Borg vs. McEnroe


Competition can turn enemies into friends and friends into brothers.

(2017) Biographical Sports Drama (Neon) Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgård, Tuva Novotny, Leo Borg, Marcus Mossberg, Jackson Gann, Scott Arthur, Ian Blackman, Robert Emms, David Bamber, Mats Blomgren, Julia Marko Nord, Jane Perry, Demetri Goritsas, Roy McCrerey, Bjôrn Granath, Jason Forbes, Tom Datnow, Colin Stinton, Janis Ahern. Directed by Janus Metz

Rivalries are often the most fascinating stories in sports; the Yankees-Red Sox, Ali-Frazier, Seabiscuit-War Admiral, Palmer-Nicklaus. These sorts of stories tend to capture the imagination of the public, whether in the United States or elsewhere; there are always rivalries to fuel the fervor of the sporting public.

In the 80s, one such rivalry occurred in tennis. Bjorn Borg (Gudnason) was the top player in the game. He had won four straight Wimbledon championships and was about to try for an unprecedented fifth. His emotionless demeanor and absolute control earned him nicknames like “Ice Borg” and “The Swedish Machine.”

The polar opposite is John McEnroe (LaBeouf), a temperamental American who argues calls with umpires and often unleashing profanity-laced tirades against officials on the court and off, earning him the current titleholder of the Bad Boy of Tennis like none had achieved before or, to date, since. His game was a charging net game; Borg’s was more geared towards the baseline. They were both great competitors but they had little else in common; McEnroe dug the spotlight whereas Borg was tired of living in the media glare. Borg was cheered by millions; McEnroe was mainly booed. Borg had a stable fiancée (Novotny) while McEnroe played the field. It was truly a rivalry made it heaven.

And yet in many ways the two were not all that different. As a young man (Borg), Bjorn had a great difficulty controlling his anger. That is, until he meets trainer Lennart Bergelin (Skarsgård). He teaches Borg to harness his rage and channel it constructively, to hide his emotions in order to get in the heads of his opponents. Bergelin is the reason Bjorn Borg became Bjorn Borg.

The most prestigious tournament in tennis is Wimbledon and Borg is determined to make history. Standing in his way is McEnroe, who is just as determined to make history of his own. The year is 1980 and the two are on a collision course to play one of the greatest matches in the history of the sport. To this day many believe it is the greatest tennis match ever played.

The story is indeed a compelling one but I wish it would have been handled a little differently. This Swedish-Danish co-production focuses on Borg which would normally be fine but let’s face it – McEnroe is by far the most interesting character. Gudnason bears a striking resemblance to the tennis great and does a superb job channeling him but let’s face it – the man was kind of boring. I understand that Borg remains a revered figure in Scandinavia but I think the movie would have benefited by a little more McEnroe.

Metz utilizes a lot of flashbacks to tell his story and to be honest after awhile they begin to get annoying. The flow of the film becomes choppy and frustrating at times. What’s worse is that the tennis sequences are pretty poorly shot. The angles are all wrong and we don’t get a sense of the ebb and flow of the game. To be fair Metz does a good job of getting the tension up but when the tennis sequences in a tennis movie are sub-par, that’s troubling.

All in all this is a decent enough movie but it could have been better. It could have used a little of the humor displayed in I, Tonya to name one. As it is this is mainly going to appeal to Swedes and older tennis fans for the most part.

REASONS TO GO: The rivalry is a compelling one. Gudnason does a strong job as Borg.
REASONS TO STAY: The flashbacks get to be annoying. The tennis sequences are poorly done.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor who plays Borg as a young boy is Borg’s real life son Leo.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle of the Sexes
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Straight Into a Storm

The Dressmaker (2015)


Here is a primer on sexual stereotypes.

Here is a primer on sexual stereotypes.

(2016) Drama (Broad Green/Amazon) Kate Winslet, Liam Hemsworth, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Caroline Goodall, Kerry Fox, Rebecca Gibney, Hayley Magnus, James Mackay, Julia Blake, Shane Jacobson, Gyton Grantley, Alison Whyte, Barry Otto, Sacha Horler, Shane Bourne, Mark Leonard Winter, Olivia Sprague, Darcey Wilson, Rory Potter. Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse

 

There is an old Chinese proverb that revenge is a dish best served cold. Personally, I like my revenge hot in a spicy oyster sauce, but that’s just me. In any case, the point is that vengeance is something best left to ferment awhile.

The tiny rural Australian town of Dungatar is the kind of place where not much ever goes on. It was doubly so in 1951. That is, until Tilly Dunnage (Winslet) stepped off the bus in the dusty streets of the town. She walked over to where the town’s team was playing in a rugby match. Wearing a stylish red dress, her lips slathered in cherry red lipstick, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses and a cigarette dangling from a holder at a rakish angle, she made for a sight that the town had only glimpsed in fashion magazines.

The more so because there were whispers that she had murdered a young boy named Stewart Pettyman (Potter) and while nothing was ever proven, had led to her being exiled from the town in disgrace. Her mother Molly (Davis) went quietly mad and became something of the town codger. Most of the town has turned its back on the both of them, particularly town counselor Evan Pettyman (Bourne), Stewart’s father. However, there’s no doubt that Tilly is a talented dressmaker and when Trudy Pratt (Snook) underwent a radical transformation from Plain Jane to va-va-va-voom thanks to a makeover and a Tilly original creation, soon the ladies of the town were flocking to Tilly to get their own haute couture from the former pariah.

Also lining up to see Tilly is rugby star and neighbor Teddy McSwiney (Hemsworth) who has his eyes on Tilly but must woo Molly first in order to get her blessing. However, Tilly believes she has a cursed cloud over her head and when a new tragedy befalls her, she threatens to fall apart but her mum, realizing there’s only one thing she can do for her daughter before her own time is up, comes up with a plan to get the most delicious revenge for her daughter – and perhaps redemption for herself.

