Review: On the Basis of Sex

On the Basis of Sex.

This feels like a no-brainer for award season, so something felt off when there was no rumbling for On the Basis of Sex in the run up to the Golden Globes and early Oscar talk. This wasn’t a great sign, so when the movie finally went wide-release, I had to see for myself why this movie wasn’t making waves.

The gist.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Felicity Jones) finds herself in the Harvard Law program, surrounded by men. She must fight to make herself seen, while her husband (Armie Hammer) gets through the program much easier. This movie follows Ruth’s journey through her first landmark case of sex discrimination, as she teams up with the ACLU (spearheaded by Justin Theroux) and must fight against former professors including Sam Waterston and Stephen Root. Her daughter (Cailee Spaeny) protests in the streets, while Ruth tries to make a difference in the courtroom.

What works?

The story of Ruth Bader Ginsberg is an interesting one and undoubtedly would make for a great movie, though it’s questionable if this is that movie. Felicity Jones does her best here, though it quickly becomes apparent why she wasn’t up for award consideration. She’s great but she’s not doing anything special here, she’s just playing a woman. It’s hard to compete against other actresses who are playing a character so different from themselves. Jones feels like herself, with a slight American accent.

She has a great chemistry, and kind of rivalry, with her on-screen husband Armie Hammer. Together they are fighting inequality but there’s some nuance to the fact that her fight is much tougher than his, as he’s able to make headway much quicker in some of these instances. Hammer does a great job, though again… seems just like himself.

The best part of the final is the climax, the most interesting and most engaging 15 minutes of the film. We also get one of the most impactful final shots of a biography that I have seen ever, something that I don’t think has ever been done. You’ll have to see it to understand.

What doesn’t work?

Like I said above, while Jones and Hammer do a serviceable job, they ultimately don’t get much to do. Playing Ruth Bader Ginsberg doesn’t stretch any new muscles for Felicity Jones, it’s just a slight accent.

The other big problem lies with the script. Our entire story here revolves around one of the first cases to eliminate gender discrimination in a very specific way. And that’s it. We get a few lines of text that explain how Ruth Bader Ginsberg then went on to make a huge difference and get elected to the Supreme Court. We don’t see it, it’s an afterthought. Looking back, while this first case was pivotal, it might’ve been more effective to showcase a variety of cases throughout her career, culminating in something major. It feels rather uneventful, since it’s a relatively small case, even though it had massive repercussions.

Since the movie’s main court case is rather small, it feels a little slow throughout. We focus on minuscule parts of the proceedings that don’t really engage the viewer, leaving you a bit bored throughout. This is why I wish the movie zoomed out and covered a variety of cases throughout her life, that might have been a more interesting route.

Overall…

On the Basis of Sex is a fine film but suffers from zooming in and focusing on a part of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s life that unfortunately wasn’t too exciting to watch unfold. Both Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer do their best with the script but it’s ultimately a slow and boring journey. A true story of her life might’ve had the benefit of a faster pace and some more heightened moments to focus on. As it stands, this is a fairly unengaging biography.

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Review: The Upside

The Upside.

This film is a remake apparently of a 2011 French film called The Intouchables, which I have never seen or even heard of until now. I had no idea this film was a remake as I sat in the theater waiting for it to start. But here’s the problem. That film seems to be a massive success, so this movie is getting trashed because it comes off as a money grab. The Upside on IMDB has a 3.9/10 rating, purely for the fact that it should not have been made.

I’m going to be real with you. Most people won’t watch the French version, that’s why this was made. And I’m going to review this without the knowledge that it’s based on a (seemingly) great foreign film. So… what did I think?

The gist.

Dell (Kevin Hart) is on parole and must find a job. His wife (Aja Naomi King) and son (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) won’t speak to him because he’s unreliable and behind on child support. He’s having a rough go when he arrives at a job interview to become a “life auxiliary,” to take care of a man named Phillip (Bryan Cranston) who is a quadriplegic in need of assistance. Dell must learn how to take care of him and both of them learn some much-needed lessons. Phillip’s executive assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) doesn’t like Dell and thinks he’s unsuitable for the job, so the two have a bit of a rivalry when it comes to what’s best for Phillip.

What works?

I had an absolute blast here and this movie is surprising that it’s releasing in January, usually the home of horrible films.

Kevin Hart is the best we’ve ever seen. He manages to deliver one of his most sincere performances, as well as also one of his funniest. He didn’t need to resort to his wild antics though, he delivered authentic comedy that had me laughing from start to finish. It’s his finest performance, probably ever.

And he’s paired up with Bryan Cranston, who we expect to deliver a great performance, which he does. To be able to elicit this sort of emotion while only moving his neck and through speaking, it’s quite a feat. The pair of actors together have an incredible chemistry and they perfectly play off each other.

The miracle third ingredient is Nicole Kidman, who is having an incredible resurgence. While she is much more of a supporting role here, she is the glue that holds these two together. She offers subtlety and nuance that might fly under the radar when you notice what she’s doing, it’s actually quite incredible.

As a whole, this movie manages to walk a balance that is often tricky to nail. It’s got some big emotional punches and some real heart to it, yet it also had me laughing nonstop. While it’s getting backlash for being an unnecessary remake, I would say this is a pretty exceptional film on its own.

What doesn’t work?

Looking back, I very little to complain about. I’d say the only thing that didn’t really work was the ending of the film, which felt a little abrupt, considering the chain of events leading up to it. I was hoping for a “here’s the real people” sort of montage that we see with most true story films, but we didn’t get that.

Overall…

Ignore the low scores you might see elsewhere and consider giving this a chance. Kevin Hart delivers his best performance ever, simultaneously delivering a dramatic and comedic performance that really surprises. And we get great performances from Cranston and Kidman, though that’s totally expected. If you want something uplifting, something interesting, and something definitely funny, check out The Upside.

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Review: The Wife

The Wife.

I hadn’t heard of The Wife until Glenn Close’s nomination for the Golden Globes. So I checked this out, to see if it was something special.

The gist.

We follow Joan Castleman (Glenn Close), the wife of a well-established author. Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) begins the movie by receiving a call announcing that he’s won the Nobel Prize for Literature. So the two of them head to Sweden for the ceremony, along with their son David (Max Irons) and followed by a tenacious biographer Nathanial (Christian Slater).

The movie takes place over only a few days, as the true history that these two share is unveiled and their marriage begins to unravel.

What works?

Glenn Close is the anchor of this film and she delivers a performance that absolutely earns her the Best Actress accolade from the Golden Globes (and maybe even from the Academy). Her transition here is subtle, from subservient and dutiful wife to a place of independence and empowerment. I don’t want to spoil how this plays out, but she gets many chances to shine and she carries this entire picture.

She’s supported by some exceptional talent as well. Jonathan Pryce doesn’t display the range of emotions that Close showcases, but he still portrays his role exceptionally well. He’s blissfully ignorant of his wife’s plight and dissatisfaction.

I found the mystery at the core of this movie, why everything unravels, to be interesting as well. You get some clues and hints until it finally hits you as to what’s happening. It’s a very satisfying journey, to say the least.

What doesn’t work?

The pacing here is a bit slow, made even more noticeable about the abundant silence throughout the film. It’s a crawl, slow and heavy. There are also some supporting characters that don’t really fit this level of film, most noticeably their son in the film played by Max Irons and a photographer who follows Pryce’s character. These two feel especially amateur when placed alongside some of these heavyweights.

Overall…

While Glenn Close delivers the performance of a lifetime, this movie isn’t perfect. For every great performance, there’s someone maybe a tad miscast. The pacing is slow, but the mystery is worthwhile if you can really get into it. This is worth seeing for her performance alone but I understand how this movie came and went with very little notice, it definitely wasn’t made for mainstream audiences.

 

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Top 10 Films of 2018

Top 10 Films of 2018.

As 2018 comes to a finish, I’ve reviewed 79 films this year and now it’s time to narrow that down to a manageable list of the ten movies that you need to see from 2018.

Both Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians were important films to 2018, as the topic of diversity and representation becomes more and more vital. While both these films were enjoyable, they also both had their flaws.

Black Panther made the fictional world of Wakanda come alive, with vibrant and colorful costumes, some incredible fight sequences, and a strong cast of characters. Crazy Rich Asians featured an entirely Asian cast and focused on the country of Singapore, giving us a somewhat predictable story told in an interesting location with likeable characters.

I’m not a diehard fan of Clint Eastwood, I’ve hardly seen any of his older works, but I can tell you that The Mule is an incredible film, with Eastwood both acting and directing. I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets several nominations come award season.

The only thing keeping The Mule from ranking higher is that half of our story revolves around a crew of federal agents tracking down a Mexican cartel. While this story is interesting, even Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena can’t compete with the powerhouse performance that Eastwood delivers, so we’re always eager to return to his story instead.

I never would’ve imagined that a Transformers movie would crack my top ten movies of the year. Bumblebee is very much unlike the others, managing to give us a personal story, anchored by an incredible performance from Hailee Steinfeld. The visual effects are much cleaner than the past films, giving us action setpieces that you can actually understand, as opposed to the constant swirling of gears that plagued the other films.

While this was a smaller story, it also delivered on enhancing the Transformers mythology, giving us some incredible sequences during the fall of Cybertron, some cameos from fan favorites, and a hope that the Transformers films in the future might take a cue from this movie’s simplicity.

Like a fine wine, Mission: Impossible is getting better with age and this latest installment Mission Impossible: Fallout is one of the series’ best. To learn that Tom Cruise is still doing his own stunts is sometimes hard to believe, with the sheer scope and intensity of these stunts on display.

This movie delivers on all fronts. We get some real suspense and mystery, we get some incredible action, and we get a strong performance from our leads. This series continues to set the bar for action films.

It’s a difficult thing to perfectly weave together things that might seem incongruent, but BlacKkKlansman manages to blend sharp comedy with a dark look at racism in the United States, specifically the prominence and power of the Ku Klux Klan.

It works primarily because of the strong performances from John David Washington and Adam Driver, making you laugh one second and cry the next. This movie covers the whole range of emotions and is both a really enjoyable film and a really important film.

It’s rare that a documentary makes my top 10, but this year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a no-brainer for this list. I don’t really remember watching Mr. Rogers growing up, but this movie perfectly outlines who he was and what he did, but where it really exceeds is reminding adults about lessons from our childhood that we’ve forgotten, or lessons that we never learned.

This movie is much more important than you’d think, as you see clips of Mr. Rogers trying to help kids understand intense subjects such as war and assassination and death. It’s a stark reminder of what television has become and what television no longer provides. It’s both a tragic story and an inspiring one.

In the second (of three) Bradley Cooper films on this list, we have A Star is Born. There is a lot that works here, both a foot-tapping musical and an emotional rollercoaster. Lady Gaga’s performance is surprising, while Cooper’s performance is one of his career-best. Cooper’s work behind the camera (in his first directorial effort) is also impressive.

You’ll find A Star is Born to be incredibly satisfying, that you’ll immediately want to re-listen to the songs on your way home, but there’s also plenty of gut-wrenching moments that you won’t soon forget either.

When you pair up two amazing talents, you end up with something like Green Book, a character piece for both Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali. This story chronicles a black musician (Ali) who travels through the American South with a bodyguard (Mortensen). Both of them give strong performances and the movie is surprisingly funny, with Mortensen carrying most of the comedic weight.

This movie is a feel-good piece in the end, but its tumultuous ups and downs for our characters is an incredibly satisfying journey. I wouldn’t be surprised to see award nominations for both of our leads here.

This is likely my biggest surprise of the year, a movie that I was merely curious about. Searching instead became one of my favorites, a masterful suspense story and mystery. John Cho returns and delivers a heartbreaking performance as a father whose daughter has gone missing.

