Bill Pullman

Battle of the Sexes

 

20/11/17

It’s the early 1970s and rising tennis star Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) is fighting to establish equal pay for female players. Why is it, she reasonably asks, that the men are being paid eight times as much as the women? American Lawn Tennis president Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), tells her that it’s simply because the men are just ‘more interesting to watch.’ King’s answer is to pull all women players out of Kramer’s organisation and to help them to form their own, seeking sponsorship wherever they can find it. It’s mostly because of her unprecedented efforts that such appalling sexism in the sport was challenged and soundly defeated, even though it meant getting involved with some strange partners. A scene where Billie Jean’s agent, Gladys (Sarah Silverman) urges the players to smoke cigarettes because they are being sponsored by Philip Morris is a particular delight.

This fascinating film, scripted by The Full Monty’s Simon Beaufoy, is based around a real event in 1973, when King was goaded into playing a match against ex-champion player, Bobby Riggs (engagingly played here by Steve Carell), whose vociferous claim that no woman could ever beat a man at tennis, still resonates today – people are forever trying to push Andy Murray and Serena Williams into playing against each other. Beaufoy’s script cleverly displays the levels of inherent sexism that existed at the time – most of the remarks and attitudes of the commentators of the period now seem positively prehistoric. The film is aided by the fact that Stone and Carell look so convincing as their characters that genuine footage of the original match is used in long shot with the actors effortlessly spliced in for close-ups. Weirdly, although I already know the outcome of the game, the footage still somehow manages to generate considerable levels of suspense. For my money, this is perhaps the best attempt thus far to put my favourite sport up on the big screen.

The film is about more than just tennis, though. Riggs is struggling with personal demons – a powerful addiction to gambling is pushing his marriage to his socialite wife, Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue) onto the rocks – while King, married to the incredibly supportive Larry (Austin Stowells), finds herself irresistibly drawn to hairdresser, Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Their burgeoning romance is sensitively handled by directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who never fall into the trap of sensationalising it.

But perhaps what the film does best of all is to display the unbelievable levels of all-American razzmatazz that accompanied the contest, right down to Riggs being sponsored by a lollipop company called… wait for it… ‘Sugar Daddy.’ (And if you think the filmmakers have exaggerated for comic effect, you only need to glance at footage of the real event  to see that it has been reproduced with extraordinary attention to detail.)

It would be all too easy to paint Riggs as the villain of this piece, but he actually emerges as a likeable clown, whose outrageous comments are mostly done to generate interest (and large amounts of money) for the match. It’s the everyday, ingrained sexism of characters like Jack Kramer where the real problem lies – and it’s particularly satisfying to watch him get his comeuppance.

Do you need to be a tennis fan to enjoy this film? Well it certainly helps, but I don’t think it’s essential. Its powerful message about equal rights for everyone, regardless of their sexuality, rings out loud and clear. In tennis terms, this one serves an ace.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Independence Day: Resurgence

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26/06/16

Welcome back to the world of Roland Emmerich. Hard to believe that its been 20 years since Independence Day elevated him to the position of head go-to guy for apocalyptic devastation. Since then, he’s presided over a slate of similarly themed destructathons – The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla, 2012, with a couple of disasters of a different persuasion thrown in for good measure – The Patriot, which played fast and loose with American history  and Anonymous, a film which seriously posited the notion that William Shakespeare was an illiterate actor who got somebody else to write all his plays for him. Now, Emmerich finally revisits his biggest hit with mixed results. Could it have been a coincidence that it was released on the day the UK decided to vote for Brexit? I doubt it. Disasters have a tendency to cling together.

It’s been twenty years since those pesky aliens took on Planet Earth and there has been unprecedented peace and prosperity for the world ever since. (And if you’ll swallow that, you’ll swallow anything.) But of course, it was only a matter of time before the space lizards came back for another go, an event presaged by former president Whitmore (Bill Pullman) experiencing some strange visions. All the stars of the original resurface here, with the notable exception of Captain Steve Hiller (Will Smith) who we are informed has ‘perished on a test flight.’ Luckily, his son, Dylan (Jessie T. Usher), a chip off the old block if ever there was one, is on hand to carry on his late father’s work, despite having rivalry issues with reckless young pilot, Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth). Meanwhile, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) is in Africa, where he hooks up with Catherine Marceaux (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who is trying to decipher some strange alien writing that seems to hint at unfinished business…

To be honest, it’s pretty pointless to say any more about the plot which is frankly, bonkers. (It’s saying something when the alien invasion elements are the most credible part of the story). Of course, what Emmerich has always excelled at are the wide screen scenes of carnage, which at times resemble the visionary paintings of John Martin. A set-piece where one major city is unceremoniously dumped on top of another is, it has to be said, pretty spectacular. Goldblum also earns his money as comic relief, wandering around in the background making flip remarks as yet another landmark is blown to smithereens.

And yet, it’s really not enough to salvage this from it’s failings – lamentable dialogue, plot holes you could fly a jumbo-sized spacecraft through and some cheesy statements about mankind’s ability to survive against all the odds. What’s more, the premise of a giant Queen alien presiding over a ‘hive’ of extra terrestrials is too close to James Cameron’s Aliens for comfort. A final chase across the salt flats in pursuit of a busload of kids (and a cute dog) is the point where everything falls to pieces. At this point, even Goldblum looks embarrassed.

So, worth seeing? Yes, provided you can overlook the ridiculous plot and the truly awful dialogue. And a worthy successor to the original film? Nah, not really. It’s as if Emmerich has decided to crank everything up to maximum – as though his motto is ‘bigger is better.’ Why have a dozen spaceships when you can have three hundred of them?  Why blow up one monument when you can destroy a dozen? Ironically, I still remember the impact of watching the White House blown to smithereens in the first film, but for all the bombast on display here, I doubt that I’ll remember this for more than a day or so.

The film ends with a clumsy attempt to set up a Part Three, which I have to say, I won’t be holding my breath for. Enough, already. Try something new.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney

 

American Ultra

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05/09/15

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a small-town guy, stuck in a dead end job at the local convenience store. He spends his spare time smoking dope and doodling ideas for a comic book featuring a space travelling super monkey called Apollo Ape. Luckily, he’s in a long term relationship with Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), who seems to be his perfect soulmate and who tolerates the fact that Mike has crippling anxiety attacks whenever he tries to travel. Most recently, a long-desired vacation to Hawaii is nixed, when he finds himself running to the john to vomit. As is so often the case in movies like this, all is not what it seems and circumstances conspire to reveal that Mike is in fact, a brainwashed undercover CIA operative, who has been waiting for a certain sequence of words to reactivate him.

Eisenberg is, as ever, a likeable screen presence and Kristen Stewart was always a better actress than the execrable Twilight series allowed her to demonstrate. The first third of this movie is great fun, as Mike realises that he has the potential to be a highly skilled assassin – but once those talents are acquired, the film loses some of its appeal as it becomes a series of ever more complicated Heath Robinsonesque  murders. All manner of gadgets are utilised in Mike’s struggle for survival – mallets, screwdrivers, frying pans and claw hammers – you get the impression that here’s yet another film that must have been sponsored by B & Q. The action is unflinchingly bloody, but shot with enough cartoonish relish to just about excuse its most brutal excesses. Topher Grace and Connie Britton as two warring CIA honchos add depth to Max Landis’s script and there’s an appealing cameo from Bill Pullman as their ruthless boss, but the conviction remains that this could have been better if it had managed to maintain the more appealing elements on show in the first half hour.

American Ultra is eminently watchable, but could easily have been something more than that.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney