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Usually reliable directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) somehow manage to make the story of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs’ infamous early 1970s tennis match quite boring.

In Battle of the Sexes, King is played by Emma Stone, who brings a nice warmth to the role of King, one of the great trailblazing athletes of the 20th century. Steve Carell labors a bit as Riggs, the chauvinist pig who challenged the much-younger King to a battle of the sexes, an exhibition tennis match to prove the superiority of the male athlete.

The actual match happens in the film’s final half-hour, and it’s an entertaining segment that manages to incorporate real footage of Howard Cosell and a realistic depiction of the actual tennis play. What the movie doesn’t do is have much of a pulse in the buildup, portraying King’s love life in a way that would seem too schmaltzy for your average soap opera. Surely, there must’ve been some fireworks when the married King started sleeping with her hairdresser on her tennis tour, but this movie instead takes a dull and sappy route.

I expected to laugh more, but the movie just sort of drags along until Stone and Carell pick up their racquets, which looked a lot like badminton racquets back in the 1970s. The movie also tries to make Riggs too likable; it would’ve been OK to make him a little nastier.

No doubt: Billie Jean King is a legend. This movie doesn’t quite live up to that legend.

Battle of the Sexes is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

In the vast catalogue of Woody Allen films, Café Society falls somewhere in the middle of the pack. While it’s definitely one of his better-looking movies, a slight casting mistake leads to the movie being a little underwhelming at times.

Kristen Stewart is often great (see her in this year’s Certain Women for an example of just how damned great she can be), but if you put her in the wrong role, you can really see her working and straining.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Woody Allen Jr.—uh, I mean Bobby, a young kid looking to find work in old-timey Hollywood under the tutelage of his studio big-shot uncle, Phil (Steve Carell, kicking mortal ass). Phil asks one of his assistants, Vonnie (Stewart), to show Bobby around—and, of course, they fall in love.

Café Society has all of the Allen tropes: a bumbling protagonist, a smart-but-not-that-smart love interest, old-timey jazz music and silly romantic situations. Stewart’s character is luminous at times, but seems bored in others, as if the actress is not sure how to play Vonnie’s wild personality shifts. She just plays it sort of dull.

Eisenberg does his best Woody Allen impersonation, while the costuming, set design and cinematography are all first-rate. Even when the movie gets a little stupid, it’s always fun to watch.

Café Society gets a mild recommendation. Just don’t look to it for a great Stewart performance, because she seems a little clueless. I’m not sure that’s even really her fault: When Allen writes lazily, some characters go by the wayside.

Café Society is available via online sources, and on DVD and Blu-ray.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

The annual Palm Springs International Film Festival’s Awards Gala provides a cadre of A-list film actors and directors with oddly titled awards for their trophy cases—along with a low-stress, fun night in Palm Springs, the “home away from L.A.” for many celebrities.

This year’s honorees at the Saturday, Jan. 2, gala at the Palm Springs Convention Center included Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Matt Damon, Johnny Depp, Bryan Cranston, Michael Fassbender, Cate Blanchett, Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan, Alicia Vikander, Rooney Mara and Tom McCarthy.

The 11-day festival proudly presents a broad gamut of films within nearly every genre, produced both here and abroad; some of these films receive little or no viewership in the commercial marketplace otherwise. In contrast, the celebrity cast of honorees and presenters—Michael Keaton, Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet and Ridley Scott were among the latter this year—as usual included a host of attention-grabbing nominees for the rapidly approaching major award season in Los Angeles. This proven strategy creates fund-raising fodder for the mix of industry players and local philanthropists who pay to get inside the Convention Center event. This year, more than $2 million was raised to support the year-round community service and film appreciation activities of the Palm Springs International Film Society, organizers said.

However, for me, the night proved to be a bust. While larger national media sources received prime space on the red carpet, the stars—most of whom were accompanied by a phalanx of PR representatives—were quickly whisked past those of us at the very end of the carpet where media outlets not offering national outreach were banished. (As for photos … the Independent was denied a photo credential, period … hence the mediocre smart-phone pics below.)

Special recognition was earned by Mr. Depp, who took time to amble at a leisurely pace, offering smiles and a couple of mumbled responses to urgently proffered inquiries.

In summation, I offer, for your enjoyment, a few freeze-frame stills and a brief video I shot to prove that I did, in fact, cover the event.

Enjoy. 

Published in Snapshot

Director Adam McKay, the master behind broad-comedy gems Anchorman and Step Brothers, flexes his more-serious muscles for The Big Short, a take on the housing bubble that nearly destroyed the global economy.

An ensemble cast including Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt makes this a funny yet scary look at how big banks nearly sent our economy back to the Stone Age. Carell is especially good as Mark Baum, a banker with a conscience who realizes a little too late that things are going down hill—and that his wealth is coming at the expense of many U.S. homeowners.

