Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Battle of the Sexes



Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Natalie Morales, Eric Christian Olsen, Jessica McNamee, Fred Armisen, Chris Parnell, John C. McGinley
Running Time: 121 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

The best moment in Battle of the Sexes comes when Billie Jean King confronts Lawn Tennis Association head Jack Kramer about his plans to be in the commentary booth for her upcoming match against challenger and professional hustler Bobby Riggs. Having already been kicked off the tour for demanding women players receive equal prize money, she argues that while Riggs is entertaining the masses and raising his profile by playing an over-the-top character, the damage Kramer's inflicting with his sexist attitude is actually "real."

That meta observation isn't just true, but also conveys a certain self-awareness about the match and Riggs' place in it that the rest of the film often lacks. And that's the tough part about retroactively heaping such cultural significance on a sports event that largely revolved around laughs and entertainment. On one hand taking itself entirely seriously, while still trying to be a big joke at the same time, Battle of the Sexes is frequently a tale of two conflicting stories.

The stakes for Billie Jean were high and real as we're tirelessly reminded, but what Riggs was doing came closer to the tennis version of Andy Kaufman wrestling women. Far from a sexist pig, he was a performance artist and opportunist who happened to be really skilled at playing the role required of him. He was also a family man struggling with vices and addictions who in reality respected his top ranked female opponent. And not just as a player, but as a person. Unfortunately, the movie isn't about him. It's about King's fight for female equality, a notion the script underlines and highlights in the most heavy-handed way possible, spending nearly every scene drilling into our minds just how important it is. The problem is that no one involved knew that at the time, making the film's voice too often sound as if it's coming from 2017 instead of 1973.

Getting many important details right in its painstaking recreation of the era through costuming, production design and the casting of even the smallest roles, you want to scream in frustration that the script supporting it isn't better. This even looks like it was shot in the early seventies, containing believable tennis scenes and a lead actress who provides one of the worthier depictions of a professional player we've seen yet on screen, topped only by her better cast co-star. Of course, that's not saying much considering the sport's shoddy cinematic treatment in the past, but this was never going to be easy biographical material to adapt, as the end result shows.

It's 1972 when top-ranked women's tennis player Billie Jean King (Academy Award winner Emma Stone) and her brash manager Gladys Helman (Sarah Silverman) complain to Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman) that the women's tournament prize money is an eighth of the men's despite equal television ratings. Citing his belief that women players are physically inferior as a defense, he remains unwilling to budge on the terms, causing the women to form their own tour sponsored by Virginia Slims. Billie Jean's also going through some personal issues, coming to grips with her own homosexuality as she embarks on an an affair with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) that's soon jeopardizing her marriage to husband, Larry King (Austin Stowell).

Meanwhile, 55-year-old retired champion Bobby Riggs (Academy Award nominee Steve Carell) is struggling to keep his marriage to wealthy wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) afloat due to a gambling addiction when he suddenly gets an idea. He'll challenge the top women's player to a match, which is sure to net him tons of money and publicity, while also affirming male dominance in the sport. After initially declining, Billie Jean accepts when Riggs handily disposes of her biggest competition, the legendary Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). Both Billie Jean and Bobby begin to train, with their upcoming three out of five set match at the Houston Astrodome taking on a level of pressure and anticipation neither anticipated. And most of that pressure is on King.

One of the big surprises to be found is in the humanity both actors bring to their roles, arguably making their real-life counterparts more complicated and nuanced than they probably were. For those unsure Stone would be up to the rigors of accurately depicting one of the greatest tennis players of all-time of any gender, she clearly got into the shape necessary for the part and looks and carries herself like a top athlete would. And whatever photographic tricks they may have used in the playing scenes worked since there's rarely an awkward moment when she has a racquet in her hand, which is kind of a shock.

It's almost beside the point how well Stone actually captures Billie Jean King the person, since this is about as close as it gets to an uncastable role. No one really looks like her, whoever they get will be accused of being too "pretty," and they'll have somehow work around the chosen actress' lack of experience in the sport. Emma certainly has all those things working against her, but somewhat overcomes them by zeroing in on King's determined spunk and spirit, which are qualities the actress never had problems conveying. In fact, if you had told me going in that Stone would be more believable as a top tennis player than a semi-closeted lesbian, there's no chance I'd believe it. But that's exactly how it comes across, no thanks to some writing that makes her and Riseborough's job considerably more difficult.

Simon Beoufoy's script paints Billie Jean's relationship with Marilyn in the broadest strokes possible, as most of their scenes together feature dialogue exchanges that are downright cringeworthy in their obviousness. While King's sexual preference was tennis' biggest open secret and undoubtedly needs inclusion in any accurate depiction of her life, Dayton and Faris seem to be going out of their way to prove they're not afraid to tackle it. We're reminded almost as frequently that she's living a "shameful" double life as we are that women are viewed as socially and genetically inferior to men. No one's doubting this all happened, but being "reminded" in this film most definitely means being told over and over again, rather than necessarily shown.

What the movie does handle well is Billie Jean's husband Larry's defeated but begrudgingly supportive reaction to all this, as he loyally stands by his wife as she carries on an affair with another woman, knowing that any public confirmation of it will crush her image and career. The sight of Larry, slinking down the hotel hallway back to his own room in what looks like a familiar walk of shame says it all. He's always known.        

Everything involving Bobby Riggs is fantastic, mainly due to Carell's deceptively complex comedic performance, which sees him cleverly sidestepping the easy temptation of playing him as a buffoonish clown. The former doubles champ was no dummy and saw the dollar signs in challenging King and what that eventual showdown would mean for him and the sport. As an entertainer, he just "gets it", knowing he had to further amplify his larger-than-life persona to make this character work, regardless of the controversy it would spark. He provided the necessary contrast to Billie Jean, who took herself so seriously that she'd be easy for him to rattle, and for fans to rally behind.  He was also the Pete Rose of tennis in how his gambling addiction nearly overshadowed anything he did on the court. Well, except this.

In one of the film's funniest scenes, Riggs enters a "Gambler's Anonymous" meeting, loudly announcing that their real problem isn't that they gamble, but that they're simply no good at it. Scenes like these are juxtaposed with quieter ones of real regret as he laments that he can't be a better husband. Carell's so good at conveying that none of Riggs' many promises are empty, just simply impossible for him to keep because of who he is. His eventually estranged wife, well played by Elisabeth Shue, does accept that while he'll never be a dependable spouse, he's still a good father to their young son, Bobby Jr. (scene-stealing Cooper Friedman) despite his obvious character flaws.

If Billie Jean's story too often unironically plays as a public service announcement for women's rights, Riggs' carries no such agenda or baggage, and feels more real as a result. A dead ringer for the role physically, Carell goes so far as to capture Bobby's tiniest and strangest idiosyncrasies, in many ways making for a better Bobby Riggs than the man himself.

The primary concern going into this was just how much creative license it would take to believably pull off the big match and have it not look completely ridiculous. For those cringing at the thought of these two actors having to at least minimally recreate a top level tennis match, there's some good news in that it's match from over thirty years ago from which there's plenty of archival footage to draw.

The slower pace, a retro-looking TV feed and what would now be considered archaic equipment help in making what we see on screen appear no better or worse than what likely occurred. At points, it even looks like they slide in clips from the actual match, which is pretty clever. A dripping wet Riggs' refusal to take off his "Sugar Daddy" sponsored warm-up jacket despite looking ready to collapse of heat exhaustion is almost too perfect a metaphor. Except for the fact that it really happened. He does eventually take it off, before losing a little later.

Whether or not Riggs actually "lost" is an issue I hoped the script would explore as rumors have persisted for years that he threw the match, which would be just like him and the ultimate joke on everyone holding this up as a watershed cultural moment. It would also be kind of sad on a number levels, chief among them that the top-ranked women's player really couldn't defeat a retired gambling addict in his mid-fifties. Rest assured the filmmakers wouldn't dare touch the possibility of a fix with a ten-foot pole, making their intentions for this to be an inspirational story abundantly clear throughout.

A powerful moment comes at the end of the picture when both King and Riggs are sitting alone in their respective locker rooms after the match. In a strange way, history has proven that they both won that night. For what seems like a minute straight we see an emotionally and physically exhausted Billie Jean as she just breaks down, sobbing and crying uncontrollably. Watching this, it occurred to me just how hard that is for an actress to believably pull off, becoming more convinced than ever that Stone's undeniably a great one. Whether she was the right choice for the part will likely be debated, but it's tough coming up with viable alternatives that would have brought more.

That aforementioned scene is real and raw, so much more effectively communicating what the movie was attempting to hammer into our heads with all the subtly of a sledgehammer. Of course, it's ruined shortly thereafter when a completely extraneous character played by Alan Cumming delivers a "this is the point of our movie" line that has to rank among the most embarrassing penned by an Oscar-winning screenwriter, if just on timing alone.

Movies that track the hard work and dedication that go into training for a sport, celebrate the spirit of competition, show an underdog overcoming the odds, or bask in the thrill of victory and agony of defeat, have become a rare breed. Think Rocky, Rudy, The Karate Kid, Breaking Away or even something like The Rookie or Miracle. While Battle of the Sexes was never going to be that kind of sports movie, it does make you question whether that genre still even exists, and why the bar wasn't set quite as high for this. We need to care about the person as a competitor before a message carrier in order for the social implications to carry weight. Instead, we find out what happens when everything that should be subtext becomes text, causing the professional athlete to be overshadowed by a reductive version of their own story.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Jigsaw



Directors: The Spierig Brothers
Starring: Matt Passmore, Callum Keith Rennie, Clé Bennett, Hannah Emily Anderson, Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein, Mandela Van Peebles, Brittany Allen, Josiah Black, Tobin Bell
Running Time: 92 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

When the Saw franchise signed off after hitting rock bottom with 2010's awful Saw 3D: The Final Chapter, even the most devoted diehards had checked out and were happy to see it go. After enduring a string of lifeless sequels that drained whatever waning interest was left in the property, the general consensus was that a nice, long break sounded like a great idea. It was also generally understood that with this hiatus came the promise it would return at some point as either a sequel, prequel, reboot or something in between. And now with Jigsaw, it's clear they've decided to go with a straight up sequel.

If anything, this creates an opportunity for the series to recharge its batteries and head in a new creative direction while fans become nostalgic for these movies once again, their disdain for the inferior sequels erased by happy memories of seeing Billy The Puppet usher in a new Saw film each Halloween. We'd remember that initial concept of two strangers locked in a room, the test subjects of a sadistic cancer patient hell bent on dispensing his own form of moral justice as he counted down the calendar days left on his own life.

"Let's play a game..." is a phrase that's become the franchise's tagline before it took such a creative free fall in subsequent installments that even its star, Tobin Bell, sounded like he lost interest in delivering it. While the 2004 original was less a horror movie than an intense psychological thriller, most of its successors failed miserably at building on it, hanging their hats on the worst elements of what was initially a brilliant concept. Plot and narrative was abandoned in favor of trying to come up with the most disgusting and elaborate Jigsaw traps possible, each one more graphic than the last. And for a while, as bad as the movies had become, the shock value still worked and audiences ate it up. But what Saw couldn't survive was the dilemma each new writer and director kept trying to put a band-aid over in each sequel: The antagonist was dead.

Given all the capabilities of modern cinematic storytelling, killing off John Kramer/AKA Jigsaw in only the third film showed incredibly poor foresight, often forcing the filmmakers to embarrassingly work their way around it in the most absurd ways. By claiming it's about his "legacy," introducing hidden apprentices, shoehorning Bell into silly, nonsensical flashback scenes, and even littering the storylines with more law enforcement officials than most CBS procedurals. And that's not to mention physicians, ex-wives and insurance agents. Each sequel became overcrowded and needlessly convoluted to cover for Jigsaw's absence, straying further and further from its original concept. And because of this, EVERY MOVIE FELT THE SAME. That's the problem most in need of fixing.

So, the question becomes whether The Spierig Brothers concede by resting on the same tired formulas or try something different and adventurous with the benefit of a fresh, clean slate. The answer ends up being a little bit of both, which may not be enough sustain this moving forward. While they don't strip the whole thing down and dismantle it as I'd hoped, the good news is that it's the best written and directed post-Jigsaw death sequel yet, despite sharing some of the same issues its predecessors did. There were many points where it felt as if the movie would truly let go, before delivering a clever final twist that undeniably works in the moment, but also serves as an unfortunately painful reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

It's been 10 years since the death of the infamous Jigsaw killer, John Kramer (Bell), but when a perpetrator on the run finds himself cornered by police detectives Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) and Hunt (Clé Bennett), he talks of being forced to play a "game" while activating a mysterious triggering device in his hand. They shoot, sending him into a coma. Meanwhile, five people are being held captive in a barn with buckets over their heads and a metal chain around their neck, dragging them toward a wall of spinning buzzsaws.

With each instructed by the voice of Jigsaw to make a blood sacrifice in order to move on, Carly (Brittany Allen), Ryan (Paul Braunstein), Mitch (Mandela Van Peebles) and Anna (Laura Vandervoort) are the four survivors. They move on to the next stage, with Jigsaw's voice informing them of more sadistic traps in store to repent for their lies and moral transgressions. As bodies turn up left and right, Halloran and Hunt start to wonder how any of this is possible, enlisting the help of ex-vet and forensic pathologist Logan (Matt Passmore) and his Jigsaw-obsessed assistant Eleanor (Hannah Emily Anderson). It isn't long before their suspicions turn to both, even with evidence piling up that the unthinkable is true and Jigsaw could still be very much alive.

It could be read as a promising sign that the film opens not in a dark, dingy, dirty basement as most previous entries have, but in broad daylight in the midst of a police chase. In simultaneously preparing us for something completely different while also invoking the terribly familiar, the scene serves a microcosm for what The Spierig Brothers plan on delivering over the next hour and a half. While the introduction of multiple law enforcement officers had me groaning, and it's a stretch to say they put an entirely fresh coat of paint on the franchise, there are noticeable changes and improvements that help wash the taste of those sequels out of our mouths. Action taking place in actual daylight would be one, as are more visually intriguing locations such as a rustic barn. It's nice to be able to clearly see everything that's going on for a change, knowing they can still deliver an occasionally dark basement when necessary.

With a slightly more polished look to the proceedings, this doesn't carry the same straight to VOD that too many of its sequels did. Smaller touches, like Jigsaw upgrading from a tape recorder to a flash drive, a new, improved look to Billy The Puppet and some tinkering with the infamous musical cue ("Zep's Theme") work really well. And while it's easy to criticize some of the decisions made, Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger's script is uncharacteristically tight, especially when dealing with the four chosen subjects in Jigsaw's main trap. In that respect, it does bring the franchise back to basics, heavily focusing on what each have done to "deserve" what's happening to them. Their backstories don't disappoint, with the heinous nature of one arguably packing an even bigger punch than the intended twist that arrives in the final minutes. Unfortunately, what happens outside the barn is a bit of a mess, again overcomplicating a plot that should be relatively simple.

With two pairs of police detectives and medical examiners, it often feels like a chore keeping up with them and their motivations. And while the intention is clearly to set each of them up as a potential suspect or copycat killer, we've been around this block so many times that the mere thought of another Jigsaw apprentice is enough to turn me off of the franchise permanently. The more characters and suspects you have, the less they all mean, and if there's one serious fault in the screenplay, it's on a conceptual level, as the series continues to rub our faces in its inability to streamline anything. That said, this does the most competent job balancing this overabundance of characters, even if their presence complicates the story in ways it wouldn't with one strong law enforcement protagonist going up against Jigsaw.

While it may seem unreasonable to expect a Saw sequel to go to deep, cerebral places at this point, it still wouldn't hurt to minimize the excessive plotting in favor of a little more psychology. That all the characters have purposes that logically come to light by the end is somewhat of a miracle, but the series' many filmmakers have always forced themselves into a situation of cleaning up whatever narrative mistakes preceding entry left behind. That's why a completely fresh start was imperative, free from the tiresome formulas that ran the series into the ground.

For audiences, the police and forensic pathologists' exist in this installment to answer the only question on viewers' minds: Is Jigsaw actually alive? Obviously, revealing that constitutes too big a spoiler, but maybe the question should instead be whether that revelation would be any more or less damaging than the ridiculous ways they've had his "work" continue post-mortem, with increasingly diminished returns.

Without giving it all away, this is Tobin Bell's most purposeful outing in a while and his seemingly more motivated performance reflects it. He came to play this time and isn't relegated to the requisite "blink and you'll miss him" flashback cameo that's made each sequel appearance less essential than  his last. While no one would claim the movies are known for their acting, Bell is consistently the exception, his understanding of John Kramer's psychological motivations creepily filling in the blanks where the writing often fails him.

With more to work with here, the screenplay provides a reason for Bell's presence and he sticks around long enough to make it count. If the long layoff reminded us of anything, it's that so many of the franchise's failings can be directly tied to the increased reduction of his role in the sequels. This partially corrects that, and the performances that surround him are mostly suitable for the series standard, with Vandervoort and Passmore doing the most with what they're given.  

There's legitimate suspense in the idea that Jigsaw's grave may need to be dug up, and in the increasingly likely scenario he won't be in it, teasing us with the possibility the franchise may be forced to do something completely different. But the tension is short-lived, as the focus again moves away from Jigsaw to the cops and forensic pathologists trying to implicate and expose each other, as the true purpose of that buckethead game starts fully revealing itself. Taken for what it is, it's all pretty well constructed, capped off with a final twist that's reminiscent of the first sequel in how it toys with audience perceptions of what we're exactly seeing.

While nothing that occurs in the third act is poorly written or an outright disappointment, it does feel like business as usual, revealing nearly all the major changes to be cosmetic and superficial. In the end, it's still all about how gruesome and graphic the traps are, how high the body count, and the number of poorly developed ancillary characters introduced to extend the series. In other words, we're right back where we started. And it shouldn't be lost on anyone that there's a comfort in that for both the franchise's producers and its fans, who generally want to know that what they're getting into doesn't differ to much from what they originally signed on for.

Going in, there was a certain curiosity in finding out whether there's still a place for Saw in 2017 and whether doing this again all these years later would be like hopping back on Billy The Puppet's tricycle. For both better and worse, it is. And yet again we're left scratching our heads at how they'll possibly be able squeeze even more out of this property, as there are apparently more sequels planned. But we should just know by now to stop questioning how they continue suckering us into gladly returning for more punishment.