RAMEN SHOP (RAMEN TEH)

Japan, modern day: an emotionally distant father dies. His son, Masato (Takumi Saito), who also lost his mother at an earlier age, decides to close down his father’s, now his, ramen stand, leave his dog with friends, and head off to Singapore. He’s in search of a new cuisine, specifically the recipe for Bak Kut Teh (pork rib soup), which he plans to incorporate with ramen noodles for his restaurant.

Of course, that’s not the only reason: his mother was Singaporean, and Masato hopes that by tracing her steps he might come to know her better. As these things go, Masato learns of an old family grudge that has kept him at arm’s length from his heritage. But it’s nothing a hearty bowl of soup won’t fix.

Shot with soft lighting and staging fit for a daytime soap opera, Ramen Shop (Ramen Teh in Japanese) is a family melodrama made for acolytes of Parts Unknown and other travel/food shows. Considering this Japanese-Singapore-French co-production features no recognizable stars, Ramen Shop probably wouldn’t have made it to the states if not for the recent popularity of high-end ramen dishes. Come they will, those noodle aficionados who proclaim that the stomach is the heart of every culture.

Yes, food is culture, but food is also class. There’s a telling scene in Ramen Shop where Masato and Miki (Seiko Matsuda) sit on the waterfront overlooking the squat apartments that line the ocean and the towering luxury condos behind them. Miki, a food blogger, tells Masato about the origin of the pork rib soup he so desires: The laborers who unloaded the boats were too poor to afford meat so they would take the discarded bones and make a flavorful soup full of rich nutrients to keep them healthy. Many years later, the soup became a signature dish.

Later, Masato and Miki have a similar conversation about ramen: “Chinese noodles” they were once called, and only the impoverished ate them. Now, ramen is one of Japan’s most consumed dishes.

Some of the most popular cuisines in the world were born from poverty: noodles, broths, bouillabaisse, tripe, tacos, hot dogs, and so on. Even beverages like beer and coffee have transcended humble beginnings and are now seen as canvases for high-end ingredients, celebrity chef concoctions, and Instgramable moments. But, like Masato and Miki discussing pork rib soup and ramen, these origins are often forgotten or dismissed. Admission without acknowledgment amounts to nothing.

It’s unclear if writer/director Eric Khoo intended for this subtle criticism or stumbled on it blindly. Either way, it’s a telling moment in an otherwise routine movie that’s full of talk but thin with comprehension. Kind of like the guy who can go on and on about how the soup is cooked, the beer is brewed, or the taco is assembled without a single notion of why any of those choices were made in the first place.

(Takumi Saitô) as Masato in Ramen Shop from Strand Releasing.

Written and directed by Eric Khoo
Produced by Junxiang Huang, Yutaka Tachibana, Shin Yamaguchi
Starring: Takumi Saitô, Seiko Matsuda, Jeanette Aw, Tsuyoshi Ihara
Strand Releasing, Not rated, Running time 89 minutes, Opens April 12, 2019
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MISSING LINK

Every studio should be allowed a dud now and then. Trouble is, money is involved and those holding the purse strings rarely have patience when a dud falls into their hands.

Laika, the stop-motion animation studio known for Coraline (2009), ParaNorman (2012), The Boxtrolls (2014) and Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), has walked a similar path Pixar did before being acquired by Disney: budgets are kept to a minimum, the animation is spectacular, and the wow factor is essential. Thanks to these strictures, Lakia painstakingly produced four stop-motion animated films, each one accessible for children while being entertaining for adults and advancing the stop-motion form. In a marketplace crowded by insipid, less-than-stellar computer-generated animation, Lakia gives audiences a choice.

But the core of Laika’s four films does not revolve around what can be done with stop-motion animation, but how stop-motion animation can bring a story to life. Laika’s fifth movie in ten years, Missing Link, fails to adhere to this formula and joins the cadre of movies full of pretty pictures and rote storytelling.

Written and directed by Chris Butler (who wrote and directed ParaNorman), Missing Link centers on Sir Lionel Frost (voiced by Hugh Jackman), an English adventurer who desperately feels he ought to be in the high society of adventurers — a repugnant group of men few would want to share a drink with, let along hang out. To do so, Frost sets out to Washington in search of the legendary Sasquatch. There he finds said Sasquatch (Zach Galifianakis), who speaks perfect English — though he has difficulties with figurative speech — and turns out to be the last of his kind.

Thanks to a little baiting, Frost agrees to help the Sasquatch — which he names Mr. Link; Mr. Link, on the other hand, prefers Susan — across the globe to the mythical city of Shangri-La, where Susan hopes to meet his yeti cousins.

First, they need a map Frost’s old partner made, which is how Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), joins their party. And there’s a goon (Timothy Olyphant), hired to follow and kill Frost, Susan and Fortnight. The trio manages to get to Shangri-La, but there they encounter a bit of cliquishness, a showdown with the adventurer society, and an ending that is as surprising as cake on your birthday.

Story-wise, Missing Link is enjoyable for kids who haven’t been beaten to death by the same old, same old, but for everyone else, there is a predictability — not to mention dullness — to each scene. The vocal performances are fine; Jackman, in particular, gives it his all while Galifianakis digs into the Amelia Bedelia aspects of Susan. The animation is pretty to look at, but even that lacks tangibility.

Missing Link is by far Lakia’s sleekest looking movie, and it might be too much of a good thing. There’s a plastic quality to the characters’ face and hair, which hews it closer to contemporary computer animation than it does the herky-jerky days of Ray Harryhausen. A pity, homogeneity only benefits the few.

Image courtesy of Annapurna Pictures

Written and directed by Chris Butler
Produced by Travis Knight, Arianne Sutner
Voice performances by Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, Zoe Saldana, Timothy Olyphant, Emma Thompson
Annapurna Pictures, Rated PG, Running time 95 minutes, Opens April 12, 2019
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DIANE

Diane (Mary Kay Place) has a heavy load. Her cousin (Deirdre O’Connell) is dying from cervical cancer, and her son (Jake Lacy) is a junkie. One wants her help, the other doesn’t, but that doesn’t stop Diane. Watching her, you get the sense this is the role Diane has always had, as a mother, as a relative, as a friend, and, possibly, as a wife. It’s a thankless job, but Diane isn’t looking for gratitude. She knows if she doesn’t hold the world together, no one else will.

Set in the icy cold winters of Massachusetts, Diane is a character study where the subject is kept just out of arm’s reach. There is a distance between Diane and her loved ones and Diane and the camera. You almost want to reach and out and hug her, but you know you shouldn’t. Writer/director Kent Jones seems to enjoy this desire, but he never indulges. And with good reason: Diane is humane in a way you’d hope anyone tasked with this burden would be.

That does not make Diane a saint. While she cares for others, you’re never sure if she cares. There’s a quick shot of her son, now recovered, smiling at a born again church ceremony when a fellow believer (Celia Keenan-Bolger) gently touches his hand. It’s not the first time someone has skipped to the thirteenth step, and probably not the first time Diane’s seen it. Be wary of skeptics, Diane quietly muses, they are the ones who trust not because they know all too well no one can be trusted.

As a matter of speculation, Diane’s probably seen it all and then some. Not that she has hardened her heart and turned herself off to the world — one margarita-fueled sway to Willie Nelson reveals underneath her hardened exterior beats the vibrant heart of someone who still feels — but Diane also knows that there are no easy answers in this harsh world.

There are no easy answers in Diane. Using a mostly static camera, which always seems to be in just the right place, Jones uses camera dissolves like ellipses, blurring and compacting the timeline of Diane’s story. The results are both mundane and melancholic; a day-to-day sameness that is crushingly cyclical. And yet, there is comfort in the cycle.

Mary Kay Place in Diane. Courtesy IFC Films.

Written and directed by Kent Jones
Produced by Luca Borghese, Ben Howe, Caroline Kaplan, Oren Moverman
Starring: Mary Kay Place, Jake Lacy, Estelle Parsons, Deirdre O’Connell, Celia Keenan-Bolger
IFC Films, Not rated, Running time 95 minutes, Opens April 5, 2019
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US

The story of Us begins in 1986, on the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk with a young girl, Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry), and her two parents. Dad’s a little drunk, but he does manage to win her a Thriller t-shirt and buy her a candy apple. Mom’s a little frustrated; this is probably not the first time he’s staggered around in public with herky-jerky foolishness. And, like most children, Adelaide silently watches. She doesn’t know what they are fighting about, but she knows they’re fighting. She’s seen it before, and like any child bored with their parents, she wanders off. First to the beach, then to Merlin’s Hall of Mirrors, where an arrow pointing to the entrance promises she will find herself. And she does: first in reflection, then in reality.

