by Alan Yudman

This has been the year of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. First was the documentary RBG (review to come.. I’ll admit I have not yet seen it, but I have purchased it). Now a fictionalized story about her first case fighting for equal rights for women. But ON THE BASIS OF SEX is more than just a movie filled with legal briefs and courtroom arguments. It is also a love story about Ruth and her husband Martin. In fact, sometimes Marty comes off looking better than Ruth. But that is a shallow assessment of what is happening here.

The film tracks Ginsburg’s life from her first day at Harvard to the case that put her on the map as a tough litigator. Harvard Law School is rightly portrayed as a boys club that women should feel privileged to join. And their numbers are grotesquely small at this point in history. But Ruth Ginsburg is tough enough to succeed. She also has to overcome a life-threatening health scare for her husband. Despite her family obligations, she rises to the top of her class. Marty is ahead of Ruth at Harvard and when he gets a job in New York, Ruth asks the dean (Sam Waterston) to finish classes at Columbia. He refuses and his argument foreshadows Ruth’s fight for equal rights. So Ruth finishes classes at Columbia. But, she cannot find a law firm that will hire her because she is a wife and mother. More foreshadowing. So she takes a job teaching at Rutgers. Ruth is unfulfilled. She sees herself as settling and pushed to the background. Marty sees this and suggests a gender discrimination case she might take on. It involves a man who was denied a tax deduction for dependent care for his invalid mother. The tax code allowed a woman to take the deduction, but not a man. Ruth sees it as the perfect case for her and Marty to argue together.

Two-thirds of the film involves the Moritz case and how Ruth fights to get the case before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. But it also shows her struggle with discrimination and how her unflinching dedication to the precision of the law puts a strain on her relationship with her teenage daughter. It also depicts a passionate and touching love story. Marty is truly ahead of his time in the way he supports Ruth’s passion. They are equals in their marriage. No one is more important. It is a true partnership born out of love and respect. That message is nearly as powerful as Ruth’s fight against discrimination.

Felicity Jones is wonderful as Ruth. She nails the toughness and sensitivity. It is a technically wonderful performance. Her accent is perfect. Some may think that it slips between Brooklyn, generic American and New York. But that seems intentional. She is trying to hide her Brooklyn/Jewishness to break down barriers. But when passions rise, Jones allows the accent to slip back into Brooklyn. It is amazingly skillful. Armie Hammer is fantastic as Marty. His care and love for Ruth are evident. He is fast becoming one of my favorite actors . Justin Theroux is also very good as Mel Wulf, the bombastic head of the ACLU who Ruth must convince to join her cause. There are more great supporting performances from Waterston and Stephen Root, who lights up a screen whenever he appears.

The screenplay was written by Daniel Stiepleman. He has the advantage of knowing the subject very well. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is his aunt. Marty Ginsburg is his mother’s oldest brother. Stiepleman tells the story that Aunt Ruth read the draft of the screenplay like she was reading a legal brief. I think that’s a fantastic image. His knowledge of the subject makes it feel very personal. Mimi Leder brings a much needed woman’s perspective to the storytelling and draws a vivid portrait of Ruth’s struggle in the way she frames Jones in every shot. That is especially evident in the climactic scene in a Denver appellate courtroom.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX depicts an underdog’s fight for justice. It is a lawyer version of ROCKY. Ruth is punching up at the glass ceiling instead of taking on frozen cows. It is powerful and inspiring and a story of optimism and a celebration of a truly remarkable person (I was going to say woman.. but I think Justice Ginsburg would view that as discrimination).



by Alan Yudman

Life is crazy. Living in the USA has become a daily exercise in gripping one’s sanity tightly so as not to let go an fall into the abyss of crazy. So a distraction from all the crazy is always welcome. MARY POPPINS RETURNS is the distraction we all need.

Just in case you were not 100% sure, this is not a remake. Rather, it is a continuation of the story. Some 30 years later, Jane and Michael Banks are grown. Jane is a union organizer. Michael is a widower with three small children. And they are about to lose their family home. They know they can get the money together if only they can find the stock certificate their father George left them and use it to pay off a loan Michael had to take out against the house when his wife was dying. Alas, they cannot find it.

Into this desperate situation floats Mary Poppins. She brings her own brand of quirky wisdom to motivate the children and bring hope to the situation.

The story logically follows the original and is pulled off to great effect by director Rob Marshall, screenwriters Marshall, David Magee and John DeLuca. The music by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman is fun and fits right into the story. The integration of animation and live action are fantastic and recall the original in all the best ways.

How do you replace Julie Andrews? The answer is you really cannot. But if you have to, Emily Blunt is a fantastic replacement. Yes she can sing. Yes she can dance. Andrew’s Mary was a bit more “sunny” in disposition. Blunt feels a bit more direct and stern. The eternal optimism and the ability to see the best in everyone and everything is there. Blunt is a marvelous actress, so any question about whether she could pull this off should never have been considered. So shut up doubters. Emily is awesome!

I guess chimney sweeps aren’t a thing anymore, so Lin-Manuel Miranda is Jack, a “leery”.. one of the men who turn the gas lamps on and off around London. He steps into the Dick Van Dyke slot very ably. Miranda pops off the screen whenever he appears. His song and dance credentials were honed on Broadway, so this is a natural fit for him. Ben Whishaw as the grown Michael is another great young actor who completely knocks it out of the park. His touch song to his late wife early in the film is moving. He can sing well enough to pull it off and his ability as an actor covers up any other minor deficiencies. Emily Mortimer as the grown-up Jane is also great. She’s bubbly and enthusiastic, hitting all the right notes (even the one time she sings). The three children are just great. Pixie Davies (Anabel), Nathanael Saleh (John) and the adorable Joel Dawson (Georgie) are perfect foils/companions for Mary.

Colin Firth is a decent villain. Meryl Streep has a great, fun scene singing with Mary, Jack and the children. Dick Van Dyke’s appearance is heartwarming (no he doesn’t play Bert). And seeing royalty like Angela Lansbury is a treat.

Sometimes the film feels like it is trying just a bit too hard to mirror the original. But the winning performances and the upbeat music and hopeful story overcome any of those extremely minor criticisms. If you are looking to put a smile on your face and leave the theater with a pep in your step, MARY POPPINS RETURNS is just the spoonful of sugar you need to help the medicine of life go down smoothly (sorry, couldn’t resist just one).



by Alan Yudman

ROMA is piling up the awards by the truckload. Critics love it. And there is an ongoing debate about whether or not you “must” watch it on the big screen to fully appreciate it. There is no doubt Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical film is an artistic achievement. And I appreciate its art, but I’m not sure it worked for me as well as it has for others.

The film chronicles a year in the life of a family in Mexico City during a time of political upheaval. It centers on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a maid for a seemingly well-to-do family. At the beginning the father leaves on a business trip to Ottawa (a convenient lie the mother continues to tell their four children to keep up appearances). Cleo grounds the family by just being there as the stable element while the mother seems to slowly fall apart before putting herself back together. She gets herself pregnant early on and has to turn to the mother for help, who makes sure she gets proper medical care.

All of this happens as a youth revolt swirls around the family (if you don’t know the history, here is a Time Magazine article that can give context). The father of Cleo’s baby is a member of an insurgent movement. Characters talk about the political unrest occurring throughout the country. It’s mostly at the fringes of the family, but sometimes it intrudes as when Cleo and the family’s grandmother go to buy a crib and they have to navigate protesters, then gun-wielding insurgents who descend on the store and shoot some innocent shoppers. There are also seeming random natural disasters. An earthquake (I know, by definition random), a brush fire while they are visiting friends for New Year’s Eve (maybe Christmas, it wasn’t really clear to me). At one point, Cleo goes to confront the father of her baby at a camp where he is training with other young revolutionaries. Leading the training is a man named Professor Zovek who was apparently a real person. He is kind of a combo cult-leader/revolutionary/Jack La Lane. He is really quite odd, but engrossing.

I’m sorry, but maybe I just don’t get it. Just like in any year, things happen.. but they also don’t happen. That’s what life is like. Sometimes it is thrilling, sometimes boring. This was more boring than thrilling. There are compelling moments. I suppose that is the point. But for a movie? I don’t know. I don’t mind movies that are thoughtful, or take time getting to where they want to go. But this movie dances around the edges too much. It never really made me “feel” anything until a couple of scenes near the end.

Since movies are a medium that taps most of an audiences senses, let’s talk about the visual and sound. Man, this is an absolutely gorgeous film. The cinematography (by Cuarón himself) is simply spectacular. The shades of black and white that dance across faces and buildings. The way the smoke rises as the fire is first spotted. The dustiness of the revolutionary training camp. The scene on the beach near the end where Cleo saves two of the children. It is all just gorgeous. And I didn’t see it on the big screen. I watched it on Netflix (yes, it’s streaming there since the company produced the movie), but didn’t feel like I was missing anything. If you watch it at home, watch it on a flatscreen TV not your computer. That, I think, would ruin the movie. The sound design complements the visuals perfectly. It is a technically and artistically beautiful film.

That couldn’t save it for me. I get what it is saying. I understand the story Cuarón is telling. It just didn’t move me like other films did this year. Great movie? Absolutely. Worthy of the praise being heaped on it? Maybe. Some have called ROMA “groundbreaking”. Not for me. It is absolutely worth seeing. But, it’s not the best movie I’ve seen in 2018.



by Alan Yudman

While most movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been wonderfully entertaining, they are missing something. They turn the comic book character into a real life person and as good as Marvel is at doing that, something always feels like it’s missing. No amount of CGI or green screen work can truly capture the feel of a comic book. With SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, problem most definitely solved.

The tone, the look, the characterizations are all perfect. You feel like you dove right into an edition of Spider-Man. But it’s not just the completely fabulous animation. The story is compelling. It is yet another Spider-Man origin story, but it is completely different.

This is not Peter Parker’s origin, it is Miles Morales’ story. How he became the hero. Now, the movie does start with Peter Parker’s story.. but it is more of a quick re-cap, completely with acknowledgment of Spidey’s sometimes dicey film history (complete with a nod to the weird Tobey Maguire strut down a New York City Street in Spider-Man 3). Then that quick re-cap becomes a “thing” as the story evolves. The story… wow. Totally compelling. Miles, like Peter, is a smart kid. He’s at a magnet school in Brooklyn, but he is having trouble fitting in. His police officer father is demanding, but Miles has more of a connection with his Uncle Aaron who has a dicey relationship with his brother. That leads Miles, the graffiti artist to a subway tunnel where he is bitten by the spider that will change his life. It’s hard to describe the web of the plot without the visuals. But it totally works when you watch it. And that’s kinda important in a movie.

Even the villains are acting out of a sense of heart and purpose. Kingpin is trying to get back his dead wife and son by opening a portal to a parallel reality. That event dumps a bunch of Spider-Men into Miles’ timeline. They must team up to stop Kingpin and save the world. But no one thinks Miles is ready, and he must find his own way to use his unique powers to save the day.

The movie has a ton of heart and treads on Pixar’s territory by delivering a message while being fabulously entertaining. In many ways it does it better than a bunch of Pixar movies. The animation and feel draw you into the message without bludgeoning you with it. It is entirely compelling.

And the voice cast.. more WOW! Shameik Moore is fantastic as Miles. If it was just him it would be excellent. But the rest of the cast is a smash hit. Bryan Tyree Henry is Miles’ father. Mahershala Ali is Uncle Aaron. Liev Schreiber is Kingpin. Kathryn Hahn is Doc Ock. Lily Tomlin is Aunt May. And the Spider-Men from the other realities are Hailee Steinfeld, John Mulaney Kimiko Glenn and Jake Johnson. Spider-Man from Miles’ reality is Chris Pine. Johnson’s sad Peter Parker is the version we have needed for all of time. Pine’s is more “heroic”. Johnson’s is real. There is not a bad performance in the bunch. SAG or the Academy needs to acknowledge the talent it takes to do this kind of acting.

The adaptation by Phil Lord is spot on. The direction by Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman could not be better. See it in 3D.. it’s really the only way. The soundtrack.. the score.. there is nothing not great about this.

Here is my wish… that Marvel and DC use this as an example of what this genre of movie can be. Forget the live action version of these movies. With Avengers: Endgame coming next year, it is the perfect time to shift. These comic book characters deserve this treatment. And so do their fans. It is really the only true way to bring these stories to the big screen. SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE should be seismic shift for Hollywood. Let’s hope it is. They have great power to do the right thing.. will they take the responsibility and do it? Here’s hoping they do.



by Alan Yudman

Costume dramas are staples of Hollywood, especially during award season. At the end of 2018 we have two to chose from, MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS and THE FAVOURITE. I have yet to see MARY, so I cannot speak about that yet. But I imaging those two movies could not be more different. Judging from the trailer, MARY seems quite traditional. There is nothing traditional about THE FAVOURITE other than the costumes.

I would describe THE FAVOURITE as an 18th century political sex comedy. Queen Anne is a sickly, insecure ruler. She is manipulated by Lady Sarah Marlborough who is running the country. But the manipulation isn’t only to achieve power for Lady Sarah. She seems to truly love the Queen. They apparently had been friends long before Anne became Queen. And that friendship became a secret love affair. But into this strange relationship steps Abigail, whose father’s gambling caused the family to lose status and forced her to seek employment as a scullery maid. But as with most characters in this story, she has ulterior motives. Eventually she schemes her way into the Queen’s inner circle and replaces Sarah in the Queen’s life.

That’s the basic outline of the film, but Yorgos Lanthimos takes that and creates a funny, bizarre world. Sex isn’t sexy, it is used as a means to exercise power and in a few instances love. The cinematography is unique in a good way. The colors are spare except for splashes of bright red. The costumes are fantastic, but mostly shades of black and white. The sound mixing is wonderful.. the clicking of heels on wooden floors is almost a character unto itself.

But what makes this movie soar is the three lead actors. Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne is vulnerable at first, and grows more powerful as her story progresses. She is never fully authoritarian, but she comes close. People seem to bow to her because of her position, not because of any real fear. Colman transforms physically through the movie. She is never fully healthy, but she is fairly falling apart by the end, which is a nice juxtaposition with her increasing self confidence. I can see why Colman is mentioned as a Best Actress contender. It is a remarkable performance.

Rachel Weisz also evolves from secure and powerful to vulnerable and resigned. Try as she might she cannot out maneuver Abigail. She doesn’t suffer any of the fools in the Queen’s court gladly and in the end that may be her undoing. But she isn’t one dimensional. She really loves Anne and their relationship is at times very sweet and loving.

Emma Stone doesn’t appear to evolve. Her deferential innocence is a masque she puts on to achieve the goal of regaining status and power. Stone’s reputation for playing the ingenue or innocent serves her well here. Because she takes a turn we haven’t seen her play before. And it really shows off her ability. This is a role she needed to grow as an actor, at least in the eyes of the audience. Abigail’s single-minded aspiration drives her and the movie forward. She marries an army officer, which re-establishes her in the court. But it is obviously a marriage of convenience. Oh and Stone’s British accent never slips. It’s quite a performance.

it’s hard to categorize one of Colman, Weisz or Stone as the lead actor. I know Colman received the Golden Globe nomination as the lead and Weisz and Stone as supporting, but that could easily be reshuffled. There are essentially three leads and it is impossible to say one is better than the other.

I cannot end before mentioning rabbits. Queen Anne has 17 rabbits. One for each child she conceived but who died either after birth or in utero. It’s something to use a rabbit, which was historically killed in a pregnancy test, to stand in for a dead child. I don’t think that’s an accident. It just adds to the bizarreness.

This movie could have been much worse, but the performances of Colman, Stone and Weisz should make THE FAVOURITE a favorite for a castle full of Oscar nominations.


the ballad of buster scruggs

by Alan Yudman

Six short movies all set in the Old West, but really THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is about so much more.

This is a Whitman’s Sampler of Coen Brothers movies with stylistic nods to some of their previous films. The quirky characters, the slightly “off” situations that comment on society as a whole. They are all present in this film.

I don’t know how to review this other than to review each film on its own.

The movie begins with the eponymous title of the entire collection. Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is first seen riding across the West while singing a cowboy song and explaining his life philosophy to the camera. We come to know he is not really a singer, but an infamous gunslinger. He has a bunch of aliases.. one he is partial to is the San Saba Songbird. But he pulls out a wanted poster that describes him as “The Misanthrope”, which is probably closer to the truth. Buster is an amiable, always smiling character but is deadly with a gun and you figure he’ll always come out on top. But happy endings aren’t the Coen Brothers. Nelson owns the duality of Buster’s character… the goofy singer and the amoral killer. He inhabits both without humanity, but with likability. His brutality is tempered by a sense of humor that mirrors that of FARGO or BARTON FINK.

Next up is NEAR ALGODONES which features James Franco as a bank robber who is thwarted by a teller (Stephen Root) carrying a rifle and armored with various sized pots and pans. This is the shortest of the 6 films and seemed the most easily dismissed. But there is still something going on. There is irony, humor and an acknowledgment of beauty even as death arrives that gives the story heart.

THE MEAL TICKET follows. I found this to be the darkest of the 6 movies. Liam Neeson is an Impresario who carts the limbless Artist (Harry Melling from Harry Potter) through towns around the west. Neeson sets up their mobile stage and the Artist recites Shakespeare, passages from the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address and more, to increasingly smaller audiences. Neeson comes across another act— a chicken that can do math.. The Calculating Capon.. and makes a brutal calculation of his own. Cheaper to carry a chicken around that a human being. So he buys the chicken and gets rid of the Artist. The dialog is spare. Neeson only has a few lines so most of his acting is body language and facial expressions. It is the best thing I have seen him do in years. It is great that he is challenging himself by breaking out of his aging action hero mold. The grim math of Neeson’s predicament seems to weigh on him, but he sees it as the only path.

ALL GOLD CANYON is the most cinematic of the 6. This one features the perfectly cast Tom Waits as a prospector digging in an idyllic canyon— searching for gold. He digs test holes in search of “Mr. Pocket”, the vein of gold that will make him rich. He finds it, and just at that point he is shot in the back by a claim jumper. You fear he’s dead, but he surprises his attacker and winds up on top and walks off with his treasure. This is a visually stunning film. The John Ford-like cinematography, the saturation of color even in he flecks of gold are spectacular. But it’s not just gorgeous. Waits is amazing. He is basically having a conversation with himself or the amorphous Mr. Pocket. And it is impossible to not feel it all in your gut. The film is bookended by shots of animals and fish scurrying away at Waits arrival, then returning when he leaves. Throughout, Waits sings the traditional “Mother Machree”.. it’s haunting beauty the perfect companion for this beautiful film.

Next is the longest film, THE GIRL WHO GOT RATTLED. If you liked the Coens take on TRUE GRIT, then you will love this. Zoe Kazan is Alice Longabaugh who seems to have been dragged on a manifest destiny quest to Oregon by her brother. But he dies of cholera and she is left to fend for herself. She and one of the cowboys who are guiding the wagon train she is traveling in come to an understanding when she realizes she has no money to pay the hand that is handling her wagon. Billy Knapp (the incredible Bill Heck) proposes marriage as a solution and she accepts. But she wanders off searching for her brother’s dog, President Pierce. The older cowboy, Mr. Arthur, leading the train goes after her and before they return to the wagons, they are set upon by Indians. Mr. Arthur tells her that if all looks lost to take her own life. This film goes from optimistic to tragic.. all the while mirroring the tone and language play of True Grit. This felt like the most fully realized of all the stories.

Finally is THE MORTAL REMAINS. This one features five people on a stagecoach headed to Fort Morgan. One is a frenchman (Saul Rubinek doing a ridiculous accient), the wife of a preacher (Tyne Daly), a trapper (Chelcie Ross) and two bounty hunters (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson). This one is all metaphor. At first they appear to really be riding toward a Fort, but the play of light outside the coach, the tone of their conversations and one very telling shot of the driver clue you in that all five seem to be headed for the afterlife. It is a great button on the movie, since all 6 deal with the deadly consequences of decisions made or not made.

Some will have issue with the way Indians are portrayed. They have no personality or story. They are merely instruments of brutal death. It’s a problem and tone deaf, but the Coens don’t seem to be concerned with political correctness.

The gimmick of the movie are the flipping pages of a book that the Coens use to transition between each story. Since this is available on Netflix, I suggest pausing when the book pages show up so you can read them. The writing is fantastic.

The whole thing put together is simply fabulous. Each film looks at mortality in a different way and comes to a similar conclusion. Despite our best efforts, death is coming for us. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is a feast for the eyes, the soul and the mind. That’s what makes this one of the best Coen Brothers movies.