The Tribes of Palos Verdes (2017)

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I can’t believe we moved to a town where women wear green tennis dresses on purpose. When the Mason family moves to idyllic Palos Verdes, California, heart surgeon father, Phil (Justin Kirk) loves it but stay at home mom Sandy (Jennifer Garner) feels out of place among the fake tans and tennis skirts. Teenage daughter Medina (Maika Monroe), is a loner and outcast at school, while her charismatic twin brother Jim (Cody Fern) is effortlessly popular. When Medina and Jim take up surfing, they must prove their right to share the waves with the tough Bayboys gang that monopolises their stretch of beach but when their father announces that he’s going to shack up with his lover, their realtor Ava (Alicia Silverstone) and her son Adrian (Noah Silver), the family is left reeling without him …  They don’t own the waves. Adapted by Karen Croner from Joy Nicholson’s 1997 novel, this is a movie that wears its heart on its very gorgeous sleeve. It’s jarringly true about relationships, rivalries and the difficulties of growing up in a family centred on a depressive narcissistic mother (hands up if this is familiar…) whose fragile ecosystem falls apart when her husband’s philandering finally results in an irreparable schism. Her overdependence on Jim leads to tragedy. Australian actor Fern is tremendous as the outwardly social guy: he is overwhelmed by anxiety and vulnerability, stunningly exposed when Medina falls for Adrian. Monroe and Garner are tender and pensive, unhinged and dangerous, respectively, in this revelatory film about how people affect each other and lives fall apart without anyone caring about the impact of their selfishness. Moving? Hell yeah. But the satirical undertow strengthens the narrative with its depiction of the social setting, Medina’s voiceover and the upwardly mobile tropes hinting at the inevitable outcome. Star spotters will be interested to know that surf dude Chad is played by Mel Gibson’s son Milo; while another Aussie, Thomas Cocquerel plays his mate Mildew –  anyone looking for a new Bond? Look no further than this cast! Directed by Brendan Malloy and Emmett Malloy and beautifully shot by Giles Dunning. Everybody doesn’t get to go bonkers

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The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

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Do you remember, Clive, we used to say: ‘Our army is fighting for our homes, our women, and our children’? General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), who’s overseeing an English squad of the Home Guard in 1943, is a veteran leader who doesn’t have the respect of the men he’s training and is considered an old duffer who’s out of touch with what’s needed to win the war. But it wasn’t always this way. Flashing back to his early career in the Boer War and World War I, we see a dashing young officer whose life has been shaped by three different women (all played by Deborah Kerr), and by a lasting friendship with German soldier Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) as he rises through the ranks of the British Army but now uncomfortable with the modern concept of ‘total war’… In Germany, the gangsters finally succeeded in putting the honest citizens in jail. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s portrait of a lovable man at sea with contemporary combat was incredibly contentious, disliked by Churchill, and cut to pieces so that it’s very rare to see it as it was intended by the talented pair whose satirical but sympathetic bent is at full tilt over 163 minutes with Livesey giving the performance of his career, ageing and irascible, but once a dashing young blade with the world at his feet. The character was created by David Low in his comic strip but Powell and Pressburger claimed this narrative grew out of a scene dropped from their previous film One of Our Aircraft is Missing and editor David Lean said it would be a good idea for a film. Beautifully shot, designed and told, with Kerr impressive (and credited for her three separate if complementary roles) as iterations of the ideal woman. The unlikely friendship between two honorable military men even as their countries are at war is distinctive and moving, commencing with a duel and then years later, when Theo seeks asylum from the Nazis he appeals to his friend, now a high-ranking officer in England. Possibly Powell and Pressburger’s greatest work, certainly their most ambitious, etched in compassion. Restored by Martin Scorsese and Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker. Clive, my English is not very much but my friendship for you is very much

