Blockers(4/5/2018)


I recently took a trip to New York City and was struck by a lot of things both big and small about the city but perhaps the most pertinent thing that jumped out at me was that the week I went there nearly every square inch of Manhattan Island seemed to be covered in advertisements for the movie Blockers.  The amount of advertising for the movie already seemed heavier than normal long before I found myself on the East Coast.  I’ve seen all sorts of TV commercials for it and Youtube seemed to put an ad for it in front of every video I found myself watching, but when I got to the Big Apple I was struck seeing that rooster logo on top of damn near every taxi cab and the poster posted above every subway entrance and also on every subway platform.  I’m sure that people who actually live in the city that never sleeps are used to this sort of onslaught of printed marketing but it seemed a bit novel to me.  Part of this might simply be that I noticed this advertising more than all the advertising for the likes of Truth or Dare because I already thought it was going to be a funny movie and was already king of thinking about seeing the movie.  But maybe the studio knew what it was doing because on the movie’s opening day I found myself unwinding from a busy day of walking around the city by going to the Regal E-Walk 13 on 42nd street to sit back and watch this mainstream sex comedy.

The film is set over the course of prom day and night at a high school in a Chicago suburb.  Specifically the focus is on a group of three longtime friends: The blonde cheerleader type Julie (Kathryn Newton), the athletic and somewhat wild Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan), and the nerdy Samantha (Gideon Adlon), who has been questioning her sexuality.  As the three are talking about their prom plans it emerges that Julie is planning to sleep with her boyfriend for the first time that night and upon hearing this Kayla decides that she also wants to lose her virginity to her date to “get it over with” and while neither girl tries to pressure their friend Samantha finds herself getting in on the “#sexpact2018” too despite minimal attraction to her male prom date, possibly in a desire to confirm her preferences.  What they don’t know is that their various parents have semi-accidentally intercepted their text messages about these plans. Julie’s mother Lisa (Leslie Mann), Kayla’s father Mitchell (John Cena), and Samantha’s estranged father Hunter (Ike Barinholtz) all decide for various reasons that they want to stop this from happening and thus become the “blockers” referred to in the title, which is an MPAA approved shortening of “cockblockers.”

Blockers has a bit of a challenge on its hands in that it needs to find a relatively plausible reason for three seemingly progressive parents in 2018 to go to such lengths to “block” their daughters from having sexual encounters something like three months before they go to the even more sexually charged environment that is college.  Of the three parents only John Cena’s character really seems to be going on this journey for the usual patriarchal reasons: his daughter is “daddy’s little girl” and her man-bun toting prom date seems unworthy of her.  The Ike Barinholtz character, on the other hand, seems to be against this whole panic in the first place and when he does get caught up in it it’s mainly because he thinks his daughter (who he knows to be closeted) is being pressured into the situation and the Leslie Mann character just seems overly attached to her daughter and her “blocking” quest is sort of a manifestation of her worries about losing her after it’s discovered that she’s planning to attend a college that’s out of state.  The movie also has a moment at around its midpoint where the Cena character’s wife steps in and gives a big counter-argument about what all these characters are doing.

What makes the film a bit different from other comedies like this is that it basically has six principal characters, and they do a pretty reasonable job of building each of these characters despite how crowded it is but there are moments where corners need to be cut.  As this is a raunchy comedy of the post Apatow era the stories eventually do converge into a sort of sentimental climax and given the ensemble nature of the movie that means there are something like six different “meaningful” moments in the third act as each of the girls has to have a revelation with both their respective boyfriends and their parents, but the movie does manage to juggle all of these pretty effectively.  From a comedy perspective the movie probably could have benefited from a slightly more seasoned cast.  John Cena certainly expands a bit after having dipped his toe into the comedy waters with Trainwreck, but he still sort of feels like a budget version of The Rock, and Ike Barinholtz is mostly just transferring over his not overly memorable character from Neighbors.  The teenage cast mostly shows promise but they aren’t necessarily seasoned comic actors either.

Leslie Mann certainly fares the best of everyone here, but the material is mostly solid and director Kay Cannon does a good job getting the best out of the cast she was given, though I do think she would have done better to leave out some of the more gross-out gags that seem to be in here more out of obligation than real necessity.  The “chugging” scene seen in most of the trailers really did nothing for me and another scene where three people straight-up vomit from drunkenness despite being seemingly sober about an hour later felt like little more than an attempt to one-up other movies.  It really didn’t even need to be this way, if you look back on a movie like Superbad or even something like The Hangover there really isn’t really that much in the way of on-screen bodily fluids in either movie.  Even the diarrhea scene Bridesmaids was almost entirely done with suggestion.  Outside of those two scenes though the movie is a pretty solid comedy that manages to stay on the right side of stupid.  This certainly isn’t a new comedy classic, but it comes after a pretty long drought of respectable mainstream comedy.  In 2017 pretty much the only Hollywood comedy worth a damn was Girls Trip and even that didn’t really do a whole lot for me, so with this one movie 2018 has already beat its predecessor in this one regard.

***1/2 out of Five 

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Black Panther(2/17/2018)


The weird thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the critics seem to hate the MCU as an enterprise and yet they seem to like every individual film in the MCU and whenever one comes out they seem to forget that they’ve liked every individual film.  Like, when Thor: Ragnarok came out last year the critics were all saying “oh my god, they really let Taika Waititi inject his signature humor into this, it’s so much different than those other Marvel movies.”  Of course four months earlier they were saying “oh my god, they really managed to turn Spider-Man: Homecoming into a down to earth high school movie, it’s so much different than those other Marvel movies.” And the year before that the critics were saing “oh my god, they really managed to turn Doctor Strange into a crazy acid trip, it’s so much different than those other Marvel movies.”  So on and so forth.  Critics also have a history of going overboard with their praise whenever a film seems to be an advance in representation in Hollywood cinema, something which led a lot of critics to really lose their minds when presented with good but not truly extraordinary movies like Wonder Woman, Bridesmaids, and The Big Sick.  As such I was pretty cautious when the raves and hype for the newest Marvel film Black Panther started rolling in as I feel a bit like I’ve been cried wolf to before when it comes to movies like this.

The action in Black Panther picks up about a week after the events of Captain America: Civil War, the movie which introduced the character.  With his father dead the time is now for young Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to be officially crowned as the king of Wakanda.  Wakanda is a fictional African country built on top of a reserve of a material called vibranium, a metal so useful and powerful that it trumps all the guns, germs, and steel that have allowed colonial powers to dominate other African countries for centuries.  They’ve used that technology to build some kind of cloaking device that hides their futuristic capital city and have generally hidden their incredible technology for centuries.  Shortly after his coronation T’Challa gets intel that an enemy of the Wakandans named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) is going to be in South Korea selling a stolen vibranium artifact.  T’Challa promises his confidant W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) that he will kill or capture Klaue, retrieves his new suit from his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) and heads to Korea with his to top agents Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Okoye (Danai Gurira).  Once there he finds an undercover CIA agent named Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) also on the hunt for Klaue, but what neither of them know is that Klaue is now in league with a man named Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), who has grand plans that could have grave consequences for Wakanda.

Aside from the fact that the character was introduced in a previous film (a fact that would not be terribly apparent to people just jumping in here) Black Panther feels mostly independent from the wider world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and outside of a couple of technical elements it does feel somewhat distinct from that Marvel house-style.  The biggest thing that sets this apart is its setting in Wakanda, which is quite the creation.  It takes a few leaps of logic to buy that this civilization could completely hide itself for so many centuries (how long have they had that cloaking device?) and the notion that they spent all these years living in peace and harmony with their neighbors despite having overwhelming advantages over them goes a bit contrary to human nature, especially given that they apparently select their rulers through trial by combat.  Still, once you get past that this is a really interesting place to be setting a movie.  We’ve seen plenty of science fiction versions of European and Asian cities but we’ve basically never seen a vision of a technologically advanced Africa brought to the screen with anywhere near this kind of budget or scope and it gives a very interesting flavor to the whole movie.  We see things that would be neat sci-fi tech in any context like a line of soldiers with force field shields and make them that much more unique by having them be tied to said soldiers’ African garb for example.

If Black Panther has a real problem it might be that it’s a touch over-crowded with a large cast of supporting characters who almost begin to overshadow the title character in his own film.  For instance, the characters of Nakia and Okoye feel a touch redundant, both basically just act as glorified sidekicks and one or the other likely would have been sufficient.  Martin Freeman’s Everett K. Ross is also a somewhat interesting presence in the movie but is also largely story irrelevant outside of his role as an outsider who can ask questions on behalf of the audience which probably didn’t need extra explaining.  The Forest Whitaker and/or the Angela Bassett character also probably could have cut down as we probably only really needed one tribal elder character to explain some of the backstory.  It gets to the point where, in the film’s finale, we get three different action scenes being intercut and the one where our hero is fighting the main villain is plainly the least interesting of the three.  Still there are a lot of side characters here who do work quite well.  I liked Letitia Wright a lot as T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri who acts as a sort of Q figure giving gadgets to our hero and I particularly liked the film’s villain The Killmonger.  Michael B. Jordan isn’t necessarily the most physically intimidating villain Marvel has ever put forward what with his youthful demeanor and wacky Jaden Smith haircut, but he has motivations that generally make sense and you can divine a bit or a Trump allegory in the way he uses holes in the Wakandan succession laws to become a dangerous person in power.

On a pure filmmaking standpoint Black Panter is perhaps a bit of a step backwards for Ryan Coogler.  There are a couple of cool action scenes here, especially a car chase around the film’s midpoint but these scenes are a bit over-edited and there are a couple of moments of questionable CGI (the rhinos were a bit much).  I found the boxing scenes in Creed to better rendered in their simplicity, but perhaps that’s inherent to making big action scenes in Marvel movies.  I’m not exactly sure where I’d rank the movie within the annals of the MCU, especially given that Marvel has been varying things up lately and these comparisons have become a bit harder to make.  Visually it’s pretty high up there but maybe not as high up there as Doctor Strange, as a thriller narrative it’s also up there but maybe not as high as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and in terms of action it’s fairly high up there but maybe not as high as The Avengers.  Still there is an x-factor here that cannot be ignored; we simply haven’t seen an African science fiction movie like this before and that isn’t something to be ignored.  That’s something that sets it apart from last year’s “glass ceiling breaking” superhero movie Wonder Woman, which really didn’t do anywhere near as much in its imagining of a matriarchal society.  I’m only really able to ride the hype train on this thing so far, at the end of the day it’s a bit messy, but the things it does right it does very right.

**** out of Five

BPM (Beats Per Minute)(11/11/2017)/The Square(11/12/2017)

Every year I follow the coverage of the Cannes Film Festival and every year I get excited.  2017’s festival didn’t seem overly notable while it was going on given that no one movie ever really stood out as being terribly important.  Everything seemed to just get a B or B+ from critics and for the most part people spent more time talking about Netflix than about the movies.  Still there were definitely a decent number of movies to look forward to and for a variety of reasons it seems that we’re actually having something of a banner year for Cannes competitors actually showing up in American theaters in a timely manner.  By my count eight of the nineteen movies that played in the main competition have gotten American releases including two movies that showed up in my city just this week: BPM (Beats Per Minute) and The Square.  Coincidentally those happen to be the two movies that ended up taking the Palme d’Or and the Gran Prix, which are the first place and second place at the festival.  BPM (Beats Per Minute) was the movie that seemed to get the most enthusiastic reviews while the festival was going on, but it was The Square that Pedro Almodóvar and his jury ended up selecting, a decision that most analysts thought was a surprise but one that made sense to them in retrospect.  These are both big and important movies that probably deserve to be looked at individually, but the novelty of being able to look at the top two films from Cannes side by side (plus, admittedly, the pressure to avoid getting behind on my reviews) inspired me to look at them together and decide whether the jury got it right.

BPM (Beats Per Minute) is set in France during the 1990s and focuses on the Parisian branch of the famous AIDS activist organization ACT UP.  It begins with some new members being inducted and trained in the group’s mission and methodology but the film doesn’t necessarily focus in on those new members and instead becomes a true ensemble piece which becomes something of a procedural look at a year or so of the group’s activities including a number of scenes where you get to be a fly on the wall as the members debate strategy and group priorities.  The Square by contrast has more of a central character but also largely functions as a look into the inner-workings of a community of sorts, namely a modern art museum in Stockholm.  Our focus is a guy named Christian (Claes Bang) a curator who is getting the museum ready for its newest exhibit, a conceptual piece called “The Square,” which is a square drawn in the center of a room with a plaque next to it which reads: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”  While prepping for this exhibit Christian suddenly finds himself distracted from a number of personal and professional problems as he obsesses over retrieving his cell phone and wallet that were stolen from him during a pickpocketing.

It is probably worth noting that neither of these movies came from directors that I was eagerly awaiting new films from.  BPM (Beats Per Minute) was directed by a guy named Robin Campillo, whose directorial output I’m not familiar with but who was a co-writer and editor on a 2008 Palme d’Or winning film called The Class which I liked quite a bit but which never really made a big splash when it left the Croisette and went out into the world.  That film followed a teacher as he taught French literature to a class of urban students over the course of a year and the activist meetings in his newest film definitely share a DNA with the classroom sequences that made up the majority of that film.  The Square’s director, Ruben Östlund, is probably the guy the film world was more excitedly waiting for a new film from.  Östlund’s previous film, Force Majeure, was an extremely well received satire about a man who finds himself confronting his own shortcomings while on a ski trip with his family after he runs like a coward when his family is put in danger’s way.  I got what that film was doing and could see why people liked it but it didn’t really do much for me; I never really found it all that funny, I thought its sub-plots were unneeded distractions, and I don’t think its interest in the fractured male ego ever really went anywhere after the initial setup.

The Square, worked a lot better for me than Force Majeure in no small part because its humor just seemed a bit more on point but also because I found its anxieties more relatable.  I don’t have a family and I make no claims to being some courageous protector, so the concept of being exposed as a coward does not exactly hit home with me.  The Square on the other hand is about the prospect of being exposed as a jerk, as someone whose behavior doesn’t come close to matching your ideals and who maybe isn’t as brilliant and in control as you think you are.  The main character, Christian, seems like he should be the platonic ideal of an upper-class European.  He’s wealthy, attractive, intellectual, and somewhat powerful, and yet heavy rests the crown because he seems to spend a lot of the film trying to maintain his reputation despite everything going wrong.  Christian is not an asshole exactly; he certainly doesn’t go out of his way to hurt anyone and he generally doesn’t have evil intentions but he proves to be rather oblivious to the damage he occasionally causes and also proves to be rather flexible in his ideals when put to the test.  His solution to getting his wallet stolen, dropping a threatening letter into every mailbox in a low-rent apartment building, is a pretty good example of this.  It’s not exactly illegal and not entirely aggressive, but he certainly isn’t thinking about the distress he’s causing everyone else in that building and this comes back to bite him in a big way.

Of course Christian’s first world problems would seem to be even more pathetic when compared to the ACT UP members chronicled in BPM (Beats Per Minute), who are fighting very hard for their ideals but also for their very lives.  Campillo’s movie is at its best when it sits back and observes these activists’ interact with each other and plan their various protests.  These scenes capture both the youthful passion of these activists but also doesn’t depict them as immature fools and also has an interesting ear for the tempo of the kind of arguments that emerge in these settings.  The focus of the movie is ultimately on the people rather than the politics, the various issues being debated like the speed at which clinics share results with the public are not really explained to the audience and the movie isn’t necessarily trying to make much of a case for how effective ACT UP’s brand of confrontational demonstration were in the fight for AIDS research.  Where the film starts to falter a bit is when the group breaks up a bit and we start observing these characters act as individuals rather than as a group.  I’m thinking particularly of the film’s third act where we watch a character named Sean Dalmazo as his health deteriorates.  I wouldn’t call these scenes bad at all but they are a lot more conventional than the movie that surrounds them and feels a lot more like a generic tragic approach to the AIDS epidemic of the kind we used to see out of 90s movies.

If BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a very heartfelt and emotional movie, The Square is a bit brainier and leaves you with a bit more to interpret and dissect.  Key amongst its mysteries is what to make of the fictional art exhibit with which it shares its title.  Christian seems to view “The Square” as a piece with a rather utopian vision of human cooperation but I think he might be missing the larger point of the piece.  The plaque on The Square does read that “within [The Square] we all share equal rights and obligations,” but the implication there is that outside of The Square those lofty ideals are far from guaranteed and more than likely the only reason that those things apply inside The Square is because it sits in the middle of a big well-funded museum with a security team.  In some ways that feels like a bit of a metaphor for what these museum curators have always been doing: creating a bubble where various principles exist, but are contained, and then not putting a whole lot of thought into what happens outside of that bubble.  This pretty clearly makes the characters in The Square sort of the polar opposites of the ones in BPM (Beats Per Minute) who are if nothing else very dedicated to their ideals and are insistent to the point of sometimes being obnoxious and are very much trying to spread them into the wider world.

So, do I ultimately agree with the choice that the jury made at Cannes?  Yeah, in this head to head matchup I do, and of the eight films from that festival’s main competition I would say I liked The Square the best.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that The Square is quite the instant classic that some other Palme d’Or winners have been.  It is, however, a very clever and very entertaining movie that manages to critique the “elites” in a smart way that doesn’t resort to overstatement or unfair pitchfork waving.  This is not to say that BPM (Beats Per Minute) isn’t also a film that’s well worth your time.  Those scenes of the activists debating are great but the movie as a whole never quite manages to find an overall structure that really brings it together.  Still, it’s a fine movie and certainly a more worthy companion to the great ACT UP documentary How to Survive a Plague than the indie/Hollywood depiction of the era Dallas Buyers Club.  However, The Square is the more creative movie and the movie that jumps out at me and which I can see myself revisiting more often.  In some ways I think I might “get” Ruben Östlund now in a way I didn’t before and might even want to give Force Majeure another look.  Ultimately though these are both fine works of world cinema worthy of your time

BPM (Beats Per Minute):

The Square:

Blade Runner 2049(10/6/2017)

It’s no secret that Hollywood is pretty desperate to make sequels to pretty much anything, but there are certain boundaries that they don’t cross every day, and in making the film Blade Runner 2049 they were certainly crossing into dangerous territory.  Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner is a true science fiction classic.  It’s a film that has a truly remarkable look which holds up remarkably today and which has had a massive influence on pretty much every future city that has been seen on film since and its combination of science fiction with film noir was an incredibly smart move that was consistently fun to watch.  On top of that the movie is this really special, really deep mediation on what it means to be human and the ways societies abuse the disenfranchised and uncaringly discard unwanted elements.  It’s a brilliant movie and when I ranked my top 100 favorite films recently it came in at number 59, which also placed it as the third best movie of the last 35 years, it’s that good in my eyes.  I don’t think in recent memory I’ve been in the position or reviewing a sequel, made so long after the fact, to a top 100 caliber movie like this.  The last movie I can think of as being in a comparable position was probably 2010: The Year We Made Contact, the 1984 sequel to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.  In short, the movie has some really big shoes to fill so I was certainly going into it with some a lot of skepticism.

Set thirty years after the original Blade Runner (which was set in what 1982 assumed 2019 would be like) this new film establishes that sometime after the events of the first film the old line of replicants prone to rebellion have been replaced by a new more obediant form of replicant that is allowed to operate within earth society.  One of those replicants is KD9-3.7 (Ryan Gosling), who is an LAPD “blade runner” tasked with tracking down the few remaining old world replicants and taking them out.  After the completion of one of his assassination missions KD9-3.7 finds a box filled with the remains of a long dead female replicant buried near a tree.  When these remains are discovered the autopsy shows something disturbing: this replicant seems to have died in the process of childbirth, implying that a replicant was somehow able to reproduce and also that the child that was born may still be out there.  His commanding officer, Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright), orders him to cover this up and tie up whatever loose ends exist so as to not cause mass pandemonium.  Meanwhile Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) is also following these developments through various connections and plans to send his agent, Sylvia Hoeks (Sylvia Hoeks) to see to his own interests.

What’s immediately striking about the movie is, of course, just how well it manages of recapture the look and more importantly the feel of that original film.  That is no easy task as the set decoration of that original film is beyond iconic and Denis Villeneuve seems to realize this and is very careful to make this Los Angeles look like the Blade Runner Los Angeles rather than the various cityscapes that it inspired.  Part of the way Villeneuve accomplishes this is by knowing the value of restraint.  It would have been easy for him to pump up the CGI and gone full Fifth Element but he does hold back and it does look like that original film, but it also isn’t afraid to expand on the world of Blade Runner and show other areas of California and even another American city.  Even more impressive is that Villeneuve didn’t seem to bend to pressures to make the film more of an action movie and to speed the movie up to fit the pacing of modern blockbusters.  It’s a bit less indebted to film noir than the first movie but all the moodiness is still there and it also remains somber and doesn’t feel pressure to rush its way through its plot to appease short attention spans.

While he’s prominently featured in the film’s advertising, Harrison Ford actually has a fairly small role in the film.  Stepping into his shoes as a blade runner protagonist is Ryan Gosling, who unlike Ford is playing a character who is unambiguously a replicant.  To do this he adopts a sort of detached but not exactly robotic cool.  Unlike the replicants we saw in the last movie like Roy Batty he’s a newer model that “obeys,” but this is rendered more like a personality quirk than a hard-wired programing and Gosling does a pretty good job of rendering this spot between human and machine.  Also in a place of nebulous humanity is his holographic girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), another product of the Wallace corporation who certainly seems to have a higher degree of individuality than you’d expect from a literal consumer product and the bad guys played by Jared Leto and Sylvia Hoeks also prove to be interesting additions to the cast while smaller roles played by the likes of Dave Bautista and Robin Wright also fill in the world of the movie nicely.

When I first left the theater after seeing Blade Runner 2049 I was pretty high on it and was just gobsmacked that Villeneuve had managed to get something like this through the studio system and I pretty thoroughly enjoyed watching it.  In the week or so since then, my reaction has cooled on the movie just a little bit as I’ve re-considered some of its story implications.  I think in many ways the movie works better as a spinoff of Blade Runner than as a sequel to Blade Runner.  It’s great at recapturing the world of that first movie and populating it with new characters but I’m not a fan of what they do to connect all of that with the story of the original film.  Spoilers ahead.  I think the idea of a replicant having given live birth is… interesting, although it’s certainly never explained how a thing like that could happen which is perhaps understandable.  However, I kind of wish that the trail of clues related to this hadn’t led straight to Deckard and Rachael.  The romance between these two characters is not necessarily the most memorable part of the original film but it had a certain melancholy fatalism to it straight out of film noir.  This notion that they were in fact destined to give birth to “the chosen one” the whole time feels less like something from film noir and more like something out of modern franchise filmmaking.  The film also conveniently leaves certain plotlines like the fate of the Jared Leto character and the specter of a robot rebellion dangling, possibly for a future sequel if this thing does well at the box office.

Of course this movie’s box office success is far from certain.  Earlier I commended the movie for not pandering to the short attention spans of modern audiences, but truth be told this kind of pacing proved to be rather challenging for audiences in 1982 as well.  It was crazy enough that they managed to make a movie like this in Hollywood once much less twice.  If I have any reservations about where they took the story they’re more the kind of problems that emerge in hindsight than they are problems that really cloud the experience of actually watching the movie.  We don’t get movies like this every day and I’m not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  This certainly isn’t the classic that the original film was but it’s entertaining, well-constructed, and just generally better than most of what we get from big budget movies like this.

Battle of the Sexes(9/30/2017)

I’m not exactly sure why it is that Tennis is the one sport where people seem to be genuinely just as interested in the female competitions as the male competitions, outside of certain Olympic events anyway.  The WNBA has a small fraction of the viewership of the NBA for example but at least there is a WNBA, I don’t even know if there’s a comparable league for female baseball players or hockey players and I don’t even know of any female football teams even at the collegiate and high school levels.  There’s some interest in female soccer in America, largely as a product of the U.S. female soccer team being noticeable better than the men’s team, but that also sort of seems to be a product of the European and Latin American markets that actually love soccer not really caring enough to build up competition for them.  As for other individual sports I know there are some female boxers and female MMA fighters, but again, they don’t seem nearly as popular as their male counterparts.  Clearly there must be something about tennis that leads to equal coverage, maybe it’s that it’s such a finesse sport that the difference in strength just isn’t apparent on TV… but then you’d think that female golfers would have more of a platform.  Maybe it’s just a matter of female tennis players having gotten a useful platform from early on in the sport’s history.  They play in the same Grand Slam tournaments at the same time as the men and tend to get coverage at the same time.  Whatever it was it was something unique and the new film, Battle of the Sexes is about (among other things) a moment where a major star in women’s tennis stood up to defend that one shard of relative gender equality in sports and managed to make a statement about gender equality in the rest of society as well.

Set in the early 70s, the film follows tennis great Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), who is already more or less at the peak of her career at this point and has just won a major tournament which has netted her a hundred thousand dollar check.  News of this gets to Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), a 55 year old man who was a tennis champion in the 1940 and was old enough to actually have his career interrupted by World War II.  At this point in life he’s playing on the senior circuit and is having marital problems caused in no small part because of his compulsive gambling.  Jealous that King is able to get those kind of paychecks he starts to get it into his head that even in his advanced age he could still beat her and feels like he deserves to still be making that kind of money because of it.  He approaches her with the idea of doing a “battle of the sexes” exhibition match but King has a million other things on her plate at that time.  She’s in the middle of a boycott of the main tennis authority because their director Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) is refusing to offer them equal prize money with the men, and she’s also in the process of beginning an affair with a hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough), unbeknownst to her future ex-husband (Austin Stowell).  However, when Riggs manages to win a similar exhibition match against the other female tennis great of the era, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) King decides that enough’s enough and accepts Riggs’ challenge.

Battle of the Sexes was directed by the husband and wife pair of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who are probably still best known for having made the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine and that gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of filmmaking you’re in store for with the film.  This is a pretty safe and pretty straightforward telling of this period of Billie Jean King’s life.  I’m sure some of the standard issue creative liberties have been taken (I think some of the events are compressed into a shorter period of time) but otherwise the film does not take too many risks in its format and aims.  Emma Stone does some of the best work of her career as King and does a good job of changing herself into this butch athlete and capturing the uncompromising but at times playful aura that King needed to take on through this whole episode.  Steve Carrell perhaps unsurprisingly emphasizes a lot of the over the top and comical elements Bobby Riggs’ persona and doesn’t need to go too far outside of his usual wheelhouse to do it.  The movie is a bit on the fence about how much of a sexist Riggs really was; on one hand it’s very clear that his main motivation for making this happen was money and that some of his “male chauvinist” bluster was not too far removed from the antics of a bad guy professional wrestler taking a heel turn.  On the other hand, some of his resentment does seem legitimate.  He sees himself as being equally talented to King (and given his performance against Court that might not have been completely irrational) and felt that because of this he was deserving of an equal amount of money and attention despite not being in the same league as younger male players anymore.

Ultimately I don’t think it matters too much what Riggs’ true motivation was because at the end of the day he was probably doing a lot of harm.  His trolling plainly brought out the worst in a lot of people (the number of people who showed up to the big match carrying signs like “Team Male Chauvenist” is kind of disturbing) and he also may well have done some real damage to the entirety of women’s tennis if he had actually won his big match against King.  At a certain point it doesn’t matter if you’re doing it for greed, lulz, or genuine hate, the end result is still shitty and saying “I didn’t really mean what I said” just isn’t a good excuse.  That little observation is mostly something I’m bringing to the movie as the film itself is not overly hard on Riggs and instead largely just dismisses him as a clown rather than a truly insidious figure when compared to the real institutional sexism represented by Jack Kramer.  That would be easier to roll with if not for the fact that this country recently went through another battle of the sexes of sorts in which a vulgar self-promoting asshole challenged an over-qualified female to a contest of sorts in a cynical attempt to regain relevance in his old age, and unlike this event the heroine didn’t vanquish the unrepentant chauvinist.  Clearly this movie was already well into production before the final results of the 2016 election were known and had sanity prevailed during that contest I suspect that seeing the feminist kick the chauvinist’s ass would have had a lot more resonance, but the actual election results really just make the film’s “and then everything got better” ending ring kind of false despite obviously being historically accurate.

Battle of the Sexes is the kind of movie that won’t really leave you with many concrete complaints.  The performances are all solid, the look is appropriate, it gets exciting when it needs to, it’s hard to really place your finger on a single element that you want to change really and yet it also leaves you wanting more.  The movie takes a pretty safe approach that guarantees it will be warmly received by most audiences but never really rises too much above the level of average.  Then again maybe that’s the right approach for this particular story.  This was after all a silly exhibition tennis match whose ultimate effect was largely symbolic.  Hyping it up further might not have worked and taking a more overtly satirical approach might have cheapened it a bit too much.  Maybe the light prestige approach was perfectly suited to the story but I consequently my personal response to it was a bit muted.

