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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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A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

MV5BMTQ0NDcyNjg0MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzk4NTA4MTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_I was no fan of Seth MacFarlane’s first big-screen effort Ted, but I had my hopes up for his Western comedy after some genuinely funny trailers and the reported promise of a lack of anachronistic jokes. A Million Ways to Die in the West lands about half of its jokes, which is a definite improvement though still has enough dead spots that left me shifting around in my seat. The main conceit, a self-aware individual explaining all the myriad ways the Wild West is horrible and will kill you, is a fun operating principal that is also weirdly educational. And MacFarlane actually makes a pretty good comedic leading man, enough so that he could get gigs in other people’s movies. He plays a coward roped into fighting an outlaw (Liam Neeson) after unknowingly falling for the outlaw’s wife (Charlize Theron). The meta jokes critiquing the romanticized living conditions of the West have the highest percentage of laughs, and there are some great sequences like a trip at the local fair which turns deadly so easily. Theron and MacFaralane make a good pair and the supporting cast, with Giovanni Ribisi and Sarah Silverman, are funny and don’t overstay their welcome. Neil Patrick Harris is also amusing as ever and even gets a song-and-dance number about the virtues of mustaches that, honestly, should have been better. But every so often MacFarlane can’t help himself. There are some gross-out jokes that go a little too far. Then there’s the fact that the movie forgets to be a comedy for long stretches, morphing into an action thriller or budding romance. The scenery is nice but I would have liked more jokes. The movie is also far longer than it needs to be, dragging out the climax. I’m also somewhat disappointed that MacFaralne and his writers missed out on an obvious payoff, namely the myriad ways the West can kill you. It only seems natural for Neeson and his gang to be foiled by the West itself, which would present a fun guessing game for the audience to anticipate what deadly condition would strike next. Alas, a missed opportunity. A Million Ways to Die in the West is a hit-or-miss affair with just enough hits to warrant a casual viewing.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Wreck-It Ralph (2012)

Disney has taken plenty of drubbings with its non-Pixar animation output. They’ve all but abandoned traditional 2D animation, and the failure of The Princess and the Frog is unlikely to alter that decision-making. The Disney stand-alones have gotten better in quality; last year’s Tangled was well received and banked some nice dough. I expect Wreck-It Ralph to do even better. A film about the lives of video game characters seems ripe for a merchandizing bonanza, plus all the parents will need something to shut up their sweet little bundles of joy for two hours of relief.

Wreck-It Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the villain of a classic arcade game. He climbs a condo building, Donkey Kong-style, and smashes windows. Felix (Jack McBrayer) is the handyman the player controls, hopping from ledge to ledge fixing what is broken with his magic hammer. But Ralph is tired of always being the bad guy, getting hurled off the roof at the end of every game by the residents. He’s labeled as a “bad guy” but he doesn’t believe he’s so bad. To convince the townspeople of his game of his worth, Ralph abandons his game to seek a medal like what Felix earns at the end of every game. He trounces around an assortment of games, including a space Marine shoot-em-up led by the no-nonsense Calhoun (Jane Lynch), before landing in Sugar Rush, a girlie version of Mario Kart. Here he meets the rascally girl Vanellope (Sarah Silverman). She agrees to help Ralph get his medal if he’ll help her build a racing car and get her in the game. Vanellope lives on the run as a glitch in programming. The other game characters tell her she’s a mistake, but she knows she’s a racer at heart. Except without Ralph, Felix and the other game characters seem like they’re glitching. If they can’t get him back, they may lose their game and their home.

It’s essentially a Toy Story for gamers, discovering the hidden world of video games when nobody’s looking. There’s a great sense of fun and discovery learning about these characters and their worlds as well as what they do off the clock. I love the idea of a support group for video game villains coping with their lot in life. I feel like this could have been a movie unto itself and I would have been pleased. There are plenty of references to games from the 80s and 90s, before everything became an endless variation on first-person shoot and kill games of sport. Really the references are only going to work for former or current gamers in their 20s or 30s, maybe even 40s. Are teenagers even going to understand the famous Konami code or get the subway scrawl, “All your base are belong to us”? Heck, are teenagers even going to know what arcades are at this point? The cameos are kept to a minimum as we switch over to our main characters. Wreck-It Ralph isn’t as clever or groundbreaking as the Toy Story films, but it gets points for trying something different than most family films, which are content with the somehow irresistible combination of fart jokes and inappropriate pop-culture references. Even non-gamers will likely find something to enjoy with the movie. I’ve gone on record saying that there will likely never be a good video game movie. Allow me to amend that statement: there will never be a good movie BASED upon a video game.

