In-House Reviews #103: Zone of Interest, The Iron Claw, Ferrari, Origin & More!

Aaron Neuwirth has reviews for The Zone of Interest, The Iron Claw, Ferrari, Origin, All of Us Strangers, Monster, Finestkind, and American Symphony.

Here’s another round of December-released award contenders as we begin to wrap up the year. This set of write-ups includes an experimental Holocaust drama, a wrestling period drama, a racecar company biopic, an exploration of race, a surreal relationship drama, a Japanese drama, and a blue-collar thriller. The following features reviews for The Zone of Interest, The Iron Claw, Ferrari, Origin, All of Us Strangers, Monster, Finestkind, and American Symphony.

The Zone of Interest: 7 out of 10

The Setup: The commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), and his wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), strive to build a dream life for their family in a house and garden next to the camp.

Review: A decade following his experimental sci-fi film Under the Skin, director/writer Jonathan Glazer has set ambitions toward a movie concerning the Holocaust. More specifically, we’re dealing with what it is to be living next door to a concentration camp. Sound design is crucial to this film, as we are never at the home without hearing the droning sounds of the camp in the distance, let alone occasional shouting and gunfire. We never actually see the camps beyond the roofs of the buildings and smoke, which elicits severe feelings, and all of this is clearly the point. Glazer wants the audience to observe the routines of those who can compartmentalize the atrocities taking place less than 100 meters away in favor of making sure the house is tidy and the garden is kept looking proper. This is a minimalistic film, with camera positionings kept at a mid-distance, save for some elaborate shots, to further emphasize what the characters choose not to see.

I can certainly see the precision needed to demonstrate what’s taking place and how it can connect to more times in history than just the 1940s (yes, today applies, easily). However, as much admiration as I have for Glazer’s work, there is the lingering feeling that this can still come across as an art installation turned into cinema. As well-acted as the film is, those resulting feelings make me wonder what I was supposed to have gotten out of the film’s 100-minute runtime that I didn’t already have a handle on a third of the way through. Still, I can’t deny the striking nature of the feature, and it’s not as though we are short on those who can’t see what sort of current evils are occurring now that are also being looked over. I can’t say that sort of crowd would flock to a film like The Zone of Interest, but the existence of this film is far from a futile effort.

Where To Watch: Now playing in limited release, and it will expand wide on January 7, 2024.

The Iron Claw: 8 out of 10

The Setup: The true story of the inseparable Von Erich brothers, who made history in the intensely competitive world of professional wrestling in the early 1980s. Through tragedy and triumph, under the shadow of their domineering father and coach, the brothers seek larger-than-life immortality on the biggest stage in sports.

Review: Wrestling has not been a big deal to me since I was quite young, but I have so much respect for how the massive characters (both in terms of bodies and personalities) can stage theater in the middle of a ring, as a giant crowd watches. That makes it all the more tragic to see this tale of the Von Erich family unfold. Without getting detail, early in the film, there’s talk of a curse placed on the family due to actions taken by patriarch Fritz Von Erich (a terrific Holt McCallany), and given what happens, it’s hard not to believe this actually unfolded, as we follow the lives of four brothers.

Whatever the case, there is great effort coming from this entire cast. Zac Efron is delivering career-best work, having physically altered his image to portray Kevin Von Erich, the oldest brother. The Bear’s Jeremy Allen White is also great as the younger, more hotheaded Kerry, with the two competing to gain the most affection of their father, along with young brother David (Harris Dickinson). As we see, thanks to solid writing and direction from Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), so much of this film is rooted in perceived takes on family values that actually amount to toxic masculinity, unhealthy competitiveness, and other aspects that amount to having the ultimate chip on one’s shoulder. Perhaps a bit too long, with less emphasis than I would have liked on developments toward the end, but that doesn’t stop this sports biopic from delivering a strong sense of drama filtered through layered performances and solid filmmaking, considering how good this movie looks and sounds.

Where To Watch: Opening in theaters on December 22, 2023.

Ferrari: 8 out of 10

The Setup: During the summer of 1957, bankruptcy loomed over the company that Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) and his wife (Penelope Cruz) had built ten years earlier. He decides to roll the dice and wager it all on the iconic Mille Miglia, a treacherous 1,000-mile race across Italy.

Review: What I’ve been enjoying about these singular-focused biopics like Maestro and this film is how they reflect what the filmmaker feels is of interest. Director Michael Mann doesn’t need to give you a birth-to-death look at Enzo Ferrari to make the points he wants to make about the man. Really, as compelling as it is to watch racecars speeding through Italy, there’s only so much to learn about the car manufacturer and its high-class products. More important is the intense introspective journey we watch Driver attempt to bring out in a highly focused performance. True to form, Mann shows a fairly cold and calculating individual going through a crisis and what that means to those around him. As a result, Driver delivers as well as he usually does (which is quite strong). Still, it’s Cruz who really shines here, cutting through Enzo’s deflections and making moves of her own that speak well to those who feel Mann is only good at taking on masculinity. With that in mind, this film is not without a lively spirit when we do see the cars on screen. Heavy on process, the details are in place, and there’s enough of a vibe on display that suggests the professionals know what they are doing, and this film wants you to be aware of that whenever possible. Not as flashy as the cars may suggest, but this one still crosses the finish line in style.

Where To Watch: Opening in theaters on Christmas Day.

Origin: 8 out of 10

The Setup: Grappling with tremendous personal tragedy, writer Isabel Wilkerson (Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor) sets herself on a path of global investigation and discovery as she writes Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.

Review: I say this as a compliment – Origin is a wildly uncommercial film from writer/director Ava DuVernay, who continues to take the cache of being an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and move in entirely different directions that suggest someone genuinely interested in shaking up standards. Ellis-Taylor delivers a fantastic performance as a woman struck with grief who is also pursuing a concept for a book that speaks to race, racism, and what details dictate more about these ideas than many people realize. The resulting film is more of a sprawling epic than a contained drama. Yet, the vignette-like structure allows various supporting players to enter the story briefly and deliver fantastic character work. This includes Audra McDonald, Nick Offerman, Connie Nielsen, Jasmine Cephas Jones, and Niecy Nash-Betts, among others. Plus, special mention goes to Jon Bernthal, whose brief but essential appearance once again suggests how much more filmmakers can get out of certain kinds of actors when pushed away from their comfort zones.

With all that in mind, it’s still Ellis-Taylor who manages to be more than just the passive observer, even while traveling to a variety of locations to perform research activities for the book her character is writing. Long and challenging as far as finding ways to glean a balance of intrigue and entertainment, there are also few films like this, let alone ones that can have me as wrapped up in emotion when contending with certain kinds of realities presented in so many ways.

Where To Watch: Now playing in limited release, and it will expand wide on January 19, 2024.

All of Us Strangers: 8 out of 10

The Setup: One night in his near-empty London tower block, screenwriter Adam (Andrew Scott) has a chance encounter with mysterious neighbor Harry (Paul Mescal), puncturing the rhythm of his everyday life. As a relationship develops, Adam finds himself drawn back to his childhood home, where his parents (Jamie Bell and Claire Foy) appear to be living just as they were on the day they died 30 years ago.

Review: While I’m aware the original Japanese novel, Strangers, by Taichi Yamada, features more malevolent forces at work, it feels like a great relief to see director Andrew Haigh’s take on this story, which is much quieter and softer. Yes, there’s a heaviness to the idea of a man cut off from much of the rest of the world finding solace in something he must know can’t last, but we have enough time, as the audience, to reflect with him on the concept of reconnecting with people taken away from you so long ago. What do you do with that? How do you talk about yourself? Is it easy to relate at a certain age and a clear disconnect? This is not a film focused on the mechanics of what’s taking place, so the spiritual nature of it all really has to be sold on what the performers bring to it, and it is. Andrew Scott is wonderfully crestfallen throughout, but the small amount of light that comes through when he makes certain connections hits just right. Jamie Bell, far away from Billy Elliot and now, often so intense on screen, brings a lovely sense of innocence here. Naturally, a film like this wants us to see a certain level of profundity through the various connections. I found it all quite rewarding, as the tenderness really plays as a nice counter to the haunted feeling of these individuals existing as they do, whether they’re strangers or more familiar.

Where To Watch: Opening in select theaters on December 22, 2023.

Monster: 8 out of 10

The Setup: When her son Minato (Sōya Kurokawa) starts to behave strangely, Saori (Sakura Andō) suspects something is wrong. Hearing that one of his teachers (Eita Nagayama) is responsible, she confronts the teacher and school administration. The truth is revealed to be more complex from the perspectives of not only Saori, but also the teacher and Minato.

Review: As I still find myself catching up with the films of Hirokazu Kore-eda, it stands to reason that I find the movies I have seen engaging based on how he examines human feelings through characters not afforded many luxuries. In this film, we watch drama unfold between a couple main characters. At first, I felt I had a read on this film, as I followed the plight of a single mother seeking proper justice. Then, the film revealed what it was up to by way of a new perspective. However, another layer peeled back, showing another perspective, yes, but also the meaning lingering under why we needed to get a strong enough impression of certain circumstances before digging into the complexities of young relationships. Without digging too far into detail, this film is quietly thrilling in how it manages to shake up its narrative, create emotional throughlines that resonate, and make one consider ideas regarding humanity as seen through the eyes of children. Well done.

Where To Watch: Now playing in select theaters.

Finestkind: 4 out of 10

The Setup: Two half-brothers (Ben Foster and Toby Wallace), raised in different worlds, are reunited as adults over a fateful summer. Set against the backdrop of commercial fishing, desperate circumstances force the brothers to strike a deal with a violent Boston crime gang. Along the way, a young woman (Jenna Ortega) is caught perilously in the middle. Sacrifices must be made, and bonds between brothers, friends, lovers, and a father (Tommy Lee Jones) and his son are put to the ultimate test.

Review: Much like a boat suffering from rocky weather, Finestkind may have been well-intentioned in telling a crime story based around a specific profession, but it careens back and forth between tones and the kind of movie it wants to be. Somehow, writer/director Brian Helgeland wanted to deliver a crime drama, a coming-of-age story, a romance, and a family drama all in one. That may work for one of producer Taylor Sheridan’s TV shows on Paramount+, but not so much for one of its features. I can’t deny the talent it has to work with. Foster brings his typical intensity, and Ortega keeps up quite well with all the machismo around her. Tommy Lee Jones is welcome anywhere these days, but even his veteran grumpiness isn’t enough to keep this thing on track. Once the slimy criminal character played by Clayne Crawford comes in to point this film in a clear direction, there’s at least more of a balance for this film to try to hold onto. Still, it’s not enough to avoid its other miscalculations, and the variety of Boston accents on display doesn’t help.

Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Paramount+.

American Symphony: 8 out of 10

The Setup: Musician Jon Batiste sets out to compose a symphony. Then, his life partner, author Suleika Jaouad, learns that her cancer is back. This documentary is a portrait of two artists at a crossroads and a meditation on art, love, and the creative process.

Review: I’m not going to downplay the drama that permeates throughout this documentary concerning the struggles of Batiste and Jaouad, but given the previous films by director Matthew Heineman, this feels like a bit of a break, and a winning one at that. Compared to docs examining Syria, Mexican drug cartels, and COVID-19, taking on a project that provides perspective for an accomplished musician attempting to balance some incredible high points for his career with the leukemia-based hardships his wife is going through can feel just as weighty, but there’s something more that’s uncovered. Amid all the emotions devoted to what it means to have one’s life feel in jeopardy, we also see a compelling love story about two people not letting anything get in the way of what they have. That’s inspiring in its own right, and it only helps to inform the various musical-based moments scattered throughout this film as we watch Batiste channel what’s in his head and see it come through in his abilities. As a display of creativity and courage, Heineman has conducted himself well in finding a proper focus with this doc.

Where To Watch: Now streaming 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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