IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: KING KONG ESCAPES (1967)

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This IN THE SPOOKIGHT column is a reprint from February 2007:

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Think of Japan’s Toho productions, and the first name that comes to mind is Godzilla, and rightly so, since Toho produced more than 25 movies starring everyone’s favorite giant mutated dinosaur.

However, Toho also made a couple of King Kong movies in the 1960s.  They made some Frankenstein films as well, but we won’t go there today.  Their second (and last) Kong film was KING KONG ESCAPES (1967), generally considered to be one of the worst Kong movies ever made, right up there  with KING KONG LIVES (1986).

My vote for the worst goes to KING KONG LIVES, and that’s because I have a soft spot in my heart for KING KONG ESCAPES.  Maybe it’s because KING KONG ESCAPES was the first Kong movie I ever saw. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s not that bad after all.

KING KONG ESCAPES borrows heavily from the 1960s James Bond craze.  There’s a supervillain, the evil Dr. Who, beautiful women, and a dashing hero, played by Rhodes Reason doing his best to impersonate Sean Connery.  What passes as a plot has Dr. Who building a robot Kong to dig up the precious “element X” which of course, once he has, he’ll be able to use to rule the world! (cue crazed evil laugh). When the robot Kong fails, Who captures the real Kong to do the work.  Of course, Kong isn’t interested.  He’s too busy falling in love with the young blonde lead in the movie, Susan, played by Linda Miller.

Unlike Fay Wray in the original, there’s no screaming here. Linda Miller’s character hardly seems frightened at all by Kong’s presence, and converses with him as if talking to her pet dog.  Better yet, Kong listens and understands everything she says!  Gone are the days when Kong tossed women who weren’t Fay Wray from New York buildings.  In KING KONG ESCAPES, Kong is clearly a hero and a gentleman— or is it a gentle-ape?

Still, he packs a punch when he needs to.  Japanese monster movies are famous for their giant monster battles, and on that front, KING KONG ESCAPES doesn’t disappoint.  Kong fights a dinosaur, a sea monster, and in a “colossal struggle of monster vs. robot” as the film’s original movie posters boasted, he takes on his duplicate, the giant Robot Kong, in an epic climactic battle, which is actually quite well done.

The special effects really aren’t that bad.  They’re on par with other Japanese monster movies of the decade, maybe even a bit better.  Kong looks silly, but his appearance is several notches above his previous Toho stint, in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1963), where he looked sort of ragged, as if he’d been pummeled a few times by co-star Godzilla before the cameras rolled.   And the Robot Kong is pretty cool looking.

KING KONG ESCAPES was directed by Ishiro Honda, who directed many of Toho’s better films, including the original GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS! in 1954.  The English version screenplay by William J. Keenan is extremely silly, with awful dialogue, but it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is Kong, and he gets plenty of screen time.

KING KONG ESCAPES doesn’t come close to either the original KING KONG (1933), or Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake.  It is not a great movie nor does it pretend to be.  The inept 1976 KING KONG with Jessica Lange, if you remember, compared itself to JAWS.

However, it is fun and entertaining, and in the world of monster movies, that’s often enough.  At the end of the day, Kong is still king, still roaring, still on top, even after KING KONG ESCAPES.

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COLD PURSUIT (2019) – Liam Neeson Actioner First Bad Movie of 2019

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The big story regarding COLD PURSUIT (2019), the latest action movie starring Liam Neeson, comes from real life, where recently Neeson made controversial comments that some have deemed racially offensive, and there’s no doubt, what he said is indeed racially offensive.

But it was an odd thing to say, considering he spoke of thoughts he once had, thoughts that never turned into actions, and so at the end of the day, Neeson didn’t commit the racially charged crime he thought about doing, but even so, why talk about something you once only thought about?  To me, this was an absolutely stupid thing for Neeson to say.  What was he thinking?

Anyway, since no crime was committed or accusation of a crime made, the biggest thing I saw Neeson guilty of was putting his foot in his mouth. And so as a fan, I still went to the theater to see COLD PURSUIT.

And the reason I absolutely did not like this movie has nothing to do with all the real life drama mentioned above.

In short, of all the action movies Neeson has made starting with TAKEN (2008) this might be the worst.

The story is simple and sounds much better than it actually is.  Nels Coxman (Liam Neeson) is a humble snow plow driver who quietly and faithfully plows the snowy roads of a ski resort community just outside Denver, Colorado. He’s so appreciated that at the beginning of the movie he is awarded the town’s “Citizen of the Year” award. Nels lives a modest, happy life with his wife Grace (Laura Dern).

All is good until their adult son is murdered by a powerful drug lord who lives in Denver, which is a big no-no, because if there’s one thing every movie fan knows, you don’t mess with the relative of a character played by Liam Neeson. So, yes, the rest of the movie is about Nels seeking vengeance for his son’s murder and taking on the powerful drug lord and his henchmen.  As I said, this one sounds better than it is.

The biggest problem with COLD PURSUIT is its script by Frank Baldwin, based on the screenplay by Kim Fupz Aakeson to the 2014 Danish film IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE. Rather than being a straightforward action thriller, COLD PURSUIT tries to be a dark comedy but fails miserably.

The film starts off well. I enjoyed its set-up and getting to know Nels and his wife Grace. And since I enjoy Liam Neeson and Laura Dern, I was looking forward to seeing these two in this movie, but that’s not how things unfold, as Dern’s character pretty much disappears from the story.

Plus, with Nels being a snow plow driver and a hunter, you’d think that he’d use these skills in getting back at the people who killed his son, but the film’s idea of his skill set is driving a snow plow and using a gun. Not exactly all that specific.

Strangely when the film should have gotten better, when Nels sets his sights on revenge, it gets worse. The biggest culprit is its misplaced sense of humor. The gimmick in this film is to place each deceased character’s name on the screen after their death, and the hope here seems to be that if the filmmakers do it enough (there are a lot of deaths in this movie) it will become funny. Nope. It wasn’t funny the first time, and it’s not funny later.

Now, I have no problem with a dark comedy, especially one about murder, but this one doesn’t work. The characters, including Nels, are all so superficial I didn’t care about any of them. And as the story goes along, Nels actually takes a back seat to rival drug gangs who are trying to wipe each other out. The result of this mess is a film that kinda glorifies murder. People are killed left and right and then the film tries to have fun with their deaths. If you’re going to take this approach, you either have to be really funny or at least have characters fleshed out enough that you feel something when they die. This film does neither.

Liam Neeson is okay as Nels Coxman, but his performance here is nothing we haven’t seen him do before, and frankly, he’s done it much better before. Also, Nels is a cold fish who displays about as much emotion avenging his son’s death as a man standing in the middle of a frozen lake ice fishing.

Laura Dern’s talents are completely wasted in a throwaway role as Nels’ wife Grace. Midway through the film she leaves Nels and that’s it for Dern. She leaves him a note, and it’s a blank piece of paper, which pretty much sums up the emotional impact of this movie.

The main villain “Viking”— and yes, all the bad buys here have nicknames, a la TOP GUN (1986), and in fact, one of the names comes right from that movie— as played by Tom Bateman is one of the most annoying bad guys I’ve seen in a movie in a while. Viking and the rest of his henchmen are about as believable as cartoon caricatures.

Two of the more notable performances belong to John Doman and Emmy Rossum who play two members of local law enforcement, but their storyline goes nowhere, and so they barely make an impact.

There’s also a completely ridiculous subplot involving Viking’s young son, which goes beyond ludicrous once Nels abducts the boy and the two become fast friends. Huh? As I’ve been saying, this one’s pretty bad.

COLD PURSUIT was directed by Hans Petter Moland, and things are so bad here that not even the beautiful snowy mountains of Colorado can save this one. It’s  all very scenic, but the film doesn’t really use its frigid landscape to tell its story.

Plus I really wanted to know more about Neeson’s character. I wanted to know why he felt he could take on drug mobsters and succeed. The film never really gets inside Nels’ head. In fact, for large chunks of the movie, Nels disappears, and the film focuses on the various drug henchmen with all their nicknames.

