Saturday, September 30, 2017

"Battle of the Sexes"


In Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King knows the stakes of what she's doing, but the wonder of the film is that even if we know the broad strokes of the story, that tennis match between King and Bobby Riggs, we're so focused on the specifics of the people involved that we forget about what it all means.

And that's what makes Battle of the Sexes into a fantastic movie -- bold, funny, tense and emotionally resonant.  In its final minutes, the film, which was directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (of Little Miss Sunshine) and written by Simon Beaufoy (of Slumdog Millionaire), Battle of the Sexes pulls back to show the really big picture -- the match was both a gaudy, ridiculous spectacle and a genuine commentary on gender equality.  It's a dazzling display, in large part because the rest of the movie knows to pull back.

Most of the movie is about the complicated, difficult people who took to the tennis court that day, and of the two the movie primarily focuses on King, and rightly so.  Hers is a story of awareness and awakening; if a really great story finds its main characters in very different places at the end than at the beginning, Battle of the Sexes is really great.

A winning, perfectly pitched performance by Emma Stone finds a deeply conflicted woman inside the public persona of King.  She's as surprised as anyone when she finds herself physically and emotionally attracted to another woman (Andrea Riseborough, whose aloofness is the film's sole weakness) -- and also as surprised as anyone to find that a challenge by the crass self-named male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) stirs her in ways she never expected.

It's about equality, yes.  King is prodded and goaded by women's tennis promoter Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman, simultaneously edgy and restrained) to be the public face of equal pay.  But Beaufoy's screenplay finds an undercurrent of early gay rights activism in the story, too -- and, most importantly of all, a message of self-confidence.

Already the No. 1 women's tennis player in the world by the time the movie opens in 1972, King is hardly a shrinking violet.  But she's driven more by her passion and her sense of justice than by self-aggrandizement.  The same could not be said for Riggs, whose macho swagger seems so over-the-top by today's standards that he's almost laughable.

Like King, though, there are sides to Riggs that no one sees, not even himself, and even if he's the antagonist here, Battle of the Sexes won't work if he's the villain.  The film finds a surprising humanity in his intolerable attitude, and one remarkable scene with his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue, who shines in a small but pivotal role) is heartbreaking for its emotional honesty.

Similarly, there's beautiful interplay between Stone and Austin Stowell as her handsome, painfully aware husband, who comes across as so in love with and committed to his wife that he wants to see her become a full person -- even though the cost will be his relationship with her.  Stowell begins the movie as a caricature of a blank blond stud and ends as the second most-intriguing person in the story.

But it's Stone's film as much as it's King's story, and she is utterly convincing playing a historical celebrity whose image and destiny we know before the lights go down.  That Battle of the Sexes had the audience I saw it with cheering despite full advance knowledge of the outcome is in large part because Stone's so damned good, confident yet tenuous, brave yet scared.

It doesn't hurt, either, that everything about the movie's look and feel gets the era exactly right.  Technologically, there are moments that rival anything in, say, Forest Gump for the seamless interplay between vintage footage and new material, but Battle for the Sexes casts such a spell that none of that visual trickery dawns on us while watching. That's a feat in and of itself.

But there's no feat as big as this one: This dissection of what has always seemed a frivolous media stunt winds up being stirring, emotionally resonant and even politically relevant, a feel-good winner that leaves you both smiling and thinking -- and hoping that, like the familiar cigarette slogan featured prominently in the film, we really have come a long way, baby.  Let's just hope it hasn't all been for naught.

Viewed September 30, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Friday, September 15, 2017



Ah, mother!

On one level, that's about all there is to say about Darren Aronofsky's new film, a movie that makes the director's Pi, Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream look like staid models of cinematic form and structure by comparison.

What is it, exactly, this film?  Because although it's being released by a major studio and features one of the biggest movie stars in the world in the leading role, mother! is not, by any definition, a traditional film.  But it's not quite experimental, either; even in its wildest moments, and there are some insanely wild moments, mother! doesn't remake or even toy with cinema-as-art the way directors did in the 1960s and '70s, when so much of moviemaking still seemed new.

mother! is, I guess, more of an art installation in your local cineplex, the work of a singular (but not single, I'll get to that in a moment) director who undoubtedly has a vision.  But what is the vision, exactly?  It's tempting to want to write, "Spoilers Ahead!" in a sort of traditional caution, but: When you look upon, for instance, a giant Hieronymus Bosch triptych, the more you know about it in advance, the more you appreciate it, or at least understand it.  Or at least can acknowledge what you are seeing.  Or something.

It's the same way with mother!  Or something.  So, if you're going to go see this crazed, frenetic, chaotic, apocalyptic, religious, surreal horror-comedy-disaster-melodrama, it helps to know a few things.  Like, it's a religious allegory.  I think.  One that has something to do with the way artists create.  Maybe.  And that carries a lot of Aronofsky's own guilt about his personal life.  Probably.  And observes how we live in insane times that are filled with religious zealots and overbearing, self-absorbed people who invade our lives even when we try to keep them away.  That last bit I'm pretty sure about.

So, you should know that about mother!, and you should know that if you go into it looking for a plot or thinking that it might be like Rosemary's Baby (check out that misleading homage in the poster above), you should know that you're going to be terribly disappointed.  You may end up like one of the half-dozen or so people who walked out of the opening-night screening I attended.  Or like the people I heard walking out of the theater who said, "I don't get it."

You probably won't get it.

I certainly didn't get it.

Or maybe I did, on some level.  I don't know yet.  I do know that it starts with a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who is married to a much older man (Javier Bardem), and they live in the country.  Aronofsky seems to want us to believe they have some sort of idyllic life -- she has been fixing up the house for who knows how long (maybe forever, wink-wink) and he is a famous poet.  All they need is each other, there in that big house in the middle of nowhere.  You'd almost think they were Adam and Eve, until a chain-smoking, vaguely creepy guy (Ed Harris) shows up one day, followed not too long later by his sexually open, inappropriate wife (Michelle Pfeiffer).

More people show up.  The tranquil house is overrun by life ... and death.  And Mother (that is, the woman, that is, Jennifer Lawrence) is overcome.

By the way, no one has traditional names in mother!  It's that kind of movie.  Because, you see, it's all a big allegory.

mother! is going to attract a lot of attention among film enthusiasts because it breaks so many conventions, and because it heads into some of the craziest, most unexpected, most off-putting and deeply disturbing territory of almost any recent studio film I can think of.  There's a scene of cannibalism, and a long, loud sequence in which war and anarchy invade the house that Mother has built, in which Mother and the Man who will be Father to their Child have a cataclysmic disagreement over whether to stay safely inside the house or let the world in.

That's the kind of movie it is.

And visually, it's undeniably magnificent.  I mentioned earlier that it's the work of a singular visionary, but what's really extraordinary is that it clearly took many, many people to make this movie -- and they all were able to convey Aronofsky's grand ideas.  Actors, set designers, camera crew, editors; lots and lots of people worked on the movie, and yet, it is Aronofsky's accomplishment.  That may seem a silly thing to point out; after all, it's the same on every film, isn't it?  But the realization that all those people are in service to one man's ideas seems more relevant on this film than maybe any other.

Still, though, there's a big problem: It's not clear, not by a longshot, whether mother! is any good.  It's certainly something, and it's certainly an artistic achievement.  Aronofsky probably couldn't give a hoot about whether audiences will like it, he has made his artistic statement that will live on long after him, will see many lifetimes.  But did I enjoy mother!?  It's hard to say yes.  There were many stretches were I was fascinated by it, even drawn into the fleeting moments of linear storytelling; and there was no time during its entire two-hour length when I wanted to look away.  But I wouldn't want to do it again.

Filled with surrealist, disconnected, hyper-violent, warped and strange images, seeing mother! is like walking through an elaborate Halloween haunted house created by visual arts majors who are minoring in religious studies.  There are a lot of freaky moments that completely unnerve you, and there are other times when you're almost giddy with the rush of adrenaline it pumps into you.  It's an experience unlike any you'll ever have.

And one time through is most certainly enough.

Ah, mother!

Viewed Sept. 15, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


Sunday, September 10, 2017



There's a cinematic recipe to It, which goes something like:

1 part The Goonies
1 part Poltergeist
2 parts Stand By Me
3 parts Stranger Things
Dash of Carrie
Pinch of The Shining

Mix thoroughly, and bake until almost but not quite done.  Best when served warm with a little slice of ham and a bit of cheese.

It's tasty enough and a lot of people will love it -- but for some, the experience will be both underwhelming and oddly unsatisfying, like being served a Big Mac in a fancy restaurant.  There's a particular irony to its almost unsettling similarity to the TV series Stranger Things, which, oddly enough, was deeply influenced by It in the first place.

I've never been enough of a fan of Stephen King's particular brand of writing to have tackled the 1,138-page behemoth of It the novel, nor did I watch the previous filmed version, which was presented as a two-part TV movie.  So, I was essentially unfamiliar with the basic plot of It other than knowing it was about a malevolent clown.  I walked into the theater prepared for and expecting a dark, forbidding horror film.  I didn't expect a gentle and tender coming-of-age story dripping in the nostalgia of an earlier, simpler time.

Funnily enough, that simpler time in It is 1989 -- a turbulent and pivotal time, to be sure, but hardly simple; the time of Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall, of the Exxon Valdez and the Afghanistan war, of Cold War and nuclear tensions, of AIDS and the savings-and-loan crisis.  It's far from the sun-dappled world of the 1950s, but then, I suppose part of the point is that the sun-dappled world of the 1950s was not as lovely as it seemed in retrospect, either.  (The novel is set in the late 1950s.)

But, few films have been as insistent about the almost magical power of youthful innocence as It does -- really, the only one that comes to mind is Stephen King's own Stand By Me, and there are times in It when you might as well be watching that earlier, superior film.

There's a group of misfit kids who hang out together and like each other.  There's a horrifying truth about the violent insanity of life waiting for them to discover.  There's a small town that they know they will have to leave.  But for now, there is this group of swell friends, best buddies who will do anything for each other.

One of them is Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher), whose little brother Georgie begins the movie excited about trying out a paper sailboat.  (It's sweet and mildly silly that the filmmakers think that kids were playing with paper boats in 1989.)  Bill is sick in bed so can't go out with Georgie, and when the boat gets stuck in a storm drain, it's returned by a sinister, killer clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård, under a ton of makeup and augmented with lots of CGI), who then kills little Georgie.  That should be the setup for something out of Nightmare on Elm Street, another one of the 1980s movies that this film name-checks, but it never really gets going on that front.

Pennywise the Clown, who in actuality is some sort of shape-shifting monster, is creepy and sometimes icky, to be sure, but he's not all that scary.  He's a sinister threat, but the film's presentation of him is mostly a setup for the loving depiction of childhood group dynamics. The movie is at its best when it shows the group of kids interacting with each other. That leaves It feeling uncertain if it wants to be a horror film or a sweet-natured reflection on youth.  And even within its horror ambitions, does it want to be a character-driven or an effects-driven sort of movie?  It can never decide on any one of these approaches long enough, so it all feels disjointed, curiously unmoving and disappointingly un-frightening.

It is a film that wants to give you nightmares but makes so much effort to mix the horror in with sweet-natured, humor-laden observations about youth that the scary stuff is watered down, and ends up mostly being successful when it's accompanied by very loud bursts of music and sound effects.  It has to settle for jump scares rather than real dread.

The acting by the kids is uniformly terrific, particularly Sophia Lillis as Beverly, the sole girl in the group, Jeremy Ren Taylor as Ben, the "fat kid" who has a crush on Bev; and Jake Dylan Grazer as hyopchondriac Eddie.  The rest of the child actors are fine, and Skarsgård is best in his first scene attacking Georgie in a sewer.  Most of the rest of the time, his performance is overpowered by the incessant use of CG effects to depict the malevolent character.

The story is fine, the kids are really wonderful, and while It delivers on some of the visceral thrills, the movie never meshes its two parts effectively, and the final showdown between the kids and the clown is the kind of overblown, overproduced and murky sequence that mostly leaves the audience wondering why characters are doing what they're doing, and who is supposed to be doing what to whom.  The big confrontation is the worst thing about It.  That climax plays a lot like a creepier version of a Harry Potter film.

The best parts of It are the elements that seem feel like a remake of Stand By Me -- the easy rapport between the kids, the way they are determined to find things adults can't or won't find, and the way their own little skirmishes can become minor wars -- not to mention nostalgic talk about the entertainment of the time.

I confess I had no idea, until the final title card appeared, that It is actually the first of two parts.  That left me feeling mildly better about the movie, because a lot of motivations, ideas and actions are not explained in any satisfying ways in It.  The assumption is the important characteristics will pan out when Part II shows us the kids 27 years later.

Stephen King fans should be pleased about that response.  Everyone else, I'm not so sure.  Fitting the filmmaking trend of the day, it's not a standalone film, and if motivations, character development and even some plot points (like the origin and purpose of the clown) are unclear, it's because the studio and the filmmakers assume no one will complain that it's unfinished because, hey, it's a franchise!

But that makes it a less than entirely satisfying movie on its own.  Neither the best nor the worst Stephen King adaptation, it's the first part of a longer-term project, and can only be judged on its own as well and as fairly as you'd judge a movie if you walked out halfway through.

It as it is is more or less fine. It's not particularly effective as horror, at least not the kind that gets under your skin, and it's only mildly thrilling at times. It works best solely as a nostalgic reminiscence of an easier time that, in fact, wasn't easier at all.

Viewed 9/9/17 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks