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Battle of the Sexes (2017)

In 1973, tennis player Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) was the number one player in the world, but to many she was still only just a woman playing a man’s game. Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) was a retired tennis player trying his hand at being a family man. He’s restless and eager to prove something. He’s a natural hustler and so he sees female tennis players fighting for equal pay as his opportunity at a comeback. Riggs wants to prove a point about the inferiority of female athletes. He will play and beat any female tennis pro. He embraces the term of being a male chauvinist and becomes a lightning rod. Men around the world cluck about their biological superiority in athleticism. Billie Jean King feel the full pressure to prove him wrong and make a stand for the women’s movement.

I was pleasantly surprised at the degree of depth given to the characters in Battle of the Sexes, turning what could have been a light-hearted and sprightly throwback to a sports novelty into something a bit deeper and more meaningful, a thoughtful character piece on this climactic conversion of sports, celebrity, and feminism that still resonates.

Billie Jean King is the number one women’s tennis player in the world at age 29. She’s also deeply in the closet and Battle of the Sexes gives considerable attention to this internal conflict of self. The film successfully makes you feel her yearning and unrestrained attraction to hair stylist Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). The directors film their first interaction in extreme close-up, which forces them together tighter and allows us to see every little tremor of nerves play across Stone’s face. Her affair with Marilyn coasts on that combination of guilt and compulsion, the push and pull of what she desires and what she can have. Sponsors would not take kindly to an openly gay tennis star. Billie Jean King is struggling with her concept of who she is versus the expectations of others and society. By stepping up to Riggs’ challenge, she is fighting for her own sense of agency. She feels the intense pressure to perform with the credibility of women’s sports placed upon her shoulders. She’s fighting for equal pay and fair treatment, but what happens to that mission if she fails against a 55-year-old oaf? Billie Jean King comes across as a compelling specimen, feisty and independent but also hampered by what those around her would think over her feelings for another woman.

Stone delivers a far more layered and emotionally engaging performance here than in her Oscar-winning turn in La La Land. Hers is a character trying to become comfortable in her own skin. Riggs is the showboat while Billie Jean King is not comfortable in the spotlight. Stone displays the grit and tenacity as well as the vulnerability and complexity of her character’s self doubts and internal struggles. Her scenes with Marilyn have a vitality to them that is absent throughout the rest of the movie, allowing the audience to understand how that burgeoning romance unlocks something within her, something that she might not even fully comprehend. When she does win the big match, Stone seeks solitude and just cries her eyes out, finally able to let her guard down, acknowledge the toll of the moment, the relief of not letting down the women’s movement, and the sheer elation of rising to the occasion. It’s a moment where Billie Jean King feels her most free, where she’s sobbing by herself. Once that’s done she has to collect herself and get back in front of the cameras, adopting her shield once again to face the outside world.

And then there was Bobby Riggs, 55 years old at the time and languishing on the seniors’ tennis circuit and desperately missing the spotlight. The movie finds notes to make him more of a character rather than simply a misogynistic antagonist, and whether that shaded portrayal is deserved is another question. Riggs is fully convinced of his physical capabilities and that he can beat the stars of the women’s tour. These are women fighting for equality and equal pay but Bobby, and he’s certainly not alone, believe that the sexes are inherently unequal when it comes to physical competition. For him, it’s a way to prove his skills and send a message as well, but more so, as presented in the film, it seems like it’s the spotlight that he misses most. He’s enviously licking his lips at the tournament prize purses on the tennis circuit now, even the women’s prizes. He can make more money than he’s ever earned in his pro career. He can still contend, he can still prove something, and the money and stage has never been bigger. He’s getting far more attention at 55 than he ever received during his pro tennis career where he won four Grand Slam titles (he was the number one player for three years). Carell (The Big Short) is well suited to play broad characters that get even bigger with attention. He’s soaking up every moment as if he’s finally getting what he feels is long overdue, and every hammy PR stunt only magnifies the intensity of that attention. He’s a huckster who gleefully adopts the moniker of a misogynist. At 55, Bobby Riggs has found himself in the biggest spotlight with waves of adoring fans and he doesn’t want to give it up.

You know who else comes across really well in this movie is Billie Jean’s husband, Larry King (not to be confused with the TV host of the same name). It’s not a film that props up the husband as the focal point of someone else’s story; there are more important aspects than how Billie Jean’s lesbianism affects him. However, he is still an important person in Billie Jean’s life and he is processing a form of loss. His relationship with her cannot stay the same, but Larry recognizes what she needs and chooses to be supportive rather than vindictive. He cares enough to put her needs ahead of his own, and that only increased my empathy for him. A marriage pulled in multiple directions is ripe for examination, and it’s rare to maintain sympathy for all of the participants and this movie does.

By the time that seismic tennis battle comes about, the directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) smartly refrain from lots of edits and angles, instead preferring a standard TV shot to better immerse the audience. The camera angle allows for the entire tennis court to be displayed, and we’ll watch sets play out in long takes with the two athletes running up and down the court. This allows us better understand and appreciate the strategy of both players, and it also probably makes the special effects budget happy as they don’t have to do much to cover the presence of the stand-ins playing the game instead of our movie stars. Even though I knew how the match would end, I was glued to the screen because of everything the match represented. By forgoing the quick cuts and multiple angles that can jazz up the excitement of a tennis presentation, the film is able to carefully illustrate Billie Jean King’s strategy and skill. She intended to run Bobby Riggs up and down the court and exhaust him. Letting the tennis game play out in a wider presentation also better serves the sense of payoff. This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for, as were the 50 million Americans that tuned in. When she does win, I couldn’t get enough of the montage of chagrined male faces twisting in pained grimaces as this lady proved to be the superior player. You could give me a whole movie of pained reaction shots from misogynists and I would be ecstatic.

It’s also hard to ignore the parallels Battle of the Sexes makes with our current climate. 44 years later, women are still fighting tooth and nail for equality and credibility without qualifiers. Serena Williams is not just the greatest female tennis player of all time; she’s also the greatest tennis player, period. Women’s sports are often seen as lesser in comparison to the men, and abhorrent pay discrepancies are still a reality. Look at the U.S. women’s soccer team, which won the World Cup in 2015, only earning a small fraction of the U.S. men’s team, who finished fifteenth out of a group of sixteen. The casual sexism and lowered expectations extend beyond the realm of sports, as the 2016 presidential election serves as a powerful reminder of the obstacles professional women face in modern society. It’s easy to view Battle of the Sexes through the lens of the 2016 election: a very capable woman who just wanted to do her job is lambasted by an inferior opponent coasting on puffed-up bravado, masculinity, sensationalism, and the sense that the established order of white males is losing something divinely theirs. I’ll admit that channeling this analogue does provide the ending with even more uplift.

Battle of the Sexes is an engrossing story with big personalities, big conflicts, and big stakes, and it feels just as socially resonant forty years later. The messaging can be a bit heavy-handed at time, as Bill Pullman’s character seems to be a composite of all male chauvinism personified, but it’s still easy to get swept along with its sunny cinematography, 1970s period soundtrack, and feel-good story that remembers to always be entertaining. The characters have more depth than I was expecting, and the actors bring extra layers and shades to their roles, making Bobby Riggs a better rounded character than he might have been in real life. Battle of the Sexes is a timely crowd pleaser that doesn’t lose sight of its characters in the guise of its message. By the end of the film, I was cheering, moved, and nicely satisfied, and what more could you ask for?

Nate’s Grade: B+

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Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Birdman-PosterExpecting a comedy from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu would have preposterous. The man was known for his cinema verite of suffering, notably Babel, 21 Grams, Biutiful, and his best film, Amores Perros, roughly translated to Love’s a Bitch. Perhaps there isn’t much of a shift going from tragedy to comedy. Inarritu’s newest film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), has been wowing critics and audiences alike, building deafening awards buzz for its cast, Iarritu, and the superb cinematography, but will it fly with mainstream audiences? This may be one of the weirdest Oscar front-runners in some time.