Jump to the present and Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) is now grown with children of her own: Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). Along with her husband, Gabe (Winston Duke) — one of the doofiest fathers in recent memory — they are headed to their vacation home on the Monterey Bay, a bit too close to Santa Cruz than Adelaide might like. The memory of that one eerie night still haunts her. But, as is common, she is told everything is fine; don’t worry about it.

Then, one night, a family of four appears in Adelaide’s driveway: a beefy father, a slight mother, a teenage daughter and a skinny boy. They are wearing red jumpsuits, sandals, tan colored driving gloves on their right hand, and each carries a large, sinister-looking pair of scissors.

This second family forces their way inside, corner Adelaide and her brood in the living room where just a little bit of light takes the story into a very dark place: The family in the red jumpsuits looks remarkably, unmistakably, uncannily like…

“They’re us,” Jason says.

Indeed they are. But something is off. The father moves with a lumbering zombie-like quality, groaning and croaking more than talking. The son, his face hidden behind an S&M mask, crawls on all fours likes a spider. The sister moves with silent, robotic qualities, and the mother speaks as if a lifetime of language catches in her throat. She tells a tale, a horrific tale of subterranean existence and righteous uprising.

The Wilsons are not the only family with red-suited doppelgangers — the title Us carries a double meaning — but they are the only family we see that has some success fighting back. The violence here is slow — maybe too slow — and favors blunt instruments over gunplay. As the fight between the Wilsons and the alternate-Wilsons drags on, the Wilsons become injured. They hobble and staggering around, screaming and grunting with primal ferocity, their white and gray clothes drenched in crimson blood until “neither the Plain nor the Star-Bellied Sneetches knew whether this one was that one, or that one was this one, or which one was what one, or what one was who.”

Coincidentally, Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches also took place on a beach. There are a lot of coincidences in Us, coincidences writer, producer, director Jordan Peele piles on like Haruki Murakami shifting into neutral. There’s a point in Us where if you squint just the right way, it starts to make sense. But then Peele dives deeper, complicating the story, explaining the mystery, and confounding the logic. There’s even a last-second twist that might undermine everything that came before.

Us might have been better if the third act was tighter, the reveal less in depth, and the allegory less obvious. But, then it wouldn’t be Us. There’s a messiness here, a beautiful anamorphic widescreen messiness, that Peele seems to relish. Look closely during the opening shot of a TV playing a “Hands Across America” spot. The VHS tapes stacked against the cathode ray box include The Right Stuff and the cult horror film C.H.U.D.

Us exists between the two.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Written and directed by Jordan Peele
Produced by Jason Blum, Ian Cooper, Sean McKittrick, Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Evan Alex, Madison Curry, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker
Universal Pictures, Rated R, Running time 116 minutes, Opens March 22, 2019
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HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD

Picking up shortly after the events in How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014), How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World thrusts Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his trusty dragon, Toothless into the world of adulthood. Accompanying the Chief of Berk are Astrid (America Ferrera), the soon-to-be-Chiefess of Berk; Valka (Cate Blanchett), Hiccup’s long-lost mother; Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Berk’s second in command; Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse); and the most annoying set of twins this side of The Bachelor: Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple, replacing T.J. Miller from the previous installments).

Life in Berk is going swimmingly. Dragons and Vikings are living harmoniously, and despite the ongoing construction from dragons haphazardly knocking over various buildings, Berk’s menagerie grows with every raid on dragon smuggling ships. And while everyone in Berk sees this time of peace as a chance for Hiccup and Astrid to settle down, Hiccup is far too concerned with the safety of the dragons.

Concerns quickly validated by the appearance of Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), an expert dragon hunter who claims to have captured and killed every last Fury. That is until Grimmel learns of Toothless, prompting Hiccup to lead the citizens of Berk to abandon their home in search of the Hidden World, a secret land at the edge of the world known only to the dragons, where they will be safe from Grimmel’s grasp.

Directed by franchise regular Dean DeBlois, The Hidden World waste little time drawing the viewer into the world, but getting the story going is another matter. Running 104 minutes, Hidden World is slow going for about half the movie, almost as if DeBlois is having second thoughts about wrapping this three-part tale up.

Like the previous two installments, Hidden World is anchored by a heartfelt and thoughtful message, bolstered by stunning visuals and enchanting worlds. These CGI images are what first brought currency to How to Train Your Dragon in 2010, and with Hidden World, the animators continue to up their game, giving each shot a practical sense of depth and light without hampering the characters with too realistic of an appearance. Equally impressive are the action set pieces, which favor the use of long-takes rather than staccato editing. Opening with a night raid on a dragon smuggling ship shrouded by smoke and fog, the animators quickly establish the rules by which Hiccup and his crew play. Though they are Viking warriors, they are not ruthless killers who rely on terror and destruction to accomplish their goals. Their skills rely more on theatrics and deception, which not only works to their advantage but the viewer’s as well.

If only the story used the same sorts of deception and misdirection, The Hidden World might have been a better film. It’s a predictable movie, not that you know exactly how things will play out, but that each scene has a rote quality to it. Only a few moments toward the end contain surprises; the rest play exactly how you think they might.

But despite that predictability, The Hidden World is an oddly satisfying conclusion to a delightful trilogy of films. Not because the message at the heart of The Hidden World rings true, but because DeBlois and company don’t bludgeon the audience to death with it. They know images can sometimes speak louder than words, and the image of Hiccup with his hand placed gently on Toothless’ snout is more than enough to get their point across.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World Image courtesy of Dreamworks Animation

Directed by Dean DeBlois
Screenplay by Dean DeBlois and Cressida Cowell
Produced by Bonnie Arnold and Brad Lewis
Voice work by Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, Justin Rupple
Universal Pictures, Rated PG, Running time 104 minutes, Opens February 22, 2019
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THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD

When the heir of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated on June 28, 1914, the movies had just learned to walk. D.W. Griffith’s masterpieces — racists and otherwise — were still a year or two off, a mere four months had passed since Cecil B. DeMille directed the first feature in the sleepy orange grove of Hollywood, California, and the world had only met Charlie Chaplin a few months prior. It would be another 13 years before synchronized sound became standard, another 22 until three-strip color film was available, and a full four decades before movie audiences began experiencing the glorious gimmick of 3D technology.

One hundred years later, the movies don’t just walk; they soar. Synch sound, color of any kind, and 3D are readily available to just about anyone with a camera and computer. And for those with access to those computers with the biggest computing power, the present isn’t the only thing up for grabs; the past is as well.

No film presents this collision of technology and history quite like They Shall Not Grow Old, the new documentary from Peter Jackson composed of footage from World War I, colorized and converted into 3D with lip-readers occasionally sliding dialogue into those faces, long since dead.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

There is little doubt that the story behind They Shall Not Grow Old is as fascinating as the final result, but to the broad strokes: In 2014, the Imperial War Museum and 14–18 NOW contacted Jackson to create a film that would celebrate the centenary of the Armistice. Based on this skeleton of a request, Jackson’s team took some of the archival footage and did a 2K restoration to see what they had. The digitized result invigorated Jackson, and he ended up requesting 100 hours of film along with hundreds of hours of audio recordings with the soldiers, conducted by the BBC in the 1960s and ‘70s.

The results are stunning. Rather than give a historical picture of the events, Jackson eschews dates and locations in favor of atmosphere and immersion. No names are assigned to the faces seen, nor the voices heard. Jackson also narrows his focus to the infantry soldiers — no air or sea battles, no struggles on the home front. Instead, down in the trenches with the men trying to pass the time, over the top with bayonets fixed hoping not to die, and in the mess hall eating an endless supply of “stew” alongside a sea of smiling, toothless faces.

A promotion image of They Shall Not Grow Old with the unrestored footage on the right and the restored and colorized footage on the left. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Jackson bolsters these newly discovered images with the aforementioned tools of the trade: sound, color, and 3D. Grainy black and white images bookend the movie — complete with the whir of a reel-to-reel projector. Like most silent footage, these images are jumpy and sped up (film rates would not be standardized to 24 frames per second until the advent of sound) which might explain why Jackson pushed to footage beyond restoration to manipulation. To restore these images — remove scratches, lines, dirt, and grime — would have made them appear unnatural. To slow them down or speed them up to the same projection rate would have turned them ghostly. Maybe a full black and white, silent version of the events would have created a “purer” experience, but it still would have been off-putting. Jackson was right to double down on his stereoscopic colorization. The sheer audacity alone is worthy of praise.

They Shall Not Grow Old — taken from the 1914 poem “For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon — is as unsettling as it is immersive. You never quite settle into the movie’s rhythm or fall into its story. The eyes of the soldiers are haunting, the sync sound is occasionally jarring, the movements are jerky, and their hands and feet move with a ghostly wisp as if all of this might vanish before your very eyes. It’s a movie that feels like it was conjured from a dream rather than snatched from a history. They may not grow old, but they — and the film that captured them — could disappear like a puff of smoke. It’s up to us to remember them, lest we forget.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Directed by Peter Jackson
Edited by Jabez Olssen
Produced by Peter Jackson, Clare Olssen
Warner Brothers, Rated R, Running time 109 minutes, Opens February 1, 2019
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GLASS

How do comic books work? M. Night Shyamalan knows, and he’d really like you to know. Not how comic books work; Shyamalan wants you to know that he knows how comic books work. It’s an important distinction (though I’m not sure why) but whatever it means to him, it’s just one of the many problems hampering his latest, and hopefully final, installment in the Eastrail 177 trilogy: Glass, a movie nineteen years in the making that could’ve benefitted from twenty.

Shyamalan’s backdoor trilogy began in 2000, back when comic book franchises were still just a whisper. Hot off the heels of his 1999 breakout hit, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable took the comic book formula to heart and crafted an unusual superhero origin story where the superhero, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), isn’t all that super, and the villain, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), is the star of the show.

A quick refresher: Price, born with a rare genetic defect of extremely fragile bones, finds solace in comic books. But where others see escapist entertainment, Price believes he’s stumbled on to an alternative history. He theorizes that if he is made of glass — as the other kids teased him — then there must be another out there who was not. Someone unbreakable.

That man is Dunn, but the events leading up to Dunn’s discovery are less than satiable. Price is locked away in an institution for the criminally insane and Dunn lives out his superhero days in the shadows.

Back to reality: after a slate of critical and financial flops, Shyamalan’s 2016 movie, Split — about a man (James McAvoy) with 23 personalities and a predilection for kidnapping teenage girls — became both a surprise hit and a continuation of the Dunn/Price story. Naturally, a sequel was in the mix, one where all three characters would collide in some form of a superhero showdown.

Glass is that movie. Through a series of lackluster events and one half-hearted battle, Dunn and “The Hoard” — the collection of multiple personalities contained within McAvoy’s chiseled physique — are carted off to the same institution that houses Price, a.k.a. Mr. Glass. The newcomer, psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), specializes in superhero-psychopathy and makes it her goal to convince all three men that they are not special and all of these “super” acts are delusions of grandeur.

It isn’t much of a spoiler to reveal that Dr. Staple is the villain of the piece — doctors and scientist rarely get to play hero in popcorn movies — but Shyamalan leans so heavily on the believer/non-believer tension that it shatters well before his argument devolves into a rote reworking of that old Randian argument. Essentially: We can’t have special people in the world because it makes the rest of us not special by default.

No doubt the objectivists are already sharpening their proverbial pencils for obnoxious treaties on Glass and the American suppression of the heroic being. But Glass is too much of a mess to hang any tried theory on. Even worse, Shyamalan is so in love with the form that he forgets to utilize it, choosing instead to have his characters scream out the movie’s plot points like football announcers calling the championship game.

There are other problems, myriads of them. While Unbreakable and Split took place mainly at night or in subterranean shadows, Glass exists primarily in the bright light of day, which doesn’t do the special effects, or the performances, any favors.

And then there are the side characters: Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), from Split alongside Price’s mother (Charlayne Woodard, working under a mountain of old age make-up) and Dunn’s son (Spencer Treat Clark) from Unbreakable, reprise their previous roles while, potentially, setting up the next installment in the franchise. In the 21st century, every movie’s ending is just another beginning — as long as there’s money to be made.

Sarah Paulson as Dr. Ellie Staple in Glass. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Produced by M. Night Shyamalan, Jason Blum, Marc Bienstock, Ashwin Rajan
Starring: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Charlayne Woodard, Spencer Treat Clark
Universal Pictures, Rated R, Running time 129 minutes, Opens January 18, 2019
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THE UPSIDE

Rumors of an English-language remake of The Intouchables began swirling soon after the 2011 movie became France’s second highest-grossing film. And despite the acclaim and praise garnered when the movie was released stateside in 2012, The Intouchables still felt like a movie a decade too late. Its heart was in the right place, but its sentiment was simplistic and saccharine. Neither of which have been improved by a seven-year lag and a scenery change from Paris to New York City.

Now titled The Upside, writer Jon Hartmere stays close to Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache’s Intouchables screenplay except for one rather notable change: the character of Driss (Omar Sy in The Intouchables) is no longer an African immigrant. His English counterpart, Dell (Kevin Hart), is just another New Yorker, making the other characters’ disdain for Dell’s presence all the more repugnant.

But first, the story: Phillip (Bryan Cranston) is a filthy rich businessman who was crippled in a paragliding accident. Now he needs a live-in caregiver to help him with day-to-day activities. Enter Dell, an ex-con looking for job interview signatures. Thanks to a silly miscommunication, Dell ends up at Phillip’s penthouse and, with flimsy logic, is hired on the spot by Phillip. Not because Phillip likes Dell, but because Dell might be incompetent enough to let Phillip die while other caregivers would leap to the rescue.

But Phillip doesn’t die, nor is his death impulse much more than a frustration. Instead, Phillip and Dell’s relationship blossoms: Dell is introduced to opera and fine art and loves it. Dell returns the favor by getting Phillip high and taking him to Papaya King. And along the way, Dell helps Phillip see that the love of his life has been by his side this whole time. Cut, print, that’s a wrap.

The Upside is an insultingly simple story that occasionally veers into the conflicts between Phillip and Dell’s class, race, and physical abilities, but frustratingly pulls back at the mere suggestion of an uncomfortable moment. Much like The Intouchables, the aim here is to present a feel-good story, even if it means ignore all the aspects of life that are far from feeling good. All cloaked in that ever-malleable marketer: “Based on a true story.” The Upside wears those five words as a shield, and it is exhausting.

Bryan Cranston, Nicole Kidman, and Kevin Hart in STX Entertainment’s The Upside

Directed by Neil Burger
Screenplay by Jon Hartmere
Based on Les Intouchables by Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache
Produced by Todd Black, Jason Blumenthal, Steve Tisch
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Julianna Margulies, Golshifteh Farahani
STX Entertainment, Rated PG-13, Running time 125 minutes, Opens January 11, 2019
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ON THE BASIS OF SEX

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s place in history is secure; it’s her story that seems to be in question. To borrow a line from the Bard: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” And while Bader Ginsburg is those last two wrapped into one, a recent obsession with the U.S. Supreme Court justice has ignored the latter in interest to commodifying the former.

As a justice, Bader Ginsburg is impeachable; as a person of conviction, she is an inspiration. But a subject of inspiration does not an inspirational movie make. How odd that 2018 would see two celebratory movies about Bader Ginsburg: the documentary RBG and the narrative On the Basis of Sex. Though the former had too light a touch for a subject as potent as Bader Ginsburg, the latter’s sin is much more egregious. It would rather tell than show, rather shout than talk, and rather pander than intrigue.

Written by Daniel Stiepleman, directed by Mimi Leder, and starring Felicity Jones as the young Bader Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex spans the years from Bader Ginsburg’s first day at Harvard Law School — a place where a woman is not made to feel welcome — to her first victory in Denver, Colorado, with the 10th Circuit Court ruling in her favor and overturning a tax dispute.

The dispute in question: a bachelor denied a caretaker tax incentive that would have been awarded to him if he were a woman or a widower. Bader Ginsburg’s argument is thus: penalizing a man for being a bachelor prescribes social roles based on a person’s gender, effectively discriminates a man because he is a man. Not exactly Bader Ginsburg’s primary motive, but she knows, as does the American Civil Liberties Union and the legal team former to oppose Bader Ginsburg, that if this decision is reversed in a court of law, a precedent will be set. A precedent that could to overturning hundreds of laws discriminating on the basis of sex — or gender as a typist assisting Bader Ginsburg suggest.

