Friday, January 11, 2019

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fight for gender equality heroically portrayed in ‘On the Basis of Sex’

By Steve Crum
On the Basis of Sex adds to the cadre of biographical films based upon U. S. Supreme Court Justices. That relatively short list includes 1950’s The Magnificent Yankee, starring Louis Calhern as Oliver Wendell Holmes. Among those that followed, two focused on Thurgood Marshall: Separate But Equal (1991—Sidney Poitier) and Marshall (2017—Chadwick Boseman). 
That said, On the Basis of Sex is a fascinating, well crafted, accurate bio-drama about the early life—personal and professional—of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg has also been the focus of a fine documentary, RBG, which premiered last year on CNN. At this writing, 85 year-old Justice Ginsburg is recuperating from ill health while maintaining her senior status on the Supreme Court. 
Directed by Mimi Leder (Pay it Forward), and written by Daniel Stiepleman, Basis follows Ginsburg’s early years (as Ruth Bader) with her parents, and then her eventual marriage to fellow law student Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer). Felicity Jones portrays RBG as a highly driven and aggressive law student. That verve would soon transition into a clever and relentless attorney. 
Basis paints RBG as a highly intelligent idealist possessing great stamina. Case in point: Soon after her marriage, husband Martin gets cancer, and is unable to attend classes. So in addition to taking her own full schedule, Ruth substitutes for Martin in his classes, taking copious notes used to prep him for exams. Describing such as an incredible feat is understatement. 
After transferring from Harvard to Columbia University, the Ginsburgs—now with a baby—complete their law degrees. Martin immediately finds an attorney position, but Ruth does not. Really, she is not permitted to do so. Law firms were male dominated. Period. This was in the late 1960s. 
Ruth is relegated to teaching “The Law and Sex Discrimination” at Rutgers Law School. And she is lucky to get even that.
While On the Basis of Sex is by no means a rags to riches story, it does fit the mold of failure to success—or, to be accurate, obscurity to success and fame. It does not take long for the disappointed RBG to be offered a lawsuit that will propel her upward and onward into law book history. Since she represents no firm, Ginsburg enlists help from friend Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), an ACLU attorney. The case involves a Denver man who hired a nurse to help care for his aging mom. Since he had to continue working, he could not take care of her himself. So he declared the payment to his mother’s nurse on his income tax. Then he butted head to head with the IRS, whose code limited any such tax deduction…for a man. It was justifiable for a woman to declare such, but not a man. 
What occurs for the remainder of the film is reflected in the movie’s title. The beauty of On the Basis of Sex is its portrayal of Ginsburg’s almost single-handed pursuit of justice for men AND women. Gender discrimination becomes the mainstay of Ginsburg’s case, which she argues pro bono. 
Aside from the courtroom scenes, there are welcome castings of Kathy Bates (as women’s rights attorney Dorothy Kenyon) and Sam Waterston as Erwin Griswold, a Harvard Law School administrator who eventually represents the IRS in court vs Ginsburg. 
Look for a surprise cameo near the film’s end. Then again, it will probably not be so surprising. 
=====

GRADE on an A-F Scale: B+

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Dick Cheney’s skewed political life realized in Adam McKay’s biting ‘Vice’

By Steve Crum
If not ironic, it is curious that Vice opens Christmas Day. It is anything but a family movie, or even lighthearted escapism. However, it IS a comedy of a very dark kind. The laughs are inward, and often make one cringe. That a fact-based movie about a power hungry politician from 2001-09 could be released in the midst of the currently controversial presidential term positively speaks to the tenets of our Constitution. Such is Adam McKay’s dramedy, Vice. McKay wrote, produced and directed it.
The movie’s focus is on Richard Bruce Cheney, whom the world knows as Dick Cheney, the 46th Vice President of the United States, under President George W. Bush. The film’s title references Cheney’s vice presidency as well as Merriam-Webster’s definition of vice: “moral depravity or corruption; wickedness.”
McKay’s credentials include Will Ferrell comedies (including both Anchorman films), The Big Short, and serving as head writer on Saturday Night Live. This time, it is not Ferrell masquerading as George W. Bush, but Sam Rockwell…and he nails it. Portraying VP Cheney is Oscar winner Christian Bale. So dedicated to acting his part, he gained 40 pounds. Thanks to studying Cheney’s speech patterns and mannerisms, Bale’s transformation is incredibly uncanny and stunning. This is far from an Alec Baldwin burlesque of Donald Trump—funny as that is.
Just as immersed in her role as Cheney’s wife, Lynne, is Amy Adams. She is terrific, and her character is central to the Dick Cheney story. 
After the Nebraska born Dick Cheney moves with his parents to Casper, Wyoming, it is apparent he is more interested in socializing than his studies. By the time he struggles to graduate from high school, his time is spent hanging out at local taverns and engaging in bar fights. One of his two arrests for DWI is depicted not long into the film. A couple of years later, he marries his childhood sweetheart, Lynne. 
Lynne has aspirations for power through politics, and applies them to her misguided husband. Realizing that men have a better chance to succeed in politics than women (at least then it was true), Lynne will vicariously guide her husband to greatness. She is essentially the puppeteer. And so it goes, as Dick Cheney rapidly climbs political rungs that reach the Oval Office of George W. Bush. By now, Dick himself believes his savvy and superiority, taking every opportunity to sidestep Bush in secret. 
According to Vice, it is an easy ruse. He uses Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) to circumvent Bush’s power whenever and however he can for his own purposes. Cheney’s grab for presidential power during the 9-11 attacks and the aftermath shock Colin Powell (Tyler Perry) and Condoleezza Rice (LisaGay Hamilton), but not the dense Bush. Back home, Lynne remains her spouse’s confidant-adviser. 
Was Dick Cheney really a ghost president to George W. Bush? Did Cheney really move our country to an Iraq War in search of non-existent chemical weapons? Vice answers yes to both questions. 
The film’s visuals and details are so honest, clarifying and precise that at times it seems we are viewing a Frederic Wiseman documentary. The Cheney years are history, and not that long ago. 
=====

GRADE on an A-F Scale: B+

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

‘Mary Poppins Returns’ shines as sequel to Disney’s 1964 classic

By Steve Crum
Undoubtedly THE family movie of 2018, Mary Poppins Returns is a joyous, exuberant musical that is banking on a legion of fans of 1964’s Mary Poppins. This is not to say that those young or old, who have never seen the first Poppins, will be lost with this one. However, it would help immensely if they have.
There are grandparents—like yours truly—who did see and greatly enjoy Disney’s first take over 50 years ago. Since then, there have been reissues at theaters, followed by releases on VHS and then DVD formats. Also factor in the numerous times Mary Poppins has been shown as a network TV special. By now, most children have seen it, right? It remains in the same league of beloved family movies as The Wizard of Oz. Come we now to the new Poppins film.
Touted as a sequel, Mary Poppins Returns is more aptly both a sequel and a re-imagined remake of the 1964 Disney classic. Frankly, there are more similarities than differences. Director/Producer/Co-Story Writer Rob Marshall has fashioned Returns within the same template, including at least three of the same characters. The first film’s house and neighborhood have barely aged, except for the once very young Jane and Michael Banks. They are now adults. Michael (Ben Whishaw) is recently widowed, and has three young kiddos. Sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) has returned to the family home to help Michael and the children deal with their loss.
The elder Mr. and Mrs. Banks of the first movie have evidently died some time ago. 
The very bank for which the late Mr. Banks worked, the Fidelity Fiduciary, is now run by the villain of Mary Poppins Returns, William Wilkins (Colin Firth in conniving mode). He has schemed to foreclose on the Banks’ home immediately. 
Enter Mary Poppins, descending from the sky via open umbrella—just as she did in the ’64 movie. But this time she is impressively portrayed by Emily Blunt. Blunt’s singing voice, and she does sing several numbers, is not in Julie Andrews’ league, but it is more than acceptable. Mary then enters the Banks household as a nanny and fixer, intent on winning over the Banks family with words and songs of hope and happiness. She is soon assisted by Jack the lamplighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda), who apprenticed with Bert from the original film. (Bert is nowhere to be seen.) 
As with Mary and Bert in the first flick, Mary and Jack undergo adventures in ultra-colorful live action and animated lands, including an inventive sequence that begins through a bubble bath drain. This is cued by one of the film’s best songs, Can You Imagine That? Other singable songs are The Place Where Lost Things Go and Trip a Little Light Fantastic. The score also includes snatches of music and songs written by the Sherman Brothers for Mary Poppins.
There are many pluses gained in this new version, including Meryl Streep’s eccentric Topsy, Mary’s orange-haired cousin who frequently turns everything around her upside-down. There is Angela Lansbury’s Balloon Lady, featured in a grand finale. And there is Dick Van Dyke as Mr. Dawes Jr., the bank chairman. (Van Dyke played Dawes Sr. in the original.) The 93 year-old not only sings, but dances…on a desktop. 
In addition, Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda are practically and perfectly cast.  
David Magee’s screenplay would no doubt be as unacceptable to Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers as she was regarding Don DaGradi and Bill Walsh’s in 1964. She just did not like the addition of singing, dancing, and animation.  
Robert and Richard Sherman’s very singable score for the ’64 version is unmatched by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s 2018 take. Did I leave the theater humming a Mary Poppins Returns song? No. (I did so in 1964.) 
Then again, Mary Poppins Returns is brimming with what we need more than ever today: love, hope, and family unity. 
——————————

GRADE on an A-F Scale: B+

Sunday, October 28, 2018

‘The Merv Griffin Show’—with all its showbiz trappings—realized by author Steve Randisi

By Steve Crum
Fans of the long running TV talk/variety program, The Merv Griffin Show, will love the aptly titled The Merv Griffin Show: The Inside Story. I am one of those fans. So is Steve Randisi, who has written a well researched, revealing, and vastly entertaining work about the evolution of the Griffin TV show over its 22 years on the air, 1962-86. Covered in some detail is the life of Griffin himself, on and off stage. 
In the preface, Randisi explains the scope of his writing: “This book is not a full-scale biography of Merv Griffin. Rather, it’s the story of the television program bearing his name.” Still, there is a ton of fascinating information about Griffin’s personal and professional life before and after the TV series that bore his name.
We learn of Grffin’s early showbiz days in the 1940s as “America’s Mystery Voice” singer on local radio, and how his excessive body poundage per se “weighed in” to his fledgling career. Covered are his big band singer days with Freddy Martin, and Merv’s hit song, “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.” 
There is more than passing mention of Griffin’s penchant for creating and producing TV game shows, a period within his resume that began with his hosting of Goodson-Todman’s Play Your Hunch in 1958. Soon he was producing his own game shows, notably Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. Griffin was even composing their theme music. 
But the meat of Randisi’s book is The Merv Griffin Show, and its development and journey from network(s) to syndication. His professional and personal relationship with Johnny Carson is explored in some detail—appropriate considering Carson’s Tonight Show was Merv’s most formidable ratings opponent. 
I particularly enjoyed reading of Arthur Treacher’s tenure on Merv’s show, from being personally chosen as the announcer/sidekick, to his interactions with Merv and his guests. 
Included are backstage vignettes about tardy or absent guests, including a few big names reluctant to go on at the last minute. There are stories about Jack Paar, who influenced Merv’s talk show style, and Jean Arthur, Dr. Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Joey Bishop, Eva Gabor, Mike Douglas, Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and a slew more. They all were guests on Merv’s show, some repeatedly. 
The book’s 420 pages end with a helpful index—in case one seeks specific references regarding dozens of names ranging from Orson Welles to Abbie Hoffman to Joan Crawford, and beyond. Fifty-nine rarely seen photos are icing on this enticing cake. 
Randisi’s book is a fine tribute to Merv Griffin and his long running talk show. As well, it serves as an anecdotal history of mid to latter 20th Century show business.
——-

GRADE on an A-F Scale: A
——-

The book is available in both hardback and softback via Bear Manor Media.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Gaga, Cooper headline Oscar worthy stunner, ’A Star is Born’

By Steve Crum
The fourth time is the charm for the newest version (the third remake) of A Star is Born. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper help make it a marvelous must-see. Cooper is a possible triple Oscar threat here, via co-writing, co-starring and directing…each superbly. Gaga is no less impressive in her film starring debut as singer-songwriter Ally. She dazzles.
The accolades do not stop with Cooper and Gaga. Sam Elliott fans will be ultra pleased with his portrayal of Jackson’s older brother/manager, Bobby. But perhaps the biggest surprise of casting is the nearly unrecognizable comedian Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father, Lorenzo. Who knew that “The Dice” was a solid character actor beneath the black leather jacket, affected machismo, and Brylcreemed pompadour? He believably pulls off an aging, slightly balding single dad who frets over his daughter’s livelihood. 
The film’s plot most closely resembles the 1976 rendition starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Both concern an alcoholic rock singer (Cooper as Jackson Maine; Kristofferson as John Norman Howard) who crosses paths with a talented unknown singer (Gaga as Ally; Streisand as Esther Hoffman). In both films, the director also collaborated on the screenplay. 
For that matter, William A. Wellman handled both tasks for the 1937 original, non-musical A Star is Born. (Considered a classic, it stars Janet Gaynor and Frederic March.) Wellman’s cowriters were Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell. I mention all their names because the subsequent three remakes are based on their original work. That goes for Moss Hart’s 1954 screenplay. In the first two movies, it is Norman Maine (a has-been movie leading man) whose chance meeting with talented hopeful Esther Blodgett leads to their romance, commercial success, and tragedy. 
All that perspective said, this new A Star is Born emerges as an improvement over the ’76 film. (Overall, I still prefer the ’54 Garland version with those Harold Arlen/Ira Gershwin songs.) 
Opening with Jackson Maine performing at a rock concert after ingesting pills washed down with booze, there is immediately something pleasingly different about A Star is Born. Not only is Bradley Cooper a surprisingly good singer, but his presence is emotionally effective because he is not lip synching a previously recorded song. That’s the standard for movie musicals, but Cooper and Lady Gaga sing live here. It adds both credibility and electricity. Relaxing after his concert, Maine stops at a crowded eatery/nightclub wherein Ally is performing (terrifically) Edith Piaf’s signature song, La Vie en rose. He is understandably awestruck, and seeks her out. So begins the friendship that turns into musical camaraderie, encouragement, and love—on both their parts. 
At first, Ally still lives with her Dad, a single parent who has always encouraged her songwriting and singing skills. Soon she is touring with Maine as he deals with depression and increased dependency on alcohol and drugs. As her career ascends, his descends. His plight is worrisome to his older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott), and long time pal, Noodles (Dave Chappelle in a brief but impressive acting turn). 
A Star is Born is a very special film loaded with 17 original rock songs and intimate ballads, written by and memorably performed by Gaga and Cooper. 
I will go out on a short limb to predict Academy Award nods to Cooper, Gaga and Elliott. Lady Gaga’s days of wearing a meat dress are history. A born movie star is she. 
——————————

GRADE on an A-F Scale: A

Friday, August 31, 2018

Low key ‘The Little Stranger’ is atmospheric, scary little tale

By Steve Crum
The Little Stranger is a little gothic horror movie. Despite its mediocre budgeted trappings and lack of flashy digital effects, this slow paced haunted house film has a fair share of scares. Lucinda Coxon has adapted Sarah Waters’ best selling book of the same name, with Lenny Abrahamson (Room) directing.  
Set in a British countryside during the humid summer of 1948, The Little Stranger follows central character Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) as he experiences strange goings-on after being summoned to Hundreds Hall. Faraday has a not so happy history at the 18th Century-built estate since he more or less grew up there when his mother was a housemaid. Mrs. Angela Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) is ailing, so her daughter, Caroline (Ruth Wilson), asks for Faraday’s help. The two knew each other when they were children. 
Complications arise upon Faraday’s arrival, when he crosses paths with Roddy Ayres (Will Poulter), Caroline’s brother. Roddy bears grotesque facial scars inflicted during his military service in WWII. Even more troubling is his inability to deal with PTSD symptoms, resulting in violent mood swings. 
The Ayres’ small family unit, accentuated by living in a mansion, has one youngish maid, Betty (Liv Hill), whose fortitude is being tested to the limit. Roddy’s outbursts are challenging enough, but she, along with inhabitants and visitors at Hundreds Hall, have begun to experience strange happenings. Something is awry, and a ghost might be the reason. 
Faraday decides to take on Mrs. Ayres as his patient, and spends more and more time at the estate. (His office is in a nearby village.) He and Caroline become romantically entangled, which adds a subplot element. But then there is the thing that rings all the inner house phones, the thing that answers each phone with breathing, and the thing that is marking the walls, and soon slicing human skin. 
Let me emphasize that the violence is jarring, but not as graphic as most horror movies over the last few decades. That includes a little girl being bitten in the face by a dog. It is only heard off camera, but that suffices. It is in no way as relentlessly terrifying as an Amityville Horror or a Poltergeist. The Little Stranger is more in the league of 1963’s The Haunting. There is suggested horror with bits of slap in your face violence. 
The well cast actors do very well, and Abrahmanson’s direction is solid. Nuanced is the apt description here. 
The Little Stranger is low on the creepazoid meter, but it tingled a couple of nerves along my spine. Forgiving its rather ambiguous conclusion, the film merits a viewing.  
——————————

GRADE on an A-F Scale: B-

Monday, August 13, 2018

Old showbiz is new again via movie biographies of Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, Gilda Radner

By Steve Crum
As a guy who wallows in the nostalgia of vintage show business, I am having anticipatory palpitations. The condition is purely fan-based, gushy, and driven by a slate of soon-to-be-released motion pictures. In other words, FINALLY…the lives of Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and Gilda Radner will be headlining the world’s multiplexes. 
LOVE, GILDA is all about the gifted, beloved comedienne, Gilda Radner, who died of cancer at 42 young years in 1989. Directed by Lisa D’Apolito, the documentary features Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler, Chevy Chase, Lorne Michaels, Laraine Newman, Martin Short, Paul Shaffer and Melissa McCarthy. They will speak to Gilda’s private persona as well as comedic influences on their careers. 
Opening Sept. 21, Love, Gilda will feature clips from her Saturday Night Live days as well her celebrated concert film. Gilda’s own words, culled from her diaries, will be interspersed with previously unheard audio tapes and family home movies. 
THE GREAT BUSTER: A CELEBRATION, a documentary written and directed by Peter Bogdonovich, opens Oct. 5., the day after Buster Keaton’s birthday. For my money, Buster remains the most brilliant film comedian of the silent era. No doubt the movie will mention his 1895 birth in Piqua, Kansas. Besides clips and behind-the-scenes interviews and remembrances about Keaton’s masterworks The General, Steamboat Bill, and the like, I hope there is at least mention of the yearly celebration of Keaton’s life and works held near his birthplace, in Iola. (I made the annual journey there over the last two decades.) 
Bogdonovich’s film includes recent interviews with Mel Brooks, Quentin Tarantino, Bill Hader, and others. 
STAN & OLLIE, opening Jan. 11, 2019, is a biographical dramedy based on one year (1947) in the personal and professional lives of arguably the greatest movie comedy team of all time, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. (No argument by me. The Boys ARE the greatest.) The focus is on Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy’s tour of postwar Great Britain, accompanied by their wives. Jon S. Baird directs a screenplay written by Jeff Pope (Philomena). Pope has long considered Laurel and Hardy his “heroes.” 
John C. Reilly (Chicago) is Ollie; Steve Coogan (Philomena) is Stan. There are no other box office names filling out the cast. That includes the actresses portraying the duo’s wives, Ida (Mrs. Laurel) and Lucille (Mrs. Hardy). Others depicted include names early movie fans will recognize: Hal Roach, James Finlayson, James Horne, and Joe Schenck. Music is by the prolific composer, Rolfe Kent, probably most famous for his Sideways score. 
This is one film that I, a Sons of the Desert member, can hardly wait to see. Early reports say it is Oscar worthy. Considering how previous Hollywood “biographies” slaughtered the images of Buster Keaton (The Buster Keaton Story), W. C. Fields (W.C. Fields and Me), and Abbott and Costello (Bud and Lou), Stan & Ollie could deliver big time. 
Please do not make this one “another fine mess.” 

=====