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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

Films from 28th Philadelphia Film Festival

Philadelphia a beautiful and most hospitable city!


Months ago, my kind beautiful friend Larry Korman invited me to be his guest to attend the 28th Philadelphia Film Festival http://filmadelphia.org/festival/. He is the President of the AKA Hotels and he is the Chairman of the Board of the Philadelphia Film Society. He has so generously sponsored my film critic website www.moviecritic.today. Larry's belief in me has been the spark of kindness that will always hold a piece of my heart in his hands. Through Larry's generosity, my mom and I hold VIP passes allowing us to see any of the 100+ films being featured at this years PFS event.


Larry Korman, you are a beautiful special, sacred human being. I am so lucky to have you as such a big part of my life and to call you my friend. During my time here in beautiful Philadelphia, I have felt the genuinely warm feelings of community. The PFF has brought many people together through their love of cinema. I’m delighted to share my thoughts on the cinema my eyes consumed through your generous invitation. The invitation that has resulted in one of my life’s most special unforgettable experiences.


Some of the films don’t have release dates, others have already been released and some will surely be nominated for Oscars. For all these reasons, I’ll keep my thoughts on the films I saw to a minimum. I hope to entice you to see some of these outstanding and riveting films when you can. In the last week I have seen the most exhilarating and spell bounding Parasite; tragic and beautiful Just Mercy; the shocking and intense Queen of Hearts; the courageous while most maddening By the Grace of God; the eloquently tranquil portrait of a Lady on Fire; the psychological rabbit hole of Nina Wu; the uncomfortable tension provoking Swallow; the timeless perfection of Beanpole (my favorite thus far); the blood boiling The Report; the profound mystery of Oh Mercy!; and Marriage Story, the modern day version of Kramer vs Kramer. I am busy at work writing my reviews and cannot wait to share them with all of you once I return from Philadelphia.

 


Parasite

I want you all to relax, close your eyes and imagine something for me. Imagine you just started running a nice hot bath in a huge luxury modern tub. You notice how there’s only just a little bit of water at the very bottom of the tub. Five minutes go by and the water hasn’t gotten any higher. The phone rings from the other room and and you answer it. Your friend called and you lose track of time in your conversation. The call soon ends and you return to the bathroom to find that the tub has overfilled and bath water is pouring all over the modern floor tiles. That’s exactly what watching Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is like. Parasite is about a financially struggling South Korean family who humorously manipulate their way into gaining employment for a wealthy family. The employers leave for a weekend lake trip leaving the family to secretly enjoy the luxury of the mansion. Just when circumstances seem perfect, the doorbell rings and everything changes. This is how the tub metaphor comes into play. The sudden turn of events that unfold in Parasite is not about how things shift but how fast they shift. You know in your gut something terrible is going to happen but there’s no predictable occurrences you can think of. All you can do is wait for each obstacle to present itself and only hope things resolve. Parasite is a shocking film that deals with family, class and secrets. The performances were outstanding, the cinematography was golden and the script contains enough depth to leave you shaken but not shaken enough to evaporate any desire of seeing it again.


Just Mercy

Justice is a fantasy. This is the deeply unsettling realization audiences can’t run from when in the presence of Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy. Just Mercy is about the outstanding attorney, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) who takes the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of a young white woman. Great casts are so important because they are responsible for breathing life into the projects they take on. Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson and Karen Kendrick don’t just breathe life into Just Mercy: They breathe eternal life as the vibrant quality of Just Mercy will never leave the hearts of those who truly have one. Foxx in particular is almost unrecognizable because his vulnerability is so deep and so pure, it’s as though he’s passing it around on a platter for audiences to sample from. Just Mercy is definitely one of those movies where the topic of racism will raise the level of white guilt among it’s caucasian audiences. Racism is hard to talk about generally speaking but many films only add more silence because there’s just such a sincere fear in simply having the conversations that need to take place. Many films are meant to inspire but they provoke instead. I’d like to think Just Mercy will be audiences breaking point for this issue. Just Mercy is a film that is hopeful above all else and I think that if a movie is powerful enough to inspire people to work together, it’s more likely they will. Just Mercy has terminated a significant portion of fear inside me regarding the ability to have current conversations. Nothing will ever be solved if we don’t work together and that’s just what Just Mercy will inspire when it reaches the hearts of audiences across the country this Christmas.


Queen Of Hearts

Queen Of Hearts is the most brutal film about infidelity I’ve ever seen. It’s not sexy, it’s not scandalous, it’s disturbingly tragic. Queen Of Hearts follows Anne (Trine Dyrholm), a successful lawyer who is committed to helping victims of domestic violence. She is married to Peter (Magnus Krepper) with whom she has two young daughters. Peter’s estranged teenage son from his previous marriage, Gustav (Gustav Lindh) soon moves in. There’s a significant amount of tension between himself, Peter and Anne. Tensions between Anne and Gustav soon lead to lust resulting in an illegal affair. Trine Dyrholm’s performance starts running the second the film begins and doesn’t stop until it ends. Anne is full of so many flaws and while there’s no excuse for her actions, it’s not until the affair ends that her most vicious actions start to show. She wanted it to end. She’s not seeking revenge, she’s just trying to cover everything up and as Queen Of Hearts gets closer to its final act, any possible regret she has vanishes, never to return. Many films about infidelity are seductive in a very pretentious fashion. Queen Of Hearts is a boiling pot of water that’s meant to shock audiences, not seduce them. Not long after the film ends, the shock wears off but the conversations begin. Hopefully, a nationwide release date is not too far away.


By The Grace Of God

By The Grace Of God is tragic enough to make audiences who never shed a tear...cry. The film stars French masterclasses, Melvil Poupaud, Denis Menochet and Swann Arlaud as three survivors of a Catholic priest’s sexual abuse who as adults set out to expose the sexual abuse still hidden by the Catholic Church. Over the course of 137 minutes, audiences must wrestle with the realization that something some people may have thought was over is in fact far from over. Bad things almost always happens to good people and this shows in all three performances. The level of love you’ll feel for the victims only becomes stronger when they all meet. By The Grace Of God has a very high confidence in regards to it’s script. There’s so much truth written down that you’d think filming would be a piece of cake. By The Grace Of God is filled with betrayal, heartache and turmoil but it also creates a very warm atmosphere due to it’s touching portrayal of friendship. These three men really come together and the journey they take will make you do exactly what the film will do as a whole: Hug those you love a little tighter, trust those in power a little less and breathe a little faster.


Portrait Of A Lady On Fire

Portrait Of A Lady On Fire is an exotically gorgeous romance that’s bound to become a classic indie. In Brittany, France 1770, Marianne (Noemie Merlant) a young female painter is hired by a french countess (Valeria Golino) to paint a portrait of her daughter Heloise (Adele Haenel) for her upcoming marriage. Marianne must study Heloise’s image and paint in secret as Heloise doesn’t want to marry the fiancé of her deceased sister who took her own life. The countess leaves for Italy for a while leaving Marianne and Heloise alone in the estate with only housemaid Sophie (Luana Bajrami). Over the course of the countess’s absence, Heloise lets her guard down and allows Marianne to paint her. They develop a mutual bond that blossoms into an intimate romance. There is a deep physical passion between the two but it’s really more that there’s so much emotional intimacy between them. Sophie has no idea what’s going on but she has her own secret and Marianne and Heloise become the shoulders for her to lean on in her time of need. The performances are very much like looking into the eyes of subjects of portrait paintings: Full of intellect and juicy details. The music is classically peaceful and the costumes symbolize many events that happen throughout the film. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire offers sincere intimacy and is free of mediocrity. Every scene is important and gives young romantics another classic to fantasize about their own future.


