Thursday, January 17, 2019

'Glass' sounds a weak final chord

James McAvoy still stands out, but director M. Night Shyamalan brings his trilogy to a tepid close.
Director M. Night Shyamalan's superheroes arrived on screen without the cache of Marvel or DC Comics branding. No comic books made Shyamalan's characters familiar to legions of young people. In Unbreakable (2000) and Split (2016) -- the first two parts of Shyamalan's trilogy of superhero films -- Shyamalan tried to stake out his own territory.

I have friends who admire Unbreakable, a movie that I was happy to forget. I was more inclined toward Split, which featured a bravura performance by James McAvoy as a disturbed young man with 23 personalities. A 24th loomed in the person of The Beast, a superhuman killer who terrorized young women.

Before Split, Unbreakable brought two main characters to the fore: Bruce Willis portrayed David Dunn, a former football player turned security guard who discovered that he had amazing survival powers because his bones couldn't be broken. Samuel L. Jackson played Mr. Glass, an evil genius who was Dunn's opposite: Glass -- a.k.a. Elijah Price -- was born with bones that shattered easily. Ergo, Mr. Glass.

Now comes Shyamalan's attempt to bring these three characters together for a finale. Before it reaches its dreary conclusion, Glass proves downbeat and lumbering with Shyamalan vainly and (misguidedly) trying for some last-minute inspiration. Glass stands as a big-screen fizzle rather than what it should have been: a resonant symphonic chord at the end of a pop-cultural symphony.

Willis's Dunn -- a.k.a. The Overseer -- returns to stalk Philadelphia's streets with the help of his now-grown son (Spencer Treat Clark). Dunn dons a hooded rain parka when he's serving as a vigilante for good. Early on, he finds himself battling with The Beast, the most horrific member of The Horde, the name given to McAvoy's character's collection of personalities.

As those who've seen Split already know, McAvoy's Keven Wendell Crumb captures young women and torments them, turning them into an audience for a dazzling display of his multitude of personalities. He also does what some entertainers might occasionally fantasize about doing to their audiences: He kills them.

In Glass, McAvoy remains the liveliest member of the trio. Jackson's Mr. Glass spends much of the movie in a state of drug-induced stupor and Willis presents a grizzled version of a character whose economy of expression suggests an abiding depression.

Putting the three characters together inevitably reduces McAvoy's screen time, which doesn't help dispel the movie's gloomy inertia.

Credit Jackson with delivering the movie's twisted philosophy with an eloquence that makes you wish he didn't have to spend half the movie slumping in a wheelchair and not speaking.

The screenplay more or less succumbs when it contrives to place the three characters in a mental institution that's being run by Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), a psychiatrist who insists that she wants to save these misfits by convincing them that they're not superbeings but ordinary folks operating under grand delusions.

A couple of other actors reprise roles from earlier movies. In some very bad make-up, Charlayne Woodard plays Glass's mother. Anya Taylor-Joy reappears as the only young woman to have survived The Beast's murderous ways, although she seems to have forgotten that several of her friends didn't. Casey now believes she can speak to the real -- i.e., normal -- person behind all those Horde personalities, which include the conniving Patricia and fan-favorite, nine-year-old Hedwig.

You can get the general idea of what's going on without having seen either of the two previous movies, but the story will be clearer to those who understand its references and who recall prior plotting. Besides, I can't imagine why anyone who isn't a fan of the first two movies would want to see this one.

Glass can be faulted for many sins, some of them forgivable, dullness being the only one that really condemns it, a kind of torpor perhaps bred by all the gloomy atmosphere.

The movie doesn't end the way most superhero movies do. Even so, the odor of musty irrelevance settles over the whole enterprise. If you see Glass, I advise not thinking too much about what Shyamalan might be trying to say. I wonder if he knew.

Nicole Kidman as a ravaged LA cop

Grim and downbeat, Destroyer is gritty, but to what end?.

In Destroyer, a low-down crime thriller directed by Karyn Kusama, Nicole Kidman's ravaged face almost becomes the movie's subject. When I first saw photos of Kidman as she appears in Destroyer, I found it impossible not to wonder whether she wasn't intent on desecrating her own delicate beauty, something along the lines of what Charlize Theron did in movies such as Monster.

Don't get me wrong, Kidman is a very good actress and, in Destroyer, she dares to take a harrowing journey through a noir hell, paving the road with heavy blocks of guilt, recrimination, and alcohol-induced decay.

Kusama scrambles the story's time sequence as she shows us how Kidman's Erin Bell, an LAPD detective, arrived at such a grim destination.

The approach allows Kusama to introduce a good deal of traditional thriller elements. We meet the cop (Sebastian Stan) with whom Erin goes undercover, setting up the event that drives the plot. We also meet some of the felons with whom the two cops associate, a gallery of thieves, sadists, and enablers led by Silas (Toby Kebbell), a long-haired, thick-lipped psychopath.

Another theme that ripples through the sleaze involves Erin's teenage daughter (Jade Pettyjohn), a 16-year-old who has stopped attending school and who has taken up with a defiant older thug. Erin's ex-husband (Scoot McNairy) doesn't know how to handle the rebellious, obviously self-destructive teen.

The movie opens with the discovery of a body and proceeds as if Erin has opted to investigate a vicious killing. But for Erin, the murder is more than just another case. More can't be said without introducing spoilers.

Kusama (Girl Fight) stages some searingly violent scenes, one involving Erin's confrontation with a wealthy lawyer (Bradley Whitford) who's up to no good. Erin also tries to thwart a robbery, a scene that calls for her to pick up an AR-15 and fire away. When two policemen show up to help, they ask Erin whether they shouldn't ask for additional back-up. Erin can't wait.

"This is a gunfight," she says, demonstrating how Kidman delivers a line that could have sprung from the mouths of Clint Eastwood or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

To bolster the movie's realism, Kusama shows the effects of the physical beatings Erin takes. Put another way, the film's make-up department must have worked overtime. Kidman rises (or sinks, if you prefer) to the occasion as Erin moves through a punishing series of encounters.

The key to the story involves both external and internal factors that chew at Erin's life. She's a wreck and, as has been the case with many big-screen male detectives, we're constantly wondering whether she might find a glimmer of redemption before the movie ends.

Kidman's performance -- Erin walks as if carrying a sack of butchered meat on her shoulders -- suggests defeat: We see it in Erin's bloodshot eyes and in her depleted emotions. Sporting a leather jacket and ill-fitting jeans, Erin has long given up worrying about her appearance. But (and I hate to say it), I never entirely could forget that this was Nicole Kidman made up to look terrible.

Kusama doesn't always handle the movie's various time shifts with aplomb and it sometimes feels as if she's after something more than genre kicks. But Destroyer leaves us adrift in a world so corrupted that it admits almost no ameliorating rays of light and, I'm afraid, no compelling reason (other than furious acting) why we should want to be there.

The last days of a great comic duo

Stan & Ollie reveals Laurel and Hardy in a moment of decline.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were great comic movie stars who established themselves as a team during the late 1920s and remained active for almost two decades. Laurel, an Englishman, and Hardy, an American, became famous for beautifully sustained slapstick routines that revolved around the key attributes of each of their comic characters. The addled Stan played against the always exasperated Ollie.

Fortunately for my generation, Laurel and Hardy films outlasted the duo’s prime, becoming staples of 1950s television, at least where I grew up, New Jersey within reach of New York TV.

I'm not sure how the accepted wisdom evolved, but Laurel came to be recognized as the reigning genius of the comic duo, an obsessive thinker when it came to inventing routines and working out their intricacies. Laurel may have been the brains of the outfit, but for most of us, it's impossible to imagine Laurel without Hardy.

The movie Stan & Ollie pays fitting tribute to the comic duo, focusing on them mostly at the end of their careers. With their film opportunities radically diminished, Stan (Steve Coogan) and Ollie (John C. Reilly) travel to England. They hope to use stage appearances to polish their act while Stan seeks funding for a new movie.

The atmosphere surrounding the trip isn't exactly buoyant. Ollie's health is fragile and the two haven't worked together for a while.

It should come as no surprise to those familiar with any of the Trip movies starring Coogan and Rob Brydon that Coogan is an accomplished impressionist. He makes a fine Laurel, the muddled, incompetent on-screen comic whose calculations dominate his off-screen life. He always seems to be working on something.

Reilly delivers the movie's biggest surprise. Thanks to some prodigious make-up, Reilly has taken on Hardy's look and his overweight huffing. He also masters Hardy's signature moves: from fiddling with the ends of his tie to delivering some of Ollie's trademark lines about how the clueless Stan has landed him in "another fine mess."

