This Is a Movie Review: ‘Borg vs McEnroe’ Serves Up an Electrifyingly Tense Two-Biopics-in-One

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CREDIT: Julie Vrabelova/Neon

This review was originally posted on News Cult in April 2018.

Starring: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stella Skarsgård, Tuva Novotny

Director: Janus Metz Pederson

Running Time: 107 Minutes

Rating: R for the F-Bombs of Athletic Frustration and Incidental Nudity

Release Date: April 13, 2018

A study in contrasts often makes for both thrilling athletics and fascinating cinema. Thus it makes sense that we now have a film chronicling the 1980 Wimbledon men’s final between the Swedish Björn Borg and the American John McEnroe, considered by many to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, tennis matches of all time. It is surprising, perhaps, that it has taken decades for Borg vs McEnroe to happen, though that is perhaps attributable to tennis not being as marquee as other sports. But it is also good that we have had to wait, as it has given us time to digest the moment. The end result is appropriately internationally flavored, with a Danish director, production support from multiple countries, and only about two cast members well-known in America.

As a major tennis fan, I can’t help but think about how dramatically different Borg vs McEnroe would have gone if today’s officiating technology were available. The Hawk-Eye system used at many tournaments is an exceptionally efficient method for confirming whether or not balls have landed in or out of bounds. Had it been around 40 years ago, it could have prevented McEnroe from developing his hothead reputation, much of which came from his disputes with the umpires about supposedly blown calls. He could have been vindicated, though perhaps he would have found something else to complain about. But because it all went down as it did, B v M sets up its titular rivalry in terms that could be an alternate title: “Ice-Borg vs. Superbrat.”

Instead of a traditional dramatization of a rivalry, Borg vs McEnore is really more a concurrent double biopic. The buildup over the course of the tournament to the championship match is interspersed with flashbacks that paint both competitors as outsiders fighting their way into a game that has historically been elitist and dismissive of outsiders. Borg (who displays a temper on par with McEnroe’s in his teenage years) is treated with insults by the sport’s upper crust; though he is embraced by fans after winning the four prior Wimbledons in a row, he still maintains a resolve of doing things his own way. McEnroe is the upstart attempting to break through, showing little concern for decorum at the tournament where it is valued more than anywhere else, and he is met with the boos to match his impishness. As Borg, Sverrir Gudnason is not asked to do much besides remain still and calm outside of the tennis scenes, but there is a world of action taking place within his eyes. Shia LaBeouf does not try to mimic McEnroe’s voice, but he does deploy his similar propensity for asshole outbursts.

B v M’s filmmaking techniques are unique among most sports biopics, and are practically avant-garde when compared to typical live televised athletics. Rarely does the camera focus merely on the ball landing on the court, one of the most essential aspects of the game, instead criss-crossing between the reactions of the two players as well as key figures in the stands. The editing is often frenetic, suggesting the whirlwind of emotions and pressure Borg and McEnroe are digesting throughout. The journey ends on a note of profound respect, their twinned stories appropriately subsumed within each other, leading into the expected epilogue that hits harder and deeper than most.

Borg vs McEnroe is Recommended If You Like: The filmmaking of Triumph of the Will, Rivalry Friendships

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Epic Tiebreaks

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Annihilation’ is a Beautiful Hybrid

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures/Skydance

This post was originally published on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, David Gyasi

Director: Alex Garland

Running Time: 115 Minutes

Rating: R for Gator-Shark Attacks, Giant Bear Attacks, Swirling Intestines, and a Little Bit of Nookie

Release Date: February 23, 2018

Annihilation needs you to trust that sometimes disorientation can be good. Or at least, that it can be exciting. I will admit that disorientation does not necessarily work out so well for this film’s characters. The relative safety afforded the audience in vicariously experiencing this vexing and dangerous journey makes secondhand disorientation easier to defend. But still, I think the message here is the same for both participants and observers: venturing into the confusion is how to make the spectacle happen.

Biology professor Lena (Natalie Portman) has been mourning the disappearance of her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) ever since he took off for a highly classified military expedition a year ago, when suddenly he just reappears in their house one day. But Kane has essentially no memory of what happened, and it is clear soon enough that there is so much of his mission left to complete. So Lena is recruited by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to join her and her team of scientists (Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny) to trek into Area X, the coastal location that Kane and many others have gotten lost in, and figure out what the hell is going on there.

I do not recall Annihilation specifying the exact geographical location of Area X. It is possible it did and I just missed it, which can happen when a film mentions a significant detail only briefly. But in this case it is appropriate that I would miss such a detail, whether or not it was actually omitted. Area X is surrounded by a liquidy substance, or perhaps “presence” is a better word, referred to as “a shimmer,” which disorients anyone who approaches or moves through it. When Ventress and her crew first awake in the area, they seem to have immediately lost days, maybe even weeks. If we as an audience feel like we are missing just as many details as they are, then writer/director Alex Garland is probably pulling off what he set out to do. What awaits all of us is a world of wonders that can be explained by science, even though science says they should be impossible.

Flowers of clearly different species are growing on the same branches. The team is attacked by a gator with shark teeth. Plants in the shape of walking humans have sprung up. Eventually these ladies recognize their own blood and DNA swirling and transforming. These combinations are supposed to be fundamentally incompatible according to life as we know it. Lena’s on-the-fly theorizing of this continuous mutation works as a sort of explanation of how mythical hybrid creatures or the monstrosities from genre films could come to exist if they were to exist in reality.

The crew confronts Area X and its inhabitants with a mix of paranoia, wonder, fatalism, and determination. Considering the constant transformation inherent to this setting, it could be argued that all or none or some indefinable combination of these approaches is the right plan of action. Appropriately, it is all rendered by a design and effects team inspiring awe on a thoroughly devastating scale. The lush greenery is both beautiful and explosive. The music, courtesy of Ben Salisbury and Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, is unnerving and entrancing, including a set of reverberating notes that the trailer has already made famous. This intoxicating mix also offers up a series of killer set pieces, including a riff on The Thing’s notorious blood test scene, but featuring the main animal from a creature feature imbued with the Freddy Krueger-style power to maintain the dying cries of its victims.

Annihilation hits that sci-fi sweet spot of a confusing, complicated premise that ultimately explains itself, but not in a way that betrays its intricacies or ambitions, or makes matters particularly comforting. This is visionary cinema, flourishing and fully realizing itself from glorious setup to perfect ending.

Annihilation is Recommended If You Like: The Thing, 2001, Fringe, Cronenbergian body horror, The design elements of A Nightmare on Elm Street, Mulholland Drive

Grade: 5 out of 5 Shimmers