Set in the world of video games is another matter. The animation style is very colorful and impressive, with some fun quirks to give the movie an extra dash of personality. I really enjoyed how the Weeble-like people in Ralph’s game move in staccato 8-bit style; a herky-jerky movement that left me smiling every time. The running jokes helped to turn a half-hearted gag into a thing of beauty, like Calhoun’s tragic bridal backstory. The antagonist of King Candy (voiced by an unrecognizable Alan Tudyk) proves to be more interesting than at first glance. The different game settings all have very different tones, allowing the movie to present a nice variety of visual imagery. Some of the more frenzied action of the “Hero’s Duty” game might scare young children. The animation looks wonderful and even the recreation of the graphically limited games is cause for some amusement. That’s probably the best word for Wreck-It Ralph; it’s routinely amusing and provides enough chuckles for me to mildly recommend to others. I would not, however, recommend seeing this movie in 3D. You would think a world of video games would be quite a boon in the extra dimension, but the 3D is hardly noticeable at all. This may be the worst 3D rendering of a major movie I’ve ever seen, and usually animated films are the best ones to see with 3D. Regardless, the substandard 3D won’t detract from what is an enjoyable theatrical experience.

What helps smooth over the film’s flaws is the presence of heart. Yes it too can get saccharine at turns, and that’s not a joke about Sugar Rush, but you’ll be surprised that by the end of the movie, you may actually be feeling things in your heart-space for these characters and their plights. Again, here is another 2012 movie that rips off the ending to the brilliant 1999 animated classic, The Iron Giant. Perhaps some of my emotional engagement is residual association from that masterpiece. If this is true, and Hollywood filmmakers have found the secret formula to make audiences feel emotions, then I await the onslaught of movies copying the ending to The Iron Giant (I won’t spoil it but for God’s sake, go out and see that movie). After about 30 minutes, the film really becomes a buddy picture between Ralph and Vanellope, outcasts from their games. Neither character is that deep, though perhaps that goes with the programming. They both are denied better lives because of others prejudices against them. When they join forces as a team to buck the establishment is when the movie finds a wealth of sweetness. While their character arcs will be completely predictable, from the misunderstanding and reconciliation, but that doesn’t mean it misses the mark. Their relationship, and the film’s simple goals, can get bogged down in the messy plot mechanics of the movie (there are a lot of rules to digest). The climax, though, is filled with all number of payoffs, some big some small, some you’d forgotten about; I’m genuinely impressed how smoothly the movie ties together storylines, finding a perfect return of the bad guy support group pledge to form an emotional peak.

There is a fun to be had and Wreck-It Ralph has enough colorful imagery to make your eyes glaze over. However, the story is a blend of familiar “be yourself” aphorisms given a retro polish. The motivation for Ralph, and Vanellope as well, is very flimsy, and the more time they repeat these miniscule goals (get a medal/compete in a race) the flimsier they become. Ralph is risking it all to get a medal because a shiny award is all it takes to convince the people in his game that he deserves better. The dubious logic seems pulled right out of a video game. There’s also a fair amount of messages about not being trapped by labels, breaking from the herd, believing in yourself, all those sorts of Disney beatitudes they’ve been dishing since the 90s. The plot also seems to fly well below its potential. We’re talking about a world of video games, and there’s a definite interest in seeing these realms mix and match. Unfortunately, the movie spends 2/3 of its running time in the candy-coated land of Sugar Rush. It’s here where Vanellope takes over the movie. Her relationship with Ralph works in fits and starts, and her annoyance level will vary sharply depending upon your tolerance index for Silverman’s baby-doll voice. Aside from a few retro cameos and puns, the humor is assuredly juvenile and filled with endless slapstick. Hope you like three minutes of “duty/doodie” jokes. You’re better than this, Wreck-It Ralph.

There’s one glaring plot hole that I feel deserves some deliberation. Throughout the film we glimpse Felix’s hammer magically fixing things that are broken. Just one whap and good as new. A late conflict arrives with the danger of the Sugar Rush game getting its plug pulled. The residents of the game could flee, but Vanellope would be stuck because she is a glitch, she cannot escape the game if it goes dead. Well couldn’t Felix use his hammer, tap Vanellope, and then “fix” her? To that end, what happens if the whole arcade goes out of business? We see the displaced game characters hang out at the surge protector, modeled like a train station. But what if that gets unhooked as well? How far can these guys run away to? They all seem inevitably doomed due to the dwindling business of arcades. Maybe somebody should start up a non-profit charity. Cue the Sarah McLachlan song (for just quarters a day, you can help a video game character in need…).

Colorful, vibrant, and occasionally witty, Wreck-It Ralph is Disney’s latest animated film to succeed with a solid formula of heart, attitude, and with an extra dash of nostalgia. I did enjoy the film but I always kept thinking there were so many better movies ready to be made given this setup. It does seem a little confused about who its audience is. It’s a bit too childish for grown-ups and a bit too plot-heavy and full of nostalgia for little kids. It packs a lot of jokes and plot into 108 minutes, which feels draggy at turns but flies by with enough spirit and energy that it’s hard to complain. Wreck-It Ralph is a perfectly entertaining movie that fits the definition of cute. It manages to make you care about the characters, which is a small miracle when you’re dealing with characters named Vanellope. Now that they’ve established this universe, hopefully Disney and the writers can expand their storytelling and really have fun with the possibilities at play.

Oh, and the short before the movie about a couple looking to find one another in the big city is rather cute though I liked it better before it went overboard with the supernatural.

Nate’s Grade: B

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