The Way Back

The Way Back is strange in how it manages to be both kind of slight and very heavy at the same time. It hits all the familiar marks of its genre, but underplays them in such a way that they actually have more impact. It isn’t a great movie, but it is one that makes a solid impact.

Ben Affleck plays Jack Cunningham, an alcoholic former high school basketball star. While he is slowly killing himself drinking, his old high school comes calling. Their basketball coach has suffered a heart attack and they need someone to step in and finish the season. Jack is reluctant to do so, but he eventually takes the position. While the school was a powerhouse back in his playing days, they are now down to six varsity players and have won only one game all year. From there, he helps teach the players about basketball and he learns how to move on with his life.

While several sports movies come to mind while watching The Way Back, the big one is Hoosiers. It hits a lot of the same beats. That movie also involved an alcoholic basketball coach who initially alienates some of his players. A coach who frequently lost his temper on the sidelines. With players whose parents are leery of letting them play over concerns about schooling. But while it hits a lot of the same beats, it does so with different enough emphases that it feels like its own thing instead of a pale imitation of the past. It also doesn’t have the pat conclusions that many other inspirational sports movies have.

For the Way Back, the basketball is secondary to the personal journey of Jack. Affleck immediately instills in him a bone deep weariness; you can feel the pain and trauma this character has suffered in every move he makes. However, the movie holds back on the exact details of that pain. He is separated from his wife and there was some past tragedy, but it doles out the information at a measured pace. Meanwhile, you see Jack slowly start to work through his pain. The basketball gives him something to hang on to. There is no call for him to stop drinking, he merely tries to sober up to better do his job. It is obvious he is white knuckling it, and when a past tragedy comes back, he can’t handle it. Setting up the usual backsliding portion of the movie.

There is just enough of the basketball team and strategy to keep it interesting. The team is limited in size and numbers, so Jack comes up with a plan to offset those weaknesses. He tries to instill in his team a sense of toughness. The players do not get a lot of development, but what is there is put to good use. The center, played by American Vandal and High Flying Bird’s Melvin Gregg, likes to shoot threes and has an exaggerated opinion of himself. The sharpshooter is a wannabe ladies man. The best player is a point guard too soft spoken to lead the team. Jack helps some of them become better players. Mostly, just the point guard.

The Way Back is an understated and effective drama. It feels like the kind of movie that won’t really stick with people, but the people who see it are likely to really enjoy it. I know I did.

***1/2

Jumanji: The Next Level

I didn’t have a lot to say about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle when it came out. It took a pretty interesting premise, of a group of teenagers jumping into the bodies of 4 video game characters and executed it well. It was fun, forgettable movie. Jumanji: The Next Level is literally just more of the same. It is still pretty well made and thoroughly enjoyable, with just enough newish wrinkles to keep things fresh, but it is largely repetitive of its predecessor.

The plot is thin. Three of the last movie’s four teens have moved on and are doing well in college. Spencer feels left behind, and wants to refind the confidence he had when he was Smolder Bravestone. So he goes back into the game Jumanji. His friends find out and go after him. The twist this time is that Spencer grandfather, played by DeVito, and his former business partner, played by Glover, are in the area and they get sucked into the game too. When they get there, Spencer is nowhere to be found, and this time his grandfather is Bravestone. So the group sets out to save Spencer and beat this new version of Jumanji.

The characters don’t have as much to work through this time. Spencer is having doubts about himself, but those aren’t actually addressed by anything other than his friends coming after him. The big emotional moments go to Glover and DeVito, two former business partners who have been estranged for fifteen years. They bicker through their guises as The Rock and Kevin Hart through much of the movie, before coming to terms with each other and acknowledging that they are nearing the end of their lives. It works better than it should, but it is pretty thin as presented here.

Jumanji: The Next Level runs it back with the same cast that made the previous movie so enjoyable. Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Dwayne Johnson are all back. All four of the kids return. Even Colin Hanks and Nick Jonas come back as the older version of the kid once trapped in the game for years and his in game avatar, respectively. There are a trio of new additions in Danny DeVito, Danny Glover and Awkwafina. As with before, in the in game characters get a lot more work than the real world ones, but their personalities are carried through well. Black is the stand out here, playing a handful of different “real” people and making each of them clear and distinct. You know who he is just from body language. Similarly, Awkawfina and Kevin Hart do a good job with their switching as well. The normally hyperactive Hart sells the subdued Glover, and Awkwafina does a great job as both the nervous Spencer and as the consistently befuddled DeVito character. The one who sells the movie, and inarguably struggles the most, is Johnson. Through a lot of the movie he does a very entertaining but not especially good DeVito impression. It is comically exaggerated, and its works because of it ridiculousness.

Fortunately, there are quite a few exciting and imaginative set pieces as well. The video game conceit allows them to throw somewhat illogical nonsense on the screen with the need to explanation. The standout is a set piece in a series of hanging bridges across a bottomless pit that keep spinning.

Jumanji: The Next Level is almost strictly just more of the same. When the first one was as much fun as it was, that really isn’t a problem, though it was starting to feel a little stale as this movie drew to its conclusion. Hopefully it inevitable next sequel finds something of a new hook or a twist to expand on this enjoyable formula.

***1/2

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood attempts a delicate balancing act and mostly manages to follow through on it. While the trailer focused on Mr. Rogers, this really isn’t a Mr. Rogers movie; it is a movie about a cynical journalist whose interviews with Fred Rogers helps him to reevaluate his life. The movie is about the fictional Lloyd Vogel and his relationships with his father, his wife and his newborn child. Mr. Rogers is the catalyst for his change, but he is not the central character of the movie.

That point is an important one, because the most wholly successful part of the movie is Tom Hank’s portrayal of Fred Rogers. He nails the slow, deliberate cadence of how he talked, his complete empathy. The movie puts him to good use when he is on screen. Vogel is tasked with interviewing Rogers for a magazine feature on heroes. The cynical Vogel goes in trying to find the cracks in the apparently saintly Mr. Rogers. However, Mr. Rogers honest, if not entirely open, replies to his questions cause the reported to stumble. This eventually leads to a Vogel

The central emotional thread is how Vogel, played by Matthew Rhys, relates to his father and how he is going to relate to his newborn son. Vogel’s father, played by Chris Cooper, left the family while his mother was sick with cancer. He shows up to Vogel’s sister’s wedding in an attempt to mend things, but Vogel is not interesting in hearing from his dad. As he meets with Mr. Rogers begins to realize that his anger at his father will continue to affect his life, and his family’s lives, as long as he holds on to it. So with Mr. Rogers as the catalyst, Vogel begins to reconnect with his father.

There is something strange about this movie. The objectively very corny Mr. Rogers stuff worked for me completely. From movie’s framing device as an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, to spontaneous Mr. Rogers reactions like the crowd on the subway breaking out into his theme song or him asking for a moment of silence during a meal and having the whole restaurant, and the movie, go silent for a minute. That stuff is corny, but it absolutely worked on me. A lot of that has to do with the completely irony free Mr. Rogers, in real life and as portrayed by Hanks. What was more spotty was the somewhat boilerplate familiar reconciliation plotline that takes up most of the movie. It isn’t because Cooper or Rhys aren’t good actors or doing good work; the story is just has so little interesting going on that it never really does anything.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is well worth watching. It does given a look into what made Mr. Rogers so amazing, so powerful and so unique. But the movie doesn’t really focus on him. If you want a movie about Mr. Rogers, watch last year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor. This is a middling to solid drama with a strong Tom Hanks performance as Mr. Rogers that makes the whole thing work.

***1/2

Charlie’s Angels (2019)

This is a delightful spy action movie. It is just a lot of breezy fun to watch.

This Charlie’s Angels sets itself up as a continuation of all of those that have come before it. This is the soft reboot formula that worked so well for the Fast and Furious movies. It doesn’t erase or replace the show or movies, it just builds on them. The Townsend Agency is now international, and Bosley is a rank not a person. Still, all of those that have come before are still a part of the agency’s history. This movie focuses on two agents. Jane, a no nonsense former MI-6 agent and Sabina, a wild card. The movie opens with them taking out a smuggler. The two of them, played by Ella Balinski and Kristen Stewart respectively, don’t exactly get along. A year later, they are working in Europe. The Agency is contacted by Elena, a programmer on an experimental energy device that is potentially dangerous. She wants to turn over evidence that the company, or someone in it, is hiding the danger. They are attacked by an assassin, and the teams Bosley ends up dead. With Elena in tow, the team meets up with a new Bosley, played by Elizabeth Banks, and tries to secure these dangerous prototypes. The whole thing turns into a twisty spy mystery, with echoes of Mission Impossible.

Most of the movie works real well. The characters are better defined than you would expect. There is some specificity to them. The plot is lightweight, but it works. These types of movies tend to get convoluted, but Charlie’s Angels manages some complexity without getting too knotty. It sets up some uncertainty over a traitor in the teams midst, and keeps it just uncertain enough to be enticing. You can guess who is the good guy and who is the bad guy pretty easily, but there is just enough to make you doubt yourself for it to work. The action scenes are well constructed; you can follow the action and the flow of each fight. It maintains a clarity that some more ambitious action movies fail at. They are not that excitingly choreographed, though. The execution feels a little sloppy at times, with tame stunts and oddly framed shots. This movie will never be confused with John Wick.

Kristen Stewart steals this movie. She just takes over every scene she is in. There is something infectiously joyous and fun about her performance. It is not as if she is up against easily overmatched performers. The cast is filled with “that guys”, actors like Djimon Honsou and Nat Faxon. Patrick Stewart plays a Bosley, and is clearly having a great time. Balinski proves herself adept in the actions scenes. Naomi Scott, from Aladdin, plays the client and she is just as watchable her as she was in that early summer hit. Elizabeth Banks, who also wrote, directed and produced this movie, delivers in her role. Still, none of that matters when Kristen Stewart is on the screen. She walks a line of not taking the movie seriously at all, and delivering a perfectly serious performance. She plays the teams wild card, and seems to be treating the whole movie as if she is a wild card. It works; it is magnetic.

This movie seems like it is getting ignored at the box office. That is predictable. It is the kind of movie that I think people will happen upon in a few years. Maybe it will show up on cable, or on a streaming service and people will notice that it is much better than expected. It isn’t a perfect movie, but it is certainly better than it has been received.

***1/2

Harriet Review

I don’t mean this to sound as dismissive as I know it will, but Harriet feels like the movie you would watch in history class when there is a half day or a substitute. It competently goes through the motions of telling the story of Harriet Tubman, with more than a little skill, but somewhat lacking in style.

I can’t really point to any area where Harriet fails. It starts with Tubman, then called Minty Ross, as a slave in Maryland. Her free husband and father contacted a lawyer to straighten out the fact that Minty and her mother were supposed to be freed under the terms of their old owners will, but his son has refused to do that. That appeal goes about as well as you’d expect. After Minty prayers for her master’s death are granted, his son tries to sell her off to repay some debts. Minty has had enough and decides to run away. With some help from the local preacher and a kindly Quaker, Minty escapes over a hundred miles to Philadelphia and takes the name Harriet Tubman.

Harriet does an excellent job both keeping the focus on Harriet and in giving a glimpse into a wide variety of black experiences under slavery. Harriet is one, though a unique one is some ways, still an experience that many shared. She was born into slavery, but escaped to freedom. She knows what it is like to live under that evil, and wants to do everything she can to end it or help others escape. Her husband and father are free men, but live in the slave-owning South and were at one time slaves themselves. They are still subject to Southern Racism, but have a different experience than Harriet and different reactions. There is also Harriet’s sister, who refuses to leave with her. It is easy to look at it as a lack of courage, but the movie shows how the system affects people, how Harriet’s sister fears for her young children, who it would be very hard to take with them and let’s that fear keep her enslaved. In Philadelphia, there are free African Americans who were born in freedom. They recognize the evils of slavery, but only kind of understand its corroding evil. I don’t mean to say they don’t treat it as real, but their reactions are more analytical. The movie gives a peek at all these different experiences, mostly through the lens of how they see Harriet and how Harriet sees them.

The biggest white role in the movie goes to Harriet’s would be owner, Gideon Brodess. The movie never falls into the all too common in Civil War movie trap of letting him, and his fellow slave owners, off the hook for the evil the perpetrate. At first it seems like it might, playing him as slightly sympathetic to Harriet before she runs away, but soon the facade is removed and the movie shows him for what he is. It is a deep ingrained callow selfishness, where he just doesn’t view these people as people. Even near the end, when Brodess does something that could maybe be called good, the movie shows the self interest behind it.

It is somewhat less successful in wrestling with Tubman’s faith. The movie acknowledges it, but doesn’t quite seem to understand it.  Harriet has nothing to say about its protagonists faith.  She may interpret her blackouts as visions from God, and the movie actually gives her visions during her faints, but it just sort of happens without comment,

Harriet is a perfectly fine, by the numbers biopic. But it is telling a story that shockingly, or maybe not that shockingly considering who the main character is and Hollywood’s determination to filter every story through a white lens, has not previously been put to film. It is well done and gives a glimpse into the life of a national hero. It does not, in any way reinvent the wheel, but sometimes all you need is a well-made wheel.

***1/2

Dora and the Lost City of Gold

I am way too old to have memories of Dora the Explorer, but I am unfortunately old enough to have memories of babysitting children who are now teenagers who likely have fond memories of Dora the Explorer. For some reason, I found myself wandering into the theater to watch the live action adaptation of a cartoon for toddlers. I was shocked at how much I enjoyed it. It is still a movie for kids, this time more for the pre-teen set, kids that still have that naivety of youth and are anticipating/dreading high school. This move is just about perfect for them; both thoroughly fun and entertaining and entirely wholesome.

The first place this movie shines is with its entirely overqualified cast. Saving the kids for a second, this is a movie with spots for Michael Pena, Eva Longoria, Benecio Del Toro and Danny Trejo. These adults all have small roles, but they make the most of their short time. The most meaningful presences there are Pena and Longoria, who play Dora’s parents with a just the right amount of encouragement and concern. Dora, played by Isabella Moner, is the engine that drives this movie. She is perpetually upbeat, but not stupid. The movie does a great job of showing her competence in the jungle before uprooting her for the city and having her look like a doof. Then, it flips it again to put her back in the jungle. The other kids, Diego and two new characters (I guess, I’m not a Dora expert) are pretty fun. Diego is Dora after having the exuberance sanded off by years with the more cynical city folks. Randy is a somewhat dorky everyman, who knows the tropes of the adventure stories Dora riffs on. And Sammy is the classic alpha smart girl, who is simultaneously jealous, dismissive and competitive with Dora. It isn’t anything new or groundbreaking, but it is fun. Finally, there is Eugenio Derbez, who guides/is guided by Dora through the middle portion of the movie. He is not quite incompetent but also not quite adept, and mostly serves as the butt of jokes for the kids.

Some of the most fun parts of Dora are how the movie adapts the specific hallmarks of the show into this live action format. There is a big change of perspective scene near the end that plays with this, but there are also moments throughout that do similar things. Dora’s talking to the camera asking 3 year olds to count to 4 is now her talking to her audience (it is unclear if she actually has one) for youtube videos she is making. Boots the monkey is just a monkey, though he is a horrible CGI creation rather than an actual monkey. Inexplicably, Swiper is a talking CGI fox who just so happens to be working for the bad guys. It is weird, but it somehow works.

The plot is just complex enough. To start with, Dora’s parents are sending her to live with her cousin in civilization after she grew up in the jungle with them, a pair of college educated archaeologist. This is both for her development and because they think they found a lost city and can’t take her with them. So the first act has Dora trying to adapt to live in the big city. Then she loses contact with her parents, and is kidnapped during a trip to the museum. Along with her is her group of not quite friends. From there, they try to find Dora’s parents, escape the dangerous jungle and find the lost city. It nails that Indiana Jones like personal bickering while dealing with external threats tone perfectly. It is really just a fun adventure.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold is not going to knock anyone’s socks off. It is a perfectly good movie, especially for adults with kids the age of the intended audience of this movie. It is entertaining enough that they will not be bored and good enough that the kids will hopefully be enthralled. There is something to say about selling nostalgia to progressively younger movie watchers, as usually they are selling the entertainment of youth back to adults, here they are selling memories of babyhood viewing to pre-teens, but I am not the one to talk about that.

***1/2

Spider-Man Far From Home

I guess I am just not as much of a Spider-Man fan as most people. I like the character well enough, but I didn’t gush over Homecoming like a lot of people did, and I certainly didn’t feel as strong about Into the Spider-Verse as many people. I enjoyed both movies, but I’d be lying if I said they had really stuck in my mind past a week or so. I think I feel the same way about Spider-Man: Far From Home. I liked it well enough; it is a solid entry in the ongoing Marvel saga. It is a coda to the story that wrapped up with Endgame, a movie that furthers Spider-Man’s adventures while dealing somewhat with the aftermath of the big movie.

One thing that is excellent is Tom Holland as Spider-Man. He does a great job of selling him as a teenager trying to do the right thing while being somewhat in over his head. His classmates are all really fun as well. Zendaya’s reveal as being MJ at the end of the last movie was groan inducing, but she is just about perfect as his love interest and eventual ally here. (To be clear: I did not like the end of movie call me MJ moment; Zendaya is great. It is the same problem as with The Dark Knight Rises’ Robin bit at the end. Don’t do that crap; just have the character be the character the whole movie.) Jake Gyllenhal mostly makes Mysterio work, though he remains kind of an empty shell of a character at the end, with his motives and personality largely just gaps that were never filled in.

One thing I haven’t liked with the current iteration of Spider-Man is making him Iron Man’s side-kick. Which is exactly what he has been in every MCU movie so far. The dynamic works well enough; I think DC should take notes for their next Batman movie and any attempt to integrate Robin. But to me it takes away from Spider-Man some. The fact that he is on his own is part of the appeal. Sure, in the comics he gets help from various sources, like the Fantastic Four, but the fact that he was the young hero that was not a side-kick always seemed to me to be a key element of his popularity.

Far From Home pushes Spider-Man’s limits. The first movie was all about Peter accepting his role as the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man; this movie pushes him immediately out of that neighborhood. The world has changed since he fought Vulture and Peter has to change with it. I just don’t know that this movie really works on the macro level. Him dealing with the legacy of Tony Stark doesn’t really feel like Peter’s responsibility. It only happens because Tony was apparently a mad man, creating tons of weaponized drones with few safety features. Nick Fury and the agents formerly known as SHIELD are so out of place I thought they were part of Mysterio’s illusion.

Stronger are the parts that deal with Peter’s personal life. His struggles to admit his feelings for MJ and his struggles with keeping his identity secret are both great Spider-Man stuff. That is what I wanted to see more of.

My complaints from a few years ago about MCU movies being all polish and not substance kind of went away for a bit, but that is exactly what this movie feels like. It feels polished to the point where it loses a lot of its personality. I don’t hate, I liked it, but it feels a lot like one of those MCU movies that people are going to forget exists in a few years, only coming up when someone throws is smack dab in the middle of Marvel movie ranking. Bring on the next phase.

