Movie Review: Battle of the Sexes

“Battle of the Sexes,” which opens today and stars Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carell as King’s rival Bobby Riggs, will likely net at least one Oscar nomination, as well as prompt discussion on the way home about the parallels between the famous match and last year’s presidential election. It’s your typical Hollywood triumph-of-the-underdog story, but with the added bonus of being based on real life, chronicling how King helped break gender barriers even before she played Riggs (and continued to do so long after).

Steve plays an over-the-hill former tennis star who has a gambling problem (he co-opts a Gambler’s Anonymous meeting to explain to the attendees that they aren’t gamblers, they’re just bad at it) and a wife (Elisabeth Shue) who gets fed up with this and throws him out. (She also points out that since she’s the one financing their lavish lifestyle, his anti-feminist rhetoric is a tad ironic.) Casting around for a way to make some cash and return to the spotlight which he craves even more, he challenges Emma to a match. She refuses for at first she’s busier heading the new women’s tennis association and fielding baffled questions from the media about why in the world women should get paid equally for their tournament participation. After all, as Bill Pullman among other characters points out, women just aren’t as exciting to watch, plus they don’t have as much stamina as the boys. Well, this obviously can’t stand, so after Steve trounces a woman player and starts strutting about, a fuming Emma rekindles the match. But of course, she has a host of obstacles to deal with including sexism from the event arrangers, illness, and most importantly, the fact that she’s fallen in love with the tour hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough), and both her husband (Austin Stowell)) and her game are negatively affected while she figures things out.

While the outcome of the match is deathly serious for Emma – she sees it as a chance to prove Something Important about gender equality in sports, Steve is simply happy to bask in the attention of the media and fans, while he performs a series of publicity stunts including dressing up as Little Bo Peep and doing a semi-nude photo shoot. (The latter of which apparently really happened.) He also sounds off about how a woman’s place is in the kitchen, but Emma in a later scene points out the difference between Steve’s chauvinism and someone like Bill’s – Steve’s is for show, while with other characters, it’s more ingrained and uglier. And when Emma triumphs, there’s still a lot of progress to be made – as Alan Cummings (who plays the tour costume designer) points out both for women and for gays. Sometimes as the movie shows, you make your point best by shutting up and competing, but even winning there means there’s still much work to be done afterward.

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A Look Back: Drive Me Crazy

Here’s the thing about high school proms. In real life, they’re important but only so much. But in the movies, the very prospect of going or not going to one is enough to make someone completely lose any sense of proportion and engage in wacky antics. Attending a school dance as a teen film character is not always the wisest choice as movies like “Carrie” and “The Karate Kid” prove, but characters also tend to find they suddenly acquire amazing oratory powers and after getting up the guts to make a speech about values before all the attendees, good things will happen. That is, if you’re willing to risk being doused with pigs’ blood or attacked on the edges of the school grounds.

In 1999’s “Drive Me Crazy,” which is based on the book “Girl Gives Birth to Own Prom Date” by Todd Strasser (and probably shortened because of the likelihood of there not being enough room on marquee signs resulting in WTF titles like “Girl Gives Birth…”) a prom is at the center of the plot. Melissa Joan Hart (i.e. of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” fame on TV) plays one of those annoyingly peppy, school-spirited girls (think Tracy Flick in “Election” on Prozac) who leads a perfect, popular existence and does not expect this to change anytime soon. However, her bubble is abruptly popped when her popular boyfriend announces that he’s fallen in love with someone else. Meanwhile Melissa’s next-door-neighbor and former friend, played by Adrian Grenier, who is one of a trio of unpopular troublemakers, has just received the dismal news that his artsy girlfriend is no longer keen on him. So they concoct a plan to make their former significant others so jealous that they will have to take them back. Preferably in time for the prom.

