Unlike last years's brilliant documentary RBG, which chronicled her entire career, ON THE BASIS OF SEX hones its focus on one particular integral moment when she faced the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to argue a case of gender-based discrimination against a middle aged man who was denied government assistance to care for his ailing mother. Ginsburg used this case of discrimination to establish a new prescient, which would lead to the repeal of hundreds of similarly outdated laws based on sex.
Given the magnitude of Ruth Ginsburg's story and her influence on an entire social movement, there was never a snowflake's chance in hell that a feature length film would be able to articulate her story sincerely, and so the decision to highlight just one fundamental moment was a wise one, with the impact being being enhanced for it. I recall walking away from the documentary feeing energised and motivated by what I had seen, and for most women who saw it I can imagine they felt empowered. Those are the emotional responses of the documentary format, with testimonials and first hand accounts of her trials and tribulations reenforcing the truth of her story.
The response to ON THE BASIS OF SEX is different; it's manufactured and manipulated with less restraint... as it should be of course, and as the opening credits played and director Mimi Leder's name adorned the screen, I was caught off guard. As with many films I walk into the cinema with little knowledge of their production, as not to form a pre-conceived bias, and Leder's name is one that I associate with melodrama and schmaltz. I immediately suspected that the following two-hours might be heavy-handed and contrived, worried that I was about to experience the Mrs Holland's Opus-effect.
And true enough the film is very heavy-handed and adheres to a very strict formula. As it is with most legal dramas, the legal system is – well... systematic. It's a robust setting with little room to spread, and so ON THE BASIS OF SEX plays out like most legal films before it. But rather than tell Ginsburg's story tonally, the way – for example – that North Country did, it's given that classic Hollywood flavour with a vibrant production design and graceless music, that almost throws back to cinema of the 1950s. Mycheal Dann's score is a whimsical extravagance, which upsets the film's attitude and detracts from the unfolding drama. Ginsburg's successes and failures are accompanied by this misjudged musical score that seems obliged to react with her every move. This is, in my mind, the film's crux.
With all of that said, there is no denying the strength of the cast with Felicity Jones handing over a consummate performance as the young and idealistic law graduate. Where she lacks a physical resemblance to Ruth Ginsburg she makes up for with a tenacious attitude that is true to the character we know from our daily newsfeeds and the preceding documentary. Her supporting cast is a brilliant ensemble including Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Stephen Root, Chris Mulkey and Kathy Bates. They all bring gravitas to the otherwise sugary depiction, with the men playing to the era superbly. A notable mention to Jack Reynor, a fantastic actor who previously impressed me in Glasshouse and Sing Street. His place in this film suggests an impending push on Hollywood, which is most welcome.
And so despite its foibles ON THE BASIS OF SEX is, nevertheless, an entertaining addition to the growing list of socially driven bio-pics. It might fail to resonate the way it should – like the similarly themed Eric Brockovich - but it will speak to a generation of women who are part of the fight. It plays for an emotional response, which is fine, but never attempts to scratch beneath the surface of the women's rights movement. In that sense the film slots in nicely with other recent feminist titles like Miss Sloane, The Divine Order and Hidden Figures. All safe but never challenging or provocative.
Set in New York in the 1970s, the film tells the story of two lovers, Tish Rivers (19) and Alonzo ‘Fonny’ Hunt (22), who have been inseparable since childhood. Not long after they move out of home together for the first time, Fonny is wrongfully accused of a violent rape and is thrown into prison, awaiting trial. With a baby on the way, the couple and their families must band together to overcome their adversity while struggling with the ever-prevalent racial divide.
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Director Lynne Ramsay follows up her critically acclaimed film We Need To Talk About Kevin with this equally provocative story that, again, tackles a sensitive subject head-on and refuses to shy away from its ugliness. Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, a tormented former FBI agent who now works as a gun-for-hire rescuing children from sex-traffickers. He employs a no-holds-barred brutality to his work and pursues his targets ruthlessly, stopping at nothing to save their victims. When he takes on a new high profile client his identity is compromised and he finds himself caught up in a merciless campaign of violence with a pedophile ring.
With a young girl's life at stake, Joe contends with horrific flashbacks to his own tragic youth, as well as nightmares from his work in the FBI and his time served in the military. It is a relentless narrative that takes the audience to hellish depths while delivering a mesmerising sensory overload.
Lynne Ramsay has outdone herself and achieved what so few have been able. She has followed up what so many pundits considered to be her masterpiece with a film that connects instantly and leaves no room for objectivity. Her previous film dealt with the aftermath of a mass-school shooting and it explored themes of guilt by association, forcing the viewer to contextualise the situation with a suggested sense of empathy. Whereas YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE has no grey areas whatsoever. The bad guys are vile and there's never any doubt about lines that need to be crossed to bring them down.
When I love a film as much as I love this one I am reluctant to draw comparisons with other titles. To do so might imply that I'm questioning its authority, but in this instance I feel obliged to highlight several points of reference, all of which influence Ramsay's direction and motivation. As implied in my opening comments, there is an immediate familiarity with the early work of Jim Jarmusch. A jarring soundtrack pummels the screen as opening titles brand the meandering introduction of Joe. It's beautiful stuff and sets a perfect tone for what's to follow. My mind also reflected on the early work of Martin Scorsese and Luc Besson with the city landscape providing a sinister backdrop to a world short on innocence. Echoes of David Cronenberg's film-noir rang true, as did the seedy undercurrents of Nicholas Wending Refn's mastery and cheeky nods to Oldboy. And with so many catalytic flecks throughout the story, Ramsay has used their counsel to maximum effect.
Joaquin Phoenix hands over a remarkable performance, leaving no disciplined stone unturned. Assuming a dishevelled appearance with a defeated demeanour, he navigates the material with precision. With very little dialogue he relies on his emotional bearing to articulate his motive. Flashbacks to his past are fleeting and sporadic, providing just enough suggestion of his mental state and allowing his actions to inform the rest. It's a tour-de-force performance, which I would regard amongst his best. Fourteen year old Ekaterina Samsonov co-stars as Nina, the girl who Joe snatches from the hands of rapists, and she is also excellent. Her traumatised persona is emphasises perfectly through her likeminded performance, which owes much dept to the power of suggestion.
And finally, the music by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead fame. YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is his seventh score and arguably his best. His disjointed and experimental tropes provide a powerful and strident accompaniment to Ramsay's grim and violent landscape. His sounds and her visuals make for a strong atmosphere, which allows the audience to venture down such a grim rabbit hole without shame. We're along for the ride as Joe faces his demons and smashes scumbag heads. It is as equally thrilling as it is upsetting, and Lynne Ramsey has her work cut out for her if she intends to raise the stakes for her next venture.
I saw the film prior to its release and despite my knowledge of McKay’s work with Will Ferrell (The Other Guys, Anchorman, Step Brothers), I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I guess I had half-hoped for a savvy biopic film in line with his previous title The Big Short, which was inspired by the global financial crisis, and what I got was more-or-less a lampoon of Dick Cheney’s career, served with mockery and caricature.
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As GLASS fades to black it becomes obvious that Unbreakable was conceived as a stand-alone story, and that any notion of creating a franchise from it came to Shyamalan as an after-thought. In fact I will extend that sentiment to Split, because that too strikes me as an isolated film with its reveal ending tacked on after it was decided to explore a shared universe. And so be it. Split was an impressive psychological thriller, which showcased a tour-de-force performance from James McAvoy, and giving him more screen time in a third instalment suited me just fine.
And so here it is; GLASS... the long-awaited conclusion to a painfully long and drawn out narrative. It's taken almost 20-years to reach this point and the geeky barrens of the internet have been salivating at the thought of an epic showdown. The film begins with McAvoy's character(s) making headlines for kidnapping 4 more girls, and Bruce Willis' character trawling the streets in search of them. When their paths finally cross they are both captured and institutionalised, and subjected to an incredibly specific superhero-dilusion therapy (apparently that's a thing). Joining them is Elijah (Samuel L Jackson) who was already residing in the asylum - highly sedated and immobile. Their therapist (Sarah Paulson) is specially trained in the area of superhero syndrome and is intent on proving that all three men are suffering from mental disorders, as opposed to having superhuman attribute.
GLASS makes brilliant use of the flashback trope, as it revisits Unbreakable and Split using a combination of excised footage from those films and clever augmentation. When the plot requires backstory it never feels contrived and we are taken back to those familiar stories in a seamless and well-crafted manner. The actors are never aged backwards and the audience benefits from a renewed effort to finesse and bridge the gaps between each instalment. Furthermore there is an added surprise and delight with the return of Spencer Treat Clark and Charlayne Woodard who played David's son and Elijah's mother from the original, as well as Anya Taylor-Joy from Split. Their return reenforces Shyamalan's efforts to stitch the series together, saving him the exhausting task of recasting without disjointness.
And that is where my praise ends, because GLASS is an otherwise laborious and heavy-handed final act, which relies on pop-cultural references and self-awareness. It is riddled with implausibilities and ridiculous situations. Never mind that two men are captured and institutionalised without due process, and ignore the fact that the enormous asylum is mostly unpopulated, with a staff of only three. The film is rife with such absurdities that “Disregard” and “Overlook” become habitual recommendations to Shyamalan's convoluted ego-trip and the overall proceedings feel as though he's making it up as he goes.
