Thursday, September 28, 2017

Rapid Reviews: Battle of the Sexes and Brad's Status

Following an unusual career path to filmmaking that included nearly two decades of making MTV music videos for accomplished artists like REM, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Weezer and countless others, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris began their Hollywood career with a bang. The husband and wife's debut feature Little Miss Sunshine went on to win a pair of Oscars (Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay) and earn heaps of critical praise. And despite an egregiously overlooked second feature, the superbly told fantasy love story Ruby Sparks, the couple's latest work has them back in the spotlight.

Battle of the Sexes tells the timely true tale of female tennis great, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone), as she emerged as a beacon of the women's liberation movement during the early 1970s. While embroiled in a bitter fight concerning equal cash prize payouts for the men's and women's tournament winners, King also discovers her inner desires and begins a secret and risque affair with a pretty young hair dresser named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). Meanwhile, 55 year old former men's champion and gambling aficionado , Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell), comes up with a crazy sideshow idea to play King in an exhibition match, and puts on a chauvinistic display to help make it happen.

Caught in the midst of a heated social climate, Dayton and Faris' Battle of the Sexes proudly parades its pro-feminism and pro-LGBTQ rights agenda. You'll be hard pressed to find a single scene where King's character is on screen and neither of those issues are involved. Consequently, the film will assuredly polarize audiences, so it's important to take all passionate opinions regarding the movie with a grain of salt. And even though Academy Award Winning screenwriter Simon Beaufoy's (Slumdog Millionaire) script comes off as a bit preachy, recent Oscar Winner Emma Stone and co-star Steve Carell both deliver outstanding performances. If anything, Battle of the Sexes could have used a larger dose of Steve Carell, as Bobby Riggs' energetic character merely lurks around in the film's first two acts, giving way to a tepid romance story between Billie and Marilyn. Both Austin Stowell, as Billie's husband Larry King, and Andrea Riseborough fail to offer convincing and meaningful characters, which certainly creates a void in the film. Battle of the Sexes tells an interesting true story in a rather uninteresting way, making it a decent but unfulfilling watch.

Stars: 2 and a half stars out of 4

Grade: B-

At first glimpse of its movie trailer and before knowing anything about the film whatsoever, I wrongly assumed that Brad's Status was the newest addition to indie auteur Noah Baumbach's extensive catalog. With Ben Stiller in tow and a personal examination of the human psyche at its core, Mike White's film seemed to look and feel exactly like a Baumbach picture. Unfortunately, Brad's Status fails to play out anything like the heralded American filmmaker's work. Instead, writer and director Mike White reminds us all just how frustrating and immature we can be as individuals.

Ben Stiller stars as Brad Sloan, a middle-aged owner of a mildly successful non-profit organization who can't help but feel resentful of his inner circle of college friends who all grew up to become insanely successful. And as Brad ventures onto a college tour with his smart and put-together teenage son Troy (Austin Abrams) who has goals of getting into Harvard, Brad continues to be plagued by regret and self loathing that makes him question all of his life's decisions.

Selling an audience on a character as irritating and emotionally inept as Brad is quite difficult. And even worse, the depth of his character is built almost exclusively through the cheap narrative tool of voice over. Brad's Status attempts to paint a meaningful tale of self discovery, but as Brad's character finally begins to peel away at his layers of cynicism, he's already alienated the viewer with an annoying obsession over stature and prominence. Mike White tries his hardest to provide a silver lining and he actually does conjure up a worthwhile, albeit obvious, message to the story. Yet, it's quite the challenge to still be invested in Brad's irrational psyche by the time the film finally arrives at its well-intended conclusion.

Stars: 2 stars out of 4

Grade: C

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