The Two Popes – 9

What an intelligent film! What acting! And how daring – to base a film on the life of a living person, and the Pope, no less! I’m not a Catholic, but the spectacle of cardinals in robes, the scale of the Vatican and Castel Gondolfo, and the power and beauty of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel were awe-inspiring. The story itself, capturing the doctrinal debate within the Catholic Church, was smoothly laid out and instructive. But all was background for two Oscar-worthy performances: Anthony Hopkins can be a ham, but being God’s right-hand man provides a license for excess. The revelation was Jonathan Pryce, who somehow matched Hopkins with his modesty. The scenes of the two of them in conversation together were absolutely riveting. I could have used less of the Argentine flashback story, but that may be because I was eager to return to the splendor of Rome.

Ford v. Ferrari – 8

For a welcome change, a red-blooded bromance, mavericks-against-the-establishment, Americans-vs.-Italians action drama, made memorable by the protean Christian Bale’s portrayal of race driver Ken Miles. Matt Damon is solidly good, as he always is, and the rest of the supporting cast is almost as fun to watch. My only quibble – and in such a long movie having only one is remarkable – is that the Ford VP bad guy (Leo Beebe) is wildly overdrawn; but hey, what’s wrong with setting up a villain to root against. That’s what this film provides, in spades: a chance to root.

Little Women – 7

Not having read the book, I first struggled to identify the four sisters, then I continued to struggle with Greta Gerwig’s constant cutting between “seven years earlier” and the present. Then I had to adjust to the semi-saccharine tone of the girls (with the occasional exception of nasty little sister Amy), the mother, and the neighbors all doing good and constantly playing happily together. All the jumping around certainly kept me on my toes, and Saoirse Ronan is a delight to watch. Timothee Chalamet was as beautiful as ever, although I’m wondering if by now I’ve seen too much of his beauty. And speaking of beauty, the camera shots were a little too beautiful: they distracted my attention from the actors and didn’t seem in keeping with the homespun story. As my (female) companion said, “I liked it, but I didn’t love it.”

Harriet – 5

Sorry, I know I’m supposed to feel warmhearted about Harriet Tubman’s story, but the movie left me cold. First, the characters were too, pardon the expression, black-and-white. Second, Cynthia Erivo may have looked like Tubman but was neither inspired nor inspiring enough to convince me. The two supposedly rousing speeches she gave, to abolitionists in Massachusetts and Union soldiers, were flat and left me cold. She was presented as a black Joan of Arc, but I never saw it. Third, the escapes with the runaway slaves, however grounded in historic fact, seemed wildly implausible. Harriet may have made it out on her own, through daring, luck and the kindness of strangers, but the film offered no evidence for her repeating the feat with a half-dozen others, old and young, with an armed posse and bloodhounds on their trail. Janelle Monae was excellent, but the rest of the film was bleached of subtlety or shading.

1917 – 5

Despite theoretically compressing 18 non-stop hours into a two-hour film, the pace was so slow that I kept overanalyzing  the absurd story. Yes, war is senseless, but if 1,200 lives are at stake, can’t you do better than send a total greenhorn and whomever he chooses off on a horrendously challenging rescue mission? And why do they have to crawl over corpses through no-man’s land when there is an armed caravan of Allied troops driving up the road ahead of them? And when our hero meets this caravan, why is he sent off alone on this crucial mission? And what about the planes flying overhead? Can’t they deliver a message? And why are our heroes loath to hurt the Germans when they encounter them? As other critics have noted, we bounce from obstacle to obstacle like a video game, without any effort at characterization; and this movie competes with Harriet for glossing over how the end zone is miraculously reached. Having Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch in the roles of commanding officers only accentuated the inappropriateness of entrusting our two with anything.

Honeyboy – 5

Enough already of movies about losers, fathers as bullies and situations that make you scream, just leave, for Pete’s sake. If I want to be miserable I can read the New York Times, I don’t need to spend two hours in a movie theater. The film’s structure resembled Pain and Glory, but that may be giving Shia LeBoeuf too much credit by association. It was undoubtedly cathartic for him to make a movie about his tortured childhood, but it didn’t help me any.

Laundromat – 7

This is the third “whistleblower” film I’ve seen this week. Whereas the first two – The —Report” and “Dark Water” – were unremittingly serious, Laundromat is a comedy, with Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas hamming it up as Mossack and Fonseca, name partners of the Panama City law firm recently exposed for its tax-evasion and money laundering (hence the film title) practices. Tying the narrative thread is Meryl Streep in a comic role as a small-town widow intent on finding out what happened to the insurance payout from her husband’s death. The movie presents a series of anecdotes illustrating the unsavory tactics of M&F clients – none of which, unfortunately, helped me understand what exactly M&F did. Yes, they created shell corporations in tax havens, but how did that work? What was clear, because the movie came out and said it, is that “they system” allows the rich to get richer through often-legal tax avoidance, and the meek won’t be inheriting the earth any time soon.

Dark Waters – 7

Mark Ruffalo reprises his role from Spotlight, except this time it’s just him. Although “based on a true story,” or at least a magazine article, it seemed so unlikely that a brand new partner would take on this case just because the plaintiff knew his “Grammer,” and even more impossible that he could conduct the research, discovery, motion practice and trials seemingly by himself. If there was another side to the story – as there always is  – we never got an inkling. Granted, this all simplified and heightened the drama, but the absence of subtlety and strict adherence to formula pushed the film more toward average than exceptional. Anne Hathaway was good as an unusually restrained and supportive spouse.

Marriage Story – 7

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver both give remarkably sensitive portrayals of a couple who love each other but can’t get along, and your sympathy slides from one to the other in the world of grey that real people inhabit. Everyone else, oddly enough, is a caricature. This sets the stars apart but ultimately cheapens the movie. Many stretches of the film were painful to watch – undoubtedly Noah Baumbach’s intention but not something I enjoyed. And I didn’t need the blood-letting scene.

Knives Out – 7.9

As opposed to JoJo Rabbit, which tried – unsuccessfully, in my view – to mix slapstick with serious matter, Knives Out never faltered from its tone: spoof. The whodunit plot clicked into place marvelously, and all the characters got what they deserved , unless you consider the 85-year-old patriarch’s slitting his throat to have been a tad premature. And when I say “spoof,” I don’t mean silly, for there was an undertone of message – as in, being greedy and selfish isn’t the best way to get along with others. Daniel Craig with a Southern drawl set the bar, and all the other actors limboed joyfully under.