Battle of the Sexes

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The stark disparity in prizemoney levels and the general public’s perception of the worth of sportswomen finally began to be addressed in the early 70’s. But it took the trailblazing efforts of one determined athlete, tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), to turn the tide, outraged by the divide between females and their male counterparts. But what she encountered was a sturdy brick wall of masculine derision when suggesting something more equitable to tournament organisers. Radical change was required and so, banding with a staunch group of like-minded female players, and led by promoter and World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman), they formed a breakaway group of renegades, determined to establish a new tour for women with benefits and rewards decided on their own terms.

Amidst this tumult and the waves it created in stirring up the male-centric establishment, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s new film, Battle of the Sexes (2017), also offers insight into the personal story and, in particular, sexual awakening of King. Despite being married to Larry (Austin Stowell), she began to experience something different, especially after the intimate, hands-on attentions of hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Such ‘morally dubious’ inclinations threatened to derail King’s credibility and she worked hard at maintaining the façade of her marriage despite everyone on tour quickly sensing that the suddenly constant lingering presence of Marilyn had deeper implications.

Battle of the Sexes is also the story of former champion and Hall-of-Famer Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) who, at 55, and making peanuts on the Seniors tour, longs for another taste of the spotlight. He’s a figure of some tragedy, seemingly determined to curate a perception of himself as a buffoon, a self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig” gently provoking opinion but mostly in the service of showmanship. Meanwhile, his marriage is teetering on the edge of a precipice. Wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) has reached a point of no longer being able to reconcile her long-term life ambitions with those of a man who she essentially loves but can no longer abide for his incessant man-child act or self-destructive ways. Carell revels in the role but at times you can’t feeling that he hijacks the character of Riggs, becoming nothing more than another annoying version of himself, only in funny glasses and a bad haircut.

The film’s most anticipated set piece, the showdown on the court between King and Riggs is authentically recreated. Every angle and politely contained rally is captured with a keen eye gazing back through the lens of time at this distinctive era. The event captured the nation’s attention, semi-serious battle lines over gender and equality drawn. In a sense Riggs is a pawn for the cause of masculine dominance and an ingrained prejudice that hoped to keep female expectations of worth suppressed. Riggs himself had little interest in the ‘issues’ beyond a generalised public stand that pitted him, comically, against ‘the other side’ and stereotypes associated with both. For Riggs, this was more about personal exposure, stirring the pot and making money to cover and fund his ever-spiralling gambling addiction. Inspired by Riggs and his ‘free-for-all’ attitude to generating maximum exposure, the organisers ran wild with the concept Riggs. The whole thing, subsequently, became – quite literally in many senses – a rollicking circus with a colourful cavalcade of pre-match ‘entertainment’ more befitting something usually seen on the midway.

Composer Nicholas Britell, who earned an Oscar nomination last year for his work on Moonlight (2016), has again composed a first-rate work that uses a triumphant main theme to sustain some lengthy sequences. Especially brilliant is the way he scores the ebb and flow of the King/Riggs showdown. The contribution of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy – an Oscar winner for his Slumdog Millionaire (2008) adaptation – is notable also; he does a very decent job of balancing the film’s serious themes with more light-hearted moments. Even if he’s only skimming the surface to ensure this exists as a slick, palatably mainstream recreation of events, there are scenes that do resonate with emotional truth, including contrasting post-match reflections that are affectingly bittersweet in their conclusions. King remains an important figure today, not only in terms of sporting achievement, but for her ground-breaking work in expanded the consciousness of women and redefining their rightful yearning for an equal playing field and equal reward.

 

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Heal the Living

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The strangest paradox of Katell Quillevere’s third film is that although it’s involving, moving and deeply humane, it isn’t really an actor’s showcase. Somewhat diluted by a fragmentation that allows the director to tell multiple connected tales, Heal the Living (2016) ends up becoming the sum of its parts, none of which express any great depth of characterisation. And yet, handled with finesse and restraint, it still proves to be genuinely affecting. It begins with the tale of Simon, a 17 year old boy whose drive home from a surfing session with two friends turns to tragedy. Fatigued by their time in the relentless ocean, they all succumb to drowsiness in the car. Quillivere’s choice of representing the moments before the crash is ingenious in its simplicity: Simon’s friend, slowly losing consciousness at the wheel sees the road ahead dissolving into an ocean surface with the oncoming tidal wave representative of the fateful moment of impact to come. We don’t see any actual contact but feel the brunt of it just as forcefully in our overly-sparked mind’s eye.

Simon’s friends are badly injured but will survive, it seems. He isn’t so fortunate, left brain dead, with his two mortified parents, Marianne (Emmanuelle Seigner) and Vincent (a mediocre Kool Shen), naturally struggling to process the shock and awe. Two doctors, Pierre Revol (Bouli Lanners) and Thomas Remige (Tahar Rahim) inform the separated couple of the option of Simon becoming an organ donor. Though initially resistant, they eventually change their minds and the film then shifts focus to breathing life into the story of a middle-aged woman, Claire Mejean (Anne Dorval) with a degenerative heart disease, desperately in need of a transplant.

There are nicely judged moments throughout and great conviction in the performances. Seigner is particularly good but she’s forced to portray grief alone, giving her very little room to express range of any sort. The always wonderful Dorval – so astonishing in many of Xavier Dolan’s films – fares best. Lighter scenes with her two sons – one overly intense, the other a jokester – such as a night spent together on the couch watching and light-heartedly ridiculing Spielberg’s E.T (1982), are contrasted with her tender reconnection with her former younger lover, Anne (Alice Taglioni), a concert pianist who was unaware of her condition. A couple of their all-too brief scenes are sensitively handled but once more, don’t extend into anything remarkable as the narrative breaks off towards the journey of Simon’s heart. The countdown culminates with real footage of a heart being surgically extracted from a body and transplanted into another, giving it a remarkable point of difference if nothing else for those with a suitably strong stomach.

Composer Alexandre Desplat is given half a dozen moments to shine and he produces the goods with a sparesly utilised but classy score. Two wonderful piano-led themes are used at various times to heighten the emotional essence that informs fleeting glimpses of Simon’s too-brief life, including his first meeting with girlfriend. Though concerned with forging humanistic portraits, Heal the Living might be considered both underwhelming and gently persuasive. Again, there are strange paradoxes at work in the creation of a film with both a literal and figurative beating heart that makes us all feel a little more secure in our perception of the species.

Wind River

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Given another shot at the director’s chair after the critical acclaim lavished upon his first two produced screenplays, Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016), former actor Taylor Sheridan confirms his success has been no fluke. His second turn behind the camera, after obscure 2011 horror film Vile, shows him to be no slouch in terms of handling the demands of his narrative and actors. Wind River (2017) proves to be another impressive screenplay. Set in the blighted snowy expanses of Wyoming, it is, superficially, a murder mystery but as it unravels the strength of characterisation comes to the fore, especially in the form of lead character Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a Wildlife and Fisheries officer and local tracker who knows the dimensions and layout of the surrounding landscape like the back of his hand. Cory is a haunted man however, having being visited by tragedy of the worst sort in the not too distant past. The daughter he shared with estranged Indian partner Wilma (Julia Jones) was taken from him in terrible circumstances.

The discovery of a young Indian girl, Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille), on the outskirts of the ‘Wind River’ reservation in the film’s opening sends shockwaves through him though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from reading external indicators. Cory’s a classic figure of a mythologised West, the impenetrable, strong silent type who observes constantly but speaks only out of necessity. He’s a model of constraint, a man who internalises and compartmentalises his pain and angst to save face and allow him a reluctant reconciliation with the wider world. He is, then, not a naturally compatible partner for the young FBI agent, Jane Bremmer (Elizabeth Olsen), drafted in to oversee the case and make a determination about murder. Together they dig into possible leads, with Jane utilising Cory’s intimate, detailed knowledge of both the environment and the wild assortment of people who call it home at every turn to uncover clues from beneath every overturned rock. What she finds is a world apart from her own big city life, one immersed in a doom-laden fog from which an unpredictable enemy might emerge at any time.

Sheridan’s screenplay includes a couple of fine set-pieces, including an explosive early confrontation with one group of suspects and another suspenseful sequence which involves a trawl through the snow with local enforcement officers and a band of men who they naturally distrust. It’s this latter scene which trips the film into an electrifying and brutal flashback sequence through which all the film’s lingering mysteries are filtered. Despite the mystery taking precedence, Sheridan is able to poignantly and effectively address other issues. On a broader level Wind River provides sobering insights into the poisonous malaise laying over this place like a fresh coating of snow in the form of a senses-dulling inertia and dead-end hard-scrabble lives – mostly Native American – robbed of direction, motivation or even a flicker of comprehension.

It’s this saturating helplessness and the wavering moral boundaries it generates that sit in stark contrast to the intrinsic strength of Cory’s character. Though enigmatic, he’s highly empathetic, a fact which doesn’t discount his flaws. If anything it accentuates his humanity, his integrity, and the depth of his losses, including his daughter and his marriage. But despite everything it’s the innate ability he retains to feel and console the pain of others like his friend, Natalie’s grieving father Martin (the wonderful Gil Birmingham) that we admire.

With Cory, Renner has been given his finest role since Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2008) the film that hurtled him into the spotlight and has led, mostly, to high-profile but empty roles in big-budget fare. He’s magnificently understated, bringing an impressive level of stillness and thoughtful consideration to nearly every scene. that might otherwise have seen overblown emotional reactions and chaos as a more appropriate response to the turbulence. Equal credit must be given to Sheridan too, of course, for the exceptional quality of performances he’s extracted from all his cast members, including Olsen as the fish-out-of-water agent who proves she can handle herself despite needing local intelligence to shine an investigative light down some very murky rabbit roles within the reservation.

Though the minimal, eerie textures of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s score tips over into questionably eccentric deployment on a couple of occasions, there is little else to fault in Wind River. The resolution may deny us a truly visceral sense of vengeance enacted but, on reflection, it’s perfectly weighted and consistent with all that we know of Cory. And then there’s a final scene between Cory and Martin; this too is memorable and a moving encapsulation of the film’s deeper concerns which are as much about the nature of hope and perseverance as about the eternal grip of grief and despair.

The Beguiled

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With distant sounds of artillery lingering in the air, a young Virginian girl gathering mushrooms, Amy (Oona Laurence), chances upon a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John Patrick McBurney (Colin Farrell) as the Civil War rages on. Unable to walk without assistance, he accepts the girl’s offer of medical assistance at the nearby girls Seminary. Though headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) is willing to tend to the barely conscious enemy soldier, the other females, including teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and the oldest of the students, Alicia (Elle Fanning), are concerned about being discovered harbouring an enemy soldier, regardless of the seriousness of his infirmities. McBurney’s appearance will soon set the cat amongst the pigeons, so to speak. The presence of a man is not something these women are accustomed to contemplating, especially in the intimate, strangely sensuous way as the tending of his wounds and ensuing recovery will inevitably require. Each of them, in turn, will fall under John’s spell as he regains consciousness and begins his recuperation, attempting to win favours and win a place in their lives, camouflaged from battle and returning to his duties.

The visual aloofness and emotional coldness that so often characterises Coppola’s films is kept to a minimum here and it’s a welcome evolvement in her stylistic approach after the overly self-conscious inertia of Somewhere (2010) and, later, the vacuous excess standing in for tired metaphors in the utterly redundant The Bling Ring (2013). The Beguiled (2017) conversely, is a masterfully weighted piece of storytelling and very different from Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel which featured Clint Eastwood in the role of McBurney. There is undoubted simplicity in this tale’s telling but rather than harming the overall effect, the strong foundation of engaging dialogue taken from the novel and flawless performances from this neatly assembled ensemble, have merged to produce what is an exquisite work of art.

Unlike Siegel’s version, the melodrama is admirably underplayed this time, for the most part, more in the way of Peter Weir’s Australian masterpiece Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) which Coppola seems to draw numerous inferences from in the way she informs her own film’s tone, pacing and visual conception. It’s not an insult to Weir’s film to draw comparisons either as The Beguiled equally stimulates the senses in a deliberate, slowly evolving way. No resonating intrigue sits at its heart, as in Picnic at Hanging Rock with its delicately suggested whiff of the supernatural, but the storytelling is just as exactingly realised. Coppola offers haunting images aplenty whilst skilfully appropriating the natural environment, casting occasional broader glances into the distance as the gunfire continues unabated, as well as cryptically setting her characters in the foreground against the mansion’s impressive gothic surrounds.

The performances all superbly reflect the characters’ increasingly pained constraint. Kidman and Dunst using silence and telling glances to convey the growing unease that McBurney’s mere presence provokes. Farrell is utterly unlike Eastwood but I don’t think he’s had many better roles than this, at least not in recent times. That effortless charisma and those classically sculpted Black Irish looks are exploited to full effect by Coppola. Without much of a challenge he’s able to project an aura of dangerously charged, corporeal possibilities that the more mature women are afraid to verbally contemplate and the younger girls can hardly comprehend in any rational way. This wilting influence of McBurney’s overt masculinity works as a compelling narrative device in its own right; it acts as an oppressive force that leads the women to confront pent-up emotional inhibitions and causes dangerous rifts in their cloistered, held-together version of a life constrained by the war lingering on the horizon each day. Though the ending carries with it an air of inevitability – even for those who’ve never seen Siegel’s film – there’s an impressive, haunting visual eloquence in the way Coppola draws the threads together, putting a final idiosyncratic stamp on proceedings and marking this as her finest film since Lost in Translation (2003).

La La Land

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For his follow up to the exhilarating Whiplash (2014), writer/director Damien Chazelle has turned his precocious talent to revitalising the old-school Hollywood musical with La La Land (2016). Two lives fatefully cross paths, first on a log jammed freeway and then in a bar, but aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) initially comes to the conclusion that struggling jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is an arrogant jackass. When they run into one another yet again during a party at which Sebastian is now part of an embarrassingly retro ensemble playing poolside, Mia decides to test the limits of his seemingly minimal sense of humour. Sparks fly, of course, as they later leave the party together and drift into the first of many great shared musical numbers that accompany the ups and downs of their relationship.

As one normally resistant to musicals, I found myself in a very strange and unusual place in this case, being immediately enamoured of La La Land. It proves to be an endearing, vibrantly staged and superbly choreographed gem from first scene to last. In paying homage to a near forgotten Hollywood era, Chazelle has necessarily conceded his essential narrative to a tried and true formula of forging individual identities, self-belief and searching for vindication of your own dreams but there’s a nice balance of darkness and light in the journey of Sebastian and Mia.

Gosling and Stone are perfectly matched, both on-screen and off-screen, apparently. There’s no disputing they have genuine chemistry and if Gosling’s vocal talents are a notch in quality below that of Stone’s, it never hurts the travails of their romantic union as it blossoms through exotic, quivering highs and despairing lows. Both sides of the relationship are well represented musically with Justin Hurwitz’s score, extrapolating from the many memorable tunes that form the basis of his songs co-composed with lyricists Justin Paul and Benj Pasek, breathing magical life into scenes in which Chazelle has allowed his imagination to run unchecked.

Conventional relationship arc aside, the couple’s general likeability is enhanced by some strong dialogue which elaborates, with equal measures of whimsy and seriousness, on the intoxicating power of life, art and aspirations. The obvious, easy broad appeal of La La Land will be off-putting to some but it can’t cancel out the almost guilty envelopment of bliss generated by Chazelle’s visionary cinematic sweep which so often is complemented by the dazzling gifts of emerging Swedish cinematographer Linus Sandgren. Together they have conceived a series of memorable sequences, from sumptuously staged montages, like one that culminates in a dreamy planetarium drift, to the raw emotional truthfulness that marks Mia’s most important audition, perhaps the most memorable musical high point.

Hacksaw Ridge

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Morphing from strained melodrama via disconcertingly comedic asides into one of the most stomach-churning, brutal depictions of combat ever seen on a big screen, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is a strange but potent beast. Shortcomings may dog its early going, but there’s no doubt that the elaborate staging of the assault on and attempt to wrestle command of the titled Ridge is one of the most pulsating, stirring set-pieces in cinema history. It provides an assault on the senses whilst being uncomfortably entertaining throughout.

On the downside, there are some jarring moments in the character-establishing first third of the film which begins with the childhood of Desmond Doss (Darcy Bryce) on a day when his constant play-fighting with brother Hal takes a nasty turn. The resultant serious injury that Hal suffers truly opens Desmond’s eyes up to how easy aggression can lead to dire consequences in an instant. The boys’ parents, Tom (Hugo Weaving) and Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), seem to have strayed in from a million wartime and other domestic dramas. Tom’s a former soldier himself, haunted by the loss of the friends whose graves he regularly visits to pour salt into all his old wartime wounds. A stray drop or two of alcohol also plays a part into contorting his mind with a strain of poisoned bitterness. Bertha is a commendably salt-of-the-earth type, shapeless but decent, determined to hold the family together even as the odds against it grow more imposing.

We then fast-forward to the young adulthood of Desmond (now played by Andrew Garfield) and his embarrassingly schmaltzy courtship of pretty and preposterously unattached nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). A series of scenes which are cringe-worthy for their triteness, simplicity and painful conventionality follow, before Doss almost immediately decides to follow his conscience and the lead of his brother, and enlist to become an army medic. Scenes of Doss’s time in training are treated with an equally jarring, weirdly comedic tone. The introduction of Vince Vaughn as hardnosed Sgt Howell begins a section of the film that will have you pondering a ludicrous fusion of R. Lee Ermey with Sgt. Bilko. Of course, it’s Doss’s reluctance to ever take arms that raises most controversy and almost sees him railroaded out of the army before he ever sees time on a battlefield. His religious convictions generate mistrust, anger and contempt from fellow soldiers and officers alike who are adamant that Doss will be detrimental to their cause.

