Top to Bottom. Films reviewed: The Kindness of Strangers, The Two Popes, Knives Out

Posted in Argentina, Catholicism, comedy, Crime, Family, Homelessness, Movies, Mystery, New York City, Poverty by CulturalMining.com on November 29, 2019

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

With the awards season coming up, Hollywood is starting to release the big ones with famous stars and directors. This week I’m looking at three such movies. There’s a drama about the downtrodden, a biopic about religious leaders at the top, and a comedy mystery about a large group of suspects caught in the middle… of a possible murdet.

The Kindness of Strangers

Wri/Dir: Lone Scherfig (An Education, The Riot Club, One Day)

Manhattan is a lonely place, especially for people down on their luck. Alice (Andrea Riseborough) is an empathetic ER nurse who volunteers at a soup kitchen and moderates a forgiveness group. But her long hours are taking a toll on her psyche. Clara (Zoe Kazan: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, The Big Sick) is a wide-eyed young mom from Buffalo on vacation with her two boys _ well thats what she tells them. In fact she’s penniless, fleeing her husband, a cop Richard (Esben Smed: Lykke Per) who beats up their kids. She keeps them fed by shoplifting, dumpster diving and stealing hors d’oeuvres from parties. Marc (Tahar Rahim: A Prophet, The Past) is an ex-con, recently freed from prison by a lawyer, who lands a job managing a Russian restaurant. And Jeff (Caleb Landry Jones: ByzantiumContraband, The Last Exorcism) is an earnest simpleton who can’t hold onto a job. If he doesn’t pay his rent soon, he’ll be out on the street.

Luckily, some strangers are kind. But will Alice find happiness, Clara find refuge, Marc find friends, and Jeff find a job? Or are they just more victims in the Naked City?

The Kindness of Strangers follows seemingly unrelated stories as they gradually come together in unexpected ways. Danish director Lone Scherfig’s movies are always good, even the bad ones. And this is a good one. It’s basically a Christmas movie but without any santas or angels. Lots of snow, but no presents. Church basements but no preaching. Some criticism: Only 7% of homeless in NY City are white, but in this movie it’s 100%. Although it veers into corn territory once or twice, this tear jerker is miles beyond any Hallmark movie, and seems genuinely sympathetic to the downtrodden. It deals with real problems, and leaves you feeling warm inside.

The Two Popes

Dir: Fernando Meirelles

Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathon Pryce) is a popular priest in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He loves soccer, pizza and dancing the tango. He preaches humility and compassion to the poor, and though he’s a Cardinal, dresses in plain clothes. He is flying to the Vatican to request early retirement. Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) is a conservative German, whothis the Vatican was moving in the wrong direction and has to be fixed. He loves the pageantry and finery of the Vatican, from the fancy clothes to the elegant trappings. He likes eating alone, a bowl of plain broth with Knödel. And he invites Bergoglio to join him at his country retreat. There conversation goes nowhere, with one asking to retire, and the other refusing. They disagree on practically everything. Why are they meeting and will they ever find common ground?

The Two Popes is a dramatization of a meeting between – not a spoiler! –  two Popes: Benedict who stepped down amid scandal, and Francis, the first pope from the Americas, who took his place. It’s a highly visual film, shot in a semi-documentary style. It gives us a “Pope’s-eye view” of the inside of the Vatican, with all its sumptuous finery and grandeur. I once saw Pope John Paul II appear at the window; in this movie you’re inside the window looking down at the crowd, which is very cool. And the larger-than-life characters – as imagined by Welsh actors Hopkins and Pryce in effective performances – are humanized and normalized. They’re just like you and me.

But I think you have to deeply care about the doctrine, policies, politics and rituals of the Catholic Church to truly appreciate this movie.

Count me out.

Knives Out

Wri/Dir: Rian Johnson

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a hugely successful mystery novelist. He lives in a gothic mansion with his nurse Marta (Ana de Armas). All of his descendents are in town to celebrate his landmark birthday. There’s hard-boiled Linda, a real-estate agent with her hanger-on hubby and playboy son (Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Chris Evans). Flaky, new-age entrepreneur Joni (Toni Collette) with her college-age daughter (Katherine Langford) and alt-right son (Jaeden Martell). Goateed Walt’s family (Michael Shannon) handles the publishing side of his dad’s burgeoning book empire. And Greatnana (K Callan) who observes all but says nothing. There are the usual family squabbles, But by morning, everything has changed. Thrombey is found dead in his bedroom in a pool of blood, an apparent suicide… but is it? And if it’s murder, whodunnit?

Investing the crime are two hapless cops (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Segan) and a private detective named Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). Blanc has an eagle eye and a deep southern drawl. Everyone is a suspect and has something to hide. Everyone but Marta, who is allergic to lying. She actually throws up if she says anything untrue.

Knives Out is an extremely entertaining mystery comedy, in the style of Agatha Christie and Murder She Wrote. Almost every line is clever, overflowing with biting cultural references: Benoit Blanc is referred to as CSI from KFC, and there are pastiches of everyone from Gwynneth Paltrow to Ben Shapiro. I’ve seen this one twice already and I could easily watch it again next year.

Knives Out is now playing in Toronto, and The Two Popes opens today at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. The Kindness of Strangers opens next Friday; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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