Thursday, January 16, 2020

Just Mercy and My Hindu Friend

Sparks of Light Against the Darkness
Reviews by Ken Burke

I invite you to join me on a regular basis to see how my responses to current cinematic offerings compare to the critical establishment, which I’ll refer to as either the CCAL (Collective Critics at Large) if they agree with me or the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe) if they choose to disagree.

  Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Creton, 2019)   rated PG-13

“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): As with My Hindu Friend (reviewed below), this is yet another narrative  “Based on a true story,” although this one’s more in keeping with its historical roots while the other gets fully into some flights of fancy (or maybe not, given the autobiographical nature of Babenco’s film).  In Just Mercy (which suffers, in my opinion, from some aesthetic form of injustice, given its completely-ignored-status in the recently-announced-Oscar-nominations [although Jamie Foxx did get a Best Supporting Actor nod from the Screen Actors Guild; more on such cinematic competition just after the reviews below]) we travel back to the 1980s where recently-minted-Harvard Law School-grad Bryan Stevenson chooses to pass on more prestigious options to instead work with the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, AL with an emphasis on providing help to death-row convicts who needed better legal representation.  His quest soon brings him into contact/conflict with Walter McMillan—better known as “Johnny D”—accused of murdering a White teenage girl in 1986, tried and convicted in 1988 although he had significant alibis (from fellow Blacks, thus ignored) he was nowhere near the crime scene on that day.  Despite McMillan’s initial rejection of Stevenson’s offers of help (he tried various appeals before, none successful, felt adamantly [with good reason] the justice system as well as the surrounding culture was inherently biased against him), he later softened, worked with the novice lawyer to gain a new trial, despite constant difficulties presented by the local law enforcement in Monroeville, AL.  The compelling drama of what happens over the next few years makes this film so effective, so emotionally powerful, but, of course, those details fall smack-dab into the spoiler zone so if you’d like to avoid them take heed of my warnings below; otherwise, a simple Internet search can tell you plenty about what happens here, as can simply reading what lies within my warnings, so the choice is up to you.  However you get the details on the story this film presents, though, I heartedly encourage you to learn its full message, keeping in mind the complexities our society faces when it allows executions to go forward when later evidence so often frees the innocent lately.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters thusly: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

What Happens:  If what’s here should reflect events about Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and Walter “Johnny D” McMillan (Jamie Foxx) then we’re starting in 1985 because that’s—screen graphics tell us—2 years before the 1987 arrest of McMillan for the November 1986 murder of 18-year-old Ronda Morrison, working at a dry cleaners (in ’85 Stephenson’s still a student at Harvard Law School, interning in Georgia, troubled by learning so many of the death-row men he’s assigned to help, like Henry Davis [J. Alphonse Nicholson]) have had shoddy legal representation; not that he’s never faced discrimination himself, also coming from a poor rural community in Milton, DE, bothered by his grandfather’s death during a robbery at his home in Philadelphia (no help from the legal system) so when he graduates in 1988 he frustrates (scares) his mother by turning away from a potentially-lucrative-practice farther north, choosing Montgomery, AL to work with the newly-formed Equal Justice Initiative run by Eva Ansley (Brie Larson).  (However, Internet probing shows Stevenson graduated from law school in 1985, immediately worked at the Atlanta, GA Southern Center for Human Rights [did take on McMillan’s defense in 1988, though], then ran the Montgomery office of this organization in 1989, later converted the ACHR in Alabama to the EJI after Congress stopped funding for death-penalty defenses; none of this historical-rewrite undermines the film’s contents, but—as is so often the case with such docudramas—we must be careful not to absorb all details of these narratives as fully-factual even if the overall concepts are justified.)  Back to the story as presented, we see Johnny D working as a logger, stopped at a police roadblock on his way home one night (June 1987, which you can eventually surmise from the film’s events but not all that clear at first), immediately arrested for Ronda’s murder, put on death row for a year before his trial even occurs (Southern justice sometimes doesn’t want to leave anything—such as innocence—to the imagination, nor do most of the prison guards show any sense of decency) based on flimsy evidence of one witness, “Bill Hooks” (I forget how he’s named in the film, so don’t know the actor as no Bill Hooks is in the cast list), claiming he saw Johnny’s truck at the cleaners about the time of the crime, another testimony by Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson) who says he not only saw the truck but also went into the building after Johnny, finding him emptying out the cash register, standing over the dead girl’s bloody body, even though Johnny had plenty of witnesses swearing (to no avail) he was at this home for a family fishfry with his truck torn apart to work on the transmission, but neither Sheriff Tom Tate (Michael Harding) nor D.A. Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall) gave any credence to McMillan’s supporters, instead taking the word of Myers, himself under arrest for murder, possibly facing death.  To further stigmatize this situation, McMillan’s jury chose life imprisonment but his judge, acting under options of Alabama law, changed it into a death sentence.

Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) comforts another client, Herb Richardson (Rob Morgan)
 Despite obstacles (office space rejected by landlord, Bryan works/sleeps in Eva’s home with her family until an alternative’s found [which earns her a bomb threat]; Sheriff and D.A. uncooperative because the community’s still so upset about Ronda’s death—ironically, this town’s the home of Harper Lee whose novel, To Kill a Mockingbird [1960], deals with just this type of racist-injustice where a Black man can be arrested/convicted simply because he “looks like he could” commit a crime), Stevenson finds a witness, Darnell Houston (Darrell Britt-Gibson), who testifies “Hooks” was working with him elsewhere that day, couldn’t have been at the cleaners when he said he was; further, “Hooks,” claiming he saw Johnny’s converted-low-rider at the crime scene, is negated by records of the car being modified months past Ronda’s death; after initial refusals to revisit his testimony, Myers (with a reduced sentence after testifying against McMillan) admits he knows nothing about the murder.   ⇒Despite this new evidence, Judge Foster (Lindsay Ayliffe) throws it out, as the sheriff considers a perjury charge against Myers for his new testimony, further angering Stevenson and McMillian, along with personal trauma for Johnny when death-row neighbor Herb Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam vet with PTSD who set a bomb, killing a young woman, is finally sent to the electric chair even though an insanity defense might have been valid.  Bryan perseveres, getting McMillan’s story on CBS’ 60 Minutes* (15:10); publicizing how “Hooks” (jailed for burglary when he testified) had his charges dropped, collected a $5,000 reward for his testimony along with how a White woman, Karen Kelly, married McMillan (3 kids) was having an affair with—undermining his credibility for many in his community—was intimidated by local cops to speak against him; noting in court how the first cop on the scene, Woodrow Ikner (Ron Clinton Smith)—changed from actual surname Isser—was told by prosecutors to say Ronda’s body was dragged from where Ralph said he saw it to where it was found to validate false testimony but he refused, was fired.  Given all this, the Alabama Supreme Court in 1993 ordered a new trial, so Bryan files a motion to dismiss all charges.  During this gripping, emotional hearing even D.A. Chapman relents, joins the petition so Johnny’s freed.  (End graphics plus photos of actual people presented tell us he died in 2013, with dementia likely brought on by the horrors from enduring death row for so long; other graphics tell us Stevenson continues to do what EJI was set up for, provide representation—at times needed justice—for prisoners who’ve not had adequate legal support, with about 140 [at present] freed as better evidence emerged about these supposed criminals; finally, a White man was later a prime suspect as the actual killer of Ronda Morrison but no charges were ever filed.)⇐
*Related is an ABC Nightline Interview (8:39) including talk with Anthony Ray Hinton (played by O’Shea Jackson Jr. in the film), released after 30 years of his wrongful imprisonment on death row.

