COLD WAR – movie review

COLD WAR (Zimna wajna)

Amazon Studios
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Screenwriter: Pawel Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki
Cast: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn
Screened at: Soho, NYC, 10/25/18
Opens: December 21, 2018

In “Meet Me in Saint Louis” Judy Garland sings: “How can I ignore, the boy next door, I love him more than I can say.” It’s quite possible that most marriages today are between people from the same town, but if you’re European and you don’t like the folks living near you, you can find a mate somewhere else in your country. Or you can go abroad, which is easy enough to do on the Continent. No data exist on whether marriages survive better if you’re with a mate from the same area, though common sense dictates that this is likely true. In the case of “Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” the original Polish title being “Zimna wajna,” the two principal lovers travel considerably, not always the easiest thing to do when you live in Communist Poland in 1949 through 1964. Whether distance makes the heart grow fonder or whether out of sight is out of mind is the rule, these two people show that both proverbs are true.

Pawlikowski, whose best known movie drama “Ida” is about a woman about to take vows and join a nunnery in 1960 but whose plans are disturbed by a surfacing secret about her father, this time spends time not only in Poland but also in Yugoslavia, and France. Communism has an effect on two lovers, singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) and pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), pushing them into locations where they separate, but you can’t blame simply politics for the destruction of a passionate love. These two people are from the same country but they are different sorts who probably could not survive under the same roof for more than two years, notwithstanding their vows of eternal affection.

Despite the fine performances by Joanna Kulig Zula and Tomasz Kot, the best parts of the film take place during the musical concerts, where folk dance performances in costumes of the traditional Poles and similar exhibitions forced by Communist officials to set the mood of land reform and the god-like image of Stalin, are given a respectable amount of time for us to enjoy. While Zula is perfectly willing to conform to the political correctness of the time by remaining with the folk group and doing what the government requires, Wiktor, the pianist and orchestral conductor is disgusted. Though Wiktor and Zula are passionate about each other, the schism begins when they agree to leave the Communist-controlled Poland and go to Paris. He leaves. She stays behind. Thus begins a twenty-year affair during which time she marries an Italian and then a high-ranking Polish official.

They meet and part. They appear in jazz clubs and concerts in Yugoslavia. Wiktor is more of a steady force while Zula is a firebrand. The stage is not set for a Hollywood ending.

The principal problem is that black-and-white photography and an Academy ratio of 1.37:1—representing the width and the length of the screen—may give a period look, but then OK: we get it. It’s 1949. It’s 1960. There is enough atmosphere within the filming to know that this is a period piece. Why compromise the beauty of the Polish folk-dance concerts with shades of gray? Why not have the usual aspect ratio of 2.39:1, giving us in the audience benefit of a wider screen? The dances together with the colorful, harmonic singing would be enough to allow us even to overlook any behavior of the principals that does not rivet us. Still, given the gestalt, a look at the sick requirement of Communism to force works of art into glorifying the state, the fantastic music which includes Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock (my favorite R&R song), and the joys and pains of Wiktor and Zula, all combine to make this Poland’s obvious choice to promote for Best Foreign Feature for the 91st Academy Awards show.

89 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A+
Technical – B-
Overall – B

THE LAND OF STEADY HABITS – movie review

THE LAND OF STEADY HABITS
Netflix
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director: Nicole Holofcener
Screenwriter: Nicole Holofcener, adapting Ted Thompson’s novel
Cast: Ben Mendelsohn, Edie Falco, Thomas Mann, Bill Camp, Elizabeth Marvel, Connie Britton
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/5/18
Opens: September 14, 2018 and now promoted for year-end awards

The Land of Steady Habits Movie Review (2018) | Roger Ebert

Though billed as a comedy, “The Land of Steady Habits” has comic touches but is a serious and deep look at the nature of family, work, and parenting. As directed by Nicole Holofcener, whose “Please Give” is a look at a husband and wife’s conflicts with the grandkids of the next door neighbor, sticks to what she knows best. This film is clearly within Holofcener’s prime motif.

As the film opens, Anders Harris (Ben Mendelsohn) is at a big box store in Connecticut, possibly Bed, Bath and Beyond, where he looks with confusion and paralysis at a stack of towels a mile high. He asks a woman for information about an object he finds and winds up with an almost instant sexual liaison. Later he will have a quick conference with another woman, and same thing happens, though Anders is unable to get a lasting erection. “I think it’s out” says his partner, giving Anders the opportunity for the usual retort “This never happened to me before, but it’s not your fault.” “I never thought it was,” responds the woman.

