Thursday, May 17, 2018

RBG (as in Ruth Bader Ginsburg)

       Agreed, You Can’t Spell “Truth” Without “Ruth,” But You Also 
       Can’t Spell “Darth Vader” Without “[B]ader” or “Gin” Without 
      “Gin[sburg],” So Don’t Get Too Excited About a Clever Meme  
       Unless It Truly Has Some Substance—Which This One Does


                                                            Review by Ken Burke


                                                RBG (Betsy West, Julie Cohen)



Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
             

                 
 Normally I begin each of my Two Guys in the Dark  reviews with a short “Executive Summary” which promises to contain no spoilers (followed by my more detailed comments in which such plot-ruinations are identified by the blatantly-colorful-means noted just below this paragraph); however, given that this film is a documentary based mostly on the public record about U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg there’s really nothing I could say that would either truly be a spoiler or isn’t essentially referenced in the trailer right above so I’ll just skip the Summary, proceed to my-likewise-normally-overly-detailed-commentary-prattle—unless this "unbearable lengthiness of being" provides a confusion with substance.  (Although, for the record, I’ll cite my normal boilerplate spoiler statement with the understanding this entire review should then be set off with beginning and ending arrows, red words, and yellow highlights, along with the rest of my text being in light blue because I intend to hold nothing back from what’s presented on screen, just as the subject of this doc is very clear on her legal positions—especially those dealing with women’s [and men's] rights—even as she learned to keep her thoughts to herself where a certain Presidential candidate was concerned.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

 Just as I’m not peppering these comments with my identified-plot-spoilers, I’m also not using my usual structure of dividing these thoughts into the sections of What Happens, So What?, and Bottom Line Final Comments as that format doesn’t work so well with documentaries.  Instead, I’ll just use the intentions of those thematic segments, beginning by noting this film explores the life, legal philosophy, and social impact of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now celebrating 25 years as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court, having been nominated by President Bill Clinton, confirmed by the Senate (96-3) in 1993.  This filmic narrative largely follows chronological order so we traipse back at the beginning through her 85 years to Brooklyn as the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, noting the tragedy of her mother dying of cancer—right before high-school graduation—when Ruth was just 17 (in a wholly different situation from The Beatles’ song with that lyric, “I Saw Her Standing There,” although that aspect also became relevant when she moved on to higher education) then it’s off to college at Cornell where she met her long-term-husband, Marty Ginsburg, marriage right after that graduation, followed by both of them at Harvard Law School (where she was only 1 of 9 women in a group of 500 students, having to justify to the top brass there why she should be taking the place of a “qualified man” who seemingly deserved such an honor more than she did back in the 1950s). In his 3rd year Marty developed cancer so Ruth was confronted with caring for him while continuing her own studies in addition to the primary responsibility for raising their 2 young children.

 After he recovered, Marty finished his degree before Ruth did, followed by him taking a tax law job (his specialty) with a NYC firm, so she transferred to Columbia, graduated in 1959 (tied for first in her class), then—after some jobless-frustration—went onto to both an academic (Rutgers School of Law 1963-1972, Columbia Law School 1972-1980; tenured at both) and a courtroom career (in a profession that had little interest in her existence) which eventually focused on sex-discrimination cases, 6 of which in the 1970s brought her before the Supreme Court (she prevailed in 5 of them).*

*If you’d like to get a summary of her life thus far (more to come, she fully intends) without investing time and money into seeking out this current documentary (assuming you can even find it, as its release is quite limited at present), you might enjoy reading all the information available at this site.

 What set Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the road to jurisprudence history was Frontiero v Richardson (1973) where she convinced the High Court a married woman serving in the U.S. Air Force was entitled to the same housing benefits available to male airmen, but she also became noted for Weinberger v Wisenfeld (1975) in which she successfully argued widowers should have access to the same child-care-benefits widows do, acknowledging early on that in her mind gender-imbalance isn’t just a situation applied to women.  Another level-playing-field-victory happened with Duren v Missouri (1979), voiding a state law allowing women, but not men, to opt out of jury service thereby denying defendants their right to be tried by a representative-cross-section of their community.  Similarly, as a Supreme Court Justice (after serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit since 1980, nominated by President Jimmy Carter) she wrote the majority (7-1) opinion in United States v Virginia (1996), which struck down the males-only-admission-policy of the Virginia Military Institute with the inclusion of the finding that government policies which discriminate on the basis of gender should be presumed unconstitutional.  However, she may be just as well-known (along with being well-respected, at least by those who support her) for some of her Supreme Court dissents including Bush v Gore (2000) which stopped the recount in Florida of the November 2000 election handing the Presidency to George W. Bush, Lilly Ledbetter v Goodyear (2007) where the Court ruled Ledbetter had been underpaid in comparison to male coworkers but wasn’t entitled to redress her grievances because she didn’t file her complaint within the specified time period (leading Congress to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009), Shelby County v Holder (2013) which struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act with a claim it was no longer needed to protect African-American voters from discriminationprompting a response from Ginsburg this decision is “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you’re not getting wet”and Burwell v Hobby Lobby (2014) allowing a family-owned-business to decline contraception insurance coverage for its employees based on the owners’ religious beliefs.

