After yet another summer movie season filled with overwrought special effects extravaganzas and little or no soul, this weekend’s main releases are two refreshing true-life tales told with both wit and heart.

“Battle of the Sexes” focuses on the famous 1972 showdown between women’s tennis champ Billie Jean King and former men’s tennis champion Bobby Riggs in front of 90 million American TV viewers. “American Made” tells the controversial story of Barry Seal, a former airline pilot who was recruited by both the CIA and the Medellin drug cartel to make dangerous secret flights that were utterly at cross purposes with each other.

Both are winners, with “Made” my favorite of the two. “Battle” is a zippy and entertaining slice of history that features great performances by Emma Stone and Steve Carell, but also follows King’s off-court battles as she tried to discover her true sexuality during an era when anyone outside the mainstream felt compelled to remain in the closet.

It leads off with King (Stone) reigning as the unstoppable queen of professional tennis, yet angry that she is paid far less than the male champions. When the leaders of the pro tennis association scoff at her demand to pay women equally, King forms her own women’s tennis association.

She also meets a hairstylist named Marilyn (Riseborough), who is very seductive as she cuts King’s hair in an extended, sensuously filmed sequence that will make you look at your next hairdo in a whole new light. Soon, Marilyn is invited on the tour as the women’s hairstylist, and the two begin a torrid affair.

However, King is torn about the effect on her husband Larry, since her true attractions have been closeted. When he finds out, he is torn between his emotional devastation and his wish to help her succeed in her cause above all else.

Meanwhile, former men’s tennis champ Bobby Riggs (Carell), who is 55 while King is 29, challenges King  to compete for $100,000 in the hopes of showing that males are superior and colorfully rebuke the burgeoning feminist movement.

Riggs’ inveterate and humorously portrayed gambling addiction impacts his marriage, and the film contrasts his humorous training — filled with ridiculous publicity stunts — with King’s serious efforts. Their clashing styles capture the nation’s attention and make for an entertaining series of confrontations.

Stone delivers a richly layered performance, mixing grit for her cause, emotional confusion in her personal life and witty banter against Riggs. Carell has a distinctly smaller role for the first half, and brings a healthy dose of colorful humor to the movie before showing an impressive emotional depth as events turn against Riggs later.

The film’s unfortunately timeless issues provide a lot for viewers to consider and talk about here regarding relationships and marriage, and that’s more than most movies offer couples these days. Overall, “Battle” is an extremely well-made movie artistically and should be kept in the game as a contender for critics’ honors and the Oscars at the end of the year.

“American Made” marks a big change of pace for Tom Cruise, who plays Seal with a thick Southern accent and a con artist’s charm. It marks the first movie he’s made outside of sci-fi, “Jack Reacher” flicks and “Mission: Impossible” sequels since “Collateral” in 2004, and it’s a long overdue reminder that this guy can pull off complex roles with flair.

Seal was a small-time hustler, smuggling Cuban cigars into mid-size American cities through his airline gig, when the CIA recruited him to run spy missions over war-torn Central America. After getting shot down by rebels, he was offered a lot more money to fly cocaine into the US by the Medellin cartel.

Since Barry’s wife keeps getting pregnant, he needs lots of money, so he decides to work for both sides with each not knowing about the other. When the CIA ropes him into smuggling weapons to Contra rebels in Nicaragua, they buy him a 2,000-acre property complete with his own small airport outside the sleepy town of Mena, Arkansas.

But when his sleazy brother-in-law JB shows up unexpectedly, Barry’s carefully constructed and over-packed schedule starts to fall apart.

“Made” is a hugely entertaining and unpredictable blend of a less offensive “Wolf of Wall Street” and a Southern-fried “Goodfellas.” It can also be seen as an older, wiser, way more dangerous bookend to his career-launching role in “Risky Business,” with Cruise surprisingly willing to show cracks in his charming persona, including letting a tooth get knocked out of his world-famous perfect smile.

Having grown up in Arkansas and worked at the statewide paper during the height of the Whitewater investigation, I had heard plenty of speculation about Barry Seal’s story and whether Bill Clinton was involved in some way as governor. It was pleasantly surprising to see that “Made” makes a key moment involve Clinton, rather than whitewashing his small but important connection — though the movie saves its most damningly funny moments for depicting President Reagan’s oversight of the Iran-Contra arms scandal.

Director Doug Liman has honed his action chops in some of the Jason Bourne spy movies, but adds impressive emotional depth and plot complexity here. The movie has a gritty, lived-in look and wicked sense of humor throughout, yet also conveys the paranoia Barry starts to face as things go south.

All told, these movies show that if truth isn’t stranger than fiction, it’s certainly more entertaining than the fiction we’ve been offered by Hollywood lately. n

BATTLE OF THE SEXES: A

AMERICAN MADE: A

 

Capsule Reviews

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

Stars:  Taran Egerton, Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Channing Tatum

Length: 141 minutes

Directed by: Matthew Vaughn

Rating: R

This sequel to the 2015 surprise hit spy comedy “Kingsman: The Secret Service” tries to follow the idea that “bigger is better” but comes up somewhat short. Big names like Moore and Tatum are added to the cast but do almost nothing, and there’s a long middle stretch without any action, but the parts that work are great enough to make this worth the watch for action comedy fans.  Grade: B

BRAD’S STATUS

Stars: Ben Stiller, Jenna Fischer, Jermaine Clement

Length: 101 minutes

Directed by:  Mike White

Rating: R

This character-driven indie dramedy largely consists of the interior monologues of Stiller as a man in the throes of an extremely annoying midlife crisis while taking his son on a college scouting tour that includes his own alma mater. Stiller shows surprising depth but the movie will make you want to slap Brad out of his funk. Grade: D

Mother!

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer.

Length: 121 minutes

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Rating: R

Perhaps the worst movie in a bad year, this pretentious and heavy-handed disaster is supposed to be an allegory about global warming and overpopulation. Even if you can understand this highly confusing mishmash and agree with its politics, the last half hour is one of the most vile, violent and misogynistic sequences I’ve ever seen in a film. Audiences gave this an F too on opening weekend. Stay away. Grade: F

IT

Stars: Bill Skarsgard, Jaeden Leberher, Finn Wolfhard

Length: 135 minutes

Directed by: Andy Muschietti

Rating: R

Stephen King’s epic 1986 novel finally hits the big screen in the first of a planned two-part adaptation, mixing plenty of inventive scares with an affecting and funny group of 13-year-old outsiders in 1980s small-town Maine who have to team up to battle a demonic clown that’s killing children. Muschietti avoids exploiting the gruesome moments, making this a fun ride as much as it is a scarefest. Grade: A

WIND RIVER

Stars: Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner

Length: 107 minutes

Directed by: Tyler Sheridan

Rating: R

This unusually thoughtful and serious thriller follows Olsen a Las Vegas FBI agent shipped to a remote Wyoming reservation to investigate the death of a young Native American woman, and the local game tracker (Renner) who helps her navigate both the terrain and its people. Writer-director Sheridan shows viewers a world rarely seen in film, blending the tragically overlooked lives of Native Americans with a fascinating mystery. Grade: A