Working from a screenplay by Jeff Pope, director John S. Baird sets most of the movie in various down-scale British theaters in 1953. It may not be the limelight, but the two carry on, and the actors make it clear that once the curtain rises, Stan and Ollie give even the smallest audiences their best.

Baird doesn't shrink from the sadness of the situation. Hardy feels the pain that he believes stems from not being loved by Stan. In this reading of the story, Stan loved the act more than he loved the man.

While waiting for news of their pending movie, Laurel and Hardy also await the arrival of their wives, played with deft comic touches by Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson.

Despite some tension between Laurel and Hardy, the movie never develops a hard edge, perhaps because Baird tempers the film's melancholy with appropriate affection for two screen legends.

I'm fearful that younger audiences will not seek out the modestly made Stan & Ollie. That would be a shame because if they did, they'd probably hasten to YouTube, where they could discover the joys of Stan & Ollie's comedy and learn something about the fleeting nature of fame, even for those who scale the highest of movie heights.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The haunting power of teen love

Sicilian Ghost Story makes poetry from a real-life tragedy.

At the end of Sicilian Ghost Story, we learn that the movie we've been watching is based on a true story about a 14-year-old boy who was held hostage by mobsters in an effort to persuade his gangster father from ratting them out. The movie derives from the real-life story of Giuseppe Di Matteo, a boy who was kidnapped by the mafia in 1993 and imprisoned for two years. I won’t say more to avoid spoilers.

I mention this early on as a way of telling you that the movie may feel more detached and spectral to American audiences than it would to Italian audiences who already know the case. (I learned about the story's origins from a review in the Hollywood Reporter.)

But until its sobering end, Sicilian Ghost Story hardly feels like a riveting thriller about a kidnapped teenager. Directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza approach the story mostly through the eyes of Luna, an imaginative 14-year-old girl beautifully played by Julia Jedlikowska.

The story begins when Luna pursues her crush on the movie's Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernadez), a kid who comes from a more affluent background than she does. Giuseppe seems attracted to Luna, inviting her to his house to watch as he puts his jumping horse through its paces. The invitation seems to signal something more, perhaps an entre into Giuseppe's life and even his dreams -- forbidden turf in any case.

Luna's Swiss mother (Sabine Timoteo) doesn't want her daughter associating with Giuseppe. Her father (Vincenzo Amato) is more sympathetic, but he's clearly the weaker of the two parents. Luna receives additional support from her friend Loredana (Corinne Musallari).

The story begins to shift into strange territory when Giuseppe suddenly stops attending school. Fearing Mafia reprisals, no one in the Sicilian village where the story takes place will speculate about what happened to the young man and Luna's visits to Giuseppe's home are met with icy rejection by Giuseppe's grandfather. His mother seems to have slipped into a madness born of desperation.

The movie then shows how Luna tries to project herself into the vanished Giuseppe's life. It also shows us how Giuseppe deteriorates in the hands of his captors, who keep him chained in a small room.

Luna's obsession consumes her: She begins to see herself as the savior who will rescue Giuseppe with whom she's had only the most casual of encounters. As most of us know -- either from experience or from movies -- teen love can be agonizingly powerful.

Fearful for Giuseppe, we want to believe in Luna's fantasies, which -- to her -- are so real that her mental health is called into question.

The movie sounds grim notes as it explores Luna's imaginative projections, which come across as a form of extreme magical thinking that’s reinforced by the directors’ eerily distorted images, striking compositions and atmospheric musical score.

This ghost story makes no attempt to scare us with cheap shocks. Instead, the movie insinuates itself with us, creating a tragic memory of an abused young man and the girl who believes her love is strong enough to save him.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

This year’s Critics’ Choice winners

The Broadcast Film Critics Association Sunday announced the winners of the 24th annual Critics’ Choice awards. Roma led the field with four awards. Black Panther and Vice followed, each winning three awards. As a member of the BFCA, I posted the Association’s nominees and now offer a list of the winners, including a surprise tie in the best-actress category (Glenn Close and Lady Gaga). This year's list also inlcudes a couple of anomalies: Roma won as both best foreign-language film and best picture and Christian Bale took double honors for playing Dick Cheney in Vice, winning in the best actor and best-actor-in-a-comedy categories.