Guess what happens? Yes, folks, they fall in love, despite all their cynicism on the subject. So eventually does Melissa’s divorced mom and Adrien’s widower dad making for a less-than-savory plot twist at the film’s end.  Most of the characters look like movie stars playing teens, so that even though Serious Issues are raised, it’s like a longer version of the Mad TV parody show “Pretty People With Problems.” The exception is Mark Webber, who plays Adrian’s best friend and looks like someone you’d run into at an actual public American high school. This, of course, means he’s deeply unpopular in the movie, but he does manage to get a girl of his own in the end. The real test – if this were real life – would come when both characters go off to different colleges in the fall, but like most teen movies, this is not included as a potential problem. Thus, at least for now, they all live happily ever after.

Movie Review: Kingsman: the Golden Circle

“Kingsman: The Golden Circle,” begins as did the prequel with a really rocking showdown involving a bespectacled British man in a bespoke suit (Taron Egerton) and a bad guy (Edward Holcroft) set to a cheesy eighties’ hit (Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy”). Naturally, the good guy wins the first round, although there are more than a few hairy moments, involving dueling high technological gadgets and some low ones, as well. When the movie opens, Taron is still active in the Kingsman, a top secret spy group that operates out of a ritzy tailor shop, and in a relationship with the Swedish princess (Hanna Alstrom) he rescued in the last movie. However, the British arm meets an untimely end, forcing Taron and his colleague (Mark Strong) to emigrate to the US, where they hook up with the Statesmen (the American branch), headed by grizzled, chin-stroking, whiskey-sipping Jeff Bridges. All the American members have code names after alcohol, such as Tequila (Channing Tatum) and use gadgets like a lasso (which Taron mistakes for a skipping rope) to defeat evil. This time, evil arrives in the form of Julianne Moore, who plays a drug kingpin with a fifties-nostalgia fetish currently operating out of Cambodia, who sets in motion a possibly fatal drug epidemic and the President of the US (Bruce Greenwood) (who apparently was elected after movie Barack Obama’s head exploded last time). There’s also the possibility that one of the good guys is – get ready – a double agent.

When Taron and Mark arrive, they unexpectedly discover that their colleague (Colin Firth) who died taking out a church of rednecks in the last film, is alive, although suffering from amnesia and believing that he is actually an expert on butterflies. With Halle Berry aiding them by doing high tech computer stuff, Taron manages to cure (or semi-cure) Colin, and then the two, along with Channing, head out to the snow-covered slopes of Italy (Taron apparently returning after “Eddie the Eagle”) to track down the antidote that will cure all the people currently infected with the virus that Julianne has set in motion. Although Bruce is supposed to be on the side of the American people, he’s actually not, which is apparent every time he speaks with the Southern Drawl of Nefarious Motives. Eventually, as the body count increases, Taron, Colin and Mark visit Julianne’s lair, where she has kidnapped Sir Elton John and is forcing him to perform for her, and she also has two Transformer-like robot dogs on steroids to protect her. Anyway, the good guys manage to figure out how to foil all the baddies, so the main crew lives to see another day – and likely another sequel. There is so much action in this installment of “Kingsman,” that you only realize how absurd the plot is after you leave the theater. I also decided, somewhere around the fourth shootout, that if I am ever recruited by the Statesmen, I would like my code name to be Bacardi. Hey, it can’t be any cheesier than “Tequila.”

A Look Back: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

When I was still very young, I noticed a decidedly odd thing about orphans – whether in book or film – that so many seemed to be blessed with amazing musical talent. (A majority also had red hair.) This did not make a great deal of sense when you sat down and considered it, but I went with it because why not? At the time, I did not have a series like Lemony Snicket’s (alias for Daniel Handler) “A Series of Unfortunate Events” which would have clued me in that not all orphan characters possess the ability to turn their woes into song, dance or impromptu gymnastics. The series, which stars three orphans who lose their parents in a suspicious house fire, and was made into a movie starring Jim Carrey, is honest enough to inform the reader from the start that the books are terrifically depressing and that the reader would be better off reading something else. Which of course, works as reverse psychology, as the series was quite successful.

In each book, the reader – while faced with the truth that life for the young is often unpleasant and/or unpredictable – can be assured of three things. One, that each orphan – played in the movie by Emily Browning, Liam Aiken and twins Kara/Shelby Hoffman as their infant sister – will be faced with dealing with their nefarious “uncle” (Jim Carrey) who is determined to get his hands on their fortune, and who has a seemingly endless array of disguises. Two, that when the children realize what their nemesis is up to, they will be disregarded if not presented with absurd reasons for why this truth is otherwise. And three, that while they will be able to use their unique skill sets (they are an inventor, a bibliophile and a biter respectively) to wriggle out of trouble – more will simply await them in the next installment.

The movie of “A Series,” stays true (at least at the beginning) by the narrator (Jude Law) recommending that the viewer seek another film to watch, and then gets down to business by having the children’s new guardian (Timothy Spall) meet them on the beach with the unfortunate news that they will now be living with Jim Carrey who is soon dismayed at the fact that he can’t get the fortune until Emily turns 18 or the trio croaks, and pawns them off on another guardian (Billy Connelly), a herpetologist, who seems benign until Jim shows up in disguise. From there, it’s curtains for Billy, forcing the trio to move in with an aunt (Meryl Streep), who is deathly afraid of everything, lives in a house overlooking a leech-filled lake, and who also meets an untimely end. The third act has the orphans living with Jim, who decides to engineer his marriage to his niece, by putting on (why not?) a play with his equally awful allies.

Luckily, the orphans manage to foil every unfortunate event that comes their way – though the movie’s end, which allows the children to take revenge on Jim that never arrives in the early books, is more Hollywoodish. Apart from that, it’s true enough to the books, although if a child watches it with an adult, they probably will be treated to a series of, “Hey, isn’t that so-and-so?” Life is tough when you’re an orphan, but as hokey as it sounds, sticking together and pooling your talents will help you survive in the long run.

 

Movie Review: Home Again

A quick question: If you’re looking for an ideal babysitter for your young girls who could use a dose of learning life lessons, you should pick _.

a) Someone with multiple references or at least highly recommended.
b) A family friend or neighbor that you’ve known for some time.
c) A trio or pair of well-meaning, mostly good-looking single guys who are fast friends.

If you are a child of the eighties like me, you probably chose c) or at least would guess that that’s the ideal choice for a character on a sitcom or movie set in that era. Shows like “Full House,” and films like “Three Men and a Baby,” explored the dynamic of adult men who are suddenly forced to care for – high jinx alert – a child, sometimes multiple ones, and/or teens. Because presumably the male species lacks the natural parenting instincts that women do. Or something. But they’re more fun!

In “Home Again,” Reese Witherspoon plays the kind of character found in chick flick movies like these – a newly separated single mom of two daughters (Lola Flanery and Eden Grace Redfield) whose lifestyle is an extended exercise in adorableness. Reese even looks adorable sobbing in the bathroom, which she does at the film’s start because it’s her fortieth birthday, she needs a job, and she’s single again. But she perks up because she has to be strong for her daughters, and soon there’s another reason as well. On a ladies-night out with her two friends, Reese bumps into Nat Wolff and his two buddies (Pico Alexander and Jon Rudnitsky) who are a director, actor and scriptwriter respectively looking for their Big Break. When the six of them head over to Reese’s to call it a night, the trio discovers that Reese is the daughter of a famous film director, and they’re thrilled to run into Reese’s actress mom (Candice Bergen) the next morning. One thing leads to another, and suddenly Reese has three new houseguests in the home her dad left her. Sexual tension runs high, one of the group helps her older daughter find the courage to submit her play to a school contest, and everything (except Reese’s interior design job to a prima donna) is going swimmingly until Reese’s ex (Michael Sheen) shows up at her doorstep. Now there’s a whole new brand of tension added to the mix.

