The “prestige” movie season officially begins tomorrow, with studios earnestly rolling out both free-time-exploiting blockbusters and serious award-caliber contenders. There’s no reason why those tracks cannot intersect, but these three films will be harder to find in theaters, but at least especially in the case of one, fully worth it.
Waves. In an affluent Broward County suburb, high school senior Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) seems to have it all: Glory on the wrestling team, pretty girlfriend, handsome, parents of means, a bright future. But behind the scenes, his life is troubled. His dad (Sterling K. Brown) is a demanding task-master who rides him mercilessly. He hides an injury to his shoulder that could derail his season by playing hurt and popping pills. His relationship is demanding, and eventually terrifying. Everything that looks great on the outside is roiling with undercurrents. We know things will eventually reach a breaking point, but we don’t know how, or why, or where it will take us. You know, like life.
Although the subject matter is entirely different, the recent film that Waves most reminds me of is Moonlight. The South Florida setting and the story of modern African-American lives (where racism is the background noise, not the thrust) are obvious parallels, but it’s mostly the tone, the oblique approach to storytelling and the thoughtfulness of writer-director Trey Edward Shults that really hit home. Shults combines the dreamy wooziness of Terrence Malick with a deeply specific tale of a family. And like Moonlight, Waves is divided into chapters (two, not three) that stand on their own as portraits of teens in transition. And he does it without resorting to cliches or tropes. (A scene late in the film where two of the characters sit on a bed looks like it may be the “let’s talk this out” moment, but it ends, wordlessly, allowing the emotions to speak for themselves.)
Harrison delivers the breakout performance, but Lucas Hedges as Ty’s sister’s boyfriend continues his string of beautifully wrought portraits of youth, and Taylor Russell as the sister stands out as well, but it’s the overall impact of the film that you take away. Waves washes over you and knocks you back like a tsunami. It’s the “wow” movie of the year.
The Two Popes. When Pope John Paul II died 2005 after more than 25 years as spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the College of Cardinals was faced with a decision for the direction of the Holy See in a new millennium: Continuing the conservative principles of JP2, or veering toward a more inclusive, modern church in the post-Internet, post-same-sex-marriage, liberated world. And the cardinals took a hard right. They elected Joseph Ratzinger, a German bishop even more conservative than his predecessor, who took the title Benedict XVI, reputedly beating out an Argentinian prelate named Jorge Borgoglio, whose own politics were considered more forward-looking, more liberal. And then, eight years after his installation, Benedict took the nearly-unprecedented step of resigning, only to be replaced by Borgoglio, who became Pope Francis.
From the outside, Benedict seemed to be a shady, even menacing figure (memes effectively compared him to Emperor Palpatine in the Star Wars saga) ousted by scandal. Claims of a Nazi past were alleged. Criticism of his excesses, even with his wardrobe, became rallying cries of opponents. He was easy to demonize… and Francis, a breath of fresh air spiritually and tonally, a welcoming shepherd — his exact opposite.
But in The Two Popes — which will be released in theaters this week, but available on Netflix starting around Christmas — we see a modified, and surprisingly balanced view of both men.
The title is slightly misleading: Virtually none of the film takes place after Francis’ election when both men lived with the title “pope.” Instead, its focus is a conversation between Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and Cardinal Borgoglio (Jonathan Pryce) in the months before Benedict’s resignation. You expect it to be a clash of wills … and in some ways it is. Beginning with the election of Ratzinger, we see Borgoglio struggle with the direction of the church to the point where be considers resigning his own cardinalcy in favor of becoming a parish priest. He’s called to Rome by Benedict, however, for a conversation: What would his resignation mean? And how does the Pope feel about him?
We end up liking Benedict more than we expect. Hopkins portrays him as a man of unexpected self-awareness, including his own inability to modify his thinking or behavior. He seems to know he’s a bad fit for the demands of the modern church, and his saving grace is realizing Borgoglio has “the touch.” But no pope chooses his successor — how can he, when they have all died in office? Benedict, though, has a plan. The plan has hurdles. Borgoglio, seemingly the epitome of humility, balks at praise for his character, and we learn of darknesses in his past during the junta in Argentina.
Essentially a two-hander, you sense the film may have had origins as a play … and it did. However the director, Fernando Meirelles, infuses the film with visual flair while also relying on the acting chops of his two stars to carry it through. While not exactly the movie I was expecting, The Two Popes nonetheless won me over with its intelligence and humanity.
Dark Waters. By contrast, Dark Waters is exactly the kind of movie you expect… and not in a good way. It tells the true story of a lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) who took on the chemical giant DuPont over its pollution of a West Virginia town, and ultimately, its development of a product that has infiltrated itself into our daily lives, and may be poisoning all Americans.
If that sounds grim and dire, well, you have no idea. Dark Waters lives in the sullenness of its own self-importance. It’s also rather pedestrianly handled. Although taking place over decades, none of the actors ever seem to age or change fashions; the sets remain the same, even in the law offices. You can attribute that to a modest budget, but that doesn’t explain Anne Hathaway’s contrived, underwritten role as “the wife,” the way Tim Robbins’ character as the law firm’s senior partner toggles between supportive and sinister, how the film stretches on for more than two hours even though headed to a fairly inevitable conclusion. Director Todd Haynes adds little of his originality, allowing the film to trod along like Erin Brockovich in a minor key.
— Arnold Wayne Jones