Movie Review: Just Mercy (2019)

Title: Just Mercy
Release Date: December 25, 2019
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Production Company: Endeavor Content | One Community | Participant Media
Macro Media | Gil Netter Productions | Outlier Society

This movie flew under radar when it was released last Christmas, but it was available for free on streaming networks in June, so I thought I’d check it out.  The movie is based on the true story of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and adapted from his book of the same name.  Stevenson is a Harvard-trained lawyer and as an idealistic young man we see him move to Alabama to begin the Equal Justice Initiative. With the support of local activist Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) he works to represent poor prisoners, including death row inmates, get proper legal representation.

The main plot of the movie relates to the case of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of white teenage girl  in Monroeville (a town the is shown to be proud of  its connection with Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird). Stevenson sees that Johnny D. was convicted primarily on the testimony of another prisoner, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who received a lighter sentence in exchange, and that witnesses who saw Johnny D at the time of the crime (including a cop) were not called at all.

I expect it is no spoiler to note that Stevenson will get Johnny D.’s conviction overturned, but the procedures and indiginities he has to go through still create a lot of tension. The early 1990s were a time when “tough on crime” was at its post-Jim Crow era peak, so its amazing that Stevenson is able to succeed (compare this movie with When They See Us, the story of the Central Park Five case happening around the same time). There is also a subplot involving another death row inmate, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran whose mental health was shattered by PTSD and is convicted for planting a bomb that unintentionally kills someone. Some of the most harrowing scenes in the film relate to Richardson’s case.

The movie falls back on some of the cliches of civil rights themed biopics, but it does stand a notch above them.  Jordan and Foxx are absolutely spectacular in acting their roles, and they are a joy to watch.  The movie also foregrounds the Black characters, so it avoids Hollywood’s predilection for “white savior” narratives.  If you haven’t seen this movie, check it out while it’s still free (although it would also be worth paying for).

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Reviews: Mr. Holmes (2015)

Title: Mr. Holmes
Release Date: 19 June 2015
Director: Bill Condon
Production Company: AI Film | BBC Films | FilmNation Entertainment | Archer Gray Productions | See-Saw Films

This film is an adaptation of A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin that  stars Ian McKellen as a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes.  Having retired to a farm decades earlier where he tends to an apiary.  Holmes struggles with losing his brilliant mind to the onset of memory loss due to senile dementia. His only daily contact with other humans is his widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker).

The movie intertwines three stories.  Holmes is working on rewriting an accurate account of his last case, one he considers a failure, and is shown in flashbacks.  Struggling to remember the details, Holmes had recently traveled to Japan, and more flashbacks show him meeting his correspondent, Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), and visiting the ruins of Hiroshima.  There they retrieve prickly ash, a plant that is supposed to have medicinal properties for restoring the mind.  The main plot depicts Holmes bonding with Roger, an intelligent and curious boy, while training him how to care for the bees.

The movie is a good adaptation of the book.  It’s gorgeous film and McKellen is perfect at the elderly Holmes.  I don’t know if he watched Jeremy Brett’s performance as Holmes, but there are times where he seems to be channeling Brett’s physical tics.  The movie is also a moving depiction of Holmes struggling with the most difficult thing to lose, his mind, and the emotional breakthrough he makes with Roger and Mrs. Munro.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Meet John Doe (1941)

Title: Meet John Doe
Release Date: May 3, 1941
Director: Frank Capra
Production Company: Frank Capra Productions

Columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is laid off from her job but submits one last column in the form of a fake letter from John Doe, who rails against the ills of society and threatens to commit public suicide on Christmas Eve.  The column causes a sensation, and Ann is rehired to write more John Doe columns.  A homeless former bush league pitcher, Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) is recruited to play “John Doe.”

Traveling the country delivering Ann’s speeches, John inspires a John Doe movement where people form clubs and get to know and help out their neighbors.  Millionaire newspaper publisher D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold) funds the John Doe movement with the ulterior motive of using John to convert the third-party Presidential campaign.  Norton believes the country needs an authoritarian leader, and when John attempts to expose the plot at a rally, Norton orders the police to go into the crowd and incite a riot against John Doe. (Watching this movie during the same week when peaceful protests across the country were targeted by police violence, made this scene feel on point).

The movie is typical of Frank Capra common-man stories, although it feels a bit uneven compared to his more famous works.  Stanwyck and Cooper are great in their roles although the romance between them is never developed all too well.  The movie falls apart in the final scene where the melodrama is laid on thick, and Stanwyck rushes through dialogue as if she knew it was cheezy and out-of-character, especially the awkward reference to Jesus Christ.  I read that several endings were filmed for this movie, but I don’t think that they picked the right one.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Antonia’s Line (1995)

Title: Antonia’s Line
Release Date: 21 September 1995
Director: Marleen Gorris
Production Company: Bergen | Prime Time | Bard Entertainments | Nederlandse Programma Stichting (NPS)

I’m pretty sure that I’ve never watched a Dutch movie before.  This one is described as a “feminist fairy tale” about several generations of women creating an intentional community of the castoffs and misfits of society in a Dutch farming village.  Recently widowed Antonia (Willeke van Ammelrooy) returns to her childhood home with her nearly adult daughter Danielle (Els Dottermans) just after the liberation of the Netherlands by the Allies.

Establishing a farm, Antonia refuses to marry widower Farmer Bas (Jan Decleir), but agrees to have a relationship with him.  Meanwhile, Danielle decides she wants to have a baby but no husband, and they visit a city to find a man to impregenate her.  Danielle’s daughter Thérèse (portrayed at various ages by Carolien Spoor, Esther Vriesendorp, and Veerle van Overloop) is a child prodigy in mathematics and composing music who forms a special bond with Crooked Finger (Mil Seghers), the community’s resident nihilistic philosopher. Thérèse’s daughter, Sarah (Thyrza Ravesteijn), narrates the story of four generations of women in her family.

The movie has the feel of many indie movies from the 90s with a mix of comedy and drama and eccentric characters, punctuated by moments of brutality – including rape, murder, and suicide.  The film covers five decades but you have to look at subtle changes in the background to try to pinpoint what year it may be.  The movie pairs well with Like Water for Chocolate in that it focuses on the community of women over an extended period of time, although I feel there’s another movie that is even more similar that I can’t put my finger on it.

Antonia’s world is one where women are liberated, people can pursue their dreams, and all types are welcome.  It’s not perfect, and things do go very wrong, but overall it looks like a good place.  I’m glad I was able to visit it in this lovingly-made film.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Fourteen (2020)

Release Date: May 15, 2020
Director: Dan Sallitt
Production Company: Static Productions

I watched Fourteen through a virtual screening for the Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge, MA. The movie focuses on two women in their twenties who have been friends since junior high school and retain that friendship as they set out on their individual life paths in Brooklyn.  Mara (Tallie Medel) is a  quietly competent and driven type working as a teacher’s assistant, studying for a graduate degree, and writing a novel in her spare time.  Jo (Norma Kuhling) appears more relaxed, has an acerbic wit, and works as social worker.  It becomes clear early on that Mara is a caretaker, doing things like making sure that Jo isn’t chronically late for work, while Jo makes Mara push her own boundaries.

The movie is impressionist in style, showing short scenes of the two women alone and together over a decade or so.  They cycle through boyfriends, jobs, and apartments with some cathartic moments thrown into the mundanity of everyday life.  Over time, the two women grow apart albeit with no great precipitating event although the challenges to their relationship are evident from the start.  Jo also begins a downward spiral into depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

Fourteen is a very honest and realistic depiction of life and relationships done with excellent writing, direction, editing, and acting.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Title: The Shawshank Redemption
Release Date: September 23, 1994
Director: Frank Darabont
Production Company: Castle Rock entertainment

I’m scratching off another movie from my I’ve Never Watched It List. Based on a Stephen King story, The Shawshank Repemption is the story of two men held in a Maine prison and their friendship that develops over decades.  Morgan Freeman plays Red, a long-time prisoner who is the go-to man for smuggling in contraband for the other prisoners.  Much of the movie is from Red’s point of view with Freeman providing voice-over narration that proves an exception to the rule that voice-overs are bad for movies.

Tim Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, a banker who begins serving a life sentence in 1947 for the murder of his wife and her lover.  Andy prove unexpectedly resilient and is able to gain favor by providing tax and accounting services to the guards and the prisons cruel warden (Bob Gunton). Andy use his advantages to help the other prisoners feel more free and alive by doing things like getting cold beers for men working on tarring a roof and advocating for a full prison library and GED courses.

The movie is beautifully filmed, well-acted with some terrific dialogue, and contains a lot of surprises of what Andy is working on behind the scenes.  I won’t spoil them here if you’re even more behind the times in watching this movie than I am.  The Shawshank Redemption balances the horrific brutality of prison life with the good humor of the camaderie among men. But most of all it is a terrific story of friendship – a love story, really – between Andy and Red.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Creed (2015) BONUS #AtoZChallenge

To complement my review of Rocky, I decided to watch and review the movie Creed for the first time.  I’ve been meaning to watch Creed since it first came out and got good reviews, but somehow five years have passed by.  So no time like the presence.

Title: Creed
Release Date: November 25, 2015
Director: Ryan Coogler
Production Company: New Line Cinema | Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer | Chartoff-Winkler Productions

In the movie prologue, we meet Adonis “Donnie” Johnson (Alex Henderson), a preteen in juvenile detention who tends to get into fights.  Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad), the widow of champion boxer Apollo Creed, visits Donnie, informing that Apollo fathered Donnie in an affair shortly before his death.  Mary Anne adopts Donnie, and we flash forward to 2015 where we see Donnie (Michael B. Jordan) is racking up wins and pesos fighting in clubs in Tijuana.  He quits his office job in Los Angeles and tries to get the trainers at Apollo’s old boxing company, but no one is willing to take him on (shades of Mickey in Rocky).

To Mary Anne’s disappointment, Donnie decides to pursue his professional boxing dreams by moving to Philadelphia.  There he begins training at Mickey’s old gym and starts dating his downstairs neighbor, Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a musician with a progressive hearing disorder.  He approaches Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), revealing that Apollo was his father, and asking that Rocky become his trainer .  Rocky is reluctant to return to training, but Donnie is persistent and Rocky begins showing Donnie the ropes.

Another boxer at Mickey’s old gym,an undefeated light heavyweight fighter named Leo “The Lion” Sporino (Gabriel Rosado) agrees to a bout with Donnie. In a surprising upset (in-movie, not too surprising to movie viewers), Donnie knocks out Sporino. In revenge, Sporino’s team leaks to the news that Donnie is Apollo’s child.

The world light heavyweight champion, “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Anthony Bellew) of Liverpool, is looking for one more bout before he begins a prison sentence on gun possession charges.  His manager agrees to allow Donnie to challenge Conlan for the light heavyweight title if he is willing to change his name to Creed, knowing that the attention that would bring to the bout will make for a huge payday.  At the same time, Rocky is diagnosed with cancer.

And so the stage is set, Donnie must prepare to fight for the title while Rocky fights for his life.  Where will their journey lead them?  The plot points in Creed are pretty similar to those of Rocky and it’s full of cliches and full-on corniness. Nevertheless it works because of Jordan and Stallone’s performances.  Their relationship develops naturally and believably and there’s just an undeniable sweetness to it. The movie also feels more authentic in depicting African-American experience than any Rocky movie, no doubt due to the direction and writing of Ryan Coogler.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Rocky (1976) #atozchallenge

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Rocky
Release Date: John G. Avildsen
Director: John G. Avildsen
Production Company: Chartoff-Winkler Productions

Just before Thanksgiving, down-on-his-luck boxer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) wins a local boxing match in Philadelphia.  Nevertheless, the manager of his boxing gym, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), has all of Rocky’s gear removed from his locker at the gym.  To make ends meet, Rocky works as an enforcer for a local loan shark, although he tends to be too soft on those late on their debts.  Mickey disapproves of Rocky’s life choices and wasted potential and suggests he should retire.

At this time, Rocky pursues a romance with a shy pet store clerk, Adrian (Talia Shire).  Rocky’s frenemy Paulie (Burt Young) is Adrian’s brother and invites Rocky to Thanksgiving dinner although he is shockingly dismissive of his sister.  World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) plans to kick off the bicentennial year with a title fight in Philadelphia, but his challenger has to back out with an injury and no other ranked boxers are able to accept the challenge.  Creed decides to make the fight a novelty by selecting a local Philadelphia boxer to get the opportunity to participate in a title fight. Creed selects Rocky because his nickname “The Italian Stallion” ties in with the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus.

Internally reluctant, Rocky decides to take up the challenge. Mickey offers to be Rocky’s manager, and after an argument over their past disagreements, Rocky takes Mickey up on the offer.  The news media are intrigued by Rocky’s unique training methods, which include punching sides of beef at Paulie’s meatpacking business and running up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Knowing he cannot beat Creed, Rocky hopes to be the first boxer to “go the distance” by fighting all 15 rounds with getting knocked out.  Defying the odds, Rocky does just that in the brutal title bout that concludes the film.  Both Rocky and Apollo immediately state that they don’t want a rematch, so there won’t be any sequels or anything like that.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

A lot like Jaws, I saw the sequels (particularly Rocky III) before I saw the original.  And much like the Jaws sequels, the Rocky sequels tend to miss the point of what made the original great.  Instead of being movies about sharks and boxing, Jaws and Rocky are rich human stories about deeply-flawed people who nevertheless step up to a challenge.

My dad always liked the Rocky movies so they make me think of him and how I drove him nuts when we visited Philadelphia and I ran up every set of steps we came across.  My father died when I was 17 and the night after his funeral I didn’t know what to do so I flipped on the tv just as Rocky was starting.  That seemed like to much of a cosmic coincidence so I left it on and watched it all the way through for the first time in my life.  I was really impressed by how much deeper a story it was than the sequels I’d watched when I was younger.

What Did I Remember?:

The basic plotline was in my head but not the details.

What Did I Forget?:

I’d forgotten that Rocky and Mickey were actually in an antagonistic relationship when the story began and that they argued before Rocky agreed to let Mickey be his manager.  I’d also completely forgotten that Apollo enters the arena dressed as George Washington while throwing coins to the spectators.  In retrospect, it’s kind of ironic that a Black man in the 1970s is depicted as the super patriotic character (consider that the real life World Heavyweight Boxing Champion at the time this movie is set was Muhammad Ali, who was highly critical of the US government and Americanism).

What Makes This Movie Great?:

As noted above, this is a well-written, well-acted human drama (Stallone, Meredith, and Weathers stand out in the cast).  It’s less a sports movie and more a movie about how an ordinary person deals with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  And while the “Training Montage” has become a tired cliche in movies, Rocky did it first and best and you’d have to have a rock-hard heart to not find it a little inspiring.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

This movie depicts working class white people in the 1970s who don’t exactly have the most progressive views.  That being said, I don’t think that the movie ever endorses any racist or sexist behavior so much as give a realistic depiction of how people behave.  The one part of the movie I’ve always found creepy and weird is Paulie’s obsession with Adrian’s virginity.

Is It a Classic?:


Rating: ****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with R:

  1. Raiders of the Lost Ark  (1981)
  2. Real Genius (1985)
  3. The Right Stuff (1983)
  4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
  5. Roman Holiday (1953)

What is your favorite movie starting with R? What would you guess is my movie for S (Hint: The final line is “Nobody’s Perfect.”)? Let me know in the comments.


Movie Review: On Golden Pond (1981) #atozchallenge

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: On Golden Pond 
Release Date: December 4, 1981
Director: Mark Rydell
Production Company: ITC Entertainment | Associated Film Distribution

An elderly couple, Ethel (Katharine Hepburn) and Norman Thayer (Henry Fonda) return to their summer home in New Hampshire. The curmudgeonly Norman is disoriented by memory loss and frequently talks about his imminent death. Their estranged daughter, Chelsea (Jane Fonda) comes to visit with her new fiance Bill (Dabney Coleman) and his son Billy (Doug McKeon). They have some tense moments, but Ethel and Norman agree to let Billy stay with them while Chelsea and Bill visit Europe for a month.

Not surprisingly, 13-year-old Billy is not thrilled to be stuck with a pair of elderly strangers.  But over time Norman and Billy bond over fishing. They also suffer a boat crash while pursuing the giant trout Walter in a giant cove.  Chelsea returns and is initially resentful that Norman has bonded with Billy in a way he never did with her, but seeing a different side of her father also provides an opening for them to reconcile. The movie concludes with Norman having a heart scare as they pack up to leave.  Ethel recognizes their mortality for the first time and they express their love and devotion.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

This was one of those movies that was on tv a lot when I was a kid.  I remember it being treated as a “serious, grown-up” movie and being surprised when I watched it and found out how funny it is.

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered the basic outline of the movie, and major incidents like the boat crash, but for the most part I watched this movie afresh.

What Did I Forget?:

One of the biggest things I forgot is that Dabney Coleman is in this movie.  It’s kind of hilarious that I’m posting back-to-back movies starring Jane Fonda and Dabney Coleman. And this is a rare movie where Coleman is not playing “the man we love to hate” although his nice guy character has a jerky edge when he threatens to send Billy back to his mother.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, two of Hollywod’s 20th century greatest stars, act the hell out of this movie.  It’s amazing that not only had they never appeared in a movie together before On Golden Pond, but they never even met before they started filming.  It’s a rare Hollywood film that provides a nuanced depiction of elderly people as well as such an honest story about family struggles.  You get the sense that some real-life Fonda family drama is occurring in the scenes between Henry and Jane. Plus the scenery, filmed at Squam Lake in New Hampshire, is absolutely gorgeous!

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

For all the accolades On Golden Pond received in 1981, it doesn’t appear on greatest films lists.  I feared that its sentimentality would come across as cheezy, but I feel that I liked this movie even more than I did as a child.  The last time I watched this movie I was younger than Billy, and now I’m older than Chelsea, so there’s something to be said for the perspective of age.  I’ll have to watch it again when I’m Norman’s age.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes, a definite classic, and apparently something of a hidden gem.

Rating: *****

Five more all-time favorite movies starting with O:

  1. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
  2. Office Space (1999)
  3. On the Waterfront (1954)
  4. Orlando (1993)
  5. Outside Providence (1999)

What is your favorite movie starting with O?  What is your guess for my P movie (Hint: this movie was shot on a low-budget with a tv film crew)? Let me know in the comments!

Movie Review: Like Water for Chocolate (1992)

I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Like Water for Chocolate
Release Date: April 16, 1992
Director: Alfonso Arau
Production Company: Miramax

A friend of mine said that watching this movie made her “hungry and horny at the same time.” That’s a good summary of the magical realistic comedy-drama based on the novel by Laura Esquivel.

In the early 20th century, in northeastern Mexico, Tita (Lumi Cavazos) grows up with the knowledge that her family tradition expects her as the youngest daughter to never marry.  Instead, her strict Mama Elena (Regina Torné) expects Tita to care for her in her old age on their family ranch. Tita learns the art of cooking from the elderly family cook, Nacha (Ada Carrasco).

When Tita and a young man named Pedro (Marco Leonardi) form a mutual attraction, Mama Elena rejects his marriage proposal.  Instead he marries Tita’s eldest sister Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi) since it will allow him to be close to Tita.  Tita’s emotions are magically transferred into the meals she cooks leading to incidents such as everyone at Rosaura and Pedro’s wedding feeling the sadness of lost love and later when Pedro gives her roses and everyone feels arousal.

The movie takes place over several decades as Tita and Pedro need to hide their forbidden love and Tita stands up to her mother.  The movie is framed by Tita’s grand-niece in the present day narrating the story around the recipes in Tita’s cookbook.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I saw it at the local arthouse cinema around the time it came out.

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered three details clearly:

  • a naked woman running from a burning outhouse and jumping on a horse with a soldier.
  • a woman trailing a very long blanket behind a horse-drawn carriage.
  • the special ingredient in her cooking is love.

What Did I Forget?:

Pretty much everything else.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie strikes the right balance of magical, comical, and dramatic.  It explores a lot of issues through a whimsical story such as family, tradition, and gender.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Considering that this movie features a women-lead cast with men as side characters, depicts Mama Elena as a strong woman running a remote ranch on her own, and offers Tita as a more compassionate alternate version of strong womanhood, I’d say that it was ahead of its time in many ways.  It still feels very fresh to me event though the story took place over 100 years ago.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes, I think so.

Rating: ****

5 more all-time favorite movies starting with L:

  1. Laura (1944)
  2. Lifeboat (1944)
  3. The Little Mermaid (1989)
  4. Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100 (1999)
  5. Lost in La Mancha (2002)

What is your favorite movie starting with L?  Any guesses for my M movie (Hint: it features a great quest)? Let me know in the comments.