Tag Archives: C+

MAINE

Producer: Summer Shelton, Michael B. Clark and Alex Turtletaub
Director: Matthew Brown
Writer: Matthew Brown
Stars: Laia Costa, Thomas Mann, Pat Dortch, Pete Burrius, Jeremy DeCarlos, Matthew Brown, Yossie Mulyadi, Neil Soffer, Glyn Stewart, David Gayle Price, Gus Halper, Joey McGowan and Shannon Queen
Studio: Orion Classics

C+

A trek along the Appalachian Trail rekindled an old friendship in Ken Kwapis’ “A Walk in the Woods” (2015), but the effect it might have on two far younger strangers travelling together is the question posed by “Maine,” the second feature from writer-director Matthew Brown. (The state, of course, is the trail’s final destination.)

The hiking partners are Bluebird (Laia Costa) and Lake (Thomas Mann)—those are their trail monikers, of course—who met along the trail and have been keeping company ever since. Not romantically, it should be noted: when they spend some time with other hikers who assume they’re a couple, Bluebird quickly disabuses them of the notion, though Lake, who obviously is hoping that their relationship might go beyond the purely platonic, is taken aback at her vehemence—as well as her willingness to disclose the not entirely comfortable circumstances of their first encounter.

No, they’re simply trail buddies who spend the evenings talking around the campfire, occasionally about their lives (her marriage is apparently in trouble, he’s still searching for some stability), but more often about ephemera—pop tunes, personal embarrassments, Spongebob Squarepants. Much of the film simply eavesdrops on their conversations, many of which feel impromptu and semi-improvised. Bluebird is the more controlled of the two, guarding her secrets even when she suffers one of her dark, depressed moods; Lake is more voluble and loose, prodding her to be more open and evidently disappointed when the wall between them remains obstinately in place.

The result is basically a two-hander, though periodically the duo meets others—not just hikers, but locals, like a genial old coot who offers them some food and drink. But the real third character in “Maine” is the landscape; the first ten minutes or so of the film are dialogue-free, with Donald R. Monroe’s camera roaming the Virginia countryside and the technical team capturing the ambient sounds. That immersion in the location continues throughout.

Brown doesn’t go the predictable route of mainstream Hollywood fare, and the ending of “Maine” isn’t what you might expect. Indeed, it concludes with a monologue about his life delivered by another elderly gent (David Gayle Price) that acts as something of a commentary to what we’ve watched occurring between Bluebird and Lake as they grow closer and arrive at the cusp of real commitment. Unexpected things can happen, and people can suddenly go off in different directions. But life goes on.

“Maine” would benefit from sharper characterizations and more pungent dialogue, and while Mann captures the goofy vulnerability of his semi-slacker youth well, Costa’s more buttoned-down performance makes Bluebird a less sympathetic figure than she might have been.

Still, as a vignette of a casual but potentially life-changing encounter between two dissimilar people it has some charm, though while it delivers a genuine sense of place, it doesn’t delve very deep emotionally.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX

Producer: Jonathan King and Robert Cort
Director: Mimi Leder
Writer: Daniel Stiepleman
Stars: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Jack Raynor, Cailee Spaeny, Sam Waterston, Stephen Root, Kathy Bates and Chris Mulkey
Studio: Focus Features

C+

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an extraordinary woman, but Mimi Leder’s film about her early life is sadly ordinary. “On the Basis of Sex,” written by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman (and thus carrying the subject’s imprimatur), covers her early years: her marriage, her education and her struggle as a lawyer in a decidedly male-dominated America, as well as her initial efforts to challenge the status quo. It’s an inspiring story, here told in a well-intentioned but thoroughly conventional made-for-cable fashion.

The film begins with Ruth (Felicity Jones) entering Harvard Law in 1956 as only one of nine women in the incoming class. All are invited to dinner with Dean Griswold (Sam Waterston), who smugly pontificates about their taking spots that could have gone to men. Professor Brown (Stephen Root) is no less condescending in class. But her supportive husband Marty (Armie Hammer), whom she met as an undergraduate at Cornell, encourages her to put up with the hassle, which she does even after he’s diagnosed with cancer and she takes up the task of covering his classes as well as her own, while also caring for their infant daughter. He survives against the odds, and they move to New York, where he takes a job in a law firm and she earns her degree at Columbia.

Despite exceptional credentials, however, Ruth cannot secure a position with a law firm and instead takes a teaching post at Rutgers, where she specializes in classes centering on gender discrimination. Urged by Marty—and her spunky daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny)—she decides to take on a Colorado case in which the victim is a man, Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), who has been denied caregiver benefits by the IRS on the basis of his sex. She has to convince Moritz to hire her, and Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux, the head of the ACLU’s legal department, to join in the effort on his behalf.

The second half of the movie is devoted to the preparation of the case, which leads to Ruth and Marty arguing in a federal appeals court against an aggressive young lawyer (Jack Raynor) seconded by none other than Griswold and Brown. Much is made of how Ruth overcomes her initial hesitancy in addressing the court to deliver a stirring summation that sways the panel, inaugurating the string of cases through which she will chip away at barriers to women’s equality under American law.

Given the importance of the fight for women’s rights Ginsburg was instrumental in bringing to the fore, as well as the iconic status she has assumed in recent years, there should be as ready an audience of admirers for “On the Basis of Sex” as there has been for “RBG,” the documentary by Betsy West and Julie Cohen about her that found surprising success earlier this year. Even more than “Marshall,” Reginald Hudlin’s film about the young Thurgood Marshall, however, Leder’s movie seems airbrushed to a point of timidity, becoming a Ruth-and-Goliath tale with more than a hint of underdog cliché about it.

And the casting is a bit off. Jones is of the right petite stature, but frankly seems a trifle bland as Ruth, lacking the fizz and spunk of the genuine article, who makes a cameo appearance at the close, reminding us of the more rounded portrait even the affectionate “RBG” painted. Hammer, similarly, offers a quite generalized view of a picture-perfect husband who always sees his wife as an absolute equal, if not his superior. By contrast Waterston and Root ooze smugness, and Theroux and Kathy Bates, in a small role as feminist pioneer Dorothy Kenyon, come across at a very high pitch. Mulkey adds some shading to Ruth’s anxious client.

The picture is nicely appointed—Nelson Coates’s production design and Isis Mussendon’s costumes revel in period trappings, and Michael Grady’s cinematography gives the images a glossy sheen, though nothing really has a lived-in look; Michael Tesoro’s editing is nimble, moreover, and Mychael Danna’s score hits appropriately triumphant notes as needed.

In the end, though, “On the Basis of Sex” comes across as more hagiography than nuanced biography. Of course, that might not matter to Ginsburg’s legions of devoted admirers.