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Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Dayton’

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.

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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.

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A sure sign that Autumn is close upon us comes in the form of the cinema shedding its rugged, manly, summer masculinity of tone and becoming altogether rather more feminine in outlook. Well, possibly I exaggerate a bit, but I can’t imagine all those sprawling and bombastic superhero blockbusters being put together with ladies in mind. Romantic comedies of the ilk of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s Ruby Sparks are a different beast entirely. Well, this is being marketed as a romantic comedy, but I suspect this is simply the least inaccurate category into which to pop this slightly strange film.

Paul Dano plays Calvin, a young writer whose career has been hobbled by his writing a brilliant and hugely successful novel at a very young age. Now he is in thrall to the tyranny of the blank page, seriously struggling with that difficult second novel (the film does bang into that old problem of how to depict somebody writing in a cinematic way – failing to find an answer, we just see Dano’s hands and eyes as he bashes away at his keyboard – presumably for aesthetic reasons, Calvin is the only professional writer in the world still using a manual typewriter). He is finding life quite trying despite the well-meaning assistance of his family and agent. However, as a result of advice given by his analyst (Elliott Gould), Calvin finds himself beset by strange and vivid dreams, all concerning a free-spirited Bohemian young woman (oh, zzzzz), whom he christens Ruby Sparks. She is played by Zoe Kazan.

Calvin’s dreams of Ruby provoke a sudden and welcome burst of creativity, but this is accompanied by odd events around the house: strange and rather intimate feminine items start popping up all over the place, to the bemusement of Calvin and his friends. Then, after a particularly intense writing session, our hero awakes one morning to find the previously completely fictitious Ruby in the house with him, apparently completely corporeal and utterly convinced she is his girlfriend…

Well, it’s a novel opening for a film, I’ll grant you that. I suppose it sounds like the stuff of a wacky, whimsical little comedy film, very mainstream, and quite probably starring someone like Vince Vaughn. But it isn’t. Instead, to begin with it comes across very much like an off-day Woody Allen script brought to the screen by Miranda July. I am aware I am throwing in an obscure cultural reference or two in there, but that’s the territory I’m afraid – the biggest surprise about this film is that it’s got a fairly major mainstream release, because it has ‘indie arthouse cult rave’ written all over it.

This is the kind of film where the central characters float around with no visible means of support, basically surveying their own navels. There are lots of scenes where they agonise at length over their tangled psyches and personal lives with their much more conventional friends and family while having barbecues or playing sports, all in a very naturalistic yet terribly articulate manner. Once you strip out the central fantasy conceit, this is really what you’ve got here.

The previous film from these directors, Little Miss Sunshine, was apparently very well-received, which may explain the presence in this film of a remarkably strong supporting cast – as well as Gould, there is Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, and a particularly good Steve Coogan. Chris Messina also does a good job of wringing a few laughs out of the script. But it’s hampered by incredibly mannered and self-conscious performances by Dano and Kazan: the film soon turns into an examination of a romance between two of the most irritating people you will ever see.

That said, I suppose Zoe Kazan is reasonably good in a fairly demanding part – on the other hand (and given the nature of the story this is sort of ironic) she wrote the script herself, in addition to exec producing the thing, so she must take her share of the blame for a film which I found a rather trying experience.

This film doesn’t really have the ideas to justify its running time and as a result it does feel like it’s dragging on horribly in quite a few places. The poster for it outside the coffeeshop listed the running time as 164 minutes rather than 104, and as a result quite early on I was dismally checking my watch and trying to work out how they were possibly going to sustain the story for that long. Thankfully, they don’t even try: another hour of this film and I might well have run amok in the cinema.

And, quite apart from the general tone and style of the thing, this film is palpably very indie-ish in the way it doesn’t seem to want to settle down and be one particular thing. Okay, so there’s a central romance going on – but there’s also clearly some sort of statement about the creative process and that oft-mentioned moment when your characters achieve a life of their own being made.

(My characters, when I write fiction, show no willingness to do this, which may be yet another reason why my fiction is generally so lousy. Then again, as I’m planning another go at NaNoWriMo this year and the only book idea to achieve any traction in my head is an HP Lovecraft pastiche of such comprehensive unpleasantness I’m slightly repelled to consider it myself, perhaps this is no bad thing. Where were we…?)

Oh, yes: and then beyond this¬†Ruby Sparks¬†tries to get into stuff about the nature of relationships and the control dynamics within them. There’s some quite dark material here. What the film never really manages to be, unfortunately, is either consistently funny or romantically involving. It always seems a bit overwhelmed by its own irky-quirky BoHo indie conceit and style, and constantly a little too pleased with itself. The result is a movie that’s being marketed as a romantic comedy, but didn’t really make me laugh and actively put me off the notion of having a relationship. It’s a competent realisation of a rather unsatisfying script – a distinctive film, but also a deeply peculiar and somewhat annoying one.

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