Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

Directed by acclaimed German filmmaker Wim Wenders best known for the award-winning 1984 film Paris, Texas, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word is a fascinating documentary that explores the central tenets of Pope Francis and his views on Catholic theology in the context of the ever-evolving modern world. Becoming the pope in 2013 after serving as the Archbishop in his hometown Buenos Aires, Argentina, Pope Francis arose as a remarkable choice for the Catholic Church as a result of being a Jesuit from South America and his unique decision to take the name Francis in honor of Saint Francis. A majority of the film is essentially a wide-ranging sermon given by Pope Francis to the audience through a series of interviews with the filmmaker who also acts as the narrator. The documentary also contains several dramatic reenactments of Saint Francis of Assisi who lived in 13th century Italy to illuminate why Pope Francis was the first pope to choose the name Francis and how Pope Francis’ theology derives from the humble and nature-focused Saint Francis. Interspersed with footage of his many visits to the people around the world, the interviews touch on the most pressing issues of his papacy, including economic inequality, the environment, global peace, and respect for all humanity no matter their religion. It is important to note that the movie is not a biographical documentary about his life but rather has the main purpose of promoting the positive messages of Pope Francis. Unlike almost any other pope in history, Pope Francis is massively popular to his followers and those of all faiths as a result of his progressive ideas on religion and philosophy in today’s chaotic world. Overall, I found it to be a deeply insightful documentary about one of the most powerful religious figures and powerfully illustrates Pope Francis’ radical departure from previous popes to provide a more inclusive and optimistic theology. Even if you are not Catholic or even a Christian, the viewer comes away with a greater appreciation of Pope Francis and his hopeful mission.

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Life of the Party

Written by Melissa McCarthy and her husband Ben Falcone who also directed 2014’s Tammy and 2016’s The Boss, Life of the Party is a good-natured average comedy that has moments of laughter but struggles to fully use the comedic talents of star Melissa McCarthy. In the same vein of Rodney Dangerfield’s classic 1986 comedy Back to School, the story involves a middle-aged mother named Deanna, played by Melissa McCarthy, who decides to finish college with her daughter after she learns her husband played by Veep’s Matt Walsh is leaving her for his mistress. She eagerly returns to her alma mater to finish her degree in archeology but is faced with her less-than-enthusiastic daughter Maddie who initially wants nothing to do with her mother going to the same fictional Decatur University. Deanna’s best friend and the movie’s funniest character Christine, played by Saturday Night Live alumnus Maya Rudolph, vocally encourages Deanna to take part in the wild aspects of college. Deanna who is nicknamed Dee-Rock quickly develops close friendships with her daughter’s sorority sisters, including the older Helen who is played by comedian Gillian Jacobs. She even enters into an intimate relationship with a fraternity classmate named Jack who we later learn has a rather surprising parent. The film is filled with the usual antics associated with college comedies with the major exception that it involves a group of women. Overall, I was rather disappointed with the movie that had such promise with such a charismatic and funny actress as Melissa McCarthy; it suffered from a mostly unoriginal script that tried too hard to be a silly comedy and at the same time a sweet film about a mother-daughter relationship.

Deadpool 2

The sequel to the widely successful 2016 original Deadpool and the eleventh installment in the X-Men movie franchise first released in 2000, Deadpool 2 is a very unconventional comic book superhero movie that is filled to the brim with self-referential and irreverent humor and is brought to life by the charismatic performance of Ryan Reynolds. Taking place several years after the first film, Deadpool whose real name is Wade Wilson, played by the hilarious Ryan Reynolds, suffers a personal tragedy at the beginning and is in a very low place. After an attempted suicide, his superhero friend Colossus helps to bring him back to life and takes him to the X-Men mansion to recover. Eventually, he confronts a time-traveling cybernetic solider named Cable, played by Oscar nominee Josh Brolin, who wants to kill the young mutant Firefist whose real name is Russell Collins, played by the terrific young actor Julian Dennison who is best known for his outstanding role in 2016’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Deadpool decides to protect the seemingly innocent Collins from Cable whose intentions are at first mysterious to the audience. In one of many references to X-Men, Deadpool forms the team X-Force in which several of the members suffer ridiculously bad luck, and he uses them to prevent a deadly clash between Collins and Cable. Although it sounds like a rather straightforward comic book story, the film takes a much less serious approach with Deadpool constantly making fun of X-Men and Marvel Comics in quite hilarious and silly ways and often breaking the fourth wall by directly addressing the audience. A majority of the humor is comprised of inside jokes in which the audience really needs to be somewhat familiar with superhero characters and the previous comic book movies. There are also even references to Barbra Streisand movies as well as other rather cheesy elements of pop culture. Finally, it is very much an R-rated experience as a result of the gratuitous amount of violence and gore and the overabundance of vulgar comedy. Overall, I found it be an extremely entertaining movie as good as the original because of its creative and zany antics and dazzling array of meta humor; however, it is definitely not for all tastes as a result of its lewdness.

RBG

Directed by documentarians Julie Cohen and Betsy West, RBG is an engrossing documentary with unprecedented access that chronicles the truly remarkable life of the 85-year-old Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Especially during today’s trying political climate, the soft-spoken Justice Ginsburg and her still acute legal mind that tends to fall on the liberal side has become a hero for those on the left. As a result of her powerful dissenting opinions championing progressive ideals, she has morphed into a pop culture icon who is even referred to as The Notorious RBG named after the popular rapper The Notorious BIG. The in-depth film does a terrific job of contextualizing Justice Ginsburg by presenting her legal life beginning with being one of only a few women at Harvard Law School, through her largely underappreciated role as an early legal figure for gender equality, and finally her career as a Supreme Court Justice known for her incisive judgments. Not many people know that she argued in front of the Supreme Court and won several cases in favor of women’s rights at the height of the women’s liberation movement. The filmmakers also delve into her personal life, especially her loving relationship with her now deceased husband Martin Ginsburg who always supported her even as he had his own legal career. Especially rare for the publicly reserved members of the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg is herself interviewed throughout the documentary as she gives a first-hand account of her life. She is further humanized as we even get to see her interact with her children and grandchildren. Although it is obviously biased in favor of Justice Ginsburg and her traditionally liberal views, the movie also depicts her as a revered non-partisan legal thinker who generally has the respect of her conservative counterparts. For instance, it touches on her friendly relationship with the recently deceased Justice Antonin Scalia despite their polar opposite views on most legal matters before the Court. Overall, I found it to be a well-crafted documentary that provides important insight into one of the most important political and legal figures of our time and should be viewed even if you do not support Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s clearly liberal positions.

Little Pink House

Based on a true story, Little Pink House is a compelling drama complete with terrific acting performances that tells the fascinating story of Susette Kelo and her legal fight over eminent domain in the early 2000s. Played by Oscar nominee Catherine Keener, Kelo is a working-class paramedic and later nurse who moves to her dream home along the river in a low-income area of New London, Connecticut. However, her home along with her neighbors’ are threatened after it is determined that the area will be redeveloped and be the location for a new factory for the large pharmaceutical company Pfizer. The neighborhood is suspicious of the New London Development Corporation headed by the ruthless fictional character Charlotte Wells, played by Emmy-nominated actress Jeanne Tripplehorn, who claims that it is in the best interest of the town to buy out all of their houses in order for the redevelopment to bring back jobs. We witness the other side through a series of meetings with Charlotte Wells and the governor of Connecticut who are maliciously working together in order to give the besieged governor a political victory. Alongside her longtime boyfriend, Kelo reluctantly becomes the face of the neighborhood fighting against the city who eventually claim they have the right to take their properties away as a result of eminent domain, which allows the government to take people’s property away as long as it is for public use. Over time, the movie becomes more of a legal drama in which Kelo representing the neighborhood goes through many court cases and eventually the Supreme Court who makes the ultimate decision in 2005. Overall, I found it to be a truly fascinating true story account of the implications of an often overlooked legal maneuver like eminent domain, and the only complaint with the film is that it can be sometimes a little too slow.

DIFF 2018: Day 8

After watching a total of 13 films, the 2018 version of the Dallas International Film Festival is officially over! It has been a a week-long blur of terrific narrative films and documentaries, and I definitely look forward to next year!

Dead Pigs is an intriguing Chinese foreign language narrative that explores the confluence of traditional China with the rapid modernization of the society by dividing the film into five different story lines revolve around distinct characters that eventually overlap. We follow a desperate traditional pig farmer, a stubborn middle-aged woman who refuses to sell her family house to a developer, an American expatriate trying to make means as an architect, a struggling busboy who falls in love, and a rich spoiled girl who is the subject of the busboy’s affection. All of the stories are intertwined because of a rather unusual crisis that actually took place around 2013 in which thousands of pigs mysteriously died and ended up in the rivers of Shanghai. Although sometimes only tangentially connected to the events in the movie, the dead pigs situation is a larger metaphor for the complex issues facing a rapidly modern China while also putting a dark comedic and satirical spin on the rather remarkable film.

Madeline’s Madeline is a very avant-garde narrative drama directed by cutting-edge filmmaker Josephine Decker who has become a film festival favorite as a result of her rather bizarre yet artistic films. At times hard to follow and completely understand, the movie involves a young up-and-coming actress, played by brilliant newcomer Helena Howard, in the contemporary theater world who suffers from a mental illness and confuses her unusual dramatic performances with her own reality. The highly respected theater director, played by Molly Parker known for her role in the TV series House of Cards, pushes the boundaries by forcing the obviously disturbed protagonist to reenact her neuroses in order to make for a brutally honest theatrical production. It often feels like the viewer is themselves descending into madness just like the main character. Madeline’s Madeline is definitely the most quintessential indie film festival movie as a result of its creatively edgy vision that may not appeal to a majority of casual moviegoers.

McQueen is a terrific and mesmerizing documentary about the British fashion designer Alexander McQueen who was one of the brightest stars in the fashion industry in recent memory. Through a wide range of interviews with family members, those who worked with him, and other highly respected fashion designers, the film provides a comprehensive study of the notoriously provocative McQueen who embodied the rags-to-riches stereotype as he moved from being a young designer living on welfare to rapidly rising in the ranks of the haute couture fashion world where he would found one of the most influential fashion labels in the world. The film also illuminates his troubled personal life in which he was truly a tortured genius, suffering most of his life from depression, anxiety, and eventually substance abuse, which all lead to his tragic suicide in 2010 at the age of forty. The beautifully crafted documentary does an excellent job of presenting the truly remarkable designs that most often had elements of the Gothic and macabre and McQueen’s game-changing runway spectacles that were more than just fashion shows. Even if you are familiar with his biography, the film is a must-see simply for the footage showing his truly extraordinary runway shows enticing even for those who are not into fashion.

DIFF 2018: Day 7

The Guilty is a riveting Danish narrative drama about a former Copenhagen police officer who is placed in the emergency services department answering emergency phone calls. The filmmaker makes the unusual step of having the entire movie take place in a police station in which the main protagonist is mostly talking on the phone. It is surprisingly gripping after he decides to investigate a particularly disturbing emergency call about a female that is kidnapped. He goes beyond his duties to make further inquiries and even enlists his former partner to figure out who the culprit is and how to rescue the hostage. In the end, there are several dramatic plot twists that make for an even more enjoyable movie-going experience.

The Blessing is a beautifully shot and emotionally powerful documentary about an older Native American man working as a coal miner on an Arizona Navajo reservation and his relationship with his high school daughter going through her own challenges. As a very spiritual Native American who believes nature is sacred, he grapples with the fact that his job is to essentially destroy the local deified mountain for its abundance of coal but argues that it is a necessary job in order to support his family on the economically deprived reservation. The movie also provides insight into the teenage daughter who goes against Native American culture and plays the masculine sport of football and is trying to figure out her sexuality, all activities that her traditional single father is unaware of throughout much of film. It is a meditative story about spirituality and the common Native American struggle with modernity sometimes being incompatible with worshipping the very beautiful nature which is effectively presented in the movie as a result of its beautiful cinematography.

Eighth Grade is a terrific independent narrative feature that tells a very honest and sometimes raw glimpse into the experiences of a middle school girl in contemporary America. Directed by former YouTube star Bo Burnham, the story follows Kayla, played by the phenomenal new young actress Elsie Fisher, as she is about to graduate eighth grade and shows quite vividly the awkwardness that kids go through at that age. The superb script explores her social anxiety the result of peer pressure and her desperate attempts to fit in with the popular crowd all the while coming to terms with her new found pubescent sexuality. There are several uncomfortable moments in which the audience relives some of the trials and tribulations experienced by most middle schoolers. I do not find it surprising at all that it was one of the highlights of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and it is one of the most memorable independent movies I have seen this year.