*NEW* BATTLE OF THE SEXES REVIEW *NEW*

A sterling turn from Stone lifts this easygoing sports biopic from TV movie-land.

The true story of the 1973 tennis match between World number one Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and ex-champ and serial hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell).

The opening got straight to it. Clocking bonus points for shooting the opening credit sequences in all its 70s glory. Retro.

Stone was brilliant as King. You really felt for her as the world’s number one female tennis champion threw everything on the line to make a stand. She carried the film and, if anything, her Oscar was awarded for the wrong film.

It bumbled along at an easy going pace as King argued biology and tackled sexism. A simple request. Same stakes. Same prize money. As the women were only awarded an eighth of the mens’.

I’m not the biggest fan of Sarah Silverman BUT she delivered a decent turn as King’s long suffering agent. Doing her utmost to source an alternative tournament with no backing or money.

The risk King took. Jeopardising the chances of Grand Slam and Wimbledon for her cause. I couldn’t believe it.

I’m sure it was supposed to be a stark contrast watching King struggle to make ends meet while Riggs (Carrell) smoke, drank and gambled in the background.

BUT it felt like a waste of Carrell’s talents. Anyone could have played him. It was only at the 45 minute marker that the man had a little more meat to chew on. His outburst at a gamblers anonymous meeting spoke volumes: “You’re not here because you gamble. You’re here because you lost!”. Mental.

Carrell played the part well BUT I didn’t know what to make of Riggs. A washed up chauvinist? Or a player in every single aspect?

It felt like Riggs used the chauvinism angle as a mere ploy to antagonise his opponents and help ramp up the PR. By the end, I didn’t know whether the sports star was really that deluded or just desperate for one last pay out.

The ultimate irony being that Riggs was burning through his wife’s (A role that was a waste of Elisabeth Shue’s talents) inheritance to fund his expensive habits while she continued to make a living. Quietly observing from the side lines.

I was surprised at the star-studded cast involved; Bill Pullman, Andrea Riseborough, John C. McGinley and Alan Cumming. It was a shame that they didn’t really bring much to the fold.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Riseborough had good chemistry with Stone as King came to terms with her sexuality after falling for a hairdresser.

I was actually on tenterhooks when King’s husband unwittingly stumbled upon their union.

The only problem with BOTS was that in an attempt to focus on every aspect, it didn’t really provide much depth to the majority of the characters involved other than Riggs and King.

I couldn’t believe the PR up to this “Battle of the Sexes” match. I was baffled when the end credits showed the real life footage of the promotion (I thought the majority of it had been exaggerated for dramatic purposes).

The celebrity endorsements surprised me! Oh Lloyd Bridges, say it ain’t so!

Riggs wasted so much energy on showboating and mockery instead of on the actual match. I have to commend King for trying to change opinion and making a stance.

It was engaging enough BUT I expected (with the talent involved) this biopic to pack more of a punch. The social commentary still struck chords with the present. A shocking comparison by its own right.

BUT it was all rather tame. After all that build up, the BIG match was brushed over so quickly that the ending went out with a whimper rather than a bang.

Don’t get me wrong, I was still rooting for King. And surprisingly, I didn’t know the outcome of this historical game.

I was mortified at the change of tide during the match commentary as they realised Bobby was feeling the strain. I couldn’t believe after all those jibes and digs about King’s looks and build that they used Rigg’s age as an excuse when she was getting the better of him?!

Madness. Funny that wasn’t an issue when he beat Margaret Court in the same year. Hmmm . . .

If this biopic didn’t have such a talented cast at its disposal, I felt this premise may have gone straight on the box.

It certainly killed the time and entertained BUT will stand the test of time like the very much it focused on? Not so much.

A stand out performance from Stone does just enough to serve up a watchable drama.

3/5

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*NEW* NOCTURNAL ANIMALS REVIEW *NEW*

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Strange, hypnotic, tense, nail biting, different. Certainly one for the books.

An art gallery owner (Amy Adams) is haunted by her ex-husband’s novel (Jake Gyllenhaal), a violent thriller she interprets as a veiled threat and a symbolic revenge tale.

I hadn’t even sat down and got comfortable before I was wondering what the hell I was getting myself into.

I never like to read too much about a film. All I had to go by was the hype. The endless promotion and tweets. I had to seek it out. The eye popping opening sequence certainly grabbed my attention as a bunch of morbidly obese elderly naked women gyrated and flaunted their money makers across the giant silver screen.

I kid you not. I have to admit I wasn’t overly impressed with the first 15 minutes BUT director Tom Ford’s (A Single Man) hypnotic visual style (aided by Seamus McGarvey’s beautiful cinematography) and Adam’s (Arrival) presence kept me going.

Abel Korzeniowski’s musical score was something else. Perfectly balanced against the haunting backdrops.

It was only when Susan (Adams) received a mysterious manuscript from her ex husband that my interest was peaked. A dual narrative set with Susan’s (Adams) cynical lifestyle and unhappy marriage to Hutton (Armie Hammer – The Man from U.N.C.L.E) running alongside Edward’s (Gyllenhaal – Demolition) story.

Gyllenhaal was superb. He really excelled in playing both the author and his fictional counterpart Tony. Nightcrawler certainly marked a turning point in ol’ Darko’s impressive career and he delivered yet another sterling performance. Oscar?

The film flicked back and forth from Adams’ past to Tony’s fictional struggle. The only problem was that I was found myself more interested with the fictional world than the real one. I’m sure that was supposed to be the point BUT it was a little frustrating watching the talented Ms Adams become increasingly more passive. A mere spectator in her own narrative.

The cut backs conveniently appeared at the tensest moments of Tony’s traumatic journey in the desert as his family crossed paths with some unsavoury characters.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick Ass) was superb as the demonic Ray. A complete change of role for him. A revolting creature lurking in the darkness. Dare I say, a nocturnal animal waiting to strike. I really detested him. A great performance.

The suspense had me on tenterhooks as the family feared for their lives. BUT every time we cut back to Susan dealing with her empty and frustrated life, I was urging the film to get back to Tony.

The questions piling up. Why is Susan so captivated with this story? Did this happen to her? Is this why she is no longer with Edward?

The supporting cast were impeccable. Michael Shannon (Midnight Special) was equally good as Bobby. The cop with nothing to lose. Ready to do anything to help Tony get justice. Made a change to see him play something less sinister.

I was a little disappointed at the lack of Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) and Anne Riseborough (Birdman). Reduced to passing cameos as Susan’s gallery friends. Shame. Laura Linney (Mystic River) made more of an impression in her minute role as Susan’s controlling mother.

Despite that bizarre opener, I was hooked to the very end as you began to peel beneath the layers and realize that there is more than meets the eye. Gyllenhaal and Adams had good chemistry as we finally delved into Edward and Susan’s relationship.

My only qualm on first watch was the ending. It was a little abrupt and left me baffled. I actually looked around the cinema, wondering “Did I miss something?”. Perplexed, I went to forums and discussed heavily on Twitter about the ambiguous finale.

BUT for the first time in a while, I was left talking about a film for days. It actually made me have to think. I actually wanted to watch it again. An impressive feat in itself. Especially if you look back on my last months review backlog.

It was suspenseful, engaging and brilliantly acted. There was even a moment that took me completely off guard and made quite a few people jump in the screen. One chap actually yelped in surprise (No, not me!)

If you’re in the mood for something a little different to the norm, I would heavily recommend.

4/5 (Just)

BIRDMAN REVIEW

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It didn’t make me fly for the exit. Strange, bizarre, funny and different. A breath of fresh air.

A promising start for a new year in film. Hopefully.

A somewhat slow opening did leave me a little anxious after the endless hype. So much so that two people left within 15 minutes!

BUT it was merely adjusting you to Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s (Babel) style and setting up the pieces.

Preparation for what would lie in store. A darkly comical acting tour de force as one man descends into madness.

So what is it about? A washed-up actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) who once played an iconic superhero must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory.

At first glance, the washed up actor shaking off his superhero status and Michael Keaton probably hit home a little too well. BUT what a resurgent return from the Dark Knight. It is not as if he really left. Come on, he was in The Other Guys and Need for Speed (The less we say about that one, the better).

When Keaton’s character was first introduced, I felt he was drowned out by the rather animated and incredibly talented supporting cast. His performance didn’t seem to justify the hype. BUT by the end, oh boy, was I wrong! He was remarkable. A powerhouse performance. Vulnerable in one shot, volatile and violent the next.

The Broadway play setting was a perfect platform to unearth personal problems, dig up rivalries and delve into fractious relationships and affairs. The rehearsals may seem a little repetitive but as we delve more into each character’s issues and flaws, it brings a different dimension and take on that same bit of dialogue and scene. Expertly captured and cleverly written.

This all helped make this simple dark comedy drama turn into something so much more. Riggan has to deal with the stress of the play as well as his inner demon. Taking the form of an avarian comic book superhero with the voicing style of Beetlejuice. Brilliant.

I loved how Innaritu incorporated the “super real” fictional theatre scene into the real world. The meta-textual references were brilliant and really added to the film. The digs at the Avengers franchise and celebrities brought a little grin. The open criticisms in how people don’t want to watch films with long drawn out philosophical talking and how they want big, dumb, action packed blockbusters was spot on!

The cinematography was superb. Emmanuel Lubezki manipulated the camera work and editing to make it appear like one continuous long take. It certainly kept things moving but the 119 minute length did feel a little long at the tooth in parts.

I wonder if Keaton incorporated some of his own troubles into the film. In one of Riggan’s arguments with his “Birdman” alter ego who at this point harassing him to do another Birdman sequel, Riggan yells out, “That was 1992! Get over it!”Coincidentally, the year Batman Returns was released. Hmmm . . .

The supporting cast were fantastic. Consisting of the likes of the flirtatious Andrea Riseborough (Oblivion), the insecure Naomi Watts (The Impossible) and the snidey film critic hell bent on ruining Riggan’s opening night, Lindsay Duncan (About Time).

Once Emma Stone (The Help) was given the screen time, she was (to be expected) very good as Riggan’s drug addict daughter.

Amy Ryan (The Wire) was wasted in her small role. Not enough of her. She had good chemistry with Keaton and I felt more could have been made of the broken family dynamic. She didn’t even interact with Stone’s character at all. Merely popping in lulls after Riggan’s meltdowns.

Zach Galifinakis (The Hangover) played a much more subdued role to what I was used to. He actually got to do a spot of acting as well as delivering the laughs.

BUT the main scene stealer that rivalled Keaton through out the film was Edward Norton (American History X). His portrayal of Mike was fantastic. Egotistical with a penchant for some improvised method acting. Constantly seeking attention and out to undo Riggan’s work, undermining and offering “suggestions”. I couldn’t stop watching him. Scene stealing in almost every turn.

Without spoiling too much, Birdman does get a little random and bizarre in parts as you don’t know how many of Riggan’s encounters and altercations are actually happening.

The ending may split people. But for me I liked it. It was one of those that was open for interpretation. Something that appeared cut and dry but was it?

I mean, this is most definitely a mood piece. If you’re in the mood for something a little different, then I recommend it. BUT if not, then maybe steer clear.

It’s not without it’s imperfections; a questionable pace and a slow opening, along with some irritating drum music did dampen things (BUT only a little). Seriously the drumming got on my nerves. It worked as Riggan reached breaking point, the drumming getting faster and faster as it drew to it’s climax. BUT throughout, it was just racket.

However, once you get past that, it’s a cleverly written multi-layered dark comedy drama that is fantastically acted by an incredible cast. A good piece of film-making that for a moment restored my faith in films.

3.5/5

BUT the more I think about that ending. This may change to a 4. So watch this space.