(On Cable TV, November 2019) The rise of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a modern folk heroine is as unlikely as it is heartening in these times where lawlessness seems to be the norm for the highest office in the land. The Notorious RBG was a documentary account of her entire career, and it’s perfectly complemented by On the Basis of Sex, which chooses to focus on a very specific period of her life in order to illustrate her character … and provide a bit of an origins story as well. It begins with an extended prologue in which she goes to law school in the early 1960s (experiencing a predictable amount of sexism along the way), supports her husband throughout serious illness, has trouble getting a job as a practising lawyer and eventually joins faculty at a New York University. But the story really begins when she becomes aware of a sexual discrimination case involving a man being denied benefits on the sole basis of being male. Sensing an opportunity for establishing gender equality, she takes up the case and the film ends up chronicling her progress through a legal victory. On the Basis of Sex offers a stirring demonstration of rising to the challenge (her never having pleaded in court before taking on the case), benefiting from the support of her husband and using the law to break discrimination. It’s certainly an inspiring plea for the power of the judicial process—in addition to all of the usual arguments regarding the courts as instruments of social progress, there’s a really clever scene in which taxation is demonstrated to embody the values of its society (something that later feeds into her own victory). The historical accuracy of the film is reportedly quite high, what with the script having been written by Ginsburg’s nephew. There’s certainly something heartening in seeing her in a loving relationship with her husband, who provides a lot of support (emotional and otherwise) to her during the case. Felicity Jones is quite likable as Ginsburg, with Armie Hammer getting a good role as her husband; Kathy Bates also has a short but very visible role. It’s also a welcome return to the big screen for director Mimi Leder, who had been sent in exile far too long after the underwhelming Pay it Forward—it’s good to have her back, and her work here is as good as these historical dramas can hope for. While On the Basis of Sex does not reach outside the confines of its biopic form, it’s not a bad watch for audiences interested in the law, in equality and in one Supreme Court Justice who ended up capturing the popular imagination.
(On Cable TV, May 2019) When I say that Free Fire isn’t quite as successful as it could be, this isn’t as bad a review as you’d expect. For one thing, it actually tries something somewhat ambitious: a genre thriller in which an ensemble cast sustain an extended shootout inside a run-down warehouse. It takes a lot of cleverness to stage such a lengthy sequence while keeping it intelligible, visually exciting, differentiating the characters and yet sustain the action over nearly ninety minutes. That the film doesn’t quite succeed does not invalidate the work required to bring it there. Alas, there’s a feeling that for all of writer-director Ben Wheatley’s inventiveness, there’s something missing from the result. The film doesn’t quite create the compelling viewing that such an exercise would suggest. Being unbelievably violent, it’s not joyful in the least (the high body count, including two lamented late-movie deaths, doesn’t help), and for all of the script’s rather good writing, there isn’t as much cool dialogue as could be hoped for. In short, Free Fire is not bad but it’s still a fair way away from the genre classic it could have been: the characters are bit bland — Brie Larson and Armie Hammer do well as the only competent ones in the place; the other cast members not so memorably—and the action doesn’t quite capture the full mayhem that could have been. I still consider it a good time viewing, but it could have been much more.
(Video on Demand, January 2016) I probably asked too much from The Man from U.N.C.L.E., or wanted something different from what director Guy Richie had in mind. High expectations weren’t unreasonable, though, considering the good memories that I have of Richie’s oeuvre so far, from Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels all the way to Sherlock Holmes 2. But I wasn’t quite convinced by Richie’s intentions in designing this homage to sixties spy comedies. The directing seems inspired by period style, to say nothing of the visual atmosphere of the film or its plot. Those expecting a modern take may be surprised by a slow pacing, off-kilter humour, strange action sequences choices and relatively small stakes. Oh, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. does have its share of pleasures: Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill and Alicia Viklander are all very photogenic and capable (for Hammer and Cavill, their performances are confirmation that they can do more than their best-known roles), Hugh Grant is unexpectedly fun as a minor character and there are a few very good moments. While the charm of the film may be overstated, it’s nonetheless present. Still, it feels overly restrained, a bit dull on the side and not as triumphant as it ought to have been. It’s meant to set up a series, but even a sequel looks doubtful at this point, given the film’s understandably tepid reception.
(Video on Demand, December 2013) On paper, it’s clear that The Lone Ranger tries to replicate the surprise success of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy: Same star (Johnny Depp), producer (Jerry Bruckheimer) and director (Gore Verbinski), along with two screenwriters (the Elliott/Rossio duo) and the hundred-plus other crew that the movies share. Once again, we go back in time for thrilling adventures, lavish action sequences, more than two hours’ worth of stuff and an off-kilter supporting character played by Johnny Depp that ends up overshadowing the so-called protagonist. It’s very familiar, and it’s partly why The Lone Ranger feels like such a slight disappointment. There is, for one thing, a bit too much of everything: The 149-minutes running time feels more bloated than generous, with numerous side-stories that don’t do anything to further a focused plot. Even the fantastic action scenes, as detail-oriented as they are conceived, can’t escape a certain lassitude past their halfway mark. I can’t help but blame Verbinski for a failure to tighten up the film and even up the tone: The Lone Ranger often loses itself momentarily in side-scenes that don’t bring much, indulges in a far grimmer tone than expected (gee… Eating a heart? Genocide twice?) and the framing device isn’t good for much more than a few unreliable-narrator gags. While Depp does fine as Tonto, his character’s eccentricities seem more studied than fascinating, and by the time his Big Trauma is explained, viewers may be tempted to shrug and motion for the film to move along. This being said, there is something grand and wonderful about truly-big-budget filmmaking: It seems as if every penny has been spent on-screen, with careful period recreations even in the most fleeting scenes, to say nothing of the extravagant craft with which the action sequences have been put together. The two train action sequence that bookend the film are worth seeing for anyone who appreciates the kind of big action beats that only hundred of SFX technicians can deliver. While the film isn’t particularly good, it’s nowhere near a disaster, and it’s sad that Armie Hammer’s career may suffer from the film’s lack of financial success: he’s likable enough in the lead role, and anyone who maintains that this among the year’s worst clearly hasn’t seen enough films yet. The Lone Ranger has plenty of visual delights, even if it could have benefitted from a few judicious trims at the screenplay level.
(On-demand, August 2012) What a strange film this is. Playing off the elements of the Snow White fairytale, it teeters between fantasy archetypes subversion, camp humor, beautiful visuals and oddly stilted locations. In the hands of director Tarsem Singh, Mirror Mirror is, at the very least, beautiful to look at: Nearly every frame looks polished to perfection, and imaginative visuals are featured throughout. There is some inventive costuming, the actors all seem to have some fun (Armie Hammer’s take on puppy-love is hilarious, while Julia Roberts seems to relish the antagonist role) and some of the funny moments are, in fact, pretty funny. Unfortunately, the flashes of cleverness and humor are intermittent: the script seems to lurch from one mode to another without coherency, and the humor seems sprinkled randomly rather than coming from a unified approach. (As it is, a significant portion of the gags embarrassingly fall flat.) Mirror Mirror remains amiable throughout, but it seems to be trying a lot of things without understanding how they fit together. For a big-budget film, it does seem to take place in a mere handful of locations. The inclusion of modern idiom and hipper-than-thou cynicism seem particularly out of place in a fantasy setting. Thematically, I’m not sure that the stated feminist ideals of the film are actually upheld, especially once the antagonist seems dispatched with a superfluous amount of cruelty. Mirror Mirror’s lack of tonal unity makes it hard to really get into the groove of the film, and easier to notice its flaws. There have been plenty of similar and far more successful takes on such material (Enchanted springs to mind) and what sets them apart is cohesion, not scattered cleverness. [September 2012 Update: This review is a bit too harsh. At least Mirror Mirror is better than Snow White and the Huntsman.]
(In theaters, October 2010) I will admit my scepticism regarding the idea of this film. A drama about Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s early days? Why would David Fincher waste his time doing that? Granted, I find Facebook more interesting as a socio-technological phenomenon than as the hub of my online life, but still: Isn’t it a bit early to start making films about such a trivial subject? What I should have figured out is that five years ago is forever in Internet time, that Fincher knew what he was doing and that there was an interesting story at the heart of it all. Very loosely based on Ben Mezrich’s docu-fictive The Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network does manage to tell a compelling drama in an entertaining way and even comment on a few contemporary issues along the way. The heart of the piece is in the story of how intellectual arrogance and runaway success can ruin friendships, but the real delight of The Social Network is in the ever-compelling script penned by Aaron Sorkin, from a fast-paced first dialogue that sets the tone, to a structure that jumps back in forth in time (the latter chronology being nowhere in the book), to the clever weaving of themes between old-school social clubs and new-style social media. As an acknowledged nerd, I was stuck at the picture’s fairly accurate portrait of how some very smart people behave, as well as the accuracy of some technical details early in the film. Fincher’s direction may be less visually polished here than in his other film, but it’s effective and coherent: this is a solid drama, and it deserves a flat and grainy picture. (The film’s most striking bit of visual polish, at a regatta, echoes the miniature-faking tilt-shift focus meme that briefly fascinated internet photographers a while back.) The Social Network also benefits from a number of striking performances, from Jesse Eisenberg’s deliberately stunted portrait of Zuckerberg to Justin Timberlake’s magnetic Sean Parker to Armie Hammer’s Winklevii. Part of the appeal is seeing high-powered people interacting (the script uses a “that’s the famous person” joke at least twice to good effect.) in ways that are at least plausibly based on reality. It all amounts to a film that’s quite a bit better than the sum of its parts would suggest –true moviemaking alchemy that leaves viewers wondering how and why it all worked so well.