The cast are mostly good and their contributions cannot be faulted. Willis, Jackson and McAvoy resume their roles comfortably and do their best with what little they have to go on. McAvoy gives a stand-out performance, exploring many more of his 24 split-personalities with absolute ease. Where some critics note the irresponsible depiction of mental illness, I would argue that there are no limits to fiction and McAvoy's performance is outstanding. The other return players also impress and give strong support, with Spencer Treat Clark being the standout. Sarah Paulson, on the other hand, offers a tedious turn as the idiotic shrink with zero charm and fuck-all appeal. Her performance is boring and her delivery is arduous, and regardless of my pre-conceived disliking for her as an actress, I can't help but feel that the film would have resonated more with someone more charismatic on screen.
The bulk of GLASS takes place within the confines of the asylum, with only the first act and the various flashbacks giving us a broader picture of the world these characters occupy. In doing so Shyamalan has forced himself to rely on character interactions and ostentatious dialogue without actually showing his audience the greater picture that he's so intent on describing. His attempt to subvert the superhero genre is a noble one, and the inclusion of Mr Marvel himself (Jackson) is a fortuitous convenience. And yet despite Jackson rambling on about an epic final showdown, the audience isn't given the pleasure. The conclusion is both underwhelming and vapid and only serves to remind us how absolutely brilliant Unbreakable is, and how it's best served without seconds.
While I haven’t read BIRD BOX’s source novel of the same name, much of the film’s tonal success is surely due to director Susanne Bier, whom English-speaking audiences will recognise from miniseries The Night Manager. For her first foray into horror, Bier adopts a back-to-basics approach, recognising the greatest suspense typically comes moments before the threat is revealed. As a result, we are never explicitly shown what is causing humans to attack each other and kill themselves in BIRD BOX, with this fear of the unknown subsequently commanding the viewer’s attention. Plenty of other horror films have shown similar restraint, in fact, just last year I wrote about how impressively Bryan Bertino’s The Monster did so. However, BIRD BOX sets itself apart and stays fresh across multiple narratives by using its central motif of sightlessness in a variety of ways, from the blindfolds featured prominently in the film’s marketing, to an incredibly tense driving sequence which I loved, but won’t spoil. Coupled with perfect editing that heightens the mystery without becoming disorienting, there’s plenty here for old-fashioned thrill seekers to enjoy.
Meanwhile, although the film’s cast are largely excellent, they’re somewhat held back by stock standard roles of the post-apocalypse genre. For instance, Tom (Moonlight’s Trevante Rhodes) is the everyman and de facto leader, Douglas (John Malkovich) is cynical, wise, and trusts no one, and Gary (Tom Hollander) is the enigmatic newcomer whose presence divides the group. As I hinted at earlier, these tired characterisations are elevated at times, particularly by Rhodes and Malkovich, while others such as Hollander and Jacki Weaver unfortunately aren’t given enough to do. Thankfully, BIRD BOX’s protagonist, Malorie, is not only its most interesting character, but is brought to life brilliantly by Sandra Bullock. Bullock has become much more open-minded when choosing roles over the past decade, with BIRD BOX being the greatest beneficiary of this since Gravity: Malorie is a pitch-perfect audience surrogate during the (chronological) first and second acts, pivoting effortlessly between grief, terror, and emerging strength. When she is later forced to take her children on a dangerous journey through the wilderness, Malorie has become a remarkable testament to human resilience in dire times. If her performance here is any indication, Bullock shouldn’t let BIRD BOX be the last time she delves into the horror genre.
BIRD BOX’s cast and crew ultimately succeed in crafting compelling horror from a recognisable formula. The film’s experiments with restricting and/or removing sight entirely are no mere gimmick, instead breathing fresh air into a genre in constant need of new ideas. Although it borders on predictable if you know where to look, it’s nevertheless a consistently entertaining thrill ride that belongs on everyone’s Netflix list.
Thanks to the 2013 biographical film Saving Mr Banks, the story of Walt Disney's pursuit of Mary Poppins has become common knowledge. He had spent 20-years chasing P.L. Travers' for the filming rights, and as the 2013 film depicts, the theatrical adaptation differs greatly from the source material. Travers reluctantly gave her character over to Disney and he response to his film was less than enthusiastic. She swore to never grant permission for a sequel, which is a pledge she kept with her to the grave. It has been 54-years since that classic film and we finally have the long-awaited follow up. And what a treat it is.
