Saturday, December 23, 2023

This 'Boat' floats on familiar waters


   When most people think of the 1936 Olympics, they probably remember how Jesse Owens' four Gold Medals helped undermine Hitler's insistence on Aryan supremacy -- unless, that is, they happen to have read Daniel Brown's The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics. Talk about telling a story in a nutshell.
        In the movie version of Brown's book about an odds-defying crew team from the University of Washington, director George Clooney celebrates crew, a sport that seldom makes its way to the big screen.
        A mildly novel subject, yes,  but Boys in the Boat offers little by way of surprise.
        Dressed as if they were extracted from a Norman Rockwell painting, the actors in Boys in the Boat row their way through an achingly familiar story that pits the working-class kids of Washington against coastal elites.
       Never mind that anyone who went to college in 1936 probably was pretty far ahead of the game anyway.
       Callum Turner stars as Joe Rantz, a Washington student who can't afford food or lodging -- not to mention tuition. Never fear. Abandoned by his Depression-scarred father while still a teenager, Joe knows how to fend for himself.
         Finances motivate him to try crew. He joins the Washington team to support his schooling. Room, board, and tuition await those who make the team.
        Two adults put a few whiskers on a story about young men.
        Joel Edgerton portrays coach Al Ulbrickson, a tough-love guy who drives his charges hard. 
        Peter Guinness plays the dedicated craftsman who designs the boats in which the U of Washington crew races.
        A bit of romance arrives when Joe meets a coed played by Hadley Robinson. And one of the crew members (Jack Mulhern) adds a colorful note as a kid who plays the piano.
        In general, though, the crew doesn't include enough stand-out personalities to keep the proceedings from flattening.
        Lately, Clooney's behind-the-camera work hasn't soared. The Tender Bar (2021) missed the mark, and this time, the best you can say is that The Boys in the Boat reflects plenty of workman-like competence.
        The movie is at its best when the boys really are in the boat. Clooney does a good job of conveying the sport's intricacies and beauty, the strength and strategy required to compete at high levels.
         Look, it would be wrong and misleading to suggest that The Boy in the Boat is terrible. It's not edgy enough for that. The movie's glide and grace are reserved for the water. On land, it doesn't do much more than stay afloat.

Friday, December 22, 2023

‘Color Purple’ musical reaches the screen


  Credit Ghanaian director Blitz Bazawule with blending  earthy naturalistic images, musical numbers, energetic performances, and superior production values in the big-screen musical version of The Color Purple
 At its best, Bazawule's musical seems to burst from the Georgia soil on which the story takes place.
   The source material, Alice Walker’s 1982 novel, doesn’t seem an ideal springboard for a musical; the need to entertain, almost an inherent requirement for musicals, might conflict with a story that contains so many harsh and disturbing elements.
  Bazawule and his team lean toward entertainment, while trying to ensure that The Color Purple doesn't lose all of its impact as a story steeped in cruelty and adversity, as well as hope. 
  Fantasia Barrino, who starred in the Broadway version from 2007-2008, takes on the principal role of Celie, a young woman whose infant child is taken from her early in the movie. 
  Soon the man Celie knows as her father -- and who fathered her child -- gives her to the brutal and boorish Mister (Colman Domingo). He mistreats her at every turn.
   The story derives much of its drive from Celie's need to assert herself and claim a place in the world. 
    Barrino and Domingo anchor the movie while a strong supporting cast adds to the mix, notably Danielle Brooks as the no-nonsense Sofia, a woman to be reckoned with. Brooks' seizes the screen as if it belongs to her -- and it does whenever she's on camera.
  Corey Hawkins's HarpoMister's son, eventually establishes the juke joint that provides the stage for one of the movie's more rousing numbers. 
    That brings us to Taraji P. Henson, who gives a showcase performance as the seductive Shug, a woman who shed the restrictive shackles imposed by her pastor father.  Shug is the only woman Mister treats with respect, probably because he knows he'll never control her.
     Shug also opens a window through which Celie glimpses another possible future for herself. The story begins in the early 1900s and continues through the 40s. culminating with Celie’s assertion of her womanhood.
      Jon Batiste makes a late-picture appearance as Grady, the man who ultimately wins Shug's heart, and Ciara portrays Nettie, Celie's sister and best friend. Early on, Netty flees the small Georgia town where the story unfolds after Mister tries to abuse her sexually.
     The musical numbers -- from one staged in front of a waterfall to another on a glamorous deco stage -- seem to emerge organically, often with an infectious beat, and Bazawule knows how to spotlight the entrance of each important character.
      A screenplay credited to Marcus Gardley, Alice Walker, and Marsha Norman relies on melodramatic twists that might be glaring in a dramatic rendering but become acceptable in a musical environment, although late-picture plot points pile up without much grace.
     Dan Laustsen’s richly realized cinematography and Jon Poll's sharp editing deserve attention and a cameo by Whoopi Goldberg, who played Celie in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 movie, provides connective tissue to the story’s lineage.
      After a novel, a movie, and numerous stage productions, Celie’s story still provides enough of an emotional framework for a retelling, this time with a palpable sense of the life that derives from vividly drawn characters and the deeply committed actors who play them.

A racing magnate faces a big test


   After his work in House of Gucci, you might have thought that Adam Driver wouldn't want to play any more Italians. One English-speaking Italian might be enough for any career.
 But here he is as Enzo Ferrari, the Italian sports car entrepreneur who suffers from the loss of a beloved 24-year-old son, neglects his wife (Penelope Cruz), and carries on a long-standing affair with a younger woman (Shailene Woodley) with whom he has another son.  
   And, then, there's racing.
   Ferrari affords director Michael Mann the opportunity to recreate the Mille Miglia, a grueling 1,500-kilometer race that gives the movie its most harrowing twist.
  The drivers in Ferrari reminded me of bullfighters -- proud, arrogant men who know they're risking their lives.
   Once a driver himself, Ferrari encourages his drivers not to waver at crucial points in a race, even when two cars are trying to make the same turn. He makes it seem as if their manhood is on the line.
   That's tough stuff, and as Driver plays him, Ferrari steels himself against paying an emotional price for any damage that might result from his single-minded commitment to winning. 
   Mann's movie unfolds during three months of 1957, a year in which Ferrari battled to save his company from bankruptcy while dealing with an embittered wife who had leverage over him. She owned half of his company.
  With another fine performance, Cruz creates a character who treats her wandering husband with simmering contempt that threatens boil into rage. No patsy, Cruz's Laura also wants to protect her stake in the company.  
   Ferrari eventually learns that he'll have to shed his speed-boutique mentality and sell a minimum of 400 cars per year to keep his company on the road. Since its founding in 1947,  Ferrari had been selling a few cars a year to well-heeled buyers.
    Lacking capital, Ferrari assays what he must risk to find big-time backing, at one point from Ford. Business and sport converge. To secure  financing, Ferrari also believes he must win the Mille Miglia.
    Mann (Collateral and The Insider) gained prominence with TV's Miami Vice. Early movies such as Thief  (1981) and Manhunter (1986) were small gems. Many count Mann's Heat (1995) among their favorite movies.
     Mann resists the temptation to over-stylize Ferrari, and in Driver, he finds an actor who communicates the torment beneath Ferrari's composed facade. Ferrari knows he has subordinated other elements in his life to his racing obsession.
     To his credit, Mann also shows a softer side Ferrari mostly keeps hidden. We see it in tender scenes between Ferrari and his young son, a boy Laura insists cannot inherit the Ferrari name until she dies, another source of contention.
    The racing sequences are exciting but Mann backs them up with plenty of off-the-track intrigue.
    More than a pure racing movie and less than a comprehensive bio-pic, Ferrari focuses on a man who’s trying to hold his life and company together. He and others pay a price for his efforts.
    Ferrari may hit an occasional bump, but Mann, now 80, knows where to find the dramatic fuel that keeps his movie  running.

Thursday, December 21, 2023

Chaos dominates a sinking ‘Aquaman’


 I wasn’t expecting much from Aquaman and The Lost Kingdom. I got even less.
 That’s not to say that the movie is in any way sparse. Quite the opposite. Director James Wan, who directed the better 2018 version of Aquaman, has stuffed his late-year extravaganza with CGI battles, zapping light flashes, and a variety of plot intricacies torn from the DC Comics universe.  
   Earth-shaking stakes emerge, and DC Comics remain less portentous than some of their Marvel rivals, but still....
 Wan’s action sequences are plentiful but crowded to the point of chaos and I wondered whether the movie wasn’t in the grip of an incoherence caused by the force theorists have dubbed “accelerated comic-book expansion.”
  Some quick updates: Arthur/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is now married. He and his queen/wife (Amber Heard) have an infant son. 
 Arthur experiences the joys and frustrations of parenthood. But turning Aquaman into a loving father seems more like sketch material than a full-blown movie.
  Not to worry. As King of Atlantis, Aquaman can’t be a stay-at-home dad. His father (Temuera Morrison) handles baby-sitting chores allowing the plot to kick in.
  The story pits Aquaman against Black Manta/David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a villain who plans to poison the earth and its waters. Manta wants to avenge the death of his father. To do so, he needs a mega supply of a toxic substance called orichalcum, which he must recover from The Lost City. 
 Aquaman’s estranged  brother, Prince Orm (Patrick Wilson), turns up. The feuding siblings must join forces to stop the world from being destroyed. Orm is the serious one. Aquaman seldom loses his desire to kid around. They exchange banter, too little of it amusing.
  All of this receives an environmental gloss. Can the eco-conscious denizens of Atlantis join with surface people to reverse global warming? Resistors on both sides say “no.”
  It’s hardly a spoiler to tell you that the movie tries to land a hopeful end-of-picture punch.  No point sending holiday audiences home with anything less than idealistic sugar plums dancing in their heads.
  Nicole Kidman again shows up as Aquaman’s mother.  I mention her because … well… she’s Nicole Kidman.
  Although clear in its outline, the story plays second fiddle to the movie's chaotic action sequences, blasts of color that turn the movie into a noisy light show that, at least for me, neither dazzled the eye nor made me care about an outcome that never seemed in doubt.
   It’s a credit to Momoa that he emerges from the movie with his likability intact. 
   Partly that’s due to Momoa’s ability to convince us that Aquaman needn't be taken seriously and partly it’s because The Lost Kingdom may be as inoffensive as it is messy.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

'Rebel Moon' feels late to the party


 Poor farmers do their work by hand on Veldt, a moon that orbits the planet Maura in Rebel Moon -- Part One: A Child of Fire. The farmers battle resistant soil, and refer to themselves as humble. Their grimy clothes make it seem as if the word “laundry” has yet to enter their vocabulary. 
 Of course, these innocent agrarians are ripe for plucking. 
 The Motherworld, an evil empire that employs soldiers and robots, is eager to steal the villagers' crops, ravage their women, and lay claim to ... well ... everything. 
 After some haggling with a vicious Motherworld commander (Ed Skrein), the village's peaceful leader is murdered, and the desperate farmers decide to find their own warriors. 
 No one mentions Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, but you wonder whether the villagers might have seen it. Or if you prefer, maybe they immersed themselves in the StarWars saga.
   Anyway, what are desperate farmers supposed to do when facing a powerhouse force that knows no mercy?
  Director Zack Snyder follows a familiar arc in Rebel Moon -- Part One, a heavily reupholstered version of a narrative moviegoers know well. 
   In the movie universe, new stories are hard to find and familiarity needn't breed contempt, but Rebel Moon touches many of the usual bases without making a big-time score.
  The story centers on Kora (Sofia Boutella), a former member of the bad-guys team who reluctantly agrees to help the farmers. Kora sets out to gather a crew, a task that deposits the movie in various outposts of its fictional galaxy.
  A scene reminiscent of StarWars cantina? Yes, that, too, although with creatures of its own.
   Kora is accompanied on her recruiting journey by Gunnar (Michiel Huisman), a farmer who mostly watches the action, presented with the snippets of slow motion Snyder frequently employs. 
    Those who join Kora’s renegade band include characters played by Djimon Hounsou (as the fallen General Titus), Staz Nair (as the muscular Tarak), Bae Doona (as the sword-fighting Nemesis), and Ray Fisher as Bloodaxe, a character who demonstrates that names can tell us all we need to know.
    Charlie Hunnam signs on as Kai, a mercenary who joins with Kora and adds a bit of wise-guy flourish.
    Tolerable for about an hour, the movie eventually bogs down, trapped by its need to introduce more characters, tell Kora's backstory, create additional bizarre environments, and plod toward the inevitable showdown with Skrein's Admiral Atticus Noble, the sadistic chief solider in the Motherworld’s repressive empire. Another space Nazi.
    The movie’s creature-feature aspects can be imaginative, notably a large spider with a human female torso, but battle sequences break no new ground, hand-held weapons are more clunky than streamlined, and some of the space ships look like barges.
    Beyond all that, the movie could have benefited from more verve — not to mention a few more memorable characters.
   Snyder has a following and his Army of the Dead (2021) was fun, but Rebel Moon too often feels warmed over, more like leftovers than an appealingly fresh meal.
   Perhaps redemption awaits. Snyder has split his space opera into two parts with the second helping due next April. 
   For now, though, it's arguable that Rebel Moon stands as an overloaded space opera that offers too much, too late.
  Rebel Moon streams on Netflix beginning Dec. 21.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Tragedy stalks a wrestling family

 When I was a kid, I'd occasionally watch professional wrestling. But it never held my interest for long because it was a) grotesque b) staged and c) melodramatic. 
  Also, my mother would sometimes insist on a channel change. 
  "Why is that 'junk' blaring on the TV? Read a book.”
  The Iron Claw, a movie set in the world of professional wrestling, takes place in the 1970s and 1980s, long after I had even a minimal interest in pro wrestling. Thankfully director Sean Durkin (Marcy May Marlene) isn't only preaching to the pro-wrestling choir. 
  Durkins brings plenty of indie spirit to the story of the Von Erich family, a fabled bunch of professional wrestlers. He gives the movie focus by concentrating on the father/son relationship between Kevin Von Erich (an almost unrecognizable Zac Efron) and his tyrannical father (Holt McCallany).
    Kevin's three brothers (Harris Dickinson, Jeremy Allen White, and Stanley Simons) play important roles in creating the pressured environment in which these young men struggle toward maturity.
    All of the brothers wrestle. Even Simons's Mike, who prefers music and plays in a band, picks up the wrestling shield when others have fallen.
    Efron excels as Kevin, who for a time, is passed over in the family's quest to capture a championship belt. Nothing drives McCallany's Fritz, who wrestled during the 1960s, more than being top dog.  Fritz loves his kids but he has a touch of the Great Santini in him. He pushes, goads, and insists that the brothers meet his standards of toughness.
    The brothers mostly defer to Dad's judgments, and the relationships between the siblings are depicted as competitive yet caring.
    Kevin broods about being passed over in favor his brothers before getting his shot at the big time, but he doesn't undermine them. Although these young men have been taught to regard themselves as members of a family business, we get to know each of them as individuals.
   Dickinson's Davis seems like the only brother who's having fun in the ring. He’s the guy for whom things come easily. Kevin sweats; Davis glides.
  White's Kerry is infected by intensity, a counterpoint to Mike’s conflicted nature.
   As he tells the story of the Von Erich tribe, Durkin finds dark currents. The family believes it has been cursed. The oldest Von Erich brother died when he was a child. Since then, the brothers have been looking over their shoulders for the shadow of the reaper.
       Questions of danger loom because of injuries, accidents, and a father's unremitting mind-set, which he justifies as necessary if his sons are to achieve the goal he imposes on them. He even ranks his sons, although he acknowledges that the rankings can change according to performance.
   Softer moments occur when Kevin falls for the woman (Lily James) who will become his wife, the first glimmer that some of life's rewards might not require climbing into the ring or tossing someone out of it.
    If you're looking for a movie full of sports triumphs, The Iron Claw may disappoint. You'll more likely remember the movie as the tragic story of a family that found heartbreak in its single-minded pursuit of ring renown. 
   If you research the Von Erichs, you'll learn that Durkin omitted mention of Chris, a sixth son. Maybe purists will care. I wondered about it, but moved on.
   I don't want to oversell The Iron Claw, but there's good reason to acknowledge its strengths, including Efron's performance.  He gives the movie its wounded soul. 
   Kevin may not be the best of the Von Erich wrestlers, but he's sincere and eventually he learns that living under dictatorial rule isn't satisfying -- even if the dictator happens to be your father.

A gripping survival story in the Andes


Wait. Haven't I seen this movie before? 
Vague memories of Frank Marshall's 1993 Alive flickered through my mind while watching Society of the Snow, the real-life story of the crash of a 1972 flight that was transporting a Uruguayan rugby team to Chile for a tournament. 
  Sixteen people survived the crash after spending 72 days in a frozen section of the Argentine Andes. Twenty-nine of the passengers died, either in the crash or shortly after it.
   Director J.A. Bayona’s  version of this harrowing story may have a predecessor but its vividly created drama of survival still grips us.
  Bayona replaces American actors with a Spanish-speaking cast that gives the movie an authenticity that matches the frozen world he convincingly depicts.
  Wear a sweater while watching because you’ll feel the bone-chilling cold that threatens the lives of passengers stranded with so little food that they ultimately face an horrific decision. Would they eat the dead?
  Bayona and his team recreate the horror of the crash, the bone-rattling impact that occurs when the plane flies into a mountain, shearing off its back end. 
  What begins as a celebratory trip for the Old Christians Club rugby team becomes a sustained nightmare. Planes fly overhead, but don't spot the survivors. Hope begins to wane.
  The characters spend much of their time huddling in the carcass of the downed plane as the prospect of cannibalism looms. The decision prompts serious discussions about the implications of the choice. Do such extreme circumstances justify extreme actions? 
  The forbidding environment and the battle against it dominate character development, although Bayona includes enough background about a few of the characters to flavor the movie with humanity.
   Society of the Snow works as a stripped-down survival epic, but its moral questions are as stark, alarming, and real as the rugged peaks that trapped those who lived through the crash.


Friday, December 15, 2023

The year’s best movies: 2023 edition

 Here’s an invitation: I invite you to celebrate some of the year's best big-screen achievements (according to me) while encouraging you to make your own lists. 
 Yes, it was a good year — albeit one that closed with an ample supply of weirdness. Films such as Poor Things and Dream Scenario helped pave a weird path out of 2023. 
 I suppose I'm obligated to remind you that there were major duds, The Marvels being one of themRemember My Big Fat Greek Wedding 3? I Hope not.
  One oddity I’d like to mention: Director Ari Aster's Beau is Afraid isn't on my list, but deserves a look. 
   I still don't know, as I said in my review, whether to consider Aster's movie a fragmented work of genius or an incoherent oddity. I do know that Aster's artistic ambition is large enough to stock several movies and amid three hours worth of drama and comedy, you'll find some extraordinary work. When the year-end frenzy winds down, I plan to watch it again.
   What about Barbie? I was a little surprised that Time opted for Taylor Swift over Barbie as person of the year. I wonder whether the editors toyed with the idea. Barbie became a mega-hit and probably will win a best-picture nod come Oscar time. 
   Whatever you think of it, Barbie can be acknowledged as the unquestionable big-screen phenomenon of the year. As for my list, I passed on the swell Mattel icon, preferring 
movies that affected me more -- for what they had to say or the skill with which they said it or both.  
    Of course, lists are also -- and maybe mostly -- a reflection of personal, and hopefully well-informed, taste. Otherwise, why bother?
      My list:

1. Oppenheimer
Director Christopher Nolan shined light on the leadership Robert Oppenheimer brought to the development of the atom bomb. Cillian Murphy’s performance as Oppenheimer was one of the year’s best and Robert Downey Jr. revitalized his acting career — at least for me — with a memorable portrayal of Lewis Strauss, head of The Atomic Energy Commission. The result: a morally challenging work that was nuanced and absorbing. One of the year’s few three-hour movies that justified its length.

2. Anatomy of a Fall

French director Justine Triet embeds the story of a marriage in a complex courtroom drama that unfolds when a wife (Sandra Huller) is accused of murdering her husband. The couple's 11-year-old son (Milo Machado Graner) assumes an increasingly important role as the trial develops. Triet bases her work on complex characters that can't be shoved into typical pigeon holes.

3. Past Lives

All of our lives are full of what-ifs. Who among us hasn't tried to imagine the life we might have lived had we taken this or that chance? Director Celine Song's movie focuses on two characters (Greta Lee and Teo Yoo). The pair reunites years after making a powerful childhood connection in South Koran. Soon after the two met, Lee's character moved to the US. Later, she married a writer (John Magaro). A delicate and haunting movie that understands the sadness bred by roads not taken and reminds us that no matter how much we wish it weren’t so, we only can live one life at a time.

4. A Thousand and One

Teyana Taylor gives a mesmerizing performance as a tough woman in an even tougher world. A.V. Rockwell directs a story about a woman who recuses her young son from foster care. Nothing sappy tarnishes the tale Rockwell unveils. We find lives full of hardships, setbacks, and small triumphs. Flawed characters cling to their humanity as the movie moves toward a shocking end-of-picture reveal. 

5. Poor Things

Director Yorgos Lanthimos embraces full-on weirdness in this visually lavish story about a woman who grows to maturity. No ordinary woman, Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) was created when a surgeon (Willem Dafoe) removed the brain from the fetus of a woman who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge and, then, transplanted the fetus brain into late woman's body -- before it went cold, of course. Mark Ruffalo and Ramy Youssef add strong support as Lanthimos wrestles the late Alasdair Gray's 1992 novel into a bizarre cornucopia from which a coming-of-age tale topples. Lanthimos invites the eye to search every corner of every image.

6. American Fiction

Jeffrey Wright stars as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, a Black novelist who resists writing the kind of fiction that might be dubbed “street” savvy. Basing his movie on a novel by Percival Everett, director Cord Jefferson examines an increasingly contemporary issue, the blurring of the line separating common sense from absurdity. Jefferson tempers satire about identity with genuine humanity in a movie featuring fine supporting performances from Erika Alexander, as a potential love interest for Monk, and Issa Rae, as a best-selling young author whose work Monk abhors. 

7.  The Zone of Interest

A chilling adaptation of a novel by the late Martin Amis. Adaptation? Well, sort of. Director Jonathan Glazer charts his own course as he immerses us in life inside the home of Auschwitz's commandant (Christian Friedel). Sandra Huller plays the commandant's wife in a film that traps us in a world where the value of everything feels tainted by Nazi perversity.  Fully committed to a gripping style, The Zone of Interest proves unforgettable. It’s a movie haunted by what we know but don’t see — and that which many of the movie’s characters refuse to see.

8. One Fine Morning

A great example of what might be called "the cinema of ordinary life." French director Mia Hansen-Love introduces us to a widow and single mother (Lea Seydoux) who works as a translator. Seydoux's character  must deal with her daughter (Camille Leban Martins) and a father (Pascal Greggory) who's losing himself to dementia. A romance with a married man (Melvil Poupaud) doesn't help simplify her life. A complicated story unfolds in a clear-headed fashion. Thank heavens for movies in which the characters are recognizably human.

9.  May December

I had mixed feelings about director Todd Haynes' look at a husband and wife twenty years after their marriage began. The twist, he (Charles Melton) was 13 and she (Julianne Moore) was 36 when their sexual relationship became a tabloid sensation. The story acquires a mind-bending dimension when an actress (Natalie Portman) arrives to study the couple in advance of playing Moore's character in an upcoming film. Absorbing, quietly challenging, funny, and sometimes frustrating, May December is on my list because I talked about it a lot and it stayed with me.

10. John Wick: Chapter 4

This two-hour and 49-minute onslaught of action turned excess into virtue. Director Chad Stahelski offered so many dizzying set pieces that we're almost overwhelmed. A fight on the steps leading to Paris's Sacre Coeur is worth the price of admission alone and Keanu Reeves and cohorts do what's needed. I'm not sure I'd want to see another John Wick movie, but I'm sure as hell glad I saw this over-the-top display of action and skillfully choreographed mayhem.

Honorable mentions: Bottoms, Menus-Plaisirs les Troisgros, The Taste of Things,  and Concrete Utopia

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

Surprise! 'Wonka' exceeds expectations

  I can’t say I approached Wonka with enthusiasm.I had no pressing desire to hear Timothee Chalamet sing in a musical, and revisiting Roald Dahl-inspired material had no special appeal for me, either.
  Imagine my surprise when it turned out that Wonka   exceeded my expectations, serving up an entertainment I didn't mind sampling.
  Director Paul King bolsters his movie with a strong supporting cast. (More about that later.) King also  refuses to wink at the audience as a way of demonstrating superiority to the material at hand.
  Look, if you’re going to make a movie such as Wonka, you better go all in -- particularly in a version that strips away some of Dahl's wickedness.
  Chalamet approaches the role of Willy with a cheerleader’s gusto, never embarrassing himself by singing in a role played by Gene Wilder 1971. Jim Carrey offered his version of Wonka in 1995, followed by Johnny Depp, who starred in director Tim Burton’s 2005 version.
  Chalamet keeps the movie on track with help from an old-pro cast that includes Hugh Grant as the eight-inch tall Oompa-Loompa, Sally Hawkins as Willy's mother, and Olivia Colman as the devious Mrs. Scrubbit. 
   It’s a relief to see Colman in a role that doesn’t  demand that she turn herself inside out. She has fun, even if she’s playing a warmed-over version of a character Dickens might have written, an ogre of a woman who uses faux kindness to lure and exploit the vulnerable. 
  The story begins when Willy arrives by ship to start a chocolate business in a city in which chocolate seems to serve as one of its currencies.  Willy quickly goes broke and falls under the sway of Mrs. Scrubbit and her gap-toothed henchman (Tom Davis). 
  Promising food and lodging, Mrs. Scrubitt connives to force Willy to spend 15 years working in her laundry, her way of making him pay off a ludicrously inflated debt. 
   In the laundry, Willy meets Abacus Crunch (Jim Carter), another of Scrubbit's indentured servants and, most importantly, Noodle (Calah Lane), a girl who'll help Wonka achieve his chocolate dream.
   King's origin story also pits Wonka against the town's chocolate cartel led by Slugworth (Joseph Paterson). A happily corrupt police chief (Keegan-Michael Key) helps to upend Wonka's goal: to make the world's best chocolate.
   Early on, we learn that Wonka’s chocolate has exceptional kick; in some versions, it even makes people levitate, floating into the air like helium-filled balloons in a holiday parade. 
   I don't know if you'll be humming any of the songs on the way out of the theater, but this unashamedly corny Wonka surpassed my hopes. I ask for no more.
   King (who directed the Paddington movies) has made an old-fashioned entertainment that, at least for me, warded off bad vibes and didn't give me tooth decay. Consistent with a fanciful approach, the subject never arises, despite Wonka's copious flow of candy.
   An addendum: Sporting a green wig and orange skin, Grant scores as the tiny Oompa Loompa. Grant turns himself into a kind of special effect. Say what you will,  it’s better than another romcom.

Critics Choice nominees for 2024


 Yes, it's that time of the year again. We're talking nominations, awards, and lists. Here are the 2024 nominees of the Critics Choice Association, a group to which I belong. 
  Note: Barbie leads the field with 18 nominations, followed by Oppenheimer and Poor Things, pictures that earned 13 nominations apiece.  Killers of the Flower Moon received 12 nominations.
   The 29th Critics Choice Awards will be broadcast on the CW on Sunday, Jan. 14, 2024. Check local listings for times.

Here's the complete list of nominees:
Best Picture
American Fiction
The Color Purple
The Holdovers
Killers of the Flower Moon
Past Lives
Poor Things

Best Actor
Bradley Cooper, Maestro
Leonardo DiCaprio, Killers of the Flower Moon
Colman Domingo, Rustin
Paul Giamatti, The Holdovers
Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer
Jeffrey Wright, American Fiction

Best Actress
Lily Gladstone, Killers of the Flower Moon
Sandra Huller, Anatomy of a Fall
Greta Lee, Past Lives
Carey Mulligan, Maestro
Margot Robbie, Barbie
Emma Stone, Poor Things

Best Supporting Actor
Sterling K. Brown, American Fiction
Robert De Niro, Killers of the Flower Moon
Robert Downey Jr., Oppenheimer
Ryan Gosling, Barbie
Charles Melton, May December
Mark Ruffalo, Poor Things

Best Supporting Actress
Emily Blunt, Oppenheimer
Danielle Brooks, The Color Purple
America Ferrera, Barbie
Jodie Foster, Nyad
Juliane Moore, May December
Da'Vine Roy Randolph, The Holdovers

Best Young Actor/Actress
Abby Ryder Fortson, Are You There God? It's Me Margaret
Ariana Greenblatt, Barbie
Calah Lane, Wonka
Milo Machado Graner, Anatomy of a Fall
Dominic Sessa, The Holdovers
Madeleine Yuna Voyles, The Creator

Best Acting Ensemble
The Color Purple
The Holdovers
Killers of the Flower Moon

Best Director
Bradley Cooper, Maestro
Greta Gerwig, Barbie
Yorgos Lanthimos, Poor Things
Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer
Alexander Payne, The Holdovers
Martin Scorsese, Killers of the Flower Moon

Best Original Screenplay
May December
The Holdovers
Past Lives

Best Adapted Screenplay
Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret
All of Us Strangers
American Fiction
 Poor Things
Killers of the Flower Moon

Best Cinematography
Killers of the Flower Moon

Best Production Design
Killers of the Flower Moon
Poor Things
Astroid City

Best Editing
Poor Things
Killers of the Flower Moon

Best Costume Design
The Color Purple
Poor Things
Killers of the Flower Moon

Best Hair and Make-up
The Color Purple
Poor Things 

Best Visual Effects
The Creator
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One
Poor Things
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Best Comedy
American Fiction
The Holdovers
No Hard Feelings
Poor Things

Best Animated Feature
The Boy and the Heron
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Teenage Mutant Nina Turtles: Mutant Mayhem

Best Foreign Language Film
Anatomy of a Fall
Godzilla Minus One
Perfect Days
Society of the Snow
The Taste of Things
The Zone of Interest

Best Song
Dance the Night. Barbie
I'm Just Ken, Barbie
Peaches, The Super Mario Bros. Movie
Road to Freedom, Rustin
This Wish, Wish
What Was I Made For, Barbie

Best Score
Poor Things
Society of Snow
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
Killers of the Flower Moon

Friday, December 8, 2023

An apartment becomes a fortress

   What reason could there be to make what feels like a zillionth big-screen foray into dystopian distress? 
  South Korean director Um Tae-hwa's Concrete Utopia provides a powerful answer to that question.
  Um not only drops us into a devastated world, he takes a troubling look at the complexities of human behavior under extreme stress.
  Um begins with what appears to be footage from a documentary about Korean real estate. Apartment dwelling has come to dominate Seoul as the dream of single-family home ownership vanishes. An apartment may be small, but status accrues to those who live in luxury complexes. 
   Before you have time to digest any of this, all hell erupts. A giant earthquake destroys most of Seoul, leaving only one apartment building standing.
   The rest of the city is reduced to rubble. Essential services -- food supply, policing, transportation, electricity, and banking -- disappear. Cell phones become useless and, after a time, survivors realize that no cavalry will be riding to their rescue.
   The first question facing the battered residents of the city's last standing building is whether to admit desperate outsiders, folks seeking relief from a vicious cold snap that has seized the city. Even the hallways of a building without heat or electricity beat exposure to life-threatening temperatures.
   Looking for a plan that provides the best chance for survival, the building’s residents vote to exclude all non-owners. They also elect one of the residents (Lee Byung-hun) as their leader. 
   Increasingly, the building becomes a fortress with an internal police force, a food distribution system, and a patrol of stalwarts who venture into ruins to scavenge for food and supplies. 
  A young couple (Park Seo-joon and Park Bo-young) embodies the movie's essential conflict. He's drawn into the increasingly authoritarian environment; she resists. 
  Don’t let the word “authoritarian” fool you. Um's tale is nuanced and complex. It's not impossible that  authoritarianism under such extreme conditions might be the least awful alternative. 
    Um keeps his focus tight. It's not clear whether any other part of Korea has survived or whether the entire planet has been devastated.
  No matter.
  Ordinary people suddenly inhabit the totally convincing world Um creates, a nightmare reality composed of concrete slabs, debris, and mangled bodies. 
   And when violence erupts, it's felt, not celebrated. 
   Moral questions torment characters who, but for an earthquake, would have remained anonymous faces amidst the bustle of a city life. Um turns what could have been one more post-apocalyptic thriller into an intriguing challenge of a movie. Concrete Utopia holds us in its grip.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Anime that takes imaginative flight

 Esteemed director Hayao Miyazaki's The Boy and the Heron is billed as the 82-year-old master's last film, following such movies as Spirited Away (2001) and Princess Mononoke (1997). 
  I wish I could say that Miyazaki's swan song was an unalloyed delight but I watched it with a conscious sense that a gifted animator was applying high levels of artistry to a story that focuses on a lonely boy. 
  Put another way, I was more attuned to Miyazaki's display of craft than to the story and its characters, even while chuckling over the director's willingness to fill the screen with wild ideas.
  The Boy and Heron begins with its feet planted firmly in reality: Twelve-year-old Mahito suffers a terrible loss during the waning days of World War II when his mother dies in a fire at a hospital.
  Time passes and Mahito moves to the country with his father, an engineer who's now married to the pregnant sister of his late wife. 
  The boy's isolation becomes palpable as he tries to adjust to a new environment. After he's attacked by bullies, Mahito slams his head with a rock so that he won't have to return to school.
   True to the movie's title, Mahito is tormented by a pesky heron, a creature connected to the fateful turn the story will take.
  The boy's encounter with the persistent heron, his head injury, and a visit to a mysterious tower that's supposed to be off limits allow Miyazaki to open the film's visual flood gates.
   Mahito travels through an alternate reality he enters while visiting the forbidden tower. Pelicans display the personalities of vultures. A menacing army of giant parakeets marches to the orders of their narcissistic king. Floating creatures called Warawara represent the souls of yet-to-be-born humans.
   The heron becomes a hybrid figure, a man/bird who reluctantly agrees to help Mahito return home.
  Did I mention that Mahito also becomes responsible for the return of his stepmother who's also visiting this world? Or that he meets a young woman with mysterious powers and a sailor and ... 
    Let's just say that the story becomes overly crowded, simultaneously enchanting and confusing, funny and ominous.
     If one wanted to abstract a theme from The Boy and the Heron, it might center on the interaction between fantasy and the reality, how the former can help one live in the latter.
     I'd argue that The Boy and the Heron could have benefited from a stronger narrative through-line. Or maybe that's just me. Perhaps Miyazaki's fans won't mind, but if this is his last movie, it would have felt good to review it without reservation.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Nazi lives shielded from Holocaust horror


 If you look at the above photo, you'd be hard pressed to know that it's taken from a movie that, among other things, depicts the family of Rudolph Hoss, the long-standing commandant of Auschwitz who built a career on increasing the efficiency of murdering Jews. That indigestible contrast helps distinguish director Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest, a chilling quasi-adaptation of a novel by the late Martin Amis
    I say quasi-adaptation because those familiar with Amis's novel will find something quite different in Glazer's movie. Amis wrote about a variety of fictional characters; Glazer concentrates on Hoss, a real person, his wife Hedwig, and a few other figures. 
  If you're looking for a movie that probes the deep recesses of Hoss's personality, you'll come away empty-handed. Glazer keeps us at a distance from the characters in his movie. He uses few close-ups and often presents dialogue in a way that makes it sound as if we're eavesdropping on inane conversations in the house where the commandant lives with his wife, five children, and a few domestic helpers.
    Glazer opens the film with a long section of ... nothing. No image is seen. Only Mica Levi's eerie disorienting score let's us know the film has begun. This purposeful emptiness serves as an overture that tells us we're about to enter a world that will turn banality -- household chatter, a riverside picnic, kids playing in a swimming pool -- into something horribly bizarre, the pretense of normality in the midst of mass murder. 
     Everything in The Zone of Interest is tainted by what we know is happening beyond the insular confines of the house and its well-tended gardens. We're embarking on a journey into the aberrant; Third Reich domesticity leaves a nightmarish aftertaste, a pill that sticks in the throat and can’t be swallowed. 
     Glazer keeps the horrors of Auschwitz at bay. He suggests them with a constant roar of crematoriums, sprews of black smoke, the occasional pop of gunshots, and intermittent screams, all of which provide a horrific backdrop to lives that are being shielded from terror. Hedwig tries on clothes that were taken from Jewish women who've been gassed, distributing discarded items to her female servants. Just another day.
      At one point Hedwig's visiting mother marvels at the life of ease and status jowithin the Nazi hierarchy that her daughter has attained. 
      I haven't mentioned the actors yet. That's for a reason. We see these performances as if observed from afar  -- if not literally, then certainly on an emotional level. 
       Christian Friedel portrays Hoss as an ambitious martinet. A crop of black hair springs across the top of his otherwise shaved head. He celebrates a birthday in Auschwitz but never seems particularly happy about it or anything else. He reads his children bedtime stories.
      If I said that Hoss isn't happy; it's also necessary to say that he's not unhappy either. When he's told he'll be transferred from Auschwitz, he's upset, but when he learns that he'll be brought back to preside over the death of Hungry's Jews toward the end of the war, he regains the respect of his Nazi cohorts.
        Seen recently in Anatomy of a Fall,  Sandra Huller plays Hedwig Hoss, a woman who knows that she's punching above her social weight. She doesn't want to abandon the privileges living in Auschwitz affords. Huller gives Hedwig an ungainly almost matronly walk and, for the most part, Glazer doesn't allow his camera to dwell on her face; we usually see her in head-to-toe images as she scurries about the house.
        Glazer commits fully to the style he has chosen for the film. He sometimes interrupts the proceedings with visual blank spots that mirror the film’s opening. One of them floods the screen with vivid red, blood perhaps. Toward the end of the film, he leaps forward in time, showing images from Auschwitz, which today is a museum devoted to preserving memories of the horror that occurred there.
        Abel Gance, the great director of the silent film Napoleon, once said that we should never leave a theater in the same state in which we arrived. If this kind of transformation can be taken as one mark of greatness, Glazer has succeeded. 
          I left The Zone of Interest feeling as if the experience Glazer had created wouldn't wash off easily. By current standards, The Zone of Interest is short, one hour and 45 minutes. But it's also a film that obliterates any sense of time, trapping us in a world where the value of everything feels tainted by a terrible perversity.
         Glazer immerses us in an infected world;  even the flowers in Hedwig's garden aren't immune. They brim with postcard colors. But Auschwitz makes us see them as a sickening mockery of beauty. The roses. I would guess, probably smell of death.

'Poor Things:' Strange and lavishly creative


 What the hell is director Yorgos Lanthimos's Poor Things about?  If you know Lanthimos's work (Dogtooth, The Lobster, The Killing of the Sacred Deer, and The Favourite), you know the question is relevant because Lanthimos's movies tend to be odd, alluring and unsettling.
  Cineastes have tagged Lanthimos,  as part of the Greek Weird Wave, perhaps an appropriate designation.
    So, before we go further, let's clarify. Based on a 1992 novel by the late Alasdair Gray, Poor Things deals with the ways in which Victorian society tried but failed to repress female sexuality. The movie also draws creative fuel from the alarming dangers of scientific thinking that blanches emotion from decision-making, in this case the objectivity that produces new species and fiddles with old ones.
     Lanthimos creates a film that can evoke the work of Terry Gilliam and David Lynch. But Poor Things stands as Lanthimos's singular creation, a whacked-out visual cornucopia from which a coming-of-age tale topples.
    The story in a nutshell: Taking a novelistic approach, Lanthimos begins with a Frankenstein-like fantasy. Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) extracts an infant's brain from the body of a pregnant woman who committed suicide by leaping off a bridge. Said brain is then transplanted into the body of the woman who jumped to her death. The body is reanimated.
   Baxter's creation -- called Bella Baxter and played by Emma Stone -- refers to her creator as God, a telling abbreviation of the doctor’s first name. A badly scarred face makes Dr. Baxter look like he might have been sewn together by a mad seamstress.
   Needing an assistant to chronicle his work with Bella, Baxter recruits one of his students (Ramy Youssef) to chart Bella's development. Youssef's Max McCandless soon becomes Bella's betrothed. 
   But wait. Dissatisfied with the cloistered existence Baxter imposes on her, Bella runs off with Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a happily debauched fellow whose intentions are blatantly dishonorable. 
     To dwell on more of the plot would turn this review into a novel.  Lanthimos tales two hours and 21 minutes to watch Bella learn about the world's pleasures (pastries and sex) and its evils (exploitation and cruelty).  
        To give you an idea about Bella's introduction to sexual pleasure, note this: It features a masturbatory scene involving apples. I'll say no more. Bella refers to intercourse as "furious jumping." She approaches sexual exploration with vigor. Neither guilt nor shame shackle Bella's libido.
       Lanthimos divides the movie into sections that revolve around Bella's adventures with Wedderburn, a visit to Alexandria, a stint in a Paris house of ill repute, and a return to London where the story reaches its conclusion, which proves as strange as all that preceded it.
        For the movie to work, Stone had to commit to a role that required her to speak in a stilted (often funny style), appear nude, and emerge herself in the transformation from a naive innocent to a fully realized woman.  It's one hell of a performance and it's matched by the work of Ruffalo and Dafoe, not to mention a cast of supporting actors that incudes Jerrod Carmichael, Kathryn Hunter, and Hanna Schygulla.
        It falls to Youssef to portray the film's good-hearted innocent. Even a bizarre story needs some kind of anchor.
       Lanthimos has a made a movie in which the cinematography (in black-and-white and color), the production design (fantastical), the costumes (particularly Bella's dresses) can be delightful, ominous, and even a bit repulsive. 
          Perhaps he employs one too many fish-eye lenses and the movie could have been shorter, but nearly every frame offers something for the eye to investigate. Godwin's genetic mutations appear like props. They include chicken dogs, for example. A steam-driven carriage moves through the streets of London with a severed horses head attached. 
      I took them as visual jokes, the absurd consequences of scientific experimentation and hubris.
     Screenwriter Tony McNamara deserves credit for wrestling Gray's novel into a movie that Lanthimos fills with visual invention, twisted wit, and bizarre surprises.