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Oscar Hopeful Review Round-Up: “Destroyer”, “On the Basis of Sex”, and “Stan & Ollie”


Merry Christmas! As a little gift under your stocking today, I have three reviews of would be Academy Award players to share with you. The films in question are the Nicole Kidman vehicle Destroyer, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of the Sex, and the fellow biopic Stan & Ollie. They still might end up Oscar nominated before all is said and done, but their battles are all a bit uphill, as of today. These movies offer up the end of the 2018 release year, so they’re literally wrapping things up. There will be more reviews in January, but they’ll be for early year releases, just keep that in mind (spoiler alert: January releases tend to be rough). Anyway, onward…

Here we go:



Destroyer

Anything that Nicole Kidman and Karyn Kusama join forces on immediately demands your attention. When it was announced that they were doing a gritty cop drama, that was worth drooling over. Unfortunately, outside of a committed performance by Kidman, this is largely cliched and forgettable stuff. Whenever the film thinks that it’s being clever, it’s instead trafficking in the blandest of genre tropes. You can cling to Kidman’s turn, but other than that, this was rather disappointing, especially on the part of Kusama. Any talk of her scoring an Oscar nomination is pretty silly, though more on that a little bit later.

The movie is a crime drama, centering on an LAPD detective named Erin Bell (Kidman). As a very young cop, Bell was assigned to go undercover with a dangerous gang, hoping to bust them as they planned a heist. Partnered with Chris (Sebastian Stan), Bell wound up a part of something tragic. Years later, with memories and scars seared on to her face, not to mention a personal life in tatters, the leader of the gang Silas (Toby Kebbell) pops back up on her radar, she sets out to take him down. Going through her memories of the event, as well as the remaining members of the gang, it’s clear that this is as much about her personal demons as it is about Silas. Kusama directs a script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. Supporting players here include Tatiana Maslany, Scoot McNairy, Jade Pettyjohn, Bradley Whitford, and more. Theodore Shapiro composed the score, while the cinematography is by Julie Kirkwood.

Kidman does her best, but shoddy makeup and the lackluster script torpedo her early on. The methods used to age her are too distracting, taking away from her performance. Getting to see Kidman blow away bad guys has some appeal, except that’s not the point of the story here. Ultimately, the screenplay frustrations win out. Kusama isn’t able to establish a tight enough pace to save the day. Whitford and Stan are solid in supporting roles, but their screen time is on the small end of things. It’s Kidman through and through, and while she’s good, she can’t get you over the hump.

Even though Kidman did receive a Golden Globe nomination, any Academy Award talk for Destroyer is pointless. Nods for this one are long shots at best. Annapurna has a campaign going in Best Picture, Best Director (for Kusama), Best Actress (for Kidman), Best Supporting Actor (for Stan and Whitford), Best Supporting Actress (for Maslany), Best Original Screenplay (for Hay and Manfredi), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. Simply put, it’s Kidman in Actress or bust. The smart money is on bust, as any nom would be a surprise. The season just hasn’t worked out that way.

Destroyer could have been a wonderfully hard boiled cop flick. Instead, it’s just one cliche after the next. It’s a disappointing and frustrating experience, considering all the talent that’s involved. If you removed the A-list names and just found this on cable late one night, your standards would be low enough that you’d shrug it off and watch it for the time passing entertainment that it was. However, with Kidman and company, the standards are higher. You can appreciate her work here, but it’s impossible not to notice the issues surrounding her at all turns. I wanted to love it. That just wasn’t in the cards here.



On the Basis of Sex

Politically, there are few rock stars like Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The liberal lioness of the United States Supreme Court, Ginsburg has already been the subject of a hit documentary this year in RBG. Now, the biopic of her life comes to screens, oddly in the shadow of that doc. Thought of as a potential Academy Award frontrunner, it hits screens without much in the way of awards buzz or precursor attention. Are the snubs warranted or is this an oversight? The truth is somewhere in the middle. Though solid enough to recommend, it’s nowhere near as good as it could have been.

This film is a look at the early days in the legal life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), a groundbreaking woman in many ways. The focus here is is how she first fought for gender equality and against sexism. That started in law school, where she was looked at as a joke, while her husband Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) was taken seriously. Then, once she graduated, no one wanted to hire her. It took a unique look at a gender discrimination case to put her inside a court room, picking up the mantle from Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates). While she attempts to prove her mettle, Marty and their rebellious daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) look on with pride. Mimi Leder directs a script by Daniel Stiepleman, with supporting turns on display from Jack Reynor, Stephen Root, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston, and more. Composer Mychael Danna wrote the score, while Michael Grady provides the cinematography.

While the movie hits most of the required biopic notes, it never fully explains why Ginsburg is such an icon. This makes for a sense of a missed opportunity, pleasant though the experience may be. Jones is poorly cast, though when she finds a consistent accent, her performance is strong. Best in show is actually Hammer, who displays huge amounts of charisma in a role reversal of the supportive spouse part. The main issue here is that, if you didn’t already know why Ginsburg is a superstar, nothing on the screen really tells you. You see her find her footing as a lawyer, but nothing to suggest a future on the Supreme Court.

Once upon a time, it seemed like Oscar was going to embrace On the Basis of Sex in a big way. Now, not so much. Still, Focus Features isn’t giving up the ghost, with a hearty campaign going on. Efforts are being made in Best Picture, Best Director (for Leder), Best Actress (for Jones), Best Supporting Actor (for Hammer and Theroux), Best Supporting Actress (for Bates and Spaeny), Best Original Screenplay (for Stiepleman), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Original Song (for Here Comes the Change). If we’re being honest with ourselves, the way the precursors have gone, it’s essentially Original Song or a shut out for this one. Ginsburg will get her due in Best Documentary Feature with RBG, but this dramatic telling of her life just isn’t connecting so far with voters.

Ginsburg fans will embrace On the Basis of Sex because it’s a look at someone they admire. There’s nothing wrong with that either, as this is a decent enough vehicle for their hero. If you’re looking for a bit of insight into her life though, stick with the documentary. RBG goes to all the places that On the Basis of Sex does not. Part of that is due to the difference between fiction and non-fiction cinema, but it’s also the difference between a really good doc and a just okay film. It’s worth seeing, but keep your expectations decidedly in check.



Stan & Ollie

This is about as old fashioned a movie as it gets. Laurel and Hardy are gigantic titans of comedy to a certain generation, but one can make the argument that most of the people who will see this flick will barely have ever heard of them. If so, they’ll get the basic set up to understand why they’re special, even if very little of the work on the screen is. This is thoroughly competent and good natured, though paced rather lethargically. Strong acting and a commitment to telling a small scale story help save this one, though it’s not the late breaking Oscar player that some initially thought it to be.

The flick is a biopic, looking at a moment in the latter days of the partnership between comedic actors Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan) and Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly). Specifically, it hones in on what would be their farewell tour. They’re attempting to get their film careers going again at the same time as this theater tour in England gets underway. Supported by their significant others Lucille (Shirley Henderson) and Ida (Nina Arianda), Laurel and Hardy seek to capture their magic forever more, all well the latter sees his health failing. At its core, this is a testament to a loving friendship between two talented performers. Jon S. Baird directs a screenplay by Jeff Pope, with other members of the cast including the likes of Danny Huston, Stephanie Hyam, and Rufus Jones. Laurie Rose is behind the camera handling the cinematography, while the score is by Rolfe Kent.

Reilly is a large part of what makes the film worth making time for, but don’t sleep on the ladies. Arianda and Henderson bring an essential spark to an otherwise mellow tale. Nothing against Coogan either, but he’s somewhat in the shadow. Baird and Pope don’t do a whole lot to rope you in, so it’s up to the quartet. Reilly is the most successful, due to how baity the role is, but everyone does do their part. Reilly and his makeup is what catches your eye, though in terms of enjoyment, I keep coming back to the spunkiness of Arianda and Henderson.

If there’s any Academy Award love above the line for Stan & Ollie, it’ll be a surprise. Reilly is the one who could do it, but the odds favor no noms there. Still, Sony Pictures Classics wants voters to consider the movie in Best Picture, Best Director (for Baird), Best Actor (for Coogan and Reilly), Best Supporting Actress (for Arianda and Henderson), Best Original Screenplay (for Pope), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, and Best Makeup & Hairstyling. Notice I didn’t mention a shut out? Well, that’s due to the Makeup & Hairstyling category, where it’s one of the finalists. If there’s a nomination to be had, look for it there. Arguably, it could even contend for a win.

Stan & Ollie is going to be your grandfather’s favorite film of 2018, I’m calling it now. It just has that sort of feel and vibe to it. Reilly fans will undoubtedly appreciate his dramedy turn here, though it doesn’t strike me as the sort of thing that will draw raves. Reilly wooed the Hollywood Foreign Press Association successfully, so no we wait to see if anyone in the Academy will go along for that same ride. If this sounds like something you’d like, it probably will be. If it sounds boring, you may very well be bored. Make of that what you will…


Happy Holidays once again. All three of these films will have hit theaters by this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He also contributes to several other film-related websites.

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