The Two Reviews: The Two Popes and Uncut Gems

The Two Popes (2019, Netflix)
Directed by Fernando Meirelles. Screenplay by Anthony McCarten. Featuring Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins

Whether the thought of a film about two highly powerful men at the helm of an institution plagued by allegations of abuse and mass deception repulses you or not, I would still insist you watch The Two Popes. Its impactful dialogue and thoughtful narrative need not change your mind about a corrupt religious order, but it certainly humanises the subject and makes the experience of watching it very much worthwhile.

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The film generally concerns the time of Pope Benedict XVI’s reign as the pontiff of the Catholic Church – from his election as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2005 to his shock retirement in 2013. The focus of the film tends more towards the life of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, who in that time tries to secure Pope Benedict’s acceptance of his resignation as Cardinal – of course, he ends up being his replacement instead (oops, spoiler alert!). Bergoglio (later to be known as Pope Francis) is shown to be a man struggling with his past actions as a lead Jesuit priest in Argentina during its military dictatorship in the 1970s. The film keenly draws us in to his story by presenting flashbacks of his formative years in South America. But at the same time, his burgeoning relationship with Benedict is explored through a charming antithesis. Benedict is a cantankerous and isolated old man, who espouses a very conservative interpretation of the Bible and its teachings, whereas Bergoglio is more outward, and attaches a ‘bigger picture’ mentality to the future of the Church. Benedict has had a fairly privileged upbringing, while Bergoglio vowed to a life of poverty and devotion as a Jesuit. Benedict likes classical pastimes such as playing the piano. Bergoglio is ecstatic about football. The differences between the two men are obvious, and are likely played up for the story. But it absorbs you in and the development of understanding between the two is the glue that holds the film together. It is equally humorous, as it is serious. The revelations expressed and the mundanity depicted about life as Pope are powerful and affecting.

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The two Welshmen, Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce are masterful in their respective roles. They fully embody the pontiffs and imbue them with an extraordinary pathos and uplifting humanity. Amazingly, they speak in all the relevant languages that the two Popes speak in – German, Latin, Spanish, Italian and English. It’s very impressive. The handling of the film too is masterful. Fernando Meirelles has not directed many films, but the ones he has are all of a superior quality (Maids, City of God, The Constant Gardener, Blindness and 360). And he brings all that experience to the surface in this impressive biographical drama. Indeed, some may question the accuracy of the biography – Screenwriter Anthony McCarten is prominent in writing scripts loosely based on popular subjects (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody) that aim for Oscar glory – but there is enough substance here to make it remarkable.

Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 4/5

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Uncut Gems (2019, A24 and Netflix)
Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie. Music by Daniel Lopatin. Featuring Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Idina Menzel, and Judd Hirsch.

I may have mentioned this in my review of Good Time, but these Safdie Brothers are an exciting and emerging talent in the filmmaking world. They are honing a certain auteur-ship that is fun, frantic and different. And it is on full display in this relentless, inner city New York-set crime caper. Adam Sandler plays a chaotic Gem and Jewellery store owner who comes into possession of a rare Ethiopian opal (uncut from the rock it was discovered in), while simultaneously engaging in a back-and-forth race to pay off a debt to his unforgiving brother-in-law.

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The story may appear wayward from the beginning, and even by the end you may wonder what was that all about, but the joy of the film is in its pacing, its characterisations and its deft humour. It is by no means a film for everybody, and the language and abrupt violence may appear a bit gratuitous. Nevertheless, you simply become invested in the lead character of Howard Ratner (Sandler). Ratner is the epitome of ugly – he is sly, sleazy, creepy, deceptive, loud and foul-mouthed, and he is a degenerative gambler. It is astonishing that he ever made it as far as he did – a semi-successful jeweller married to a beautiful wife with three fairly ordinary children – but his infidelity with a younger woman, his hustling of clients and his gambling addiction is about to catch up with him. And this is basically the set-up for the film, without giving too much away.

It is an interesting position to be in as a viewer, if like myself you don’t necessarily like Adam Sandler as an actor or a personality. When he plays a repulsive character like this, it should make it worse then, right? Well, Sandler has in fact acted well before (in Punch Drunk Love for example), and he does so again here. He gives it his all in a central performance that stays the course admirably. There is little redemption offered in the Ratner character and the Safdie Brothers manages that perfectly in their script. But it is not just Sandler or the Safdies who deserve all the kudos. Daniel Lopatin’s electronic score is magnificent and it complements the mystic of the story perfectly. That mystic is also captured by Darius Khondji’s colourful cinematography, which is exemplified in the claustrophobia of Ratner’s sparkly and neon-lit Jewellery shop located in a room of a high-rise building with dodgy security.

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Uncut Gems is a thrill-ride that never lets up, and it can be exasperating at times. Characters constantly shout and speak over one another, and this often makes proceedings incoherent and disjointed. But this is purposeful, and the film is neatly held together by a comic realism. It is absolutely worth the hype.

Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 4/5

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