The real star of this film is the format however, making “found footage” more than the gimmick that it tends to be. We only view things through FaceTime or through the laptop’s webcam or through security cameras or streaming news. It’s all fascinating and incredibly authentic, leading you to believe that this mystery could be unfolding in real life, in real time.

Ten years ago, Iron Man released and kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I know this film may not rank highly for non-fans, but for me, this movie was the culmination (or at least beginning of the culmination) of ten years of excitement and investment. I’ve been along for the ride this entire time and it would’ve been easy for this film to feel like a disappointment or a let-down, but luckily it wasn’t.

The highlight of the film is the humongous cast, bringing together every star that Marvel has. And then, let’s pit them against one of the best villains created in recent years, the completely CGI Thanos, brought to life by Josh Brolin and some near-perfect visual effects. The action is larger than ever before and the movie’s climax is unpredictable and surprising, giving us nothing close to a happy ending.

You may not understand why Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is number one, especially if you haven’t seen it. It’s a cartoon! A superhero cartoon at that! What makes Into the Spider-Verse stand out is that almost everything about it is unconventional. It features an authentic story of a biracial hero, set in a mixed-media animated world, with a storyline focusing on multiversal travel. They took some major risks here and what we get is something unlike anything I’ve seen before.

Let’s start with the animation, the real star of the show. It brings a comic book to life in ways we’ve never imagined and offers some of the most unique action sequences in cinema. Our characters are even drawn in different styles, some in two-dimensional style and some three-dimensional. The soundtrack is perfect, our characters loveable, and you will immediately want to rewatch the film. It’s special, it’s full of heart, and it’s the one movie this year that captured my full imagination.

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Review: Holmes and Watson (2018)

Holmes and Watson.

Let’s get straight to it. Holmes and Watson stars Will Ferrell as Sherlock Holmes, while John C. Reilly stars as his assistant Watson. Together, they’re trying to stop the evil Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes) from murdering the Queen (Pam Ferris). They cross paths with a pair of female doctors from America (Rebecca Hall and Lauren Lapkus).

This movie is written and directed by Etan Cohen, whose only major directorial effort before this was Get Hard.

What doesn’t work?

Now, this is a rare movie. It is completely unnecessary and serves no one. I know that sometimes movies have different demographics, that maybe some people might like it. This movie, the closest thing I can compare it to is Adam Sandler’s The Ridiculous Six, that is so unabashedly bad that you wonder if this was a dare.

As a self-proclaimed comedy, I didn’t laugh at all, except for a few moments of “I can’t believe this is happening,” such as when one character was revealed as being raised by feral cats. It’s absolutely bonkers, but not in a way that some people might revel in. It’s bonkers that it does these crazy things but elicits no laughter or response.

One of the main reasons that it’s not funny is that everything feels ad-libbed. John C. Reilly and Will Ferrell are buddies, so of course they’re going to have fun, but this just feels like them goofing around on a set, speaking in a faux British accent and messing around with props. It feels disorganized, unstructured, and what jokes are written down are lazy and amateur.

Overall…

This is debatedly the worst movie of the year, simply because it absolutely does nothing that it was meant to do. As a comedy, the biggest sin is to be laughless, and this movie had no laughs. It’s lazy, it’s messy, and it’s fairly boring. Stay away at all costs.

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Review: Vice (2018)

Vice.

In this loose true story, we follow former Vice President Dick Cheney (Christian Bale) as he rises to prominence. We also have his wife Lynne (Amy Adams), who accompanies him on his journey. In government, we encounter George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell) and Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell). The story starts before he’s involved with politics at all, all the way up to post-9/11 war activities, his role in torture etiquette, and his role in the Patriot Act.

The movie is directed by Adam McKay, who began with comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, but made a new name for himself with The Big Short a few years ago. This movie has a very similar style as The Big Short, including fourth-wall breaking explanations.

What works?

There will be some definite award consideration for a few folks, the most likely being Christian Bale in this absolute transformation into Dick Cheney. It’s not only prosthetics, but his mannerisms and speech patterns are absolutely mesmerizing. Incredible work on display here. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Amy Adams get a Supporting Actress nod, though I don’t think it’s a sure thing. If we do get a second nomination, it might go to Sam Rockwell who also transformed into George W. Bush.

If you’re a fan of politics and “true story” biopics, you’ll likely have a great time here, though it’s definitely filling in some major gaps, including here some moments that no one would know how it really played out, so we’re seeing an embellished and somewhat fictional idea of what happened. Entertaining yes, but not to be completely trusted as fact.

The style of the film is also interesting, very similar to The Big Short. It doesn’t hit the right spot as consistently as that film, but it’s still a fun and engaging movie.

What didn’t work?

As I mentioned above… The style of the film somewhat works but at other times, absolutely tanks the film. There’s a sequence mimicking a Shakespeare play that halted everything. It’s meant to be a jab or parody but it ends up hurting the movie in several places. These moments are jarring, at the least.

Because of this style, the pacing is very inconsistent. This movie feels incredibly long and there are entire sequences that could have been cut and left behind. It tried to maybe include all the big moments for Cheney’s career, but were all those moments important to this film… I don’t think so.

Overall…

As a film, this doesn’t always work. It’s got jarring and unnecessary scenes, it could’ve benefited from a few more cuts. The performances here however are all pretty incredible, highlighted by potentially Oscar-worthy performances by Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell, and Amy Adams. I don’t think you need to see this in theaters but it’d make a perfect calm Sunday afternoon rental for sure.

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Review: The Mule (2018)

The Mule.

Clint Eastwood stars and directs this film, starring as a 90-year-old named Earl Stone who has found himself estranged from his family and now financially broke. In order to make amends, he starts driving drugs for a Mexican cartel (run by Andy Garcia). His wife (Dianne Wiest) and daughter (played by his actual daughter Alison Eastwood) are hesitant to welcome him back, while his granddaughter (Taissa Farmiga) is a little more willing. While this is happening, we also follow the DEA (Laurence Fishburne, Bradley Cooper, and Michael Pena) as they track the cartel and eventually start looking for Earl.

What works?

The performances here are stellar, highlighted of course by Clint Eastwood, who delivers an incredibly subtle performance. I wouldn’t call myself an Eastwood connoisseur, I’ve only seen a handful of movies, but here he delivers something really special and heartbreaking, obviously carrying decades of regret. The other standout is Dianne Wiest, who shows the most emotional range as she struggles with years of built up hostility and also the hope of a happy future. Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena get plenty of screentime but they don’t flex the same sort of acting muscles that Eastwood and Wiest showcase.

The Mule is also beautifully directed, with some incredible cinematography. It manages to make him driving for most of the movie seem interesting and compelling. The movie is a tad long but it never feels long, which is a bonus.

I initially had a problem with the music in the film, but it slowly turned into something I appreciated. The soundtrack was big band tracks and jazz standards and it felt like old timey music that didn’t feel like our time. And then I started to get it, that Earl’s character was also out of time, struggling to use technology and not understanding “kids these days.” So the soundtrack reflected that perfectly, once I understood the connection.

An easy way to lose points in my book, is to mismanage the ending of the film. If you don’t nail the landing, a perfect movie now becomes much less so. Luckily, The Mule has a fantastic ending. Maybe not one you like per se but an excellent ending that makes sense for this story.

What didn’t work?

The movie might feel slow, in the way that all serious dramas might feel slow. It’s jarring coming off of high-octane action flicks, so it’s a transition to get back into that mode. Not a negative, just a note that you need to be mentally prepared for this sort of story and pacing.

Overall…

The Mule is a fantastic film, highlighted by an award-worthy performance by Clint Eastwood. He also might get a nomination for Director, that wouldn’t surprise me either. It’s a slower movie than a lot of other films, but I didn’t have a problem with the pacing, it all felt perfectly timed. The story is gripping, with plenty of suspense, but the core of the movie are the characters.

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