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Early December Movies

The Two Popes (UK/Italy/Argentina/US 2019)
Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (City of God), working from a sharp-witted script by Anthony McCarten, is also blessed by two veteran actors in peak form—Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XV1 and Jonathan Pryce (speaking Spanish like a native) as his successor Pope Francis—the first from the Third World where most Catholics live.  The resignation of Benedict in 2013 was an unexpected historic turn which paved the way for the selection of the Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who had earlier been passed over and had wanted to retire. It also marked a momentous shift from the rather rigid doctrinaire and academic approach of Benedict, the former German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (a solitary figure, “watchdog of the faith”), to a more pastoral and progressive reforming one exuding care for humanity.  As Francis has said: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”
The very first scene shows Francis trying to book his own flight, simply as Jorge Bergoglio, to Lampedusa, the Italian island at the centre of the perilous Mediterranean refugee crossing crisis from which he will later call out the “globalization of indifference”.  The next scene is of Bergoglio, as cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, warmly connecting with residents of a poorer area.  This is the lead in to his 2012 trip to Rome where he meets Benedict in the papal summer residence for the purpose of resignation.  They have a lengthy, sometimes argumentative, private conversation.  But not only does Benedict refuse Bergoglio’s request, he confesses his personal doubts (“perhaps I need a spiritual hearing aid”) and turns the tables.  Recalled to the Vatican, the two are alone in the Sistine chapel when Benedict confides his intention to resign the papacy.   
This middle section offers further flashbacks to Bergoglio’s personal history in Argentina (recreations with Juan Minuj√≠n playing the younger man, along with bits of archival footage).  Included are his most troubled periods as superior of the Jesuit order during the military dictatorship when priests inspired by liberation theology were targeted and tortured. Bergoglio subsequently underwent a period of internal exile and introspection.  However from these testing experiences and deep regrets for not “doing enough”, he emerged to become an advocate for socio-economic justice in touch with the common people.  He became known for a humble simplicity which he carried with him into accepting the bigger challenge of the universal church.
The movie includes some details of the papal selection process (using a recreation of the Sistine chapel) and there are allusions to Vatican politics and scandals.  But its heart is in the revealing conversations between the two men which are sometimes frank, occasionally humorous, always engaging. As much as Benedict and Francis are studies in contrast coming from different worldviews, they reach a respectful understanding and mutual affection (that includes sharing small pleasures like a good pizza, or watching a soccer match over the closing credits). Hopkins and Pryce do an outstanding job of conveying this on a deeply human level, of which the camera captures every detail and nuance, and for which both deserve Oscar nominations.
The content is so rich that I’ve benefited from seeing The Two Popes twice on the big screen. A must-see, following a limited December theatrical release it will start streaming on Netflix December 20.  A+
The Cave (Syria/Denmark/Germany/Qatar/US 2019
Intrepid filmmaker Feras Fayyad’s previous effort, 2017’s Last Men in Aleppo, which focused on members of the first-responder civil defence rescue force known as the “white helmets”, earned a grand jury prize at Sundance and an Oscar nomination.  This film documenting another aspect of the Syrian tragedy is also receiving many awards (including the Toronto film festival’s “people’s choice” for documentary).  Equally heart-and-gut-wrenching, it is a testament to all involved and to that which must never be forgotten.  With the so-called Islamic State losing its territory and the tyrannical Assad regime regaining control of the country, there is a danger of the horrors of the nine-year Syrian civil war receding into the rearview mirror as the world’s attention shifts elsewhere.
            This time the main subject is a young female physician Dr. Amani Ballour, a specialist in pediatrics, working with a handful of other medical professionals, some students, to try to save lives during the five years that the 400,000 people of eastern Ghouta were besieged.  As the area is relentlessly pounded from above by regime and Russian warplanes, we hear the screaming roar that announces another wave of civilian casualties including children. Hospitals are also hit, hence the resort to excavating underground bunker-like tunnels for treatment and refuge—the “cave” of the title.  The camera lens bears firsthand witness to the tireless efforts taking place under these dangerous and dire conditions.  Lacking anesthetics, a smartphone plays music during surgeries. Layers of humanity emerge beyond the emergencies. In a fleeting moment of relief, staff pause to celebrate Dr. Amani’s 30th birthday. Even under extreme circumstances there have been questions about her lead role (twice elected the hospital’s managing director) given how in a conservative Muslim society men have used religion as a means of power and control.  Her tireless example shines through in every scene.
            What is most striking is how the doctors and nurses carry on through the life-and-death situations facing a defenceless trapped population.  So much pain, suffering, trauma, and destruction.  So much evil that compels one to ask—where is the justice for these crimes against humanity?  The film closes with the 2018 evacuation of Ghouta in the wake of chemical chlorine gas attacks as the regime re-imposed its authority over the devastated enclave. A final image evokes the millions of Syrians who have fled their homeland and the thousands of refugees who have died in the attempt. A phrase uttered early on “Is God really watching?” hangs over everything to which Amani and others like her bear witness.  And in them is the only grace to be found in this hell on earth.  A+ 
For Sama (UK/Syria 2019
Another extraordinary firsthand witness to the Syrian conflict from a female perspective this film premiered at the South By Southwest Festival in March where it received both the grand jury and audience wards.  It went on to win a “golden eye” award at Cannes and numerous others since.  Behind the camera is Waad al-Kateab, a young woman economics student at the university of Aleppo when she joined the revolutionary ferment against the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship. Those hopes of liberation would soon be dashed as the rebel-held area of the city was besieged and blasted by Russian and regime airstrikes (include by helicopters dropping barrel bombs and chlorine gas). One of the few remaining doctors is Hamza whose wife has fled.  He and al-Kateab fall in love, get married and have a daughter named Sama (Arabic for “sky”).  The infant is an inspiration for al-Kateab to keep going with her video record of all that is happening around them as even hospitals are bombarded, salvaging small moments of humanity amid the terror.
            Be warned that there are many extremely graphic and disturbing images—of dead mutilated bodies, of catastrophic injuries to civilians including to children. The scenes of destruction are almost apocalyptic. Yet the focus on this tiny family unit keeps a sliver of hope alive amid the trauma. As regime forces close in Hamza, al-Kateab (pregnant with a second daughter) and Sama are safely evacuated and later receive asylum in the UK where al-Kateab now works for Channel 4, a producing partner in the film. With British co-director Edward Watts hundreds of hours of rough and raw video footage has been shaped into a tightly compelling 95-minute first-person account.  The emotional power comes from that intimacy and immediacy. Don’t expect a wider analysis of the Syrian conflict following a linear chronology.  (For example, al-Kateab’s observation at one point that the rebellion has been taken over by “Islamic extremists” is never explored.) The importance of a film like this is to continue to disturb the world’s conscience.  Because although Aleppo may be back in Assad’s control, the evidence of the regime’s crimes against humanity manifest through this family’s story can never be erased. (For Sama was first broadcast on PBS Frontline in mid-November.  It can be viewed online at:   A    
Waves (US 2019)
Indie writer-director Trey Edward Shults burst on the scene with his 2015 debut feature Krisha that earned a grand jury and audience award at the South By Southwest festival.  This third feature about an African-American south Florida suburban family of four has also been making waves since its late August premiere at the Telluride festival.  The opening minutes’ kinetic camera and propulsive score emphasize the fast life of the son, high-school senior wrestling star Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), sporting close-cropped hair dyed platinum blonde.   We get a taste of the amped-up audiovisual style that recurs in later scenes, at times with a quasi-psychedelic vibe suggesting unstable emotional terrain.
            Pushed by his hard-driving dad, Tyler ignores an injury that cuts short his athletic ambitions. He also fights with his pregnant Latino girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie). Increasingly aggressive and reckless, Tyler lashes out with tragic consequences at a prom night party.  A promising future careens out of control into a prison statistic.  The narrative then shifts to his younger sister Emily (Canadian-born Taylor Russell) who develops a relationship with a white student Luke (Lucas Hedges) while the strains increase between her stepmom and dad.  As Emily and Luke grow closer both are dealing with emotional burdens; in Luke’s case a deadbeat dad dying of cancer.  Shults has a feel for the tone of the typical-teen register (from casual swearing to obsessive phone texting). He and cinematographer Drew Daniels throw a lot at the screen with storylines and mood pieces that overlap without coming to any resolution.  The effect is frequently jarring and unsettling (no doubt intentionally).  While not for everyone, the movie deserves credit for taking chances that challenge a more conventional narrative structure of parental-teen melodrama.  B+    
Knives Out (US 2019
The mystery genre is a change of pace for writer-director Rian Johnson who helmed 2017’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi and he has great fun with it.  The setting is a lavish gothic mansion belonging to Harlan Thrombey (Canadian thespian Christopher Plummer), a wealthy successful writer of murder mysteries. The morning after a celebration of his 85th birthday he’s found with his throat slashed still holding the knife.  Two rather dim investigating police detectives interview family members in front of a large centerpiece composed of a circular arrangement of daggers.  While they seem satisfied it was a suicide, also on the scene is a private sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig affecting a southern drawl) who’s been engaged by an anonymous source.   
            The Thrombey family members are a rather awful dissembling bunch. Businesswoman daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her faithless husband Richard (Don Johnson) have a “black sheep” son Ransom (Chris Evans) who suspiciously doesn’t attend the funeral. Hapless son Walt (Michael Shannon) has been running the writer’s publishing house. Daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Colette) has been taking advantage of the old man’s generosity for years. A teenage grandson is described as an “alt-right troll”—just one among the allusions to contemporary America. The other key figure is Harlan’s devoted nurse caregiver Marta (Ana de Armas), a South American immigrant who worries about her undocumented mother. In charge of administering Harlan’s medications, what was her role on the fateful night?  Was Harlan in on it? Who destroys the evidence? Who sends a blackmail note? Who hired Blanc?  Clues or red herrings? Things really hit the fan with the family when Harlan’s changed will leaves everything to Marta.
            There isn’t much buildup of Hitchcockian suspense in this affair, the cleverness of which lies in its scattering of details.  The result is still a very entertaining ensemble. Harlan would no doubt have enjoyed the disturbing effects of his demise.  A-


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