Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris who are best known for the 2006 indie smash hit Little Miss Sunshine, Battle of the Sexes is a highly entertaining and inspirational film about the true story of the famed tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King in 1973. In one of her best performances to date, Academy Award-winning actress Emma Stone portrays the feminist and sports icon Billie Jean King who we first meet fighting for equal pay for female tennis players and eventually helps form the all-female Virginia Slims Circuit with the promoter Gladys Heldman, played by comedian Sarah Silverman. The impetus for breaking off from the major tours was the chauvinism showed by the male-dominated sports community best represented by former number one tennis player and legendary tennis commentator and promoter Jack Kramer, played by Bill Pullman. Along with the other star women, King, the reigning number one female player and winner of multiple Grand Slam titles, has success on the female circuit and is depicted as having fun yet healthy competition with the other players. Eventually, the self-proclaimed male chauvinist and perpetual showboating former number one tennis player Bobby Riggs, played by Steve Carell, tries to reclaim the spotlight by proposing to play a female tennis player. Already way past his prime at the age of 55, Riggs is finally able to woo the 29-year old Billie Jean King to participate in the so-called Battle of the Sexes at the height of the feminist movement. While dealing with the pressures of the cultural phenomenon that the match has become, King grapples with her sexual orientation while being married to a man and must push back on the pervasive sexism in society. During the tour, she begins a relationship with a carefree female hairdresser named Marilyn Barnett, played by Andrea Riseborough, who encourages King to embrace being a lesbian at a time when it was taboo. Despite the serious issues raised, the film is able to keep audiences entertained as a result of the buffoonery of Bobby Riggs who does anything to promote himself and has a playful back-and-forth with King until the tides shift during the actual match. The movie does an excellent job of building up the tension to the much-hyped exhibition between man and woman, which takes place in Houston at the Astrodome on September 20, 1973. I came away from the film feeling even more the unpleasant truth that sexism was so pervasive at that time, and that it was normal for male commentators to make clearly chauvinistic comments in public without much rebuke. Overall, I thought the filmmakers were expertly effective in portraying the trials and tribulations of such a trailblazing figure in American history as Billie Jean King, all the while keeping the audience fully engaged with moments of humor and levity.
Directed by Academy Award-nominated British filmmaker Stephen Frears who is best known for 2006’s The Queen also about a famous British female monarch, Victoria and Abdul is the fascinating untold true story of Queen Victoria’s unlikely relationship with an Indian servant. Clearly, the film’s greatest strength is the magnificent acting performance from Dame Judi Dench, already well-regarded for her portrayal of Queen Victoria in 1997’s Mrs. Brown and her Oscar-winning role as Queen Elizabeth I in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love. Celebrating her golden jubilee commemorating 50 years on the throne in 1887, the Queen is sent two Indian servants as representatives of British-ruled India and begins a fond relationship with one of the men named Abdul Karim, played by Indian actor Ali Fazal. Eventually, he becomes a close confidant of the lonely Victoria who lost her husband Albert many years ago and invites Abdul to palace functions and is even taught his native Indian language. Abdul also is given a house on Royal property and is able to bring his Indian wife and mother-in-law to England. The film does an excellent job of realistically depicting what it must have been like at Queen Victoria’s residences, mostly because it was filmed at the real Osborne House on the Isle of Wight where much of the movie takes place. As Abdul becomes increasingly closer to Victoria, the Royal household and Victoria’s successor and son Prince Bertie, played by Eddie Izzard, continue to get fed up with her unorthodox friendship to a man that they believe is racially inferior and a simple-minded servant unworthy of her attention. Her real deep connection with Abdul forces her to fight back against her own family and royal duties and defends him until her death in 1901. Apparent by the story of Abdul not being uncovered until only recently, there was a actual animosity evidenced by Bertie ordering the destruction of all records pertaining to Abdul immediately after he takes the throne. Overall, I was particularly intrigued by the film’s plot and especially struck by Judi Dench’s terrific performance; however, it was too full of cliches to transcend the genre and was much more of a sad story than the promotional materials lead the viewer to believe.
