Thursday, May 2, 2019

Bob's Cinema Diary: 4/2/19 -- Ask Dr. Ruth and Red Joan

Some weeks, the number of movies challenges even those of us who tend to review as much as possible. This is one of those weeks. As a result, I'm trying something a bit different; i.e., I'm going to write about as much as possible in the most efficient way. I'm calling it a "diary" even though it reflects nothing about my life -- other than the fact that much of it has been measured in movies. Make what you will of that.

Ask Dr. Ruth

At 90, Dr. Ruth Westheimer remains a kick. The intrepid sex therapist and giver of advice possesses enough spunk and spirit to fill two documentaries. Fair to say that director Ryan White lucked out by getting Westheimer to participate in his bio-doc. Amusing and lively, Westheimer fills Ryan's Ask Dr. Ruth with the charm, candor, and personality that made her a natural for radio, television and offbeat celebrity. Hearing Dr. Ruth talk about subjects as varied as masturbation, orgasm, and anal and oral sex is a bit like listening to candid sex talk from the Jewish grandmother you wish you had had. Those unfamiliar with Dr. Ruth's story will learn much about a woman who left Germany for a Swiss orphanage as a child; her parents were murdered in the Holocaust. We learn how she became educated and how she made her unabashed way into a world that easily could have crushed her. I wish that Ryan hadn't relied on animated sequences to tell the story of Westheimer's war years as a child, but that may be a quibble. Westheimer, who has lived in the same Washington Heights apartment for 50 years, has the kind of star power that belies her diminutive stature. Her intriguing story and her commitment to speaking frankly about sex make the film irresistible. The thing about asking Dr. Ruth a question is that -- like it or not -- you're going to get an answer.
Red Joan

Red Joan, a movie that explores the motives behind a treasonous act in which a young woman provides the Soviets with secrets that lead to their development of an atomic bomb, might have been better had Judi Dench -- as the Joan of the title -- been used as a little more than a framing device. Arrested years after her crime, Dench's Joan has flashbacks in which she recalls the bulk of the story, which centers on her love life and gradual emergence as an idealistic physicist. Sophie Cookson plays the young Joan. Cookson is fine as a bright young woman who, while at Cambridge, falls for a Jewish Communist (a cliche) portrayed by Tom Hughes. The movie doesn't establish sufficient context to explain why many bright young people became enamored with Russia during the 1930s. Another leftist (Tereza Srbova) introduces Joan to Hughes' Leo, who appears throughout the story as he tries to persuade Joan about the rectitude of his cause while raising suspicions that he’s simply using her. Stephen Campbell Moore plays the head of the British research team that's trying to develop the bomb in an information-sharing effort with Canada. The movie's geopolitics produce little by way of sizzle, and director Trevor Nunn's effort to turn Joan into a peace-seeking heroine seem, at best, naive. In sum, fine cast; tepid result.

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