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

SNL Review January 14, 2017: Felicity Jones/Sturgill Simpson

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SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE -- "Felicity Jones" Episode 1715 -- Pictured: (l-r) Felicity Jones, Beck Bennett, and Kyle Mooney during the Movie Interview sketch on January 14th, 2017 -- (Photo by: Will Heath/NBC)

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE — “Felicity Jones” Episode 1715 — Pictured: (l-r) Felicity Jones, Beck Bennett, and Kyle Mooney during the Movie Interview sketch on January 14th, 2017 — (Photo by: Will Heath/NBC)

This review was originally posted on News Cult in January 2017.

Love It

Fandango All Access – I believe we have had other examples of trenchant boob-based humor in the past, but never before has this type of material been performed with the idiosyncratic conviction of a Beck Bennett/Kyle Mooney joint. One caveat to my praise, though: I feel like they are holding back on us a bit. If the sketch were just scenes from Hot Robot 3: Journey to Boob Mountain, instead of a discussion about it, I think this could reach the raucous, surreal heights of this crew’s sitcom parodies. As it is, the steely commitment to the patent ridiculousness from everyone in this sketch is still plainly stunning.

Beck Bennett’s turn as a pop sensation feels like a half-baked idea. Or maybe it was fully thought out, and the concept is that it is meant to seem half-baked? Either way, he’s adorable.


This Is a Movie Review: A Monster Calls

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A MONSTER CALLS (2016) Conor (Lewis MacDougall) and The Monster (performed and voiced by Liam Neeson)

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Sigourney Weaver, Liam Neeson, Toby Kebbell

Director: J.A. Bayona

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Not Watering Down the Rough Patches in Life

Release Date: December 23, 2016 (Limited), Expands Nationwide January 6, 2017

In the fantasy/domestic drama A Monster Calls, adolescent Conor O’Malley (Lewis McDougal) must deal with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) terminal illness, his grandmother’s (Sigourney Weaver) overbearing presence, a classmate’s (James Melville) frequent torments, and the geographical distance from his father (Toby Kebbell). In the midst of all this arises a humanoid tree visitor (voiced by Liam Neeson) from the cemetery by his house. Is this monster a friend offering relief, or a foe busting in with more troubles? Hard to say. What he does have are stories, but their meanings are either difficult to parse or not as comforting as Conor would like.

A Monster Calls is admirably challenging for a film ostensibly aimed at family audiences. The laws of nature are likely to make the life of any teenage boy turbulent, and that difficulty is piled on via his parents’ separation, mother’s closeness to death, and the oppressive dreariness of England. A more typical “fantasy creature meets boy” story would position the monster as protector or companion, but for Conor the Liam Neeson Tree is mostly a source of frustration, which he internalizes and takes out on those around him – destroying a room at his grandmother’s in a fit of rage, getting back at the bully – and the consequences are confoundingly minimal. Conor expects to be punished, but life does not always make sense.

Making A Monster Calls difficult to embrace fully are the unpleasant sound effects that accompany every movement of the tree monster. They are, in a word, oppressive. Perhaps they are meant to illustrate the lack of comfort inherent in Conor’s story, but that strikes me as a step too far.

A Monster Calls is Recommended If You LikeThe BFG, The Mother-Son Relationship from The Babadook, Kid Actors with Fiery Emotions

Grade: 3 out of 5 Snapping Tree Branches