The Pitch: Fifteen-love. (In other words, I’ll get fifteen grand, you get us a drink, love.)
The Review: Despite loving to watch all kinds of it – I’ve taken two weeks off work to watch the Olympics before now – I was terrible at sport at school. In seven years of grammar school I played rugby matches for my house’s C-team, one match for my house’s D-team at cricket before I was substituted at half time and never played again, and was so bad at athletics I once finished a race to discover the teacher had given up and gone in. We did have tennis courts but I never came close to picking up a racket, knowing that I would have comfortably been the worst in my year, or possibly any year. Serve and volley? I’d be happy to accomplish 50% of that. Once. Of course, I went to an all boy’s school, so maybe I’d have had a match at a mixed school.
Don’t worry, I’m not a raging chauvinist, clearly all of the girls would have beaten me as well. (A one-armed monkey with one arm tied behind its back could have given me a decent game, but let’s not go there.) But these were the attitudes prevalent in tennis back when I was born in the Seventies. It’s been an ongoing struggle for women since then to get to parity with their male equivalents. Take, for example, the view that “… our men’s tennis world, the ATP world, should fight for more, because the stats are showing we have more spectators” and that “…[Ladies’] bodies are much different than men’s bodies. They have to go through a lot of different things that we don’t have to go through… You know, hormones and different stuff.” That would be depressing enough coming from the mouth of a misogynist Seventies tennis pro, but it was actually said by former world number one Novak Djokovic in 2016.
The new film from Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, RUBY SPARKS) takes us back to the dawn of a revolution in tennis. Billie Jean King was at the top of her game, five-time Grand Slam winner and world number one, but when her frustration at the gap in tournament pay became too great, she and eight other tennis professionals broke away to form their own tournament. When hearing of this, retired champion Bobby Riggs, now in his fifties and addicted to gambling, challenged King to a winner-takes-all match to prove even an older man could comfortably beat a top woman. When King refused, fellow professional Margaret Court stepped in but after being handed a thrashing by Riggs, King had no choice but to step up to defend the honour of all women on the court.
Whether you’re male or female, BATTLE OF THE SEXES represents excellent value for money as it’s three films rolled into one. The first of those is the gender inequality battle, pitching Emma Stone’s King against Steve Carell’s Riggs. This film is broadly comedic, playing to Carell’s strengths as hustler Riggs becomes emboldened by his seemingly effortless superiority. Stone has to butt heads with chauvinist-in-chief of the tennis tour Jack Kramer (a typically smarmy Bill Pullman) while supported by Gladys Heldman, who gets sponsorship for their new ladies’ tour and backs King’s activist impulses. The only real quibble is that Stone’s King feels oddly passive at times, undoubtedly committed to her cause but the fervour never really rising to the surface.
It’s the second of the three films mixed in here that’s the most compelling, where King explores feelings for her hairdresser Marilyn, despite being on the surface happily married. It’s a time when taboos of gender can easily be confronted, if not so easily broken down, but those of sexuality have to remain firmly in the closet in service of the greater cause. Andrea Riseborough plays Marilyn and hers and Stone’s relationship is tender and their moral dilemmas sketched out believably. The film makes the most of the Seventies setting, from costumes to cinematography, and the warm visual glow afforded to their more private moments justifies pushing the aesthetic as far as possible. Again, if there’s one quibble it’s that King’s husband Larry feels little more than a plot cipher.
The third and final film is the one where we have the biggest problems. For as much as BATTLE OF THE SEXES seems embarrassed by it, it’s a film about tennis, and it’s the sports elements that are by far the weakest. Don’t get me wrong, sports films can sometimes feel desperately predetermined in their dramatic arc, especially when many viewers will already know the result, but the best of them can still give you a thrill and the sporting elements have the feel of someone who’s only ever watched sport on TV and most likely under duress. There’s never any sense of the tactical nous King employed or seemingly any interest in making the tennis more than a distraction; at some points it’s not even readily apparent who’s winning, sucking any excitement from the spectacle served up.
So Dayton and Faris’ film ticks plenty of boxes, satisfying as a human drama, entertaining as a comedy but serving up a double fault when it comes to the actual sport. That said, it should still drive the point home about the continuing disparity in the pay in professional sport; despite the Grand Slam tournaments now paying women and men equally, the top women will still earn about half of their male equivalents, which means that this battle is one that still needs to be fought, and it can just about consider BATTLE OF THE SEXES a worthy ally in that struggle.
Why see it at the cinema: The comedic elements of the film undoubtedly work better with an audience for company, and seeing it on a large screen helps to follow the tennis because it’s all shot statically from above as if on TV.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for infrequent moderate sex. (Don’t worry, the only balls you see are on court.)
