Saturday, September 09, 2017

TIFF 2017 - BioPics

This year, we seem to be watching a disproportionate number of bio-pics or docu-dramas which depict (with artistic license) the lives of real people and events.  This includes the movie about tennis superstar rivals Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, which we watched on the first day of the festival.  There are even a few more such films that didn't make our short list, including Stronger about a couple dealing with the aftermaths of the Boston Marathon bombing, and The Current War about the rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse in their battle to see whose electric current protocol would become the accepted standard.  I feel that I have learned so much history from all these biographical movies that I watched.

Battle of the Sexes delves into the lives of 29-year-old reigning #1 ranked women's tennis champion Billie Jean King and 55-year-old former men’s tennis champion Bobby Riggs.  It is 1973 and King is advocating for women’s rights and equal prize money in the women’s draw of the Lawn and Tennis Association, arguing that the women bring in as much in ticket sales as the men and therefore should be compensated equally.  Unable to get the chauvinistic heads of the tournament tour to agree, King forms the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) with its own tour circuit sponsored by Virginia Slim cigarettes and convinces her fellow female players to join her.  At the same time, while married to Larry King, Billie Jean is starting to explore her sexuality, developing a relationship with female hairdresser Marilyn Barnett.  In  the meantime, Riggs is a compulsive gambler which causes friction with his long-suffering wife Priscilla who eventually kicks him out of the house.  Riggs comes up with the scheme to stage a tennis match with King, to be dubbed “Battle of the Sexes” in order to prove once and for all that men are superior.  King initially refuses to take part in such a side-show but after Riggs instead plays and handily defeats Margaret Court, Billie Jean feels obligated to take up the challenge in defense of Women’s Tennis and feminism in general.  The casting was stellar as Emma Stone and Steve Carrell each seemed to channel their characters, both in appearance and in mannerisms.

In addition to Borg/McEnroe, this is the second tennis bio-pic that we watched at TIFF 2017.  Based on pre-festival buzz, we expected Battle of the Sexes to be the better movie, but surprisingly, we found first film to be more compelling.  This seems to be the general opinion since on the movie trivia and ranking website, Borg/McEnroe currently has a 7.2 rating while Battle of the Sexes is currently trending with a dismal 4.6 rating.  These ratings should be taken with a grain of salt since it is early days yet and each movie has less than 400 votes.  While both movies focused on the back-stories and personal challenges of the characters both on and off the tennis court, Borg/McEnroe resonated more, especially in the portrayal of Bjorn Borg.

Battle of the Sexes did a better job of showing the actual tennis rallies and winning points of its iconic match, accomplishing this by using professional tennis-playing body doubles for the long shots.  It is to be noted how weak and gentle the strokes from both Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs felt compared to what is on display by both the mens’ and womens’ players of today.  Not only have the racquets become bigger and more powerful but so have the athletes.  Miss King (in the teal jacket) showed up for the Premiere screening and Q&A of Battle of the Sexes and it was noted how small she appeared next to the cast of the movie.   When the cast first came on stage for the Q&A, we were all wondering what happened to Sarah Silverman, who had been there earlier in the evening.  Part way through, she tried to sneak onto the stage, and when asked what happened, she explained that she had to rush off to "take a sh**!", drawing huge laughs from the crowd.  There is no sugar-coating things with Sarah Silverman.

I only knew about Watergate at a high level, as the 1972 scandal that led to the resignation of American Republican President Richard Nixon.  Watching Mark Felt – The Man Who Brought Down the White House gave me much more insight into the details, and the role played by Felt, who was the associate director of the FBI at the time.  The issue initially arose when the FBI arrested 5 “burglars” trying to break into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters.  Further investigations revealed that the burglars were all connected to the FBI, CIA or other government agencies.  What followed was massive pressure from the White House to hamper or stop the investigations, forcing Felt to make the unprecedented move of leaking information to press agencies including the Washington Post and Time Magazine, in order to ramp up the pressure of public opinion to keep the investigations alive.

Through incandescent phone calls and meetings in deserted parking garages, Felt was given the nickname of “Deep Throat”.  Felt never publicly acknowledged his involvement until 2005, just a few years prior to his death.  Liam Nielsen was great in the role of Mark Felt, displaying stoic gravitas and determination.  I had trouble keeping the huge cast of characters apart, from White House staff to FBI G-men to CIA to reporters.  I’m not sure how accurate the conversations were, but I liked how the various parties tried to intimidate each other with implied threats rather than explicit ones.  I did wonder why Felt, who was one of the prime suspects for the media leaks, was not “tailed” or followed to his various meetings and calls from the same phone booth.  This would have happened had it been a fictional spy movie.  I guess there was no one to assign to this task that normally would have fallen to the FBI.  A subplot involving Felt’s missing, runaway daughter served to humanize him, making him seem more vulnerable and relatable.

The tense and action-packed opening few minutes of Molly's Game set the tone for the rest of the movie, which features a pulsing beat underscoring first person voice-over narration by actress Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom.  Describing her high-pressured, over-achieving family, Bloom poses the question “What is the worse thing that can happen in professional sport?” She lists some possibilities including losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, losing 4 games straight in the playoffs (unfortunately using the Blue Jays as the example), or coming 4th in the Olympics?  Then she describes what happened to her during her Olympics qualifying mogul ski run where a spectacular crash ended her skiing career.   Trying to escape her dysfunctional relationship with her overbearing father, Molly moves to New York where she ends up running high-stakes poker games for celebrities and other high rollers and becomes known as the “Poker Princess”.  When circumstances force her to move and create an even more prestigious and higher-stakes game in Los Angeles, Molly’s life starts to spiral out of control.  This included addiction to drugs and alcohol, sleep-deprivation, exposure to Italian and Russian mob syndicates, and finally, taking an illegal cut from each pot (a rake) to limit her personal exposure to clients who could not pay up money lost at the tables.  Because members of the Russian mob frequented her games, Molly gets caught up in a RICO bust and hires a lawyer (played by hunky Idris Elba) to defend her.  The movie flips back and forth between Molly’s childhood, her days running the poker games, and her arrest and legal issues of the present.  This is a terrific story about a fascinating woman, but it is interesting to note that when you Google Molly Bloom on Wikipedia, she is merely a one line entry in the full biography of her younger brother, Olympic and World Champion skiing star Jeremy Bloom.

My first thought prior to watching Chappaquiddick was to wish that the 1969 scandal surrounding Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy had happened in a location that was easier to spell.  The movie opens hauntingly with a black and white photo of the Kennedy brothers as children.  A voice-over by Jason Clarke as Ted Kennedy laments that each of his older, relatively more brilliant and successful brothers were dead—Joseph Jr killed in WWII, President John F Kennedy and Senator Robert Kennedy both assassinated.  Ted, considered the least intelligent brother with the least potential for greatness, was the last one standing and the last hope to fulfill what was considered to be the destiny of the Kennedy clan.  There was great pressure for Ted to run for the 1972 Democratic nomination for President, a role that he did not really want and was not sure that he could successfully fulfill.  It was with this turmoil and sense of self-doubt that a drunk Kennedy drove away from a party and accidentally crashed his car off an unlit pier on Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts while accompanied by Robert Kennedy’s secretary Mary Jo Kopechne.  Although he claimed otherwise, the movie seems to imply that Ted’s only thought was to save himself and that he left Kopechne in the car to drown.  All this happens within the first minutes of the film, and what follows is the bumbling attempts by Kennedy to cover up his actions, much to the chagrin of his cousin and lawyer Joseph (Joey) Gargan, who wants him to do the right and moral thing of admitting to his actions, and the massive team of slimy lawyers and senior government officials who help strategize the cover up, which Kennedy inadvertently thwarts at every turn.

To start with, Ted walked away from the scene of the accident, did not call for emergency assistance to help rescue Mary Jo, and did not report the accident to authorities for ten hours, despite pleas from Joey to do so.  Kennedy did try to phone his father Joseph Sr. for help, but was met with scorn and lack of sympathy.  When Ted finally reported the incident the next morning, after police had already discovered his vehicle in the water, he wrote out a multi-page confession/statement that white-washed events but was filled with inconsistencies.  He used his influence to prevent an autopsy of Mary Jo’s body.  To explain his actions, he claimed his doctor had diagnosed him with a major concussion and prescribed sedatives for him, which it turns out could actually kill a concussion victim.  To drum up sympathy for himself at Kopechne’s funeral, Ted wore a ridiculously fake-looking neck brace, again against the advice of his army of lawyers who looked upon him with frustrated disdain.

Through much spin and manipulation, Edward Kennedy ended up pleading guilt to leaving the scene of a crime and was given a 2 month jail term, which was immediately suspended.  To give time for the scandal to die down, he did not campaign for the presidential nomination until 1980, but lost in this only attempt.  He did end up as the longest serving Senator for the remainder of his career.   Jason Clarke did an amazing job of portraying all the faults and vulnerabilities of the black sheep of the Kennedy dynasty.  Despite all of Ted’s selfish, stupid and immoral actions, you can’t help but feel sorry for the little boy inside him who only wanted his father’s love and approval, but was never going to get it.

With the modern day obsession regarding all things to do with the British monarchy (past and present), it seems incredible that the story told in the movie Victoria and Abdul has not been more widely known before now.  The movie deals with the last 15 years in the life of Queen Victoria in the late 19th Century, during which she takes a fancy to an Indian servant named Mohammed Abdul Karim, who was assigned to wait on her during her visit to India.  She decides to take him on as her full time personal assistant and brings him back to England with her.  There might have been some dramatic license taken here, since Wikipedia indicates that Abdul had already traveled to London for a Colonial and Indian Exhibition when he was assigned to serve the queen, but this gave the director the opportunity to showcase lush scenes of India as well as images of the massive sailing ship crossing the Ocean.  Once ensconced in the palace, Abdul continued to delight Victoria and eventually became designated her “Munshi” or teacher, much to the dismay of her household and children.  Abdul taught Victoria how to speak and write a few phrases from the Indian language of Urdu as well as instructing her on Indian affairs.  Once Victoria passed away in 1901, her son and successor King Edward VII sent Abdul back to India and had all memorabilia of that time destroyed.  Abdul died 8 years later at age 46.  For the most part, the movie is quite a faithful adaptation of a book by the same name, which in turn was based on Abdul’s memoirs, that had been hidden by his family and only uncovered in 2010.  This was a touching story about a legendary figure made all the more incredible for being true.

Also taking place in the 19th Century is the biography of Mary Shelley, author of the classic masterpiece Frankenstein.  Born Mary Wollstonecraft-Godwin and named after her mother who died shortly after childbirth, Mary lived with her bookseller father, stepmother and various half siblings including her half-sister Claire Claremont. Even as a child, Mary loved Gothic and horror novels and scribbled little short stories to amuse her younger siblings.  At 16, she met and began a romance with poet and philosopher Percy Shelley, falling in love with him before finding out that he was already married with an estranged wife and a young daughter.  Spurred on by her own parents’ free-spirited and bohemian lifestyles in their youth, Mary runs off with Shelley, accompanied by sister Claire, who longs for adventure.  The scandal of Mary and Percy’s relationship out of wedlock causes Mary’s father to disown her.   While traveling through Europe, they meet celebrity poet Lord Bryan and end up visiting him at his estate in Geneva, Switzerland.  Byron’s proposal of a Gothic novel writing contest between his house guests, which also included Dr. William Polidori, gave Mary the inspiration to eventually write Frankenstein.  Interestingly, Polidori ended up writing a book called “Le Vampyre” which was an inspiration for the more famous “Dracula” by Brams Stoker.  Unfortunately, the book was attributed to Byron even though both Byron and Polidori disputed this claim.

The movie depicts Percy Shelley as a drunk and serial womanizer whose conquests included Mary’s sister Claire.  Percy’s behaviour plus the death of their baby daughter filled Mary with a sense of despair, loneliness and craving for affection, which she poured into her description of “the creature” in her story.  Although it was clear that Frankenstein was a great literary feat and so much deeper than just a mere Gothic thriller, the publishers of the day would not accept such a dark and terrifying story from a female writer.  Mary could not get anyone to publish her book unless she agreed to do it anonymously, with Percy Shelley writing the forward (implying that he was actually the author).  Mary and Percy eventually married after Percy’s first wife committed suicide, and with the success of the first printing, Frankenstein was republished, this time naming Mary Shelley as the author.  It was interesting to learn that the movie was directed by Saudi Arabian female director Haifaa Al-Mansour, who like Mary Shelley, had to fight to be allowed to practice and be recognized for her craft.  As per typical Hollywood fashion, very attractive actors Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth were selected to portray Mary and Percy.  But renderings of the actual author and poet show that they were quite attractive in their own rights.  The movie was filmed in Dublin, Ireland and in Luxembourg, featuring lush scenery and sets.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women tells the story of William Moulton Marston who created the DC female superhero Wonder Woman, using the pen name Charles Moulton.  The character Wonder Woman is certainly seeing a resurgence of interest of late, with the new movie starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot receiving rave reviews. Having no prior knowledge about this story, it was fascinating to watch this movie to find out how it all came about.

William Marston was a professor of psychology, who along with his wife and fellow psychologist Elizabeth Holloway Marston, developed the systolic blood-pressure test which was the basis for the lie detector.  In his psychology classes, Marston lectured about his DISC theory which posits that human behaviour falls into four behavioural traits—Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance. Olive Byrne, a student in Marston’s class, is hired to be a research assistant to his and Elizabeth’s research, but soon ends up in a long-term poly-amorous relationship with the couple.  The movie starts with a scene of people burning copies of Wonder Woman before moving to a tribunal before which William needs to defend his comics creation against charges of immorality and perversion in the stories and images that he depicted, which included bondage, spanking and lesbianism.  As he answers questions about the genesis of Wonder Woman and her various features and super powers, we are shown flashbacks to Marston’s life with Elizabeth and Olive, which demonstrate how they were the real "Wonder Women" who were the inspirations for the character.  The movie also cleverly relates each section of the flashbacks to the four traits in the DISC theory.

This movie is relevant on so many levels, touching on science, psychology, feminism, culture and the social mores of the times regarding homosexuality and alternative poly-amorous life styles.  William Marston had two children with each of the women in his life, and this unusual blended family unit withstood social and professional ostracization in order to stay together.  After his early death from cancer at age 54 in 1947, Olive and Elizabeth continued in a loving relationship together until Olive’s death in 1985.  It is interesting to note that after William’s death, the Wonder Woman was stripped of not only any sexual or other “immoral” references, but she was also stripped of her superpowers, reflecting a corresponding decline in women’s rights in the 50s.  When feminism was resurrected in the 70s, Wonder Woman's super powers were restored.  Accordingly, the character of Wonder Woman really has been a reflection of the times.

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