Movie reviews: 'Battle of the Sexes' feel-good film that takes sexism to task
This image released by Fox Searchlight Pictures shows Emma Stone, left, and Steve Carell in a scene from "Battle of the Sexes." (Melinda Sue Gordon/Fox Searchlight Pictures via AP)
Published Friday, September 22, 2017 6:00AM EDT
BATTLE OF THE SEXES: 3 STARS
“Battle of the Sexes” is undoubtedly a sports movie. The climactic tennis match between Wimbledon triple-winner Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) and the women’s tennis world champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) takes up much of the last half hour of the film, but it isn’t strictly a sports drama. Like all good sports films, it’s not really about the game; it’s about the human spirit that makes the game great. Here we see some impressive tennis but we also get a glimpse of how Billie Jean King’s perseverance helped change the game and the world.
“Watch out guys,” says a TV announcer commenting on what would become one of King’s championship matches, “there's no stopping this little lady.” It’s 1973 and King is a wizard on the court, an athlete with great focus who makes a fraction of her male colleagues. “The men are more exciting to watch,” says United States Lawn Tennis Association honcho Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman). “They’re faster. They're stronger. It's not your fault; it's just biology.”
Outraged that there’s a $12,000 paycheque for the men but only a $1500 pay out for women at an upcoming USLTA tournament, King and her manager Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) take action. They set up a rival all-female league sponsored by Virginia “You’ve come a long way, baby” Slims. Their goal is to democratize tennis, take it out of the country club, and make it for everyone.
Meanwhile former world champ Bobby Riggs is now 55-years-old and working in an office job courtesy of his wealthy wife's father. At night, he gambles, despite going to Gambler’s Anonymous twice a week, playing with rich men for money. To even up the odds, he does outlandish things like play with a racket in one hand and two dogs on leashes in the other. He wants back in the big time but the big time isn't interested in him.
Always a hustler, Riggs comes up with the idea of a “Battle of the Sexes” match between himself and the much younger King. She declines lading him on to star player Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee). When he shellacs the top-seeded Court it does more than just shine a spotlight on Riggs, it reinforces the idea that women aren't as good as men. On a roll he next offers $100,000 to any woman who can take him on the court. “Who else is going to beat him?” says King. “He's backed me into a corner.”
The rest, as they say is history. A media circus follows as Riggs publicly taunts King—“I'm going to put in the ‘show’ back in the chauvinism.”—building up hype for what would become the most-watched tennis match of all time.
“Battle of the Sexes” is a feel-good movie but it’s about more than a pulse racing final game. Along the way it paints a convincing picture of the casual sexism that drove King to take a very public stand, against the USLTA and then Riggs. It’s also about her relationship with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) and the quandary of gay athletes, then and now.
Stone, in a performance that has early Oscar buzz, is best when she’s off the court. She’s warm but spunky—like Mary Tyler Moore spunky—when we first meet her. The character deepens, however, when Marilyn enters the picture. As the married and deeply in the closet King, Stone blossoms as the romance with Marilyn blooms. Those scenes are tender and help ground an otherwise relentlessly perky movie.
Carell nails the “colourful and controversial” Riggs. He is a ball of energy, bulldozing his way through the movie. His wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) says she loves the “way you walk into a room and fill it up,” so Carell does his best to fill up the screen. He has the movie’s best lines—“Don't get me wrong. I love women… In the bedroom and in the kitchen”—and brings a sense of old school theatricality to the role.
As a portrait of women's rights and the sexual revolution of the 1970s “Battle of the Sexes” covers a lot of ground but does so in an entertaining although slightly overlong way.
STRONGER: 3 ½ STARS
“Stronger” is not the story of a bomb or the radical politics that saw it planted at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. It's the story of the aftermath.
When we first meet Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), he’s a goofy, outgoing 28-year-old guy working as a chicken roaster at Costco. The only thing he loves more than the Boston Red Sox is his ex-girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), an uptown girl who is running in the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. The night before the run, he bumps into her. “I suffered an industrial chicken-related accident today,” he says, flirting, “but I'll be there at the finish line for you.”
History reports what happened next. Bauman, standing next to one of the Boston Bombers, was gravely injured. Rescued by a stranger in a cowboy hat (Carlos Sanz as Carlos Arredondo), he is rushed to the hospital where both his legs are amputated above the knees.
The tragedy shines a spotlight on Jeff who becomes a reluctant beacon for the Boston Strong movement. Released from hospital a hero, as he struggles to learn how to navigate his new body, Erin re-enters his life, drawn by love and guilt for being the reason he attended the race. As that relationship blossoms and the city embraces him, Jeff grows uneasy, plagued by PTSD. “I don't want to relive the worst day of my life,” he says.
As he grapples with fame, his mother (Miranda Richardson) who lives vicariously through his newfound celebrity, his relationship with Erin becomes strained. It isn’t until he reconnects with Carlos, the man who saved his life that Jeff begins to piece together the broken shards of his life.
Because we know the story of the Boston bombing so well, tension builds soon as the marathon scene begins. A man with a backpack, ball cap and shades bumps into Jeff, signalling what is to come but this isn’t an action movie. It is strongest when it gets to the emotional care of the film, Jeff's inability to deal with his new reality.
Director David Gordon Green is aided by a nuanced performance from Gyllenhaal that mutes his usual movie star physique in favour of a more vulnerable physicality—the scenes of his struggle to adapt to his wheelchair are painful—in favour of a rich inner life. His performance provides a glimpse of Jeff’s complicated feelings as he comes to grips with his new reality. He’s less a movie star and more a down-home heroic figure in-the-making. “I'm reluctant hero,” he says. “People see that I don't let anything hold me down and maybe they won't let anything hold them down either.”
As Erin, Maslany is the very embodiment of empathy. She delivers a quiet performance that subtly conveys an olio of emotions from love and guilt to compassion and anger. It is terrific work that brings some much-needed subtlety to a film that occasionally goes a bit over-the-top.
Jeff’s plain-spoken high strung family, led by Jeff Sr (Clancy Brown) and Patty “Did you have sex with my son?” Bauman, is played a bit too broadly. A hint of rough-and-tumble Boston caricature seeps in whenever the Bauman clan gathers in a movie that is at its best when it is restrained.
“Stronger” is sometimes a bit too on the money—“You're a symbol to a lot of people,” gushes dad, “You’re Boston Strong “but works well when it lets go of the triumph of the human spirit angle and allows the characters to behave like people, not heroes.
KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE: 2 STARS
The first “Kingsman” movie, “The Secret Service,” was like a violent “Pygmalion,” taking a guy from the wrong side of the tracks and transforming him into a “Kingsman Tailor,” a super spy with manners that would make Henry Higgins proud and gadgets that James Bond would envy.
“The Kingsman Tailors” are the modern day knights; their finely tailored suits their armour. In the first movie rebellious teenager turned super spy Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton) made it through “the most dangerous job interview in the world” to earn a place in the exclusive group. This weekend he returns to the glamorous and treacherous 007ish world of intrigue in a sequel, “The Golden Circle.”
The job of keeping the world safe is the international intelligence agency Kingman’s top priority. That, and looking sharp while doing it. On the eve of Eggsy’s big date with girlfriend Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström) he is attacked by Charlie Hesketh (Edward Holcroft), a rejected Kingsman applicant turned bad. One of the only survivors of the exploding head caper of the last film, Hesketh only has one arm. The other is a mechanical unit called Armageddon—Get it?—equipped with all manner of gadgets, including a hacking device that taps into Eggsy’s Kingsman database.
Turns out, Charlie is working with the “Golden Circle,” the world’s biggest drug cartel. CEO—and possible cannibal—Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) is not content to have a global monopoly on the drug trade. She wants recognition for her achievements. To this end, she plans to hold the world hostage by shipping millions of pounds of drugs poisoned with a chemical that will cause the Blue Rash. First symptom? Blue spider veins. Next? Mania, then paralysis followed by exploding organs. She wants the war on drugs to end immediately or she will let all the folks who have used her tainted drugs die horrible deaths. Her slogan? “Save Lives! Legalize!”
Her first step is to use the information from Charlie’s arm to locate all ten Kingsman offices worldwide and blow them all to kingdom come. Only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) survive the coordinated blasts. Stiff upper lipped, they continue on and, following Kingsman protocol, will later shed a single tear in private for their fallen comrades. With their ranks decimated, the duo turns to their American counterparts. Camouflaged as a whiskey manufacturer in Kentucky, the Statesman are run by a colourful character known as Agent Champagne (Jeff Bridges).
Former rodeo clown Agents Tequila (Channing Tatum) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) are six-shooter toting modern cowboys, stereotypical slices of Americana for a new generation while Agent Ginger Ale (Halle Berry) provides high-tech guidance. Along with the new partners, Merlin and Eggsy also discover their old friend Harry Hart (Colin Firth), a legendary Kingsman left for dead on an old mission. Unbeknownst to them, he was rescued by the Statesman but now suffers from retrograde amnesia. Can Harry's old friends help reboot his Kingsman memories? Will the surviving Kingsman and Statesmen be able to put aside their cultural differences in time to bring law and order back to the world?
There is a fun ninety-minute movie contained within “The Golden Circle,” but unfortunately, it is buffered with an additional fifty minutes of talking. Sure, there are gadgets galore, wild chases and plenty of fight scenes but it suffers from a Pierce Brosnan-era James Bond love of gadgetry and silly action set pieces. If the clichés don’t get you—“The Kingsmen need you,” Eggsy emotes, hoping to jog Harry’s memories. “The world needs you. I need you to.”—the sluggish pacing will. Despite the frenetic piece of the action sequences most other scenes drag, elongated with needless nattering. Even a riff on the first film’s most-famous scene, the pub fight, feels overdone and uninspired.
The joie de vivre that made the first film so startling and fun is missing. Even the soundtrack has a been there, heard it before flavour. A case in point? The use of John Denver’s “Country Road” in a major scene despite the song already being used this year in “Free Fire,” “Alien: Covenant,” “Okja” and “Logan Lucky.”
“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is star studded but is so enamoured of its own style it doesn’t give anyone a chance to be interesting. Any movie that’s most memorable performance comes from Elton John—who is clearly a better piano player than actor—is in trouble. The clothes are nice but style isn’t enough to dress up this poor excuse for a caper film.
BRAD’S STATUS: 3 STARS
Dissatisfaction, thy name is Brad.
Both an investigation in obsession and white male privilege, “Brad’s Status” stars Ben Stiller as a man who cannot help but compare himself to his more successful friends. “I have a creeping fear that not only have I not lived up to my expectations,” he says, “but have disappointed others as well.”
Brad Sloan is a husband, father and the owner of a non-profit organization that helps people in need. It’s a comfortable Sacramento life, comfortable but, according to Brad, unremarkable. Lately his head has been filled with thoughts of his college years when, “I was in love with the world and it was in love with me.” The difference between then and now? “The world hates me and the feeling is mutual.”
He must confront his feelings of inadequacy when he and his musical prodigy son Troy (Austin Abrams) tour colleges in Boston. Harvard seems sure to accept the teenager until a mix up in the dates delays Troy’s admissions’ interview. Determined to reschedule the meeting, Brad has to swallow his pride and call his wealthy friends for help.
Contacting Billy Wearslter (Jemaine Clement), a rich guy who lives with two girlfriends in Hawaii, best-selling author and D.C. powerhouse Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen) and billionaire playboy Jason Hatfield (Luke Wilson) gets the job done but forces Brad further down the rabbit hole of inadequacy.
“Brad’s Status” is a character study of a man who complains about being ignored at dinner parties because he isn't rich. Stiller is very good—he’s always at his best when in movies that don’t feature statues that come to life—at bringing Brad’s neurosis to vivid life, but what years ago would have been thought of as a mid-life crisis movie is now a story of male privilege, ripe with first world problems. In other words, it’s hard to feel particularly sorry for a character whose self-pity overrides the good things in his life. Stiller keeps him relatable, from his petty frustration at a useless silver airlines status card to his deep seeded jealousy of everyone from his successful friends to his talented son, but early on you sense the story is only headed in one direction.
I don’t want to give anything away so I’ll put a [SPOILER ALERT] here, but it turns out that Brad doesn’t have it so bad after all. There is poignancy to the story at times but the lesson—never judge a person by the private jet—is too slight, too obvious to make any lasting impression.
As a laundry list of Brad’s existential questions “Brad’s Status” doesn’t delve deep enough to provide any real answers, no matter how good the performances.