Battle of the Sexes


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.


The Infiltrator


The torturous plight of undercover workers constitutes an increasingly stale sub-genre of its own. Cinema is littered with dramas depicted police offices or special agents burrowing deep behind enemy lines to gain and then betray the trust of unconscionable criminals, all the while surrendering their domestic lives to the dogs as an inevitable payoff. Thankfully, Brad Furman’s The Infiltrator proves to be a cut above the competition in this crowded field. Adapted from former Customs agent Robert Mazur’s book about his 80’s exploits posing as a businessman attempting to gain access to the top financiers a level below the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, Furman’s film is stacked with credible layers whilst boasting a slick, high-gloss aesthetic, an economical screenplay – by partner Ellen Brown Furman – and a brilliantly chosen cast led by the imposing Bryan Cranston as Mazur.

In the film’s opening sequence we get a glimpse of the agent at work, easily able to immerse and ingratiate himself into an inner circle of lowlifes. But when the war on drugs requires a radical escalation, Mazur is chosen by his superior Bonni Tischler (a bland, wasted Amy Ryan) to weasel his way into the outer circle of narcotics players. Assuming the alias Bob Musella, he reluctantly takes on fellow agent Emir Abreu (John Leguizamo) as his partner and co-conspirator in attempting to gain traction with the money men whilst climbing the step ladder to the vicinity of Escobar’s lair.

The film’s more generically captured family dynamics, namely the strain placed on Mazur’s marriage to Evelyn – wonderfully underplayed with an increasing apathy by Juliet Aubrey – tilt The Infiltrator into familiar territory but the film’s striking visual texture has a genuine magnetism about it. The crisp cinematography by Joshua Reis, who uses coloured lighting in a manner reminiscent of some of Steven Soderbergh’s best work, gives the film a richly enhanced visual exoticism whilst never betraying Furman’s credible re-creation of time and place.

The exceptional support players complement Cranston brilliantly, especially Benjamin Bratt as Escobar’s charismatic underling Roberto Alcaino who is utterly convinced by Mazur’s act. The two become very close and the genuine mutual respect shared by the pair has us almost dreading that the deferred moment of come-uppance will arrive with a strangely bittersweet charge. Most memorable of the criminal faction is Yul Vazquez’s hilariously eccentric Javier Espina who more than once rattles Mazur with his untoward attentions. The always entertaining Leguizamo tears it up as the mouthy, rabid dog Abreu whose alignment with the white hats is, nonetheless, never under scrutiny. Diane Kruger also makes a noteworthy contribution as the agent drafted to take part in the ruse as Musella’s fiancée, whose convincing role-playing becomes just as crucial to getting a result as Mazur’s dynamic wheeling and dealing.

With his latest film, Furman makes a lie of any notion of him being a one-hit wonder after his superb Michael Connelly adaptation The Lincoln Lawyer back in 2011. He most recently made the bland Runner Runner (2013) which went down that most hopeless of routes, trying to convince audiences that Justin Timberlake can strike a single credible chord as a dramatic actor. Though The Infiltrator looks great, it avoids being tainted by commercial-minded approach. Flawless cast aside, it has humour, grit, complexity and integrity and even when delving into familiar places, it manages to mostly put an entertaining and interesting spin on the material.


Miles Ahead



Clearly a labour of love for director Don Cheadle, Miles Ahead (2016) paints a portrait in miniature but still manages to capture the indomitable spirit of legendary jazz artist Miles Davis. Cheadle’s own portrayal of a man he feels feted to play is remarkably controlled, capturing – through different time periods – both the suave confidence of an artist at his peak and the vulnerabilities and insecurities that ultimately savaged his relationship with love of his life Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi).

Cheadle’s treatment of Davis’s legacy, achieved in consultation with many of the jazzman’s relatives and co-written with Steven Baigelman, has been brilliantly conceived. Rather than settle on a traditional biopic with all its attendant creative traps and pitfalls, Cheadle has gone for an uncompromising, at times almost avant-garde approach in which a mostly fictional central scenario from 1980 is surrounded by non-linear vignettes from Davis’s past. At this point in time he’s a washed-out, haunted figure, holed up in a New York apartment, having gone to ground whilst leaving little clues behind for his devotees in their search for the cause of his five year long creative drought.

Using the fictional creation of a relentless journalist (Ewan McGregor’s Dave Brill) attempting to get close to his subject, the film dabbles with elements of a crime thriller. A series of flashy, energetic scenes are interwoven into the narrative as a sought after new recording by Davis becomes a bone of contention between him, his studio and others all trying to get their hands on it for profit. Guns are fired, a car chase ensues, but through it all Davis remains calculatingly cool and threatening.

Slowly the flashbacks bleed into the present, both informing and reshaping our opinion of Davis the man and artist after this intriguing creative standstill. Like so many creative types he’s a prickly, difficult character but admirably upfront and candidly blunt. Cheadle’s exemplarily attuned performance, in which he gets the vocal and physical traits of the man down pat, is simply outstanding.

Somehow the swirling narrative of Miles Ahead coheres like a bruised, dreamy jazz riff. The essence of Davis is captured without betraying glimpses of his genius but, conversely, not with so much reverence that the darker underlying streaks of his nature are camouflaged. In Cheadle’s more than capable hands, the rawness of Davis’s attitudes to authority, his demeanour and his ability to polarise is uncompromised.

Despite his self-destructive tendencies – another convenient cliché that’s given fresh and tender sidebars to make it feel as though conflicting instincts are being given interesting perspective – Davis is endearingly flawed. His relationship with Frances is tender and rich with both delicate and indelicate nuances. Cheadle’s greatest feat, for me, is being able to sift through the wealth of material at his disposal and, with great economy, reduce the couple’s love to its qualifying essence in the way it is shaped, supported and, finally, irrevocably harmed by Davis.



Director Brian Helgeland’s Legend presents a sweeping and entertaining if mostly frivolous recreation of the Kray brothers’ reign of terror on the streets of London in the 60’s. We see the twins, both portrayed by Tom Hardy – in what is a remarkable pair of performances – as possessing a number of contradictory aspects though the overall effect is distancing, not to mention misleading in attempting to roughly humanise men whose criminal endeavours were unconscionably marked by ruthlessness and brutality.

Hardy is the film’s obvious trump card; through it all, he brings an astonishing level of commitment to rendering the brothers with detail that Helgeland’s screenplay, superficially, doesn’t come close to providing. So much of what Hardy brings to these roles won’t be found on the page: the fluid, unpredictable demeanour of the Krays, their physical traits, their inflections of speech. Whilst expanding their influence on the city’s criminal underbelly, Reggie, the brainier of the pair and a ladies man, attempts to win the heart of the winsome Frances (Emily Browning), the younger sister of one of his henchmen. Ronnie on the other hand is openly gay and prone to rashness in his decision making, especially when his sibling isn’t around to keep him centred.

Helgeland has a less spotty record as a screenwriter than as, more recently, a director. His adaptations of heavyweight crime novels L.A. Confidential (1997) and Mystic River (2003) were first rate. But, behind the camera, his Point Blank (1967) remake and directorial debut Payback (1999) proved to be a botch job, whilst the over-the-top, speciously anachronistic A Knight’s Tale (2001) was close to unwatchable. On a positive note, Legend is eminently watchable right from the start even if it’s hard to take seriously. It seems to be have been deliberately crafted to fill some uncomfortable middle ground – neither a gritty, detailed biopic, hard-nosed drama, nor excessive black comedy but rather sitting somewhere uncomfortably in between.

All three aspects are served, though the comedic bent is the far more pervasive. This fact tends to cheapen a film that’s predominantly stripped of meaning without any strict adherence to a framework of intricately detailed facts. A succession of clichéd, generally awful songs from the era also kills the film’s more serious intents. Helgeland has never been a fan of subtlety and rather than sparingly use source music for genuine impact, the drenching effect only dilutes and compromises the excellent score by Carter Burwell.

In what marks a new adult dimension to her career, Browning is luminous as the fatefully betrothed Frances, whilst a strong supporting cast provide the background ensemble with all the necessary muscle, vacuity and believable accents. Yet they’re all subservient to Hardy, naturally enough, an actor whose range knows no bounds whether playing broadly identifiable, homegrown British characters like the Krays or slipping effortlessly into American roles. It’s a shame then that, despite its entertainment value, there hasn’t been a better attempt by Helgeland to provide real insight or psychological depth to his regurgitation of this infamous duo. Thus, Legend (2015), with its frustratingly conflicting tones, is unlikely to be remembered for much else other than as a future reference for Hardy completists.

Straight Outta Compton


More flashy portrait than in-depth chronicle, F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton (2015) is an easy-to-digest, colourful retelling of the meteoric rise of rap pioneers N.W.A.. With their in-your-face lyrical style – explicit, crude and yet pulsing with a street-earned erudition – they quickly forged a reputation for tackling societal ills from an authentic out-of-the-projects perspective. Brandishing a fearless, brutally defiant tone, their music instantly struck a chord with a black population simultaneously yearning for a legitimate voice to call their own and disillusioned by the ongoing abuses of authority from police and lawmakers.

The impression here is often of success more accidental than by design but N.W.A. were to become an unstoppable force. Not inclined to look back or stop and smell the roses, they rode a wave of euphoria, gathering force like a rolling stone as they traversed the States, the urgency of their words striking home like an onslaught of spoken-word bullets. Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) initially acts as their spiritual leader, the one leading negotiations with a manager, Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), hungering for a new hot act to track back into the big-time.

The danger signs were there from the outset in terms of the band leaving themselves open to exploitation but N.W.A.’s rationale was simply to seize the moment, to galvanise the population in aligning with their cause. None of the other band members, including Ice Cube (played by his real son, O’Shea Jackson Jr.) or Dr.Dre (Corey Hawkins) – or the sidelined, less substantial MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) – possessed any real aptitude for the financial side of the business, it seems, and this eventually contributes to a splintering of the group as Cube firstly, senses that he’s been duped and heads off into the sunset in search of a solo career.

The progression of the film feels mightily commercial in stringing together the main beats of the band’s trajectory through waves of ecstasy, turmoil and revival. There’s a distinct impression of the grittily forged details and subtleties being avoided or necessarily overlooked for the sake of pacing. In this regard, Gray certainly manages to work some kind of elusive magic with the whole journey never flagging in interest even as it stretches out to nearly 150 minutes.

This band-sanctioned retelling of events naturally comes with a few caveats attached: certainly there’s undeniable veracity to be explored through each surviving member’s insights into real events. Yet, conversely, you sense the effect of them being able to wield just as much authority in the writing and editing process, conveniently omitting salacious, less savoury aspects of their lives – which is, apparently, the case if even a cursory on-line investigation is anything to judge by.

All the performers are excellent, with Mitchell a knockout as the undersized Eazy-E, able to project authority and prove his credentials with the force of his personality. Hawkins is just as fine as the always rational Dre, whilst Jackson Jr. is particularly effective in mimicking the surly disposition that his father seems to have been born with. Straight Outta Compton does a brilliant job of tapping into the feel and energy of a seminal musical act and the momentum they created during a very specific place in time. It may not amount to a deep exploration of its subjects but it’s an undeniably fast-paced, often absurdly entertaining one.