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Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

Yes indeed, there was a 2001 ABC movie called (spoiler alert!) WHEN BILLIE BEAT BOBBY, starring Holly Hunter and Ron Silver as the battling tennis players Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, circa 1973. And while that version of the so-called “Battle of the Sexes” is quite good, there were a few key things it left out, including King’s marriage-endangering affair with hairdresser Marilyn Barnett, which was a key source of both happiness and stress at that time in her life because the world would not have accepted an openly gay player in any sport.

Now in the hands of screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, THE FULL MONTY, 127 HOURS) and directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, RUBY SPARKS), BATTLE OF THE SEXES presents a more accurate and balanced look at the match between former men’s champion Riggs (Steve Carell) and the deeply private King (Emma Stone). Riggs isn’t made out to be a villain in this telling; he was more of an opportunist and a degenerate gambler in need of money and a bit of validation in the years just past his prime. He’s married to Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue, who finds the right balance of chilly and compassionate), who comes from money and has been bankrolling him since he left tennis.

If there’s a bad guy here, it’s the institution of sports in general and tennis in particular. Bill Pullman plays Jack Kramer, the head of the Association of Tennis Professionals, which was regularly playing its women player far less than the men, despite the fact that both sets of matches regularly sold out. With the ATP refusing to give equal pay to the women, all female players left the group and started up what would become the first Virginia Slims women’s tournament, with higher purses for the winners and a fairly impressive travel budget. Sarah Silverman plays Gladys Heldman, who manages the players and attempts to keep them morally sound.

Although King was married to husband Larry (Austin Stowell, and no, not that Larry King), she began an affair with Barnett (Andrea Riseborough, BIRDMAN, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS) that was a little too out in the open. Riggs’ first attempt to lure King (the number one player at the time) onto the court failed because she saw it for the circus that it would become and knew that Bobby was showboating as a male chauvinist to get attention. When King lost to former women’s champion Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), Court became the player of choice to go against Riggs, and the result was disastrous for both Court and female players, forcing King to accept the match that become the most watched televised sporting event in history.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES does an admirable job capturing not just the look of the period, but the mindset. This match divided the country and likely set back male-female relations in the weeks leading up to it, but the outcome might have made it worth it. The conversations it started seem as timely and important as they do today, and I loved watching King’s team rally around her and push her to her limit during her training. Alan Cumming is on hand as Ted Tinling, the team’s outfitter, who designed unique tennis skirts for each player and dared to introduce color and words of wisdom into the mix. Natalie Morales (“Parks and Recreation”) particularly shines as teammate Rosie Casals, who ended up doing commentary for the match alongside Howard Cosell (expertly worked into the film using archival footage), who was no stranger to sexist talk and behavior himself. The way he puts his arm around Casals when they are on camera together is outright creepy.

As much as the film gives us a fair amount of Riggs’ and King’s personal lives, there were moments where I wish I had more insight into what was motivating them beyond the bigger-picture stuff. King was a relentless competitor, and I would have loved to know where that drive came from. She relates a childhood story to Barnett on the subject, but it feels like she’s only scratching the surface. And as much of a clown as Riggs can be, there’s a deep sense that he doesn’t think he’s good enough—for his wife, his comfortable lifestyle or the title of best tennis player. Still Carell and Stone (who played father and daughter in CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE) completely inhabit these roles to a point that goes far beyond impersonation (although Carell’s resemblance to Riggs is freakish).

Unspooled in a straight-forward biography style by Dayton and Faris, BATTLE OF THE SEXES is an easy watch that provides a smattering of insight and a transportive amount of love for the decade. The performances are all great, and while the male characters might be painted a bit too broadly (and I acknowledge that I might be biased), I’m guessing it accurate for the period.

And even though the outcome of the match is likely known, it doesn’t take away from some truly incredible re-creations of great tennis. There’s a lovely moment at the end of the film in which it’s clear that King is aware that her life is about to change completely and that things can never go back to the way they were, professionally or privately. The scene is both heartbreaking and fortifying, and it does a great job setting the tone for the rest of her life. It’s a great moment that made me love BATTLE OF THE SEXES just a little bit more.

As disturbing or angst-ridden as they can get, I have a real affection for the works of Mike White, as both writer and director. His only previous time as a director was for the Molly Shannon-starring work YEAR OF THE DOG, but White has a strong track record as a screenwriter, penning such works as THE GOOD GIRL, CHUCK AND BUCK, SCHOOL OF ROCK, and BEATRIZ AT DINNER from earlier this year. With BRAD’S STATUS, White returns to the director’s chair with a film about comparison anxiety, that sometimes crippling anxiety one gets when they are envious of what someone else has or has accomplished, usually leading to feelings of inferiority. If this doesn’t sound like the perfect Ben Stiller character, I’m not sure what does.

Stiller plays Brad, who works for non-profit companies searching for donors. It’s fulfilling work, until Brad starts comparing what he’s accomplished to the lives of the closest friends he had in college, including a financial big shot (Luke Wilson), a Hollywood producer (White), a tech guru (Jemaine Clement) and an on-air pundit and author (Michael Sheen). When Brad looks at his pared-down life with his wife Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and his son Troy (Austin Abrams from THE KINGS OF SUMMER, PAPER TOWNS), he sees the life (many lives, actually) that he will never have. And all of this is happening while he is off to visit potential colleges in the New England area for his music-prodigy son, including Harvard.

After a mix up to do his in-person interview at Harvard, Troy is prepared to simply do the interview back home in suburban Sacramento. Brad attempts to pull a few strings by putting out a call to Sheen, who sometimes teaches at Harvard but whose number he doesn’t have. As a result, he has to call a couple of his other old friends to get it, which allows him to do a bit of catching up, during which he finds out that White’s character got married recently, inviting all the old gang except him. Naturally, this discovery stirs up old feelings of inferiority and resentment. BRAD’S STATUS is filled with small moments of indignity that accumulate in Brad’s mind to fester and grow out of control, and his anxiety begins to rub off on his son who is attempting to make a good impression to these potential school choices.

While in Boston, Troy meets up with Ananya (Shazi Raja), a woman who was a couple years ahead of him in the music department at high school, and after initially turning down going to drinks with her and her friends after dinner, Brad sneaks out of their room and heads to the bar anyway hoping to have a conversation with this beautiful young woman, partly to see if he can impress her in any way. They talk most of the night, and by the end of it she’s figured him out so completely we get a sense that she could cut him to shreds if she wanted to. While she’s too kind to do that, that doesn’t stop her from telling him what she sees in his self-obsessed eyes. It’s a devastating yet touching scene that shows what Mike White does so well as a writer of human behavior and conflicting inner thoughts.

As much as Stiller seems to be underplaying Brad with impressive results (all of his fear is behind his eyes), there’s a sequence with Sheen where he’s able to cut loose with an impressive display of emotional fireworks, even if they aren’t entirely justified. Also during that scene, it’s revealed that the friends Brad was so jealous of are each going through their own private hells at the moment, which doesn’t make him feel nearly as good about his own life as it should.

White takes full advantage of the stately beauty of his locations in and around Boston, and it provides much-needed visual stability to contrast with Stiller’s sometimes squirrelly body language. In the end, BRAD’S STATUS is about a many easing back into the idea of his actual life and finding a degree of comfort and even happiness in its stability. I shouldn’t let you think the movie isn’t quite often funny because it absolutely is. Stiller is a master reactor, and while he is often called upon to emote here, he’s also allowed to let his charm and humor peak out from beneath the angst. Writer-director White is a master of blending comedy with something deeper, and BRAD’S STATUS is a worthy addition to his roster.

I absolutely adore this movie and all of its dark corners. This is my first exposure to the works of writer-director Ingrid Jungermann, who stars in WOMEN WHO KILL as Morgan, the co-host of a true-crime podcast with her ex-girlfriend Jean (the bubbly Ann Carr) that focuses on female serial killers. With an NPR-ish delivery style equivalent to the “Delicious Dish” sketch from “SNL,” Morgan and Jean provide detailed looks at crime sprees and even occasionally get to interview their subjects in prison (there’s a nicely sinister take by Annette O’Toole as one of their jailhouse subjects).

While many of their mutual friends think the pair should just get back together considering how much time they spend together, the dynamic shifts when Morgan meets the alluring Simone (Sheila Vand from A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT and the horror anthology XX) at her job at a food co-op. Seeing as though the “Women Who Murder” podcast has a certain popularity in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn, it’s maybe not so surprising when it turns out that Simone is a fan of the show, and as the relationship progresses, Morgan begins to realize that she doesn’t really know that much about her new girlfriend, which inspires Jean to do a little digging.

While WOMEN WHO KILL may sound like a creepy suspense piece, it’s actually a smart, funny look at modern relationships in an age where it’s nearly impossible to keep secrets. We are dropped into this existence, and soon we become as suspicious as Morgan does, as evidence piles up to suggest Simone might be a killer herself—or is Morgan just looking for an excuse to take the relationship to the next level? Supporting players range from Shannon Patricia O’Neill’s rough-around-the-edges, frequently drunk Alex and her soon-to-be wife Kim (Grace Rex)—another couple with serious issues.

But the film functions best when Morgan and Jean are working together, letting their chemistry rise to the surface, either as co-hosts or amateur investigators. And while most of the characters in the film are gay, Jungermann makes certain to flesh out everyone to the point where being gay is only a portion of who they are, and by the end of the movie, I wanted to be friends with everyone in it, including the possible murderer—no small achievement from a first-time filmmaker, who isn’t afraid to poke a little fun at Brooklyn hipster culture and Hollywood romantic comedies. WOMEN WHO KILL is a charming, layered work that makes me want to see these characters in another film or television series right away. Seek this one out.

For reasons I can’t quite explain, I have an affection for films about the fashion industry, whether they’re about specific designers or tastemakers who run magazines, take photos, or otherwise influence trends. I know nothing about fashion, so maybe it’s easier for me to see the creation of “a look” as the intersection of taste and art. But I don’t think it takes a fashion expert to recognize the artistry and hands-on craftsmanship of Manolo Blahnik, widely recognized as the world’s greatest design of fine footwear. Whether his works are seen on runways around the world or on an episode of “Sex and the City” getting stolen from Sarah Jessica Parker by a savvy thief, Blahnik’s shoes are said to be the perfect mix of style and comfort.

My favorite scenes in the documentary MANOLO: THE BOY WHO MADE SHOES FOR LIZARDS, by fashion writer Michael Roberts, are when we see Blahnik do his work, sitting down at his table and drawing freehand a new design. First he fine-tunes the shape, then he adds decorations and color. He claims to never have had any kind of artist’s block when creating new pieces, which is why he’s a fountain of creativity that employs no team to help with designs (he actually rants against designers who use a team approach to their lines).

Late in the film, we follow Blahnik to his factory where he again finalizes the detail in a shoe’s wooden form, crafting the heel of a shoe by hand with sanders and other tools, before handing the final template over for manufacturing. Every step of the process falls under his eye, and it’s no wonder that far too much of MANOLO is a parade of famous faces talking about what a genius he is.

The biography portions of the film are almost superfluous. He grew up privileged in the Spanish Canary Islands, where his only connection to shoemaking was making tiny shoes for lizards out of candy wrappers. At some point, he simply figured out that he was talented in designing women’s shoes, and before long, he opened his first store in London in 1973, after which his trajectory went nowhere but up.

While it’s always fun to look at and hear from the likes of Rihanna, Paloma Picasso, Karlie Kloss, Isaac Mizrahi, Iman and Rupert Everett (among others), perhaps the most informative in terms of giving us some insight into Blahnik’s gifts are Vogue magazine’s former American editor-at-large Andre Leon Tally and the publication’s current editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. Wintour has a true gift for describing what separates Manolo from the all others and how he has maintained his favored-nation status for decades among designers and celebrities alike.

I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do with all of my newfound knowledge, but it’s easy for me to appreciate a self-proclaimed cobbler at the top of his game. And Blahnik is such a spirited, cartoon-like character that he makes the film all the more entertaining just by bursting into one of his high-pitched giggles. He’s an odd and gifted man, and the film matches him in many ways. It won’t change your world but it may open your eyes and broaden your definition of art.

-- Steve Prokopy
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