Weekend Movie? Challengers?

Luca Guadagnino’s new film Challengers has been getting good reviews (trailer). The cast is super: Josh O’Connor, Mike Feist, and Zendaya are the leads. And, if you’re as obsessed with tennis as they are, you may enjoy it more than I did.

The film cuts back and forth from the present, with three aging tennis prodigies. Patrick Zweig (O’Connor) is scruffy and down on his luck or likes to pretend he is—sleeping in his car, cadging meals. Art Donaldson (Faist) is near the top of his game, but faltering, more due to shaky confidence than lack of a serve. Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), a former teen tennis star herself, sidelined by a career-ending injury, is Donaldson’s coach—and wife.

The men were best friends from childhood, inseparable, and “complete each other’s sentences” close. They met Duncan about a decade earlier, both starstruck by her beauty and tennis skills. Then the real competition begins. Over the next decade they play her back and forth like a, well, like a tennis ball, and even though she married Donaldson, it’s just possible Zweig still holds first place in her heart.

The movie cuts between scenes set in the current day, when the men are playing a second-rate match in New Rochelle that both are desperate to win. Zweig needs the cash; and Donaldson needs the win to qualify for the US Open. But what they’re really playing for is Duncan. I get that, but these characters aren’t so interesting as to hold my attention for two hours.

All three of them are master manipulators, but at least O’Connor can take the edge off with his sly smile. You see their practices, their various matchups over the years, and a lot of this final match. Walking out, my bottom line was “too much tennis.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 88%; audiences 73%.

Weekend Movie Strategy

Two movies we’ve seen lately fit nicely on the “not for everybody” shelf. My husband, not being a fan of science fiction, was lukewarm about Dune: Part Two. He might have been less iffy if it weren’t two and three-quarters hours long. I was not bored. Though we generally like movies about World War II and had expected great things of The Zone of Interest, which is an hour shorter than Dune, it seemed kind of endless to me. Here are the deets.

Dune: Part Two
You can’t fault the casting of this film, based on the award-winning Frank Herbert novels of the 1960s, which I remember fondly. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the movie’s cast is impeccable (trailer). Timothèe Chalamet is hero Paul Atreides, Zandaya is his main squeeze. Along with them are Javier Barden, Austin Butler, Josh Brolin, Christopher Walken, Charlotte Rampling, and Stellan Skarsgård, among many others probably well known to hipper audiences. The makeup of the shaved-head, waxen-skinned bad guys, the Harkonnen clan, were truly creepy. Skarsgård as the chief Harkonnen needed three hours of makeup every day he was on set. He was bulked out to the point he was almost unrecognizable, unless he was posing as the “hookah-smoking caterpillar” from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a comparison that occurred to me (consciously, at least) before I realized he also smoked a hookah.

The special effects were transporting, especially the worm-surfing, and I wasn’t surprised that the non-desert filming took place in Hungary. There was a sleek Central European brutalist vibe about the Harkonnen’s dwellings.

And it definitely sets you up for Dune: Part Three.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 93%; audiences: 95%.

The Zone of Interest
Based incredibly loosely on a novel by Martin Amis, this is the story of a real-life person, commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hōss, and his wife Hedwig, directed by Jonathan Glazer (trailer). On the surface, if you can ignore the constant rumbling (well-earned Academy Award for sound design) of who-knows-what horrible machinery on the other side of the wall, the couple, with their four children and servants lead a perfectly normal middle-class life.

But of course the situation is not even a bit normal, and they can only lead that life (her, in particular), by absolutely denying the reality of what is going on around them. Their older son is playing with teeth—oh, sure. A fabulous fur coat arrives in a pillowcase—par for the course. Her beautiful garden—“I had help, of course.” Yes, and we know who that help was. Just as we know who their skittish servant is. And the woman Rudolf rapes.

Hōss is played by Christian Friedel and Hedwig by Sandra Hüller (who also played in the Oscar-nominated Anatomy of a Fall). She is amazing, conveying so much, so seemingly effortlessly.Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 93%; audiences: 78%.

Who’s the Best Holmes and Watson On-Screen?

