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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Science Fiction Movies 2016 – Worst to First

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Here’s a look back at the major science fiction movies from 2016.  There has been a resurgence of late of quality science fiction films, but that being said, 2016 didn’t have a lot to offer audiences in the sci-fi genre.  In fact, of the more than 50 films I saw in 2016, only five were science fiction.

Here’s a break down of how they fared, from worst to first:

passengers

5. PASSENGERS – this big budget pairing of superstars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt was my least favorite science fiction film from 2016.  That being said, it’s really not that bad a movie.  I would rate it slightly less than average.  Probably not worth a trip to the theater, but something you might consider catching at home on a streaming service or on DVD or Blu-ray.

The biggest culprit is a story that just didn’t work.  It’s about a massive spaceship carrying thousands of passengers in sleep stasis to a new colony planet where they hope to begin a new life.  When there’s a malfunction, and a man Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is accidentally awoken, he finds himself alone and realizes with 90 years still left to the voyage, he won’t get off the ship alive.  His decision to awake fellow passenger Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence)— in effect giving her a death sentence— and the subsequent love story  which follows sets up the burning question:  what will happen if Aurora finds out that unlike Jim she didn’t awake by accident?

The resolution to this question is both unsatisfying and unbelievable.  PASSENGERS is a good-looking science fiction movie hindered by a muddled storyline.  Plus Lawrence and Pratt share very little chemistry as desperate space lovers.

 

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4. ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY –  while legions of fans call this the best STAR WARS movie ever! I simply found it to be a decent stand alone film in the series.  It starts off slow but gets better with an exciting ending that is one of the best endings of the entire series.

ROGUE ONE is a stand alone film in the series, meaning it’s the first film in the STAR WARS franchise not to be part of a trilogy.  It tells the intriguing story of the daring mission to steal those Death Star plans which would ultimately give Luke Skywalker the ability to destroy the evil Empire’s ultimate weapon way back in the very first STAR WARS (1977).  It’s a good story, but the film struggles to tell it at first, as we are introduced to a bunch of new characters early on with a minimum of character development.  As such, during the film’s first half, I didn’t care for any of these new characters.

Things eventually get better, and the ending is superb.  I really liked Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, but the rest of the cast didn’t really wow me.  Nor did the much hyped CGI-motion capture hybrid of Grand Moff Tarkin, which tried to recreate the late great Peter Cushing in one of his later roles.  Mixed results here, as this Tarkin looks just like Cushing if you imagine him as a cartoon.  I enjoyed STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) better.

 

morgan

3. MORGAN – Little seen and critically panned sci-fi actioner, but I really liked this one.  It’s the story of an artificially intelligent being named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) who kills one of the scientists working with her.  As a result, the company which financed the project to create Morgan sends in an agent Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) to investigate whether or not Morgan needs to be terminated.

The scientists who created and now care for Morgan argue in her favor, even though she killed one of their own.  They believe she has attained life and as such cannot be terminated at the whim of a company.  While the film does explore what it means to be an artificial life form, the story is not on the same level as the deeper and better written EX MACHINA (2015).

But where MORGAN does succeed is as an action thriller.  As such, MORGAN features two strong performances, one by Kate Mara as the driven investigator who will stop at nothing to reach her conclusions, and the other by Anya Taylor-Joy as the introspective and potentially dangerous Morgan.  The climactic fight scene between agent Lee Weathers and Morgan is expertly edited, as intense and violent a fight as you’ll see in an action movie, especially between two women.

 

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2.STAR TREK BEYOND- As a lifelong STAR TREK fan, I’ve enjoyed this rebooted movie series a lot, as it explores an alternate timeline involving the characters from the original STAR TREK series.

This third film in this rebooted series is as enjoyable as the two films which came before it. By far, the best part of these movies is its cast, which continue to do a bang up job at capturing the personas of the original cast from the first STAR TREK TV show.  Chris Pine shines as Captain Kirk, and I thought he played the role a bit more like William Shatner here in this third film than he did in the previous two.

Zachary Quinto continues to nail Mr. Spock by delivering a performance that Leonard Nimoy would no doubt be proud of.  But most impressive is Karl Urban as Doctor McCoy.  He has gotten better with each successive movie, and he was excellent to begin with.  He truly captures what DeForest Kelly did with the character in the original series.  Urban’s performance is uncanny.

