Movie review: The Boys In The Boat

directed by George Clooney

On Thursday, February 15, I was having a cinematic emergency. I received word in my newsfeed from the Albany Times Union that the Landmark Spectrum 8 Theatre in Albany would be closing in a week. While there was some hope that another entity could come in and bring films to the venerable venue, it would definitely be closed for at least a week starting Friday, February 23, smack in the middle of Oscar season!

Moreover, my dear wife gave me a $100 gift card for Landmark for Valentine’s Day! How will I possibly use it up? I checked the list of movies playing and discovered that The Boys In The Boat was leaving the theater after that day. 

The movie: “A 1930s-set story centered on the University of Washington’s rowing team, from their Depression-era beginnings to winning gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.”

Joe (Callum Turner), even by Depression standards, was born on the wrong side of the tracks. He was trying to better himself by attending college. The bad news is that he was quickly running out of money, with part-time jobs largely unavailable. When the opportunity to row crew came up, it was his last best shot.  

And then…

Here’s the problem: you know what happens. That’s not always a detriment in movies. I’ve seen stories based on events that left me on the edge of my seat. This adaptation of Daniel James Brown’s book was not one of them.

Still, there were some enjoyable bits. I learned about a sport I’d never considered; it is exceedingly difficult. The coach emeritus, George (Peter Guinness), becomes Joe’s surrogate father. He’s less at arm’s length than the primary coach, Al (Joel Edgerton). A pretty young woman from Joe’s past, Joyce (Hadley Robinson), keeps flirting with him.  

For someone who lives not far from the Hudson River, the Poughkeepsie Regatta segment was a hoot. The scenes in Nazi Germany don’t require much to creep me out a little.  

The Boys In The Boat is a… nice movie, directed by George Clooney, a person who has directed several movies I’ve seen which I enjoyed a bit more.  Critics gave it only a 58% positive score, but the audience was 97% favorable. Even a positive review used the phrase “unapologetically formulaic tale.” For what it is, it’s fine.

BTW, a PBS presentation called The Boys of ’36 was based on the same book. I was unaware of it until recently.

Movie review: Poor Things

Yorgos Lanthimos

I was wary of seeing the film Poor Things. A knowledgeable friend of mine wrote that the film was not on his list to be seen “due to my dislike for Emma Stone’s acting and my doubts about having the stomach for another Yorgos Lanthimos grossout.” I was unfamiliar with the director.

The good news is that this movie of Frankenstein’s monster’s monster, of a sort, was not particularly gross. It was weird and funny, and weirdly funny. But though I saw it a couple of weeks ago at the Spectrum 8 in Albany, I’ve been bereft of useful descriptions.

Weird:  it had impossible combinations of animals walking about the laboratory of Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) as he, er, “re-animated” Bella (Stone). Early on, Bella acts like a very large infant but matures relatively quickly.  While Dr. Baxter’s assistant Max (Ramy Youssef) is assiduously recording Bella’s development, she is fascinated by the flashy Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who wants to liberate her from the cloister Dr. Baxter has created.

I agree with the general assessment that the movie is “wildly imaginative and exhilaratingly over the top… bizarre, brilliant…” Reviewers used terms such as fascinating, disturbing, beautifully odd duckling, darkly comedic, and cerebral.

Know thyself

One critic notes, correctly, “Bella comes to identify herself and her possibilities … in accordance with Goethe’s notion that ‘Man knows himself only in as much as he knows the world … Each new object truly recognized, opens up a new organ within ourselves.'”

Another one notes that it’s a surreal/acid movie… “It wonderfully combines fantasy, sex, and a tiny bit of Sic-Fi to shape a fable about chauvinism, toxic masculinity, and female sexuality, using Emma Stone’s performance as the perfect vessel.”

Oh, yeah, sex. There’s a fair amount of that in the middle third of the film as part of Bella’s self-discovery. It’s not particularly sexy.

The critics who hated this film REALLY hated it as “dull, arthouse trash… Hollywood elites are fawning over this reprehensible film, claiming it’s about female empowerment, but that supposed empowerment actually disguises the worst sort of exploitation.” So either it’s the proto-Barbie or the anti-Barbie, I guess.

I am not sure what the title means, although I surmise that those who don’t embrace life are the poor things, I guess, maybe.

Movie review: Anatomy Of A Fall

French Alps

Sigh. I asked the folks at Spectrum 8 in Albany whether the film Anatomy Of A Fall was coming to the cinema. Evidently, I missed its brief appearance, and I didn’t even remember seeing the trailer. So I watched it on Amazon Prime, a suboptimal choice, at home during the last week in January, but so it goes.

As one can discern from the graphic, someone, in this case, Samuel (Samuel Theis), a writer, has taken a fatal fall from a secluded dwelling in the French Alps. But, to paraphrase Richard and Linda Thompson, Did he jump, or was he pushed?

If he were pushed, it would almost have been by his wife, Sandra (Sandra Hüller). There was a witness, perhaps, their eleven-year-old son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), but he may not be a reliable witness.

As the authorities pull at the onion that was Sandra and Samuel’s complicated and conflicted relationship, they accuse her of his death.

This is NOT Law and Order

At this point, it becomes a procedural thriller. If you’re used to the American trial system, this is a different thing, interesting in its own right. Sandra is defended by an old friend, Vincent (Swann Arlaud), who gives her sage advice, which she sometimes disregards. L’avocat général (Antoine Reinartz) is a relentless prosecutor.