The Big Sick(7/16/2017)

If nothing else, 2017 has been a great year to learn about the lives of 30-something, male, 1st or 2nd generation American immigrants from the Indian subcontinent of Muslim origin who went on to become stand-up comedians. In May the second season of Aziz Ansari’s excellent Netflix series “Master of None” came out, a show that’s most about the romantic and professional life of a thinly veiled Ansari analogue but which also had a memorable episode about his childhood and his hesitance to tell his old school parents that he eats pork and has more or less abandoned his Muslim roots. Less than two weeks later Netflix also released “Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King” a strong one-man show from the titular stand-up comedian and Daily Show correspondent which focused largely on what it was like to be the only Indian and Muslim in town when he was growing up in Davis, California and about how difficult it could be to deal with his traditional and rather image conscious parents. And now, we finally get the much buzzed about and arguably most high profile of these projects yet which from Kumail Nanjiani, who is one of the stars of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” Nanjiani is of course a little different from Minhaj and Ansari, firstly because he’s Pakistani rather than Indian and secondly because he was actually born abroad rather than in the United States and then emigrated in his teens, but based on the projects these various comedians have made I think there’s a good chance that all three would find some common ground in their experiences as his new film, the Sundance hit The Big Sick, looks at (among several other things) a by now somewhat familiar push and pull between American pursuits and traditional family norms.

The film is overtly biographical and follows Nanjiani (who literally plays himself, his character’s name has not been changed) during his pre-success years working in Chicago as an Uber driver while trying to make a name for himself as a stand-up comedian. Early I the movie we see Nanjiani hook up with a woman named Emily (Zoe Kazan), who he meets at one of his comedy shows, and though both are a little leery about getting into a “real” relationship they do find themselves growing close over the next couple of months. Nanjiani is not, however, willing to tell all of this to his father (Anupam Kher) and mother (Zenobia Shroff), especially after his brother (Adeel Akhtar) warns him that they will never accept him again if he marries outside the faith. As such Nanjiani ends up sitting by as his parents present a series of Pakistani women of marrying age to him in hopes that he’ll go along to get along. Eventually Emily learns about this and storms out and strongly suggests that it’s over between them. The next time Nanjiani sees Emily she’s in the hospital with some unknown lung infection and as the first person on the scene he’s forced to give the doctors permission to put her in a medically induced coma. Soon Emily’s parents Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano) show up, both of whom know about the messiness in Kumail and Emily’s relationship, and wonder why he’s sticking around as long as he is.

The Big Sick has been described as a romantic comedy, which is accurate insomuch as it’s a comedy and it’s about a romance of sorts but insomuch as “romantic comedy” has come to be shorthand for a very specific formula it might be a bit misleading.  In film the “romance” is usually suggests a plotline wherein the boy wants to get the girl (or vice versa), roadblocks are placed in the way of this, and by the end we know if he or she has achieved their goal and lived happily ever after.  In the broadest of strokes that’s true of this film as well, but with one of the participants spending the majority of the film in a coma things play out differently… and not in some kind of creepy Talk to Her kind of way.  In many ways the film is less about Nanjiani’s pursuit of Emily and more about his own reconsideration of what he wants in life and what he’s willing to sacrifice to get it.  Specifically he needs to decide whether he’s willing to alienate himself from his family in order to date outside of the traditions of the home country, where he sees his stand-up career going, and what he really thinks about Emily now that he’s in this strange situation related to her.

Joining the movie in its second half are Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents, and the movie does a pretty good job of making these two rather average people seem both interesting and likable.   Their presence serves as something of a “what if” scenario for Nanjiani and to make him consider the implications of monogamy and what he wants for his future.  Those two kind of steal the show when they show up but Nanjiani himself is no slouch either and Kazan is believably desirable as well. All told the romantic elements of this are pretty well thought out and interesting, it’s actually the comedy elements that disappointed me a little.  The film is intermittedly funny but for something with Judd Apatow’s name on it I maybe expected something that would be a bit more consistently hilarious than what I got.  Ironically given that complaint, I could have done with less stand-up comedy as well.  I know this is depicting a reality of Nanjiani’s life when this happened to him, but I’m sick to death of these insidery indie movies about struggling stand-up comedians and I just kind of wish they had turned that into some other career ambition.  Really there’s a lot of “autobiographical indie comedy” syndrome going on here and that’s not really a genre I tend to get too excited about unless it just so happens to hit me in just the right way.  It’s certainly an enjoyable little movie but is it one for the ages?  Maybe not, but it’s certainly worth a rental.

*** out of Five