Friday, September 22, 2017

“BATTLE OF THE SEXES” PROVES THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME

Original caricature by Jeff York of Emma Stone as Billie Jean King in BATTLE OF THE SEXES. (copyright 2017)
All period pieces are commentaries on our modern world. Is it because things don’t change that much from decade to decade, or century to century? Perhaps, but the essential makeup of mankind isn’t altered nearly as much as we’d think it would be by progress or time. Instead, many of our instincts, from the basest of urges to the most intellectual rigors, remain consistent no matter what period. Thus, the fight for sexual equality today isn’t all that different from the one waged in 1973 as proven by the savvy new movie BATTLE OF THE SEXES.

In fact, as you watch this clever take on how tennis player Billie Jean King battled both sexism at large, and specifically, male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs, you realize the struggle hasn't gone away. It certainly exists all too blatantly in today's politics, economy, and issues of civil rights. White patriarchy is still trying to thwart those unlike them. Thus, this film is as timely as it is entertaining.

In the 1970's, King was the top ranked female tennis player in the world, but she tried to lift the boats for all of the women on the tour. She fought valiantly for years to raise tournament pay, striving to make it equal to that of men. And she not only helped changed the game of tennis for the better in doing so, King became a feminist icon who helped advance women's liberation far beyond her sport. Unfortunately, her achievements seems to be falling backwards today as rampant sexism is returning with a vengeance to the world in the workplace, on campuses, currently on social media. Indeed, male patriarchy remains in power, women and minorities are marginalized far too often, and that makes this movie's relevance importance. Truly, it's suggesting that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES is not just a detailed and vivid portrait of tennis history, it's a stinging rebuke of a nation that should know better how to behave by now. Interestingly, in the previews, this film was sold as a comedy. Sure, casting Steve Carell as the aging tennis hustler Riggs and Emma Stone as the cool and confidant King ensured its comic pedigree. And indeed, the film has a lot of big, boisterous laughs. However, most of the ones heard in the audience I saw it with, came at the outrageous sexist behavior that existed in every corner of the tennis world at that time. The humor in BATTLE OF THE SEXES is pointedly dark as it showcases the idiotic and casual sexism that characterized the period, such as Riggs' blatant public declarations that a woman's place was in the bedroom and the kitchen, not the tennis court, full stop.

And even though tennis and the women's tour become a sensation that decade, with female athletes like King, Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong, Rosie Casals, and teenager Chris Evert helping the sport reach unparalleled popularity, too many men were still unwilling to give them proper credit for it. Instead, the powers that be all but went out of their way to insult and demean the female players consistently. Men like Jack Kramer, a former pro turned United States Tennis Association big wig, ensured that the women were paid significantly less, treated as afterthoughts, and dismissed as "good for girls" athletes who could never challenge male prowess.

King didn't suffer such fools and stood up to Kramer, leaving the USTA and taking the whole of the female game with her. King was instrumental in establishing a league of their own, the Virginia Slims Tour, and it became a progressive and galvanizing 'work place' for the female stars. The tour took care of its players significantly better than Kramer, et al. did, raised the prize money, increased public relations, and filled the stadiums with avid fans.  
Original caricature by Jeff York of Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in BATTLE OF THE SEXES. (copyright 2017)
Kramer is, in fact, the villain of this piece here, not Riggs, and he's played with a slimy smile by veteran actor Bill Pullman. Riggs may have been just as sexist as Kramer, but the script's viewpoint is that it was more of an act for him. Riggs barked a lot about male prowess, but most of it was to raise his PR profile. Casting a utterly lovable star like Carell cements that take, and most of his outrageous lines aimed at the fairer sex are practically delivered with a wink. The fact is, and the film gets this totally right, Riggs was far more interested in making a buck than besting the fairer sex. He was a hustler who'd play all sorts of tennis exhibitions to remain in the limelight and make a fast buck. He dressed in zany costumes, like Little Bo Peep, or played with handicaps, like a frying pan for a racket, all to showcase his chutzpah. Riggs was less of a male chauvinist and much more of a craven opportunist.

In many ways, Riggs was trying to fit into a world that displayed rampant discrimination against him too. At 55, twenty-five years past his athletic prime, Riggs felt obsolete. He was reduced to trading upon his past prowess with pals and hangers on to make a buck, and never fit into the stiff corporate world that his patrician wife got him employment in. One of the funniest moments in the movie shows Riggs bat a crumpled piece of paper into his office waste basket with his tennis racket, showing that old habits die hard. Bobby loved his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue, strong, tan and gorgeous in the role) but didn't fit in her world. He thrived in the world of hustlers, gamblers, and card players. And he challenged King to an exposition match to hopefully score a big payday. King was wise to decline, as she took the game serious, but top female player Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) liked the idea of a quick purse and big PR so she agreed to Riggs' challenge when he called upon her, his second choice. 

