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Films I NeglectedTo Review: Spit Takes

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/03/18 21:26:19

Please enjoy short reviews of "The Con Is On," "Disobedience" and "RBG" and a preview of the Chicago Critics Film Festival.

Under normal circumstances, I am almost always up for a stylish caper film, especially one with a top-notch cast tossing off bon mots while tiptoeing in and out of places with the appropriate amount of elan. That said, even I am at a loss to understand the sheer crumminess of ''The Con Is On,'' a grotesque garbage fire of a movie that was made three years ago and which inexplicably flared up on your VOD system, much to the presumed chagrin of all involved. Uma Thurman and Tim Roth play Harriet and Peter, a married pair of British con artists with bad habits--he is a sloppy drunk and she is a degenerate gambler--who run afoul of a ruthless crime boss (Maggie Q) after losing the fortune in cash they were supposed to deliver to her. In a desperate attempt to get the money to repay their debt before it is too late, they hit upon the notion of fleecing Peter's flighty ex-wife (Alice Eve), who is now married to a rich and powerful film director (played, in what may be the single joke that actually lands, by Crispin Glover) who is himself apparently conducting simultaneous affairs with his wacko assistant (Parker Posey) and his lusty leading lady (Sofia Vergara). The premise seems sound enough and the cast could not be more promising but the resulting film from director/co-writer James Oakley just could not be worse. The screenplay is absolutely terrible--the plot makes zero sense, even by caper movie standards, the witticisms clang like lead pipes and the bizarre clash in tones (imagine a cross between a lesser ''Thin Man'' movie and a Tarantino-style bloodbath) is more bewildering that refreshing. As for the actors, they seem completely lost at sea--all of them are too smart for this nonsense and to see them (especially the embarrassing turn by Posey) frantically trying to bring it to life is more distressing than amusing. Unless you are that rare individual who to this day mourns the fact that ''Mortdecai'' never became a franchise, ''The Con Is On'' is a film that will have viewers racing to turn it off.

''Disobedience'' is a drama about forbidden love and the freedom to be who you are in the face of societal pressures and, surprise of surprises, it turns out to be in favor of both. As the story opens, the rabbi of an Orthodox Jewish sect in London dies and his deeply estranged daughter Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns home for the first time since being ostracized by the community years earlier for the funeral. Her transgression--she was caught in bed with another girl by her father. Her return, which is already fraught due to her unresolved issues with her father and a community that still scorns her, is further complicated when she reunites with Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), a childhood friend who became her fatherís protege, and discovers that he has married Esti (Rachel McAdams), the girl whom she was caught with and who managed to escape punishment, presumably because she was not the rabbi's daughter. Time has moved on for everyone--Ronit is now a successful photographer in New York, Esti is a teacher at a girls school and Dovid is in the running to take over the late rabbi's position--but after a few initial fumbling moments, it doesn't take Ronit and Esti to discover that there is still a powerful connection between them that they cannot deny and which ends up throwing the futures of everyone into doubt.

Most of the advanced hype surrounding ''Disobedience'' has been devoted to the big sex scene between Ronit and Esti that occurs about halfway through the film and which is, as they say, ''graphic,'' though not necessarily in the expected ways. To be sure, some of this is the usual media sniggering that inevitably occurs whenever reasonably famous people take part in scenes that deal with explicit sexuality, especially of the same sex variety. That said, as tacky as it may seem to point out, it also happens to be the single truly effective moment in the film--the one time where the characters and their fears and desires come into focus with startling clarity as the story bursts brilliantly and heartbreakingly to life. Unfortunately, while Weisz and McAdams are both quite good in their roles (though McAdams has a little more of a struggle with it since her miscasting as Esti causes her to stick out like a sore thumb at times), this adaptation of Naomi Alderman's novel by co-writer/director Sebastian Lelio, hot off of winning the Foreign Language Film Oscar for ''A Fantastic Woman,'' is too uneven for its own good at times. For every well-handled scene, such as a Shabbat dinner that goes from pleasantries to a certain touchiness without ever going overboard, too many others plunge right into melodrama that, if not for the subject manner, feels a little too dated and overeager to make its points for its own good. (If you thought that Lelio's use of Aretha Franklin's ''(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman'' at a key moment of his previous film was a bit too on-the-nose for its own good, wait until you get a load of the scene in which Ronit and Esti, alone for the first time in years in an empty house, turn on a radio and immediately hit upon The Cureís ''Love Song.'') Granted, being part of neither the LGBQT community nor of any close-knit religious group, there is the distinct possibility that this film simply did not resonate with me in the same way that it might if I were. That may be true but based solely on the evidence presented by the finished film, the trouble with ''Disobedience'' is that it is just a little too old-fashioned for its own good.

