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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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.

Irrational Man

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Woody Allen makes no secret of the famous literary work most influential in the writing of his screenplay for Irrational Man (2015). Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is sighted and cited in this enjoyably tension-free drama of a philosophy professor filled to the brim with ideas but no longer a zest for life itself. Trapped in a vault of dark contemplation from which even his physical comfort in liberal sexual relations has been short-circuited by his malaise of despair, Abe (Joaquin Phoenix), enters a new university – with each fresh residency his reputation precedes him with even loftier notions of – and the circuit of a curious student, Jill (Emma Stone), who quickly becomes unhealthily obsessed with him. An unquenchable thirst for knowledge and experience – in direct contrast to that provided by her squeaky clean boyfriend Roy (Jamie Blackley) who wears her gifted sweater as a badge of honour and wholesomeness – soon turns to romantic delusions of her compatibility to Abe. This is further reinforced the deeper she probes, uncovering a circuitous torture of dissatisfaction and apathy that she’d love to correct with the alluring distractions of her youthful presence.

In the spirit of Dostoyevsky’s classic however, it’s contemplation of the murder of a life that contributes nothing useful to the world that kick-starts the fire in Abe’s belly. Suddenly he becomes enamoured with life’s renewed possibilities, the thought of eliminating a negative force for the betterment of the world, in this case a pitiless judge whose prejudicial behaviour has ruined the life of a mother seeking fair play in retaining custody of her children. Abe is alerted to the judge’s existence by an overheard conversation in a diner and the path is set for a perfect crime to be plotted and executed. All sorts of moral boundaries are examined and cross-examined and if Allen’s digressions are camouflaged in blackly humorous asides, there’s enough seriousness here to provoke thought as the crime exposes, as it inevitably must do, a series of playfully dangerous options for the cocky, renewed Abe.

Will he confess in the manor of Dostoyevsky’s tortured Raskolnikov? Will the sly dispatching of the judge be the beginning of a murderous spree that strengthens him physically and restore his mental balance? Or will his new found expression of joy for living be only momentary as he’s undone by hubris like countless perpetrators before him? With its hilariously tasty final twist, Irrational Man stands as a strong addition to Allen’s filmography. Though it’s not in the same class as his recent creative high points, Midnight in Paris (2011) and Blue Jasmine (2013), it does straddle a too rarely inhabited middle ground of quality, in so doing helping to erase memories of the director’s recent diabolical flops like You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) and the especially awful When in Rome (2012).

As usual, Allen’s casting is spot on, with Phoenix in fine form as the unhurried, laid-back Abe whose apathy seems to be more characteristic of the actor’s process with his very idiosyncratic line-recitations. Few performers, it seems, are capable of providing such a strange but utterly compelling mix of inward-gazing intensity with a cheerless playfulness that only reinforces the inscrutability around his character. The sparky Stone holds her own and even if her performance doesn’t require her to stretch in the way Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu asked her to in Birdman (2014), there’s nothing left hanging in her credible portrayal of the smitten Jill. Parker Posey has a juicy role as a fellow faculty member who unsubtly attempts to bed Abe from the moment he arrives to escape her own failing marriage, whilst the rest of the supporting players form a steady wall of secondary support.