Sunday, December 10, 2017
Whether it was punk rock, Pop art, disco, or hip-hop, Manhattan has always embraced the new and the novel. In boxing terms, the newest and most novel is Ukraine's Vasyl Lomachenko, a fighter who trains by catching quarters in mid air and holding his breath for three and four minutes at a time, and whose footwork combines the fleetness of Willie Pep with the rhythms of Ukrainian folk dancers. Inside The Theater at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, Lomachenko took on the highly regarded Guillermo Rigondeaux and showed that his unique, frenetic style creates hell for even the best fighters. Rigondeaux, undefeated since 2003, shocked the crowd of 5,102 by quitting after the sixth round.
Don't misunderstand: it's not as if Rigondeaux took a brutal beating. He was, at age 37, with two Olympic gold medals to his credit and an undefeated professional record, savvy enough to survive by clinching and fouling. Ultimately, though, he chose to follow the template of Lomachenko's three previous opponents and retire on his stool.
When Lomachenko, who has won 10 of 11 pro bouts (with nearly 400 amateur wins and two of his own gold medals) started unloading in the third - he astonished observers with a triple right uppercut - it seemed as if Rigondeaux might get an opportunity to lure the Ukrainian into one of his own stunning left hand shots. But rather than patiently wait for Lomachenko to get cocky and walk into something, Rigondeaux came unglued. He began to behave like a frustrated rookie, holding and stalling. Lomachenko, meanwhile, looked like a young country boy enjoying his first barn dance, at one point grabbing Rigondeaux by the neck and pirouetting around him. After Rigondeaux had landed one too many cheap shots, Lomechenko answered with a stiff right to the jaw, long after the bell ending round five. Even if you cheat, he seemed to say, I've got your number.
"I lost, no excuses," Rigondeaux said after the bout. Then he gave an excuse. "I injured the top of my left hand in the second round. He's a very technical fighter. He's explosive." Though he'd come up a weight class for the bout, he didn't blame the loss on being smaller than Lomachenko. "The weight was not a factor in this fight. It was the injury to my hand."
Not many were buying Rigondeaux' story. He was jeered by the crowd, and also by several hyperventilating television commentators, as if he'd done something akin to treason. Perhaps it's easier to speak badly of a fighter for quitting than it is to praise a fighter like Lomachenko, whose greatness is difficult to measure by any existing yardstick. There were moments in the bout when Rigondeaux looked like a homeless man stumbling through bad weather, wondering how life could've left him in such circumstances. He had no answers for the merry trickster in front of him, and the hopelessness in his eyes was poignant, particularly in the sixth when referee Steve Willis penalized him one point for a foul. At that moment, the fight slipping away beyond his reach, Rigondeaux looked like the loneliest man in New York. Faced with an opponent whose feet move quicker than the average man can think, Rigondeaux decided that jettisoning his undefeated record was better than taking any more of Lomachenko's strange abuse, which much feel like being poked by a circus clown long after the joke has worn off.
Rigondeaux' back may not have hit the canvas, but his spirit was certainly knocked out.
It would've been interesting to see how Lomachenko responded to one of Rigondeaux' powerhouse lefts, for Rigondeaux is a certified jawbreaker. But anytime Rigondeaux tried to land something, Lomachenko would suddenly be behind him, or at his side, or peppering him with punches, or nimbly shifting around, giving Rigoneaux angles not usually seen in a boxing ring. Lomachenko is boxing's equivalent of the knuckleball, never where you expect him to be. Keep in mind, we once spoke of Roy Jones Jr. this way, and he turned out to be painfully mortal. For now, Lomachenko is bright and new, and at age 29 he's in prime form. He also understands that beating an older, smaller fighter will not exactly punch his ticket to Valhalla.
"This is not his weight, so it's not a big win for me," Lomachenko said. "But he's a good fighter. He's got great skills. I adjusted to his style, low blows and all."
