Chloe Domont’s “Fair Play,” a smart, crackling thriller about sex, money, gender and power in the modern age, begins with a wickedly funny omen. Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), hot and horny and deliriously happy, have slipped away from a wedding reception (not theirs) for a bathroom quickie — an ill-timed tryst in every sense, leaving Emily’s dress and Luke’s lips stained with menstrual blood. They gasp in shock but laugh it off; they’re too drunk, on booze and each other, to worry about what everyone will think. And then Emily spies the ring that’s slipped out of Luke’s pocket, spurring him to drop clumsily to one knee, red of lip but gallant of spirit, and offer up a sweet if singularly indecent proposal.
By next sunrise, the newly engaged lovers have sobered up, and the question of what everyone will think reasserts itself. A clever sequence chronicles their morning ritual at their Chinatown apartment, as they scrub away any hint of romantic afterglow, don trim, dark suits and head off on their own separate ways — and arrive, almost simultaneously, in the same elevator of the same Lower Manhattan glass-and-steel fortress. Emily and Luke are both junior analysts at a hedge fund, One Crest Capital, and their relationship is a violation of corporate policy. So far they’ve managed to keep it off the books, hoping that someday soon they’ll be successful enough to go public without fear of repercussions.
But what if one of them succeeds and the other doesn’t? Specifically, what if Luke, though rumored to be in line for a promotion, turns out to be just another Wall Street mediocrity, soon to be kicked to the curb if he doesn’t quit in frustration or jump out a window first?
And what if Emily, who’s been quietly knocking ’em dead for months, is summoned to have a drink in the middle of the night with the big boss, Campbell (Eddie Marsan, icily mesmerizing), and told that she’s the company’s newest portfolio manager? In some ways, we already know the answer as soon as Emily anxiously returns home to deliver the good news. Luke’s first reaction is to wonder if Campbell made a pass at her, an expression of concern that is also, of course, the ultimate insult. And as the truth sinks in, not even his stiffly congratulatory smile (“I’m so f— proud of you,” he says, a little too forcefully) can conceal the shock and resentment in his eyes.
Things clearly aren’t going to end well. But if “Fair Play” spends the better part of two hours tracing this newly lopsided romance to its logical, unhappy conclusion, the blow-by-blow machinations are still a chilly wonder to behold. What gives the movie its driving tension isn’t just the glaring imbalance between Emily and Luke as employees, but a deeper incompatibility between the personal and professional imperatives they’ve chosen. Modern romance insists on projecting at least the illusion of equality, but the cutthroat capitalist world in which Emily thrives (and where Luke struggles to maintain a foothold) has no real use for appearances. You‘ve either got it or you don’t.
The tension builds slowly but deliciously, as the leads lock us into an ostensible battle of the sexes that neither character can win. Ehrenreich, whose dark-princeling good looks can curdle at will, makes Luke a fascinating swirl of ego, entitlement and fragility. He fumes in silence at his desk, listening as his co-workers speculate about who Emily must have screwed or screwed over to get ahead. (Does he want to defend her honor or join the pile-on?) Compounding his humiliation, he now reports to Emily, answering her questions, taking her orders and offering buy-or-sell recommendations that she has the power to accept or reject.
Domont, making a sharply assured feature debut, knows her way around these gleaming corridors of power. (Her TV credits include episodes of “Suits,” “Ballers” and “Billions.”) What she’s mounted here is less a throwback than an up-to-the-minute rejoinder to corporate thrillers like “Wall Street” and “Disclosure,” among other touchstones of the ’80s and ’90s Michael Douglassance. A lot may have changed since then (the technology, for starters), and also since the rapacious ’60s sexism of “Mad Men,” an allusion prompted by Rich Sommer’s sly performance as Campbell’s silky No. 2.
But “Fair Play” knows that less has changed than we‘d like to tell ourselves, and not even the ostensible reforms of #MeToo can chase away the inherent misogyny of the elite corporate class. On the contrary, the genuine progress that Emily’s elevation represents can all too easily be weaponized against her, dismissed as a sop to political correctness over merit. And if Domont has a sharp ear for the breathlessly impenetrable jargon of high finance, she’s also keenly attuned to the piggish wisecracks that pass for small talk. For Emily, a bad day means Campbell calling her a “dumb f— bitch” to her face; a good night means proving she can roll with the boys and celebrate a six-digit commission at the local strip club.
