Battle of the Sexes – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

This biographical film by husband-and-wife filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris takes an unexpectedly lighthearted look at the heavy topics of sexism, prejudice, and addiction during the 1970s when Bobby Riggs challenged Billy Jean King to a tennis match dubbed Battle of the Sexes.

Emma Stone and Steve Carell star in Battle of the Sexes. Photo copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

This film highlights the music of the era and the (now ludicrous) clothing of that time period. It also shines a spotlight on the pill-popping gambling addict known as Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), the former men’s world tennis champion, now a two-bit hustler and media clown, who takes delight in his sexist attitudes and behavior.

The Fear of Being Judged

If it weren’t for men like Riggs there would be no need for staunch feminists and activists like Billy Jean King (Emma Stone). Her pure love of tennis motivates her to achieve the highest rank in women’s tennis, but the male chauvinists dominating sports and media force her into taking a public stand. Due to prejudice and the fear of being judged, King also hides her emerging lesbian relationship with her hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough in soft, dreamy close-ups). Her new feelings complicate her existing life (which includes a loving husband), but are only a small part of a much larger, more important story.

A Media Circus Clown

King’s heroic character displays impressive physical skills and endurance, in addition to a strong will and compassionate nature. Riggs, however, is more than the media circus clown he’s made out to be. Carell’s version prances on the furniture with his young son, appears to love his wife (although he lies to her incessantly), and makes a mockery out of the big tennis match. But the women-hating attitude beneath that over-the-top behavior is anything but amusing. In addition, his gambling addiction gets treated like a disagreeable habit, rather than the disease it really is.

At the screening I attended, during the final “Where are they now” captions at the end, it was noted that Riggs continued his gambling addiction his entire life. This reference elicited laughter throughout the theater, which indicates the audience shared the filmmakers’ opinion that Riggs is merely a harmless buffoon, instead of a danger to himself and others. Kudos to Stone and Carell for terrific performances, but it’s a shame the filmmakers chose to trivialize the sad ripple effects of sexism, prejudice, and addiction.

 Battle of the Sexes

  • This fact-based film explores the private lives and the very public 1973 tennis match between women’s world champion Billy Jean King and ex-men’s world champion Bobby Riggs.
  • Stars: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue
  • Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
  • Screenwriter: Simon Beaufoy
  • Genre: Biopic, Sports
  • Run Time: 121 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sexual content and partial nudity)

 

Stronger – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on the nonfiction book Stronger by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter (and adapted to the screen by John Pollono), this film explores the physical and emotional challenges Bauman faced after losing his legs from the Boston Marathon bombing.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Stronger. Photo copyright 2017 Roadside Attractions.

Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) was just an ordinary 27-year-old man living in Boston and working at Costco. Though not a runner himself, he supported his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), who dreamed of finishing the Boston Marathon. Known for being unreliable, he promises to wait for her at the finish line with a congratulatory sign — a promise that changes his life forever. Standing near the terrorists without realizing it at the time, he was in the direct line of fire when the bombs exploded and shattered both of his legs below the knee.

Direct and Indirect Victims of the Terrorist Attack

The terrorist attack occurs early in the film (and is shown in more detail through grisly flashbacks). The story focuses almost exclusively on Jeff’s physical and emotional struggles following the attack, and how his mother (Miranda Richardson) and Erin adjust to the changes in his life and in their own lives as they care for him. The themes of “showing up” and “reluctant hero” arise again and again as Jeff deals with international attention from the media (even Oprah wants to interview him), tributes from fans and friends, and contact from other victims of tragedies.

Despite becoming the unwitting poster boy for “Boston Strong,” Jeff fights depression and alcoholism privately as he works to maintain a brave facade for those around him. As a regular guy whose favorite pastime was hanging out with friends drinking beer at the sports bar, Jeff finds his new roles of survivor, hero, and inspiration to others extremely uncomfortable. He silently deals with post-traumatic stress disorder, in addition to the physical pain of healing from his injuries and managing physical therapy. He also struggles with being a burden to his independent girlfriend and boozy mother.

Gyllenhaal Shares the Spotlight

Steering clear of addressing the weighty subjects of politics and terrorism, this movie focuses on Jeff. Maslany and Richardson have the difficult task of stirring viewer sympathy for their supporting characters, who also suffer (though less directly than Jeff) from the terrorist attack. Both succeed, in part because of Gyllenhaal’s willingness and ability to share the spotlight with his co-stars. Transformational roles such as this often lead to Academy Award nominations, and Gyllenhaal (Nocturnal Animals) certainly would be deserving of such an honor.

