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Enjoyable Battle of the Sexes Flick is a True Story Done Right

A review of "Battle of the Sexes" plus local movie news and notes.

Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; All Rights Reserved.

Steve Carell looks a whole lot like former tennis champ Bobby Riggs.

And while no one would ever say that Emma Stone bears a striking resemblance to Billie Jean King, fine hair and makeup work gets her much closer than you might expect. In certain stretches of “Battle of the Sexes,” a wholly enjoyable dramatization of the 1973 match between King and Riggs, one can forget that this is a fictional portrayal and not a particularly well-made ESPN documentary.

That speaks to the ambition at work, I think: It is not the goal of this film to break new ground or re-cast the peculiar matchup in a modern context. It’s more presentational than that; “Battle of the Sexes” wants to tell you the story and leave the rest to you.

Is simply telling this story a loaded act in 2017? Sure. But what isn’t?

“Battle of the Sexes” is mostly King’s story, opening with the formation of the Women’s Tennis Association, created by King and others — including Gladys Heldman, played here by Sarah Silverman — and following her as she navigates challenges both professional and personal. The moments concerning King’s relationship with Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) and the uneasy peace that her husband (Austin Stowell) makes with his wife’s sexuality are the film’s most intimate and affecting sequences. “Battle of the Sexes” demonstrates the complexity and nuance of this relationship more deftly than many other films that tackle issues of gender and sexual orientation head-on.

Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (known for “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Full Monty,” among others) walks a tightrope with regards to Riggs’ over-the-top, clownish chauvinism. It is certainly true that much of Riggs’ antics and statements were theater; on the other hand, they were not taken as such by many of those observing the aging tennis star. “Battle of the Sexes” does fine work in portraying this divide without either forgiving or condemning Riggs; the audience can make up their minds on that one.

There appear to have been some editing troubles along the way; the film is long, yet some threads seem to be missing scenes, particularly a stretch about Riggs’ relationship with his adult son, which vanishes for the second act before re-appearing awkwardly before the climactic match.

Such minor stumbles are easily forgiven, however, by a mostly lovely film. There are two great duos at work here: Stone and Carell, who both give performances which speak directly to their greatest strengths, and co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, showing new strength and subtlety in their third feature (after “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Ruby Sparks”). It’s a shame that this pair has only produced three films over the course of 11 years; they have a knack for delivering feel-good stories that never pander. There’s a lot of value to leaving audiences feeling both happy and respected.

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I would've been wise to see "American Made," the well-reviewed CIA drama with Tom Cruise, which is both receiving good notices and helping Cruise make yet another comeback. I just can't resist weird horror, though, so I instead saw "Flatliners." I thought the sci-fi/scare hybrid was a remake of the film of the same name from 1990, but it turns out it's a bit of a sequel; Kiefer Sutherland reprises his role (in a manner of speaking), though that fact is never explicitly addressed. (It's strange.) Anyway: a bunch of med students figure out a way to temporarily ... die, allowing them to peer behind the veil and take a glimpse at the afterlife (or at least a version of it manufactured by their minds). What could've been an interesting science-versus-spirit film descends, however, into a bunch of fairly standard horror hokum. Jump scares and dramatic string music abound as the kids are stalked by guilty consciences or demons or something; the film's second half is much weaker than its first. Fortunately, a number of fine performances (most notably from Ellen Page and Kiersey Clemons) keep "Flatliners" afloat, and the idea is intriguing enough to keep you in your seat. It's not worth seeking out, but if you find yourself with two hours to kill, you could do worse.

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Japanese animation has become a fixture at Row House Cinema, as the single-screen theater has regularly devoted weeks to new and classic anime (and the works of Studio Ghibli specifically; another week of films from that influential studio is scheduled for December). The current anime week features a Pittsburgh Premiere: "Napping Princess," an imaginative and enjoyable fantasy from veteran director Kenji Kamiyama. Dual stories propel the lovingly hand-drawn film: In the real world, Kokone is the unknowing heir to a family of automotive scientists, whose father is quietly creating self-driving cars in their small garage. In her dreams, she is a captive princess in a kingdom where a giant monster has risen from the sea to do battle with steampunk automotons. There's a message in here about the need for both vision and science in the development of new technology, but it's mostly a sweet and lyrical romp. Anime fans will enjoy it; parents with curious kids should seek out one of the showings featuring an English-language audio track. (And if you needed more evidence that Pittsburgh's place in the self-driving world is prominent, look for a quick reference to Carnegie Mellon!)

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The Montage: Good news and bad news out of embattled Pittsburgh Filmmakers. The good: They’ve set a reopening date of Oct. 27 for the much-loved Regent Square Theater, which has been closed since a projector issue in May precipitated wider repairs and improvements. The theater is scheduled to open with some Halloween content. The bad: 2017 will pass without a Three Rivers Film Festival, as the flagship fest will move to spring after its longtime presenting sponsor, Dollar Bank, dropped out amid uncertainty about the festival’s future (it shrunk considerably in recent years, and a one-year operation under the control of Film Pittsburgh was not renewed). Expect to see the fest return to Filmmakers’ three cinemas — Regent Square, Downtown’s Harris Theater and the Melwood Screening Room in Oakland — but don’t mark your calendars just yet; Filmmakers still needs to find a new presenting sponsor before the festival moves forward ... Calling everyone with a cat and a smartphone: Row House Cinema wants your adorable and/or hilarious cat videos. The Lawrenceville theater is planning on launching the Cat Film and Cultural Festival in November and is seeking local felines for a presentation dubbed “Pittsburgh’s Pretty Kitties.” Send in your furry hijinks at this link ... Among the many “Rocky Horror” showings scheduled for this October, AMC Waterfront 22 will be showing the iconic musical every Friday and Saturday night throughout the month. Click here for showtimes and audience-participation rules.


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