 

And now we’ve reached my pick for the best science fiction movie from 2016.  We started with PASSENGERS, which I found slightly less than average, and the next three movies were all solid, flirting with average to better than average.

But my pick for the #1 science fiction movie of the year is the only science fiction film from 2016 that I considered excellent.  It’s a far superior science fiction movie than the other four films in this list.

And that movie is:

 

arrival

1. ARRIVAL – the one true science fiction movie from 2016.  When mysterious space ships suddenly appear all over the Earth, suspended silently above ground like enormous storm clouds, the governments from around the world scramble to decipher what these aliens want.

The U.S. government sends in linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to communicate with the aliens.  Banks not only has to try to learn the aliens’ language, but she also has to figure out a way to teach them ours.

What she, along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) ultimately learn changes the way we think about time and space.

ARRIVAL is fun science fiction movie with a thought-provoking script by Eric Heisserer.  It’s not perfect. I found the ending not quite as satisfying or mind-blowing as the ending to INTERSTELLAR (2014).  But Amy Adams is excellent in the lead role, and the film really belongs to her.

Without much serious competition, ARRIVAL is easily the best science fiction movie I saw in 2016.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

— Michael

 

 

 

 

 

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016) – Threadbare Characters Hinder Visually Exciting Tale

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rogue-one-poster

There’s been more hype surrounding ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY (2016) than a Cantina Band galactic tour.

I have a bad feeling about this.

ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY is the first stand alone STAR WARS movie, which means it’s the first film in the series not to be part of a trilogy.  It tells the intriguing tale of how the rebels stole those Death Star plans which they used to blow up the massive weapon at the end of the original STAR WARS movie.  It also provides information to dispel that old joke about how stupid the Empire must have been to leave so fatal a flaw in their Death Star plans.  We learn in this movie that the flaw was no accident.

Since this is stand alone movie, it is chock full of new characters, and the film spends very little time introducing them, so hold onto your hats.  There are plenty of new faces here.  Here we go:

In the opening moments of ROGUE ONE, we see Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) coerced by main baddie Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to work for the Empire, a coercion that includes the murder of Galen’s wife, and the attempted abduction of his young daughter Jyn, but the girl escapes and is eventually rescued by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).

The action jumps to several  years later where we meet the adult Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), and we find her briefly in a prison cell before she is rescued by the rebel forces.  Back at the rebel base, the rebel leaders are very interested in Jyn’s father, since supposedly he has helped the Empire design and build their new ultimate weapon, the Death Star.

But what the rebels want Jyn to do is find her old friend Saw Gerrera because Saw’s forces have apprehended a pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) who has information vital to the rebellion.  In return for her help, the rebels promise Jyn her freedom.

Leading the mission is pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), but before they leave, we’re privy to Cassian’s private instuctions from the rebel leaders, which is to find and kill their targets, including Jin’s father.  On Saw’s planet, they are assisted by a blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen) who worships the Force and seems to wish he were a Jedi, and his friend Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang).

Once they find Saw, he privately shows Jyn a holographic message from her father where he explains that he purposely built a flaw into the Death Star plans, which if exploited, could destroy the entire weapon.  One explosion in the right place would set off a series of blasts that would destroy the Death Star.

Of course, the rebels don’t trust Jyn’s father and so they don’t believe the message. However, Cassian believes in Jin, and along with a small group of rebels, including K-2SO, Chirrut, Baze, and the rescued pilot Bodhi,  offers to help her seek out and steal those Death Star plans.  They name their ship Rogue One and head off on their own to steal the plans.

I had mixed feelings about ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY.  For me, this movie took forever to get going before ultimately reaching a very satisfying conclusion.  If it were a weather forecast, it would be like a sunny day  without a cloud in the sky before suddenly and quickly becoming very stormy, and before you know it you’re stuck in a full blown deadly hurricane.  ROGUE ONE plays out like that.  For two thirds of this movie, I wasn’t overly impressed, and then just around the time where they name their mission “Rogue One” things pick up and pick up fast.  The last third of this film is really good and goes to some dark places that work very well.  While I wasn’t nuts about the beginning, I liked the ending to this one A LOT.

The biggest problem I had with the beginning was a lack of character development.  We meet a bunch of new characters, but I didn’t feel I knew much of anything about them. I just wasn’t invested in what was going on.  I don’t think the movie did a good job creating these characters at all.  In fact, dare I say it?  But during the first half of this movie, I was kinda bored.  I was enjoying the visual aspects of the film, but the story was putting me to sleep.

But then the ending gets much better and actually forgets that it’s supposed to be a kid-friendly STAR WARS movie and becomes a much more adult story about war, and the film is much better for this switch in tone.

Another thing I didn’t like about ROGUE ONE was its villains.  The main villain here was Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and I wasn’t impressed with him at all.  I found him very dull and boring.

Even the presence of Darth Vader (voiced once again by James Earl Jones and sadly sounding noticeably older) in a few scenes doesn’t really help things all that much.  Of course, the big news here is the return of Grand Moff Tarkin, a combination CGI creation and motion capture performance using actor Guy Henry combined with CGI effects to recreate Peter Cushing’s original appearance from the 1977 movie.

Initial word of mouth had been singing high praises about this effect, but I wasn’t all that impressed, honestly.  Maybe it’s because I’m such a huge Peter Cushing fan.  I mean, Tarkin here certainly resembles Peter Cushing, but he also resembles an animated Peter Cushing.  Plus the voice was wrong.  If you’re going to go to such great lengths to make the character look like Cushing, shouldn’t you go the distance and make him sound like Cushing?  Maybe I’m nitpicking here, but I wasn’t all that impressed by this CGI Tarkin.

I also wasn’t that interested in the power struggle here between Tarkin and Orson Krennic. I couldn’t care less that the two of them didn’t like each other and were vying for superiority over the other.  We already know who’s manning the Death Star in STAR WARS so this storyline did nothing for me.

The performances were fine, but for most of this movie I didn’t really get to know these characters all that well.  I liked Felicity Jones as Jyn, but I don’t think she made as much of an impact as Daisy Ridley did last year as Rey in STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015).  Like the rest of the cast and the entire movie, Jones gets better as the movie goes along.

I could take or leave Diego Luna as Cassian Andor.

I actually enjoyed some of the supporting characters more here.  I enjoyed both Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe and Wen Jiang as Baze Malbus throughout the movie.  I always enjoy Mads Mikkelsen, from TV’s HANNIBAL, and we just saw him as the villain in DOCTOR STRANGE (2016).  I also really enjoyed him as the Bond villain Le Chiffre in the first Daniel Craig Bond film CASINO ROYALE (2006).  Mikkelsen is fine here as  Galen Erson, even if ultimately the role doesn’t allow him to truly showcase his talents.

ROGUE ONE was directed by Gareth Edwards, and I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of his work.  He directed the Bryan Cranston GODZILLA (2014) which I thought was just okay, and he directed MONSTERS (2010) a stylish horror film that in spite of its title didn’t really feature too many monsters.  Edward’s films are always visually interesting, but I find he tends to struggle to tell a story. ROGUE ONE struggled to draw me in, and I wasn’t all that interested until the final third of the movie.

Visually there is a lot to like about ROGUE ONE.  I enjoyed the various worlds we visit, and some of the shots in this film were very cinematic.  I liked the sequence near the end of the film where Jyn and Cassian have to climb the massive tower.  It was suspenseful and visually exciting.

That being said, I saw ROGUE ONE in 3D, and I can’t say that the 3D effects really added all that much to the film.

Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz wrote the screenplay, and it’s OK.  The actual story is very good, and my favorite part just might have been the plot point of Galen Erso purposely building a flaw into the design of the Death Star, which finally explains what had always seemed like a big glaring plot hole in the original STAR WARS.  But the characterizations were weak, and for most of this movie I didn’t feel like I really knew these characters, and that’s not a good thing.

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY is visually pleasing throughout, and while hardcore STAR WARS fans might not mind the threadbare character development during the first half of this movie, it left me feeling cold and disinterested in what was going on, until the end, when things pick up big time for one very exciting and near perfect conclusion that ranks as one of the most memorable STAR WARS endings yet.

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