Venus, Serena and the man with the plan

Richard Williams (Will Smith) has a talk with daughter Venus (Saniyya Sidney) in King Richard. (Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

By Richard Ades

How did Venus and Serena Williams become two of the greatest tennis players of all time? According to the sports biopic King Richard, it’s because their father mapped out a long-term plan to make it happen and then saw it through.

The flick, directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green from a script by Zach Baylin, portrays Richard Williams (Will Smith) as someone who’s not easy to have as a father, a spouse or a business partner. Sometimes, in fact, he’s downright maddening. But, judging from his daughters’ eventual successes, he does gets results.

The story unfolds in the 1990s, when Venus and Serena (Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton) are entering their teen years while sharing a modest home with their parents and three sisters in Compton, California. Besides pushing all of his daughters to excel in their schoolwork, Richard frequently loads them into his VW bus in the evening and drives them to a scruffy public court to practice their tennis skills.

The exhausting regimen is hard on everyone, including Richard, who’s sometimes harassed and even beaten up by local thugs. But he refuses to ease up, even when wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) tells him it’s too much. “We just got to stick to the plan,” he says.

The most difficult part of that plan is to find a professional coach who’s willing to work with Venus and Serena, the two most promising players, and to do it for free. Richard finally finds such a coach, whom he argues with and ends up firing, then finds an even more prestigious coach with whom he also locks horns. As the years go by, it becomes hard to tell if Richard is still aiding his daughters’ quest for success or standing in their way.

I’ve read one online commentator who makes the feminist complaint that King Richard focuses on a man rather than its rightful subjects, namely two of the world’s most prominent female athletes. That seems a little unfair since the story is set at the very beginning of Venus and Serena’s careers, before they’ve come into their own.

Brandy and Richard Williams (Aunjanue Ellis and Will Smith) are determined to turn their talented daughters into tennis superstars.

Perhaps a more valid criticism is that the script seldom acknowledges the important role played by their mother, Brandy, who knows a few things about tennis herself and sometimes has to bite her tongue when her husband makes unilateral decisions. The flick partially makes up for this in a late scene—one of the best—in which she finally lets go of years’ worth of frustration.

As one might expect, tennis matches are an intrinsic part of the sports film’s running time, including a climactic contest between one of the girls and an established competitor. These are well photographed and nicely handled by actors Sidney and Singleton and/or their on-court doubles.

Otherwise, the focus is on the members of the close-knit Williams family as Venus and Serena struggle to attain a goal never before reached by Black girls. A strong cast, beginning with Smith in the title role and including Jon Bernthal as enthusiastic coach Rick Macci, keeps things interesting.

At two hours and 26 minutes, the film does lag occasionally, and director Green (with help from composer Kris Bowers) does turn the emotional screws once or twice too often. Mostly, though, this is a fascinating origin story of tennis’s sibling superheroes.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

King Richard (PG-13) opens Nov. 19 at select theaters and online via HBO Max.

Documentary dissects Mayor Pete’s historic campaign

Pete Buttigieg takes a selfie that includes a crowd of supporters in a scene from Mayor Pete. (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

By Richard Ades

Jesse Moss co-directed Boys State, which was probably the best 2020 documentary that wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award. Now he’s returned with Mayor Pete, another film that focuses on America’s political system. But while Boys State did so metaphorically, being set at a gathering of teenagers playing at being politicians, the new doc takes the direct approach.

Its subject is Pete Buttigieg, who, before becoming President Biden’s secretary of transportation, was the first openly gay person to run a major campaign for the presidency. Filmed in 2019 and early 2020, the documentary follows the then-mayor of South Bend, Indiana, as he takes his first plunge into the treacherous waters of the national political scene.

Though the result might not be quite as sublime as Moss’s earlier effort, it offers a behind-the-scenes look at a groundbreaking campaign that briefly seemed on the verge of upsetting a host of more-traditional candidates. The film makes it clear that Buttigieg accomplished this feat with help from advisers such as his communications director, Liz Smith, and even his husband, Chasten.

A graduate of Harvard and Oxford who speaks eight languages, as well as a former naval intelligence officer who saw active duty in Afghanistan, Buttigieg stood out from the field of candidates for reasons that went far beyond his sexual orientation. The film shows another difference: His calm and nuanced speeches were a far cry from the average politician’s promises and cliches. “I think you’re the real thing,” a middle-aged woman tells him after an early campaign appearance.

But the film also reveals that Buttigieg’s reluctance to divulge his emotions led some critics to paint him as cold and even robotic. As the first Democratic debate nears and Buttigieg prepares by taking part in practice debates, Smith can be seen pushing him to open up about his feelings. “He’s coming across as a f—ing tin man up there,” she complains, using an expletive that helps to earn the flick its “R” rating.  

Then, right before the debate, news arrives that a South Bend cop has shot and killed a Black man. Buttigieg holds a town meeting and invites residents to air their concerns, but the effort only succeeds in revealing the gulf between him and many members of the Black community. Though he’s later praised for his response to this issue when it inevitably comes up on the debate stage, his lack of minority support continues to dog him throughout the campaign.  

If there’s one element of Mayor Pete that may disappoint political junkies, it’s that it largely ignores the policy positions Buttigieg espoused and argued over with the other candidates. Instead, it focuses on the personal qualities that made him an unusual and historic candidate and will continue to set him apart if he ever decides to once again hit the campaign trail.    

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Mayor Pete (rated R) will premiere Nov. 12 on Amazon Prime Video.

Aging fisherman looks for love, finds god

Issa (Salim Daw) offers Siham (Hiam Abbass) his umbrella in a rainy scene from Gaza Mon Amour.

By Richard Ades

A 60-year-old fisherman in the Gaza Strip decides it’s finally time to get married. Then he pulls up his net and finds a statue of the Greek god Apollo. That’s the setup for Gaza Mon Amour.

Is there some connection between the man’s marital decision and his maritime discovery? If there is, writer-director-brothers Tarzan and Arab Nasser don’t spell it out, any more than they explain why the film’s title apparently pays homage to Alain Resnais’s 1959 French New Wave classic, Hiroshima Mon Amour.

The statue and the title are just two more quirky elements in a tale that combines romance with political commentary in such a droll, understated way that even its darker moments are leavened with a sly sense of humor.

Issa (Salim Daw, aka Salim Dau) fishes by night and runs a shop selling fish and other items during the day. Though he’s never been married and apparently hasn’t even expressed interest in matrimony since he was a teenager, he surprises sister Manal (Manal Awad) one day by announcing his desire to wed.

Despite Issa’s strict order that she not get involved, Manal takes the news as her cue to begin rounding up eligible women. And when she learns he already has his eye on widowed shop clerk Siham (Hiam Abbass), Manal argues that she’s not an appropriate choice for a devout Muslim because she has a divorced daughter (Maisa Abd Elhadi). Ignoring her, Issa sticks to his quest, but his own shyness proves to be a high hurdle.

Siham (Hiam Abbass, left) waits for a bus while Issa (Salim Daw) tries to find a way to break the ice.

Meanwhile, both Issa and Siham deal with the daily stresses and challenges that are part of life in the tiny Gaza Strip. Among them are poverty, power outages and occasional Israeli airstrikes, as well as local officials who wield their authority like petty dictators.

It’s all too much for a young friend of Issa’s, who has planned an illegal and potentially dangerous escape to Europe. Issa, though, is determined to stick it out, even after his mysterious discovery from the deep lands him in trouble with the gendarmes.

The Nasser brothers depict life in Gaza with a critical and satirical eye, especially when it comes to the strip’s authority figures. A police official throws his weight around in an arbitrary and self-serving way, and at one point the military proudly displays a new rocket in a scene hilariously loaded with phallic symbolism.

As for the looming relationship at the center of the tale, it’s portrayed with such charm by Daw’s determined but awkward Issa and Abbass’s secretly amused Siham that viewers won’t mind the glacial pace at which it develops. Anyway, despite its cheeky title, the film isn’t really about romance as much as it’s about standing up to society’s limitations and finding the space to live and enjoy one’s life.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Gaza Mon Amour opens Nov. 5 at select theaters and through VOD outlets.