ON THE BASIS OF SEX (2018)

December 22, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Earlier this year, the documentary RBG (co-directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West) was a film festival and box office hit, helping turn 85 year old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg into a celebrity and cult icon, complete with best-selling “Notorious RBG” t-shirts and her own action figure. That documentary allowed us the rare opportunity to hear directly from a currently sitting Justice, and just about every viewer came away in awe – regardless of one’s political affiliations. Now, a few months later, we get the story of her younger years in a (loving) script written by Ms. Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Steipleman.

The film opens with a lone woman in a dress engulfed by a sea of young men in conservative business suits marching up the steps on day one of Harvard Law School in 1956. Inside the oak paneled hall, the school’s dean, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) discusses what it means to be a ‘Harvard man’ and how this is only the sixth year women have been admitted. As he speaks, young Ruth (Felicity Jones) glances around the room at the (only) 8 other female students. At a later reception for the females, Dean Griswold asks each to stand and explain why they are worthy of taking a man’s spot in the class. It’s our first (not last) example of the sexism obstacles of the time – much different than those of today, where women procure more higher education slots than men.

By this time, Ruth and Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) are both Columbia graduates, have been married for a couple of years, and are raising their first child, Jane. When Marty is diagnosed with testicular cancer, Ruth covers his classes and hers, is mother to young Jane, and also caregiver to a recovering Marty. Of course, her husband recovers and goes on to be a highly successful tax attorney on Wall Street, and their marriage continues until his death in 2010.

But this is Ruth’s story, and her strength is on display. As uplifting as it is to see that Marty was an immensely supportive husband, it’s deflating to see how a brilliant woman – number one in her class – is so disrespected during this era that she can’t even find a job at a law firm. For one committed to doing, Ruth accepts a job teaching instead. Her time as a professor at Columbia is spent encouraging students to explore the inequities of the law when it comes to men and women. In fact, it’s 1970 when Ruth and Marty work their only case together. A Colorado man, Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), is denied a tax deduction for the caregiver expenses in caring for his sick mother. By law, the deduction is only allowed for female caregivers, and this gives Ruth her first taste of ‘doing’.

It’s at this point, where Kathy Bates appears as civil liberties lawyer Dorothy Kenyon, and Justin Theroux as Mel Wulf, the ACLU Legal Director. Adding spice to Ruth’s and Marty’s life is their teenage daughter Jane (a very good Cailee Spaeny) who is quite headstrong in her own beliefs. The scenes in the Appellate Court are the film’s best, as is the Moot Court sequence – though we do wish more time had been devoted to the prep work and details for the court arguments.

Director Mimi Leder is known mostly for her TV work, and she delivers the story of an amazing woman in an easily accessible manner for mass audiences. It’s an approach that will hopefully allow many young people (yes, especially women) to gain a better understanding of what this woman went through and fought for during the decades before she became the second woman to serve on the US Supreme Court.  Two takeaways here are that Ruth Ginsburg is a superhero and pioneer of social change, and also that a marriage of equal partners carries great power. Her cameo as the film’s final shot, leaves no doubt that RBG is no longer concerned about which dress will make her look like a “Harvard man”.

watch the trailer:

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MISS SLOANE (2016)

December 8, 2016

miss-sloane Greetings again from the darkness. Timing can be crucial for a film attempting to capitalize on a hot social or political topic or event. One gets the feeling that the filmmakers were excited to open this film on the heels of a Hillary Clinton victory … a story about a powerful woman, laser-focused on her mission to push through gun-control legislation. With an unexpected election outcome, director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and first time screenwriter Jonathan Perera may just luck out since their film can alternatively be interpreted as a scathing commentary on a corrupt existing system … the single biggest reason for that surprise election result.

By now we have become accustomed to stellar performances from two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty). Here she plays super-lobbyist Elizabeth Sloane – always impeccably dressed while spouting the voluminous dialogue and quick quips that make up this workaholic, dedicated-only-to-winning viper who rules the snake pit known as politics. When her big firm boss (Sam Waterston) tries to strong arm her into working with the NRA to quash the proposed gun-control legislation … encouraging her to ‘get women excited about guns’ … she quickly takes her competitive nature (and most of her staff) to the opposition, resulting in escalated political warfare.

Much of this plays like an Aaron Sorkin spin-off, but it’s surprising how few movies have focused on the fascinating world of lobbyists. Thank You for Smoking (2005) and Casino Jack (2010) are probably the most widely seen, but it’s Michael Clayton (2007) that seems to have the most in common tonally with this look at ethics (or lack thereof), conniving strategy, and backroom maneuverings.

Ms. Chastain owns the film and the role, and there is strong supporting work from Mark Strong (as her new boss), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (making the most of a few scenes), John Lithgow (as the Senator running the Congressional hearing), Michael Stuhlbarg (as a worthy adversary), Jake Lacy (as Sloane’s only diversion), Alison Pill (her assistant), Dylan Baker (a talk show host), and David Wilson Barnes (her attorney). It’s an impressive group that adds substance to the project.

Do the ends justify the means? Is anyone as ambitious and adept at political games as Elizabeth Sloane? Are ethics really this compromised in the world that creates our laws and policies? However you choose to answer those questions, a look at the misplaced priorities of our elected officials … and the influence of powerful lobbyists … are absolutely worthy of our attention, and undoubtedly contributed to the biggest election surprise in recent memory.

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ANESTHESIA (2016)

January 7, 2016

anesthesia Greetings again from the darkness. The comparisons to Crash, the 2006 Oscar winner for Best Picture, will be numerous and understandable. However, rather than an expose’ on racial tension, writer/director/actor Tim Blake Nelson turns his pen and lens towards the somewhat less profound, though still fruitful subject matter of suburban angst amidst the educated elite.

An opening featuring a violent mugging on the stoop of a NYC brownstone grabs our attention quickly, and rather than follow the immediate aftermath, we are instead taken back in time to study the characters and events leading to that tragic moment. The tangled web of intertwined stories is made up of no fewer than fifteen different characters, each of whom is impacted by what happens in that opening sequence.

Sam Waterston plays a beloved Columbia University Philosophy Professor who is exceedingly happily married to Glenn Close. Director Tim Blake Nelson plays their son, who is married to Jessica Hecht, and together they have a teenage son and daughter (Ben Konigsberg, Hannah Marks). Michael K Williams plays a big shot attorney who forces his best friend (K Todd Freeman) into drug rehab with a renowned doctor (Yul Vazquez), while Gretchen Mol plays the mother of two daughters and wife of Corey Stoll.

All of the above might seem simple enough, but Mr. Nelson’s script jumbles things up for each character … just like what happens in real life. Waterston discovers that his prized pupil (Kristen Stewart) has psychological issues and needs professional help – just as he decides it’s time to retire from teaching. While their kids are smoking pot and exploring sexual frontiers, Hecht and Nelson are dealing with a medical dilemma. During his rehab, Freeman is quietly confronted by a nurse while being let down by his only friend; and as Ms. Mol turns to the bottle to numb her daily pain, her hubby is making plans with someone else (Mickey Sumner) … and China may or may not play a role. Whew!!

Daily life creates many opportunities. Some of these turn out good, while others seem destined to create pain. It’s that pain … sometimes quite arbitrary … and how we deal with it, which is at the core of these characters and their stories. There is also the always-present quest for truth and search for the meaning of life. We know we are in for a ride when Waterston’s character says “I used to believe in nothing. Now I believe in everything.” Worlds colliding at every turn keep the pace of the film brisk, and the familiar cast of actors allows us to easily accept each of the characters. A bit more polish on the script could have elevated this, but even as is, the film delivers a worthy punch, and has us questioning if we should be “planting cabbages” (Montaigne).

watch the trailer: