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At the Movies

By Noah Gittell

Earlier this year, tennis legend John McEnroe caused a stir when he said that Serena Williams would be ranked “700 in the world” if she played on the men’s circuit. McEnroe was chastised for his comments and forced to apologize. But in 1974, when 55-year-old retired men’s champion Bobby Riggs began railing against women’s players for having the audacity to believe they should be paid as much as men, nobody made him say he was sorry. The only way to beat him was on the court.

“Battle of the Sexes” is the story of how women’s champion Billie Jean King struck a blow for feminism by beating the loudmouth Riggs in front of 90 million television viewers. The debates dramatized in the film are still relevant today, but the aesthetic and narrative choices made by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) have the opposite impact. The grainy digital look and heavy political symbolism is surely intended to give the film urgency — it almost looks like a documentary at times — but instead it flattens the radical, passionate characters into cardboard cut-outs, turning what should have been a vibrantly political work of art into mere historical curiosity.

Emma Stone plays King, who, as the film begins, has just become the first woman to earn $100,000 in a season. Wanting to do the same for others, she convinces a group of colleagues to protest tennis’s gender pay gap — at the time, a men’s title was worth eight times a woman’s title — by starting their own, all-female tennis league. It’s a modest success, but it catches the eye of Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a retired pro who is bored with retirement and spending time with his wife (Elisabeth Shue), and decides to challenge King to an exhibition match to earn extra money and, most importantly, have a little fun.

Riggs’s scheme is simple. To hype the match, he’ll act the part of a chauvinist buffoon, insulting King at every turn, mocking her second-wave feminist allies, and even posing nude in Playgirl. Riggs’s buffoonery is easy to mock, but that’s the idea. He didn’t really care about defeating feminism. “Battle of the Sexes” frames him not as a villain but merely a showman who didn’t understand the difficult position he was putting King in.

Therein lies the problem. Riggs thinks he can beat King, but he’s not really a chauvinist, which makes him an odd villain for this hyper-political tale. King doesn’t hate Riggs, but all of his goading forces her into the match, where the stakes feel high for him but low for her. That’s not a recipe for good drama, and the final match feels surprisingly inert. It’s not just that we know who’s going to win; it’s that the film never quite finds a reason for us to care. Even the performances by Stone and Carell – usually dependable – feel lackluster, with each of them coasting on their charisma, rather than creating fully formed characters.

If the professional drama is lacking, the film’s depiction of King’s personal life is the biggest unforced error. King’s relationship with her hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough) is drawn so superficially that what should have been a cathartic change in her character – married to a man, she has hidden her sexuality for years – hardly has any impact. They flirt at the beauty salon and have a night of passion in a hotel room, but what actually brings these two individuals together? Who are they? The film doesn’t know.

Maybe the problem is that “Battle of the Sexes” is just too nice. It doesn’t want to discover King’s flaws, only depict her as a perfect agent of social change. It insists on a happy ending for all its characters, even its villain. Following the last scene, onscreen text tells us that Riggs reconciled with his wife and lived happily ever after. It’s certainly justifiable to demonstrate how feminism benefits everyone — including men — but it robs the film of real drama, and turns an easy winner into an inexcusable double fault.

My Rating: Put it on Your Queue

AT THE MOVIES

“Spider-Man”, Better than the Rest, But Not Quite Amazing

By Noah Gittell

The problem with superhero movies these days — besides the fact that there are so darn many of them — can be summarized with a quotation from one of their most famous villains: why so serious? Almost by definition, a comic book is for children, but the recent iterations take on weightier topics. They have dense battle scenes that often evoke serious warfare, as in “Man of Steel” or “The Avengers.” Earlier this summer, “Wonder Woman” tried to answer the question of whether mankind was inherently good or evil. This heady content is at direct odds with the original aim of the superhero, which was to give kids a laugh and a good role model. These days, most superhero movies forget that.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” does not. It’s a comic book movie made for actual kids, or at least teenagers. It contains relatable problems, such as how to ask that girl you like to the dance or whether you should feel bad for bailing on your friend at your first party. Andrew Garfield was 31 when he starred in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” the last time we saw the heroic web-slinger. Tom Holland, who takes over the role here and for the foreseeable future, is a manageable 20 years old. He plays the 15-year-old Parker with a winning mix of naiveté and arrogance, and while he’s not quite believable as a normal American teenager, he can at least pass as someone pretending to be — which is what Parker actually is.

The best scenes in “Homecoming” are those in which Parker is just trying to figure it out. His friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) discovers his secret early on, and the two young actors develop a good comedic rapport, as Ned hits Peter with a barrage of questions about his superhero activities. There is also his crush on the beautiful Liz (Laura Harrier), and his friendship-and-maybe-more with the tomboy Michelle (Zendaya). Director Jon Watts wisely populates Parker’s high school with a rogue’s gallery of talented young actors whose faces you might recognize, from Abraham Attah (“Beasts of No Nation”) to Tony Revolori (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”). Each has a strong personality, giving the film a richness of character often missing in other Marvel films.

Perhaps that’s why it is so disappointing when that old familiar feeling kicks in. “Homecoming” is jam-packed with action sequences, and while each one has its own unique character within the context of the film, we have seen them all before in other Marvel movies. A low-stakes chase scene in which Spider-Man gets slung around the street while on the tail of a few gun-runners in a van? Seen it. A cluttered, CGI-laden climax in the sky which Spider-Man battles his chief villain (a serviceable Michael Keaton, playing yet another guy in a bird costume)? Seen it, so many times.

Only one scene really stands out. In the nation’s capital with his Academic Decathlon team, Parker climbs the Washington monument to save his fellow students from a faulty elevator. It’s an ingenious set-up. With no other buildings around to grab onto, there are real stakes, and Holland indicates genuine fear as Spider-Man embarks on his most risky and personal rescue.

But mostly, “Homecoming” feels like the tired old sequel that we always hope these movies will not be. In the end, they are just product. Each is a chapter in a story going nowhere, except into our wallets, as we continue to lay out our hard-earned cash in the hopes that they will ever recapture the spirit of Christopher Reeve’s “Superman,” or the underrated “Batman Returns,” or even “Iron Man,” which kicked this whole thing off in 2008 before we had ever heard the phrase “cinematic universe.” For every moment of wit or surprise in “Homecoming,” (and there are a few, including a nifty third-act twist), there are a good twenty minutes of crushing boredom and soul-sucking unoriginality. It’s just enough to keep you coming back, just barely. With Marvel recently announcing that Spider-Man will make five more appearances in the next four years, I guess that’s enough.

My Rating: Put it on Your Queue

By Noah Gittell

According to the thermometer, fall has come sooner than normal this year. At the movies, that’s nothing new. The fall movie season typically kicks off the first week of September, when film festivals in Venice, Telluride, and Toronto showcase those films that are gearing up for an awards-season push. Here are the stories and the films that will be dominating your fall movie season:

Does Tom Cruise still have it?

You may not have noticed, but over the last five years, America’s favorite movie star has started to burn out. Flops like “The Mummy” and “Oblivion” stood out, but even seemingly surefire hits like “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Jack Reacher” underperformed. Needless to say, a lot is riding on “American Made” (September 22), the true story of a pilot hired by the CIA to run guns and cash between Latin America and the U.S. in the 1980s. It looks like a classic Cruise role — with all that time in the sky, sunglasses are essential — and with accomplished director Doug Liman at the helm, there is no excuse for another flop.

Can Matt Damon make a splash with unorthodox Oscar bait?

All of a sudden, Matt Damon is in demand, starring in two bizarre comedies that will surely be in the awards conversation. The one with the most buzz is “Downsizing” (December 22), a sci-fi comedy by Alexander Payne (“Nebraska,” “Sideways”) in which Damon plays a money-stressed husband who agrees to shrink himself in order to live a more modest lifestyle. Before that, he’ll star in pal George Clooney’s new directorial feature, “Suburbicon” (October 27), in which a milquetoast suburban father in a picturesque community is driven to murder to protect his family. If it sounds like a Coen brothers’ script, that’s because it is. Clooney’s frequent collaborators dusted off an old screenplay for their pal to direct.

Can Gary Oldman win his first Oscar?

With so many iconic performances under his belt, it’s shocking that British actor Oldman has never won Hollywood’s highest honor (personally, I think he should have won one for “True Romance,” but his performance of a violent drug dealer is not exactly Academy material). This year, he seems to be a shoo-in for putting on 60 pounds of makeup to portray Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” (November 22), a biopic from director Joe Wright (“Atonement”).

Can Marvel actually let its directors direct?

Superhero movies make money — lots of it — but it doesn’t take superpowers to notice that they are sorely lacking in artistic character. More than one filmmaker has abandoned a project because the powers that be over at Marvel, Inc. won’t let them infuse the film with any real personality. That may be about to change. Director Taika Waititi is known for his quirky New Zealand sense of humor, and the early trailers of his “Thor: Ragnarok” (November 3) hint at a much goofier tone than Marvel has allowed in the past. Between “Thor” and next year’s “Black Panther,” directed by Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station,” “Creed”), our era of superheroes may be entering a new, more interesting phase.

Will Battle of the Sexes appeal beyond the PC crowd?

The true story behind “Battle of the Sexes” (September 22), in which retired tennis champion Bobby Riggs challenges women’s champion Billie Jean King to an exhibition match is tailor-made for these times. Riggs was a proud male chauvinist, while King was fighting for equal pay for women and, eventually, LGBTQ rights. The film will be hailed by the left for its politics alone but the presence of stars Steve Carell and Emma Stone in the lead roles indicates an interest in doing more than preaching to the choir. It will be fascinating to see how mainstream America responds.

Can Greta Gerwig do everything?

First, we knew Gerwig as a brilliant actor, in films like “Greenberg” and “Damsels in Distress.” Then, she began co-writing with her director/boyfriend Noah Baumbach. These films — “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” — displayed a unique comic voice. Now, she is directing her first film, “Lady Bird” (November 10) an autobiographical coming-of-age drama starring Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”) as a desperate high school senior in Gerwig’s hometown of Sacramento, California. With early raves pouring in from festivals, the sky’s the limit for this ascending bird.

By Noah Gittell

The dinner party movie has been a staple of cinema for half a century, starting perhaps with Luis Bunuel’s cutting critique of the aristocracy, 1962’s “The Exterminating Angel.” As a genre, it’s preferred by directors with a bone to pick with the upper class, and why not? It is an exclusively elitist social function but with a democratic twist: Around a dinner table with strangers and friends, each person takes up the same large fraction of the common space. Some might see it as an opportunity.

In recent years, with screenwriters having a difficult time bankrolling any film that doesn’t feature a superhero, the genre has become popular due to its low budget and easy shooting schedule. “Beatriz at Dinner” has both goals in mind. It uses its modest budget to stage a simple but powerful confrontation between two classes, two ideals, and two magnificent actors.

For the creators of this comically tense film, the dinner party is an opportunity for economic and spiritual justice. The film pits Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a healer and homeopath who is recovering from her own childhood traumas, against the impeccably named Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a narcissistic, entitled real estate magnate who would not normally be caught dead in the same room as Beatriz, unless perhaps she were wearing a maid’s uniform.

Their meeting takes place at the home of Grant (David Warshofsky) and Cathy (Connie Britton), whose daughter survived cancer with Beatriz’s help and who have benefited from their association with Strutt. After massaging Cathy, Beatriz is set to leave, but her car breaks down, and Cathy encourages her to stay for dinner. She’s not a member of the family, but Cathy likes to treat her like one, and that blurry demarcation becomes painfully clear over the course of their evening.

Screenwriter Mike White and director Miguel Arteta hit some notes that will be familiar to fans of their first collaboration, “Chuck and Buck,” a dark indie about an emotionally stunted young man who intrudes on the perfect life of his childhood friend. Their natural feel for class issues was also evidenced in their second collaboration, “The Good Girl,” which starred Jennifer Aniston as a Wal-Mart employee. The early scenes in which the guests arrive expose the facade Cathy has created; she and her friends show an interest in Beatriz, but only as it relates to their life. When they learn Beatriz is a homeopath, they each launch into monologues about their own issues with health and diet, and Beatriz is left to smile, nod, and be generally horrified by their narcissism.

Soon, she meets a narcissist she cannot brush off so easily. Although the film was written two years ago, Strutt is unmistakably a Trump avatar. He is a real estate developer with no regard for the little people. He refuses to pay workers a living wage. He pollutes the environment. He kills endangered species. It’s this last bit that sets Beatriz off. An animal lover grieving a lost pet, seeing a photo of Strutt next to a murdered rhinocerous sets up a confrontation that promises deep satisfaction for any viewer who has ever felt the desperate frustration of going up against an immovable political foe.

While the film’s critique of the ruling class is sharp and focused, the script smartly doesn’t turn Beatriz into a savior. She has little social grace. At dinner, she speaks at length about her upbringing in Mexico, well past the point of appropriateness. She drinks too much, which is surely a cause of her eventual outburst. Strutt symbolizes all that has oppressed Beatriz, but the film also critiques her fixation on him. Hayek’s characterization of Beatriz walks a razor-thin line between heroic and unhinged, which helps fill out a story that could be a bit too allegorical to be truly compelling.

It’s a brilliant set-up, but the story is admittedly a little thin. The screenplay could have given Doug more depth to balance the scales a bit, but if that’s your chief complaint, then “Beatriz at Dinner” was simply not made for you.

At its most satisfying, film can offer catharsis, but at its best, it offers exploration. If we ever found ourselves face-to-face with the personification of evil, what would we do about it? “Beatriz at Dinner” toys with every possibility, letting viewers explore these feelings within themselves.

My Rating: See it in the Theater

“Detroit,” A Real American Horror Film

By Noah Gittell

They say that history is told by the winners. Perhaps this is why the story of the 12th Street Riot of 1967, more specifically the Algiers Motel Incident within the larger event, is being told now in Kathryn Bigelow’s unshakeable new film “Detroit.” Those writing the history books wanted to forget the incident in which, over the course of one night, a group of rogue white cops terrorized a group of innocent black victims, killing several, and received no jail time. With inquiries into white power and police brutality reaching a fever pitch these last few years, this story is a lightning bolt connecting the past to the present.

The opening scenes depict the tension created when an all-white police force patrols a black neighborhood. First, a harmless but illegal after-hours club is raided, and the partygoers are sent to jail. This incident ignites a flame, and the Detroit residents begin to loot and riot their own neighborhood, externalizing the internal chaos the police had imposed through violence and disenfranchisement. Through the fires, we zoom in on four people: Larry (Algee Smith) and Fred (Jacob Latimore), a singer and music manager, respectively, whose big break is interrupted when the riots cancel their latest show; Dismukes (John Boyega) a private security guard who abhors confrontation and instead tries to make friends with his local patrolmen; and Krauss (Will Poulter), a cruel, sociopathic police officer who is already under investigation for murdering an unarmed looter earlier in the day.

These parties congregate at or near the Algiers Motel. For Larry and Fred, the motel is an oasis from the raging fires and violence that dominate their neighborhood. There, they drink, smoke, and talk to girls. Dismukes is guarding a convenience store, while Krauss and his men are patrolling the streets, waiting for trouble. When another guest of the Algiers foolishly fires a starter pistol in the direction of the police, they assume a sniper has fired upon them and spring to action. They storm the motel, line up every suspect in the hallway, and begin violently interrogating them until they find the gun or the shooter.

For those forty-five minutes, Bigelow and her co-writer Mark Boal utilize all the skills they have honed on their last two collaborations — “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty” — to create an indelible piece of cinema. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd brings his trademark handheld camera (“Captain Phillips,” “United 93”) to place the viewer inside of a situation that is otherwise unimaginable. As Krauss and his colleagues play torturous games on the victims — separating them, lying about what others have confessed, and firing their guns in other rooms to confuse them — “Detroit” comes to resemble a horror movie or home invasion thriller, but with higher stakes.

Yet, like some horror movies, “Detroit” suffers from a strange imbalance in which the villain is far more interesting than the heroes. Krauss is the obvious villain of this piece, but Bigelow seems strangely drawn to him. “Detroit” has enormous empathy for the victims, but it also creates a provocatively alluring vision of white power. The film dwells on Krauss’s lack of empathy. Even as the bodies start to pile up, he still feels righteous and never doubts himself. In this way, “Detroit” has far more to say about white power than it does about civil rights.

This may give credence to those who argue that Bigelow was the wrong person for the job, and that “Detroit” should have been made by filmmakers that understood systemic violence better. Bigelow is trying to figure it out. A black filmmaker may have dispensed with the inquiry altogether and focused on the experience of oppression. Such a filmmaker would have created more complete characters for the likes of Fred and Larry, who spent most of the film simply cowering in fear. They may also have found more to do with Dismukes, who follows the police into the hotel and tries to save lives while still appearing to Krauss like an ally in law enforcement. Luring in the background of every scene, however, he seems more like a bystander who wandered onto the set.

Perhaps this is why the author of “The Algiers Motel Incident,” the only text on this subject, did not want this film made, and Bigelow and Boal were forced to fictionalize these events. As such, it is not a definitive work of civil rights but rather a fascinating, valuable snapshot of white supremacy. It’s not the empowering civil rights film that many wanted, but its insight and sheer power make it worthwhile.

My Rating: See it in the Theater

A Great Performance Can’t Redeem “Churchill”

By Noah Gittell

In troubling times, we crave stories of brave leaders and courageous politicians. Perhaps that’s why there are two films about Winston Churchill this year, the upcoming “Darkest Hour,” and Oscar hopeful starring Gary Oldman and directed by Joe Wright, and the less-prestigious “Churchill,” in theaters now.

Unfortunately, the leadership depicted in “Churchill” never feels real enough to be compelling or inspiring. The film starts strong but quickly devolves into hagiography, with obvious metaphors and scene-chewing performances that feel more appropriate for the stage than the subtle confines of the screen (especially when you consider the film’s limited release, meaning most will see it on their TV, laptop, or tablet).

Its most insightful depiction of England’s famous prime minister comes in its opening scenes. Churchill (Brian Cox) awakens from a drunken slumber, gets dressed, and begins rehearsing a speech in front of a mirror. He labors over a word choice. Should he refer to the “trials” of England’s brave troops or their “tribulations”? He then travels to a private meeting with General Eisenhower (a badly miscast John Slattery) and King George VI (James Purefoy) to discuss Operation Overlord, or what history called the D-Day landing. He strenuously opposes the operation, asking his King to consider the “trials and tribulations” his troops have gone through. Turns out all that preparation was for an audience of one.

Churchill’s pleas go unheeded, and the operation is set to commence in four days. Director Jonathan Teplitzsky frames his story as a countdown, frequently reminding the audience of the time limits, while Churchill scrambles to stop what he perceives as a risky strategy. Apparently, there is much debate over the accuracy of this film’s depiction. To the public, Churchill was a staunch supporter of the D-Day operation, and historians have already taken issues with Teplitzky’s version of the story. 

It’s a good thing that the film isn’t particularly interested in its politics. Instead, it’s a story of aging and obsolescence. Despite his great intelligence, political prowess, and military experience, Churchill finds himself beset on all sides by doubters and critics. Eisenhower treats him like a relic, and even his wife (Miranda Richardson) undermines him. Churchill responds by raging against the dying of the light. He decides that he and the King will physically lead the men into battle, but the King, in a scene sporting bizarrely romantic overtones, refuses. “The anxiety of the coming days would be greatly increased,” he tells him in a soft, soulful voice, “if there were even the slightest chance of losing you.”

The one thing the film gets right is the thing it absolutely must: Cox is perfect as Churchill. The veteran British actor finds the universal humanity in the legendary figure, depicting Churchill simply as a man grappling with the anxieties of old age. In his most wounded moments, Cox shows the dignity and grace in his pain. When enraged, we see the pain his anger is masking. It’s a performance that deserves a better film, or perhaps a one-man show. I could see Cox commanding our attention on his own for two hours, much like Philip Baker Hall did as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman’s brilliant “Secret Honor”.
But the film around Cox is just not up to snuff. As the main antagonist, Slattery can’t hide his natural smarminess, or rather he has nothing to replace it with. Richardson acquits herself well in the underwritten role of the put-upon wife of the self-involved politician, but she has sadly little to do but support her man, both the character and the actor.

It’s a disappointing but not expected entry in Teplitzky’s filmography. The director of “The Railway Man” certainly has a niche: films that look and sound like prestige pictures but don’t have the story or narrative competence to measure up. In the end, the film is as much a constraint on Churchill and his legacy as his real-world antagonists were. “You’re the most powerful man in the world,” King George tells him at one point,” and you’re not allowed to do anything at all.” Maybe in a better film he would have been.

My Rating: Skip it altogether

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