Unfortunately, On the Basis of Sex drives this point home for the movie’s entire 120-minute runtime. Characters debate the merits of gender roles in courtrooms, in chambers, in classrooms, in hallways, in offices, on street corners, and over plates of cheese and pâté.

Jones’ performance brings little more than indignant righteousness to the cause and as does the rest of the players. Bader Ginsburg’s eldest daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), is a constant reminder that the change isn’t coming; it’s already here, while Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) stands in for every last decent man. Sure, the ACLU’s Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) has his heart in the right place, but even he withers in the presence of the struggle before him. The other men — Stephen Root, Sam Waterson, Jack Reynor, et al. — are so blatantly one-dimensional they come off like cartoons. In one scene, they heatedly discuss the importance of upholding the law — i.e., gender division — with fierce passion in front of their silent wives. One wonders what these women think, a pity neither Steipleman nor Leder offer them a voice.

On the Basis of Sex is the kind of insipid crowd pleaser that panders so obviously to an audience who refuses to open a history book. Ever sentence is underlined and finished with an exclamation point. It feels like a movie made specifically for now — which might point to its potential success at the box office — yet feels like a movie so out of step, even ten years ago it would have felt antiquated.

Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex. Still courtesy of Focus Features.

Directed by Mimi Leder
Written by Daniel Stiepleman
Produced by Robert W. Cort, Jonathan King
Starring: Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, Kathy Bates, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen Root, Jack Reynor
Focus Features, PG-13, Running time 120 minutes, Opens December 25, 2018
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MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS

The year is 1561, and Mary Stuart has returned to Scotland. Spending most of her childhood in France, Mary (Saoirse Ronan) has decided to come home and claim her throne, the very one her half-brother, James (James McArdle) has been keeping warm in her absence. Maybe too warm, as Mary soon find out.

But this Scotland is not the Scotland Mary left all those years ago. In 1560, the Calvinist preacher, John Knox (David Tennant), brought the Reformation to Scotland, calling for riots in the streets and the end of Catholic rule. Down in England, the Protestants already control the throne thanks to Mary’s cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). But the virgin queen has not yet produced an heir and should Mary beat her to the punch, her child will be next in line for both crowns.

To prevent a political catastrophe, the men who serve both queens hatch a plan to assuage Mary and control her from the bedchamber. Enter Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), a handsome and dashing fellow who seduces and weds Mary. But, when it is discovered Darnley is both gay and a drunk, he falls out of favor with Mary and his puppetmasters.

Intriguing, yes, but in Mary Queen of Scots, this is all window dressing. Director Josie Rourke and writer Beau Willimon have less interest in the backroom politics that drive two countries from war to unity to war again as they do the eternal battle of the sexes. It would not be lost on audiences that men can feel threatened by women in power, but neither Rourke nor Willimon are willing to take that chance. Never once do they allow the audience to forget that men disdain women in power. From a sneering Knox to conspiracies to usurp Mary to casual conversations between ancillary characters who aren’t happy with their station in life, Mary Queen of Scots wants to remind you, and remind you again, that men don’t take kindly to being told what to do by a woman.

In this regard, Mary Queen of Scots feels more like a movie about Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign than a power-struggle between two cousins, two religions, and two islands 450 years ago. The movie even uses Knox as a stand-in for Trump: orating in churches and public squares, whipping the people into a frenzy, and leading them in mob chants. It’s not “Lock her up,” but you get the gist.

Worse yet, Mary Queen of Scots has the unfortunate timing of entering the multiplex alongside The Favourite, another English period piece where a country at war is run from the Queen’s bedchamber. Though The Favourite is much more exaggerated and flat-out funnier than Mary, The Favourite also comes across as a more accurate depiction of its era. Do the men in The Favourite resent having to serve women and take orders from them? Not really. Their difference is of politics and issues surrounding power dynamics, but they do not find the prospect of serving Her Highness as repugnant as every single man in Mary Queen of Scots does. And this constant hand-wringing is Mary Queen of Scots’ ultimate undoing: it’s too hung up on the present to focus on the past.

Courtesy of Focus Features.

Directed by Josie Rourke
Screenplay by Beau Willimon
Based on the book, Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy
Produced by Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Joe Alwyn, David Tennant, Jack Lowden, Guy Pearce, Adrian Lester
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