Based on a book by Betty Ham, this Aussie flick was the second highest grosser of 2015 in its native land and the eleventh all-time as of this writing. It’s received little to no fanfare here in the States and in some ways that’s not so bad; it allows you to experience the twists and the turns of the plot without expectation. Unfortunately, it’s bad in that a lot of people haven’t really heard much about this movie and it’s a shame because it’s pretty dang good.

Winslet is one of those actresses who elevates bad movies into good movies and good movies into great movies. She is a force of nature here, dominating the screen almost effortlessly. Davis, one of the most underrated actresses of her generation, holds her own and even Hemsworth, who has always been something of a pretty boy, uses his easygoing charm to his advantage. Weaving, who I’ve always enjoyed as a terrific character actor, shines here as a cross-dressing cop.

The movie lampoons our obsession with fashion as well as small town insularity, both of which have been done elsewhere but here at least are done stylishly. The problem here is that there are too many styles going on; there’s a kind of American western tone (Moorhouse herself calls the film “Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven with a sewing machine”) as well as a kind of noir mystery (particularly near the end of the film as we find out what really happened to Stewart Pettyman) as well as an Edward Scissorhands­-esque ode to non-conformity, romantic comedy in the developing relationship between Tilly and Teddy and even a little family drama as per the relationship between Tilly and Molly.

I found myself liking the vibe here. I’ve never been what you’d call exactly fashion-conscious so I found that aspect of the film amusing. I also liked the relationships between Tilly and Molly as well as between Tilly and Teddy. The denouement of the film when Tilly takes her revenge is absolutely classic and worth all the extraneous material. You may favor the noir as I did, or the rom-com, or the offbeat stuff or some other aspect but I’m reasonably sure you’ll find something about this film to like. I know I found quite a bit.

REASONS TO GO: The acting here is extremely good, particularly from Winslet and Davis. As dramas go, this one has some pretty funny moments.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many undercurrents here.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some brief violence and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first film Moorhouse has directed in eight years; she has two children with autism and spends most of her time off devoted to them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 47/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Micmacs
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Audrie & Daisy

The Boss


A smile only a dentist could love.

A smile only a dentist could love.

(2016) Comedy (Universal) Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage, Ella Anderson, Tyler Labine, Kathy Bates, Cecily Strong, Mary Sohn, Kristen Schaal, Eva Peterson, Timothy Simons, Aleandra Newcomb, Annie Mumolo, Presley Coley, Ben Falcone, Margo Martindale, Michael McDonald, Robert Pralgo, Larry Dorf, Cedric Yarbrough, Mark Oliver, Rico Ball, Carla Fisher. Directed by Ben Falcone

Woman Power

The bigger they are, the harder they fall or so goes the old saying. These days, the super-wealthy are the biggest they are. It is rare for one of them to fall, but when they do it leaves a crater that could swallow a number of European nations.

Michelle Darnell (McCarthy) is the 47th richest woman in the world. Orphaned at a very young age and never able to latch onto a foster family (she would be taken by some but always returned shortly afterwards), she has grown up believing that family is more than a hindrance to success than a help. Her self-help empire is largely run by her long-suffering assistant Claire (Bell). One of her longtime business rivals (and former lovers), the crafty Renault (Dinklage) has leaked information to law enforcement that Michelle has been indulging in insider trading. As a result she is jailed for six months and her assets seized.

When she gets out of jail she has nothing and nowhere to go, and despite Claire’s misgivings, she invites Michelle to stay with her at the behest of Claire’s daughter Rachel (Anderson). At first Michelle is morose, defeated but as she gets involved with Rachel’s Bluebird group (think Girl Scouts), she hits upon a scheme to make her fortune again using Claire’s delicious brownies.

This ignites a turf war with rival Bluebirds and attracts the attention of Renault who wants to squash Michelle like a bug. With the help of Claire, Rachel, the Bluebird troupe and Claire’s new boyfriend Mike (Labine), Renault and the competing Bluebirds don’t stand a chance as Michelle will stop at nothing to get back on top – but will it be at the cost of her new family?

There are many who believe that McCarthy is the most gifted comic actress working today and there is certainly good reason to support that. She is certainly the most popular. When McCarthy is at the top of her game, she can be devastatingly funny, but with the wrong script the laughs come at her rather than with her. This is somewhere in between those two extremes.

The script isn’t the best one McCarthy has had to work with and in this regard she has nobody to blame but herself since she co-wrote it along with her husband (and the film’s director Ben Falcone) and fellow Groundling Steve Mallory. The plot is wafer-thin and doesn’t stand up to a great deal of scrutiny. Darnell is supposed to be a cross between Martha Stewart and Leona Helmsley, but with a heart of gold deep down. Sadly, she just comes off as a bitter woman who largely deserves the indignities that come her way. I had almost zero sympathy for the character and that makes it really hard to root for her during the climactic scenes.

That’s not to say that elements didn’t work. McCarthy, as I’ve mentioned, is as talented as they come and her relationship with Bell works well. The two women make an excellent team. Some of the comic bits are extremely funny, although the best one involving a sofa bed is in the trailer. However, there are a lot of bits that fall flat including one involving Michelle and Claire comparing boobs, which an excerpt from also appears in the trailer. I guess that’s equal opportunity publicity.

There is kind of a mean tone to the movie that I found slightly disturbing. I get that the condescending attitude of the 1% for the rest of us is supposed to be getting grilled here, but McCarthy should have used a little less lighter fluid. The flame is burning the meat and there is quite enough meanness in the world without adding to it. Still, there are enough funny moments to make a look-see at the film worth your while.

REASONS TO GO: McCarthy and Bell have some fine chemistry. Some fairly funny slapstick moments.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is dumb as a rock and is completely implausible throughout. The overall mean tone was really disconcerting at times.
FAMILY VALUES: The language is considerably salty, and there is plenty of sexual innuendo and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: WWE wrestler Dave Bautista made a cameo in the film, but his part was eventually cut out. It appears in the trailer however.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/5/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Get Hard
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Love & Friendship

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice


The sky weeps at a wasted opportunity.

The sky weeps at a wasted opportunity.

(2016) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Scoot McNairy, Callan Mulvey, Tao Okamoto, Brandon Spink, Lauren Cohan, Mark Edward Taylor, Michael Shannon, Ripley Sobo, Sammi Rotibi, Michael Cassidy, Harry Lennix, Rebecca Buller, Kevin Costner, Soledad O’Brien. Directed by Zack Snyder

I really wanted to like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I really, really did. I was hoping that this would set up the DC cinematic universe in the same way Iron Man set up Marvel’s. I was hopeful that there is room in the multiplex for competing comic book universes, just as there are on the newsstands. I was hoping for something that would make me eager to see more. Instead, I got this.

In the aftermath of Man of Steel, Bruce Wayne (Affleck) has gotten a mad on about Superman (Cavill). His Metropolis headquarters of Wayne Enterprises was destroyed during the battle with General Zod, although at the time he has no idea what’s going on and who is good and who is not. Friends of his die literally before his very eyes in a kind of 9-11 redux.

18 months later, the U.S. government isn’t quite sure how to handle Supes. Sure he comes in to save the day but often people die and buildings crumble as a result. After he rescues Lois Lane (Adams) from a terrorist cell which ends up with U.S. soldiers dead, Kentucky Senator Finch (Hunter) is calling for Superman to have some sort of oversight.

In the meantime, plots are afoot; Batman/Bruce Wayne is out to take our Superman once and for all; he’s too big a threat to be allowed to run free. However, Lex Luthor (Eisenberg) has some plans of his own – and they involve the corpse of General Zod (Shannon) and keeping the Son of Krypton and the Dark Knight at each other’s throats.

This is a very bare-bones explanation of the plot and doesn’t take into account all the little subplots that go on, some of which have to do with setting up the DC universe – and we get brief cameos of superheroes who have movies come out in the near future – although Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gadot) has a more extensive presence in the film.

The premise is a fascinating one – what responsibility do superheroes have to the general public that they’re trying to protect, and should there be oversight to their actions. It’s a theme that we’re going to see once again this summer in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War which will divide the Avengers and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but while I suspect we’ll get a thumping good storyline from the Russo Brothers who did so marvelously with their own superhero films, Snyder displays his Michael Bay tendencies and turns this into a bloated, incomprehensible mess.

That’s not to say that there aren’t reasons to go see this, mind you. Affleck, the subject of much Internet fanboy venom, actually turns in an outstanding performance as Batman – maybe the best ever. Christian Bale always made, in my opinion, a better Batman than Bruce Wayne; Affleck carries both aspects of the character nicely.

I do appreciate that there is a larger-than-life quality to the film. While it isn’t Lawrence of Arabia, it does give us an idea that the events we’re witnessing are changing the world that the movie exists in. There are some definitely epic battle scenes between Batman, Supes and a to-be-named supervillain who shows up in the third act as a kind of special surprise guest.

But the movie is sooooo dark, both literally and figuratively. Nearly all of the movie takes place at night, particularly when Clark Kent takes off his glasses and Bruce Wayne dons his cowl which I don’t necessarily mind; it’s the tone which gets to be more of a problem for me. Snyder did a magnificent job with Watchmen which needed this kind of darkness but here it becomes almost burdensome. Both Batman and Superman are supposed to stand for something good, but they are almost as bad as the villains, often caring little for lives of people who aren’t necessarily close to them. Batman aims to kill Superman which doesn’t seem to be in character with someone who had forsworn lethal force; Superman also shows little compunction in sending non-combatants to their early graves.

Another misstep was casting Eisenberg as Luthor. One of the hallmarks of Lex Luthor in the comic books is that he’s completely ruthless, but clearly brilliant. He often has plans within plans, schemes that aren’t so easily discernible. He is nothing like the tic-heavy loon that Eisenberg plays, unable to complete a single thought when giving a speech at a charity ball. If Luthor is completely insane, he should at least be lucid and Eisenberg plays him as the unholy offspring of Mark Zuckerberg and Sarah Palin.

The pace is ponderous and at two and a half hours long, the movie gets a little bit monotonous. How many times can you see a building reduced to rubble before you start yawning? Maybe I’m a little jaded here, but shouldn’t superhero battles be more than just throwing people into masonry and punching their way through walls?

There are enough positive elements here to recommend the film somewhat, although I have to say that I was disappointed with it overall. I was hoping for something that would inspire me to submerge myself in a new cinematic universe but now I have almost no desire to see any of the ten or so films that are scheduled to follow this one, particularly if they are directed by Snyder who showed an absolute leaden touch here. I hope Suicide Squad can redeem the series and bring back some anticipation for the following movies, although at the moment I wonder if DC can bounce back from a debacle which may fill their coffers for the moment but long-term will render it much more difficult to get the attention of fans the same way Marvel has been able to.

REASONS TO GO: Affleck is a terrific Batman. Some spectacular battle sequences. A definite epic quality to the film.
REASONS TO STAY: Bloated and often hard to follow. Too bloodthirsty. Eisenberg as Luthor was a colossal mistake.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of superhero violence, and some suggestive scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gal Gadot is the first non-American actress to appear as Wonder Woman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Green Lantern

Burnt


A dish well-prepared is a dish well-enjoyed.

