This Is a Movie Review: Felicity Jones’ Spirited Ruth Bader Ginsburg Portrayal Helps ‘On the Basis of Sex’ Overcome Some Biopic Clichés

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CREDIT: Focus Features

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Cailee Spaeny, Sam Waterston, Stephen Root, Jack Reynor, Kathy Bates

Director: Mimi Leder

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for The Occasionally Offensive Language of the Law

Release Date: December 25, 2018 (Limited)

It is slightly disorienting to have both a documentary and a based-on-true-life narrative film about the same living person open in one year. But for certain subjects, there is value be to had in exploring familiar territory via multiple formats. For someone as influential as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her increased level of media attention has not diluted her potential for cinematic inspiration. On the Basis of Sex, Mimi Leder’s portrait of a young and hungry Ginsburg, wisely focuses on one chapter in her legal journey. And when it missteps, it is not because it retreads the same territory that RBG already covered sufficiently.

The focus is on the 1970 case of Charles Moritz, a never-married bachelor caring for his sick mother who is denied a caregiver tax deduction because at the time it was available only to women, widowers, and divorcees. Ginsburg, who was then a law professor at Rutgers, teams up with the ACLU to take on Martin’s case, and in addition to representing this one man, they set out to demonstrate how so much of the U.S. legal code discriminates (as the title says) “on the basis of sex,” and how that harms both women and men. That could be cinematic overreach, except for the fact that the real Ginsburg has very much committed her career to making the law more equitable.

On the Basis of Sex works best when it focuses on the truths of relationships, and there is plenty of material to be mined within the Ginsburg household. Ruth and her husband Marty (Armie Hammer), here seen as a fast-rising tax lawyer, are equal partners, though not without their disagreements (like any marriage). But what makes their tension bearable, or even admirable, is that it is based on a shared desire to fight for what is right. Ruth’s relationship with her teenage daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny), however, is much more explosive, in the way that mother-daughter relationships often are at that age. You kind of want Jane to cut her mom some slack, because she is Ruth Bader Ginsburg after all. But sometimes kids can be their parents’ toughest critics, sometimes unfairly, sometimes rewardingly, or both in this case. There are a few moments that reek of over-inspirational biopic excess, like Ruth suddenly becoming struck with inspiration in the middle of a rainstorm. But for the most part, On the Basis of Sex knows how to capture the fight for justice and its beating human heart.

On the Basis of Sex is Recommended If You Like: Inspirational clichés, To Kill a Mockingbird, Legally Blonde

Grade: 3 out of 5 Closing Statements

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ Fits As Many Crazy Characters And Genre Twists as Possible Into a Quirky Hotel

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CREDIT: Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally published on News Cult in October 2018.

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth, Nick Offerman

Director: Drew Goddard

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: R for The Violence of Lawmen, Career Criminals, and Desperate People

Release Date: October 12, 2018

Drew Goddard has a thing for surveillance. His directorial debut, The Cabin in the Woods, was all about the pleasure and ritual of watching young people being ripped apart by monsters. That thematic concern was to be expected with Cabin, which deconstructed in one fell swoop all of horror cinema, a genre that more than any other grapples with voyeurism at its core. Bad Times at the El Royale, Goddard’s second film, is by contrast about a group of various strangers converging at one central location. This setup does not by definition invoke surveillance, but it is just as concerned about the watchers and the watched as Cabin is. Thus a series of question is raised: is Goddard watching all of us? Is he sounding the alarm about the nefarious forces that are watching us? Or does he take that nefariousness as a given, and is he then using cinema to process it?

The action becomes quickly pear-shaped at the titular hotel, which straddles the state line between California and Nevada, with their differing liquor and tax laws separated by the two halves of the establishment. It’s a novel premise that keeps you on your toes and alert for other oddities. The El Royale might be off the beaten path and have fallen on hard times, but it seems to serve as a beacon to folks with similarly dual natures. All who are getting ready to spend the night there – a vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a priest (Jeff Bridges), a soul singer (Cynthia Erivo), a rude, mostly silent young woman (Dakota Johnson), and even the concierge (Lewis Pullman) – are much more than they initially appear to be. That is hardly surprising, given how over-the-top or opaque they are when we first meet them. Bad Times does not reinvent the wheel, but it never lets its hands off it.

That maximal level of control is essential to what Goddard is pulling off. Once again, he is in deconstructionist mode. This time he is taking on the subgenre of post-Tarantino, nonlinear crime flicks. Obviously this is much more specific than what Cabin was targeting, but there are still plenty of threads to pull at, and Goddard pulls at all of him. (In a way, this is not so much a deconstruction of Tarantino’s imitators as much as it is a reconstructed better version.) He sets out to examine how each character could have possibly gotten to this point, diving into as much backstory as possible. That formula makes for A WHOLE LOT of movie. What could have been an hour-and-a-half shootout is instead a nearly two-and-a-half-hour dissertation. It is worth consuming it all, but prepared to be exhausted immediately afterwards and to continue to digest it for days, or even weeks, later.

Bad Times at the El Royale is Recommended If You Like: The Hateful Eight, Agatha Christie Mysteries, The Cabin in the Woods, Classic Rock and R&B

Grade: 4 out of 5 Room Keys

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’ Has a Few Interesting Moments Buried Within an Indifferently Presented Spectacle

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CREDIT: Legendary Pictures/Universal Pictures

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

Starring: John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Cailee Spaeny, Charlie Day, Rinko Kikuchi, Burn Gorman, Jing Tian

Director: Steven S. DeKnight

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Kaiju Guts, Tech Sparks, and Human Cuts and Bruises

Release Date: March 23, 2018

Pacific Rim: Uprising does not offer much in the way of a new paradigm in the annals of giant mecha or giant monsters. Honestly, the first Pacific Rim did not really offer that either. To be fair, this series’ purpose in terms of concept and design has never really been about establishing something groundbreaking (to my eyes, anyway). It has been more about the distillation of the gigantic tech and creature genres into something approaching an ideal form. That approach is all well and good as an academic exercise, but it does not have enough inherent oomph to ensure a fully entertaining feature-length film.

It is ten years since humans won the war against the interdimensional beings known as the Kaiju. There has been no hint of another breach by these creatures into Earth, but the training programs designed to fight against them are still operating. There is a weird mix between a sense of security that the threat has been permanently neutralized and an ever-present emphasis on defense. This seeming paradox is never commented upon, which gives the sense that this film has an ill-defined understanding of its own world. But it doesn’t really matter, because sure enough the Kaiju do return, and it is a good thing that the Jaeger program never folded.

The Jaegers were the one great concept of the first Pacific Rim, but in Uprising, their usage is rather perfunctory. As the mental stress is so great, these metallic war machines must be simultaneously operated by two pilots. They are neurally connected to each other, creating a partnership so intimate that they share not just responsibilities but memories and physiology as well, for a connection that lies somewhere between artificial and chemical. The main partnership this time is that between Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), the son of a hero from the first film who gets his personality across mostly through his ice cream eating habits, and Amara (Cailee Spaeny), who gets cool points for building her own Jaeger but mostly comes across as the thinnest of archetypes. These two have only one notable memory-sharing moment, and it registers as little more than just hitting a necessary story beat.

The PR:U trailers position Boyega as the star, and while he does lead the way in screen time, the only notable degree of star power among the cast comes from Charlie Day, returning as the eccentric Dr. Newt Geiszler. He is emblematic of how this film has no idea what to do with its best assets. Newt has been in a bit of a mind-meld relationship with a Kaiju specimen, which might just have something to do with why they have returned. So to a certain extent, he is the main villain this time around. But inexplicably, he spends the entire climax just overlooking the action and not participating in it at all. This is a film that has its toys lined up but little in the way of a plan (or an interesting plan, that is) for how to deploy them.

Pacific Rim: Uprising is Recommended If You Like: Kaiju Fever, John Boyega Making Himself a Sundae, Charlie Day Given Plenty of Space (But Not Enough) to Go Crazy

Grade: 2 out of 5 Kaiju Wives