From her trailblazing career as a legal mind that found her involved with the fight for gender equality in the courts and eventually led to her installation on the Supreme Court to her long and fruitful marriage that in many ways rebuked the same kind of stereotypes that she battled in her professional career to her current position as one of the most unexpected pop cultural icons imaginable, the idea of a documentary on the life and work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg was probably all but inevitable. That inevitability has finally come to pass in the form of ''RBG,'' a film that is glib and entertaining enough, to be sure, but perhaps one not quite worthy of its subject. Ginsburg, to be sure, is always fun and compelling to watch, whether she is discussing some of the big cases she has been involved with over the years, observing how her position on the Supreme Court has shifted in the years since her appointment or reacting to her new-found celebrity (including watching, she claims for the first time, Kate McKinnon's cheerfully goofy take on her on ''SNL''). However, co-directors Julie Cohen & Betsy West have elected to employ a resolutely uncritical tone to their approach that too often flirts with outright hagiography for its own good--even Ginsburg herself might have appreciated a little bit of rebuttal. A bugger problem is that by clocking in at under 100 minutes, we only get brief thumbnail descriptions of her major legal achievements and therefore never quite get a real sense of just how much of a trailblazer she has been over the decades, though even a film double the length of this one would still hardly scratch the surface in regards to her accomplishments. For those with virtually no knowledge of Ginsburg outside of the ''SNL'' skits and the ''Notorious RBG'' memes, ''RBG'' will serve as a perfectly adequate introduction to her accomplishments but for those who want to get a better sense of the woman and her work, it will no doubt come across as too slight for its own good.

For the sixth year in a row, the Chicago Film Critics Association, a group that I am on the board of, will be presenting the Chicago Critics Film Festival, a week-long festival of films running May 4-10 that has been curated entirely critics that are receiving their local premieres, many featuring guests doing Q&Aís after the screenings (including actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw for Opening Night selection ''Fast Color'' (5/4), music video maven Joseph Kahn with his raucous ''Bodied'' (5/5) and comedian/filmmaker Bo Burnham closing things with his Sundance hit ''Eighth Grade'' (5/10)), at that loveliest of theaters in the city, the Music Box. Now, as one of the festival's programmers and contributors since its inception, officially reviewing the lineup is something that I would necessarily be 100% comfortable with doing. If I didn't feel that way, however, I might tell you that ''Revenge'' (5/4, 7) is a brutally effective action thriller about a woman who suffers a horrible attack and then proceeds to give it right back to her assailants and then some. I would say that ''The Guilty'' (5/5, 10) and ''Searching'' (5/8) manage to come up with ingenuous new approaches to the standard thriller format. I would cite the impressive collection of documentaries on display, including ''Hal'' (5/7), which looks at the life and work of filmmaker Hal Ashby, and two, ''Three Identical Strangers'' (5/8, 9) and ''Abducted in Plain Sight'' (5/10), that are so jaw-dropping that it is best to go in knowing as little about them as possible. I would note that ''On Chesil Beach'' (5/8) gives viewers the chance to see Saoirse Ronan in her first major post-''Lady Bird'' role. I would mention how Sunday, May 6th kicks off with a look into the past via a 25th anniversary screening of a 35MM print of ''Jurassic Park'' and ends with the startling ''Madeline's Madeline,'' an innovative drama with a knockout central performance from future star Helena Howard that you will carry around with you for days after seeing it. Finally, I would humbly mention that I will be appearing on stage on May 7th with the legendary writer-director Paul Schrader to conduct the Q&A following the screening of his extraordinary new film, ''First Reformed.'' Of course, you didnít hear any of that from me but if you want to hear more, please go to the festival site at www.chicagocriticsfilmfestival.com .

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