The Best of SXSW 2020: Shorts

Due to concerns surrounding the Coronavirus, the entirety of the SXSW conference and festivals set to take place in Austin, Texas in late March has been canceled. Fortunately, SXSW has partnered with Amazon Prime Video to bring a portion of the shorts and features that were supposed to play at their film festival to the Amazon Prime platform for a limited time (April 27th-May 6th). I watched several of the short films made available, so I’m going to do a sort of rundown. There are some I wasn’t impressed with, so I’d rather talk about the ones that I liked and the ones you should definitely watch while they’re being made available. I usually see the Pixar shorts and a few of the Oscar-nominated shorts as well, but I’ve never been anything of a short film aficionado. Overall, I was very impressed with the field of shorts presented. Keep in mind, all the shorts discussed here are available on Amazon Prime and you don’t need an Amazon Prime subscription to view them.

Watch The Tiniest Murder Scenes Come to Life as Dioramas - Stream ...

Dieorama:

Dieorama follows a court-appointed attorney who crafts dieoramas- dioramas with a twisted edge. My favorite aspect of this short was how the short treats this woman’s work with respect. It treats her work not as an off-kilter hobby, but as art that this woman has put her heart and soul into, and by the end of this short, I have a feeling, you will see it the same way.

Staff Pick Award at SXSW 2020: "VERT" by Kate Cox - Vimeo Blog

Vert: 

A short about a couple who try out a VR-like service that captures how your subconscious most wants to appear. This feels in the vein of Ready Player One or Black Mirror but has more to say about the interpersonal implications of this tech, not the global ones. What would cutting-edge technology mean for a middle-aged couple on their anniversary? Vert has a very good sense of atmosphere with the virtual space anchored by this almost otherworldly palpable use of purple. Vert feels intimate, while still exploring heady ideas of identity.

SXSW 2020 Schedule

Basic: 

Basic is a comedically adapt short film that explores the often negative emotions social media brings out in people. One woman’s commentary over another person’s social media profile illustrates what social media can turn people into and the insecurities it fuels. When the thing built to bring us together pushes people apart. It clocks in at just under 3 minutes. It’s fast and loose, but still has something to say about the world we’re living in.

Quilt Fever on Vimeo

Quilt Fever:

Quilt Fever is a delightful deep dive into the world of quilting at a convention in Kentucky that brings together the finest quilters across the country. It’s comprehensive, it’s touching and bound to make you feel the best out of all the shorts mentioned here. 

Lions in the Corner by Paul Hairston | Documentary | Directors Notes

Lions In The Corner:

This short is set in Virginia and follows a man named Scarface, who has set up a space called Streetbeefs where two people settle a disagreement MMA-style. I love how unbiased this short feels, what initially feels quite barbaric shifts to where I wouldn’t hesitate to call Streetbeef’s leader Scarface a hero. He is living proof of what happens when a beef between two people gets out of hand and he has the scars to prove it. He has taken his suffering and done something about it. He’s preventing violence in his community and using his past experiences to make sure no one else suffers that same fate. The camera captures, it doesn’t judge. I can’t wait to see what director Paul Hairston because this is an excellent debut.

 

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The Half of It

Free Members-Only Screening: The Half of It - Film Independent

The Half of It is a deeply endearing teen rom-com that remains charming even when it struggles to break free of the timeworn trappings of its genre.

Ellie Chu (Played by Leah Lewis) is a high school senior, who lives with her father by the railroad tracks in the fictional town of Squahamish. She makes money doing various assignments for her classmates in exchange for money. She is taken aback when classmate Paul Munsky (Played by Daniel Diemer) asks her to write a love letter to the girl of his dreams, Aster Flores (Played by Alexxis Lemire), who he’s fallen in love with. An unusual request that takes her out of her comfort zone, but with further convincing and negotiations for her price, she caves. From there, Chu coaches Munsky through various dates and they become friends, all while she conceals her true romantic feelings for the object of Paul’s affection. 

The Half of It inverts the way a love triangle operates. A love triangle is something that you’ll see often in films from this genre, but rarely does it live up to the hype. It often feels like an unnecessarily tedious wait for everything to come to a head and everyone’s true feelings to come to light, but The Half of It does something clever by pairing two of the triangle’s residents and building a friendship between them.  Ellie and Paul are not competitors vying for one person’s love, but two friends who bring out the best in each other and support one another in their endeavors. I enjoyed being in the company of these characters and that’s very much to the credit of the performances from Leah Lewis and Daniel Diemer, both very charming and two actors I think we’ll be seeing more of in the future. 

This film is just as much a coming of age story as it is a romantic comedy. From the opening scene, the film’s themes are established through a recounting of a Greek myth. The Half of It, at its core is about people finding their “other half.” even if that’s within themselves. Ellie Chu goes on a moving journey in this film, gaining confidence in who she is and learns the value of being herself. The Half of It, for all its strengths, struggles to avoid the conventions of the teen comedy. It views much of its characters very one-dimensionally. It gets close to feeling like something of a reinvention, but it’s the often stereotypical and trite depictions of these different types of people Ellie encounters that holds it back from doing so.

Many of Netflix’s other comedies directed towards this film’s demographic often feel lazy or sloppily put together. Director Alice Wu’s subtle storytelling and visual dynamism put her a step above her teen film filmmaker contemporaries. You can clearly see Wu’s passion in the way this film is presented and the story being told and you will feel like you’re watching something Wu put her heart and soul into.

The Half of It arrives on Netflix May 1st 

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The Willoughbys

The Willoughbys review: Netflix's stunning movie is like a living ...

Netflix is in a really interesting position right now when it comes to where they are in the realm of animation. They haven’t had a Toy Story-level hit that changes everything yet, but are also still relatively new to the game. With Klaus and now this film, it feels as if Netflix, more than any other studio are the ones taking risks with their output. The bulk of Pixar/ Disney and Dreamworks’s product is franchise-driven,  but Netflix continues to put out “new” things and that’s nice. There’s a fascinating wave of animated films we’re in where the boundaries of what the technology used to craft these films can do are being pushed. Into the Spider-Verse, Klaus, and now The Willoughbys all have distinct personalities in the way they’re presented that you don’t see often in the genre. With The Willoughbys, Netlfix releases a slightly macabre, but ultimately sweet tale of family.

 

Tim Willoughby (Played by Will Forte) and his siblings, Jane and Barnaby A and B who live with their neglectful, cold parents (Played by Jane Krakowski and Martin Short). The siblings plan to send them on a perilous journey that will orphan themselves in the process. Their parents take the bait and their parents depart.  celebrate, finally rid of their parents and free to do as they please. The celebration is short-lived when they meet the nanny (Played by Maya Rudolph) their parents hired to take care of the children in their absence.  Their nanny sees the way these children lived and takes them along to find a new family to take care of them. 

 

The decision to give this film a unique, almost story-book like visual personality gives the characters and environments a certain texture and further detaches the film from reality. It’s rare to see a major animation studio doing its best to experiment with and make strides in furthering the medium to this extent. The Willoughbys also has a refreshingly flashy color palette. Very few animated films today are dull looking, but The Willoughbys is populated with nothing but bright dazzling colors. A scene involving a candy powered vehicle particularly stands out in my mind. The film takes its character designs back to the basics. There’s an emphasis on the geometric aspects of their design and the literal shapes that shape these characters that I appreciate.

 

The Willoughbys finds a lovely message within its premise about finding family even when you don’t expect. It’s slightly on the sappy side, but it airs more on the sweet side in its execution. There are various moments where The Willoughbys reaches to something greater, but more often than not, it botches its balance of quirks and heart. Sometimes the quirkiness can feel a little overwhelming, but I liked seeing a film this proudly weird and even more so, liked the authenticity of its quirks.

 

The voice cast has several A-listers up its sleeve, but the finest voice performance lies in executive producer Ricky Gervais’s whose feline narrator imbues The Willoughbys with a cynical edge. When he’s introduced, he’s a fun foil to the winning optimism of the Willoughby children and the heightened world they live in. What initially feels like an opportunity for Gervais to spew his typical pessimistic wit shifts as the story goes on, revealing himself who cares about the outcome of the story he’s narrating more than he lets on, while still maintaining that comedic strength. I am also really impressed with Terry Crews’s performance. The larger-than-life presence and grand heart he brings to the role fits very well with the character he’s playing.  

We’re living in troubling times right now and if you need a distraction to take your mind off of things for a couple of hours, The Willoughbys’ll get the job done. I’m not going to call this “the film we need right now”, but it’s enjoyable and I think a lot of people will have fun with it.

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Inception

On Inception by Christopher Nolan | Quarterly Conversation

The greatest feat of Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception is how it balances the elements of a blockbuster and an arthouse film. Inception has the charm of any heist film and plenty of well-constructed, exciting action setpieces bound to keep audiences entertained, but remedies that with a far more subtle and understated examination of the concept of dreams. It’s entertaining, thoughtful, well-crafted and well-told with an ensemble of talented folks in front of and behind the camera. I’m not sure what more you could want from a mega-budget sci-fi film of this scale.

 

Hans Zimmer’s outstanding score is inextricably connected to Inception’s DNA. Zimmer’s score plays a pivotal role in building momentum in the film’s first 2 acts and sustaining that rapidly increasing tension in the last one. It ties extremely well into the complex rules Nolan sets up for the dreamscape at the center of the film. Zimmer closes the film with this simplistic, yet extraordinarily resonant orchestral powerhouse concluding Inception with a flourish. Zimmer’s sound dominates nearly everything he’s a part of in the best ways and his collaborations with Nolan have proven fruitful and shown that his sound has never been more suited to a filmmaker’s style. Zimmer’s sense of grandeur pairs very nicely with the massive scale of Nolan’s films.

 

This marks a really interesting turning point in Nolan’s oeuvre. Nolan still indulges in some of his old tricks from time to time, (Don’t know what the deal is with this guy and dead wives) but after 2008’s The Dark Knight, Nolan’s work becomes far more sentimental than previous and far more built around family in Inception and Interstellar. In both films, the protagonist is driven by their desire to be reunited with their loved ones. Before this film, the main driving force behind the plots of Nolan’s work has been far less tender (Solving a murder, fighting your mortal enemy, protecting the city of Gotham). I’ve seen folks draw comparisons between the structure of Inception and the filmmaking process which is a cool read of the film. Making something derivative and unoriginal is simple, but the real challenge is in implanting a fresh idea in the minds of audiences. Arguably this film could also be equated to Nolan’s experience working on Inception, the first time he’d written an original screenplay since 1998 debut feature Following and a script Nolan had pitched before and only now had the clout to bring to fruition.

 

Nolan knows how to build worlds like nobody else, but I’ve found his Achilles heel to be building characters. Inception maintains that hypothesis for the most part. Nolan grounds the absurdity of the concept well by populating the dreamscape with these surprisingly plain but still visually arresting environments. He makes worldbuilding and the establishment of a film’s rules inviting and enjoyable. It’s rewarding and never feels like homework to hear one of these characters go off on some diatribe about their experiences with these dream worlds. The way this thing is edited, scored and made elevates it and makes it appealing. He takes this complex concept and world and makes it accessible without dumbing it down.  Inception wears its epic nature like a badge of pride, but rarely does Inception’s 150-minute runtime weigh on the film or the viewer thanks in large part to the skilled editing by Lee Smith, a frequent Nolan collaborator. There’s a lot of cutting between the different layers of the dreamscape that feels seamless and contributes to the brisk flow of the film.

Inception is the first film I’ve seen from Nolan where the filmmaking displayed could be described as “masterful”. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Dark Knight and The Prestige, but I found the perfection in those films to be present in the script, the score and the performances, but not the filmmaking. I respected Nolan’s work and loved, or at least liked everything I’d seen from him up to this point, but this is a film that shows Nolan is a master of his craft. A singularly talented visionary who only comes around a few times in a generation of filmmakers. We hear about the death of the theatrical experience all the time, but it’s filmmakers like Nolan who keep it alive by making films that demand to be seen on the big screen and he continues to do so.

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Social Distancing Film Fest: Film #1- The Social Network

Image result for the social network

The Social Network is a character study of Mark Zuckerberg, a compelling legal drama and a fascinating look at the creation of the largest website of all time. 

