In-House Reviews #102: Poor Things, The Boy and the Heron, The Teacher’s Lounge & More!

Aaron Neuwirth has reviews for Poor Things, The Boy and the Heron, The Teacher’s Lounge, Society of the Snow, Memory, The Boys in the Boat, and Leave the World Behind.

Coming into mid-December, here is an all-award contenders-themed set of movies to look into. This set of write-ups includes an oddball period comedy, a fantastical animated adventure, a thrilling drama, a historical survival story, a character study, a sports biopic, and an end-of-the-world thriller. The following features reviews for Poor Things, The Boy and the Heron, The Teacher’s Lounge, Society of the Snow, Memory, The Boys in the Boat, and Leave the World Behind.

Poor Things: 8 out of 10

The Setup: Brought back to life by an unorthodox scientist (Willem Dafoe), a young woman (Emma Stone) runs off with a lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) on a whirlwind adventure across the continents. Free from the prejudices of her times, she grows steadfast in her purpose to stand for equality and liberation.

Review: While Barbie presented a mainstream demonstration of an active show of force directed act parodying the patriarchy, Poor Things digs even deeper, while managing to be even funnier and stranger. This film from director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite, The Lobster) plays as if Kate McKinnon’s Weird Barbie was given the opportunity to make a movie. What we have here is a unique take on the Frankenstein story (not the first for this year), allowing the opportunity for Emma Stone to deliver a fully-thought out, funny, and daring performance. Surrounding her are multiple men, all with distinctive features, whether it’s the jigsaw puzzle-faced Dafoe, the hilarious fop Ruffalo, the sweet but dim Youssef, or the charming but cynical Jerrod Carmichael. Each plays a part in informing how Bella learns more about the world and how to navigate through one governed by irritating men. It leads to a globe-trotting adventure full of zaniness and imagery fit for Miyazaki or Jeunet.

At nearly two and a half hours, it could grow a bit tiresome if seeing Lanthimos given everything equates to having too much cinema being thrown at certain viewers. With so much use of fish-eyed lensing, for example, it can sometimes feel as though the stylized approaches to scenes feel less necessitated by the arc of a given moment and more thrown in because “why not,” compared to the filmmaker’s previous, more controlled features. Regardless, there’s so much enjoyable absurdity to take in here, with all the actors entirely game to put on impressive makeup, hair, and costumes, and dive into the strange science of cinema.

Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters. Expanding wide on December 22, 2023.

The Boy and the Heron: 9 out of 10

The Setup: Mahito, a young 12-year-old boy, struggles to settle in a new town after his mother’s death. However, when a talking heron informs Mahito that his mother is still alive, he enters an abandoned tower in search of her, which takes him to another world.

Review: Legendary Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki has done his latest turnaround from retirement to deliver another “final film,” although this one could actually stick. While 2013’s brilliant The Wind Rises proved to feel even more autobiographical than aspects of his other work, complete with a reasonably grounded story (by comparison), The Boy and the Heron is clearly thematically informed by how the director sees things moving forward. Still, that sort of reckoning occurs way late in the film. Up to that point, we are taken to another incredible world, whether approaching from the real side of things or the fantastical world our protagonist is led to. The display of colors, characters, environments, and more all once again shows what a privilege it feels like to have a filmmaker willing to break every boundary to deliver features unlike anything out there.

Having seen the original subtitled version, I can’t speak to the American dub featuring plenty of stars, such as Christian Bale, Florence Pugh, and Robert Pattinson (in the role he would seem least likely to play). With that said, there’s such a reverence for what Studio Ghibli puts out, that I’m sure the actors rise to the occasion, and if given the opportunity to see a new Miyazaki film on a big screen, the amount of great work on display makes it more than a worthwhile venture. Rich with ideas, occasionally quite funny, full of excitement, and leaning just enough on its darker philosophical intentions, this is not the sweetest or warmest of Miyazaki’s films, but it does present something entirely fitting for those who grew up with his work, let alone anyone looking for something more in their animated features.

Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.

The Teacher’s Lounge: 8 out of 10

The Setup: Idealistic teacher Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) decides to get involved when one of her students is suspected of theft. Caught between her ideals and the school system, the consequences of her actions threaten to break her.

Review: I say this in a good way – this movie had me yelling at my television. There is so much well-drawn-out drama on display in The Teacher’s Lounge that I was more than willing to talk back to the characters who could not hear me, given the frustrations created by situations guided by ego, unsuitable reactions, and more. While ultimately amounting to a clash between the faculty (and the students caught in the crossfire), this is quite the potboiler of a thriller, requiring the viewer to settle in for a strenuous journey for the most appropriate answer. Benesch is terrific as a well-meaning but somewhat naïve 6th grade teacher who wants to play to both sides of events taking place, but instead comes up gasping for air in her attempts to rectify issues at the school. Co-writer/director İlker Çatak uses the classroom environment as something familiar yet possibly nefarious, as we watch characters lean into what they know they can get out from certain actions. Fittingly, while clear answers are never outwardly stated, this is less a film about the ambiguity of possible crimes in play and more about finding ways to relieve the pressure.

Where To Watch: Opening in select theaters on December 25, 2023.

Society of the Snow: 8 out of 10

The Setup: In 1972, the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, chartered to fly a rugby team to Chile, catastrophically crashes on a glacier in the heart of the Andes. Only 29 of the 45 passengers survived the crash, and finding themselves in one of the world’s toughest environments, they are forced to resort to extreme measures to stay alive.

Review: Director J.A. Bayona started with the scary but affecting Spanish horror-thriller The Orphanage. He followed that up with the harrowing disaster film The Impossible. With a billion-dollar Jurassic movie out of the way, he’s back down to earth in this incredibly filmed take on the 1972 Andes flight disaster. Even while knowing a certain amount of people would go on to survive, tracking this extraordinary journey of survival means putting on display some genuinely terrifying moments. There’s the plane crash, but it’s also the punishing environment. We watch this largely unknown cast get battered by the weather a lot, with plenty of emphasis on the toll these actions are taking on their bodies. It can sometimes make for a rough watch, but the film doesn’t exploit the horrific stuff. Instead, we get to witness so much of the hope that kept these men strong. Being emotionally moved by what’s taking place should naturally come with a story like this, but seeing Bayona work hard to keep the details intact and sticking close to all involved, it really feels like an up-close and personal look at a tragic event that never betrays authenticity.

Where To Watch: Available to stream on Netflix starting January 4, 2024.

Memory: 6 out of 10

The Setup: Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) is a social worker who leads a simple and structured life. This is blown open when Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) follows her home from their high school reunion. Their surprise encounter will profoundly impact both of them as they open the door to the past.

Review: Director Michel Franco, who is generally known for more downbeat stuff, puts together a film about two damaged people that is actually kind of sweet. Chastain and Sarsgaard are both very good in a movie, relying on their abilities to carve out characters suffering from aspects of their past they can’t quite understand and forming a special chemistry with each other. Chastain, in particular, has a kind of toughness on display, which reflects well when challenged by her other family members, including Merritt Wever and an excellent Jessica Harper, as their mother. However, it does feel as though the movie undercuts itself every so often by switching gears just when a certain kind of consistency feels in plays. Perhaps that’s by design to a degree. Still, it makes the movie feel less effective compared to inspired moments scattered throughout.

Where To Watch: Opening in select theaters on December 22, 2023. Expanding wide on January 5, 2024.

The Boys in the Boat: 4 out of 10

The Setup: During the height of the Great Depression, members of the rowing team at the University of Washington get thrust into the spotlight as they compete for gold at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Review: Another year, another well-intentioned but forgettable film directed by George Clooney. The TV star-turned-coffee spokesperson (with some other things in between) continually gets his hands on good enough material (in this case, a best-selling non-fiction novel) and goes on to add nothing of real interest to the cinematic take. He works with good enough people, what with Alexandre Desplat providing a score and Joel Edgerton turning in solid work as a no-nonsense coach, but it all ends up feeling so plain. With this film, it feels clear that the story of Callum Turner’s Joe Rantz is a very rich one that would make for a compelling understanding of what it is to go from being a poor college kid to an Olympian. However, all the work that could go into examining this is traded in for a very familiar sports story that never quite ramps up the excitement needed to make the competition all that thrilling. The experimental nature of Clooney’s first couple of features is nowhere to be found at this point, and his more traditional efforts don’t have the sort of spark that makes them feel like interesting throwbacks. As it stands, this is a lot of blandness in a boat.

Where To Watch: Opening in theaters on December 25, 2023.

Leave the World Behind: 7 out of 10

The Setup: A family vacation on Long Island is interrupted by two strangers bearing news of a blackout. As the threat grows, both families must decide how best to survive the potential crisis, all while grappling with their own place in this collapsing world.

Review: I guess it could be easy enough to write this apocalyptic thriller off as a lark praying on modern ideas, with an overreliance on stylistic gimmicks to make the 141-minute runtime feel all the more necessary. But I don’t know; as a Netflix release, this feels akin to sitting around on a Saturday night to watch The Day After on TV. On top of that, you have a terrific cast being pushed to certain limits in manners that effectively create tension from within. Even before the animals start delivering warnings, the stress levels rise, and Julia Roberts does as well to the challenge of being a misanthropic white woman questioning the intentions of the Black characters suddenly arriving at their rented vacation home. It makes for some effective filmmaking amid moments punctuated by crashing oil tankers and ominous drone drops.

Up to the task also is Mahershala Ali, who does all he can to hold onto his dignity and portray a sense of confidence, yet allows his face to betray the notion of things being anywhere close to okay. Meanwhile, Ethan Hawke is happily dialing up his obliviousness, which turns into full-on fear. Myha’la, as Ali’s character’s daughter, has an agenda that could almost be fitting with Roberts, were it not for her choice to take every microaggression to heart. As the film progresses, the dynamics shift to some degree, and the story is full of enough dark humor to make the lack of clearer answers less frustrating. A couple of kids are also stuck in the middle of this, and their presence feels like more of a non-starter than anything. Ultimately, there’s satisfaction in where it goes, but one can’t help but feel as though it’s all a bit slight in the grand scheme of things. Wonky CG deer imagery aside, however, it’s one of the more polished Netflix releases not coming from a notable auteur, no offense to director Sam Esmail.

Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Netflix.

***

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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