"Everything is as it should be."

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On the Basis of Sex: A Review


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Rogue One : A Star Wars Story - A Review


Estimated Reading Time : 5 Minutes 22 Seconds

My Rating : 2 out of 5 Stars

My Recommendation: See it if you like Star Wars related things, but if you are into Star Wars things you would have seen it already. If you are indifferent to Star Wars or lukewarm at best, there is zero need to see this film.

I had a little bit of free time to other day and decided I should do my duty as a patriotic American and pay my Mickey Mouse Tax, so I went to see Rogue One.  I was running a little late and got to the theatre with nary a moment to spare. I rushed up to the counter in the sparsely populated cineplex to get my ticket and was greeted by a smiling and friendly young woman with blue streaks in her hair, wearing cat girl glasses adorned with rhinestones. She smiled and said, "Can I help you?" I breathlessly returned her smile and said, "One for Star Wars, please." Her smile evened out and her eyes turned vacant and cold. She looked at me indifferently and after a very effective momentary pause, scornfully retorted, "You mean...Rogue One?" I straightened up, looked her right in the eye and politely said, "Yes, ma'am."

 In the eyes of this young woman, whom I had silently named "The Rhinestone Jedi", the stench of my egregious error in failing to properly identify Rogue One hung on me like the stink lines that hover over Pig Pen in the Charlie Brown comics for the remainder of our interaction. Once the transaction was completed, The Rhinestone Jedi dismissively handed me my ticket and turned her back, probably to conceal her rage and loathing at the jackass who had the temerity to ask for a ticket to "Star Wars" and not "Rogue One". As I turned to walk away toward the theatre, I swear I heard her mutter under her breath, "Star Wars? Fucking loser." And thus my Star Wa…oops…Rogue One : A Story Wars Story viewing experience had begun. The film that followed was mildly more enjoyable but not nearly as existentially interesting as my interaction with the gatekeeper of nerd-dom, The Rhinestone Jedi, that blue-haired demon with the cat girl glasses and the unflinching judgement. 

As is my practice, I had not read any reviews of Rogue One prior to seeing it. I was going into the theatre a Rogue One virgin as it were. All I did know was that Rogue One was not a sequel or a prequel to any of the other Star Wars films, but was a stand alone entity. I thought that this was a wise move by Disney as it would enable them to start a whole new Star Wars storyline from which other stories could be born, which would make for a whole new revenue stream. If done properly, Disney could have two Star Wars franchises up and running at the same time, which would mean beaucoup bucks for Mickey Mouse and co. That is what I was thinking before seeing or knowing anything about Rogue One anyway. 

Then I went and saw the film. It was…fine. There are some exciting action sequences, and for the first time in the history of the franchise, there is an actual, genuinely good actress/actor in the lead role (no offense to any other actors or actresses, living or recently deceased, who have graced the Star Wars films, RIP Carrie Fisher) in the form of Felicity Jones. But beyond that, the film is a disappointment. I found it disappointing most of all because it isn't an original and new storyline, but rather the same old storyline just from a different perspective. Rogue One is essentially a one-off, spin-off. Sort of like the ill-fated Matt LeBlanc sitcom "Joey" was in relation to Friends, although the short life span of Joey was not by choice, or if you are a bit older than that, then it is like if The Facts of Life were just a single, stand alone season when they spun-off from Different Strokes. (RIP Alan Thicke)

In terms of the story of Rogue One, there is at its center, as seemingly is always the case, the Death Star, which fails to hold the foreboding doom it once did in the original Star Wars since we already know what happens to it. I found myself rather bored with the whole narrative because all it does is tread old ground in "previously worn" but technically "new", shoes. Hell, it isn't just the Death Star that is less foreboding than I remembered, Darth Vader feels pretty lackluster and limp in Rogue One as well. Vader looked weird in Rogue One, almost like his costume was one size too big or something. And his walk definitely lacked the Imperial swagger it used to have. I am being serious here, Vader looked and physically moved much different than he used to and it made him much less powerful, authoritative and frightening.

What I was really hoping for with Rogue One was an entirely new and creative storyline with no direct connection to the old franchise. Instead I got a retread of the very first Star Wars film except with a female protagonist. The parallels between Jones' Jyn Erso and Luke Skywalker are obvious, both are from remote planets, both have fathers who are "special" and both have pivotal battles in dangerously constructed towers and both are called to do great things in the face of astounding odds against them.

To add to the similarities between Star Wars and Rogue One, Diego Luna plays Cassian Andor, a rebel intel officer who dresses and behaves very similar to Han Solo, except with a Spanish accent. Luna is not a very good actor in any language, in fact he is pretty bad, and his work in Rogue One is distracting at best. As good as Felicity Jones is in Rogue One, Diego Luna is equally bad.

The rest of the cast do the best they can with the little given to them, but no one goes to see a Star Wars film for the acting. People want to see some action sequences, and Rogue One delivers on that count, at least in the second half. There are some great battle scenes in the final third of the film that deliver what most people crave. I certainly was captivated by the battle scenes, but I also had nagging questions that kept popping into my head. Stuff like, if Stormtroopers can be knocked out or defeated by a guy armed with nothing but a stick, what the hell do they wear all that body armor and head gear for? You'd think that since the Stormtrooper armor doesn't protect them from lasers it would at least protect them from a stick. I guess not though. Makes me wonder how much the Empire is paying for all that body armor and if corruption isn't a major issue that needs to be addressed if the Empire is going to succeed in the long term. But, all of those questions aside, I did find the last third of the film to be captivating and was pleased it finally delivered the action goods.

I guess my biggest issue with Rogue One is that there seems to be no purpose in making it. Rogue One is little more than a nostalgia delivery system for people craving a return to their youth, even if the youth they are returning to is the youth of their parents in the 70's and 80's. Rogue One could have been a whole new story, in a whole new time of the Star Wars universe that could have creatively rejuvenated the Star Wars franchise anew. The opportunity is there for Disney to not just remake and reboot the old franchise, but to create an entirely new franchise with the blue prints of the Star Wars universe that George Lucas sold them for 4 billion dollars a few years ago. Sadly, it seems, Disney has no appetite for rolling the dice on truly original Star Wars material, only in rehashing the tired, old formula that has made them, and Mr. Lucas before them, a fortune. Many thought Lucas had become creatively bankrupt (he is sure is hell was never financially bankrupt!!) during and after the Star Wars prequel trilogy and that Disney and some new artistic blood would be able to invigorate the Star Wars brand. In retrospect after seeing Rogue One and comparing it to Lucas' Star Wars prequel trilogy, I have come to the conclusion that Lucas never lost his fastball as a writer of Star Wars films, just that he lacked the requisite skill to direct them. As controversial as Lucas' prequel trilogy have become, a closer inspection of them reveal well-written and genuinely original scripts that Lucas was not able to properly capture on film. In seeing Rogue One it is now clear that it isn't Lucas who is creatively bankrupt, it is Disney, although goodness knows that Disney isn't anywhere near financial bankruptcy thanks to both the Star Wars and Marvel franchises.

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When my screening of Rogue One ended I sat in my seat and took my phone out to check my messages. I texted a famous filmmaker friend of mine who had been curious as to what I would think about the movie after seeing it. I texted him "Saw Rogue One…I am trying to figure out what the purpose of this film is. Why make it?" I then realized that something had fallen out of my pocket when I took my phone out and I reached down to pick it up. It was my receipt for the movie ticket, the one handed to me disdainfully by The Rhinestone Jedi, the blue haired woman with the cat girl glasses. I looked at the ticket receipt and smiled knowingly. I took a photo of it and sent it to my famous filmmaker friend with the text, "I figured out why they made Rogue One!!"  The photo showed the receipt and in big letters it said "ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY". Below that in small print it read…"Adult : $12.50". And thus the mystery was solved. Somewhere, Walt Disney's frozen corpse is smiling and Mickey Mouse is bathing in an Olympic-sized swimming pool of $1,000 bills. I then realized that the blue haired woman with the rhinestone cat girl glasses wasn't judging me for being wrong about the title of the "Star Wars" film, she was judging me for going to see the "Star Wars" film. Her prophetic, and accurate final words to me rung in my ears as I exited the theatre. There is a sucker born every minute, and at that minute I realized I was one of millions of them. "Star Wars? Fuckin' loser". You're right about that, Rhinestone Jedi, you're god-damn right about that. 



A Monster Calls : A Review


Estimated Reading Time : 5 Minutes 47 Seconds

My Rating : 3 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation : SEE IT. I recommend you see this film either in the theatre if you are a Jungian devotee, or on Netflix or Cable as it is interesting and original enough to be worth watching.

A Monster Calls, directed by J.A. Bayona and written by Patrick Ness based upon his book of the same name, is the story of Conor, a lonely, young boy in a small English town whose mother has cancer. The film stars Lewis MacDougall as Conor, with supporting turns from Felicity Jones as Conor's mother, Sigourney Weaver as his grandmother and Liam Neeson as the voice of the Monster that comes to visit him one night.

I had not heard about A Monster Calls before seeing it and knew nothing of the story. Obviously, I had not read the book it is based upon as well. I had time to kill and there was nothing else playing that fit into my time schedule, so, like a young Native American at the time of his initiation, I made the leap. I am very glad that I did.  A Monster Calls is not a perfect film, or even a great one, but it is an interesting film of deep meaning and that is extremely refreshing in the cookie-cutter cinematic culture of today.

