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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 28, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 52
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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2018 BEST OF FILM
2018 RECAP: Paddington 2 and Roma lead the way as the best of a very, very good year in cinema

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

Seems like every year I say something along the lines of, 'It's been a great year for movies.' Each year I mean it. But then I watched just over 200 features in 2018, and for the life of me I can't imagine the average moviegoer is given the same opportunity. Still, whenever someone comes at me and claims it was a subpar year for cinema I still glance at them cross-eyed. Their saying that usually means they didn't look too far beyond whatever $100-million production was coming out of a major Hollywood studio, that they didn't take the time to head to their local art house theatre and see any of the foreign or independent titles that might have been playing. It also likely means they didn't dig too deeply into their VOD, Amazon Prime or Netflix queues to see if anything outside the ordinary might have been sitting there waiting to be discovered.

All that said, let me emphatically state 2018 was an extraordinary year for cinema. Not since 2007 have I had so much trouble compiling my personal top ten list. I can't help but think there are a solid 20 or so features that could possibly stand the test of time and end up being considered classics not too far in the foreseeable future. My own top 100 for the year is overflowing in titles I'd have no trouble whatsoever watching multiple times, a large handful of those speaking to me in an intimately personal manner that often caught me by surprise. There were films that challenged, startled, inspired, educated, entertained, offended, terrified, bewildered and wowed me, and even better there were multiple occasions these past 12 months where I was happily reminded what it was that inspired me to write about cinema in the first place.

And goodness knows I needed that reminder this year. With the world seemingly crumbling around us, to see so many filmmakers out there challenging our perceptions of what the medium can be and embracing diversity in so many clever and thought-provoking ways couldn't help but bring a smile to my face. Legends like Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman), Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters), Alfonso Cuarón (Roma), Claire Denis (Let the Sunshine In), François Ozon (Double Lover), Stephen Soderbergh (Unsane), Gus Van Sant (Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot) and Paul Schrader (First Reformed) delivered fascinating efforts that offered up plenty of food for thought, while rising stars like Lynne Ramsay (You Were Never Really Here), Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite), Debra Granik (Leave No Trace), Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk), Brett Haley (Hearts Beat Loud), Marielle Heller (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), Steve McQueen (Widows), Damien Chazelle (First Man) and Karyn Kusama (Destroyer) cemented their status as talented newcomers worth continuing to get excited about.

This was also a year when Marvel's decade of methodically building their comic book mythology finally paid dividends, their triple-whammy of Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp appeasing fans and non-fans alike in almost equal measure. But DC and Warner Bros bounced back themselves with the hyperbolic craziness that was Aquaman, while Fox's Deadpool 2 once again showcased there is indeed an R-rated market for superhero antics just as long as both the audience and the source material are treated with intelligent (if still irreverent) respect. But the big winner in the comic book adaptation sweepstakes might just have been Sony. Not only did their critically maligned Venom sport a world-wide gross of almost a billion dollars, but the studio's animated endeavor Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse might just go down as one of the best superhero films ever made.

Nostalgia was once again in vogue in 2018, Mary Poppins Returns, Creed II, A Star Is Born, The Grinch, Christopher Robin, the female-driven Ocean's 8, Halloween, Mission: Impossible - Fallout, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Bohemian Rhapsody and Insidious: The Last Key all making general audiences various degrees of happy. Then were the surprise hits like Crazy Rich Asians, A Quiet Place, Game Night, Love, Simon and Searching, each receiving their fair share of acclaim from both the ticket buying public as well as the majority of the critical establishment.

All-in-all there was plenty to talk about in 2018, that brief little recap only skimming the surface of all the possible topics for conversation. Nonetheless, here are my picks for the top ten motion pictures I had the pleasure to watch this past year along with a fair number of honorable mentions and alternate selections I feel are worthy of a look. Please keep in mind that these were my favorites, nothing more, and while I believe all of them are superior pieces of entertainment that doesn't necessarily mean everyone out there is going to feel exactly the same. As always, like all forms of artistic expression cinema remains a personal experience that varies from one individual to the next. With that in mind, on to the list!