As we learn more about the tensions that Sandra and Samuel experience through flashbacks, we remain unsure of her guilt. As sometimes happens in the US, the press is busy dissecting Sandra’s foibles. The ambiguity is deliberate and makes the  150-minute film seem shorter.

Sandra Hüller, who I was unfamiliar with until I saw her in  The Zone Of Interest the week before, is deserving of her Oscar nomination for Best Actress.  The screenplay, by Arthur Harari and the film director Justine Triet, worked well for me. It received 96% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and the negative comments – “predictable”? – I was not feeling.

Movie review: The Zone Of Interest

The banality of evil

I went to see the Oscar-nominated film The Zone Of Interest. It’s based on Martin Amis’s 2014 novel of the same name. It starts mundanely with a family, a couple with five children and a dog, out on a picnic by the river. They return to their pleasant home with a lovely garden, a greenhouse, and a pool. They must be well-to-do, as they have a few servants, at least one of them a young Jewish woman.

The father has a few of his work colleagues stop over to discuss plans… to build a more efficient way to incinerate people, a technological marvel.

Oh. The father is Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), and he is the commandant of Auschwitz. And it’s not as though the camp was a distance away.  As Vox noted: “There’s an ambient noise in The Zone of Interest, akin to the hum of a white noise machine — except in this case, it’s omnipresent, the sound of furnaces in the distance, laced with occasional gunshots and howls.” The wall is almost always visible, with occasional plumes of smoke lofting into the sky. “To hear what’s going on in the house, we have to tune them out a little.”

Domestic bliss

The household’s mother, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), is well aware that the niceties she acquires used to belong to someone else, someone imprisoned or, more likely, dead. She leans into being the self-designated Queen of Auschwitz, so she is not unaware of her husband’s job.

I saw this movie at Landmark’s Spectrum 8 theater on Saturday afternoon, January 26. Two folks I knew from church happened to be there. One thought they’d wasted two hours of their life. The other got the gist of it, though they and I were confused by one particular effect. After the lights came up, the five folks sitting behind me remained in their seats as though they were still trying to discern what they had just seen.

When I say not much happens in the film, especially in the beginning, it’s not a criticism but a fact. Then, Rudolf is so efficient at work that he’s designated for a possible promotion, which leads to an astonishing conversation with Hedwig. This is the “banality of evil” writ large.

The music throughout is haunting.

Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it a 92% positive review, though audiences were only 79% enthusiastic. A positive review by Robin Holabird: “I watched the movie with interest—not pleasure, but with appreciation for the point and risk it takes.” Edwin Arnaudin, conversely, writes dismissively, “Well, that’s certainly one way to tell a Holocaust narrative.” I get both POVs.

This was interesting: “Director Jonathan Glazer used up to five fixed cameras in the house and garden with no visible crew to capture many scenes, so the actors didn’t know if they were being shot in a close-up or wide shot. They were totally immersed in the scene and enjoyed working in that realistic environment.”

I admired the film. I don’t think LIKING it is entirely possible.

Movie review: American Fiction

Jeffrey Wright in a rare lead performance

As a bribe to get her to update her passport, I took my daughter to lunch, and then we bused to the Spectrum 8 Theatre in Albany to see the new film American Fiction on a snowy Tuesday afternoon (January 16) in a near-empty room.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that Theolonious ‘Monk’ Ellison (Jeffrey Wright) is a prickly black novelist frustrated that his writing is not “Black enough” to sell many books. At a book conference, he sees how the new book by Sintara (Issa Rae) receives thunderous applause for its portrayal of the Black experience.

Under a pseudonym, Monk writes what he considers an outlandish “Black” book of his own and has to deal with the consequences of the book’s release.

But that’s not all the film was. It touches on family dynamics, specifically Monk and his siblings Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) and Cliff (Sterling K. Brown), including how to take care of their aging mother (Leslie Uggams). Who was the favorite child? How do those characteristics get passed down, particularly as one relates to others, such as Monk’s potential girlfriend, Coraline (Erika Alexander)? That throughline alone was worth the price of admission.

I laughed aloud several times and often nodded my head in an “oh, yeah” agreement.

They’re missing the point.

As is my wont, I like to look at negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Sometimes, it speaks to how I was feeling. Occasionally, it points out something I might have missed. In this case, I think most of the 7% who didn’t recommend the film missed the point.

“A buzzy film adaptation of Percival Everett’s Erasure, a novel about publishing’s racial politics, misreads what is truly ailing the book industry.” I don’t think it was explicitly supposed to be specifically about the book industry, but rather about how even well-meaning white people can get the issue of race so wrong. My daughter said that one character in particular reminded her of of someone we both knew, and I totally see it.

“By softening the blow with its cuddly human side, American Fiction feels too self-satisfied by half.” The film needed the human side, especially Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), the Ellisons’ long-time housekeeper, to help contextualize the portrayals.

“American Fiction is an intriguing conundrum. It starts as a sizzling, hilarious satire that manages to sling pointed arrows at most of its targets. However, by trying to become too many things, it ends up sanding the edges off its sharpness.” I LIKED the “too many things” because these people are complex. One critic suggested Monk was “flat,” but he seemed pretty authentic to me.

The ending is a bit murky, but I don’t much care. American Fiction may be my favorite 2023 film, but I must ruminate on it more.

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