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Rebecca Hall is a Revelation
With some exception, Hollywood pretty much makes two distinct kinds of biopics. The first kind are the ones that almost seem obligatory your Gandhi's (1982), your Lincoln's (2012) and the upcoming Darkest Hour (2017); movies about historical giants who did truly incredible things with their lives, incredible things that should be projected (and even embellished) on the silver screen for the world to see. Then there are the ones about the others your oddballs, your misfits the characters that history books often ignore but are nevertheless important in the way our world is shaped.
Professor Marston is certainly one of the latter folk. Outside of DC comic devotees and the odd discredited crime scene investigator swearing by the validity of the lie detector, William Moulton Marston is not a name people know. But believe me when I say that after watching this movie, you'll want to read up on him and his equally fascinating partners Elizabeth Marston and Olive Byrne. For not only is he the originator of Wonder Woman, the most famous female comic-book hero ever, he's quietly the most fascinating academics to steer the sexual proclivities of modern society since Albert Kinsey.
He, Elizabeth and Olive I should say. The film starts with the three of them bouncing around the psychology department of Tuft University working on research and fine-tuning William's (Evans) latest invention. Olive (Heathcote), the Marston's graduate assistant becomes enamored with the two of them, binding the three in a love triangle that turns into a healthy polyamorous relationship. It being the puritanical state of Massachusetts in the 1920's however, the three couldn't be insulated by the academic bubble for too long before The Marstons are quickly forced out and move to New York City. From there, they hide their double lives with Olive assuming the role of homemaker and "widow" while William and Elizabeth (Hall) find work where they can as "the couple".
As the narrative slowly ebbs towards the inevitable formation of the first Wonder Woman comic-book, the film occasionally diverts from its primary story and uses a red-baiting comic-book committee as connective tissue to William's complicated past. We've seen this kind of framing before. In fact, apart from the decade's long love story involving three people in a committed and loving relationship, we've seen all of this before which may be the point. Instead of treating the subject matter as salacious or radically divergent, it treats it as another day in dramatic romance-land. Even when the trio develops an interest in the virtually criminalized BDSM subculture, there's a normalcy there that could potentially bore the one couple in the movie theater looking for their unicorn.
What makes Professor Marston ultimately work is director/writer Angela Robinson decision to make the tension largely external. It's never a question of whether all their goings-on will work but if the world will openly allow it. That concern is personified in Rebecca Hall's inner struggle that has the duel burden of her trying to be a smart, capable, 20th century working girl while also being madly in love with two people. One of whom is a woman.
As the brash, irascible Elizabeth, actress Rebecca Hall is an absolute revelation. She bursts onto the screen, all but announces she's smarter than everyone else in the room and easily proves it with her wit and pragmatism. While Heathcote displays the mirage of idyllic feminine beauty, it is Elizabeth's radical feminism that makes the punchy title worth the watch. Seriously though, if Hall doesn't get an Oscar nom by years' end I may have to boycott (#hall&Oscars).
Less successful is Luke Evans who, while certainly displaying the outward charm of a 1920's lad-about-town just has a knack for putting too fine a point on things. Every time we return to Connie Britton and her committee of comic-book hating cronies, Evans lectures like he's explaining particle physics to a freshman undergrad. Perhaps, given Marston's private life, Robinson may have figured the only way out of being questioned by a HUAC analog would be to be so soporific that they'd just move on to Superman or something.
All in all, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women may not be reverential enough to induce comic-book fans to check it out. The film spans decades ultimately treating the creation of Wonder Woman as an afterthought. Yet for those looking for a decently paced, boiler-plate great biopic it may just be the right ticket for you. Additionally because it smuggles in a few liberalizing tidbits about love and modern feminism (Luke Evans's goofy grin notwithstanding), Professor Marston may even be worth a detour to a theater ballsy enough to play it.
