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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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Non-Review Review: The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin is an ambitious tonal mishmash.

The Death of Stalin is funny and smart. It is a very well observed comedy of errors set against the backdrop of the power struggle that unfolds against the backdrop of the passing of the eponymous Soviet dictator. Officials, relatives and hangers-on all jockey for position, scrambling over one another to secure their place on top of the heap. “How can you scheme and run at the same time?” Lazar Kaganovich challenges Nikita Khrushchev at one point during the film, a line that sets the tone for the ensuing madcap chaos.

Fools Russia in.

However, The Death of Stalin struggles to find the right pitch for its political shenanigans. Based on historical events, The Death of Stalin juxtaposes the sly and transparent manoeuvrings of its central characters against depictions of real-life historical violence and brutality. The Death of Stalin is very candid about the collateral damage incurred by these sorts of regimes, as well it should be. The Death of Stalin would be wrong to gloss over the human cost of its political jousting. At the same time, these brutal beats undercut the movie’s broader slapstick comedic plotting.

The Death of Stalin is charming and endearing in places, but it struggles to find a proper tone. The Death of Stalin is at once too dark to work as a broad farce and too light to play as a pitch black comedy. The result is a movie that feels far too unbalanced and unhinged, with brilliant moments and great performances that never manage to find a consistent groove.

Sorry state of affairs.

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45. Paris, Texas (#241)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released Saturdays at 6pm GMT, with the occasional weekend off.

This time, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas

Four years after mysteriously disappearing, Travis wanders out of the desert and back into the lives of his family. Adapting to the outside world, Travis embarks upon a journey across America to bring together the shattered remains of his past life.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 241st best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: Maze

Maze is a gritty well-constructed psychological thriller, documenting the famous escape of thirty-eight inmates from the eponymous prison in 1983.

Written and directed by Stephen Burke, focuses its attention on two central characters who serve as opposite sides of the same coin. Larry Marley is a veteran member of the IRA, who survived hunger strike and is looked for a cause around which he might rally the movement. Gordon Close is the warden in charge of maintaining order in a prison packed with murderers and terrorists. Both men are trapped, whether by iron bars, concrete walls or political ideology.

Burke infuses Maze with a powerful cynicism, a clear frustration and contempt for a cycle of violence and hatred that perpetuates itself. The prison environment becomes a metaphor for the world created by the authorities and paramilitaries, a climate in which both sides serve as wardens and prisoners, ensuring that nobody is ever truly free. Maze is constructed as a very sterile film, largely desaturated, with Burke keeping the camera steady and often at a distance.

Maze is perhaps a little bit too conventional in places, a little too anchored in the routine expected from a prison break film and a little heavy-handed in its symbolism and thematic ruminations. While Burke avoids getting drawn into either side of this battle of wills, resisting the urge to glamourise or romanticise the escapees, there are points at which Maze feels a little too straightforward, trapped by the expectations of this sort of narrative. Still, the result is a thoughtful and well put-together film.

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Non-Review Review: IT

IT works best as a fusion of weird fiction with a classic coming of age story.

IT is arguably one of Stephen King’s most iconic and influential works. Pennywise the Dancing Clown is perhaps King’s most instantly recognisable creation. King’s work seems to recognise this. The monster clown haunts his fiction, making various appearances in other works, suggesting that the creature is an infection spreading across the author’s vast tableau. There are lots of reasons for IT‘s success and status, but a lot of it comes down to the fact that IT is an encapsulation of many of King’s pet themes and plays to many of King’s strengths.

Bill Skarsgård used his other 98 red balloons on Atomic Blonde.

Director Andrés Muschietti seems to understand this. In fact, IT serves as a smorgasbord of cinematic King adaptations, drawing upon and even quoting from various other successful adaptations of the author’s work. Most notably, IT owes a surprisingly large debt to Stand By Me. The decision to exorcise the “present day” sequences of the novel from this film, leaving them to a potential sequel, means that IT is even more overtly and consciously a coming of age narrative.

However, IT is very much a coming of age horror story, a grotesque and unsettling expression of the nightmares lurking just behind familiar childish fears.

There’s something in water.

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42. Cinema Paradiso (#55)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every second Saturday at 6pm GMT, with the occasional bonus episode between them.

This time, Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso.

Successful film director Salvatore Di Vita receives word the projectionist at the Cinema Paradiso has died. This news prompts Salvatore to embark on a literal and metaphorical journey back to the small village in which he grew up, exploring memories of his childhood and of the magical days spent in the cinema that served as the lynchpin of his idyllic community.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 55th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: The Black Prince

The Black Prince is a well-intentioned misfire.

Written and directed by Kavi Raz, The Black Prince is a historical epic attempting to explore the life and times of the Maharaja Duleep Singh, who was abducted from India and taken to the United Kingdom where he became Queen Victoria’s “black prince.” The movie is undoubtedly ambitious and a labour of love for Kavi Raz, who is clearly working within any number of severe budget and production restraints. The best thing about The Black Prince might just be its canny use of existing locations that create a fascinating period atmosphere that recalls a vintage BBC drama.

However, the problems with The Black Prince are more fundamental than any issue with budget or ambition. Raz clearly has an abiding sympathy for and interest in the Maharaja Duleep Singh, but the film suffers from a reluctance to take a step back from its subject. Instead of tightening its focus on one aspect of the character’s life, or one key decision, the film attempts to condense the character’s entire history down to a two-hour movie. The result is a movie where a lot of things happen, but none of those things feel grounded in anything particularly important.

The Black Prince is a movie that suffers from its desire to be all things to all audiences, trying to pivot between genres in the spaces between scenes, reducing its central characters to vehicles for plot-driven or historical exposition, and changing its core premise so frequently that it feels like the cliffnotes of a much stronger film.

 

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