The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

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This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime. When the daughter Carolyn (Annie Corley) and son Michael (Victor Slezak) of Italian war bride mother Francesca (Meryl Streep) return to Iowa for her funeral they discover among her belongings evidence of a four-day extra-marital affair she had in 1965 with Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood) who was photographing covered bridges for National Geographic magazine. As they uncover the story and the secret she kept for decades, they recognise some truths about their own relationships … I don’t want to need you – because I can’t have you. Time was, author Robert James Waller was trawling the world’s talk shows, hawking his book and singing his songs and that was only in the Nineties. And it’s absurd to think of it now, but Clint Eastwood is still directing movies so this can be described as middle-period Clint. He and Streep (doing Anna Magnani in some scenes) are phenomenal together – have we ever seen them be so appealing, so vulnerable, as these middle aged lovers who’ve been around the block and been burned and bored and now find this wondrous once in a lifetime love?  Adapted by Richard LaGravenese from the slim bestseller, this is a long, slow, languorous look at a couple who know it’s now or never, flawed perhaps only by over length and the framing story doesn’t really add to the experience (this was the idea of Steven Spielberg, who originally planned on directing).  Nonetheless it’s totally satisfying, filled with nuance and passion and detail, and if you don’t shed a tear when those windscreen wipers are going from side to side, in that classic penultimate sequence, well, face it, you’re already dead. Wonderful. You never think love like this is ever going to happen

David Cassidy: The Last Session (2018)

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I like to think I control a lot of my destiny. So what really happened to teen idol and TV star David Cassidy? Why did he die of kidney failure at the age of 67 following a public admission of dementia? His Partridge Family co-star Danny Bonaduce asks, How did dementia cause organ failure?  This is a distressing fly-on-the-wall documentary about what transpired to be the icon’s last weeks when he invited a documentary crew to film him recording an EP of songs his father taught him. He is in pain, ill, hoarse, suffering from sporadic short-term memory loss and in need of assistance walking.  There are audio inserts of a previously unheard interview from 1976 when Cassidy discusses his ambivalence towards his unprecedented celebrity which took a nosedive when the teen idol years ended. He stopped performing his massive sellout concerts around the world when fans were injured and one died. He struggled to be taken seriously as a musician and songwriter thereafter and a Rolling Stone cover story (The Naked Lunchbox) with explicit photographs backfired spectacularly. The woman journalist who wrote it makes evident her total contempt for Cassidy. He couldn’t get into NYC’s Hippopotamus nightclub one night, the following night he played a sold out Madison Square Garden. But he wasn’t cool! The editor of Tiger Beat explains how the magazine created the feverish culture of stardom for a generation and how manufactured the entire era was. The owner, Chuck Lawford, sensed the potential of a teen idol era and its financial possibilities. The stars had no say in the publicity machine manufactured in their image. Cassidy made the cover of every issue. Friend Alice Cooper is an especially sympathetic interviewee. It’s clear that Cassidy’s  relationship with his father, the actor and singer and consummate showman, Jack, was a rivalry – unintended on the son’s part. The session is dominated by his attempt to sing Wish You Were Here – the theme song of the first Broadway production he saw his father perform: David was just three and half years old and it made him want to emulate Cassidy. His father was on the road so much that David didn’t know for a decade that his parents were divorced and Jack had married Shirley Jones, who had three sons by him. Dad, I miss you, he weeps when the song is played back and his own voice is failing. In 1970 when David was starting out as an actor and a Broadway show he was in shut down, he travelled to Los Angeles and auditioned for The Partridge Family – where he was immediately cast and Shirley Jones would play his mother. The Freudian resonances are astonishing. His father wound up interviewing the heartthrob on Merv Griffin and his resentment of his son was clear. David’s musical and singing talents were only revealed to the TV show’s producers when a lip-syncing session stopped and Cassidy took up a guitar and played like Hendrix. He could play and sing and they didn’t need session players to substitute for him. The path to recording was set. His singles and the Partridge Family records were smash hits. Kim Carnes recalls opening for him on his first tour:  He walks out and it’s thunderous at that point. He was selling out football stadiums. Tens of thousands of girls were in hysterics. As Cassidy listens back to his father’s recording of the song that haunts him, he throws his head back and marvels at his father’s talent:  someone tries to persuade him that his own stardom could never have happened without musicianship but he’s scarcely impressed by his own success. Danny Bonaduce talks of David’s beauty, his haircut, the pookah shell necklace, the kindness – he reached out to Bonaduce and got him to clean up his act but he wasn’t taking care of himself. Jack Cassidy died aged 49 in 1976, burning to death in his apartment from a lit cigarette. He had been a heavy drinker, with his son stating he had once seen him knock back 15 Scotch and sodas. Late in the film, David admits that he is not suffering from dementia at all but the effects of long-term alcoholism. His friend Sam Hyman talks of how Cassidy always sought his father’s approval and it dominated his life, even at the height of his career. What his father understood – and his son apparently did not – was that fame would end. He, however, had never reached his son’s stratospheric levels of celebrity – as Bonaduce reminds us, David Cassidy’s fanclub at its height was bigger than Elvis’ and the Beatles’ combined. The Rolling Stones did five nights at Wembley;  he did six. Still, he was not respected. Cassidy had a kind of fame that was utterly different to anyone else’s – plus, he was a very young guy on his own. He didn’t know about the mechanics of the media powerhouses that had made him. What isn’t discussed is how much money the producers of The Partridge Family made from marketing his image on everything you can imagine and how very little he earned from being the most exploited man on the planet. He became ill during the production of this record and was taken to hospital. The film concludes after his death when the musicians gather again to record the harmony over his vocals:  the EP was released earlier this year. Candid, heartbreaking and honest, this is a haunting piece of work with some extraordinary video footage of concerts and behind the scenes that feels immediate, like it’s happening right now. What a tragic beauty he was.  Made by Left/Right Productions. He was America’s sweetheart for quite a long time there

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Chronically Metropolitan (2016)

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You of all people should know there’s no such thing as fiction. Just ask your father. Famous New York novelist Christopher Dillane (Chris Noth) crashes his car into a truck full of crab while having one of his female students go down on him and the other do drugs. His son, first-time novelist Fenton (Shiloh Fernandez) returns from California unannounced, ready to reclaim his lost love, Jessie (Ashely Benson) who, unbeknownst to him, is engaged to be married to gallerist Victor (Chris Lowell). He walks into his family’s Upper East Side apartment to find his mother Annabel (Mary-Louise Parker) buying weed from his best friend John (Josh Peck). It’s her way of getting over her philandering husband’s headline news while he recuperates in hospital. When Fenton enlists his headstrong sister, Layla (Addison Timlin) and John to help him win Jessie back, his actions set in motion a chain of events that affect the lives of everyone around him for better and for worse… Nicholas Schutt’s screenplay reeks of Salinger X  The Royal Tenenbaums, the fate of every NYC-set story about a wealthy family with a creative bent;  Woody Allen, less so, since humour is not much of an issue – Noth’s lines and text messages regarding his young lovers lack comedic grit and Fernandez is just miserable while he tries to write. Effectively this is a father-son relationship film with some flim-flam attached while they get their mojo back courtesy of the women they use.  The backstory is that Fenton alienated Jessie and her entire family by writing a story about them that was published in a magazine. There are nice touches (and we presume Parker was cast just for her association with TV’s Weeds) but it’s not terribly involving despite some brightly cynical moments. Writer’s block is a terrible thing! And the end is a reversal of The Graduate, just so you know. Directed by Xavier Manrique.

Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017)

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You’re the man. You lead. It’s WW2 and famous writer Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) get a distressing telegram. We flash back to the interwar years when a shellshocked Milne, an acclaimed playwright, leaves London for the countryside after experiencing one too many reminders of WW1. Milne’s ever-changing moods affect those around him.  Only his friend Ernest H. Shepherd (Stephen Campbell Moore) empathises as a fellow veteran. Daphne is a somewhat dim and brittle wife, unhappy and traumatised on her own account after a violent childbirth. Their nanny Olive or Nou (Kelly Macdonald) is the chief caregiver to their son, Christopher Robin but known as Billy Moon (Will Tilston). Daphne tires of A.A. and his failure to write anything and leaves for the city, ostensibly to buy wallpaper. But the wardrobes have been emptied. When Olive leaves to look after her dying mother, the males of the family are left to their own devices and start to spin fanciful yarns about Billy’s collection of stuffed animals.  Milne invites Ernest to visit and they start to put together a book with illustrations around Billy Moon’s relationship with his toys and their outings to the Hundred Acre Wood.  Tigger is better than Tiger. It’s more Tigger-ish. These stories form the basis for Winnie-the-Pooh  and The House at Pooh Corner, published respectively in 1926 and 1928. Milne and his family soon become swept up in the instant success of the books, while the enchanting tales bring hope and comfort but his relationship with his young son suffers as the boy is wheeled out in public to play the character of Christopher Robin and even their personal phonecalls are broadcast … If I’m in a book people might think I’m not real. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, Simon Curtis’ film skirts the edges of whimsy and tragedy and finds it hard to balance the demands of both – how do you make a man experiencing PTSD a sympathetic character? He wants the British public to know the reality of combat and the utter waste of the Great War.  I’ve had enough of making people laugh. I need to make them see. Giving the toys a voice isn’t even his idea, it’s his wife’s.  She sends a poem he writes to her into Vanity Fair where it becomes famous, her eye firmly affixed to publicity. The child is chirpy and aggressive. These are real people, the film is telling us, and it’s not all wine and roses creating beloved children’s stories. They make each other interesting and tolerable through the written word in a narrative that expresses the limits of people’s endurance. When Milne tells Daphne he’s going to do a book about the pointlessness of war she is riled and shrieks that he might as well try writing about getting rid of Wednesdays – he might not like them but they always come around. Making this man see what he can do and the imaginative links he forges between his son’s playthings and his own desire for escaping the reality of his past provides the main texture of the work.  It’s very handsomely handled but never comfortable, no matter how often the sun might peep through the Hundred Acre Wood. Gleeson is an actor of narrow range and his performance is paradoxically limited by the writing but it’s an admirable insight into the writer’s life and the perilous attractions of fame. Stop. Look.

 

Great Expectations (1998)

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Why had she told me?  She told me to wound me. Orphan Finn (Jeremy James Kissner) is being raised by his older sister Maggie (Kim Dickens) and her boyfriend Joe (Chris Cooper) a fisherman on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Finn fatefully makes the acquaintance of an escaped con, mobster Arthur Lustig (Robert De Niro) whom he tries to help get away from the police but the man is caught. He helps crazy old Nora Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft) and her beautiful niece Estella (Raquel Beaudene) by doing the gardening around their old mansion. Finn shows the old woman his art and she has him do a portrait of Estella.  When they are teenagers Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow) reveals in a passionate encounter that she knows Finn (Ethan Hawke) is in love with her, then disappears to study in Europe. In the ’80s a mysterious lawyer Jerry Ragno (Josh Mostel) turns up and offers to finance a show of Finn’s work in New York where he pursues his career in art, leaving the fishing business where he’s been working with Joe for years. He once again encounters his beloved Estella, now engaged to rich, snobby Walter (Hank Azaria)…  I’m not going to tell the story the way it happened. I’m going to tell it the way I remember it.  Director Alfonso Cuarón glories in the ironic world envisioned by Dickens now transposed to a very different, much lusher and contemporary locale by screenwriter Mitch Glazer. With the incredible production design and setting on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Paradiso Perduto the overgrown and crumbling tropical mansion decaying around Miss Havisham’s newest iteration, her every appearance serenaded by Bésame Mucho, the scene is set for a very modern retelling of a tragic romance. With Pip as Finn the lovelorn child and artist, surrounded by the wonders of Nature, the opportunity to relate the love story through pictures gives it a different level of expressionism.  Paltrow is the epitome of the cool Nineties blonde – think Carolyn Bessette, as she may have done, and her impossible persona of Estella and the snobby world of tastemakers she inhabits makes sense. Bancroft is perfectly lurid as the sad and wicked old dame to whose wise words Finn is deaf – his love for Estella is simply too overwhelming as her revenge plot against treacherous men unfolds. The contrast between the wonderfully blue seas and overgrowing gardens familiar to us from a few great private eye novels (and even Grey Gardens) with New York’s glittery art scene couldn’t be more pronounced and Uncle Joe’s arrival at Finn’s opening night is horribly embarrassing and sad. The shocking return of Magwitch/Lustig is perfectly achieved and we see Finn finally grow up in this tragically transforming tale from innocence to experience. A bewitching, stylish interpretation with stunning photography and lighting by Emanuel Lubezki and art by Francesco Clemente. The voiceover from Finn’s older and wiser perspective was written by David Mamet. What is it like not to feel anything?