A dish well-prepared is a dish well-enjoyed.

(2015) Drama (Weinstein) Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Daniel Brûhl, Emma Thompson, Riccardo Scamarcio, Omar Sy, Sam Keeley, Henry Goodman, Matthew Rhys, Stephen Campbell Moore, Uma Thurman, Lexi Benbow-Hart, Alicia Vikander, Lily James, Sarah Greene, Bo Bene, Elisa Lasowski, Julian Firth, Martin Trenaman, Esther Adams. Directed by John Wells

The pursuit of excellence often becomes an obsession with perfection. It can often be a journey that becomes a nightmare of excess, fueled by drugs, sex and ego and lead one down to oblivion. Coming back from that can be nearly impossible.

But that’s the task before Adam Jones (Cooper). Once a two-star Michelin chef in Paris, this American enfant terrible of the French culinary world was a bad boy living the fast life, driven to get that final third Michelin star but so lost in both his own ambition, a relationship with his mentor’s daughter (Vikander) and an escalating drug habit that a spectacular meltdown lost him everything.

Two years of sobriety later, having worked shucking a million oysters in New Orleans, he’s ready to resume his tilt and decides that opening up a restaurant at a prestigious London hotel would be the ticket. It so happens that Tony (Brûhl), the son of an old friend and perhaps the best maître’d in Europe has such a restaurant that could use an infusion of the buzz that comes from having a celebrity chef. Tony is reluctant, given Adam’s volatile temperament but eventually gives in.

Adam sets to putting together a “dream team” for this restaurant, bringing in a Michel (Sy), a sous chef he wronged in Paris but who has since forgiven him and Helene (Miller) who is a raw talent that Adam thinks can become great. She comes with a precocious daughter Lily (Benbow-Hart) who is as tough as any food critic when it comes to her meals.

Adam turns out to be a martinet in the kitchen, screaming in the faces of his staff and so obsessed with perfection that he forces Helene to apologize to a fish because of a minor mistake in cooking it. Eventually though he manages to get his act together and soon his kitchen is humming along like a well-oiled machine. However, there are complications; he owes a large debt to drug dealers that he won’t let Tony pay for him and they are getting increasingly insistent on getting their money. He also is falling in love with Helene, who is developing strong feelings for him as well.

But things come to a head when the Michelin inspectors come and Adam faces an unexpected turn of events, sending him spiraling back down a road that he has sworn he wouldn’t take again. Can even the great Adam Jones fix a meal gone this bad?

Cooper, who at one point in his life aspired to being a chef himself, makes an excellent Adam Jones. Cooper is one of Hollywood’s most likable actors but he has to play a very unlikable character in the uber-driven Adam. His kitchen tantrums and occasionally manipulative tactics can sometimes leave a sour taste in one’s mouth but Adam isn’t a bad person per se, and we do get to see the humanity of the man peeking through at unexpected moments.

The rest of the cast is solid as you’d expect of a cast with this kind of international caliber. Miller, who worked with Cooper on American Sniper, retains the chemistry the two enjoyed on that film here. Thompson, who has a small role as Adam’s therapist, shines as she always does and Rhys also has a meaty role as a rival chef. I particularly liked Sy, however; the big French actor has never turned in a subpar performance that I can recall and even though he seems to be on a supporting role treadmill at the moment, I foresee some big things in his future.

The problem I have with Burnt is that the predictability of the story. Other than one major twist, there’s pretty much a Screenwriting 101 feel to the plot. There’s even the precocious kid that exists for no other reason than because precocious kids always show up in movies like this. Not that Benbow-Hart isn’t anything but good in her role, it’s just that the character is extraneous. Does Helene really need to be a single mom? No, she just needs to be single. Her motherhood adds nothing to the emotional resonance of the film.

There’s plenty of food porn and I will say that if you’re hungry going in chances are you’re going to have a craving for some good food and it isn’t a stretch to say that you’ll probably leave the theater (or your couch if you are reading this after it makes it to home video) hungry and not for fast food either; for a sit down meal in a place that has tablecloths and waiters and most importantly, delicious food. We can all use a good meal from time to time. As a movie, I would place this more as casual dining more than fine dining, but it does strike a chord nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Cooper and Miller have real chemistry. Plenty of food porn. Nicely paced.
REASONS TO STAY: Predictable story. Too-cute kid syndrome. Too many unnecessary subplots.
FAMILY VALUES: A whole lot of foul language and some drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cooper patterned his in-kitchen demeanor on that of Gordon Ramsey.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chef
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Kingdom of Shadows

Rush


Another day at the office.

Another day at the office.

(2013) Biographical Sports Drama (Universal) Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde, Alexandra Maria Lara, Stephen Mangan, Christian McKay, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Jamie de Courcey, Pierfrancesco Favino, Natalie Dormer, David Calder, Alistair Petrie, Colin Stinton, Augusto Dallara, Ilario Calvo, Patrick Baladi, Vincent Riotta, Josephine de la Baume, Brooke Johnston, Hannah Britland. Directed by Ron Howard

Race car drivers are a breed unto themselves. While here in the States our focus tends to be on the NASCAR circuit, the Formula One drivers have the attention of the rest of the planet and for good reason; Formula One cars are, as one character in the film puts it, essentially coffins strapped to bombs. In the era this film took place in, 25 drivers would start out the racing year and two of them would die sometime during the year without fail. Why would anyone sane do something like this?

James Hunt (Hemsworth) is the kind of star that makes the sponsors salivate; handsome, irreverent and talented, he is fearless on the track and will make moves that would give even veteran drivers pause. Niki Lauda (Brühl) on the other hand is an Austrian with cold, technical precision and focus. While Hunt loves the spotlight, Lauda prefers solitude. Whereas Hunt drives for the thrill, Lauda drives for the victories. They are both ultra-competitive and it was inevitable that the two would become rivals.

In 1976, the two were vying for the Formula One championship – Lauda for Ferrari, Hunt for McLaren. They drove the best cars in the world and it seemed that Lauda, the defending champion, had the upper hand but after a horrific accident in Nürburgring for the German Grand Prix, Hunt had the golden opportunity to make up lost ground and pass the hospitalized Lauda, whose lungs were so badly burned after being trapped for nearly two minutes in an 800F inferno that they had to be vacuumed out while he was conscious. Against all odds and against doctor’s advice, Lauda returned to the track two months later to set up a head-to-head battle that would grab the attention of the world and make for a legend that endures today.

Howard is one of the best storytellers in Hollywood today and at his best his movies not only pack an emotional punch but stimulate the intellect by giving us something to think about. Here, Howard uses the rivalry between these two men (who actually respected each other a great deal and were friends after they retired from racing) to try and get at the mindset of men who risk their lives by driving in circles around a track for a trophy and a check.

Hemsworth is sometimes regarded as a handsome muscle boy who is best known for playing Thor  and very likably at that but the kid can act. He gets the look and mannerisms of the infamous bad boy of racing down to a T but also shows some insight into the insecurities that often drove Hunt. When his racing team collapses under a mountain of debt, Hunt turns into a bit of a prick and eventually drives his wife, supermodel Suzy Miller (Wilde) into the arms of actor Richard Burton. Under the wisecracks and the braggadocio there is a ferocious competitor who is out to prove to the world that he will live on his own terms and nobody else’s.

However, I think that the movie might just launch Brühl to the next level of stardom. He is mesmerizing as Lauda, wearing a dental device to simulate the overbite that earned Lauda the nickname “The Rat” among his fellows. Lauda was thoroughly disliked and didn’t care that he was; all he cared about was wringing every ounce of performance out of his machines and at that he was a master. He’s arrogant and charmless – his marriage proposal to Marlene (Lara) is “if I’m going to do this with anyone, it might as well be you.” Makes a girl’s heart beat faster, doesn’t it?

It is his intensity that Brühl captures best however. The nightmarish injuries that Lauda endures, the unimaginable pain of the burns is captured not only by the body language and the screams but in the eyes. Brühl looks like a man suffering the agonies of the damned – none worse than having to sit on the sidelines and watch his insurmountable lead erode race by race. For a competitor like Lauda, there could be no torture more terrible.

Peter Morgan, who wrote the screenplay, did it on his own; no studio commissioned it so the movie was deliberately written with few racing sequences just in case that the film was made on a non-major studio budget. Some lament that this is a racing movie without racing but in true point of fact it is not; this is a movie about people, not cars. Be aware that the movie is loud and intense however – the race scenes that are in the film accurately capture the noise and chaos of an actual race so that you might imagine you can smell the rubber and the asphalt. However, once the cars are moving I have to admit that the sequences aren’t anything to write home about.

Howard will no doubt be in the Oscar conversation again this year for the first time in five years, and I don’t have a problem with that. This is intense entertainment sure but more it is an examination of what makes people like Hunt and Lauda tick, and with performances at the level that Hemsworth and Brühl deliver, they are the first salvo in the 2014 Oscar race. Gentlemen, start your engines.

REASONS TO GO: Hemsworth and Brühl are impressive. Focuses on the differences that made them rivals.

REASONS TO STAY: More of a character study; the racing sequences are few and unimpressive.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of cussing, some pretty disturbing images of the aftermath of a fiery crash, sexuality and nudity and brief drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second collaboration between Howard and writer Peter Morgan; the first was the Oscar-nominated Frost/Nixon.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grand Prix

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: In a World…

A Dangerous Method


Viggo Mortensen is not amused at Michael Fassbender's knock-knock jokes.

Viggo Mortensen is not amused at Michael Fassbender’s knock-knock jokes.

(2011) Historical Drama (Sony Classics) Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Vincent Cassel, Sarah Gadon, Andre M. Hennicke, Arndt Schwering-Sohnrey, Mignon Reme, Mareike Carriere, Franziska Arndt, Wladimir Matuchin, Andre Dietz, Anna Thalbach, Sarah Marecek, Bjorn Geske, Markus Haase, Nina Azizi. Directed by David Cronenberg

 

These days, psychoanalysis is part of the landscape. A fairly high percentage of people have utilized the services of a mental health care professional, and many undergo regular treatment. We have come to accept that talking out our problems is far healthier than repressing them.

In 1904, that wasn’t the case. A screaming, hysterical young woman named Sabina Spielrein (Knightley) is brought by carriage to the Burghölzli Hospital in Switzerland. She is seen to by Dr. Carl Jung (Fassbender), a gentle, handsome doctor whose rich (and gorgeous) wife (Gadon) keeps him in a lifestyle to his liking while he explores a science in its infancy and one that, frankly, doesn’t pay well. He becomes intrigued by Sabina’s case and is eager to try out the new “talking therapy” being championed by Dr. Sigmund Freud (Mortensen) in Vienna.

The sessions seem to help and soon Jung, who had been corresponding with Freud about the case, becomes a believer in the Vienna intellectual’s work. That correspondence grows into mutual respect and eventually, a friendship. However, that friendship doesn’t endure. Jung has some misgivings about Freud’s reliance on the sexual for explanations of human behavior. When he sends Dr. Otto Gross (Cassel), a colleague, to Jung for psychoanalysis, the seeds of discord begin to be sown. Gross, a libertine of the highest order, becomes a confidant for Jung, who has begun to feel desire for Sabina, still his patient. Gross essentially gives Jung the go-ahead to initiate an affair with her.