So What? If you can watch Just Mercy without crying/applauding (or both) you’ve probably either learned to restrain your emotions (not a bad tactic in a culture where plenty of sharks wait for a sympathetic/confused victim to take advantage of) or you’re not convinced the death penalty isn’t a useful deterrent in keeping our society safe from the actions of homicidal monsters.  In either case, I encourage you to let down your guard, embrace the message of Just Mercy (a title which can either mean “justice leading to appropriate forgiveness” or a mere acceptance of decency at the point where all else has almost failed).  In any case, this historically-based-story (still all-too-relevant today in our #Hands Up/#I Can’t Breathe-era) is both a grand celebration of a warrior fighting for justice in a society often forgetting how to administer it and a cruel indictment of rush-to-judgment-attitudes by representatives of our legal system all too eager to frame someone (a horrible scene in this film involves lawyer Stevenson securing all evidence from McMillan’s arrest, stumbling upon an audio cassette where Ralph Myers admits in the inquest he knows nothing about the murder of Ronda Morrison, completely contradicting his official testimony about Johnny D as the no-doubt-about-it-murderer—the miscarriage of justice here, how it’s blatantly obvious Myers is given a substantially-reduced-sentence [10 years, not death] in return for his coerced lies is excruciatingly-disturbing, confirming our worst fears about how the legal system tolerates finding perpetrator-victims when necessary to ease the community-conscience about physically-abused-crime-victims), giving a sense of relief justice has been served as someone’s sent off to prison (or worse) whether the “guilty” party’s actually responsible for the crime or not, at least we can sleep easier because a perp’s been caught, as in so many resolved-in-1-hour TV crime shows or 2-hour-movies (here’s a relevant anatomy of a scene [3:09] by Creton, examining the psyche of the condemned).  The CCAL’s been supportive with 83% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes, a 79% average score at Metacritic (more details far below in Related Links), but obviously this doesn’t mean there’s been universal critical acceptance of Just Mercy, especially from those like San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle (good thing the SF Film Critics Circle didn’t accept me for membership; I’d probably be getting into heated arguments with him at many a meeting) who says Just Mercy needs “a little more anger and a little less sentiment. […] At times, it seems to want to make a case against the death penalty in general, rather than expressing outrage at flagrant and maddening miscarriages of justice.”  We’ve seen different films here, as the only general statement against the death penalty comes from a brief scene of a 1993 U.S. Senate hearing at which Stevenson testifies.  Mick also says: "‘Just Mercy’ isn’t the best movie that could have been made from its subject, but it’s good enough."  I’d say more than “good enough,” truly one of 2019's best.

Bottom Line Final Comments: As 2019 ended, any film hoping to be considered for Oscar nominations needed to play for at least a week in Los Angeles county so the screens were full of would-be-contenders which may have worked against audience awareness of Just Mercy as so many others either with more family-friendliness (Frozen II [Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, 2019; global gross $1.373 billion]), more flamboyance (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker [J,J, Abrams, 2019; review in our January 2, 2020 posting; global gross $996.6 million]), , or more pure escapism (Jumanji: The Next Level [Jake Kasdan, 2019; global gross $671.2 million]) ate up the income, but, now that the Oscar nominations are in, leaving Just Mercy unfortunately out in the cold (I’d put both Foxx and Nelson into the Best Supporting Actor category, but I also may include the film in my Top 10—can’t say yet until I finally catch up with 1917 [Sam Mendes, 2019] and Bombshell [Jay Roach, 2019]), maybe audiences will now become better aware of what’s been accomplished here—it moved up from #30 to #5 on Box Office Mojo’s tally for last weekend, although after 3 weeks it’s still made only about 10.8 million domestic (U.S.-Canada) dollars, but now it’s expanded enormously to 2,375 domestic theaters I hope it’ll catch more fire especially in union with the Martin Luther King holiday on Monday, January 20, 2020.  This is both a heartbreaking and heartwarming story considering the institutional cruelty shown to the death row inmates at Johnny D’s prison, treated like vicious animals despite the invalid sentences many of them suffered under just because of who they are, where they are.  (I wish I could say this was a bit of dramatic exaggeration done to make a rhetorical point, but having grown up in Texas—still among the leaders of states using the death penalty—all I can do is recognize what looks all to familiar to me, knowing full well how my life could have been different had I been born into different circumstances in other parts of town.)  Despite its lack of award consideration, though, I sincerely hope you seek out Just Mercy for its truth, its power, its affirmation that, in King’s words,The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  All I need to say to finish up, then, is what my Musical Metaphor will be to put a cap on this review, which may be an odd (originally romance-based) choice for some of you but I’ll offer it just the same, The Beatles’ “Wait” (from their 1965 Rubber Soul album, on both the U.K. and U.S. versions) at if we’d hear Johnny D say to his family (and anyone who’d listen): “It’s been a long time, now I’m coming back home I’ve been away now, oh, how I’ve been alone […] But if your heart breaks, don’t wait, turn me away And if your heart’s strong, hold on, I won’t delay […] I feel as though you ought to know That I’ve been good, as good as I can be And if you do, I’ll trust in you And know that you will wait for me.”  Those who cared about him waited, then Stevenson worked miracles for Walter McMillan and so many others, a wonderful person, deserving to be celebrated for what he’s done to help all of these men.
                    My Hindu Friend (Héctor Babenco, 2015) 
                         Unrated (a bit bluntly sexy at times)
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Back in 2015 I've now learned that famed Argentinian-Brazilian director Babenco made his final film, then called My Last Friend, but after some limited showings it went back into the vault until now when it’s being released for 1-week-screenings starting on Friday, January 17, 2020 (NYC, LA, Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Phoenix, Houston, Chicago, Homestead FL [see the third listing in Related Links far below for specific theaters in these cities]) as well as being available digitally (Amazon, iTunes, in Demand, DirecTV, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango, Vimeo on Demand, FlixFing, Hoopla, AT&T, Xbox, Sony, and Sling/Dish), so I do hope you’ll find some time to see it somehow because the intervening years since its creation haven’t diminished its impact at all, especially the lead performance of Willem Dafoe in a grand autobiographical turn based on Babenco’s own situation in 2014 when he had to undergo an excruciating bone marrow transplant.  Based on reading the director’s bio it seems there are a lot of aspects of his life incorporated here—the opening intertitle says “what you are about to watch is a story that happened to me and I present it in the way I know best” while his character in the film, Diego, says to friends and family at his wedding reception they are all “characters in the story of my life” (apparently, many of Babenco’s actual friends and family are incorporated into the cast so this is no simple creative exaggeration).  What he presents is a distraught filmmaker fighting for his life, trying to preserve his new marriage, working out conflicts with his mother and brother, then ultimately taking a new direction (so to speak).  While what happens here can be somewhat gleaned from reading Babenco biographies (and obituaries; sadly, he died in 2016 just prior to a screening in Montréal) there’s also fantasy/fiction woven in so I’ll be somewhat circumspect in noting spoilers in the review below for those who’d like to see this marvelous parting act  for yourself (Babenco’s last film, almost in league for me with his magnificent Kiss of the Spider Woman [1985]), which I highly encourage as an artful-aid in starting 2020 off right.

Here’s the trailer:

       Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.