If Lomachenko was humble, promoter Bob Arum didn't hesitate to put some extra shine on the moment. "You are all seeing something special," Arum said, comparing Lomachenko to the greats of the past, including Muhammad Ali and Ray Leonard, plus contemporary icons like Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Lomachenko, Arum crowed, is "the most unbeatable fighter I've ever had."
Hype aside, Lomachenko is a young man with an impressive style, and a dedication to being perfect in the ring. For now it's fun for him. He's like a brilliant teenage chess prodigy who casually beats masters twice his age and acts as if it's all easy, a joke that only he understands.
But Lomachenko wasn't the only one smiling. After the bout was stopped and Rigondeaux announced his hand was bothering him, Lomachenko's father and trainer, Anatoly, started removing his son's gloves. "Is this OK?" the older man said, setting up his own punchline. "How is your hand?" Father and son shared a laugh.
How great it must be, and how novel, to have figured out the secret of invincibility.
- Don Stradley
Tuesday, December 5, 2017
As far as unsolved murders go, the killing of Elizabeth Short in 1947 has a special place in the pantheon. She was a 22-year-old woman living on the fringes of Los Angeles, allegedly making a few bucks as a nude model for a cut-rate porn ring. One morning her body was found in a vacant lot, severed in half, drained of blood. When acquaintances mentioned her habit of wearing a black flower in her hair, Short was fitted with a nickname that would live for decades: "The Black Dahlia." A few years of garish headlines followed, with hundreds of weirdos coming forward to offer phony confessions. Theories were plentiful. Some speculated that the killer had been a crazy lesbian, or an insane surgeon. Even folk singer Woody Guthrie was a suspect after sending a series of sexually suggestive letters to a friend's sister. The Dahlia case gave L.A. a mystery to rival the crimes of Jack the Ripper.
The circumstances around this grisly homicide - the poor woman's body was not only bisected, but mutilated in many strange ways, as was her face - and the peculiar behavior of the Los Angeles police, are thoroughly examined in Piu Eatwell's Black Dahlia, Red Rose. Eatwell had access to rare files, and even interviewed the few living relations of various people involved in the investigation. If her writing style is a bit reserved, her commitment borders on the heroic . I've read a lot about Elizabeth Short, but this is the closest I've come to understanding what may have actually happened.
Short was actually a Massachusetts girl, from a suburb north of Boston, transplanted to L.A. with hopes of becoming a movie star. She ended up nearly destitute, living in rooming houses and relying on a string of "boyfriends" to keep her in nice dresses and fancy shoes. As one news editor described her, she wasn't good or bad, she was just lost, trying to find her way out of the hole she'd dug for herself. It wasn't long before she was in the company of some shady types, of which there was no shortage in 1940s LA.
Among the shadiest was an unemployed bellhop named Leslie Dillon. By all accounts he was "an insignificant, sloop shouldered man in glasses," with a penchant for dying his hair different colors. He was also a small-time pimp with an interest in psycho-sexual crimes. Many months after the murder, he began a correspondence with Dr. Paul De River, a psychologist working on the case. Perhaps, Dillon wrote, Elizabeth Short had "mocked" someone and, out of revenge, the killer had, in the process of annihilating her, "experienced a new sensation by accident..." During the remainder of the correspondence and an eventual meeting, Dillon revealed details that only Short's murderer could've known. He was, as the cops say, a live suspect.
Dillon did everything but provide an outright confession. He drew pictures; he gave details; and when he agreed to meet with Dr. De River in Las Vegas, he packed a suitcase full of razor blades, women's shoes, and a bloody dog leash, as if to say, This is how the well-dressed psychotic travels in late '40s America. Put simply, he was a strange cat, a sex-fiend, and he was quite likely the one who killed Elizabeth Short and cut her in half. But with the type of cunning usually reserved for super villains in a Thomas Harris novel, Dillon slipped out from the investigators' grip. It seems he had enough dirt on the LAPD, probably from his days pimping, that he was virtually untouchable. This was a time, after all, when the LAPD was at its most corrupt, freely mingling with gangsters; Dillon, Eatwell guesses, knew where the bodies were buried. He walked, and was never heard from again. Whether he killed anyone else is unknown, but Eatwell suggests the possibility. Cheekily, Dillon later married and named his daughter "Elizabeth."
