Thursday, February 6, 2020

Just Mercy

Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Tim Blake Nelson
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Running Time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Rating: PG-13

The first time I heard of Bryan Stevenson (I'm embarrassed to say) was just back in 2017, when he spoke as part of Guilford College's Bryan Series. He spoke about his book Just Mercy, and the work he's done to exonerate wrongly accused death row prisoners. I was moved by his speech and got my hands on a copy of the book. In more than one instance, the book brought me to tears. So when I heard they were making a film based on Just Mercy and Bryan's work, I was thrilled to hear it. Again, more than once, the film brought me (and several people in the audience) to tears, and left me very troubled with startling stats at the end (you can read some of them here). I'm stunned the film hasn't gotten more critical acclaim, especially during the current awards season. While it was long in parts, I thought it was fantastic and a film everyone should see.

We meet Bryan, played by the always delightful and delicious Michael B. Jordan, as he's pursuing a law degree at Harvard. Much to his mother's chagrin, he turns down fancy job offers to work in Alabama, giving poor inmates on death row legal advice. His clients are all men, mostly African American. Some are guilty and admit it, and some insist they are innocent, just guilty from the moment they were born, because of their skin color. Jamie Foxx plays real-life former death row inmate Walter "Johnny D" McMillan. This performance might be my favorite of Foxx's to date. A jury convicted him of murder, based on the false testimony of a convicted white felon. Johnny D questions Bryan's ability to get any traction on his case, because the jury ignored the 20+ African Americans who testified that Johnny D was at a fish fry that day, and nowhere near the murder scene.

Brie Larson brings quiet strength to her role of Eva Ansley, the current Operations Director at Bryan's company Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). She is bound and determined to help Bryan's cause, even if it means getting threats from people in the community. Just when the team thinks they have a crack in the case, it gets shot down. The system seemed to be corrupt, and there was no way to change it. I admire their persistence and resilience to pursue justice at any cost. As Bryan said in the film, "it's never too late for justice."

There were several side stories regarding other prisoners, including the one who falsely testified against Johnny D. There were really beautiful moments and fantastic character work. I do think a few scenes could have been a bit tighter and shorter, but I would have watched these stories all day. The tears really flowed at the end, when we get to see real-life footage of wrongly accused death row inmates reunited with their family. EJI has become a powerhouse organization, overturning 140 wrongly accused sentences. Go see this movie. If you can hear Bryan Stevenson speak in person, do it. If you like to read, pick up a copy of Just Mercy. He will quickly become a hero of yours, as he has become for me.

Monday, February 3, 2020

2020 Oscar Predictions

Best Picture
Ford V Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Little Women
Marriage Story
Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood

Should Win: Of this random and somewhat unimpressive list, my favorite films were "Jojo Rabbit" and "Parasite". I don't believe "Jojo" has quite the chops to pull off a Best Picture Oscar win, though it was hilarious and cute and fresh and moving. So my vote goes to "Parasite". It was also darkly hilarious and fresh and moving, and as Director Bong Joon-ho said during his Golden Globe acceptance speech for Best Foreign Language Film, if we could just get used to subtitles, our worlds would be opened up to films beyond belief.

Will Win: I think it's a toss-up between "1917" and "Parasite". The latter is likely to win for Best International Feature Film, and the Academy has never awarded an International Film the Best Picture award. And as much as Hollywood loves stories about Hollywood, I think the Academy will look to "1917" for the big award.

Best Actress
Cynthia Erivo, "Harriet"
Scarlett Johansson, "Marriage Story"
Saoirse Ronan, "Little Women"
Charlize Theron, "Bombshell" 
Renée Zellweger, "Judy"

Should Win: Renée all day. She slayed this performance, which was heart-breaking, and she brought enormous empathy to the role. She did her own singing and was totally unrecognizable. No contest.

Will Win: Renée.

Best Actor
Antonio Banderas, "Pain and Glory"
Leonardo "my husband" DiCaprio, "Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood" 
Adam Driver, "Marriage Story"
Joaquin Phoenix, "Joker"
Jonathan "Peron" Pryce, "The Two Popes"

Should Win: It's difficult for me to not be biased toward Leo, because I think he is fabulous in every role. He was truly exceptional as aging, has-been actor Rick Dalton. But for his heart-wrenching performance in "Joker" and for his body of work, it's Joaquin Phoenix's turn.

Will Win: Joaquin's got it in the bag.

Best Supporting Actress
Kathy Bates, "Richard Jewell"
Laura Dern, "Marriage Story"
Scarlett Johansson, "Jojo Rabbit"
Florence Pugh, "Little Women"
Margot "queen" Robbie, "Bombshell"

Should Win: J. Lo, except that she wasn't even nominated! If I'm to pick from the actual nominee list, I would vote for Florence Pugh. She was the best part about "Little Women," and she stole the movie. She gave the Amy character more depth and well-roundedness than I have seen in other productions. 

Will Win: Laura friggin' Dern. I don't particularly get why she was nominated for the brief time she was in "Marriage Story," and I didn't particularly like the movie. But she's everywhere these days and has "paid her dues," I suppose, so I'm pretty sure it's hers.

Best Supporting Actor
Tom Hanks, "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood"
Anthony Hopkins, "The Two Popes"
Al Pacino, "The Irishman"
Joe Pesci, "The Irishman"
Brad "yum" Pitt, "Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood" 

Should Win: This is really tough, because I think Tom, Al and Brad all did exceptional work here. However, because everyone else has already won an Oscar, and because he really was fabulous in the film, and because of his body of work, I think this deserves to go to Brad.

Will Win: Brad.

Best Director
Man # 1 - Martin Scorsese, "The Irishman"
Man # 2 - Todd Phillips, "Joker"
Man #3 - Sam Mendes, "1917"
Man # 4 - Quentin Tarantino, "Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood"
Man # 5 - Bong Joon-ho, "Parasite"

Should Win: My man Q has never won an Oscar for directing, and I see it possibly happening here. However, Bong Joon-ho has burst on the screen with a film everyone is talking about. My vote is for one of these two men. Out of the five men nominated. 

Will Win: "Parasite" could not be hotter right now, and on the tails of 2019's Best Director win for Alfonso Cuarón for "Roma," I'm predicting a win for South Korea's Bong Joon-ho.