I asked this question of a certain kind of Sherlock Holmes expert: people who write stories in the Conan Doyle tradition. Quite a few contemporary writers take inspiration from Victorian England, Holmes’s wide-ranging if idiosyncratic erudition, and Watson’s genial writing style. I’ve had three such stories published and can attest to how much fun it is to don another writer’s hounds tooth suit.

The writers whose picks for best on-screen Holmes/Watson portrayals all appear in Sherlock Holmes: A Year of Mystery 1885, published last December by Belanger Books. Many of them have written a number of Doyle pastiches, and in the coming weeks, I’ll say more about why and how. They’ve generously shared their love of Holmesiana with me—and now you. *=one vote

*Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce
The 14 Hollywood films in this series are the classic of classics, released between 1939 and 1946, and the vehicle by which Americans first developed a relationship with an on-screen Holmes and Watson. Thus, “for tradition’s sake, maybe Rathbone-Bruce have the edge,” says author Hassan Akram. My own quibble with this series are well put by David Marcum, who says, “Basil Rathbone would be my favorite Holmes if he wasn’t saddled with Boobus Brittanicus Nigel Bruce, who was not Watson.” If you’ve seen the Rathbone/Bruce Hound of the Baskervilles [1939], you’ll know what he means.

***Jeremy Brett/David Burke/Edward Harwicke
In this Granada Television series, which over its 41 episodes (1984 – 1994) involved two actors in the Watson role, is the favorite of DJ Tyrer. “Not only does Jeremy Brett fit very closely to how I imagine Holmes,” he says, “but the series is a faithful adaptation, adding to the illusion.” George Gardner also favored this series, noting Watson’s direct voice and Brett’s “manic edge.” When he was writing, “it was Jeremy Brett’s Holmes that I saw.” Author Shelby Phoenix couldn’t be clearer: “It’s Jeremy Brett and David Burke all the way.” David Marcum takes exception. He says, Brett “did not play Holmes—he played himself, foisting his own physical and mental illnesses on the character.” (Brett took lithium to control his bipolar disorder, and the medication affected his health and appearance.)

**Robert Downey, Jr./Jude Law
George Jacobs admits to missing the classic duos and to admiring the films featuring Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law from 2009 and 2011 (directed by Guy Ritchie ). Their “modern take” also appeals to Gustavo Bondoni, and Shelby Phoenix calls them “an iconic version.”

**Benedict Cumberbatch/Martin Freeman
This four-season BBC series (airing 2010-2017) is a tight runner-up for author Hassan Akram, and Kevin Thornton says Cumberbatch is “The only [Holmes] who has energized me enough in the last twenty years to sit and watch him,” suggesting an interesting tension between historical and contemporary influences in his creative process! The tabloids suggest the series would have gone on longer if the two stars had gotten along. It’s my current favorite, too, admitting great admiration for Martin Freeman. Interestingly, the producers image of Holmes was as a “high functioning sociopath.”

*Johnny Lee Miller/Lucy Liu
Here’s an unconventional choice. George Jacobs, who admits to missing the classics, found that the CBS series, Elementary, with 154 episodes that aired from 2012 to 2019, “had the best friendship chemistry and kept Holmes’s demons without losing his intrinsic goodness.”

Extra Credit
David Marcum provides a handy list of the many other actors who he believes have successfully played the Great Detective: Arthur Wontner (in a 1930s film series, set in the 30s), Ronald Howard (1954), Douglas Wilmer (in a 1964 – 1965 BBC series), Peter Cushing (a continuation of the BBCseries, airing in 1968), and Ian Richardson (1983). That Holmes has appeared in so many notable productions is irrefutable evidence of his lasting appeal.

So, who’s your favorite?

Photo of Benedict Cumberbatch by Fat Les, cc by 2.0 license.

On the Big Screen: The Boys in the Boat

The predictable uplift sports movie generally provide is one of the greatest sources of its appeal: big goal, lots of work, sacrifice, setbacks, and, in the end—triumph! And sometimes an inspiring musical score too, viz., Chariots of Fire, Rocky.

The Boys in the Boat follows this model almost too well (trailer). Written by Mark L. Smith and directed by George Clooney, it breaks no new ground as it presents the amazing struggle by an eight-man crew from the University of Washington to compete in the 1936 Olympics. You know, the one when American athlete Jesse Owens (Jyuddah Jaymes) won four gold medals and scorched Hitler’s hackles.

The ragtag crew, brought together in the heart of the Depression, was led by actor Callum Turner (playing Joe Rantz), with my favorite performance coming from the megaphoned coxswain, who calls the speed and spurs his crew on, played by Luke Slattery. The cinematography is beautiful, and there’s a stirring score by Alexandre Desplat.

Not only were the Huskies underdogs when pitted against the East Coast Ivy League rowing powerhouses, the boat Coach Ulbrickson (played by Joel Edgerton) chose to enter in the preliminaries wasn’t even his most experienced crew. It was his junior varsity boat. Noses were out of joint. But Ulbrickson saw in the hunger and desperation (and shoes with holes in them) a drive that might take them first over the finish line. Joe Rantz gets some extra motivation through informal “occupational therapy”—late-night sanding and painting—with the elderly boatbuilder, played by Peter Guinness, as they work on the new racing shell for the Huskies team.

The Boys in the Boat is a feel-good film and, as it’s based on a true story (told in a 2013 book by Daniel James Brown), you don’t feel like you’ve been manipulated into those good feelings. The scores below tell the story.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 57%; audiences 98%.

On the Big Screen: American Fiction

The entertaining film American Fiction is about Black author Thelonious “Monk” Ellison whose highbrow works don’t sell (trailer). As a piece of literary sarcasm, he deploys a pseudonym (Stagg R. Lee) and the persona of a fugitive from justice to pen a novel full of gangsta stuff—shootings, drugs, unknown daddies, you name it. Frustratingly, this pile of clichés, which he regards as trash, is snatched up by a publisher. A big-budget movie deal is in the works.

It seems Americans (book publishers, movie-makers, consumers) are much more willing to accept that depiction of Black life than the reality of an upbringing like Monk’s: a father and two siblings who are doctors, his life as a college instructor.

Racist attitudes about Blacks aren’t the only prejudice explored in the film. The Black family’s prejudice against white people recurs. And, Monk’s brother is a gay plastic surgeon who escaped from Massachusetts to Tucson to put a continent between himself and the homophobic attitudes of his parents.

This may sound a bit heavy, but the script (written by Cord Jefferson) has a light touch and frequent bursts of humor, even when we see our not-best selves. No matter how on-point the humor is, it’s never mean-spirited. Jefferson also directed the film, which stars Jeffrey Wright giving a vulnerable, complex performance as Ellison/Lee, Tracee Ellis Ross as his sister, Sterling K. Brown as brother Clifford, and Leslie Uggams as their widowed mother.

John Ortiz does a perfect job as Ellison’s agent, the only person in on the joke. He’s against the idea at the outset, but when it’s such a runaway financial success, he’s in. Monk is not. He wants to abandon the Stagg R. Lee project, but for various reasons, he’s increasingly stuck. Adam Brody plays the terminally clueless Hollywood producer. He thinks he’s cool with Black people, but . . .

Monk embarks on a predictable romance with public defender Coraline (Erika Alexander). It’s useful to the story, because it hits the nail home for Monk about the downsides of his disengagement with life—ironically, what his fiction suffers from too.

The many closeups of Monk—taking situations in and puzzling over them—give the impression he’s merely an observer of his life , not a participant. In one of many beautiful filmmaking moments, early on, a death occurs that Monk watches through a not-quite-closed hospital door. From down the hall, you see him silhouetted in front of the door, and when he realizes what’s happened, he slowly backs away, distancing himself from another painful reality.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 98%.

Weekend Movies: Two Good Choices, One Not-So

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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.

The Holdovers
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%.

Nyad
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%

Killers of the Flower Moon

You think three hours and 26 minutes makes for an awfully long movie? You’re right. Yet, Martin Scorsese’s true-crime epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, completely held my attention throughout (trailer). Even though I knew the story, because I’d read the fascinating book by David Grann that the movie is based on, still there were no saggy lulls. It is time well spent.

The New York Times calls it “An Unsettling Masterpiece,” which recounts the terrible outcomes of white men’s unrelenting, murderous greed when oil is quite unexpectedly discovered on the Oklahoma lands that had been considered so worthless they might as well be given to the Osage tribe.

If I had a complaint, it would be that there was too much attention to Robert DeNiro as the “King of the Osage Hills,” cattleman William Hale. (Hale even asks people to call him “King.”) He gives an excellent performance, but, unlike the other characters, he doesn’t change; he’s the same throughout—a malicious, manipulative, avaricious local operator—and you understand him from the beginning.

Leonardo DiCaprio sets aside any vanity and is neither handsome nor savvy in playing Ernest Burkhart, Hale’s nephew. Because the tribe members are deemed incompetent to manage their assets, they are required to have white guardians. A quick way for a white man to become a guardian is to marry an Osage woman, just as Burkhart marries Mollie Kyle, memorably played by Lily Gladstone. Then if the wife dies . . . you can guess the rest.

Thanks to the oil, in the early 1920s, Osage members were the per capita richest people in the world. Much too tempting a target for undereducated, unprincipled roughnecks. Believe me, you’re grateful when Jesse Pelmons as Tom White, an agent of J.Edgar Hoover’s nascent FBI, appears on the scene.

The movie was filmed on a grand scale in Oklahoma, though there are plenty of intimate, emotion-packed moments in which Mollie and Ernest demonstrate real love for each other. Her penetrating gaze recognizes Hale and Burkhart’s schemes, but loves her husband anyway.

The film is dedicated to Robbie Robertson, whose last project was composing its music.

At the beginning, there is what seems an unnecessary statement by Scorsese about why he made this movie. That opening fits when he gives its closing words as well, bookending the film during a creative approach to telling “what happened next.”

The ill-treatment of indigenous people was one of America’s two greatest original sins and, in the arc of history, this sorry episode was not so very long ago.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 85%.

On Screen: Oppenheimer

J. Robert Oppenheimer had close connections with Princeton, including his acquaintanceship with Albert Einstein and his tenure as head of the Institute for Advanced Study (one of the four colleges then in this New Jersey town). Our local nonprofit movie theater was able to arrange a U.S. premiere last Thursday, the day before the film’s general release. The Garden Theater produced a classy event—food, wine, free popcorn!—and attendance was enthusiastic.

But it was the movie itself, directed by Christopher Nolan, that made an indelible impression on me. Three hours long, and not a minute wasted. The music and some of the visuals, especially in the beginning, suggested how the young Oppenheimer grappled with the mysterious principles of theoretical physics and quantum mechanics, the energy of the stars, and the movement of atoms. And their implications. He became the person who pulled all these ideas (and conflicting scientists’ egos) together to create the atomic bomb. When the Manhattan Project began, the United States was already four years behind German development of atomic weapons. While there were Americans who questioned whether the United States should deploy such a destructive weapon, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Hitler wouldn’t hesitate.

Oppenheimer believed his role was to develop the weapon; it was up to the politicians when, where—and if—it should be used. Then politics threatened to undo him. The 1954 closed-door hearing in which his security clearance hung in the balance jeopardized his career. Physics was a field with too many secrets, and his government wanted to know whether he could be trusted with them. The brutal questioning and testimony at that hearing is intercut with testimony in another hearing—the Senate confirmation debate on Lewis Strauss’s nomination to be Secretary of Commerce. As chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, Strauss had become an Oppenheimer’s implacable enemy, because of the scientist’s qualms about developing the hydrogen bomb and remarks Strauss perceived as insults. The movie contains some astonishing quotes, and, apparently all are accurate.

While these may sound like dry bureaucratic proceedings, director Christopher Nolan has created a movie of incredible tension. Irish actor Cillian Murphy, as Oppenheimer, and Robert Downey, Jr., as Strauss, are formidable antagonists. The cast is further strengthened by the performances of Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Florence Pugh, Kenneth Branagh, Josh Hartnett, and Rami Malek, among many others.

The story is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2005 biography American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. The production team had only three months of preparation, and the film was shot in just 57 days. I see it as a testament to the value of being focused, whereas films whose creation sprawls over many months lose their edge. The powerful result speaks for itself.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 94%; audiences: 94%.

Weekend Movie Pick: The Lost King

You really wouldn’t have to say much more to me than “Sally Hawkins,” but when I saw previews for this film she stars in about an incident I remember well, I couldn’t wait! And it did not disappoint. For centuries, the memories of England’s King Richard III have been shaped by Shakespeare’s wonderful play, but there have been doubts . . .

He was writing during the Tudor era, and the Tudors (Henry VII) had wrested the throne from Richard, the last of the Plantagenet kings, by defeating him in battle. “A horse! A Horse! My kingdom for a horse!” famously says the unseated king. Shakespeare had to hew the ruling dynasty’s political line here. And did.

The movie was directed by master storyteller Stephen Frears and written by him and Jeff Pope (trailer). Along with Hawkins, it stars Steve Coogan as Hawkins’s husband and Harry Lloyd as Richard III. Hawkins, as Philippa Langley, embarks on an impossible quest. Her husband has left her, her job is unbearable, and she suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which makes it hard to do much. But she sees a production of Richard III that really touches her. Was he really so bad or just misunderstood? She embarks on a quest to find out.

Introduced to the myths and mysteries surrounding Richard, she becomes consumed with a desire to find where he’s buried. Tradition holds that his body was dumped in the River Soar in Leicester, a city in England’s East Midlands. But Philippa finds scattered reference to a burial in the town’s Greyfriars Church, long since demolished.

Aiding her in her quest is King Richard himself, who appears to her (and only to her) occasionally, encouraging her on. They talk. Hawkins is perfectly cast as this tentative, but determined woman whom everyone sells short, except Richard himself. She has a brilliant way of simultaneously portraying vulnerability and strength.

Not only is it interesting, with some bureaucratic villains with all-too-familiar personalities, knowing it’s based on the true story of an amateur investigator’s triumph over hidebound historians unwilling to ask questions is quite satisfying. (You’ll loathe the university hacks.) Loved it!

(Richard en route to his new burial site, 2015.)

Great Popcorn Munching: Air

If you asked me whether I’d like a movie about a rookie basketball player’s athletic shoe endorsement saga, I’m afraid you’d just get a blank look. Then, if you said the film centers on one of the most exciting stars in any sport, ever, but he’s actually barely in it, I’d probably wander off looking for a snack. I would be wrong.

Air, the new movie directed by Ben Affleck and written by Alex Convery, is based on Nike’s 1984 effort to woo college junior Michael Jordan and his shoe endorsement away from (then) major competitors Converse and Adidas (trailer). The story will grab you because the outcome, even though you know it, is so well delivered by a top-notch cast and a wholly believable script.

Ben Affleck plays the legendary Nike founder Phil Knight, and he has some superstars on his own team, notably Matt Damon as fixer (I can’t think of a better word for it), basketball superfan, and chief risk-taker Sonny Vaccaro. Jason Bateman plays marketing innovator Rob Strasser, Chris Tucker as advisor Howard White, and Matt Maher as down-in-the-basement shoe designer and innovator Peter Moore. At the time the film is set, Nike’s a big sports company known mostly for its running shoes, trying unsuccessfully to move big into the basketball world. They need a star. Incessantly watching the films of college hoops stars and the top NBA draft picks, Vaccaro recognizes Michael Jordan for the game-changer he’s going to be. But other companies want his endorsement too.

An actor playing Michael Jordan barely appears in the film and has no lines to speak of. Instead, Vaccaro’s unconventional recruitment tactics are aimed at his mother, Deloris Jordan, in a pitch-perfect performance by Viola Davis. It’s not appreciated that he makes his pitch directly or that he end-runs Jordan’s flamboyant and foul-mouthed agent, David Falk, played by Chris Messina.

There’s humor there, too, in the marketing meetings, in Vaccaro’s manipulation of Phil Knight (knowing what good friends the two actors are, they can nevertheless argue with real heat), in how Vaccaro tells Deloris Jordan exactly what the other companies’ pitches will be and seeing how that turns out, and how she out-maneuvers all of them. In the end, the new kind of deal they struck became a game-changer for college and professional athletes alike.

Give yourself a cinematic treat, and see this film!

Rotten Tomatoes Critics’ Rating 92%; audiences 98%.

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