JUST MERCY. While Just Mercy, the latest from director and co-writer Destin Daniel Crettin (Short Term 12, 2013; The Glass Castle, 2017), adapting Bryan Stevenson's memoir with Andrew Lanham, belongs in the Important column, it arrives without self-generated fanfare or grandstanding. It builds a case for its own significance with quietly confident style, heartfelt and often heartbreaking performances, and an adherence to truth, justice and kindness as essential tenets of the human experience.
In an age when the South has risen again — not the chronically underserved bulk of the populace therein, just its (perhaps unfairly) defining bigotry — it can be easy to condemn and dismiss the entire region. Especially from the vantage point of the Far Left Coast, it can too easily become homogenized, all white hate and ignorance. While there is some truth to that perspective, its willful solipsism only dehumanizes and distances us, further entrenching us in hopelessness.
Just Mercy does not shy from the notion that some situations are untenable and some lives are defined by the absence of hope, or that the machinery of law, if operated by people of bias or ulterior motivation, can and will be corrupted. But it posits that such wrongs can be righted.
In the early 1990s, fresh from Harvard Law School, Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) packs his wheezing Toyota and leaves the family home in Delaware for rural Alabama, where he hopes to give voice to the voiceless. With the help of stalwart Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) and much to the chagrin of the community at large, he establishes the Equal Justice Institute, providing legal defense to the under-represented (primarily death row inmates).
In his initial series of interviews, he meets Walter "Johnnie D" McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was convicted some six years earlier for the gun murder of an 18-year-old girl. Despite a shocking lack of evidence, Johnnie D was essentially convicted before the trial began, having run afoul of the conniving, racist Sheriff Tate (Michael Harding) for carrying on a brief extramarital affair with a white woman.
Johnnie D is initially skeptical of Bryan's motives and ability, having burned through his family's savings paying another lawyer who accomplished nothing. Resigned to his fate, crushed under the weight of a monolithic (in)justice system, he is not wrong to assume he has no options. But Bryan, perhaps naively, fervently believes in the rule of law; having examined Johnnie D's case he cannot believe the miscarriages of justice therein will not be corrected when exposed to the light. So begins the arduous process of getting at the truth and confronting a community, including the officers of its law enforcement and judicial agencies, violently reluctant to shift from its narrow view of justice.
Crettin's movies are founded on optimism and belief in humanity's capacity for kindness and change. The art he produces can, as a result, sometimes play as a little soft and tame, but his underlying theme is so vital, so eternal and, lately, so frequently forgotten that this "shortcoming" is easily forgiven. Just Mercy cannot only be defined by its messaging. Crettin is a fine director, with a fluid, deceptively easy visual style and a rapport with actors who can produce tremendous performances. Jordan is clearly the star here, appearing in every scene, but it is the supporting cast who really carry the movie, with Foxx and Larson doing great work that is equaled, if not exceeded by Rob Morgan, O'Shea Jackson Jr. and Tim Blake Nelson in much smaller roles. PG13. 136M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
1917. I didn't know beforehand Sam Mendes' (American Beauty, 1999; Spectre, 2015) latest is staged to look like one continuous shot. It's a trick that has been used to varying degrees of success for the better part of a century (see: Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, 1948). I'm glad my initial ignorance kept me from a cynical approach.
While the technical achievement of the movie — credit, as always, to magician of cinematography Roger Deakins — could distract, it gives the story urgency, immediacy and dream-like continuity, which are in keeping with its pace and tone.
April 1917, two British Lance Corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George Mackay) are dispatched by Gen. Erinmore (Colin Firth) on a critical mission. They must cross No Man's Land and proceed deep into territory formerly held by the enemy to deliver an urgent message to stop an assault that will mean certain death for hundreds of their comrades. The journey is arduous and tragic, of course, but in the telling becomes equally otherworldly, lyrical and horrific. R. 119M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
— John J. Bennett is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase and prefers he/him pronouns.
*Updated listings were not available for Broadway and Mill Creek. See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards› Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
BAD BOYS FOR LIFE. Will Smith and Martin Lawrence return to the buddy cop franchise set in Miami. R. 123M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
COLOR OUT OF SPACE. A town is struck by both a meteorite and Nicholas Cage in this H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. R. 111M. MINOR.
DOLITTLE. The eccentric vet who talks to animals played by Robert Downey Jr. With Antonio Banderas. PG. 101M. FORTUNA.
HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002). Maybe a school shouldn't have a chamber of secrets. PG. 181M. BROADWAY
THE ANIMATION SHOW OF SHOWS. The 21st annual compilation of the best animated shorts from around the world. NR. MINIPLEX.
BOMBSHELL. Charles Randolph's script and a cast (Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, John Lithgow) bring the Fox News sexual harassment scandal to life with nuance. R. 108M. BROADWAY.
DIVING DEEP: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MIKE DEGRUY. Mimi Armstrong deGruy pays tribute to her late husband with this documentary about his career as an ocean explorer. NR. 83M. MINIPLEX.
FROZEN 2. Elsa and Anna return for more snowbound sisterly adventure and to put that song back in your head. PG. 104M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
THE GRUDGE. This spinoff of a remake of a Japanese horror movie lacks story and leans on blood-bag special effects for an amber-tinted waste of time and John Cho. R. 93M. BROADWAY.
JUMANJI: THE NEXT LEVEL. Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart are literally back in the game, which is glitching. PG13. 123M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
KNIVES OUT. Director Rian Johnson's tightly controlled whodunnit both pays homage to and raises the stakes of classic mystery with a stellar cast. Starring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis and Chris Evans. PG13. 130M. BROADWAY.
LIKE A BOSS. Besties (Tiffany Haddish, Rose Byrne) with a beauty business wrest their company from an evil tycoon (Salma Hayek). R. 83M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
LITTLE WOMEN. Writer/director Greta Gerwig's artfully executed and well-acted adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's novel has narrative complexity that will reward multiple viewings. Starring Saorise Ronan, Emma Watson and Laura Dern. PG. 134M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
SPIES IN DISGUISE. Karen Gillan, Will Smith and Tom Holland voice an animated comedy-adventure about a spy who's turned into a pigeon. Yeah, I got nothing. PG. 101M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. J.J. Abrams steers a tremendous cast, fantastic effects and a few rousing sequences but this busy wrap-up drowns out emotional moments. PG. 141M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
UNCUT GEMS. The Safdie brothers' small, tense story about a New York jeweler on the make (Adam Sandler) is filled with dread and hope up to its punishing climax. R. 135M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
UNDERWATER. When their deep-sea lab is compromised, a research team (Kristin Stewart, Jessica Henwick, Vincent Cassel) has to venture out to the ocean floor where terrifying creatures await. PG13. 95M. FORTUNA
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill