These days it’s extremely rare of me to see films that are current enough to be able to write a review that could actually be timely–before the films leave theaters or the Netflix trending queue. Given that, I thought I’d take advantage of this unusual situation while I can, because I recently saw three movies that are all worth a look, and a review. On this, the third to last day of the decade of the 2010s, I thought I’d dash off my thoughts on three important films going around now: The Two Popes, The Irishman and Little Women. Especially after the latter film, I’m exceedingly glad that, thanks to my husband, I didn’t get sucked into the malestrom of still more Star Wars mania. Though I will eventually see Rise of Skywalker, I was much more interested in these three movies which are part of its competition. So let’s see how they shake out as we round out 2019, an interesting year in cinema history.
The Two Popes (Fernando Meirelles, Director)
The Two Popes is a heartfelt and surprisingly charming peek into one of the most exclusive pinnacles of power on Earth throughout history: the papacy. Few of us know anything about the popes, beyond their names and their occasional appearance in video footage on the news. Yet today the papacy and the men who inhabit it are still vitally important in the life of the world. The Two Popes never questions that assumption, though it does not explain it. The ascension of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to St. Peter’s throne as Pope Francis I in 2013 has profound implications for the world’s biggest problem, that being climate change. Though the words “climate change” are never spoken in The Two Popes–one of my few substantive criticisms about it–there is mention of the despoliation of the Earth and its environment, but one must go into the film knowing at least a little about the real Pope Francis, and his commitment to preserving the Earth from the standpoint of a theological and moral imperative. That same imperative, which he espoused in 2015 with his “Encyclical” titled Laudato Si’, was arguably the biggest news story of 2019, especially when a secular but still compelling version of it began to come out of the mouth of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, possibly the world’s most important person during the last year.
But politics and climate change aside, The Two Popes is an excellent and entertaining movie. It centers on the relationship between Bergoglio, played as a young man by Juan Minujín and as an older man by Jonathan Pryce, and his boss, Cardinal Bernard Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), who in the opening minutes of the film is elected Pope Benedict XVI. The story really begins when Bergoglio travels from Argentina to seek the Pope’s permission to retire. Battered by decades of dictatorship in Argentina and disillusioned by the Catholic Church’s centuries-long cover-up of sexual abuse by priests, Bergoglio feels he can no longer serve God or the Church in the way he imagined in his youth. To his surprise, Ratzinger refuses to accept his resignation, and eventually, to Bergoglio’s surprise, begins grooming him as his successor–a much-needed reform-minded cardinal who can bring to the Church the needed changes that Ratzinger himself cannot even envision, much less execute. The real meat of the film is the personal relationship that develops between Bergoglio and Ratzinger, which unfolds and intertwines with a series of flashbacks to Bergoglio’s past career in Argentina–a career marked as much by missteps and imperfection as by his genuine desire to do good.
Jonathan Pryce’s performance as Pope Francis/Cardinal Bergoglio in The Two Popes is perhaps his finest ever. Here he is talking about making the film.
The pillar this film rests on is the performances of Pryce and Hopkins. You can take for granted that Hopkins will be stunning in anything he takes on, so that’s hardly worth thinking about; of course he’s absolutely pitch-perfect in the role of Benedict XVI. His surprising equal, though, is Pryce, who gives the performance of his career here. He really makes you see the depths of Bergoglio’s compassion and his regrets, his imperfection as well as his quiet and sometimes unconscious ambition. Pryce, however, could not play this character without the equally strong counterpart of Minujín who portrays Bergoglio in the past. The two performances meld seamlessly and despite the fact that they look very different, as a viewer you have no doubt they’re the same man. Add to this the light but wise hand of director Fernando Meirelles, who can show the human reality of life in Latin America perhaps better than any other director working today, and you have a very solid film that delivers everything it promises. There are a few uneven moments, and, as I said, I wish the film hit climate change harder. But on the whole it’s a triumph, well worth the investment of time.
The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, Director)
As you may know, I’m a huge Martin Scorsese fan, and this blog is littered with various articles about his films (GoodFellas, times three; Cape Fear; Gangs of New York; The Departed etc). So I was eagerly awaiting the release (on Netflix) of The Irishman, whose buzz held that it was basically a “GoodFellas reunion” featuring Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, a return to the Mafia milieu, and with the addition of Al Pacino. Unfortunately, the reality of The Irishman did not live up to the promise of its buzz. It’s not a bad film by any means, though as soon as I started into it I understood why it was getting bad reviews and even seasoned Scorsese fans were trashing it.
The Irishman‘s title character is Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), a small-time hood and enforcer who comes out of Philadelphia in the 1950s and gradually makes his way into the inner circle of powerful Teamsters Union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Sheeran’s constant companion is Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci) who is connected, of course, to the mob, with whom Hoffa has both an antagonism and a dependence upon in order to maintain his power within the union. The film chronicles the lives and careers of these three main characters from the 1950s up until Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975, and even beyond; the story is framed by the device of Sheeran narrating his history as an old man in presumably the present day. Surprisingly this is really all I can tell you about the plot of a film that is 3 1/2 hours, as long as Lawrence of Arabia or The Last Emperor. Can you get a sense of the problems the movie has from this?
Al Pacino brings his usual intensity to his performance as Jimmy Hoffa, as you can see in this scene from The Irishman. I just wish the movie was better–and shorter!
The central problem isn’t really that The Irishman is way too long, although clearly it is, or that it moves way too slowly, though obviously it does. It’s that it has nothing of any real interest to say. It’s not, as you might expect, a rumination on the limits of power or the dimensions of corruption. It’s never really clear what the main characters want, which consequently results in it being unclear who they are. GoodFellas worked because it was knit together by the feverish kinetic energy of the mob lifestyle, which was ultimately what its main character, Henry Hill, was above all trying to hang on to. Scorsese ascribes no such motivation to any of the three main characters here. Hoffa, though well-impersonated by Pacino, comes off as a very shallow man without much talent or drive beyond the bureaucratic functions of the union he runs. Sheeran and Bufalino are not good, not evil, not menacing, and unfortunately not very interesting. What do these guys want? It’s never clear. Why do they do what they do? That’s not clear either. Why do they want Hoffa dead? The movie doesn’t really seem to care. By the end, neither did I. I just wanted it to be over.
The Irishman is an epic-length film about something that is most definitely not an epic. Here we get into Scorsese’s editorial choices. The entire first hour of the film could be deleted without any loss to anyone. The long slow build-up establishes no characterizations that we don’t see later and presents no plot points of any particular value. The last half hour of the picture is similarly useless; for all we see of the characters in old make-up and wheelchairs, there’s no sense of closure, no catharsis, no summing up of lives or careers. But length and pacing are only peripheral problems. I’m not sure that if The Irishman was two hours long it would be significantly better than it is at 3 1/2 hours, though it’d certainly be easier to sit through. And I must also say that the CGI used to make De Niro and Pesci look young at the beginning of the film is extremely creepy and not entirely successful. Granted, it’s not as bad as the abomination of Cats, but in future I think make-up is better than CGI for this kind of thing. All told, The Irishman is a missed opportunity.
Little Women (Greta Gerweig, Director)
A few days ago, just after Christmas, my husband turned to me and said, apropos of nothing, “You know what? F*ck Star Wars. Let’s go see Little Women.” Going along with this was the best movie-related decision I made in 2019. Little Women is the best film of the year and an absolutely devastating emotional wallop. It’s everything great movies can still be, and it’s a terrific piece of work from perhaps the brightest upcoming director working in film today.
Based, of course, on the 1869 novel by Louisa May Alcott, Little Women focuses on four sisters growing up in a New England household in the mid-19th century. Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) is the industrious one of the group, a writer who has no interest in getting married and is laser-focused on her own literary and personal achievements, often to the dismay of her family. Meg (Emma Watson) seeks love and acceptance, and often laments that the family’s generally poor conditions–though not as poor as some of their neighbors–mean she can’t enjoy the finer things of well-bred ladies. Amy (Florence Pugh) is the sister who feels left out, consistently resenting the successes particularly of Jo and Meg. And the frail Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is the free spirit, a waifish girl who plays piano at the nearby house of millionaire Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), whose only living relative is his grandson Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), who becomes romantically involved with more than one of the sisters. The action shifts between New England and Paris, and involves flashbacks spanning at least seven years as the sisters’ lives tangle together and split apart, and as old rivalries result in fresh opportunities for pain–and for reconciliation. Little Women is also metafictional; I hope I’m not spoiling anything by disclosing that Jo eventually writes a book titled Little Women, based on her sisters.
Saorise Ronan and Timothee Chalamet are perhaps the hottest things in movies today–both in terms of acting ability and sex appeal. Here’s an example of what they can do together in a scene from Little Women.
Little Women is masterful. Its direction by Greta Gerweig, who helmed last year’s exquisite Lady Bird (also with Saorise Ronan), is so wise and savvy that every emotion the film pulls out of you–and there are many–is genuinely heartfelt. Nowhere does it seem Gerweig is manipulating us or twisting the lives of the characters just to elicit a reaction. And every single one of them is perfectly acted. Ronan, as Jo, carries the picture, but she’s aided by a very strong supporting cast; I especially liked Florence Pugh’s performance, and I would watch Timothee Chalamet read from a phone book for two hours with rapt attention. Gerweig also wisely keeps the film from being overshadowed by its prestigious A-list supporting stars, which include Chris Cooper as the old man next door, Laura Dern as the girls’ mother, and an irascible Meryl Streep in chalky make-up as the girls’ aloof and very rich aunt.
It’s amazing that, in an era of tent-pole franchises, CGI-drenched superhero movies and idiotic misfires like the aforementioned Cats, pictures like Little Women are still getting made, and studios are throwing significant budgets at them. The film is lavishly costumed and decorated, it looks fabulous, and nearly every shot could be framed as a painting. Despite this, it never seems to be preening or overbearing, never demands that the viewer appreciate its period accuracy or its visual beauty even as those forces work to bolster the emotional performances and storyline. Really my only quibble with Little Women is that in its structure of flashbacks and flash-forwards it’s sometimes hard to tell exactly when a particular event is taking place, or at least it takes you a while to catch on.
Here is another scene from Little Women, showcasing the considerable acting talents of Florence Pugh as Amy March.
Little Women is terrific. It’s a triumph. I think I will love this movie for many years to come. Warning: stock up on Kleenex before you see it. You’ll be a mess by the time it’s over.
Thanks for joining me on this look at three films of 2019. Best wishes for the new year and the coming decade.