Anders’ problem is that now retired with nothing meaningful to do, he broke up with his wife, Helene (Edie Falco) thinking that he would restore his sense of adventure. He realizes that he made a mistake and is now floundering around, moving into a place in the same Connecticut suburb—his choice determined by his need to stalk the wife that he now misses. To top his frustration, Helene has taken on a rich boyfriend, Donnie (Bill Camp) with plans to marry. In a fit of good will, Anders has deeded his house over to his ex-wife, which makes one wonder whether he has lost his bond with her in any significant way.

He spends considerable time with his son Preston (Thomas Mann) and the lad’s friend Charlie (Charlie Tahan), both of whom are disturbed. Preston has been in rehab and still uses PCP while Charlie is rootless, delivering liquor to fellow suburbanites.

“The Land of Steady Habits” is another in the group of films satirizing suburbia—the concentration on money and shopping, the dull parties, and the whole shebang from which Anders had retired in the first place. His job in finance for him entails monstrous greed (“for what”? for a big house, trips to the Caribbean?” But he has nothing with which to replace his energy.

With a stunning principal performance from Ben Mendelsohn, an Everyman to which many a fellow can relate, “The Land of Steady Habits” is one of recent years’ best looks at the existential despair of suburban people of both genders and ages.

98 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

THE LAND OF STEADY HABITS
Netflix
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director: Nicole Holofcener
Screenwriter: Nicole Holofcener, adapting Ted Thompson’s novel
Cast: Ben Mendelssohn, Edie Falco, Thomas Mann, Bill Camp, Elizabeth Marvel, Connie Britton
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/5/18
Opens: September 14, 2018 and now promoted for year-end awards

Though billed as a comedy, “The Land of Steady Habits” has comic touches but is a serious and deep look at the nature of family, work, and parenting. As directed by Nicole Holofcener, whose “Please Give” is a look at a husband and wife’s conflicts with the grandkids of the next door neighbor, sticks to what she knows best. This film is clearly within Holofcener’s prime motif.

As the film opens, Anders Harris (Ben Mendelsohn) is at a big box store in Connecticut, possibly Bed, Bath and Beyond, where he looks with confusion and paralysis at a stack of towels a mile high. He asks a woman for information about an object he finds and winds up with an almost instant sexual liaison. Later he will have a quick conference with another woman, and same thing happens, though Anders is unable to get a lasting erection. “I think it’s out” says his partner, giving Anders the opportunity for the usual retort “This never happened to me before, but it’s not your fault.” “I never thought it was,” responds the woman.

Anders’ problem is that now retired with nothing meaningful to do, he broke up with his wife, Helene (Edie Falco) thinking that he would restore his sense of adventure. He realizes that he made a mistake and is now floundering around, moving into a place in the same Connecticut suburb—his choice determined by his need to stalk the wife that he now misses. To top his frustration, Helene has taken on a rich boyfriend, Donnie (Bill Camp) with plans to marry. In a fit of good will, Anders has deeded his house over to his ex-wife, which makes one wonder whether he has lost his bond with her in any significant way.

He spends considerable time with his son Preston (Thomas Mann) and the lad’s friend Charlie (Charlie Tahan), both of whom are disturbed. Preston has been in rehab and still uses PCP while Charlie is rootless, delivering liquor to fellow suburbanites.

“The Land of Steady Habits” is another in the group of films satirizing suburbia—the concentration on money and shopping, the dull parties, and the whole shebang from which Anders had retired in the first place. His job in finance for him entails monstrous greed (“for what”? for a big house, trips to the Caribbean?” But he has nothing with which to replace his energy.

With a stunning principal performance from Ben Mendelssohn, an Everyman to which many a fellow can relate, “The Land of Steady Habits” is one of recent years’ best looks at the existential despair of suburban people of both genders and ages.

98 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK – movie review

IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK
Annapurna Pictures
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director: Barry Jenkins
Screenwriter: Barry Jenkins from the book by James Baldwin
Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Aunjanue Ellis
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/1/18
Opens: December 14, 2018

When James Baldwin wrote the book that Barry Jenkins adapted for this film, conditions for African-Americans had already improved, but not nearly as much as black people could accept nor could even tolerant and accepting white people would hope. In 1974, however, the situation was different, even in a supposedly blue city like New York. There were racist cops then, and there are racist cops now. There are landlords who will not rent to people of color then, and there are landlords who turn away black couples now. There were false accusations of rape then, and for all we know that situation exists today. We may think that all this prejudice comes from the South, from the so-called red states, but as Baldwin shows, and as Jenkins nicely adapts, racism turns up in New York nowadays where there are neighborhood that had never seen a residing person of color.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” is in good directorial hands given that Barry Jenkins’ stunning sophomore movie, “Moonlight,” which chronicles the youth, adolescence and adulthood of a gay man in a rough section of Miami. “Moonlight” picked up $65 million worldwide with a production budget of $4 million and garnered nominations and awards from the Golden Globes and the Academy and from a stack of critics’ organizations. This time Jenkins turns down the surrealism in favor of evoking a naturalistic look at young love amid a society that makes it difficult for innocent black men to plead their case effectively and which puts them in detention facilities for months, maybe years (Rikers Island in New York for example), if they cannot afford to make bail.

While Baldwin’s book starts when Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) is in jail, Jenkins transposes the events leaving us with a series of scenes which together will amount to a summing up of the lives of a couple, Fonny age 22 and his 19-year-old sweetheart Clementine “Tish” Rivers (Kiki Layne). “If Beale Street Could Talk,” covers primarily events in the lives of the principal couple while extending their society to her family, his family and friends, and the greater world that impinges on their lives.

The story is narrated by Tish, whose love for Fonny and his for her are vividly demonstrated. The movie opens with the two of them walking slowly and with obvious affection through Harlem streets. She will eventually get a job behind the perfume counter of a department store, stating in her narration that the owners must consider themselves progressive for hiring her. She also relates some humorous if stereotypical reactions her customers will have, noting that white men will hold her hand, spray perfume on it and sniff it while black customers would not deign to patronize her section.

Life skews out of control when a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), is raped. Fonny is false accused in a lineup. When Rogers returns to Puerto Rico, Fonny is behind bars, his trial repeatedly postponed as he is visited regularly by Tish. Meanwhile Tish’s assertive mom Sharon Rivers (Regina King) is determined to get her potential son-in-law exonerated, even traveling to Puerto Rico to try to convince the accuser to return and reconsider her testimony. If the determination of a racist cop, Officer Bell (Ed Skrein) to put Fonny away because of a previous grudge is the movie’s most disgraceful scene, even family members cannot guarantee support as Fonny’s Bible-thumping mother, Mrs. Hunt (Aunjanue Ellis), hearing that Tish is pregnant, wishes that the fetus would wither in the womb and accuses her of being a whore.

A few white guys appear in the tale, only one of them, the cop, playing out his racism. Levy (David Franco), a real estate agent, is perfectly happy to offer Trish and Fonny a loft on New York’s West Village Bank Street, and Hayward (Finn Wittrock) wants to take the case as the family lawyer stating that he would not accept the role if he were not sure Fonny is innocent.

This is quite a well-made production lifted from the commonplace by the all-embracing love of Tish and Fonny, lensed by James Laxton on the streets of Manhattan, edited with appropriate flashbacks by Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, the emotions evoked with the help of Nicholas Britell’s music.

119 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

CAPERNIUM – movie review

CAPERNAUM (Chaos) سافرنام

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Nadine Labaki
Screenwriter:  Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeilly, Michelle Keserwany, in collaboration with Georges Khabbaz and with the participation of Khaled Mouzanar
Cast:  Zain Al Rafeea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawthar Al Haddad
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 11/28/18
Opens: December 14, 2018

Capernaum Poster #1


Next time a “homeless Vietnam veteran” enters your car in the New York City Metro asking for “a dollar, a quarter, even a penny to feed my three hungry kids,” are you tempted to say “If you’re too poor to take care of yourself, why the hell did you have three hungry kids?”  (Ironically, Trump would not be tempted to say this, given that he opposes requiring health insurance companies to cover birth control.)  The rich make money, the poor make children.

Homelessness and poverty are in no way intrinsic to New York or the U.S. but are more prevalent in what Trump might call sh*thole countries.  Doubtless he’d include Muslim Lebanon, since that Middle Eastern state is no Norway, but while Beirut has a thriving middle class, others live in slums that make a tourist wonder how anyone can bear living there—without water, electricity, indoor plumbing, and everything else.  Nadine Labaki, who directs and co-wrote “Capernaum,” took hundreds of hours of film in a hell-hole Beirut slum to capture children who are not likely to become the next slumlord millionaires.  What emerges is a three-hanky movie about the tragic lives of people who live there, some without papers, without money, without hope, including children whose occupations are more likely selling chiclets than running a hedge fund.

Director and co-writer Nadine Labaski, whose “Where Do We Go Now” is about how some Lebanese women try to moderate the tensions between Christian and Muslims, is in her métier, writing what she knows about the Beirut of her birthplace.  Evoking incredibly subtle performances from non-professional actors especially the young boys and girls who are likely to be acting out their own slum lives, she delves particularly into the life of 12-year-old central character Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), serving a five-year sentence for stabbing “a sonofabitch” and sues his parents for giving birth to him.  This kid apparently knows more than the parents the world-over who have no concept of family planning and whose large brood will keep them in poverty.  In fact the adults in “Capernaum” make do by selling their offspring, including one eleven-year-old girl who is married off and who dies bleeding to death in childbirth. 

Zain is a Lebanese boy who wants to pass himself off as a Syrian refugee to allow him to emigrate to Turkey or Sweden, while probably knowing nothing about those two states except for thinking that Sweden is prettier.  In many scenes this street kid is taking care of an Ethiopian baby Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole) and the infant’s mother Rahil (Yordanos Chiferaw). The baby is too young to talk but ready to cry and feel abandoned like an anxious puppy if his would-be baby sitter leaves him on the sidewalk to run an errand.  This responsible young lad takes better care of the Ethiopian refugee than his own mother Souad (Kawthar Al Haddad) and father Selim (Eadi Kamel Youssef), which explains the unusual lawsuit.  The parents’ lack of care comes principally from their poverty as they are unable even to give Zain the modest sum to allow him to get a passport, nor would a hospital take him in if he needs medical care as he has no ID.   He scrapes by as a delivery boy for a grocer who has his eye on Zain’s kid sister Sahar (Cedra Izam).  He trusts Aspro (Alaa Chouchnieh) to forge an ID.  As though their poverty were not enough to bear, these slum dwellers are exploited by miscreants who run a black market adoption scheme.  Yet there are moments of humor as when Zain is asked why “his brother” is darker than he pipes up that his mother drank a lot of coffee. 

Most Americans with the wherewithal to travel stick to our own country or to other well-off regions in Canada and Western Europe. Those who prefer more exotic excursions and go to poor countries—and there are a lot more of them than the other kind—will observe the same problems that we see hear—the rusty tin, corrugated boxes that slum dwellers call home, the sending our of their small fry to sell gum on the street, even encouraging some to do as Zair did by selling drugs like the opiate Tramadol (which Zair gets from a suspicious pharmacist.)

“Capernaum” (pronounced cap AIR nay um), meaning “a place with a disorderly accumulation of objects,”  is Lebanon’s entry to the 91st Academy awards and commands your attention for its authentic acting, its visuals, its humanism. In Arabic with English subtitles.  The film got a 15-minute standing ovation at the recent Cannes Film Festival.

123 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical –  A-
Overall – B+

STAN & OLLIE – movie review

STAN & OLLIE

Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed for BigAppleReviews.net & Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director: Jon S. Baird
Screenwriter: Jeff Pope
Cast: Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly, Nina Arianda, Shirley Henderson, Danny Huston, Rufus Jones
Screened at: Sony, NYC, 11/26/18
Opens: December 28, 2018

Stan & Ollie Movie Poster

Even if you read the gossip magazines like “People” with news about divorces, births, miscarriages, and off-set fights, you may still think that actors do not have personal lives. Or maybe you believe that in the personal lives, they act in the same manner as they do on the big screen. Take the example of Laurel and Hardy; i.e., Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly). During their skits—and they had quite a few during their long careers on the stage and screen—Laurel would play the simpleton while Hardy would be the more sophisticated one who’d look with condescension on his teammate. Never mind that Oliver Hardy was fat, and that the excess weight would contribute to heart problems that found him losing 100 pounds, down to 138 in his final year. And that Stan Laurel was slimmer, handsomer, and a writer. Both were klutzy on stage, but to paraphrase George Orwell, some people are klutzier than others with Laurel having to take guff from Hardy regularly. To prove the point, along comes “Stan & Ollie,” made by the Scottish-born director Jon S. Baird. Baird is known mostly for TV episodes but he did have two other feature films: “Filth,” about a corrupt junkie cop with bipolar disorder, and “Cass,” about an orphaned Jamaican baby raised by a white couple in a white neighborhood. Interesting stuff, offbeat like Baird’s current feature.

Baird’s “Stan & Ollie” does spend time reviving the stage shtick, concentrating at first on exposition with their producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston) and their first pic together in 1921. In 1953 their careers looked ready to be wrapped up during a tour of Britain and Ireland playing to disappointing numbers at the box office in the UK countryside. Yet they sprang back to life in London drawing a full house of laughing, applauding, and greatly appreciating the duo that they remember so well from the films and stage appearances of the past. They owe much to the marketing savvy of their British promoter Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones).

Much is owed in this movie to the make-up team, twenty-one people, each concentrating on getting John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan to be the spit-and-image of Laurel and Hardy. Reilly did not have to gain 40 pounds as Christian Bale did to play the lead role in “Vice.” Instead he was given a prosthetic double chin along with the padded belly while others in the make-up department styled hair, special effects teeth, contact lenses, leaving some work for the mould maker and silicone technician. Solid supporting roles come from Shirley Henderson as wife Lucille Hardy and Nina Arianda as wife Ida Kataeva Laurel. The two women add to the comic touches; Henderson with her squeaky voice and our visual disbelief of being a foot or more shorter and much slimmer than Reilly; Arianda showing off her Russian accent and her assistance with her husband’s drinking problem which she solves by grabbing each glass he picks up and drinking the liquid herself.

Laurel and Hardy did not always get along in their private lives though they seem to be as close as conjoined twins, traveling with each other, and dining together with their wives. They are savvy enough not to break up like so many duos who have always performed better as a team, though Ollie resented that Stan went on to act in a movie without him while Oliver was stuck in a contract. Their bond is shown most when Ollie collapses with a heart condition and later dies. Stan refuses all offers to perform without his favorite partner though he continues to serve as a comedy writer.

The movie is a genial one filled, if not so much by the belly laughs that Laurel and Hardy evoked throughout their careers, then with gentle humor. We may smile rather than laugh, but nothing will stop us in the audience from doffing out caps to the duo that was named in a poll of UK comedians “the seventh best comedy team ever.”

98 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – A-
Overall – B+

VOX LUX – movie review

VOX LUX
 
Neon
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Brady Corbet
Screenwriter:  Brady Corbet
Cast:  Natalie Portman, Jude Law, Raffey Cassidy, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle
Screened at: Critics link, NYC, 11/22/18
Opens: December 7, 2018
Vox Lux - Poster Gallery
A novelistic narration by Willem Dafoe may give the viewer the impression that “Vox Lux” is a biopic about a singer whose name you might have forgotten.  The movie may well be a statement about the complex lives of superstars and choreographed dancers.  Brady Corbet’s sophomore picture still has us focused on one individual who comes back from drugs and scandal.  The element of luck comes into play, in this case catapulting the career of a 14-year-old.  Celeste’s song of grief after a terrorist attack on a high school leaving the teacher and some students in a music class dead and Celeste seriously injured will result in stardom for its young performer.  A tragic, then, drives a teen from an innocent, religious girl whose life may have been spared because she urges the gunman to pray with her to a disturbed addict whose new demeanor will demand no cost for her.

This is the beginning of a career in the music business, replete with staffs of creative people overseeing the talent of the new singer: a star is born.  This is up the writer-director’s ally, as his freshman film, “The Childhood of a Leader” takes the viewer into events that lead the title character to become a guide after World War I.

The opening visual shows a high-school kid’s murderous mission to the music room cutting down the teacher and some students, giving the impression that we may have tuned into a thriller rather than a study of a singer’s career.  When Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), using the song-writing skills of her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin), sings a mournful song at a memorial, word gets out to a nameless manager (Jude Law) who pushes the young woman to learn theatrical dance, rounding out the career that would spiral upward, get sent to earth, and gaining a comeback.  She picks up the support of Josie (Jennifer Ehle) as her publicist.  Eighteen years pass and now Celeste (Natalie Portman), hampered by a drug addiction, knocks out a new album, enjoying a close relationship with her teen daughter, Albertine (Raffey Cassidy in the double role.)

On the day of Celeste’s show which promises an audience of thousands, a terrorist attack occurs in Croatia, the shooters wearing masks from one of her videos.  This is where the film shines, spotlighting Natalie Portman’s ham-fisted performance while sharing a coffee shop table with her daughter and, with wild gestures and an ethnic accent, she unfolds her veritable life story to the young woman before being chased out by the restaurant’s manager.  In an extended finale Celeste, in a song and dance marathon, wows the crowd, her philosophy being that people should feel good and not worry too much about thinking.

The title comes from the name of her comeback album, “Vox Lux,” while thematically, the thirty-year-old writer director places his aim the nexus of violence and tragedy: the first horror has led to Celeste’s celebrity status, affording a cynical glory to a violent act and the paradox that out of mayhem, celebrity is born.

115 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B

ON THE BASIS OF SEX – movie review

ON THE BASIS OF SEX

Focus Features
Reviewed for Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Mimi Leder
Screenwriter:  Daniel Stiepleman
Cast:  Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 11/20/18
Opens: December 25, 2018
On the Basis of Sex - Poster Gallery
In 1972 a single male caring for his disabled mother was denied a $296 tax deduction that he claimed.  In 97% of cases such a minor situation ends up with the guy’s writing the sum off.  But this fellow in Colorado not only went beyond tax court, where almost every disagreement is settled.  He took the case to a federal court of appeals.  (I’m not clear on the reason the case was not first heard by a federal district court.)   Quite rare.  You needed a superwoman to win this one, and he found her.  RBG, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, depicted by Kate McKinnon not on Saturday Night Live as Wonder Woman may be stretching the truth somewhat though the octogenarian does pushups and indulges in resistance training.  By granting two movies to the public about the prominent justice—“RBG” a documentary, and now “On the Basis of Sex,” the industry finds special appeal in Ms. Ginsburg, though it remains to be seen whether Mr. Justice Kavanaugh gets a movie treatment—which will probably be not as warm as Hollywood has given to Ginsburg.

The final third of “On the Basis of Sex,” as directed by Mimi Leder—whose “Pay It Forward” is a sentimental look at a youth who decides to do good for the world—is the most riveting.  By contrast, the first two segments play up certain sentiments to broaden its appeal. For example, Daniel Stiepleman’s script pays attention to Cailee Spaeny in the role of Ginsburg’s teen daughter Jane, including a scene that finds her telling off a trio of construction workers who gently harass her.  The love between Ginsburg, here played by Felicity Jones who appears in most scenes, and her handsome and considerably taller husband Martin (Armie Hammer), is played up.  The audience is encouraged to boo (mentally, we hope, for the sake of audience concentration) when the Dean of Harvard Law school, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) tells Ruth that she should be gratified even to be accepted as one of the only eight women in the school.  Harvard students, except for the women, all report to class in dark suits and ties, and there is not a single African-American face in the group during a rebellious time in the U.S. of the late sixties, early seventies.  What’s more even when Ginsburg graduates from law school—she switched to Columbia to allow her to be with her husband who landed a job in New York—a law firm ignores the applicant’s first-in-her-class status to say that “our wives would be jealous if we hired a woman.”

Catharsis is achieved with considerable dramatic effect during the appearance before the federal Court of Appeals in Denver where one Charles Moritz (Christian Mulkey) has been denied a $296 tax deduction.  He had hired a nurse to take care of his wife, who is disabled, has dementia, and is in a wheelchair, but the tax court, following the law, notes that men who had never married are not eligible to deduct for such care while a woman, a divorced man and a widower is eligible for the deduction.  The specific law is this:
(a)    General rule.-There shall be allowed as a deduction expenses paid during the taxable year by a taxpayer who is a woman or widower, or is a husband whose wife is incapacitated or is institutionalized, for the care of one or more dependents (as defined in subsection (d) (1)), but only if such care is for the purpose of enabling the taxpayer to be gainfully employed.”
In what might pass for a cliffhanger, it looks as though the case would be lost. The three male judges signal by subtle body language that they have no intention of declaring this law unconstitutional.  Fighting for Moritz are Ruth, her husband Martin, and an energetic, extroverted staff member of ACLU Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux).  The government side include the solicitor general, the same fellow who had been the sexist dean of Harvard Law School.

While the case is going badly for the appellant, fighting against the forces of the U.S. Government, and Ruth appears to be so nervous that she is unable convincingly to answer questions that the judges pepper her with, the final four minutes of her argumentation changes the world, or at least the U.S.

So, feel-good this film is.  Whether a broad commercial audience might follow the legal arguments is debatable, though anyone with focus should be able to understand the briefs.  Felicity Jones, though a British woman who grew up in the Midlands, handles a perfect American accent and is ably supported by her colleagues, surely to the extent that the real Justice Ginsburg—who shows up in the final scene—must be pleased.

120 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+