None of the guys really adds up to a whole, multi-dimensional character – though this is probably the fault of the script – so Reese’s final decision (spoiler – to forgo – more or less – all of them) isn’t a huge surprise. The movie mostly relies on montages to move things along, and none of the conflicts goes anywhere really dark. “Home Again,” presumably based on the saying of Tom Wolfe’s (“You can’t go home again.”) is like a soufflé, not a bad way to spend your time consuming, but not really anything of substance.

Quiz: Can You Survive Being a Horror Movie Character?

 

Do you have what it takes to make it to the end of a horror movie safely without requiring years of trauma therapy? Take this quiz and find out.

1. Your family is going on a trip and needs accommodations, so you choose:
a) A hotel or motel, depending on your budget
b) Nearby family in the area or friends.
c) A dilapidated house on the outskirts of town in which your hosts have been recluses since a tragedy years ago.

2. If you choose c) and your hosts inform you not to wander around in a certain part of the house, but you hear noises coming from there at night, you:
a) Put in your earbuds and go back to sleep.
b) Bring up the topic in a casual way the next day at breakfast.
c) Get out of bed and go investigate! Without turning any lights on while you’re at it.

3. Again, if you are staying in a dilapidated house that’s behaving oddly, it takes _ to get you to leave.
a) A member of your party having a bizarre, not easily explainable accident.
b) The gruesome death of a domesticated animal.
c) Nothing – not until you’ve solved the mystery, damn it.

4. The best time to investigate odd noises, lights, sounds, etc. is _.
a) Never. Ever.
b) Mid-morning or afternoon.
c) Midnight or in the middle of a thunderstorm.

5. If you are on an investigation, and a piece of key gear malfunctions, such as the flashlight going out, you should:
a) Turn back immediately.
b) Keep going but only a short distance.
c) Plunge boldly forth into the darkness in the direction of the most eerie sounds.

6. If you notice a voice coming from a sewer, and it’s a clown, you should respond by:
a) Pretending not to hear anything until you’re a safe distance away.
b) Offering to call the fire department if the individual is indeed in distress, but that’s as far as you’ll go with the Good Samaritan stuff.
c) Stopping and having a conversation as if this is perfectly normal behavior for anyone, much less a clown.

7. If you plan on exploring a sewer, you should first _.
a) Get a hepatitis booster.
b) Arm yourself with a flashlight, a backup light source, a water bottle and trail mix in case you get lost, plus a heavy weapon.
c) Tell yourself and your companions that you owe it to whoever last fell prey to a mysterious, unsolved crime to investigate.

8. If the town you have moved your family to starts falling prey to gruesome crimes involving kids, which you yourself have, you should _.
a) Not let them wander around outside alone under any circumstances.
b) Start checking the real estate listings.
c) Behave as if this is perfectly normal and give your child a long leash. You can always have more kids, if you lose a couple of yours.

9. If the town you have moved to starts falling prey to gruesome crimes, you should also _.
a) Listen to and obey the authorities if they install a curfew.
b) Report any suspicious crimes right away to the authorities (even if they sound odd).
c) Spend lots of time on your own in deserted places like the basement of your library, alleyways or the woods.

10. A disheveled stranger approaches you and insists that you are in grave danger and should get rid of a particular object. You should _.
a) Take his advice, no matter how bizarre the whole thing strikes you.
b) Quiz him for further explanation, but then do exactly what he says.
c) Decide that he’s unstable and dismiss his warnings.

11. If you manage to figure out which object in your life is possessed by a demon, the next step is to _.
a) Destroy it completely, using a fail-safe method such as burning.
b) Turn it over to a priest and let him handle the whole thing.
c) Throw it into a cistern, place a board across the top and skip off merrily into the sunset.

12. The best person to hang around with if you’re experiencing lots of disturbing supernatural incidents and you’re a kid, is _ .
a) A priest or at least a protective adult.
b) A detective or a cop.
c) Your nerdy best friend who loves to solve mysteries.