The match between Riggs and Court took place on Mother’s Day in 1973, and it became known as the "Mother's Day Massacre." The film treats it almost as if it's public hanging, with the ramifications of such a top player like Court, so young at 29, losing so definitively to the old man Riggs. He trounced her in straight sets, and as King watched it on TV, she knew she had to rise next to address Riggs' challenge to the women's game. If she didn't, she'd forfeit all the strides about equality that she had argued. And if she lost the match to Riggs, she'd lose the argument about expectation regarding equal pay.

Yet, the superstar had other issues to contend with as well at the time. The 29-year-old wife of promoter Larry King (not that Larry King) found herself falling for a comely hairdresser named Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Suddenly, the tennis ace started questioning her sexual identity as well as her marriage vows. King worried that the truth of her affair would come out and hurt her career and cause as well. These are the scenes where Stone's performance is at its strongest. She captures the simultaneous joy and angst of coming to terms with her bisexuality, aching to be understood and loved, but uncertain of her footing in the heterosexual or gay world, let alone the public light of celebrity. 

There was a lot at stake for King, and in its way, as much for Riggs. And the movie treats it all seriously. Both King and Riggs were trying to figure out where they stood in the world, one battling sexism, the other ageism. Their exhibition match was thought of as a circus at the time, but that take is rejected here. This film wisely plays it as important as it was, focusing more on the tense match than the bread and circuses surrounding it.

Playing all the different nuances of their characters, Carell and Stone give two of the year's best performances. Riggs is a clown in many ways, and Carell makes him endlessly funny, but he finds the tragedy in the man as well. And Stone continues to amaze with each new step in her young career. Here, she not only captures all the interiors of King, but she also does a tremendous job duplicating her voice, gait, and definitive playing style.


Giving sharp support to these two vivid star turns are the aforementioned Riseborough, Shue and Pullman, as well as Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman, the promoter and manager of the Slims tournament, Natalie Morales as the no-nonsense Casals, and Alan Cumming as Ted Tingling, King’s friend, designer, and confidante. He cautioned her to not expect too much too soon in the battle against societal norms. It was still a tumultuous time, he argued, but progress would come. These words couldn't ring more true today what with many of those in power willing to vote for a new healthcare bill that would not ensure maternity coverage for all women and set back other civil rights achievements as well. The battle goes on and on and on.

The film recreates the 1970's period perfectly too, particularly through the stellar Linus Sandren cinematography. His lensing employs that ubiquitous soft focus that was paramount then, and his work here should be remembered when the Oscar nominations come out early next year. Mary Zophres’ costuming is award-worthy as well. The clothes are amusing without edging into parody. And hair stylist Alyson Black-Barrie was wise to not overdo the sideburns and bangs of Riggs here as his trendy bowl cut made him look silly. 

Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay is fast-moving, smart, and hits all the best highlights from the true story, though one does wish there were more scenes between King and Riggs. Some more substantive talk between King and her girlfriend could've deepened their moments together as well. Riseborough does as much as she can with her part, but it's still the one that is underwritten. Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris do a superb job of bringing all the characters to life, as well as handling all the period details. They're especially adept at seamlessly blending the King and Riggs stunt doubles into the action scenes with the performances by Stone and Carell, not to mention their discreet inclusion of historical footage into the editing. 

At the end of BATTLE OF THE SEXES, audiences will walk out of the theater satisfied by one of the better films this year. They'll also realize that the fight continues for equality, as much an issue today as it was back then. We've come a long way, baby, but not far enough. Women are still fighting for equal pay, members of the LGBTQ community are still fighting for basic civil rights, and presidential administrations still have far too many Jack Kramer-types in their service undermining the majority of Americans. The game of tennis uses the term love, and God knows the world could use more of it as this film cleverly points out.

Friday, September 15, 2017

THIS WEEKEND'S ACTION: THE GOOD & THE BAD


THE VILLAINESS

There have been many filmmakers who have significantly raised the bar of action movies. In the early 80’s, Australian George Miller gave audiences THE ROAD WARRIOR, and the sequel topped its predecessor MAD MAX with its over-the-top approach to fast edits, arched camera angles, and eye-popping stunt work during its climactic car chase scene. Then in 2002, Luc Besson pushed the action motif even further with THE TRANSPORTER and its 90-minute narrative serving as one extended car chase. In 2003’s OLD BOY, director Chan-wook Park mesmerized moviegoers with action sequences shot in long takes so we could see all the intricately choreographed stunt work happening in real time. And now, we have Jung Byung-gil dazzling us further with POV camera work in THE VILLAINESS that turns his action sequences into a real life first person shooter game.   

