Movie Review ~ On the Basis of Sex


The Facts
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Synopsis: The story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her struggles for equal rights, and what she had to overcome in order to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Stars: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Sam Waterston, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Jack Reynor

Director: Mimi Leder

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  It seems that the ‘80s and ‘90s were the great heyday of the inspirational biopic.  These films all followed a similar formula, charting the genesis of a famous figure from history through key points in their lives.  Rarely did they tell us things that couldn’t be found by picking up a book written on the subject but there was a certain gauzy quaintness to them that felt comforting.  Actors taking on these famous names often were showered with awards (it’s largely where the term Oscar-bait came from) but when the blueprint became passé, filmmakers had to find new angles in their storytelling. Aside from a few brief flashes (Get on Up, for example) the old-school biopic machine has been shut-down.

I’d love to be able to report that On the Basis of Sex, found an interesting way to bring Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s story to the big screen but it’s stuck conforming to the mold of a straightforward retelling of specific moments in the history of a pioneering woman in the legal system.  Though it wisely narrows its focus to a dozen or so years in her early career, it still misses the mark in letting us see deeper into how the Brooklyn-born Ginsburg laid the early groundwork for a career that would see her elected to the Supreme Court and become an unlikely cultural icon.

Entering Harvard Law School in 1956 along with eight other women, Ruth (Felcity Jones, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) recognizes she has an uphill battle from the beginning when the Dean of students (Sam Waterston, Miss Sloane) asks her at a formal dinner why she feels she deserved a spot at the respected school that could have been taken by a man.  It’s the first of many misogynistic situations she’ll encounter throughout the ensuing decades as she attempts to join a law firm but barely can get in the door simply because she’s a woman.  Supported by her husband Martin (Armie Hammer, Call Me By Your Name) in every endeavor, Ruth accepts a position as a professor of law at Rutgers and it’s there in 1970 when she comes across a case that will change the course of her career.

Working with the ACLU to combat a sex discrimination case against a man in Denver, CO, Ruth sees this as an opportunity to address the larger issue of numerous laws that are set-up to discriminate against women.  If she can prove that the man was discriminated against, it would help to put into record a new precedent that could be used to rewrite other laws that do not support the equality of women.  Though dogged at every step by the defense attorneys (Stephen Root, Life of the Party and Jack Reynor, Transformers: Age of Extinction) and even at times by her own friend within the ACLU (Justin Theroux, Bumblebee), Ruth soldiers on with the knowledge that the goal of impartiality between the sexes is worthy of the struggle.  Kathy Bates (The Boss) cameos in two scenes as famed lawyer Dorothy Kenyon – I would have liked to see her one more time.

I’m sure it was a benefit to the validity of the facts of the film knowing that On the Basis of Sex was written by Ruth’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman (and that she approved of the finished product will likely make future family gatherings tension-free) but one wonders what someone with less close ties to Ginsburg could have done with the material.  Ruth certainly isn’t shown without flaws but there’s an emotional guardedness to the movie that was unexpected.  I never quite warmed to any of the characters, even when they were supposedly giving inspirational speeches that were meant to elicit cheers.  The most impactful moment of the movie is it’s final shot (which I won’t spoil) but there needed to be more of these moments sprinkled along the way.

Originally set to star Natalie Portman as RBG, when the project took too long to get off the ground she departed and Oscar-nominee Jones joined the cast.  I liked her portrayal of RBG for the most part though the performance ultimately suffers from that aforementioned walled-off emotion the script doesn’t seem to want to grant any of the characters.  Her accent is a bit half-baked and she doesn’t quite look like RBG but it’s close enough to do the trick.  After playing the supportive wife in The Theory of Everything, it was nice to see the roles flipped and for her to have someone in her corner while she charted her own course.  Hammer is always a tad on the milquetoast side but this is the rare time when that passive quietness works in his favor.

Director Mimi Leder has put forth a well-executed period film that is technically sound and hums along nicely for two hours.  The audience I saw this with broke out into huge applause at the end and I saw some wiping away tears as we left so clearly it’s landed emotionally the way everyone had intended.  If I’m being honest, it lost me in some of the legal jargon at times, especially in the third act and I wish more time was spent on Ruth’s life between graduating Harvard and taking up her landmark case.  However, it’s clear there was only so much story to tell and Stiepleman was attentive to what he felt were the important details.  Those looking for a bigger picture view of the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (myself included) will likely want to check out the documentary RBG that was also released this year.

Movie Review ~ The Boss

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A titan of industry is sent to prison after she’s caught for insider trading. When she emerges ready to rebrand herself as America’s latest sweetheart, not everyone she screwed over is so quick to forgive and forget.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Bell, Peter Dinklage, Kathy Bates, Ella Anderson, Tyler Labine, Cecily Strong, Timothy Simons

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I think I’ve finally figured out what makes a Melissa McCarthy movie good…humanity. After grimacing through The Heat and fighting the urge to flee from Tammy, I started coming around to McCarthy again in 2015’s Spy. Now comes The Boss and though early previews were, I admit, fairly entertaining with some laughs on a level that few trailers can drum up, I was still mighty suspicious. McCarthy was re-teaming with her husband, Ben Falcone, who would direct her in a film from a script the two of them wrote with Steve Mallory. Could it be another Tammy waiting to happen?

Thankfully, it’s not and it’s largely because, like Spy, McCarthy’s isn’t playing a dim-wit monster that growls and gnaws her way through the film. No, she’s playing an actual human being that’s drawn with some fairly nuanced broad strokes. Though it’s far from being the kind of solid material that earned her an Oscar nomination in Bridesmaids, The Boss finds McCarthy continuing her ascent into figuring out what kind of roles she not only succeeds with, but that audiences respond favorably to. As in Tammy, she’s playing a fairly irksome character, but it’s one grounded in a kind of savvy reality that Tammy never could capture.

Abandoned at birth and by several adoptive families along the way, Michelle Darnell (McCarthy) has risen to the top as a motivational guru that prides herself on empowering women to take what they want without apologizing for it. Her past disappointments in people have kept her cold though, and she’s brazenly rough with anyone that tries to get close. Her long-suffering assistant Claire (Kristen Bell, Frozen) is tired of her antics but as a single mom she needs the job, no matter how frustrating her employer is.

When an old-flame now business rival of Michelle’s (Peter Dinklage, Pixels) turns her over to the government for insider trading, Michelle loses everything as she spends six months in jail for her crimes. After she gets out, she moves-in with Claire and her young daughter Rachel (Ella Anderson) and before long has started her own empire to rival a Girl Scout-like troupe.

Performance wise, as I said before McCarthy resists the urge to snarl her way through the movie in favor of showing that Darnell’s nastiness comes from a place of personal protection…if she makes sure people know she doesn’t give two hoots, then they can’t hurt her.  As is typical, McCarthy isn’t afraid to throw herself into the physical comedy bits, which means that Darnell trips and crashes down stairs, gets tossed into a wall by a sleeper sofa, and brawls with a gaggle of young girls and their mothers.

Bell does exasperated well and plays nicely as second banana and straight woman to McCarthy.  The actresses have a nice rapport and during the gag reel at the end of the movie they seem like they genuinely like each other as well.  There’s nice supporting turns from Anderson as one of the rare child actors that can actually act without being obnoxiously precocious and Tyler Labine (Monsters University) makes for a nice romantic interest for Bell, though the film really doesn’t need the extra distraction.  Kathy Bates (Titanic) shared the best scene with McCarthy in Tammy and parlays that into a brief but memorable cameo as a former mentor of Darnell’s. I feel like there was more of Bates performance left on the cutting room floor, but I guess we’ll have to wait for some deleted scenes to see if it was wise to excise them.

I’m going to go on record now and say that I do not now and have not ever liked Dinklage.  His mock seriousness only goes so far and while I gave him some slack in Pixels, he’s easily the worst thing about The Boss.  Playing a mix of Derek Zoolander and Dr. Evil, Dinklage is in a totally different movie and doesn’t seem to care. Seeing the impish Dinklage fawning over the large and in charge McCarthy is more of a sight gag than anything else and it’s one that wears off almost immediately.

Though the film doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, it could be 15 minutes shorter and exist as a much tighter comedy…but too often McCarthy, Falcone, and Mallory don’t know when to quit or cut as gags go on too long and some conflated dramatic tension is introduced for no real reason other than because the Screenwriting 101 book must have said so. When the film hits its target, it’s a solid bullseye for laughs but when it misses it’s mark it starts to be the worst thing a comedy can be…boring.

The Boss isn’t as fun as Spy but it does have its moments where the time spent feels worth it. If anything, it shows that McCarthy is capable of writing herself a character that’s from planet earth.  It’s silly entertainment…but it’s entertainment all the same.

The Silver Bullet ~ Boychoir

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Synopsis: Completely out of his element, a young boy finds himself in a battle of wills with a demanding Choir Master who recognizes a unique talent as he pushes him to discover his creative heart and soul in music.

Release Date:  TBD 2015

Thoughts: Coming so close on the heels of the well-received Whiplash, I can’t help but think that Boychoir looks like a mixture of that awards-lauded film and Mr. Holland’s Opus, the saccharine hit from 1995.  Now, with a cast that includes Oscar winners Dustin Hoffman (director of Quartet) and Kathy Bates (Tammy) (not to mention a rare screen appearance by Terms of Endearment Oscar nominee Debra Winger) I’m not going to dismiss this one outright because I love a good inspirational story as much as the next slow-Rudy-clapping guy in the seat behind me.  Still, I feel like I already know where this one is headed and can predict that though Boychoir’s tune may be pleasant, it won’t be stuck in my head for days to come.

Movie Review ~ Tammy

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After losing her job and learning that her husband has been unfaithful, a woman hits the road with her profane, hard-drinking grandmother.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Allison Janney, Gary Cole, Mark Duplass, Toni Collette, Nat Faxon, Dan Aykroyd, Kathy Bates, Sandra Oh

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (0/10)

Review: There’s a special place in cinema hell for movies like Tammy. Movies so bad, so rancidly unfunny that shelf space has been reserved for them in the fiery pit right next to most Adam Sandler films, Xanadu, Exit to Eden, Cool as Ice, This is 40, and Nacho Libre. What earns Tammy higher honors than most is how it squanders every single thing it has going for it: a popular (if fatally misused) lead, a stellar cast of gifted comedy veterans and/or Oscar winners, and a prime summer spot from a top studio. Yet it’s all for naught as the movie starts off bad and only gets worse over the next punishing 90 minutes.

It’s way past April Fool’s Day but go ahead and send your worst enemy to see Tammy anyway, preferably at an evening show where they’ll shell out nearly $20 to suffer through the unbalanced comedic misery. For you see, Tammy is the awful gift that keeps on giving; never once taking into consideration that it has no laughs, no likable characters, and is as unpleasant as a Silkwood shower after a bad sunburn.

The movie is downright uncomfortable from the get go as it opens on an unkempt Melissa McCarthy driving to work while stuffing potato chips into her mouth and then running over a deer that she then tries to resuscitate. Bloody and covered in animal mess, Tammy eventually shows up to work where her boss (Ben Falcone, Enough Said, McCarthy’s true partner in film crime seeing that he’s not only her husband but the co-writer and director) promptly fires her. Before you can say “It can’t get worse, can it?” it does when Tammy arrives home to find her husband (Nat Faxon, The Way Way Back) having a romantic dinner with a neighbor (Toni Collette, Muriel’s Wedding). Faxon and Collette’s few scenes are so under rehearsed and awkward that my only conclusion is that they must have been visiting the set for the day and did this under duress or as a favor.

With no job and no husband, Tammy walks a few paces down the block to her parents’ house where she has a brief encounter with her unsympathetic mom (Allison Janney, Bad Words, only 11 years older than McCarthy) before heading off on a sorta road trip with her boozy grandmother (Susan Sarandon, Cloud Atlas, 13 years older than Janney). Sarandon was a last minute replacement for Shirley MacLaine and evidently no one bothered to redesign any costumes or wigs because Sarandon looks positively awful…and younger than Janney. With no old age make-up to be seen and the kind of grey mop of a crazy cat lady wig usually reserved for a haunted house, Sarandon may be the least convincing old person ever seen on screen. The Oscar winner is usually pretty game for anything but McCarthy and Falcone’s script is so unfocused that she’s never afforded the opportunity to really make something of her aging alcoholic granny.