Nina Wu

Nina Wu is visually extraordinary and has a script with excellent dialogue. Unfortunately, that dialogue isn’t powerful enough to evaporate any confusion audiences will face after the film. Nina Wu (Wu Ke-xi) is an ambitious actor living in Taipei struggling to find work. She soon lands the lead role in a huge film that takes her to stardom. She soon finds herself deep in a dark rabbit hole of sexism, sexual abuse and humiliation. Films that resemble the me too movement are films that we need more of but they have to be portrayed right. Nina Wu is fearless with the high level of exposure it showcases in regards to the grotesque circumstances Nina Wu and the woman around her find themselves in. The audition scenes are the most brutal. The women are forced to behave like dogs, drink red wine and they may often wake up on the floor with a man inside them. I would’ve been more appreciative of the realistic exposure if the script wasn’t so confusing as a whole. Nina’s entry into sexism is partly psychological and her father’s mental illness didn’t seem to leave her untethered. Nina’s mental state gets worse and audiences are eventually burdened with having to determine what’s real and what’s in her head. I tried my best but I just couldn’t figure out when something was truly real and the audience I sat with (Mostly women) couldn’t seem to ethier. Nina Wu clearly has something important to say about the cult of the film industry but it doesn’t have a script intelligent enough to back that up. Wu Ke-xi gives a convincingly terrifying performance because if future female actors tolerate what Nina Wu does, it’ll be as though the me too movement never happened. The me too movement probably isn’t as big overseas as it is in America and Nina Wu at least had the decency to let audiences see the truth. Nina Wu left me feeling anxious and frustrated but hopeful for future films of this subject matter.


Marriage Story

Marriage Story is this generation’s Kramer vs Kramer. Emotional child custody battles took place in 1979 and they still happen today. No couple wants it to get that far but want doesn’t get. Divorce is never pretty and the central couple of Marriage Story, Nicole and Charlie (Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver) soon come to see their divorce as a face. The face of divorce was never going to be beautiful but more of a tolerable plain jane that they would both make it through for the sake of their child. Nicole and Charlie’s attorneys, Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) and Jay (Ray Liotta) effortlessly makes things more difficult for the both of them and as things get more ugly, so do their initial ability to keep things civil. The face of their divorce escalates from a tolerable plain Jane to an ugly hag. Things are said that can’t be taken back and actions take place that can never be undone. Nicole and Charlie continue to fall apart because they’re both too worn down and tired to try and pull themselves together. Johansson and Driver are fantastic because even though it’s hopeless between them, they somehow still leave audiences hoping they’ll get back together. Laura Dern is Marriage Story’s pearl in the shell and her performance is very much like her performance in Big Little Lies. Renata Klein and Nora Fanshaw inhabit the same body but also the same personality that is full of herself, bratty, immature but also smart, right on track and yes, a little bit lovable. Many scripts only work because the actors are talented enough to work with it. The script is just as intelligent as the actors who took on the roles of these people whose circumstances will hit close to home for many audiences. Marriage Story is one of 2019’s best films not because it’s great but because it doesn’t have to do anything to be great. It just is.


Swallow

Swallow is a uniquely original film about repression and breaking free. Hunter (Haley Bennet) is a newly pregnant housewife who deals with her loveless entrapment by starting a strange addiction: Swallowing household objects. Hunter’s wealthy husband (Austin Stowell) and her overbearing in laws (Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche) continue to tighten their grip over her life and she must turn to her past to uncover the source of her dangerous obsession. The supporting cast excels at portraying the kind of people Hunter is cornered by but overall, Swallow is Bennet’s film. Hunter is irrational but she’s not crazy. The more you learn about her, the more you understand her need to swallow objects. She’s trying to gain control and she doesn’t have that in her current life. Swallow takes place in modern day but she acts like a 1950s housewife as opposed to a modern stay at home mom. For someone suffering so deeply inside, she’s great at faking her happiness. She thinks that by being her husband’s fantasy, he’ll be more inclined to be what she needs. Hunter’s husband clearly has no interest in a two way street marriage and Hunter must follow her own road. Swallow is clever, impulsive, darkly comical, disturbing and always empathetic. It gave audiences far more than what I would’ve expected in 94 minutes.


Beanpole

Beanpole is the kind of film that is so great that audiences will leave the theater overwhelmed, thinking oh my god in their heads several times. The foreign language Russian film contains depth, power, humanity and everlasting beauty. In Leningrad, 1945, World War Two has destroyed the city, leaving it’s citizens in physical and mental turmoil. Iya Sergueeva (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and her friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) are nurses assistants at a hospital for wounded soldiers. Physically, Iya is very tall and lean which earns her the nickname Beanpole. Iya and Masha had become friends in the war. Masha had given birth to a young son on enemy lines and she tasked Iya to look after him in Leningrad. Iya has episodic emotional paralysis due to PTSD and one of her episodes results in the accidental death of Masha’s three year old son. Masha’s grief and Iya’s guilt swallow both of them whole and they struggle to find peace among the ruins. Miroshnichenko and Perelygina’s performances are like effective cleansers. They wash away any impurities any other actors may have inflicted on them. Beanpole’s leading ladies were so naturally flawless and no one else could have portrayed Iya and Masha the way they did. The cinematography is a beautiful haunting shadow of a dark history reaching the light. The writing is unforgettable. Kantemir Balagov and Aleksandr Terekhov are two men who wrote a passionate script for those who suffer afflictions who feel unheard. The voices of the characters were heard. I know for a fact that men can properly tell women’s stories but that statement right there is part of cinemas new political danger. If we are truly all equals, every story is made for all of us. I think that the injustices done to minorities have somehow taught society that their stories don’t apply to everyone and I find that to be a very dangerous and untruthful message. All stories are meant for everyone. Maybe not for the same reasons but not being seen as equals doesn’t mean we are not. Men can appreciate films like Beanpole just as much as women can. Beanpole could’ve just jumped in the water and that would’ve been enough to make it perfect. The film took the extra mile and swam the entire ocean of perfection.


The Report

The Report is presented as more of a docudrama than a feature film but with a topic so intense, The Report excels in it’s own favor. Senate staffer Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) is tasked with investigating the CIA’s torture of terrorist suspects in the years following 911. The investigation concludes that the interrogation techniques were ineffective, violent and immoral. The Senate Intelligence Committee attempt to publish their discoveries coming into conflict when the CIA and the White House’s attempts to block and undermine the report. Adam Driver, Annette Bening, Michael C Hall and Jon Hamm make up a cast of professionals that push the truth behind The Report closer to the eyes of shocked audiences. In a time of such devastation in our current political climate, nothing really surprises me anymore but people are still surprised by many actions. Many were surprised by the extent of brutality The Report contains and that at least leaves me hopeful. Many people still have a conscience. I hope audiences will try not to forget it. I for one will not.


Oh Mercy!

Oh Mercy! Is an absolute must for murder mystery audiences. On Christmas night in Roubaix France, local police chief Daoud (Roschdy Zem) and Louis (Antoine Reinartz), a new recruit are confronted with the violent murder of an elderly woman. The victims two neighbors, Claude (Lea Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier) are soon arrested resulting in an unforgettable interrogation. The performances contain credible conviction and clever unravelings. Seydoux in particular really raises her game as someone whose actions blow up in her face. Oh Mercy! Is written with riveting intensity and heart pounding intrigue designed to keep audiences holding their breath until the very last minute.


Harriet

The story of Harriet Tubman is an incredibly important one and a film about her is long overdue. I hold no disrespect towards any of the filmmakers and it deeply saddens me to say so but Harriet seemed to me more like a poorly made tv movie. Cynthia Erivo is generally very talented and I take issue with those who are angered by a british woman playing such a memorable hero but Erivo’s performance and the acting in general felt fake, inaccurate and unreliable. The script inspired the whole atmosphere of Harriet. The chase scenes felt so staged and the brutality of slavery as well as Harriet’s bravery were toned way down. There’s racist dialogue in the opening scene that shook me but otherwise, I didn’t feel that emotional scar of racist hatred and white guilt I usually obtain in films like Harriet. The reviews I read for Harriet haven’t been excellent and there’s been some backlash but not enough. It infuriates me that great films like The Help and Green Book are viciously ripped apart and Harriet can get off with only a few complaints. I’m not saying that the extent of racism exposed in The Help and Green Book were as brutal but it certainly has an emotional impact on the audience. Those films felt real, uncomfortable and they stayed with you. They may not have been perfect to some (To African Americans in particular) but those films to me did their best. I saw zero effort in Harriet. It’s so uncomfortable for me to be writing this because Harriet Tubman is such a hero of mine but she’s too important to be lied to. Hopefully when future films on Harriet Tubman are made, Harriet will be a source of what not to do.