***1/2

Tolkien Review

Tolkien is a perfectly fine biopic that tries to do too much and ends up not doing most of it as well as it could have. The movie tells the story of a young JRR Tolkien, up through his experiences in WWI, largely following three threads. The first is the bond Tolkien formed with some of his school friends that last until the first world war. Another is a love story between Tolkien and his lifelong love. Last, the movie spends time with Tolkien’s experience during WWI.

The movie cuts back and forth between a young Tolkien and Tolkien during the war. The bulk of the movie follows Tolkien as he ages from child through his time at university. First, Tolkien and his mother and brother find out that his father has died and they are forced to move from the country to the city. Then, further tragedy strikes as Tolkien’s mother dies. He and his brother go to live as boarders with a rich old woman while they attend school. Another boarder living there is Edith Bratt, who soon forms a connection with Tolkien. After an initially rough time fitting in, Tolkien also forms close bonds with a trio of other boys at school, forming what they call a fellowship that lasts even when they go to seperate universities.

Interspersed with Tolkien growing up are scenes of Tolkien in the trenches of WW1. He is suffering from an illness, and looking for his friend Geoffrey Smith. Smith has stopped responding to letters, and Tolkien is afraid he might have been killed. So he treks across the front looking for him, followed by his batman, a Private named Sam. Tolkien frequently nearly collapsed, and has fantastical hallucinations.

While good, the movie bit off a little more than it could chew. There is likely a really entertaining version of this movie that focuses on the romance, or on Tolkien’s love of languages, or on his connections with his school friends. This one tries to do all of those things, and ends up shortchanging most of them. The only one that comes across truly strongly is him with his childhood friends. They call themselves the TCBS, the Tea Club and Barrovian Society. Still, even with that thread it struggles to give clarity to the relationships between the boys. While it does manage to differentiate the boys, the focus on them shifts making it hard to get a read on them at times.

The romance feels truncated, but it works. It helps that Nicholas Hoult and Lily Collins are both great. It does a good job of showing why they would connect, but it does a lesser job of bridging things after the inevitable struggles happen. The WWI stuff is the clumsiest part of the movie, mostly because tries the hardest to connect his experiences to the Lord of the Rings.

The Middle Earth books are the specter that hovers over this movie, even if it doesn’t cover the part of Tolkien’s life when he wrote those stories, other than in a coda near the end. It tries too hard to relate all of Tolkien’s experiences to what he would later write in his stories. Some of it works, it only makes sense that writer’s experiences would influence his works, but it frequently tries too hard. His visions and hallucinations during the war are the most egregious example.

Tolkien is more good than bad. It isn’t anything world changing or amazing. It is simply a solidly executed, well shot and well acted, biopic.

***1/2

Fighting With My Family

I am not the world’s biggest wrestling fan. I’m not much of a fan of wrestling at all, to be honest. I am conversant in the subject, but other than a few months in 2001 or so, I’ve never really watched or cared about wrestling. I get the appeal, but it was never something that stuck with me. While Fighting With My Family is a wrestling movie, and at times takes the viewers knowledge of wrestling a little bit for granted, it is not a movie that requires the viewer to be a wrestling fan. This is a pretty well executed sports biopic, wherein the sport just happens to be wrestling. Where is truly succeeds is not in the fighting from the title, but the family.

Fighting With My Family tells the story of WWE Champion Paige, real name Saraya or just Raya, and how she came to win the title, focusing on her relationship with her family, especially on her relationship with her brother Zac. It opens with the two of them fighting, only for their parents not breaking up the fight, but instructing them on how to fight better. The two of them grow up participating in their parent’s regional wrestling association. They also train neighborhood kids who want to be wrestlers. When they get invited to WWE tryouts, it is Raya who goes on, while Zak is not chosen. So the newly christened Paige goes to Florida to train and join the WWE’s developmental league NXT, while Zak stays home and stews in his perceived failure. The two both struggle with how to move on from this.

The movie is directed by Steven Merchant, who you might know from his work on The Office or Extras or playing Caliban in Logan. You can feel his touch in the films comedic moments. The comedy is what really makes this worth watching. The world of wrestling is a slightly unreal place, even when you go behind the scenes and look at the real people behind it. There is a circus atmosphere to it. Playing it completely straight would be a disaster, but Merchant leans into the ridiculousness, without ever making the wrestling itself seem like the ridiculous part. It helps that the cast is rock solid, which is not an intention reference to The Rock, who has what is essentially an extended cameo in this movie. Florence Pugh plays Paige with equal parts strength and vulnerability. Jack Lowden (Dunkirk) plays Zak and his desperation to succeed is palpable. The parents are Nick Frost, who is delightfully chummy, and Lena Headey who seems to be having fun as well. The last big name is Vince Vaughn, who plays the man heading up NXT and gives his usual glib charm to the tough training coach.

The movie doesn’t shy away from the Knight family’s fairly low class status; they are outsiders even in their hometown. They struggle with money and the law. But it also shows them as a loving family and how they work to help each other and the neighbors. Zak’s training with the local youngsters keeps them out of trouble and their parent’s really seem to want what is best for their kids.

Fighting With My Family is a perfectly enjoyable movie; it isn’t really going to surprise anyone or make any top ten lists, but it is a decent little comic drama that is well worth seeing.

***1/2

On the Basis of Sex

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is absolutely a person who deserves a biopic made about her. I only wish that a slightly better one had been made. On the Basis of Sex isn’t bad, but it is so predictable. You know the beats the movie is going to hit pretty much as soon as it starts, not as a product of being familiar with history but because On the Basis of Sex’s beats are the same as any inspirational biopic. The initial hurdles, the successes and setbacks that all build up to a triumph where she realizes her ambitions; it has all been done before. Still, On the Basis of Sex is a fine movie about an important and heroic figure that never surprises or surpasses expectations.

On the Basis of Sex follows the future Supreme Court Justice from when she entered Harvard Law School to the early stages of her fight legal equality between women and men. The movie details her struggles in law school, with the inherent sexism of Harvard and its faculty and her husbands bought with cancer. It then follows her difficulty in finding employment as an attorney before settling in as a law professor and then finding the right case to pursue sex discrimination in the courts.

Everything is drawn somewhat broadly, as biopics often do. One encounter is there to stand in for a pattern of behavior, so that one encounter must hit all the points. Or the pattern is pointed out in dialogue. Sometimes these moments are worked smoothly into the course of the film, sometimes they fit in awkwardly. Some of the law school moments establish an effective pattern, Ginsburg explaining all of her bad interviews to an interviewer in what turns out to be another bad interview is a bit much.

Still, the movie hits the highlights of the story quite well. It tells its story just fine. The best part is its portrayal of the Ginsburg’s marriage. They are a fine partnership. A lot of that has to do with the performances of Felicity Jones and Armie Hammer. Jones infuses Ginsburg with this quiet fierceness, letting you see her sharp intellect and occasionally sharp tongue while still seeing how her struggles get to her. Then there is Hammer as her eternally supportive husband. A lot of his support comes merely from his recognizing her talents in a way others in their profession refuse to. The rest of the cast is filled with excellent players do the best with their small parts. The movie has a scene or two for Kathy Bates, Sam Waterston, Justin Theroux and Stephen Root. They all acquit themselves well in parts that don’t leave a lot of room for them to work.

As a current law student, the moot court practice gave me terrifying flashbacks. From the odd formal beginning to the pointed questions that seem to exist just to throw you off your game. A lot of the details of Ginsburg time in law school rang especially true, even though her time in law school was about fifty years ago.

On the Basis of Sex is fine. It is everything one would expect from a biopic and nothing else. It feels a little disappointing, but this is a year where Bohemian Rhapsody, which is outright bad outside of the music and a performance or two, got nominated for Best Picture. On the Basis of Sex could certainly have been worse.

***1/2