Steve Carell

London Film Festival Review: Battle Of The Sexes

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The Pitch: Fifteen-love. (In other words, I’ll get fifteen grand, you get us a drink, love.)

The Review: Despite loving to watch all kinds of it – I’ve taken two weeks off work to watch the Olympics before now – I was terrible at sport at school. In seven years of grammar school I played rugby matches for my house’s C-team, one match for my house’s D-team at cricket before I was substituted at half time and never played again, and was so bad at athletics I once finished a race to discover the teacher had given up and gone in. We did have tennis courts but I never came close to picking up a racket, knowing that I would have comfortably been the worst in my year, or possibly any year. Serve and volley? I’d be happy to accomplish 50% of that. Once. Of course, I went to an all boy’s school, so maybe I’d have had a match at a mixed school.

Don’t worry, I’m not a raging chauvinist, clearly all of the girls would have beaten me as well. (A one-armed monkey with one arm tied behind its back could have given me a decent game, but let’s not go there.) But these were the attitudes prevalent in tennis back when I was born in the Seventies. It’s been an ongoing struggle for women since then to get to parity with their male equivalents. Take, for example, the view that “… our men’s tennis world, the ATP world, should fight for more, because the stats are showing we have more spectators” and that “…[Ladies’] bodies are much different than men’s bodies. They have to go through a lot of different things that we don’t have to go through… You know, hormones and different stuff.” That would be depressing enough coming from the mouth of a misogynist Seventies tennis pro, but it was actually said by former world number one Novak Djokovic in 2016.

The new film from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, RUBY SPARKS) takes us back to the dawn of a revolution in tennis. Billie Jean King was at the top of her game, five-time Grand Slam winner and world number one, but when her frustration at the gap in tournament pay became too great, she and eight other tennis professionals broke away to form their own tournament. When hearing of this, retired champion Bobby Riggs, now in his fifties and addicted to gambling, challenged King to a winner-takes-all match to prove even an older man could comfortably beat a top woman. When King refused, fellow professional Margaret Court stepped in but after being handed a thrashing by Riggs, King had no choice but to step up to defend the honour of all women on the court.

Whether you’re male or female, BATTLE OF THE SEXES represents excellent value for money as it’s three films rolled into one. The first of those is the gender inequality battle, pitching Emma Stone’s King against Steve Carell’s Riggs. This film is broadly comedic, playing to Carell’s strengths as hustler Riggs becomes emboldened by his seemingly effortless superiority. Stone has to butt heads with chauvinist-in-chief of the tennis tour Jack Kramer (a typically smarmy Bill Pullman) while supported by Gladys Heldman, who gets sponsorship for their new ladies’ tour and backs King’s activist impulses. The only real quibble is that Stone’s King feels oddly passive at times, undoubtedly committed to her cause but the fervour never really rising to the surface.

It’s the second of the three films mixed in here that’s the most compelling, where King explores feelings for her hairdresser Marilyn, despite being on the surface happily married. It’s a time when taboos of gender can easily be confronted, if not so easily broken down, but those of sexuality have to remain firmly in the closet in service of the greater cause. Andrea Riseborough plays Marilyn and hers and Stone’s relationship is tender and their moral dilemmas sketched out believably. The film makes the most of the Seventies setting, from costumes to cinematography, and the warm visual glow afforded to their more private moments justifies pushing the aesthetic as far as possible. Again, if there’s one quibble it’s that King’s husband Larry feels little more than a plot cipher.

The third and final film is the one where we have the biggest problems. For as much as BATTLE OF THE SEXES seems embarrassed by it, it’s a film about tennis, and it’s the sports elements that are by far the weakest. Don’t get me wrong, sports films can sometimes feel desperately predetermined in their dramatic arc, especially when many viewers will already know the result, but the best of them can still give you a thrill and the sporting elements have the feel of someone who’s only ever watched sport on TV and most likely under duress. There’s never any sense of the tactical nous King employed or seemingly any interest in making the tennis more than a distraction; at some points it’s not even readily apparent who’s winning, sucking any excitement from the spectacle served up.

So Dayton and Faris’ film ticks plenty of boxes, satisfying as a human drama, entertaining as a comedy but serving up a double fault when it comes to the actual sport. That said, it should still drive the point home about the continuing disparity in the pay in professional sport; despite the Grand Slam tournaments now paying women and men equally, the top women will still earn about half of their male equivalents, which means that this battle is one that still needs to be fought, and it can just about consider BATTLE OF THE SEXES a worthy ally in that struggle.

Why see it at the cinema: The comedic elements of the film undoubtedly work better with an audience for company, and seeing it on a large screen helps to follow the tennis because it’s all shot statically from above as if on TV.

What about the rating? Rated 12A for infrequent moderate sex. (Don’t worry, the only balls you see are on court.)

My cinema experience: The joys of press screenings at the London Film Festival mean that this film started at 8:15 a.m., for me, when it’s a two-hour journey into London, that’s an early start. Always nice to know that you have the leopard print seats and awkwardly angled screen of the Odeon Leicester Square to look forward to at the end of your epic trek. In particular, the sound can get very muffled at points; it’s a shame that London’s largest showcase for film (with over 1,600 seats) isn’t also its best.

The Score: 7/10

Review: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

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Anchorman 2

The Pitch: Breaking news.

The Review: You know that thing? That thing where you’re at a party with some close friends, and you throw out an off the cuff remark that everyone finds unexpectedly funny, and you then spend the rest of the evening trying to match that comment and occasionally coming off as both funny and clever but never quite living up to that first comment? That.

Why see it at the cinema: If you’re an…

What, you want an actual review? Oh, go on then.

This isn’t going to hold too many surprises. So, I could spin this out with fancy words, possibly even a graph or a poem, but if you’ve seen the original, you’ll probably like this. It is two hours more of Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, David Koechner and Steve Carell being Ron, Brian, Champ and Brick. If the sound of Ron Burgundy’s man child is like nails down a metaphorical blackboard, then this is just going to be a bunch more nails on a highly polished blackboard. If your not an Anchor-fan, move along, nothing to see here.

There is both a plot and a subplot of sorts. The plot revolves around Ron Burgundy’s initial fall from grace, which sees him fired from the network by intimidating anchor Mack Tannen (Harrison Ford) while his wife Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) is promoted. Down on his luck and in a dead-end job commentating on dolphins at a water park, Burgundy is offered a lifeline by producer Freddy Shapp (Dylan Baker) at new 24 hour news network GNN. Burgundy and his reassembled news team come instantly into conflict with hotshot anchor Jack Lime (James Marsden) and feisty producer Linda Jackson (Meagan Good). Ron also has to deal with the consequences of his separation from Veronica, her new partner Gary (Greg Kinnear) and their son caught up in the separation, as well as newfound romantic feelings for Linda. If that wasn’t enough, Brick is also forming a romantic attachment to like minded simpleton Chani (Kristen Wiig).

Everything you liked about the first film is back here, from unexpected songs to rapidly escalating fights. You’ll not be surprised to hear Brick still doing his best impersonation of a live action Ralph Wiggum with added shouting, Champ behaving generally inappropriately and ignorantly, Brian keeping more stores of lovemaking material in his secret wall cabinet and Ron frequently misunderstanding the most basic of situations. Despite his many and varied flaws, Ron remains the glue that binds the group together and the group works as well as ever, the four leads slipping effortlessly back into their roles. Rumours about that there exists a second cut of the film with different takes of all the jokes, but the random improvisation feels slightly more forced this time out (compare and contrast “Great Odin’s Raven!” with “By the hymen of Olivia Newton-John!”). Despite a reputation for this kind of improv humour, it’s the big set pieces which often work best here, including a trip to the city in a Jesus-covered Winnebago and an extended sequence on a lighthouse.

There is a little innovation here, mostly in the supremely broad satire suggesting that Burgundy and his crew were inadvertently responsible for the state of rolling news today. The voiceover is more heavily used than in the first film, Bill Curtis’ deep tones explaining the simplest of plot points for anyone who sees Brick as an intellectual role model. Mostly though, Anchorman 2 gets by on new riffs on old material and certainly feels very familiar: for example, the battle of the sexes between Ron and Veronica in the original is instead replaced by a culture clash between Ron and Linda’s family in a spectacularly offensive dinner table scene this time around. Sometimes that familiarity works against the film, but when it works in its favour (such as in the climactic anchor fight, taking the original and amping it up by a factor of 10, and well handled by director Adam McKay) then Anchorman 2 is very funny indeed. It has no real pretensions to anything other than very silly, and it achieves that goal often enough to be considered a reasonable success. Did the world need more Ron Burgundy? Probably not. Does it feel marginally more laboured than the original? Undoubtedly yes. Should the world breathe a heavy sigh of relief that they managed not to screw it up completely? Definitely. You stayed classy, Ron Burgundy. Just.

Why see it at the cinema: If you’re an Anchorman fan, then see it with the biggest crowd you can to make the most of the laughs. Ideally, before someone spoils all of the surprises for you.

What about the rating? Rated 15 for infrequent strong sex references and hard drug use. Remember kids, taking crack is bad, mmm’kay?

My cinema experience: Took a half day from work to catch this at the first screening of the day in the Cineworld Bury St Edmunds. There was a surprisingly large crowd, no doubt due to the close proximity to Christmas, and the crowd were all clearly well up for it given their heavy laughter at the Last Vegas trailer (which I’ve now seen around a dozen times). Thankfully this laughter carried over into the film itself and enhanced my viewing pleasure no end. You stay classy, Bury St Edmunds.

The Score: 7/10

Review: Despicable Me 3D

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The Pitch: The Addams Family Annie.

The Review: It’s easy to wonder today how many of the spate of animated movies which have followed in the wake of Toy Story and other Pixar classics would have been made in the days of hand-drawn animation. Certainly computer graphics have opened up the opportunity to increase the level of detail on the visuals, both in terms of quality and content, but if any lesson should be learned from Pixar, it’s that story is the key – get that right, first and foremost, and the rest is complementary rather than essential.

The story here is a classic juxtaposition – Gru (Steve Carell) is an criminal mastermind working in the tough and competitive field of criminal mastermindery, but whose previous schemes have not met the success he’d have liked. His efforts to achieve prominence in his chosen profession pit him against up and coming evil genius Vector (Jason Segel), and in his efforts to get one up on his new nemesis, he’s willing to take any steps necessary, even the adoption of three unwanted orphans who turn up on his doorstep one day to sell cookies. His underestimation of the implications of this development only serve to complicate his efforts to achieve his greatest challenge yet – to steal the Moon…

So the story itself is fairly solid, and there are a few standout elements. The first is Gru himself, Carell going for an indeterminate Eastern-European style accent that actually gives his character just that – character. It’s easy to warm to him and also to remain sympathetic, despite his oddball plans. The little ones in his care are also extremely entertaining, be it the perfectly balanced orphan trio or the vast array of freakish-looking yellow minions, and the movie isn’t afraid to play on some of their stranger physical characteristics, which also generate some of the bigger laughs.

But, and there is a but, that’s all that really stands out. If you’ve seen the making of that gets cycled on afternoon TV and satellite channels, you’ll have seen how good Julie Andrews is as Gru’s mum – but she actually gets about four lines in the final cut. The plot itself has some rough edges (these criminal masterminds are oddly civilised and very formal for a bunch of evil criminals, even the cute and cuddly kind) that diminish its impact. It’s not fair to expect everything to have the large emotional impact of (yes, them again) Pixar, but it only engages the emotions a little, and also ends up being mildly chucklesome rather than laugh out loud funny. Most of the rest of the supporting cast, including an oddly miscast Russell Brand, also leave little impact. It should please your smaller minions and it’s good value for the whole family, but this is more “Despicable Meh” than anything else.

Why see it at the cinema: There’s some well-handled action sequences and generally lots going on at any one time, so the cinema does do Despicable Me some favours.

Why see it in 3D: There’s moderately effective use of the third dimension during the running time, but the end crecits are the most prominent 3D showcase, with minions competing to see how far into the audience’s faces they can get. Ah, my eyes!

The Score: 6/10

Review: Dinner For Schmucks

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The Pitch: Of Mice And Anchormen.

The Review: The two most prominent comedy schools of the twenty-first century have been the Adam McKay-Will Ferrell type movies with mainly madness and shouting, and the Judd Apatow, more observational style, although the two have shared common acting talent. Paul Rudd and Steve Carell have appeared together in one of each (Anchorman and The 40 Year Old Virgin), and now align themselves with director Jay Roach, who himself has spawned two key comedy franchises in the Austin Powers and Fockers sagas. Quite a wide variety of styles, but Dinner For Schmucks attempts to mine yet further comedic deposits, including the discomfort-style comedy of Carell’s own The Office remake, but the predominant tone here is altogether more screwball.

This is, of course, a remake of the Nineties French movie Le diner de cons, with two major structural differences – that movie didn’t actually have the dinner at its conclusion, whereas here the conclusion is the dinner itself (don’t worry, that’s not a significant spoiler), but also that there was nothing but entertainment as a motive for the original’s dinner, whereas Schmucks raises the stakes for Paul Rudd’s Tim so that he must be successful at the dinner and also in his other endeavours. Crucial to this is finding the right schmuck, and Tim quite literally runs into Steve Carell’s Barry, a kind hearted simpleton who produces dioramas from roadkill mice. So we have some stakes, and they are raised as soon as Barry comes into Tim’s life with the complications that Barry immediately and inadvertently causes for Tim’s love life.

Your tolerance for what follows will depend entirely on the good will you have for Messrs. Carell and Rudd. For the first hour of the movie has the occasional chuckle, is sporadically funny, but is also packed full of set pieces that lead you to question what kind of comedy you’re actually watching. Dinner For Schmucks is described in the opening titles as “inspired by”, but in the process the writers appear to have taken too many of the direct elements from their original and nothing really gels together. Or indeed, is actually anything other than toe-curlingly embarrassing at some points, most notably a subplot featuring Lucy Punch as a clingy former one-night stand. There’s also jeopardy on the love interest angle – Jermaine Clement plays the weirdo artist with a commendable straight face, but there’s very little to offer of interest in that story early on.

Then something happens as we get closer to the dinner itself – Barry’s nemesis at work, Therman (Zack Galifianakis) comes into the story, and suddenly Barry’s tale takes on a huge amount of pathos and you find yourself rooting for him, despite yourself and despite the fact that at times he’s taken decisions which seem purely driven to be annoying, rather than true to the character. But the final dinner arrives, all of the characters, including David Walliams’ bizarre Swiss moneyman and the other schmucks, come together in what turns out to be a very funny and well constructed conclusion, as the respective idiocies all have a bearing on the final outcome in the manner of a classic farce. If you can last until the final third, the dinner is worth the wait and elevates the whole enterprise by several degrees, but if you’re not big Carell / Rudd fans, you may struggle to last that long.

Why see it at the cinema: To take in the full intricate and poignant details of Barry’s mouse dioramas in their wonderful detail. There’s a mouse Jesus! What more could you want?

The Score: 6/10