The Two Popes Review

One of the more surprising things to come out of this decade in cinema is the large amount of religious movies that have been released.  These religious movies have normally gone one of two ways.  The first type is the personal journey with religion that usually comes with an auteur director such as Life of Pi, The Tree of Life and Silence.  These movies have ended up being some of the best of the decade mostly due to a deft hand behind the camera not allowing the religious overtones to hit you over the head.  The second type is the crowd pleaser.  The type of movie that gives religious audiences the content they want at the expense of any creative vision.  Sadly, in recent years the later has been the type of religious movie that has become more prevalent.  Netflix’s latest movie, The Two Popes, tries to skate in between these two styles, which ultimately dooms itself.  The movie is a mess that has interesting ideas but conveys them in boring and ridiculous fashion.

The Two Popes is the story of Pope Benedict (played by Anthony Hopkins) and Pope Francis’ (Jonathan Pryce) rises to power and the meeting between the two that ultimately ensures a successful transfer of power and a close friendship.  This movie mostly realizes it has a couple of great performers at the center of its story and tries to put the weight of the story on these shoulders.  However, large portions of this movie is just Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce narrating over flashback sequences.  It makes for a very dull way of portraying this story as it’s ultimately a lot of telling instead of showing, which goes against the very purpose of cinema.

The movie doesn’t beat you over the head with its religious overtones, but both of the main characters are portrayed so saintly that any real conflict has trouble bubbling to the surface even though the real life story that this is based on has tons of conflict that could have been molded into an interesting story.  This movie tries to be a crowd pleaser so much that it ends up being just plain boring.

All that being said Hopkins and Pryce make for an entertaining main duo.  Hopkins finds a way to do his entertaining yet over-the-top schtick for a character that isn’t all that interesting.  His energy is a delightful contribution to the movie.  Pryce, on the other hand, comes off as miscast at first (there’s a few early scenes where he is clearly being dubbed to give him a more realistic Argentinian-Spanish accent), but he is tasked with handing the more emotional scenes of the movie and does so with aplomb.

The Two Popes buries all of its potential in an attempt to please everyone.


Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Review

Star Wars has been and always will be a movie franchise at its core.  There may now be Star Wars books and theme parks and tv shows, but it’s the movies that always have been the ones that have brought people into this world.  In that context, the franchise has been in a somewhat precarious position for the past few years.  After a strong one-two punch of The Force Awakens and Rogue One to start the Disney era, The Last Jedi left the fandom as divided as the remnants of the Resistance and Solo was a movie devoid of any spark or originality (not to mention a failure at the box office).  So Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker has entered into the scene with a lot riding on it.  On its own merits The Rise of Skywalker is a fun mess.  It’s a movie that knows its characters and how to develop them in engaging fashion.  However, it’s also a movie that’s trying to do too much.  It’s a movie with an end goal in mind but goes back to its bag of old tricks in order to get there.  That mostly works until its entertaining but convoluted finale.

In the context of the Star Wars series as a whole, The Rise of Skywalker is an even weirder movie and one that goes to show you that this entire sequel trilogy needed a guiding voice from beginning to end.  J.J. Abrams makes sure that The Rise of Skywalker functions as a sequel to The Force Awakens.  The Last Jedi certainly exists in the world of this movie, but J.J. spends all of his energy in this movie tying up the loose ends of the first movie in this franchise.  You can definitely feel the scars over Abrams’ and Rain Johnson’s differing storytelling styles all over this movie, especially in the first act of this movie when the plot is trying to catch you up with where these characters left off two movies ago.

All that being said, the character work in this movie is so strong that it’s hard not to have an enjoyable time throughout this movie.  This is the first movie where we really get to see the sequel trilogy main trio of Rey, Finn and Poe interact together.  That leads to some great banter in what is probably the funniest Star Wars movie ever.  The movie still finds time to give some great material to some of the original series characters.  Carrie Fisher is in this movie a lot more than I think anyone thought would be possible, Anthony Daniels gets some great interplay with Oscar Isaac and Mark Hamill was clearly having a blast filming his material for what feels like the first time since he’s returned to the role.  Even the new additions were incorporated much better than they were in The Last Jedi where they seemed to suck valuable time from some of the bigger plot lines.  Keri Russell’s introduction as black market agent Zorri Bliss is brief but she steals all of her scenes and Babu Frick and D-0 add to an already memorable gallery of non-human characters.

At the center of this movie, though, is the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren, the main rivals in the fate of the Force.  If anything survives the battle between Abrams’ and Johnson’s dueling viewpoints it’s this relationship, and I think a lot of that is thanks to the powerful performances from Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver.  They’re certainly the best lead performances in any of the Star Wars trilogies.  The relationship ultimately comes to a head in the final act of this movie, which certainly makes up for the fact that the rest of the final act is just a remake of Return of the Jedi.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will ultimately leave the Star Wars fan base as divided as before its release, but I found it to be a fun but flawed movie that just does enough right to work as a satisfying conclusion to the Skywalker Saga if that ends up being the case. 


Cedar Creek and Belle Groove National Historical Park

Last month I once again found myself on a trip to the Shenandoah River valley.  Instead of going to Shenandoah National Park or many of the other attractions in the area, my main goal was to get to a little known national park site honoring a little known battle in the waning months of the Civil War: Cedar Creek and Belle Groove National Historical Park.  The Shenandoah River valley is rich in Civil War era history.  Stonewall Jackson led a successful campaign here in the first half of the war, but Cedar Creek and Belle Groove National Historical Park focuses on a second campaign led by Union general Philip Sheridan that helped change public opinion enough to win Abraham Lincoln reelection.  Upon first coming to the park it was odd to think that such an important moment in American history doesn’t get nearly enough coverage as other events of that time period.

Anyway, I started my visit at the visitor center, which on the outside very much feels like a visitor center for a very new park.  It’s located in a shopping mall so I was really questioning at first why a park that was established back in 2002 still hadn’t received a standalone visitor center.  However, when you go into the visitor center you have all the amenities you would expect of an up to date visitor center.  There’s a wonderful and informative video and interactive battlefield map room that is the centerpiece of the visitor center.

Upon leaving the visitor center I decided to do the auto tour and some of the hiking trails that were advertised to be on the way.  Most of the auto tours in the battlefields of National Park System actually take place on land owned by the National Park Service.  That is not the case here making for a very odd journey.  Many of the tour stops are located on active roads and highways with not much room to pull over and observe the interactive signs.  Part of the tour goes way out of the way on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.  It was here that I tried picking up a hiking trail run by a foundation for preserving Civil War history in the Shenandoah region, but I had a lot of trouble finding where the trail was and whether I was entering private property or not.

Eventually, I was able to make it to the morning attack trails, which are run by the National Park Service.  It’s a short but beautiful hike that crosses a pond before ascending to a meadow that gives you expansive views of the Shenandoah Mountains.

A view on one of the Morning Attack trails

Obviously, this is a park with a lot of potential.  The history that the visitor center interprets is immense and interesting, but a lot of the presentation and preservation of it in the field is lacking.  This park just needs more funding as it still feels like a park that was established within the past five years rather than one that was established 17 years ago.

Marriage Story Review

Over the past few years Netflix has made a major push in an attempt to win some of Hollywood’s biggest awards.  While they haven’t won anything big yet (Roma seemingly just missed out on Best Picture last year and the streaming network’s plethora of acclaimed series still have not won a Best Series Emmy), Netflix has some big chances this year as we saw with the release of Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman last week.  While Netflix’s movie release for this week doesn’t have the pop culture capital that The Irishman does, Marriage Story will certainly be another major awards contender for Netflix.  Marriage Story is certainly a more subtle movie than most of the major Oscar contenders of this year, but that makes it all the better as it rests its success on two powerful performances from Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.

Marriage Story follows a couple: Charlie (a New York City theater director that has built a series of successful plays together played by Adam Driver) and Nicole (a once up and coming movie actress who becomes a theater actress to support her husband played by Scarlett Johansson).  We enter their relationship as their marriage has deteriorated and Nicole gets an offer to work on a pilot in Los Angeles.  Eager to start again, Nicole moves to Los Angeles with the couple’s young son, which begins a slippery slope to pursuing a divorce that both wanted to avoid.

The most astonishing thing about this movie is that it gives you both sides of the conflict between the two main characters and never seems like it’s taking sides.  The first third of the movie mostly centers on Scarlett Johansson’s Nicole.  Johansson does a lot of work in making the character likable, and she builds up a great rapport with Azhy Robertson, who plays the couple’s son.  This does wonders for the movie as Nicole is given less of the spotlight in the rest of the movie as Adam Driver’s Charlie takes center stage.  Driver plays the much more emotional character and developments in the plot make it seem like Charlie is the character more at fault for the deterioration in the marriage.  However, Driver and the writing do a lot of work in explaining Charlie’s mindset and that makes it so much easier to relate to the character and thus making what appears to be an equal field between the two characters.

Noah Baumbach (the movie’s director-writer who based this movie on his own divorce) does just as much as Johansson and Driver in making this movie work though.  There’s a quirkiness to this movie that stands out more than most of his recent movies, but it never gets close to the point of something like the Coens or Wes Anderson.  That really stands out in a movie that tries really hard to get into all of the little intricacies of the relationship at the center of the movie.  It’s an interesting mix that makes this movie feel so realistic.  Baumbach’s direction also stands out of the way as the actors’ performance power the movie’s most important scenes (whether it’s a wonderful one take as Nicole finally decides to listen to her lawyer and get a divorce or a scene that let’s Driver’s unique energy convey a sense of nervousness and embarrassment).

Marriage Story may feel small, but it’s ultimately one of the most honest portrayals of a relationship ever done in cinema.


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