Monthly Archives: September 2017

Review: Battle Of The Sexes

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BOTSGoing by the title, one would think the prime focus of the Jonathan Dayton/Valerie Faris directed film ‘Battle Of The Sexes’ would be the bizarre only-in-the-70s tennis match between top women’s player Billie Jean King and 55 year-old former tennis champ Bobby Riggs that caught the public’s imagination and became seen as a defining event in feminism of that era.

And yet over the course of the film it’s clear the filmmakers are more interested in other issues and the match itself almost feels like a subplot as opposed to the central narrative it’s treated as. It’s one of the reasons the film doesn’t have the impact it could’ve.

The film begins with King (Emma Stone) acclaimed as the best tennis player in the world and winning another Grand Slam title, but major challenges are on the horizon. Firstly, the blatant sexism of tennis authorities who almost gleefully pay women considerably less than men sees King spearhead the daunting challenge of launching a separate women’s tour. As well, a chance meeting with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) forces King to confront her lesbianism and the difficulties that entails for her marriage to Larry (Austin Stowell) and as a public figure in 1970s America.

With the pressures amounting rapidly, an offer from openly chauvinist long-retired tennis player Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) to play a match as a literal battle of the sexes seems like the last thing that would interest her; but instead she accepts and it becomes one of the triumphant events in her life.

The only time BOTS really comes alive is when it covers the romantic relationship King has with Marilyn as the contradictions in her personal life become untenable. It would’ve been much easier for her due to her public profile, career and happy marriage to deny her true self, but the sheer magnetism she feels for Marilyn makes it impossible. BOTS effectively conveys how all the conventions one is supposed to adhere to in life can become irrelevant when you meet the right person and the romanticism that takes hold.

Apart from these segments, BOTS feels disappointingly rote and by-the-numbers. This is especially so for the plot involving the breakaway women’s tour which King led which could’ve been a fascinating topic but the treatment here is dispiritingly superficial, as if they just did a summary of the key points from a Wikipedia page on it.

Also, the film seems merely happy just to recreate the 1970s gaudiness of the actual ‘Battle Of The Sexes’ tennis match itself without even delving into any of the issues surrounding it. For example, we constantly see how seriously King takes her tennis and wants the sport to be taken serious (and women playing it as being respected). Yet she is taking part in a match that feels like something PT Barnum dreamt up (King arrives in on a float) that almost feels like its mocking tennis in more ways than one. Also, why did an event so corny and gaudy become one of the defining cultural events of its era? Alas, the film doesn’t event attempt to look into these issues.

The film is a bit more interesting when focussing on Bobby Riggs whom it portrays surprisingly sympathetically. They don’t really portray him as a genuine sexist pig, but as a rather sad middle-aged man playing up that angle knowing that will get the maximum attention and publicity from someone who desperately misses the adulation and spotlight he had in his tennis career.

In truth, it feels like the filmmakers really wanted to make a biopic of King but that would’ve been a harder sell than the more box office concept of making a film about an iconic 1970s event.

As it is, BOTS feels limited by the sheer clunkiness of its script. There’s an early scene where King (meeting sexist tennis authorities) just blurts out they’ll start their own women’s tour; it comes across as inauthentic and heavy-handed because the film wants a lazy, shorthand way of telling the audience what will happen in the film next. There’s also a family dinner scene with a bored Riggs where his son wonders how many peppercorns there are in the salt shaker. Knowing before watching the film that Riggs was a notorious gambler, I knew that this was put in solely so Riggs could react and eventually ask his son whether he wanted to bet on it with his disapproving wife looking on (an ongoing theme throughout the film). Again, it just felt like a script too heavy-handed and lazy in pushing the film’s themes.

I don’t want to be too negative on BOTS. It’s a relatively easy film to watch with a few nice scenes and Stone and Carrell are fine in their performances (although I doubt they’ll be awards-worthy). And from a technical perspective, the film looks convincing in the finale as you really believe it’s them playing the tennis match.

But overall, BOTS could’ve and should’ve been a better film than it is.

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Opening in Las Vegas, September 22, 2017

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A quiet week, with nothing to leave the house for.

If I did go to a film this week, it would probably be Brad’s Status (72), with Ben Stiller and directed by Mike White. But I’m sure this will be available on home video in about a month, and it seems like Stiller has played this kind of role–a middle-aged man who wonders what happened to his life–many times.

The likely box-office winner, if it can pass It, is Kingsman: The Golden Circle (45). Didn’t see the first one, won’t see this one. Just seems like an Avengers/James Bond rip-off. Anyone here see the first one?

The one Oscar-bait film his week is Stronger (76), with Jake Gyllenhaal as a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing and his rehab. I’m sure this is a very inspiring story, but I’m a cold cynical bastard when it comes to inspiring stories.

I’ve liked the Lego movies I’ve seen so far, but I have no idea what a Lego Ninjago Movie (55) is. I guess the Lego fans do, so they can see it for me.

Finally, there’s the lousy cheap horror film of the week. This time it taps into social media, and is called Friend Request (33). It should do decent business on Friday and Saturday night and then be consigned to oblivion.

Review: mother!

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The biggest news coming from the opening weekend of mother! was that it received an F rating from Cinemascore, which is apparently hard to do. I saw the film yesterday, and it certainly doesn’t rate an F (I’d give it a B), so what happened? One, it wasn’t marketed properly–when people hate a movie, it’s often because they didn’t get the movie they thought they were going to get. mother! was marketed as a run-of-the-mill horror film, and it is not. Two, there’s an old saying in theater that satire is what closes on a Saturday night. I’d say Biblical allegories would be included in that category. The truth probably is that most people didn’t get it.

I’m not sitting here saying I’m superior, because I didn’t get it, either. I could write about what I thought was going on, but I had no firm theory. It reminded me of other works, such as Edward Albee’s play A Delicate Balance, where guests come to stay and don’t leave, or Rosemary’s Baby, but I read an interview in Vanity Fair with director Darren Aronofsky, who explains what it is. I’m reluctant to spoil anyone’s encounter with it, lets just say that a sound understanding of Genesis is involved.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem star as a couple living in a big, beautiful house that she is renovating (She says she wants to make it a paradise–Garden of Eden?) He’s a poet, so we know immediately this isn’t reality because I don’t think anyone makes a living solely writing poems, especially with a house that big. He’s got writer’s block, though. One day a stranger, a doctor played by Ed Harris, shows up. Barden invites him to stay the night, and Lawrence is incredulous. She’s even more so when Harris’ wife, Michelle Pfeiffer shows up. They are followed by their two sons, arguing about the will. One kills the other (this is the only Biblical reference I picked up on–Cain and Abel) and Lawrence is stunned that a funeral gathering is taking place in her house.

She becomes pregnant, and time passes. Bardem writes a poem that becomes so admired that people flock to the house to congratulate him. Thus proceeds the conclusion, that involves Lawrence giving birth and, well, let me leave it that. I will only say that it is gruesome, and there are a few things that just don’t play in Peoria.

Even though I didn’t understand it, I didn’t have the visceral dislike that apparently most of America had. At least it was interesting, if obscure. The camera moves disorientingly, following Lawrence as she goes everywhere. The house is dark. The basement has what appears to be a magic tunnel. When Lawrence touches the walls, she senses some sort of presence. But it’s not ghosts, it’s something much more fundamental. Another clue is that she is always barefoot. The first and last lines of the film are “Baby?”

The performances are also strange. Lawrence, due to the nature of the role, has to be passive and reactive, while Bardem is purposely mysterious (there’s a constant, “Why are you doing this?” and “I can’t put them out” vibe between them). I wonder if Harris and Pfeiffer even knew what they were playing. Once you understand who Pfeiffer is supposed to be, it’s sort of funny that she plays it bitchy.

I have to give Paramount Pictures the guts to spend 30 million dollars on this. I don’t think they’ll make it back, but I think it will find a home on VOD. If anything, it’s a great conversation piece.

Opening in Las Vegas, September 15, 2017

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Now that the summer is over it’s time for Oscar bait.

First up, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! (75) (the lowercase m is the film’s choice), a horror film of sorts with Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem. Rex Reed has called it the “worst movie of the century,” so it’s bound to be good.

Not having any Oscar chances, except maybe in the sound awards, is American Assassin (46), with Dylan O’Brien as a guy out for revenge being trained in black ops by Michael Keaton. I’m kind of intrigued by the use of “American” in titles. It’s very popular in books as well as films. There must be some market research that suggests that using that appellation increases sales. Maybe Americans are so narcissistic that they can’t help reading or watching things about themselves.

Review: It

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I read Stephen King’s It about thirty years ago, and I forgot a lot of it (I read the summary on Wikipedia and was aghast at how much was gone from my brain). I don’t even remember if I saw the mini-series from 1990, although Tim Curry’s Pennywise the Clown is now a ubiquitous example of coulrophobia. Therefore, I’m not sure if I realized just what It is until I saw the new film, directed by Andy Muschietti. It is a metaphor for puberty.

The decision to break this into two films, the first featuring only the children (the book divides into alternating viewpoints of the kids and their adult selves) streamlines things and makes the metaphor pop more. The children, all at about that age, deal with an evil entity that more often than not takes the form of a devilish clown. This clown feeds on the fear of children (much like Freddy Krueger) and what do children fear? Turning into adults.

The book was more detailed about the children’s fears–it included mummies and werewolves, and there are none here, but I’m particularly struck about how the film treats the one girl, Beverly Marsh, played excellently by Sophia Lillis. In one scene she is in a drugstore, buying Tampax, so nervously it seems like the first time (she also swipes a pack of cigarettes). Her father, who is clearly molesting her, discovers her feminine hygiene product and asks her if she is still his little girl. Later, It will manifest itself as blood spewing out of her bathroom sink.

Becoming an adult also means turning on one’s parents, and here three kids do so (we don’t meet all the parents), two of them killing their own fathers, which seems very Joseph Campbell. The other, the hypochondriac Eddie, finds out his drugs are placebos and rebels against his Munchhausen Syndrome mother.

That being said, It is only an okay movie. There’s a lot to chew on, psychologically speaking, but the direction is simple and repetitive. We get a scene, then a scare, a scene and a scare, a scene and a scare. Believe it or not, there is a limit to how many times a clown popping out of nowhere can scare you. But some scenes are absolutely top-notch, including the first one, when Georgie’s boat goes down the sewer and we first meet Pennywise, as played by Bill Skarsgaard. He is terrifying, with his malevolent giggles, and the only problem I had was even a kid as young as Georgie would run like fucking mad, boat or no boat.

It is in the tradition of kids’ adventures movies that are constructed like World War II platoons–the stutterer (and leader), the funny kid, the hypochondriac, the fat kid, the black kid, the Jewish kid, and the girl, who is falsely rumored to be a slut. There is comfort in this, as it reminds us of better outings, such as Stranger Things (the excellently named Finn Wolfhard is in both casts). To me it hearkens back to teen lit like the Hardy Boys or The Three Investigators, where kids are smarter than adults and solve the problem with teamwork.

The children are all very good, particularly Lillis, who looks so much like Amy Adams that they will have to get Adams to play Beverly in the next film (Lillis has already played a young Adams in an HBO series). I also liked Jeremy Ray Taylor as Ben, the chubby kid, who writes a romantic poem to Beverly, is precocious enough to have researched and figured out that It comes out of hiding every 27 years, but is also enough of a kid to haplessly try to take his project home from school on his bike. The kid actors here convince you they’re are kids, not miniature adults.

The art direction on the house where It is hiding is also well done. It seems in every neighborhood there is that abandoned house that every kid is fascinated by. This one looks like every house I ever had a nightmare about. Skarsgaard’s make-up is great, and the special effects are great but don’t over do it.

There are some logistical problems, such as if It is so omnipotent (he can make a slide carousel go berserk) than how can he be defeated by physical means (it seems to me that you can’t beat up a demon with a baseball bat). But at least they don’t include all of King’s fooforall about the macroverse and the giant turtle that created the universe. They also, thank god, don’t include the head-scratchingly wrong scene he wrote in which Beverly has sex with all the boys. Instead, this is reduced to a simple Sleeping Beauty-style kiss.

It is a pretty good horror flick, nothing more, but in this day and age when horror movies are as disposable as Kleenex that’s no small feat. I will be very interested to see Chapter Two, and given the box office, there may be more chapters after that.

AGEBOC IX Finale: Jackrabbit Slim Wins!

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Following an astonishing season-long run in which he racked up points every single week, Jackrabbit Slim has decimated the competition to become this year’s champion!

Thanks to everyone for playing! HAGEBOC 2017 kicks off in early November.

Final scores:

Jackrabbit Slim – 92
James – 85
Juan – 67
Marco – 40
Joe – 33
Filmman – 12
Rob – 8

AGEBOC IX – Week Nineteen

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Predict the grosses of the films opening the weekend of September 8th-10th, 2017

The one who predicts closest to the total Friday to Sunday gross for the #1 film wins 4 points. Runner-up gains 2 points. Predicting within half a million on the first question each week earns 2 bonus points.

Deadline is Friday, September 8th at 12:00 pm (EST).  

Note: This is the FINAL week of AGEBOC 2017.  Thanks for playing!  

    1. What will IT earn this weekend? (4 points for the closest guess, 2 points for second closest. Within 500k earns a 2 point bonus)
    2. What will Home Again earn this weekend? (4 points for the closest guess, 2 points for second closest)
    3. What will IT earn from Thursday PM/Midnight shows?  (4 points for the closest guess, 2 points for the second closest guess)
    4. A gambling question for those who are game: While IT is on track to have a historic opening weekend for a horror film, will it beat the ADJUSTED opening weekend of 1994’s Interview with the Vampire at $77.4m?  (6 points if you answer “Yes” and the film achieves this.  MINUS 4 points if you answer “yes” and the film does not.  No points awarded for “no”.)

Current rankings:
Jackrabbit Slim – 86
James – 67
Juan – 61
Marco – 40
Joe – 33
Filmman – 12
Rob – 8

Hitchcock: Suspicion

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After the success of Rebecca, Alfred Hitchcock and Joan Fontaine reteamed in 1941 for Suspicion. It was also the first of four films he made with Cary Grant, and was the highest grossing picture of that year. Fontaine won an Oscar, but just watching it again last night I marveled at the talent of Grant.

Suspicion is a great example of how Hitchcock slowly builds suspense. The movie is about an hour and a half long, and the first hour feels like a comedy. It’s only very late that we, as an audience, feel like Fontaine is in trouble, and that’s when she does, as the film is mostly framed through her eyes.

Fontaine plays a dowdy, bookish woman who seems well on the way to spinster-hood. Grant, a rakish playboy, takes an interest in her, and they fall in love and marry. It’s only later that she finds that Grant is allergic to work, addicted to betting on horses, and has no money. Somehow he gets by on loans from others, and he is so charming and affable that no one ever seems to get mad at him.

He comes up with a scheme to buy and sell property with his school friend, the wonderfully named Beaky Thwaite (Nigel Bruce, perfectly playing a lovable English twit). Fontaine starts to suspect that Grant wants to kill Bruce for his money, and when Bruce dies in Paris she really gets worried. Later she intercepts a letter and finds that Grant tried to borrow against her life insurance, but she would have to be dead for him to do it. Throw that in with Grant’s morbid interest in murder mysteries (he picks the brain of a neighbor, an Agatha Christie-like character) and paranoia swoops around Fontaine.

That the film goes from light-hearted comedy to dark thriller so subtly is Hitchcock’s gift. He gives us clues along the way–early in the film, Grant and Fontaine go for a walk and a wind gust comes up and he grabs her arms. She reacts strongly, and he says, “What, did you think I was going to kill you?” Playing a Scrabble-like game, Fontaine makes the word “murder,” which sends her into a fainting spell. The house where they live have semi-circular windows, which cast shadows that look like spider webs, with Fontaine trapped in them.

The ending is very controversial. Some say Hitchcock hated it, because he was forced to do it. In the book on which the script is based, Grant’s character does kill Fontaine, but she writes a letter to her mother telling her she fears he is going to kill her, and asks him to post it. He does, not realizing he is implicating himself (letters are very important in the film, even Hitchcock’s cameo shows him mailing a letter). But, because the studio did not want to have Cary Grant as a murderer, they changed it so all the fear was simply in Fontaine’s mind, and they live happily ever after. I would have much preferred the other way.

Grant does play the role as if he is a killer, though. He’s an actor who was always able to play light-hearted while seeming to have terrible, dark secrets. There’s a dinner party scene with the mystery writer in which Fontaine watches his face as they talk about perfect murders, and he mentions poison. He seems particularly excited at the prospect of an untraceable one. Later, in perhaps the film’s most famous scene, he brings Fontaine a glass of milk. He enters a darkened room, and carries it up the staircase, the milk illuminated. Hitchcock was able to do that by putting a small light in the glass.

Suspicion is one of the better Hitchcock films, despite the cop-out ending. Fontaine did win the Oscar (she was jobbed out of winning for Rebecca, so perhaps that’s why) but Grant wasn’t even nominated and he should have been (he was only nominated twice in his career and never won until an honorary Oscar). It is essential Hitchcock.

Oscar 2017: Paradigm Shift

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Daniel Day-Lewis in “Phantom Thread”

I think it’s fair to say that at this time last year, no one had Moonlight as the favorite to win Best Picture. The question becomes, did the diversity push in membership change the paradigm of what an “Oscar bait” movie is? One year does not make a trend, but it is a giant leap for a film that cost less than two million dollars to make (the lowest-budgeted Best Picture of all time, adjust for inflation), has no stars, no white actors, and a gay theme to take the top prize. Even more than ever, it’s like the old William Goldman quote about predicting Oscars: “Nobody knows anything.”

But that won’t stop me from trying. Going over the slate of films to be released this fall and winter I don’t see anything that stands out as a favorite for the Oscar. Usually I get about five of these, but I wouldn’t be surprised to do far worse than that this year. Last year I certainly didn’t have Moonlight on my horizon.

In alphabetical order:

Battle of the Sexes (Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris) Sep. 22. The film opens at Telluride tomorrow, so this may be out of the running quickly. The story of the tennis match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was a gaudy circus (I’m old enough to have watched it) and these are the directors of Little Miss Sunshine, so they have Oscar pedigree. I’d be interested to see if they touch upon the rumor that Riggs threw the match because of massive debts.

Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan) Jul. 21. Though I was underwhelmed by this war film, it is in the right quadrant–big box office and near universal critical acclaim. After several weeks it is still in the top ten. The Academy has been gun shy about Nolan–he’s never been nominated for Best Director, and only Inception has been nominated for Best Picture. It all depends on how many good films are coming–if they aren’t too many, Dunkirk will be remembered.

The Greatest Showman (Michael Gracey) Dec. 26. It’s hard now for films released too late in the year to get nominated, and this musical was postponed an entire year (to avoid conflicting with La La Land). It stars Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum. The trailer makes it look like he was a lovable character, but remember, he’s the guy who said “There’s a sucker born every minute.” If it’s a whitewash of who he was I don’t like its chances.

Goodbye, Christopher Robin (Simon Curtis) Oct. 13. Now here’s a movie that has the old “Oscar bait” all over it. It’s literary–about the creator of Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne, and his experiences in World War I, and an emotional tale about fathers and sons. The only question that remains is is it any good?

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos) Oct. 27. Two of Lanthimos’ previous two films, Dogtooth and The Lobster, received Oscar nominations. Will this Greek director who has a different perspective than most crack into Oscar respectability? I don’t know anything about the plot of this film. It stars Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman.

Last Flag Flying (Richard Linklater) Nov. 3. The plot sounds formulaic–three war buddies attend the funeral of one of their sons–but Linklater may make it better than it sounds. Starring (again) Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, and Laurence Fishburne, it may tap into the zeitgeist.

Mudbound (Dee Rees) Nov. 17. A film directed by a black woman (the only other film thus directed to be nominated for Best Picture was Selma), it is set in the South post-World War II. It has been seen, at Sundance, and though it didn’t win a prize it was generally well-received.

Phantom Thread  (P.T. Anderson) Dec. 25. Anderson almost always comes up with films that get Oscar nominations, ever since Boogie Nights, but only There Will Be Blood got a nomination for Best Picture. It’s mostly being celebrated as purportedly the last film for Daniel-Day Lewis (though he’s retired before) and set in the London fashion world of the ’50s.

The Post (Steven Spielberg) Dec. 22. Another late release, but it’s hard to bet against the trio of Spielberg, Meryl Streep, and Tom Hanks, telling the story of the Pentagon Papers. Hanks plays Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, who has already been played by one Oscar-winner, Jason Robards in All the President’s Men.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh) Nov. 10. I was intrigued by the trailer–this may get the usual Coen Brothers slot. McDonagh, a fantastic playwright, has had a checkered career as film director–In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths–but has already won an Oscar for Best Short Film. It stars Frances McDormand as a woman demanding justice for her dead daughter, and seems to be anti-police, which could be another zeitgeist nominee.
Also possible:
Darkest Hour (Joe Wright); Detroit (Katheryn Bigelow); Victoria and Abdul (Stephen Frears); Wonderstruck (Todd Haynes); Suburbicon (George Clooney); Wonder Wheel (Woody Allen).