Gotter-Damn-That’s-Fun

In Norse mythology, Ragnarok is a series of events and battles that lead to the destruction of most of the gods. But different from Apocalyptic stories, it leads to rebirth for the Earth. After natural disasters wipe out all humans but two (Lif & Lifthrasir), the land submerges beneath the sea only to reemerge renewed and refreshed. The two humans repopulate the world, living with the help of the surviving gods. In Judeo-Christian terms, it’s closer to the story of Noah than Revelations. Ragnarok has been translated to English as “The Twilight of the Gods,” and as “Gotterdammerung” in German, where it served as the basis for the last of Wagner’s operas in the Ring series. In the Marvel Universe, though, Ragnarok means the regeneration of the Thor franchise.

The original Thor in 2011 was fun, with director Kenneth Branagh contrasting the operatic heights of Asgard with fish-out-of-water humor when Thor is banished to Earth. But Thor’s later appearances in the two Avengers movies as well as Thor: The Dark World (2013) were more standard smash-‘em-up superhero fare. Overall, Thor was a bit of a prig with all the “only he who is worthy can wield the hammer” stuff and his impossibly sculpted muscles. Star Chris Hemsworth was getting so bored with the franchise he was ready to bail out.

Enter writer/director Taika Waititi. The part-Maori New Zealander has a wonderfully cockeyed sense of humor that’s been displayed in his projects like What We Do In the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and he brings that sensibility to Thor: Ragnarok. While three screenwriters got credit for the Ragnarok script, including Dark World screenwriter Christopher L. Yost, Waititi encouraged his cast to improvise – something that usually does not happen in the Marvel Universe. The story also gives Thor a fresh dose of humanity.

After the events of Age of Ultron, Thor battles Surtur, a huge demon beast who plans to destroy Asgard. He defeats Surtur and returns to Asgard, where Thor discovers Loki is now celebrated after his supposed death during the Dark World battles. He finds Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and many Asgardians watching a stage re-enactment of Loki’s death. (The cast of the actors is fun, with Chris’s brother Luke Hemsworth playing the actor Thor, Sam Neill [Jurassic Park] as the actor Odin, and the actor playing Loki is an uncredited Matt Damon.) The tag at the end of Dark World revealed Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was alive and disguised as Odin, and Thor finds a particularly Thor-ish way to make the trickster reveal himself.

Loki takes Thor to where he dumped Odin – a retirement home in New York City – only to find the home has been demolished. But with the help of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, in an extension of the tag at the end of Doctor Strange) they find Odin sitting on a bluff in Norway overlooking the ocean, awaiting his imminent passing. Odin warns Thor that his death will release Thor’s first-born sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death. Hela had been at Odin’s side as he conquered worlds, but couldn’t accept peace, so she was banished by the Valkyries. When Odin slips away, Hela appears. She destroys Thor’s hammer, then catches a ride on the rainbow bridge to Asgard, tossing Thor and Loki into space on the way. Thor wakes on a junk-strewn planet where he’s captured by a mysterious woman warrior (Tessa Thompson) and pressed into gladiatorial combat by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). His first bout is against the Hulk, who landed on the planet after he flew off at the end of Ultron.

The plot of Ragnarok is fairly thin and straightforward. What makes it soar is the humor and characterizations, especially with some smaller roles. You have an almost unrecognizable Karl Urban (Bones in the rebooted Star Trek and the remorseless killer in The Bourne Supremacy) as Skurge, an opportunist who’s taken over running the rainbow bridge from Heimdall (Idris Elba). There’s also the blue rock warrior Korg, with a truly unexpected voice provided by director Waititi.

This movie gives the most screen-time yet to Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, and it makes you wish for a full Hulk movie, even after the two misfires with Eric Bana and Edward Norton. (Seeing Thor try to play the Black Widow role to calm the Hulk is almost too bizarre to believe.) But the one who steals the movie whenever she’s onscreen is Blanchett as the first female big bad villain in the Marvel Universe. She gives Thor and the Asgardians hell, even as she looks divine doing it.

You usually don’t go to a superhero movie to laugh out loud (with the exception of Ant-Man), but this movie will garner that reaction several times. Yet it still works perfectly as a Marvel film. Hemsworth’s Thor is rejuvenated by his trials, while the actor himself is reinvigorated by this take on the character. While the story may look at the “Twilight of the Gods,” this film is a delightful romp in the mid-day sun.

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The Other One Percent

Up until the 1970s, when the US went to war it was felt throughout the country, at every strata of society. The armed forces represented the whole of the nation, and combat deaths reverberated across entire communities. That benefited the country since its leaders usually had first-hand experience on battlefields in their lives. They viewed war as a last resort, as the failure of diplomacy, and not an action to be taken lightly or casually if there was any way to avoid it. With the switch to the all-volunteer military, that shared experience is no longer the case. Now the armed forces are about one percent of the country’s population, and while they may be honored when in battle, too often they’re forgotten and ignored when they come home.

Thank You for Your Service tells the story of three soldiers, returning from Iraq in 2007, who are left to deal with the lingering effects of their service to this country. Sergeant Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) and two close friends from his unit, Solo (Beulah Koale) and Billy (Joe Cole), fly back to their Midwestern base and their loved ones, but they come bearing baggage. Schumann is haunted by an ambush of a patrol that led to the devastating wound for another soldier, as well as a later incident that caused the death of his commanding officer. As he walks across the tarmac toward his wife Saskia (Haley Bennett) and his children, he’s confronted by the CO’s widow (Amy Schumer in a straight dramatic role) who wants to know what happened to her husband.

While they’re back in the US, the three find they’re in different kinds of battles. The Schumanns have had to rent out their home and live in a much smaller house because of bills. Solo’s PTSD has left him with a Swiss cheese memory, but he can’t get help at the VA because of a bureaucratic snafu with his record. Billy comes home and finds his fiancé has cleaned out their apartment and left him.

Based on the book by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist David Finkel, screenwriter and first-time director Jason Hall brings you inside the men’s struggles, even as they’re closed off from those around them by the war’s trauma. Hall had done the adaptation of American Sniper, so he is acquainted with the theme of returning from war, but this time there’s none of the rah-rah patriotism that clouded the message of the previous film. These are normal men who dealt with hellish situations. In one telling scene, the three soldiers meet for a drink in a bowling alley bar. Solo puts a song on the jukebox and soon the men are dancing around the bar, brashly singing along with the music. You know it’s exactly what happened when they were deployed, but for the audience it’s a scene suffused with sadness. They’re still lost in the war, and can’t find their way home.

Teller’s performance is much different than his other film currently in theaters, Only the Brave. Schumann still feels responsibility for the men he led, yet he’s also aware of how he himself is damaged. Haley Bennett is terrific as Saskia, who’s fought her own battles while Schumann was away and now must figure out how to reach him. The role could have been a stereotype, but between Hall and Bennett they’ve honored military spouses.

If you want to celebrate Veterans Day, you may want to do it by watching Thank You for Your Service. Then ask what you can do to help the one percent who have carried such a massive burden for this nation. War has a cost far beyond dollars and cents, and we as a nation forget that at our peril.

The Fire Inside

This year has been historic for wildfires. From the Mexican border up into British Columbia, wildfires burned huge swaths of land and filled the atmosphere with smoke the traveled far to the east. In Des Moines, Iowa, over a thousand miles from the fires, we had evenings of incredible sunsets caused by the particulates in the atmosphere. The fires that ravaged Santa Rosa, California, and the Napa Valley wiped out whole neighborhoods and were the deadliest ever in the state. It is fitting that Only the Brave was released while the embers were still warm.

In fighting wildfires, Hotshot teams are the equivalent of SEALs. They’re a 20-man team that battle blazes with spades and chainsaws while carrying 50-pound backpacks. Only 109 such teams exist in the US. They might get air support from tankers or they might not, but still they go. They are tasked with slaying a monster that can devour square miles of forest and brush, race along faster than a man can run, and burn at temperatures well over 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. In effect, they walk into Hell and try to beat back the Devil.

