Just Mercy 2019 ****

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The American Academy acted to ensure that race and gender bias would not be an on-going issue; the lack of recognition for Destin Daniel Creton’s Just Mercy in terms of coveted Oscar nominations suggest they will have to go further.  This is a compelling drama about wrongful accusation, race and capital punishment that should be a good bet for recognition. The shunning of this, and of Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us in tv/streaming awards, suggests that Just Mercy will have to settle for satisfying its own audience. It sets a bad example for the US academy to view and then not recognise strong work due to the race or gender of the film-makers; there’s considerable evidence that this happened in 2019/2020.

Michael B Jordan doesn’t have much to go on as lawyer Bryan Stevenson, but the actor’s charisma and personable approach take him a long way. He’s strip-searched on his way to Death Row, where he interviews a number of potential clients, notably Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx). The temporary loss of Steven’s dignity is nothing compared to McMillian’s long terms incarceration for a crime that doesn’t have any existing evidence for. Stevenson makes contact with a number of Death Row inmates, the execution of one of whom forms a key moment here. But with the improbably glamorous Eva (Brie Larson) shuffling the papers, it’s an aspirational fight for justice that keeps dignity until a swirl of celestial choirs overwhelm the final scenes.

Miscarriages of justice make for compelling cinema, and Just Mercy gains from being based on Stevenson’s book about the real-life case. There are touches of worldly humor; when Stevenson finds cassettes relating to a false confession and asks for permission to copy them, the black woman manning the evidence desk shrugs and says ‘They ain’t paying me enough to stop you.’ Such interludes are welcome, because Just Mercy feels a little sanctimonious at times; it feels like McMillian’s cynical voice is too often left off-screen.

Such nit-picking aside, Just Mercy has a strong relevance to the black experience of America in 2020. ‘I’m just trying to help,’ says Stevenson, and the thrust of the film is that black communities will have to help themselves, because no-one else will be willing to right the wrong perpetrated against them. That’s a truth worth articulating, whether white-dominated awards bodies recognise it or not.

Perfect 1985 ***

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A much-hyped movie that unexpectedly crashed and burned at the box office, James Bridges’ Perfect emerges on streaming circa 2019 as an unfairly maligned movie. Re-teaming Bridges with star John Travolta, after their hot Urban Cowboy collaboration, promised much. Throw in Jamie Lee Curtis, hot from Halloween and Trading Places, and what could go wrong? Particularly as Travolta gets to dance as part of the fitness-instruction theme, a hot topic for 1985.

The problem is, Travolta’s character isn’t a dancer, he’s a journalist, and for once, Perfect is a movie that seems determined to get the key issues of journalistic ethics out there. Adam Lawrence (Travolta ) is introduced working on a tricky interview for Rolling Stone with a John DeLorean-type figure; the disgraced businessman grants him an interview, and Lawrence refuses to turn over the tapes to the feds. A journalist does not have to reveal their sources, but Lawrence faces jail-time for his actions.

This is all very interesting, and well caught; the Rolling Stone offices are meticulously rebuilt for various scenes, and Travolta’s boss is played by a real Rolling Stone editor. But Perfect is better known for the other storyline, in which Lawrence infiltrates an LA fitness club looking for an expose on the rampant sexual promiscuity he imagines. Jessie (Jamie Lee Curtis) shares her story and her bed with Lawrence, but she’s got a natural suspicion of journalists after a bad experience, and their relationship is turbulent to say the least.

Perfect is a thoughtful exploration of journalistic ethics; critics focused on the propulsive dance scenes, of which there were few. Although both movies were based on magazine articles, Bridges’ film is not intended to make Travolta cool in a Saturday Night Fever Way. Instead, it’s Curtis who really resonates as a wronged woman who is keen to protect herself from a predatory press; she’s terrific in this film, and Travolta isn’t bad either. Perfect accidentally baited and switched an audience who probably just wanted to see Curtis and Travolta dance to some of the hideous music featured here, but as a time-capsule of LA circa 1985 (Carly Simon cameos, Boy George mania!), it’s a enjoyable look back at weightier preoccupations, albeit in a famously airheaded era.

The Judge 2014 ***

the-judge-movie-robert-downey-jr-robert-duvallDirected by David Dobkin, The Judge’s old-fashioned courtroom drama didn’t find much favour with audiences or critics; as a vehicle for Robert Downey Jr, it’s a watchable and well-performed drama that gives its start the opportunity to expand his range. Downey Jr plays Hank Palmer, a successful but unscrupulous lawyer who returns to his small-town home when his father Joseph (Robert Duvall) is involved in a road accident. Joseph is a judge, and the legal complications about his guilt leave Hank is something of a quandary. Vera Farmiga is sweetheart interest Samantha, and an incest subplot with her daughter would have been better excised. But Downey Jr and Duvall both provide slick, accessible performances, and The Judge doesn’t hold back from the strains on a father-son relationship when the old man’s illness becomes apparent.