King Richard


Will Smith is usually the leader of the pack.

(2021) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Will Smith, Aunjanue Ellis, Jon Bernthal, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Tony Goldwyn, Mikayla Lashae Bartholomew, Daniele Lawson, Layla Crawford, Erika Ringor, Noah Bean, Craig Tate, Josiah Cross, Vaughn Hebron, Jimmy Walker Jr., Kevin Dunn, Brad Greenquist, Christopher Wallinger, Chase Del Rey, Connie Ventress. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

 

Champions are not born; they’re made. All the ability in the world will not avail you a championship unless you are willing to put in the work to earn it. Often, the ones who are making sure that the work is being put in is the parents, tirelessly believing in their prodigy even after trudging through practice…in the rain.

Richard Williams (Smith) had an improbable goal for his daughters Venus (Sidney) and Serena (Singleton) – to mold them into champion tennis players. Now, understand that in Compton, that was not the means to sports stardom that is generally chosen. There were no tennis clubs, no manicured courts. Just the indifferently maintained courts in the public park, where gang bangers often hung out.

Richard had written out a 78-page plan detailing how he was going to help his daughters turn into Grand Slam winners. Not everyone believed in the plan; a concerned neighbor (Ringor) questions whether it is healthy to force the girls to practice in the rain.

But they persevere and eventually Richard gets Venus hooked up with renowned tennis coach Paul Cohen (Goldwyn), the man who taught John McEnroe (Wallinger) and Pete Sampras (Del Rey). Paul gets Venus onto the junior tournament circuit, where her extraordinary success gets her national notice, but Richard isn’t satisfied. For one thing, Cohen wants Venus to utilize a closed stance, which is contrary to what Richard has taught her. He is constantly yelling at her to keep her stance open. “That’s where her power comes from,” he explains.

In the meantime, Richard’s wife Oracene (Ellis) is teaching the disappointed Serena, using videotapes of Venus’ lessons to augment practice (Cohen was unwilling to coach both girls for free, but he was willing to take one, so the older of the two, Venus, was selected). The disagreements on how to prepare Venus for turning pro lead Richard to switch to a different coach, Rick Macci (Bernthal) which necessitates the family moving to Florida so that both girls can benefit from being a part of Macci’s academy. Richard still exerts a great deal of control over the direction of his daughter’s career trajectory, but has become something of a huckster, promoting his daughters shamelessly. However, it begins to become an issue that his girls are getting no say in how their career is to progress, and as Oracene points out to her husband during a heated argument, that’s the way to push his daughters away forever.

These sorts of sports movies tend to be a bit of an anti-climax because we know how they’re going to end.We know that Richard’s plans come to fruition and that Venus and Serena become legends of the court, each achieving incredible success (with the younger Serena eclipsing her older sister in terms of accomplishment). It’s fascinating to watch it all happen, however.

Part of what makes it that way is an extraordinary performance by Smith, who has made a career out of playing affable, charming guys. While Richard has plenty of charm, “affable” isn’t a word I’d use to describe him; he’s temperamental, something of a blowhard, and dictatorial. But there’s something about the man that is wounded; you see it in his body language when he drives the VW minibus, he carts his girls to and from practice in; all hunched over, eyes darting from one way to the next, certain that something is coming to knock him down again and trying to prepare for the blow that is inevitably coming, and come they do, sometimes literally. While we end up liking Richard largely because it’s Will Smith playing him. If someone with more of an edge played him, like Mahershala Ali, we might be less disposed to forgive Richard his eccentricities and flaws.

Ellis has a tall task in standing up to a performance like that, but she actually holds her own, particularly in the second half of the movie when it’s clear that Oracene is not 100% behind her husband’s plan and method. The argument I mentioned above is a highlight of the movie and Ellis’ finest hour.

The tennis scenes…well, I’m not enough of an expert in the sport to determine how realistic the sports action is. To my eye it seemed decent enough, although I’m not enough of a follower to ascertain whether Sidney and Singleton are getting the Williams sisters’ mannerisms down right. To my untrained eye, they look pretty believable to me.

With the Williams sisters acting as executive producers, it’s a foregone conclusion that there aren’t going to be any dark corners explored in the film, particularly Richard’s serial infidelity, his treatment of his kids from his first marriage (they don’t appear onscreen in the film), and his penchant for self-promotion, which is only obliquely addressed. It’s not really a “warts and all” depiction of the family patriarch; more like a glossy photoshopped version, but it’s fascinating nevertheless and worth seeing just to see Will Smith at his very best.

REASONS TO SEE: Will Smith could be in awards conversation for his work here. Humanizes a pair of tennis legends.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be a bit hagiographic.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some brief drug references, a bit of profanity, a sexual reference and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Richard and Oracene divorced in 2002. He remarried eight years later, but the couple has since also divorced.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (until December 18)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews; Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Borg vs. McEnroe
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Beta Test

Borg vs. McEnroe


Competition can turn enemies into friends and friends into brothers.

(2017) Biographical Sports Drama (Neon) Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgård, Tuva Novotny, Leo Borg, Marcus Mossberg, Jackson Gann, Scott Arthur, Ian Blackman, Robert Emms, David Bamber, Mats Blomgren, Julia Marko Nord, Jane Perry, Demetri Goritsas, Roy McCrerey, Bjôrn Granath, Jason Forbes, Tom Datnow, Colin Stinton, Janis Ahern. Directed by Janus Metz

Rivalries are often the most fascinating stories in sports; the Yankees-Red Sox, Ali-Frazier, Seabiscuit-War Admiral, Palmer-Nicklaus. These sorts of stories tend to capture the imagination of the public, whether in the United States or elsewhere; there are always rivalries to fuel the fervor of the sporting public.

In the 80s, one such rivalry occurred in tennis. Bjorn Borg (Gudnason) was the top player in the game. He had won four straight Wimbledon championships and was about to try for an unprecedented fifth. His emotionless demeanor and absolute control earned him nicknames like “Ice Borg” and “The Swedish Machine.”

The polar opposite is John McEnroe (LaBeouf), a temperamental American who argues calls with umpires and often unleashing profanity-laced tirades against officials on the court and off, earning him the current titleholder of the Bad Boy of Tennis like none had achieved before or, to date, since. His game was a charging net game; Borg’s was more geared towards the baseline. They were both great competitors but they had little else in common; McEnroe dug the spotlight whereas Borg was tired of living in the media glare. Borg was cheered by millions; McEnroe was mainly booed. Borg had a stable fiancée (Novotny) while McEnroe played the field. It was truly a rivalry made it heaven.

And yet in many ways the two were not all that different. As a young man (Borg), Bjorn had a great difficulty controlling his anger. That is, until he meets trainer Lennart Bergelin (Skarsgård). He teaches Borg to harness his rage and channel it constructively, to hide his emotions in order to get in the heads of his opponents. Bergelin is the reason Bjorn Borg became Bjorn Borg.

The most prestigious tournament in tennis is Wimbledon and Borg is determined to make history. Standing in his way is McEnroe, who is just as determined to make history of his own. The year is 1980 and the two are on a collision course to play one of the greatest matches in the history of the sport. To this day many believe it is the greatest tennis match ever played.

The story is indeed a compelling one but I wish it would have been handled a little differently. This Swedish-Danish co-production focuses on Borg which would normally be fine but let’s face it – McEnroe is by far the most interesting character. Gudnason bears a striking resemblance to the tennis great and does a superb job channeling him but let’s face it – the man was kind of boring. I understand that Borg remains a revered figure in Scandinavia but I think the movie would have benefited by a little more McEnroe.

Metz utilizes a lot of flashbacks to tell his story and to be honest after awhile they begin to get annoying. The flow of the film becomes choppy and frustrating at times. What’s worse is that the tennis sequences are pretty poorly shot. The angles are all wrong and we don’t get a sense of the ebb and flow of the game. To be fair Metz does a good job of getting the tension up but when the tennis sequences in a tennis movie are sub-par, that’s troubling.

All in all this is a decent enough movie but it could have been better. It could have used a little of the humor displayed in I, Tonya to name one. As it is this is mainly going to appeal to Swedes and older tennis fans for the most part.

REASONS TO GO: The rivalry is a compelling one. Gudnason does a strong job as Borg.
REASONS TO STAY: The flashbacks get to be annoying. The tennis sequences are poorly done.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actor who plays Borg as a young boy is Borg’s real life son Leo.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle of the Sexes
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Straight Into a Storm

Battle of the Sexes


Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs: together again.

(2017) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Natalie Morales, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Alan Cumming, Elisabeth Shue, Eric Christian Olsen, Fred Armisen, Austin Stowell, Wallace Langham, Martha MacIsaac, Lauren Kline, Mickey Sumner, Fidan Manashirova, Jessica McNamee, Ashley Weinhold. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

 

The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King, then the best female player in the world, and Bobby Riggs, a middle aged former Wimbledon champion was in many ways the epitome of excessive hype and sensationalism, two things America does particularly well. Some have looked at it as a metaphor for the struggle of women to gain equality but in many ways it really was just an over-bloated carnival sideshow that caught the attention of the world when it happened.

King (Stone) was busy trying to get the Woman’s Tennis Association off the ground; wearied by years of being dismissed by the male elite of the USLTA, then the ruling body for American tennis, and worse yet receiving only about one eighth the prize money that men received, she and her fast-tallking chain-smoking publicist Gladys Heldman (Silverman) are not looking necessarily to make a statement other than create an organization that will promote women’s tennis properly. King wasn’t particularly political but she did have a sense of fairness that was more developed than most.

Riggs (Carell) was a hustler and a man with a gambling problem whose career greatness was well behind him. Hitting upon an idea that he thought would generate him the kind of money that would keep him and his family comfortable, he wanted to play the best female player in the world and beat her to show that even an over-the-hill male player could beat the best woman. King at first refused but when Margaret Court (MacIsaac) who had the number one ranking at the time accepted the challenge – and lost – King felt obliged to take the match, particularly since the defeat could sink the WTA before it was even afloat.

To complicate matters, King had begun a romance with hairdresser Marilyn Barrett (Riseborough) that gave King the first realization that she was a lesbian. Of course it was a much different time back then; the revelation of her sexuality could wipe out the credibility of the WTA and of course destroy her marriage to her husband Larry (Stowell) who was genuinely supportive and someone she didn’t want to hurt. There was a ton of pressure on Billie Jean King coming to a head in the Astrodome on September 20, 1973.

Stone does an outstanding job as King, despite not having a particular physical resemblance to the tennis great. She does pull off King’s high wattage squinty smile very nicely and many of her vocal mannerisms. She doesn’t play King as a confident leader which was perhaps the public perception of her, but as someone who was thrust into a role she didn’t particularly want to play but accepted the role she’d been given. Stone has an outside chance of an Oscar nomination for her work but because the movie was released in September, kind of a no man’s land for award season, the chances are a little bit more slender than they might have been had the movie gotten a November or December release.

Carell also does a really good job as Riggs, capturing the huckster public persona and the personal charm Riggs displayed on the camera. We also get the sense – which those who knew Riggs well, including Billie Jean King have often stated – that the chauvinism was an act for him, a means of hyping up the match and of making a buck. There are moments of genuine warmth and Carell delivers them note-perfectly.

Dayton and Faris really give us a sense of the era nicely including a killer soundtrack – it’s nice that movies are really nailing era soundtracks these days – and the fashions and design of the time. They do make a tactical error in spending so much time on the romance between Billie Jean and Marilyn; while I do think that King’s discovery of her sexuality was an important component to her life at the time it was by no means the only one. The romance is over-emphasized and slows down the movie’s momentum and pads the running time a bit much. There really aren’t a lot of sparks between Stone and Riseborough and it makes the movie overall feel a bit flatter than it needed to be.

Still, this is a fairly enjoyable movie that if you’re patient can be quite entertaining. I wouldn’t call it a gem (some critics have) but neither would I call it a failure either. Misogynists will probably detest the movie and radical feminists may think it’s a bit soft. However those of us in between will find a good comfortable place to enjoy the spectacle.

REASONS TO GO: The performances of Stone and Carell are stellar. The directors evoke the era of the 70s nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie has a bit of a soap opera-esque feel. The film is a bit flat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carell previously worked with Dayton and Faris in Little Miss Sunshine.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wimbledon
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Victoria and Abdul

Literally, Right Before Aaron


Love makes grinning idiots of us all.

(2017) Romantic Comedy (Screen Media) Justin Long, Cobie Smulders, Ryan Hansen, John Cho, Kristen Schaal, Lea Thompson, Dana Delaney, Peter Gallagher, Luis Guzmán, Charlyne Yi, Vella Lovell, Ginger Gonzaga, Malcolm Barrett, Manu Intiraymi, Ivy George, Rick Overton, Adam Rose, Sam Hennings, Parvesh Cheena, Dov Tiefenbach, Ashley Platz. Directed by Ryan Eggold

 

When we are of a certain age, we have an idea of what The One is going to look like; you know, The One who is your partner for life, your dream man/woman, your other half. Not so much in the physical make-up but the kind of person he/she is. When we think we’ve found that person, the idea is to hold onto them with both hands. It never occurs to us that The One may turn out to be just The One We Thought Was The One.

Adam (Long) is getting over the break-up of an eight-year relationship with Allison (Smulders) when out of the blue, he gets a phone call from her inviting him to her wedding. She puts pressure on him to attend; “I’m going to be at yours so you HAVE to be at mine!” she wheedles. Despite the misgivings and urging to the contrary by friends/co-workers Mark (Cho) and Claire (Yi), he decides to head north to San Francisco and attend.

He meets Aaron (Hansen), the new man in Allison’s life whom she began dating immediately after the break-up and takes an immediate dislike to him. Adam is determined to win Allison back and will do just about anything to do it including lie to his own mother (Thompson) and do his best to remind Allison of what a good thing they had. As Allison herself said during one of (many) flashbacks to how they met, “I can’t decide if you’re charming or if you’re an asshole.”

Believe me, Allison, it’s the latter. This is a dreadfully unfunny romantic comedy in which cruelty and obsessive behavior substitutes for laughs. If someone were to do the things that Adam does in the movie, there’d be a restraining order in his immediate future, not an invitation to a wedding. There would also likely be the beatdown of a lifetime but I digress.

Long has made a career of being the sad sack romantic and he’s as good at it as John Cusack, whose mantle Long inherited, once was. He tries his best here to be likable and charming – and he’s capable of being both – but one is defined by their actions and Adam’s actions are self-centered to the point of narcissism, perhaps even to the point of being mentally unbalanced. I could see Adam going completely berserk, brandishing a gun and screaming at Allison “Love me! Or I’ll kill you!” And perhaps that would have been a more interesting movie. Still, it must also be said that Long is getting a bit long in the tooth for roles like this. I would like to see him take on some roles that have a bit more maturity to them. Hollywood casting being what it is, that might not happen anytime soon.

The movie is riddled with genre clichés and the plot is powered by characters doing things that no rational human being would ever do. I get that love can make you do crazy things, but Jeez Louise; I can’t imagine a psychologist witnessing this behavior without seriously pulling the committal papers out. This is lazy writing of the highest order.

Director Eggold, who is best known as the sinister Tom Keen on the hit TV show The Blacklist shows some of his rookie greenery with the choices he makes – he’ll get a 10-yard penalty for overuse of faded-out flashbacks that are meant to look like old home movies – but he also makes some good ones. Rarely have I seen San Francisco used as well as it is used here to really bring the tone of the city to life. Having lived in the Bay Area as long as I have, I felt a certain amount of nostalgia watching the movie and listening to Tony Bennett croon his signature “I Left My Heart (in San Francisco).” Kudos for that.

Kudos must also be given for assembling an impressive cast, although several of them – particularly Guzmán, Delaney and Thompson – are in the film for only a scene or two. I could have used a little more of these actors and a little less of Long who is in nearly every minute of the film. Not that Long can’t carry a film on his own, mind you – he just needed some better material to carry it with.

REASONS TO GO: Utilizes San Francisco to its fullest. The cast is impressive.
REASONS TO STAY: People acting like blithering idiots does not a comedy make. The film suffers from far too many rom-com clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some sexual references here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie references the John Steinbeck classic Of Mice and Men and goes on to spoil the ending of the book.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Best Friend’s Wedding
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Walking Out