What Happens: We open in tragedy (which defines a lot of this film, despite some comic or erotic elements to ease the tension) with noted film director Diego Fairman (Willem Dafoe) in Brazil, in great pain from lymphatic cancer, consoled by his lover, Livia Monteiro Bueno (Maria Fernanada Cándido).  Before traveling to the U.S. for a needed bone marrow transplant (a donation from his brother, Antonio [Guilherme Weber], whom he hadn’t spoken to for 10 years over hard feelings about the death of their father who died broke because Antonio’s gambling addiction took away the old man’s savings, yet Diego also is angry at himself for not being with Dad during those last days; tension between the siblings is reduced somewhat by Diego paying Antonio $1 million for his marrow donation, a decision not well-received by Livia), Diego and Livia marry in a well-attended, joyous celebration of family and friends except for one screenwriter still miffed Diego wasn’t interested in his script, then he leaves in disgust when Diego mocks the man’s resulting film as a feature-length TV commercial (at this point in his life Diego has no filters on what he thinks or says, no matter the impact upon others).  Soon, Diego, his mother (never caught her name so I don’t know who portrays her; she's in the photo just below), Livia, Antonio, and his wife (Gilda Nomacce) are off to Seattle for the lengthy preparation for the procedure, each of them enduring various physical and/or emotional pains during the waiting period (Antonio even starts to back out but stays because of the hefty payout he’ll receive).  At various times, though, Diego’s visited in his intensive-care-hospital-room by Death—here called Common Man (Seton Mello) in the credits—come to take Diego away (in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the storyline of Ingmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal [1957] where Death [Bengt Ekerot] arrives to fetch knight Antonius Block [Max von Sydow] who stalls for quite awhile by playing a game of chess with his ultimate visitor [just as Diego asks for time to make one final film, also plays chess], a being who only brings the designated to the afterlife with no knowledge of what awaits, just as ... Friend’s version of this entity seems like a minor executive in a multinational corporation with little understanding of what guides the higher-ups except for his speech on the primacy of profit), accompanied by an elderly, half-naked woman who’s not aged beyond her erotic desires (depending on whether we’re supposed to interpret their presence as surreal or Diego’s illness-inspired-visions [after one visit Diego bursts into a rendition of “Dancing Cheek to Cheek,” which cuts to a stabilizing injection—a shot within a shot, I guess—the next morning]; maybe she represents the tension between Diego and Livia as their sex life is now nil).  At this point, the title becomes clear as Diego meets a very young (Asian) Indian boy (Rio Aklakha), also scheduled for the same operation, scared until Diego offers him calming assurances.

(Normally, I don't use photos with the director arranging a scene, but in honor of departed
[left-center, behind the woman] I'll use this one this time.)
 Next, Diego, Livia, and Mom leave the hospital to stay with a nearby couple of old friends; he’s an abstract painter (who bought the bedroom set from an old Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie for Diego), she gives a lavish dinner to raise money for starving children in Africa by charging the guests $1,000 apiece for each of the courses they’re not allowed to eat (in order for them to better appreciate hunger, she says).  At this event Diego’s visited by some people who ask about his near-death-experience so he spins a yarn about going to Purgatory (didn’t encounter God, who was at His A.A. meeting that day).  After those scenes, things get a bit more ambiguous as Diego begins to work on his extra-time-granted-script (a man’s lost in the snow, finds a village), is back at the hospital where he tells it to the Hindu kid, then they act out scenes from it, the kid’s father (Sagar Karande) is there as well who goes into an elaborate dance, then Diego and Livia are back in Brazil for quite awhile where tensions grow between them (no sex for 5 years, so I guess the operation was a success but they’re not longer physical; she masturbates after which he hugs her).  ⇒Livia eventually leaves him, wants her life back; Diego and Antonio share bad memories about Dad’s death, Antonio tore up the payment check; Mom’s upset at how Diego pushed her away in Washington when he was caught up in writing his script.  Diego visits a prostitute but can’t perform, she finishes herself with a dildo; his cancer’s in remission, yet he seems lost until he appears to be on a movie set where he gets into a jet cockpit, then has a vision of a film clip of Laurel and Hardy singing "Shine On Harvest Moon." His life finally comes together when he sees an actress, Sofia Guerra (Bárbara Paz—Babenco’s 4th wife at this time, so the metanarrative continues with its complexity) in an erotic play, they have instant attraction (her mother died when Sofia was a girl so they share family tragedy), followed by sex (she’s overcome his flaccidity), then Common Man tells Diego he’s now off the hook even as this messenger’s been fired, will be looking for other opportunities (I’m not really sure how that all fits even into Bergman metaphysics, but we just have to go with it).  A package comes to Diego; it’s a gorilla doll he took with him to the hospital, then gave to the little Hindu boy, now it’s been returned to him.  For a grand finale, Diego watches at his home at night while Sofia dances to a recording of Gene Kelly singing the title tune from Singin’ in the Rain (Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952) while rain falls actively in the courtyard she’s dancing in.⇐