Eventually, Jung’s intellect and compassion win out over his baser side and he breaks things off. Sabina goes to Vienna to study under Freud (and it seems, do a lot more under Freud) on the way to becoming one of the first women to practice psychoanalysis in the world.

Cronenberg has been fascinated with the terror of flesh in previous films; here he seeks to examine the terror of mind, disguising it as a Merchant-Ivory historical piece. Or perhaps, it’s the other way around. In any case, his fascination for the subject is clear.

The execution? Not so much. This is a dialogue-heavy movie – being based on a stage play, that’s unsurprising – and of course that it revolves largely around the birth of psychoanalysis also lends itself to a talky production. That doesn’t make it any less monotonous when the talking grows tedious. Now, I don’t have a problem with movies that are more conversational than action-oriented but the dialogue needs to at least be interesting. Often it comes off as intellectual posturing rather than delivering insight.

Fortunately, there are some pretty good performances. Mortensen, on his third collaboration with Cronenberg, gives Freud a bit of a less stodgy personality as he’s often assigned. Mortensen’s Freud is passionate, stubborn and maybe a little bit fixated on the sexual. Fassbender, in the midst of his breakout year, was brilliant as Jung; a bit timid and bookish but never reserved when it comes to his ideas. Cassel gets the memorable part of the libertine and runs with it, having a good time with a character who certainly thought he deserved it.

Much of the movie was filmed in the places where the events took place, lending an authenticity to the project. While the affair between Jung and Sabina is merely conjecture, most of the rest of the film is historically accurate with some of the dialogue coming directly from the letters and writings of the characters in the movie.

How you feel about the movie will largely depend on how you feel about psychoanalysis. There is some fascinating material here, particularly on how the workings of the science were arrived at and bitterly debated. That some of Jung’s ideas would later fuel the Nazi party (which is alluded to in a graphic and unforgettable sequence near the end of the film) is a tragedy that is laced with irony as many years after the events of the movie Sabina Spielrein would fall victim to the Nazis.

Perhaps if I saw this mid-afternoon when I was a little more alert I might have enjoyed this more, but it is a little dry. That doesn’t mean the ideas or discussions here aren’t worth listening to; there’s an intellectual stimulation here that’s rare in most movies and heaven knows I don’t want to discourage that. However, those who go to movies for big explosions, big breasts and big guns would be well-advised to steer clear of this one. Although what Freud would have made of those sorts of people would be amusing reading to say the least.

WHY RENT THIS: Fascinating material. Nice performances by Mortensen, Fassbender and Cassel.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Slow and monotonous in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of sexual content and a smattering of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cronenberg states on the director’s commentary that more CGI was used on this film than any other he has directed to this point.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a Q&A session with Cronenberg and an audience of American Film Institute students who’d just seen the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $27.5M on an $18.8M production budget; the movie didn’t quite recoup its production costs.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Henry & June

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Beware the Gonzo

Burke and Hare


Burke and Hare

Andy Serkis and Simon Pegg find out it’s tuna casserole for lunch again.

(2010) Horror Comedy (IFC) Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, Isla Fisher, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Curry, Christopher Lee, Ronnie Corbett, Hugh Bonneville, Jenny Agutter, Bill Bailey, Jessica Hynes, Stuart McQuarrie, Michael Smiley, David Hayman. Directed by John Landis

 

New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger characterized this movie, loosely based on real life murders committed in Edinburgh in the 19th century, as an American director using English actors to portray Irish immigrants committing murders in Scotland (I’m paraphrasing here) which, as Genzlinger opines, leads to a bit of schizophrenia of tone.

William Burke (Pegg) and his associate William Hare (Serkis) are having a spectacular run of bad luck. Times are hard in 19th century Edinburgh; while the best medical universities in the world are here, most of the city is stuck in squalor as the citizens of Edinburgh try to meet ends meet, most with the same lack of success that Burke and Hare are experiencing.

At the same time there is a rivalry going on in the medical schools. Doctors Robert Knox (Wilkinson) and Alexander Monro (Curry) have been going at it tooth and nail as they use cadavers to teach students the wonders of the human body. However, cadavers aren’t easy to come by and Knox is paying top dollar for fresh corpses and thus Burke and Hare discover a wonderful business opportunity for themselves.

At first they pretty much stick to grave robbing but the problem is that people aren’t dying fast enough to keep Knox properly supplied, so Burke and Hare, being entrepreneurial sorts, decide to help them out a bit. Soon the money is rolling in and Hare’s wife Lucky (Hynes), a sensible sort, helps her husband and his partner out with the business. Burke, in the meantime, has become smitten by actress – or prostitute, which Hare points out isn’t much of a distinction at the time – Ginny Hawkins (Fisher) who yearns to put on an all woman version of Macbeth and Burke is determined to finance the show in order to win the heart of his new beloved.

Still, murdering people for their cadavers is sort of frowned upon and the law is soon on their tails. You can imagine what happened next – or you can look it up in Wikipedia. The movie is kind of close to what actually occurred in the end.

This is the product of Ealing Studios which produced some of the most well-known comedies in the history of British films between 1947 and 1957 (including Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Lavender Hill Mob). This isn’t, strictly speaking, a comedy although it is funny in places (although the movie relies on slapstick a good deal for its humor which is fairly lowbrow for Ealing). It isn’t, strictly speaking, a horror film either although there are some grisly images. Hammer Films has nothing to worry about in other words.

Landis who in his prime directed some classic films like An American Werewolf in London, The Blues Brothers and National Lampoon’s Animal House hasn’t directed a feature since 1998. This isn’t by any means going to be remembered as one of his better efforts but it actually isn’t one of his worst either.

Casting Pegg and Serkis (although at one time Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell were rumored to have been cast in their roles) is a good reason why. The two are perfect for the parts. Their byplay is natural and unforced. It’s what you might expect from a couple of men who have been friends and partners for years; they’re almost like an old married couple in places.

It helps that each of them has a romantic foil that keeps up with them. Fisher, a beautiful woman who has some pretty impressive acting chops, takes a quirky role and makes it believable. Too often these kinds of parts are written to be eccentric for their own sake and I think that to a certain extent that’s the case here (just ask yourself – does having Burke fall for an actress with Ginny’s aspirations add anything to the story that wouldn’t have been there if she was “normal”?) and only Fisher’s performance keeps it from being irritating. Hynes, whose work I hadn’t been familiar with, also does some impressive work here.

There are some mystifying changes to the historical facts which I understand often has to be done for dramatic purposes. However, Burke and Hare were notorious for smothering their victims, which was their preferred modus operandi. I don’t understand why that was glossed over other than to create slapstick opportunities having to do with the murders themselves. Ah well.

I do like the tone of the movie which isn’t overly serious despite its somewhat grisly subject matter. This isn’t a movie people are going to be rushing right out to rent but by the same token it isn’t one that should be ignored either. I would have liked a little more consistency and a few more laughs. However, this is worth a look if you’re out to check something you haven’t seen before.

WHY RENT THIS: Pegg and Serkis are fun to watch. Fisher is gorgeous and there’s a certain sly wink about the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lacks consistency. Plays fast and loose with the real story of the murders, some of which seems unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of disturbing images as you might imagine. There’s also a little bit of sex and a smattering of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actors David Schofield, John Woodvine and Agutter all appeared in An American Werewolf in London which was directed by Landis back in 1981.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.4M on an unreported production budget; sounds like it made a tidy profit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Sell the Dead

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Out of Africa

Soul Surfer


Soul Surfer

Helen Hunt doesn't even realize that the wrong husband is next to her.

(2011) True Life Drama (TriStar) AnnaSophia Robb, Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, Carrie Underwood, Kevin Sorbo, Lorraine Nicholson, Jeremy Sumpter, Sonya Balmores Chung, Ross Thomas, Chris Brochu, Craig T. Nelson, Branscombe Richard. Directed by Sean McNamara

 

It is a fact of life that things happen, sometimes terrible things. We want our lives to be sweet and easy but they never are. You can call it God’s will, or bad luck but we are often put into positions where in order to achieve our dreams we must first re-imagine them.

Bethany Hamilton (Robb) lives in paradise. It may be called Hawaii to you and me but she knows as most of those native to those beautiful islands that there are few places on Earth like it. The Pacific swells that rage against the nearby beaches are her heartbeat, and she lives to put board to water and foot to board. She has a talent for surfing and with her blonde hair blue-eyed good girl next door looks, she is already attracting endorsement deals and is a sure bet to turn pro.

When she is attacked by a shark and loses an arm, her plans are put on hold. The media descends on her family and their faith is tested. Dad Tom (Quaid) wants to fix things, while mom Cheri (Hunt) prays for guidance, unable to fathom God’s plan when a spirited good-hearted teen’s dreams are cut short so cruelly.

At first Bethany gives in to depression and despair but gradually realizes as her plight gets more and more coverage, that she is no longer living just for herself and her dreams. Indeed, the dreams of millions of physically challenged people are riding on her as their inspiration to continue and achieve. With that kind of impetus behind her, how could she fail to at least try?

This is of course based on a true story. Hamilton to this day continues to be one of the world’s top surfers and her story is inspirational, not just to those who have physical challenges but to those who don’t as well.

Now, the actual Hamilton family are devout Christians (Bethany often makes personal appearances at churches and for church youth groups) and there was some fear from Hollywood executives early on that a faith-based film might alienate secular audiences and I have to say myself I don’t go to the movies to be preached to. However I was pleasantly surprised – the issues of faith are handled as a natural part of the Hamilton’s lives and I never felt at any point like a message was being pushed on me. If anything, the message is more secular than religious – while Bethany’s faith sustains her and comforts her, it is her desire and will to compete that conquers the mountains that were laid before her. I found that refreshing.

Robb is a sterling actress growing graceful and beautiful as she moves into her teen years. With wonderful performances in Bridge to Terabithia and Race to Witch Mountain, she has a bright future in the business if she chooses to continue along that path. She largely carries this movie, imbuing the real Bethany’s determination and faith into her performance. She’s deserving of the kudos she’s been receiving for the role.

Oscar winner Hunt is a welcome addition to the cast; an actress this good should be around more often. I do hope we see more of her – while she doesn’t have a lot to do, she does have a  couple of scenes that are really effective, elevating the role. The likable Quaid is once again…err, likable. With maybe the best grin in the history of movies, he’s had a soft spot in my critical heart for more years than probably either of us would like to admit. He’s another actor that I wouldn’t mind seeing get more compelling roles.

Now I’ll admit that surfing isn’t really my thing and surfing movies even less so. The mysticism that some of the sport’s faithful attribute to it is something I don’t really tap into. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel the draw of the ocean in the same way, nor does it mean I don’t appreciate the athleticism, the sacrifice or the passion that comes with the sport. It just doesn’t always translate well to the screen and while the surfing sequences are solid, they aren’t enough to get me hooked.

The ending is a bit cheesy and in my opinion does the movie a disservice. Creating a rival (Chung) that treated her like dirt was unnecessary, as is the conversion from rival to admirer. The target audience here is obviously kids from about 11-16 and girls in particular. I think that that audience would have been just as inspired by Bethany’s accomplishments without the jealous rival. She wasn’t needed – there were obstacles a ‘plenty for the real surfer girl.

Bethany and her parents get the lion’s share of character development here and the movie suffers for that too. Too many cliché characters spoil this soup, as does the pulling of the rival onto the medal stand. I don’t know if that actually happened but it seemed disingenuous the way it was portrayed here. So to sum up, a solid movie that is inspirational in places and serves it’s teen and pre-teen audience nicely, one which any family mindful of the values being presented onscreen should feel secure in presenting to their kids.

WHY RENT THIS: Great surfing footage. Robb does an impressive job. Displays the family’s faith without becoming preachy.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The ending is a bit heavy on the schmaltz. A few cookie-cutter characters added for dramatic value and some factual inconsistencies..

FAMILY VALUES:  The shark attack sequence may be a little too intense for impressionable sorts (although it isn’t especially gory or realistic) and some of the thematic elements might go over the heads of the smaller set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The dog in the movie is Bethany’s own dog Hana; she makes a cameo appearance herself carrying a large box in the Thailand relief scene and her family can be seen just behind Quaid and Hunt in the church scene and Bethany performed the surf stunts for Robb.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are featurettes on how Robb learned to surf and, eventually, inhabit the role of Bethany. There are a couple of featurettes on the real Bethany Hamilton, including some actual camcorder footage shot by her brother.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $44.3M on an $18M production budget; the movie had a slightly profitable theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: You Don’t Mess With the Zohan

Bad Teacher


Bad Teacher

Who's haughty? Cameron Diaz and Lucy Punch engage in a pose-off.

(2011) Comedy (Columbia) Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, Lucy Punch, Jason Segel, Phyllis Smith, John Michael Higgins, Dave “Gruber” Allen, Jillian Armenante, Matthew J. Evans, Thomas Lennon, Molly Shannon, Rick Overton, Kaitlyn Dever, Kathryn Newton. Directed by Jake Kasdan

Most of us owe at least a part of who we are to our teachers. Some remain engrained in our memory, teachers who make a positive difference, who inspire and guide. Others are less significant in our lives but have some sort of impact. Once in awhile we have a teacher who impacts our lives in a negative way.

Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz) has only been at John Adams Middle School for a year but she has already made an impression – and not the good kind. Not liked by her colleagues, ignored by her students, she’s just killing time until she marries her rich fiancée. When she is given a bon voyage at the end of the year, her fellow teachers can only muster up a $37 Boston Market gift card as a going away present.

Unfortunately, the engagement falls through and Elizabeth must return for another school term. This doesn’t sit well for her and her new mission is to find a new husband who will take care of her for the rest of her life in the kind of comfort she aspires to. A candidate comes along in substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Timberlake) who has just ended a long-term relationship with a large-breasted girlfriend and whose family runs a high-end watch company.

Elizabeth zeroes in on the big-breasted aspect of the former girlfriend and decides that her ticket to the easy life is a boob job. She means to get that operation by hook or by crook but on a teacher’s salary, that kind of money just isn’t there. So she goes about using her feminine wiles and her manipulative nature to get the cash. When she finds out from her friend Lynn Davies (Smith) that a bonus is paid to the teacher whose class gets the highest score on the state test, she decides that she must actually teach her class to pass the test. Of course, she takes a short cut here as well; she obtains a copy of the test from administrator Carl Halabi (Lennon) by pretending to be a reporter, seducing him and drugging him. Nice girl, no?

In the meantime, she finds that she has a rival for Scott’s affections in uber-cheerful teacher Amy Squirrel (Punch), who despite her outwardly sweet and perky nature hides suspicions and a dark side. The two women go to war, while nice guy gym teacher Russell Gettis (Segel) tries to romance an uninterested Elizabeth.

Diaz has never been one of my favorite actresses; she always seems a bit high-strung to me. However, this is a role that is from my point of view, perfect for her. Elizabeth is shallow, self-centered and without any sense of morality whatsoever. She smokes pot in the parking lot, throws rubber dodge balls at her students’ heads when they get an answer wrong, shows up to work hung over and simply shows a movie with a classroom theme to her students, and dresses provocatively at every turn.

Segel has a certain sweetness to him that we’ve seen in films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall that serves him well here. He also has a bit of a bite which also serves him well here. He is by far the most likable character in the film. Punch, last seen in Dinner With Schmucks, is delightful in the antagonist role. Watching her unravel onscreen is one of the movie’s better accomplishments.

Kasdan, who also directed the musical bio spoof Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, doesn’t pull any punches here. This is mean-spirited, over-the-top and without any redeeming moral qualities whatsoever. Now, I’m not the blue-nosed sort who thinks every movie needs to have a strong moral compass and I can occasionally find a laugh in mean things happening to people who don’t deserve it. However, I require that if you’re going to do a comedy this mean-spirited, there needs to be at least a few laughs.

This is not a movie that pretends to have an uplifting message, and in that sense, the movie is exactly what it appears to be. To that end, it really boils down to your own personal preference; do you prefer laughing at people, or laughing with them. For my own personal taste, this isn’t my kind of humor so the rating for the movie reflects that to a certain extent. However, even people who like this sort of thing may have a hard time finding more than a few chuckles for the full feature.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is at least true to its convictions. Diaz moves out of her comfort zone and Segel is at least pleasant.

REASONS TO STAY: Most of the movie’s funniest moments can be seen in the trailer. Offensive on nearly every level.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language as well as raunchy jokes, sexuality, nudity and a bit of drug use make this not fit for family viewing.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writers Lee Eisenberg and Gene Stupnitsky both worked extensively on “The Office” where Smith is a cast member.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams “see this in a theater.”

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Larry Crowne