My cinema experience: The joys of press screenings at the London Film Festival mean that this film started at 8:15 a.m., for me, when it’s a two-hour journey into London, that’s an early start. Always nice to know that you have the leopard print seats and awkwardly angled screen of the Odeon Leicester Square to look forward to at the end of your epic trek. In particular, the sound can get very muffled at points; it’s a shame that London’s largest showcase for film (with over 1,600 seats) isn’t also its best.
The Score: 7/10
The Pitch: What We Talk About When We Talk About Films With Dominating Technical Conceits Released In The Middle Of Awards Season.
The Review: Alejandro González Iñárritu was the first Mexican director to be nominated for an Oscar, but his back catalogue of films have a more serious reputation than those of his contemporaries Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo Del Toro, the latter winning over the geek crowd with his highly detailed fantasies and the former becoming increasingly renowned for his long single takes in films such as Children Of Men and last year’s Gravity which saw an opening of seventeen minutes and you wonder if this left Iñárritu challenged to determine if it would be possible to construct an entire film in such a manner with modern technical wizardry just as applicable to the grounded, real world as it is to space, perhaps even more so if you restrict the movements of your characters to a single location, in this case a theatre where Michael Keaton’s tortured former superhero actor Riggan Thompson, star of the now defunct Birdman trilogy, is attempting an act of self-redemption with the production of a Broadway play in which his direction and acting are becoming unbalanced by his alter ego whispering provocatively in his ear even while his producer and lawyer friend (Zack Galifianakis) does his best to keep the sinking ship afloat, his daughter (Emma Stone) attempts to be an assistant while sorting out her own addiction issues and the last minute replacement (Edward Norton) brings a Method madness which complicates his role and threatens to derail the production before it gets to opening night after a series of previews which we see unfolding over the course of several days, possibly even weeks, as we and the characters roam the inner hallways, the stage, the roof and occasionally the streets of the theatre while the script by a team of writers including Iñárritu attempts to understand the conflict between acting and the nature of celebrity and how much one can be compromised by the other but the arguments feel dated and the pot-shots at the real life actors name checked in the early scenes feel cheap and unearned, Riggan’s silent partner of the gravelly Batman voice and seeming telekinetic ability proving further distractions and potentially exploring interesting ideas but like a hyperactive child attempting maths problems it never sits still for long enough to allow you to consider the solution, the tangents to the subplots involving Norton’s rooftop conversations with Stone and scenes with Riggan’s performer girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and his leading lady (Naomi Watts) offering some of the best character moments but sucking the momentum from the overall narrative which has the surface feeling of a stage play but in both its internal conceit and the overall effect lacks the natural vocabulary of either stage play or film, the first forty minutes in particular being a succession of scenes which are staged without any variation in tone or pitch and which become plagued by the fourth wall breaking jazz drum score from Antonio Sanchez which initially drives tension but increasingly becomes an irritant as the whole language of film is gradually dispensed with in a way that many have regarded as a supreme technical achievement – and it is – but never manages to rise above being anything more than that, and if by now you’re thinking that my attempt to write this entire review in a single sentence is even more of a a cheap trick than the one I’m calling attention to, then that’s exactly my point: as the play unfolds over two hours without the normal breaths and pauses that standard filming or cutting provides it became for me as punishing to watch as I presume reading this review has become for you and for that I genuinely apologise, if you haven’t given up already but then you wouldn’t been reading this part anyway so ignore me, and anyway you get the benefit of punctuation and the best the film can do to shake things up is a disappointingly brief but vibrant scene where Birdman is brought thrillingly to life, because the narcissistic fabrication that Iñárritu has fashioned so exhausted me with its constant demands to observe every element of the foreground and background and its inability to resolve any of its subplots to any degree of satisfaction that its only joy comes from within the moment, rather than by being able to appreciate the film as a complete work and maybe this another one of those cases like Magic Eye paintings where everyone who can do them thinks they’re brilliant but people like me who see differently find it commendable that so many others enjoy it but personally can’t help but be incredibly frustrated by the whole experience, and while many of those isolated moments are enjoyable, often filmed in long, technically demanding takes which undersell the efforts the actors would have invested in them, the end never justifies the means and the final irony being that half of the best moments are in the trailer but they’re actually more gratifying when taken out of context than assembled into an overwhelming stream of consciousness that hopefully means that now we’ve seen this once, in service of a story that’s less successful at skewering celebrity culture and acting than TV series such as The Larry Sanders Show were twenty years ago and one which also strives for magical realism but ends up confounding itself like a magic trick without a prestige, Iñárritu might stop attempting to one-up his fellow Mexicans and learn how to subvert standard narrative conventions as effectively as he did in his early films rather that in this award-baiting torture that is rightly earning plaudits for a Keaton renaissance and for strong work from the rest of the cast but which sadly doesn’t merit the remainder of the praise being heaped upon it.
Why see it at the cinema? If you want to play Spot The Joins, then you stand the best chance of doing that in the cinema. And good luck to you. Since pretty much every aspect of the production is ramped up to 11, you may as well do that with your viewing experience as well.
What about the rating? Rated 15 for strong language, sex references. If it’s come to the point where fourteen year olds can’t be allowed to hear two grown adults laying in bed and talking about having sex, which is what the BBFC extended classification info would seem to suggest, then maybe we should all give up and go home.
My cinema experience: The first of what I expect to be dozens of uses of my Cineworld Unlimited card, on this occasion at their Cambridge branch. Just a shame that I’d already paid to see it a week earlier at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton before a clogged up motorway and a broken down train on the Central Line scuppered my plans.
The Score: 6/10
The Pitch: Oh what a tangled web(b) we weave…
The Review: There was no question for me who the coolest superhero was when I was a child. (Not least because I was only aware of three.) For while Superman could turn back time and Batman had a sidekick and a utility belt, Spider-Man could climb up walls and spin webs from his hands! Not only that, but in one telling cliffhanger of his TV series he fell off a building, but saved himself by spinning a web to catch himself as he fell! And he got the coolest lines of any of them. These are the kind of things that unnecessarily excite a six year old child, but we now live in a world where every superhero is restricted to an audience no younger than 12 unless they have their parents in tow. Now on our fifth Spider-Man film – the last two, as was the TV series, called Amazing – what does the latest incarnation offer us now it’s got its origin story out of the way?
Nothing particularly amazing is the perhaps unsurprising answer. Marc Webb demonstrates again that his version does have an edge or two over Sam Raimi’s original, firstly in the key personnel. Andrew Garfield is a more satisfying Peter Parker / Spidey than Tobey Maguire ever was, for all the strengths of Sam Raimi’s trilogy, and his chemistry with Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacey keeps the film afloat during some of the quieter periods. Sally Field also continues to charm despite being noticeably younger than her comic-book counterpart. The web-swinging and slinging continues to be refined on a film by film basis, and the action scenes make the most of the athletic, gymnastic lead, so there’s certainly a decent amount to satisfy your Spider senses.
The problems start with the villains. We have three, but none are as effective as they might be. Jamie Foxx feels miscast as the pre-transformation Electro, and his character is completely mislaid for large stretches in the middle of the film. He still fares better than Paul Giamatti, whose appearances bookend the film and you might just have worked out who he is by the end of the second of them. Dane DeHaan is an improvement over James Franco’s rather static Harry Osborn, but his relationship with Peter has a hollow, unconvincing feel to it and his transformation into the latest incarnation of a familiar villain is based on some dodgy fudging of the mythology. There’s also a certain amount of franchise sowing going on, from Felicity Jones’ extended cameo to the costumes of future bad guys in the background; the main problem is you can’t help feeling you’d have preferred those costumes to be the ones being worn this time out.
While Webb marshals the action scenes clinically, he’s less successful at wrangling the script from Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jeff Pinkner. Kurtzman and Orci recently announced they would go their separate ways as a writing duo, and on the evidence of this (and Cowboys & Aliens, two Transformers movies and their dreadful effort for Star Trek Into Darkness) it can’t come soon enough. Even three minds aren’t enough to deliver a script that rises above the generic and predictable, spending so much time on the origins of its new characters that it never surprises with the older ones. If you, like me, can’t remember much of what happened in the original of this sequence, you’ll appreciate the extensive catch-ups woven in – which in turn drag the running time out to a testing two hours and twenty – but none of that can help overcome the plodding predictability or prepare you for the slightly sickening crassness of the way in which the climactic twist is staged. When the Marvel properties at Disney are learning and developing, Sony’s Spider-Man just feels like it’s retreading the same mistakes. With two more films and spin-offs already in the early stages of production, they’re going to have to learn the lessons quickly to return Spider-Man to the place of my favourite.
Why see it at the cinema: The web-work is undoubtedly the most impressive yet in the series, and although I saw it in 2D, everything suggested those elements would work well with an extra dimension if you’re so inclined. The action scenes can get a bit busy, so seeing them in a cinema will help work out who’s hitting who with what at key moments.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for moderate violence and threat. The BBFC descriptions become ever more dramatic, including on this occasion the line, “Human characters transform into scary looking super-villains, with close-ups on their creepy looking eyes and skin.” Find me an eleven year old who’s creeped out by this lot.
My cinema experience: A Friday late night showing at the Cineworld in Cambridge. The staff kindly – and firmly – pointed out upon my arrival around 11:20 p.m. that there was nothing at the end of the credits. Not only a generous public service but also undoubtedly a group of people who would be kept working an extra seven minutes at 1:30 a.m. by a bunch of nerds waiting for a clip that never comes. I stayed for the bizarre mid-credits X-Men advert (designed to fulfil a contractual obligation of Marc Webb’s) and then made my excuses.
The Score: 6/10
The Graphical Review:
Why see it at the cinema: The imagery is undeniably impressive, but the sparsity of laughs makes this one for families who really do have nothing much better to do. I’d wager older children or middle-aged movie bloggers will enjoy this more than the majority of youngsters.
Why see it in 3D: It’s brightened up enough that the normal sunglasses-indoors issues aren’t too much of a problem, but there’s not a huge amount of things coming out of the screen or much in the way of extra depth to perceive. 2D fine if you have to pay a premium.
What about the rating: Rated U for mild threat. The U rating suggests a film is suitable for any child aged four and upwards, and I can’t disagree with that. Expect some of the tinier ones to be just a tad bored, though.
My cinema experience: A surprisingly sparse Saturday afternoon showing in the largest screen at the Cambridge Cineworld. No projection or sound issues, although the brightest moment was provided by the young audience member who did the monkey impersonation. All together now, “da-da-DAAAAH!”
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: Twenty three minutes, and thanks to it being a U-rated film we were mercifully spared the latest EE Kevin Bacon advert.
The Score: 6/10
The Review: When they come to write the history books, they’ll hopefully note the key cultural touchstones of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The impact of 9/11. An actual Big Brother. Krispy Kremes hitting the UK (and shortly after, my waistline). But one which has as good a chance as any as standing the test of time is the comic book movie adaptation. It’s a genre that first took root in the late seventies with Superman: The Movie and has seen some iconic names captured on celluloid, and many now more than once. For any children of the Seventies or Eighties, there are probably three comic book heroes that stand out, that endure the test of time and that seemingly now need to be reinvented for cinema every ten years or so. While this year sees the end of another Batman cycle, it also sees the start of the third, and most relatable – unless you happen to be a billionaire or an alien, anyway – spandex-clad hero on another round of adventures, and this time Spider-Man is back and making claims to be Amazing. It’s a bold statement, especially when two-thirds of Sam Raimi’s web-slinging saga are still so fondly remembered.
Part of the reason – but by no means whole story – of why Nolan’s Bat-saga has succeeded less than a generation after Burton and Schumaker has their stab at interpreting the mythology is down to how much Nolan and co managed to differentiate their version in both style and substance. It’s not just a case of a different story; other than a man who dresses like a bat and a lunatic in clown make-up, the two approaches have little in common and are all the better for it. So it’s easy to criticise The Amazing Spider-Man for its lack of differentiation, but for all the attempts to bring in additions such as the parents’ back story, there’s an awful lot here that feels an awful lot like Raimi’s Spider-Man. Substitute a lizard for a guy in green on a flying skateboard and you’re practically into remake territory. For those questioning whether it was worth going back to the web quite so soon, the answer is far from a definitive yes.
Raimi’s original Spider-Man wasn’t perfect by any means, and Webb’s version gets as much wrong – especially the odd design of the main antagonist – but it also gets a fair amount right. First and foremost is the casting, which nails its Spidey in the form of Andrew Garfield, all teenage irritability and learning hard lessons as he tries to become a hero, more fuelled by vengeance than altruism in this take and willing to risk making himself genuinely unlikeable for long stretches. By way of contrast, Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacey doesn’t look much like a teenager but does have more charm and charisma than either Kirsten Dunst or Bryce Dallas Howard managed. Martin Sheen makes a memorable Uncle Ben and Dennis Leary a suitably stern authority figure. The let-downs are Rhys Ifans, never quite able to exude the level of menace required and a rather wet and unsympathetic turn from Sally Field as Aunt May.