13. If you choose to explore, and you finally do come face-to-face with the supernatural spirit, you should say _”
a) Nothing. Who in their right mind starts a conversation with a demon who’s been trying to murder them?
b) “So you’re the guy whose been scaring the bejeesus out of me? Nice.”
c) “Who are you? Where did you come from? Did you kill so-and-so?”

14. When you do come across the evil spirit, you should best fight it with _
a) Nothing. You’re human, how can you possibly win? Run like hell instead.
b) The latest technology – if you can’t destroy it, at least maybe you can document it.
c) Anything at hand – even if the spirit has the ability to shape-shift, fly, turn invisible, etc. Also try making a speech.

15. If you’re the mayor of a town experiencing supernatural incidents, you should definitely do _ to the dilapidated house that no one has lived in for years.
a) Bulldoze the place. It’s a health hazard anyway.
b) Put yellow police tape around the house and install heavy barriers.
c) Nothing. Just let it be because it’s not harming anyone, even if it is an eyesore.

Answers: If you chose mostly a) or b) responses, you probably have a good chance of making it to the end of the film alive. Good going.

However, if you chose mostly c) responses, you’re in grave peril and should try being more cautious. Good luck!

 

Movie Review: It (2017)

Humor columnist Dave Barry once wrote a piece in which he described going to see a scary movie with Stephen King (with whom he played in a band called the Rock Bottom Remainders) and their spouses. Barry was anxious because, according to him, he tends to clutch the person sitting next to him during particularly frightening parts, but as it turned out, he didn’t have to worry about embarrassment because King was doing the same to his wife Tabitha.

Even horror fiction writers, it seems, are human. I myself did not clutch my neighbor as I watched the remake of “It,” (novel: Stephen King; movie: Andy Muschietti), but that might have been because I went alone, plus it’s hard to grab anyone when you’re in a Barcalounger-like extended seat. But it was still scary. From now on, I solemnly vow to avoid all bathroom sinks, sewers, untethered balloons and ramshackle abandoned houses at the edge of town. That should do it.

“It” begins when Jaeden Liebeher informs his adorable little brother (Jackson Robert Scott) that he can’t join him in sailing a paper boat in the pouring rain because he’s “dying.” I half-expected Jackson to reply that Jason wasn’t dying – he just couldn’t think of anything good to do, but it’s not that kind of movie. Anyway, soon Jackson meets a clown (Bill Skarsgard) and disappears without a trace. Fast forward to the end of the school year, when Jaeden, the only one who believes his brother is still alive, gathers his friends together to try and solve the mystery. The group eventually grows to the size of seven, including Sophia Lillis (the only girl, bad reputation, creepy dad); Chosen Jacobs (black, orphaned in fire); Wyatt Oleff (neurotic, Jewish); Jack Dylan Grazier (hypochondriac, creepy mom); Finn Wolfhard (mouth permanently in overdrive); and Jeremy Ray Taylor (portly new kid, unrequited crush on Sophia). Each kid has their own angst to deal with, and if that’s not enough, there’s bully Nicholas Hamilton, whose dad is the town cop and who also falls under Bill’s spell.

Derry, Maine where they live, is a town where kids go missing with some regularly, but the adults are oddly blasé and do little but post “Lost” notices. (Derry is also a town whose residents must have the world’s lowest collective electricity bill since no one ever turns on their lights.) But when Jeremy confides in the group that there seems to be a pattern to the years when the town children disappear, they realize that the creepy experiences they have solo have a shared supernatural cause. This leads to lots of scary encounters in abandoned houses and sewers, featuring Bill popping out at the gang when they least expect it. When the seven “losers” realize that they’re stronger together – strong enough to defeat Bill, that’s when things turn around.  “It” features special effects that weren’t possible when the original movie came out, but it’s the bond between the kids that elevates the film and makes it worth seeing. If you’re not clown-phobic, that is.