On the Basis of Sex – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Marking her 25th year as a Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been the subject of two inspiring films this year, the documentary RBG and the new feature film, On the Basis on Sex. She’s also been the subject of various videos and television programs.

Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer star in On the Basis of Sex. Photo copyright 2018 Focus Features.

This latest entry, On the Basis on Sex, is a moving biopic based on the true story of her life, written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, which gained her full endorsement and even features Justice Ginsburg in a brief cameo at the end. And frankly, why wouldn’t she like this movie? It pays tribute to her well-documented tenacity, sense of justice, fearlessness, outstanding intellect, and youthful beauty. She’s a living legend—a true superhero encased in a tiny 5’1” body.

Unfortunately, an inspiring subject and its related themes (including gender equality, equality rights for all, being true to yourself, changing with the cultural climate, etc.), don’t necessarily translate into inspired cinema.

Only Nine Women Law Students

Felicity Jones stars as Ruth Bader Ginsburg along with Armie Hammer portraying her loving, supportive, and equally gifted husband, Martin (Marty) Ginsburg. The story begins with a visually dramatic orientation scene: Ruth is one of only nine women among 500 new students entering Harvard Law School in 1956. Then our emotions are engaged when she faces ongoing discrimination from school officials for being a woman, a wife, a mother, and a Jew. Encouraged by Marty’s unflinching support and her own steadfast determination for personal success in her field and the desire to help others overcome inequality, she struggles through the ill treatment to the top of her class.

Another memorable moment arrives when the vibrant and charismatic Marty collapses in pain during a round of charades and is hospitalized. (When Hammer’s young, athletic 6’5” frame topples to the floor, it’s a visual oxymoron that increases the drama). Ruth agonizes for days as doctors refuse to inform her of his status. Eventually the diagnosis is revealed—testicular cancer with a 5% survival rate. Even knowing the happy outcome of this crisis, these painful scenes of suffering may kick audience tear ducts into high gear.

Discrimination Based on Gender

After they both graduate, Marty gets hired as a tax attorney at a prestigious law firm and Ruth compromises by teaching law in college because no law firm wants to hire a woman. Frustrated and angry, she latches onto an opportunity that Marty presents to her in which a man is denied a couple of hundred dollars in tax deductions as his mother’s caregiver, simply because he’s a man. The Ginsburgs, who form a team of two for this pro bono effort, recognize this case as a chance to open the door to revising hundreds of laws that discriminate by gender. Their efforts are assisted (grudgingly at times, by legal director of the ACLU Mel Wulf [Justin Theroux] and attorney Dorothy Kenyon [Kathy Bates]).

Here’s where the movie morphs from an artful feature into more of a documentary process film. The process is researching the original case, building a new case, preparing oral arguments, and then delivering these arguments to a panel of Justices of the Supreme Court. With the odds heavily stacked against them, only the Ginsburgs believe they can win.

A Revolutionary Cultural Shift

This process, which becomes the primary focus for the rest of the film, turns formulaic, weighed down by legalese and inattention to other matters of interest (apart from brief obligatory scenes), including the caregiver’s feelings about the ordeal, the Ginsburg children’s coping mechanisms during their parents’ preoccupation with the case, and Marty’s personal and professional preparation for their big day in court.  

The acting, directing, cinematography, and other production values are good, and this film makes a nice companion piece to the RBG documentary (by directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West) to get a fuller picture of the people beyond the paperwork involved in this revolutionary cultural shift.            

On the Basis of Sex

  • Stars: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Cailee Spaeny, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Stephen Root
  • Director: Mimi Leder
  • Writer: Daniel Stiepleman
  • Genre: Biography/Drama
  • Run Time: 120 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for some language and suggestive content)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

The Key in Character Names

By Guest Blogger: C.L. Roman

Trust me on this one. Authors put a lot of thought into naming their characters. Why?

If an author has done their job correctly, readers fall in love with them, or love to hate them. Those readers will follow a beloved (or behated) character through plot after plot, rather than lose them. And characters are identified by their names, the very mention of which conjures notions of bravery, honesty, talent or superlative evil. It is no surprise then that those names can become more recognizable than the titles of the books the characters inhabit.

