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New films: A Major Moviebriefs Roundup

Battle of the Sexes” recounts the match, and the build up to it, between women’s tennis legend Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), also a champion player but from a generation earlier. Riggs, a self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig, was a showman and habitual gambler for whom challenging King had more to do with self-aggrandizement than the politics of gender. King, meanwhile, was coincidentally discovering and exploring her sexuality and the film has as much to do with that dynamic as it does the game. Interestingly, one of King’s rivals at the time (previously beaten by Riggs) was Margaret Court, who was and continues to be an outspoken critic of gay marriage and homosexuals. Stone and Carell are both strong in the lead roles and the film is a pleasure to watch.

Tom Cruise plays Barry Seal, an American pilot recruited by the CIA to photograph rebel encampments in the upbeat “American Made.” Seal, as depicted in the film, was an easy mark having already smuggled Cuban cigars, and was a maverick in the air who simulated turbulence on commercial flights just for fun. But the work quickly escalated into gun running and drug smuggling and the film is primarily played for laughs as Seal generates so many cash payments he quite literally can’t handle the sheer volume of money he’s being paid. In one related scene, he’s trying to bury bags of cash in his backyard but can’t dig a hole without finding other bags of cash he buried previously. All of this was a dangerous (or foolhardy) undertaking in small, fast, twin-engined planes and it’s worth noting that one of the production planes crashed with pilots and crew on board, resulting in two deaths. “American Made” rushes from Nicaraguan Contras and Sandanistas to the Medellin Cartel and on to Colonel Oliver North as Seal’s CIA handler (Domhnall Gleeson in his second American accent of the month – alongside “Mother!”) becomes more ambitious and less restrained. It’s an odd title for a film about Colombian cocaine and Russian guns, but what’s American made here are the international crises and the burgeoning drug epidemic that’s carefully sidestepped in favor of almost farcical action.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle” picks up where “Kingsman: The Secret Service” left off, with Eggsy (Taron Egerton) having taken over from his mentor and sponsor (Colin Firth) in the secret, independent spying agency. There are some fun moments as it tries to duplicate the formula and success of the original, but it’s a tough act to follow and not entirely successful. Part of the problem is that the premise of the first film is largely built around the juxtaposition of stiff-upper lipped British manners and the wanton violence of international espionage film thrillers. That’s lost when you transition from the British organization to its American counterpart, and the film rapidly slips into generic light action fare. I’d like to see more of these but it’s hard to know where they’ll go next – and they appear to be setting up for more American content rather than returning to the core Britishness that defined the concept. And, this time around, a cameo by Elton John is distracting rather than beneficial.

The latest adaptation of Stephen King’s “It” revived the year’s flagging box office numbers, presumably largely because audiences had been waiting for something worth leaving the house for. And it’s a well made film with a strong, primarily young, cast that managed to keep the audience I was a part of screaming and jumping in their seats. But it loses some of what I think King had in the source material where, as with other works of his such as “The Body”/”Stand By Me,” it’s older kids as bullies and uncaring or predatory adults and parents who keep the world we live in populated with monsters, not just the recurrent child-eating clowns of the world. “it” is what it is – a slick partial adaptation of richer source material that will most likely have a sequel – so perhaps they’ll dive a little deeper next time.

Few, if any, recent films have made me want to leave the theater as quickly as Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!,” a film that seems to be deeply dividing audiences along love/hate lines, with me and what seems to be a majority in the latter group. It starts with a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) and man (Javier Bardem) living in a large house in what initially seems to be the countryside, but what quickly appears to be a disconnected fantasy world. Their idyllic bliss is shattered as guests arrive, followed by more and more people and their accompanying troubles. At first it seemed like a commentary on the creative process, with a writer’s muse threatened by new distractions and inspirations, but as it develops and escalates, it takes on the scale of the rise and fall of civilizations and religions – which I suppose might still be thought of as a commentary on the creative process. But it’s a big creative mess that drags rather than races forward and much of my own surprise, as the action builds, was based on the expectation that the film would end far sooner than it did, largely because it felt so much longer than it was. That seems like a problem in pacing in what is already a tough sell, a cinematic philosophical musing that could make Terrence Malick seem mainstream and narratively ordinary.

Ben Stiller is in low key (read: good), restrained mode in the understated “Brad’s Status,” about a father taking his son from their home in Sacramento (which never actually appears in the film!) to the East Coast for college visits and interviews. There’s almost no significant narrative plot here, it’s all about one man questioning his own accomplishments in the face of peers who seem to have achieved so much more, at least on the surface. In that sense, it’s similar in concept to a film like “Broken Flowers” with Bill Murray (also in serious mode) as another man assessing his place in the world. “Brad’s Status” is good in a solid if somewhat unremarkable and predicable way. It’s a look at life that many can probably relate to but it may also be too close for comfort for some who prefer their cinema a little less real world and a lot more escapist.

Dylan O’Brien breaks out of ensemble mode for his first mainstream leading role in “American Assassin” and does a decent job in this thriller about a young American who desperately wants to kill terrorists after his fiancée is killed in a shooting at a beach resort. After initially training himself and going alone, he’s recruited by the CIA and further trained by a tough old hand, played by an interestingly cast Michael Keaton (it works). It’s not a very complex film, but it doesn’t need to be – and it manages fairly well against low expectations. But most multiplex films of this nature are bigger, louder, and more star-studded, likely leaving this one feeling like an also-ran for many despite being a structurally solid film from Mike Cuesta (“Kill the Messenger” – a film that has more Sacramento than the theoretically Sacramento-based “Brad’s Status”).

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a Boston Marathon bombing survivor, Jeff Bauman, who lost both of his legs and became a symbol of City pride in “Stronger.” This is a more intimate film about that event than Mark Wahlberg’s bomber-hunt “Patriot’s Day,” focusing on the devastating injuries and their effect on the life of not just the victim but those around him. It’s well done and has a great supporting cast, albeit with some unexpected inclusions: Lenny Clarke is an obvious choice for a Boston-based story but Miranda Richardson? (It works, but it was also surprising.) “Stronger” is a stronger film than, for example, “American Assassin,” but they’re an interesting pair as I found myself wondering what they’d each be like with the leading actors switched (and Dylan O’Brien has a certain amount of “Bubble Boy” era Gyllenhaal about him). It’s also a film that could help employee recruitment at Costco.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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