Only the Brave tells the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots. They were an anomaly in that Hotshot crews are usually attached to Federal agencies, but Granite Mountain was part of the Prescott (AZ) Fire Department. They began as a fuel management crew in the 1990s after a wildfire near Prescott had burned 24,000 acres and killed 6 firefighters. In 2004 they qualified as a Type-2 firefighting crew that would do support and clearing work, but did not take on the fire directly.

The movie picks up when the crew had been Type-2 for four years. Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), the leader of the crew, wants them to step up to Hotshots but they can’t get the evaluation done. No other city in the US had their own Hotshot crew, so he wanted to do the unprecedented. Six of the men were fully employed by the fire department, while the rest were seasonal. After Marsh is over-ruled by an out-of-state Hotshot team at a local fire – leading to the destruction of a neighborhood – he pushes the state fire coordinator, Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges) to get the evaluation done.

Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller) is a stoner who’s been living with his mother. He discovers a girl he dated is pregnant with his child, but she rejects him as irresponsible and plans to raise the child herself. After a drunken episode lands him in jail for breaking into a car, Brendan seeks to turn his life around. He applies for an opening on Marsh’s crew, and while he’s not prepared for the first question Marsh asks in the interview – “When was the last time you lied?” – he answers it honestly and owns up to his mistakes. Marsh gives him a chance.

Only the Brave does an excellent job capturing the camaraderie of the team. It is close to an Armed Forces unit, and part of the reason Marsh’s second-in-command, Jesse Steed (James Badge Dale), joined the group was to find again the sense of purpose he’d had as a Marine. During the fire seasons Hotshots see far more of each other than they do their families. Of course, with 20 men you have an overabundance of testosterone, so there’s a fair amount of ribald and dark humor, especially on the part of Christopher MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch). In many movies such interplay is stilted or over the top, but here it rings true. The script by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer works from a GQ article by Sean Flynn that gives you a clear-eyed view of the characters. Both Nolan and Singer have done movies based on true stories before – Nolan wrote Black Hawk Down while Singer did American Hustle – and the film oozes with veracity.

Director Joseph Kosinski blends digital effects with old school technique seamlessly. (The film crew created an outdoor set where they could create controlled forest fires so they could film the actors close to the flames.) While it clocks in at two and a quarter hours, the story flies by and keeps your attention riveted on the screen.

Josh Brolin’s work is the best since No Country for Old Men. It doesn’t mean his work in W. or True Grit or Sicario isn’t excellent; it’s just he’s gone to an even higher level here. He’s ably supported by Jennifer Connelly as Marsh’s wife, Amanda. They’re like iron and flint on the screen – sparks fly in their scenes. Miles Teller had a breakthrough with Whiplash and has done some decent work since, including in War Dogs, but here he has to dig much deeper into his emotions to portray McDonough, and he nails it.

This movie truly honors the real characters, their bravery and their sacrifice. You’ll never again hear a story on the news about fires without thinking of this film and realizing how much is owed to those who voluntarily walk into hell to save people from the beast.

Back to the Future

When Blade Runner debuted in 1982, it underperformed in the US and polarized critics. Director Ridley Scott had done two films at that point – the Napoleonic War story, The Duelists, followed by the seminal sci-fi film Alien. Based on Alien, hopes for Blade Runner were stratospheric, but people weren’t ready for a dystopian film noir loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” It was the first film adaptation of Dick’s work, who died of a heart attack at age 53 a couple months before the film’s release. Since then, Blade Runner has been accepted as one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. Philip K. Dick’s work has been adapted multiple times for the big screen (Total Recall, Imposter, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, The Adjustment Bureau) and Amazon, who has a hit with their version of Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle,” will shortly premiere “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams,” based on the author’s short stories. Meanwhile, Ridley Scott has become an entertainment conglomerate.

Now, 35 years after the original, comes the sequel Blade Runner 2049, which picks up 30 years after the first film. The years haven’t been kind to the world, or to the Tyrell Corporation that created the original Replicants. After the rebellions of the Nexus Series 6 through 8 replicants, the corporation went bankrupt. An event called the Blackout wiped almost every digital record in 2022; only partial files remain from before that time. The world’s ecosystems collapsed causing a massive famine that swept the Earth. It was solved when Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) invented synthetic farming. That made him a wealthy man, allowing him to absorb the Tyrell Corporation and introduce the Nexus-9 replicants.

The return of the corporation meant an expansion of the Blade Runner program to control the replicants, though now Nexus-9s are used for that purpose. Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is one such Nexus-9, working under Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). He lives in a poor section of LA, which is now surrounded by a dike system because of the rising waters following the melting of the ice caps. K’s only companion is a holographic program called Joi (Ana de Armas).

When K comes to “retire” an older model Nexus (Dave Bautista) on a protein farm outside the city, he discovers a crate hidden beneath a dead tree. It contains bones of a female with marks that suggest she died during a C-Section delivery. The bones are also marked with a serial number; the woman was a replicant. Joshi is shocked since replicants weren’t supposed to be able to have children; it could cause the line between human and replicant to be obliterated if this became known. She orders the evidence destroyed and tasks K with finding the replicant child and retiring it. K begins his search by heading for the old Tyrell building to find out what he can about the replicant with the serial number on the bones. Wallace’s replicant assistant, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), leads K to a partial audio file of the female replicant. When it’s played, we hear the voice of Rachel (Sean Young) being questioned by Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) 30 years earlier.

French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is in somewhat the same position as Ridley Scott was when he made the original Blade Runner. In the last four years Villeneuve has made several stunning films: Prisoners, Sicario, and one of my favorite films of last year, Arrival. He is a strong visual stylist like Scott who works every single shot with a perfectionist’s eye. While the images of 2049 blend with the original, he also makes use of angles so that streets and reception desks seem to run to a vanishing point. The neon and building-size screens of the original are now expanded to 3D holographs. It’s like the director has stretched the original to cover a wider canvas.

Gosling gives a restrained, interior performance as K that makes the impact powerful as he goes deeper into the mystery. Wright, Leto, and Ford are effective in their roles, but the movie is stolen by Ana de Armas and Sylvia Hoeks. De Armas was born and raised in Cuba, but moved to Spain to pursue acting. She’s had supporting roles in the Roberto Duran biopic Hands of Stone and the comedy War Dogs, but here she gives a luminous performance as Joi, a hologram who is the most human character in the film. On the opposite side is the Dutch Hoeks, who was an Elite model in her teens before attending the Maastricht Theater Academy. She’d become a leading actress in Europe before taking the role of the beautiful but thoroughly ruthless Luv in her first Hollywood film.

Villeneuve matches the pacing of the original, which here means the film runs for two and three-quarters hours. With the slam-bam pace of most movies 2049 may seem slow to some, but here it’s Villeneuve giving the audience time to breathe and process the story as the mystery is peeled away layer by layer.

When Blade Runner 2049 was released a few weeks ago, it underperformed in the US and polarized critics. Some were put off by the pace while others felt it was more a paean to the original rather than a movie that stood on its own. But 2049 gets into your head and keeps rolling around in there as you consider the implications of the story. This also may be a movie that grows in stature as we move farther into the future.

Wondrous History (With Footnotes)

Earlier this year the big-screen adaptation of Wonder Woman took over cineplexes, capturing a worldwide gross of over $816 million. It took decades for her to reach the big screen, while the superhero genre stayed the preserve of male heroes. The movie misfires of Catwoman and Electra early in the 2000s didn’t help. But finally Wonder Woman made it onto the screen in all her Amazon glory. And now, with Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, we have a decidedly-adult companion piece that looks at the creation of this remarkable character, an icon of the Feminist movement.

The story is told in flashback as Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), is interrogated by Josette Frank (Connie Britton), a crusader for decency in children’s literature and the executive director of the Child Study Association of America1. The story jumps back to Marston and his wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), teaching psychology2 at Radcliffe in the 1920s while they try to perfect Marston’s idea, a machine that can detect lies. They take on a teaching assistant, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), though Elizabeth worries that Marston will fall in love with the young and beautiful Olive. He does, but Olive confesses that she’s more interested in Elizabeth. Their living together causes a scandal, which they eventually cover by moving to Rye, NY and telling neighbors that Olive is Marston’s widowed sister-in-law. Marston hadn’t patented the research that led to the lie detector, but eventually his life with Elizabeth and Olive leads him to create Wonder Woman3.

Writer/Director Angela Robinson presents a fictionalized though compelling look inside the unconventional family that led to the creation of the first female superhero4. Marston has a four-point theory of interpersonal relationships, which Robinson uses to frame the story. She handles the growing attraction and conflict between the three principle characters with tenderness that makes it understandable to the audience, leading to the climactic moment when their feelings are consummated. Cinematographer Bryce Fortner infuses the flashback scenes with rich Technicolor tones that glow, but for the Josette Frank scenes the screen is dull light with blues and browns.

The interplay of the three main characters is crucial to making the story work, and Robinson is well-served by her cast. Evans had a major success earlier this year as Gaston in Beauty and the Beast after roles in both the Hobbit and Fast and Furious franchises. Here he shows much more sensitivity, as well as presenting Marston’s fascination with bondage in a way the character doesn’t fully understand. The role of Elizabeth is Rebecca Hall’s best role since her breakout in 2010’s The Town. She embodies the frustration of a powerful intellect metaphorically chained and imprisoned by men’s attitudes. It makes her rejection of societal norms not just understandable but inevitable. On the other side, Bella Heathcote’s Olive struggles against the privilege given her by her physical beauty – a struggle for depth against the expectations of superficiality.

Britton is an iceberg of righteousness sent to sink anyone who sets a course outside the norm. It’s a restrained role, but she also lands some telling blows in her dialogue with Marston. Oliver Platt has a small but delightful role as M.C. Gaines5 who effectively started the superhero comic book when he published Superman, followed by Batman a year later.

“Based on a true story” often means that everything except the names have been changed, and much of Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is more “based on” than “true story.” But the feel of the central story of their unconventional relationship6 rings true, a relationship that created Wonder Woman. It may have taken over 70 years for her to fully take her place in the pantheon of superheroes7 but now she has. With the campaign against harassment coming front and center in the nation’s dialogue now, perhaps part of it is women claiming the spirit of an unconventional heroine with an unconventional origin.

