Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Bill Pullman’

There may well have been papers written on the curious nature of the sports-cinema interface. As I have noted in the past, there’s really only one-way traffic when it comes to this sort of thing – making a film about a famous athlete or sporting event seems logical in a way that reenacting the plot of, say, Logan’s Run during a football match does not – but even beyond this it seems to be the case that some sports lend themselves to having movies made about them much more readily than other.

Take football (so-ker, as I believe it is known in former colonial lands) – probably the most popular sport in the world today, but genuinely good movies about it are about as frequent as Gary Lineker getting a red card (oh, yes, I can do topical jokes). When I think of football movies, the first one springing to mind is Escape to Victory, in which Michael Caine leads a team of footballing PoWs (including Bobby Moore, Ossie Ardiles, and Pele, with Sylvester Stallone in goal) to a 5-4 win over a side of Nazi all-stars. (I imagine in a few years people will be inclined to dismiss the very existence of Escape to Victory as some sort of mass hallucination. Hear me, children of posterity: this film really does exist.)

Where were we? Oh yes, sports films, specifically good ones. It may be due to the nature of storytelling, but the true-life sports film in particular seems to be more successful when it deals with the individual disciplines, like athletics or boxing. Or, indeed, tennis, which is why we’ve had two tennis-themed dramas this autumn – the first being Borg Vs McEnroe, the second Battle of the Sexes, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

Battle-of-the-Sexes-poster-345-600x894

The film is set in the early 1970s (the temptation to go overboard with the crazy seventies styles is thankfully resisted), and opens with US tennis champion Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) leading a breakaway group of women players after the disparity in prize money between them and their male counterparts simply becomes too great to be tolerable. The formation of the WTA results, a politically-charged step given the atmosphere of the day and the appearance of the Women’s Liberation movement.

Amongst those reacting to this is middle-aged former Wimbledon champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), a pathological gambler and tennis hustler who sees the opportunity to potentially score a big payday and attract some serious publicity by challenging and then defeating one of the top female players. But King is reluctant to participate, rightly suspecting that what Riggs has in mind is a circus rather than a sporting event. But then events conspire to force her to change her mind…

I’m not sure how well remembered the Battle of the Sexes match would be were it not for the fact that this is the second movie to come out about it in the space of a few years (a documentary, also called Battle of the Sexes, appeared in 2013). You can see why the makers of this film might consider it rather fortuitous that it’s coming out at this particular time: we are having a bit of a cultural moment when it comes to the notion of gender relations, with Hollywood engaged in some uncomfortably public house-clearing that is bound to leave it more inclined to honour films with an ostensibly feminist theme next awards season.

Then, of course, there are the ongoing aftershocks from a non-tennis-related battle of the sexes which was concluded in November last year. In the movie, at least, Riggs is presented as an outrageous man-baby with a narcissistic streak a mile wide, prone to making the most outrageous public pronouncements, enthusiastically adopted by an establishment mostly comprised of middle-aged white men. The prominence of a subplot about King’s burgeoning romance with her hairdresser (played by Andrea Riseborough), not to mention the presence of a character, played by Alan Cumming, who basically represents the Spirit of Gayness, might also lead one to suspect that this is intended as an on-the-nose piece of agitprop about America today rather than in 1973.

However, perhaps thankfully, the film itself is a rather subtler and warmer piece of work than that, much more concerned with characters than ideology. It’s quite a long time into the film before the idea of the titular clash really becomes central to the story – prior to this it is much more about the formation of the WTA and King’s relationship issues, intercut with various escapades involving Riggs – Stone plays it all straight, so to speak, but Carell is pretty much off the leash in comic scenes such as one where Riggs turns up to a meeting of Gamblers’ Anonymous and tries to organise a card school amongst the attendees.

The ingrained prejudice and sexism of the time is presented in a relatively subtle manner, for all that it’s more or less non-stop. What’s interesting, though, is that the film-makers don’t really seem interested in vilifying Riggs as the misogynist he purported to be – maybe it’s just Carell’s performance, but he does remain weirdly likeable, in a Jeremy Clarkson-ish way (NB I’m aware your Clarkson tolerance may be different to mine), and the film does imply it’s just a pose he adopts to win more publicity. The real ire of the film is reserved for the head of the US tennis association (played by Bill Pullman), who’s a thorough-going patronising chauvinist, and to some extent Margaret Court (played by Jessica McNamee), who’s depicted as some sort of religious bigot.