Disney's recent spate of live-action adaptations have mostly been wonderful, however their commitment to remaking classic films gave cause for concern that the new Mary Poppins would be a remake. Thank God it's not, and fans can breathe a sigh of relief as MARY POPPINS RETURNS is a faithful, sincere and joyous continuation of the story, picking up 25-years later. Jane and Michael Banks are now adults dealing with exceptionally difficult times. Michael's wife has recently passed away, leaving him to raise three children as he faces financial ruin. The bank is foreclosing on his family house and he struggles to put on a brave face for his kids. Jane, taking after her mother, is a single woman fighting for workers rights and takes time out to help her desperate brother.
When gale-force winds stir late one afternoon, the clouds in the sky part and Mary Poppins arrives from the sky. She has returned to help the Banks children once again and we (the audience) are swept away on a very familiar adventure that will warm the hearts of long-serving fans while dazzling newcomers to the story. Suffice to say that MARY POPPINS RETURNS is as good, if not better, than such a sequel could possibly be, and it achieves its success without rehashing old songs.
The narrative does, however, adhere to a comparable structure to the original, with the story following the same marker-points and emotional cues. The old songs are replaced with new songs and the film's composition is more or less the same. This might read as a criticism, but my reaction is to the contrary. It's this familiarity with the story that gives it a nostalgic and emotional core, and with entirely new songs and all new adventures the film is a true sequel that is original and comforting.
Emily Blunt steps in to Julie Andrews' very big shoes and brings Mary Poppins back to life with a perfectly measured amount of tenderness and vanity. She assumes the character without impersonation, and her portrayal has a greater sense of cheekiness than previously suggested. While this quality may stray even further from how Travers' wrote her to be, it benefits the new film immensely. As she whisks the children away on spectacular adventures she relishes every moment with a smile that lights up the screen, revealing her inner-child. This is a trait that would not have worked in the original film, but most certainly does now.
Broadway superstar Lin-Maniuel Miranda (creator of Hamilton) makes his feature-film debut as Jack - the former apprentice of his uncle Bert (Dick Van Dyke) – a lamplighter whose memories of Mary Poppins includes the classic Step-in-Time routine. Miranda is an odd choice to take on such a raggedy cockney character and I was worried that he'd been miscast at first. Thankfully his musical affinity becomes blatantly apparent and he helps guide the story affectionally.
The supporting cast includes Ben Whishaw (Skyfall, Paddington) as Michael, Emily Mortimer (Hugo, The Bookshop) as Jane and Julie Waters (Educating Rita, Mamma Mia) as Ellen the long-serving housekeeper (previously played by Hermoine Baddeley). They are all wonderfully cast and present their characters as believable older versions of their former selves. Whishaw is particularly excellent as the grieving father whose devotion to family is unwavering. He gives a truly heartfelt performance, which reflects that of David Tomlinson from the original film. Much like Tomlinson's character did, Whishaw serves as the fundamental heart of the story, which sees him fall into the depths of despair before rising up to overcome adversity. It is a tender turn that strikes an emotional chord.
The rest of the cast is comprised of an ensemble including Colin Firth, David Warner, Meryl Streep and Dick Van Dyke. They make up a fitting line-up of cameos which reflect those of the 1964 film. They each have their place and fit in with the overall aesthetic. An added delight is the addition of Angela Lansbury as the balloon lady in the final act. Her character is lifted straight out of the books and is a lovely adage to the company of players. Keen observers might also catch brief glimpses of the original Jane (Karen Dortice) and Chris O'Dowd in fleeting cameos.
And then there is the music. The surprisingly outstanding lineup of songs that dare to recapture the magic of the original Sherman Brother's genius. Of course the new musical numbers don't even come close to surpassing those bonafide classics, BUT they damn well try. Those original Sherman tunes have had 50-years to infect us and so we enter into MARY POPPINS RETURNS with those songs in our DNA. Therefore it's an astonishing fete for legendary composer Marc Shaiman to have captured the essence of those former numbers in his all new original tunes. They possess all of the qualities that we know and they elevate the film immensely. And if today's fast-paced movie-going culture wasn't so ravenous, there would be every chance of his work being as iconic 50-years from now. Standout numbers include The Place Where the Lost Things Go, Nowhere to Go But Up and Trip A Little Light Fantastic... and it would be remiss of me to forget 'A Conversation' a song, which is beautifully performed by Whishaw and tugs at the heart-strings.
So yeah, MARY POPPINS RETURNS is wonderful. And sure, this comes from a tragic fan who can recite the original film verbatim. But surely it means something when my love for Mary Poppins should qualify me as the perfect cynic. This film could have done a lot of damage to Disney and Travers' brand, but thank heavens it doesn't. Rob Marshall (Chicago, In To The Woods) has delivered an exceptional family film full of joy and warmth, and recaptures so much of the magic from all those years ago. What a delight!