TOP 10

1. Paddington 2 (D: Paul King)
I can't remember the last time I saw a film in January and then remained enamored with it to such a colossal degree for the remainder of the year, but that's exactly what has happened as it pertains to director Paul King's sequel. This divine marvel of an empathetic charmer is a family-friendly confection that is exactly the movie the world needs right now. It's a masterpiece of emotional nuance, and as Aunt Lucy says, if we're kind and polite the world will be right, and if there's any sentiment I want to become a reality in 2019 it has to be that one.

2. Roma (D: Alfonso Cuarón)
Speaking of empathy, Alfonso Cuarón's masterful reminiscing of his Mexico City childhood Roma is one of the more profoundly moving achievements I've seen in a very long time. This is a movie that weaves through time and space with precision, this journey into the past just as much a sly commentary on the future as it is a heartfelt recollection of people and places gone by. A visually stunning meditation on life's various unforeseeable vagaries, I don't think I could have loved this film more had I actively tried.

3. Revenge (D: Coralie Fargeat)
In what was a stunning year for horror, to my mind Coralie Fargeat's incredible, genre-bending thriller Revenge clearly stands at the top of the heap. This French-Canadian production is a marvel of storytelling bravado that puts a decidedly character-driven and feminist spin on the tired rape-revenge subgenre, slamming things on their head in ways that are consistently spellbinding. It's all centered around a ferocious performance from young Matilda Lutz that's both one of the year's best as well as one of its more disappointingly forgotten.

4. Blindspotting (D: Carlos López Estrada)
Whoa. That's the reaction I had walking out of the theatre after watching director Carlos López Estrada and screenwriters/stars Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal's jaw-dropping Blindspotting. In a year where a number of incredible films looked at race, racism, police brutality, gentrification and economic inequality, this one stood out from the pack. This insightful and vicious satire exploded across the screen like an angry lightning bolt, Diggs and Casal's unrelenting, clear-eyed script a masterwork of mood, character and story that's phenomenal. To put it even more simply, this film is perfect.

5. The Miseducation of Cameron Post (D: Desiree Akhavan)
The first of two 'gay conversion therapy' dramas to see a release this year (the frustratingly didactic Boy Erased being the other), Desiree Akhavan's sublime adaptation of Emily M. Danforth's best-selling novel is an insightful character study that is as compassionate as it is merciless. Featuring incredible performances from Chloë Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck as a group of teens sent by their parents to have their homosexual urges 'fixed,' what's wonderful about this motion picture is just how understandingly cathartic it ends up being. It treats these teens with level of unvarnished respect that's inspiring, the film building to a series of final scenes that are heartbreaking and euphoric in almost equal measure.

6. You Were Never Really Here (D: Lynne Ramsay)
An electrifying caterwaul of terrifying human demons coming home to roost, Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here is a noir genre barnburner where what is unsaid and is left unexplained is every bit as haunting and as intimately affecting as what is clearly spelled out. Centering on a stunning performance from star Joaquin Phoenix (who, what with this film, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot and The Sisters Brothers had a 2018 to remember) as a mysterious enforcer with a shady background who goes on a brutal and bloody journey of self-discovery, this movie is an emotional marvel that cagily snuck up on me only to deliver a swift eye-opening slap to the face. Ramsay's latest shook the pillars of my expectations for what a story like this could be, and personally I can't wait to see what the supremely talented director has in store for me to watch next.

7. Lean on Pete (D: Andrew Haigh)
45 Years and Weekend director Andrew Haigh has delivered another gripping human drama with this masterful adaptation of author Willy Vlautin's novel Lean on Pete. An observational road trip through Oregon and Washington State Fairs that slowly and seductively morphs into an invigorating cross-country journey that revels in the most minute and intricate corners of the American experience, the film touches on a number of complex themes as it delicately trots towards conclusion. This coming-of-age fable is anchored by an exceptional performance from youngster Charlie Plummer as a boy searching for answers to questions he can't quite put words to in order to ask them aloud. Filled with a plethora of moving moments and haunting images, Haigh once again shows himself to be a consummate craftsman who will always put people and their personal experiences first, his films essential pieces of character-driven cinema worth celebrating.

8. The Favourite (D: Yorgos Lanthimos)
Leave it to idiosyncratic The Lobster and Dogtooth wunderkind Yorgos Lanthimos to flip his storytelling script once again, the esteemed filmmaker delivering an 18th century backstabbing comedic melodrama overflowing in palace intrigue, political maneuvering and feminine wiles. In the process, he showcases three incredible actresses (Olivia Coleman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) at the absolute top of their respective games, each of them reveling in the delectable choice bit of dialogue Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara's crafty screenplay delivers in spades. It's magnificent, the whole thing such devious Machiavellian fun, watching it only once is close to impossible.

9. BlacKkKlansman (D: Spike Lee) I can't get Spike Lee's explosive drama/comedy/thriller/social commentary out of my head. It's rambunctious and wild, splintering into a variety of directions at any given moment, sometimes in ways that are too bizarre for them ever to comfortably work. Yet the film has a controlled, angry urgency that's all-encompassing, and while this story of a Black Colorado detective infiltrating the KKK along with his White Jewish partner defies belief (even though it's all true), Lee transforms this heroic tale into a cautionary parable spotlighting the modern societal evils the U.S. is in danger of succumbing to right this very second. James David Washington and Adam Driver give two of the year's best performances, while a brief sequence featuring Harry Belafonte is one of the single greatest pieces of cinema I've had the immense pleasure to experience in all of 2018.

10. What They Had (D: Elizabeth Chomko)
What could have been a somewhat standard disease-of-the-week story instead bursts into something vital and emotionally pure under the guidance of writer/director Elizabeth Chomko. What They Had treats its tale of a close-knit family dealing with a member battling the latter stages of Alzheimer's with honesty, restraint, maturity and heart, the filmmaker intermixing humor, heartache and anger with confidently understated grace. Hilary Swank, Michael Shannon, Robert Forster and Blythe Danner all deliver performances that deserve to be right in the middle of the Oscar discussion (yet sadly aren't), and in my opinion this is one Douglas Sirk meets Nicole Holofcener melodrama I am positive the passage of time is going to be more than kind to.

A SECOND TWENTY (in alphabetic order)
Black Panther (D: Ryan Coogler), Can You Ever Forgive Me? (D: Marielle Heller), Cold War (D: Pawel Pawlikowski), Colette (D: Wash Westmoreland), Eighth Grade (D: Bo Burnham), The Guilty (D: Gustav Möller), The Hate U Give (D: George Tillman, Jr.), Hearts Beat Loud (D: Brett Haley), If Beale Street Could Talk (D: Barry Jenkins), Leave No Trace (D: Debra Granik), Mary Poppins Returns (D: Rob Marshall), A Quiet Place (D: John Krasinski), The Rider (D: Chloé Zhao), Shoplifters (D: Hirokazu Kore-eda), A Simple Favor (D: Paul Fieg), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (D: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman) Support the Girls (D: Andrew Bujalski), Suspiria (D: Luca Guadagnino), Tully (D: Jason Reitman), Widows (D: Steve McQueen)

HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetic order)
Anna and the Apocalypse (D: John McPhail), Annihilation (D: Alex Garland), Assassination Nation (D: Sam Levinson), Bad Times at the El Royale (D: Drew Goddard), Braven (D: Lin Oeding), Burning (D: Lee Chang-dong), Crazy Rich Asians (D: Jon M. Chu), Destroyer (D: Karyn Kusama), Disobedience (D: Sebastián Lelio), Double Lover (D: François Ozon), Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot (D: Gus Van Sant), The Endless (D: Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson), First Man (D: Damien Chazelle), Game Night (D: John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein), Ghost Stories (D: Jeremy Dyson, Andy Nyman), Halloween (D: David Gordon Green), Hereditary (D: Ari Aster), Let the Sunshine In (D: Claire Denis), Mandy (D: Panos Cosmatos), Marrowbone (D: Sergio G. Sánchez), Mission: Impossible - Fallout (D: Christopher McQuarrie), On the Basis of Sex (D: Mimi Leder), Puzzle (D: Marc Turtletaub), Ralph Breaks the Internet (D: Rich Moore, Phil Johnston), Red Sparrow (D: Francis Lawrence), The Sisters Brothers (D: Jacques Audiard), Sorry to Bother You (D: Boots Riley), A Star Is Born (D: Bradley Cooper), Unsane (D: Steven Soderbergh), Wanderland (D: Josh Klausner), (D: Paul Dano)

TOP FIVE DOCUMENTARIES (in alphabetic order)
Free Solo (D: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi), Love, Gilda (D: Lisa Dapolito), McQueen (D: Ian Bonhôte), Three Identical Strangers (D: Tim Wardle), Won't You Be My Neighbor? (D: Morgan Neville)

TEN DISAPPOINTMENTS
Last year I decided to stop doing a 'Worst of the Year' list. I just didn't feel like ragging on a bunch of poorly made films that didn't need additional anger and derision thrown their way. However, I did start doing a 'Most Disappointing' list, as there were plenty of motion pictures I felt had potential that for whatever reason sadly never lived up to it. This doesn't mean they were bad, per se, and some might even be worthy of a look. But for whatever reason, none of these ten sat well with me, and when I think back on each of them, doing so cannot help but make me feel more than a little bit sad.

Without further ado, and in alphabetic order, my picks for the ten most disappointing films of 2018:

Bohemian Rhapsody (D: Bryan Singer), The Cloverfield Paradox (D: Julius Onah), The Girl in the Spider's Web (D: Fede Alvarez), The Happytime Murders (D: Brian Henson), Hold the Dark (D: Jeremy Saulnier), Peter Rabbit (D: Will Gluck), Ready Player One (D: Steven Spielberg), Sicario: Day of the Soldado (D: Stefano Sollima), Vice (D: Adam McKay), Welcome to Marwen (D: Robert Zemeckis)


Jenkins' Beale Street adaptation an aria of melancholic grace and societal self-examination
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
Now playing


Childhood sweethearts Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo 'Fonny' Hunt (Stephan James) are going to get married. It is the 1970s and they have grown up together with their respective families in Harlem, living their lives together like so many other Black families in their community have done for as long as any of them can remember. But just as the pair are looking to get their first apartment together as a couple, Fonny is arrested for committing a heinous crime, and even though it isn't possible for him to have done the deed all the evidence authorities are using against him at trial still points in his direction.

Complicating matters is the fact Tish is pregnant. She's worried about telling her family, especially parents Sharon (Regina King) and Joseph (Colman Domingo). But as shocked as they all are, they still embrace their daughter with tenderness and love, inviting Fonny's parents (Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis) and his sister Adrienne (Ebony Obsidian) into their home to share the good news. While the fathers bond the mothers fight, all the while Tish sits there wondering what is going to happen next, and even if they're not all in complete agreement about the merits of the young woman's pregnancy, they all remain determined to do whatever they can to see that justice is done and Fonny's innocence is proven.

Based on James Baldwin's lyrically haunting masterpiece If Beale Street Could Talk, writer/director Barry Jenkins' adaptation is a masterfully assured, elegantly composed drama that sifts through time and space like an observational dream of happiness and amity sitting on the razor's edge of transforming into a tragic nightmare. The Academy Award-winning filmmaker's follow-up to Moonlight is a stunning bit of romantic remembrance that fearlessly cuts through the bull and instead leaves viewers with the hardened, not always pleasant truth no matter what the consequences of stating it so bluntly might be. And yet, the optimistic ebullience of a community striving to do better, longing to embrace love over anger, hope over fear, all of that is palpable, and even if every obstacle can't be overcome, the idea that a better future might still be around the corner is still present nonetheless.

There's plenty to unpack, Jenkins attempting as best he can to streamline Baldwin's supposedly unfilmable novel in ways that make its core narrative easy to follow but still do not lose the lyrically angry poetry the author utilized to such punchy, thought-provoking perfection. If he's not always successful it isn't for lack of ambition. Even so, some scenes between the two fathers feel shoehorned into the proceedings even if they're still integral to assisting in the attempt to raising the necessary funds required to finance Fonny's defense. Where Domingo is a towering presence, full of righteous indignation and selfless benevolence, the equally talented Beach gets somewhat pushed into the background never making the same sort of impact his co-star does.

But this is a minor problem as far as the larger picture is concerned. Tish and Fonny's romance is stunning, Layne and James delivering performances of such emotive exactitude the ins and outs of their relationship are always clear. The film is bookended by a pair of scenes where the young woman visits her fiancé in prison while he's awaiting trial, the two actors transforming themselves in ways that go beyond the obvious physical manifestations of the travails and hardships they've each been suffering under. Yet as damaged and as withered as each in their own way is, the genuine adoration they feel for one another is never a question, Layne and James finding a way to make the purity of their love break through the insane tragedy of their situation with crystalline purity.

Then there is King. The veteran character actress delivers one of the finest turns of her career as well as one of the best performances of 2018. There is a subplot where Sharon heads to Puerto Rico in order to find someone key to Fonny's defense. While there King sparkles in a series of scenes where the determined wife and mother discovers the interior strength to do what frustratingly will likely prove to be impossible. Yet she does not give in, does not give up, facing each obstacle laid in her path with a raw, naked candor that cuts to the horrific truth of the situation with razor-sharp specificity. It all culminates with a scene between King and actress Emily Rios that is a firestorm of human feeling and internalized dread, their rage and uncertainty leaping off the screen and burying itself into the center of my soul making this moment an important microcosm of the American experience that's extraordinary.

There's so much more I want to single out for praise, not the least of which is cinematographer James Laxton's (Camp X-Ray) deftly lithe camerawork, Joi McMillon (Lemon) and Nat Sanders' (Short Term 12) meticulous editing, Mark Friedberg's (Wonderstruck) exquisite production design and Caroline Eselin's (The Hollars) suitably lived-in costumes. Best of all is Nicholas Britell's (Battle of the Sexes) jazzy, melancholically radiant score, his assortment of musical queues adding an evocative veneer to the proceedings that's sublime. Jenkins handles all of these technical aspects with such astute candor it augments the various themes at the heart of Baldwin's prose in ways that are electrifyingly vivacious, the final knock-out punch delivered with such care and understanding it's like being delicately kissed with affectionate sincerity by the righthand hook of a heavyweight champion.

I want to add more. I want to talk about many of the shorter scenes, the little moments where each character lives their respective lives in an attempt to make the most of the situation they're currently in no matter what demons and dangers might be waiting for them right around the corner. But the majesty of If Beale Street Could Talk is in the mystifying discoveries Jenkins asks the viewers to make on their own. In the end this is a glorious treatise on more than just race in America, more than a dissertation on wealth, privilege and gender inequalities and what individuals and families go through in order to conquer them. It is an examination of who we are as a society, the best and worst of our tendencies all shimmering through in one way or another as this story of love, tragedy and family plays out to conclusion. This movie is a marvel. See it at once.


Well-cast Vice a condescending and obvious political satire
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

VICE
Now playing


Adam McKay opened my eyes somewhat with his 2015 Oscar-winner The Big Short. Up until that point I can't say I was a huge fan, his series of popular comedies with Will Ferrell, a list which includes Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Step Brothers and The Other Guys not doing much for me. While all of them have been technically proficient and made with noticeable skill, I just didn't really find them all that consistently funny, and as such the director wasn't high on my list of filmmakers I felt like keeping an eye on.

McKay's star-studded satirical exploration of the late 2000's housing crisis, however, made me reconsider that opinion. The film was made with inventive skill, the way he and co-writer Charles Randolph adapted Michael Lewis' best-selling book for the screen overflowing in creative imagination. The way the director opened up the motion picture to break the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience in order to explain in short, punchy bursts of adrenaline the ins and outs of the more minute concepts of the housing crisis were extraordinary. I loved much of what McKay did with The Big Short, and in the couple years since its original release I've found his massively amusing satire has only grown in resonance and entertainment value with each passing day.

I do not foresee the same thing happening with his latest attempt at historical deconstruction, Vice. Even with a magnificent central performance from an almost unrecognizable Christian Bale as Dick Cheney and a superb supporting cast which includes the likes of Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, Alison Pill as Mary Cheney, LisaGay Hamilton as Condoleezza Rice, Lily Rabe as Liz Cheney and Tyler Perry as Colin Powell this movie frustrated and annoyed me more than it did anything else. McKay's utilization of the same fourth wall-breaking style he used for The Big Short feels decidedly unnecessary, while his historical observations regarding the controversial political figure aren't especially deep or insightful. I found the director's latest to be nothing more than a constant frustration, and as great as a few individual moments and scenes might be, and as strong as pretty much all of the performances are, for me this easily ranks as one of 2018's most surprising disappointments.

As narrated by Jesse Plemons, portraying a character who initially appears to be a generic, politically-astute everyman, but in reality ends up being so much more, the film is an overview of Dick Cheney's ascension to the office of Vice President under President George W. Bush and how he changed perceptions of that position in the U.S. Government forever. It also covers his marriage to Lynne, initial support for daughter Mary when she comes out as a lesbian and his Congressional internship where he becomes the right-hand man to Donald Rumsfeld. His time as Haliburton CEO is touched upon, as are other various highlights from his and Lynne's life together weathering every hardship and scandal that came their way.

That's pretty much it, the movie an observational comedy-drama hybrid analyzing Dick Cheney and the various things he accomplished in his life from a conversationally bird's eye view. It doesn't want to scrutinize, doesn't want to dig too deep, McKay adding an occasional jolt of haughty laughter from either one of the characters watching things play out or from Plemons' (mostly) unseen narrator. Instead Vice just seems content to make supercilious fun of everything, its most pointed barbs not so much directed at Dick Cheney and his enablers so much as they are at the audience itself. When the fourth wall is broken and Plemons starts explaining what is going on it's almost as if he's berating the viewer personally for allowing Bush, Cheney and all of their cronies to come to power in the first place. To me this felt more than a little condescending, and while McKay isn't pulling his punches they still came across as nothing more than cheap shots pummeling the wrong adversary.

Don't blame the cast. McKay gives his actors plenty of room to make these real life figures their own, Rockwell, Perry, Carell and especially Adams all exemplary. But it is Bale who steals the show. He's magnificent as Dick Cheney, and instead of relying upon the impressive prosthetic makeup effects to do the heavy lifting for him the Oscar-winning actor still manages to give a delicately refined, aggressively complex performance that's frequently extraordinary. While getting inside this man's headspace is frequently a distasteful place to be Bale doesn't attempt to modulate what he's doing in some clueless attempt to make the man likable or empathetic. Instead, he's digging deeper than that, trying to find the internal mechanisms that make Dick Cheney tick, and in doing so paints a far more fascinating portrait of the man than I initially assumed possible.

As great as he and the rest of his castmates are, however, none of that is enough for me to find the overall film even moderately worthwhile. It doesn't say anything new, doesn't offer any incredible insights that forced me to look at Dick Cheney, if not in a different way, at least from an angle I might not have thought to view him from beforehand. But McKay doesn't seem interested in doing that. Instead, as I've already stated he just seems to want to poke fun at all this disturbing absurdity in ways that to my mind were both obvious and patronizing. After The Big Short I expected more from the director. To say Vice didn't deliver on those expectations would be to understate that sentiment considerably.


RBG drama On the Basis of Sex a rousing success
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

Now playing
Coming hot on the heels of the surprise success of Julie Cohen and Betsy West's documentary RBG earlier this year, director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) and Daniel Stiepleman unveil the drama On the Basis of Sex. This is an endearingly insightful feature chronicling roughly 15 years in the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) starting with her years at Harvard Law School and culminating with a landmark 1970 case where she, her tax attorney husband Martin (Armie Hammer) and the ACLU battled for the rights of a male caregiver taking care of his ailing mother but who was denied crucial tax deductions simply because of his gender. While moderately formulaic in narrative construction the film is still nonetheless a rousing story of selfless triumph and intimate self-reflection that only grows in powerful resonance as the story progresses. It's very entertaining, and by the time the film had come to its conclusion all I wanted to do was to sit back down in the theatre and watch it against from the beginning right then and there.

What's interesting is that as straightforward and conventional as the presentation might be, and even though he's Ginsburg's nephew, Stiepleman isn't interested in presenting his aunt as some sort of saint or as an angelic embodiment of judicial perfection. While the future Supreme Court Justice is undeniably the hero that does not mean she still can't make a few mistakes. She has to find her voice the same as any other person who ends up making a historical name for themselves also has to do, and more than that the movie goes to subtle, emotionally astute lengths to showcase that she just as importantly does not do this alone. The Ginsburg marriage is depicted as being one of equals, Ruth and Martin just as willing to challenge one another on questions of the law just as they are to be selflessly supportive of each's personal ambitions. It's spellbinding, and I find it difficult to imagine either of them would have risen to the heights they did without the other there to lend a helping hand.

Leder has inexplicably been in something akin to major studio directing purgatory after the failure of her 2000 melodrama Pay It Forward starring Haley Joel Osment, Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey. Since then she's mostly been working in television, helming a number of notable episodes for series like 'The Leftovers,' 'Shameless' and 'Smash.' While her style is hardly flashy, there is a confident precision to her handling of key story dynamics that help give this film an endearing sense of authenticity that's comforting. More important, Leder is aces with actors, the freedom she gives them to make each individual performance their own undeniable. This gives things an authoritative familiarity that's reassuring, the majority of the characters, no matter how big or small their part in the story might be, pleasingly three-dimensional oftentimes in any number of fairly surprising ways.

But the core element is Jones. After a number of sensational performances in films as diverse as The Theory of Everything (for which she received an Academy Award nomination), Like Crazy, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, A Monster Calls and Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, she's delightful as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. With so much footage of the real woman it would have been incredibly easy for the actress to phone this one in, to rely upon the audience's affinity for the Supreme Court Justice and deliver a spirited impersonation and call it a day. Instead, Jones goes for broke, attempting to get to the very heart of Ginsburg's furious pursuit of gender equality and her dogged determination to battle discriminatory policies everywhere she sees it. There is a delicate yet still ferocious specificity to her actions that's invigorating, everything culminating with her character's empowered closing arguments during that 1970 tax discrimination case that are as poignantly human as they are breathlessly sincere.

I also loved what Hammer did here, his Martin Ginsburg a quietly supportive firebrand in his own right even if his temperament always seems to appear steady and nonplussed no matter what might be happening. Sam Waterston is masterful as Harvard Law School dean and future U.S. Government Solicitor General Erwin Griswold, while Stephen Root craftily steals any number of scenes as one of Ruth's narrow-minded professors who will become her chief judicial foil less than 15 years after her graduation. There's a feisty cameo from Kathy Bates as barrier-busting lawyer and feminist icon Dorothy Kenyon, a scene between her and ACLU legal department head Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) particularly winning. Best of all might just be Cailee Spaeny as Ruth and Martin's headstrong and independent daughter Jane, her scenes with Jones having a magnetic electricity that's credibly multifaceted.

I can't say On the Basis of Sex goes anywhere surprising. I can't say Stiepleman's script digs down any deeper than it needs to in order to edify or to entertain. But none of that makes the film any less rapturous. Leder directs things with an assertive hand, the technical proficiency of her drama never in doubt especially as it pertains to cinematographer Michael Grady (Annie), editor Michelle Tesoro (Shot Caller), Oscar-winning composer Mychael Danna (Life of Pi) and costume designer Isis Mussenden (The Wolverine). The film is also a magnificent showcase for Jones, the talented actress giving one of the best performances of her career, making this examination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's early judicial exploits a rousing success I couldn't help but love.


Misbegotten Marwen an offensively exploitive disaster
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

WELCOME TO MARWEN
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Robert Zemeckis is a great director. Any filmmaker who has the likes of I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Used Cars, Romancing the Stone, the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Death Becomes Her and Cast Away on their resume deserves all the praise they've ever received, and I honestly don't think that's up for debate. Heck, even if I don't personally care for Forrest Gump all that much I still understand it's a staggering cinematic achievement only a master craftsman could have made. Even his foray into motion-capture animation advanced the medium in a multitude of ways, and while I don't think The Polar Express, Beowulf or A Christmas Carol are particularly entertaining, I still respect what it was Zemeckis was attempting to do in all three instances.

As far as the director's more recent period is concerned, I really liked both Flight and The Walk a lot, both of them featuring stellar performances from their respective stars Denzel Washington (who received an Oscar nomination) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt that rank amongst each actor's best work. The latter also showcased the single greatest use of 3-D of any recent modern picture outside of Avatar, Gravity or Hugo, the film's closing sequence a virtuoso balancing act that's extraordinary. As for 2016's WWII romantic thriller Allied, that one sadly left me cold, and although it was gorgeously composed and elegantly realized there was just something about that Brad Pitt/Marion Cotillard WWII romantic thriller I could never embrace.