Happy Death Day (2017)
Third Best Film About Reliving Your Day Again and Again
Isn't it weird that we've gotten two different teengirl versions of the Groundhog Day (1993) format in the same year? It's a little weird right? Granted there's a slight difference between the two. One centers on a selfish, white, blonde antihero whose conceited worldview is put into question when blood spilled over the course of the day forces them into an unexplained never-ending time-loop. The other is about a selfish, white, blonde antihero whose conceited worldview is put into question when blood spilled over the course of the day forces them into an unexplained never-ending time-loop in college. That and the blood spilled is her own which actually makes Happy Death Day a tad more fun than Before I Fall (2017).
Happy Death Day follows college student and proto-walking disaster Tree Gelbman (Rothe), as she tries to avoid the fact that Monday the 18th is her birthday. After managing to p**s off the lion's share of campus including an ex, a professor's wife, most of her sorority sisters and her father, Tree is unceremoniously dispatched by a masked murderer while in transit to a party. In a twist of fate, Tree has the chance to relive her final day again and again in order to solve her own murder.
As with any movie of this stripe that isn't written by Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin, Happy Death Day writes itself into a corner and begins to fall apart by the last act. What's worse is because the film is jamming its lofty premise in the lurid, sensationalist mode of a slasher movie (or about as sensationalist as a PG-13 can be), the reveals are all but guaranteed to be anticlimactic.
That said, if you forgive the narrative clumsiness you can still walk away thinking this movie is a lot of fun. As our resident Mean Girl Jessica Rothe is perfect fodder for all the comically staged deaths that stop just short of turning the film into an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. As the stakes get raised so too does her status from a screaming first-girl-dead to a semi-resourceful last-girl-standing. Granted her instincts are more High School Drama club than "I'd like to thank the Academy," but for a movie like this it just works.
As far as Blumhouse Productions go, Happy Death Day has more in common with Darwin Awards (2006) than this year's Get Out (2017). There are a lot of bad decisions both amongst the characters and throughout the plot. But the one truly great decision this film made: to be a comedy, makes it all worthwhile. Check it out if for no other reason than to see the third best film about a character reliving the same day over and over. If however you haven't seen Groundhog Day or Edge of Tomorrow (2014), check those out instead.
About the Hero in All of Us
"Look at this, Boston Strong! You see that Jeff, you're a hero!" "I'm a hero for surviving?" During this exchange Jeff (Gyllenhaal), his uncle (Clarke) and his mother (Richardson) are driving home after a six week stay at the hospital. Jeff's eyes are looking on, puzzled, sullen, and even a little embarrassed that people standing on a highway walkway have made a sign welcoming him back. He doesn't think himself a hero at this point he has no idea what to think.
Stronger is the true-life story of Jeff Bauman, an ordinary Boston native who lost his legs in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. While recovering from the trauma of the event, Jeff unwittingly becomes a symbol of hope for a city unnerved; a predicament that puts undue strain on Jeff and his relationships with his family and his on-again-off-again girlfriend Erin (Maslany).
Wrapped around the familiar story-beats of an earnest but incidental feel-good movie is a narrative that most of the time feels like it's anything but. Director David Gordon Green wisely complicates and subverts the expected narrative by looking up at characters and events through Jeff's unique perspective. In one fell swoop Jeff becomes, in his eyes, a trifling good-news segment, a drain on his family and fuel for Erin's guilty conscience. Everyone, including the man who saved his life (Sanz) labels him a hero. But Jeff is walled up by so many conflicting emotions that trying to confront the actual tragedy is almost insurmountable for him.
Thus much of the movie is spent with Jeff adapting to the physical limits of being paraplegic while uncomfortably inhibiting the role of a proud survivor. There's a hard fought lesson by the end. One that makes everything worthwhile a watch but that doesn't make moments of Jeff toiling in the bathroom any less harrowing. In one stressful scene Jeff has what appears to be a panic attack after waving the flag at a Bruins game. Erin stands over him trying desperately to touch and comfort him. He aggressively swats her away.
Stronger's heartbreaking moments do take their toll. And while Jeff's chuckle-headed family of Boston brogued misfits provide levity to offset some of the unpleasantness, the film still packs an emotional wallop that I for one was not expecting; at least not to this penetrating depth and rawness.
Jake Gyllenhaal; always the underrated actor is master of his domain here. He essentially plays two versions of Jeff one a likable man-child, the other a fractured soul slowly crawling back from the darkness. Both work so completely and so honestly that when the film dips into the grab-bag of feel-good clichés Gyllenhaal shakes any doubt that we're looking at the real thing.
When compared to the opportunistic Patriots Day (2016), Stronger has infinitely more to say about the strength of everyday people and how that strength can flourish through love and support. The collective intuition of David Gordon Green, Jake Gyllenhaal and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt breathes real pathos into what just might be the best recovery story put to film. This isn't a movie about a hero; this is a movie about the hero in all of us.
My Little Pony: The Movie (2017)
A Quick Trot to Failure
I like Starbucks. I don't love it, but more often than not, my routine consists of going there to write my reviews. It's cozy, familiar, unchallenged in its mediocrity and no one there gets paid enough to care if I'm there all day. Plus I've been curious to see just how many times they can misspell my name. That said, every once in a while, I like to take a chance on a local shop. Not out of some allegiance to local businesses though, if that's what you're into, good for you. No, I just like to break from the usual routine every once in a while.
So it must be fate that I'm writing this review in a unicorn themed coffee shop. I s**t you not this place exists and I swear it was not purposeful. I walked in and everything was caked in pink, glitter and gloriously feminine ephemera. The chairs are Victorian but the cushions are decidedly modern. The cherry on top: a disco ball slowly rotating behind the counter as "Give Your Heart a Break" by Demi Lovato plays in the background.
My Little Pony: The Movie has all the unmistakable hallmarks of the hit TV show (2010-present). It has an engaging if disposable hero's journey narrative, a gaggle of chirpy protagonists willing to put their friends above themselves and an overall arc that leaves little doubt that love will carry the day. The ensemble is largely back in action including Spike the dragon (Weseluck) i.e. the only male character worth a darn, as well as perennial favorite Pinkie Pie (Libman) who is still the best thing about this franchise.
In this very special episode, the ponies of Equestria face off against the dreaded Storm King (Schreiber) and his army of monkeys (?), field marshaled by a furtive unicorn named Tempest (Blunt). In desperation the ponies journey out into the unknown to convince the legendary queen of the Hippogriffs to join their cause. While on their journey they meet new friends, sing new songs and use their collective diversity of skills to put a stop to their nefarious new villains.
As a narrative My Little Pony is pretty much function only. It's the loosely stretched skin over which the film veils its motive to sell stuffed animals and toys. New friends and the musical interludes that accompany them are neatly divided 20-25 minutes apart to guarantee that when this thing is divvied up for TV it'll all come together in a 3-episode story arc.
It'll be an easy transfer for the animation itself as well. Much like the TV show, the movie is animated in Adobe Flash with the only real difference being the swooping changes in parallax, which will give anyone not ready for it a bad case of vertigo. That is if you're not already blurry-eyed by the fizzle-dizzle-dazzle of multicolored ponies prancing about while singing a songbook of forgettable music. Seriously, even the Care Bears Movie (1985) had catchier tunes.
It's not all bad. It's just everything good about My Little Pony is already present and accounted for in the show and nothing that ends up transcending mediums does so with enough energy. The TV show's emphasis on tolerance, respect and non-violence are all there, but they take a back seat to tirelessly tame action story beats. My Little Pony's trademark genuineness is overshadowed by rather feckless toy advertising. Even the shows sprightly pacing falls victim to a longer runtime that neither provides a narrative that is as sprawling or as intimate as it needs to be.
Thus I sit here, in this perfectly chic coffee shop thinking long and hard about what this movie could have been. With a few more rewrites and a few more upgrades, My Little Pony: The Movie could have at least reached the delirious heights of the show. But with so much dead weight, this pony just won't appeal to anyone beyond those already familiar with the property. In other words, My Little Pony has just been Starbucked.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
It May Be Almost Too Good!
This movie shouldn't have worked. Ignoring for a moment that Blade Runner 2049 is a long gestating sequel to a landmark achievement in genre cinema; the fact that this movie is vying for a high-level of complexity and grandeur alone means it's already got a tough road to haul. Not even the original Blade Runner (1982) achieved those ends the first time around. I mean there is seven different versions of the movie out there each boasting varying degrees awesome. So it'd be hard to use the idiom lightening striking twice when technically it didn't even hit once.
This movie could have so easily been Ghost in the Shell (2017). It could have fallen into the abyss of mediocre movies trying desperately to expound on the metaphysical with nary an understanding of the medium of film. Even with director Denis Villeneuve at the helm the only name I would have trusted if I inexplicably owned the rights to this property this thing could have so easily gone off the rails.
Well we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. 2049 is decidedly not a disaster. It is in fact, a stunningly beautiful, complex and audacious cinematic achievement. Not only does it reinstate Ridley Scott's original post-apocalyptic vision of Los Angeles but it uses said vision as a great jumping off point. There are piece of the old but at its heart 2049 is a bold new narrative in a beautifully rendered world that seamlessly incorporates a larger even grander design. It's truly is almost unnerving how good this movie is. At least as a standalone feature.
2049 takes place about thirty years after rugged replicant hunter Rick Deckard (Ford) reluctantly took a bounty job that all but shattered his worldview. Since that time, Wallace Corp, an inheritor of Tyrell's patents has created newer, more abiding replicants, one of which is the unfeeling Blade Runner K (Gosling). But when a routine "retiring" mission leads K to a body buried in the middle of a farm, K's seemingly ordinary investigation leads him to potentially earth shattering implications.
Much like the original, the "mystery" is pretty much there to frame the film's loftier ambitions. No attempt is made to make it more complex than it needs to be, which might irk a few audience members unaccustomed to the film's steadier pace. There's no denying it's a pretty straightforward swoop down the rabbit hole that, like most classic noir tales almost seems beside the point.
The rub here - again, much like the original - is the atmospherics i.e. its unique mix of heavy sci-fi trimmings, tech-noir distinctions and Wagnerian operatics. Villeneuve is no shrinking violet when it comes to this kind of stuff and thanks to impossibly great cinematography by the great Roger Deakins, every frame sits at the perfect nexus of belying information and being just so emotionally satisfying in its beauty.
The film is almost too good! It's technical superiority and pitch-perfect mimicry comes at the expense of soiling some of the original Blade Runner's most enduring elements. Starting with the obvious; Deckard's inclusion in this movie puts to rest the theory that he was himself a replicant. Less obvious is 2049's lived-in quality. Blade Runner was the introduction to this world and as such should be given credit for its thickly laid, almost impenetrable mythology and the enduring legacy therein. But 2049 is the meticulously thought out expansion set that comes at a time when audiences have the ability to really geek out over the franchise in universum. It basically has Empire Strikes Back (1980)-syndrome. It took a fluke of an idea that shouldn't have worked but did and improved on it.
The ultimate irony is if you change around a few names and places 2049 could have been its own thing. The narrative pencils in obligatory homage where it works and lord knows Harrison Ford turns in the best performance he's given since Witness (1985). But every time Mackenzie Davis was channeling Daryl Hannah or Jared Leto was doing his King Herod routine I kept thinking, "Boy wouldn't it be cool if Rutger Hauer showed up?" "Wouldn't it be cool if Joe Turkel showed up?" If 2049 was introduced as a completely original idea "inspired" by Blade Runner, there'd be less distraction. Then who knows how much further we could have gotten.
Luckily the cast of 2049 is game to fill the void placed by long deceased characters. Sylvia Hoeks is quite a find as the cold, vamping villain at-large. On the other side of the emotional divide Ana de Armas channels a refreshing amount of vulnerability as a hapless projected AI who provides K with much needed emotional support. As K, Gosling is fine. He's basically pulling the same instinctively driven, vacant-eyed shtick he debut in Drive (2011) which I guess is how the character is written. Rest assured if every leading white guy in Hollywood but him got the plague, the mononym-ed antihero trope would still remain well tended.
Much like Deckard and K at the close of this beautiful looking epic, my world has been thoroughly wrecked after seeing 2049. Granted, I was hopeful that this movie was going to be good. But if it wasn't, I could always fall back on the self-satisfaction of knowing what I thought was obvious making a sequel 30 years after the fact is not a good idea. I may have to rethink my life but I'll hold off on critical paradigm shifts until the director's cut comes out.
Barely Worth the Autopsy
I may be alone in saying this but I think a Flatliner's (1990) remake wasn't initially the worst idea in the world. I've always said that the ideal remake fodder is the types of movies where the original's objectively good premise didn't effectively gel with audiences and critics at the time. Flatliner's, the story of a bunch of medical students dying and reviving each other to give firsthand accounts of the afterlife is one such movie. It had an intelligent, worthwhile story and interesting characters that were all unfortunately undone by an overheated sense of self and a campiness that was uniquely 90's. Could a second swing at this property give it the attention it deserves? The newest reincarnation of Flatliners isn't so much a swing and a miss as it is a strikeout looking. No attempt was made to improve on the formula. No attempt was made to update, or fix or toggle or even clarify the original's intent. It's just a boring, uninspired, flat-looking drudge. It's as gripping as a late season episode of ER (1994-2009) and as insightful as a fortune cookie. Someone should have told the makers of this thing that if they wanted near-death experiences you need to be alive to begin with.
The all-star ensemble of the campy original is replaced by a gaggle of kinda familiar faces. Replacing Kiefer Sutherland as the lead doctor with a death wish is Ellen Page whose recent experience with death has left her unable to focus on her studies. The film wrongly thinks that the tragedy of her dead sister will ground the story but instead it opens a Pandora's Box of expositional minutia. As much as the original's cold open bewildered and confused, it at least allowed the audience to piece things together and give the film an air of mystery. This movie seems more concerned with the accuracy of medical terminology than anything; highlighting that the one thread they all have in common is finding medical school hard to get through.
Of course, Flatliners isn't all bad you have largely the premise to thank for that. Those with bargain bin expectations and absolutely no idea this thing is a remake, may walk out thinking they saw a slightly below average PG-13 horror film. To that end the cast isn't atrocious they're just stuck in a lose-lose scenario. I'd even go so far as to say James Norton of British TV fame is fairly compelling; though that may be because he's the only actor with something to prove. Everyone else is enough of a face for a casting director to go, "let's get what's-her-name from Flatliners to play the love interest." So yeah, Flatliners is a dud but not a Top 10 Worst Movie of the Year kind of dud. It's more the kind of dud that people will forget they saw a week after they saw it. Frankly as far as bad remakes it's not even worth an autopsy. It lived and died quite unremarkably.
Gerald's Game (2017)
A Fun Little Potboiler
Gerald's Game stars Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood who play married couple Jessie and Gerald Burlingame. The two hope to rekindle their love life with an exciting weekend getaway, but after a foray into sexual experimentation goes horribly wrong, Gerald is left dead on the floor and Jessie is left festooned to the bed frame by two pairs of handcuffs. Left alone and running out of options, Jessie tries all she can to survive while constantly being tormented by her inner demons.
The plot thickens with other complications, but the body of this sweaty soup is provided by themes of past transgressions and sexual violence. Jessie is poked and prodded by the ghost of Gerald who assumes the role of almost every terrible man in her life. This along with elaborate red tinted flashbacks may be the most pointedly epicurean parts of the film but they're also the most interesting as they provide solid characterization.
Both Greenwood and Gugino are excellent playing what are essentially different facets of the same character. Gugino's slowly rising desperation is so frightfully real that by the time her mind wonders towards the unthinkable we as an audience are simply enraptured. Greenwood; for the short time he's on screen as the real, human Gerald is great as the quintessentially imposing alpha-male. As a ghost/hallucination, we see a side of the normally formal actor we've always suspected but have just never seen.
But of course being a Stephen King adaptation, Gerald's Game can't be complete without the usual clutter. A desperate situation and riveting psychological torture melts into mythological world- building and existential horror complete with overstated ghost, ghouls and deeply nested forces lying in the collective unconscious. The sloppiness and embedded symbolism of these things are forced into the narrative, upping the mystery but never the suspense.
I can understand these things being in the book. I've never read it but given King's writing style, the rich elaborations and thick mythologies of his oeuvre channel a unique atmosphere of cosmic horror. The kind perfectly calibrated for sitting anxiously on the bed with only the reading light and the sound of rustling leaves to keep you company.
In film however, this kind of atmosphere needs more than the specter of the "moonlight man" to really translate. Granted Director Mike Flanagan does a fine job incorporating the fantastical elements by linking them to Jessie's arc, but their mere presence guarantees that the last ten minutes or so land with a big dauntless thud. It's a shame too because everything leading up to those final moments is as gripping as it is biting.
Overall, Gerald's Game is a solid entry into the spotty history of Stephen King adaptations. Its story is largely kept taut and suspenseful by Gugino's commanding and visceral performance as well as further bolstered by Greenwood's menace. Granted it may not be as nervy as it could have been but for those looking for something to watch in-between It (2017) movies, Gerald's Game definitely won't disappoint.
American Made (2017)
Fails to Get Off the Ground
At this point is there a person on earth who doesn't already know the CIA was up to some shady s**t in Central America? Those who might still be in the dark about this stuff please do yourself a favor and read "Castles Made of Sand" by Andre Gerolymatos or "A Great Place to Have a War" by Joshua Kulantzick. If you want something a little more specific to this film's subject matter there's "Smuggler's End" by Del Hahn. You can also watch: Bananas (1971), The In-Laws (1979), El Salvador: Another Vietnam (1981), Alsino and the Condor (1982), Under Fire (1983), Latino (1985), Salvador (1986), Romero (1989), Walker (1987), Down Came a Blackbird (1995),Blow (2001), Voces Inocentes (2004), Guatemala: The Secret Files (2008), Harvest of Empire (2012), Princesas Rojas (2013), Escobar: Paradise Lost (2014),the TV show Narcos (2015-present), Room of Bones (2015), Finding Oscar (2016), The Infiltrator (2016) and if that's not enough, the hearings on the Iran-Contra Investigation on Youtube.
All of these options and more would give you a more cogent, compelling and satisfying experience than sitting through American Made; a light, mediocre and curiously smug, bug-eyed view of important historical events. In it a TWA pilot turned CIA stooge makes a little side cash smuggling drugs, guns and people to and from Central America. While doing so, the movie frames the larger collusions and convolutions not as the result of a deeply flawed man sticking his thumbs in various proverbial pies but as an awkward jumble of "and then " filmmaking in spite of him.
Barry (Cruise) fits neatly into the recent crop of true-life protagonists too stupid to realize they're in over their head. He smiles crookedly, trying to hide his intentions under aviator glasses mostly to the amusement of his CIA handler played by Domhnall Gleeson. He's clearly playing with a bad hand and everyone including the infamous Medellin drug cartel knows it, but damned if they're not entertained by Barry's good 'ol boy braggadocio. He's like a composite of the dudes from War Dogs (2016) only with the serendipity (and obliviousness) of Forrest Gump (1994).
What exactly makes a man like this tick? The movie doesn't really seem that interested in answering that question. Instead it seems more concerned with giving us a history lesson based on Barry's limited first-person perspective and various camera collage techniques that make American Made look like an episode of Arrested Development (2003-Present). This is of course told without wit, irony or the requisite anger needed. One can't help but think that if director Doug Liman brought the same level of ire to this movie that he did in the under-watched Fair Game (2010), American Made would have been a bit more palatable to someone.
As it stands however, American Made is for no one. It's a frustratingly mediocre waste of marquee space that's too dense to be entertaining and too cavalier to be worth a good discussion of Cold War foreign policy. It lacks characterization and perspective, leaving only Tom Cruise's boundless charisma to push it past the runway with any alacrity. As much as I'd like to say Cruise pulls it off, American Made as a whole should have stayed grounded for a little while longer.
Battle of the Sexes (2017)
Decent Flick but Nothing New
Nothing better represents the runaway id of the American public better than a big, unwieldy media circus. It'd be nice to think change can be made with frank and penetrating discussions. People stake entire careers on the idea that words and reason alone can carry the day. But if the recent controversy on the removal of Confederate statues is any indication there simply is no substitution for raw, powerful symbolism.
The news media, for all its faults understands this. This is why discussions of Black Lives Matter ultimately descend into arguments about Colin Kaepernick. Policy debates on income distribution start and end with the flashpoint of Warren Buffet's secretary and the issue of religious freedom is always forced into the context of homophobic bakers and their wedding cakes. The media takes advantage of these symbols and we as the viewing public love to lap it up.
Thus it was with the infamous 1973 exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs known as the Battle of the Sexes. An out and vocal Women's Liberation and Title IX advocate, Billie Jean King was among the biggest symbols in the sport. She along with a cadre of women's players rebelled against the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association (USLTA) in the early seventies after they were offered an insulting twelve times less prize money than their male counterparts.
This is about where the film actually begins and counts down the moments until King (Stone) goes up against infamous tennis hustler and self-described chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs (Carell). When not hoofing it out on the court, the film splits the narrative between Riggs's troubled home life and King's sexual awakening during her first Virginia Slims Tour. It is during these calmer human moments that the film shines brightest, as much of the heavy lifting is provided by an incredible cast.
Emma Stone does wonders recreating the gritty, socially ambivalent King. Fresh off her Best Actress win for La La Land (2017), Stone once again portrays an easy-going warmth and vulnerability only this time unlined by a competitive feistiness. Scenes involving the underrated (and underutilized) Andrea Riseborough coalesce with a lovely chemistry that defies easy description. Meanwhile, in the other foxhole, Carell's performance pops with gregarious intensity. Not only is his Riggs a chauvinist and hustler but a compulsive gambler with a knack for headline grabbing hokum. "Any publicity is good publicity" is a cliché that should be written on his family crest, though that might incite the ire of his long suffering wife (Shue).
Despite all the "fun", I couldn't help but feel a sense of unease while watching Battle of the Sexes. Riggs's brand of oafish misogyny is given just as much credence and lovability as King's high-wire emotional balancing act. The very real archival footage of sports announcers and commentators legitimizing his worldview is scary enough but because we get the inside scoop of who is essentially our villain, everything we see and hear is surprisingly easy to swallow. Even King gives him a pass in a climactic scene where she pits herself against USLTA President Jack Kramer, played with unmoving incredulity by Bill Pullman. "Bobby's a clown but you you can't stand that we want a little of what you got."
The film may have been better served if it was strictly from King's point of view. If that were the case, her budding relationship with hairdresser Marilyn (Riseborough) and deteriorating relationship with husband Larry (Stowell) could have been given the emotional honesty it deserved. What's more the film also lost out on the opportunity to comment on the ever growing, ever out-of-control media circus and our reaction as a culture to it. We now live in an age where late night comedians have the most cogent editorial viewpoints and our President is hinting policy changes like bumpers on a TV show. This is a conversation we should be having and I'm surprised and disappointed this movie didn't take a swing at it.
Once Battle of the Sexes builds to its final showdown, the film's shallow iconography starts to crump up like badly pasted wallpaper. It is at that moment that you realize that what matters most to these two people, tennis, is probably the most boring sport to watch other than maybe golf. It doesn't help that co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris limit their camera placement to the obligatory ESPN whole-court wide shot, and an even wider shot where people are watching the match on TV.
At a time when this kind of polemic misogyny is becoming more publicly commonplace, I'm surprised this movie was as big of a bad serve as it was. Then again if you're making an LGBTQ-oriented sports biopic with an award-winning cast and it somehow comes across as shallow, I gotta wonder if you're not just ticking marks on your Oscar-bait scorecard. Oh well, I guess the circus marches on.
A Critique of a Critique
Much like the city that bears the film's name, Columbus is a rare unspoiled gem in a sea of same-old, same-old. It's a spellbinding whisper; a soulful, sweet and self-assured voice that you can only hear if you can calm your mind for long enough. The film takes something as simple as two strangers getting to know each other and elevates it to an art with unspoken spiritual dimensions. Every frame truly is a painting here. The colors on the palette our actors and the man made wonders that occupy the space.
The film begins with the collapse of an elderly Korean scholar who was in town to give a talk on modernist architecture. He slips into a coma, anticipating the arrival of his son Jin (Cho). Jin in turn is forced to put his life in Seoul on hold as he waits for either the death or recovery of his estranged father. While this is happening, Casey (Richardson) a bright, kindhearted towny and unabashed lover of architecture approaches Jin while out for an afternoon stroll. The two kindle a friendship that subtly shifts their perspectives; a bond that is as deeply felt as it is melancholy.
No words can truly describe freshman writer-director Kogonada vision in this film. Dreamy, contemplative, ethereal all worthy words in any context but in film they come not as adjectives but unfortunate value statements. We as a culture have silently, perhaps subconsciously ascribed these words to mean languid and boring, refusing to acknowledge any portents of purposeful design. I myself have fallen into this trap plenty of times. I've watched a grand total of three Yasujiro Ozu films over the course of my life, and all three times I have been left wanting.
Kogonada is certainly mimicking aspects of Ozu here, including a deeply wistful tone and using water as a leitmotif. But Kogonada's approach does have some stark differences. For one, large generational shifts in understanding are treated in an overall positive light. Casey's astute work friend Gabriel (Culkin) expounds with increasing clarity the idea that different interests and habits don't necessarily mean we lose sight of what's important. As the film meanders through its story, the camera holds lovingly on Indiana's strange architectural wonderland as if to say the wise and the eternal can coexist with the new and the modern. In its own unassuming way, Columbus almost acts like a critique of a critique.
Most of the time however, Columbus is a beautifully captured human story pure and simple. The odd coupling of John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson is reminiscent of Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray in Lost in Translation (2003) only both are objectively less world-weary. As an actress of incredible, disarming vulnerability, Richardson fills every room, field and parking lot like a beam of sunlight. She's always had warmth to her popular performances but with Columbus she proves that she's much more than a pretty face. John Cho likewise is tremendous as the prickly and wounded Jin. The script requires that the narrative chips away at his tough exterior slowly. Thus all the guilt, anger and regret he wells up inside needs to stay just exposed enough to hold the audience interest. It's a harder thing to do than it looks but thankfully Cho pulls it off with aplomb.
If Columbus has any fatal flaws it strictly has to do with scale. The film dwells on the inscrutability of life and the beauty of the world if one only looks, but then folds all these ideas in a movie tacitly about daddy issues and life no longer being a tutorial. Additionally it can be argued that if this is a movie about looking, watching and appreciating, than why are we following two people who use looking, watching and appreciating architecture as a cudgel?
Personally when I watched Columbus I was struck by its serenity. It reminded me of a Lao Tzu poem I once read that more or less goes like this:
The supreme good is like water, Which nourishes all things without trying to. It is content with the low places that people disdain. This it is like the Tao. In dwelling, live close to the ground. In thinking, keep to the simple. In conflict, be fair and generous. In governing, don't try to control. In work, do what you enjoy. In family, be completely present. When you are content to be simply yourself And don't compare or compete, Everybody will respect you.