“Battle of the Sexes”

I’ve heard claims that Battle of the Sexes is an analogy for last year’s Trump-Clinton election. That’s not the case at all, though I can see both Emma Stone and Steve Carell playing Clinton and Trump in a future satire.

Women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King (Stone) is fed up with the gender wage gap and misogyny in the ATP. Washed up tennis player-turned-hustler Bobby Riggs (Carell) sees King’s crusade as a prophet for him and proposes a match dubbed “Battle of the Sexes.” King gladly accepts since Riggs continuously mocks women’s tennis.

Battle of the Sexes is a better-than-average biopic thanks to Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s (Little Miss Sunshine) direction and Stone and Carell’s performances. The film is filled with glossy 70’s visuals and some beautiful, expressive shots. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of witty dialogue and banter thanks to the terrific Simon Beaufoy’s (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) script.

Battle of the Sexes’s best aspect is its complex characters. This isn’t a black-and-white depiction of King versus Riggs, but quite the opposite. King plays for a cause, but has some flaws of her own in her love life. Riggs plays for attention and is clearly putting on a show to recapture his lost glory. Both Stone and Carell excel in capturing the emotions and complexity of their respective characters.

The film suffers from trying too hard at being Oscar bait on occasion. It’s quite obvious with Alan Cumming’s character’s closing line that the filmmakers are campaigning for the upcoming awards season. Also, like most biopics, we get closing captions in the end. It would be nice to see a biopic that defies this convention.

Still, I recommend Battle of the Sexes. It has spirit, humor, panache, and complexity.

Grade: A-

“American Made”

I love Tom Cruise and I love when Cruise gets a good script. American Made certainly makes up for last June’s The Mummy.

Based on a true story, American Made focuses on Barry Seal (Cruise). Seal was an airline pilot who began taking surveillance photos for the CIA until the Medellín Cartel took notice. Seal then smuggled hundreds of kilos of cocaine weekly for the cartel while simultaneously transporting weapons and soldiers for the CIA.

Seal says in a video camera at one point, “You can stop here if you want because shit gets crazy.” Seal is right. American Made is a funny, fascinating, and occasionally insane biopic. Director Doug Liman (Edge of TomorrowThe Bourne Identity) could have taken a formulaic approach and mimic Scorsese’s biographical style with nonlinear narratives, extreme violence, and classic rock (as other directors have). Props to Liman for directing the film in a minimalist, docudrama style; it makes American Made’s crazier and extravagant moments feel more believable.

Cruise delivers one of his best roles as Barry Seal. Cruise is the cool guy as usual, but Seal isn’t an action hero. Seal is an adrenaline junkie who knows he’s in over his head; he just doesn’t want to stop since the money and thrills are too good. It’s a life-imitating-art case since Cruise often performs his own stunts for the sheer thrill.

American Made isn’t a perfect biopic since it’s formulaic. Much like Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street, War Dogs, Pain & Gain, 21, and the other rags-to-riches crime films, we know there’s a downfall and the final act is slower like the other films. Liman doesn’t rely too heavily on formula as mentioned, so that’s a plus.

Grade: B+

“Gerald’s Game”

What a year for Stephen King, huh? He’s rolling in royalties from It and The Dark Tower (maybe not so much the latter. Now his controversial novel Gerald’s Game has been adapted for Netflix.

The estranged Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) and Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino) take a vacation to spice up their love life. Things take a horrific turn when Gerald suffers a heart attack and leaves Jessie handcuffed to her bed. There’s no neighbors, housekeepers, or travelers nearby. When Jessie has some surreal hallucinations and a starving dog makes its way inside, how will Jessie escape? Can she even?

Writer/director Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush) once again delivers a nail-biting genre film that utilizes editing to its full potential. Gerald’s Game isn’t a film you can look away from (and you’ll want to at one particular point), but you must watch; like Oculus, Flanagan splices the film in a way that tricks its viewers.

I want to be abundantly clear that Gerald’s Game is NOT a horror film. Yes, there’s a survival situation, creepy visions, and some grisly moments, but it’s a film about toxic relationships, trauma, and catharsis.

Jessie spends most of her time shackled to the bed recounting her marriage to Gerald. We learn that Gerald was misogynistic, unfaithful, manipulative, and condescending towards Jessie. Jessie also finds catharsis in the situation as she uses this and flashbacks of her traumatic childhood to motivate her.

The underrated Carla Gugino delivers a demanding-yet-graceful performance as Jessie. We don’t just watch her panic, but we also see her interact with an imagined dominant version of herself. These sequences add the right dose of humor. Hopefully, the Academy isn’t too snobby over horror or Netflix and consider Gugino for Best Actress.

Bruce Greenwood (also underrated) is convincing as Gerald. He’s a despicable human in the opening act, but as Jessie imagines their confrontations throughout the film, he becomes more complex.

