“Zone” is a very different Holocaust Film

The Zone of Interest (Christian Friedel, Sandra Hüller) –Jonathan Glazer took author Martin Amis’ title and general story and adapted it into a very different kind of Holocaust film. A critical sensation, The Zone of Interest utilized the German word, “interessengebiet,” or interest zone, to serve as a euphemism for the death camps.

Nominated for five Oscars: Best Picture, Best International Feature Film, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Sound, The Zone of Interest is a haunting, depressing, ironic view of Adolph Hitler’s Final Solution. Without ever taking the audience inside Auschwitz, Glazer follows Rudolf Höss, the commandant of the most infamous concentration camp as he balances his seemingly normal family’s existence with his unspeakably evil job running the camp. Christian Friedel plays Höss with a cold, disciplined demeanor. But he also seemingly loves his family, which lives in an almost idyllic home right outside the camp. While the structure is both plain and large, it borders the woods by a river while the grounds include a wading pool and sprawling garden.

That garden, where life is born, contrasts with the camp, where life ends. In Glazer’s film, almost every bright, brimming outdoor scene is punctuated by the smoke of human remains coming from the chimney stacks and the distant sounds of gunshots, moans, or screams. In one scene, Höss and his children are swimming in the river when he realizes that human remains or ashes are floating in the water. He and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, Oscar-nominated for Anatomy of a Fall), rush to scrub the residue from the kids and themselves. It’s a ceremonial cleansing from the bodies, but certainly not the soul. Hedwig is equally revolting and undisturbed by what is going on around her. She believes that she and her husband have reached their goal.

Slow paced to the point of boredom, The Zone of Interest lulls the audience while hinting at an impending resolution that never comes. At its core, the Holocaust … and this film … provided no upside, no mercy, and no happy ending. When Höss is promoted, we realize he is just going to efficiently kill more people at more camps. When Hedwig gets what she wants – to stay in her paradise with her model Arian kids – she continues to reap the material rewards of being the boss’s wife: a stolen fur coat, inmate servants, and status.

Utilizing a sparse, discordant soundtrack and a couple long periods of blank screen, the film (Poland’s entry for Best Foreign Film, presented with subtitles) is a work of art that feels uncomfortable and occasionally fails. Said another way, Glazer is too creative for his own good in spots. Sometimes, he swings and misses. But this movie makes the audience purposely uncomfortable.  It is maddening. Rarely do films generate that much emotion in audiences when the movie itself moves so slowly and peacefully.

The Zone of Interest is the kind of movie that only gets nominated for Best Picture because the category has been expanded to up to 10 films. It deserves recognition as a piece of art and a haunting reminder of how insidious evil can be … and not just in the past.

“Greatest Night in Pop” documentary pops

The Greatest Night in Pop (Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Huey Lewis) – Thirty-nine years ago, the greatest collection of popular music artists gathered secretly after the American Music Awards to create the record, We Are the World.

This spectacular documentary on Netflix reveals never-before-seen footage of that magical night. In short, it was historic. Superstars who often can’t control their considerable egos worked for free to raise money to help solve the famine in Africa. The brainchild of producer Bob Geldof and artists led by Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, and Quincy Jones, USA for Africa launched a worldwide effort that galvanized the entertainment industry with humanitarian causes.

As important as those efforts are, this documentary zeroes in on this special night, the events leading up to it, and the interaction of these stars with each other. We learn how Richie and Jackson collaborated in the writing of the song; how the stars were recruited; what obstacles were overcome; and how the session went.

It is through the interviews with Richie, Huey Lewis, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Loggins, Cyndi Lauper, Sheila E., Smokey Robinson, and others that we all become voyeurs. You’ll find out how some of the greatest singers/writers of all time were in awe of each other. Many sought autographs of their heroes. There is a tribute to Harry Belafonte that moved him to tears. Singing solos with their peers watching made them nervous. Plus, there was some competition … and some frustration. You’ll watch Bob Dylan struggle to find his place. Find out who walked out of the recording session and who was almost too drunk to sing his solo. Watch Quincy Jones herd the cats and Michael Jackson laying down his part alone in the studio.

This is a not-to-be-missed documentary for anyone who ever bought an album or listened to the radio. This is reliving your youth and yearning for a simpler time. Watching it provides a unique, fly-on-the-wall opportunity for the viewer. And you don’t have to buy a ticket to see it.

“Past Lives” makes its Oscar presence real

Past Lives (Greta Lee, Teo Yoo, John Magaro) – As Past Lives opens, we are presented with three adults, two Asian and one white, sitting at a bar in current time while we hear the dialogue of a couple sitting nearby as they speculate about the trio.

We immediately flash back 24 years to two young Korean pre-teens, Na Young and Hae Sung, talking in the streets of a Korean town. Typical 12-year-old kids, they are inseparable, sharing their innocent lives. They’re both excellent students. She is determined but a “crybaby”; he’s quieter and reassuring. They are smitten, and their parents agree to let the kids go on “a date.”

But her family moves away, and the kids lose touch. Fast-forward 12 years. He’s a student in Seoul; she is a writer using the name Nora in New York. He decides to try to find out what happened to her, eventually finding her on social media. They connect via video chat. They flirt; they share; but they don’t get together. Fast forward another 12 years. Now we’re in real time.

What follows is a wonderful, heartrending story about love, imagination, destiny, missed opportunity, moving on, seeking your dreams, and much more. Relative newcomer Celine Song, whose only previous major credit was as a writer in the fantasy series The Wheel of Time, has crafted a deeply personal, autobiographical story as both writer and director. Exceptionally written in a script nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Past Lives presents a premise that many people can identify with. Essentially, she asks: “What if you got together with your childhood sweetheart 25 years later?”

The stars, Greta Lee (best known for The Morning Show) and Teo Yoo (Leto, Decision to Leave), play Nora and Hae Sung as adults. Their chemistry is almost exclusively expressed by their eye contact, the pauses in their dialogue, and her sensitivity and his melancholy. Their performances are unexpectedly well choreographed. For those agonizing over Margot Robbie’s Best Actress snub, you should also wonder how the Academy passed over Lee.

Nora’s husband, Arthur, is clearly the third wheel. He deeply loves Nora and is understandably worried when Hae Sung decides to visit. As played by John Magaro (The Big Short), Arthur is insecure and feels somewhat unworthy of Nora. The arc of his uncomfortable relationship with Hae Sung is brilliantly written by Song and played by Yoo and Magaro. This story creates a triangle with round edges.

It is hard not to be captivated by this film. It is the definition of a “little film” – low budget, minimalist, and well-acted. It is also slow, never detouring into faster pace. But at one-hour-45-minutes, it is not dull. It’s a romance, not a romantic comedy. It’s a journey of maturation and self-discovery filled with human emotion, heartbreak, and self-actualization. No wonder that Sundance and then the Academy took notice.

The film is presented partly in Korean with some English. It is the best case for the Academy’s decision several years ago to expand the Best Picture category to allow up to 10 nominees.

“Anatomy of a Fall” revives courtroom drama genre

Anatomy of a Fall (Sandra Hüller, Samuel Theis, Milo Machado Graner) — Some of my favorite movies of all time are courtroom dramas: 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, Presumed Innocent, A Time to Kill, A Few Good Men, The Caine Mutiny.

Add Anatomy of a Fall to the list. Nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing, Anatomy of a Fall is presented in French (60%) with subtitles but contains quite a bit of English.

Set near Grenoble, a couple lives with their sight-challenged son high up in the Alps. When the film opens, the son, Daniel, takes the family dog out for a walk (or the other way around) shortly after the mother, Sandra, cuts short an interview about her new book.  When the son returns home, his father (who we hadn’t met yet) is lying dead and bloodied in the snow.