 In addition to a concise focus on each of the cases noted above (and the praise for such work by feminist-icon Gloria Steinem and others), this film also attempts to briefly explore some of the more-private-aspects of Justice Ginsburg’s life such as her strong friendship (including a mutual love of opera by 2 Brooklyn-born-adjudicators) with the late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, despite their basic ideological differences; the deep loss—again to cancer—of her caring, gregarious husband, Marty, in 2010 (with humorous stories about him being the family cook as well as the one hounding her to finally leave the office each night in order to partake of those dinners, along with his willingness to move to D.C. when she was appointed to the Court of Appeals, balancing out her earlier relocation to NYC) countered by the ongoing love of her children and grandchildren (the former, Jane and James, discuss their mother in the film; representing the latter, Clara Spera’s shown working on her own legal pursuits with Grandma Ruth); the means by which she’s become a celebrity among a younger generation impressed with her dedication to social justice (leading to her nickname of “The Notorious RBG,” referring to rapper The Notorious B.I.G., although Ginsburg indicates no connection to such music), as well as becoming a popular personality inspiring T-shirts, tattoos, and Kate McKinnon's intentionally-exaggerated-impersonation on Saturday Night Live (in one of the film’s scenes she finally sees McKinnon’s skits, seemingly enjoying them); gaining the admiration of long-time-friends for her weekly workouts to help keep herself in shape (as a response to recovery from her own bouts of cancer in 1999, 2009), staving off retirement; admitting her own shortcomings in such incidents as dozing off during President Obama's 2015 State of the Union address after some pre-speech-wine at dinner and criticizing Presidential-candidate Donald Trump in 2016 (with responses in the doc from associates likewise criticizing her for taking a partisan approach—if you want to see considerably more testimony about or by Justice Ginsburg, just do a YouTube search with her name to find lots of it including a somewhat-overlapping CNN interview, almost as long [1:14:14, posted on February 12, 2018] as this current documentary runs).

Here she's holding the same ACLU-provided copy of the Constitution I received
 when attending the play with overtones to RBG noted much farther below.
 But, even with all of that biographical information crammed effectively into a well-timed-exploration (97 min.), the key question is whether it makes for compelling cinema or simply reinforces what her supporters want to hear during these divisive sociopolitical times.  The general critical consensus has been solidly in favor of what’s on screen with a hefty cluster of 93% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, a 72% average score at Metacritic (with the latter group normally always notably lower so this still is a solid number for them, at least compared to other cinematic offerings both they and I have reviewed so far this year; more information on both of these critical-consolidation-results available in the Related Links section farther below), but there are some dissenters, such as James Berardinelli of Reel Views, a guy I respect, generally agree with (but not this time) who says: RBG isn’t worth the time and effort of seeking out in a theater unless you’re a die-hard RBG fan. Little in the film can’t be found in Justice Ginsburg’s Wikipedia entry; it functions more as a straightforward (and sanitized) biography than a probing or intriguing examination of one of the nation’s most influential judicial voices. RBG’s superficiality makes it good background material about the subject and the forces that guided her life’s crusade but the blinders it willingly wears represent its greatest flaw.”  Conversely, another critic whose opinion I respect (even if we’re not in sync) is A.O. Scott of The New York Times whose summation speaks for those of us supporting this engaging film: “But 'RBG' reasonably chooses to focus on Justice Ginsburg herself, and relishes every moment of her company. It also shows why she has become such an inspiration for younger feminists, like Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, whose 2015 book 'Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg' helped create the contemporary image of a fierce, uncompromising and gracious champion of women’s rights.  ¶ That those rights are in a new phase of embattlement goes without saying. The movie’s touch is light and its spirit buoyant, but there is no mistaking its seriousness or its passion. Those qualities resonate powerfully in the dissents that may prove to be Justice Ginsburg’s most enduring legacy, and ‘RBG’ is, above all, a tribute to her voice.”  Neither of these guys is more "right" than the other, they merely come at it from differing viewpoints, yet trying to assess which perspective seems more viable to you (especially if all you know of any given film is from these second-hand-accounts) is what makes all arts criticism so equally useful and frustrating.

Justice Ginsburg and her granddaughter, Clara Spera
 However, in addition to these respected critics, from the press materials accompanying this film comes another opinion, that of the 2 directors: We took to heart Justice Ginsburg’s approach to sexism and adversity. When, after graduating at the top of her law school class, she could not get a job, she remembered her mother’s advice: anger is a waste of time. Eventually, she was able to use her formidable legal skills to fight for justice for women—a fight she has continued through five decades.  ¶ Justice Ginsburg’s steadfast commitment remains, not only for gender equality but also for democratic institutions that protect the rights of all citizens. No wonder she is a millennial icon.” Certainly, though, she’s not an across-the-board-icon as these filmmakers make clear in their opening minutes with images of D.C. juxtaposed to soundbites from various dissenters, making it clear how awful they think Ginsburg is; they’re joined in such opinions in a later statement from Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT), although he does admit he admires the steadfast stances she’s always taken, enough so that he voted to confirm her to the top court in 1993 despite those policy differences (in which she was unequivocal in her support of women’s abortion rights, lest females should become regarded as not fully availed of the freedoms assured to males by the Constitution).
A group portrait of the U.S. Supreme Court at the time Justice Ginsburg was confirmed.
 While RBG’s not yet very easy to find, playing in only 179 domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters after 2 weeks in release (thereby yielding only about $2 million in ticket sales so far, although that resulted in the 10th best spot for last weekend’s grosses with Magnolia Pictures happy about the results, planning an expansion), an even-more-isolated-narrative with direct resonance to RBG is What the Constitution Means to Me (written by, starring Heidi Schreck), a unique performance structure for a play, currently at the Berkeley (CA) Repertory Theatre (with limited chance for further touring if it keeps getting hesitant reviews like this one from the San Francisco Chronicle: […] a kind of faux spontaneity that deflates your investment in what she’s created so far and makes you wary of taking the trouble to care about what she builds next.”), which I enjoyed immensely (despite its constantly questioning nature) as it presents many direct challenges to how well our nation’s founding document even intends to protect U.S. women, with only the 19th Amendment (1920) specifying no denial of voting rights based on sex, leaving other freedoms dependent upon Court interpretations of the 9th (securing other unnamed rights, whatever they may be) and 14th (“due process,” “equal protection” although in 1791, then 1868, that didn’t include voting rights so it’s still hit-or-miss for females, as the Equal Rights Amendment [passed by Congress, 1972] has not yet been ratified by the required number of states but actions continue to overcome this vile situation).  
 This presentational-pair certainly made an impression on me on succeeding days last weekend (I enjoyed the play considerably more than Ms. Janiak, as evidenced by her mildly-supportive-review), with the resounding audience vote (following a debate within the Berkeley play) for retaining the Constitution as we know it with amendments as needed—rather than attempting to rewrite the whole thing to more directly guarantee equal rights for all—giving credence to the ongoing message of RBG that sex-discrimination isn’t legal nor acceptable even under centuries-old-statutes, although Ginsburg admits it’s now easier for her colleagues to admit such inequities exist with 3 women now on the Court, whereas in her earlier cases there seemed to be no awareness among Justices then that such a fundamental problem was so inherent in our U.S. sociocultural landscape.
Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922)
 In evaluating any documentary the emphasis should be on its use of a persuasive argument about its subject matter because, at base, while documentaries may be mistakenly understood as factual explorations of a given topic,* they’re not so much about truth as about bringing the audience around to the filmmaker’s point of view.  If you like, you can do an Internet search on “documentary films as persuasion” which will yield several useful results from sources such as ERIC, Sage Publications, Taylor-Francis Online, but to get to the documents listed you’ll have to sign up and/or pay for these services so getting more in-depth-clarification on my premise may be more trouble than it’s worth, although for free you can read a Master's Thesis (2012) on how even film scores can be used for rhetorical purposes (exploring the soundtrack of The Cove [Louis Psihoyos, 2009] an exposé about the slaughter of dolphins in Japan) or you might be interested in this audiovisual argument about the tactics used in other audiovisual arguments, The Art of Deception (28 min.), which looks as how brainwashing and fear tactics are often used in docs (although, be warned the bias is evident here as well as attacks are made on other filmmakers’ approaches, with the content subtly—at times blatantly—revealing this film’s underlying use of conservative, Christian ideology. 

*Decades of exploratory-study in communication theory have led me to believe there are 5 basic functions of human communication (representing a synthesis of various authors so there’s nothing simple I can cite for you here for support): information, instruction, persuasion, entertainment (including related but distinct aspects of social reinforcement and emotive purgation [catharsis]), enrichment (encompassing spiritual and aesthetic messages and responses).  Documentaries are often expected to fall within the informational function, but in tracing these cinematic structures back at least to Nanook of the North it's clear they’re much more grounded in well-crafted-manipulations intended to sway an audience toward their creator’s point of view.  True information examples should include operation manuals, non-biased-textbooks, and news reports, although the latter has too-frequently-devolved in recent years into its own form of propaganda in print, broadcast, cablecast, and Internet, often with a heavy—if not primary—dose of entertainment mixed in.  Even film reviews (including those from Two Guys in the Dark) amount to a form of persuasion, intended to verify the critic has some insight you might lack into the true value (or worthlessness) of what’s under scrutiny, although I try, at least, to make clear my position emanates from my perspective which may not necessarily lead you to agree or perceive it from my viewpoint.

  After all this prior consideration, what do we find with RBG?  Clearly it celebrates a woman of enduring values as she understands them (especially where sex/gender discrimination has polluted American society) showing her to be willing to speak bluntly (possibly too much so at times) about issues of vital importance to her, yet her normally-reserved-demeanor is given a relatable perspective by having family and old friends talk warmly of her as more than just a legal scholar enhanced by the use of grainy footage showing Ruth and Marty in their younger days, inserts of her regular workout sessions to demonstrate her determination of body as well as mind.  Even the objective images of her diminutive size juxtaposed with texts and testimony about her judicial work give—or imply, depending on your response to her priorities—an immediate sense of how impactful her presence is (and has been) concerning the vital issues she’s associated with.  If this film were structured more in debate-fashion (like how the What the Constitution … play cited above resolves itself in an active closure of its earlier components) then maybe there would be more of the negative commentary presented in those opening soundbites or inclusion of counterpoints from judicial scholars who feel Ginsburg’s misguided in her decisions/rebuttals.  But RBG’s not intended as some sort of lefty (given the public-content-stances of both the doc’s subject and her biographers) “fair and balanced, you decide” presentation, nor it a hagiographic anointment of Justice Ginsburg as an all-knowing-seer, but it does laud her judicial work underpinned by her sociopolitical positions as well as celebrate the respect many have for her public and private persona so my final judgment has to come down to what I experienced in viewing what’s on screen (acknowledging as I watch I already have high regard for Ginsburg, given her laudable [for me] résumé).  In that regard—unlike with An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power (Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, 2017; review in our August 9, 2017 posting) where I supported the arguments presented but not the sense of Al Gore as Earth’s appointed environmental savior—I find RBG to be a very engaging, effective film because—as with the Dolores (Peter Bratt, 2017; review in our September 6, 2017 posting) doc about Dolores Huerta—it inspires me most about the issues it raises, not about a specific woman (no matter how instrumental Ginsburg and Huerta have been in bringing needed progress to these issues) as being some sort of modern-day Joan of Arc, chosen by God to bring salvation to the oppressed masses.

(I realize these images are getting a little monotonous, but they're illustrative of what the film presents.)
 Therefore, it’s the ruling of this court of private opinion (from the vocal member of Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark) that RBG is a well-made, engaging exploration of a significant member of our nation’s leadership (a crucial focus, given how much of what happens politically, economically, socially in our society, along with spillover effects on the rest of the world, results in outsized-influence in so many global arenas), 1 of only 9 people making lasting decisions (even those that simply leave us to the rulings of lower courts) about how our centuries-old-Constitution is to be understood in contemporary life, yet it's still a film helping to give concrete understandings about the inherent sexism (even impacting men in a negative way at times) in our culture that’s been addressed by many but given substantive address (and redress) from a fearless champion of the often-downtrodden in her unique role.  In searching for a way to then put this rambling review to rest I first stumbled upon (as well as seriously considered choosing) Bob Dylan’s “Oxford Town” (from his 1963 The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album) inspired by the social turmoil over a Black student, James Meredith, enrolling in the formerly-segregated University of Mississippi in 1962 (the version I would have focused on is a live performance by Richie Havens, complete with lyrics in case you’re not familiar with the tune [Havens also included it on his self-named second album in 1966]), but while this song speaks of injustice (“Guns and clubs followed him down All because his face was brown”) it’s more about race than gender issues, plus it would be men speaking about wrongful situations connected to a film about a dynamic woman championing social justice, an inadequate decision.  Thus, my official Musical Metaphor to end this review comes from another dynamic woman, Beyoncé, with "Formation" (on her 2016 album Lemonade) at https://www. youtube.com/watch?v=WDZJPJV__bQ (a multi-award-winning-video) which also addresses racism but adds police violence toward Black communities, a counter-response of Black pride (with some explicit language in the process) from the perspective of a strong, proud woman with an attitude evoking what those who have celebrated the Notorious R.B.G. connection to Justice Ginsburg.  (If you, like me, have any trouble following Queen B’s lyrics, here are some clarifications for your aid.)

 Justice Ginsburg might not totally buy that Metaphor choice (because maybe she, like many of us, would hope instead for transcendence of all this turmoil into that place of peace dreamed of in John Lennon’s "Imagine" [from the 1971 album of the same name—I know, a male perspective again but the song’s somewhat inspired by Yoko Ono’s writings]); if not, I guess because she’s still a lawyer she’ll just have to sue me, with hopes my jury would yield the unexpected-but-supportive-decision given to Paul Newman’s down-and-out-attorney in The Verdict (Sidney Lumet, 1982), which I just watched on my weekly Netflix disc to finish out this focus on Constitutional-law-material, some of which (along with cheering on some recent victories by my local baseball—Oakland Athletics [2 of 3 over the mighty Boston Red Sox]—and basketball—Golden State Warriors [1 of 2 over the equally-mighty Houston Rockets]—teams), kept me from seeing anything else in new-release-movie-mode in recent days, but upcoming options should soon have me more actively back in the local movie theaters with commentary to share with you when next we meet. (Although that may be in a couple of weeks because I'm weary of struggling through my weekly frustrating Blogspot posting process where inadequate software keeps colliding with fragile-Safari, so I'm ready to take a short break.)*

*In closing, I'll also note RBG and just about anything else currently in release has little chance of making much of a box-office-impact—much as any of these films might need togiven the ongoing-income-avalanche accruing to Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony and Joe Russo; review in our May 3, 2018 posting) which has now moved into 5th place on the All-Time Worldwide list at $1.6 billion (at $548 million it’s merely #8 on the All-Time Domestic list but #2 on the 2018 chart behind the $696.3 million of Black Panther [Ryan Coogler; review in our February 22, 2018  posting]—the accountants at Disney can barely keep up with tallying these revenues but they'd better hurry before they get another surge from the rapidly-upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story [Ron Howard]).
            
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
             
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

Here’s more information about RBG:

https://www.rbgmovie.com (in the upper left corner click the little box with 3 lines to get this site’s features, including an informative press kit)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z8cgfsmAdvE (27:03 interview with directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, including some footage of Justice Ginsburg on various topics)



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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of kenburke409@gmail.com(But if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website, https://kenburke.academia.edu, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
          
OUR POSTINGS PROBABLY LOOK BEST ON THE MOST CURRENT VERSIONS OF MAC OS AND THE SAFARI WEB BROWSER (although Google Chrome usually is decent also); OTHERWISE, BE FOREWARNED THE LAYOUT MAY SEEM MESSY AT TIMES.
            
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 5,966 (still slowly rising back toward a bragable-level even though I keep concentrating on obscure films, at least until it’s Star Wars time again soon); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Tully

                             “All Through the Night”

(Lyric taken from the Cyndi Lauper recording of that name on her 1983 album, She’s So Unusual [although the song was written, first recorded earlier that year by Jules Shear]; here’s the official music video if you like, despite its poor image quality in this particular link [I looked at some others, found not much improvement] but maybe that helps convey the 1980s vibe very crucial to this film.)

                                                      Review by Ken Burke

                                    Tully (Jason Reitman)
                        
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Marlo, a bedraggled-mother of 2 kids is on the verge of her 3rd despite the already-existing-stress of her son’s emotional imbalance and her workaholic-husband’s disinterest in “us time”; after the baby’s born, relief arrives in the person of a mid-20s “night nanny” named Tully who provides new insights for Marlo until complications arise, which can interpreted as intriguing or problematic, depending on your perspective but which can't be further explored here unless you delve into the spoiler aspects of this review located just below.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)


If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
                         
What Happens: Somewhere upstate but still close to NYC, we find Marlo (Charlize Theron), an early-middle-aged-mother of 2 small kids: 8-year-old-daughter Sarah (Lia Frankland), and son Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), about 5; she’s also very pregnant (baby’s due in just a few days when this story begins) but married to a husband, Drew (Ron Livingston), who’s actively engaged in some sort of start-up-business keeping him busy as well as on the road much of the time.  He’s making an effort to be an available, effective father (whenever he’s home), but that's only a couple of hours a day with the offspring (at best), then after dinner he’s off to the bedroom but just to constantly play video games while Marlo’s life gets increasingly overwhelmed, not only after the new baby (Mia) arrives but also because Jonah’s often emotionally-unbalanced (frequently kicks the back of Marlo’s seat while she’s driving, is terrified by the sound of a flushing toilet) putting him at odds with the staff overseeing his kindergarten time at St. Vitus Elementary (possibly a dark pun by screenwriter Diablo Cody, referring to the herky-jerky-muscular-disorder Sydenham’s chorea, popularly called St. Vitus’ dance).  When Marlo finally reaches the breaking point of not being able to keep up with it all anymore (for dinner one night the best she can do is thaw out a frozen pizza, open a bag of chips; with Drew distracted upstairs, the kids in bed [until Mia starts crying on the baby monitor] she often zones out watching a reality TV series about gigolos, complete with on-screen-intercourse) she finally takes her wealthy brother, Craig (Mark Duplass)—with his huge house (a tiki bar in the basement), upscale-trendy wife, Elyse (Elaine Tan), well-behaved daughters, and a personality Drew privately-but-actively-detests—up on his suggestion she hire a night nanny who’ll keep Mia occupied when she starts crying, allowing Marlo to sleep except when it’s time to nurse which she can do in an almost-unconscious state.  When nanny Tully (Mackenzie Davis) arrives one evening she seems to be Marlo’s opposite in everything except gender, full of mid-20s’ confidence, casualness, positive attitude, most eager to integrate herself into this family’s structure.

 She’s a soothing influence for baby and mother, ready for her duties (with additions such as watching Marlo nurse at night), voluntarily contributing extra perks such as cleaning up the house or baking cupcakes for Jonah’s school (tasks Mom’s long been devoid of time or energy to even contemplate)—which Marlo brings as a peace offering to headmistress Laurie (Gamella Wright) after exploding at her the day before for suggesting Jonah would be better off in some other school environment, as well as have a 1-on1-aide (which Marlo and Drew can’t afford, but we don’t know whether Craig might be able to pay for it), rather than this well-appointed-one where Jonah was likely admitted only because Craig made a generous donation.  Tully also serves as a confidant and morale-booster for Marlo, ultimately leading to her (now rested, reengaged with life) spending awake time in the late hours with the nanny, sharing sangria while admitting how frustrated she is with her empty sex life, telling Tully how she long ago bought a waitress uniform to explore a favorite fantasy of Drew’s (but never used it) all of which leads to Tully in the costume seducing Drew with Marlo now the watcher, happily approving of this reawakening of her husband (he makes vague reference to the night’s events the next morning, but there’s no follow-up on the conversation—whether they follow up with their own sex life minus Tully isn’t something we'll learn about either).

 All begins to fall into place for Marlo, including Jonah's new school where he gets encouragement from a sympathetic teacher or a jogging session when Mom’s finally serious about losing her post-birth-girth (Theron bulked up for this role, gaining about 50 lbs.), when one night Tully shows up late, exasperated with her roommate.  Suddenly, she’s convinced Marlo they need to head into the city to shake off their mutual stagnation (shown in a driving montage set to Cyndi Lauper songs—implying the era of Marlo’s youth—a couple of which I borrowed for this posting) so they end up in her old Brooklyn neighborhood where, after a good bit of partying, Tully bluntly reveals she needs to move on, shaking Marlo to the core (although Tully helps her relieve the pain of a milk-filled-breast in a nightclub restroom—just with pinching, not sucking; this film’s not totally on the kinky side [although you won’t likely find such a lactation scene in many other mainstream stories]).  On the drive home, drunken Marlo dozes off sending the car down a riverbank, sinking deep into the water.

(As this review continues, you'll probably notice a boring sameness in the photos with no more of Tully
—despite the film's titledue to what I could find that's available to me.  Sorry for the repetition.)
 From this point on the film takes unexpected shifts (unless you’re better at picking up on The Sixth Sense  [M. Night Shyamalan, 1999]-type-clues than I am) as we see Tully as a mermaid swimming up to the car, opening the door, unlatching Marlo’s seat belt which shakes her awake, thus allowing Marlo to swim a good distance up to the surface.  Next, Drew rushes to the hospital, worried sick about his unconscious injured wife as Dr. Smythe (Colleen Wheeler) asks him if she’s had any history of mental problems; when he replies she’s been upbeat and well-rested lately the Doc says Marlo’s actually suffering from exhaustion.  Then when Drew fills out some paperwork we learn Marlo’s maiden name was Tully (!).  Later, Marlo’s visited by the woman we know as Tully with our understanding now she’s just an hallucination, a manifestation of Marlo’s younger self who tells Marlo it’s truly time for them to part.  Drew, not knowing anything about all this (he was only vaguely aware of the night nanny, not understanding she was never even there, that all the activity Marlo seemed to be sharing with Tully was done on her own, further wearing her down in a sort of bipolar state) offers his apology to his wife for not being more involved in family life, leading to a final scene of them happily chopping vegetables together in the kitchen, sharing a song on earbuds with seemingly everything now more balanced on the homefront (Jonah’s even requested Mom stop brushing his arms on a daily basis, an unspecified strategy to help keep him calm, with implications he no longer needs this “treatment” [maybe an acknowledgement it did him no good anyway?]).⇐

So What? What intrigued me about seeing Tully is its cinematic heritage, another collaboration between eloquent screenwriter Cody and skilled director Reitman (Juno, 2007; she took the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, he was nominated for directing it, plus other Oscar noms slightly later for Up in the Air [2009]), along with both of them connected to Theron in Young Adult (2011; review in our December 21, 2011 posting—one of the first ever for Two Guys in the Dark [where at least my paragraphs aren’t as horribly long as in many of my earlier postings but the layout’s still woefully underserved by supportive photos]), giving me the assumption this combination would yield another winner (I rated Young Adult as 3½ of 5 stars, closely approaching my usual limit of 4 [saving the higher numbers for something truly spectacular, would easily consider 4½ for Juno]), even though I was warned away from it by my local critical guru, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle, who felt the story unsuccessfully wandered into territory better served by TV’s old paranormal series, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (original run was 1959-1964, with some additional versions added later).  I’ve often voiced public disagreement with LaSalle in various Two Guys reviews (not that he cares), but this time I must agree with him (he gave it the Chron’s equivalent of 2 of 4 [the Little Man simply sitting in his chair, not clapping; a 1 rating would be the Little Man asleep, with even worse being an empty chair, but I’ve now deduced Rotten Tomatoes translates that as 0 on a 1 to 4 scale so—at least according to how you calculate the abandoned-reviewer-designation—Mick is either on par with my 3 stars or a bit lower]) because, while I found the concept to be somewhat intriguing when a younger avatar offers guidance to the older woman’s manifestation (rather than the more usual business interviewers often ask of a public person, “What would you now tell your younger self?”) I find the script’s expectations of me too demanding (despite my normal admiration for Cody’s insights) along with its comfort in being questionable on many accounts.  Not the acting, though: Theron continues to demonstrate her Oscar-caliber-abilities (having won Best Actress for Monster [Patty Jenkins, 2003]) as this overwhelmed mother struggling to keep her sanity (maybe losing that fight at times) while Davis’ turn as a somewhat-latter-day-hippie might seem extreme at first, but when we realize she’s supposed to be an idealized-memory-made-flesh of Marlo it’s clear how well she’s embodied the role—just as Livingston effectively conveys a well-meaning-husband who’s let his career (and need to disengage himself from daily demands) as neither villain nor hero.

 After watching Tully (then researching it for this review), I’ve encountered a good many sentiments of praise for Theron’s depiction of the trials that any woman can experience (working from Cody’s well-articulated-foundational-script, according to remarks by Theron found farther below in the 2nd listing for this film in the Related Links section of this posting) attempting to be a full-time housewife and multi-child-mother, especially when one of the children presents inherent daily challenges,  as well as the solid support for the sincere presentation of a workable, mutually-supportive-bond between 2 women with no sense of competition for a job, a man, or an honored place in society, thereby easily passing the increasingly-better-known Bechdel Test* about whether women can be depicted in movies without simply being used as accessories to a man’s presence, power, and needs.  However, even Theron in that interview noted below admits she wouldn’t have appreciated such insights about the effective impact of Cody’s script until she’d had children herself  ⇒(even presumably with considerably better resources to aid her in their care than Marlo could ever have hoped for—Craig [who had such material options available to spare his wife the kind of pressures Marlo had to endure] supposedly was paying for Tully, another aspect of the hallucination but apparently one reported to Drew, further removing his awareness of what was actually happening during his sleeping hours)⇐  so I can feel a little less uncomfortable criticizing aspects of a film seemingly beloved by so many when I have no direct experience with parenthood (despite a short-lived-first-marriage years ago [one of the reasons for the breakup], followed by my immensely-longer [and happier] union now).  Then again, it’s not the motherhood-challenges nor female-bonding I’m finding fault with but, instead, the Marlo-Tully scenario as presented on screen.

*You can go here to learn considerably more about this challenge (in that passing this test has become increasingly more of a positive act in recent times), but the 3 primary criteria are: (1) There must be at least 2 primary women in the movie, (2) Who talk to each other, (3) About something other than a man.  Of course, in Tully there’s not only talk about a man (Drew) but coordinated action toward him on that most memorable night (for him but seemingly also for Marlo and Tully), although there’s considerably more interaction between these females involving many other topics.

 I realize you have to grant creative license to artists in any medium because if all narrative structures in plays, novels, films, TV—even comic books and song lyrics—have to adhere to strict logic (or even physics where most of the superhero/villain characters of Wonder Woman [Patty Jenkins, 2017; review in our June 8, 2017 posting] or Avengers: Infinity War [Anthony and Joe Russo; review in our May 3, 2018 posting] are concerned—not to mention how painting would be frozen into the Renaissance ideal, forever denying us the abstracted-visual-wonders of Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Pollock, Rauschenberg), then our artistic manifestations would easily become quite dull indeed, but even within the created worlds of stories we find on screen, stage, or printed page we expect certain levels of plausible continuity allowing us to lose ourselves in the fictional worlds presented rather than certain segments of our consciousness grinding to a halt to question aspects of what’s being presented even as our primary perceptions attempt to keep following what’s next in the chain of events, despite the distraction of the elements pulling us out of the experience rather than continuing to immerse us in it.  ⇒So, with Tully once Drew notes that surname for his wife while she’s recuperating in the hospital I see immediately who this “night nanny” is supposed to be but just as immediately I question how Diablo Cody could expect me to overlook certain confounding story elements (or maybe I’m just supposed to be so surprised at this revelation I don’t question its implications): (1) If Tully is Marlo’s family name then why doesn’t she make any comment about it to the young woman?  Is this fantasy so all-consuming (even though Marlo’s concocted it as a response to her daily stress, convincing herself she’s taken her brother’s advice—and money—even when she knows she hasn’t) she doesn’t even understand obvious aspects of it herself? (2) In retrospect we have to question not just the scenes where Tully appears (What actually occurred with Tully subtracted from the visual equation?  Clearly, Marlo was in Brooklyn drinking herself silly, in regret for the younger life she’s now moved on from, as well as driving home alone, yet how did she escape the car after it crashed into that deep river?) but even the ones where she’s not part of the flow, such as Drew asking Marlo about that previous night’s sexual encounter.  (Marlo in her present beefy-state couldn’t have fit into that waitress costume so was there any sex at all or was even the morning-after-scene part of Marlo’s vivid imagination?)⇐

 ⇒Further, (3) Not knowing much about the intricacies of the disruptive-reality once called manic-depression but now known as some form of bipolar-disorder, I can only wonder if Marlo’s rejuvenated self-image (in concert with Tully) could really power her through those creative nights where she’s still not getting much sleep (and hopefully taking proper care of Mia) so she could now be delightfully, energetically upbeat at occasions such as Sarah‘s school event, where they sing a duet of Carly Rae Jepsen’s "Call Me Maybe" (possibly a sly comment on how Marlo’s “just met” Tully but clearly desires to incorporate this attractive presence into her available-for-something-better-life—although this music video has its own payoff-surprise, as does Tully), running simply on adrenalin I guess, until her fateful car crash?  Maybe I’m not supposed to revisit these (and similar) aspects of the plot once I know Tully’s identity, but if it’s that easy for me to do so immediately upon seeing this concept what responses are appropriate ones from these filmmakers’ perspectives?*⇐

*I don’t have an answer from either Reitman or Cody, but here's one explanation of the film's ending, a 5:04 video including notations about some mothers having negative responses, angry at the implication Marlo wasn’t capable of dealing with the pressures of motherhood without giving herself over to a delusional-scenario, while others object to what’s being understood as a serious bout of postpartum depression or psychosis without Marlo seeking appropriate treatment, a charge questioned by psychiatrist Lauren M. Osborne in a well-explained response to Tully, although Theron and Davis offer their own (non-medical) impressions of what Tully’s conclusion indicates.

Bottom Line Final Comments: While Mick LaSalle and I are in general agreement about the unresolved problems with some of the concepts presented in Tully, we’re the ones out of the limb this time where the critical consensus is concerned as the positive reviews surveyed at Rotten Tomatoes rise to the highly-supportive-level of 87% while the normally-more-reserved-responses at Metacritic yield a 76% average score (which is still reasonably high for them, compared to their numbers for the various cinematic offerings where I’ve shared responses with those tallied by Metacritic so far this year [and consistently since I co-founded Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark, back in late 2011]).  Such praise (countered by the complaints about this film’s depiction of the complexities of motherhood, as noted above) hasn’t resulted in much box-office-success, though, with the opening weekend yielding only about $3.3 million in domestic (U.S.-Canada) venues (plus another $200,000 internationally) despite playing in 1,353 northern North American theaters (at my late-afternoon-Friday-screening there probably weren’t 10 other people in attendance), although such response was good enough for #5 on Box Office Mojo’s weekend tally (but with Avengers: Infinity War raking in almost $115 million those same few days it’s difficult for anything else to make much of an impact right now).  There’s great potential in the concept here (How many of us are still seeing our current world through the consciousness of our younger selves, holding ourselves quietly accountable for how our grandiose intentions have skewed off in unintended directions?) strengthened by solid acting, especially in the all-out-effort by Theron; however, even if you aren’t as bothered as some women are by the depiction of Marlo’s pre-and-post-birthing-state I think you can still find troubling script holes along with undeveloped plot points. (Some responses focus on the sudden brief appearance, in the film’s suburban setting, of Violet [can’t find a listing for the actor], Marlo’s old roommate [whom she parted from in a troubled manner, just as Tully’s having some sort of roommate problems], with wistful implications from Marlo about somehow reviving those Brooklyn years—as affirmations of Marlo's ongoing-bisexuality, celebrated by some not so much by others; I’ll leave that focus to your sensibilities, as it didn’t make a strong impression with me, but that could just be attributed—as many of my idiosyncratic observations are—to me being a clueless old straight guy rather than a hip Millennial.)

(In that both this film's intentional release date and my coincidental posting date are approaching
the celebration of Mother's Day
[May 13, 2018] I thought this image might be appropriate.)
 No matter how Tully might resonate with you, though, I hope you can at least enjoy my Musical Metaphor (the regular tactic to wrap up these reviews) about the kind of joy any woman (or man) yearns to experience (frequently, if possible), especially in throwing off the limitations of patriarchal expectations still imposed by traditionalist-aspects of our societies (found worldwide, not just in the U.S. culture I’m most indoctrinated in), another one of Cyndi Lauper’s tunes (used briefly in that driving-into-Brooklyn-montage), “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (also from the 1983 She’s So Unusual album) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PIb6AZ dTr-A (a much better official video than the one for “All Through the Night,” although this song's also written and first recorded by someone else, Robert Hazard, in 1979) whether that fun is with guys, other girls (in bed or not, in either case), children, nightclubbing, or whatever else allows us to escape the doldrums of constant responsibility, lackluster relationships, perceptions of dead-end-lives (which Marlo, Drew, and their kids seem to have overcome, even if in too-easy-a-fashion after Marlo’s accident) as depicted with Lauper’s many colorful, energetic scenes culminating with revelers pouring out of an overcrowded room, taken directly from some guys who also just wanted to have fun (absurdist or satirical), the zany Marx Brothers, in their classic stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, 1935).

(Two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry leading the latest Golden State Warriors victory celebration.)

 I had something else in mind to also review for you this week but it didn’t work out so rather than make a last-minute-dash to a movie theater far away in hopes of finding something interesting instead I took my recent joy in Oakland’s Golden State Warriors basketballers once again progressing to the NBA’s Western Conference Finals by beating the New Orleans Pelicans (hope runs high for the Warriors as they’ve been Western Conference champs the last 3 years, NBA champs 2 of the 3) out to the Oakland (CA) Coliseum to watch my beloved Athletics baseballers take on last year’s World Series winners, the Houston Astros, possibly with omen-potential as the Warriors will be playing the mighty Houston Rockets next week in those Finals.  (OK, enough with the omen-hopes because the A’s lost to the Astros, 4-1, completing the sweep by losing the previous 2 games 16-2 and 4-2; I just hope the Rockets don’t take any Oakland-bashing-inspiration from that.  Where’s my native-Texan-loyalty, you ask?  Maybe somewhere at the bottom of Galveston Bay, possibly along with my Ball High School class ring [assuming it may have somehow ended up there also, as I haven’t seen either of those formerly-precious-things for years].)  So, until next time you find yourselves with Two Guys in the Dark (a chancy proposition), we’ll be signing off.
              
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
          
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Here’s more information about Tully:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QufdcRuQg1A (36:01 interview with director Jason Reitman and actors Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Ron Livingston; useful subtitles provided even though the audio’s fine for those who aren’t hearing-impaired)



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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of kenburke409@gmail.com(But if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website, https://kenburke.academia.edu, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
          
OUR POSTINGS PROBABLY LOOK BEST ON THE MOST CURRENT VERSIONS OF MAC OS AND THE SAFARI WEB BROWSER (although Google Chrome usually is decent also); OTHERWISE, BE FOREWARNED THE LAYOUT MAY SEEM MESSY AT TIMES.
             
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 5,827 (still considerably off our fantastically-larger-all-time-high, but we are making progress in slowly climbing up again); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week (which I’m delighted to say recently has reached 5 of my hoped-for-6 continents [only South America is missing as I never expect any activity from Antarctica until the penguins get some Wi-Fi] so welcome, Algeria, because hits from Africa have been rare indeed; Russian interest has also been huge again recently, unless these are just hackers stealing what rightfully should have come from Argentina, but these days all seems to be fair in love, war, politics, and the Internet):