The final act is a slight copout; It’s a pet peeve of mine when films end in a exposition-fueled narrative explaining what happened in the aftermath. Gerald’s Game disappointingly does this via written letter. Given Flanagan’s unconventional narrative techniques, I would have expected something less straightforward.

Still, Gerald’s Game is a terrific thriller and a great kickoff for the Halloween season.

Grade: A-

“Kingsman: The Golden Circle”

Given how the kinetic and talented Matthew Vaughn (Kingsman: The Secret Service) directed Kingsman: The Golden Circle, it’s no wonder he doesn’t like doing sequels.

Set a year after Eggsy (Taron Egerton) thwarted the apocalypse in The Secret Service, a new diabolical villain named Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) surfaces with a plot to legalize drugs. Poppy destroys the Kingsman headquarters and kills several agents, forcing Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) to partner with the Statesman, their American counterpart. They also find Harry (Colin Firth) alive, who joins them on their mission.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle was one of my most anticipated movies since I was a big fan of its predecessor and Vaughn stayed committed to the sequel. While The Golden Circle has its moments, Vaughn still commits the biggest sequel sin: he tries too hard to top the first one. The Secret Service is a thrilling spy movie tribute that was an even balance of hardcore violence, political satire, and heart. The Golden Circle has some of its predecessor’s heart and satirical elements, but disappointingly focuses on violence and juvenile humor.

The action is undeniably impressive in The Golden Circle and Vaughn wastes no time throwing us in the middle of it. The opening car chase/fist fight in Eggsy’s cab is a fun, frenetic action sequence; the climactic gun fight at Poppy’s headquarters is a gadget-filled fact-paced spectacle reminiscent of the infamous church scene in The Secret Service (not as good, though).

There were complaints about the level of violence in The Secret Service, but I personally felt the gore was used sparingly and had greater impact; the film still focused on interrogation, covert ops, and surveillance with action thrown in the middle. The Golden Circle uses violence nonstop and there’s almost no spy sequences, save for one that’s a prolonged, offensive rape joke.

It’s great seeing Firth back as Harry; he’s once again a fun, competent action hero. Watching Harry struggle with coordination made his sequences exciting to watch. Egerton is once again likable as the underdog Eggsy. Some viewers will hate that the film focuses on his relationship, but I felt it was refreshing since Eggsy was growing up.

Like Samuel L. Jackson’s Valentine, Julianne Moore is a great blend of scary and funny as Poppy. Her plot to control drug distribution is a sharp political commentary on the War on Drugs.

I could have done without most of the Statesman characters. Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, and Channing Tatum play the American agents, but they’re only on screen for a few minutes each. If you saw the trailers, you saw all of their scenes. On the other hand, the great Pedro Pascal (Oberyn Martel from Game of Thrones) is a blast as rogue Statesman, Whiskey.

The Golden Circle excels when it focuses on the Kingsman and their character arcs. Had Vaughn just focused on Harry and Eggsy and kept the new characters and their screen time to a minimum, The Golden Circle could have been as good as its predecessor.

Grade: C+

“Mother!”

The brilliant Darren Aronofsky is obsessed with three topics: religion, obsession, and surrealism. Mother! is a psychotic depiction of the three.

An unnamed couple (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem) live in a countryside rustic mansion. She’s obsessed with remodeling the home while he’s obsessed with overcoming writer’s block. When a series of uninvited guests including a dying man (Ed Harris), his alcoholic wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), their dysfunctional sons (real-life siblings Domhnall and Brian Gleeson), and an unhinged publicist (Kristen Wiig) disrupt their paradise, things escalate to pure insanity.

Mother! is already the year’s most controversial film due to its metaphorical screenplay and gruesome finale. Kudos to Aronofsky for not caring if we love or hate this polarizing film.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Mother! is a surreal commentary on religion and the environment; Lawrence is Mother Nature focused on her paradise while Bardem is God writing a biblical novel. When Bardem’s following disrupts and wrecks their home, Lawrence’s character grows increasingly unstable, symbolizing a disaster.

The film is full of allegories and and the final thirty minutes covers the fall of man and christening of Jesus. If you thought Aronofsky couldn’t top the amputation and “ass-to-ass” sequences in Requiem for a Dream or the transformation sequence in Black Swan, guess again! The climax features burglaries, an orgy, a rave, an armed raid, and the most disturbing cannibalism act put on film. It’s a visceral finale that left me exhausted and nauseous.

As ambitious and transgressive as Mother! is, I wasn’t completely blown away since it’s similar to Aronofsky’s previous works. Lawrence’s character is both insecure and obsessive like Natalie Portman’s Nina in Black Swan. Unlike Black Swan, our Mother! protagonist doesn’t have depth or growth. I felt tired of watching her trying to please everyone and yelling over the destruction of her home.

