(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, April 2019) There’s a very different kind of rhythm to Fried Green Tomatoes that makes it remarkable. A mixture of southern atmosphere, women’s in-group language, not-so-tall tales spun with homely wisdom, and a few good actresses getting a chance to show what they can do. There’s a surprisingly dark bite to the stories being told here, with abuse, divorce, child death, righteous murder and even cannibalism being on the menu. But the way the script is structured and the film is directed by Jon Avnet make it all interesting to follow as we hop back and forth across four decades of history in an attempt to understand a character. Kathy Bates turns in a good performance as a woman rediscovering life thanks to another free-spirited friend—but this is really Jessica Tandy’s movie. Fried Green Tomatoes is a bit long at more than two hours and a quarter, but it’s not difficult to watch, and the southern atmosphere is often a delight.
(In French, On TV, March 2019) The history of Stephen King movies across the 1990s is … shaky, but Dolores Claiborne is not going to count as a bad one. Much of this success can be traced back to the original material, which (despite featuring murder in most unusual circumstances) lends very little freedom for filmmakers to go wild in bad ways. Keeping the tone close to the novel, screenwriter Tony Gilroy and director Taylor Hackford deliver a film that sticks close to reality—and thankfully so, considering the film’s themes of domestic violence and abuse: inserting supernatural elements would have been a distracting mistake. A great sense of place, in a small island community off the coast of Maine, certainly helps in creating the film’s convincing atmosphere. Dolores Claiborne is Kathy Bates’s show as she delivers a full-featured performance, but the supporting cast is unusually strong, what with Jennifer Jason Leigh as an estranged daughter, Christopher Plummer as a detective and a pre-stardom John C. Reilly as a policeman. There’s some skill in the way the film blends a modern-day timeline with flashbacks, complete with specific colour schemes and makeup. The eerie colour manipulation throughout the film—and most intensely in the eclipse sequence—clearly prefigures more ambitious (and now commonplace) efforts in current movies. The result, as skillful as it is, can’t avoid a few missteps that reinforce its melodramatic nature—the soundtrack is too insistent at times, adding far too much to something that didn’t need it. The slow start of the film reinforces the impression that it is too long and overdone—a shorter climax would have helped. Still, Dolores Claiborne does stand as a rather good adaptation of the King novel, despite taking a few justifiable liberties (notably in beefing up and adding more characters to the present-day frame). Dolores Claiborne is probably too often forgotten in the King filmography—not horrific enough, not necessarily fitting the mould of what people expect from him—but it’s a successful effort, and one that can still be watched with some satisfaction nowadays.
(On Cable TV, July 2017) The original Bad Santa became a classic of the counter-sentimental Christmas subgenre, so any sequel would have big shoes to fill. It may not be such a disappointment, therefore, if Bad Santa 2 is more ordinary than amazing. Sadly picking up a decade and a half later with the characters in just-as-bad shape, this sequel moves to Montréal Chicago for wintry theft. The highlight of the movie is probably the mother/son relationship between Billy Bob Thornton and the irreplaceable Kathy Bates, both of them delightfully scummy as lifelong bad influences. Tony Cox shows up again as a violent wildcard, while both Christina Hendricks and Jenny Zigrino show up as voluptuous eye candy. Alas, Brett Kelly also shows up as a grown-up creepy kid (still creepy), and his inclusion in the plot is more sad than hilarious or heartwarming. Bad Santa 2 works best as a foul-mouthed criminal caper procedural than a falsely cynical Christmas movie—it’s not quite able to re-create the original’s blend of world-weary sentimentality. But it does try, and it won’t be out of place when, in two or three years from now, it will tag along the original in a combined Blu-ray edition. Like most R-rated comedies, Bad Santa 2 pushes its jokes as far as it can go, and some of them definitely end up over the line of good taste—even for seasoned R-rated viewers. That’s another reason why even if the movie does scratch more or less the same itch as the original, it won’t qualify for essential viewing even for fans of the subgenre. Underneath the unrelenting stream of foul language, sexual references and overall bad behavior, it’s an average effort made with perfunctory skill. It works, and it will work if viewers are hungry for something like the original, but it’s not much more than that.
(On Cable TV, November 2016) As I slowly digest the results of the 2016 American Presidential election (albeit not without a few gastric refluxes along the way), I thought that a fictional take on the 1992 Clinton campaign would soothe my nerves. Alas, no such luck: After the sheer weirdness of 2016, Primary Colors seems positively sedate even in its stew of political corruption, adultery, dirty tricks and dark secrets. People in 1998 still obviously cared about moral flaws, which is more than seems to be the case in these dark days of November 2016. Adapted from a roman à clé penned as “Anonymous” by political journalist Joe Klein, Primary Colors purports to talk about the Clinton campaign, albeit with many details scrubbed and others pushed well past the point of fiction. John Travolta shows up with a full-on Bill Clinton impersonation, even though there isn’t as clear a Hillary analogue in Emma Thompson’s character. The protagonist of the story is a young political operative who (as with seemingly every political operative drama since, from The Ides of March to Knife Fight to Our Brand is Crisis) has a crisis of conscience after discovering his candidate’s darkest secret. It’s handled decently enough, with twists and turns that justify the fiction moniker. Characters and actors of note are Kathy Bates as an unexpectedly idealistic battle-axe, Larry Hagman as a veteran politician, Billy Bob Thornton as a redneck strategist (compare his character with the one he plays in Our Brand is Crisis) and Adrian Lester as the overshadowed protagonist … among many other notable names in smaller performances. As a fictionalized look in the primary campaign process, Primary Colors is not bad—and even after nearly twenty years remains just as interesting. But it may not be as effective right now, as I look at the headlines and wonder when we veered off in this absurd alternate reality. Hopefully it’ll look a bit wilder in four years.
(In French, On TV, July 2016) Stephen King’s Misery is a memorable novel (even and especially now, touching upon the themes of fannish entitlement that have grown so tediously familiar latterly), and its movie adaptation (partially thanks to screenwriter William Goldman) manages to be as good, in its own way, as the original book. James Caan ably plays a best-selling author who, thanks to an accident, comes to rest in an isolated farmhouse under the supervision of his self-professed “number one fan” (a terrifying Kathy Bates in a career-best performance) who turns out to be completely crazy in dangerous ways. What follows is so slickly done as to transform King’s writer-centric thriller into a horrifying experience for everyone. Director Rob Reiner is able to leave his comedic background behind in order to deliver a slick thrill ride, gradually closing off the protagonist’s options even as it becomes clear that he’s up against a formidable opponent. While the film does soften a few of the book’s most disturbing or gory moments, it does not lack for its own unbearable scenes. A solid, competent thriller, Misery easily ranks near the top of King’s numerous adaptations, and remains just as good today as it was a quarter of a century ago.
(On Cable TV, October 2013) Woody Allen’s “European capitals” tour continues to please, as romantic fantasy Midnight in Paris goes to the French capital for a bit of nostalgic introspection and historical comedy. As a Hollywood screenwriter with a fondness for the classics discovers that he can time-travel back to the nineteen-twenties, writer/director Allen turn in a film that appear effortlessly charming and quite a bit wise about the pernicious appeal of excessive nostalgia. Owen Wilson is his own unique self as the protagonist: Midnight in Paris would have been completely different with another actor, as Wilson’s hang-dog charm and wide-eyes befuddlement makes him a perfect match for the material. Otherwise, the performances to highlight are those in which a few actors get to play with historical figures; Kathy Bates is riveting as Gertrude Stein, and Corey Stoll is instantly compelling as Ernest Hemingway. As for the rest of the picture, well, it’s refreshingly mum about the time-traveling rationale, well-photographed (especially during its credit sequence, which shows us much of picturesque Paris in three-and-a-half minutes), generally amiable and maybe even untouchable for the kind of low-key comedy it aims to be. Compared to Allen’s latest films, Midnight in Paris is even a bit more hopeful and comforting in its resolution. (Well, except for the detective stuck in Versailles. Poor guy.)