Directed by Doug Liman who is best known for 2002’s The Bourne Identity and 2014’s The Edge of Tomorrow, American Made is an entertaining and thrilling drama loosely based on real events and stars Tom Cruise in one of his better performances from the past couple of years when he had a string of poorly received movies. The plot follows the unbelievable life story of Barry Seal, played by Cruise, who was a pilot recruited by the CIA in the 1970s and later worked for the Medellin Cartel led by Pablo Escobar as well flying secret American missions to support the anti-communist Contras hoping to overthrow several Central American socialist governments. We first meet Barry as a wild TWA pilot who lives in Baton Rouge with his beautiful wife and young children in the 1970s. One day, he is approached by the CIA operative Monty Schafer, played by Domhnall Gleeson, and asks Barry to work for the CIA to fly reconnaissance missions over Central America. Eventually, he is recruited to do increasingly dangerous and questionably legal activities for the CIA, including acting as a covert courier between the American government and General Manuel Noriega who would eventually become the authoritarian leader of Panama and delivering weapons and supplies to the rebel Contra militias who President Reagan secretly supported. However, as he is helping the American government, he finds himself flying cocaine out of Columbia to Louisiana for Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel and makes millions of dollars in the process. To help protect Barry, Monty sends him and his family to a small town in Arkansas named Mena where he can continue his operations out of a private airstrip. Although he is mostly shielded from arrest for drug trafficking because of his CIA connection, things begin to unravel after the arrival of his troubled brother-in-law JB. Towards the end of the movie when it takes place during the 1980s, the involvement with the CIA and particularly the Medellin Cartel ends poorly for Barry. Overall, I found it to be a fun and energetic movie that tells a hard to believe story that is somewhat based on reality, but I thought that the rest of the film’s pieces fell short of my expectations. It felt like a continuation of the hit Netflix TV series Narcos, which superbly dramatizes the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar as well as other Colombian drug cartels throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Based on a true story chronicled in a 2005 episode of the NPR radio show This American Life, Crown Heights is the heartbreaking tale of a young man living in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York who spends many years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of a homicide in 1980. The talented young actor Lakeith Stanfield plays an 18-year-old immigrant from the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago named Colin Warner who leads a troubled life as a petty criminal. After a young man is shot to death in broad daylight, Warner gets caught up in the corrupt and negligent justice system eager for convictions in crime-ridden 1980’s New York. As a result of false testimonies given by predominately young immigrants pressured by the police, he is quickly ushered through the court system and sentenced to 15 years to life for the murder of someone he had never heard of, along with a likely guilty co-defendant who is sentenced to less time as a juvenile. Disgusted by the injustice in which he was convicted and later lost appeals, Warner’s close friend Carl ‘KC’ King, played by former NFL Pro Bowler Nnamdi Asomugha, tirelessly makes it his mission to prove his childhood friend’s innocence and get him released from prison. The film does an excellent job of providing an intimate glimpse into prison from the perspective of an innocent man, including the difficult moments resulting in angered violence and coming to the harsh belief that he may be behind bars for the rest of his life for a crime he did not commit. King remains tenaciously hopeful even when Warner is despondent and spends day and night learning the legal system with the occasional help of a generous criminal defense attorney, played by Bill Camp best known for the 2016 HBO miniseries The Night Of. With his new knowledge, King investigates and interviews witnesses in order to create a compelling appeal for Warner’s exoneration. Over the course of the movie, the filmmaker expertly contextualizes the sometimes injust justice system in the United States by inserting newsreel montages depicting the government crackdown on crime for each decade Warner spends in prison. Overall, I found it to be a truly enlightening and emotionally powerful film about some of the problems with the criminal justice system, including the depressing statistic that up to 120,000 innocent people may be currently incarcerated.
Based on the true story of one of the most famous rappers, All Eyez on Me is a mediocre biopic that tells the story of revolutionary rap star Tupac Shakur through his struggles as a poor black youth living in the projects to his eventual rise to fame. Played by newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr. who has an uncanny resemblance to the real Tupac, Tupac bounces around public housing in New York, Baltimore, and Oakland with his siblings and single mother who was a prominent member of the Black Panthers. After writing lyrics for himself, he debuts as a nationally recognized rapper in the early 1990’s, especially after signing and releasing his first albums with Interscope Records. Eventually, he joins Death Row Records run by controversial rap mogul Suge Knight who helped kickstart the massively popular group N.W.A. At the time, he is hailed as the next great gangsta rap star and rapidly becomes rich while also becoming the target of rival rappers, particularly the East Coast-based The Notorious B.I.G. Despite his success, he runs into legal trouble several times and is shot on one occasion at least five times before his early death. Tragically, in September 1996 at the age of 25, he is gunned down in the streets of Las Vegas in a car driven by Suge Knight. To this day, his murder remains unsolved. Even after his untimely death, his estate has released at least five posthumous albums, and he has sold over 75 million albums as of 2007, ranking him as the second best-selling rap and hip-hop artist in history. Overall, I found the movie to take an occasionally interesting look at arguably the greatest rap icon, but I came away disappointed in the overly confusing and rushed plot line that did not really delve deep into Tupac’s fascinating life story. Although lacking the high-quality script and powerful acting performances, the movie reminded me of the terrific 2015 film Straight Outta Compton about N.W.A. with its biographical depiction of an equally significant rap group and their rise to fame.
Based on an inspirational true story, Megan Leavey is a well-crafted and emotionally powerful movie about war in addition to the bond between humans and animals. In a sublime performance filled with raw emotion, Kate Mara of House of Cards fame plays Megan Leavey, a troubled young woman who decides to join the United States Marine Corps as a way to escape her life. During her time training at Camp Pendleton outside San Diego, she desperately wants to become a Military Police K-9 handler. Eventually, she becomes a corporal and is paired with a difficult-to-control bomb-sniffing military working dog named Rex. Never really having bonded with anyone in her hardship-filled life, Megan quickly develops a close kinship with Rex, especially when they are deployed into combat in war-torn Iraq. First serving in Fallujah in 2005 then Ramadi in 2006, she, as a woman not allowed in combat, and her best friend Rex are mostly posted at checkpoints looking for IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that were wounding and killing so many American and Coalition troops. Everything changes when out on a rare mission outside Ramadi, an IED explodes and injures Megan and Rex. While recovering from her wounds and battling depression caused by PTSD, she is heartbroken to learn that Rex is returning to combat with a different handler and will be labeled unadoptable after his deployment and retirement. Herself retired from the Marines, she fights with her superiors to be able to adopt Rex as her own dog and even finds herself profiled in the media and appealing to Senator Chuck Schumer for support. Megan’s dogged determination shows just how important the human bond can be with animals; she is only able to effectively cope with her PTSD by being with Rex and Rex seems to only be happy with her. The film also shows the emotional impact that war has on people and the chronic PTSD problem among a large portion of war veterans. Overall, I found it to be an excellent movie, complete with a terrific performance from Kate Mara, about the horrors of war that also had a hopeful message about the important relationship between humans and animals. Additionally, I thought the film did an excellent job of shedding light on the mostly overlooked work of military combat dogs and how vital they are to protecting and saving so many soldiers lives.
Based on the true story of one of the most pivotal moments in Winston Churchill’s life, Churchill tells a fascinating chapter of World War II history and is marked by a terrific acting performance from Brian Cox, but the movie’s impact ultimately falls short and feels more like a low budget TV movie. The film follows the larger-than-life British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, played by the great Scottish actor Brian Cox, during the lead up to the massive invasion of Normandy, France on D-Day. We witness the pivotal days before June 6, 1944 through the eyes of the war-weary Churchill who is opposed to the plan because it reminds him of his fateful decision during World War I at the Battle of Gallipoli that led to thousands of Allied deaths and an embarrassing defeat. The stubborn and strong-willed political leader butts heads with the military leaders, including the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower who is played by John Slattery of Mad Men fame, and British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery. For such dramatic decision-making that turns the tide of the war, the movie never really builds up enough tension and is hampered by the stilted performances of the supporting cast. Much of the film wallows in the despair of Churchill who, at times, is unresponsive and must be encouraged by his emotional backbone, his wife Clementine Churchill who is played by Miranda Richardson. I was most fascinated by the deep depression that Churchill experienced and his resistance to such a bold action as D-Day, both surprising aspects for a great leader famous for his power and resiliency. Overall, I was disappointed by the less-than-stellar and oftentimes convoluted writing and narrative structure of the movie, which had so much potential. The remarkable story of an unexplored area of such a consequential man as Winston Churchill and his role during World War II deserved a better cinematic treatment.