Bardem, Pfeiffer, and Wiig all have the best on-screen moments. Bardem is charismatic and devilish as our unnamed poet; he’s possibly the film’s most tragic character. Pfeiffer delivers a potential career-reviving performance as a guest that doesn’t understand boundaries. She’s funny, invasive, and slightly terrifying. Wiig only has a few minutes of on-screen time, but shows great range in such little time. She’s funny, quirky, deranged, and homicidal; I hope Wiig gets more horror roles.

I recommend Mother! to the arthouse film lovers and Aronofsky fans. Those expecting a traditional horror film will be disappointed since Mother! is not that at all. Those who are easily squeamish, you better stay away from this one.

Grade: B+

“It”

Bill Skarsgård has reshaped Pennywise the Clown’s image in It. Tim Curry’s performance is now a thing of the past. If you watch It, you’ll float, too!

Set in a small town in Maine (like all of King’s stories), It focuses on a group of kids called the Losers Club. There’s the guilt-ridden stutterer Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), overweight Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), sole female member Bev (Sophia Lillis), wisecracking Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Jewish Stan (Wyatt Oleff), homeschooled outcast Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer).

They just want to enjoy their summer vacation, but a mysterious clown named Pennywise (Skarsgård) stalks them. They realize Pennywise has been around for years and linked to several children’s disappearances, including Bill’s brother. Can the Losers stop Pennywise and save themselves?

I posted my top five best Stephen King adaptations last month; I need to revise that countdown and include Andy Muschietti’s It on there. Muschietti’s adaptation isn’t just an improvement over the miniseries, but an improvement over the book, as well.

It scraps the novel’s more perverse moments (no child orgy or dog killing here), allowing more focus on the coming-of-age themes. As a result, we get more funny and heartfelt moments from the Losers than expected. Each kid does a terrific job and their chemistry feels natural.

This adaptation also excludes the novel’s second half about the adult Losers, focusing solely on them as kids. I couldn’t be happier with this choice since the kids’ segment is more emotionally satisfying.

Don’t be fooled by my description of It; this is still a no-holds-barred horror film with some terrifying and admirably bold sequences. People will be talking about Pennywise’s introduction scene, but that’s not even the scariest scene. In fact, it’s hard to choose. Skarsgård disappears into Pennywise; there’s nothing funny about his laugh or stare. The makeup work and production design attribute to his menace.

The scariest moments aren’t with Pennywise, but the kids’ hallucinations. Pennywise uses each kid’s phobias to his advantage, causing them to see some gruesome and frightening figures including a demonic woman and a deteriorating man. The effects can appear amateur at times, but on a retro 80’s horror level.

I know my readers are skeptical to watch It and I don’t blame them. If you can handle horror movies and want a rare one with heart and humor, see It this weekend.

Grade: A

“Good Time”

The Twilight days are long over for Robert Pattinson. The man is now at chameleon status, disappearing into the role of a blonde sociopath in Good Time.

Connie’s (Pattinson) a lowlife. He lies, cheats, and steals to survive in New York. After his latest heist lands his autistic brother Nick (played by co-director Ben Safdie) in jail, Connie desperately attempts to bail out Nick. He’s ten grand short and most of his loot was ruined by a dye-pack, so now what? Credit card fraud, an amusement park robbery, and selling an acid-laced Sprite bottle sound like a good time.

Ben and Josh Safdie direct Good Time as a fast-paced, neon-drenched heist film. This is a product reminiscent of the 70s New Hollywood and 80s Indie eras. It’s gritty, violent, mesmerizing, and exhausting. It’s also an acquired taste, depending on the viewer’s tolerance of trash cinema.

Good Time begins and ends in Nick’s point of view. His scenes are semi-heartbreaking given he doesn’t understand what’s going on. When Connie interrupts Nick’s therapy appointment, that’s when Good Time is Connie’s show. Pattinson chews up every scene as Connie, whether we root for him or not.

That’s where Good Time suffers. We watch Connie take advantage of his girlfriend’s credit card, make out with a teenage girl, and later sell her out to police. There aren’t any redeeming qualities for Connie as he’s an immoral sociopath. When there is supposed redemption, Connie isn’t there for us to witness it, lacking power.

What Good Time lacks in substance, it makes up in its style. The score is a hypnotic techno score, each shot is filled with color and kinetic energy, and every chase is a thrilling blend of shock and dark humor.

Grade: B+

“Ingrid Goes West”

Aubrey Plaza needs more dramatic work. #Ingridgoeswest.

Plaza plays Instagram stalker, Ingrid. After a stint at a mental hospital, Ingrid becomes obsessed with Instagram model Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen) and moves to Los Angeles, stalking Taylor in the process. They become friends (Taylor’s oblivious to Ingrid’s behavior), but what happens when Taylor’s punk brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) enters the picture? Also, who’s really the villain?

Ingrid Goes West starts as a sharp, darkly funny satire. With its jabs at hipster culture and avocado toast, I found a few good laughs. I also was blown away by Plaza’s brave performance as Ingrid. She’s funny, scary, sad, and brutally honest.

Ingrid is a complex character ; an unhinged person who wants what we all want – happiness. Can we blame her for leaving behind her old life for a better one in California? Despite the wrong reasons, no.

Olsen also turns in another great performance this year (check out her work in Wind River). As Taylor, Olsen plays the phony celebrity gracefully. Taylor’s friendship with Ingrid is one-sided and we can see that Taylor only hangs out with her for her own benefit. We root for Ingrid since she’s too delusional to see Taylor’s true colors.

The satirical edge fades in the second half as Ingrid Goes West turns into a standard romantic comedy. Give me less of Ingrid’s relationship with the Batman fanboy Dan (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and more of the psycho thriller/dark comedy moments. Dan starts as a sweet, quirky love interest, but after the millionth Batman Forever reference, I got bored of their romance.

Ingrid Goes West briefly returns to its dark roots in the final act with a strong message on social media and loneliness. It’s just unfortunate that it went off the rails in its uneven second act. Regardless, I still recommend Ingrid Goes West for Plaza and Olsen alone.

Grade: B-

“Wind River”

By the time Taylor Sheridan’s (writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water) Wind River concluded with an informative caption, I was devastated. Sheridan writes and directs a brutal modern-day Western about a subject that needs our attention.

US Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) finds a murdered teenager in the Wind River Indian Reservation. Rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is assigned the case and is unprepared for the harsh weather and violence that await. With Lambert’s help, Banner hunts for the killer. Lambert, however, has his own reasons for taking the case.

Wind River has taken the title of 2017’s feel-bad movie (who would have thought Detroit would be dethroned?). I haven’t seen any other film this year that’s either as provocative or visceral as Wind River. Sheridan is on a role with the cynical and grim Westerns.

While Sicario was nihilistic about the war on drugs and Hell or High Water about banks, Wind River isn’t nihilistic. It’s brutally honest about missing Native American women and how there are no statistics. No one knows how many are missing; this is a fact that floored me.

MILD SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

Lambert takes the case as a form of catharsis. His daughter has been missing (and possibly dead) for years and he aids Banner to help exercise his aggression. Lambert doesn’t hold back his rage during the climax, resulting in some shockingly violent moments. Renner delivers a taut performance as Lambert; he’s a likable-yet-troubled cowboy overwhelmed by pain. With one beautifully written monologue about grief, Renner is a guaranteed Best Actor nominee.

Olsen plays Banner with a certain level of innocence. She isn’t afraid to draw her weapon or take charge of the situation, but it’s obvious that this is her first homicide case. This is emphasized in the final act when she breaks down over the case’s grisly outcome.

Wind River is Sheridan’s sophomore directorial effort. While his aesthetics are slightly uneven (using voiceover narration in the prologue and title cards in the epilogue), he is one to keep an eye out for. His poetic screenwriting, dark commentary, and use of violence make him a standout auteur.

Grade: A

“Logan Lucky”

After a four-year absence from filmmaking, I’m happy to see the versatile Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Magic Mike, and the Ocean’s trilogy) return with Logan Lucky. It’s nice to see a lighthearted comedy after two months of dark, violent films.

Jimmy (Channing Tatum), Clyde (Adam Driver), and Mellie Logan (Riley Keough) are a trio of bumbling siblings who believe they’re cursed. Jimmy comes up with a plan to reverse their curse – rob Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600. With the help of incarcerated thief Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), they put their plan in motion.

There’s a line in Logan Lucky’s second act that describes the heist as “Ocean’s 7-11.” This sums up the film in a nutshell. Soderbergh crisply shoots, edits, and directs Logan Lucky, successfully making us root for a group of ne’er-do-wells.

The Logans aren’t the brightest bulbs, but they have good intentions with the heist (mostly family-related). Jimmy keeps a check list on his fridge reminding him important rules for the job, which adds charm and even comes into play during the heist’s surprise conclusion. Tatum, Driver, and Keough all have great chemistry as the Logan siblings, playing their characters with charisma and heart.

Daniel Craig deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination as Joe Bang. He’s cool, enigmatic, and insane in this role, often showing some comedic talents. Bang’s the biggest schemer behind the heist and often provides some hilarious and shocking moments.

It’s suspected that Soderbergh wrote the script for Logan Lucky considering no records or interviews can be found with credited writer, Rebecca Blunt. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the case since Soderbergh is an auteur who craves full creative control. And I say give Soderbergh the full creative control since Logan Lucky is a fun, harmless time at the movies.

Grade: A