“Putting the Show Back in Chauvinist” : Battle of the Sexes

Battle-of-the-Sexes

“You know, I remember when the actual match happened,” an older woman told me as we walked out of the theater together. I threw away my popcorn as she reminisced, “At the time, I just thought it was a big show.”

The famous 1973 match between women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King and retired champion Bobby Riggs was set up as an elaborate publicity stunt, with parades, dancers, costumes, and sponsorships. But Battle of the Sexes reveals the more sinister elements going on underneath. Infidelity, repressed sexuality, addiction, and, of course, sexism.

Battle of the Sexes’ main plot might be the lead up to the match, but the topic that obviously interests the filmmakers more is Billie Jean’s affair with hairdresser Marilyn, her sexual awakening. I think people should know what movie they are going to see, so just keep that in mind.

What I found most interesting about it was, while it’s tastefully done, the film hides the negative aspects of the relationships. We do see the toll the affair takes on Billie Jean emotionally, and her husband Larry is portrayed as a great guy. But the film leaves out of its ending credits what ended up happening to the relationship (Marilyn sued Billie for palimony, outed Billie through the lawsuits, and Billie lost her sponsorships).

Whether you agree with the choices Billie Jean King made or not, not telling the truth about something seems suspicious on the part of the filmmakers. However, it’s also Hollywood, and to be expected. It just sets up an odd tonal shift with Billie tearing herself up about it one minute, then the next throwing Larry out and seemingly confident with her decision in the next. It’s like the filmmakers wanted to realistically show what a situation like that is like, but not in a way that could be interpreted as negative or disheartening.

All that said, this is the best performance I’ve seen Emma Stone give. She’s always been talented, of course, but here her role just allows her to be even more transformative. She’s not the La La Land actress, fantasy girl. She’s a flesh and blood woman. Her Billie Jean King is driven, focused, conflicted, but when it comes to the tennis match, is always the bigger person. She faces her opposition with grace and humility, but doesn’t hesitate to speak out. She’s a role model to many for a reason.

Steve Carell plays Bobby Riggs with both over-the-top extravagance and subtle nuance. His Riggs is a showman, a con artist, and an actor. His brash and extremely sexist comments are almost laughable, and when you see how he really does seem to love his wife and family, he becomes likeable. His actions and comments are no longer as bad because he is so likable. He’s just doing publicity! Making headlines!

But that is what is just so sinister about it. When we like someone, we are less willing to critique them or call them out on something. Rigg’s sexism is so over-the-top and “playful” that it becomes normalized. It appears less harmful, although he’s preying on real attitudes. And the thing about sexism is that it isn’t just words. You don’t just hurt women’s feelings. Sexism is sinister because it is tangible. Words reflect thoughts, which is a person’s character, and eventual actions.

The things Riggs and some of the men in this movie say are scary because we almost don’t take them seriously. They are the “lovable misogynists,” and they validate men who want to do the same. There are many, many men in power who have used their lovableness and “cluelessness” to allow them to say, and then do, horrible things. It doesn’t matter that Bobby Riggs may not mean it, or his wife loves him or he’s a good dad or whatever. “Boys will be boys,” “It’s just locker room talk,” are excuses. It wasn’t appropriate then, and it doesn’t become less appropriate just because one representative woman “proved the worth” of all womankind.

There was one thing I felt missing as I walked away from Battle of the Sexes. I never got a strong establishment of the time period. Outside of tennis, what was sexism like in the wider American culture? How did people perceive the famous match? Did it really make any difference to women outside of sports? What did it mean to have one woman represent all women? Did Billie Jean King feel that burden going forwards? The film doesn’t answer any of those questions, leaving the impression that it isn’t nearly as interested in that subject as it is in its main protagonist and her love affair.

Making the main angle Billie Jean’s personal story is a good choice, though, because the typical sports story about overcoming adversity and winning has been done. That happens here, but it’s short and sweet at the end, and isn’t really the point. Winning the match for women is here, and it’s important, but by making the focus even narrower, a woman’s tumultuous time in her life, winning the match becomes bigger. It’s a matter of life and death for Billie Jean’s soul.

With those kind of stakes, it’s way more than just a show.

-Madeleine D

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Behind the Meat Dress: Gaga: Five Foot Two

Gaga: Five Foot Two

If you don’t keep up with music news, then you might not have realized that last year was a pretty big deal for Lady Gaga.

The infamous singer, known for her elaborate costumes, makeup, songs, and persona, with her army of “little monsters,” underwent a huge brand change in 2016. She performed her nominated song at the Oscars (“Till It Happens To You”), won a Golden Globe for her role in American Horror Story, released her new soft rock/pop country album “Joanne” and played the Super Bowl halftime show this year. And this whole time, she’s apparently been being filmed by a documentary crew.

Right off the bat, it’s easy to write off Netflix and Chris Moukarbel’s Gaga: Five Foot Two (referring to her height) as a nice promotional piece. It is that, to some degree. I don’t personally know enough about Lady Gaga to say how die-hard fans will feel about the image she portrays here. We’ll never know how much of the footage was edited or left out. But what I saw, as someone who just had a public-mass view of Lady Gaga, was different from what I thought I knew about Lady Gaga. Suddenly, it’s not as easy to write off this film.

It is rare to see anyone, particularly a star, be able to show how complicated a person can be. Stefani Germanotta can be Lady Gaga. She can wear the meat dress and the white tee and shorts. She can be hunched over in excruciating pain and still incorporate it into a dance. She can be in a room of people and still seem alone. She can celebrate the LGBTQ community and be a part of a tight-knit Catholic family and love and be loved by them. We are walking contradictions in our own lives, but it seems unnatural to expect that from celebrities, who have to market a personal brand. It’s almost uncomfortable to see them demonstrate that they are like the rest of us, not because they mess up sometimes or are “super relatable,” but because they have as many contradictions and layers in their lives as we do. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that expressed as well as it was here.

The doc works because we have such an ingrained sense of who Lady Gaga is, we don’t have to see her “do” that persona. We see her behind-the-scenes personality, then contrast it with our own, and realize the complexity behind that.

And, helping us along the way as we try to figure out who this woman really is, is Gaga herself. She has moments of startling clarity and reflection. She talks about how her insecurities have kept her hiding behind the stage makeup and costumes and elaborate stunts. But in the same scene she gushes over her love of fashion and how she’s trying to find that balance between the high glamour she loves and the more natural image she’s trying to reveal. She voices the anxieties of women in the workplace, how the industry tried to change her, how she tried to rebel against it, and how she knows she’s more privileged than most and how her money helps her cope with her medical problems. She’s thoughtful, and she can say it while shirtless in one scene and backstage smoking in another. She’s many things at once, like we all are.

If you aren’t interested in music pop culture or don’t have any tolerance for celebrity gossip, then this might not be your film, no matter how good it is. But if you are interested in any of that stuff, even just a little, then this is well worth your time. This star-doc is well-directed and put together, but is different from others of its kind.

What makes Gaga: Five Foot Two different is Gaga herself. She has the entire doc on her shoulders, and as she proves, she can carry the whole show.

-Madeleine D

Even Keanu Reeves Can’t Save You: To The Bone

To The Bone

I initially wanted to watch Netflix’s To The Bone because I wanted to understand how to help my friends who have eating disorders. And I really like Lily Collins. We have similar eyebrows.

As news came out about the film, though, it became even more intriguing. Suddenly it was controversial. Should Collins, who struggled with anorexia as a teenager, have lost weight for the role? Didn’t that put her at risk? Is depicting eating disorders going to trigger those who struggle with them? Does it glamorize them? And should Netflix be making movies anyway? Aren’t movies only for theaters and big studios?

But once I actually pushed “play” on To The Bone all of the controversy melted away. I was instantly engrossed by the story of Ellen (played by Collins), a 20 year old with anorexia nervosa who has tried seemingly everything. Her last hope, a group home led by the unconventional Dr. Beckham (Keanu Reeves) may be what she needs, but Ellen isn’t even sure if she wants to get better.

The first thing that is striking about To The Bone is that it is very insider-baseball. The dialogue and details in the film could only have been made by someone who had close experience with eating disorders. And it turns out it was. Writer and director Marti Noxon has struggled with eating disorders. That means that with her and star Collins, the whole production was creatively led by women who had intimate insights into the psychology of eating disorders. They know what they’re talking about, and the film does, too.

But this made me feel misled. I thought I was going to watch a film about solutions. And while there are some suggested, it’s not what the film is about. It’s a message to fellow victims of eating disorders, not to the people around them. Noxon’s message is about choosing to change. Choosing to try, and choosing to live.

Because it’s such a life-affirming film, it is forced to  walk a tricky balance between being cheesy and being truthful. It mostly walks the line well, but sometimes it stumbles. Some critics have critiqued the film in the moments where it goes “inspirational,” and a character comments on it (like, “you’re trying to make us love life, Doctor”). These critics say the film uses bathos. Heck, I’ve criticized films for doing that. But I don’t think it is a problem here.

The difference is that To the Bone is making a statement. The inspirational, life-is-beautiful moments do not change the character. Therefore, when the character comments on it and has a snarky remark, it’s not the writer bailing out on a scene- it’s the movie saying to its audience, “We understand that people say this stuff to you and it isn’t working.” If this were a film that was just using bathos, the character would comment, but still be affected by the inspirational moment.

Ultimately, the message of the film is that no one person is able to make Ellen want to live. It’s a lot of things, but ultimately, it’s her decision.

That’s an idea I haven’t seen on screen recently, and it’s a lot better than the European-vacation-romance-makes-me-want-to-live story shown in book/movies like Me Before You and The Fault in Our Stars.

Noxon and Collins pull the curtain back on the mind of a person with an eating disorder. It’s not the sunset beaches or cool museums or kisses that are going to save them. They’ll probably call you out on it, as Ellen does to the well-intended characters in the film. It’s a personal choice, and it’s one that the film asks its intended audience to make.

As someone who doesn’t struggle with eating disorders, I can’t say whether To The Bone would be troubling for some. It is an unflinching look at what eating disorders do to the body, the soul, and the lives of loved ones. It’s also a well-acted and thoughtful film, with one of the coolest metaphorical baptism scenes I have ever seen.  If you watch it, watch it with discretion, but I think it is worth anyone’s time.

-Madeleine D

Thanks, Dad : The Glass Castle

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*Light spoilers ahead

I’m going to be honest. If there is one trope I don’t get tired of, it’s the crazy father trope. I love it in my books, I love it in my movies, and it’s nothing new in our culture. All the best villains and heroes have daddy issues (Luke, I am your father, anyone?). I’ve always found the trope fascinating. Maybe because of its insight into human psychology and how Freudian it can be. Maybe because it feels so removed from me personally, as I have a wonderful father who loves me enough to edit this review. Either way, it’s always been intriguing.

But this film with its eccentric father isn’t dealing with fiction. This is real life. Based on Jeannette Wall’s memoir of the same name about her tumultuous childhood under an alcoholic father and neglectful mother, The Glass Castle juggles tragedy wrapped up in childhood innocence. Hearing a story like that is a reminder that this archetype has roots in very real, dark places.

Something I admired when I read Wall’s memoir was the matter-of-factness the book had. When describing her childhood, Walls never indulged in sentimentality or despair. Instead, she told the events through the eyes of her childhood self. Traumatic events were sometimes viewed as exciting adventures when framed to her by her father. The realization of how abusive her situation was came later. Walls never diminished what happened, but instead put it into perspective. It was clear to me while reading that Walls never let her upbringing become excuses, which is very admirable.

There is that quality in this film, too, until the end. Up until then, the scenes of Walls’ childhood play out with a lack of exploitation. When her father Rex (Woody Harrelson) explains to Jeanette (played as a child by Ella Anderson and Chandler Head, played as an adult by Brie Larson) that sneaking out of a hospital is an exciting adventure, there is playful music because that is how child Jeanette is perceiving it. When an older Jeanette realizes her father stole her college money, the scene is darker and the music is gone, because Jeanette has matured enough to understand the true situation. Any reflections on the events take place in the adult-Jeanette scenes, which is how the memoir is written. I liked how the story, for the most part, let it speak for itself. It would be very tempting to do the opposite, especially in a story like this that deals with children.

All of this subtlety falters near the end, though, when director and co-screenwriter Destin Daniel Cretton gets antsy and decides the audience can’t figure out the metaphors for themselves. Brie Larson is saddled with having to explain the glass castle metaphor from the title, the similarities between Jeanette and Rex, the strengths of the family, the power of forgiveness, the complexities of fatherhood, and so on. It’s a shame, because I think the movie does such a good job letting the story find its own significance and importance, without having to assert it in a preachy manner.

The performances elevate the script, though, and Brie Larson and the rest of the cast are up to the task of the more heavy-handed moments. I haven’t seen Room, so I finally got to see Ms. Larson and how good of an actress she is. I’m definitely ready for her to play Captain Marvel.

Woody Harrelson is the other star, though, and he is phenomenal. There are a lot of times he could have chewed scenery and done very Woody Harrelson-y things, but he never does. He dances between manic and sober, enlightening and pessimistic in every scene, but it never rings false. His unpredictability keeps the film and the audience on their toes, making the story feel even more real. The child actors also are all fantastic.

The ending aside, whether you learn the story of the Walls family through the excellent memoir or the good film, it’s still a story worth taking to heart. It is a discussion of nature versus nurture, the importance of parents and their influence, the resilience of children, and the ultimate power of hope and forgiveness. It is also a reminder that earthly fathers may fail, but there is one who does not.

-Madeleine D

Do Not See The Emoji Movie

The-Emoji-Movie

Like all well-intentioned people, I didn’t mean to see The Emoji Movie. But life happened, and I saw it.

For all the parents out there, I understand. You just need to get the kids to be quiet for an hour and a half. Non-parents, I’m sympathetic. You think it can’t be that bad.

If you want to get the experience of The Emoji Movie without seeing it, go outside when it is 110 degrees. Sit in a metal dumpster, then set the dumpster on fire. Bring all of your favorite books, movies, and music with you. As all of that creativity and inventiveness (because no matter your tastes, I’m sure it will be better than this) burns around you, you will understand The Emoji Movie. The amount of effort put in the title of this Sony flick is how much effort was put into the film.

If you are a parent and are looking at Fandango anxiously, your fingers inching towards the “buy ticket” button, because it’s Summer and you just need a break, please bring your child over to my house. I will personally babysit them for an hour and a half, just to spare their innocence, and increase the brainpower of the future generation.

To say anymore about this piece of 💩 would be to give it more thought than it got during its entire two years of production.

-Madeleine D

Revealing Humanity Without Humans: War for the Planet of the Apes

war ftpota

*Spoilers ahead

“Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heaven, and let us make a name for ourselves, let us be dispersed over the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth” (Genesis 11: 4-9).

“And Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord. And he looked down towards Sodom and Gomorrah and towards all the land of the valley, and he looked and, behold, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace. So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley” (Genesis 19: 27-29).

These verses are here not just because I think the makers of War For the Planet Of The Apes would appreciate them, but also because they perfectly set up the atmosphere and morality explored in this last entry of the Planet of the Apes trilogy.

War for the Planet of the Apes begins where the second film left off. Caesar (the phenomenal Andy Serkis) is the leader of his band of enhanced apes. He is forced to fight a war that a crazy ape named Koba started before he died. Caesar tries to make peace with the humans he’s fighting against, led by a zealot Colonel (Woody Harrelson) but when his own family is murdered, he drops everything to carry out a revenge mission against the Colonel.

War FTPOTA is not only a visual feast, but uses its effects to serve its science fiction premise to the fullest. It does what science fiction is supposed to do: make us think about our world. This apocalyptic story about apes overtaking humans is simply a vehicle to ask bigger questions. What is the primary difference between humans and animals? Is it language? If so, what about people who can’t talk? If animals achieve human language, then what determines it? If there were a plague that infected your loved ones but put others at risk, what would you do? Is revenge ever justified? What makes a leader?

War FTPOTA asks big questions, and expresses itself through poignant imagery. It isn’t always subtle. There are strong Apocalypse Now parallels, to the point where some graffiti is shown that says “Ape-pocalypse Now.” It is the second film of the year to feature animals re-enacting a kind of holocaust (the first being Netflix’s Okja) and it loves religious imagery, too. Caesar is hung up on a cross and is pierced in his side. The Colonel, in explaining his backstory, says, “I sacrificed my only son to save humanity.”

It might not be subtle, but it’s interesting. War FTPOTA uses intertextuality to make this story bring in stories we already know to increase the emotional impact. It no longer seems as foreign, because we recognize the archetypes, just re-enacted with apes.

The film goes big with imagery, and it goes big in messages. War FTPOTA is political. All art is to some degree, because every creator has a worldview that impacts their work. But this film has a villain that is trying to build a border wall (I know the film was made before Trump became big, but still). It combines warfare and religious imagery, muses on how the ability to speak and use language defines us as human beings (consider the verses about the Tower of Babel above), and gives a compelling story about failed leadership. Caesar has been the leader of the apes for two movies now, and in this movie, he falls. Great leaders are ones that put aside their personal desires for the cause of the group. Here, Caesar lets himself get personal with the humans. When his vendetta becomes his focus, the entire group falls, and everyone suffers the consequences. While he is able to do the right thing in the end, he still dies.

With that storyline, it’s impossible not to see similarities to this year’s Logan, a film I loved. Both feature the patriarchs of a franchise showing wear and tear. They become father figures to young girls who don’t speak, fight military men to get across a border, take their charges to a safe Eden-esque place, and die. I don’t know quite what that pattern says about today’s culture, except that a maybe a lot of filmmakers are becoming parents and are trying to make blockbusters more prestigious, but again, I’m interested. I’m intrigued.

In the end though, if this movie proves anything, it is, say it with me:

Give!      Andy!       Serkis!      An!       Oscar!

Motion capture acting is real acting, and it’s about time the Academy at least acknowledges it. His performance as Caesar is emotional and intimate, yet stoic. The entire cast takes the project seriously, and it shows.

War for the Planet of the Apes exceeded all of my expectations. In the two weeks before seeing the film, I watched five war-themed films (Saving Private Ryan, Joyeux Noel, Their Finest, Hunt for Red October, and Dunkirk). I would easily count this new Apes film among those. War films should reveal something about humankind at large, and War FTPOTA does that and more.

-Madeleine D

Rockabye Baby: Baby Driver

baby-driver

Every year there is a film that blows up at a film festival. There is tremendous hype for it as it moves from the festival circuit to wide release. There is a wave of rave reviews, Oscar predictions, and the main actors start signing major deals. Sometimes the film rides to the Oscars and lives up to its hype. But more times than not, it disappears a few months later and becomes lost.

This year, the breakout star of the SXSW (South by Southwest) film festival was Edgar Wright (The Cornetto Trilogy, Scott Pilgrim Versus the World) with Baby Driver. Can the film about a getaway driver survive in a summer of superheroes, transformers, and minions?

Baby Driver tells the story of Baby (Ansel Elgort) a young man paying off a debt to crime boss Doc (played by Kevin Spacey). He is a getaway driver who uses music on his iPod to drown out a ringing he has in his ears from a childhood accident. When Baby meets Debora (Lily James) he decides he wants to get out of his line of work and run away with her. And he will, Doc assures him. He just has one last job.

Edgar Wright is a director known for directing. That sounds weird to say, but it’s true. A lot of directors helm fine movies and are good at orchestrating the production of a film. But when Wright directs, he directs. The film is his breathing, living organism. And that applies to Baby Driver. Every scene is handmade, every detail significant. It simply isn’t a film that could be made by anybody else. Because of that, Baby Driver radiates passion, and I love when a movie does that. The more it seems like the filmmaker was dying to make the movie, the more I’m dying to see it.

For those who are here for a particular actor, I’m happy to inform you everyone turns in good performances here. It’s an ensemble film, though, so it’s the energy and personality of all the actors together that make the film tick along.

Speaking of ticking along, a major selling point of the film is the soundtrack. Almost every scene is set to rock n’ roll, making it like a musical where nobody sings. While it sometimes dances towards the line of being a gimmick, it mostly gives the film a surreal quality.  It ends up serving the film well, and makes the crazy climax feel more grounded.

The best compliment I can give Baby Driver is that it is unique, and in a summer where there are a lot of movies that are retreading old ground, unique is refreshing. Edgar Wright has created something that is a complete blast while still being smart and thought-provoking. It made me want to run out to my car and drive  around with my favorite playlist.  Did I? You’ll never know. But try and tell me you don’t feel the same way when you see it.

-Madeleine D