*****

  • Josette Frank was a renowned editor of children’s books. The Children’s Book Award, given out since 1943, was renamed in 1997 in her honor. Frank was on the DC Comics advisory board and did, in 1943, speak out against Wonder Woman, but Robinson has used her in the movie as a stand-in for psychologist Frederic Wertham, who in the 1950s wrote Seduction of the Innocent about the effect of comics on the youth of that day. Wertham’s writings led to the imposition of a new code by the Comics Magazine Association of America: “All scenes of horror, excessive bloodshed, gory or gruesome crimes, depravity, lust, sadism, masochism shall not be permitted.”Wertham put Wonder Woman at the top of his list of objectionable comics. Early in the film we see children collecting comics that they eventually burn, but that didn’t happen until Wertham began his campaign against comic books. In 1943, in the middle of WWII, comic books would have been donated to paper drives for the war effort, but never wasted in burnings, especially with the fresh memory of Nazi book burnings before the war.
  • Elizabeth gets shortchanged in the script – she was a lawyer as well as a psychologist, lectured at American and New York Universities, was an editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica and McCall’s, and assistant to the chief executive of Metropolitan Life Insurance.
  • Much of Wonder Woman’s iconography is shown in their lives. The golden rope that forces people to tell the truth is the lie detector machine, and Marston is given a glass airplane as a gift that becomes Wonder Woman’s invisible plane. Through their lives together, Olive Byrne could never wear a wedding ring, so she instead wore golden bracelets on her wrists.
  • While a substantial portion of the movie shows Marston’s developing interest in bondage, which also draws in Elizabeth and Olive, Robinson ignores how bondage was the common visual and physical embodiment of the suffragette and family planning movements. Articles often had illustrations showing women in chains, and a suffragette in England chained herself to the railing at 10 Downing Street during the fight for the vote.
  • Maxwell Charles Gaines figured out the format of comic books in 1933 while working as a salesman for Eastern Color Printing. He later co-founded All American Publications (which eventually became DC Comics) as well as EC Comics. The movie has Marston seeking out Gaines to sell his creation, but in fact Gaines asked Marston to be a consultant after his comics first began to receive pushback from societal watchdogs. He’d read a profile of Marston published in Family Circle magazine that was written by Olive Byrne under a pseudonym. After Gaines’s death in 1947, EC Comics was taken over by his 25-year-old son William. The company was effectively driven out of business by Frederic Wertham’s crusade, but William emerged after that as the publisher of Mad Magazine.
  • The relationship between Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive lasted for their lives. Elizabeth and Olive each had two children with Marston. It wasn’t until the 1960s, when Olive’s children were middle-aged that Elizabeth finally told them that Marston was their father, on the condition they never ask her about it again.
  • The history of Wonder Woman after Marston mirrors the social attitudes of the country. She’s been in print except for a short period in the 1980s, but she got pushed down into a secondary place in the later 1940s and 1950s. When she joined the Justice Society (the precursor of the Justice League), she was the group’s secretary. Her powers kept being taken from her by writers and editors, and her origin (formed of clay and given life by Zeus) was changed to a conventional one. By the 1960s she was more of a secret agent than a superhero. But then Gloria Steinem reclaimed her as a symbol of empowerment by putting her on the cover of the first edition of Ms. Magazine, with the tag line “Wonder Woman for President.” Her powers were restored in the comics, and the TV series with Linda Carter cemented her superhero status again. With Gal Gadot’s performance, it should never be in question again.

Still A Battle

As I write this, Harvey Weinstein is out at the company that bears his name – at least it bears that name momentarily, though that will likely change. In the past year Fox News lost its founder and its marquee mouth, both because of sexual abuse accusations, and the company’s paid out millions for allowing a culture of abuse to exist for years. Bill Cosby’s lawyers managed a hung jury last year, but he’ll likely be tried again. We had the sadly well-named Anthony Weiner receive the maximum sentence for showing off his hot dog. On the other hand, we learned last year that a blatant confession of sexually-abusive behavior was not a disqualifying factor for becoming president. These are but the logical end of the culture of paternalism that holds men to be superior to women. The examples above thought they could do what they liked because they were males, and throughout history that has been the case. It’s a continuing battle to progress past the stereotypes that society has placed on gender, race, and orientation, though there have been victories.

Battle of the Sexes dissects one of those early victories. When Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the head of the United States Lawn Tennis Association, ups the prize money for the men in its events to ten thousand dollars but leaves the women’s prize at fifteen hundred, the women walk out. Led by tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), the women form the Women’s Tennis Association and set up a tour. It’s hard going at first, with the players having to do everything, until Heldman arranges a sponsorship deal with Virginia Slims.

Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) was a former number one ranked player who’d won Wimbledon and the US Open decades earlier. By the early 1970s, he was retired from the sport and working for his father-in-law. However, Riggs was a compulsive gambler and tennis hustler, and with the rise of the WTA he saw the chance cash in. He’d play the male chauvinist pig who would put the women back in their pace by showing that, at 55 years old, he could beat a woman in her prime.

