Battle of the Sexes (2017)

Battle_of_the_Sexes_(film).png

If there’s one thing I know for certain it’s not to get between a woman and her hairdresser. It’s 1973 and Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and her agent Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) are setting up the Women’s Tennis Association in opposition to the US Lawn Tennis Association led by Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) because they want equal pay for women players after he’s announced a tournament where women will get precisely one eighth of the men’s prize. BJK is number one in the world and he threatens her – she won’t be able to play in the Grand Slams:  but more and more women players are joining her tour, and Virginia Slims are on board with sponsorship. Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is the former player now living off his wealthy wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) and on borrowed time in their marriage because he gambles on everything. He acts incensed about BJK’s stance and challenges her to a match but she doesn’t want to be part of his ongoing sideshow. So he challenges Margaret Court  (Jessica McNamee) instead after she beats the married BJK following a crisis: she’s had what appears to be a one-night stand with her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough) – it proves to be anything but and she is now second in the world. Court loses and then BJK sees an opportunity when Riggs offers her a prize of $100,000.  Her personal life is disintegrating, her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) realises he’s losing her but he tells Marilyn that they’re on the sidelines – because tennis is Billie Jean’s whole life. Then the Bobby bandwagon starts and there’s a huge TV match about to happen … Where to start? What a proposition – the biographical story of a woman who changed the face of modern sport at the same time as she discovered her true sexuality AND responded to a challenge from a man who called her a hairy-legged feminist. So much of this film is about the private versus the public, the individual versus the system, performance on and off court, that it demands – and gets – a finely balanced screenplay from Simon Beaufoy (probably his best by a long shot). The story problem is not just BJK’s discovery of her Lesbianism and the role she is cornered into playing (or be ashamed of herself for the rest of her life, given her perceived position in the women’s game) it’s also about the assertion of love, self and pride and the driven nature of athletes in a money-ridden pro sport. At the same time, it’s showbiz, and that’s where Steve Carell comes in. In Bobby Riggs he has found the role of a lifetime, the role he was born to play as a friend of mine put it. A reckless bon viveur, loudmouth, fun dad, shiftless husband and compulsive gambler it’s really something to see him personify this self-declared male chauvinist pig with such commitment. There are many great scenes here but when he gets up at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and tells them all their real problem is that they’re bad at gambling – reader, I nearly choked. And that’s where the story magic lies – in bringing together in a legendary face-off two utterly contrasting types and drawing out their similarities – their need to succeed, their desire to win, above everything else in their lives. You’ll be scratching your head afterwards, wondering, Did this really happen?! For real?! Yes it did, albeit women’s equality is still a thing of fiction for many 44 years later.  The only niggle is the sense that some story points have been retro-fitted to customise this to contemporary sensibilities:  Court’s reaction to the knowledge that BJK might be a Lesbian when the hairdresser on the tour is obviously staying in her room chimes with what was made known about her Christian beliefs last year; Alan Cumming as designer Teddy Tinling gets to spout some very new spiels about equality. In reality the married BJK met Barnett (what an apposite name for a hairdresser) a couple of years earlier and could have devastated her sporting career. And of course their toxic breakup a decade later made BJK work years after she wanted to retire in order to pay her off after she made public their affair and sued her. Barnett then attempted to kill herself and was left paralysed from the waist down. BJK was a moneyspinner and everything she did was made public by  those around her including her husband – he supplied her name to Ms. magazine when they were compiling a list of women who’d had an abortion. None of that makes it into a heavily fictionalised biography which is always headed towards the main event at the Houston Astrodome. BJK and her current female partner were the film’s consultants, after all. However, you can’t imagine anyone other than Stone and Carell playing BJK and Riggs and you can’t say better than that. The final complementary scenes in their respective dressing rooms are marvellously conceived. When you see the impact of the entire trajectory on Stone’s face – the enormity of what she has achieved and the realisation – you want to stand up and cheer as much as she is sitting down, crumpled and crying. There are wondrous supporting performances from Silverman, Stowell and Riseborough, who sparkles throughout. And Cumming is good in a stereotypical role of gay costumier and it’s always a delight to see Shue. This is handled with great care as dramedy by the Little Miss Sunshine team, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Do yourself a favour – go see it. It’s ace!

Advertisements

Runaway Jury (2003)

Runaway Jury theatrical.jpg

Trials are too important to be left to juries! Nothing like the element of surprise to heat up a legal drama and this has it in spades. After a workplace shooting in New Orleans that kills married broker Jacob (Dylan McDermott), lawyer Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) takes up the case against the gun manufacturer for the man’s widow Celeste (Joanna Going) but has to deal with a ‘jury consultant’, Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman). When Nicholas Easter (John Cusack), a man without an apparent past, gets on the jury he seems to be able to exert influence on the outcome – with the assistance of his girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz) who’s operating at the end of a telephone. Both sides are approached to make them an offer to sway the decision – a situation rendered immensely complicated when they are sequestered in a motel on the East Texas border … John Grisham’s thriller was in development for half a dozen years and its original topic – big tobacco – was altered after The Insider (coincidentally featuring Bruce McGill, the judge here) but taps into the very emotive theme of gun rights, the Second Amendment and – in the big reveal – a school shooting. The setting of N’Oleans heaps atmosphere into this very effectively plotted thriller and you’ll recognise a lot of landmarks. The playing – that cast! – is exceptional with Hackman making his return to Grisham territory 9 years after The Firm in which he also essayed a very shady character. Really well managed even if the coda errs on the side of sentiment. Adapted by Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman. Directed by Gary Fleder.

The China Syndrome (1979)

The China Syndrome.jpg

I know the vibration was not normal. A lot of films depend on luck to make a success – and a matter of days after this was released there was a major incident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. So a story about an accident in a nuclear plant that is filmed by a TV crew that usually does soft news and how that impacts on the news cycle, the plant supervisor and potentially the wider environment, saw reality and cinema converge in the most immediate fashion.  Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) has nice hair and does a great job covering idiotic stuff to put at the end of the evening show in LA but wants to cover more serious stories. Cameraman Richard (Michael Douglas) and soundman Hector (Daniel Valdez) accompany her to a local nuclear plant where they witness a shudder that supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) says should not have happened and he quarrels with colleague Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley) about safety when the reactor is going to be cranked up. The film is stopped from being broadcast and the news crew try to protect Jack when he holes up in a motel so they can get an exclusive story. His bosses are on a mission to stop him from going public at an environmental hearing and are prepared to leave no murder attempt unturned … Written by Mike Gray, T.S. Cook and director James Bridges, this was produced by Michael Douglas, who has always recognised a zeitgeist when he’s met one. This is as much an indictment of the politics of news production as it is about the propaganda behind the supposed safety of nuclear energy. Nobody comes out of this looking good. Excellent, tense storytelling, all the more extraordinary for a total lack of music other than Stephen Bishop’s theme song: the shudder of the reactor is terrifying enough and the acting from Fonda and Lemmon is superb, embodying their emblematic images as frustrated feminist activist and sympathetic conscientious objector – and in that order!

Detroit (2017)

Detroit theatrical.jpg

I’m still so 1997 I thought Kathryn Bigelow was making a film about Kent State, which I at least knew about. Instead, it appears she and writer Mark Boal teamed up again to make another political film, this time about the race riots in Detroit in July 1967 and an incident of astonishing police brutality in the Algiers Motel during which three innocent black men were murdered and a handful more were beaten to a pulp. Adapted from witness testimony, this isn’t quite biographical but attempts to be factual and realistic. When the police break up a party for returning Nam vets in an illegal after-hours venue the black community responds by firing at them, looting stores and rioting leading to a city-wide curfew. You gotta agree with the councillor who asks an assembled crowd why they feel compelled to burn down their own property. And therein lieth the problem, at least at the beginning. This is a most unreasonable riot. Out of context. Then a bunch of cracker cops led by Krauss (Will Poulter) open fire on looters and he chases one, shooting him in the back. Back at the PD, they can’t decide to prefer murder charges against him so he and his compadres Flynn (Ben O’Toole) and Demens (Jack Reynor, looking particularly gormless, like Dougal in Father Ted) are let back on the streets where the Army and the National Guard are swarming, taking potshots at perceived sniper fire. Dismukes (John Boyega) is security at a grocery store and when he saves a black kid from the Army he earns the title Uncle Tom.  A new band in town The Dramatics are about to go onstage when their showcase is shut down and one of them, Larry (Algee Smith) takes refuge at the Algiers with Fred (Jacob Latimore) where they befriend two white girls hanging out at the pool. One of the girls’ black friends Carl (Jason Mitchell) is also holed up at the motel’s annex and he fires a starter pistol.  It brings the cracker cops down on them with Dismukes attending the scene to try to prevent any violence but Krauss has already shot Carl in the back. Their interrogation technique involves pretending to shoot the men one by one as they separate them from the group in an attempt to get them to reveal the whereabouts of the non-existent rifle and a soldier Dismukes brought coffee joins in the party … This is more impressive the longer it goes on, but it does go on. And on.  It starts problematically and the characterisation is in many ways too on-the-nose if not stereotypical but the revelation of systemic corruption, the decision of the eventual trial jury (it all seems like a preview of coming OJ attractions in reverse) and the racism inherent in society so overwhelming that even without knowing the conclusion (included in a text over real-life photographs) we figure it out for ourselves,  is finally wearying. The persona of Dismukes seems deployed to present a good – if stupid – black man:  he’s predictably identified as a perpetrator for the police in a lineup despite having protected the white girl in question. Maybe it’s true but it doesn’t ring right for this dramatic purpose. The overlength (and underwritten) sequence of mind-numbing violence in the annex doesn’t help. It feels like it’s straight out of a seventies exploitationer, particularly in the shots of Flynn, sweating out his hatred before applying the butt of his gun to another black man’s head. Perhaps it’s a story that needed to be told but it’s unbalanced. There simply isn’t enough drama to portray a story of innocent people caught up in something that – as presented here – was woefully avoidable in a context that is under-explained. This is a failure of screenwriting, with the lingering suspicion that a true depiction of a police conspiracy, social destruction and legal corruption was literally beyond the pale. What a pity.

American Honey (2016)

American_Honey_poster.png

I feel like fucking America! Whether you like this will depend on a) your tolerance for drug-addled amoral teenagers whose greatest ambition is to get knocked up and live in a trailer and if b) you don’t mind losing 157 minutes of your precious life to an almost pointless unendurable movie. Strange newcomer Sasha Lane is Star, a black girl from a dysfunctional and abusive background who falls for the spiel of magazine crew guy Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and joins this rag-tag band of scuzzy losers as they run around house to house in middle America, selling subscriptions and led by she-wolf leader Krystal (Riley Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter). Star has sex with Jake after he steals a car owned by some well-heeled cowboys who rescue her from his abuse on the roadside – and this is after she sees him rubbing down Krystal’s shapely rear in a stars and stripes bikini. This being a movie, people act a lot like life – incoherently and inconsistently. When he takes the money she makes and drops her, she still wants him. She makes more money from giving an oil rig worker a handjob:  and he’s vile enough to criticise her. She still wants him. Krystal tells Star that she was handpicked by Jake and he fucks all the new girls – it’s his job. At the end, when there’s another apparently symbolic sequence with an animal – the only sign that there might be in this three-hour slog any indication of narrative rigour – you pray for her suicide:  or your own. What seems like artlessness is actually faux realist laziness. Were there NO editors available?? And for a movie that styles itself as a musical with all the group singalongs there’s extremely dodgy sound mixing.  I’m not arguing that the meth-taking underclass needs culling but they do exist and I’m hopeful that they don’t all listen to (c)rap. See Spring Breakers for a far more controlled (and much shorter) exposition of American youth. Written and directed by Andrea Arnold, who was inspired by a New York Times article.

Hell or High Water (2016)

Hell Or High Water movie poster.png

Call it white man’s intuition.  Taylor (Sicario) Sheridan writes a great screenplay so this was bound to be thrilling one way or another. Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) are brothers carrying out bank heists in west Texas to retrieve the family land, in foreclosure by the local bank two weeks after their Mom’s death. Tanner’s not long out of prison, Toby is divorced and wanting to do right by his sons:  he’s found oil on the property so he knows it’s crucial to get the ownership in order and there’s no way out now he’s lost his job and is behind in child support. Tanner carries out a third robbery after Toby is befriended by a waitress in a nearby diner and it’s the first bank to have CCTV that works. Texas Ranger Marcus (Jeff Bridges) who’s mere weeks from retirement gets the bit between his teeth and decides to take them down if he can figure out who they are by a simple method of deduction as the brothers rob the remaining banks in the chain – to repay the same bank  … Crafty, wise, mordantly funny and unbearably tense, this has two parallel male friendships – Marcus’s partner Indian-Mexican Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is the target of his ongoing race jokes –  winding around each other like DNA. This contemporary western has a great socio-political background (mass repossessions after the 2008 crash) and a wonderful setting:  look at those empty roads and desert and big skies. All four are convincing in their acutely interesting roles, everyone with something to lose and clearly defined by both action and dialogue. It reminds me of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, another outing with Bridges but with him on the other side of the law four decades later. It asks questions about right and wrong and family and friendship and being a western it must have a logical conclusion – with a shootout. And then some. Brilliantly balanced storytelling that’s really well directed by David (Starred Up) Mackenzie, a Brit who clearly relished being let loose in all that big scenery.

Cafe Society (2016)

Cafe_Society.jpg

Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) arrives in Hollywood straight outta the Bronx  c.1935 to work with his movie agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell) and falls for his assistant Vonnie (Kristen Stewart). Everything looks beautiful, bathed in magic moment sunshine and swoony evening light and people talk about Irene Dunne and Willie Wyler but it turns out Vonnie is Phil’s mistress and he leaves his wife to marry her leaving Bobby brokenhearted and back in his beloved Bronx working front of house for his gangster brother Ben (Corey Stoll) in a glamorous nightclub. He marries divorcee Veronica (Blake Lively) whom he promptly rechristens Vonnie. She has a baby and her time is taken up caring for her. Then Phil and Vonnie visit while passing through NYC and a romance of sorts recommences but as Bobby realises, Vonnie (this Vonnie) is now his aunt … This is a film of two halves, which do not mesh.  The leads are in their third film together but Stewart is much too modern to play her role, Eisenberg is quite weird – that hunched-shouldered look doth not a schlub make – and the good performances are in supporting roles:  Jeannie Berlin and particularly Ken Stott as the Dorfman parents, Stoll, who is literally criminally underused and Stephen Kunken as the brother in law who inadvertently causes Bobby’s sister Evelyn to have Ben murder their neighbour. Despite the episodes of violence, the talk about what is reality and what is cinema, and the central idea about marriage and what people do to keep relationships going despite clear incompatibility – and there’s a strange (self-?) reference to a man with a teenaged mistress… – this just doesn’t work. The faraway looks in the leads’ eyes at the unsatisfying and inconclusive climax, a country apart, merely highlight the vacuum at the story’s centre. Minor Allen to be sure. It looks great though, so thank you Vittorio Storaro.

Sideways (2004)

Sideways_poster.JPG

Pinot’s a very thin-skinned grape, it doesn’t like light or humidity. Miles (Paul Giamatti) is a wine-loving high school English teacher and wannabe author whose best friend actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church) is getting married next Saturday:  road trip! To California wine country, where he can educate Jack in the mysteries of tasting. Two middle aged men on an emotional journey, one a depressive mourning his marriage, the other a past-it who can’t wait to get it up. Maya (Virginia Madsen) is the college professor’s wife waiting tables who has the best palate for wine of any woman Miles has ever met and Jack fancies her smartass friend and single mom Stephanie (Sandra Oh). There ensue some funny sexcapades (Jack), sad drunk dials (Miles), terror on the golf course and major education in oenology:  sometimes all it takes is the feel of a bunch of grapes in the hand to get the mojo going and a bottle of wine can bring anyone back to life. The marvellous Maya turns out to be the woman who coaxes Miles to his truest expression. Funny, louche, and humane with killer lines and tone-perfect performances from all concerned. Beautifully written, staged and shot, this is the comical male midlife response to Thelma and Louise, minus the violence and police. Mature, full-bodied and earthy, it simply gets better every year. From Rex Pickett’s unpublished novel, adapted by Jim Taylor and director Alexander Payne. Savour it.

The Two Jakes (1990)

Two Jakes poster.jpg

We’re approaching Jack Nicholson’s landmark 80th birthday and he’s not very far from our minds anyhow, is he? Nobody dislikes this guy, a Seventies superstar whose offscreen life never threatened his essential abilities to act better than most anyone else. Two Jakes is the continuing story of Jake Gittes whom Nicholson inhabited so memorably in the classic Chinatown, a mythos of Los Angeles created by Robert Towne as part homage, part interrogation of that great city and its wobbly foundations. Now it’s post-WW2 and Gittes is hired by another Jake, Berman (Harvey Keitel) to do a routine matrimonial job. Gittes leads Berman to his wife’s lover, whom he murders. He’s Berman’s business partner. We return to the world of deceit and conspiracy that characterises film noir, albeit we are in living colour with a fabulously feline Madeleine Stowe as a very fatale femme.  It isn’t always a success and while the voiceover narration is true to the style it’s not always satisfying in a plot which might have been tightened a tad had screenwriter Robert Towne been around to finish it, an issue that caused trouble for Nicholson, who directed this outing. However there’s a lot to savour – it looks amazing and there’s a flavoursome soundtrack by Van Dyke Parks. It makes me wish we could finally have the last part of Towne’s projected LA trilogy. For more on this see my book about Robert Towne:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1492610518&sr=1-2&keywords=elaine+lennon

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

Five Easy Pieces

The one with the chicken salad scene. Jack Nicholson was on the verge of becoming one of the most famous actors in the world with this portrait of alienation which just floored contemporary audiences. There had simply never been a character like Bobby ‘Eroica’ Dupea. He was the creature of writer Carole Eastman, writing under the nom de plume Adrien Joyce, albeit co-star Susan Anspach claimed that Nicholson made up stuff on the hoof and deserved credit. Bob Rafelson the director and co-writer was already a name from The Monkees but this was really a high point of New Hollywood – a departure and an arrival, with behavioural observation the strong point of a narrative that sees wildcatter Bobby shacked up with Tammy Wynette devotee waitress Rayette (Karen Black) and screwing around with his friend Elton (Billy ‘Green’ Bush). When he expresses his contempt for Elton (a ‘cracker asshole’) we get the first intimation that Bobby may not be like him: in fact he’s the estranged son of a family of gifted musicians and he himself is a former musical prodigy who has literally abandoned his talent. When Elton tells him Rayette is pregnant then Elton is arrested for robbing a gas station, Bobby takes off to LA to see his sister Partita (Lois Smith) a pianist who’s recording an album. She tells him their father is gravely ill. He takes off – regretfully – with a suicidal Rayette and leaves her at a motel while he broaches a difficult family reunion at Puget Sound including  violinist brother Carl Fidelio (Ralph Waite) whose pianist fiancee Catherine (Anspach) he beds. The final scene with his unresponsive father is hopelessly moving and the movie’s final shot when he hitches a ride on a truck away from a gas station and his car and his jacket and Rayette (who has turned up and embarrassed him en famille) … seems endless. Nicholson is allowed show all his colours here and it’s a transcendentally emotional and funny performance in a complex character study – the restaurant scene with the awful hitch hikers is a highlight, the wild sex with a pick-up another, and Nicholson’s tears are terrible to witness. He doesn’t know himself at all. This is a standout film from an era devoid of hope and this seems to encapsulate its anomie and capture it entirely. Luminously shot by Laszlo Kovacs, those burnished skies feel like the aspirations of a generation. Nicholson was officially a superstar.