Fifty years ago saw a pretty memorable Christmas at the movies: The year’s #1, #2 and #6 top grossers arrived, namely The Exorcist, The Sting and Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force. The first was a bit too much for the Academy, which has still never bestowed the Best Picture Award on anything that might be termed a horror movie (unless you count 2017’s The Shape of Water, which basically turned Creature From the Black Lagoon into an interspecies romance). So safe, starry Sting swept the Oscars, securing its place among those winners that make a big splash, then eventually nobody watches anymore. (I loved it back then, found it surprisingly charmless when re-released in 1977, and have been wary of taking another look ever since.)
Magnum Force is not a good movie, though it does provide a fine example of the gratuitous homophobia that seemed a mandatory element in every Clint Eastwood movie at the time. But its violent celebration of reactionary machismo would prove culturally prescient in a way that The Sting’s clever caper-contraption did not, just as The Exorcist more conspicuously pushed into the mainstream a hitherto disreputable genre. Notably, the Yuletide of ’73 had nary a “family film” in sight, the biggest exception being Superdad, a bottom-rung live action Disney joint that served as vehicle for Bob Crane—past star of Hogan’s Heroes and future star of many homemade sex videos, as eventually detailed in the lurid biopic Autofocus.
The multiplex outlook is very different today, with most of the current mainstream releases aimed at family audiences, or at least the teenage demographic targeted as a mean by superhero movies and other major franchises. Still, there are some dramas for grownups hitting Bay Area screens this Christmas, all of them prestige projects in one way or another. Though only the smallest of them actually makes good on its own aspirations.
(A side note: Apologies for not covering the musical Color Purple, which also opens on the holiday—its advance screenings were missed, and the format of the online screener provided critics was beyond my computer’s capacity to stream.)
That one success is the UK All Of Us Strangers from Andrew Haigh. Loosely adapted from a 1987 Japanese novel by Taichi Yamada, it’s the director’s best work since Weekend twelve years ago, looking at first glance like its companion piece. This is another intimate tale about two gay men who meet casually but find themselves drawn more deeply to one another than expected, one whose deceptive simplicity gradually makes room for all kinds of intelligent ambiguity and nuance.
Adam (Andrew Scott) is a withdrawn London writer who clearly needs social contact, yet politely rebuffs apartment-building neighbor Harry (Paul Mescal) when the latter drunkenly knocks on his door one night. He later regrets that reflexive caution, seeking Harry out for a tentative sexual friendship. But their relationship may not be quite what it appears, nor the one Adam has with his parents (Jamie Bell, Claire Foy), whom he keeps going out to the suburbs to see. It takes some time to realize that much of Strangers operates in realms of fantasy, where paths not taken can be trod after all, even the deceased brought back to imaginary life so that conversations which never had a chance to occur can be played out.
Haigh’s approach is so low-key, the separation between reality and wish-fulfillment is undetectable until the script comes right out and remarks upon it. Even then, the “rules” of this particular faith-leap remain fuzzy, so that the viewer is better off not looking for any defined fantasy logic that might “explain” what we see. That leaves a slightly messy impression, conceptually.
But Haigh has a real gift for things at once very basic to human experience and not at all easy to capture onscreen. One of them is realistic sex scenes, not in terms of graphic content but rather credible awkwardness and/or passion. Another is simply ordinary adult emotional interaction, whether hesitant, impulsive, or neither. These elements are depicted to some degree in just about every movie. But it’s only when you see one handled by a director as sensitive as Haigh, with so fine a guiding control over his actors, that you realize “Oh right: This is how it actually is in life.”
The result is a fragile, diaphanous narrative that nonetheless arrives at considerable dramatic power, even if the fadeout was maybe a tad too self-consciously lyrical—in a very literal-minded “we’re all just specks in the infinite cosmos” sense—for my taste. Along with Celine Song’s Past Lives, this is probably the year’s most poignantly astute cinematic probe into romantic relationship psychology, microscopic in its scale of inquiry, and very moving for that dedication to the smallest truths. It opens Fri/25 at the Kabuki in SF, expanding to more area theaters after the new year.
Two much bigger movies are all about men, sport, competition, and the need to be Numero Uno—the destructive side of which is already on display in last weekend’s wide release The Iron Claw. Both are period pieces from esteemed directors, and both are a bit of a letdown.
The Boys in the Boat, based on Daniel James Brown’s 2013 non-fiction tome, is about the University of Washington rowing team that made it all the way to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where they managed to provide Hitler with an embarrassing German loss. (As more famously did African-American track star Jesse Owens, who gets an awkwardly shoehorned-in cameo here.) They’re a “boatful of underdogs,” as a radio announcer puts it, triumphing through sheer gumption over the rival crews from more prestigious, deeper-pocketed institutions.
An underdog among underdogs is central protagonist Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a hard-luck case who’s been supporting himself since age 14 and joins the team simply so he’ll have room & board, rather than living on the streets. His equal in poker-faced, humorless, stubborn masculine can-do-ness is coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton). Both men have women in their lives (Hadley Robinson as Joe’s fellow-student girlfriend, Courtney Henggeler as Al’s wife) to cheer and adore them, with no other visible function. All the other subsidiary figures are even more forgettably one-note.
This was not a personal project for director George Clooney (he was apparently hired after Kenneth Branaugh dropped out), but nonetheless, it is dismaying how utterly bland and personality-free the resulting Generic Feel-Good Sports Movie is. Admittedly, rowing is probably not a great camera subject—the smooth, machine-like unity of team motion is hard to render cinematically exciting, or at least they didn’t manage to here. But why does the period atmosphere feel so unconvincing, as if afraid to alienate “modern” audiences? Why are there so many dim anachronisms in the dialogue? Why does the whole thing feel like professional hack work, with nary a moment of acting or stylistic inspiration?
Clooney’s more recent directorial efforts have disappointed (The Tender Bar, Midnight Sky, Suburbicon), but at least you could guess why he was attracted to the material. Surely the man who made Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night & Good Luck not so long ago can’t be so emptied of ideas already. Boys isn’t a truly bad movie, but it’s the kind of by-numbers mediocrity that is ultimately more depressing than an outright stinker.
Ferrari is another expensive ode to automotive speed—something director Michael Mann must (like Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, and numerous other Hollywood A-listers before him) really be into, since he already produced 2019’s Ford v Ferrari. That 1960s-set movie, which focused on the U.S. side to an ongoing international competition, was more fun and had more colorful characters than this fairly grim portrait of an obsessive tycoon about a decade prior.
Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) is the mirthless possessor of “a deadly passion, a terrible joy”—the need to devise ever-faster custom sports cars his drivers will quite possibly get killed in while re-securing the record for World’s Fastest. The “building the car, assembling the team” scenes are rote but watchable enough in setting us up for race sequences that are duly exciting, if rather garishly spiked by accidents so FX-laden-grisly they might be in a Final Destination flick. The prolonged climactic Mille Miglia race traverses through spectacular scenery you’d be happy to cruise through at a less-hazardous MPH.
But oh, the off-road domestic torments we must suffer through to get there. Ferrari is a wealthy mid-century Italian man—so of course he has a wife and a mistress, as well as children by both. Cruel fate has decreed that his “legitimate” heir died, leaving the missus Laura (Penelope Cruz) in a constant stew of grief, accusation and suspicion. Needless to say, when she discovers the existence of not only his younger longtime side squeeze (an inexplicably cast Shailene Woodley as Lina Lardi) but their alive-and-well son (Giuseppe Festinese), Hell Hath No Fury Like. The ensuing confrontations provide La Cruz plenty of scenery to chew. Yet despite all assertive gesticulation, none of these leads are any more convincingly “Italian”than the starry ensemble was in House of Gucci two years ago—a movie whose soap operatics weren’t treated with quite such arid solemnity.
It’s as though Mann thinks he’s making an Antonioni film, when all any viewer will care about (or that the director himself seems roused by) is the stuff with very loud cars going very very fast. Ferrari has its moments. Still, no one attracted by that title will be happy seeing so much of its 124 minutes consumed by the embittered combatants in a bad marriage yelling at each other, their hands so “ethnically” active you can’t tell whether they’re voguing or using ASL.
Both ill-served by dull original scores (from Alexandre Desplat and Daniel Pemberton, respectively), The Boys in the Boat and Ferrari open in theaters nationwide on Christmas Day.