Riggan (Michael Keaton) is an actor best known for playing the superhero Birdman in the early 1990s and walking away from the franchise. He’s still haunted by that role (sometimes literally) and struggling to prove himself as an artist. He’s brokered all his money into directing, adapting, and starring in a theatrical version of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The show is in previews and about to open its run on Broadway but it’s already got a rash of problems. The leading man needs to be replaced immediately. The supposed savior is famous actor Mike (Edward Norton), an undeniably talented but temperamental actor who pushes buttons to find some fleeting semblance of “truth.” Mike’s girlfriend, Lesley (Naomi Watts), is growing tired of his antics and desperate for her own long-delayed big break. Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is Riggan’s “girlfriend” and co-star and may be pregnant. Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan’s personal assistant and also his detached daughter, is fresh from rehab, and spiteful against her neglectful dad. Toss in Riggan’s best friend/manager/play producer (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan’s ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and a feared theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) who is determined to kill Riggan’s show to send a message to the rest of Hollywood polluting the integrity of the theat-tah. Oh, and throughout all this, Riggan hears an ominous voice that alternating encourages him and humiliates him.

hr_Birdman_16It’s an industry satire, a bizarre comedy, a father/daughter drama, an examination on identity and the complicated pulls of affection and admiration, and a stunning virtuoso technical achievement. As a movie, Birdman is hard to pin down or categorize. It’s a movie that you definitely need to experience on your own rather than have described (don’t stop reading, come back…), and that is a reason enough to see the film, a rare aspect among modern movies. It’s an artistically offbeat movie and yet it ultimately is about one has been actor looking back on his career and coming to terms with his own impact with pop-culture, art, and his family. It’s about a man struggling to find his place in his own life, beset at all odds by doubters and traitors and obstructionists. The refreshing aspect about Riggan is that he’s a has-been but not a sad sack; he’s fighting from the beginning, sometimes pathetically and sometimes in vain, but the man is always fighting to regain his dignity, to reclaim his life’s narrative, and to fight for his legacy. Riggan, after all, set the stage for the modern superhero industry that currently dominates Hollywood bean counters. He was too just soon, and the parallels with Keaton (Batman) are superficially interesting but there’s more of an original character here than a reflection of the actor playing him. He’s neurotic, egotistical, hungry, and fighting for respect, like many actors, and the film flirts with the façades people inhabit. Many of the characters are emotionally needy, desperate for validation wherever they can find it.

Another strength of the film is that it finds a moment for each of its talented ensemble players to shine, chief among them Keaton. The actor hasn’t had a showcase like this in some time and he is a terrific guiding force to hold the entire story together. Whether it’s marching in his tighty whities or working through his complicated degrees of neuroses, Keaton is alive in a way that is electrifying. We see several highs and lows over the course of two hours, some moments making us cheer on Riggan and others making us wince, but he comes across more like a person than just the butt of a joke. It’s also just fun to watch him adopt different acting styles when he steps on stage, including one early on where he’s purposely too stilted. It’s so comforting to watch Norton (The Grand Budapest Hotel) get to be great again, not just good but great. Early on, you see the appeal of Mike, his allure, and Norton keeps pushing the audience, as well as the characters, back and forth with his wealth of talent. Stone (Amazing Spider-Man 2) spends most of the film as the sulky daughter but she gets to uncork one awesomely angry monologue against her loser dad. The thawing father/daughter relationship ends up supplying the film with its only degree of heart. Watts (The Impossible) is comically frazzled for the majority of her time but gets a memorable character beat where she breaks down in tears, realizing her dream of “making it” might never materialize. Riseborough (Oblivion) also has moments where he sadness and vulnerability cut deep. The supporting characters aren’t terribly deep but they all have a moment to standout.

It’s a decidedly offbeat film that dips into the surreal though never dives completely inside. The movie is rather ambiguous about whether or not the fantastical flourishes are a result of Riggan being mentally ill, or at the least overtaxed with stress. Is there really a Birdman or is it a voice in his head, a manifestation of his ego or a ghost to remind him of the past when he was a star? Does Riggan really have the powers he seems to believe he does, including the ability to make objects move with his mind? Innaritu playfully keeps the audience guessing, treating the bizarre in an offhand manner reminiscent of magic realism. The bizarre embellishments blend smoothly with the film’s darkly comic tone. It’s a funny movie but one that you laugh at between clenched teeth.

birdman-movie-poster-4Is it all the unblinking camerawork a gimmick? I don’t think so. While the story can engage with its weirdness and surreal unpredictability, the long tracking shots bring a heightened reality to the unreal, they bring a larger sense of awe to the proceedings, watching to see the magic trick pulled off to the end. If anything, it’s an extra thrill to the script and greatly compounds the artistic audaciousness of the film, but I think it also channels the live-wire energy of theater, of watching actors have to walk that tightrope of performance and blocking, weaving together to pull off the ensemble. It makes the film medium feel more like live theater. Thematically I think the style also connects to the anxious mentality of Riggan. In the end, I don’t truly care that much whether it’s a gimmick or not (though I vote it is not) because the camerawork is rapturous. Made to resemble an entire two-hour tracking shot, it is a joyous thrill to watch these technical wizards do their thing, to watch the best in the business perform a visual magic trick over the duration of two hours. Even if you don’t care for the overall movie you can at least be entertained by the imaginative and thoroughly accomplished cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, fresh from his Oscar for Gravity and who should be clearing shelf space for the next bushel of awards he’s destined to win with this film. It’s an intoxicating experience to behold, though the film is structured into 10-minute or so chunks for feasibility. If you want to watch a real cinematic magic trick, check out the film Russian Ark, which is an entire movie, performed in one uncut single tracking shot.

I’m still wrestling with the debate over whether Birdman is an artistically ambitious romp or a truly great movie. Much like the characters in the film, I’m wrestling with whether I have confused my admiration with adoration. It’s a movie that I feel compelled to see a second time, and maybe a third, just to get a handle on my overall thoughts and feelings. That may be a sign that Birdman is a film for the ages, or maybe it’s just a sign that it’s not as approachable and denied a higher level of greatness by its obtuseness. Inarritu’s surreal showbiz satire is plenty entertaining, darkly comic, and a technical marvel thanks to the brilliant camerawork. The percussion-heavy musical score is another clever choice, naturally adding more urgency and anxiety to the proceedings. Birdman is a strange and beguiling movie, one that deserves to be seen, needs to be experienced, and stays with you rolling around in your brain. That sounds like a winner to me.

Nate’s Grade: A

Oblivion (2013)

oblivion-poster-Cruise-Golden-Gate-BridgeIt’s late in the twenty-first century, decades after humanity battled an alien species in a war for the planet, and while humanity won the war Earth is desolate. The moon destroyed. The remaining members of humanity live on a starship around Saturn’s moon, Titan, and the oceans of Earth provide the energy resource. Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) are the team stationed with repairing drones, the flying machines that protect the energy plants. There are still pockets of alien scavengers that need to be dealt with. Jack and Victoria make a great team, and dip into romantic companionship, until Jack meets a mysterious woman (Olga Kurylenko) professing to be his wife. Jack begins to doubt the purpose of his mission and wonder if the alien scavengers are the enemy.

If you’ve been keeping up with sci-fi cinema in the last couple decades, you’ll likely recognize more than a few elements with Oblivion. From its themes to its plot points to its revelations, there’s little here to designate as original. So the real question remains how derivative can we take? I think when the execution is nimble then it’s one of the easiest sins to remember. Especially in the realm of sci-fi cinema, it’s hard to put together a new story, let alone one set up as a Hollywood star vehicle, without borrowing from other established movies. This in itself is not an issue. Tarantino is a master borrower but he always recontextualizes his artistic influences into something new and different, and while we critics lament his less original career path of late, the man’s box-office profits have never been better in his career. I think when we feel like we’re getting a good story we don’t care when that story has been told before in other manners. Star Wars, after all, has many cultural fathers, but it was a rollicking good time with characters we cared about, so nobody seemed to mind. Likewise, Oblivion has many forbearers from Independence Day to I Am Legend to 2001 to an indie film from a few years ago I shall refrain from mentioning because even the very mention will spoil key plot points. Some will decry the film as a rip-off of superior, headier fare, but I never minded. I was having too good of a time and found the movie too satisfying to quibble.

oblivion3I won’t say the movie is smart per se but it’s far more measured than I would have expected. The advertising makes it look like Cruise fights a bunch of aliens and robots, and while there is that aspect, it’s almost an afterthought to a slow-burning mystery that patiently parcels out its revelations, even to the very end of the film. I’m trying to be cagey about certain plot points to avoid spoilers. It’s a film that has more on its mind than explosions, but when it goes into explosion mode, director Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy) makes it count. The larger action elements are well staged and polished with some above average special effects. The sight of the moon dashed across the sky is definitely an evocative image. I love the overall look of the film, Kosinki’s clean, spare, bubbly Apple-esque aesthetics. The drones themselves manage to have personality even with a limited, streamlined design and some choice sound design. The man knows how to hold onto an image and when to keep pushing. The action is suitably thrilling and the drama suitably suspenseful. Actually, better than suitably. I enjoyed the details of this world. It’s probably the spiffiest post-apocalyptic landscape you’ll ever see. This is an entertaining movie that finds nice ways to satisfy, and given the particulars of its sci-fi plot, finds a way to have its cake and eat it too. As a result, Oblivion is a sci-fi flick that offers enough to engage the mind and audience demands for big effects and big thrills.

-1I’ve never been a Cruise hater. I even thought the man tried his damndest to make a movie like Rock of Ages worth watching (a valiant effort but not enough). His character is pretty affable at first and we get to watch as everything he knows comes undone. It’s a role that would lead to overacting, but Cruise underplays the part, more alarmed naïf than flinty action hero. I’m not expecting Oscar-caliber performances in every role but Cruise does a fine job of anchoring the audience and selling his character’s journey. He also has good chemistry with not one but two ladies. Kurylenko (Seven Psychopaths, To the Wonder) is an actress of great beauty and questionable talent, but perhaps being paired up with a genuine star like Cruise brings out the best in her. They’re good together, though my preference was for Riseborough (W.E., Never Let Me Go), an actress who brings a tremulous vulnerability to an otherwise underwritten and confused character that’s more a plot device. Riseborough makes the character so much more than she is on the page. She’s still a relatively new actress so I look forward to her future performances. There are other familiar faces, like Morgan Freeman and an especially unsettling Melissa Leo, but it’s really a three-person acting exercise.

Oblivion is a visually alluring sci-fi thriller that also manages to have enough heart and smarts to leave a satisfying impression. The pacing is more deliberate but offers plenty rewards, doling out revelations up until the end, unpacking its mystery with finesse. The first twenty minutes or so, establishing the particulars of this world and the routine of our protagonists, is downright exceptional. The rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to that start but it continues to be an engaging and entertaining movie with some top-notch visuals. The musical score by electronic band M83 also provides a stirring counterpoint to the glossy, clean visuals (the band’s song “Outro” was also very effectively used in that lovely five-minute trailer for Cloud Atlas). You may figure things out as you watch, but you won’t mind, at least I didn’t. The more I step away the more I think back with renewed enthusiasm for the film. It’s smarter, slicker, and just a more satisfying film than we’re accustomed to with this kind of budget and from Hollywood.

Nate’s Grade: B

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