REVIEW: “The Two Popes”

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I think it’s safe to say this is not your average buddy movie. And while that statement is certainly a thinly veiled attempt at humor, in many ways “The Two Popes” has quite a bit of common with those kinds of films. It just happens to take place within the boundaries of the Catholic church and the buddies happen to be Pope Benedict XVI and the future Pope Francis.

“The Two Popes” is such an odd yet thoroughly fascinating creation. In one sense it’s an enlightening behind the scenes look at one of Catholicism’s most sacred traditions. It also resembles a biopic spending big chunks of time digging into the backstory of (specifically) Pope Francis (aka Jorge Mario Bergoglio). Yet it’s very much a ‘what-if’ dramedy about the unorthodox friendship between a firm-footed conservative (Benedict) and a loose progressive (Francis).

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Director Fernando Meirelles, working from a dense and colorful screenplay by Anthony McCarten, infuses his film with a visual style that adds an unexpected vibrancy. Sometimes it looks at its subject from a documentarian’s point of view, but other times Meirelles employs an energetic assortment of flourishes often bathed in bright light and vivid colors. At times it makes you forget that you’re simply watching two elderly men talk.

The perfectly cast Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce do most of the heavy lifting capturing an odd couple-like vibe that’s both honest and at times really funny. We first meet them following the death of Pope John Paul II. They are part of a conclave of 115 Cardinals gathering at the Vatican to choose a new pontiff. The process is shown to be as much political as it is spiritual. In the end German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Hopkins) gets the required 77 votes beating the prospected frontrunner Cardinal Bergoglio (Pryce).

Ratzinger becomes Pope Benedict XVI while Cardinal Bergoglio heads back to Argentina to continue his work among the impoverished. Seven years pass and the Vatican is embroiled in the knotty Vati-Leaks scandal. Meanwhile Bergoglio has prepared to retire but he can’t get Benedict to respond to his letters. Frustrated, he books a flight to Rome but before he can leave he is summoned to the Pope’s summer home at the Palace of Castel Gandolfo.

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This begins a steady series of discussions that move from the gardens of the summer palace to Vatican City. Their talks start seriously as pointed debates on Catholic dogma and the direction of the church. But as their icy relationship warms we get more playful back-and-forths about things like the music of ABBA and World Cup soccer. Soon a true friendship blooms and their conversations turn deeply personal and confessional. This opens the door for several of the film’s lengthy but compelling flashbacks.

“The Two Popes” begins with the “inspired by true events” tag but a ton of artistic license is clearly taken. It works though thanks to the film’s ability to make every encounter we have with its two titular characters feel organic and true. The two veteran actors bring plenty gravitas but just as much humor and humanity. And while the movie is a bit talky, you can’t help but be pulled in by its heart regardless of your position on faith.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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Bergman 101 : “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961)

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Continuing my trend of theme-based Wednesdays, today I’m starting Bergman 101, a look at the films of acclaimed auteur Ingmar Bergman. Over the next three Wednesdays I’ll be examining his Trilogy of Faith.

When Ingmar Bergman set out to make “Through a Glass Darkly” he had no intentions of creating a trilogy of films. But the thematic through-line linking it and the two movies that followed prompted many critics to recognize them as the Trilogy of Faith. Bergman eventually acknowledged the idea, then dismissed it, then semi-adopted it and so on.

The themes found in so many of Bergman’s movies are rooted in the filmmaker’s experiences growing up in a devoutly religious home. His father was a Lutheran minister whose harsh disciplinarian approach to parenting often clashed with the faith he espoused. As a result Ingmar wrestled with faith and many of his movies were expressions of that. And while these three films are recognized as his Trilogy of Faith, they could more specifically be considered treatments on the Silence of God.DARK2

“Through a Glass Darkly” (a title taken from 1 Corinthians 13:12) is essentially a Swedish chamber drama. It is set within the bounds of a remote island retreat where four family members are vacationing together. You have the patriarch David (Gunnar Björnstrand), his daughter Karin (Harriet Andersson), her husband Martin (Max von Sydow), and David’s seventeen-year-old son Minus (Lars Passgård).

Bergman opens the film with the four coming out of the Baltic Sea after a swim. Their laughter and playful jesting insinuates happiness and joy. But it’s all a mask covering up many of the themes Bergman will explore throughout his film. It uncoils in a methodically written and shrewdly acted dinner scene. In it several key bits of information are shared and tensions are subtly illuminated. These tensions are between each person at the table and unfold through scene after scene of emotional interaction and personal revelation.

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During our time with this family we learn of Karin’s seemingly incurable mental disease which becomes the catalyst for much of the narrative’s maneuvering. We see Martin, a truly loving husband but who is quietly frustrated at his wife’s lack of affection. We discover David is a struggling writer who far too often has prioritized his career over his family. And Minus, bitter about his father’s disinterest and desperate for some form of connection.

Throughout the entirety of his tightly framed story you see Bergman expressing himself in a variety of ways. Take the three men and their uniquely personal reactions to Karin’s illness. David is riddled with guilt yet so perversely callous due to his allegiance to his art. Martin submissively cares for his wife but feels utterly powerless to help or comfort her. Minus seems confused about his sister’s illness and for a time oblivious to its severity. You can’t help but wonder if Bergman sees pieces of himself in each of these individuals.

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Yet part of the film’s genius is in the many ways you could interpret it. Are these men actually reinforcing the meaning of the movie’s title? In the biblical text “glass” is better translated as “mirror“. “Darkly” refers to how unclear we see things. The passage speaks to a reflection that is blurred and indistinct. It lacks clarity and definition. Bergman could be showing us three men who see themselves as truly loving Karin when in reality they do so on their own selfishness terms.

As the men wrestle with their own insecurities, the film’s true centerpiece Karin slowly unravels. She begins to hear voices in a vacant upstairs room declaring that God will arrive soon. Are the voices holy or are they something sinister? Are they simply figments of Karin’s frail mental state? Harriet Andersson is terrific navigating this dense emotional minefield and there is a subtle haunting agony underneath her every gaze and expression.

Technically, everything Bergman does is part of the film’s unique storytelling language. Acclaimed cinematographer Sven Nykvist proves to be a key component to the movie’s effectiveness. Whether he’s bathing his images in brilliant natural light or shooting intense closeups that look beyond the eyes and into his subject’s soul, Nykvist compliments Bergman’s cold, austere perspective. And he makes even the cleanest, simplest composition worthy of our inspection.

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“Through a Glass Darkly” would take home the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, Bergman’s second win in as many years. But for Bergman, his thematic look at family reconciliation, the search for God, and the self-absorbed drive of the artist was about more than awards. For him it was a metaphysical exploration, a deep introspection, and a much-needed catharsis. The results are dark, muddy, and complex. Even the film’s seemingly positive final rumination (which Bergman himself later disparaged) may be far more cynical than it sounds.

But that’s another part of what makes this such a great film. You almost immediately sense it’s coming from a deeply personal place. It’s something seen in so many of Bergman’s movies, and something certainly recognized throughout the rest of this either intentional or unintentional trilogy.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Tell Me Who I Am” (2019)

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The extraordinary new film “Tell Me Who I Am” is further proof that the most potent documentaries aren’t always the one’s focused on prominent people or major events. Sometimes it’s the docs which tell the more intimate and deeply personal experiences that are the most compelling.

‘Intimate’ and ‘deeply personal’ certainly describes “Tell Me Who I Am”. Through the entire film we only hear two voices, those of identical twin brothers Alex and Marcus Lewis. Director Ed Perkins puts us face-to-face with the twins as they tell their remarkable story through their own emotionally crippling points-of-view. And Perkins’ approach to their story is (wisely) more therapeutic than probing.

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In 1982 when the British brothers were 18-years-old Alex was left in a coma following a serious motorcycle accident. He woke up with long-term amnesia, unable to remember anyone or anything with one exception. From his hospital bed he looked over and immediately recognized his brother Marcus. But regarding everything else Alex states “My head was just blank.”

After being released from the hospital the family returns home and Alex begins the daunting journey to rediscover his identity. He leans heavily on his brother whom he trusts implicitly. Like a jigsaw puzzle Marcus begins putting pieces together for Alex and painting a portrait of a happy childhood with two loving parents. But years later the discovery of one single photo changes everything and brings into question all that Alex has been led to believe about his past.

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I don’t want to give away much more but suffice it to say there is more to their childhood than Alex knows and it was intentionally kept from him by the one he trusted most in the world. Now 54, the brothers are still wrestling with their situations. Alex struggles with the vast hole in his memory and the broken bond of trust with his brother. Marcus is burdened by his actions and the moral dilemma of telling Alex the truth or keeping something from him that could cause tremendous pain.

Perkins slowly builds the tension by structuring each of the first two acts around the individual brothers. That sets up a heart-shattering third act that brings every raw feeling and deeply rooted emotion to the surface. It also brings the entirety of the film together in a truly affecting way. It’s absolutely devastating even though it feels like we are only scratching the surface of their story. At the same time I didn’t want to go further. I already felt as if I was invading their painful pasts. Thankfully Perkins shows restraint and allows the brothers to dictate what is revealed and what is kept private. Any other way and the film would be unbearable.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Transit” (2019)

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Christian Petzold’s stunning 2014 drama “Phoenix” featured a piercing story of lost identity, deep longing and heart-shattering betrayal all to the backdrop of post-World War II Germany. After a few quick glances at his latest film “Transit” you might be tempted to believe he was covering the same ground. In some ways the similarities are striking.

While the two films unquestionably have some of the same things on their minds, “Transit” carves out its own unique path and sets itself apart in a variety of ways. Much like “Phoenix”, the influence of history is all over his new film, but we quickly learn Petzold isn’t bound to it. It too features an enigmatic story, but “Transit” plays out with a complete disregard for expectation.

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Petzold (who serves as both writer and director) bases his film on a 1942 novel by Anna Seghers about Nazi occupation during World War II. But finding your footing on Petzold’s timeline is easier said than done. At first glance you could easily think you were watching the story of a Jewish man on the run from the Gestapo. But then you see a modern car or the police’s advanced tactical gear and your sense of time is blurred.

The melding of historical and contemporary goes beyond appearances and often hints at more provocative ideas. For example the cities have the buzz of modernity but there is a noticeable lack of technology. We get plenty of worried talk about transit papers and exit visas. And the looming fascist forces are presented as current day yet they sharply resemble Hitler’s Nazism. Interestingly you could argue that the fascist threat is (at least in part) a MacGuffin and the movie’s interests are far more intimate and profoundly human. Like many truly great films, “Transit” allows room for various interpretations.

The film stars German actor Franz Rogowski who works with a quiet but ferocious intensity much in the vein of Joaquin Phoenix. He plays Georg who we first meet sitting in a Paris bar as police sirens wail in the background. The city has been occupied by an unnamed fascist regime and a “Cleansing” is underway (reminiscent of the horrific 1942 mass roundup of Jews).

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Georg is anxious to flee the city but first he agrees to help a friend deliver two envelopes to a writer named Weidel who is in hiding at a nearby hotel. One of the envelopes contains a letter to the writer’s estranged wife. The other an exit visa to Mexico. Events quickly unfold and we see Georg escaping Paris for Marseilles with both envelopes and genuinely honorable intentions. But things can change in a blink of an eye.

In Marseilles a brief moment of indecision leads to Georg assuming the identity of Weidel and being granted passage out of the country. But first he must wait three weeks until his ship sets sail. During that time he connects with several people trying to escape the coming oppression. Among them is the widow (Maryam Zaree) and young son (Lilien Batman), a dispirited doctor (Godehard Giese), and a mysterious woman with a knack for vanishing as quickly as she appears. She’s played by Paula Beer.

Then there are the familiar faces of people who Georg repeatedly bumps into – fellow refugees who we never know intimately yet we hear them sharing their stories. As a narrator explains “Ports are places where stories are told” and telling their stories helps them deal with their troubles. These may seem like small touches but actually they’re among the many vibrant strokes of humanity on Petzold’s stunningly authentic canvas.

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“Transit” is a film of many layers and much of the enjoyment comes from peeling them back and discovering the wealth of meaning underneath. It offers itself to many different readings – identity, fate, and the ever-present danger of repeating history just to name a few. And you can see it drawing from a variety of interesting influences – Alfred Hitchcock, Franz Kafka, even Curtiz’s “Casablanca”.

The world Petzold defines is girded by fear, paranoia and uncertainty yet his direction and the performances show a confident restraint. His intoxicating story moves to measured, melancholic beats while demanding every ounce of our attention and patience. This is one masterfully crafted movie if you’re willing to put in the effort. And it comes from a filmmaker so brilliantly in tune with his vision that it’s hard not to be dazzled.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “300: Rise of an Empire”

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I still remember the buzz surrounding Zack Snyder’s “300” when it hit theaters in 2007. The hyper-stylized comic book adaptation gained an enthusiastic following to the tune of almost $500 million at the box office. Seven years later a sequel came along but minus Gerard Butler, Michael Fassbender, and director Zack Snyder. Snyder did stay around to co-write the screenplay, but this time the directing reins were given to Noam Murro.

“300: Rise of an Empire” takes place before, during, and after the events of the first film. This time the main character is a Greek General named Themistocles. He’s played by Sullivan Stapleton, an actor who I really enjoyed in David Michôd’s “Animal Kingdom”. Themistocles kills King Darius of Persia as the king’s son Xerxes looks on. Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) follows his father’s dying wish and journeys through the desert to a mystical cave. There he submerges himself in a pool of mysterious waters and eventually emerges as the god-king we see in the first film.

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Xerxes returns and declares war on Greece. He takes his army and faces Leonidas and his 300 Spartans (as seen in the first movie). At the same time Xerxes’ naval commander Artemisia (Eva Green) takes a fleet and goes up against Themistocles in the Battle of Artemisium. From there the paper-thin plot navigates a series of dull fight scenes, a small bit of political wrangling, and plenty of forgettable exposition. It clearly aspires to be as stylistically hypnotic as its predecessor, but it never comes close.

Under Zack Snyder’s direction “300” had a captivating look. There was something harmonious and almost poetic about his bladed, blood-soaked ballet. Snyder’s camera placements, his use of slow motion, his fight scene choreography – all of it looked amazing despite their being little plot behind it. In “Rise of an Empire” the camera isn’t nearly as inventive. The slow motion is there but sometimes it is used in bewildering ways. The choreography occasionally shines, but it is just as often flat and unimaginative. All of this equals trouble for a movie whose bread and butter is the action.

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As you can expect from a “300” movie the plot is fairly plain although I was impressed with how they set up the sequel. There just isn’t much there after the table is set. Also most of the characters lack any charisma. The film really misses Butler, Fassbender, and company. But there is one cast member who actually saves this movie from completely sinking. Eva Green brings such voracity and spectacle to her character and she has a blast doing it. While Stapleton is quite dull as Themistocles, Green steals every scene with her mad, over-the-top performance. She single-handedly keeps this film above water.

Aside from Green “300: Rise of an Empire” doesn’t have a lot to offer. For those looking for blood and brawn, you’ll get it here at least in some degree. The first film wasn’t great but it handled its simple story well, its brutal visual style was impressive, and the characters had charisma. This time the story is dull, the action is dull, and the characters are dull with the one lone exception. In the end, Green can’t make this a good film, but she does make it watchable.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Thoroughbreds”

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Two teenaged friends reunite in Cory Finley’s intriguing debut feature “Thoroughbreds”. As many of us can attest to, even the closest childhood friendships are like a vapor with no guarantees to last. But sometimes, even unexpectedly, old friendships can be rekindled. Such is the case for the film’s two upper-class Connecticut teens Amanda and Lily.

Serving as both writer and director, Finley originally penned “Thoroughbreds” as a stageplay. You can see elements of those roots throughout the film – the emphasis on language, the framing of certain shots, holding them a few seconds longer that normal. It works well within the framework of this unusual thriller/black comedy which has drawn comparisons to “American Psycho” and the even the iciest Hitchcock.

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Olivia Cooke (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”, “Ready Player One”) plays the eccentric and seemingly emotionless Amanda. She’s been through the rounds with psychiatrists after an animal cruelty charge and now her mother feels she needs more interaction with her peers. Mom secretly hires Amanda’s one-time childhood friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy of “The Witch” and “Split”) to hang out and be her tutor. Lily is perceived to be the “normal one” of the two – smart and popular with the ‘in’ crowd at school.

Normally a social flower and a pariah aren’t the most compatible pair, but as Amanda and Lily spend more time together their psychological bond becomes more evident. A key turning point in their friendship centers around Lily’s cold, abrasive stepfather (Paul Sparks). Lily detests him, Amanda flippantly recommends killing him, Lily scoffs at the idea. But is Amanda really serious? What happens when Lily has second thoughts? From there the story moves forward in full blue-blooded psychological thriller mode

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While both Cooke and Taylor-Joy are interesting and expressive young actresses who truly nail down their characters, Anton Yelchin shines the brightest. It’s a small role but possibly the most genuine and sympathetic. He also gives us a breather from the film’s effective yet steadily acidic tone. Yelchin plays Tim, a low-level drug pusher with big aspirations. He’s as naive as he is pathetic which makes him the perfect stooge for the girl’s on again/off again master plan.

Despite dancing close the line of genre predictability, “Thoroughbreds” never crosses it and it has enough originality to feel uncomfortably fresh. The sound design, the visual style, its obvious noir roots – it all plays together nicely. The result is a half-batty movie that takes the problems of the young privileged and gives them a violent shake. Where do all the pieces land? You’ll have to watch to find out.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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