Though his donned Bostonian accent seems stronger at times than others, his authentic portrayal of the body, mind, and spirit of his character never falters in this powerful performance. Special effects aid in providing a convincing appearance for the double amputee, but Gyllenhaal’s physicality is what makes it believable, memorable, and poignant.

Stronger

  • This true story looks at how the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing changed the life of Jeff Bauman, a 27-year-old working-class man who lost both legs from the attack.
  • Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Richard Lane Jr., Nate Richman, Lenny Clarke, Patty O’Neil, Clancy Brown, Kate Fitzgerald, Frankie Shaw, Carlos Sanz
  • Director: David Gordon Green
  • Genre: Biography Drama
  • Run Time: 116 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity)

 

The Only Living Boy in New York – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

In his second film released this year, director Marc Webb (whose movie Gifted was released in April) explores the push and pull within families between parents and their children.

The Only Living Boy in New York. Photo copyright 2017 Amazon Studios.

In this case, it’s all about a young man named Thomas (former Burberry model Callum Turner), a 20-something recent college graduate with no immediate plans for a career. Despite his life-long dream of becoming a writer, Thomas’s father, Ethan, (Pierce Brosnan) – the head of a large New York publishing house – scoffs at his son’s dreams and demands that he see a career counselor to find an occupation to which he is better suited. His mother (Cynthia Nixon) loves and supports her son, but is emotionally fragile and usually zoned out with alcohol, cigarettes, and various bouts of depression/bi-polar disorder that make her in need of mothering, rather than the other way around.

An Extra-Marital Affair

In addition, Thomas remains sexually frustrated by his close friend, Mimi (Kiersey Clemons), a girl who spends nearly all her time with him, shares intimate information, and got physical with him on one drunken occasion. Even so, she keeps Thomas mostly at arm’s length because she has a boyfriend (an absentee character never actually seen or heard).

To add to his dilemma, one night while at a club with Mimi, he spots his father having a romantic encounter with a beautiful younger woman named Johanna (Kate Beckinsale as an unlikeable character whose physical appearance is her only attractive feature). Their physical closeness and flirtatious behavior can only mean one thing: His father is having an extra-marital affair, a situation that will destroy his emotionally unstable mother. Obsessed with the idea of breaking up Ethan and Johanna’s relationship to save his mother from more pain, Thomas eventually realizes his obsession is really more focused on the woman herself. Before long, he’s having his own affair with Johanna.

A New Friend

Luckily Thomas has a new friend with whom he shares his problems. A wise, but broken-down alcoholic, neighbor W.F. (Jeff Bridges, who narrates the story) recently moved into the shabby Lower East Side apartment where Thomas resides. With his surprising eloquence and insight, the somewhat mysterious W.F. charms Thomas into sharing the details of his life. Living in a shabby apartment devoid of furniture or personal items, W.F. claims this is his second home and that he’s actually quite wealthy. His motives for living this way and dispensing advice to a confused young millennial are slowly revealed as the film progresses.

Although the film gets off to a slow start, tensions build within each scenario until explosions, confrontations, and explanations are inevitable. Twists and turns will keep viewers engaged, but a few flat scenes (particularly the pivotal blowup between

Thomas and Mimi) look staged and sound inauthentic. Why would an open-minded young woman suddenly become preachy and judgmental by assigning labels of “good” and “bad” to people, rather than merely accepting that even well-intentioned people make mistakes? What exactly does Johanna have to gain by sleeping with her lover’s son? These – and a few other manipulations by the filmmakers, such as songs that echo exact dialogue rather than reflect emotion – give the movie a forced feel at times, and detract somewhat from what could have been a charming little indie movie.

The Only Living Boy in New York

  • A young man living in New York struggles with career indecision, his father’s mistress, unrequited love, and an overly familiar neighbor.
  • Stars: Callum Turner, Jeff Bridges, Kate Beckinsale, Pierce Brosnan, Cynthia Nixon, Kiersey Clemons, Tate Donovan
  • Director: Marc Webb
  • Screenwriter: Allan Loeb
  • Genre: Drama
  • Run Time: 88 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language and some drug material)

 

The Hero – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Once a famous Western movie star now reduced to doing occasional voiceover work for barbeque sauce commercials, Lee Hayden (Sam Elliott) is lonely, aging, and seriously ill. He’s lost his wife and daughter through divorce, lost his integrity by accepting mediocre acting jobs he doesn’t believe in, and lost his will to live. At age 71 with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis, he’s ready to give up on life.

Sam Elliott stars in The Hero. Photo copyright 2017 The Orchard.

In a familiar movie cliche, he’s offered a “Lifetime Achievement Award” by an obscure group of Western movie lovers. Naturally, he perceives this as another step toward the grave. One day while smoking pot at his neighborhood dealer’s home, he meets Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a much-younger woman who seems attracted to him.

A New Romance Late in Life

Lee and Charlotte meet again by chance, and this time her interest is undeniable. After inviting her to the award ceremony, their romance has officially begun. But she’s a standup comedian who uses his age and infirmity as part of her routine, so her motives for dating him are not entirely clear. Hurt by yet another reminder of his age, Lee angrily walks out of the performance.

Known for his deep voice and thick mustache (like the actor himself), Lee has no trouble communicating with people as the iconic role he played in “The Hero.” As himself, however, he’s far less successful. He tries to tell his ex-wife (Katharine Ross), his estranged daughter (Krysten Ritter), and his neighbor (Nick Offerman) about his illness, and finds himself unable to be vulnerable.

Dreams Relive Glory Days

He’s more open with Charlotte, but their age differences and her mean streak (balanced with her sensitive love of poetry) make him uncertain of whether or not the relationship is worth the effort of staying alive. His nightly dreams relive his glory days, but offer no hope for the future.

Although the plot sounds grim and is sometimes overly familiar, Sam Elliott embodies Lee so perfectly that each small expression or rumble of his voice seems to hold deep meaning. Sam Elliott fans won’t be disappointed in this stellar performance, and for those just discovering him, why did you wait so long?

The Hero

  • An aging Western iconic actor looks back at some of the choices he’s made in life.
  • Stars: Sam Elliott, Laura Prepon, Krysten Ritter, Nick Offerman, Katherine Ross
  • Director: Brett Haley
  • Genre: Comedy/Drama
  • Run Time: 96 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for drug use, language, and some sexual content)
  • Additional Information: The Hero was the opening night film at the recent Florida Film Festival held throughout Central Florida.

My Cousin Rachel – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

The title, My Cousin Rachel, sounds like the latest rom-com where a mysterious long-lost cousin shows up to the perfect wedding and nearly ruins everything as riotous laughs ensue. Actually, that’s not too far from the actual premise, except without the humor. This film, based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier (The Birds) with a screenplay adaptation by Roger Michell, is a remake of the 1952 film, a creepy suspense thriller set in 19th Century England.

Sam Claflin as “Philip” and Rachel Weisz as “Rachel Ashley” in My Cousin Rachel. Photo by Nicola Dove. © 2016 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Cousin Rachel

The story focuses on a naive 24-year-old Englishman named Philip (Sam Claflin), whose cherished guardian leaves for a warmer climate to improve his health. While away, he falls in love with his mysterious cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz), and they soon wed. Philip then receives increasingly disturbing letters from his guardian suggesting that Rachel is controlling him and poisoning his tea.

In a rage, Philip journeys to the newlyweds’ home and discovers from an attorney that his guardian recently died of a brain tumor – a condition that may have affected his perception. Intent on vengeance, Philip invites the so-called grieving widow to visit his soon-to-be-inherited estate so he can confront her.

Hinted Sexuality

Once there, however, virginal Philip becomes mesmerized by Rachel’s charm (despite his close relationship with the ever-loyal Louise (Holliday Grainger), who clearly hopes to marry him someday. Even dressed in her black widow’s garb, Rachel’s sophistication and hinted sexuality entice Philip enough to protect her from gossip, pain, and poverty. The latter issue is especially problematic because Philip is weeks away from turning age 24 and inheriting a full fortune in jewels and real estate.

His plan to rescue Rachel turn into a desperate attempt to save himself and his wealth as Philip suddenly becomes ill with an unexplained sickness. Is she poisoning him, too? Did she actually murder his guardian? Does she have another husband in Italy to whom she sends money? Sometimes it seems that way and sometimes it doesn’t.

No Concrete Answers

This is not a film that provides concrete answers. Much like its movie poster that features Rachel’s face shrouded by a black widow’s veil, the film’s mysteries are never fully revealed, which leaves the viewer to form his or her own conclusions based on the facts presented, patterns of behavior, and subtle innuendos.

Claflin convincing plays the innocent young man who is easily manipulated by the slightest touch of a feminine hand. Weisz’s fragile beauty seems less suited to her role as the enigmatic cousin, alluring enough to make nearly any man fall in love with her. Even so, production values in this period piece come together nicely. The costumes, landscapes, and candle-lit interiors provide a rich backdrop to the story that intrigues, but never truly thrills.

My Cousin Rachel

  • An Englishman on the brink of inheriting a fortune falls in love with a mysterious woman who may have murdered his guardian.
  • Stars: Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Iain Glen, Holliday Grainger, Poppy Lee Friar, Andrew Knott, Andrew Havill
  • Director: Roger Michell
  • Genre: Mystery Drama
  • Run Time: 146 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some sexuality and brief strong language)