No, instead of trying to instill some life into the tired old road trip formula, McCarthy and Falcone manage to find new ways to make traveling cross country boring as hell. The problem is that McCarthy keeps attempting to beat everyone to a certain punchline…and in doing so winds up making it worse for herself. Instead of this being the kind of R-rated female-driven raunch fest that’s made a comeback in the last several years, it’s a painfully dull series of scenes featuring McCarthy’s buffoonish and grating style of comedy. Where is the winning sincerity that made her an overnight star (and an unlikely but deserving Oscar nominee) in Bridesmaids? Instead of continuing on that route of using her comedic skills for good, she’s been wasting her gifts in garbage like Identity Thief, The Heat, and cameos (This is 40, The Hangover Part III) meant to be funny that come off as irritating.

Everything about McCarthy’s performance seems familiar…mostly because it’s just a rehash of the simpleton characters she’s played onscreen and in increasingly slack appearances as host of Saturday Night Live. There was a time when I thought McCarthy had it all in the bag, but it’s becoming crystal clear that she’s a comic with limited longevity even though her off screen persona suggests someone you want to have an 80s style sleepover with. McCarthy (and the audience) deserves better than this…but as the co-writer and producer of Tammy she can’t blame anyone but herself.

The one redeeming piece of Tammy is a heart to heart scene between McCarthy and Kathy Bates (Titanic, playing a wise old lesbian) that, though remarkably genuine, comes too late in the game to change my overall feeling toward the picture. The scene offered a glimmer of the poignant comedy I think McCarthy may have at one time been aiming for but it’s gone in a flash in favor of more inane dialogue and slapdash film-making.

Truly terrible, Tammy is another nail in McCarthy’s career coffin she appears to be more than happy to be lying in. It’s the kind of film where you sink lower and lower in your seat the more banal it becomes. The audience I saw the film with started off laughing heartily but soon trailed off into sparse uncomfortable titters as everyone became aware just how rotten it all was. I can’t imagine I’ll see a worse film in 2014 and think that anyone that makes it to the end deserves some sort of certificate of achievement. Avoid at all possible costs (but do take my advice and send your nemesis to a midnight screening).

The Silver Bullet ~ Tammy

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Synopsis: After losing her job and learning that her husband has been unfaithful, a woman hits the road with her profane, hard-drinking grandmother.

Release Date:  July 2, 2014

Thoughts: Ok…let me just say something that no one seems really willing to say: Melissa McCarthy has not delivered on the promise put forth in her rightfully praised breakthrough (and Oscar nominated) performance in Bridesmaids.  She just hasn’t.  She hasn’t.  You can disagree all you want but having watched McCarthy rehash the same character in films like Identity Thief, This is 40, The Hangover Part III, and The Heat not to mention her last severely awful hosting gig at Saturday Night Live I’m just not on her bandwagon anymore.  Like The Heat, this first trailer for Tammy has zero laughs, finding McCarthy pulling the same shtick we’ve seen her do countless times.  That’s depressing considering the impressive roster of actors involved with the movie like Susan Sarandon (Jeff, Who Lives at Home), Dan Aykroyd (This is My Life), Kathy Bates (Titanic: 3D), and Allison Janney (The Way Way Back).  I’m actually dreading this movie.

In Praise of Teasers ~ Misery (1990)

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I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately.  It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtely of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it alot.  So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them.  Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.


Misery (1990)

My dad was cool for many reasons, not the least of which was that he’d gladly take me to most any film as long as I’d steal, ahem, BORROW the salt from the concession stand so he wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the movie for a light re-dusting of his popcorn.  I vividly remember seeing Misery at Centennial Lakes 8 in Bloomington on a Wednesday evening and even as a 10 year old I knew it was the blackest of black comedies.

While a later trailer fell into the trap of providing perhaps too many details, this ultra brief teaser for Misery, like the teaser poster, gives you precious little information about the movie itself and instead focuses on the people behind the scenes.  Those familiar with Stephen King’s novel knew the dark tale of an obsessed fan imprisoning her favorite bestselling author would provide the thrills, but who could have predicted that Kathy Bates (Titanic) would win an Oscar for her role as a benign caregiver that slowly shows how unhinged she can become when crossed.  Don’t forget the important work of James Caan or director Rob Reiner (The Magic of Belle Isle) either…

Miss yesterday?  Check out my look at the teaser for Alien!