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.

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.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on the memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? by author and convicted forger Lee Israel, this new biopic stars comedy actress Melissa McCarthy in what’s probably her least-funny role to date: a foul-mouthed, mean-spirited, alcoholic has-been author who lies, cheats, steals, and cons her way into paying each month’s rent. If it weren’t for McCarthy’s inherent likability, the character would be completely unsympathetic to most audience members.

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant star in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Photo copyright 2018 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

A best-selling biographer in the 1970s and 1980s, who wrote about actress Tallulah Bankhead , cosmetics queen  Estee Lauder , and reporter Dorothy Kilgallen, Israel’s inability to play nicely with others and adapt with the times causes her to fall out of favor by 1991. Bookstores offer her previous publications at 75% off and her literary agent (Jane Curtain) won’t return her calls. She loses her full-time job at The New Yorker because she’s drinking alcohol at her desk and spews profanity at the boss. No one is interested in her idea for a biography on singer Fanny Brice. And her aging cat is desperately ill.

Embellishment of Letters

With no money to pay for veterinary care or her monthly rent (and no friends or relatives other than her equally impoverished and alcoholic gay buddy, Jack [Richard E. Grant]), Israel begins embellishing letters by prominent authors and selling them to specialty book sellers. This embellishment of adding an interesting postscript soon turns into completely fabricating letters by literary greats (including Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker), and then eventually into stealing original letters from archival sources and replacing them with her forgeries.

Her crimes appear to be natural extensions of who she was personally and professionally before alcohol and desperation took control of her thinking. She has no qualms about misrepresenting her identity on the telephone or stealing someone else’s clothes from the coat rack. She’s always been fascinated with the writings and performance styles of famous people and expresses that through her biographies. Her offences escalate from petty theft and deception into crimes so serious the FBI becomes involved in tracking her down.

Melissa McCarthy Excels

McCarthy provides some outstanding work here, as someone who’s in denial about her situation and considers her criminal activities to be “literary treasures” and her life’s greatest work. Alone, afraid, and on the brink of disaster, Lee Israel is not a person most of us would like in our lives.

Her prickly personality, drinking, and deception have created her dire circumstances. She created this mess entirely by herself, and yet McCarthy reveals the character’s humanity hiding beneath the off-putting exterior. Grant offers a fine performance as well – another pathetic character whose bad judgment causes his formidable problems.

Even with occasional laughs, this film portrays a seedy story inhabited by people who are their own worst enemies. It’s a sad tale, but certainly one worth telling.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

  • Fired from her job and virtually unemployable because of her alcoholism and abrasive personality, former best-selling author Lee Israel turns to crime to pay her bills in this true story based on the memoir of the same name.
  • Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Jane Curtain, Stephen Spinella, Gregory Korostishevsky
  • Director: Marielle Heller
  • Genre: Crime / Briography
  • Run Time: 106 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references, 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.

 

Beautiful Boy – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on two best-selling memoirs by father, David Sheff, (Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction) and his son, Nic Sheff, (Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines), this film focuses primarily on how drug abuse undermines the once-close father-son relationship, causes pain within the family, and damages the addict’s brain.

Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet star in Beautiful Boy. Photo copyright 2018 Amazon Studios.

As depicted in the film, Nic Sheff (Timothee Chalamet) has a childhood far better than most children experience. Living in a custom-built home on a gorgeous plot of land in California with his devoted father, David (Steve Carell) and loving stepmother (Maura Tierney), and two young siblings who idolize him, Nic enjoys a loving family, material wealth, good health, and a talent for writing and illustrating. His mother (Amy Ryan) lives out of town, but they stay in touch often.

Unanswered Questions

So why does he resort to drugs and alcohol in his late teens to fill the black hole inside him? Why does he lie, steal, and engage in other risky and self-destructive behaviors? How does he overcome his addiction? You won’t find out in this movie, which focuses on the past and current relationship between father and son. David’s frequent flashbacks, which can be disorienting at times, return to fun family times when Nic was ages 4, 6, and 12 in a non-linear collection of scenes that show how hard his parents tried over the years to create a healthy environment for their children.

David finally becomes aware of Nic’s long-time drug abuse at age 18, but by then he’s already deep into addiction, which is followed by relapses and recoveries for the next few years. Lovely childhood scenes are contrasted to grotesque addiction scenes that keep the movie cinematically interesting. David, a successful freelance writer, researches information on addiction through the internet and mental health professionals, and even conducts his own field experiment.

Heartfelt Performances

Perhaps the books delve more into elements that could help others who have friends or relatives in the throes of addiction, but this film provides more of a voyeuristic approach to a family in crisis. Steve Carell, normally known for his silliness and fearlessness of doing anything for a laugh, reveals those same traits here, but with a twist. He’s the silly father playing with his children one day, the desperate dad who’ll do anything to save his child the next.

Carell delivers a heartfelt performance, as does Chalamet in his portrayal of Nic, a beautiful boy who somehow manages to retain his good looks despite a crystal meth addiction that normally ravages its victims. His performance is stellar, but the makeup team seemed reluctant to mar his handsome face, which left Chalamet’s acting alone to convince us of his addiction.

Conversely, an oppressive soundtrack takes some of the pressure off the actors by warning that another drug-crazed disappointment is on the way and jangling our nerves by the time it arrives. This film offers plenty to see and feel, but not much new to think about.

Beautiful Boy

  • Based on a true story, an 18-year-old boy’s addiction to alcohol and crystal meth has a devastating effect on him and his family.
  • Stars: Steve Carell, Timothee Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Amy Ryan, Timothy Hutton, Christian Convery, Oakley Bull
  • Director: Felix Van Groeningen
  • Writers: screenplay by Luke Davies and Felix Van Groeningen, based on books by David Sheff and Nic Sheff
  • Genre: Biography, Drama
  • Run Time: 112 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for drug content throughout, and brief sexual material)

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