‘Battle of the Sexes’: The Victorian Values Review

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A word of warning to my fellow Aussies: we’re going to have a pretty unique perspective on this movie. And if you care about any queer person in your life, you’re going to find it effects you. Because:
a) We’re currently going through a non-binding postal survey that has essentially turned in to a national referendum on the way LGBTQI people live their lives.

b) Margaret Court. Just….Margaret Court.

I’ve got to tell you, I had to do a bit of a Wikipedia dive on this one. Margaret Court was never on my radar (even though she has an Arena named after her, my bad), so making her a villain of the piece seemed a little….obvious, after her comments in May this year. But given this movie was filmed over a year before that, I wanted to see what else may have informed that decision. Turns out Margaret Court was raised Roman Catholic and then went full Pentecostal around the period the film is set in, became a Minister in her own church and has used that platform to speak out about gay marriage (and a bunch of other things). Safe to say, she well and truly had form before her comments this year. I’ve heard stories of audiences booing her appearance, however, despite the Lido loading us up on Pimms at today’s preview, my crowd mostly kept it in.

(As an aside, I am so glad they got an Australian actress to play Court, although strangely Jessica McNamee did seem to slip in to a trans-Pacific accent sometimes).

Battle of the Sexes is undoubtedly a story about Billie Jean King, a story about sexism, homophobia, fear, and strength. This is not Steve Carell’s story to tell, and as such he takes a bit of a back seat. I mean, his character is played as such a loser that he sleeps in the back seat of a car. And his son’s couch. Yeah, Bobby Riggs is not doing great at the start of this story. And, with real life being a spoiler again, he ain’t doing too crash hot at the end, either. But he does have an colossally smug period in between beating Margaret Court and taking on King. Carell effortlessly slips in to Riggs’s bravado and showmanship – and no-one that’s ever scene The Office could doubt this.

King is surrounded by a colourful cast of characters as she establishes what will become the Women’s Tennis Association. It kicks off with the Virginia Slims Invitational and nine players, including King and her good friend Rosie Salas. Rosie, played by Natalie Morales, ends up not only winning the tour, she also finds herself  calling the match between King and Riggs, with some oafish white dude holding on to her neck in a way that has never not given me the heebie-jeebies. Also helping establish the Virginia Slims International is Gladys Heldman, played to acerbic perfection by Sarah Silverman. Heldman is shown to be alongside King at the moment that spurns her to move in to a new realm – a pay dispute with a tournament organiser – however their relationship is a little vague. Wikipedia tells me they were essentially colleagues, but the movie had me convinced Heldman was King’s manager, until the moment King asks her husband Larry to tell Riggs she’s ready to bring it on. Whatever their relationship, Silverman trying to shove cigarettes in the hands of these athletes because of the sponsorship deal she’s locked down is a hoot.

King’s relationship with Heldman isn’t the only one the movie futzes. At the centre of this story is King’s queer identity, her struggle as a married woman coming to terms with her sexuality, and meeting a woman who could change everything (all the while being observed by the judgey judgey eye of Margaret Court, and casually being cheered on by seemingly-not-at-all-in-the-closet Alan Cumming, assisting the team on wardrobe).  King meets Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) in a hairdresser’s chair, and what follows is a brief but intense love affair, clearly seen and comprehended by King’s husband Larry (Austin Stowell). Billie clearly knows what she wants, and the impossibility of having it. The movie ends on a gentle note, with Cummings’ character telling her that one day things will change and they will be free to love who they love. The postscript on the movie tells us that eventually King did move on from her marriage to Larry, and began a long-term relationship with a woman named Ilana Kloss. She and Larry are still buds.

What the movie fails to mention is that King and Barnett (who is still present at the end of the movie) were in a relationship for many years after this. In fact, King was only dragged out of the closet against her will in 1981 when Barnett sued her for ‘palimony’.

On the theme of identity struggles, this movie really doesn’t know what it wants to be. It contains many clear dramatic elements, in King’s struggle with her sexuality and in the battle for women to establish their place in a male-dominated arena. Hidden Figures was somehow much more accomplished at balancing this with comedic elements. Battle of the Sexes takes a broader approach. Fred Armisen is there as the man shilling bogus vitamin pills (and possibly speed?) to Riggs. Riggs’s therapist, who’s there to help him with his gambling problems, has a blackjack debt to him. These ridiculous elements certainly circle around Riggs (altogether laughable himself), and it makes it incredibly difficult to mesh in to King’s dramatic storyline. Here we have a Joke Person up against a Real Person.

But of course, these movie isn’t just a fumbled mesh of comedy and drama. Even though it’s a movie supposedly about tennis, the ‘sports’ part felt reasonably absent until the last act – the match between King and Riggs. And this is where I suspect we find there’s actually a pretty decent sports movie hidden in here. Because the promotion has made no attempt to hide the outcome (and why would they?), but we can feel real stakes and real tension. As someone who is not aggressively in to tennis, it reminded me of just how thrilling the game can be to watch. And when you can know the result and still get that invested? That’s some pretty good film making. Someone in my audience clapped when King got a key shot. The woman next to me cried when she won. I don’t think the Pimms had a lot of influence on this, either.

Do I need to tell you that Emma Stone is fantastic? That she shows vulnerability and strength in equal measure and you will want to high-five the heck out of her while gently reminding her that her husband seems like a really nice guy? That she will make you wish you had witty bon mots and not just pure blinding rage next time someone says something sexist to you? And that she will make you ache, ache for everyone who sees the cruelty and the judgement surrounding them and quietly retreats in to secrecy, waiting for the world to change.

If only it had changed a little more.

‘The Big Sick’: The Victorian Values Review

This may come a shock, but I haven’t actually started reviewing every single movie I see. I go the cinema quite a bit, particularly at this time of year when lots of the big US summer movies are coming out. But when I went to see Spider-Man: Homecoming and Baby Driver in one day (the official hashtag for this event was, of course, #ManBaby), I didn’t feel the need to weigh in. When movies are as hyped as they are, the mainstream and social media coverage can be pretty overwhelming. You’ve probably decided months in advance if you’re interested in seeing them, and unless the early reviews are dire, you’ll probably stick with that plan. What I’d prefer to do with reviews is to see if I can encourage people to go see films that get less attention. That often ends up being movies that are ‘female-focused’ – like a period drama (My Cousin Rachel) or a romantic comedy, in the case of a The Big Sick. It’s a pretty straightforward set-up – boy meets girl, boy and girl are torn apart by cultural differences, girl gets sick and ends up in medically-induced coma. You know. The usual stuff.

In a fictional film, when one of the lead characters is in a coma, part of the tension should be whether she will recover and our leads will get (back) together. But because the story is based on the real-life tale of couple Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, reality sort of ends up as a spoiler. Due to her appearances on the promotional trail (and the retelling of their story over the years in places like Dan Harmon’s podcast), we know Emily’s okay and they’re still together. But the genre of the film works in their favour here. It’s a rom com. We know they’ll end up together in the end, because that’s what happens in the end of a rom com. All we have to do is enjoy the journey.
Somewhere between Kumail’s 65 IMDB acting credits, you’ve seen him in something. For example, I have most recently seem him in the dire 2010 Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel vehicle Life as We Know It, because sometimes I truly should not be left alone Netflix. But it isn’t until you see him play himself that you realise how consistent his deadpan characteristics are. It’s a fun script and a real star vehicle for Kumail – it can be hard to make the deadpan style charming, but the character of Emily (played by Zoe Kazan) softens him to a great extent.bigsick

One of the main settings of the film is the Chicago comedy club that Kumail gigs at, which helps to maintain the ‘com’ tone when things turn serious. This is not only from the snippets of stand-up routines, but also from the backstage banter between Kumail and the characters played by Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant and Kurt Braunohler (all accomplished real-world comics). If you’ve seen any other movie that producer Judd Apatow has had a hand in, you’ll have an idea of the humour in their interactions.
The real opportunity for the dramatic chops to come out is when the families come in to the picture. When Emily’s parents meet Kumail they’re immediately hostile – Emily had told them about their reasons for breaking up. We can see through their relationship to their daughter, and to each other, why Emily found it so hard to understand why Kumail had not told his parents about her, and why this was so hurtful. It’s important to have the right actors in the role of Emily’s parents, as we watch them slowly warm to him while going through their own struggles. I don’t need to say anything new about Holly Hunter (apart from, maybe, I want her to be my Mum?), but Ray Romano. Man. I cannot explain how begrudgingly I give respect to the star of Everybody Loves Raymond, but he earns it here. Both Holly and Ray get to have some great comedic moments here too, particularly when they witness one of Kumail’s live shows.

The endless parade of potential Pakistani wives for Kumail is also played for laughs, but their is some dramatic tension in it. Kumail knows he stands to potentially lose his family over choosing an American girl. And if you’re wondering where you’ve seen Anupam Kher before as a kind-hearted Muslim father preaching the importance of keeping marriage within your own culture, let me do you a favour: it’s everyone’s favourite (well, my favourite) early 2000’s British girl’s soccer movie, Bend it Like Beckham.

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I have no idea how he feels about being typecast in this way, but he carries a fair bit of emotional weight in the family scenes.

Lastly I come to Zoe Kazan. It’s a real shame that the mere fact of Kumail and Emily’s story requires her to be sidelined for a significant chunk of the film, because she simply lights up the screen. If you’ve not seen 2013’s What If (also known as The F Word) then ignore what I said earlier about Life as We Know It and fire up your Netflix. You know how she wrote and starred in the fantastic Manic Pixie Dream Girl takedown that is Ruby Sparks? Well, What If is essentially the Friend Zone version of that, with bonus Daniel Radcliffe and Adam Driver. It is a rom com though, and remember what I said about the one thing we know happens at the end of a rom com. Zoe really gets to pull out her dramatic chops in parts of The Big Sick – it feels awful to say, but god is that woman good at crying. However she also gets to maintain her constant charm, and she can play it for laughs like the best of them (like when she doesn’t want to shit in her new boyfriend’s house).

All in all, I have to say that The Big Sick is fairly light on the ‘rom’. We like and root for Kumail and Emily to overcome their obstacles and get together at the end. But with one half of the couple off-screen for a good chunk of the movie, it probably verges more on dramatic comedy territory. I really hope that people who might stick up their nose at the genre will give it a chance – even if it’s just for date night.

 

‘My Cousin Rachel’: The Victorian Values Review

I’m sure it will shock you to learn, but this blog has not been so very successful that promoters are throwing preview screening tickets at me. No, I went to see My Cousin Rachel yesterday on my own dime. I thought that given it’s on a somewhat limited release, people might be more willing to go to their local movie complex to see if The Mummy is really as bad as people say it is (it will be) rather than haul their backsides to their local arthouse or indie cinema to watch a movie that, based on the trailer, may or may not be about incest. This was enough to inspire me to do a little write-up.

Based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier (Rebecca, The Birds), My Cousin Rachel tells the story of Philip and Rachel, the widowed wife of the man who raised him. After Philip’s cousin Ambrose dies unexpectedly in foreign lands, Philip immediately suspects his new wife Rachel, a woman he has only heard about in letters. However when she turns up on his doorstep, she is far from the schemer he expected. Philip’s dangerous obsession with Rachel grows, isolating him from those that care about him, with ultimately tragic consequences.

Finally, Sam Claflin has an opportunity to be less than charming. In fact, many times during the course of My Cousin Rachel, all you want to do is slap him upside the head. As Philip’s longterm family lawyer and guardian, Iain Glen must have felt very comfortable being subjected to yelling and tantrums while his well-meaning advice is consistently ignored. Just add some dragons and he’s back in Westeros.

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“Calm your farm, Phileesi”

For a film about passion and obsession, My Cousin Rachel in the end is quite sexless and chaste. While Philip and Rachel eventually develop an intimate relationship, it is all implied on screen. It’s a weakness of the movie, to some extent. It is possible the choice was made to secure a favourable rating for the film – in Australia it is rated PG for mild themes (presumably revolving around Philip’s proclivity for trashing furniture in a rage), violence, and occasional coarse language. But while it’s not suggested that every movie must become 9½ Weeks, it seems a waste of two incredibly charismatic leads to not explore this aspect further. There’s no real need for a film like this to be family-friendly – I was the only person under the age of 50 at an opening weekend screening.

Rachel Weisz has frequently played the kind of woman you could fall in love with at the drop of the hat (hello Evie in the far superior version of The Mummy), but her femme fatale role as Rachel adds layers to this. As any good noir woman, she has an air of mystery that draws in our hapless hero. However, she is less of a seductress and more of an oddball. Not just because of her ‘foreign’ obsessions with tisanes and potions, but her mannerisms are coltish and nervous at first, despite the her ongoing ability to charm the community around her. In the end, Rachel remains a mystery to viewers. Many questions are left unanswered. This is not strictly a weak point – and it may be expanded upon more in the book, which I have not yet read – but leaves a lot of room for discussion afterwards about the potential motivations of her character.

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Weirdly, I walked out of this movie desperate for a cup of tea

Apart from the heavy noir influences, the film also has a strong Gothic tone. As the lines between reality, delusion and fantasy begin to blur, the walls of this huge candlelit manor seem to close in. The battle for Philip’s soul takes place in the light-filled village, with sensible family friend and presumed intended Louise  (Holliday Grainger) begging him to see sense in drawing rooms, churches and sun-filled porches, while in the hidden corners of the Ashley estate, Philip steals in to Rachel’s room by moonlight to perform a boyish seduction.

It is rare in modern times to see a period film that focuses on the dangers of passion and obsession. Most of the world would rather see a nice neat Austen adaptation than a Brontë, but films like My Cousin Rachel introduce an ambiguity – of motivation, of resolution – that television has arguably become much better at than cinema. It’s refreshing to walk out of a screening with questions, with much to discuss afterwards, rather than just observe the quality of a particular fight scene (although, please, let us all discuss the Amazons in Wonder Woman and how we’d like to be one when we grow up) or use of CGI. If you decide to see the film, please come back here and let me know, because I’m dying to talk to someone about it!