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Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in "The Two Popes" (Netlfix) Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in "The Two Popes" (Netlfix)

Film

‘The Two Popes’ is an Entertaining But Shallow Semi-History

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With The Two Popes, director  Fernando Meirelles (City of God) and writer Anthony McCarten have made a film in the tradition of Peter Morgan’s long series of movies with Michael Sheen as Tony Blair: it’s a speculative dramatization of recent history that stars very skilled actors as recognizable world leaders while not necessarily shedding a huge amount of light on the people concerned or the events in which they participated. 

Based on McCarten’s play, The Two Popes tells the story of a couple of long meetings between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), the man who would later succeed Benedict as Pope Francis. The first meeting begins with the Argentinian cardinal attempting to resign, while Benedict refuses to accept it. In a later meeting, Benedict drops the shocking news that he plans to retire, paving the way for Francis to succeed him.

It’s a unique relationship, as Benedict became the first pope in hundreds of years to resign, which also made him the first pope in centuries to still be alive while someone else served in the papacy. 

The film touches on much of the major subjects of Catholicism in the 21st century: the sex abuse scandal, the battle between the church’s conservative and liberal wings, and various other intrigues of Vatican politics. 

What The Two Popes ultimately shows us — the two men seeming to become friends, despite their significant philosophical and theological differences — is heartwarming, even if it comes off a little trite at times. We even see the pontiffs watching soccer together, as their home nations of Argentina and Germany faced off in the World Cup Final in 2014. 

Whatever else, it’s a very handsome film, with sumptuous photography inside and outside the Vatican, as well as at such locations as the Pope’s country retreat. We also see two different papal conclaves (for those intrigued by that sort of thing), although it may remind some of the similar scenes in The Godfather, Part III. 

In what’s mostly a two-hander, both actors are quite good, even if they only bear a passing resemblance to the actual real-life popes. Pryce, who played The High Sparrow on Game of Thrones, here plays a very different type of pious religious leader, while Hopkins, still going strong at 81, brings an icy gravitas to Pope Benedict. 

For some reason, while The Two Popes repeatedly alludes to rumors that Benedict had had some type of Nazi ties during his youth in Germany, the film shows us more extended flashbacks of Francis as a young priest in Argentina, as he admits he didn’t do enough to push back against that nation’s military junta in the 1970s; we’re not given any kind of similar look into Benedict’s controversial younger years. 

The Two Popes is not the most entertaining fictional work of recent times set at the Vatican with popes as the main characters. That would be The Young Pope, Paolo Sorrentino’s limited series from 2017 that depicted Jude Law as a fictitious pontiff who was young, American, and very conservative. It was an absolutely bonkers show, featuring odd stylistic flourishes, kangaroos, and Diane Keaton as a nun wearing a shirt that said “I’m a virgin (but this is an old shirt).” A sequel, The New Pope, is on the way, in early 2020. 

Meirelles’ film is a very different animal, and trying to do different things. But it could have used a little more of The Young Pope‘s spirit of adventure and risk-taking. 

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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25 Years Later: ‘Before Sunrise’ Crafts an Enduring Romance Founded on Empathy

Richard Linklater’s 1995 film features one of the strongest relationships in cinema, bound to the idea that understanding is crucial to being able to love.

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Before Sunrise

“If there’s any kind of magic in this world… it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something”

Before Celine (Julie Delpy) agrees to go on a night of adventure in Vienna with Jesse (Ethan Hawke), she is told that her decision is akin to time travel. Serving as a pick-up line and audacious concept, Jesse’s cheesy attempt to get her off the train is the jumping off point for what Before Sunrise ultimately becomes before the two lovers part ways. Richard Linklater’s 1995 classic opens with Jesse positing that seizing the moment helps both strangers avoid future and past regret. Where the film goes from there is what Celine so eloquently captures in the above quote: “…the attempt of understanding someone sharing something.” Its empathetic viewpoint is what structures the entirety of Before Sunrise, and eventually goes on to shape each subsequent installment in the series.

Unsurprising is that Linklater took the concept of Before Sunrise from his own personal experience, which helps shape an assured film with a very minimalist plot. Jesse and Celine merely wander the streets of Vienna until the next day, when Celine leaves and Jesse prepares to head back to America. Co-written by Kim Krizan, it’s the long-winded conversations and exchange of ideas that defines their relationship for audiences. The way Jesse can move from talking about his friend taunting a homeless man with $100 to Celine contemplating feminism as a means for men to have more sex, switching just as quickly to ruminations on death, old age, and the power of love — that’s what gives the film its potency. The openness that the two share isn’t merely a ticking clock pressuring them to expose themselves to each other. They’re opening up out of comfort, and building upon a relationship that has quickly defined itself by finding meaning in the moments shared.

It also helps that the two leads, Hawke and Delpy, come together to convey a chemistry so poetic and charming that all you want is to spend more time with them; one night is quite simply not enough. Hawke’s grungy cynicism barely masks a romantic at heart, evident in the way he can’t stop watching Celine’s every movement, and how he reaches out to her only to pull back in hesitation. The bond between them is barely matured early on in Before Sunrise, allowing Hawke to play Jesse like he’s handling a delicate balance between smooth-talking gentleman and an open-book of philosophical ideas about a decaying world that’s lost the plot. What becomes evidently clear is how open Celine is from the very beginning, and how much that open form of communication is what she not only wants, but demands in a relationship. 

Before Sunrise

Meanwhile, Delpy’s performance is filled with so much passion that when Celine starts immediately discussing death or prodding at the way men behave, she imbues it with an eccentricity that gives the two of them something to counter each other with throughout the night. Even the quieter moments capture an emotional intensity, such as the two sharing a listening booth in a record shop. No words are spoken as they dodge each other’s eyes, taking in every moment between them as Kath Bloom sings “No, I’m not impossible to touch/I have never wanted you so much.”

Decades later, and Before Sunrise remains one of Richard Linklater’s crowning achievements. Combined with the later films in the series (Before Sunset and Before Midnight were released in 2004 and 2013, respectively), Jesse and Celine have endured for so long because like love, the films have been a collaborative process between Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy. However, regardless of what happened in those other films, Before Sunrise was the first, and it was — much like its successors and Jesse and Celine’s night together — thought to be the last time audiences would see the two together. Its beauty is in the fact that it never feels like there’s a definitive endpoint in their time together; even the ending leaves a possible reunion up in the air. 

It’s also powerful because Before Sunrise channels empathy in all of its encounters. Even beyond Jesse and Celine trying to understand one another and navigate the feelings they have for each other, they also encounter a cast of characters that force them to confront behavior, ideals, and the root of their motivations. The best example is a fortune teller who tells Celine her fortune. Smitten with the reading she’s received, Jesse immediately starts tearing down the fortune teller’s profession, calling it all a scam. His cynicism towards life itself begins rearing its head, but Celine disregards him and states she loves what the fortune teller said. A later encounter with a street poet has Celine staring at Jesse as he holds back his desire to call it a hustle, until she asks what’s going on and he begins tearing down the street poet’s gimmick, only to stop himself midway through a rant when Celine asks him to explain his disdain further — instead exclaiming that he loves it.

Before Sunrise

In any other pairing of people, Jesse’s constant focus on capitalism as the motivation behind all good things in life would probably turn most women away. Celine comes at the relationship from the perspective that good things come out of conflict; she says as much while the street poet is conjuring up a poem about the two lovers. Jesse worries that they’ve already had their first fight, and Celine comforts him with the acknowledgement that just because they had an argument doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. In fact, that good thing that came out of the argument was a strengthening of their relationship, and understanding of each other. Before Sunrise is a movie all about those moments of interaction where we try to understand one another. However, it’s also a deeply moving study of two specific characters put on a path based on one huge decision they made. The rest of their time is shaped by much smaller moments.

Before Sunrise will always be that one night in Vienna where two people took a chance and shared a profound moment that may or may not have changed the course of their lives. It was an intimate moment that we shared with Jesse and Celine, watching two people connect and open up with each other until they realized they had so much more they wanted to share with the other, and so little time to do it. Linklater’s film is a masterpiece in romantic storytelling because it understands that romance is not necessarily dependent on grand gestures or constant confessions of love and compassion — it’s the understanding that even talking about something completely unrelated is rooted in wanting to tell that person that specific thing. As Celine puts it, there’s magic in the attempt to understand sharing something with someone — a universal message that still feels just as powerful today.

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‘The Gentlemen’ is Familiar, Grungy Territory for Guy Ritchie

The director of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ returns to his roots to craft a flashy, intricate web of crime, held back by old-fashioned sensibilities.

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The Gentlemen

Suave and grungy, Guy Ritchie’s popularity rose very quickly with the one-two punch of his seedy, gangster films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Since then, he did a couple more gangster films, but after 2008’s RocknRolla, everything audiences have seen from the director may have been a Guy Ritchie film in style and execution, but not in setting or plot. Twelve years later, and the director has come back to the British gangster movie with The Gentlemen. While not wholly successful in its execution, there’s an undeniable charm to the return to form that’s aided by a strong ensemble and razor-sharp dialogue.

Most painful to endure in The Gentlemen is how its story is framed, which is through the eyes of a sleazy, racist private investigator named Fletcher (played devilishly by Hugh Grant, who comes the closest he’s come to his Phoenix Buchanan character in Paddington 2). Arriving at Raymond’s (Charlie Hunnam) house unannounced, he attempts to hustle him out of 20 million pounds by recounting a story that implicates Raymond in a very intricately wound net of corruption and criminal activity. At the heart of it is a strife between Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) and Dry Eye (Henry Golding), as Mickey attempts to get out of the marijuana business by selling his company to Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong), a businessman who is ready to buy the company and let Mickey take an early retirement. Nothing goes as planned, of course, and Fletcher plans to unravel the entire criminal enterprise by providing his intel to the Daily Print tabloid, which is helmed by Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), assuming Raymond doesn’t pay to keep Fletcher silent.

The Gentlemen

Complicated at first, Ritchie has always done a decent job simplifying the complex narrative with a single narrator explaining things along the way. The Gentlemen is not complicated, though it is intricately woven. The mistake Ritchie makes is putting the entire story in the hands of a racist who makes other characters in the story spew racist remarks as he takes liberties with the story he’s telling Raymond (and the audience). It’s the kind of character who, put to the background of a movie like this, would be a reminder that Ritchie still has difficulty writing his characters without being a major blemish on the film. Instead, Fletcher serves as the audience’s only frame-of-reference for the majority of the story, as Raymond nods and allows him to continue his ramblings unless they become a bit too sensationalist. Other characters end up seeming racist because the story is told from Fletcher’s perspective, making it almost unbearable to get through The Gentlemen’s extensive, dialogue-heavy scenes.

There are a lot of other facets of identity that Ritchie confronts in his screenplay, whether it’s Fletcher’s constant advances on Raymond (the sexual innuendo never ends), Matthew’s effeminate gangster, or the way people make fun of others’ ethnic names. The problem is that almost none of these remarks are new for him, and almost all are handled with the gracefulness of a bull in a china shop. It’s hard not to come out wondering if Ritchie is aware he’s being offensive, but he often struggles to show any self-awareness. When his characters do acknowledge problematic things people say, it’s a punch-line that makes light of actual concerning dialogue.

The Gentlemen

Yet, despite the racism and homophobia, The Gentlemen is a slick gangster movie that has plenty of laughs and wit. All of it is brought to life by the stellar cast that revel in the opportunity to bring Ritchie’s trademark dialogue to the screen. Colin Farrell in particular comes in with some of the best comedic timing in recent memory. Grant, despite his dialogue being often infuriating, dives head-first into the material and comes out of it appropriately sleazy. His character’s obsession with film — including a reference to Coppola’s The Conversation that feels fitting given the dialogue-heavy screenplay — goes even further than one would have expected with the film. It even opens with a screenplay written by Fletcher that he is overly excited to share. McConaughey plays it cool, calm, and very McConaughey as his character tries to keep everything under control. The same can be said about Hunnam’s performance, though he gets a little more screen time and a lot more opportunities to be the witty protagonist. Other notable actors include a baffling Jeremy Strong, whose performance feels so out of place, an eccentric and wild Eddie Marsan and Henry Golding, and Michelle Dockery acting like the coolest person in the boy’s club.

Bolstered by trademark smash cuts, doodling on the screen, and other flashy editing techniques, The Gentlemen goes down like a nice scotch — a little burn, but familiar and smooth. Seeing this cast work together in one of Guy Ritchie’s well-concocted webs of crime is a delight. It ultimately falls into place nicely with Ritchie’s prior films. Even the ending hearkens back to 2000’s Snatch with the way everything comes together in the messiest fashion possible. The line between dumb luck and carefully-executed plan is so finely walked that, like with his other films, it feels justifiably placed among characters that are often blindsided. It’s just a shame that The Gentlemen feels more like a time capsule than a fresh, innovative film.

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Sundance Film Festival

Sundance 2020: ‘Vitalina Varela’ Is a Love Letter to Faces

Pedro Costa’s fascinating metafictional work tells one woman’s story of loss and abandonment, but her face is the true star.

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Vitalina Varela

I become an obsessive note scribbler when I review a film. I try to write down everything that pops into my head, whether it’s a profound insight or, more commonly, a banal observation. At the end of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, I had written only two words: “Her face!” (with double underlines). Costa’s slow yet engrossing metafictional work is filled with sumptuous textures and overwhelming emotions, but the film’s star, Vitalina Varela, is its most fascinating component. She has a face that cries out to be painted, one that makes her emotions seem almost Olympian, and Costa is perhaps the only filmmaker who could do her justice.

The Portuguese filmmaker has almost exclusively relied on non-professional actors over the past decade-and-a-half, and Vitalina Varela is no different. His lead actress previously appeared in a small role in 2014’s Horse Money after he discovered her while scouting locations. After hearing or story of loss and abandonment, Costa created a film based around her experiences. Vitalina Varela features his signature style and expressionistic visuals, but it might as well be a documentary for how closely it follows the contours of her life. The real-life Vitalina was a Cape Verdean native whose husband left over 25 years before the events of the film for Portugal in hopes of making a better life for them. But their life back home calls that motive into question. The two built a stunning 10-bedroom home for themselves back home, which was a luxury compared to the decrepit shack that he lived in in the shantytown Fontainhas, just outside of Lisbon. Vitalina was meant to join him, but the money for a plane ticket never materialized for over 25 years, and when she finally makes the journey to Portugal it’s three days after he has died under mysterious circumstances, and she’s too late to even make the funeral. As she talks to her husband’s neighbors she learns unsavory details about his life abroad, yet she’s determined to stay in this new country.

Vitalina Varela

Costa film’s Vitalina’s acclimation to Fontainhas in achingly slow scenes which will test the patience of many viewers. But those who get on his wavelength (and have a coffee beforehand) will be absorbed in his painterly compositions. He and his cinematographer Leonardo Simões photograph the slum interiors (none of which seem to have electrical lighting) in bursts of faux sunlight and moonlight almost exclusively, giving the events a ghostly character. It’s only in the last few scenes that we see Vitalina outside in the daylight, and the camera is allowed to expand beyond the claustrophobic confines of her building. The stunning lighting also directs our attention squarely on her face, which shimmers with loss and regret. Like Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), she has a face that conveys everything we would ever need to know of her story. Luckily, Costa understands that and lets it do the talking.

The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 23 – Feb. 2, 2020. Visit the official website for more information.

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