Aaron Sorkin is the closest thing to an auteur in the realm of screenwriting today. His style is instantly recognizable and while many have tried to replicate it, he’s the only one who can seem to make it work.  Let’s be real, this is not how people talk, but in the hands of a talented writer like Sorkin, the hyper-intelligent dialogue is slick and more importantly, effortless. It’s difficult to look away from this movie for even a second knowing you could miss a piece of clever, crisp dialogue. This is a story anyone who’s ever used Facebook knows the way it’s going to end. Instead, Sorkin chooses to hang this story on the hallmarks of any good one: Friendship, love loss, deceit, betrayal. 

This is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s first foray into film scoring and it is exceptional. This score won them an Oscar and deservedly so.   It begins with this somber, understated use of a piano as Zuckerberg, dejected and in low spirits, treks back to his dorm as this foreboding sense of anger wells up. More than anything, this score stands out. So many film scores I hear today struggle to do that settling for this bland, unassuming sound. There is a lack of boldness and ambition among many film composers that frustrates me deeply. This score is vibrant, dynamic, propulsive and largely responsible for how seamlessly The Social Network flows and boy, does this film flow. There is very little time wasted in telling this story. There’s confidence in the storytelling that makes this film easy to digest and genuinely exciting to watch as it unfolds and that’s something that only the best movies can do.

The entire cast is very good overall, but Jesse Eisenberg is kind of incredible in this film. This role requires great amounts of subtlety and nuance and Eisenberg rises to the challenge. Eisenberg has played this kind of role several times before and after the release of this film (Zombieland, Rio, and others come to mind), but never with this utter lack of sensitivity. Beneath blank looks and a seemingly ruthless demeanor, Zuckerberg is someone who cares deeply and those rare moments where Eisenberg shows the tiniest bit of regret or sorrow for how things have gone are the moments that most strongly define his performance. 

Eisenberg may have him beat in terms of screentime, but Justin Timberlake’s turn as Sean Parker is the most difficult role in the film. He comes into the film nearly halfway through when we’ve already spent far more time with Zuckerberg and Saverin and has to cement himself as this force that Zuckerberg would sacrifice some of his most valuable friendships to appease. The choice to cast a literal popstar in the role of Zuckerberg’s idol is an inspired one. Timberlake is charismatic and charming, but also deeply unlikable. His performance plays into both Zuckerberg’s and Savarin’s impressions of who he is- someone who could help Facebook grow exponentially or someone who could destroy everything they’ve built. It confounds me that within 6 years that Timberlake would go from a pivotal role in a David Fincher film to Trolls, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Andrew Garfield gives a fine performance as Eduardo Saverin, but I was struck most by how adept he is with Sorkin’s rapid dialogue. 

For a film that puts a large stake in exploring the relationship between Facebook’s founders, it can sometimes feel a little one-sided. Aspects of Eduardo Saverin’s arc are glossed over which ends up making the eventual strife feel less impactful. I know how it affects Mark Zuckerberg, but how does Saverin feel about losing and being betrayed by his best friend. This film lacks that perspective that I think would’ve made it feel more all-encompassing of this story.

I  loved this movie. I think even as the reputation around Facebook has shifted in the past decade, even as a less than avid Facebook user, knowing where this company began and how it’s grown is perhaps even more interesting now than in it’s release in 2010. Anyways, I highly recommend this one. It’s on Amazon Prime and IMDB TV right now and hits Netflix April 1st and god knows, we’ll all still be social distancing then so check this one out.

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Onward

Image result for onward

Onward is a sentimental ode to family, brotherhood and the pursuit of adventure. It’s hard to say Pixar has done it again when they so consistently deliver, but they have. 

 

Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) are a pair of elf brothers who are thrust into a quest when they receive a magic staff and a spell that can bring back their late father for a day. Ian has never met him and Barley has very few memories of his father before his death. Ian tries his hand at magic but ends up bringing back only his father’s legs. Ian and Barley have to find a magical gem to complete the spell before time runs out and they never get to see their father again.

 

 A lot of Pixar films have centered around the bond between a pair of characters (Toy Story, Cars, Up, Monsters Inc., etc.)  and even the dynamic between family (The Incredibles, Coco). But they have yet to explore the bond between brothers head-on. Onward, at its core, is about the relationship between Ian and Barley.  Ian, a socially awkward kid trying to be more like the father he never knew and Barley, an irresponsible, but likable screw-up, who adores Quests of Yore, a fantasy game comparable to that of something like Dungeons and Dragons. Together, they embark on a quest, just as perilous as it is cathartic. For Ian, a chance to finally see the man his father was and for Barley, a chance to finally say a proper goodbye. 

 

Pixar’s gift for storytelling is unmatched and sometimes when the storytelling and story perfectly align, you get a masterpiece from the studio. Onward isn’t quite that, but it’s not too far from it. After a seemingly endless onslaught of sequels from franchises like Toy Story, Incredibles, Cars, and Finding Nemo, it’s refreshing to see the team at Pixar delving into and functioning within a new world. Grounding a classical fantasy world in suburbia is an interesting and unique concept and Onward does a lot with it with countless sight gags that tinker with our ideas about countless fantasy genre tropes while also playing into them. The gimmick never impedes the story the film is telling. 

 

It’s a stripped-down adventure film far more interested in character than thrills. There’s an emphasis on the relationship between Ian and Barley and the changes they undergo on the journey greater than anything else in the story. Outside of Ian and Barley, the characters are pretty weak. Whenever the film shifts to spend time with characters like Laurel Lightfoot, Ian and Barley’s mom in pursuit of her sons, or the Manticore, a formerly monstrous creature who now runs a family restaurant, I struggled to maintain interest. While they are enjoyable to be around in the context of Ian and Barley’s story, I couldn’t help but wish that we were back with our protagonists on their quest.

 

In terms of genre, Onward is rather fluid. It adheres to many archetypes of the fantasy genre, but I’m not sure you could call it that, it consistently zigs and zags between comedy, adventure and heartfelt drama. At times, I felt unsure of where the story was headed but never felt I wasn’t in the hands of capable storytellers. The voice acting is very good. Holland bringing out the earnest awkwardness in Ian while Pratt is channeling many of the same man-childish sensibilities in Barley as his time on Parks and Recreation as Andy Dwyer.

 

Never doubt Pixar’s ability to make you cry.  Onward finds a profoundly moving message about the bond these brothers share within their fantastical journey. Onward has some supremely beautiful moments bound to put your tear ducts through a workout. Do yourself a favor and grab some tissues before heading out to see this one. Going off of the concept alone, I knew this movie was going to be a tearjerker, but Onward hit me in a way I wasn’t expecting and I have to applaud the folks behind this film for that.  And above all, the film is very entertaining. The quest has several fun setpieces to help pace out the journey and in this way, Onward narrowly avoids ever feeling monotonous. A car chase with a biker gang comprised of pixies is a real highlight.

 

Compelling, funny, and very sweet, Onward is a quest through a whole host of emotions that peaks with a beautiful, transcendent emotional coda that brought tears to my eyes.

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Sonic the Hedgehog

Image result for sonic the hedgehog

Sonic the Hedgehog fails to evoke the propulsive rush of its source material. There’s so much possibility in translating this character and the mythology he brings with him to the big screen. Unfortunately, this film gets bogged down in familiar family film antics. 

 

An adaptation of the popular game franchise of the same name, Sonic the Hedgehog follows Sonic (Ben Schwartz), a care-free, lightning-quick blue hedgehog who hides out, in fear of what those with villainous intent would do with his super-speed. Trouble comes calling in the form of a genius named Dr. Ivo Robotnik (Jim Carrey), who is brought in to deal with the growing threat of a rogue, ultra-powerful hedgehog. Sonic convinces a small-town police officer (James Marsden), who dreams of working in the big city to help him retrieve a few of his golden rings to help him flee this world and move on to a new one.

 

For a game franchise where the only real goal was to collect rings and defeat whatever boss lies in your path, the Sonic games have evolved to become something else entirely. We’re talking about various cartoons, video games,  board games, etc. Over time, Sonic has amassed quite an arsenal of supporting characters: Tails, Knuckles, Shadow, Amy. They have all become almost as synonymous with the franchise as Sonic himself and Sonic has become an icon of video gaming.

 

I don’t understand the screenwriter’s choice to coop Sonic up in a car for much of the film’s runtime. A character that is known for his speed finally arrives on the big screen and they chose to confine him to a car with James Marsden. When Sonic and his pal finally arrive at their destination, they reach a visually exciting climax, but no payoff can make up for the bland route that was taken to get there.

 

Jim Carrey delivers a next-level performance as Dr. Ivo Robotnik and he’s easily the film’s most valuable asset. Robotnik is another entry in the pantheon of zany, almost manic characters Carrey plays so beautifully. Carrey hasn’t been this in control of his comedic strengths in a long while and its great to see him back in his element. His performance is on an entirely different wavelength than the rest of the film and yet, it feels he knows exactly what this movie should be. Kooky, frenetic and even more cartoonish than the film’s CGI lead, Jim Carrey gives Sonic the Hedgehog a boost of energy it desperately needs. Ben Schwartz does a fine job as the blue speedster at the center of the film. There’s an innocence and playfulness to Sonic that Schwartz radiates well in his vocal performance. James Marsden is decent. He’s played this kind of role in other family films before like 2011’s Hop and is a good choice as a straight man to Sonic’s madcap energy.

 

Sonic the Hedgehog succeeds in finding a sort-of pathos within a rather surface-level protagonist. The games this film is based on are not known for their complicated and interesting characters, but this incarnation adds layers to his character. Sonic’s been taught to run away from the unknown and not to look back, but all he wants is to belong and to connect with the people around him. His gift becomes his curse and the film is about Sonic bonding with this police officer on their journey and finally gaining the family he’s wanted for so long. 

 

These games are not the most modern and this adaptation does its best to rectify that with countless references to current trends and popular culture to middling results. Even so, Sonic the Hedgehog struggles to keep its finger on the pulse of the culture. There are some shameless promotions of companies like Zillow, Olive Garden and Amazon throughout the film. They are delivered without an ounce of irony, making Sonic’s feature debut feel more like corporate propaganda than sly commentary. It feels so out of place in context with the rest of the film.

 

Sonic the Hedgehog is not the disaster many expected, nor the surprise sensation nobody saw coming, it’s just fine and I was hoping for more than that from this film. Fans of this character will relish getting to see him on the big screen, but I’m not sure I can confidently recommend this to those who are not die-hard Sonic fans.

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The Two Popes

Just as pensive as it is humorous, The Two Popes is a splendid buddy comedy meets character study that sees 2 people looking back on the choice they’ve made in their lives.

The film is set in 2012 during a shift in leadership in the Catholic Church. Word of the inner workings of the Catholic Church is leaked by an associate of Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins). There are swift pushback and controversy from the press and the public. Benedict is prepared to abdicate his position and has Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina (Jonathan Pryce), who we now know as Pope Francis come to visit him. The pair first butt heads but soon find themselves having a deep conversation about their relationship with God and belief as a major change in both of their lives draws near.

For a film about ruminating on life in old age, The Two Popes is surprisingly relatable. The screenplay from Anthony McCarten taps into universal themes of love, loss, and regret in a way that I think nearly anybody of any age can identify with on an emotional level. The film is at points relaxed and casual, and at others philosophical and all-encompassing as it explores the very notion of faith and the rhetoric and practices of the catholic church. The film tackles these complex issues about religion in an honest, genuine way, where many films would stumble and turn it into a heavy-handed, pretentious mess. The Two Popes may be a relatively easy watch, but it’s still thought-provoking.

Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins both give top-notch performances worthy of acclaim. These are two experienced, classically trained actors, who are super entertaining to watch on screen. They have an almost magnetic quality to them and I was impressed by how much they bring these characters down to earth. Once we see them interact, it remove this sense of otherworldliness and we go from watching characters to watching people. A pair of fine actors doing really good work.

The Two Popes is about 2 polar opposites, in how they interpret their beliefs, finding friendship in their shared experiences. When it gets down to it, we’re not that different from one another. We’re all human and all it takes is a conversation to realize what we have in common. There are some stylistic choices made here that I loved. The loving recreation of the Vatican imbues the film with an authenticity from the very first scene. I thought the manipulation of aspect ratio and color correction not just served as a nice transition between flashbacks and the present, but gives the film some visual flair.

I give The Two Popes 4 out of 5 stars.  The Two Popes is a witty, thoughtful exploration of the lives of 2 religious figures. Add 2 compelling lead performances and a great screenplay from Anthony McCarten and trust me when I say you’re in for a treat. This film is out in limited release now and arrives on Netflix on December 20th, just in time for the holidays.

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Dark Waters

 

Dark Waters is a compelling look at one man’s fight against the corrupt practices of a multi-billion dollar company. 

Based on a true story, Dark Waters follows Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo), a corporate lawyer who gets a call from a family friend named Wilbur (Bill Camp) about a disturbance on his farm in West Virginia. Over 100 of Wilbur’s cows have died and he suspects it has something to do with the creek running through his property. Wilbur’s hunch becomes a frightening truth as Rob investigates decades’ worth of wrong-doing by the DuPont chemical company.

Mark Ruffalo does a fine job here as Rob Bilott. He’s playing the legal scenes with conviction, but he feels more like a vessel to receive information than a fully- formed character. We see plenty of Bilott’s moral standards, but we rarely get a sense of what drives him to do the work he does or who he is emotionally. It makes it harder to fully connect with and invest in his character. A performance worth noting with much less screen time is Bill Pullman as lawyer Harry Dietzler. Pullman gives Dark Waters a boost of energy. He’s not comedic relief, but he’s certainly a breath of fresh air. 

Todd Haynes’s direction is both impressive and overbearing. Haynes has a flair for stylistic flourishes in his other films and here the moody, muted lighting that clouds much of the film creates a feeling of anxiety that makes every step of Rob’s journey and what he discovers uncomfortable in a very effective way. By the same token, the color scheme is dark and dreary throughout and the film ends up with a dull sheen and a tone that feels at times heavy-handed. 

An aspect of the filmmaking I love is the use of tracking shots to show not only the lives that DuPont destroyed but the communities too. Dark Waters is unflinching when it comes to depicting the consequences of DuPont’s malpractice. It tells and more specifically, shows it like it in a way that rightfully stirs up an audience reaction of anger and injustice.

I give Dark Waters 3 out of 5 stars. If you’re looking for a good or feel-good time at the cinema for the holidays, this isn’t it, but Dark Waters is an informative and important film. Dark Waters opens in theaters on November 27th.

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Just Mercy

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Just Mercy stays fairly true to its source material save for a few notable changes that shift the path the film ends up taking. Just Mercy is a film that fails to resonate past a powerful, thought-provoking message that will stay with you long after the credits roll. The story of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx)  is an uplifting one about justice triumphing over bigotry and evil, but this adaptation felt somewhat contrived to me. 

Two clients of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan) and Anthony Ray Hinton (O’Shea Jackson Jr.)  become Walter’s cellmates. Where the book went Other than these two characters, the stories of Bryan’s clients besides Walter are nowhere to be found and barely even mentioned. I thought these separate stories were masterfully woven into the novel, but the absence of them crystallizes this film’s priorities. Just Mercy is way more interested in adapting Walter’s story than the full novel. That’s not a bad thing, I just sorely missed what I consider some of the most affecting moments from the book.

Michael B. Jordan is magnetic and has a presence that makes the courtroom drama enthralling. I’m impressed with Jordan’s performance in almost everything he’s in and Just Mercy is no different. Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson with gravitas and conviction. Jamie Foxx gives his best performance since his Oscar-winning portrayal of Ray Charles in 2004’s Ray. He finds humanity and deep vulnerability in McMillian. His performance is incredibly moving. Tim Blake Nelson as Ralph Myers has a strange charm to his performance. He takes this unlikeable character and zeroes in on the qualities that make him sympathetic. Eva Ansley gets a larger role here and it was a nice surprise to see her portrayed by Brie Larson. Rob Morgan is heartbreaking as Herbert Richardson. This is a man whose experiences at war broke him emotionally and Morgan conveys that well. His performance is quiet, but extremely memorable.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s direction is perfectly competent. It’s nothing to write home about but doesn’t detract from the quality of the overall film. This is a film that will hit home with lots of people, especially those not acquainted with Stevenson and his work. It’s hard not to get swept in Walter’s tale. Just Mercy is a call to action against the death penalty and for a fair, unbiased justice system is a film that I think everybody needs to see.

 

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