Showing posts with label sports. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sports. Show all posts

Friday, May 31, 2024

Backspot (2023)


An athlete's mindset can be their greatest advantage or distraction. When scrutiny of the outer world - family, coaches, society - bears down on players for their performance, let alone their gender or identity, the moment to break under pressure is always simmering under the surface. Much of this is the heart of director D.W. Waterson's feature directorial debut Backspot.

An ambitious cheerleader, Riley (Devery Jacobs), faces new adversity, an increased drive for perfection, and a demanding head coach (Evan Rachel Wood) when she and her girlfriend are selected for an all-star cheer squad. With a competition looming, Riley must navigate her drive alongside her crippling anxiety, as one wrong move could bring her crashing to the ground.

The world of sports is not easy for women, no matter the field. Cheerleading is itself is not considered as gruesome with their squad smiling through choreography and poses. Backspot doesn't merely aim to dispel the lack of dedication these athletes face but portray a well-rounded portrait of female and/or queer identity.

As the backspot, Riley leads the counts and supports her team with their dismounts; her teammates are counting on her vigilance and accuracy to avoid injury and to stay on time with their routines. Throughout the story, we see Riley's life fully from its interior - anxiety perpetuating Trichotillomania (hair pulling disorder), a celebrated love of queerness, and navigating a dysfunctional family life an overwhelmed mother played by Shannyn Sossamon and absent father. Among her comrades, Riley is the first to question authority, to be open about improving, and wanting others to do better. Starring outside of her breakout role from Reservation Dogs, Jacobs tows the fine line to not be rebellious for rebellious' sake but to assert herself where so much of her training has no room for error. She is the exact leading star the film needs to give Riley all different shades of strength and vulnerability.

Witnessing players getting wiped out, enduring bone-breaking injuries, battered feet, and endless hours of precise choreography, becomes the unknowing sacrifice only those from the inside truly know about.

And, as a counterpart to Riley, there is Eileen. She is everything that Riley looks up to. But, in the pursuit of being at the top, Eileen's iron-clad standards brings to question whether her teaching techniques are brutal in general, or brutal because she does not present herself softer as a woman. As she says, "If I were Bill Belichick, you wouldn’t look at me like that" after a disastrous practice, and Riley comes to her almost like a daughter wanting compassion where there is little to be given. Their mentor-mentee relationship teeters on being fully realized, as Evan Rachel Woods delivers a wonderful blend of ruthlessness and impartiality - she's exacting and straight-forward in what her character demands but extracts enough empathy for a female and queer coach who refuses to be seen as weak.

Written by Joanne Sarazen, most of the conflict lies in the head games the lead character is pulled towards and heightened by those around them. While the tension of Jacobs and Woods takes center stage, Sarazen leaves enough room for glimmers of the supporting roles to become warm outliers amidst the stress and pressure - Thomas Antony Olajide as Eileen's right hand man Devon, Kudakwashe Rutendo as Riley's compassionate girlfriend Amanda, Olunike Adeliyi as Amanda's life-of-the-party mother, and Noa DiBerto as Riley's bubbly teammate Rachel.

Between the leads and supporting cast, the film is a mix of a thriller and young adult drama, doing its best not to cast everyone in the same light. But just like nerves and excitement drum up the same physicality - elevated heart rate, sweating, butterflies in the stomach, sensory overload - sometimes the production reutilizes elements to recreate a similar mood- swirling cinematography, claustrophobic camera work, a pulsing soundtrack. Many shots seemed to capture an aesthetic more than adding to the story; at times dazzling and dynamic, but also making transitions at times uneven. The film's ambition in trying to achieve the high octane energy falls slightly short as similar films - the unrelenting intimidation of Whiplash and obsession with transcendence from Black Swan. It holds more steady as a solid coming-of-age film with thoughtful queer representation on and behind the screen (director D.W. Waterson identifies as non-binary, helms an LGBTQ+ cast, and and the film is produced by Eliot Page's Page Boy Productions)

Like many entries in the sports genre, Waterson focuses on how an athlete's inner conflict is on the verge of exposing Riley to her worst self-doubts or gifting her with the ability to take what she needs and use it as fuel. Structurally, there may be familiar elements with Backspot in comparison to other athlete/performer vs mentor films. But there is a refreshing twist that buoys with the notion that anyone in pursuit of a greater goal may suffer for their performance but therein lies deeper choices on how far to let those sacrifices take them - it can push you to the finishing line, to realize it's okay to be yourself first and walk away. Within the best of what Backspot features, is the lesson that it is enough to try and fail, or try and succeed, but most importantly, to try anyways.

Rating: ★★★1/2☆☆

Note: I was provided with a screener to provide this review. BackspotBackspot is available in select cinemas May 31st.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Battle of The Sexes (2017) Proves Equality Is Still Worth Fighting For

Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Like athletes on the field laying it all on the line, sports movies have to have a certain finesse. They strive to capture the underdog versus the champions-that-can’t-be-beat, setting audiences on the sidelines to witness the push-and-pull of who deserves to win. Uplifting and compelling, directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Battle of the Sexes is one of timeliest movies to come along, showcasing one of the biggest matches in tennis history and exploring the importance of perserverance.

In 1973, Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) began a revolution for pay equality when she discovered herself and her fellow teammates weren’t getting paid as much as their male counterparts. Starting their own women’s tournament sparks an exhibition for Wimbledon Champion turned hustler Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell) to make women's lib a laughingstock. Along the way, King discovers more than the power of her voice and talent on the court, but also an attraction towards a hairstylist Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough) despite being married. King's defiance against playing by men's rules and Rigg's display of misogynistic showmanship kicks off a match for the ages.

In life, every day, we see how society splits up opportunities between genders, sexuality, religion, and race. There’s a hierarchy of respect that trickles down from those born with privilege or power and those without. Similar to A League of Their Own which reinforced female baseball players keeping America’s past-time alive during World War II, and Hidden Figures shining a light on women of color helping to send astronauts into space, Battle of the Sexes spotlights the making to one of tennis's biggest matches. Ignorance can be life and cinema's greatest villains, creating the tension here between Riggs's chauvinist exhibition and King feeling pressured to keep her attraction a secret and be a leader to women's rights. Their feud grows as we see them off the court, juggling drama to keep the story engaging and serving inspiration as a real game-changer now and in the future.

At the center of the movie is its leading cast. Having watched Emma Stone evolve between being a comedienne to dramatic star on the big screen, her performance here as King is one of her best so far. Beautifully mirroring her Oscars speech when she won Best Actress in La La Land, she hasn’t stopped growing as a performer and stepping out of her comfort zone, and that’s evident in how much she loses herself in this role. King is as vulnerable as she is strong-willed, allowing her to be scared of the second-hand homophobia and realizing her attraction to women, as well as being confident but doubtful of her ability to beat Riggs; to earn a victory for women at the time. Stone's main counterpart, Steve Carell as Riggs, is likable and funny, except for what he believes in. He's able to play a bigger-than-life personality to draw support in their match, but also ground down his personal issues like a floundering marriage and gambling addiction. He's not too over-the-top that his promotional escapades cashes in on the gender issues at the time. As much as King and Riggs are pitted against each other, the scripts engages in showing both of their strengths and weaknesses.

Considering the current climate of inequality, especially Hollywood right now, it’s bewildering that one of cinema’s better takes about a gay woman fighting to be respected has been widely ignored so far. A definite case can be made that the movie overlooks pivotal aspects of King's sexuality, but that longtime analysis of fact versus fiction is the same issue most biopics can't escape, and this one doesn't fare too badly. Some say the movie was too lighthearted and also contained too much plot, but for a two hour movie, it's the right length to see the main players' problems and saving most of the action for the big showdown. There's no missing the beats about who, what, when, why, and how the match between King and Riggs is set, and that's sometimes all a movie needs instead of stacking the deck so full it's hard to follow or heavy-handed.

Battle of the Sexes starts with King's stand for equal pay, and in the end her perseverance becomes about earning respect for herself and other female players; being treated as an equal is as important as being paid the same as our counterparts. As the years wore on, she became the first female athlete to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Honor, and continued to fight for gay rights and Title XI. Meanwhile, Riggs accepted his participation in the second-wave women's movement becoming good friends with King for the rest of his life. That said, as inspiring as King's resolve is, it's difficult for Battle of the Sexes to not feel a little dated because the fight for equality is ongoing. Sometimes in this age we want to keep history in the past because it shows us how little the needle has moved, but it's necessary to be reminded of how some defied the norm. That's how small stances ultimately turn into great achievements. And we need everyone to make it happen.

Rating: ★★★
Have you seen Battle of the Sexes?
What did you think?

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Rush (2013) drives home brains and brawns

Rush movie review
Photo Credit: Rush
Growing up with my cousin who liked cars and trucks,  preconceived notions about racing as an adult have become limited: cars looping around in a track a few times. NASCAR and the famous Daytona 500 never held much interest for me in terms of watching it on television or seeking out news. As far as cinema 'knowledge' about the sports genre was concerned, I hadn't had very much experience - never seen the animated Cars by Pixar, Days of Thunder starring Tom Cruise, nor any other motion picture. To be honest, I never thought I'd come across a film about racing that constructed the sport and its drivers in an interesting way that non-sports people like me could understand and enjoy.

Then, came Rush. Centered around the 1970s feud between James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda, (Daniel Bruhl), the film dives into the world of racing and the catastrophic dangers its drivers takes.

Tall, blond and beautiful, James Hunt is the epitome of a young English hero with the world at his feet. His family had hopes for Hunt to become a doctor, but his combative personality against their strict upbringing ushered a natural love for racing. In an act of rebellion, he capitalizes on adrenaline: racing, sleeping around, drinking and drugs. On the opposite side of the spectrum is Niki Lauda. An Austrian native, he too could settle for working for his father, however, he defies his dad's disapproval to pursue his passion for racing. His act of rebellion is to show his family that he can do everything on his own. Often his looks are compared to that of a rat; brown musty hair, an overbite, and small beady eyes. Where he doesn't succeed in the looks department, he makes up for with his cunning ambition.

The passion to be behind the wheel leads both characters to be kings of the road. Their personality differences and work ethics - brawns versus brain - drives their feud. Neither Hunt nor Lauda are strictly portrayed as the protagonist nor antagonist; each is shown with equal virtues and downsides. For Hunt, it's his constant fast-lifestyle of partying and women. On the one side, he appears charismatic, however, his night-to-night dalliances threaten his natural talent. For Lauda, it's his direct attitude, which doesn't leave him with many friends but keeps his mental well-being clean to race without any inhibitions. Both characters are driven by their love for being the best in the world, and they have different mindsets for dealing with obstacles on and off the track.

Excluding his super-stardom brought on by the Avengers series, Chris Hemsworth manages to star as Hunt as a chameleon. He's a recognized movie star first by his handsome good looks, and then by his acting ability, which is becoming increasingly underrated. Daniel Bruhl is perhaps the star of the film managing to steal every scene against his co-star and others who star as his managers and wife. Lauda - for me - due to his Germanic upbringing and straightforward personality could've easily been a caricature displayed as a robot unemotional control freak. Bruhl manages to show and passion in multiple emotional layers that truly makes him the focus of the film's finale.

Perhaps the most refreshing aspects about Rush is how the racing sequences are edited. As a movie goer who enjoys seeing the action rather than cuts around characters in combat, I do not particularly like it when scenes are spliced up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Rush's cinematography gives an equal balance of seeing the cars race zoom around the track as a sideline observer and on the road as a driver. At high speeds, through hills, and pass finish lines, you really feel like you are alongside Hunt and Lauda as they push their automobiles to maximum speeds.

Director Ron Howard does a spectacular job bringing this vintage feud to life. The storyline is engaging and swift as we watch Hunt and Lauda battle around the world against each other and their own inner demons. The accolades for this film was seriously lacking in the 2014 Oscar race; surely, it could've earned a few with Direction, Best Picture or Best Supporting Actor for Buhl. Rush is a perfect balance showcasing racing in all of its dangerous and spectacle showmanship as well as the men behind the scenes who truly risk their lives to cross the finish line.

Rating: ★★★
Have you seen Rush? What did you think?