Shooting through glass partitions and around multi-screen computer terminals, Domont extracts drama and meaning not just from her characters’ desperate glances and conspiratorial whispers, but also from the very layout of the office itself, where the hierarchies are etched into the floor plan and the ugly fluorescent lighting exposes every lie and magnifies every tension. She and her cinematographer, Menno Mans, draw a stark visual contrast with Emily and Luke’s dimly lit, sparsely furnished apartment, where their once-loving dynamic struggles to reassert itself. The movie keeps following them back and forth, between boardroom and bedroom, turning these public and private worlds into complementary, near-contiguous war zones.
“Fair Play” doesn’t entirely avoid a trap common to its subgenre, namely that what happens at the office is inevitably more scintillating — and persuasive — than damn near everything else. At home, Luke spirals, sputters and loses himself in self-help banalities, while Emily tries in vain to re-energize their sex life, a subplot that puts maybe too fine a point on her fiancé’s professional impotence. Some late family drama creeps in from the sidelines, but it feels like an unnecessary distraction, an attempt to add yet more stories to an already precarious house of cards. It all falls apart spectacularly, of course, with two tough, punitive scenes of violence — one utterly horrifying, the other undeniably satisfying. Rarely has “cutting your losses” taken on such cathartic new meaning.
Rating: R, for pervasive language, sexual content, some nudity and sexual violence
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Playing: Starts Sept. 29 at Landmark Pasadena Playhouse; Landmark Theatres Sunset, West Hollywood; the Landmark Westwood; starts streaming Oct. 6 on Netflix
‘HWJN’ Review: A Colorful Application of Traditional Arab Mythology to the Modern World
We’ve had genies of the playful, wish-granting “Thief of Baghdad” type, and more recently quite a number of evil djinn in horror movies. But it’s hard to recall a prior screen portrait of the same malleable Arabic mythological creatures quite like “HWJN,” which takes the cuddlesome, anthropomorphic “They’re just like us, only magical!” view of Pixar animations and such in depicting modern-day jinn (the term’s more accurate translation) who invisibly live alongside humans.
Yasir Alyasiri’s visually appealing fantasy, which kicked off the Red Sea Film Fest, is at times too innocuous in tone and pedestrian in story ideas. But it’s nonetheless a slick, pleasant diversion that should attract viewers eager for an approximation of CGI-heavy western family entertainments, albeit with up-front Arabic cultural and Muslim religious emphases. The Saudi Arabia-United Arab Emirates coproduction opens commercially in S.A. on Jan. 4.
Drawn from sci-fi author Ibraheem Abbas’ popular (if sporadically banned) series of novels, which began publishing a decade ago, this amiable whimsy starts off its world-building immediately in the most straightforward terms. Our narrating protagonist Hawjan (Baraa Alem) is introduced watching a traditional “evil genie” film in a cinema. He protests such stereotypes, insisting that real jinn “have jobs, families and family drama,” just like the humans they co-exist with. Only the humans don’t know it, because “God separated our worlds for a reason of which He knows best,” rendering jinn capable of seeing humans but not vice versa. Interaction between the two is difficult, and forbidden by the “jinn creed,” anyway.
Nonetheless, it becomes hard to maintain that detachment once the abandoned home that young doctor Hawjan (at 92, he looks 20) shares with his mother and grandfather on Jeddah’s outskirts is refurbished, then inhabited by the well-off Abdulraheems. Only daughter Sawsan (Nour Alkhadra), a med school student herself, senses the presence of the preexisting supernatural residents even faintly. Our hero is quickly smitten, so he works assiduously to create a communication bridge with her — which takes the form of a shameless plug for iPads. But their inter-dimensional relationship is problematic, to say the least. For one thing, she’s already got a nice, safely human beau in classmate Eyad (Mohsen Mansour). For another, she has a brain tumor that may render any romantic or marital prospects moot.
But worse still is that fatheress Hawjan, whose paternal background (and reasons for being “trapped” living alongside people) have been kept from him, is in fact jinn royalty sought for nefarious purposes by minions of the wicked King Hayaf. Chief among them is chrome-domed Master Xanaam (Naif Al Daferi), a cousin who to save his own neck must persuade our hero to marry his sister, the beauteous Jumara (Alanoud Saud). In order to do so, he and his flunkies cast a spell on Sawsan, using her already vulnerable health as an instrument of blackmail. To save her life, and fulfill his own destiny, Hawjan must journey to the fantastical lands of two warring jinn tribes.
Even if these desert realms recall the various versions of “Dune” in their tawny look, it is in sequences set there that “HWJN” is most enjoyable. Indeed, these flights of visual fancy — handsomely realized by production designer Khaled Amin, costumer Hassan Mustafa and DP Nemanja Veselinovic’s frequently amber-hued cinematography — prevent the rather banal Earth-bound conflicts from dragging “HWJN” into tearjerking melodrama.
The pacing sometimes plods a bit, but likewise is juiced enough by regular infusions of eye candy to maintain interest. Even human interiors are granted a colorfully inviting warmth, and some spectacular desert exteriors were shot in Egypt. Less distinctive is Khaled Alkamaar’s original score, which is a little too squarely faithful to the John Williams school of triumphal, fully orchestrated western mall-flick soundtrack themes.
Well-cast performers ably fulfill the demands of their fairly one-note roles, from our puppyish protagonist to various concerned parental figures and an assortment of comical or sinister grotesques. Unsurprisingly, the door is left wide open for sequels, with supervillain Hayaf — his ghoulish countenance glimpsed only at the fadeout — not about to take everybody else’s happy endings like a good sport.
Sylvester Stallone celebrates Philly’s first-ever Rocky Day: ‘Keep punching!’
The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows, but on Sunday, Philly was celebrating.
Nearly 50 years after the 1976 Oscar-winning sports film “Rocky” introduced audiences to small-time boxer Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone returned to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where Balboa famously sprinted up the steps as he trained for his big fight. The occasion? Philly’s first-ever Rocky Day, a new annual city holiday that falls on the same day “Rocky” was released to U.S. audiences.
“I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart — and Rocky’s too because we’re very close — and to all of you who, believe it or not, are Real Life Rockys,” Stallone said to the crowd of thousands who had gathered in the rain to celebrate the film, many of them dressed like Rocky.
“Because you live your life on your own terms. You try to do the best you can, and you keep punching. I appreciate that, Dec. 3 … Rocky Day. Remarkable.
“Who would have believed that? Certainly none of the 13 schools I went to woulda,” he joked. “Remarkable, you know, whoever would have thought that a 12-year-old loner that used to go up and down these steps would come back to see this day and be lucky enough, alive, to have seen it.”
Stallone continued that he’d traveled the world and seen amazing sights like the pyramids, and a Colosseum, but for some reason those 72 steps that lead up to the museum inspire and excite him. “It’s like you get to the top, you feel inspired, you feel special, hopeful, happy and most of all proud of yourself. … You look out and you go, ‘I did it. I feel good at this moment,’” the 77-year-old actor said. “You feel like you can be perhaps the champion of your dreams. It’s a possibility. It’s a sliver of hope.”
The Times’ original 1976 review referred to Stallone as “a sturdy young actor” and said his film was the story of a “lumbering nice-guy loner who lives in a really crummy apartment with a goldfish, a pair of turtles named Cuff and Link and a poster of Marciano.” Stallone has said that, when he wrote the movie, he identified with his underdog character.
He echoed Rocky in Sunday’s speech, saying, “To me, life is a fight. It’s a tough fight, and get ready, you’re going to win some and you’re going to lose a lot. But the real victory is in never giving up. And going the distance for yourself. Standing at the top of these steps, you’re reminded that all things are possible.”
He ended his speech by addressing fans who’d gathered in his hometown, “Keep punching!”
The Prince of Egypt: The Musical
Many movies and shows have, of course, depicted and embellished the biblical story of the Israelites exodus from Egypt. And now we can add The Prince of Egypt: The Musical to that catalog.
This enjoyable stage production bases its view of Moses’ tale on Dreamwork’s acclaimed 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt. And it features five of composer Stephen Schwartz’s songs from that movie (“Deliver Us,” “All I Ever Wanted,” “Through Heaven’s Eyes,” “The Plagues” and “When You Believe”) along with 10 other brand-new tunes.
It’s easy to suggest that if you loved the 1998 movie, you’ll likely enjoy this live production with its talented cast, lively staging, state-of-the-art stage projections and soaring musical themes. The show is well constructed and worthy of all the praise that its London cast and orchestra has received.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t at least touch on that story “embellishment” I mentioned above. This version takes the tale’s conclusion even further than its Dreamworks inspiration.
The Prince of Egypt: The Musical isn’t so much a story about God using a reluctant man to powerfully lead His people out of slavery anymore. In fact, it’s not really focused on God and His people at all.
Instead, this is more a tale of two men, two brothers, who clash and find a way—through the use of godly power—to move their respective people toward a better future. The musical ends with Moses leading his people off into the wilderness and having a vision of Ramses becoming “a great ruler who stretches the reign of Egypt.”
That’s a distinctly humanistic difference worth noting. It definitely fits our contemporary desire for mankind to find a way to get along in a world full of strife. God’s power is a part of the equation here, but His hand, His biblical purpose, is less evident. And some may find that story turn disappointing.
That said, the production itself is very good. And if it leads fans to seek out the whole biblical truth, all the better.
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