Sep 30, 2017

Battle Of The Sexes

I wish there was more battle in this lukewarm, superficial retelling of Billie Jean King's match against Bobby Riggs in 1973, as women's lib was all the rage and King fought for equal pay in the women's tennis circuit. Alas, Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) and the script by Simon Beaufoy refuse to be incisive.
Even as one cheers Billie Jean's determination, integrity, and pluck, it is disheartening that for all she changed in the world of sports and beyond, the needle has not moved much to this day. I guess in a country of competitive alpha males, a woman president is still not viable, women still make less than men, and in this day and age, we still have males touting biology as a reason for female intellectual inferiority (and a president whose attitude to women is firmly rooted in the sleazy male chauvinism of the era).
[Aside: I always wonder who these entitled, insecure pricks think gave them life. They would do well to remember who pushed them out into the world.]
If the movie is effective, it's because of the capable work of its cast. At first, sprightly Emma Stone seems too much of a waif to play Billie Jean, but Stone does a good job conveying not only King's sense of fairness but her sharp determination and her competitiveness, as well as her sexual confusion. She's good when she's vulnerable and also when she's tough. The great Andrea Riseborough plays Marilyn Barnett, Billie Jean's first female lover, who upends her private life. Their meeting at a hair salon where Marilyn is giving Billie Jean a trim is beautifully staged and played. Steve Carell is somehow very sympathetic as Bobby Riggs, a tennis has-been who loves gimmicks and gambling. Emasculated at home by his rich wife (so good to see Elisabeth Shue back on screen), he concocts matches against women as a way to earn money and stave off oblivion. Carell is very funny in a scene at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, but he also brings opportunistic cunning and real feeling to his character and makes him not so easy to read.
The movie captures male condescension well, from Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman), the president of the U.S. Lawn Tennis Association who pays women eight times less to play than men, to the paternalistic commentary of Howard Cosell. It reflects the cultural mores that women endured without complaint in the inevitable compliments to their cuteness, even as they were making a point for themselves. Women are always seen by men as the garnish for the main course, as eye candy, and there are several scenes in which the young women players in the Virginia Slims tournament still react politely when patronized because no one knew any better.
For King, it was doubly difficult to be a standard bearer for women's rights, not only because she was a public figure, but also because, according to this movie, she found out she was gay while she was married (to a very understanding husband, solidly played by Austin Stowell). The movie dutifully reminds us that at the time for a successful woman to come out as gay was simply taboo. King stood to lose endorsements and the public's respect. The film goes out of its way to semaphore its sympathies by featuring the gay designer of the women's tennis dresses (by the way, the costumes by Mary Zophres are fantastic) as -- you will excuse the pun -- a fairy godfather to King. Even though he is played by the charming Alan Cumming, I didn't need the forced, flamboyant comic relief between him and his assistant, nor his treacly speech about gay rights at the end. Watching King in turmoil over not revealing herself to her husband, her parents, and the public is eloquent enough.
It's frustrating when movies about trailblazers choose the most conventional, crowd-pleasing route. This tale could have been a great satire. But the filmmakers use broad strokes and corny dialogue and miss the opportunity to give the topic the acerbic bite it deserves. Battle Of The Sexes is like any other "inspiring" sports movie, with a remarkable heroine instead.

Sep 26, 2017


Or, Department of Heavy-Handed Mixed Metaphors.
Watching this trainwreck of a movie, I could not help but think of Rosemary's Baby, from which it borrows many ideas, liberally and clumsily. Here too we have an egotistical creative husband (Javier Bardem, trying his heroic best not to be as absurd as his character). He's married to a blonde sweetheart of a woman, Jennifer Lawrence, in one of the most egregious feats of miscasting mankind has ever known.
As John Cassavetes before him (physically, Bardem and Lawrence are Cassavetes and Mia Farrow on steroids), Bardem is completely self-involved and oblivious to his wife's emotional needs. She is building their nest, a hexagonal house in the middle of a field. There is no driveway.
Nosy people appear, in the welcome shape of Ed Harris, and the spectacularly brittle Michelle Pfeiffer, just like Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer before them. All kinds of strange shenanigans start taking place. Here too a fear/desire of pregnancy emerges, as well as the notion, which in Roman Polanski's gifted hands is a masterpiece of dark humor and dread, that hell is other people.
Unfortunately, all resemblance to Polanski's movie stops there, because to say that writer-director Darren Aronofsky is heavy-handed is understating the issue. Apparently, he has never met a metaphor he didn't like, so the salad of symbolism dooms the movie to camp: the house as a living organism, the sacrifice of the homemaker, fear of pregnancy, male impotence, the destructiveness of ego and celebrity, Cain and Abel, you name it. You confirm you were in trouble when the characters are listed in the end credits as "Mother", "Him", "Man" and "Woman". This movie deserves the Mystery Science 3000 treatment.
Everything is shot by Matthew Libatique to resemble a dreamlike state, and I'd be fine with this if, as in any truly creepy psychological horror film, such as Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant, and Repulsion, or Jack Clayton's The Innocents, the disquiet came from our not knowing whether the horror is all in the character's mind. But Aronofsky stacks the deck early on and dispenses with ambiguity. One look at Ed Harris and one knows nothing good can come from him, whereas the Castevet neighbors in Rosemary's Baby really make you wonder whether they mean well or they are direct emissaries of Satan. All the fun and the fear lie in not knowing for sure.
Aronofsky wants to tell an allegory, but it seems to me that, at least in film, allegory is most effective when it is rooted in reality. That's when it messes most with our heads. I'm thinking of allegorical movies that work not only because they are set in reality, but also because they stick to one theme. Movies like Lars Von Trier's Breaking The Waves (love is sacrifice), Dogtooth (tyranny), by Yorgos Lanthimos, and The Teacher (abuse of power and corruption), by Jan Hrebejk. They are all set in very concrete places, from an oil rig in the North Sea to a modern house in Greece, to a school in communist Czechoslovakia. These movies use realistic detail to bring the psychological aspect into stark relief.  By happening in a real context they signal to the audience that this could happen to us.
In contrast, in mother! (or Von Trier's labored allegories like Dogville and Antichrist) in which everything is dreamlike, it reads as artificial. There is no tension between the outside reality and the reality of the mind. We can't really connect to characters that are symbols. It's just a freak show.
During the first third and best part of the movie, Aronofsky manages a mounting feeling of powerlessness and absurdity as strangers take over Mother's house with the acquiescence of her husband, who loves to be fawned upon. The movie comes alive when Ed Harris and especially Michelle Pfeiffer show up (she's the best thing in the movie, and the only person with a sense of humor). But even their story spins out of control as it becomes clear that they represent the aged marriage, with kids, bitterness and some homicidal silliness about an inheritance.
The problem with heavy-handed symbolism is that the writer thinks the audience is going to feel smart by making the connections but, 1. they are labored, obvious and vulgar, 2. not one iota of believable feeling or attraction transpires between the characters. None of them are real people, except for Michelle Pfeiffer, who should be given an Oscar purely on account of how she delivers the line "have a baby".
I once was almost driven to a nervous breakdown by one such guest who invaded my home and rendered it inhabitable by the sheer force of her malignant personality. I remember opening the fridge and not recognizing anything in there - instead of a warm and generous presence, the food inside seemed a reproach. To this day I cannot describe how this person managed to propel me to the edge of a meltdown, but the feeling is of an alternate reality from which you are shut out, even on your own turf. This is a wonderful feeling to depict in a movie, and Aronofsky sustains it for about half an hour. Unfortunately, he decides to relinquish all self-control, and the movie spirals into cheesy absurdity.
Now, what can be more irrelevant, unbelievable and absurd in a movie than a poet? Why, a poet that has crippling writer's block (pathetic echoes of The Shining) and attempts to scribble pearls of wisdom in what looks like parchment paper. At the height of ridiculousness, he gets a flash of inspiration and clamors for a pen (while naked)! He apparently drives people to a frenzy with his words, which I assume to be a cross between Paulo Coelho and a Hallmark card, but which we are left to imagine since Aronofsky pulls the laziest trick in the book, which is that he knows full well that no one could write anything that could unleash such orgiastic chaos, so we'll never know if he's better than Shakespeare or is writing Jonathan Livingston Seagull II. We are left to trust that Bardem is a poet who changes people's lives because he pontificates new age mumbo jumbo at them.
I could believe the frenzy he provokes had he been a rock star, a musician, an actor, a sports hero, a Kardashian, or some Silicon Valley ghoul. But a poet? Give me a break! This is the kind of putrid stereotype about writers that makes people fear and distrust writing and writers. In fact, this is the kind of movie that makes people fear and distrust art.
Bardem's poet offended me almost as much as the casting of the usually wondrous Jennifer Lawrence as his cipher of a wife. Lawrence is an actress of spunk and gumption, so it is impossible for her to be without a spark, hard as Aronofsky tries. The movie consists mostly of her in close-up, and she's good and honest enough an actress to withstand the scrutiny, but Aronofsky gives her nothing to do but be afraid, cry, recede and ask stupid questions. No one is less interesting than a martyr.
One keeps praying that she will find the balls to confront her husband and all the unwanted guests, and that Lawrence will finally unleash her witty, fresh audacity, but her character represents the other tired trope of male fantasy: the understanding muse, the woman who blends into the walls so that the male genius might thrive. She is the homemaker, the female womb. She doesn't have a job: she lives for him, to save him, to inspire him and to cook and clean and decorate. For a role like this, you do not get Jennifer Lawrence. Also, fuck this movie.
More offensive than the outrageous grand Guignol that follows, which sadly includes a baby, is the fact that after two hours of following her point of view, her abandonment, her disorientation, her feelings of being nothing, it turns out that everything is about HIM. Had this been orchestrated with some irony, it could have been a devastating satire on male self-importance. But I'm afraid that Aronofsky is dead serious.

Sep 6, 2017

The Teacher

A suspenseful, maddening exploration of the effects corruption and abuse of power have on society, this mordant, uncannily relevant fable directed by Jan Hrebejk and superbly written by Peter Jarchovsky is about a school teacher (the fantastic Zuzana Maurery) in communist Czechoslovakia and how she uses her position as head of the communist party at school to demand favors from her pupils' parents. It is a detailed and accurately observed psychological portrait of a corrupt, petty functionary with a little power and how she grows it into a cancer from which no one is immune.
You know something is not right when she arrives the first day of class and asks the children to introduce themselves and tell her what their parents do for a living. She writes all the info in a little notebook.
Soon she is getting free haircuts from a mother in exchange for letting her daughter know the answers for exams in advance, demanding that parents do illegal things for her, and generally treating the children like her own personal serfs.  It starts with little favors (smuggling cake into the Soviet Union, for instance) and ends with not so veiled threats and actual psychological harm to the children. One plump person representing a small franchise of state power is capable of fraying the fabric of society.
I couldn't help but think of Trump, who exhibits similar traits to the teacher (although she is much more adroit): both are desperately needy of universal attention, both are phonies, ruthless and completely immoral, only serving their own interests; both are cruel, petty, vindictive, needy, and pathetic. The movie demonstrates how the bad example of someone in a position of authority is enough to empower the worst in people. The teacher mercilessly mocks one of the students (whose parents won't give in to her demands) and next thing we know her classmates start bullying her, just like Trump with his alt-right groupies.
Watching this teacher whine incessantly about how hard and lonely it is to be a widow, I had a realization that sentimentality is evil. Tyrants use sentimentality to manipulate people into abdicating their integrity. All totalitarians are great sentimentalists: they destroy by humiliation and perform their phony pieties with great drama. Kitschy displays of patriotism, such as national prayer days, are examples of insidious sentiment. Just look at Trump, a sadist who whines about unfairness and demonizes those who "persecute" him, like the media.
Maurery plays the teacher with a combination of patronizing sweetness and ruthless cunning. She acts like everyone's idea of a teacher, warm, caring and inexhaustibly didactic. However, she doesn't really teach squat. Propaganda, in the form of a hilariously inappropriate bodice ripping fantasy about a soldier, is what comes out of her mouth in class.
The movie goes back and forth between the situation in the classroom to an extraordinary meeting between the parents and the director of the school (who looks like a deer caught in the headlights, scared of her own authority). That's where we see who is made of what: the collaborationists, the apologists, those who don't want to rock the boat, the privileged judge who tries to intimidate the handful of outraged parents to drop the investigation.  In the end, all parents want what's best for their children, and in the case of this communist society, having good grades means being catapulted to a better position in life (just as having a wife who defects to the West gets you demoted from scientist to window cleaner).
The movie feeds our outrage slowly but sharply, with many bitter, ironic twists and a faux happy ending. People can win small victories against corruption at great personal cost, but abuse of power is indestructible.