Like all murder mysteries, questions abound. With only five characters (mom, dad, son, interviewer, and dog) to choose from, we become participants in the drama. The mother, richly drawn and played by Oscar nominee Sandra Hüller, is ultimately arrested and tried. The father, Samuel (Samuel Theis), is seen only in flashbacks. Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), whose character centers the film, is called as a witness.

Anatomy of a Fall’s premise or script isn’t unique. It feels part Agatha Christie and part John Grisham. But it is reminiscent of an era when good writing, great acting, and exceptional pacing made courtroom dramas riveting and engrossing.

Director Justine Triet is a somewhat eccentric artist with a reputation as plain-spoken and feminist, which came into play when she alienated some on the French Oscar Committee when accepting the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2023. They chose a different film as their official entry for this year’s Oscar Foreign Language Film, thus setting up the embarrassment of Anatomy being nominated for Best Picture but not Best Foreign Language Film (clearing the field for an almost certain win for The Zone of Interest).

Triet, however, scored an Oscar nod for Best Director, perhaps grabbing the nomination expected to go to Greta Gerwig for “Barbie.” Her deft touch keeps Anatomy well-paced, taut, and subtly subversive. Its script, which she co-wrote, is tight and lyrical. The characters are well drawn and meanderingly exposed.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film even at two-and-a-half hours. Currently available for rent ($6.99) on a couple streaming services, it is likely to come to theaters before the Academy Awards in March. Make sure you see it.

Colman Domingo brings “Rustin” to life

Rustin (Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Ami Ameen, Jeffrey Wright, CCH Pounder) – In November 2013, President Barack Obama awarded Bayard Rustin the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously. Who was Bayard Rustin? Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground production company joined with producer/director George C. Wolfe and others to tell Rustin’s story through film.

Rustin seeks both to educate and celebrate the man who proposed, planned, and pulled off the March on Washington (for Jobs and Freedom) in August 1963. While the March will always be remembered for Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, Rustin was the force behind the march.

A longtime friend of King (portrayed convincingly by Ami Ameen), Rustin is a complicated man who strongly believed in non-violent, civil disobedience. His activism was undeniable though his methods and flamboyance often put him outside the mainstream of the civil rights movement. The fact that he was also gay meant that he was kept outside the black power structure. The NAACP, led by Roy Wilkins, disavowed him (Chris Rock delivers a marginal performance.) Congressman Adam Clayton Powell outed him (Jeffrey Wright is memorable in a two-scene cameo.)

Colman Domingo, whose brilliant performance in the most recent version of The Color Purple, inhabits the Rustin character in a mesmerizing performance that has earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, perhaps denying Leonardo DiCaprio a nod for Killers of the Flower Moon.

Domingo is no overnight success. Now 54, he has appeared in Lincoln, Selma, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, If Beale Street Could Talk and dozens of other films and television series. He is one of those actors who you will recognize but rarely can place.

What Rustin lacks in cinematic depth, it makes up in earnestness. The story is somewhat thin, choosing to focus on Rustin’s sexual orientation more than needed. We long to know more about his relationship with Martin and Coretta King as well as the other leaders of the movement. While we meet many of those people, including John Lewis, Medgar Evers, Wilkins, and Powell, the film doesn’t dig deep. The effect is to make Rustin a character study, not a documentary.

The film moved straight to streaming on Netflix, making it broadly available but not a money maker. Thus, there is almost no excuse not to learn more about this justifiably heralded man and his lifelong quest to bring civil rights to all Americans.

Bening & Foster keep “Nyad” from sinking

Nyad (Annette Bening, Jodie Foster, Rhys Ifans) – Diana Nyad was certainly the most celebrated marathon swimmer of the 20th century.  She wasn’t an Olympian. She was an exceptional athlete. She came to prominence when she swam around Manhattan. She followed that up with other massively long swims. To many, she was a symbol of feminism and sports excellence in a world dominated by men. To some, she was a serial exaggerator with a history of overstating milestones. Ultimately, she turned herself into the leading participant in a sport that really didn’t exist and created a career as a motivational speaker, author, and sports commentator (for ABC’s Wide World of Sports).