So What? Two Guys in the Dark are occasionally contacted by individual filmmakers (usually of low-budget, independent cinema) asking for reviews which we accommodate as best we (well, I—Ken—really do all that, until such time as Pat Craig’s muse finally emerges to encourage him into a contribution; in the meantime, all the profits—totaling zero at present—go to me); while the quality of those submissions is varied, I’ve always enjoyed getting a chance to see something that wouldn’t cross my awareness otherwise.  However, I was stunned a month or so ago when I was contacted by Rock Salt Releasing, inquiring if I’d be willing to review My Hindu Friend, because I’d never had such an opportunity to (almost) privately (you can see in Related Links farther below there were only 3 reviews of this film in Rotten Tomatoes, none in Metacritic, just 6 in IMDb’s External Reviews [1’s a repeat from RT; 2 are in Portuguese, a mystery language to me] when the request came in) explore such distinguished work, so while I’m sure other reviews will soon follow I’m honored to be among the first to expound upon this marvelous, engrossing finale to Babenco’s career (sadly, he died in July 2016, just before My Hindu Friend [at times referred to as My Last Friend] was shown at the Montréal Film Festival; it had also been in limited release in Brazil in 2015) because—while I must admit I’ve seen little of Babenco’s overall output, I’m completely in awe of his direction of Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)* [William Hurt won the Best Actor Oscar, Babenco was nominated for Oscar’s Best Director, first Latin American to achieve that honor—another Babenco triumph, in my opinion, is Ironweed {1987}, a bitter Depression-era tale starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, both nominated for lead acting Oscars but denied, as the film in general was sadly overlooked])—Babenco’s a filmmaker I greatly admire, just as I count Dafoe as one of the best actors of his generation, despite never having won an Oscar (missing the cut again this year, despite good press [I’d put him in my Top 5 male actors in 2019 films] for his Rime of the Ancient Mariner-type-characterization in Lighthouse [Robert Eggers; review in our November 6, 2019 posting]—at least the film was nominated for its stunning B&W, odd 1.19:1-screen-ratio [square-ish] cinematography).