The Odyssey (2016)

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Aka L’Odyssée.  A whole world waiting to be discovered. I’m just old enough to remember re-runs of Jacques (-Yves) Cousteau’s TV show – a weekly adventure in the ocean depths with a vast array of colourful marine life on display. He was a superstar who has all but vanished from contemporary iconography: a diver, oceanographer, inventor and TV personality who demonstrated that we only know the surface of the world’s oceans – he brought us what lies beneath. Director Jérôme Salle and co-writer Laurent Turner take memoirs by Cousteau’s chief diver Albert Falco aka Bébert (Vincent Heneine) and his son Jean-Michel (Benjamin Lavernhe) and create a portrait of the life of this man over thirty years, from his days in the French Navy (and an accident preventing his continuing as a pilot) whose passion for diving became a way of life, a journey encompassing family, the co-invention of the aqualung, fame, world travel and the neverending desire to achieve more.  His groundbreaking film The Silent World was the first documentary to win the Palme d’Or. The tensions with his son Philippe (Pierre Niney plays him as an adult) are exacerbated first by boarding school and later at the caricature he feels his father has become.  JYC admits he should never have had children. His wife Simone (Audrey Tautou) is now old and alcoholic, just as she threatened years earlier when she discovered his philandering. When he arrives back at The Calypso (funded by his mother in law’s jewellery) wearing a red beanie, he announces It’s telegenic. Jean-Michel returns after years studying architecture but it’s the other relationships which dominate JYC’s life, principally with his financiers.  I feel like I’ve spent my entire life chasing money. His quest for money dominates his life while Philippe’s spirals in another direction – the environment, triggered when he sees the ship’s cook dumping the trash in the water and his own work as a cinematographer and filmmaker diverges from the family business. On this issue father and son finally come back together but only when JYC’s sponsorship dries up.  Inspired yet again by Jules Verne, they travel on a foolhardy mission to Antarctica and see the true wonder of the world:  from taking money to promote oil exploration, Cousteau starts the Society that bears his name and tries to save the oceans, bringing the attention of the world to the imminent tragedy of pollution. It’s handsomely photographed by Matias Boucard but finally the difficulty reconciling the father and son drama with the story of the ego that brought the wonderful world of the sea to the screen proves as challenging as it was in reality, even with that awesome cast: Wilson is terrific as the marvellously charismatic pioneer whose travels are finally brought to an end by a tragedy. It’s all about him, after all.

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

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Talk about something cool, like food or clothes or Joan Didion!  Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) goes nuts at her friend’s wedding to which she hasn’t been invited and pepper sprays her.  Thing is, the bride isn’t her friend, she’s someone Ingrid follows on Instagram.  It lands her in a mental hospital. She idolises social media star and Instagram ‘influencer’ Taylor Sloane  (Elizabeth Olsen) to the point that she reckons all those ‘likes’ constitute an invitation to her to ingratiate herself with the LA-based narcissist and moves there with money her late mom has bequeathed and promptly kidnaps the woman’s dog so she can claim the reward and ‘friend’ her in real life. Taylor’s husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) is a technophobic artist whose work Taylor gushes over but he seems nice underneath all the boho-chic So-Cal lifestyle. Ingrid makes his only sale. Ingrid’s neighbour Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a wannabe screenwriter obsessed with Batman whom she seduces in order to smooth her way socially with Taylor’s gang. Everything seems to go swimmingly until Taylor’s druggie brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) turns up and figures out Ingrid’s game.  He blackmails her and she has to come up with a superhero-inspired solution to his threat to reveal her stalking to his sister  …  Co-written by David Branson Smith with director Matt Spicer, which makes me ponder once again why it is that sometimes men are better than women at exploiting the vagaries of female friendship (read:  rivalry) even if it winds up in a rather violent and cataclysmic denouement – with a twist. Well Ingrid is mentally ill, after all and Nicky knows she has Single White Femaled Taylor. This is smart and funny and topical and gets under your skin about what it is to be popular and the nature of contemporary life while retaining a caustic perspective. Performed with gusto by the principals and produced by the unstoppable Plaza who totally gets why reality is being subverted and image is everything. (Maybe that’s why she has 1.6 million followers on Instagram.) This is what happens when your followers actually follow you. Message:  don’t live on your phone, there’s more to life than avocado and, as we are all branding our lives now, society is experiencing an existential crisis. Sheesh …