Ho hum.

At the end of the day, COLD PURSUIT is a cold and rather ugly film. The death count is high, yet none of the demises have any impact, with the possible exception of the very last one, which comes a little too late in the game.

In the interest of full disclosure, the audience I saw this one with, albeit a sparse one, seemed to like the movie more than I did. They chuckled on occasion. I did not.

For me, this one’s an easy call. COLD PURSUIT is the first clinker for 2019.  I suggest giving it the cold shoulder.

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ESCAPE ROOM (2019) – Puzzle Thriller Better Than Expected

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Deborah Ann Woll feels the heat in ESCAPE ROOM (2019).

 

I wasn’t expecting much from ESCAPE ROOM (2019), the new “solve the puzzle or you die” thriller that clearly has eyes on becoming a franchise. Critics haven’t been kind to it, and word of mouth has been mute.

But in spite of a boneheaded opening and very contrived ending, ESCAPE ROOM was easily better than I expected.

ESCAPE ROOM opens with a supposed harrowing sequence of a young man Ben Miller (Logan Miller) desperately seeking clues inside a room that is quickly closing in on him, and he’s in danger of being crushed to death unless he can find whatever it is he’s looking for. Since we know absolutely nothing about this character, this opening sequence is just okay and is hardly an exciting way to open the movie.

The action jumps backwards several days, and we meet a group of characters who all receive a strange cube for various reasons inviting them to take part in an escape room puzzle game that will put them in a room with seemingly no escape. If they can figure their way out, they win $10,000.

There’s main character Zoey Davis (Taylor Russell) an extremely introverted college student whose professor advises her to take more risks in life, and to start by doing something that is out of her comfort zone over the Thanksgiving break. We also meet Ben Miller, a young man who’s sort of a loser and is struggling even to keep his grocery store job. Of course, we met Miller in the opening sequence, giving away any suspense as to his fate since we know he’ll survive long enough to reach the collapsing room, which is why I called the opening sequence boneheaded.

There’s also Jason Walker  (Jay Ellis), a hotshot stockbroker who always plays to win, Amanda Harper (Deborah Ann Woll), an Iraqi war veteran with a traumatic past, Mike Nolan (Tyler Labine) a down to earth truck driver, and Danny Khan (Nik Dodani) a nerdy gamer who’s played these escape room games before.

At first, they’re all pretty excited to play, except for Amanda who seems to sense something is wrong from the outset, and something is wrong, because it doesn’t take these folks long to realize that it isn’t a game but is real. If they don’t escape from each room, they die, and once they start being killed, the intensity ratchets up.

The main reason ESCAPE ROOM works as well as it does is its cast, which creates amiable characters who in spite of their flaws are folks you easily feel comfortable rooting for.

Taylor Russell is excellent in the lead role of Zoey Davis. She’s convincing as an introvert who later on must channel her energies to survive and help her new friends to do the same. Russell was also memorable as Judy Robinson in the Netflix reboot of LOST IN SPACE (2018-2019). She is a young actress to keep your eye on.

Logan Miller is very good as socially challenged Ben Miller, and his performance keeps the audience from ever really disliking a character who could have been very annoying. Miller has also appeared on TV’s THE WALKING DEAD.

Jay Ellis is sufficiently cold and driven as winner-take-all stock broker Jason Walker, and Deborah Ann Woll adds a lot of depth to her Iraq-war veteran character Amanda Harper. I’m a big fan of Woll’s work on the Netflix Marvel shows DAREDEVIL (2015-18), THE PUNISHER (2017-2019) and THE DEFENDERS (2017) where she has the recurring role of Karen Page. In fact, the main reason I wanted to see ESCAPE ROOM was because of Deborah Ann Woll.

Tyler Labine does a nice job as Mike Nolan, while Nik Dodani plays the one character Danny Khan who’s sadly reduced to being a cliché.

Most of the escape rooms in the film are pretty creative, and the sequences where the characters need to escape or die are generally exciting, although they never approach seat-squirming levels. It’s all pretty neat and safe, but it’s not dull, and with these actors in the roles I really did care for them and wanted to see them survive.

The screenplay by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik works for the most part. Its strength is it creates likable characters and gives them realistic dialogue. It wisely avoids giving away answers— the biggest question being who is doing this and why?— until the end, and that’s where things dip a bit.

The idea of characters having to escape a series of deadly rooms works best in the abstract. It all makes for thrilling cinema until the moment arrives when it’s time for some answers. Who is doing this? Why? How? And these answers are far more difficult to come up with while keeping the story realistic. I can’t say the writers really succeeded here.

And the set up for a sequel is by far the most contrived part of the movie and the least believable. It’s also the weakest part of the film.

But before this I thought director Adam Robitel did a nice job keeping things suspenseful. I certainly enjoyed ESCAPE ROOM more than I did Robitel’s previous directorial effort, the dreadful INSIDIOUS:THE LAST KEY (2018).

The story itself here is secondary to the plight of the characters trying to escape the rooms, and that’s the best part of this enjoyable thriller. For most of the film, you don’t know why this is happening, but you also don’t really care. The characters are fleshed out enough so that you care about them.

And sometimes for a movie to work, that’s all you need.

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GREEN BOOK (2018) – Oscar Contender Worth A Trip to the Theater

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It took a while for GREEN BOOK (2018) to make it to the theaters in my neck of the woods, and so I was only able to see it recently.

This Oscar contender, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Screenplay is both worthy of these nominations and a trip to the theater. Had I seen this movie before I had comprised my List of Top 10 movies for 2018, it most certainly would have made the cut.

GREEN BOOK (2018), based on a true story, takes place in 1962 and chronicles the unlikely friendship between an eccentric African-American classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and a rough and tough Italian bouncer from Brooklyn, Tony LIp (Viggo Mortensen) who are brought together when Shirley hires Tony to be his personal driver on a concert tour which will take him into the Deep South.

In terms of story construct, the one told in GREEN BOOK is one you’ve seen many times before. Yes, it’s a “buddy story,” that plot where two very different characters spend time together, especially on the road, and eventually they form an unlikely friendship.  It’s been done a million times, from classics back in the day like MIDNIGHT RUN (1988) and PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES (1987) to more recent fare like DUE DATE (2010) and THE HEAT (2013).

But what makes GREEN BOOK different and a cut above the standard “buddy movie” is its dueling themes of racism and racial acceptance.

Shirley’s concert tour is bringing him to the Deep South, as far as Mississippi, not a safe place for a black man in 1962. And that’s where the titular “Green Book” comes in, as it refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a publication which listed places which were safe for blacks to visit. Hence, on the road in the south, Shirley and Tony stay at separate hotels, as Shirley has to stay at hotels which accept Negroes, and these are usually poor decrepit places.

And when Shirley is performing inside the elegant establishments of the wealthy white audiences, who give him rousing applause, he is not allowed to use the bathroom inside these places, nor can he dine there.

Tony Lip, while not from the south, initially holds views that are just as racist. He and his fellow Bronx Italians use racial slurs when speaking of blacks, and when his wife hires two black repairmen, and Tony observes  her giving them something to drink after they’ve finished their job, he takes the empty glasses they drank from and tosses them into the trash.

Yet, when asked by Shirley if he would have trouble working for a black man, Tony says no, and since Tony is a man of his word, it turns out to be true, and as the story goes along, and he observes the way Shirley is treated, he becomes more and more protective of his employer.

The story also takes things a step further. Don Shirley is a man alone. He’s wealthy and educated, and he doesn’t identify with what he sees as his fellow black brethren. He’s more similar in class to the wealthy whites he plays music for, but he certainly doesn’t identify with them.  And then there’s his sexual orientation. By all accounts, Shirley is alone and he’s miserable, and in one of the movie’s best scenes, he breaks down and laments to Tony that he hasn’t been able to find any community that wants him in it.

