.  I expected more from these scenes, either through the eyes of the reporter or through Jackie herself.  Their conversations remain the same throughout, and after a while their scenes together feel repetitive.

The film clocks in at an efficient 100 minutes, which is a good thing because this one is sad, depressing, and dark.

JACKIE belongs to Natalie Portman, and she is the main reason to see this movie.  It’s an extraordinary performance, one that will move you to tears.

Somber, reverent, and brutal, JACKIE is one of the more haunting movies I’ve seen in a long time.

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