Armie Hammer

On the Basis of Sex

28/02/18

I really want to like On The Basis of Sex. Not just because Ruth Bader-Ginsburg is a truly inspirational woman who deserves a decent film, but also because we’re seeing this one with a couple of friends, and it’s much more fun to enthuse collectively than it is to disparage. I’ve read a few lacklustre reviews, so I’m far from certain I’ll get what I want. But the cinema-gods are smiling down on us tonight, and I’m pleased to report this is a cracking biopic.

Okay, so Daniel Stiepelman’s script isn’t especially innovative or radical; this is a traditional telling. But that’s no bad thing: the writing is tight and concise, intimate and focused. Given that Ginsburg’s activism is of the quiet variety – all research and paperwork and detailed knowledge of tax laws – and her marriage was harmonious and free from high drama, it’s no mean feat to have made such a compelling movie from her tale. The shocks are all in the blatant sexism; it’s hard to believe this is only (really) a few years ago. Thank goddess for RGB and other pioneers.

Mimi Leder’s subtle direction takes us with Ginsburg from her 1956 enrolment in Harvard Law School up to her landmark 1970 case, where she forces the court to concede that gender discrimination is actually a thing. In this instance, it’s a tax code penalising a man: he can’t claim tax relief for the nurse he employs to care for his mother while he’s at work; if he were a woman (or, indeed, married), he would however qualify. After years of suffering discrimination on the basis of sex – unable to get a job as a practising lawyer, lumbered with a professorship that isn’t what she really wants – this is Ginsburg’s chance to nudge the floodgates. Once gender discrimination has a legal precedent, other laws can be challenged.

Felicity Jones is made for this part, I think, effortlessly conveying a surface of dignity and composure but a core of steel and fire. Ginsburg must surely be delighted with the way she’s been portrayed. Armie Hammer is also disarming, as Ginsburg’s devoted husband, Martin, as supportive a partner as anyone could wish for. And Cailee Spaeny (last seen by B&B in the criminally overlooked Bad Times at the El Royale: not a single awards nomination – really?) as the Ginsburgs’ daughter, Jane, surely has a bright future ahead? She’s arresting, even in this small role.

It’s a charming film, and an important story. It’s scary to think how recent this all is, and how hard-won the rights we now enjoy. There were no women’s toilets at Harvard Law School when RBG went there; there were laws – actual laws – that stated women couldn’t e.g. fly aeroplanes.

How far we’ve come.

4.6 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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Call Me By Your Name

08/11/17

This slow, languorous, coming-of-age film by Luca Guadagnino has been stirring up some Oscar buzz recently, but it’s been a hard film to view with only one showing a day at the multiplexes – and even that in the morning! It’s easy enough to appreciate why it isn’t considered a ‘bums on seats’ vehicle – weighing in at two hours and twelve minutes, it certainly takes its own sweet time to play out and with not an awful lot in the way of storyline, it was never going to drag in the superhero crowd – but it recounts a tale of a young boy coming to terms with his own burgeoning sexuality, eloquently and without sensationalism. And that’s surely something worth supporting.

Set in Northern Italy in 1983, this is the story of seventeen year old Elio Perlman (Timothy Chalamet), a talented young musician who leads a very privileged existence in the country house belonging to his parents, a Professor of Classical Antiquity (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his wife, Annella (Amira Casar). With a cook and a gardener to cater for their every whim, there isn’t much to do to pass the time but lounge indolently around in the sunshine, eating, drinking, reading books and occasionally splashing about in a whole host of watery locations. Things change dramatically, however, when young and impossibly handsome American research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives at the house for a six week stay. At first, Elio finds the newcomer brash and arrogant, (and so do I, come to think of it) but as the barriers gradually start to come down, the two young men bond over their shared Jewish heritage and their love of music – and it isn’t very long before Elio realises he is falling hopelessly and wretchedly in love with Oliver…

That’s pretty much it as far as story goes, but there’s plenty here to enjoy, not least the ravishing cinematography that will have you pining for a long summer holiday in Italy. Chalamet is clearly something of a find, managing to convincingly demonstrate all of Elio’s doubts and fears, while Armie Hammer has clearly come a very long way since The Lone Ranger. A concluding speech by Stuhlbarg’s character felt a little overcooked, but I was nonetheless glad it was there, because here was a parent being completely non-judgemental about the sexuality of his son, which is a pretty rare, but very welcome thing to witness in a film.

There probably isn’t a great deal more to say about this, except perhaps, that in these short-attention-span times, films like this don’t often see the light of day – and if cinema chains won’t offer people enough opportunities to see them, they certainly aren’t going to survive for very much longer. If this comes to a screen near you, do take the opportunity to see it. It’s really rather charming.

And as for that Oscar buzz? Well, we’ll see in the fullness of time. It’ll be rather ironic if it wins something – a film that hardly anyone got the chance to see.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Free Fire

28/02/17

In a relatively short career, director Ben Wheatley has created some exciting and groundbreaking films. His most consistent piece, Sightseers, is a delightful comedy with a dark and twisted heart – and his last outing, an adaptation of JG Ballard’s High Rise, though not perfect, was one of the most challenging pieces of dystopian cinema in a long time.

So it gives me absolutely no pleasure at all to report that Free Fire is an unmitigated dud. I came out of this advance screening asking myself just exactly what Wheatley thought he was trying to do here. This is the kind of film that forged Tarantino’s early reputation – indeed, if Free Fire resembles any other movie, it’s Reservoir Dogs. Now, I’ve been quite cutting about Tarantino over the years, suggesting that the man’s slender talent has been repeatedly overpraised but, seriously, Free Fire makes him look like a genius film-maker. It really is that bad.

It’s Boston in 1978. Actually, it’s a warehouse in Brighton, but it hardly matters since the action never bothers to step outside of that single location. IRA men Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are attempting to buy rifles for their cause; the deal has been arranged by South African popinjay, Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and his American friend Ord (Armie Hammer). Brie Larson plays Justine, a thankless token female role and, just in case that’s not enough, there’s also a token black man, Martin (Babou Ceesay, dressed like an extra from Shaft). In the opening stages of the film, there are admittedly a few witty lines thrown around. Enjoy them while you can, because this early promise is soon squandered.

Midway through the deal, an argument ensues between twitchy junkie, Stevo (Sam Riley) and one of Vernon’s goons, Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). It rapidly escalates and, inevitably, a gunfight ensues. You’d better like gunfights, by the way, because this one lasts for the rest of the movie, around eighty minutes of characters you don’t really know or care about hurling a mixture of bullets and F words at each other without pause or reason.

Perhaps Wheatley is trying to show the absurdity of violence. Perhaps he’s simply pushing the envelope of the genre, stripping it back to its basics. Whatever he is trying to do, it fails miserably. This is simply deadly boring. It also tests credulity to the limit as characters are shot again and again, but don’t have the decency to fall down and die. Quite how Wheatley convinced a troop of A list actors to appear in this nonsense remains the biggest mystery of all. (Christ, what did the screenplay look like?) Inevitably, there will be those who hail Free Fire as a work of genius, but that would be a re-run of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Unless the idea of an endless gunfight appeals to you – and I’ll admit that, in the right hands, it could conceivably have worked – this is one to file under D for disaster.

The screening is followed by a Q & A with Wheatley and actor Sam Riley – and it  speaks volumes when I admit that I bail out and head to a local bar for what feels like a well-earned drink. The only question I could have mustered would have been, ‘Why?’

A major disappointment.

1.5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Birth of a Nation

11/12/16

The Birth of a Nation arrives on our shores burdened by the weight of considerable expectation. Premiered at Sundance in January, this independent production garnered rave reviews and a record-breaking sale to Fox Searchlight pictures and, at the time, there was much talk of Oscar nominations. Since then, however, the water have been somewhat muddied by the revelation that star/writer/director, Nat Turner was accused of rape back in  1999 (although he was subsequently acquitted) and that the film, though clearly heartfelt, might not be quite as accomplished as early reviews suggested.

The title itself is also controversial, since it is shared by DW Griffith’s infamous silent movie of 1915, which made heroes of the Ku Klux Klan and had them riding to the rescue of a young white woman (played by Lillian Gish), menaced by pantomime black villains.

Turner’s based-on-true-events film tells the story of Nate Parker, a young slave raised on an antebellum cotton plantation in the deep South of America, who manages to teach himself to read and, encouraged by one sympathetic slave owner, goes on to become a preacher, travelling from plantation to plantation in order to spread the word of God to his fellow slaves. In doing this, he is helping to earn money for his repellant master, Samuel (Armie Hammer) a once powerful patriarch, now a hopeless alcoholic, obsessed with living up to the reputation of his late father. As Nate travels, he witnesses the kind of everyday brutality meted out to black people in the system (a scene where a man’s teeth are taken out with a hammer and chisel is hard to watch) and he begins to feel a sense of outrage over their predicament; but it is not till the rape of his own wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King) at the hands of white ‘slave-chasers’ that his thoughts finally turn to bloody rebellion.

Some of the scenes depicted here will inevitably outrage any sane viewer, but the film also commits the cardinal sin of being rather dull for long stretches and there are some decidedly ill-considered moments – Turner’s occasional visions of a angel are particularly mawkish. This is by no means a bad film; indeed, as a debut, it’s more than competent, but it must be said, that it’s certainly not the masterpiece we might have been led to expect; and judging from the few bums on seats at the afternoon performance we attended, it’s not exactly pulling in the punters either.

Brutal, hard-hitting and worthy of attention – but not as assured as it could have been.

3.3 stars

Philip Caveney