ON THE BASIS OF SEX – movie review


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+

RBG – movie review


Magnolia Pictures
Reviewed for BigAppleReviews.net & Shockya.com by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Julie Cohen, Betsy West
Cast:  Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bill Clinton, Orrin Hatch, The Notorious B.I.G, Gloria Steinem
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/3/18
Opens: May 4, 2018, Streaming August 28, 2018 and sure to be considered for awards votes beginning 11/29/18.
RBG Movie Poster
With whom on the Supreme Court would you feel most comfortable to have a beer?  Roberts? Alito? Gorsuch, Kavanaugh?  These four may be too conservative, even reactionary for you, assuming that you’re a progressive at heart, but that’s not to say they’re no fun. Remember that progressives and conservatives, even reactionaries, can have good times together. As we see from this biopic, the title character, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, had a remarkable friendship with Antonin Scalia though they were polar opposites in their legal ideologies.  They were both opera buffs and even shared an elephant ride in India, quite a bit more time together than just enjoying a Bud Light.  If you’re in your twenties or thirties, you probably can’t imagine sharing much with a woman 85 years old and give or take a couple of inches standing five feet tall, but whenever Justice Ginsburg speak before a group of high-school or college students she generates formidable  electricity.  If you can forget about the recent nomination kerfuffle involving Brett Kavanaugh, it’s possible that RBG is the only Supreme Court Justice that a broad sweep of Americana had even heard of.

Co-director Julie West, known for “American Veteran” (a veteran returns from the wars with serious injurious from an IED in Afghanistan) and Betsy West, at the helm of “The Lavender Scare” (President Eisenhower determines that homosexuals are a security risk) are able to express their progressive views again, teaming up for the picture with what will probably be the shortest title this year.
And the picture is a doozy.  If you expect some solemn, government-issued coverage of one of nine Supreme Court justices, you are happily mistaken, because Cohen and West make sure to capture some of the key comic moments of Ginsburg’s life.

To be sure, some portions of the movie will deal with cases that were turning points in American jurisprudence, giving Ginsburg the opportunity to write dissenting opinions with the one-after-another 5-4 rulings.  Most of all, though, the documentarians, who have caught key moments in her life, make this quite an entertainment while grounded in the RBG as a human being.  Chief among her views is that men and women should be considered equal, getting the same pay for the same work and the same chances for promotions.  It should be obvious to all that anything less than such equality is beyond the pale, yet in the case of Frontiero v. Richardson in 1973, a married woman had to fight the U.S. Air Force to get the same housing benefits as her male colleagues.  In United States v. Virginia, a 1996 case held that women must be admitted to the Virginia Military Institute, or VMI.  What woman even today would not appreciate given the choice of dating classmates when outnumbered by men by some 50 to 1?

The film quickly covers her childhood in Brooklyn, New York, her high-school days, and the higher education which allowed RBG to practice law and to climb the ladder to sit with the highest court in the land.  Martin Ginsburg, her late husband, comes across as her leading cheerleader, which may have helped them to enjoy a marriage lasting over half a century.  A Saturday Night Live sketch highlights Kate McKinnon’s gleefully impersonating RBG lifting weights, and so constantly in motion that she is virtually break dancing. And in fact to this day she works out in a gym with a trainer who gets her to 20 pushups at a time while a couple of women approaching her age joke that they could probably not be able even to get up from the floor—or even to get down to the floor!

As a badge of honor she was criticized by President Trump for saying that in effect the man is unqualified to sit in the Oval Office, and while not mentioned in this film, she joked that she might consider moving to New Zealand if he became President.  Caricatures show her as Wonder Woman and other Marvel heroes, roles you would not expect for such a slight, quiet, woman, unassuming—that is until she shows her teeth in trashing some of the Supreme Court majority opinions that set the country back to the bad old days, according to progressives.  She pulled no punches while interviewed by the Senate, which had the power to confirm or withhold Bill Clinton’s nomination of the woman, holding that women should have reproductive rights.  Such a viewpoint in 2018 would probably have a nominee rejected by the world’s most prestigious club, yet she was confirmed 96-3.

It’s a pleasure to take in the full-of-life biopic of the Court’s most vivid, celebrated, and revered woman.

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

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