I include all of that exposition as it pertains to Zemeckis and his career so that there is a context as I write about the director's latest endeavor, the fantastical redemptive melodrama Welcome to Marwen. This movie, featuring incredible visual effects where its stars are photo-realistically transformed into plasticized Barbie Dolls and G.I. Joes, revolving around a story that's based on an inspiring true story of a talented artist who overcame unimaginable trauma to put his life back together and create imaginative works of art, is an absolute disaster. It is the worst film of its director's career. It is an inexcusable, tone-deaf misfire that does a huge disservice to the person it is supposedly trying to celebrate while at the same time transforming its collection of female characters into risible archetypical caricatures that feel of a bygone era that doesn't need to be revisited. For the first time ever I hated a Robert Zemeckis-helmed project, a sentiment I honestly never imagined would be even close to possible.

I'm going to keep this as brief as I can because I just don't feel the need to expound on this monstrosity for very long. The basic plot concerns Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), an artist who is beaten within an inch of his life after a group of thugs discover he likes to wear women's shoes. During his physical and mental rehab Hogancamp creates a fictional WWII-era Belgian town he names 'Marwen' where his alter ego Captain Hoagie battles against Nazi oppressors with the aid of a group of beautiful-yet-gruff women who can shoot, drink and talk just as tough as he can. Each of these citizens of Marwen is crafted utilizing 12-inch dolls and are based on people from his life, including members of the gang that assaulted him. But most of them are the women who have helped him heal, so they're the ones who assist Captain Hoagie in his fight against the Nazis, Hogancamp finding inspiration in each of them as he tries to rebuild his life.

The first visit to Marwen is undeniably stunning. The motion capture effects required to bring these dolls to life is astonishing, and what will likely come as no surprise to anyone the technical wizardry required to pull these sequences off is magnificently realized on Zemeckis' part. As far as combining top-flight visual effects seamlessly into a live action motion picture are concerned, the director is a virtuoso, and it's unlikely even Steven Spielberg or James Cameron would question the filmmaker's prowess as far as that particular skill is concerned.

That's the good news. The bad is so overwhelming I almost don't know where to begin. Initially, I will say that as impressive as the visual effects are they also become increasingly tiresome as the movie progresses. The sequences in the town just lose their potency and allure, Zemeckis taking his story to this WWII hotbed of Nazi activity so frequently he diminishes their power to amaze.

While that is unfortunate, it's everything else that ends up making the movie such a heinous and exploitive catastrophe. None of the main actresses involved (a list which includes the likes of Gwendoline Christie, Leslie Mann, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, Merritt Wever, Diane Kruger and Leslie Zemeckis) see their characters become anything other than a disastrous cliché, while the film's depiction of an individual dealing with a disability caused by inconceivable physical and mental trauma is borderline offensive. Zemeckis, never a filmmaker afraid of sentiment, sprays it around on this story as if it were coming out of a firehouse, the whole enterprise drowning in a tidal wave of schmaltzy mawkishness that's as facile as it is assaultive.

Then there is the treatment of Mark Hogancamp's fetishes and his fascination with women's footwear. It is as if Zemeckis is completely incapable of dealing with the subject matter, as if for all his good intentions and progressive ideals his concepts of gender and self-expression just don't allow him to be able to fully process ideas that do not conform to typical societal norms. The movie is so afraid of this facet of Hogancamp's story that it treats it more as a throwaway element and not a key facet of the main character's personality. It's horrifying, and I'm not sure what more there is to add.

Writing about all of this is only making me angry. Jeff Malmberg, an executive producer here, made a brilliant documentary about Mark Hogancamp in 2010 entitled Marwencol. It's one of this past decade's best films, an essential piece of non-fiction cinema that tells the artist's story with grace, precision, intelligence, complexity and most of all empathy. It's available in multiple formats and on a number of platforms and should be seen right away. As for Zemeckis' fictionalized recounting of Hogancamp's tale? While I'll always love the director for his numerous past triumphs that doesn't mean I can cut him any slack this time around. Welcome to Marwen is a revolting calamity, and my hope is that audiences choose to avoid this film like the plague.


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