The story of A Monster Calls is simple enough, it is a coming of age story where young Conor must go from being a boy to being a man. Conor, like all of us, must be wrenched from his mother's warm bosom (and bed), and thrown into the cold and cruel world to fend for himself. That journey from boy to man is a difficult one under the best of circumstances, but with a cancer-stricken mother as his only ally in the world, Conor's passage becomes a treacherous and desperately lonely one. This is where the Monster is awakened and comes to guide Conor on his path into, and out of, the dark wood of life. 

The Monster is really Conor's psychological shadow. Like all of our shadows, the Monster holds all of the scary, repulsive and ugly things and knowledge that Conor does not want to recognize or admit to himself. In A Monster Calls, Conor's Monster is also the only true father figure or genuine male presence to guide and teach young Conor on his perilous trek into masculinity and out of his pre-adolescence. Conor's actual father makes a brief appearance but is a rather sad excuse for a man and is a pretty worthless father, so Conor is forced to get his lessons in manhood from his own Shadow.

What is so interesting about A Monster Calls is that, while it may at times veer into familiar coming-of-age Hollywood rhythms, it never lets go of its overall darker theme. Without a "shadow"of a doubt, this is a shadow movie. There are no simple answers, no short cuts, no soft landings for Conor here, only the complex, layered and unrelentingly cold, dark and realist life lessons taught by the Monster/shadow. This is not a sunshine, rainbows and singing puppy dogs, Disney/Pixar type of film, if it were it would fail to adaquetly impart the lessons it sets out to teach.

This film is a meditation on death, the death of our former selves, the death of our beliefs, of our religion, of our understanding of the world, of our hopes and of our dreams. A Monster Calls is a Jungian exploration of the power of the Monster/shadow that is born of death (both literal and symbolic), that lives within us all and how to release that power by integrating our own personal shadow elements. A great way to enjoy A Monster Calls is to watch it not as a straight forward narrative but rather as a Jungian analyst would analyze one of their own dreams, as the film is, like life, a dream within a dream within a dream. 

That said, this film may not be for everyone. It is rated PG-13 and I think it is on an individual basis that parents should judge whether their children should see it. I think thirteen is a good cutoff to even consider seeing it as kids younger than that may be overwhelmed with the darker themes of the film and may find it very disturbing. In addition, adults may not like it either. As I said, this is really a complex, Jungian, shadow-fairy tale about physical, emotional, mental and spiritual death and that isn't going to be everyone’s cup of tea. I enjoyed it but I am self-aware enough to know that others may not feel the same way. 

One of the reasons I enjoyed the film is that I have dealt with much death and darkness in my life and I appreciate a film grappling with the deeper meaning of those experiences. I view the world through a Jungian lens and enjoy explorations of the shadow, so this film was right up my alley. Your alley may be much more brightly lit than mine and that is okay, so just be forewarned before you head into see this picture. If the subject matter is something that is unappealing to you, that is okay too, but one thing to consider is that while symbolic death and the shadow may be a "dark" topic, it is also something that we all share together. Each one of us dies a thousand deaths before our final one, and each one of our psyches are inhabited by a thousand shadow Monsters. Our Monsters are what bind us and links us together through the ages from generation to generation. If we couldn't share our Monsters, we wouldn't share anything.

As I previously said, A Monster Calls is not a flawless film, for instance the performances are good enough but not particularly noteworthy with the exception of Lewis MacDougall, and there are some elements of the narrative that fall flat. On the other hand, cinematically, the film is fascinating to look at, particularly the dream/storytelling sequences which are visually dynamic and compelling. To its great credit the film does avoid the trap of sentimentality that these types of films so routinely fall into. Instead of cliches, A Monster Calls has an intriguing message and story that could, emphasis on could, resonate with all sorts of people if they are in the right frame of mind to be able to hear it.  

If you are looking for a dark, unique and original modern-day shadow-fairy tale, A Monster Calls is for you. This film contains lessons that each of us need to learn, whether we want to or not. The pilgrimage from boy to man, or for adults, from dusk to dawn during our dark night of the soul, can be a grueling and perilous one, so guidance from our shadow monsters familiar with the terrain of the darkness will be of critical assistance for anyone trying to survive that transition. While most of us would prefer to spend the entirety of our lives in the familiar warmth of the light, we all, at one time or another, will be compelled to make that journey into the cold, foreboding abyss of the mythical dark wood. It would be wise for each of us to familiarize ourselves with our own personal shadow monsters before we make this imperative and unavoidable expedition. As Conor learns in A Monster Calls, and as we all learn when we are forced to make our own similar odyssey, no one ever comes out of those dark woods the way they went in, best to prepare for that journey now while you can. If you don't, you will most certainly regret it when the time comes.