The script by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours, Everest) does a wonderful job capturing the era. It helps that King served as a technical advisor to the production. Each principle has their challenges. Bobby’s behavior causes massive strain on his wife, Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) and his adult son from a prior marriage, Larry (Lewis Pullman). Caught up in the establishment of the WTA, Billie Jean’s away from her husband, Larry (Austin Stowell), for extended time. It allows her to discover her sexuality with a free-spirit hair stylist, Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), but she must keep the relationship secret.

The acting is exquisite, though in different ways. Carrell looks like Riggs, and he plays him as a deeply-flawed but in some ways endearing man. (In real life, Riggs and King stayed friends until Bobby’s death from prostate cancer in 1995.) On the other side, Stone doesn’t look like King, but she capture’s King’s physicality and spirit so perfectly that you believe she’s King. Interesting trivia: Carrell and Stone are each one year younger than Riggs and King when they met.

The supporting actors are like a field of diamonds, each shining brightly in turn, though it’s an inward fire that light them. Special kudos to Lewis Pullman, who communicates the pain that the irresponsible Bobby causes his son, even as Larry wants to love him. Alan Cumming has a pivotal role as Ted Tinling, the openly gay fashion designer who dressed most women tennis champions from the ‘50s through into the ‘80s. Tinling could be the subject of his own movie, since he was a champion tennis player himself, then after his death it came out he’d been an Allied spy during WWII. It likely helps that many of the cast have worked together before. Stone performed with Carrell in Crazy Stupid Love, with Riseborough in Birdman, and did “Cabaret” on Broadway with Cumming. The closest connection, though, would be Bill and Lewis Pullman, who are father and son.

Another connection is the directing team of Valarie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, who’d directed Carrell in Little Miss Sunshine. (They’re also responsible for the delightful movie from 2012, Ruby Sparks.) They direct with a feather-weight touch, though it can hit you like an emotional sledgehammer. For instance, a scene at a dance club where Billie Jean and Marilyn first feel their attraction exhibits nothing overt, but it’s crystal clear what they’re feeling. It does help that the scene’s played to the song “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells.

The climax, of course, is the historic match between King and Riggs, played at the Houston Astrodome in front of an audience of over 30,000 and a world-wide television audience of 90 million. It remains the largest audience ever for a tennis match. Faris and Dayton had access to all the videotape of the match, and they recreate it in such a thrilling way that you find yourself watching it as if it were happening at that moment.

King helped put women’s tennis on par with men’s, where it has remained since. It also created parity in purses at matches. But outside of tennis and despite attempts to remedy it, pay for women still lags behind men, and along with it the acceptance of women as just as valuable as men. Virginia Slims used the song, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” in their ads at the time of the Battle of the Sexes. Today, with paternalism still strong and leading to the abuses detailed in the first paragraph, it’s clear there’s still a long, long way to go.

Blow It Up Real Good

Steven Soderbergh has always been an outsider in Hollywood, even when it embraced him. His first feature, 1989’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, was a major step forward in popularizing independent film. Over the next nine years his movies were less successful, but then he found that crime can pay off. His stylish yet quirky adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight became one of the best movies of 1998, and he followed it up with The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Oceans 11, winning the Best Director Oscar for Traffic. His cool visual style effectively contrasts the theme of rooting for the outsider. The quote-unquote loser is the typical Soderbergh hero. In the subsequent decade he made highly-successful movies (Magic Mike, the Oceans sequels, Contagion) along with personal films like a two-part biopic of Che Guevera, but was frustrated by the studio system, which had co-opted the independent movie scene by buying production houses like Miramax and New Line, or starting their own pseudo-independents like Fox Searchlight. After Side Effects (2013), Soderbergh announced his retirement.

When it comes to finances, the studio bookkeepers put the Mafia to shame. They can make a successful movie look like a financial dud by layering on studio costs for the production. Star Wars 6: Return of the Jedi made over $400 million at the box office off of a production budget of about $40 million, but according to the studio it never made a profit. Writer Art Buchwald sued Paramount over 1988’s Coming to America since it grossed over $350 million but supposedly made no profit. Paramount settled the suit for $900,000 rather than have the court look at their bookkeeping methods. Even Stan Lee and Marvel came to legal loggerheads because of the vanished profits of Sam Rami’s Spiderman. On top of production bookkeeping, the studios put out massive advertising campaigns that can equal or even exceed the cost of the movie’s production, and all that money has to be paid off the top by the film’s gross. It takes an army to make a film, but they don’t share in the profits. It’s the studio that makes the money.

Soderbergh’s retirement lasted about 3 months. Instead of film, he produced and directed two seasons of “The Knick” for Showtime, where he also had executive producer credit for the TV version of one of his films, “The Girlfriend Experience.” He also executive produced “Red Oaks” for Amazon, now going into its third season. Soderbergh couldn’t completely turn his back on movies, but when he decided to come back he also decided to re-write the rule book for making films.

In an interview with GQ, Soderbergh says he first became aware of the script for Logan Lucky when he was asked to help find a director for the production. In the end, he decided to do it for himself. The script, though, has a bit of mystery surrounding it, since the credited screenwriter, Rebecca Blunt, apparently doesn’t exist. No one knows the actual writer behind the movie who used the Rebecca Blunt psuedonym.

It’s fitting that Logan Lucky has a country twang. From 1976 to 1981, SCTV (Second City Television) parodied television production at an incredibly low-budget station. One of their regular segments was “Farm Film Celebrity Blow-up” that featured the great John Candy and Joe Flaherty as two farmers who combined their love of movies with their love of explosions. They’d have on a celebrity, with a dead-on impersonation by Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy, Martin Short, or Catherine O’Hara, then blow them up at the end of the segment. With Logan Lucky, Soderbergh has blown up the studio system and created a blueprint for others to follow. He sold the foreign rights to raise the movie’s $29 million production budget, including a million to pay the independent studio Bleeker Street to do the wide release of the film. Then he sold the broadcast rights to HBO, Netflix, and VOD to raise the publicity funds. The cast and crew worked for scale, but they will get to share in the film’s gross, which currently stands at around $28 million.

The script is textbook Soderbergh, with a cast of losers who aim to make themselves winners by pulling off an impossible crime. Rather than a fancy location like the Oceans movies, this is set in Red State South where West Virginia, Virginia, South Carolina, and Tennessee all come together. Soderbergh knew the set-up would cause comparisons to the Oceans movies; he even has a TV commentator in the film refer to the crime as “Oceans 7-Eleven.” But rather than the smooth heists in the earlier films, the only polish to the crew in Logan Lucky is on their cars and their boots.

The Logan clan in southern West Virginia is known for its lousy luck. Jimmy (Channing Tatum) is faced with losing easy access to his daughter (Farrah Mackenzie) when his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) plans to move out of the state with her new husband whose family owns a series of car dealerships. He also loses his construction job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway when a manager notices him limping to his truck and has him fired out of liability concerns. His two siblings are his biggest supporters: sister Mellie (Riley Keough), who’s a hairdresser, and his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a bartender who lost an arm while deployed in Iraq. After an obnoxious race car sponsor (Seth MacFarlane) and his lackeys have a fight with the brothers, Jimmy decides to steal the weekend receipts from the Speedway. But to do it, they’ll need the help of a backwoods bomber, Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who’s currently in jail.

The twists and turns of a caper film are its greatest strengths, and Logan Lucky has plenty of them, but it also has a wonderful light touch and a true love for the characters. The cast has a ball with their roles, and Soderbergh has assembled one of the best casts of the year. In addition to those previously mentioned, the film also features Sebastian Stan, David Denman, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, and Hilary Swank. Luminaries from NASCAR are also on hand, including Darrell Waltrip, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, and Jeff Gordon. (Edwards and Busch have cameos as state troopers who pull over a speeder.) I wouldn’t be surprised to see Craig nab some nominations during award season for his performance as Joe Bang.

Logan Lucky is a thoroughly enjoyable entertainment. If it inspires other filmmakers to bypass studios to make their films, then that would be the biggest caper ever in the history of Hollywood.