“Battle of the Sexes”

I’ve heard claims that Battle of the Sexes is an analogy for last year’s Trump-Clinton election. That’s not the case at all, though I can see both Emma Stone and Steve Carell playing Clinton and Trump in a future satire.

Women’s tennis champion Billie Jean King (Stone) is fed up with the gender wage gap and misogyny in the ATP. Washed up tennis player-turned-hustler Bobby Riggs (Carell) sees King’s crusade as a prophet for him and proposes a match dubbed “Battle of the Sexes.” King gladly accepts since Riggs continuously mocks women’s tennis.

Battle of the Sexes is a better-than-average biopic thanks to Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s (Little Miss Sunshine) direction and Stone and Carell’s performances. The film is filled with glossy 70’s visuals and some beautiful, expressive shots. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of witty dialogue and banter thanks to the terrific Simon Beaufoy’s (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) script.

Battle of the Sexes’s best aspect is its complex characters. This isn’t a black-and-white depiction of King versus Riggs, but quite the opposite. King plays for a cause, but has some flaws of her own in her love life. Riggs plays for attention and is clearly putting on a show to recapture his lost glory. Both Stone and Carell excel in capturing the emotions and complexity of their respective characters.

The film suffers from trying too hard at being Oscar bait on occasion. It’s quite obvious with Alan Cumming’s character’s closing line that the filmmakers are campaigning for the upcoming awards season. Also, like most biopics, we get closing captions in the end. It would be nice to see a biopic that defies this convention.

Still, I recommend Battle of the Sexes. It has spirit, humor, panache, and complexity.

Grade: A-

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“The Big Short”

Did you know that a small group of bankers predicted the economy crashing before 2008? Did you know it started with these bankers predicting the housing market crash? Well, I didn’t know until I saw “The Big Short”, which is an insightful  look at the events leading to the recession.

“The Big Short” is director Adam McKay’s (“Anchorman”) introduction to dramatic filmmaking and stars Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, and Ryan Gosling as the  bankers who saw the financial disaster coming. Bale plays the eccentric Michael Burry, who first predicted the recession and bet the housing market would crash while everyone laughed at him. Gosling and Carell play bankers Jared Vinnett and Mark Baum, who learned of Burry’s deal and invested in it. Brad Pitt is a retired banker named Ben Rickert, who mentors two greedy young kids that want in on the short.

“The Big Short” is part docudrama and part satirical comedy, occasionally scoring some laughs (this is the guy who directed “Anchorman” afterall). It doesn’t always hit its mark due to dizzying camerawork and a lack of focus.

Bale delivers a brilliant performance as Burry. He’s a one-eyed man with a lack of social skills who’s focused entirely on numbers and metal music. He’s by far the most interesting character in this movie, but here’s the problem – he’s hardly in it! Carell gives one of his angriest and most human performances as Baum, a man overwhelmed by the flaws in the system and survivor’s guilt.

Pitt and Gosling are both the cool guys as usual, with Pitt portraying Rickert as a health-conscious retired banker, and Gosling acting as the film’s narrator. Vinnett’s narration scenes are funny in a dark and condescending way as he turns the scene over to several celebrities as guest narrators.

McKay’s strong point in “The Big Short” is showing us the horrors of the impending recession, but then finding a funny and cartoonish way to explain it to us. One scene involving Carell’s horrific realization with “Sweet Child O’Mine” as background music, followed by an explanation comparing a black jack game to the recession crumbling is the highlight of the film.

Sadly, there’s just not enough humor or balance between McKay’s cinema verite approach and his dark comedy angle. Not saying McKay should go back to what he knows because he made a good movie, but he does have some room to grow.

Grade: B+