In Nyad, the swimmer is depicted by the incredible Annette Bening as driven, cold, self-possessed, obsessed, selfish, and narcissistic. Given the fact that Ms. Nyad was a co-writer of the movie, she apparently gained a measured of self-awareness late in life. The film exclusively deals with Nyad’s decision in her early 60s to attempt the swim from Cuba to Key West that she couldn’t finish was she was younger. It was an unimaginable proposition; not only to make the 103-mile swim but to do it at that age.

Some would call it a late-life crisis. No longer well known and without much of a life, Nyad hit the gym, pushing herself to the physical edge. Supported by her longtime devoted friend, Bonnie Stoll, she willed herself to make the swim; not once but four times before she made it successfully. Along the way, she alienates almost everyone close to her and those who helped her. That is really the soul of the film.

Her relationship with Stoll, played masterfully and sympathetically by Jodie Foster, is the heart of the film. But it is also about the people recruited along the way to support her. In the end, 40 people witnessed her feat.

Both Bening and Foster received Oscar nominations and rightfully so. Both were willing to appear without make-up, showing wrinkles and cellulite. For actresses who have been known to play plucky, challenging, and glamorous parts (Bening in The American President, American Beauty, and The Kids are All Right or Foster in Maverick, The Silence of the Lambs and Nell), they were willing to take on a tremendous challenge.

Why wasn’t the movie nominated for anything else? First, it’s a grueling watch. Too much time in the water. Too much sunburn. Too much dead space. It went straight to streaming on Netflix because it was determined not to have much box office appeal. Perhaps part of it is the whitewashing of Nyad’s controversies. For example, the audience is never told that the swim was not certified, even as recently as 2022 and 2023.

But none of that detracts from the performances of these exceptional actresses. With these nominations, viewership of the film should soar.

“Poor” is the right adjective

Poor Things (Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Willem Dafoe) – It’s this year’s “What’s all the fuss about?” movie. It’s weird. It’s bizarre. It’s marginally pornographic. It has beautiful costumes, incredible photography, amazing set design, unbelievable make-up, and a strange musical score. The acting is over the top … purposely.

Directed by Oscar nominee Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite, The Lobster) and starring Oscar winner Emma Stone, 3-time Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo and 4-time Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe, Poor Things is awful.

In many ways, it’s Frankenstein. A brilliant, demonic, hideous-looking surgeon, Dr. Godwin Baxter (God, for short), raises a “retarded” girl as a daughter. He is working to heal and teach her. She is robot-like in mannerisms and intellect when we meet her. But as she learns and matures, she starts to think on her own and seeks more worldly pursuits. As presented by Lanthimos and Stone, Bella (as in Bela Lugosi, the screen Dracula) is particularly taken with her budding sexuality. The surgeon wants her to marry his student, Max (Ramy Youssef), who must agree to live with her at Baxter’s home and meet numerous other stipulations.

A contract is drawn up by Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), who soon takes advantage of the neophyte and whisks her away for a transcontinental cruise of Europe. What he really wants is sex – lots of it. And she obliges, wondering why people don’t do this “vigorous jumping” all the time.  As their relationship deteriorates and Duncan becomes more possessive, Bella gets even more adventurous and curious.

She sees poor people in Alexandria, which ignites her recently emergent empathy, resulting in her giving away Duncan’s money. Kicked off the cruise in Marseilles for failure to pay, the couple eventually ends up broke in Paris. In need of money, clueless Bella ends up outside a whorehouse, where she is promptly recruited as a prostitute, which she finds educational and, by her own admission, strangely enjoyable. It takes quite a while before she tires of it and has a “happy” experience with one of her sister whores.

Finally, she receives a letter from Max telling her that “God” is dying. She heads back to London to care for him and marry Max, having rid herself of Duncan. In case you don’t follow my advice and actually see this movie, I will avoid spoiling the surprises, which just make the movie even more ridiculous.

Seeing all of Emma Stone … many times … takes some of the joy out of La La Land and her other impressive films. Critics laud her performance as “brave” because of her avid willingness to be naked for much of the movie. And since she is one of the producers of Poor Things, she obviously made a conscious choice to bear all. It’s not the only nudity in the film, and I don’t know why this only got an R rating. Don’t take the kids.

If you want to see Frankenstein’s monster having sex, this is your movie. I can’t agree with critics who praise the film for being about female liberation in Victorian times. I haven’t (and won’t) read the 1992 book by Alasdair Gray on which the film is based, but I doubt that it was mostly a sex novel.

Critics love Poor Things. I doubt you will. But don’t be surprised if Stone, Ruffalo, Dafoe and Lanthimos get Oscar nominations. It got seven Golden Globe nominations and seems to be this year’s arthouse favorite. In a world where Everything Everywhere All at Once can win Best Picture, Poor Things fits right in.

If you like weird movies, are intrigued by seeing Stone au natural, or can’t wait to see Willem Dafoe in makeup that makes him look like Frankenstein’s monster, by all means see Poor Things. But remember I warned you.

Row Row Row to “Boat”

The Boys in the Boat (Joel Edgerton, Callum Turner, Peter Guinness) – Would I have seen this film if George Clooney weren’t the director? I doubt it. Apparently, Clooney loves to direct period pieces. For example, he previously helmed Leatherheads (a box office failure), The Monuments Men (somewhat painful),and Good Night and Good Luck (excellent).

Set in the mid-1930s at the University of Washington, The Boys in the Boat tells the true story of an inexperienced group of rowers chasing Olympic gold. Their no-nonsense coach, Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton), was coming off a rough year and held an open tryout for interested students to crew his “junior” team. With lots of rigorous training, this ragtag group unexpectedly beat their own varsity team a few times and then did it again against a much-heralded University of California Bears team. Ulbrickson then faced a huge decision — which of his teams to send east to the Poughkeepsie Regatta. He opted for the unpopular decision to send his inexperienced team.

The rest is predictable. Clooney opts for convenience over character exploration, focusing on the competition rather than motivation. In an obvious attempt to attract a female audience, he throws in a meaningless love story for his principal character, Joe Rantz (Callum Turner). It worked, at least in the showing I attended, which had 80 percent women in the audience.

But the major focus of the film is rowing … and the muscles it takes to compete in this grueling sport. The water scenes are beautifully filmed. The competitive action is heavily punctuated by a soaring score by two-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat. Look for Desplat to be nominated for an Oscar.

Released just months before the 2024 Olympics, The Boys in the Boat is essentially a period piece about amateur athletes. The presence of relatively unknown actors allows Clooney to spend his budget on moviemaking rather than salaries. He proves again that he is a fine director with a proven artistic touch. The film is a comfortable watch, an underdog-overcomes-adversity story with a satisfying ending.

Color Me “Purple,” a tuneful remake

The Color Purple (Fantasia Barrino, Taraji P. Henson, Danielle Brooks, Colman Domingo) – Please get to your local movie theater to see The Color Purple. Yes, it’s a remake. Yes, there was a 2005 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical adapted from the 1982 book of the same name. But this film is highly original, wonderfully tuneful, and surprisingly uplifting.

Produced by Steven Spielberg, director of the original 1985 film; Oprah Winfrey, who gained her unparalleled national fame from that movie; and Quincy Jones, who was one of the musical’s producers, The Color Purple transports the viewer through a 40-year journey in the life of a poor black woman, her abusive husband, her family members, and her female support system.

I didn’t expect to see a musical, thinking I was seeing a new dramatic take on an exceptional film that had earned 11 Academy Award nominations. It was that but, in many ways, it is an adaptation of an adaptation. The jazz and R&B score is both toe-tapping and Oscar worthy. The story is painful, engaging but, ultimately, hopeful. Thus, the risk Director Blitz Bazawule takes is that the soaring score will overwhelm the underlying story. Bazawule, who helmed the visual album Black is King with Beyoncé, handled it well.

The gifted actors include relative newcomers Fantasia Barrino as Celie (known best for her own music videos) and Danielle Brooks as Sophia (who only boasts TV credits). In the original movie, Whoopi Goldberg played Celie while Oprah played Sofia. Both were nominated for Academy Awards. Those are big shoes to fill. The abusive, volatile, drunken, cruel antagonist, Mister, is played by venerable veteran Colman Domingo, who reprises the role played by Danny Glover in the original.

With no big names, the first credit goes to the wonderful Taraji P. Henson. She plays Shug Avery, the one person who escaped this small, rural Southern town, became a huge stage star, and moved to a mansion in Memphis. When she goes back to her hometown to visit, she is the queen. She is the one woman who holds the status to overcome the misogyny of the 1907-1947 time period. That part was originally played by Margaret Avery (yes, Avery played Avery), who got the part when (reportedly) Patti LaBelle and Tina Turner turned it down. She, too, was nominated for an Oscar. Fortunately, none of the performances is imitative; they’re almost transformative. It is a wonderful ensemble piece.

Carefully crafted, if a bit too long, the film makes you cringe and cry. You’ll be humming the songs, like “Hell NO!” on your way out of the theater. Look for multiple Academy Award nominations to go along with the excellent critical reviews and audience scores.

Nobody cares “What Happens Later”

What Happens Later (Meg Ryan, David Duchovny) – Can you find magic after years of being apart? This is the fundamental question behind both the plot of What Happens Later and Actress/Director Meg Ryan’s flagging career. The answers are “maybe” and “no.”

After eight years off the big screen, Meg Ryan, once America’s sweetheart, stars, directs, and co-wrote this screenplay about a couple who accidentally reunites at a regional airport while stranded by a snowstorm. Not having communicated for 25 or more years, they begin a dialogue – an interminable back and forth – rehashing their relationship, talking about their lives since their break-up, and seemingly re-sparking their passions.

Adapted from a play, What Happens Later takes an interesting premise, adds a touch of magic, and turns it into a mess. From a dramatic point of view, it certainly plays better on a live stage than on a massive movie screen. It is very “talky.” Plus, there are only so many places you can film a two-hour movie in a regional airport (this was filmed at the NW Arkansas Airport in Bentonville). What it lacks in setting, it tries to engage with a snow-globe of shots from outside the airport.  The snow is so fake it is almost laughable.

Dedicated to Nora Ephron, the screenwriter and director responsible for Ryan’s biggest hits, Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, and You’ve Got Mail), the film and its script are rarely as snappy or clever as Ephron’s. But there are moments when the repartee matches the moment. Ryan and her co-star, David Duchovny, whose own career has been languishing, have an effective but not explosive chemistry. Surprisingly, Duchovny seems more tuned in than Ryan.

Thus, the film is only marginally interesting and in need of a rewrite. But worse, I just couldn’t get past Meg Ryan losing her seemingly endless on-screen charm. I would have attended as many romantic comedies as she was willing to make as she aged into her 40s. Heck, I probably would have married her if she had just asked. But she opted instead to tackle more serious roles, like Courage Under Fire and Proof of Life, in which she acquitted herself quite well. But now that she has reached her 60s, the spark just isn’t there anymore.

Maybe it’s the writing. Or maybe Ryan aged out after Kate & Leopold, I.Q., and City of Angels. Watching this movie, I felt like I was watching an aging quarterback trying to play just one more year (yes, I mean you, Ben Roethlisberger). I wanted her to have the same magic, and she just doesn’t. Yes, there are moments; just not enough.

At the box office, this film performed terribly. It moved to streaming (at a discounted rate) after doing only $3 million. And that is never a good sign.