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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Ferrari,’ ‘The Color Purple,’ and ‘The Boys in the Boat’

Three new films from directors Michael Mann, Blitz Bazawule, and George Clooney round out the year with more whimper than bang.

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Adam Driver in “Ferrari”

There were three big studio Christmas Day releases this year, and while each has something to recommend it, they’re all closer to lumps of coal than new cars with giant bows. (And that’s not even counting Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, from which your humble correspondent opted to spare himself.)

Perhaps the most disappointing is Michael Mann’s Ferrari, in which Adam Driver continues his efforts, begun in House of Gucci, to convince us he’s Italian. As Enzo Ferrari, the monomaniacal founder of the eponymous automaker, he glowers with the intensity of Mt. Etna in his pursuit of the best damn racecar money can design. Comparing himself to a competitor, he says, “Jaguar races to sell cars. I sell cars only to race.”

This unyielding focus puts him at odds with his wife Laura (Penélope Cruz), who owns half of the company and frankly seems to have better business sense. Her disdain for Enzo has been enhanced by the death, a year earlier (the film is mostly set in 1957), of their only child, Dino. Enzo does have time in between berating his engineers and drivers to secretly visit his mistress Lina (Shailene Woodley) and their son Piero.

After 90 minutes or so of dark sunglasses, beautiful suits, and Mann-style lionization of the driven, lonely, handsome genius, we get to the racing. Ferrari’s climax is the 1957 running of the Mille Miglia, a thousand-mile grand prix race on Italy’s public roads. This is what the gearheads in the crowd came for, and it’s undeniably thrilling to see (and especially hear) these graceful, powerful machines at full throttle.

The pursuit of perfection rarely comes without a dear cost, though, and the primal appeal of high-speed auto racing is its (not always) death-defying nature. Mann has crafted a portrait to add to his gallery of square-jawed, isolated dudes, from Sonny Crockett onward. Cruz is the standout among the cast, with Woodley the weak link. (One wonders if the Italian actors’ union has any issues with the three lead roles being played by two Americans and a Spaniard.) But Ferrari the movie, like Ferrari the man, turns a blind eye to the emotional and physical carnage its subject leaves in his wake. (Now playing everywhere.)

One wonders what Monk Ellison, the protagonist of the scathing satire American Fiction (opening next week in Portland), would think of The Color Purple. He decries the limited depictions of the ostensible Black experience in books and movies and the effect that racial trauma porn has on the culture. This is not to say that this musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s masterpiece fully succumbs to that temptation, but when a film pivots from the brutality of Black life in early-20th-century Georgia to inspirational song-and-dance numbers, a certain amount of whiplash results.

This is most evident in the film’s first hour, which follows the miserable life of young Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi), who’s married off by her abusive and incestuous father to a local layabout known as Mister (Colman Domingo) and separated from her beloved older sister Nettie (Halle Bailey). Enduring Mister’s violence, sexual and otherwise, she grows into an obedient, tragic figure played by Fantasia Barrino, the onetime American Idol winner who originated the role on Broadway in 2005 and makes an impressive screen debut here.

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Eventually, Celie forms empowering bonds with Sofia (Danielle Brooks), the take-no-guff wife of Mister’s son Harpo (Corey Hawkins), and Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson), the liberated blues singer and daughter of the local preacher. This trio, beloved for decades by readers and filmgoers, forms the substantial heart of The Color Purple, and the performers bring a fresh energy to roles originally played by Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Margaret Avery. Likewise, Domingo brings a depth and vulnerability to the monstrous character embodied by Danny Glover in Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation.

It’s possible—likely, even—that the contrast between child rape and toe-tapping tunes wasn’t as unsettling in a stage musical. Without the distance and artifice inherent in that context, and with the intimacy and empathy that skilled filmmaking can create, it hampers what is otherwise a skillfully crafted, genuinely empowering piece of work. This is Ghanaian director Blitz Bazawule’s third feature, following the micro-budgeted, Afrofuturist The Burial of Kojo and Beyoncé’s visual album Black Is King. He’s got a sure eye and a gift with actors, and his rise over the last few years has been meteoric.

Of course, musicals shouldn’t be restricted to Technicolor romantic fantasies, but the ones that address darker, more adult themes tend to work best when they acknowledge the incongruity between subject matter and medium: think Cabaret or Sweeney Todd. But if Warner Brothers wants to continue to mine its back catalog for this sort of thing, might I suggest A Clockwork Orange or The Shining? (Now playing everywhere)

Last, and unfortunately least, is the George Clooney-directed The Boys in the Boat. People like to say that golf is the most boring sport to watch, but I’d have to put rowing, at least as it’s depicted in this creaky, old-timey sports drama, near the top of the list. It’s a shame, since the film dramatizes a Northwest point of pride that most residents have likely never heard of: the triumph (spoiler alert!) of the University of Washington crew at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov have opted to make a movie that could easily, apart from a few fancy drone shots during the races themselves, have been made in 1936. Our underdog hero is Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a walk-on who joins the team for the money, having been abandoned by his family at a young age. The crusty coach is Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton). The rest of the lads are largely interchangeable, and the narrative arc is exactly what you’d expect. It’s not Clooney’s fault that the metaphor between success as a crew (everyone pulling together at the same time) and the lessons of the Great Depression is so spot-on. Nor is it his fault that the climactic triumph occurs during the same event where Jesse Owens taught Hitler a thing or two, making the all-white Washington rowers a less potent thumb in the Fuhrer’s eye.

But it’s still a bummer that a filmmaker who, in addition to oozing personal charisma, began his directing career with the stylish and incisive Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck, has made a habit since then of rowing with the current.

ALSO THIS WEEK

THURSDAY

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  • The Living End [1991] (Clinton Street)
  • Malcolm X [1992] (Hollywood, in 70mm, also Saturday)

FRIDAY

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey [1968] (Hollywood, in 70mm, also Saturday)
  • A Clockwork Orange [1971] (Academy, through Thursday)
  • Fear and Desire [1953] (Eugene Art House, also Saturday and Wednesday)
  • Interstellar [2014] (Academy, through Thursday)

SATURDAY

  • Let the Right One In [2008] (Clinton Street)

MONDAY

  • The Thing [1982] (Hollywood, in 35mm)
  • The Hateful Eight: Roadshow Edition [2015] (Hollywood, in 70mm)

TUESDAY

  • Above the Law [1986] (Hollywood, B-Movie Bingo)
  • Pulgasari [1985] (Darkside Cinema)

WEDNESDAY

  • The Red Shoes [1948] (Hollywood, in 35mm)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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One Response

  1. If you read critics and viewer reviews of Boys in the Boat, the critics are “meh” while the viewers are enthusiastic. For me, reading the daily flood of human stupidity and cruelty in the news, the movie helped restore my faith in people, what we can achieve when we work together is not only inspirational but even sublime. The boys all came from poor, working class backgrounds in the Northwest, and through their teamwork won against elite crews from wealthy universities and the best European teams. My father was a welder and my stepfather a logger and union organizer, so I appreciated where these boys came from and what it took for them to succeed together. So for me, this was a fine movie.

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