Seberg – 6.5

There’s a lot of Kristen Stewart in this film, which is a pretty good thing, as well as a reminder that the U.S. Department of Justice has suffered from a political agenda in the past. The movie is based on a true story, which is its only reason – besides showcasing Stewart – for existing. If we didn’t know who Jean Seberg was, or how J. Edgar Hoover was using the FBI, I wouldn’t have thought much about the story, which was low on surprise and drama, and petered out at the end. In many respects, this reminded me of Judy, which had a more interesting supporting cast but less appealing star.

The Traitor – 8

Here was a world I knew well, from The Irishman, Narcos, Sopranos, The Godfather and many more. As in The Irishman, the central figure, Tommaso Buscetta, was a “soldier,” but as played by Pierfrancesco Favino he is the dominant figure you want to watch, everything De Niro wasn’t. This, too, was a true story, which had plusses and minuses. Negative was the need to throw in historic episodes, such as the trial of ex-Premier Giulio Andreotti, that detracted from the movie’s dramatic arc. Positive was the help in suspending disbelief as one after another mobster was executed, often in grisly fashion. For a foreigner, the best new angle here was the film’s insight into Italy’s legal system and the light touch – even humor – that director Marco Bellocchio brought to the subject. The opening 20 minutes was a Cosa Nostra version of Saving Private Ryan, but once things settled down there were enough recognizable characters to populate a whole miniseries. Powerful, engaging and historically informative.

Les Miserables – 8.2

Almost a masterpiece by French director Ladj Ly. The people and the setting are real and harrowing. Every moment is fraught with tension, but it all makes sense, as we live through the worst possible first day on the job for Special Crimes Unit newcomer Ruiz. The entire day is spent meeting the denizens of Montfermeil, a Parisian suburb home to African immigrants and similar residents of the lower depths, defusing crises, including one brought on by the cops. The interplay among the three policemen is brilliant: each is different but understandable, and how they get along is one of the film’s tensions, but only one. At the end of the day, there has been a resolution – at least enough to get along for another day – and the film slows to a meditative ending, with successive close-ups of each of the principals, home from the stress of the day. But the film doesn’t end! We are shown a sped-up second day in which all hell breaks loose. Instead of the realism of Day One, the movie devolves into an all-out bang-bang chase and shoot-out, like so many lesser films. The peace and understanding and amazement I felt at the close of day one was blown away by the pessimistic coda: there is no hope – a message I didn’t want or need and one I wasn’t sure was set up by what had come before. So, as I said, “almost a masterpiece.”

Uncut Gems – 7.5

“Intense movie,” said the usher as I, and the two other men in the audience, left the theater. High-stress, high-volume is another way to describe the life of jeweller Howard Ratner, played brilliantly by Adam Sandler – neither hero nor antihero, a gambling addict, basketball fan, unfaithful husband, lousy father whom you don’t exactly root for or against but can’t take your eyes off of. You accept the dramatic license, which packs about six months of traumatic incident into six days, partly because the Safdie brothers weave real-life touches – an Ethiopian mine accident, the Celtics’ NBA finals against the 76ers, a club performance by the Weeknd – so smoothly into the frantic narrative of Howard’s existence. Kevin Garnett and newcomer Keith Williams Richards are memorable in secondary roles. It’s a serious movie with a great performance and fitting ending, but it’s not for everyone.

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.