It’s fair to say that balance of good and bad is also about what The Amazing Spider-Man manages as a whole. Taken on its own terms, there’s a lot to like, with a couple of satisfying action set pieces and a slightly darker tone than you might expect. This does mean that the Spidey wisecracking gets limited to the odd scene or two, and while the romance is good and the web swinging looks authentic, what’s really missing is just a little more fun. It’s a shame as we know director Mark Webb can certainly deliver that, based on his previous effort, (500) Days of Summer, but it’s just about enjoyable enough on its own terms. But there’s an elephant-sized spider in the room; Raimi’s original casts such a cloud that you can almost feel the gears straining as TASM attempts to avoid covering the same ground, and there would have been no shame in wheeling out the same catchphrase about power and responsibility, with this film coming off slightly worse for it. In terms of those cultural touchstones, one looms larger than any other, and the Spider-man series we’ve just had felt like a better reaction to the the mood of the times, as did Nolan’s Dark Knight (but for completely different reasons). When the most that TASM feels like a reaction to is the Twilight movies, you can’t help but feel that this is a reboot too far, too soon.
Why see it at the cinema: Spider geeks will find plenty to enjoy, and the web-slinging action is as crisp and as wide scale as it’s ever been.
Why see it in 3D: I nearly didn’t put 3D on this review, so anonymous is the extra dimension. While there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s absolutely not essential unless you’re a 3D obsessive.
The Score: 7/10 (if you ignore the 2002 Spider-Man, knock at least a point off if you don’t)
The Review: Fancy a challenge getting decent parts in the movies? Then try being a middle-aged black woman. (I appreciate this is more of a fact of birth than a life choice, but bear with me.) Hollywood, and to a certain extent the acting profession in general, is still dominated by white males. If you’re only ticking one of those boxes it’s hard enough, but two strikes and you’ve almost no chance. If you then happen to be middle-aged as well and your name isn’t an anagram of Ghoopi Woldberg, then you might as well give up now. So when suitable parts come along, you’d be mad not to grab them with both hands if you fall into that particular demographic, so it’s hard to fault the likes of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for signing up to appear in The Help.
Viola Davis has already been making a name for herself, and it’s one that rolls off the tongue more easily than Ghoopi Woldberg. Credits including a Tony award and an Oscar nomination (for a role in Doubt where she was onscreen for less than ten minutes) almost make her the obvious choice for a role like this, but The Help is a film full of strong female roles. Emma Stone is front and centre on the poster as Skeeter, the determined young writer who senses injustice and a story that might be going hand and hand, which soon sees her coming into conflict with the most prominent of the town’s young ladies Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard). Skeeter attempts to get Aibileen (Davis) to tell her story, but Aibileen fears the consequences and the reprisals and it may not be enough for her to stand alone.
What’s good about The Help is those performances, which are of a high standard across the board. Stone is resolute and persistent, battling against family expectations as well as those of society. Howard gets a slightly thankless role in some ways, but is believably haughty and eminently dislikeable. The real stand-outs, though, are Jessica Chastain as the woman sidelined by Hilly who starts out as comic relief but turns out to be something more substantial, Chastain excelling ; Octavia Spencer as Minny, Hilly’s maid who isn’t afraid to voice her opinions and who adds charm and heart; and Davis herself, with a past full of secrets that Stone is determined to get to the bottom of. Davis is the emotional centre of the film, often getting little dialogue at the side of scenes, but fierce and intense when the story requires it. There’s excellent support from the likes of Alison Janney and Sissy Spacek in motherly roles, but the men are almost as marginalised in the film as the black maids of the time were in real life.
Ah yes, real life. For all the shots of concerned people of every colour watching Martin Luther King on television, The Help isn’t keen on being upfront with its dealings of racism. There are episodes of Quantum Leap that do more to tackle head on issues of colour in that era, and that was a TV series starring two middle aged white guys. (Heck, there are episodes of Diff’rent Strokes that do more to tackle racism issues – this really is only one step up from The Cosby Show.) The films falls firmly into the trap of what Spike Lee and others called the Magical Negro; black characters acting in a purely advisory capacity to the white characters who actually take action. Despite serving the intent of the story, you can’t help but feeling it’s done more than a little disservice to hundreds of years of struggle for racial equality. (But hey, there’s good acting and some reasonable laughs, so that’s all right then…) So if you come to The Help expecting a genuine exploration of the hardships facing black maids in Sixties Mississippi, turn around and head home now; this is kitchen sink drama at its lightest, and the tenderest and toughest moments come sat around kitchen tables rather than shouting on the streets. The Help is good for what it is, and for the most part is a very entertaining night out as long as you align your expectations correctly at the door, but just don’t expect too much.
Why see it at the cinema: The main selling point of seeing this with an accompanying audience is the collective reaction. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry (possibly), you’ll do it much more if you see it with a big group of people.
The Score: 7/10