Byung-gil’s incredibly kinetic actioner starts with one of the most audacious openers ever filmed. It’s as if the Goldeneye or Call of Duty video game has replaced its computer-generated imagery with real actors. In the sequence, the film’s femme fatale Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) bursts into the bad guy’s lair and kills everything in her sight. It’s done mostly in hand-to-hand combat style, and just how it was shot is one of the pleasures awaiting the VOD extras when it’s released. We see all that is happening from Sook-hee’s POV. And unlike in HARDCORE HENRY from two years ago, which told its entire storyline from his POV, this one is never nauseating or hard to follow. Instead, we experience her rage and skill up close and personal. And the icing on this juggernaut of a cake? Byung-gil has her enter different rooms where more henchmen await just like in the various levels once faces in a video game. It’s both ridiculously on-the-nose in its satire and yet hilarious in being so cheeky.  

Throughout the film when the action scenes arise, Byung-gil will employ this first-person trope, putting us directly in the head of his heroine. Still, he does so much more that is clever here. He tells an intricate story. He develops his characters with nuance. And he ensures that we are wholly invested in the plight of his female lead.  This really could've gotten away with just being a superb actioner, shot impeccably with gonzo cinematography, biting visual wit, and deft editing. It is that, but it's also an emotionally moving story. When Sook-hee isn’t fighting, she’s trying to be a mother, girlfriend and human being and it was wise for Byung-gil to spend as much time and skill in nailing such calm as well as all the storm.

It helps that he has such a terrific actress in Ok-bin. She has big, soulful eyes that could give Margaret Keane a run for her money, and an expressiveness in language and movement that makes her a first-rate ingĂ©nue as well as an expert stunt woman. Her character of Sook-hee isn’t really a villainess, but she is a definite bad-ass. She’s that way, angered and embittered, because she watched her father be murdered by a paid assassin when she was a child. Now, vengeance is what she's living for. Yet, even though Sook-hee becomes a trained killer to fulfill her destiny, she still strives for more. There is still a little girl needing love inside her hardened exterior. 

The killing machine that she will become comes courtesy of a secret training program, much like that found in Besson’s LA FEMME NIKITA (1990). You wouldn't think she'd need any more training after taking out the hundreds of henchmen in that opening sequence but when she's captured, her skills are put to use by a government operation that turns delinquents into assassins. And just like that facility in Luc Besson’s film, this is not only a school to learn such things, it's also a finishing school for girls. The lovely young students are taught how to dress, eat, and act. If you're going to be Mata Hari, you have to know how to play the vamp, right?

And one of the very first things that the cold, stern, and chain-smoking head mistress Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyeong) does to help Sook-hee along those lines is she has her go under the knife to enhance her cheekbones and whittle away her nose. She was lovely already, but perhaps this film is commenting on the standards of beauty demanded by a patriarchal Asian society, let alone the exacting demands of actresses in Tinsel Town. This is one smart and smart-aleck film.

Soon, Sook-hee establishes herself as the best student among the recruits, willing to chop, kick, and punch all comers with brutal abandon. She does manage to make one friend in all this - the forlorn, weaker student Min-joo (Son Min-je). And she makes an enemy too when she provides too much competition for the equally talented and ambitious Kim Seon (Jo Euin-ji). Sook-hee's talents and looks also attract the attention of the various male handlers working behind the scenes in operations. As they watch her from one of the secret monitoring rooms, the very handsome, very sensitive Hyun-soo (Sung Jun) starts to fall in love. Complicating matters are Sook-hee's pregnancy, used as an opportunity by Kwon to control her all the more. She promises Sook-hee that when her little girl reaches 10, then her mom's contract with the organization will end. But up until then, Sook-hee's ass is Kwon's. 

From there, Sook-hee has her baby, starts life with the young girl, and begins her career as an assassin. She’s set up in an apartment complex and Hyun-soo is placed in the unit next to her to spy on her. She doesn't know he's essentially there to be her handler, and when they fall for each other, it will complicate everything demonstrably. In many ways it is obvious where the story goes from there - it probably won't end well for Hyun-soo - and Sook-hee’s professional and personal lives start blurring and causing all sorts of damage. She and Hyun-soo fall in love and even get married, and that is the kiss of death always in a movie like this.

Yet, the two things that keep all of this fresh and involving are the inventive action set-pieces that Byung-gil places Sook-hee in, as well as those scenes that slow down and let us see her beyond her profession. And the dialogue scenes are very compelling, if not quite as amazing as the action scenes. This film has the bravura opener as well as two other ginormous set-pieces that explode off the screen. One is a motorcycle chase that again puts us in the POV of Sook-hee as she drives down the road and fights with a couple of assassins on her tail, and the other is the climax aboard a rollicking bus that serves as a deathtrap for almost all involved. 

The romantic scenes between Ok-bin and Jun have almost as much spark as Byung-gil knows that all the great camera work, editing and energy in an action sequence don’t matter if we don’t care for those involved in it. Thus, we have a female character who registers as strongly with her man in her bed, as she does with her daughter in her arms, as she does with a sub-machine gun in her hands.

