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Non-Review Review: Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes is a well-produced and well-performed feel-good historical drama, one elevated by a strong sense of timeliness.

Battle of the Sexes is structurally a classic “historical buddy film”, a subgenre of the biopic that has become increasingly popular in recent years. The idea is to take a big historical event involving two important and opposed figures, and to build a narrative about that singular event following both characters on their collision course. Ron Howard is something of an expert with this particular biographical subgenre, having directed both Frost/Nixon and Rush, two very fine examples of the form.

Riggsed game.

Of course, there are plenty of films that still adopt the classic biopic format of documenting an extended portion of a single life. Recent films like The Founder or American Made come to mind, very traditional sweeping narratives that tended to pop up in awards nominations during the eighties and nineties. However, there is something to be said for the format of a tightly-focused two-hander, of a narrative built around two adversarial forces locked in some existential combat. It might look like sport, but it is always something more serious.

Battle of the Sexes is built around the historic tennis match played between Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs, but it is obviously about more than just a tennis match between a man and a woman. It evolves into a story about the symbolic weight of this match, of the culture that warps around it, of the dogma that it threatens to reinforce. Battle of the Sexes resonates surprisingly clearly, even more than thirty three years removed from its original context.

Causing quite a racket.

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14. La La Land – This Just In (#23)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, This Just In is a subset of the fortnightly The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land.

podcast

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Non-Review Review: Irrational Man

If Blue Jasmine could be read as an adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, Woody Allen continues his journey through classic cinema (and novels and plays) with Irrational Man. The core of Irrational Man is built around the basic premise of Strangers on a Train, exploring the strange intersection of lives around a seemingly motiveless murder plot. Using the plot of Strangers on a Train as a springboard, Allen staged Irrational Man as a character study (very loosely) framed discussion of ethics and moral philosophy.

Set in a small-town New England college campus, Allen strips Patricia Highsmith’s novel down to its core elements. As with a lot of late-stage Woody Allen films, there is not so much a plot as a set of complications. The story is streamlined so as to allow a depth of focus on its central characters; murder is not swapped so much as volunteered, meaning that Irrational Man only has to focus on a single murder and its impact on a single set of characters. In this case, Allen focuses on Professor Abe Lucas and his student Jill Pollard.

Murder on the mind...

Murder on the mind…

Lucas is depressed and withdrawn; he is a philosopher who has lived a long and varied life, but who seems numbed by the experience. Lucas is not necessarily suicidal, but it doesn’t seem like he’d be too upset by the prospect of his own death. As fellow faculty member Rita Richards and bright young student Jill Pollard try to pull the philosopher out of his depression, a conversation overheard in a diner lights a spark. Listening to a stranger detail the injustices inflicted upon her, Lucas decides to set about righting wrongs on her behalf.

Irrational Man builds to a decidedly academic murder plot. It is very much “Woody Allen presents How to Get Away With Murder.”

"Voila Davis always gets higher student approval ratings."

“Voila Davis always gets higher student approval ratings.”

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Non-Review Review: Birdman (or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Birdman is a staggeringly cynical piece of work.

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s showbusiness satire has its knives out from the opening sequence, and never puts them away. It is a movie that is relentlessly snarky and bitter about just about any facet of the artistic process. The movie seldom pulls its punches, lawing into its targets with a vengeance. There are points where it almost seems too much, where it feels like Iñárritu might be better served to pull back or ease off for a moment as the film becomes just a little bit too much.

Showtime!

Showtime!

Then again, Iñárritu turns the film’s relentlessness into a visual motif, structuring Birdman as one long unbroken take. This structure is only slightly disingenuous. While there are any number of “cheats” that allow Birdman to stitch together multiple takes, the end result is still a hugely ambitious and impressive piece of work. Even viewers as cynical as the film itself may find themselves marvelling at some of the incredibly fluid transitions and extended sequences. Birdman‘s anger might occasionally come close to suffocating, but its energy is infectious.

That is to say nothing of the performance at the centre of the film, with Michael Keaton playing a washed-up has-been celebrity desperately (and pathetically) fighting for artistic credibility after a career spent in blockbuster cinema. One of the more interesting aspects of Birdman is that it seems just as dismissive of the attempts at artistic rehabilitation as it does of the original “sell out” work. Birdman is a wry, clever and vicious piece of work. It is also a phenomenal accomplishment.

You wouldn't like him when he's angry...

You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry…

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Non-Review Review: Magic in the Moonlight

Attending a Woody Allen movie can often feel like playing low-stakes roulette. An extraordinarily prolific director with an incredible body of work behind him, Allen seems capable of churning out films that run the gamut from joyless and pedestrian to magical and exceptional. Woody Allen movies are like trains; if you don’t like this one, there will inevitably be another along in a year or so. However, it feels strange that his fiftieth feature should land so near the middle of the pack.

Magic in the Moonlight is an enjoyable Woody Allen comedy. It lacks a mesmerising central performance like Blue Jasmine or the sheer charm of Midnight in Paris, but it is a well-made and enjoyable excursion. There is charm and wit to it, and it never drags too heavily. However, there is very little truly exceptional about it. Magic in the Moonlight is more of a parlour trick than a how-stopping illusion; delightful and diverting, but feeling a little too unrefined to be truly memorable.

magicinthemoonlight4

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Non-Review Review: The Amazing Spider-Man II

What is remarkable about Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man II is how much it resembles a comic book. Not a particular comic book – although there are numerous shout-outs to iconic Spider-Man moments, right down to the choice of costuming – but in general terms. It isn’t that Marc Webb tries to construct his film to evoke the look and feel of a comic book – this isn’t Ang Lee’s Hulk; in fact, Webb seems much more comfortable here than he was with The Amazing Spider-Man, making a movie that feels more playful and relaxed within its medium.

Instead, The Amazing Spider-Man II borrows the structure of a comic book. It offers its own story, but that story isn’t constructed particularly tightly. Instead, the story seems to have been fashioned as part of a greater – as if part of a larger serialised narrative that has yet to take form. It’s quite distinct from the approach taken with Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, where the films feel more like blocks that fit together. Instead, this feels more like the second chapter in a larger story, without being dissolved completely into the larger narrative.

The Amazing Spider-Man II has its own themes and motifs, and it documents a pretty epic selection of events, but the emphasis isn’t so much on this one encounter as what this encounter says about its hero. It’s much more interested in what these events tell us about our hero than it is in documenting a single self-contained story. It’s a novel (and somewhat bold) attempt at a serialised superhero narrative, and the results are absolutely fascinating.

Electro-fying!

Electro-fying!

Note: This is a spoiler-filled review of The Amazing Spider-Man II. You can find a spoiler-lite version here. Continue reading for more in-depth thoughts on the film, with the knowledge that absolutely everything is up for discussion. Continue at your own peril!

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Non-Review Review: The Amazing Spider-Man II

What is remarkable about Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man II is how much it resembles a comic book. Not a particular comic book – although there are numerous shout-outs to iconic Spider-Man moments, right down to the choice of costuming – but in general terms. It isn’t that Marc Webb tries to construct his film to evoke the look and feel of a comic book – this isn’t Ang Lee’s Hulk; in fact, Webb seems much more comfortable here than he was with The Amazing Spider-Man, making a movie that feels more playful and relaxed within its medium.

Instead, The Amazing Spider-Man II borrows the structure of a comic book. It offers its own story, but that story isn’t constructed particularly tightly. Instead, the story seems to have been fashioned as part of a greater – as if part of a larger serialised narrative that has yet to take form. It’s quite distinct from the approach taken with Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, where the films feel more like blocks that fit together. Instead, this feels more like the second chapter in a larger story, without being dissolved completely into the larger narrative.

The Amazing Spider-Man II has its own themes and motifs, and it documents a pretty epic selection of events, but the emphasis isn’t so much on this one encounter as what this encounter says about its hero. It’s much more interested in what these events tell us about our hero than it is in documenting a single self-contained story. It’s a novel (and somewhat bold) attempt at a serialised superhero narrative, and the results are absolutely fascinating.

Electro-fying!

Electro-fying!

Note: The Amazing Spider-Man II is probably best seen absolutely blind, with no real information about its themes or the story beats that it might hit. I do try to keep the reviews as spoiler-light as possible (and we do have a spoiler-laden review available for your perusal), but if you are interested in seeing the film – I would recommend avoiding any discussion or review. It is good, if flawed; endearingly ambitious and engagingly bold; it does a lot of great things that excuse some cliché plotting, sacrificing novelty in some areas for storytelling efficiency.

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