Wounds

Wounds had some potential but the script as a whole was just like watching the film from start to finish. Sometimes while watching a film and you think it's not bad, not good, just ok. Mediocre. The final act eventually comes along and any house big enough to keep Wounds from being ridiculous just burns up in flames. Wounds follows New Orleans bartender Will (Armie Hammer) who brings home a phone left behind after a violent fight at his bar. After going through the phones content, Will falls deep into a web of unpredictable danger with no clear answers. Will isn’t a character that stays with you but Hammer does a fantastic job at playing in the role of the many young millennials like him. Will is a quitter, lazy and arrogant. There’s just no hesitation in how he chooses to come across to people and if he wants something, there’s that sense of entitlement that’s all too familiar. Dakota Johnson and Zazie Beetz have enough screen time to make a good performance but neither of them are allowed to be their own characters. Everything has to be about who they’re acting with but not in the same way. Dakota Johnson’s Carrie sort of has to observe Will to get anything out of him. Their relationship is already falling apart and Will’s lack of concern only enriches Johnson’s portrayal of casual attitude. If Will doesn’t even pretend to care about her, why should she have to? Zazie Beetz’s Alicia visits the bar frequently and unlike Carrie, she has the luxury to effortlessly interact with Will in the moment without consequence. It’s only when he does something to disrupt her life that she gets to take issue with him and remove him from her existence. Carrie’s way out the door is more long term. She’s not a quitter. She’s not happy but she won’t end things unless it’s truly for the best. The cinematography of New Orleans was captivating in an ordinary sense. It can be refreshing to know that places you’ve never been to don’t always look so different from where you are. I can see a lot of audiences appreciating that. Overall, don’t bother with Wounds unless you have the time. The film has some positive aspects but none of them are strong enough to remember upon questioning.


Seberg

Bigotry is a spider’s web. You’ll get tangled up in it if you’re not careful. Such is the reality in Benedict Andrew’s Seberg. Based on a true story in the late 1960s, actress Jean Seberg (Kristen Stewart) was targeted by the FBI due to her political and sexual involvement with Black Panthers activist Hakim Jamal (Anthony Mackie). Kristen Stewart portrays Seberg with genuine passion which grows as each vicious attack is thrown her way. Seberg understands she can’t solve everything. She’s knowingly doing the best that she as her own person can do for everyone who is suffering. She’s not trying to tend to the wound, she’s just trying to stop the bleeding and eventually, she’s not even allowed to do that.


Seberg lived in France for many years. She never says so but it’s clear that her love of French cinema was not the only reason she left America. Generally, she grew up surrounded by ignorance. Being liberal was considered being radical. It still is today. It’s a hard thing to learn how awful the world can be, especially in a country your constantly told is the greatest in the world. She had to get away and she did. She had made a new life for herself in France. She returns to America and she’s a fish out of water. America has gotten worse but she’s grown strong enough to handle it and to have that fire inside her to make a difference.


There’s a scene where one of the FBI agents investigating her (Vince Vaughn) is having dinner with his wife and daughter. The daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) is clearly uncomfortable with the things her father is saying and simply wanting to leave the table is considered disrespectful. She is verbally humiliated by him and witnesses him smashing a glass in rage. She has short blonde hair like Seberg but it’s her role in society that symbolizes that she’s like Seberg. She’s a closeted liberal unable to use her voice. That scene really said so much.


