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Good Guys, Bad Guys and Kickass Ladies in Theaters

George Wolf George Wolf Good Guys, Bad Guys and Kickass Ladies in TheatersStill from "On The Basis Of Sex," via IMDb.
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The Oscar nominations are fast approaching, so we’ll see a handful of hopefuls squeak out in the next couple of weeks. Otherwise, we’ll see some stuff that probably has little chance of making a buck, unless it comes out in the winter wasteland. Bit of both this week.

The Upside

by Matt Weiner

The man who can’t feel a thing meets the man who hasn’t cared for anybody but himself. You will not believe what happens next.

Actually, if you’ve seen any inspirational movie about overcoming adversity in the last half century, you will totally believe what happens next. There is one big surprise in The Upside, though, and it’s how committed the leads are to making it way less cynical than it has every right to be.

I’m not sure it’s enough to redeem a film that’s been done dozens of times, but at least it makes this entry highly watchable. For this version, Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart star as the odd couple from different walks of life who learn valuable lessons from each other in unexpected ways.

After being paralyzed from the neck down and losing his wife to cancer in short succession, billionaire investor Phillip Lacasse (Cranston) has given up on life. A chance encounter with street-smart parolee Dell Scott (Hart) brings a burst of fresh air into Lacasse’s narrow world, and Dell is hired on as a live-in aide.

Lacasse sees potential in Dell and appreciates having someone who treats him as a person, not merely someone to be pitied or ignored. It’s an admirable sentiment, and the chemistry between Cranston and Hart is the most winsome part of the movie. And a good deal more enjoyable than the contrived romantic subplot with Nicole Kidman, who gets to put her real accent to good use but not much else.

Cranston and Hart play off each other so well that it makes you wonder why not put that talent to work with a less hidebound story? The Upside is an adaptation by Neil Burger of the 2011 French film The Intouchables, which was wildly popular despite suffering from the same clichés. The script for the remake by Jon Hartmere manages to make the story a little more subtly endearing than colonial when Lacasse, doing his best platonic Henry Higgins, teaches Dell to appreciate fine art and opera. Just a little.

But, banish those nagging doubts from your mind. The Upside pleads to be taken as all text, no subtext. This is, after all, a movie that turns themes, lessons and even symbolism into neatly packaged dialogue. You won’t hear anything new, but a lot of it is genuinely funny and well-delivered.

And who am I to judge the French for shopworn sincerity? They’re not the country that gave an Oscar to Crash.

Grade: C-

On the Basis of Sex

by George Wolf

In his wallet, my friend Jake keeps a picture of an attractive young woman he’s never met, just so he can use it for a bar trick.

It’s a picture clearly taken decades ago, and after a few cold ones, Jake will put the snapshot in someone’s face and challenge them.

“Who is this?!”

Most times they don’t know.

“RUTH BADER GINSBURG!”

That’s just one example of the rock star status RBG has achieved since joining the Supreme Court in 1993. A progressive champion at age 85, her every sniffle draws attention while more serious issues (like the recent surgery that caused her to miss SCOTUS opening arguments for the first time) elicit regular Google searches on her health.

But behind the pop culture status and “Notorious RBG memes” lies a truly heroic life. Already profiled last year in the Oscar-contending documentary RBG, On the Basis of Sex adapts her story for a big screen feature unable to contain its pure fandom.

Biopics on such legendary figures are usually wise to keep the focus tight rather than tackle the entire life story, and OTBOS works best when it digs deep into the first gender discrimination case Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) argued in court: Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue in 1971.

She presented the case alongside husband Marty (Armie Hammer), giving the film an organic mix of the personal and professional that first-time screenwriter Daniel Stiepelman (who is also RBG’s nephew) uses as his opening to also salute the sweetness of the Ginsburg love story.

It’s an understandable approach by an understandably biased party, but one that leads the film toward a path of hagiography and intermittent schmaltz that director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact, Pay It Forward) is seldom interested in resisting.

Jones carries the film with a terrific lead performance, Hammer delivers his usual fine support, and there’s no question Ginsburg is worthy of a big screen tribute, but this one can’t free itself from the admiring glow RBG basks in today. The sexism she faced is addressed, of course, but in ways that never feel more threatening than annoying flies this Superwoman will easily swat away.

Though its finale scores big, with Jones delivering a stirring closing argument before a cheer-worthy walk up courthouse steps, On the Basis of Sex rests as a film always competent and sincere, but seldom revealing.

Grade: B-

El Angel

by Hope Madden

Everyone loves a good bad guy. Why is that?

That’s a question that drives Luis Orgeta’s El Angel, a fantastically stylish period piece and provocative bit of storytelling that mythologizes Argentina’s most notorious serial killer.

Lorenzo Ferro is Carlito, mischievous imp and beautiful youth. In his acting debut, Ferro mesmerizes — appropriately enough. The sleepy charisma of the performance, paired with Ortega’s beguiling direction, seduces you.

Ortega saturates every frame with color, pattern and song, creating a sensual atmosphere that mirrors the storytelling. Meanwhile, Ferro captures a fearlessness that comes from the singular desire to experience each moment as it happens with no regard for what comes after, an alluring quality for both the audience and the other players in Carlito’s world.

While the newcomer is the clear center of gravity in this film, each supporting turn is stronger than the last. Together the actors populate this charmingly unseemly world with dimensional, intriguing misfits.

Chino Darín has the beefiest role as Carlito’s best friend, partner in crime and the object of his longing. That’s a theme — longing — Ortega plays with to unsettling results. There is a sexuality to everything Carlito does, and the relationship between the two friends remains tantalizingly unarticulated.

The release the audience gets instead is in the violence of the crimes.

The way Ortega emphasizes small, curious moments and deemphasizes the brutality without looking away from it is a true feat. The film — and, indeed, the life of Carlos Robledo Puch, the murderer in question — holds a great deal of violence. Truth is, the film may not contain enough.

Ortega’s interest involves the seductive quality of the bad guy. To get at this, though, he whitewashes Puch’s crimes. Besides being a murderer and a bit of an eccentric, Puch was a rapist and kidnapper who once shot at a sleeping infant. The omissions change the film from one that explores and mirrors the seductive quality of the villain to one that manipulates true life to fit a tidier vision.

Still, the sheer off-kilter spectacle that finds its focus in small, weird moments is too great to dismiss. Like the character it creates, El Angel’s allure is too strong to resist.

Grade: B+

Rust Creek

by Hope Madden

College co-ed (Hermione Corfield) follows her GPS into the backwoods of Kentucky, hits a dead end before bumping into some less-than-helpful locals: tussle, injury, escape into the woods.

I don’t know how many times you’ve seen that very film, but I have probably seen it twice already this week. (It’s a problem, I know.)

This woman-in-peril pairing with the “city folk lost in the backcountry” formula equals one very tired experience.

The fact that filmmaker Jen McGowan, working from a script by Julie Lipson, offers us a victim/heroine who fights and thinks is not quite enough to save Rust Creek from drowning. But McGowan’s tricky, and she has more surprises packed in her double-wide than you think.

The film, on its surface, asks us to rethink the victim in a hillbilly thriller. But Rust Creek cuts deeper when it requires that we—and the heroine, for that matter—rethink the hillbilly.

Michelle Lawler’s cinematography sets a potent mood, enveloping the proceedings in an environment that is in turns peaceful and gorgeous or treacherous and brutal, and she does it with natural, almost poetic movement.

This imagery allows the Kentucky woods to become the most vibrant character in the film, although those tree-covered hills are peopled by a few locals worthy of notice. Not all, but a few.

Jay Paulson, best known to normal people for his brief stint on Mad Men, and best known to my people as the porn-obsessed psychopath in Robert Nathan’s Lucky Bastard,cuts an intriguing, lanky figure as Lowell.

Slyly fascinating from the moment he takes the screen, Paulson shares an uncommon onscreen chemistry with Corfield. The smart, human relationship they built as they bide their time and cook some meth may be reason enough to see Rust Creek.

McGowan doesn’t burst as many clichés as she embraces, unfortunately. Still, the biggest obstacle facing her as she maneuvers her tropes to serve a (hopefully) unexpected purpose is that her protagonist is the least interesting character in the movie. This is not necessarily Corfield’s fault. She does what she can with limited resources. Sawyer is just the fuzziest character, and the one with the least articulated arc.

That means the resolution packs less of a wallop than it should, but certain moments and characters will linger.

Grade: C+

Also opening in Columbus:

Accidental Prime Minister (NR)
A Dog’s Way Home (PG)
Modest Heroes (NR)
Petta (NR)
Replicas (PG13)
Viswasam (NR)

Read more from George and the gang at MADDWOLF and listen to a full rundown of this week’s new theatrical and home entertainment releases on the SCREENING ROOM podcast.

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