*If you can tolerate reading academic articles, please consult the Research area of my personal website (always one of the final items in Related Links farther below) for connection to my analysis of Babenco’s retelling of Manuel Puig’s unique, difficult-to-film novel, “Adapting Kiss of the Spider Woman: Every Picture Tells a Story,” as well as its shorter, origin-exploration, a panel presentation I offered, “Kiss But Don’t Tell: Molina’s ‘Lost’ Movies in the Adaptation of Kiss of the Spider Woman.
 Certainly, my hopeful-expectations found no disappointment in My Hindu Friend, based on Babenco’s own 1994 battle with cancer, requiring the painful bone marrow transplant shown in this film (successful at the time, but the noted director later died from a heart attack at age 70), using lots of autobiographical references in the main character (as does Pedro Almodovar in Pain and Glory [2019; review in our October 23, 2019 posting] which echoes [long after the fact] Babenco’s accomplishment, now given another chance to be seen possibly drawing some serendipitous-parallels to Almodovar’s latest triumph) to present—as does his Spanish colleague—a powerful story of a cinematic genius dealing with physical/emotional pain while struggling to get a final film completed (we’ll see how Pain and Glory fares at 2020 Oscar-time with its nominations for Antonio Banderas as Best Actor, the film as a whole for Best International Feature [formerly Foreign Language Feature Film, a renamed category now appropriate for such work as My Hindu Friend with its English dialogue but non-U.S. production company], then wonder if My Hindu Friend might merit such Academy considerations a year from now, depending on their release-period-rules), using the breakup of marriage (happened 3 times with Babenco, not just once as in the film) and final years with an actor-lover (Bárbara Paz in real life, another divorce as well but followed by a reconciliation, implying the final uplifting scene in this film).  The surreal elements (including all the hospital interactions with Common Man, as well as the Hindu child’s father breaking into a dance routine just like Sofia’s “Singin’ in the Rain” finale) remind me of the very successful cutaways into Molina’s recounted “films” in Kiss of the Spider Woman, demonstrating Babenco’s ability to mix humor, dreamlike meanderings, sensuality (both expected imagery and depictions of intercourse with Diego’s younger women along with the unexpected elderly companion of Common Man not afraid to mix wrinkled skin, come-hither lingerie, dark stockings) with the most horrific scenes of human pain as Diego and Livia beg the medics for more morphine even though higher doses would likely terminate him (something I could relate to directly, as it was the case with my mother years ago who chose pain-killers, starvation-unto-death in a hospice program rather than attempt to keep enduring her deep-bruised-pain from several falls in her last years).  Babenco shows himself a master at mixing cinematic elements seeming absurd in concept for lesser directors, yet always finding the right tone for the scene.  My only confusion regards how Diego’s known as an American director, yet seems to come from a Brazilian family, the only one speaking English without a Latin American accent.  Certainly this premise works for Dafoe (just as William Hurt benefited years ago from … Spider Woman’s all-English dialogue in an unspecified-but-clearly-Argentinian-setting during the Dirty War), but it just wasn’t all that clear to me how Dafoe’s character’s understood as  somehow being (North) American while Molina's a citizen of whatever country his crisis occurred in.

Bottom Line Final Comments:  Regarding my concerns about ethnic-identity just noted above, maybe Babenco (the acknowledged inspiration for Diego) felt there was no need to further justify Diego’s situation given the director was a bit of a vagabond himself, born in Argentina (Buenos Aires, then raised on the Atlantic coast in Mar del Plata [a place where my great—but sadly for me, departed in October 2016, not long after Babenco in July—friend/colleague at Mills College, Oakland CA, Dr. Héctor Mario Cavallari, loved to vacation when he visited his family; Mario would have loved this final film of his countryman, as he had great respect for Babenco’s work]), lived in Europe for a few years, worked some in the U.S., then spent much of his life in Brazil, so Diego could easily be—in this director/screenwriter’s creative conception—an international man of the cinema (as Mario was, a scholar of Spanish and Latin American literature but a great lover of a wide variety of global films*) who somehow was in the U.S., wandered to Europe where he got into filmmaking, couldn’t go “home” because he’d avoided military service, then joined his family again in Brazil.  It’s just a damn shame this film didn’t go into wide release after its screening at Montréal in 2016 (at least Dafoe was honored there as Best Actor of all the work shown), but fortunately it’s back now so I recommend finding this fine final expression from a true master of the cinema.  While I haven’t been able to provide much background on ... Friend, there’s a little at Wikipedia and in this video (10:59) from that Montréal event (Dafoe speaks from the stage, but the audio echoes so I wish there were subtitles; however, there’s an inserted interview with much better sound clarity).  To wrap this up in an encouraging manner, though I’ll steal Babenco’s ending by steering you to the original version of Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” (from his famous film, a song with lyrics by Arthur Freed, music by Nacio Herb Brown originally used in The Hollywood Review of 1929 [Charles Reisner]) at (lyrics below the video screen if you’d like to sing along), emphasizing the uplift Diego feels as his new lover frolics during a downpour, imitating some of Kelly’ moves as she (and he [and Diego]) gleefully find happiness even within the realm of what could be considered an unwanted situation: "The sun's in my heart And I'm ready for love [...] Come on with the rain, I’ve a smile on my face […] Just singing, singing in the rain.”  Given all his previous troubles Diego can’t know what waits for him next, but his final film (ultimately, this one in its meta-narrative manner [just like in Kelly’s 1952 original]) is ready to shoot, so, like him, we’re encouraged to be “laughing at clouds,” taking hope, joy, love wherever we find it.

*An interest he devoted much of his life to, diligently but delightfully, watching videos late into the night all through the week then accompanying me and my wife, Nina, to local screenings on Friday evenings, but I'm glad he and I did write one academic paper together, "Julio Cortázar and Michelangelo Antonioni: Words, Images, and the Limits of Verbal and Visual Representation" (2010).
 Short Takes
 Just as I used this segment of my commentary for references of various kinds in my previous posting I’m doing it again because both films I reviewed above deserve a full treatment but there’s one other major notation for this week, the announcement of the 2020 Oscar nominees for 2019 films (this time with recognition for some box-office champs, not only critics-darlings).  Just before the awards are presented on February 9, 2020 I’ll post my usual rundown of the contenders—indicating my predictions/preferences (often not coinciding), with commentary on some of them including how I’d swap out various chosen nominees for more-engaging-favorites of mine (here’s Variety's take on that already).  In the meantime, if you’re really looking for ways to bore your friends with unnecessary trivia (and maybe also get some insights into winning an Oscar pool) you can compare how the Oscar-nominated in dwelt-upon-areas (sorry, costume designers, original score composers, etc.) stack up against the nominations from their various respective-film-industry-guilds, which often gives some indication of Oscar winners because at the nomination level Oscar finalists are determined only by votes within the Academy’s parallel guilds (although everyone votes on possibilities for Best Picture) where there’s lot of overlapping-membership, so, for example, when the Directors Guild of America makes their final decision (on January 25, 2020) before the Oscars broadcast that win could easily sway Oscar voters (once the Academy noms are determined then all roughly 9,000 can vote in most categories [although a few more-esoteric-ones require actual viewing of all nominees before turning in a ballot; for everything else we can only hope votes are well-informed], so the overlapping guild members likely go the same way for their own awards as well as the Oscars, possibly also influencing other Oscar voters to follow their leads).  Anyway, here are links to the so-called-major-categories for your perusal:  Screen Actors Guild (3 overlaps with Oscar’s 5 for Best Actor, 4 overlaps for Best Actress, 4 overlaps for Best Supporting Actor, 3 overlaps for Best Supporting Actress; awards given on January 19, 2019), Directors Guild of America (4 overlaps with Oscar's 5; awards given on January 25, 2020), American Society of Cinematographers (4 overlaps; awards also given on January 25, 2020), Writers Guild (4 overlaps for both Original Screenplay and Adapted Screenplay; awards given on February 1, 2020).  There’s no way to tell how Best Picture voting might shake out (especially because it’s the complicated-tally-process of rank-order-preferences, not just a majority of first-ballot-choices), but here's an article on why the Golden Globe winners (Drama—1917 [Sam Mendes]; Musical or Comedy—Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood [Quentin Tarantino; review in our August 1, 2019 posting]) aren’t trustworthy predictions of how the singular Oscar for Best Picture will turn out (Related Links [just below] will have the Oscars link until well after their ceremony, but these others are listed here only).
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

AND … at least until the Oscars for 2019’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 9, 2020 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2019 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards 
and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists.  You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the 
current Golden Globe nominees and winners for films and TV from 2019 along with the 
Oscar nominees (*****} for 2019 films.

Here’s more information about Just Mercy: (8:19 interview with Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan discussing the final courtroom scene [includes some of the trailer from farther above])

Here’s more information about My Hindu Friend: (no RT score yet, just 3 reviews)

Nothing on Metacritic yet

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.  You can also leave comments at our Facebook page, although you may have to somehow connect with us at that site in order to do it (most FB procedures are still a bit of a mystery to us old farts).

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world.  I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 29,865 (as always, we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll continue to be regular readers); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:

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