Battle of the Sexes (2017)

Battle_of_the_Sexes_(film).pngEmma Stone portraying Billie Jean King was an idea that I had never entertained before but there’s a certain resilience to her coupled with that winsome go-getter attitude which shines through her brunette locks and iconic frames. Simultaneously Steve Carell feels like just about the perfect person to embody Bobby Riggs a man I know very little about thanks only to hearsay and one caricature of a performance on The Odd Couple. Admittedly that’s not a lot to go on but Carell’s comedic background does it justice.

However, despite enjoying Battle of the Sexes thanks to its leads and it’s subject matter, there’s still something inside of me that can’t help but desire a documentary instead. Because it’s one thing for a film to graft in references to the cultural moment and quite another to be a cultural phenomenon in itself.

The Battle of The Sexes between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs was that type of event being televised and publicized like nothing before it in professional tennis. In the film, we have moments like Howard Cosell delivering coverage with Natalie Morales edited in. The lines between the real and the fictitious are so closely tied together.

It’s all so well documented. Billie Jean King is still with us and it seems more ripe for documentation than a dramatized biopic because with such a project there’s a questioning of how the story is being framed. Have certain things been repurposed or reimagined or are the majority of the facts delivered to us as they originally were?

For instance, it’s easy to read the relationship of Billie Jean King and Margaret Court through the lens of the present day and where they fall across the social spectrum now. Would that have been so cut and dry in 1973? I don’t know.

However, what is undeniable are the statements made by the likes of Rosie Grier and Ricardo Montalban commenting on the match. Those things particularly interested me because the words were pulled directly from the moment they came out of. They are as close to reality as we can get.

As a young boy, I had enough wherewithal to know about this event but the gravity of the moment never hit me until years later because I could not quite comprehend why it mattered. It was just one of the greatest tennis players in the world facing off against some old guy who used to play tennis.

Perhaps that might be selling Bobby Riggs a bit short because though he was in his 50s, he was already a member of the tennis hall of fame and won quite a few majors in his prime. But that completely misses the point of the argument.

As put so crucially by Billie Jean in the film, she was never trying to prove that women were better at tennis than men or even equals necessarily. What she was trying to show was that they deserved the serious respect and attention paid their male counterparts.

Because the inequality of pay alone seemed ludicrous given the number of ticket sales for both circuits. Billie Jean King had pioneered a new Woman’s Tennis League in protest only to be pushed out of the Lawn Tennis Association for those very reasons. The old guard represented by Jack Kramer was not yet ready to concede women’s tennis as a major draw and Billie Jean and the rest of her contemporaries were fighting up an uphill battle. They needed a major victory to turn the tides.

The stage had been set with Court, another preeminent star, getting fairly trounced by Riggs on Mother’s Day. It all but confirmed Riggs continued assertion that men were the dominant sex.

You could make the case that Billie Jean King was hardly just doing battle against Riggs because he was simply a gambler, a showman, and a clown who made the event into a media circus. It was the majority that sided with him that she was after. The men who would never concede that women deserved to be thought of in more multidimensional terms than housewives and marital companions. They could play tennis too and play it well.

So in its most gratifying moments, Battle of the Sexes suggests the import of what Billie Jean King accomplished for the sport of tennis turning the final match into a true cinematic showdown between Riggs and King. A singular event that has so much riding on it. Thus, I’m less inclined to be interested when it attempts to become didactic. The history speaks for itself.

3.5/5 Stars

La La Land (2016)

La_La_Land_Poster.jpgAfter watching this film two things become astoundingly obvious. Damien Chazelle has an equally unquenchable passion for film and for jazz. He’s also extremely bold, going all the way when it comes to choices as a director with everything from camera set-ups, lighting, staging, even casting. In fact, let’s start right there.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling do not initially pop as performers. They’re not song and dance entertainers equal to the likes of Astaire & Rogers or Gene Kelly or Judy Garland. There’s no contest. But the brilliance of this decision is the very fact that these two beloved stars are one of the few remnants of the bygone Hollywood era where romantic stars were paired up together for more than one movie. Bogey & Bacall, Tracy & Hepburn, Loy & Powell, yes even Fred & Ginger.

And in a generation that’s often lacking that kind of history, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling still have a bit of that cinematic romance tying them together not just in one film but in multiple allowing the audience an even greater connection with them.

It makes the musical thoroughly modern and yet most certainly takes cues from the past and the rich tradition that it was born out of. The film’s knockout opening sequence is a far grander more audacious riff off of The Young Girls of Rochefort’ while the film’s ending reflects Chazelle’s deep affection for Umbrellas of Cherbourg wedded with the fantasy scapes of An American in Paris.

But sandwiched in between those obvious touchstones is a film that’s at moments mesmerizing, beautiful, and engaging on its own merits. Chazelle’s sheer boldness behind the camera is thoroughly impressive because he commits to telling his story in the most extraordinary way possible. It dares to dream, succumbing to the glories of the movie musical, taking risks that generally pay off in a big way. Like Jacque Demy he plants his film in the real world, in this case, contemporary Los Angeles, but he also stylizes it through elements such as production design, color, and lighting.

Beginning with the extended artistry of the initial traffic number, cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s camera is about as fluid as they come, even overtly so, bringing such attention to itself that in many respects it becomes another figure, shaping how we view every one of these environments. Its conspicuous ways generally help to turn dance sequences and musical numbers into dynamic spectacles but there are individual moments where we might still question if a more static perspective is in order.

Still, it’s easy enough to disregard this as the camera is constantly casting its gaze on the world painted with the vibrant tones that brighten Los Angeles and allow it to enter a stylized awe-evoking state of eye-popping energy. Likewise, the storyline mixes and matches real-life locales with the artistic and the magical. It succeeds in becoming a diverse patchwork of lights and staging that sets the tone for every moment our stars are on the screen as everything from the backdrops to the very clothing that the actors wear is an extension of their current state.

Emma Stone is a real winner, genuinely hilarious and cute while still being overwhelmingly compelling as she struggles through her acting career balancing her “real job” as a barista with her true aspirations as an actress. And to his credit, although I wasn’t all that sure about Ryan Gosling in this film, with Stone by his side somehow it works rather magically superseding any other objection we might have about his performance. Like Astaire & Rogers, the song and dance routines become the galvanizing moments in the film as they should be. True, they hardly have the same caliber but their chemistry is what it holds it all together.

The minor influences of The Band Wagon can also be seen when they dance together in the night air overlooking Los Angeles. Meanwhile there gravity-defying routine at Griffith Observatory leaves behind simple references to Rebel Without a Cause and becomes its own spectacle entirely.

In all the other nooks and crannies you see the affection for film. The Killers poster on the wall, Ingrid Bergman’s face plastered up in the bedroom, and movie nights watching Bringing up Baby and Notorious with Grandma. But that’s only matched by the infatuation with jazz that similarly surges through the narrative. In this case, Sebastian is the vehicle for this passion. As far as criticisms the only one that I have heard voiced and I too can call into question is the very fact that a Caucasian male wants to resurrect jazz in its purest sense.

If nothing else it’s highly ironic because tradition says that this is an African-American art founded in those roots. That’s not to say that others cannot take the mantle necessarily but in some ways, Sebastian seems to think that people like Keith (John Legend) have sold out on their culture. I suppose that issue is still up for debate long after the credits roll.

Although “City of Stars” might be the most noted number developed by Justin Hurtwitz and Chazelle for this film, I must admit my personal favorite had to be “Audition” because Emma Stone delivers the song with such an earnestness that it’s mesmerizing to watch as all else disappears and we are left to watch her sing in empty space. Perhaps the film is often lacking the minimalistic moments and the juxtaposition of a scene such as this becomes especially striking. It’s so simple.

The final question to be asked is, what is La La Land or closer yet, what is Chazelle trying to say about fame and pursuing your dreams? Because in the end, it feels like a mixed message. The film is constantly a seesaw back and forth of following your passion, versus just making ends meet, to selling out or turning to alternative paths entirely. And when it’s all said and done and the movie has wrapped up we don’t know quite what we think.

We leave both characters in a place where they are undoubtedly better off than we found them in some respects. Still, there’s a wistfulness that hangs in the air, a bittersweet quality that lingers a moment longer and that gives La La Land a certain power that feels more complex than a simple musical fairy tale. That is yet another thing Chazelle borrows from Demy that works so well.

In some ways, it’s a very “un-Hollywood” ending and though the film does spend a lot of its time infatuated with that very industry, that doesn’t mean it can’t still be conflicted in the same breath.  In fact, that’s probably the most honest conclusion it could have arrived at. Dreams are good, the world can be a magical place if we let it be, but that does not mean for one instant that we will not be met with heartbreak or difficulties along the way.

I found myself unconsciously asking myself, What does the title La La Land even mean? I had not fully considered the implications of the phrase. Yes, it’s having your heads in the clouds, maybe even existing in an ethereal world of fanciful dreamscapes as much as it is a moniker for those who live the Hollywood lifestyle.  And it’s in both these places where the film dwells. Partially in the magical realms of dreams but also in those extremely human moments of confusion and failure. That is La La Land in a nutshell.

4.5/5 Stars

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011)

crazystupid1Here is a film from screenwriter Dan Fogelman where Ryan Gosling acts as wingman for an estranged Steve Carell; seems like a basic enough pitch for a movie, and yet thankfully it’s not quite that simple. Early on Jacob (Gosling) implores the washed-up Cal (Carell) to lose the New Balance sneakers and drop the Gap for good. What follows is a lesson in how to be a “man again.” Also known as picking up women with new clothing, a better hairstyle, and a whole different strategy. Cal’s a man trying to step out and try new things after he found that his estranged wife of 20 years Emily (Julianne Moore) slept with another man. His understandable reaction at the time he heard the news was to jump out of a moving car. It hurt him both figuratively and literally.

So Jacob is the beginning of something new for Cal as he steps out to meet women. Some of the scenes make me want to crawl up into a ball out of the sheer awkwardness and that’s often the type of humor that Steve Carell revels in. He likes to make us squirm, and it happens on numerous occasions. He says all the wrong things at all the right times. You get the idea. But behind all this, he still has feelings for Emily, and he’s wistful in the presence of his kids. Everyone wants them to get back together. However, he’s not the only one facing romantic issues as his son Robbie and wing man Jacob soon have their own problems. Emily must figure out what she wants and up and coming lawyer Hannah (Emma Stone) must figure what is the best for her.

crazystupid2As for Cal, he attends a Parent Teacher Night to end all Parent Teachers Nights and it has to be the worst circumstances you could ever imagine. It gets uncomfortable quick as he learns who his son’s teacher is. I’ll spare you the details. Then there’s a  greatly hilarious twist that hits after all the primary cast find themselves in Emily’s backyard having a few unpleasant revelations. But the film doesn’t end there since the journeys of these characters have a little farther to go yet. They have to find themselves, navigating this crazy, and yes, maybe even a little stupid thing we know as love.

I must admit I like these guys in spite of those pick up lines (Lets get out of here) and attempts at romancing, because that stuff makes funny material for a film and we get some genuine laughs out of it, but it’s when we tear that down for a moment and look underneath all of that. That’s where we find true heart.crazystupid3Most of these characters are well-meaning and likable and with those who aren’t, it’s forgivable, because they are necessary for the film’s humor initially. Namely Ryan Gosling and Liza Lapira, who always seem ready with a quip or maybe a one night stand with an obliging member of the opposite sex. The movie needs these characters I suppose since for starters it’s Jacob who helps Cal find a different side of himself. Liz who goads her friend Hannah to take a chance which she finally capitalizes on. But in truth, most all of these main players have a sense of humanity about them, mixed in with their faults and failures. Cal was once a good father and now he’s made a lot of mistakes. Jacob is a total womanizer, but when he cares about people he really does. He loses all the false pretense about him. Ironically, Cal changes Jacob as much or perhaps more so than Jacob changes him, which is important in the evolution of this film. They teach each other and in turn help each other move forward.

Even the teenagers Robbie (Jonah Bobo) and Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) may have misguided affections in a sense, but we cannot help to empathize with them in their innocence. They’re young and in love and they don’t really know what that means. Very few of us probably do. Whether it’s finding “The One” or discovering your soulmate or not, it’s easy to forgive Crazy, Stupid, Love for its conclusions which might feel a tad cliche and bright. Just this one time, because these are characters who we don’t mind giving a happy ending to.

3.5/5 Stars

Birdman (2014)

Birdman_posterIn the opening shot, a man is in his tidy-whities levitating in midair. This is one of those films that can never be figured out completely or never fully dissected in its entirety. It’s a meta film on a whole lot of levels. You could say that Michael Keaton is playing a version of himself named Riggan Thomson. He used to be a superstar in the popular superhero series Birdman. That ended back in 1992. Now he’s old and washed up attempting to revive himself in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver play. Robert Downey Jr. is the guy with the type of box office draw that he used to have.  He is constantly fighting his own inner demons that play like the voice of the Birdman in his head. The character he used to be is so closely tied to his identity that Riggan has trouble getting away from it.

The film follows the loss of one of their lead actors to an accident, and there is a rush to find someone else before their first preview showing. They want Michael Fassbender or Jeremy Renner and yet they do get lucky in Mike Shiner (Edward Shiner). However, much like Norton in real life, Shiner proves to be a handful, but also a star performer who the public love. Riggan needs him and his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) pleads with him to say with Shiner. All the previews are a disaster: Mike breaks character over some gin and he tries to have sex with actress and former lover Lesley (Naomi Watts) on stage. To add insult to injury, Riggans locks himself out of the theater and thus begins his frantic pilgrimage through Time Square in only his underwear.

birdman1Riggans wrote, directed, and acts in this play to overcompensate for all his failures. He even refinances his house to cover the cost. He’s spent. His daughter and former drug addict Sam (Emma Stone) is his assistant, and although they don’t see eye to eye, they try to be real with each other. She too is a screw-up, but she sees in him someone who confuses love for adoration. He worries about relevancy, fading away, and he is scared to death that he might not matter. In as many words, she tells him to join the club because every member of humanity has these same fears nearly every day of their existence. He is no different.

Following the final preview, critic Tabitha Dickinson says she will tear his play apart because he is one of those Hollywood celebrities masquerading as an actor. After a rough evening, the Birdman comes back to haunt him before the big opening.

Then, opening night comes and Riggan seems strangely aloof on a night with so much riding on it. He does the unthinkable when in his final scene he uses a real gun and points and fires it at himself. The crowds are as surprised as the viewer before bursting into thunderous applause. Riggan has unwittingly become a sensation on Twitter and on the theater circuit.

The story ends in the hospital with Riggan reconciling himself with his daughter Sam. It looks like it could take a fatal turn because the specter of Birdman still remains, and yet along with Sam we get to see something extraordinary, and at the same time ridiculous, happen. They don’t call him Birdman for nothing.

Birdman has received a great deal of notice for its cinematography that was spliced together to look like one continuous shot. At first, it feels a bit gimmicky watching the camera self-consciously spiral around the actors, but it slowly becomes the routine. It feels like a Goodfellas tracking shot on steroids, and it certainly hearkens back to Hitchcock’s Rope as we often find ourselves following characters from behind down hallways or going from interiors to exteriors. It’s certainly a different perspective of the world.birdman3There are moments that it looked like Edward Norton or Emma Stone might steal the show, but by the end, it is still evident that this is Michael Keaton’s film. This is a story about his struggle. This is his version of Sunset Boulevard that he must overcome. It also has an overarching blend of magic and realism that makes it hard to parse through what the true reality is. But by the end that is far from necessary, because this is a meta experience that is layered and inverted in such a way that makes it fascinating. We think we have our feet on the ground, firmly planted, but we never do, and we are never allowed to.

At times it feels rather like we are in Manet’s painting Bar at the Folies Bergere. It becomes difficult to tell if we are in the audience are simply part of the film. We lose ourselves in the metaness that acts as the thin dividing line between what is real and what is fictitious. There is a cinematic magic in that just as there is a kind of supernatural energy in Riggan Thomson himself.

However, he does not get wholly lost in that, because he is a messed-up human being like the rest of us. No matter how mystical he is, there still is an unmistakable resonance to his story. Thomson would be happy to know that he is relevant just like we are all relevant in some way, shape, or form. It’s all subjective. It just depends on who you ask or what critic says what. In reality, it doesn’t really matter a whole lot.

Honestly, it failed to hit me until afterward,  Birdman is a humorous film where the humor often gets forgotten behind the more philosophical and human aspects. There’s nothing quite like it. It takes its cues from Sunset Boulevard, Jean-Luc Godard, Dr. Strangelove, Batman and undoubtedly so much more, but it is distinctively the creation of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu.

4.5/5 Stars

Zombieland (2009)

0e860-zombieland-posterI am not big on Zombie films and so I went into this one not expecting much a great deal. I still do not really like the Zombie genre but there were some decently funny moments here having to do with the rules Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) has for surviving the apocalypse. The long lasting search for Twinkies, and of course a random cameo by a prominent funny man were a few more highlights. Woody Harrelson is good at playing the gruff type and Little Rock and Arkansas have a lot of personality which does the film a service. Remember rule #1: Cardio. Very important to survive during a zombie apocalypse if it ever comes to that.

3.5/5 Stars