In the end the film’s story is resolved in the match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and naturally I will not spoil the result for you (that’s Wikipedia’s job). The slightly crazed nature of the event is evoked well. The weird thing is, though, that after over ninety minutes of build-up, in a movie actually named after it, the Battle of the Sexes match actually feels quite anticlimactic, not being filmed especially imaginatively or dramatically. This is a sports movie which is not particularly adept at handling sport.

(Oh, go on, then, one spoiler, maybe: something the film doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of are various suggestions that Riggs, who was allegedly heavily in debt to the Mafia, rigged the match in order to square things with them. Then again, this is still quite controversial even today.)

Then again, Battle of the Sexes is a movie which treats tennis as the backdrop for wider issues – some of these are to do with issues of equality and freedom of personal expression, but it’s also about the people involved. It does take a while to get to the King-Riggs clash, but in general the writing and performances are more than good enough to make it extremely watchable and entertaining. Given the state of things currently, I would say this is a film with a very good chance of picking up trophies itself next spring.

Read Full Post »

Some time around 7am, July 3rd, 1996: and I struggled back to consciousness after what was probably the heaviest night of my life, falling-down-water-wise. Not normally greeting the world until well after nine in the morning, seeing this time of day was a bit of a novelty, regardless of my debilitated condition, and so I popped on the TV just to see what sort of things got shown while I was asleep. The big entertainment news was of a film opening in the USA – big, grinning crowds emerging, vast queues forming. A young boy was asked what he was hoping to see in the new movie. ‘Lots of blowing up,’ he said excitedly.

The movie, needless to say, was Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day, which I had never heard of prior to this point. Still, a big SF movie with lots of blowing up was definitely my sort of thing, and my interest was particularly piqued by a UK-specific radio prequel in which Nicky Campbell, Sir Patrick Moore, Toyah Wilcox and Colin Baker did their bit to repel the alien hordes. I loved Independence Day from the first time I saw it and eventually ended up going back to see it at least three more times. At the back of my mind I was aware that any film which ends up making $800m is more likely than not going to be assessed for sequel potential, but at the same time I honestly couldn’t see how the trick could be turned in this case.

Well, it’s taken an unusually long time – I’ve been racking my brains trying to think of another instance of it taking 20 years for a film to get a direct sequel – but here it is, Independence Day: Resurgence, directed as before by Roland Emmerich. Which, needless to say, also features lots of blowing up.

independence_day_resurgence

In this latest instalment… um… well… more aliens arrive and have another go at taking over the world. Pretending there’s much more to the actual story than that is fairly pointless, but then I suppose you could say something quite similar about the original film. All right: united by their struggle in the original film (explicitly dated to 1996, which is moderately curious if you’re as retentive as me, but never mind), the nations of the world have spent the last two decades preparing for a fresh wave of alien attackers. President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is now a cranky old man paranoid about the coming menace. David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) is now top boffin in charge of defending the Earth. Steve Hiller (Will Smith) has managed to get himself excused sequel duties by dying in a plane crash, in what may be a rare recent instance of Smith making a smart career move. However, his stepson is still around, along with a bunch of other young characters: one consequence of the failed alien invasion appears to be that everyone under 30 now looks like a model.

Well, anyway: there are worrying signals from deep space, people who came into psychic contact with the invaders get rather agitated, and the alien POWs being held in Area 51 also start exhibiting strange behaviour. Sure enough, another whopping alien craft turns up, its occupants intent on interplanetary gittery, and it’s up to our heroes to try and save the human race before the visual effects budget runs out…

When you think of Independence Day, what springs to mind? Well, if you’re anything like me, it’s huge, iconic, arresting images – the White House blown to pieces, a vast alien ship appearing out of a wall of fire above New York City – engaging performances from the ensemble cast, a truly magnificent score by David Arnold, and an infectious sense of exhilaration and fun – that of a couple of fairly little-known film-makers discovering one of the great old stories (for Independence Day is largely The War of the Worlds with the details only moderately altered) and having a whale of a time telling it to a new audience.

It’s partly that sense of originality and fun which I thought any sequel would struggle to recapture, but above all I was dubious about the very premise. Watching the world as we know it get blown to hell is one of those things which people never seem to get tired of watching, it’s the dark impulse which has kept horror stories and disaster movies as viable propositions all these years. It’s central to the plot of Resurgence that this is very much not the world as we know it, and, perhaps as a result, the film backs off from blowing it to hell with quite as much gusto. Instead we have a story where some people are expecting aliens to arrive and give them a hard time. Aliens duly arrive and give them a hard time before the conclusion. The rest is mostly small print.

The writers attempt to give the film some interest by raising the stakes to a slightly absurd degree: or perhaps I mean increasing the scale. Ships the size of cities are replaced by ships the size of continents, weapons capable of vaporising buildings are replaced by ones able to drill out the core of the planet, and so on. It certainly allows for the CGI wizards to do their stuff at length, but it doesn’t actually make for a more interesting story.

It doesn’t really help that most of the new characters are a dull and one-dimensional bunch, even the ones who appeared as children in the original movie. It’s also painfully clear that one of them, a hot female Chinese pilot, is a cipher who has only been inserted on the orders of the marketing department to make it easier to sell the movie in Asia. The deal given to the returning characters isn’t necessary better – at least one of them gets killed off after very little more than a cameo, others get shuffled about the place quite perfunctorily. The only real beneficiary is Brent Spiner (yes, it’s him, though he is quite difficult to recognise), who gets much more to do this time around than he did in the first film.

Oddly, I didn’t find myself missing Will Smith at all, but then I always thought the other two leads were more interesting characters, and had he come back Smith might even have been able to inject a little vitality into what too often feels like a laborious and mechanical succession of set pieces. The contributor I really did miss was David Arnold: elements of the original soundtrack are used, but the new music is rather drab and forgettable compared to the themes from the first movie.

There’s a strange way in which most of Independence Day: Resurgence feels like it was only made as a contractual obligation, even though I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the case – but it would be remiss of me to suggest I took no pleasure from it whatsoever. The towering, grandiose absurdity of the whole thing did make me laugh towards the end, together with the preposterousness of some of the plotting – Judd Hirsch spends most of the movie on what looks like a pointless road-trip across devastated America with some orphans, and then you realise it has just been organised so the film can get away with having a bus full of children in jeopardy during its climax. It is as brazen and silly as that, and this is before we even get to the bit when it starts turning into a very peculiar Japanese kaiju movie, not a genre Emmerich and Devlin have exactly distinguished themselves with in the past.

The key thing, though, is that during the original film I was having such a good time all the way through that I was quite happy to laugh along with its cheesy jokes and tongue-in-cheek jingoism. This time around the jokes are nowhere near as good, the characters are nowhere near as engaging, the plot is highly forgettable, and I spent the climax laughing at the film rather than with it. The conclusion makes it very clear that this movie is not so much continuing a story as setting down a marker to extend a brand, with future episodes clearly planned. Nothing is allowed to be special, unique, its own thing anymore, it seems. I went along to Independence Day: Resurgence with very strictly limited expectations, but even so I was shocked by how little of the old magic it managed to retain. A major disappointment.

Read Full Post »

I like cheese. I just had a pizza covered in cheese. Mmm mmm mmm. Cheese cheese cheese. Give me some more of that cheese, please – on a pizza or a burger, as you wish, either will suit me fine. Yes, cheese is great. You may feel I am labouring a point here, but sometimes I think cheese gets a bad rap which it doesn’t entirely deserve. I bet you have never referred to something as ‘cheesy’ and meant it in a good way.

I feel moved to talk about this, having recently enjoyed (again) Roland Emmerich’s 1996 film Independence Day, which basks in the reputation of being one of the cheesiest films ever made. Maybe this is true. There are many moments in this movie which are impossible to take seriously. It is by no means a ‘serious’ SF or action movie. Nevertheless, the first time I saw it I thought it was a masterpiece of entertainment, and many subsequent viewings have done little to modify this opinion.

independence-day-poster

The plot goes like this. Everyday life on planet Earth, which according to this film mainly consists of the USA, is disturbed by the arrival from deep space of yet another load of belligerent extraterrestrial gits, aboard a fleet of massive flying saucers. Said vehicles assume positions hovering over major cities around the world, causing global panic. Things only get worse as the aliens prove to be hostile, simultaneously obliterating population centres and sweeping aside the world’s attempts at a military response. The extermination of the human race is only a matter of days away – and, even worse, with the Fourth of July holiday weekend looming, all the shops have sold out of party essentials…

Emmerich and co-writer Dean Devlin tell the story from the perspective of a bunch of different characters, amongst them the US President (Bill Pullman), a quirky boffin (Jeff Goldblum), a fighter pilot (Will Smith), and an alcoholic former abductee (Randy Quaid) – as you can see, this is a bit of a boy’s film. It’s not that there aren’t women in it (Mary McDonnell, Margaret Colin and Vivica Fox appear) but they’re all cast as wives and girlfriends. This is really just the tip of the iceberg: this is a film with numerous plot strands going on, and a commensurately large cast of characters.

This is a clue to the type of film Emmerich and Devlin are looking to make. On the face of it, Independence Day is a straight-down-the-line alien invasion B-movie, albeit done with a massive budget and state-of-the-art special effects (there are considerable parallels with The War of the Worlds, in particular). Indeed, you could argue that in terms of the treatment of this particular theme, Independence Day is the definitive modern version – anyone else doing an alien invasion movie has had to come up with their own plot gimmick or else make a distinctive tonal choice just in order to differentiate it. (I suppose the dogfighting sequences owe a lot to Star Wars, too.)

But that’s not all that’s going on here. The multi-stranded narrative and the structure of the plot – the aliens remain an implacable, faceless force for much of the movie – also recall the 70s boom in all-star disaster movies, which this also sort of resembles. Both sci-fi B-pictures and disaster movies are essentially mainstream, schlock entertainment, and so it isn’t really a surprise that mashing them together on this scale works so well on a conceptual level.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt at all that the film is so well made. I’m not just talking about the special effects, which have aged well for the most part, but the deft and confident way in which Emmerich marshals a big and complex narrative with clarity and a sense of innocent fun (imagine the nightmare of an Independence Day directed by Michael Bay – or, alternatively, just watch one of his Transformers films). The overall pacing and structure are immaculate, as are the two big sequences of the film’s first act – the alien ships’ arrival over Washington DC, New York, and Los Angeles, and later their destruction by honest-to-goodness death ray. These are superbly assembled, but also helped immeasurably by David Arnold’s score (possibly the composer’s best work).

It’s still never really been cool to like Independence Day, though. At the time one friend complained to me that he didn’t like jingoistic American movies, and while it is true that the rest of the world is reduced to walk-on parts, it’s a little hard to argue that a film the money shot of which is the White House going boom is entirely rabid in its American nationalism. The whole film has its tongue in its cheek at least half the time, anyway.

Which brings us to those accusations of wilful and premeditated cheesiness. Well, maybe the critics have a point here, because there are a lot of outrageously hokey moments in this film. The much-derided climax in which the US President climbs into an F-15 and personally leads the final assault on the alien invaders is, perhaps, excusable from a cultural history point of view – this film was made at the height of the Clinton era, after all, and it’s rare for the occupant of the White House not to be depicted in a somewhat fawning manner in any film of this period. But a lot of the rest of it is just, well, cheesy. I still find it tremendously enjoyable, though – it seems to me to be deliberately and knowingly cheesy, which just adds to the fun (this is a notably funny film, especially given the subject matter).

And yet it remains less of a genre favourite than many films I find much less engaging – Emmerich and Devlin’s Stargate, for example, probably has more of a following (though this may be down to the TV franchise). Perhaps this is just down to the dairy-product factor, or perhaps it’s because the film is so grounded in the mid-90s zeitgeist, with not much sense of a wider mythos or universe going on. Whatever the reason, I was fairly cool with that – but I must admit that the news of a couple of pending sequels doesn’t fill me with joy. If ever a blockbuster was complete in and of itself, it’s Independence Day, and as any cholesterol specialist will tell you, too much of a good thing can only make you sick.

 

Read Full Post »