The Broadcast Film Critics Association (BFCA), of which I’m a member, is the largest film critics organization in the US and Canada, representing more than 330 television, radio and online critics.

If you’re interested in Oscar prognostications, I think you’ll find that the BFCA is a better bellwether than most other year-end honors.

So here’s the list of BFCA winners:

Best Picture
Best Actor
Christian Bale, Vice
Best Actress, a tie
Glenn Close, The Wife
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Best Supporting Actress
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Best Director
Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
Best Original Screenplay
Paul Schrader, First Reformed
Best Adapted Screenplay
Barry Jenkins, If Beale Street Could Talk
Best Cinematography
Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
Best Production Design
Hanna Beachler, Jay Hart, Black Panther
Best Editing
Tom Cross, First Man
Best Costume Design
Ruth Carter, Black Panther
Best Hair and Makeup
Best Visual Effects
Black Panther
Best Animated Feature
Spider-Man: Into he Spider-Verse
Best Foreign Language Film
Best Young Actor/Actress
Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade
Best Acting Ensemble
The Favourite
Best Action Movie
Mission Impossible: Fallout
Best Comedy
Crazy Rich Asians
Best Actor in a Comedy
Christian Bale, Vice
Best Actress in a Comedy
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Best Sci-fi or Horror movie
A Quiet Place
Best Song
Shallow, A Star is Born
Best Score
Justin Hurwitz, First Man

And while we're on the subject of year-end awards, let me give you the results of voting for the Denver Film Critics Society, a group to which I also belong. Some of the winners mirror those of the BFCA, some don't. Oscar nominations, due on Jan. 22, loom.
As always, feel free to join in with your choices.

Best Picture: Roma
Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
Best Actor: Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
Best Actress: Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Best Supporting Actress: Rachel Weisz, The Favourite
Best Sci-Fi/Horror, a tie: A Quiet Place and Annihilation
Best Animated Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Best Comedy: The Death of Stalin
Best Visual Effects: Avengers: Infinity War
Best Original Screenplay: A Quiet Place
Best Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Best Documentary: Won't You Be My Neighbor?
Best Original Song: Swallow
Best Original Score: Black Panther
Best Foreign Language Film: Roma

Thursday, January 10, 2019

This bromance breaks little new ground

Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston star in The Upside, a mediocre Americanized version of a popular French movie.
If you haven't seen the 2011 French movie The Intouchables, The Upside might pass muster -- or maybe not.

The French original told a humorous, uplifting story that boasted trace elements of topicality. In that movie, a young Senegalese man (Omar Sy) found himself working for a wealthy French traditionalist (Francois Cluzet) who had been paralyzed from the neck down.

Transported to New York City, The Upside, an Americanized version of the same basic story, features Bryan Cranston as Phil, a wealthy author and a defiant quadriplegic who hires a completely unqualified parolee (Kevin Hart) to be his caretaker. It should come as no surprise that these two mismatched urbanites eventually will bond.

As directed by Neil Burger (Limitless, Divergent), The Upside does little to distinguish itself from its predecessor, aside from using Cranston and Hart to boost box-office appeal.

To keep from violating his parole, Dell desperately needs proof that he's looking for work. When he lands a job taking care of Phil, he gets more than he bargained for. Among his duties: He must master the delicate art of catheter insertion.

Hart, who has taken fire recently for homophobic remarks that cost him a gig hosting this year's Oscar telecast, hits some deep notes, expanding on but not forsaking his comic talents. Some of his more convincing moments emerge as Dell tries to placate his former wife (Aja Naomi King) and re-establish a relationship with his young son (Jahi Di'Allo Winston).

We've all become accustomed to American remakes of foreign-language movies, but The Upside follows an overly predictable blueprint as the two men start to influence each other. Dell listens to opera: Phil discovers Aretha Franklin. You get the idea.

The biggest mystery about the movie involves Nicole Kidman, who plays a devoted assistant to Cranston's Phil. A denizen of the business world, Kidman's character oversees Phil's affairs. The question: What is Kidman doing in this movie?

Despite a few stabs at realism, Upside becomes another movie in which a black character helps a white character fight long odds. Not only is Phil disabled, but he's mired in grief over the recent death of his wife and unable to vanquish memories of the hang-gliding accident that robbed him of the ability to fend for himself.

Cranston’s easy command of the screen works to give his character a bit of an edge. Eventually, Phil risks crushing disappointment by agreeing to meet a female pen pal (Juliana Margulies) who might be a suitable candidate for romance.

Hey, it’s January and expectations for new movies isn’t exactly at peak levels, but aside from giving Hart an opportunity to stretch, The Upside seldom turns its formula into a winning one.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

No mean streets in his New York

What's not to like? The World Before Your Feet is one of those documentaries that audiences tend to love -- and not without reason. The movie introduces us to Matt Green, a guy who decided to make it his life's mission to walk every block in New York City. That's a lot of walking, a lot of neighborhoods, and a lot of interesting minutia about the places visited during Green's 8,000-mile journey. Director Jeremy Workman wisely grabbed a camera and followed Green on some of his daily travels through the city's five boroughs. These include wooded areas on Staten Island, crowded streets in the South Bronx and history-steeped lower Manhattan, as well as a variety of New York City cemeteries. If you’ve been longing to know exactly where the city’s oldest tree can be found, Green will show you. (A hint: it resides in Queens.) A civil engineer by trade, Green quit his job and survives with help from friends and others, who allow him to stay in their apartments, sometimes in exchange for taking care of their cats. He says he spends $15 a day on transportation and food. That’s it. Green has turned himself into a set of eyes, photographing as he walks and blogging about the blocks that he traverses. Green walks freely and without problems; most folks he encounters appear to be curious and welcoming. Green's attitude contrasts with that of another city walker, Garnette Cadogan, who happens to be black. Unlike Green, Cadogan has to pay attention to how he's perceived lest he encounters hostility. The movie doesn't seem to follow any particular pattern as Workman tags along with Green, who seems undaunted in his efforts by weather. The idea of urban exploration remains fascinating but the real value of Green's project has less to do with what he learns about New York City than with its capacity to provide an inspirational boost to folks looking to surrender — if in less extreme ways — to ideas that interest them, quite apart from whether those ideas might interest anyone else or result in any monetary gain. Not a bad thought if you’re looking for New Year's resolutions that don’t require weight loss, additional exercise or, perhaps, the abandonment of favored vices. Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

My 10 best movies of 2018

As it turns out, 2018 was a better than average year for movies that provided both provocation and entertainment. I've never been big on lists but tradition finds film critics making 10-best lists and I've been doing them ever since I started reviewing back in the 1980s. So, without any undue fanfare, here's this year's list. You can use the search feature at the top left-hand corner of this blog to look up the original reviews for the mentioned movies. Even better, you can make your own list.

1. Roma

Director Alfonso Cuaron's memory movie rightly has been called a "masterpiece." In a movie that juxtaposes intimate moments with images that reveal a broader social context, Cauron's visually brilliant movie immerses us in the lives of a family and the live-in maid who keeps the wheels of the household turning. One of two movies on my list shot in black-and-white. (Cold War is the other.)

2. The Favourite

A trifecta of terrific actresses (Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone) give gleefully malicious life to director Yorgos Lanthimos' look at corrupting ambition in the 18th century court of Britain's Queen Anne.

3. Shoplifters

This understated and quietly insinuating Japanese film from director Hirokazu Kore-eda introduces us to a family that shoplifts to eat and, in the process, involves us the lives of people who've been marginalized by the larger society.

4. Zama

Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) faces a spiral of decline in Argentine director Lucrecia Martel's biting examination of colonialism in South America and of the crushed hopes of a Spanish administrator who loses everything he values.

5. First Reformed

Director Paul Schrader's film examines the tormented soul of a pastor whose life stands on an altar built from personal guilt. Schrader's movie benefits greatly from a bracingly austere performance by Ethan Hawke as a man grappling with despair.

6. The Death of Stalin

For my money, director Armando Iannuci made the year's most scathing comedy, a look at the how the Soviet hierarchy jostled for position after the death of Joseph Stalin. It never would have occurred to me to cast Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev, but Iannucci got it exactly right.

7. Black Panther

A landmark addition to the Marvel Comics galaxy that brought enthralling spectacle and a sense of ethnic pride to a overworked genre while adding to the resume of Chadwick Boseman, an actor whose work in movies -- from 42 to Get on Up to Marshall -- has been exceptionally strong and, I think, under-appreciated.

