[Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures]

2023 Holiday Movie Roundup

07:00 January 02, 2024
By: Fritz Esker

Movie Reviews of 5 December 2023 Movies

December 22-25 saw a wave of new movies enter theaters. It felt good, as theatrical releases have been somewhat sparse since the pandemic. Even now, the first two weeks of December saw Japanese imports Godzilla Minus Zero and The Boy and the Heron outperforming American films at the box office in part because American studios released barely any new movies. This is not meant as a slight on either film and there's reason to be happy Americans are showing an increased interest in foreign fare, but such a lack of domestic films after Thanksgiving would've been unheard of before the pandemic.

However, that drought changed on December 22 and there's a lot of quality in cinemas now for moviegoers to enjoy. I did not get to the musical remake of The Color Purple, the animated family film Migration, nor the latest superhero extravaganza Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, but I saw five movies in a week and even the weakest of the lot still had something to offer audiences.

Poor Things

***1/2 stars (out of four)

[Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures]

Following their critically acclaimed partnership in 2018's excellent The Favourite, Oscar-winning actress Emma Stone, director Yorgos Lanthimos, and screenwriter Tony McNamara (who co-wrote Stone's delightful romp in Cruella) have re-teamed for the darkly comic fantasy Poor Things with great results.

Based on the novel of the same name by Alasdair Gray, Poor Things tells the story of Bella Baxter (Stone). She's the experiment of a scientist (Willem Dafoe) who found the dead body of a nine-months pregnant woman and replaced the dead woman's brain with the baby's. It's a feminist take on Frankenstein as Bella rapidly matures and discovers her own sexuality.

The film is extremely R-rated and is for neither the squeamish nor the prudish. There's a lot of sex in this and it's presented all in a very clinical, matter-of-fact way (Basic Instinct, this is not). But it's also very funny. Stone has a lot of witty lines to deliver as she leaves the scientist's home to discover the world. She travels across a dreamworld version of European cities. The title cards say London, Lisbon, Paris, etc. but the set design makes it seem like all of those cities have been reimagined by Terry Gilliam.

Stone is almost certainly going to receive a deserved Oscar nomination for her work in the lead, but she is also well supported by Dafoe and by Mark Ruffalo as a caddish lawyer who develops an unhealthy attachment to Bella. Jerskin Fendrix also contributes a terrific score. Whether you love Poor Things or hate it, you'll likely concede that it's an original film with genuine artistic ambition.

The Iron Claw

*** stars (out of four

[Courtesy of A24]

Good movies can make you interested in topics that never much interested you in real life. I have never been a pro wrestling fan, but I enjoyed writer-director Sean Durkin's new film The Iron Claw.

Perhaps "enjoyed" isn't the right word as it tells the harrowing true story of wrestling's Von Erich family (reading their Wikipedia page is likely to widen your eyes and drop your jaw). The family's patriarch was Fritz Von Erich (Hoyt McAllany), a former pro wrestler whose career ambitions were thwarted and he then transferred those ambitions to his sons Kevin (Zac Efron), Kerry (The Bear's Jeremy Allen White), David (Harris Dickinson), and Mike (Stanley Simons).

As Kevin explains in an early scene with his girlfriend (Lily James), even though professional wrestling is largely scripted, the goal of wrestlers is to make enough of an impression as performers that the powers-that-be decide they should be the world champions. This is a goal that seems to matter more to Fritz than his sons, especially the musically inclined Mike, who at times seems like he'd rather do anything but wrestle.

Durkin's script conveys the fierce love the brothers feel for each other even as they sometimes compete with one another to succeed in wrestling. It also gives viewers a real sense of the beating professional wrestlers take (the outcomes may be scripted, but the stunts are real) and why some resort to self-medication to deal with the pain and injuries they sustain.

The Iron Claw can be a tough watch as the Von Erich family's story is so chock full of heartbreak that one gut-wrenching tragedy the real-life family endured is left out of the film entirely. And trust me, at no point does this seem like a sanitized version of a real story. The second hour is in some ways a gauntlet of tragedies.

But that said, Durkin manages to stage a climactic scene that still has hope and humanity despite the pain that preceded it.

The Boys in the Boat

*** stars (out of four)

[Courtesy of MGM]

Rowing is a sport that's been almost completely ignored by Hollywood, but director George Clooney rectifies that with his new film The Boys in the Boat, which is about the Depression-era rowing team from the University of Washington that competed at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Nazi-run Berlin. The film's low-key charms reminded me of 1981's Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire (a story of Olympic runners).

Joe Rantz (Callum Turner) is a college student in Washington about to be kicked out of school for his inability to pay tuition. But the university offers tuition and a room and board to students if they make the school's rowing team, which is struggling to compete with more established rowing programs like the University of California and the Ivy League schools. The team is coached by the gruff Coach Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton).

The script by Mark L. Smith emphasizes the class issues at play as Washington's working-class students work to overcome the disadvantages they face in both real life and in the sport as they face their better-funded rivals. There's of course some personality clashes to be overcome on the team itself and Coach Ulbrickson must convince university boosters that his new rowers are worth taking a chance on.

A naysayer might describe The Boys in the Boat as conventional, but I would describe it as traditional. Formulas exist for a reason and if executed well, they can still entertain as well as they ever did before. The Boys in the Boat is an old-school sports film.


*** stars (out of four)

[Courtesy of Neon Pictures]

Director Michael Mann (Heat, The Last of the Mohicans) has been trying to tell the story of auto legend Enzo Ferrari for over 20 years. The project has been so long in gestation that the credited screenwriters for Ferrari on IMDB, Troy Kennedy Martin and Brock Yates, died in 2009 and 2016, respectively. While Mann's determination to see this tale to the screen did not result in a masterpiece, it's still worthwhile viewing even for people like me who are not into auto racing.

Thankfully, Ferrari avoids an attempt to tell the entire story of Enzo Ferrari's life. Instead, it focuses on the summer of 1957. The Ferrari company is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Maserati has taken away an important racing record. Enzo (Adam Driver) tries to rally his racing team to win the prestigious Mille Miglia, which he believes will save the company. The race comes after one of his best drivers was killed while practicing.

Ferrari is a little slow to start but makes for compelling viewing once it gets going. Driver turns in strong work as the lead, and so does Penelope Cruz as his wife Laura. Laura maintains a significant amount of control of the company, but their marriage has been in shambles for years as Enzo cheats on her with Lina (Shailene Woodley), with whom he has fathered a son Laura is unaware of. Driver and Cruz's scenes together are very good and Mann remains a top-notch director of action scenes. Since I was unfamiliar with how the 1957 Mille Miglia ended, the film's climax did elicit a genuine gasp from me, which is rare for me in a theater.

Anyone But You

**1/2 stars (out of four)

[Courtesy of Sony Pictures]

The romantic comedy, once one of the most popular cinematic genres, has faded in the past decade. So it's nice to see any attempt to return to the genre. Easy A director Will Gluck's Anyone But You is a hit-and-miss affair but still has enough laughs and romance to please fans of the genre.

Ben (Top Gun: Maverick's Glen Powell) and Bea (Euphoria's Sydney Sweeney) have a first date that starts with intense bonding but ends in a misunderstanding that leaves both parties feeling bitter and aggrieved. They eventually learn they will be at the same wedding in Australia. Their exes will also be at this wedding, so the two hatch a plan to pretend to be a couple to make their exes jealous.

Powell and Sweeney do have good chemistry together. There are some funny lines, and '80s movie fans will be happy see Australian actor Bryan Brown (F/X, Breaker Morant) back on screen. While I would give Anyone But You a mild recommendation, a few too many attempts at physical comedy fizzle for me to give it a more enthusiastic recommendation.

But the nice thing about comedies, that endangered species of theatrical release, is that even one that only succeeds some of the time will likely make you laugh and smile more than you otherwise would have in those 90-120 minutes.

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