But this story of Doss’s contribution to the saving of multiple lives on Hacksaw Ridge without ever firing a bullet in anger is one of remarkable heroism. The hand-to-hand warfare is portrayed with startling authenticity, initially hitting audiences like a thunderbolt of electricity and never letting up thereafter. It’s both increasingly difficult to watch or look away from as men on both sides are shot down like ducks in a shooting gallery. Gibson doesn’t shy away from showing the true horror and chaos of these insane, frenzied, fugue-like back and forths, the extreme physical effects of humans being torn apart like rag dolls shown with a horrifying clarity. But amidst the carnage, Doss reveals cunning and courage as his burrows far and wide to retrieve wounded soldiers who would otherwise have been abandoned to horrible fates, either dying in agony or delivered a fatal blow by Japanese survivors.

Rupert Gregson-Williams’s score – the best of his career – contributes another pulsating, stirring emotional subtext to what is a mesmerisingly uncomfortable snapshot of war’s paradoxical nature, bringing courage and camaraderie to the fore even as it grinds itself down to ever more unpalatable chunks of abject futility. Gibson, never a director to let an opportunity to examine the painful associations of a bloodletting influence his artistic ambitions, as Braveheart (1995), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006) can attest to, has made a ferocious contribution to the sub-genre of war cinema. With a startling lead performance from Garfield as the moralistic but resolute warrior that Doss becomes, and strong work from an ensemble amongst the military ranks (especially young Australian Luke Bracey as Smitty Ryker), Gibson has forged a tale of humanistic endeavour amidst the most inhumane conditions imaginable and it’s almost impossible to remain unmoved by this boldly cinematic tale.

 

 

 

American Honey

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As she did with Fish Task (2009), director Andrea Arnold has justifiably put her faith in a young, first time actress to encapsulate the despair, confusion and danger of a young woman escaping the world beyond her impoverished beginnings in American Honey (2016). Arnold, venturing to the U.S for the first time, has crafted a dazzling, mesmerising freeform road movie that sees a young woman, Star (Sasha Lane), living in poverty, being sexually abused and lumbered with two young children, before jumping at an opportunity to escape her life.

In her small Oklahoma town, Star spies a joker, a charismatic stranger, Jake (Shia LeBeouf), causing a stir in the parking lot of a supermarket. It’s a case of eyes meeting across a void and sensing a spark. The inevitable encounter leads to a proposition of work for Star from Jake who, with a ragtag, eclectic crew of ‘colleagues’, is heading to Kansas City the following day. Ditching her oppressive existence for the chance of a fresh start requires little deliberation and within she has dropped the young children with their natural mother and fled for the group’s hotel.

The next day, with little time to get a bearing on her new surroundings, Star is quickly indoctrinated into the fold of these magazine subscription sellers who must adopt any angle, cover story or other means of deception whilst doorknocking in affluent sections of cities to procure sales. The operation is the brainchild of Krystal (Riley Keough) who, running a tight ship whilst indulging in hedonistic activities on the side, tolerates nothing less than people who can genuinely earn their way. As the new blood, Star is assigned to Jake, Krystal’s personal assistant and top earner, for mentoring.

The chemistry between the two leads is genuine, setting off a strangely intuitive yet combative relationship that, frowned upon by Krystal, has a doomed inevitability about it. Both lead actors are nothing short of sensational. For LaBeouf this part is a gift, clearly the most interesting of his career, whilst Lane astonishes in her screen debut; she possesses an at times overwhelming physical presence and shines in many of the film’s finest sequences in which Star is seemingly placed in jeopardy as she assumes more individual responsibility for sales. Arnold’s has conceived some hypnotically terrifying moments, pregnant with dangerous possibilities and a palpable sense of Star’s vulnerability despite her bravado and willingness to take calculated risks.

Arnold continues to prove herself as a formidable talent. In the light of American Honey, her last film, a magnificent bleak skewering of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (2013) can be viewed as the next step of her radical evolution as a filmmaker unafraid of spiking convention, narrative form and visual grammar. One of the most remarkable aspects of this, her fourth feature, is her continuing collaboration with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, an equally fearless artist whose eye-popping immersion in Arnold’s world brings forceful scrutiny and a rare sense of authenticity. All the silliness, boredom-relieving silliness, idiocy, intensity and careless but genuine camaraderie shared between members of the group are captured with a purity that organically dissolves into captivating visual poetry.

American Honey is a dazzling, creatively daring film; it’s not only Arnold’s finest to date but one of the 2016’s most memorable and, sure to be, enduring cinematic achievements. Even at around 160 minutes it remarkably never feels overdrawn or bogged down in extraneous scenes for even a moment, and with a canny usage of source music, ends up creating a slew of scenes that will linger in mind for days after.