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

Hellfighters (1968)

Hellfighters film.jpg

He’s not too smart about which fires to walk away from. Chance Buckman (John Wayne) is injured fighting an oil field fire and his assistant Greg (Jim Hutton) brings his boss’ estranged daughter Tish (Katharine Ross) to visit him in hospital – they’ve just got married a mere five days after meeting and Chance isn’t too pleased given Greg’s promiscuous ways. His marriage to Tish’s mom Madelyn (Vera Miles) ended because she couldn’t take the pressure of his work and Tish swears it’ll be different for her.  After seeing Greg get hurt she starts to fray at the edges and play solitaire a lot. When he takes over a gig in Venezuela and the team comes under fire from revolutionaries it’s time for Chance to return and his remarriage to Madelyn is postponed … A fascinating premise derived from the biography of legendary firefighter Red Adair, this moots the potential of examining the process and plumps for the melodrama of being the woman on the sidelines. Ross’ gorgeous sorrowfulness isn’t exploited but there are some good, colourful scenes and a nice barroom brawl to keep Wayne’s donnybrooking fans happy in between the talking shops. Written by Clair Huffaker and directed by Andrew V. McLaglen who had worked with Wayne in McLintock! Wayne got a million dollars to star.

Dazed and Confused (1993)

Dazed and Confused theatrical.jpg

Alright alright alright. School’s out in 1976 and it’s time for the incoming freshmen from junior high to get hazed by the seniors. There’s a lot of riding around, talking, smoking, and there’s a party later on tonight before someone gets it together to score those Aerosmith tickets everybody wants. There’s little mention of politics, just a throwaway about the Warren Commission. Family Plot is playing at the cinema. Everyone’s concerned about their social standing and who’s getting with who and Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) and his friends are determined to get their own back on bully O’Bannion (Ben Affleck) after a vicious paddling. Richard Linklater’s richly nostalgic slice of life take on a day in the life of average high schoolers is so laidback you’d think it wasn’t written or constructed or performed or directed – and it’s all shot and lit very nicely by Lee Daniel. Relax. Watch. Sublime.

The First Traveling Saleslady (1956)

The First Traveling Saleslady.jpg

The odd pairing of Ginger Rogers and Carol Channing probably killed off this picture, which in turn put the final nail in the coffin of RKO Studios which Rogers had helped make millions in the Thirties. A neat idea isn’t quite tonally right and Channing’s drag queen-type weirdness – a voice that doesn’t quite fit that long face – doesn’t help. Rogers is  Rose Gilray, the eponymous saleslady, recovering from a NYC corset business that goes bust (ahem), she takes up the opportunity to repay her debt to steel manufacturer Jim Carter (David Brian) by bringing barbed wire cross country under cover of a stash of undies. However en route to Texas at a cattlemen’s gathering in Kansas City she encounters cattle baron Joel Kingdom (James Arness) who is constitutionally opposed to putting up fences but he likes her a deal. There’s some fun as traveling companion singer Molly Wade (Channing) crushes on rough rider Clint Eastwood. She’s lost her own job since wearing a corset on stage.  Everywhere they go they meet Charles Masters (Barry Nelson) driving one of those new-fangled mechanical horses. He likes Rose too.  The ladies wind up in prison when Kingdom makes his case against Carter – who likes Rose a lot. A good spin on feminism that just lost a lot of fizz somewhere between the idea and the cutting room with some bad rear projection thrown in for good measure. Written by Stephen Longstreet and Devery Freeman, directed by Arthur Lubin.

Buchanan Rides Alone (1958)

Buchanan Rides Alone poster.jpg

Tom Buchanan (Randolph Scott) is a mercenary returning from Mexico to West Texas intending to start up a ranch of his own. He stops in a community run by a family called Agry – they own everything. When a young Mexican (Manuel Rojas) kills one of them in revenge for raping his sister the brothers wreak their own revenge while Buchanan winds up killing the villain and helping the young man whose wallet has been emptied and his life spared. Then the three Agry brothers cross and double cross each other by alternately threatening to hang and ransom him for their own ends.  Buchanan attempts to manipulate the situation … This is the fourth Scott collaboration with Budd Boetticher and the second written by Charles Lang (adapted from a novel The Name’s Buchanan by Jonas Ward). It’s perhaps not as iconic as the first two in the cycle, which were written by Burt Kennedy, and it stands out for its drama taking place in a settlement, but it has many of the tropes and shares some of the settings in the series (typically, Lone Pine and its environs). This skirts the edges of comedy – maybe even satire! – as it grapples with the western form. Scott is good in this wittier than usual entry. Beautifully shot by Lucien Ballard, a regular part of the team.

The Evening Star (1996)

The Evening Star movie poster.jpg

Aka Three Funerals and a Wedding. Just kidding. Well, not exactly. I didn’t love Terms of Endearment and have read neither of these novels about willful selfish Houston widow Aurora Greenway but this messy ragtag followup directed by Robert Harling is not without its charms. Shirley MacLaine is back, aged grandmother and parent to her late daughter’s tearaway grownup children, irritated by longtime housekeeper gimlet-eyed Rose (Marion Ross) and pined after by General Hector (Donald Moffat). Melanie (Juliette Lewis) is living at home but itching to get out and she shacks up with bozo Bruce (Scott Wolf) which of course ends badly – but in LA, which is not so bad, as it turns out. Tommy (George Newbern) is in prison and Teddy (Mackenzie Astin) is married to a tramp and they have a bad-mannered toddler son. Rose plots to get Aurora to therapist Jerry (the late, great Bill Paxton) who has a thing for her – mostly because as she eventually finds out she’s a dead ringer for his Vegas showgirl mom, which doesn’t stop him from sleeping with Aurora’s rival Patsy (Miranda Richardson) which has a great conclusion in an inflight catfight.  The relationship with Paxton is funny and lifts the whole show with MacLaine getting some choice lines especially when she finally meets his mother! There’s a lot of life, love and thwarted passion as Aurora seeks out the great love of her life – and eventually finds it in the arms of her disastrously unaccomplished family while some of those closest to her die. There is a distinct shift of tone when Garret Breedlove (Jack Nicholson) pays a visit in the last quarter hour but the big performances make this, with MacLaine really making it work. You might be surprised to learn that it’s Cary Grant’s daughter Jennifer who is wooed by Newbern. This was Ben Johnson’s last film and it’s dedicated to him – he was of course in McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show where he delivered a performance of incredible subtlety and affect:  not bad for a stuntman. There’s more than a hint of Cloris Leachman in Marion Ross’s performance here. Not a bad recommendation in a film which looks at some of life’s different stages and comes out in favour of them all, by and large. Written by McMurtry and Harling.

The Southerner (1945)

The Southerner movie.jpg

French master Jean Renoir’s American work may not be as lauded as his films in his native France, but this is a tremendously well told adaptation of a novel by George Sessions Perry, Hold Autumn in Your Hand,  not surprisingly when you see who wrote the screenplay:  Nunnally Johnson, Hugo Butler, William Faulkner and Renoir himself. Not too dusty. It’s the tale of the Tuckers, cotton pickers in Texas. Sam (Zachary Scott) and Nona (Betty Field), their kids Jot and Daisy, and his mother (Beulah Bondi) decide to start up their own farm with nothing but a mule and some seed. They need access to water so the neighbour Devers (J. Carrol Naish) reluctantly permits access to his own supply and after a freezing winter in which their son becomes seriously ill,  the feud escalates and involves Devers’ half-wit nephew. Devers finds Sam trying to find a huge catfish that he’s been after for years and they find a way to solve their differences. The general store owner (Percy Kilbride – Pa Kettle!) who’s refused the family credit now wants to marry Sam’s mother but a terrible storm and resultant flooding ruins their entire plot and they have to start over. This is a really great story, so well told, limpidly shot by Lucien Andriot in the San Joaquin Valley and beautifully characterised and performed by a splendid cast – it cannot be fairly described. It shouldn’t be overlooked in Renoir’s oeuvre because even if it’s not as iconic a cinematic text as The Grapes of Wrath it’s an economic and beautifully framed and shot slice of Americana and it was the director’s own favourite of his American films. Scott has never been better cast and Field is simply luminous. Bondi is … herself! Really affecting filmmaking.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Nocturnal_Animals_Poster.jpg

Who wouldn’t want to be the preternaturally gifted Tom Ford? A Single Man was such a wonderful piece of work and the real reason Colin Firth was recognized by the Academy for The King’s Speech (these things happen a lot). I was positively salivating over the prospect of seeing this. It’s tantalising isn’t it, given the talent involved? And the source novel, Tony & Susan, by Austin Wright, is stunning. And I like the poster. And the trailer. So then I saw it and thought, meh. Which isn’t what you want from an adaptation of what is a very fine postmodern literary thriller which sucks you in as you follow Susan Morrow’s (Amy Adams) progress through the eviscerating novel her ex-husband Edward Sheffield has sent her after a divorce, oh, years ago (in the book it’s 25) which is dramatised as a film within the film. She is now in the marriage for which she left him, to a more successful man and not a failing novelist, and Armie Hammer plays Hutton, the philandering art dealer, while she stays at their gallery and plays snark with fellow professionals and feels her life hollow out as Edward’s avatar Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal plays him as well in the film within a film) infects her brain. Episodes from her life with Edward and their breakup play as respite from her reading of the novel, in intermissions from the violent deaths of Tony’s wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber), redheads just like Susan, raped and murdered in West Texas by a crew of rednecks led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson or whatever he’s calling himself nowadays. (Their destination in the novel is their summer home in Maine;  here it’s Marfa, Texas, the location for the great James Dean film, Giant – I wonder why?).  Michael Shannon turns up to help Tony identify the killers (a much more cursory treatment than the novel). Meanwhile Susan deals with her ridiculous friends and the scene with Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough at an opening is actually risible. It’s astonishingly badly directed. The point of the book within the book, Nocturnal Animals, is that it’s Edward’s revenge, his way of letting his LA-living bourgeois-loving ex, whom he christened a nocturnal animal, This is what you did to me. You left me on the side of the road to be ravaged and tortured. But it’s a literary device and in the novel it becomes truly postmodern when Wright allows Susan enter the story for the horrendous denouement – which can’t happen here since Isla Fisher plays her avatar in the film/novel within the film. There are changes, notably to Susan’s occupation and that of her husband but they don’t necessarily damage the text per se …  But the juxtaposition of the smooth LA gallerist with the awful Texan thugs doesn’t really elicit the emotions required to make the movie’s engine work. Adams does what she can in the present-day setup but the scenes are mostly DOA. She doesn’t even get angry when she hears her husband’s mistress on the phone. And the payoff doesn’t work as well as in the book for all sorts of reasons. A principal one is not just Ford’s own adaptation but – ironically – the aesthetics. For a great designer who transitioned to cinema with a magnificent looking debut that revelled in the California light beautifully shot by Edward Grau, here it’s Grimm and grimmer, sad to say since it’s talented Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey who’s responsible for the filthy palette presumably chosen by Ford. Imagine this master of colour, light, movement, fabric, shape, surfaces, tone, texture and what he’s capable of dreaming into life on the catwalk, and then look at this and ask, Why Tom, why? When you can do so much better? I’ll wait for the next collection. Disappointing.

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

Charlie Wilson's War poster.jpg

What a pleasure it is to watch actors at the top of their game performing a humdinger of a screenplay  (by Aaron Sorkin) directed by a man who knows how to handle material (the late Mike Nichols). George Crile’s titular book documented the unknown team behind a covert op in Afghanistan in the 1980s to help the mujahideen against the Soviet invaders. Hanks is brilliant as the party-hard Texan Congressman with a team of hotties (including Amy Adams), Seymour Hoffman is the hilariously touchy CIA undercover guy keen to go in and Julia Roberts is fantastic as the multimillionaire bankrolling them to assist the locals. It’s a serious-minded, highly enjoyable film about a subject that history has judged … To quote Wilson, ‘we fucked up the end game.’ No shit, Sherlock.

Tin Cup (1996)

Tin Cup poster.jpg

Two words: Kevin Costner. Alright, another two words:  Rene Russo. How much do I love them both? So, so much! And this is like a long cool drink of lemonade – unless you’re a fanatical golfer. In which case the story of a washed up pro golfer playing like a bat out of hell to impress the girlfriend of his former rival, superstar Don Johnson, will make you tear your hair out. And he tries to qualify for the Open:  oh you should have been sitting beside my dad (a very fine golfer in his own right) when THAT was going on: he totally freaked. On this night of the Masters (wouldn’t you hate to be Jordan S right about now…) what an apt viewing choice. Ron Shelton is a gifted writer/director (he co-wrote this with John Norville, who also served as golf consultant – like was he the caddy?) and this is one of the most relaxed, easeful movies I’ve ever seen. Yeah, I love it. Almost as much as I love Mr Costner! A little bit is better than nada, as the theme song goes.