There is nary a false move in any of the editing, particularly in the superbly realized action sequences place. However, Byung-gil does let his film get a bit 'cutty' when he cuts back and forth between the present day and Sook-hee's history. There are a lot of flashbacks, and some are confusing as they withhold important information until later in the film. It's a small criticism, but one wonders if the backstory could've been simplified so it wouldn't occasionally upend the momentum that the main story gets going. 

Such winner as this one help make action the most exportable genre since the form translates easily across nations as it relies upon visuals and not dialogue that might not always translate. This one does come with subtitles, but the words are worth reading just as much as the action is worth watching. It's a clever story, with meaningful characters and words, as well as an energy that grabs you from the opening second and never really lets go.  This is an amazingly accomplished actioner that can stand with those classics mentioned in the first paragraph. Indeed, this one feels like an instant classic.


AMERICAN ASSASSIN

In many respects, it's unfair to compare AMERICAN ASSASSIN, which also opens this weekend, to THE VILLAINESS, but one cannot help such things what with its timing. Granted, this one comes with a strong pedigree, yet not much of it helps here. Yes, it's from CBS Films, known for doing good work across a number of genres, and one of the film's stars is Michael Keaton, who starred in back-to-back Best Picture winners two years ago. AMERICAN ASSASSIN can also boast that two of its screenwriters are veteran scribes Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. Still, none of it helps within the framework of this film that is wrought with cliches and misjudgments. 

It does start off well with a grabber of an opener where the lanky Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) films his marriage proposal to his comely girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) on his cellphone while standing in the waters of a vacation paradise. Soon, their joy will be ruined forever by vicious Middle East terrorists shooting up tourist season with their automatic weapons. They end up badly wounding Rapp and killing Kat with a shot to the heart. (A bit on the nose, but still...) From there, Rapp will start his journey towards vengeance as he turns from a charming, young man into a trained, cold-eyed killer. It's too bad that his arc couldn't be more like that of Sook-hee in THE VILLAINESS, full of warm moments to counter the cold ones. Instead, his journey is one-track, and it's all too expected and rather dull because of it. 

Yet, like in THE VILLAINESS, Rapp is being monitored by a secret government operation, this one within the black op's of the CIA, and he too is recruited to be one of their elite assassins. And both films have bosses, Chief Kwon and Keaton's assassin trainer Stan Hurley, respectively, who are no-nonsense veterans who will display more humanity as the story unfolds. But after that, THE VILLAINESS raises the bar of the genre while AMERICAN ASSASSIN trolls in the tried and true that have become cliched. 

It also lacks a necessary element of fun. It doesn't help that Rapp is such a dull lead character, a real dead-eyed cipher. O'Brien has demonstrated charm and acting acumen in the past with the likes of TEEN WOLF on the small screen and THE MAZE RUNNER on the big screen, but here he seems to be doing a Xerox copy of an imitation of a riff on Stallone or Schwarzenegger’s stern bravado. It doesn’t work because he’s too young, too thin, and too callow looking. 

Maybe his director Michael Cuesta pushed him to act so inert, but Rapp isn't a black op, he's a black hole sucking up all the energy in every scene with his stone face. Couldn't such insolence have at least been slightly witty? You know, give him some silly one-liners to show he's having a little bit of fun. And the patchy, scruffy beard that O’Brien wears throughout in an attempt to give him some machismo ends up making the young actor look like he’s playing Charlie Manson for Halloween dress-up who unfortunately ran out of spirit gum.

In fact, even without the hoary puns, this film has a real 80’s action picture vibe to it, right down to its poster. Unfortunately, it looks like one of those straight-to-video thrillers, not an esteemed work from CBS. (Dolph Lundgren, anyone?) The movie may think it's being timely with its terrorist storyline, but in almost every other aspect, this one feels as "been there, done that" as all the tired actioners Steven Seagal made after the god-awful ON DEADLY GROUND killed his career. Of course, Hurley is crusty and uncompromising, just like all such roles were written back in the 80's and 90's. Of course, the meticulously planned mission falls apart instantly because of a rookie recruit. Haven't we seen that play out a hundred times? And of course, all the good guys get repeatedly pummeled, beaten and even burned, yet they act like all those wounds are mere scratches.

The silliness gets worse when more and more cliches are ticked off during the run of the film, like when the CIA boss Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) repeatedly exclaims that Rapp is worth keeping around though he can't follow a single order. It gets even worse then when the team stakes out a town in  Rome and continually stares at their mark with a conspicuousness that would tip off a blind man. And by the time, the bloodied team members are walking through the city, looking like battered meat, and stealing cars willy nilly, the whole thing has gone laughably off the rails. Of course, the double agent Iranian Annika (Shiva Negar) is actually a hero. Of course, the bad guy spy Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) has multiple opportunities to off Hurley, yet he doesn’t. (Gotta have Keaton around for the sequel if this thing takes off!) 


Sure, this movie has a Saturday Redbox rental “Oh, what the hell, why not?” aura to it that may turn it into a cheesy hit on VOD. But as a big screen tentpole, attempting to launch a new franchise, a fresh action hero, and make a statement about the state of terrorism, it just blows it at almost every level. I love Michael Keaton but please tell me Hollywood is offering him better roles than this. Where the hell is that BEETLEJUICE sequel already?  

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

ALL HAIL, DAME JUDI DENCH!

Original caricature by Jeff York of Dame Judi Dench in VICTORIA & ABDUL (copyright 2017)
It seemed for a while this summer that this year’s Best Actress Oscar race might find room for the wondrous performance of Gal Gadot in WONDER WOMAN. Now, she’ll have a tough time making the final five with so many performances getting head wind coming out of Telluride and Toronto. Sally Hawkins (THE SHAPE OF WATER), Emma Stone (BATTLE OF THE SEXES), Annette Bening (FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL), Rooney Mara (UNA), Frances McDormand (THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI) and Saoirse Ronan (LADY BIRD) are now chief competitors for the prize, as is the grandest dame of them all - Dame Judi Dench. At 82, she is just as formidable a lead actress as any. (Talk about your wonder woman!)

In VICTORIA & ABDUL, Dench’s 48th film to be released later this month, she returns to the role of Queen Victoria. She played England’s longest ruling monarch in 1997’s MRS. BROWN and it earned her the first of five Oscar nominations for Best Actress. Her performance in VICTORIA & ABDUL is equally terrific and don’t be surprised if come March she’s back on Oscar’s stage clutching the gold statue. (Dench won Best Supporting Actress back in 1998 for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and her eight sterling minutes as another monarch - Queen Elizabeth.)

What makes Dench such a contender this year is that this new version of Victoria allows her to plum even greater depths than she has explored before on film. This Queen is formidable, of course, as most of Dench’s roles tend to be, only this time the royal ferocity is tempered with utter despair, vulnerability and the ravages of age. This is a Queen Victoria unlike any that have appeared onscreen before. This is the ruler in the winter of her years, and they’ve not been kind to her body, mind or soul.

In fact, despite the vulnerabilities of her characters in PHILOMENA and NOTES ON A SCANDAL, Dench has never played this much of a down-and-outer before. This Victoria is utterly depressed, doddering, disengaged, obese, and barely able to physically make it through a day. She merely goes through the motions during her official duties, and her staff consider that a "win." We’re introduced to this Victoria when she is roused from a deep sleep by her bevy of attendants. Is that really Victoria/Dench being hoisted out of bed by her staff and dressed because she cannot do so herself? Indeed. Dench is wearing a fat suit here, and she’s appearing without a lick of makeup, but it's the ‘walking dead’ aspects of the queen that Dench captures most vividly. Never has Dench appeared so alarmingly small and weak in a role. It’s a display of bravery for the actress who was 81 while filming, and it jolts the audience. 

Granted, if Victoria was so inert, there wouldn’t be much of a movie. And indeed, the longest-serving Queen does find reason to get up in the morning again. The catalyst is a young man from India named Mohammed Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). He’s a lowly government employee in India given an incredible opportunity to leave his home when he’s officially assigned to travel to England to bestow a special medal upon the Queen during her Golden Jubilee celebration. He looks at the trip as a vacation more than a duty, taking in all that he can of ruling Britannia.

When presenting the medal to the Queen after a dinner that has seen her slurp, chomp and snooze, Abdul is instructed not to look the Queen in the eye. Of course, he does as he wants to get a sense of this legendary woman. When the Queen stares back at him, their eyes lock and her cold, disinterested eyes suddenly regain some of their old sparkle. Those eyes gazing upon her have such warmth and respect that it's no wonder she perks up. Her curiosity is piqued and soon she is instructing the royal staff to make room for Abdul in her daily routines. 

Abdul proves to be less of a server though, and more of a teacher. Shocking to everyone, including those of us in the audience, Victoria starts to acquiesce to the young man, asking him to teach her his language, Indian customs and his country's history. He happily obliges, and not only opens her mind to understanding her British providences more, but he also helps her get outside of her own self-pitying head. 

This is a very similar story to that in MRS. BROWN. There, Queen Victoria started out down in the dumps as well, deeply depressed by the death of her beloved husband Prince Albert in 1861. She withdrew from public life and became inert. Not knowing what to do, her royal staff turned to gregarious servant John Brown to help buoy her spirits, hoping that some of his enthusiasm and brio would rub off on her. Indeed, it did. Soon, she was smitten with him. They spent hours together, with Brown becoming her closest friend, advisor, and some say, lover. Scottish comic Billy Connelly played both the fun and the fury of Brown perfectly, and he and Dench made for quite the bantering onscreen duo.

