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Schultz reviews: 'Infidel' & 'On the Basis of Sex'

Schultz reviews: 'Infidel' & 'On the Basis of Sex'

Carl Schultz

 

“Infidel”   Distributed by Cloudburst Entertainment, 107 Minutes, Rated R, Released September 18, 2020:

In “Infidel,” an American journalist critical of the Iranian political leadership is kidnapped in Egypt during a speaking tour and transported to Iran, where he’s placed on trial on a trumped up charge of spying and sentenced to death.  His wife, an official for the US State Department, attempts to leverage the government into petitioning for her husband’s release...but fails.  With no other choice, she travels to the Middle East herself to search for her spouse and bring him home.

Produced by author, filmmaker, conservative political commentator and conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza, audiences expecting a radical right wing diatribe along the lines of D’Souza’s previous documentary efforts “Obama’s America” in 2012 and “Hillary’s America” in 2016 might be either relieved or disappointed:  “Infidel” turns out to be a fairly even-handed and surprisingly engaging political action thriller combined with elements of evangelism, a sort of “God’s Not Dead 3” set in the Middle East.

Written and directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, the filmmaker behind the controversial 2006 television miniseries “The Path to 9/11” and the 2016 biblical drama “The Young Messiah,” “Infidel” is competently filmed and edited, and presses all the right buttons.  The only real trouble is that in structure the movie tries to be a number of separate pictures rolled into one.  The first hour is a faith-based inspirational drama while the second hour turns into more of a political thriller before finally morphing into an action adventure during the grand finale.

The performances, though, are uniformly impressive.  As the imprisoned journalist, Jim Caviezel runs a gamut of emotions from stoic to cowardly to heroic.  Often seeming stiff, solemn, and humorless in his film characterizations (the actor’s signature role was as Jesus in director Mel Gibson’s reverent but brutally graphic 2004 blockbuster “The Passion of the Christ), Caviezel in “Infidel” finally kicks back and demonstrates his range as an actor.  As his dedicated wife, Australian actress Claudia Karvan is nothing short of sensational, while the Turkish Cypriot-born actor Has Oznan is a standout as a fellow prisoner of Caviezel.

Originally scheduled for release on September 11, “Infidel” was moved instead to September 18 to take advantage of a Covid-related vacancy in the theatrical release schedule after the big budget disaster picture "Greenland" was diverted at the last minute. Released to 1724 theaters across the United States, the picture attracted some $1.5 million in ticket sales during its opening weekend, earning a third place spot on the Covid-dampened Box Office Mojo Top Ten behind the returning movies “Tenet” and “The New Mutants.”

“Infidel” is rated R for language and scenes of violence.  

“On the Basis of Sex”   Distributed by Focus Features, 120 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released December 25, 2018:

Part of the enjoyment of the 2018 movie “On the Basis of Sex” comes from seeing otherwise intelligent and respectable people interacting during a fairly recent past with social customs unthinkable during modern times--casually, seemingly naturally mouthing sexist platitudes and practicing gender discrimination which would render them pariahs in the PC-conscious post-#MeToo New Millennium.

Bringing these laughably antiquated and inappropriate customs into sharper focus are the interactions of the Ginsburg family.  Shown at home already practicing such contemporary courtesies as openness, sharing, and mutual support and encouragement when the story begins in 1958, the Ginsburgs seem conspicuously out of place in the Eisenhower era, as futuristic as the cartoon Jetsons visiting the prehistoric Flintstones in their Bedrock neighborhood.  

Knowing the Ginsburgs are soon going to be instrumental in changing America’s tradition of gender inequality brings a smile of anticipation to the expressions of audiences.  Indeed, when we see the young Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the movie patiently enduring the slights and insults of the good ol’ boys network that formulated laws and balanced society during that era, viewers very much experience a sense of, “Hey, try getting away with that in twenty-five years, buddy.”

The September 18 death of 87-year-old Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg brings “On the Basis of Sex” into renewed focus.  Written by the late justice’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman and directed by Mimi Leder, the picture details the Harvard Law School education and early legal career of the late Ginsburg, examining specifically the progressive young jurist’s involvement with the Moritz v. Commissioner lawsuit. 

Moritz v. Commissioner was a landmark 1972 case which challenged a ruling by the US Tax Court that a Denver man, Charles Moritz, was ineligible for tax deductions for the expenses he accumulated as care provider of his invalid mother. The Tax Court had essentially rejected Moritz’ petition for a tax break because he was not a woman and therefore not considered a legitimate care provider, at least according to the social traditions of those bygone days.

Although the case involved tax law and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s specialty was gender discrimination,  the young lawyer accepted the challenge at the urging of her tax lawyer husband because she believed an appellate court composed entirely of male judges would be more sympathetic to a gender discrimination case in which the victim was a man. The case successfully proved “invidious discrimination” against Moritz, and marked the beginning of Ginsburg’s crusade to challenge any and every law that demonstrated inequality on the basis of gender.

“On the Basis of Sex” becomes something like an intellectual “Rocky”--a movie in which the heroes throw words instead of punches, compete in ideas instead of rounds, and work out with books instead of barbells.  In its overall feel-good ambiance, it seems no accident that the unmistakable fingerprints of the legendary populist filmmaker Steven Spielberg appear discreetly among the picture’s closing credits.

The picture is anchored by a carefully-shaded characterization by the British actress Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Born in England, educated at Oxford, Jones is probably best known for her performance as Jane Hawking, the wife of physicist Stephen Hawking, in 2014’s Academy Award-nominated biographical film “The Theory of Everything.”  The actress also performed the leading role of Jyn Erso in the 2016 Star Wars Anthology picture “Rogue One.”

Jones’ superb and spot-on inhabitation of the late Supreme Court Justice helps to demystify and humanize the legendary jurist. It’s nothing less than inspiring to see the formidable Ginsburg at the beginning of her career, balancing her responsibilities as a young wife and mother with her unflagging devotion to law and equality.  The actress’ warmhearted but emphatic performance makes the viewer able to better appreciate the affectionate parodies of Ginsburg performed by comic actress Kate McKinnon on television’s “Saturday Night Live.”

Actor Armie Hammer managed to rebound early in his career from not one but two roles in expensive, high-profile megabombs which for a lesser talent might well have been career-ending fiascoes:  Disney’s “The Lone Ranger” in 2013, a $250 million embarrassment which starred Hammer as the masked man and an eccentric Johnny Depp as his faithful sidekick Tonto, and 2015’s “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” a reboot of the beloved television spy classic which teamed Henry Cavill’s Napoleon Solo with Hammer as Soviet sidekick Illya Kuryakin and managed to sabotage little more than the picture’s $100 million budget.

In “On the Basis of Sex,” Hammer might actually have the showier of the picture’s two main roles.  With his gently bemused countenance as tax law expert Martin Ginsburg, Hammer’s handed a “Camille”-like near-death scene during the movie’s first half in the late 1950s, but survives intact to become an equal partner in his wife’s crusade for equality in the 1960s...and also to remind their rebellious teenage daughter during the turbulent 1970s that when your mom is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, even Gloria Steinem takes a back seat.

In fact, the only false note in this genuinely compelling film occurs at the very end, when RBG herself unexpectedly makes a brief cameo appearance, giving viewers unfamiliar with the real Ginsberg an opportunity to gape at the remarkable resemblance achieved by Jones and the cosmetics department.  The appearance of the Associate Justice herself is plainly meant to be an inspiring moment, a casual stroll into celluloid immortality.  Viewed so recently after her death, Ginsberg’s appearance in the picture might be more than a little disquieting to some viewers.

“On the Basis of Sex” isn’t quite as stylish as director Reginald Hudlin’s similarly-themed “Marshall” from 2017, which depicted future Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall as a smooth and smokin’ young Civil Rights lawyer played by the late superstar Chadwick Boseman, although the two pictures are decidedly in the same ballpark.  Both the writing by Stiepleman and the direction by Leder are performed with obvious respect and affection for their subject, but not an unnecessary overabundance of deference.  Biographical pictures as entertaining as these make history fun.

“On the Basis of Sex” features supporting performances by a sympathetic Justin Theroux as an ACLU attorney and former Harvard classmate of Ms. Ginsburg, Cailee Spaeny as the Ginsburgs’ independence-minded teenage daughter, and Kathy Bates in a small showcase role as civil liberties pioneer Dorothy Kenyon.

The picture performed fairly well with both the nation’s critics and moviegoing audiences.  Rotten Tomatoes at the time reported an approval rating of 71% for “On the Basis of Sex,” against an average score of 60% from Metacritic.  Exit audiences polled by CinemaScore awarded the picture a grade of A--rare for a non-musical biographical picture.  

Opening on Christmas Day 2018 in a limited release to only 33 theaters nationwide, “On the Basis of Sex” expanded into a wide release pattern on January 11 into some 1923 theaters across the United States and Canada, finishing its opening weekend in the sixth place spot on the Box Office Mojo Top Ten behind such formidable holiday competition as “Aquaman,” “A Dog’s Way Home,” “Mary Poppins Returns,” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

“On the Basis of Sex” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language concerns, and some suggestive content.  The picture is presently streaming on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu, and on the Sling TV and Showtime premium broadcast services.

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