Eatwell has worked as a producer and researcher for various BBC documentaries and has a passion for dark crimes and sinister characters. With the Dahlia case, she's knee deep in depravity and cover ups. It's unfortunate that Dillon vanished into the night, for he's certainly the most intriguing suspect. There was, recalled one investigator, something about Dillon "that raises a man's animal instincts, makes the hair on the back of your neck bristle up." From admitting that he liked to knock women out with drugs, to his knowledge of what was done with the Dahlia's pubic hair, Dillon convinced Dr. De River that he was "either guilty of the Dahlia murder, or heavily implicated in it."
Killing a woman in such a manner is a big job, and there's plenty of evidence suggesting that Dillon didn't work alone. Eatwell's theory is that a runty nightclub owner named Mark Hansen had approached Short to work for him as a prostitute, or perhaps to be his lover. When she refused, he hired Dillon to knock her off. Dillon, a lover of true crime tales and sadistic fiction, went about killing her with, shall we say, too much enthusiasm. Yet, he was so pleased with his work that he couldn't help but taunt the police and De River.
Dillon may have vanished, but the story of the Dahlia never goes away. It's been turned into a few forgettable movies (including one starring Lucy Arnaz!) and has inspired a cottage industry of books, including a couple where authors accuse their own fathers of being the killer. There's even one where the killer is said to have been Orson Welles. The result is that the books and films are interesting to a point, and then fall apart in vague accusations and hearsay.
Eatwell does better than most who have tried. By focusing on Dillon, who is usually a footnote in the investigation, and having fun with the film noir aspects of the story - she names each chapter after a movie of the period, ie. The Lodger, Panic in the Streets, The Glass Alibi etc - Eatwell turns in a taught, thought provoking crime story. Especially effective is her depiction of the Aster Motel, "a place of secrets, where men in dark suits paid cash to closet themselves in cabins with nameless associates and women in red lipstick and high heels."
The day after Short's body was found, a cabin at the Aster was reportedly covered in blood and feces. Witnesses claimed to have seen a man there resembling Dillon, and a woman resembling Short.
Eatwell's style is elegant and understated, a long cry from the hyperventilating spin used by most so-called Dahlia experts. At first you may be underwhelmed by the low key tone of Black Dahlia, Red Rose, but it works. You'll also be introduced to some great characters, like Aggie Underwood, the city editor at the Los Angeles Evening Herald & Express, who worked doggedly to cover the case, and the "Gangster Squad," a crew of veteran L.A. detectives who came very close to cracking the Dahlia mystery.
She doesn't quite pinpoint why the LAPD seemed so determined to forget the case, but alludes to key members of the department being friendly with Hansen, who had probably set up more than a few cops with women, possibly procured by pimp wannabe Dillon. The cover up of a murdered girl was easy in an era noted for the "cozy relationship played out in downtown bars between police and mobsters, the wads of dough traded at the doors of the gambling dens and whorehouses as a price for being left alone."
Newspaper editors effected the case, too, if only because of their handling of the Dahlia's image, taking her from a mysterious beauty to a kind of sleazy loser. Were they under orders to portray her as a whore, to cool the public's interest?
My own experience with a Dahlia-type of murder was back in the 1990s, when I lived in a shabby studio behind a Pizzeria Uno's outside of Boston. One Sunday morning I saw several police cars parked in the Uno's lot. The commotion was because of what someone had seen in the Uno's trash dumpster: a pair of female legs. I don't recall the torso being found, and I'm pretty sure the case, like Elizabeth Short's, was never solved. It didn't get a glamorous name like "The Black Dahlia," and after a few days no one gave a damn about it. Many murder cases go this route, especially when the victims are women, especially when the victims aren't rich. The horror isn't that these things happen, the horror is that the killers can just about get away with it.
The killers of Elizabeth Short got away with it, but Piu Eatwell presents compelling evidence involving some players previously lurking at the outskirts of the story. She's onto something.
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
The news that Miguel Cotto will retire after this weekend's New York bout against Sadam Ali is bringing back memories. They're all good, I must say. There was the time Freddie Prinze Jr chatted with me about how Cotto could probably run for governor of Puerto Rico and win. I also remember the time Jose Torres, the great Puerto Rican champion of the 1960s, confessed that he admired Cotto even more than another recent star from the island, Felix Trinidad. "I don't know what it is," Torres said to me as his eyes moistened, "but I love this kid."
Perhaps the most unique take on Cotto came from a New York cab driver. I'd rushed out of Madison Square Garden after one of Cotto's bouts, skipping the post fight presser because nothing useful ever happens at those things, and jumped into a taxi back to the hotel. The driver, a young Puerto Rican male, looked at me in the rear view mirror and asked if I'd seen the fight.
I gave him a brief rundown. He shrugged, satisfied. "Cotto is good for the city," the driver said, as if the fight itself didn't matter. "It's party time. And I'll make extra money taking these people home."
Cotto's promoter in those days, Bob Arum, usually booked Cotto in New York on the weekend of the annual Puerto Rican Day parade. If you've never seen it, it's a colorful rolling festival that takes place one Sunday in June and sets Manhattan aglow with music and dancing. Pity the person who has to drive in the city that day, because for miles the streets are jammed. I viewed the spectacle from the sidewalk a few times; it was impressive, joyous. Cotto was grand marshal at least once or twice.
Watching Cotto at Madison Square Garden was always special. The crowd sounded different on those nights. When he made his entrance, an incredible noise erupted across the highest points of the arena, like restless, dangerous winds coming in from the Atlantic. It swirled around the building, reminding me of the old movie theaters that were fitted with cinema shaking "Sensurround" systems. It was unforgettable.
Cotto may or may not be the best fighter to come from Puerto Rico. He was damned good, though. Serious as a brick, and nearly as hard. He did some major damage in New York.
Paulie Malignaggi stood up to Cotto's best shots at the Garden, but when that bout was over, the entire ring was spattered with red blotches the size of quarters: Paulie's blood. I'd gone into the Garden that night not sure about Cotto, but came out a believer.
There was also the night Cotto beat up Zab Judah. That was possibly the best Cotto we'd ever see, fast and mean and strong. The replay on TV did no justice to the power of Cotto's punches. When he hit Judah, it sounded like a hammer on a pumpkin.
He had many good nights in New York. He beat Shane Mosley at the Garden, and on a humid June night in 2010, he beat Yuri Foreman at Yankee Stadium. It wasn't quite like the stadium bouts of boxing's golden era, but it was a tasty appetizer for the Sunday festivities. And the festival atmosphere, as my taxi driver explained, was what it was really all about.
"Let me tell you about Cotto's fans," the driver said. "Puerto Rican people wait all year for something like this. They will go without groceries or food for a month. They'll save up all their money for the ticket, just so they can be there. They love it. They don't care what it costs, or who the opponent is. They're going to represent."
They certainly did, even on nights when Cotto wasn't at his best, like the time he suffered a nasty cut in a Garden bout with Joshua Clottey. Clottey was an awkward fighter with a forehead shaped like a gourd. After a head clash, Cotto started bleeding buckets. He struggled for the rest of the bout, but rallied to win a split decision. Not his best work, but his fans whistled and the parade rolled along on schedule the next morning.
In Las Vegas, Cotto suffered a punishing loss to Antonio Margarito. It was later revealed that Margarito was likely fighting with something extra in his gloves. A rematch was demanded, and there was no better place for it than Madison Square Garden in New York. In front of a sellout crowd of 21,239, a vengeful Cotto handed out the sort of prolonged beating usually seen in mafia movies, making sure Margarito tasted every punch.
From there, Cotto began losing more often - he even lost one in New York, to Austin Trout - and we realized his best days were behind him. Yet, he could still find magic in Manhattan, like the night in 2014 when he whipped Sergio Martinez. Nearly 15 years had passed since Cotto made his New York debut, winning a four rounder at the Hammerstein Ballroom, but still vibrant was the love affair between Cotto and the city. His fans were still saving their money, filling the seats, representing.
He's 37 now. He'd be smart to retire after this weekend's bout. He's one of the few fighters of recent times who was never boring in the ring, never coasted, never mailed one in. We'll all look back on Cotto and agree that boxing benefited from his presence.
Cotto fights Ali on Saturday at Madison Square Garden. It's the perfect place to end Cotto's story. His unbreakable spirit was best displayed in the city of New York, where Puerto Rican fans filled the air with unforgettable sounds, where blood colored the ring, where cabbies raked in the extra fares, where a long retired champ was nearly brought to tears by his love for the kid, and the victory celebration almost always included a parade.
New York was Cotto's town and always will be.
Friday, November 24, 2017
It's sad to realize Harry Dean Stanton is gone. He died in September at 91. His heyday was in the 1970s and '80s, in movies like Dillinger, Alien, Wise Blood, and Repo Man. He found his best role in 1984 when he played a drifter in Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas. Stanton, who began his career as a bit player in the 1950s, was a lanky guy with a hangdog face and soft, brown eyes. He was the closest thing Hollywood had to a human coyote. He was once offered his own TV series but turned it down; he didn't want the success of the show to rest on his shoulders. Stanton was better suited to the fringes of the movie business, small parts, in and out, fast, almost unnoticed. A coyote. In recent years he became a kind of fetish figure for the same types who dig gnarly old survivors like Keith Richards and Johnny Cash. Lucky, though it's as lightweight as a greeting card, certainly won't hurt his reputation. Like the leather cowboy boots he wears in the movie, the Stanton vibe was made to last.
The movie has won awards and accolades from critics, but it's a fluff piece. First time screenwriters Drago Sumonja and Logan Sparks give us a flimsy story about a codger named Lucky (Stanton) who is starting to feel the terrors of old age. He's healthy enough - only a pair of idiot writers would create a 90-year-old character who smokes a pack of cigs per day and have a doctor tell him his lungs are fine - but after an episode where he falls down in his kitchen, he acknowledges that there is a lot more life behind him than ahead of him. The method here is all quirky, indy self-consciousness: Lucky's refrigerator contains only three quarts of milk; his ashtray always has exactly three butts; the local bar, the local diner, the local store, are all too cute. We constantly hear "Red River Valley" played on a harmonica (by Stanton), until we're ready to cry uncle. Meanwhile, Lucky is brimming with ersatz wisdom. "There's a difference between lonely and being alone," he says. If that strikes you as deeply profound, maybe Lucky is the movie for you.
Director John Carroll Lynch, however, is tasteful, and he puts veteran cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt to good use, especially when Lucky is out in the desert, going on one of his many solitary walks among the cacti. And I liked David Lynch as Lucky's eccentric friend, Howard, all shook up because his pet tortoise ran away. Some will think Lucky is a nice meditation about those who quietly rage against the dying of the light, and some will be overly impressed by the way Stanton puts his scrawny old body on display. Yes, there was no vanity in the guy, and there's something admirable about an elderly actor who, as Stanton does here, appears in a movie either semi-nude or in his underwear. On the other hand, I got pretty tired of looking at Stanton's balls and armpits.
Stanton gives Lucky what he always gave to movies: his presence. He was never one who knocked the walls down with his acting. But it was always great to see him. When he popped up in a movie it was like recognizing an old friend in a crowd. This was a guy who could play an understanding father in John Hughes' Pretty in Pink, or appear in an episode of Laverne & Shirley as a seedy lounge singer named Johnny Velvet. He was believable every time, and he's certainly believable in Lucky. But it would be misleading to say he carries the movie on his own narrow shoulders, or makes it worth seeing. Lucky is just too pleased with itself, and we can almost feel the writers patting themselves on the back when they come up with a line of crap dialog like, "Realism is a thing." Ironically, they did come up with something good in Lynch's character, who pines for his lost tortoise, wants to leave all of his money to it, and solemnly promises to be there when the animal returns. Lynch has the best scene in the movie when he talks about how his tortoise, named "President Roosevelt," must have carefully planned his escape because it had something important to do. "That tortoise affected me," he says. For a moment we can see the movie that should've been made.
Monday, November 20, 2017
In 1999 Jim Carrey starred in Man on the Moon, a screen biography of the late Andy Kaufman. It was smart casting, because Kaufman was on the brink of being entirely forgotten, and Carrey was just about the biggest comic actor on the planet. It also turned out that Carrey was a devoted Kaufman fan, even willing to audition for director Milos Foreman by videotaping himself doing some of Kaufman's old bits. Once the role was his, Carrey dove in with such commitment that he demanded everyone on the set refer to him as "Andy," and, just as Kaufman often did in his heyday, Carrey remained "in character" for the duration of the production. Carrey also hired his own crew to shoot behind the scenes footage, which he'd hoped to use as part of the original film's DVD release. Universal objected, fearing the footage made Carrey look "like an asshole." As we can now watch the previously unseen footage on Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, the studio had a point.
Of course, Carrey is the best type of asshole. But how do we respond when he suggests that he was channeling Kaufman's spirit? "It was," Carrey says, "as if Andy came back to make his movie, and he turned the world upside down." When filming scenes with the original cast of Taxi, the ABC sitcom where Kaufman starred as the lovable Latka Gravas, Carrey is relentless, irritating his co-stars until the discomfort is visible in their eyes. "I'd feel guilty," Carrey says, "wondering if I'd gone too far. Then I'd wonder what Andy would do. And Andy would take things even further." Foreman is exasperated, and we feel for him, but Carrey is fascinating, like fireworks that unexpectedly spell out obscene words.
People will no doubt discuss the "meta" quality of the movie, for it's a documentary about a movie within a movie, and it'll set your head spinning. It also comes with a big dollop of Carrey's "None of us really exist" hokum, which has been his stance of late. Yet, as he now sits behind a bushy beard, his eyes smaller and more piercing than I remember, he tells the tale of his life and this movie like a melancholy guru. He reached the top of his profession, and found it lacking; now he's gone existential on us. Whether or not I share his views on how the universe works, I could listen to him for hours.
The documentary reminds us of how incredibly famous Carrey was in the 1990s (which is likely the reason he got away with so much crap), and his gargantuan reserves of silliness, but also of how great Kaufman was in his 1970s heyday. It's worth seeing just for Carrey's impeccable version of Kaufman's alter-ego, the nasty lounge singer Tony Clifton. The gag Carrey plays at the Playboy Mansion is priceless; Kaufman would've approved.
Some wonder if Carrey's recent philosophical musings are merely a new unleashing of his Kaufmanesque side, as if he's testing us, putting us on, but I don't think so. Not only do I think he believes in what he's saying, but I think he may be done with entertaining us. When he's done, he's done. Even when he shed the Kaufman costume, he wouldn't put it on again, not even when R.E.M. wanted him to appear as Kaufman in a music video.
As I watched Jim & Andy, I wondered what Kaufman would've done with Carrey's monstrous success. And I wondered if Carrey might've been happier if he'd been a cult figure, like Kaufman, rather than a world renowned movie star. And I wondered if Carrey really thought he had brought Kaufman back to life, somehow, for the filming of Man on the Moon. And I wondered why there was such an all-pervading sense of gloom around Jim & Andy. Is it because Kaufman died young? Is it because Carrey already seems like part of our past?
What is amazing is how Carrey got so many members of the crew to go along with him. Hairdressers, actors, and members of Kaufman's family appear to genuinely embrace him as Kaufman. Carrey gets teary-eyed when he talks about meeting Kaufman's daughter, and again when he talks about his own father, a budding sax player who gave up his dreams in order to support his family. Such heartfelt moments are unexpected, but they work. It's one of the damnedest documentaries ever made.
Saturday, November 18, 2017
Late in Battle of the Sexes, we see real photos of Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, black and white shots from their 1970s period. King looks pugnacious, energetic, vibrant. Riggs, posing as he did for a mock Playgirl centerfold, is grotesque. In fact, an older lady in the audience seated near me let out a shriek when she saw the image of Riggs. It was as if his obnoxious presence still perturbs women 40 years after the ultimate "male chauvinist pig" challenged King, one of the top players in women's tennis, to a match. The event became a pop cultural phenomenon and aired on ABC on a Thursday night in September of 1973 (probably preempting Kung Fu and The Streets of San Francisco), even though Riggs was 55 years-old and King was in her athletic prime. In 2001, ABC presented When Billie Beat Bobby, an entertaining piece starring Holly Hunter and Ron Silver. I kept thinking of that one, even as Emma Stone and Steve Carrell did their best to present the story again. Stone and Carrell are major talents, but too cute, like Barbie and Ken dolls cast as Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammet.
Carrell, for the most part, is a reasonable choice to play Riggs. He may seem a little too burly for an over-the-hill tennis legend who was spending his retirement years hustling his pals at the local gentleman's club, but Carrell's got the devil-may-care silliness and the "Why should I give a fuck what you think?" attitude (his speech at a gambler's anonymous meeting, where he tells people their real problem is that they're just shitty gamblers, is the highlight of the movie). Stone, though, is too far from the cloth from which King was cut. (Hunter played King as a muscled up warrior, worn down by outside pressure, not battle.) Stone is too delicate boned to play King, more like a JV cheerleader than a tennis beast, and when she speaks with confidence that she'll whip some opponent, we don't believe her. Even when she decides to embrace her lesbian feelings and have a fling with her hair stylist, it's as if she's a nervous teen going on a first date with her best friend's father.
It's nice to see a few familiar faces from the past, including Elisabeth Shue as Rigg's long suffering wife, and Bill Pullman as Jack Kramer, the arrogant tennis promoter who doesn't want to pay the women as much as the men. Neither gets a chance to do much in the movie, but they show how not to overact, which Sarah Silverman can't avoid doing as the agent of the women's team, holding her cig like Bette Davis, complete with bride of Frankenstein lightning stripes in her hair. Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Feris demonstrate none of the finesse or ingenuity that made their debut feature, Little Miss Sunshine (2006) so watchable. It's as if they were baffled by the sheer scope of the King-Riggs match, and with "women's lib" sounding like a fad from the seventies, they decided to be more fashionable and make a heartfelt coming of age story for lesbians.
I'm not sure what to say about Simon Beaufoy's screenplay. Beaufoy, an Oscar winner, has written some highly regarded films, including The Full Monty (1997) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Battle of the Sexes has elements of those movies in that it's about people having to perform on a grand stage while putting their personal lives on the line, but he's not up to the task of jamming a year's worth of history into a comfy 2-hour format. Some of it feels too coincidental, too pat. With the ladies' flamboyant wardrobe designer (Alan Cumming) popping up every few minutes like a one man Greek chorus, offering glib one-liners, or giving Billie Jean a comforting hug at the right moment, it's as if Beaufoy felt tennis wasn't so interesting, so he padded the story with gays and camp humor. And because the focus is mostly on King while Riggs is just a comic foil, the message is skewed.
So Battle of The Sexes, intending itself as an inspirational pageant for the LGTBQ community, bends itself to accommodate everyone in its target audience. For fans of King and her considerable achievements, she's portrayed as a serious but vulnerable athlete trying to change things for women's tennis. For fans of Emma Stone, her love scenes with Andrea Riseborough are downright cuddly, though "Crimson and Clover" on the soundtrack was used to better effect when Christina Ricci and Charlize Theron fell for each other in Monster (2004). For those who dislike heterosexual men, they are all portrayed here as flabby creeps. That is, except for King's husband, who gently applies ice to his wife's knees even as he realizes her heart belongs to another woman. As played by Austin Stowell, he's the dream man for sexually confused females everywhere: the handsome, non-judgemental doormat.
Thursday, November 16, 2017
Movies taking place around a dinner table generally bog down into long monologues where the characters argue about one thing and then another. You know that every character seated at the table will get a chance to blab, and before the movie is over each will get a moment where they stand up, show some anger, reveal their secrets. It's a genre, usually indulged in by young playwrights who are trying their own version of Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, without having the life experiences or emotional facility to draw from. Oren Moverman's The Dinner, based on a novel by Herman Koch, isn't exempt from the worst of the dinner drama cliches but, because of a few good performances and the gorgeous camera work of cinematographer Bobby Bukowski, rises above the predictable mess it could've been. I can't quite recommend the movie. I can't say it's bad, either. Like all of Moverman's movies, it's not necessarily there for your enjoyment. His characters aren't meant to reflect your own phony image of yourself.
In The Dinner, Richard Gere plays Stan Lohman, a budding congressman whose son and nephew have committed a horrible crime: they set fire to a sleeping homeless woman, recording her death throes on their smart phones as they laughed. Stan's brother Paul (Steve Coogan) is the father of the more vicious of the boys. Stan arranges a dinner date at an exclusive restaurant so he and Paul, plus their wives, can discuss what to do about their sons, who haven't been caught. The story rolls out gradually with many subplots, the main one being Paul's deteriorating mental health, and his grudge against Stan, the more glamorous politician brother. Stan wants the boys to pay for their crime. Paul's wife (Laura Linney) fears what might happen to them in jail. Meanwhile, Stan's wife (Rebecca Hall) doesn't want anything to interfere with her husband's run for congress. She put a lot of time into this guy, after all. Around and 'round they go.
Meanwhile, as the family argues and hisses, a series of entrees are brought out to their table and described in detail by the maître d'. It's not clear whether this is meant to be a satire on the eating habits of the affluent, but the courses look ridiculous. One looks like asparagus tips served on a bonsai tree. The Lohamns fight, eat, and fight some more. Meanwhile, in flashback scenes, we see the boys killing the homeless woman. The kids in the movie are pure shits, heartless and arrogant, though Paul's wife insists they are "good boys" who simply made a mistake. Paul, who hasn't been taking his medication, can't focus on the situation. He amuses himself by insulting the waiters. Stan, in turn, is distracted because his assistant keeps interrupting the dinner with phone calls, the important ones that politicians always get at dinnertime.
The Dinner isn't Moverman's best, though it's tempting to say it's worth watching becaue of Coogan's portrayal of Paul, the edgy loon of the Lohman family. To say this, however, isn't quite true. The Dinner has too many storylines, too many flashbacks, and eventually falls into the same routine as all dinner movies, where each character gets a turn to be dramatic. Moverman wants all of the characters to state their cases, but their arguments are frail. One can imagine a movie being made that focuses solely on Paul, and how this damaged character navigates a family tragedy. Coogan, who gets better as he matures, could've carried it. He's very fine here, all sharp edges and frayed wires, and even though Gere is watchable as always, it's Coogan who steals every scene, playing the kind of unpredictable character John Cassavettes used to play. Moverman tends to draw good performances from actors, or maybe he simply gives them a chance to do things they don't ordinarily do, as he did in Time Out Of Mind (2014) where Gere played a homeless man, and Rampart (2011), where Woody Harrelson played an unhinged L.A. cop. Moverman's movies may be hard to like, but I haven't disliked any of them.