8. Sorry to Bother You

Director Boots Riley's vibrant satire takes on the world of telemarketing -- and much more. Yes, the movie tended to be a bit overstuffed, but -- with help from a lead performance by actor Lakeith Stanfield -- Sorry To Bother You took a mocking look at a cultural moment you easily might dub "2018."

9. Cold War

Director Pawel Pawlikowski follows his Oscar-winning Ida with this look -- shot in beautiful black-and-white -- at a long-running affair in which the lovers are buffeted by historical forces and their reaction to themn. Joanna Kulig gives a stunning performance as a singer whose spirit the barely can be contained by the movie.

10. First Man

I may be in a minority here, but I admired First Man far more than director Damien Chazelle's La La Land. Chazelle did a fine job of showing the insular determination it took to make Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) the first man to step onto the moon.

Honorable Mentions: Capernaum, If Beale Street Could Talk, The Sisters Brothers, BlacKkKlansman, and Birds of Passage.

Monday, December 24, 2018

RBG, champion of gender equality

On the Basis of Sex can't match RBG, a widely seen documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, perhaps because it opts to follow standard bio-pic moves.
If you want some insight into Ruth Bader Ginsburg, you'd do better to watch the recent documentary RBG than to immerse yourself in the dramatized account of Ginsburg's pre-Supreme Court life provided by On the Basis of Sex, a movie that makes no bones about lauding Ginsburg for being a groundbreaker against gender discrimination.

I'm not saying that Ginsburg doesn't deserve such accolades; I am saying that I wish the movie had delivered them in less routine ways.

Still, the value of On the Basis of Sex lies in its overall thrust; the movie reminds us that it wasn't all that long ago that even the most accomplished women had difficulty advancing within the legal establishment -- not to mention the society at large.

And, yes, I know that despite progress, gender equality remains an on-going battle.

Can we buy Felicity Jones as Ginsburg? I guess, but the documentary RBG proved that Ginsburg made a better Ginsburg than Jones, and as directed by Mimi Leder, the movie quickly becomes a catalog of the insulting ways professional women were treated during the late 50s and early '60s.

Working from a script by Daniel Stiepleman, Leder begins the story when Ginsburg enters Harvard Law School, an institution that in 1956 still harbored gender bias: The dean of the law school (Sam Waterston) believes a coveted place at prestigious Harvard Law could be better utilized by a bread-winning man.

At Harvard, Ginsburg received unwavering support from her husband, Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), a genial man who also was enrolled in Harvard Law and who never underestimated his wife's brilliance.

Ginsburg quickly emerges as a super-woman who can take care of a newborn, tend to her ailing husband when he's diagnosed with testicular cancer and excel as a student -- not only in her classes but when filling in for the recovering Martin.

Ginsburg ultimately transferred to Columbia University's law school because Martin landed a job in New York. After graduation, she found that most of the major Manhattan law firms had no interest in hiring a woman.

As a result, Ginsburg began teaching at the law school of Rutgers University in Newark. She and Martin eventually came across a case that opened a door to tackling gender discrimination. Ironically, it involved a male.

The movie spends a good deal of time on litigation involving Charles E. Moritz (Chris Mulkey), a Colorado man who had been denied a tax deduction for taking care of his ill mother on the grounds that caregiving roles were restricted to women.

Martin became involved because he was a highly regarded tax attorney with tons of court-room experience. But as the proceedings unfolded, Ruth Ginsburg found her legal voice. She took charge of gender elements in Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue.

You'll learn a lot about this 1972 challenge of a tax-court ruling: how it was chosen, the various legal arguments it generated and why it connects to broader gender discrimination cases.

Leder also devotes time to Ginsburg's relationship with her daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny), a young woman whose views about institutional gender bias were more advanced than her mother's. Initially, Jane was skeptical about her mother's insistence that an unfair system could be changed from the inside.

Justin Theroux signs on as an ACLU lawyer who's eventually cajoled into allowing the organization to join forces with the Ginsburgs.

On the Basis of Sex never transcends by-the-book filmmaking. It's an okay big-screen bio that exemplifies what happens when a movie has an important story to tell but could have told it in a more compelling fashion.

A postscript: There are movies and then there's real life. Every follower of news knows that Justice Ginsberg recently was operated on for lung cancer. If RBG and On the Basis of Sex provide even a glimpse of Ginsburg's fortitude, it's difficult to imagine that she won't be around if someone decides to make a movie about the second half of her career.