Think of the names of some of your favorite literary characters.

Harper Lee’s Scout, J.K. Rowling’s Harry, Margaret Attwood’s Offred – none of these names came about by accident. The author chose or invented the name for a reason. Whether it was to symbolize the character as a whole, explain an essential detail of personality, convey a secret truth about a personality type, give the story an ironic twist, delineate the character’s role in the story, or foreshadow the individual’s eventual end, character names usually have a purpose.

But does any of this really matter? Do readers sit around pondering the meaning of character names? Some do. Some don’t. So why do authors put so much effort into naming characters?

There are a number of reasons.

Appellations have a certain “feel” or intrinsic meaning attached to them based on the traditional definition, or cultural connotation. Would Alice Armstrong steal money from the helpless little old lady? Alice means “noble.” Armstrong…well, it kind of speaks for itself, doesn’t it? So, unless the name is being used ironically, Alice is probably an upstanding citizen. On the other hand, any American who grew up during the cold war might have trouble with a protagonist named Boris.

Unlike real people, characters in books have names that compliment or directly oppose their natures, creating a sort of personality shorthand for author and reader alike. Just like other symbols in literature, a lot of the meaning in names is subliminal. Without realizing it, readers draw certain conclusions about a character based on what they are called. This means that some of the heavy lifting of characterization can be accomplished with relative ease.

In my Outcast Angels series, for instance, the angel’s names are derived from the words for giants and/or gods in various cultures around the world. Fomor is a shortened version of Fomoire, a race of gods out of Irish mythology. Danae is his wife. Her name is taken from the Tuatha dé Danann. Their union reflects the intermarriage between these two mythological races. Since all the major players in this series are angels, demons, or half-angels, I wanted names that indicated from the first page that these characters were not wholly human.

In my current work-in-progress, I chose the name Maeve for one of my main characters because it is the name of a warrior queen, and the character is a fighter who will not be dictated to, yet who is not afraid to love.

It is true that sometimes Bob is just Bob. No hidden meaning, no symbolism involved. Just…Bob. Especially when the character is minor, it may be that the name is nothing more than a convenient identifier. Alternately, maybe the author has a character who they originally named Tom but then realized there was already a Timothy in the story. So, the author changes Tom to Joe for no other reason but to avoid confusion.

Of course, with such a mundane name, the reader is clued in that this character may not have a very big place in the story. So even plain Jane names have a purpose.

That purpose might be just to make the character accessible. Let’s face it; most of us aren’t wizards like Harry. But Harry – the boy with the ordinary name – wasn’t so ordinary after all. That dichotomy is what makes him so relatable. We are all ordinary on the outside, but characters like Harry Potter assure us that it is what is inside that really counts.

And that’s the magic. Finding characters that in some way mirror our own experience is the reader’s door into the fictional world. Sometimes the name provides the key.

Author Bio

C.L. (aka Cheri) Roman, writes fantasy and sci-fi with a paranormal edge. You can find her at www.clroman.com and on Facebook. Cheri and her ever-patient husband live in the not-so-wilds of Northeast Florida with Jack E. Boy, the super Chihuahua, and Pye, the invisible cat.

Links

You can find Cheri’s books

Book Reviews from My Nightstand

By Leslie C. Halpern

In addition to reading books for pleasure, I’m a book reviewer for several online book sites. I typically read about two books a week, so that’s more than 100 books a year. Even so, there’s always a tall stack of books waiting for me on my nightstand – paperbacks, advanced reader copies, and ebooks loaded on my Kindle, delivered to me from various sources, such as publishing houses, book fairs, and writer’s meetings.

People give me all kinds of books to review from the current year or perhaps even published a couple of years earlier. I’m exposed to a variety of genres throughout the year, from traditionally published books to small presses to self-published platforms – including adult books, YA, and children’s publications. As an author myself, I know how important it is to spread the word about interesting, well-written books that readers would enjoy – if only they knew about them. So here are a few of my favorite books that I read this year from that tall stack of books on my nightstand.

Click the highlighted titles for more information or to purchase from Amazon.

Fiction

 

Less by Andrew Sean Greer. (audiobook) 2018 Hachette Audio. ASIN: B0714BGVIV. 8 hours and 17 minutes. Read by Robert Petkoff. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel jumps off the page and into our imaginations with this highly animated audiobook. The story concerns a lonely middle-aged gay author named Arthur Less, who journeys around the world attending mediocre literary events to avoid attending the wedding of his former lover. Naturally nearly everything goes wrong on each leg of the journey, and everyone he meets reminds him of the failed love affair. Poor Arthur starts to believe the entire trip was the universe’s plan to further degrade him. Told with poetic descriptions and comical details, the audiobook version also includes the voice talents of Robert Petkoff, who manages to portray people of all ages, sexes, races, and origins in this lively retelling of Less’s story.

ARMS War for Eden: (Book 1) by [Arseneault, Stephen]

ARMS: War for Eden by Stephen Arseneault. (paperback and Kindle) 2016 CreateSpace. 978-1537554518. In the first of the ARMS science fiction series, two former Domicile Defense Force Biomarines (genetically engineered humans trained to fight during wartime) are forced to find a new gig during a break in the war. Outcasts Harris Gruberg and Tawnish Freely bond together in a lucrative scheme to sell arms to the outer colonists just before hunting season. Ready to retire off the generated funds, their plans go awry when they learn of mysterious deaths and rumors of war in the same place they sold their weapons. The uneasy truce and unacknowledged attraction between these two main characters is enjoyable to read, and the plot contains enough twists that readers won’t quite know what to expect regardless of how many other science fiction, military action, or space operas they have read in the past.

An Incomplete List of My Wishes by [Reiter, Jendi]

An Incomplete List of My Wishes by Jendi Reiter. 2018 (Paperback and ebook) Sunshot Press, 978-1944977207. This collection of eleven short stories by award-winning poet and novelist Jendi Reiter focuses mainly on interpersonal relationships and overcoming grief, fear, and isolation. Several stories include gay characters struggling with their homosexuality, and adolescents contemplating how their religious backgrounds fit into their evolving self-image. Complex and lovely, these stories are filled with great sadness, flashes of anger, touches of humor, and ultimately revelations from characters who in some way mirror our own lives.

And for the Little Ones

Mixter Twizzle’s Breakfast by Regan W.H. Macaulay. 2018 (Paperback and ebook) Mirror World Publishing, 978-1987976496. This children’s book for young readers introduces a peculiar red-deviled creature who lives beneath a chicken coop on a farm. Mixter Twizzle, as he is known, sneaks into the coop at breakfast time and steals eggs out from under the hens. Although his belly is full, his heart is empty. When a stolen egg unexpectedly hatches and a chick emerges, Mixter learn a valuable lesson about life. Beautifully illustrated by Wei Lu, this book should delight early and transitional readers with its quirky main character, who is monstrously cute in appearance, speech, and mannerisms.

Nonfiction

Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Book Heroes; 10 Ways to Save the World; Which One Do We Need Most Now? (Acculturated) by [Smith, Travis]

Superhero Ethics: 10 Comic Book Heroes; 10 Ways to Save the World; Which One Do We Need Now? by Travis Smith. 2018 (paperback and hardcover) Templeton Press. 978-1599474540. This book examines the ethical standards and practices of popular comic superheroes. The author dissects these characters from scientific, philosophical, psychological, religious, and cultural perspectives for a fascinating look at who we need to actually save the world from current problems. Five chapters compare two similar superheroes in preliminary battles to determine the final winner. For example, Batman competes with Spiderman for retaining peace neighborhoods, and the god-like characters Thor and Superman are pitted against each other. Fun to read, this book also includes profound insights into humanity.

 

Shapeshifters: A Journey Through the Changing Human Body by Gavin Francis. 2018 (Audiobook) Hachette Audio. ASIN: B07DGJPSH8. Unabridged 6 hours and 49 minutes. Read by Thomas Judd. Scotland physician Gavin Francis looks at bizarre naturally occurring physical abnormalities such as humans turning into werewolves and growing horns. Other chapters look at other quirky, though less dramatic physical transformations, such as jetlag, gigantism, infertility, castration, menopause, and bodybuilding. With his professional medical background and sensitive approach to the material, this book doesn’t sensationalize or demoralize, but rather explores weird pathologies with which the average reader is unfamiliar. Clearly written and always interesting, Shapeshifters also contains unexpected humor that lightens some of the darker material.

Sleep: The Myth of 8 Hours, the Power of Naps, and the New Plan to Recharge Your Body & Mind by Nick Littlehales. 2018 (Audiobook) Hachette Audio. ASIN: B07B1JFXHT. Unabridged 6 hours and 39 minutes. Read by Nick Littlehales. A sports sleep coach and creator of the R90 Sleep Technique, the author’s goal in writing this book was to teach people how to maximize their resting time. Everyone knows how debilitating it is to get a poor night’s sleep, but who knew how many elements contribute to a night of tossing and turning? Readers will learn about how lighting, food, activities, and thoughts can aid sleep or fuel insomnia. More than just a guide for improving sleep, this book also offers plenty of ideas for living better and more efficiently.

Food: What the Heck Should I Eat? by Mark Hyman, MD. 2018 (audiobook) Hachette Audio. ASIN: B07B2Z6J7D. Unabridged 10½ hours. Read by the author. Best-selling health and nutrition author, Dr. Mark Hyman offers his latest book on picking the right foods for optimal health in this book. His suggested plan is the same as what he’s been espousing in his earlier works, such as Eat Fat, Get Thin. He says people are sick, fat, and out of shape from eating sugary, processed, and adulterated non-food items. His recommendations include eating whole foods that are locally sourced whenever possible. The book looks at good food as medicine, and non-food or bad foods as sickness. For those unfamiliar with the latest food trends, this book provides clearly defined useful information and a comprehensive plan for good health.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Boy Erased – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

According to the movie’s trailer, 77,000 people are currently being held in conversion therapy across America. This film, based on the 2016 memoir Boy Erased by Garrard Conley, tells the true story of one young man who was forced into the church-sanctioned program by his parents to erase his homosexuality.

Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe star in Boy Erased. Photo copyright 2018 Focus Features.

The son of a Baptist preacher (Russell Crowe) and a God-fearing mother (Nicole Kidman), Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is forced to confront his homosexual impulses. Although he has a steady girlfriend throughout high school (Madelyn Cline), he breaks up with her when he goes to college – eager to be free of her increasingly demanding requests for a more physical relationship. At college, he quickly befriends Henry (Joe Alwyn), a handsome, athletic young man who sexually assaults Jared in an ugly violent scene.

Year-Long Conversion Program

When it’s clear their friendship has ended because of the assault, Henry seeks revenge by outing Jared through a prank telephone call to his parents. The call prompts his father to seek the advice of church elders, who unanimously decide the boy needs conversion therapy to chase away the devil inside him. Mrs. Eamons drives her son to the extended Love In Action assessment facility where he’ll be evaluated by its self-appointed expert, Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton, who also directed the film and wrote the screenplay), to determine whether or not he’ll need the year-long conversion program.

Not surprisingly, most gay participants do not undergo an instant “cure” during the assessment phase, and get recommended for a year-long stay at the facility. The conversion program includes public shaming, invasions of privacy, mock funerals, and physical beatings with the bible. Some attendees embrace the philosophy and want to change, others play along with the program awaiting release, and (in a melodramatic climax) Jared refuses to submit to the ridiculous inauthentic spectacle.

Fine Performances

Kidman (who hails from Australia) is especially good in this role as a sharply dressed Southern Baptist who undergoes a conversion of her own in which she’s finally able to stand up to her husband while still embracing her beliefs. Edgerton also delivers a fine performance in which we’re never quite sure how much Sykes actually believes the rhetoric he spews. For example, when he encourages the teens to divulge more of the sexual details that brought them to Love In Action, there’s a hint of salaciousness without full-blown licentiousness. Likewise, Hedges offers a nuanced performance in which it’s unclear how much of the happy boy has been erased and how much replaced with a struggling young man.

Despite the good performances, there’s often a staged feel to the scenes – a manipulation that arises partly from the material and partly from the direction. Telling audiences what to think and feel sometimes seems a little too much like conversion therapy.

 Boy Erased

  • The gay son of a Baptist preacher is sent to a strict church-supported conversion therapy program where they try to set him “straight.”
  • Stars: Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, Russell Crowe, Joel Edgerton, Cherry Jones, Madelyn Cline, Theodore Pellerin, Joe Alwyn, Britton Sear, Flea, David Joseph Craig
  • Director: Joel Edgerton
  • Writer: Joel Edgerton (screenplay); Garrard Conley (author of memoir, Boy Erased)
  • Genre: Biography/Drama
  • Run Time: 114 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content including an assault, some language and brief drug use)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Six star-studded short stories, the first of which boasts the film’s title, present an off-kilter, dark-humored Coen-brothers version of America’s Old Wild West.

Tim Blake Nelson stars as Buster Scruggs in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Photo copyright 2018 Netflix.

Although the subjects of each story differ, common themes emerge among these stories. Contained within a stylish framework of a book of western shorts, there’s a focus on the fickleness of fate, impermanence of life, the thin line between outlaw and hero, and contrasts between traveling and arriving at destinations.

A Cold-Blooded Singing Cowboy

The title story stars Tim Blake Nelson as a quick-drawing singing cowboy named Buster Scruggs. His reputation as a well-mannered, but cold-blooded killer precedes him wherever he goes. Short and unassuming in appearance, Buster benefits from being underestimated by others, until one day he overestimates himself. Add Buster Scruggs to the list of quirky characters that Nelson has made famous.

In the second story, “Near Algodones,” James Franco stars as a dim-witted bandit who confronts a quick-acting bank teller (Stephen Root) in a botched robbery attempt. In the next segment, “Meal Ticket,” Liam Neeson portrays the cold-hearted owner of a traveling show who earns his living off the oratory talent of a legless and armless young man (Harry Melling). The fourth tale, “All Gold Canyon,” involves an old prospector (Tom Waits) who believes he’s finally going to strike it rich. In the fifth story, “The Gal Who Got Rattled,” a lonely young woman (Zoe Kazan) and a wagon train leader (Bill Heck) hope to marry when they finally reach Oregon.

The final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” presents five people on a stagecoach headed for a hotel. The strange assortment features an older woman (Tyne Daly) hoping to reunite with her estranged husband, a smelly trapper (Chelcie Ross), a brutally honest Frenchman (Saul Rubinek), and two bounty hunters (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson).

Plans Go Awry

As you’d expect in a Coen-brothers film, unusual camera angles (from inside a guitar, between a dead man’s legs, etc.) are constant reminders that things are not quite what they seem and plans are destined to go awry. The cinematography by Bruno Debonnel (director of photography) is often beautiful and artistic, and the humor is consistently dark. The sound department did an exceptionally fine job with this film – galloping horse hooves, crunching leather chaps, stomping cowboy boots on hardwood floors, and wagon wheels turning on bumpy ground add another layer of meaning.

At 132 minutes, this film runs a bit long and some judicious editing may have been helpful, particularly in the final two segments. The final story, “The Mortal Remains,” hints at linking all the pieces of this film together, i.e., distracting people with stories that are really about them, but appear to be about something else. Even so, the common threads between the six stories are not always apparent, and, while a dazzling cinematic display, it’s not an entirely cohesive whole.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

  • Six short westerns take a strange look at life, death, and the law of the land in early America.
  • Stars: Liam Neeson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Tyne Daly, Tim Blake Nelson, Bill Heck, Jonjo O’Neill, Chelcie Ross, Saul Rubinek
  • Writers-Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
  • Genre: Comedy/Drama
  • Run Time: 132 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.