Now, with VICTORIA & ABDUL, Dench is mining a similar vein, but Abdul is not the headstrong he-man that Brown was. He’s gentler, calmer, and he seems to serve as both elixir and salve to what ails her. He is never in a battle with her, but manages to win her over most every time through his calm logic and earnest manner. 

This film is more comedic than MRS. BROWN, not dissimilar to how Peter O'Toole's Henry II was played seriously in 1964’s BECKET, and yet became more comedic in the take on him in THE LION IN WINTER four years later. Here, Dench's Victoria stretches similarly and the thespian is able to extract laughs as well pathos from her monarch, just like the late, great O’Toole did. (Interestingly, he was nominated for Best Actor for both of his takes on the character. Will Dench follow suit?)

Particularly funny is how girlish Dench makes Victoria in Abdul's presence, almost as if she is sitting on daddy’s knee learning of exotic lands and his tales of adventure. Clearly, she never thought another man would be so significant in her life after Brown’s death in 1883 from pneumonia while still in her service, and is utterly tickled by her relationship with this young Indian. She may act like the child in a way, but she also comes to treat him in front of her staff like he's her ‘adopted’ son. Further complicating matters in the palace is the fact that, like Brown, Abdul becomes a trusted confidante and advisor.  

One of the reasons Victoria is drawn to Abdul is that he truly seeks nothing from her. He is there to be her humble servant, and he reminds her that as Queen of England, she is there to serve her country too. She likes his take on things and it helps her find pools of renewed strength and commitment to her duties. Abdul never sees her as a pathetic old dowager, stumbling and fumbling through her waning years, but instead as an extraordinary woman who still has much to accomplish. 

Abdul ended up helping Victoria rule for another 14 years. During that time, he not only taught her about his Muslim faith, the Koran, and customs in India, becoming her “Munshi” as she called him (Persian for teacher), but he helped guide her to a more open and humanistic governance. Of course, none of that sat well with her stiff, upper-lipped staff and they did all that they could to thwart Abdul’s efforts. Victoria fought back and held her ground, but she sadly realized that she was surrounded by cads, opportunists and even traitors. Seeing Victoria dress them down is where the ultra-steely Dench screen persona we all know and love finally appears and her berating of friends and family is one of the highlights of the film. 

VICTORIA & ABDUL, like all period pieces, comments on our modern society as well. A straight line from Abdul facing bigotry as he's deemed an "other" by the upper class can be directly drawn to the birther movement, police discrimination running rampant these past few years, and our current POTUS' maligning of Mexicans and failure to properly condemn the KKK and Neo-Nazis. The bigotry on display in VICTORIA & ABDUL is even more pathetic as Abdul is shown to be a man equal to any Brit in manner, language and bearing. Compared to Victoria’s actual son Bertie (played with hilarious huffing, puffing, and snarling by the estimable Eddie Izzard), Abdul is a true English gentleman.  

Still, this movie, more often than not, keeps a light touch, even with its clear messaging. Director Stephen Frears has always excelled at  indicting British pomposity whether it's in THE QUEEN or PHILOMENA. He's a superb director of actors too, and has brought out a new high point from Dench, as well as coaxed inspired bits of buffoonery from veteran Brits like Michael Gambon, Olivia Williams, and Tim Pigott-Smith in his final screen performance before his death in April of this year. Even comic Simon Callow shows up for five hilarious minutes to essay composer Giacomo Puccini singing for the Queen. 

Still, despite all that talent in front of the camera, this film is essentially a two-hander. Fazal perhaps plays his character's earnestness with a touch too much naivetĂ©, but he is indeed a charmer. He’s breezy when needed, which is a good two-thirds of his performance, and grave when he must deal with the buffoons attempting to thwart him in some of the heavier scenes. I wish that the dialogue between the two went deeper at times, but screenwriter Lee Hall keeps most of their conversations light and fun. Abdul’s banter with his fellow traveler Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar) plays blunter and more political than that between Monarch and Indian servant, but perhaps Hall is indicating that Abdul always felt that he could be more open with a fellow countryman.

Both Victoria and Dench are lionesses in winter, and in VICTORIA & ABDUL, they both are still roaring. Dench's is a bold performance here, often showcasing Victoria at her absolute worst. But in the end, she portrays a monarch who still managed to find greatness and do good for her nation. And Dench makes us cheer. It's a outstanding performance, and one that come Oscar time in March, could find find Dench again reigning supreme. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

RIP JERRY LEWIS - A COMPLEX COMIC, ARTIST AND MAN



Original caricature by Jeff York of Jerry Lewis in his classic comedy THE BELLBOY (copyright 2017)

I should've posted this weeks ago on August 20 when Jerry Lewis died at the age of 91 from end-stage cardiac disease and peripheral artery disease. 

But better late than never, right? 

My feelings about Lewis were always decidedly mixed. I greatly admired his work, of course, as he was a brilliant comic, a daring and experimental film director, a passionate humanitarian, and a surprisingly superb dramatic actor. (Everyone remembers his great turn in Martin Scorsese's THE KING OF COMEDY, but how many of you remember his heartbreaking work on the TV series WISEGUY in the 1980's?) I love many of his films, most notably THE BELLBOY and THE NUTTY PROFESSOR. I've watched both of them many, many times. I also enjoyed his earlier work with Dean Martin, both the films and the nightclub act, though sometimes his manic persona could grate.

Even more grating was his snide demeanor and often self-pitying self-absorption that came out in a lot of his personal life, interviews, and those moments as himself. A lot of such bile was often on display in the waning hours of those marathon Muscular Dystrophy Telethons he hosted for decades. He would get cranky, was clearly tired, and embittered about his critics who criticized his work for the charity. Granted, there was something a bit too possessive about Lewis constantly referring to the children he was helping raise money for as "my kids" or "Jerry's Kids.  It became such a prevalent part of his persona that when comedian Martin Short wanted to create an imitation of the man for the variety series SCTV, he based his withering impersonation of the comedian upon  one of Lewis' bitterest diatribes during a late telethon hour. We laughed at Short so hard because we all recognized the angry man that Lewis so often was.

Still, like Sinatra or Streisand, or any other overly egotistical and insecure performer, it is their talent that always shines through to the forefront. Therefore, I can overlook a lot of Lewis' anger and frustration towards show business. Maybe he never felt loved enough, and it certainly was the case in his childhood, as well as his decades in Hollywood. He's not spoken of with the likes of Chaplin, Keaton and the brothers Marx. Still, he was a giant and should have gotten better acclaim that he received. The tributes to him in the past weeks have been wonderful. I hope Lewis saw them from the heavens.

There is so much rich work to remember and that's why I will always treasure happening upon one of his classic comedies, or that hilarious bit where he pantomimes to "The Typewriter" song, or his stellar supporting turn opposite Robert De Niro in that 1982 dreamed about show biz that should have netted him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Lewis ultimately did win the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar in 2009, but his contribution to the art of cinema was as more significant than all of his charity work. Funny, but Jerry was both sides of the theater masks - both comedy and tragedy. It's hard not to think of the two Mr. Lewis' when remembering him. 

But mostly, I'll remember how much he made me laugh.



Monday, August 14, 2017

COOGAN AND BRYDON MAKE FOR A DELICIOUS COMEDY TEAM IN "THE TRIP TO SPAIN"

Original caricature by Jeff York of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in THE TRIP TO SPAIN. (copyright 2017)
Where are the great movie comedy teams today? Long gone are the days of Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, and Martin & Lewis. There have been some couplings that have brushed up against greatness like that, most notably Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in the three movies they made together, but since then it’s been slim pickings. Which is even more reason it’s such a pleasure to see Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon return for their third film in THE TRIP series. This time they’re heading to Spain to take in the scenery, the local cuisine, and indeed, the piss out of each other. And it makes THE TRIP TO SPAIN one of this summer’s funniest films, cementing Coogan and Brydon as the closest thing to a genius comedy duo working onscreen today.

THE TRIP TO SPAIN, following THE TRIP in 2010, and THE TRIP TO ITALY in 2014, is another road trip movie showcasing comics Coogan and Brydon as they make a gastronomical tour of a European country. The movie once again has been culled down from the episodic series of the same name that runs on the BBC, but like its predecessors, each film does more than just cull the highlights from the series. They hone and focus on the flavor of the country and its best restaurants, as well as what it is like to be a comic traveling with another comic. Filmmaker Michael Winterbottom has produced and directed the TV series, as well as the movies, and he knows how to showcase the countries and the comedians with equal relish.  

Winterbottom has worked with Coogan many times before, most notably on the cinematic hit 24 HOUR PARTY PEOPLE back in 2002, so he knows the actor’s charisma and foibles intimately. Coogan is a gifted hyphenate: actor-writer-producer, most recently receiving all sorts of acclaim for PHILOMENA with Judi Dench. Coogan received Oscar nominations for producing the Best Picture nominee as well as writing it, and he won the BAFTA that same year for his adapted screenplay with Jeff Pope. Coogan is one of Britain’s brightest and biggest stars, a superb talent at farce, drama, romance, you name it. Yet, his actor’s insecurity impedes his enjoying such status and these films illuminate his struggle.

In THE TRIP TO SPAIN, Coogan is bigger and better than he’s ever been, but it doesn’t make him any happier. The man looks amazingly fit at 52, and he’s riding the wave of worldwide acclaim for PHILOMENA. Yet he’s still perturbed by every slight directed at him, whether it’s from travel mate Brydon who knows just how to needle him, albeit with a certain affection, or the hiccups along their journey together. When he finds out that the studio he’s hoping will greenlight his latest script decides to bring in another screenwriter to give it a polish, the air lets out of Coogan’s metaphorical tires. He’s been in show biz long enough to know the game, but he still feels every prick from the pricks running Tinsel Town. It casts a shadow over the trip, even though almost every scene is Spain is sunny and gorgeous.

Coogan's inability to roll with the punches has been a central theme of all three movies in THE TRIP franchise, and his pain is our pleasure. Watching this grouchy wit grumble about his plight is hysterical, even more so because he must face his shame with the ever-competitive Brydon right by his side. Coogan over compensates for his worries by dropping his PHILOMENA acclaim into many a conversation, but it’s not lost on Brydon. He serves as Coogan's frenemy and Greek chorus, calling him out on the name dropping. Yet, Coogan likes his foil enough to share some of his innermost secrets, like the fact that he's having an affair with a married woman. Brydon is sympathetic and even sage in his advising of his friend. And even though Coogan may be dour, misanthropic and occasionally self-destructive, it’s fascinating to watch him both need and reject Brydon. Navigating Coogan's ego is a minefield for both men, but it's funny as hell too.

Brydon is the one who's more of a sensualist, enjoying the luxury of their hotels and meals. Even as Coogan keeps everything at arms’ length, including the succulent feasts, Brydon sees it mostly as a gift. He's definitely a “glass is half full” type, whereas his companion is the opposite. Such crucial differences give these movies a philosophical aura, as the debate seems to be how to enjoy such trips. And with each film, Brydon is becoming more and more of Coogan's guardian angel, a man trying to lighten his dyspeptic soul. 

Brydon happens to be one of Britain’s shiniest stars as well and he loves clowning and being on. If he has any fault as blatant as Coogan's misanthropy, it's that Brydon seems to be unable to ever turn off his need to perform. Coogan desires moments where he can sit and brood in silence, but those moments seem to frighten Brydon as he feels compelled to fill them with bits and jokes. 

And what he brings to the table is hilarious. Brydon is a brilliant mimic, as well as ace at accents, and watching him perform is a pleasure. However, he pushes too far and then he grates like a car alarm that won't stop. Brydon has a natural warmth and wit, and doesn't need to strive so hard to impress. It would seem that Brydon feels the need to literally and figuratively sing for his supper, but having him along for these trips makes them truly fun for even the dour Coogan.

Of course, at his core, Coogan wants to entertain and be adored by audiences just as much as his friend does. That makes this duo truly two peas in a pod. Watching them compete for who can be the funniest and make the other laugh hardest is a lot of fun, but also a bit cringeworthy. Actors are awesome...up until they treat normal life as their stage, and their friends as unwitting audiences. Coogan and Brydon push so hard that sometimes their attempts at impressing the other borders on bullying. They're still boys trying to one up each other at jacks on the playground.  

The funniest bit in THE TRIP TO SPIN occurs when the late Roger Moore comes up in conversation and both Coogan and Brydon try to educate the other on the proper way to imitate the actor. They both do a killer impersonation of the man who played 007 in seven films, but their impressions go on and on and on as they try to best the other’s take. The Moore bit then becomes a running gag in this film, just as their imitations of Michael Caine and Al Pacino did so in previous trips. Even when the guys are dining with two female industry peers, they can’t help but let their competitive urges get the best of them. Brydon even continues to do Moore when less attention is being paid by the others at the dinner table. 

Brydon shouldn’t be as insecure, considering he’s got a grounded home life. We see his lovely house, loving wife and adorable young children. Still, Brydon wants more. He not only wants to be Ricky Gervais, a British comic fielding more offers than one can shake a shtick at, but it seems he wants to be Coogan. Thus, Coogan lords his superior resume over Brydon, boasting of his numerous BAFTA’s. Still, Coogan isn’t happy being Coogan. He seems to want to be someone like Steve Martin, a comic recognized equally for his range as an actor, writer and producer. At the very least, the acclaimed talent can't stomach a studio hack rewriting his material, certainly not after Oscar's recognition. Still, the greatest threat to both Coogan and Brydon are their own egos. The insecurities of these clowns crying on the inside are tragic in their way, but also very amusing. It's wonderful to have these films showcase such struggles. 

Even when they dress up as Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza for a Spanish PR magazine article, with Coogan taking the more prominent role of course, his frustration fills the screen. Coogan is a crank about it all, even while Brydon enjoys getting to be in the spotlight with him.  Celebrity is indeed a windmill, and it taunts Coogan while lifting Brydon.

Winterbottom clearly loves them both, though he’s more than willing to show their dark sides. What provides counterpoint to it is of course they gorgeous settings and the exquisite culinary art on display. Truly, these movies are a feast for the eyes and for the funny bones. And in a summer with too many sequels, prequels, and reboots that haven’t connected with audiences, this is one franchise that continually delivers. The only question is "Where to next for Coogan and Brydon?" The USA, particularly a restaurant tour of Hollywood, would seem like a natural for two such hungry talents.