Zazie Beetz seems to have had a hard time getting film roles that are worthy of her talent. From Wounds to Joker to Lucy In The Sky, she’s been squashed down to simply being a pretty face. Seberg is the first film I’ve seen her in where she can really toss her performance to the top of the sky where the gods reside. I’ve always felt a great performance lies not in how much your in the film but how much you offer when you are in the film. Zazie Beetz’s performance as Dorothy Jamal gives audience a perspective from a side Seberg can’t fully reach. I knew before seeing Seberg that Zazie would be playing Dorothy Jamal who I knew found out about the affair. I was very worried about two things. I was worried that Zazie’s role wouldn’t go beyond her husband’s affair and that her role in regards to the affair would be a stereotype.


I’m happy to report that neither of these concerns took place. She’s just as much an activist as her husband is. The anger towards Seberg lies not in the affair but what that affair will do to their work. She reaches her breaking point right when her work is about to die and that’s when it would happen realistically. Men give very good performances here but it’s the women that give Seberg the healthy bones to stand up and make it’s statement. Seberg is a film that’s intrepid, undaunted and heroic.


The Lodge

The Lodge is a haunting psychological in-depth index study on the complexity of trauma and the anatomy of betrayal. The Lodge begins with Laura (Alicia Silverstone) dropping off her kids, Aidan (Jaeden Lieberher) and Mia (Lia Mchugh) at their father Richard’s (Richard Armitage) home for the weekend. She and Richard have been separated for awhile and once she and Richard are alone, she learns that he’s planning to marry his much younger girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough). Poor little Laura is obviously in no mood to celebrate any wedded bliss. She storms out and drives back to her house where she decides to deal with the offending engagement by doing something she can never take back.


Six months later, it’s winter and the grieving children are living with Richard. Following Laura’s impulsive exit, his engagement to Grace has been postponed. He wants his kids to finally meet Grace and to spend Christmas at their family Lodge. Aidan and Mia clearly blame Grace for what’s happened but have no choice in going. The four travel to the cozy lodge but the kids aren’t feeling very jolly. There’s awkward tension towards Grace and despite her every effort to get closer, the kids can’t stop seeing her as the source of all their suffering.


Prior to leaving, Aidan and Mia found out that Richard met Grace by writing a book about her. At 12 years old, she was the sole survivor of her catholic frantic father’s suicide cult in which 39 people (Including her father) took their lives. She was forced to videotape the aftermath of all the bodies in the church basement. Grace has been through years of recovery and is taking pills that seem to be helping her. In the lodge, hangs a catholic painting that belonged to Laura that obviously makes Grace very uncomfortable. It’s as though she’s looming over her hoping that everything will go wrong. Richard knew all along that he had to work before Christmas. He falsely but understandably hopes that by leaving the kids in Grace’s care, they’ll soon start to warm up to her.


Richard drives off and nothing really changes. Eventually, things continue to grow more disturbing. The power goes out, the phones are dead, there’s a snowstorm, Grace’s pills go missing and there’s nothing for miles. Everything that happens beyond this point, you’ll have to see the film to find out. The Lodge’s icy cinematography will fail to brighten cinema auditoriums. The cinematographer has therefore done his job. Every performance in The Lodge is perfectly and emotionally effective. Sometimes, the amazing accuracy of the pain is unbearable to watch. Riley Keough of course is the films whitest drop of snow. She is miraculously outstanding in every way. Seriously, she deserves roses thrown at her feet for her work here. I can’t begin to imagine the places she went to mentally to tap into Grace.


Something I really appreciated about Keough’s performance and The Lodge overall is that it didn’t demonize or dehumanize someone with a mental illness. The Lodge does portray someone mentally traumatized becoming dangerous to herself and to others but the circumstances surrounding this were not cliche. Nor did they come from anger or revenge. They came from fear. Fear from a dark past that is slowly and smugly resurfacing in her face.

The Lodge is a horror film but it’s a tragic drama above all else. The saddest thing about it is that there are no evil characters (Aside from Grace’s father of course). There’s just good people who happen to be fractured and flawed and make bad choices which says to me that they’re all human. What human with a heart could come through The Lodge’s turmoils untethered? Betrayal is a huge theme in The Lodge because everyone feels it. Richard feels betrayed by Laura, Laura feels betrayed by Richard, the kids feel betrayed by Richard and Grace and finally, Grace feel betrayed by her father.

Contrary to jumpscares, nothing is more terrifying than silence. The Lodge is a horror film dressed from head to toe in silence. All the characters exist in their own silences and their inability to verbally address their suffering long term results in affliction for everyone. Despite all the emotional brutality and eventual gore, The Lodge is an excruciatingly slow paced drama. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Those who are ok with this are bound to place The Lodge somewhere on their top 10 lists for 2019 films. The film boldly shadows the disgusting reality that while trauma is not a fault, it does obtain something no one today, especially innocent people can escape from: Consequences.


Clemency

Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency was the best film I saw at the Philadelphia Film Festival. If Clemency were a voice, it’d win so many Grammys, your head would spin. The voice of Clemency doesn’t hold anything back and it doesn’t rub anything in. Clemency follows Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), a death row prison warden who emotionally finally comes to a crossroads in her career. Two back to back executions put massive weight on her marriage, her career and her very essence.


Alfre Woodard has my Oscar vote. The facial expressions she offers up in times of crisis makes more sense than any book on logic you can find. The truth of the monologues she speaks come not from her mouth but her breath. Woodard breathes the air of Bernadine. She strapped herself in tightly before filming and remained seated every step of the way. I came to realize that Bernadine is the one in need of Clemency. She’s professional to the world but inside she’s screaming. Quitting her job won’t change the system she’s been at most of her life. This is partly why I think she stayed so long. She zones out during the executions she conducts. She is referred to by her title afterwards: Warden. She can’t snap herself back into reality until they call her Bernadine. Everything then goes back to square one. Death row follows a repeated vicious cycle and it’s a cycle Bernadine’s learned to live with in order to survive.


Wendell Pierce is fully selfless as Bernadine’s husband, Jonathan. He can’t grasp the extent of Bernadine’s inner pain but he effortlessly does the bare minimum: He appreciates it. He leaves their home briefly to think things over and returns to comfort her for the long hall. Bernadine is completely alone due to the inability of anyone else knowing her daily life accurately and not even her husband can fully fill that void that emptied her.


Aldis Hodge’s Anthony Woods leaves audiences empathetic while coming to terms with their sudden sorrows. Anthony has been on death row for years and his lawyer, Marty Lumetta (an adorably humble and paternal Richard Schiff) hasn’t been able to get him off. Marty is working tirelessly for an appeal but he knows all too well how its all going to end, hence the vicious cycle of death row. Danielle Brooks is only in one scene as Evette, Anthony’s former girlfriend. The height of how far emotionally, she was willing to go in her performance is so high, not even watching the movie will allow your eyes to see the top. She’s been holding things in for far too long and speaking the truths she always believed out loud offers her closure and hope for her future.


Internally, Bernadine, Marty, Jonathan, Evette and Anthony represent the five senses: Sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch. Bernadine is sight because she’s always looking towards the depth of the lifelessness that surrounds her every glance. Marty is smell because he can scent life inside the prison from his limited but genuine perspective of it but he’s still breathing. Jonathan is hearing but that’s all he can do. He can’t hear Bernadine when she rarely comes out of her shell because he can’t know what it’s truly like for her. Evette is taste because the taste of the words she speaks felt bitter when they were all bottled up but saying them directly to Anthony makes them taste ripe. Anthony is touch because he is always the one on the inside. He can’t grasp any kind of touch towards anything else.


Kathryn Bostic’s score is a masterclass ticking time bomb. The score symbolizes what’s always to come and audiences are the ones seeing it through. The pace of Clemency is very much like the executions Bernadine takes part in. It’s a slow process but never fake and always with an aching pinch on your nerves.

Clemency is not only the best film I saw at the Philadelphia Film Festival, it’s the best film of 2019. This means I feel it deserves to win Best Picture. With a ten film minimum, there’s more than enough room for a nomination and once audiences have the luxury of feasting their eyes on Chinonye Chukwu’s jaw dropping debut, there’s bound to be enough conversation to bring Clemency the clemency it deserves.

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