The script, nominated for an Oscar, by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly does a masterful job at showing not only the racism Don Shirley faced but also the pain he felt at being so isolated from seemingly all walks of life. It also makes Tony Lip the face of white acceptance. At first, Tony may have suppressed any racist feelings just so he could take the job, but later, he truly comes to like and accept Shirley as a person, and his words and actions back that up.

The script also gives Tony the best moments in the film, especially the laugh out loud ones. Indeed, why this movie is also listed as a comedy has to do entirely with Tony. He’s got the best lines in the film, such as when he tries to quote JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you—” speech, but completely botches it and finishes with “Ask what you do for yourself,” and he has the funniest scenes, like when he introduces Shirley to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The best part of the script is that none of it comes off as superficial or preachy. It makes its points on race simply by allowing its story to unfold. Likewise, the bond between Shirley and Tony is not forced or phony. It’s convincing and natural. The whole story works.

As I said, Mahershala Ali has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Dr. Don Shirley, and it’s certainly a powerful performance.

However, GREEN BOOK belongs more to Viggo Mortensen and his portrayal of Tony Lip. Tony is the larger role, and the story mainly focuses on his reaction to racism. In terms of acting, it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen Mortensen give. He plays the Bronx bouncer so effortlessly. And like Ali, Mortensen has also been nominated, for Best Actor.

GREEN BOOK has also been nominated for Best Picture, although it’s not expected to win. Of its four major nominations, according to the experts, Mahershala Ali has the best chance of winning Best Supporting Actor.

GREEN BOOK was directed by Peter Farrelly, of Farrelly Brothers fame. He successfully captures the 1962 setting. There’s a nice contrast of colors, between the bright and opulent upper class white southern establishments and the dark and dreary poverty-laden black establishments.

And one of my favorite scenes brings both worlds together, when Shirley takes Tony into a black friendly restaurant, and Shirley is invited to play piano and ends up jamming with the jazz musicians there. It’s one of the liveliest scenes in the movie, and it allows Shirley for the first time to feel some camaraderie with a culture he had thus far felt alienated from.

I really enjoyed GREEN BOOK. It has a lot to say about racism, using the south in 1962 as its canvas, and it makes its point while not always being heavy-handed. In fact, its tone is quite the opposite. For most of the movie, thanks to Viggo Mortensen’s performance as Tony Lip, you’ll be laughing. Tony is a likeable character who may not be as skilled and as polished as Dr. Don Shirley, but his heart is in the right place, as is his head. He befriends Shirley not only because he likes him but also because deep down he knows that the color of Shirley’s skin has no bearing on what kind of person he is.

GREEN BOOK is a thoroughly satisfying movie that speaks on racism and entertains at the same time. It’s not to be missed.

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STAN & OLLIE (2018) – Nostalgic Look at Comedy Duo’s Final Tour Together

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STAN & OLLIE (2018) is a pleasant homage to the work of the classic comedy duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

It tells the bittersweet story of their final tour together, long past their superstar years. The film is driven by two top-notch performances, Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel, and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy.

The movie opens in 1937, at the height of their film career.  Stan (Steve Coogan) is the more business savvy of the two, and he wants a larger contract from studio head Hal Roach (Danny Huston). When it’s clear he’s not going to get it, he tries to convince Ollie (John C. Reilly) to leave the studio with him and sign a contract elsewhere, but it’s a decision that is far more difficult for Ollie to make, since he’s still under contract with Roach. As a result, Ollie stays with Roach. And when Ollie makes a movie without Stan, things hit rock bottom for the duo.

The action switches to 1953, where Stan has convinced Ollie to join him for a European tour as a promotional tool for a new movie he’s writing for the two of them. When financing for the film falls through, and they’re met with small audiences on the tour, the realization hits them that this could be the end of their career.  But as the tour continues, the crowds grow, until once more they are playing to sold out theaters.

But all is not right for the comedy duo. Ollie’s health is fading, and the two men squabble about their friendship and loyalty to the each over the years, causing a rift that they may not be able to overcome.

STAN & OLLIE is a very enjoyable movie. It’s well-made and is a rich looking period piece. Director Jon S. Baird convincingly transports his audience into the film, stage, and personal worlds of Laurel and Hardy.

The screenplay by Jeff Pope squarely focuses on their friendship, as these are not good times for the two men. They’re aging, they can’t get financing for a new movie, they’re playing to small crowds, and there’s a lot of tension between them. Their friendship is pushed to its limits. And yet when they look back at their years together, they realize the value of their friendship, and it’s this realization that is the best part of the story.

The comedy, on the other hand, while light and humorous— and it’s certainly fun to see some of Laurel and Hardy’s best comic bits recreated here— is never flat-out hilarious. And so it’s not the strength of the film.

The best part of the movie by far are the performances by the two leads. They’re both excellent, which is a good thing since they’re in nearly every single scene.

Steve Coogan captures both Stan Laurel’s comic genius as well as his drive to constantly write gags for the duo. Laurel is portrayed here as a man who is almost addicted to writing, so much so that he really has time for little else. And during one of their arguments, Ollie accuses Laurel of being flat-out cold, robotic, a writing machine who has no sense of friendship or humanity.

Coogan also plays Laurel as a man carrying a lot of hurt with him, as he still feels betrayed by Ollie’s decision years earlier to make a movie without him.

John C. Reilly is just as good as Oliver Hardy. During the tour, Hardy is ailing, and Reilly does a nice job capturing the comic who continues to drive himself to perform, even against doctor’s orders. Ollie is portrayed here as a man with more balance in his life than Stan, as he’s interested in other things besides work, and while he says he doesn’t need Stan, he really does feel lost without him.

Coogan and Reilly really do make this movie, and they easily carry it along for its 98 minute running time.

Rufus Jones adds fine support as Bernard Delfont, the man responsible for arranging the European tour. He goes back and forth between sounding like a con man and a legitimate agent.

Shirley Henderson is excellent as Ollie’s wife Lucille, who is fiercely protective of her husband, and Nina Arianda is memorable as Stan’s wife Ida Kitaeva, a former dancer who doesn’t let anyone forget it.

At times, STAN & OLLIE is emotionally flat. The best scene in the movie is when Stan and Oliver finally have their huge argument, and that’s the one scene that packs a powerful punch. Other than this sequence, it’s all rather mild.

And in spite of this being a movie about Laurel and Hardy, there’s a sense of sadness that permeates the film.

That being said, I still really enjoyed STAN & OLLIE. It definitely succeeds in reacquainting modern audiences with the classic comedy duo.

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ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018) – Ruth Bader Ginsburg Movie Makes Its Case

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on the basis of sex

ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018) is not getting much love, and that’s too bad, because this bio pic on Ruth Bader Ginsburg happens to be a really good movie.

So, what’s the scoop? Why the cold shoulder?

For starters, it’s the second film from 2018 on the life of Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg, following the much better received and critically acclaimed documentary RBG (2018), and so it’s operating in the shadows of that film.  Likewise, RBG received some Oscar nominations. ON THE BASIS OF SEX didn’t receive any.

Critics have been lukewarm to the film, and much of the criticism has been focused on the script which a lot of folks have called superficial, which reminds me of a lot of the same things which were originally written about HIDDEN FIGURES (2016), another outstanding film which also didn’t receive much love. Initially.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX is also not performing well at the box office. I think a big reason for this is that it had a lackluster ad campaign. I know in my neck of the woods there was barely any publicity for this film.

However, I saw the movie several weeks after its initial release, and the theater was packed, and the audience certainly seemed to enjoy it.

As did I.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX opens in 1956 showing Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) entering Harvard Law School. From the get-go, Ginsburg experiences gender inequality, from professors who don’t call on her in class to an awkward dinner held by Dean Griswold (Sam Waterston) for the female law students in which he requests that they tell him why it is that they have chosen spots at the law school that could have gone to men.

The action jumps ahead to 1970 where Ginsburg is working as a law professor because no law firm would hire her because she was a woman, in spite of the fact that she graduated at the top of her class. She lives in New York City with her husband Martin (Armie Hammer), a successful tax attorney, their teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) and their younger son James.

Ginsburg decides to take on the case of a man Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey) who was denied a caregiver tax deduction which he filed for because he was caring for his sick mother, and he was subsequently charged because of this filing. The reason? He was a man. And the caregiver tax deduction was meant only for women because they were assumed to be the only ones who were natural caregivers. Ginsburg realizes that this is a case of gender discrimination, where the one big difference is that the victim is a man. She knows that if she can win this case, it will be a huge victory, a step towards repealing gender discrimination in other cases as well.

She takes the case, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Felicity Jones delivers a spirited performance as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It’s certainly a potent enough performance to carry the movie, even though Jones doesn’t have to, since she receives fine support from the other actors in this one.  I really enjoyed Jones in ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016) in which she played Jyn Erso, a film I have liked more each time I’ve seen it, and Jones’ performance in that movie remains one of its strongest attributes. She’s equally as good here as Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

One of the film’s highlights is the dynamic between Ginsburg and her daughter Jane, as they share key moments together, as in when Ginsburg realizes that things her daughter is saying are things she couldn’t have said fifteen years ago, opening her eyes to the realization that the times have already changed and so it’s time for the law to catch up. There’s also the realization that the work she is doing for gender rights is for her daughter’s future, which gives her drive when things look bleak.

As such, the role of Jane is a central one in the movie, and she’s well-played by Cailee Spaeny, who was equally as memorable in BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018). Spaeny also looked completely different in that movie, and she played a very different role. She’s certainly a young actress to keep your eye on.

Armie Hammer plays Ginsburg’s husband Martin, and their relationship is also central to the story. Martin is diagnosed with testicular cancer while still in law school, and it’s largely Ruth’s drive to survive that helps him beat the cancer back for as long as possible. He’s also an incredibly supportive husband, and he’s one of the few males in her life who sees what she sees and constantly pushes her on to continue her work. While it’s not groundbreaking dramatic stuff, it’s one of the better performances I’ve seen Hammer give.

Justin Theroux throws in a colorful performance as ACLU director Mel Wulf, who in spite of being Ginsburg’s friend doesn’t always see things the same way she does and makes decisions which get in the way of progress.

Veteran actor Sam Waterston adds solid support as Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold. His sexist comments will be sure to rankle. Kathy Bates is also on hand, albeit briefly, as Dorothy Kenyon.

The screenplay by Daniel Stiepleman, who happens to be Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s nephew, is a good one and gets the job done. It tells its story in straightforward fashion and builds to a solid climax as Ginsburg argues her case in court. The screenplay has been criticized as being “by the numbers” and superficial, but that’s not the case.  Sure, in terms of legalese, the film keeps things simple, nor does the film present Ginsburg from multiple nuanced angles. She’s a straight shooter here, and the film makes its case by getting in and out without any additional distractions or subplots. For me, the entire story worked.

Likewise, director Mimi Leder keeps things straightforward and simple as well. The film looks good, it does a nice job with costumes and setting, and I easily bought into the whole story.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX succeeds in what it sets out to do, which is to tell the story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg overcame the odds and argued a groundbreaking gender discrimination case which would open the door for gender equality for years to come. And it does so in a manner that is both informative and emotional.

Don’t believe the naysayers.  ON THE BASIS OF SEX is worthy of some love.

Go out and see this one before it leaves the theaters.

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IN THE SHADOWS: FRANCIS MATTHEWS

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francis matthews

Welcome back to IN THE SHADOWS, that column where we look at character actors in the movies.

Today our focus is on Francis Matthews. If you’re a Hammer Film fan, you’re familiar with Matthews’ work, because of two key performances in THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) and DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

With his distinctive voice, which sounds an awful lot like Cary Grant’s, Matthews made a lasting impression in these Hammer sequels.

Here’s a very brief look at the career of Francis Matthews, focusing mainly on his genre credits:

BHOWANI JUNCTION (1956) – Ranjit Kasel- Matthews’ first big screen credit is in this drama about English/Indian relations directed by George Cukor.  Stars Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger.

francis matthews peter cushing revenge of frankenstein

Francis Matthews and Peter Cushing in THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958).

THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) – Doctor Hans Kleve-  Francis Matthews is memorable here as the new young assistant to Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein, or as he is known in this movie since he’s supposed to be dead and is hiding from the authorities, Dr. Stein. Matthews and Cushing share a nice camaraderie in their scenes together, and it’s too bad the series didn’t continue with these two actors. The character of Hans is notable here because at the end of the movie he successfully transplants Dr. Stein’s brain into another body.

CORRIDORS OF BLOOD (1958) – Jonathan Bolton – co-stars with both Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee in this standard shocker featuring Karloff playing a doctor who becomes addicted to the powerful anesthesia he has created and as a result becomes involved in murder. Christopher Lee plays a grave robber named Resurrection Joe, and his supporting performance steals the show. The best part is Karloff and Lee’s climactic battle, pitting one “Frankenstein monster” vs. the other. Neat stuff! Matthews plays it straight as Karloff’s son and protegé.

francis matthews christopher lee dracula prince of darkness

Francis Matthews and Christopher Lee in DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966) – Charles Kent – By far, my favorite Francis Matthews’ role. He plays Charles Kent, one of the four guests who find themselves spending the night in Dracula’s castle, and it’s Charles’ brother Alan (Charles Tingwell) who’s murdered by Dracula’s disciple Klove (Philip Latham) who then uses Alan’s blood to resurrect Dracula (Christopher Lee) in one of Hammer’s bloodiest and most gruesome scenes.

Charles then teams up with Father Sandor (Andrew Keir) to hunt down Dracula, but the vampire king complicates things by going after Charles’ wife Diana (Suzan Farmer) first.

This sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), arguably Hammer’s best shocker, is itself a really good movie, and its reputation has only gotten better over the years. Francis Matthews makes for a strong leading man, until that is, he has to face Dracula, which is as it should be. The later Hammer Draculas would stumble by having every random young hero best the vampire king when in all seriousness, that should have been something only the Van Helsings of the world could do.

Also, if you own the Blu-ray version of DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, it includes a rare and very informative commentary by Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Suzan Farmer, and Francis Matthews. All four actors sat down together for a screening of the film, and for most of them it was the first time they had watched the movie in years. All four actors add really neat insights. For instance, during the film’s pre-credit sequence, which begins with the ending of HORROR OF DRACULA, Lee was quick to point out that the ending they were watching was cut from the original version, and this commentary was recorded long before the recent restored version by Hammer.

The Blu-ray also contains rare behind-the-scenes footage on the set of DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS secretly filmed by Francis Matthews’ brother using an 8mm camera.

Sadly, of these four actors, only Barbara Shelley remains with us, as Lee, Matthews, and Suzan Farmer have all since passed away (Farmer in 2017).

RASPUTIN: THE MAD MONK (1966) – Ivan – shot nearly simultaneously as DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, the film uses the same sets and much of the same cast, including Christopher Lee, Francis Matthews, Barbara Shelley, and Suzan Farmer.

THE SAINT (1964-1967) – Andre/Paul Farley – “To Kill A Saint”/”The Noble Sportsman” – appeared in two episodes of the popular Roger Moore spy show.

THE AVENGERS (1966-1967) – Chivers/Collins – “Mission – Highly Improbable”/”The Thirteenth Hole”- appeared in two episodes of THE AVENGERS TV show.

RUN FOR YOUR WIFE (2012) – Francis Matthews’ final screen credit is in this British comedy.

Francis Matthews has 106 screen credits, and I’ll always remember him for his two noteworthy performances in two of Hammer’s better sequels, THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1958) and DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966).

Matthews was born on September 2, 1927. He died on June 14, 2014 at the age of 86.

Well, that’s all we have time for today. I hope you enjoyed reading about Francis Matthews, and please join me again next time on the next IN THE SHADOWS when we’ll look at the career at another great character actor in the movies, especially horror movies.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael