If a Black Friday shopping frenzy has you wanting to get off your feet for a couple hours in a darkened movie theater, here are some of your choices.
This comedy-drama, directed by Alexander Payne, is head and shoulders above recent formulaic comedies I’ve seen (trailer). It’s the story of the students—actually one student—left behind at a New England prep school’s holiday break, so has the added benefit of seasonality. A disliked classics teacher is assigned to supervise, and a Black kitchen supervisor is there to make sure the two eat.
The performances of Paul Giamatti as the teacher, newcomer Dominic Sessa as the student, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as the most sensible of the trio animate David Hemingson’s script. Scenes with the other students are adolescent boyhood on full display. But mostly, it’s the three of them. You can just relax and enjoy it.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 96%; audiences 92%.
One of those feel-good sports biopics that leaves you in awe (trailer). Diana Nyad became famous in her early career for her long-distance swimming accomplishments, but what has haunted her for decades is the event where she failed: Cuba to Florida, 110 miles. Director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s adept movie shows how Nyad at age 60 decides to train and pick up that challenge again.
Annette Bening prepared for the role by swimming four to five hours a day for a year and does most of the swimming in the film. You might think watching someone swim, day and night, might not be that riveting, but in the movie the actual swimming is interspersed with scenes from her close friendship with her coach, played by Jodie Foster, and the crew of her boat, captained by its irascible captain, played by Rhys Ifans. And there are plenty of dangers in this endeavor, physical and emotional.
I thought the film was great, and the showing at my local theater was followed by a q-and-a with the director. She said that uppermost in their minds making the film was to convey Nyad’s complexity as a person, and Bening and Foster help them do that every step of the way. Oh, and two words you never want to hear linked together again: Box Jellyfish.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 85%; audiences 82%.
Joan Baez: I Am a Noise
What a disappointment! Joan Baez’s parents kept all her early tapes, her interviews, her journals and artwork, family photos, etc., etc., in a storage unit, and Baez made it available to filmmakers Miri Navasky, Karen O’Connor, and Maeve O’Boyle (trailer). Of all the interesting things they might have conveyed about this amazing artist, what did they cherry-pick out of these riches? Tapes of her with a creepy-sounding therapist, her anxiety and depression as revealed in her letters, her drawings done under hypnosis (maybe, not clear) or through guided imagery that make her think she has a multiple personality disorder, excerpts from her baffled mother’s letters, and the vaguest possible hints she might have been an abuse victim. While these factors are no doubt important in her personal history, they dominate the film.
Baez is not only a remarkable singer, she is a compassionate and interesting person who has done important work. Prepared to be uplifted, when this movie ended, I was exhausted and depressed. I don’t understand the raves. She deserved So Much Better! (It’s also streaming.)
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 98%; audiences: 85%