I Feel Pretty (2018)

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I am brave. I am blonde. I can handle this.  Renee Bennett (Amy Schumer) runs the website for cosmetics firm Leclair from a dank basement with a vile co-worker and struggles with feelings of insecurity and inadequacy on a daily basis.  After watching Big on TV she wakes from a fall at Soul Cycle believing she is suddenly the most beautiful and capable woman on the planet and aims to do what gym bunny Mallory (Emily Ratajkowski) does, charming the pants off men with nary a second thought. With newfound confidence, she applies to be receptionist at Leclair’s HQ on Fifth Avenue, getting taken on by the Minnie Mouse-voiced CEO Avery (Michelle Williams) who has self-esteem issues and a nitpicking grandmother Lily (Lauren Hutton) who doesn’t believe she’s good enough to run the company she founded. Renee might just be the person to tell them how to sell their diffusion line (ie cheap range) to the common people. She picks up a guy called Ethan (Rory Scovel) at the dry cleaners and calls him up but abandons her friends Jane (Busy Phillips) and Vivian (Aidy Bryant) who were trying to get Liked on a group dating website. What will happen when Renee realises her appearance never changed and that it’s her newfound self-confidence that wins people over and Ethan likes her as she is? The company needs her to sell their product to Target  and she hits her head in the shower and she is shocked to find she never changed at all … The trouble with this Amy Schumer film is that Amy Schumer is in it. It was clearly written to highlight her strengths as a sketch performer – potato-faced, potty-mouthed, not afraid to show us her Spanx – but that merely accentuates her limitations. She is no actress. Nor is she the female Will Ferrell (I wish she’d try harder). The other joke (sort of) is that Williams can act Schumer’s socks off and is relegated to the high-pitched second banana role – and she’s brilliant as the daffy character;  while a really gifted comic actress, Busy Phillips, is in the Sad Normal Best Friend category with brunette hair and minimal makeup.  In a Nora Ephron film she’d be getting the zingers and giving the advice. Here, nope, nada, not a chance. Minimal funny.  And the Really Fat Friend in Colourful Clothes played by Bryant? Well, she gets the Fascinating Hobbies. That said, a story about female self-empowerment which resolves in a cosmetics firm maximising their profits from the little (ugly) people who don’t want stick insects humiliating them in posh shops by having the hapless deluded Schumer shilling the products, which, um, really wasn’t the message of Big at all … What’s wrong with THIS picture? Um, everything. We were here before, in Shallow Hal, and we didn’t like it any better then. This is a movie taking on the wretched self-hatred that plagues women yet coasts on body image jokes about people being overweight. Ethan has his own self-esteem problems – he doesn’t go to Zumba to pick up women, he beats up on himself for not being in the ‘boys’ club’ at work.  Renee thinks she is beautiful and her really stunning friend Jane is not. Yeah, right. Problem is, this is a movie and we can see. And yes, this is a film that is having it both ways trying to tell us that if we only persuaded ourselves that we were worth it… oh there I go, quoting a cosmetics firm. What kind of intelligent woman dreams about taking a paycut to be a receptionist anyway?! This is a fundamentally illogical story. And, instead of going for the vicious jugular, at which Schumer excels, with cynicism and humiliation as side dishes, this aims for sentiment, hypocrisy and happy ever after. Like the kids say, Get Real. Me too! Written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein who clearly do not advocate for women’s rights or eloquence and as for laughs … Feminism how are ye.