Bale is typically good as Michael Burry, a man who saw the storm coming and made a boatload of money by betting against the biggest monsters of modern finance. Pitt has fun as a financial guru who has taken to the hills in anticipation of the oncoming financial apocalypse, while Gosling gives the whole thing a nice Martin Scorsese vibe as a fast-talking banker/narrator.

This is a drama, but it’s often funny. (Margot Robbie in a bubble bath…brilliant!) McKay shows that his chops go well beyond directing Will Ferrell with a fireman mustache.

The Big Short is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The little yellow things from Despicable Me now have their own film, Minions. Their banana shtick is fun for a while—but it’s not enough to sustain an entire feature film.

Things start out funny enough, with a brief history of the Minions since the beginning of time. They’ve always wanted to be henchmen, and they are attracted to bad guys. We meet a lot of their former, unlucky bosses (Dracula, T-Rex, Napoleon, etc.). They wind up settling up north, worshipping the abominable snowman, when three of them (Stuart, Kevin and Bob) decide to head out on a journey to look for a new master.

Their travels take them to New York in 1968—which happens to be the year of my birth, and arguably one of the worst years in American history. The pop-culture references when they first arrive, including a fantastic Richard Nixon billboard and The Dating Game, are well done. The movie has a cool Mad Magazine vibe going for it in its first half.

However, things start going off the rails when the three minions leave New York for Orlando, Fla., where they seek out the world’s greatest villainous, Scarlet Overkill (the voice of Sandra Bullock), at something akin to Comic-Con for villains. She has some cockamamie scheme for the minions to steal the queen of England’s crown, co they all travel to England—where things get even wackier.

Perhaps the best thing in the movie is the queen (Jennifer Saunders), who is portrayed as a happy-go-lucky goofball, and who remains good-natured even when she loses her crown and the throne to Overkill due to a technicality. In fact, the film lights up when the queen is in the room; it could’ve used more of her.

As for the Minions themselves, they get a little grating after the first 45 minutes. The banana joke is funny the first seven times or so, but it grows a little tired around the 1,756th time. They speak that strange Minions gibberish, and that, too, is funny for a little while, but trying to figure out what they are saying eventually gets a little exhausting. When I could figure out what they were sort of saying … well, it just wasn’t that funny.

By the time one of the Minions grows to the size of King Kong and terrorizes London, many adult eyes had glazed over. The opening sequences that included things older people would know about prove to be a tease: Minions is strictly a kiddie affair for most of its running time.

The screening I saw had plenty of kids guffawing—and that’s really what this thing is supposed to do, right? It’s supposed to make kids laugh and give them something to drive their parents crazy with for the next few months. Parents: Start gearing up to buy the large variety of Minions toys sure to be assaulting stores in the next few months.

Bullock’s supervillain isn’t all that interesting, and neither is her husband (voiced by Jon Hamm). Michael Keaton and Allison Janney take part in one of the film’s more amusing sequences, as parents who take their children on armed robberies.

The film does have some sick fun with the back-history of the Minions. Most of their masters before Gru (Steve Carell’s character in Despicable Me) are accidentally killed. They manage to get a caveman eaten by a big bear; they blow up Dracula; they crush the abominable snowman, etc. Seeing powerful and nefarious male figures as no match for the Minions is good for a laugh or two.

I won’t spoil any surprises, but the film does feature a big cameo. Actually, you can probably guess who it is. Want me to tell you? Nah … screw it. I won’t tell you.

As for the future of the Despicable Me series, a third film featuring Carell’s Gru is slated for 2017. However, given the huge box-office take of Minions in its opening weekend, the little yellow guys have more drawing power than Gru.

Minions is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Steve Carell disappears into the role of John du Pont, the real-life crazy rich guy who took it upon himself in to shoot and kill one of the wrestlers on a team he created.

Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are heartbreakingly good in Foxcatcher as Mark and David Schultz, two Olympic gold medal-winning siblings who, unfortunately, worked for du Pont when he had his breakdown. Down on his luck and living on ramen noodles, Mark gets a call from du Pont, who invites him out to his Foxcatcher farm. Mark finds a sense of purpose working with du Pont, and eventually summons his brother and his family to Foxcatcher.

What follows is a descent into insanity for the attention-starved du Pont, who lives under the chastising eye of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and is obsessed with controlling others. The madness eventually ended with the death of one of the brothers, and du Pont living his final years in prison.

Carell is amazingly good here; one only needs to watch a few minutes of the real du Pont on YouTube to know he nailed the characterization. Tatum and Ruffalo are equally good as the confused brothers.

Mark Schultz is currently protesting director Bennett Miller’s portrayal of him in the film, and he might be in the right on a few aspects of that portrayal. Still, Foxcatcher is a great film that will leave you with an appropriately sick feeling in your stomach.

Foxcatcher is now playing at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

As the Hollywood A-listers began arriving at Palm Springs Convention Center for the 26th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival's Awards Gala on Saturday, Jan. 3, hopes ran high among the fans gathered along the sidewalks across from the red-carpeted entryway.

Whether the fans were locals or visitors to the Coachella Valley, they all had favorites they were hoping to see.

Palm Springs resident Diana Doyle has joined the crowd for three years running. “I’m one of those people now,” she said. “I’m hooked!”

Has she had luck meeting celebrities in the past?

“Last year, I had a great picture taken with Bradley Cooper, and it went into the Los Angeles Times, and now it’s my screensaver,” she laughed. This year, her good luck continued as she got a chance to grab “selfies” with Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell.

For Connie Hale of Palm Desert, this was her eighth year of braving the crowd.

“We got her about 12 noon today,” she said. “I’ve met lots of celebrities over the years, and this is the spot to do it. I’ve met Brad Pitt and Robert Downey Jr. already, but this year, I’d like to meet any of the stars coming.”

At one point, Hale found herself face-to-face with Michael Keaton—but the moment passed without her getting the autograph she wanted.

KESQ/CBS Local 2 meteorologist Rob Bradley and fiancée Kristina Guckenberger were among the fortunate fans who obtained access to the grandstand seating area next to the red-carpet entrance.

“I’ve had to work in the studio the last two years doing weather updates during down time in our Awards Gala red-carpet live special coverage, so this is my first time being here at the event,” Bradley said.

Did they have any favorites they wanted to see up close this evening? “My mom said I should meet Robert Downey Jr. and Brad Pitt. And for my dad, Reese Witherspoon,” Guckenberger said. Unfortunately, neither Downey nor Pitt appeared out front to greet fans.

Still, the crowd’s mood remained festive as the almost-full moon rose and the temperature dropped, before the fans dispersed as the awards dinner got under way inside.

Scroll down to see some pictures from the red carpet.

Published in Snapshot

After nearly a decade away from movie screens, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), the world’s greatest newscaster, has returned. This time, it’s the 1980s, and a new media craze called “24-hour news” has Ron and the boys (Paul Rudd’s Brian Fantana, Steve Carell’s Brick Tamland and David Koechner’s Champ Kind) working the late-night shift in New York.

The plot is just a place-setter for weird, random humor involving bats, sharks, shadows, scorpions in RVs and hair. Ferrell and crew manage to sell the dumbest of things, and they make so much of it funny. Even the stuff that’s simply strange has its own humorous appeal.

Carell goes super-dopey with Brick as he finds a love interest (Kristen Wiig); Champ still loves Ron in a dangerous way; and Brian has a new condom cabinet. I laughed my face off; this is a sequel that continues the comedic legacy of the brilliant original, and even ups the ante when it comes to anchor-on-anchor battles in the park. The battle scene in this one is one for the ages, and involves fighter jets.

Director Adam McKay has stated that this is the end for Ron Burgundy. I say nuts to that. I want 10 more films.

Special Features: McKay shot a lot of footage for this film, as he did with the original Anchorman, and he had enough left over for not only an extended, R-rated version of the film with more than 700 more jokes, but for an extended unrated version, too.

The unrated version just has a few more dirty jokes, while the R-rated version is basically a different movie. The plot is mostly the same, but it’s fueled by enough alternate scenes to change the viewing experience drastically. If there’s one regret in the R-rated version, it is that it has less of Ron’s pet shark; otherwise, it’s pretty damned funny on its own.

In addition to the bountiful alternate versions, you get a killer commentary with director and cast, behind-the scenes footage, outtakes galore and a gag reel. This is a great package.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

After nearly a decade away from movie screens, Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell), the world’s greatest newscaster, has returned for Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.

This time, it’s the 1980s, and a new media craze called 24-hour news cable networks has Ron and the boys (Paul Rudd’s Brian Fantana, Steve Carell’s Brick Tamland and David Koechner’s Champ Kind) working the late-night shift in New York. The plot is basically just a place-setter for weird, random humor involving bats, sharks, shadows, hair and scorpions in RVs. Ferrell and the crew manage to sell even the dumbest of things—and make so much of it funny. Even the stuff that’s simply strange has its own appeal.

Carell goes super-dopey with Brick as he finds a love interest (Kristen Wiig); Champ still loves Ron in a dangerous way; and Brian has a new condom cabinet. I laughed my face off; this sequel continues the comedic legacy of the brilliant original, and even ups the ante when it comes to anchor-on-anchor battles in the park. (The battle scene here is one for the ages; it even involves fighter jets.)

With the first Anchorman, filmmakers had enough stuff left on the cutting-room floor to release an entire other movie. I hope that happens here as well; I don’t want to wait 10 years for more.

Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews