"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

© all material on this website is written by Michael McCaffrey, is copyrighted, and may not be republished without consent

On the Basis of Sex: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. This piece of HERstory is a Hallmark movie sold as Oscar bait and is so cinematically underwhelming it should be stripped of the right to vote and forever kept in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant, where it belongs.

On the Basis of Sex, written by Daniel Stiepleman and directed by Mimi Leder, is the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fight for women’s legal equality as she ascends from Harvard Law School all the way to the Supreme Court. The film stars Felicity Jones as Ginsburg with supporting turns from Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterson and Kathy Bates.

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I knew nothing about On the Basis of Sex before I saw it, but as a red-blooded American male anytime I see the word “sex” in a sentence everything else goes out of focus, so when I saw the title it read as “__ ___ _____ __ SEX”. With a title like that how could I not be interested? But then the movie started…and I have bad news for you…there is no sex at all in On the Basis of Sex…there isn’t any nudity either. This revelation was most disconcerting to me and left me feeling as if On the Basis of Sex was the most misleading film title since The Never-Ending Story. What a rip-off!

The truth is I actually had no interest in seeing On the Basis of Sex as I had seen the trailer and it looked pretty abysmal, but thanks to MoviePass, it was my only film option the other day so I took the plunge. MoviePass has altered its service and now only offers very few films in my area, which has made the service rather useless to me. In its current form MoviePass is like fishing off of the Venice pier, the odds of catching something are very slim but then if you do catch something in those sewage infested waters, you get one look at it and wish you hadn’t….which perfectly sums up my experience with On the Basis of Sex.

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On the Basis of Sex is a trite, saccharine, paint-by-numbers, made-for-tv bio-pic that is just dreadful to behold. From the uneven performances to the lackluster cinematography to the cliche-ridden script to the cloying music, everything in this movie is so predictable and dull as to be insipid.

On the Basis of Sex thinks of itself as Oscar bait, and I can see why, it is about an iconic female figure during our current “women’s moment/movement”, and is also directed by a woman, Mimi Leder. No doubt the studio and producers thought they were striking at the right time with the right story to cash in and gather some awards. But then a funny thing happened on the way to the Oscar podium…a few people saw this movie and realized it was atrocious.

One of the big problems with the movie is that Mimi Leder is a hack of a director. Leder has had great success directing in television but television and film are two very different animals. Add to that the fact that the script, written by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, is painfully pedestrian and you have one giant piece of Oscar bait that never even gets a nibble.

Regardless of your political perspective, there is no denying that On the Basis of Sex is a piece of propaganda, and there is nothing wrong with that, but there is something wrong with it being such rudimentary and ill-executed propaganda. Leder’s direction is stale and uninspiring and the script is painfully vacuous and remarkably paper-thin. There are some scenes where I audibly laughed, much to the irritation of the middle-aged ladies sitting in front of me. The scene where Ginsburg and her teenage daughter are caught in a rain storm in New York City and her daughter fends off catcalls from construction workers and hails a cab at the same time, was so contrived, absurd and artistically obtuse it made me spit up my root beer.

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Felicity Jones is a fine actress, but she brings little to the table as Ginsburg besides steely-eyed righteousness and occasionally pronouncing the word lawyer as “lawyuh”. Ms. Jones’ struggle to give genuine life to the suffocatingly dull script is a quixotic undertaking and never amounts to much of anything.

The rest of the cast do not fair well either. Justin Theroux is a dead-eyed caricature as a hotshot ACLU lawyer and Kathy Bates misfires as a curmudgeonly attorney and…well…we also need to talk about Armie Hammer.

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Armie Hammer is so awful in this movie he made my teeth hurt. Granted, Hammer is given nothing to work with in the abomination that is the script, but still…he somehow uses his terrible acting super powers to make the movie even worse. Hammer plays Ruth’s husband Martin, and from what I can tell Hammer’s Martin is a perfect cross between his character in Call Me By Your Name and a perpetually gently smiling saint. Hammer is so fake and so phony in the role it feels like your watching a two hour long toothpaste commercial sans the gravitas and character development.

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Hollywood tried for years to make Armie Hammer into a movie star, and once they realized that wasn’t happening they shifted gears and have tried to make him a viable “actor”, and I have news for Hollywood…that isn’t working either. Maybe Armie should do us all, himself included, a favor and just go enjoy life and forget about acting for a while…or forever.

There is one scene in On the Basis of Sex that does unintentionally hit upon something mildly interesting, and that is where the villain, James Bozarth (portrayed by Jack Reynor), a dastardly lawyer for the government, talks to his collegues about how gender equality will change American culture. Bozarth is made out to be a one dimensional, misogynistic bad guy, but in the scene he says something fascinating. The two other government lawyers basically lay out gender equality to be as absurd as cats and dogs living together, but then Bozarth says that if equality happens then “wages go down and the divorce rate goes up”. I found it intriguing that this statement was mixed together with the other ludicrous statement because what Bozarth said isn’t ludicrous…it is true. Since women joined the work force en masse in the 70’s, divorce has gone up and wages have gone down. Which is not to say that women should not be treated equally, just that the law of unintended consequences is an unstoppable force regardless of how noble your cause may be…which might have been a more interesting theme to create a movie around.

In conclusion, On the Basis of Sex is a suffocatingly conventional, rather poorly made film that looks and feels more like a Hallmark or Lifetime movie than a major cinematic venture. I know Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a beloved figure and has been turned into a cultural celebrity, but the cinematic story of her life falls decidedly flat and needed a much more skilled and deft directing hand to make it worthwhile. Do not waste your time and energy seeing the chaste On the Basis of Sex, even if you can see it for “free” on Netflix or cable or using MoviePass. Speaking of MoviePass…since the pickings are so slim and I wanted to throw the stinky, rotting catch of On the Basis of Sex back into the water, I am going to cancel my subscription. I’d rather eat bait than the garbage MoviePass is currently sending my way.

©2019

Call Me by Your Name: A Review

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****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****

My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SKIP IT. There is no need to ever see this mess of an art house poseur. 

Call Me by Your Name, written by James Ivory (based on the book by Andre Aciman) and directed by Luca Guadagnino, is the story of 17 year old Elio as he comes of age in a northern Italian town in 1983 and deals with his attraction to Oliver, an American Grad student. The film stars Timothee Chalamet as Elio and Armie Hammer as Oliver and has garnered Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor (Chalamet).

There are times when film critics, in a conscious or unconscious bit of virtue signaling, confirm their bias by endorsing a movie for what it represents culturally or politically rather than for what is actually there on the screen. Such is the case with Call Me by Your Name where many critics desperately yearn for the film to be an artistically poignant, deeply romantic, gay coming-of-age story and therefore declare it to be so (the film has a 96% Critical Rating on Rotten Tomatoes)…when the stark reality is that Call Me by Your Name is a mannered and pretentious art house charlatan that instead of being romantic is stultifyingly pedantic. It is also a breathtakingly dull, overly long, flaccid, trite and abysmal cinematic affair that fails on every single level. This film is only remarkable for being completely devoid of drama, substance or craft.

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In a story that should be chock full of external obstacles for the star-crossed lovers to overcome, all obstacles have been removed and with them go any hope for drama. An example of a missing obstacle is that there is absolutely no prejudice on display towards the gay lovers, only overflowing and unquestioned acceptance by everyone on-screen. The film should have opened with Mr. Roarke and Tattoo dressed all in white, welcoming Elio and Oliver to Fantasy Island, at least that would've made the fact that there are no threats from the old-school Italian town folk or from protective parents or jealous girlfriends at least somewhat believable.

What these obstacles would have provided the film were higher dramatic stakes. If the love between these two men is forbidden or dangerous, then every look, every gesture, every-thing between them requires more and more courage and every slight detail takes on greater and greater significance. With the removal of all obstacles between the two lovers, all we are left with is two guys pondering whether they should sleep together or not. The film attempts to make this back and forth sexual questioning a slow, sensual burn, but it ends up feeling more like a botched execution where everyone is wincing waiting for the condemned to stop twitching and hurry up and die already. 

A logical issue that arises with the absence of obstacles is why set the film in 1983 in the first place? The context back then was that the AIDS epidemic was starting to take off and coming out as gay was a bold, Herculean task of courage and being exposed as gay a perilous threat? If the filmmakers are just making a "hey...should we fuck?" movie about two gay men, why not just set it in 2013 instead of 1983 where those threats are greatly reduced to the point of being dramatically insubstantial just as they are in the film? 

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In terms of the story having no conventional drama due to a lack of external obstacles, I can be all in on an unconventional narrative or dramatic structure like that, for proof look at my reviews of Terrence Malick's films…but the difference between a Malick film and Call Me by Your Name is that Malick's films are exquisitely crafted and overtly carry a much deeper metaphorical and archetypal meaning than just the libidinous and romantic yearnings of a horny 17 year-old. Call Me by Your Name has no deeper meaning and is cinematically rather listlessly and shoddily patched together.

For instance, visually the film is as tepid and flaccid as the storytelling. Never has the northern Italian countryside looked so flat, muted and devoid of texture…which to the film's unintended credit, does match the drab drama and characters inhabiting the plot. Add the dismal cinematography to the cloying and insipid soundtrack and you have a rather unpleasant cinematic experience churned out by director Luca Guadagnino. 

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As for the acting, Timothee Chalamet plays Elio and does…fine. I didn't find his performance to be earth shaking or even very remotely noteworthy never mind Oscar nomination-worthy, but it certainly isn't terrible. Chalamet is comfortable on-screen and to his credit doesn't shy away from the sexual situations presented him in the film. The problem with Chalamet though is he is not exactly a commanding and powerful on-screen presence, and his lack of magnetism and dynamism makes him a tough sell to carry a movie with a run time of over two hours. In some ways Chalamet's Elio feels like the boy who wasn't there, like a ghost wandering through a movie set, which isn't actually a knock against him as an actor, only one against him as a leading dramatic figure who has to carry an entire film. To be fair, Chalamet is young and certainly holds the potential to grow into a more powerful and dynamic actor in the years ahead.

Armie Hammer plays the older grad student Oliver and never quite captures the essence of the role. Hammer's Hollywood history is interesting, at first they tried to make him into a movie star with The Lone Ranger and The Man From UNCLE…that failed miserably. Now they are trying to make him an "actor" with The Birth of a Nation and Call Me by Your Name…and that is failing too. Hammer is certainly a movie-star handsome guy, but his biggest issue is that he either suffers from a charisma deficiency or he underwent a quadruple charisma bypass, either way…he has less charisma than a Cigar Store Wooden Indian. Hammer just never feels entirely at home on-screen in his films and that continues with Call Me by Your Name

Hammer has no doubt gotten numerous opportunities in the film business due to his family connection and his passing visual similarity to another blond haired idol, Robert Redford, but what Hammer desperately lacks is Redford's command and mastery of craft. Hammer is at a crossroads of his career, and if his performance in Call Me by Your Name is any indication, he has a long and bumpy road ahead of him. 

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Since I found the film to be so monotonous and dull, my mind wandered throughout the viewing. At one point I stopped to consider that in our current #MeToo moment with all of the accompanying sexual politics that go along with it, would this film be so well received by critics and Hollywood if Elio was a 17 year old girl having sex with Oliver the older man? I couldn't help but think there is some weird double standard in play here where a film celebrates what basically amounts to statutory rape of a teen boy just because it is a homosexual relationship. The fact that no characters in the film, or critics or people in Hollywood, felt that there was something at the very least morally questionable, if not downright disturbing, about a man who looks to be at least ten years older, having sex with a 17 year old, which in some jurisdictions is statutory rape, is pretty alarming. I can't help but think that if this story were between an older man and a 17 year old girl than it would have been attacked and shunned.

In conclusion, Call Me by Your Name is a film that suffers from comparisons to other gay-themed films like Brokeback Mountain and last years Academy Award Best Picture winner Moonlight. Both Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight are such vastly superior films it is ridiculous to even think of Call Me by Your Name in the same category, but the subject matter lends itself to comparisons. If you want to see extremely well-made films about homosexual love and desire, please skip Call Me by Your Name and go watch the masterful Brokeback Mountain or the flawed but compelling Moonlight.

And no matter what any other spineless, virtue signaling film critic says, trust me when I tell you that not liking Call Me by Your Name does not make you a homophobe, it makes you an honest connoisseur of film with impeccable taste. Call Me by Your Name is critical fools gold, and is a total waste of any true cinephile's time, money and energy. Not only should you skip this lethargic, lackluster, lifeless, listless and languid sack of apricot shit in the theatre, you should skip it on Netflix or cable as well. To Call Me by Your Name and the critics who adore it I simply say…"Later".

©2017