Jane – 8.2

An enchanting story, beautifully told. Who could resist watching this “comely miss,” Jane Goodall, clambering through the Tanzanian jungle in safari shorts, to be rewarded by acceptance from a troop of colorful chimpanzees. There is drama and action to match Planet of the Apes and a bittersweet love story with the dreamboat photographer sent to record Jane’s discoveries and personal appeal. The wildlife of Africa, seen in both micro- and macro- views, provides stunning punctuation throughout. In these times of trouble, which certainly extend to Africa, how pleasant it is to encounter a story where good is done and determination is rewarded. My choice for the Oscars.

Murder on the Orient Express – 6

The biggest source of mystery here was figuring out which famous stars were playing all the characters. Judi Dench was easy, but her companion was harder: Olivia Colman of Night Manager and Happy Valley. And who has seen Michelle Pfeiffer, who looked fabulous, in years? The scenery was lovely and the romance of a train ride remains vivid. What didn’t work, aside from the farfetched plot, was Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot. He never seemed comfortable in the role, and his constant presence left a gaping hole in the movie. Would a different director have noticed this?

Lady Bird – 8

Adorable story of a high school senior in Sacramento, with Saoirse Ronan playing Greta Gerwig to a T. The humor is perceptive and non-stop, never broad, and the lead character works her believability into our minds and hearts. The coda in New York raises more questions than it answers and could have been omitted, but by then we’d been won over, so it hardly mattered.

Human Flow – 7.5

Remarkable for what it was, an artistic portrait of refugee populations around the globe. Among the things it didn’t try to do: identify the causes of the refugee crisis, suggest solutions, blame anyone, show squalor or desperation, or make the audience feel guilty or bad. Like a good artwork, the film presents itself and lets the viewer bring her own thoughts, ideas and preconceptions to the experience. For example, although I doubt this was director Ai Weiwei’s intention, I thought immediately of how American foreign policy has caused or exacerbated almost every one of the refugee situations depicted – the Rohingya of Myanmar being perhaps the only exception. Everyone that Ai interviewed was articulate, fully clothed and seemingly healthy, and Ai’s casual appearance at each location was both lighthearted and a connective thread that brought the movie down to earth. Above all, the physical beauty of the cinematography and the geographic settings softened a story that otherwise might have been hard to sit through for two hours, twenty minutes.

Faces Places – 6

On the plus side: A love letter to France, its small towns and its people (the French title, Visages Villages, says it better). The art of JR – huge black-and-white photo portraits pasted on local walls – that makes you smile.
The negative: whereas in many documentaries I am amazed how people ignore the fact they’re being filmed, here I felt every scene was played for the camera. The setup was hokey, the dialogue unnatural, and I never felt the “genuine affection” between JR and Agnes Varda that I sensed I was supposed to feel. What was Agnes Varda even doing in the picture? There were cute moments, but the whole was less than the sum of its parts, and could have been 20 minutes shorter without a complaint from me.