THE TWO POPES (2019)

December 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Abba versus Classical. Perhaps nothing more clearly separates the two men than their musical tastes. Of course, it’s their widely disparate views of society and the role of Catholicism that matter most. Expert filmmaker Fernando Meirelles (CITY OF GOD, 2002) and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) have crafted a beautiful telling of the story of how these two men crossed paths, and they selected two preeminent actors to play the two Eminences.

Jonathan Pryce plays Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis, and Oscar winner Sir Anthony Hopkins plays Joseph Ratzinger, now known as Pope Benedict XVI. The story kicks off in 2005 with the announcement that Pope John Paul II has died. The proceedings for the election of the new pope provide us our first glimpse at the differences between ultra-conservative and traditional German Joseph Ratzinger and the progressive Jorge Bergoglio, so in touch with the people. It’s portrayed as a passive-aggressive rivalry, and an election between humility and ambition. Director Meirelles does a terrific job of establishing the pomp and tradition that goes with the election of a new pope … we see the quite amazing process in quick-cut form so that it doesn’t drag out.

There are flashbacks to Bergoglio’s early days in Buenos Aires, and Juan Minujin portrays him as a younger man making the all-important life decision. But of course the real fun here is the verbal sparring and intellectual chess match played out between the older men in 2012. Pope Benedict is dealing with church scandals involving financial fraud and sex-abuse cover-ups. He is, for lack of a better term, beaten down in his job. Bergoglio has requested permission to retire from his post, and he makes the trip to secure Benedict’s signature on the papers. Pope Benedict deftly avoids the papers and the topic as he engages Bergoglio in meaningful dialogue. Their conversation is at times combative, as their disparate philosophies become apparent. Bergoglio is a humble man of the people and understands the public perception of the Church. Benedict embraces the sanctity and power of his position and holds tightly to tradition.

As the two men philosophize on the Catholic religion and church, these two acting legends make every moment a pleasure to watch. Watching men of faith with differing ideals could have been either of two extremes: dry or over-the-top. Instead, we have meaningful dialogue on faith and the role of the church. Also, the set of the re-created Sistine Chapel is breathtaking and accurate. For those of us who have been inside the walls of the Chapel, we can’t help but recall the architectural and artistic details captured here. Cinematographer Cesar Charlone (Oscar nominated for CITY OF GOD) captures the beauty of the Chapel, as well as the immense size of Vatican City. As an added bonus, the aerial shots of Rome are not to be missed.

With more than one billion Catholics around the globe, it’s actually quite impressive that Pope Benedict was willing to step down and take the role of pope emeritus. For such a proud man to recognize that he was no longer the right man for the job is quite rare, but even more impressive is how he understood that his diametric opposite, Pope Francis, was the right man for the times. Fanta, futbol, Fitbit and Tango all surprisingly have their moments. The running gag with Fitbit provides levity when needed. The film might let Pope Benedict off a bit too easy as it showers Pope Francis with affection, but the real fun here is watching these two fine actors go at it.

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BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018)

October 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. That VOICE! During my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to see many of rock’s greatest bands live in concert, including: The Who, The Rolling Stones, Bad Company, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and AC/DC. Each of these bands are amazing, but no other concert combined the energy, showmanship and musicianship as Queen (two different tours). And certainly no other lead singer donned a Harlequin leotard … only Freddie Mercury could make that look seem natural.

This is such an odd movie, and one that is somewhat difficult to discuss. It’s billed as an “inspiring story”, though one wonders how self-destructive living, an acrimonious band break-up, and dying young of AIDS could be considered inspiring. It’s not supposed to be a biopic, but the vast majority of the screen time is devoted to Freddie Mercury. And to really confound us, the film kind of drags (pun possibly intended) during the personal story times … and then explodes with greatness during the band and live performance segments.

Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury, and he perfectly captures the swagger and strut of one of rock’s greatest theatrical showmen. Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsari in Zanzibar, and the film shows us his conservative family and time spent working as a baggage handler at Heathrow. Of course, things change quickly once he joins up with guitarist Brian May (played here by Gwylim Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy, MARY SHELLEY). When bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) is added, Queen is born.

With a story and script from two Oscar nominated writers, Peter Morgan (THE QUEEN, ironically) and Anthony McCarten (THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING), it’s surprising that much of the film is downright slow – especially the bits with frenemy Paul (Allen Leach). Perhaps this is more a factor of the issues with the director’s chair, where Bryan Singer is credited despite being fired during production. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel filled in until Dexter Fletcher (next year’s Elton John biopic ROCKETMAN) was hired to complete the film. Lucy Boynton (so good in SING STREET) holds her own as Mercury’s wife and friend Mary Austin, and Mike Myers plays producer Ray Foster (with a tip of the cap to WAYNE’S WORLD). Other supporting work comes courtesy of Dickie Beau as influential DJ Kenny Everett, Aiden Gillen, Tom Hollander and Aaron McCusker.

The 20th Century Fox opening fanfare has its own Queen version, and is not to be missed as the film begins. Of course, it’s the infamous 1985 Live Aid performance that is the film’s highlight and one that will leave every audience member pumped up, smiling, and singing along. It’s a stunning sequence on a custom built Wembley Stadium stage, and it helps erase much of the tedium of the film’s non-band scenes. Erasing any doubt as to whether the film is worth the price of admission … hearing that VOICE at full volume on today’s theatrical sound systems. Killer Queen.

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DARKEST HOUR (2017)

December 7, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Cinematic historical dramas, by definition, face the challenge of overcoming a known and documented outcome. Director Joe Wright (ATONEMENT) and writer Anthony McCarten (Oscar nominated for THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING) attempt to re-create the tension-packed few days that literally changed the course of history and the free world.

It’s May 9, 1940 and the film takes us through the next 3 weeks of political wrangling that begins with Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) being named Prime Minister almost by default, as he’s the only candidate acceptable to both parties to replace an ill and weak war time leader Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). Even King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) is skeptical of Churchill and prefers Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), his friend who is likely better suited as Churchill’s adversary and a contrarian than as the actual decision-maker in this crucial time.

Uncertainty abounds within the government and the top priority of debate is whether to negotiate a peace treaty with Hitler and Nazi Germany, or fight on against seemingly impossible odds in hope of maintaining the nation’s freedom. Perspective is required here, as at this point, Germany was viewed as an unstoppable military force with Hitler as the leader. The war atrocities and his despicable vision were not yet fully understood. FDR and the United States declined to help and Churchill had few allies inside or outside his country.

We can talk all you’d like about history, but more than anything, this is a showcase for the best working actor who has never won an Oscar, Gary Oldman. This is an actor who has played Lee Harvey Oswald and Sid Vicious, and probably should have won the award in 2012 for TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY. Earlier this year, I was impressed with Brian Cox as the lead in CHURCHILL (which was set four years later), but Oldman’s Churchill looks, sounds and moves like the real thing. We see the familiar profile and silhouette in numerous shots, and it’s actually kind of thrilling.

The always great Kristin Scott Thomas plays wife Clementine, and she shines in her too few scenes. Lily James plays Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s bright-eyed secretary and confidant, and she has a couple of nice exchanges with Winston – especially the one explaining the “V” hand gesture. Another favorite line has a character state, “I love to listen to him. He has 100 ideas every day … 4 of which are good … 96 of which are dangerous.” It’s this type of writing that emphasizes the opposite approaches between this film and Christopher Nolan’s DUNKIRK, which utilized minimal dialogue as opposed to the emphasis on words taken by Mr. Wright’s film.

We go inside the House of Commons to experience real political gamesmanship, and see the hectic activities inside the war room as typewriters are being pounded while strategies and alliances are being formed. It’s an example of politics driven by a fear of action (by most) while there is a touch of hero worship as Churchill stands alone for much of the film. Some creative license is taken as Churchill rides the Underground (subway) in order to connect with citizens and take their pulse on war … despite most having no clue just how desperate things are. We see tremendous and tragic shots of Calais, and the wide range of camera work really stands out thanks to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who also masters the indoor lighting and shading.

Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk is discussed briefly (this would be the perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece from earlier this year), but mostly this is the personalization of those who politicize war. The good and bad of history is made up of people, good and bad. Yes, there are a few too many Hollywood moments here, but Oldman does capture the pressure, isolation and belief of the historical figure who helped save a country, and perhaps the world. We hear two of Churchill’s most famous speeches: the “Never Surrender” speech to Parliament and “We shall fight them on the beaches …” prompted by the red glow of the “on air” radio light. There are many published books that provide more detail, but Oldman’s performance does guide us through what the Prime Minister must have gone through … and that’s worth a ticket and a gold statue.

watch the trailer: