Why "Clemency" is Better Than "Just Mercy".

There’s a certain gestalt that seems to create similar stories that resonate with people at the same time. When it comes to movies, that can lead to two movies featuring volcanoes (Dante’s Peak, Volcano) released in the same month or an actor being asked to audition for very similar roles in two projects. This week saw the release of Just Mercy, an adaption of civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir about Alabama’s Death Row. This comes on the heels (no-nonsense working woman heels) of the release of Clemency starring the talented Alfre Woodard as the warden of a prison that must oversee death row executions.

You’ll notice that both posters feature the leads; Michael B Jordan for Just Mercy and Alfre Woodard for Clemency. Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) is more of an ensemble piece. Though Michael B Jordan turns in a nuanced performance as the young lawyer facing old boy racism, the film’s heart is Jamie Foxx’s riveting embodiment of Johnny D, a man beaten down by living under that unrelenting racism. The film spends time with some of his death row inmates, in the court room, with the extended family of Johnny D, and the office where Equal Justice Initiative is being ably run by Brie Larson’s no-nonsense passionate Operations Director. Just Mercy opens up to view the surrounding prejudiced world.

Of the 100 top films of 2018, only four starred or co-starred older women of color, according to the U.S.C. study. In 2019, Woodard had two such roles. Clemency is a more interior, locked down affair. Alfre Woodard’s buttoned-down Warden Bernadine Williams is respected and runs a tight ship. She’s in charge and her emotions are tightly controlled. The film focuses on interior shots of the prison and her home, with a few trips to a local watering hole where she tries to drink away her stress. As a lethal injection goes horribly wrong, we witness Bernadine’s composure slipping. Her marriage is suffering, she’s not sleeping and as her control over her life and job falters…then her supportive husband (Wendell Pierce) leaves her. The executions are shaking her convictions and the stress is destroying her life.

Two films that have executions and death row inmates–inmates that are predominantly black and often, unfairly imprisoned. The biggest difference is the method of execution: electric chair and lethal injection. Just Mercy is set in the early 80’s and looks at the cruel injustice of the justice system in Alabama. Michael B Jordan portrays Stevenson as a noble, caring young man on a crusade. Sadly, the heavy-handed musical score and polished speeches lend the film a preaching-to-the-choir feel. The film is saved by Foxx’s strong performance and that of his fellow inmate, Morgan (Herbert Richardson). The remorse, terror and misery that Morgan battles is heroic and witnessing his execution brings Jordan’s character a horrible wake-up call. Watching the film made me want to read the book and learn more about Stevenson and his human rights organization.

Clemency is restrained, much like the Warden. Bernadine’s quiet desperation is all the more powerful for Woodard’s expressive eyes; it’s a masterful performance. Written and directed by Chinonye Chukwu–she won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance for this directorial debut. Quiet, assured and powerful, Clemency is a film that can be watched multiple times for the performances and a message that might change hearts and minds. Both films condemn the death penalty and deserve to be widely-seen.

Drinks With Films Rating Clemency: 4 shots of whiskey to drink away the pain (out of 5) Just Mercy: 3 tall glasses of sweet tea (out of 5)

Over the River and Through the Woods…Is It Worth the Trip?

Would you make the drive to Montrose (an hour and 15 min on mountain roads) on Christmas Day to see a movie? What if you didn’t have a way to pre-purchase tickets and you knew there was a good chance your film was going to sell out? What if there was snow in the forecast? If you’re crazy about the movies like I am…the answer is YES!

Arriving 30 minutes prior to show time, the line snakes out the door at the San Juan movie theater. There are two small theaters in Montrose, Colorado. The Fox Cinema has three screens and was playing Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell, and Spies in Disguise (an animated film voiced by Will Smith & Tom Holland). The San Juan Cinema was screening Jumanji: The Next Level and Little Women. As I approached the 20-deep line full of families and older couples, I heard a Mom say, “I can’t believe it’s sold out! And so is Star Wars!” My heart sank. Was it MY screening that was Sold Out? No, it was Jumanji. Turns out, if you only have two screening times on Christmas, both in the evening, there’s a good chance that you’re going to disappoint some people.

Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Eliza Scanlen as the March sisters

On the plus side, even some of the families with kids decided to forgo Jumanji to see Little Women. Good choice. Skip the sequel and see the film that may very well become the new Classic. THIS Little Women will now be the definitive version of the Louisa May Alcott novel. Director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), referred back to an older version of the novel to create the two plot streams following the sisters from adults back to their impoverished but loving upbringing as young girls. Shooting the childhood scenes in golden tones with the talented young actresses in long tresses and colorful dresses, then cooler tones and more muted costume choices for the young women helps the audience navigate the time shifts. Already a feminist manifesto, subtle changes to the dialogue have allowed Greta Gerwig to align the film to reflect what Alcott could not change in her time. As Jo March (the luminous Saoirse Ronan) is told by her editor (played by Tracy Letts), “if you write anything with a young woman, have her married by the end…or dead” and “If insist on ending your delightful novel with a spinster, it will never sell”. There wasn’t an audience for entertainment that featured single successful women.

Little Women begs for multiple viewings. I love this discussion of one scene, “Notes on a Scene” by Vanity Fair. The scenes are staged with overlapping dialogue as the girls act like typical siblings. They roll about on the floor, squabble and act like tomboys; racing around each other with the camera following to capture every poignant moment. The casting is brilliant. Laura Dern as Marmee, the mother of this brood of very different young ladies, is warm and wise but the camera follows her to show her sadness and anger that she hides from her girls. Meryl Streep is the perfect fussy older Aunt, lording her influence over the family but also trying in her way to bring financial stability to a family of women who keep falling in love with impoverished men.

The casting of Timothee Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan as Laurie and Jo is perfect as they already have such a comfort level with each other from their previous film (Lady Bird) and they’re both well-suited to their roles. All the Marsh women are well-cast. It’s great to see Emma Watson as the sister who marries for love. She gives Meg’s journey from giddy debutante to mother and wife an honesty and believability. Florence Pugh as the spoiled outspoken Amy is a standout as she realizes that her beauty is her only true talent but knows she must utilize it to land a wealthy husband. I hope this film introduces her to audiences who don’t know her other outstanding work (Midsommar, Lady Macbeth). It was also wonderful to see Chris Cooper in a wonderful role as Mr Laurence.

I’m not the only one swooning over this film. NYTimes’ AO Scott gave it a rave review and there’s a great critical look at Gerwig’s adaption that I love by Alissa Wilkinson of Vox. One of my favorite exchanges in the film is between Amy (Pugh) and Jo (Ronan) and reflects a continuing struggle today to get men to value stories that feature women. Jo is trivializing her little stories of “domestic struggles and triumphs” saying that writing about it doesn’t elevate it.

“Writing doesn’t confer importance,” Jo says. “It reflects it.”

But Amy disagrees. “Writing things,” she says, “is what makes them important.”

I would say that is the same with regards to filming that story. So bring your whole family, and especially the men folk. This is not just a story of domestic struggles. This is a great family film about finding and trusting your voice…and telling your story.

Drinks With Films rating: 5 glasses of Civil War Era wine (out of 5)

Christmas Nostalgia

An oldie but a goodie to share this time of year!
Happy Holidays!
Warmly, Jill

Drinks with films

The Misfit Toys from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Some people get in the holiday spirit by decorating a tree, polishing the menorah or baking something from an old family recipe…I pull out the movies!

For me, nothing says Christmas like the old stop-motion animated cartoons from the early 70’s. TheLittle Drummer Boy (1968), The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) come to mind.Even though I couldn’t remember the title of one of my favorite cartoons from childhood, I could hum the theme “Put One Foot In Front of the Other” — finally I had to go search the interwebs. The film is Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town.

There’s a charm and simplicity to theseRankin/Bass Productions. They’re endearing. There are catchy songs, And they feature a hero’s journey….sometimes all the way to the Island of Misfit Toys! All of them are…

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When One Door Closes…Pull Up A Couch — how streaming saved my sanity

Still from the beautifully animated Klaus

The only movie theater in Telluride is under construction. So am I.

When I decided to have bilateral knee surgery (total joint replacement of both knees), there wasn’t much choice for timing. I HAD to get it done as I’d put if off for 5 years and they were reminding me with constant pain. So when one job ended and I didn’t have another lined up, I checked myself in for surgery. Two weeks later, I’m happy to report that it’s actually easier and less painful to stand than it was prior to surgery! I’m doing my recuperating in the tiny mountain town of Norwood, Colorado. Sadly, that’s an hour and 15 minutes from the nearest movie theater. How frustrating is it to not be able to drive…but to know that even if I could, going to a movie is a long, sometimes-harrowing trip on mountain roads.

I’m doing my PT and hoping to be able to drive sometime this month but it’s a shame that this is happening during prime Oscar-contender film releases. I’m not blessed to have access to screeners from The Academy. I was never a tv girl. My limited experience has been binge-watching a series with friends. Now streaming is saving my sanity. With the advent of two new screening services, Disney+ and Apple TV+, and some Oscar-contender films screening on Netflix (The Irishman and Marriage Story for instance), I can watch some of the movies safe on my couch.

One such film that received a very limited theatrical release, Klaus, is a gorgeous Spanish film and the first original animated feature for Netflix. Written and directed by Sergio Pablos, the style of animation nods toward hand-drawn animation from the early days of Disney; the forest is reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty crossed with a Charlie Harper drawing. With gorgeous animation and a comic heart-warming story, the only misstep was casting Jason Schwartzman as the voice of the petulant postman. A small quibble and a personal one at that, I don’t enjoy a whiny voice. Joan Cusack as one of the head baddies is spot on. I believe this movie has a good chance to be a family’s Go-To Christmas movie; an instant Classic.

Drinks With Films Rating: 4 hot cocoas graced with peppermint candy canes (out of 5)

There have been so many wonderful films directed by women this year. Once such film, Atlantics (Atlantique) is written and directed by Mati Diop and is also streaming on Netflix. I noticed a very different twist in the way it’s marketed on Netflix as it was at film festivals. The programs at festivals featured the romantic image of the lead couple embracing and noted the supernatural element but also played up the immigrant angle. The more spooky image is used on Netflix; supernatural is the lure. Whichever subtext appeals to you, this is one unusual film. Diop wanted her Senegalese film to focus not on the construction workers who go to sea to seek a better life but on the women left behind. It’s moody, dramatic and a triumph of a first film. Atlantics won the Grand Jury prize at the Cannes Festival and the lead actress, Mame Bineta Sane, as our lovelorn Ada, is luminous.

Drinks With Films rating: 3 1/2 tropical cocktails at a seaside bar (out of 5)

This week, whether you’re headed to the movies…or headed to your couch, there’s a lot of wonderful movies to choose from. Happy screening!