Serenity

I was excited to see Serenity. It has a good cast, with stars like Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, as well as excellent supporting players like Diane Lane (she is a star, but she is supporting here), Jason Clarke and Djimon Hounsou. The initial concept is appealing as well, a sun-drenched tropical noir, with McConaughey’s Baker Dill being asked to do something bad for a whole lot of money. The twist, which I will endeavor not to spoil other than to acknowledge that a twist exists, sends things off into crazy town. Honestly, though, the movie was off the rails before that, in some ways as groundwork for the twist, in others that just make no sense.

Baker Dill is a fisherman, hiding from his mysterious past on a tropical island. He hires his boat out to fishermen, but doesn’t make a lot of money because he has a habit of snatching the poles away from his customer when he suspects he is about to land his nemesis, a giant tuna Dill has named Justice. When on the shore, he either spends his time sticking it to lonely widow Constance, who pays him for his company to make up for his fishing failures when he returns her persistently lost cat, or drinking at the one local bar. Soon, the answer to his money troubles appears in the form of his ex-wife, played by Anne Hathaway. She tells him that her new husband Frank is abusive to both her and their son and asks Dill to kill him. Dill is understandably hesitant, but soon events go in a direction impossible to foresee.

While it may be part of setting up the twist, the set up in the first half of the movie is laughable. It has terrible dialogue and ridiculous premises. I already mentioned the tuna named Justice, which is actually close to subtle in for this movie. Constance spends her time either with Dill in bed or watching him out her window. People do and say the same things every day. This is only broken up by brief unexplained glimpses of Dill’s son. Then there is the new new husband, Frank, who is perfectly loathsome. He starts bad, with accusations of abuse, and just gets worse and worse. From forcing his wife to call him Daddy to suggesting a night out on the town to find underage prostitutes. In every way a person can be gross, Frank is gross. It is a symptom of the movie not knowing when there is enough. Like Dill’s obsession with a fish called Justice.

The set up is for a cliche noir story, but with the cast on hand that might have been enough for a watchable film. Not something truly memorable, but probably entertaining enough. Serenity is not content with simple competence, so it takes a big swing and strikes out. The twist is bewildering, with the rules making less and less sense the more you think about them.

I will say this for Serenity; it is certainly memorable. It is not often that a movie this perplexingly bad hits theaters. It is a special kind of disaster; one where the filmmakers saw the ruin they were headed to and steered into the mess rather than attempting to salvage things. Serenity is entertainingly terrible.

*1/2

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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

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

This is the first great movie of 2019. I think. After more than a week to think about, that is what I am going with. While there are certainly twists and turns in this thriller, it is a rather simple movie. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is a perfect example of the movie just doing the thing. Contrast this with the recently released Serenity, an island noir that refuses to just be a noir, to admittedly hilarious results. Sparrow Creek is just a small, condensed mystery thriller. It just does that, with no special shifts in genre or concept mid-movie. And it all works well.

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek is about a militia group. They meet at their warehouse headquarters after hearing police reports of a shooting at a police funeral. The seven men quickly determine, based on some missing gear and a missing assault rifle, that one of the seven of them was the shooter. They decide to find out who did and turn that person in to the police in order to keep them from taking the whole group down. So ex-cop Gannon starts to investigate the other men in the group. He quickly narrows it down to young loner Keating or he standoffish Morris. Meanwhile, militia leader begins to suspect Noah, who has some kind of connection to Gannon and lied to the others upon arriving. Tensions rise as Gannon and Ford struggle over how to find out who is responsible. Meanwhile, reports on the police scanner suggest that other militia’s like theirs have risen up across the nation to fight back against the corrupt police, making the group wonder is they really want to turn in the culprit.

The movie is rather simple in form; it is essentially a kind of locked room mystery. But it is playing a bigger game. Gannon, played by James Badge Dale, is very effective at his job, but he is more worried about finding a scapegoat than actually getting to the truth. He is not exactly a reliable narrator. You can’t really trust him; he joined this militia same as these other disaffected criminals. But he is the center of the film. Each of the other characters, in a cast made up entirely of familiar faces if not familiar names, is broken in a slightly different way. Each one is an outcast. You never really sympathize with them, their goals and beliefs are abhorrent, but you can almost understand how they got there.

Without spoiling any of the narrative twists, things eventually come to a boil as most of the characters secrets are revealed. The conclusion ties everything together in a way that makes sense, but also keeps the viewer guessing right until the end. That ending, if I am interpreting things correctly, may not be as palatable as what came before, but it is still something. The Standoff at Sparrow Creek does not do anything truly new or revolutionary, it merely executes an old fashioned thriller at a very high level.

****