Emma Stone is brilliant in Poor Things, Boys in the Boat a feel-good film, Aquaman is lighthearted

Stone soars in radical Things

The Bride of Frankenstein with a feminist agenda, Yorgos Lanthimos' Poor Things is a brilliantly unhinged, gloriously bizarre examination of one woman's struggle towards independence. Dr. Goodwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe) is a physician who's convinced dead tissue can be rejuvenated. He has conducted an experiment in which he has taken a woman, Bella (Emma Stone), who met a tragic end and brought her back to life after giving her a brain that once belonged to an infant. And while she has the physical appearance of a mature 25-year-old, she acts like a toddler, walking about awkwardly in fits and starts, throwing tantrums as well as food, and acting on her every impulse.

As Bella's behavior becomes more destructive, Baxter hires an intern, Max McCandless (Ramy Youssef), to observe and help teach her basic decorum but that soon goes out the window when she begins to have sexual desires. Intent on acting on them whenever and however she can, she has the misfortune of meeting one of Baxter's few guests, Ducan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo), a roue who is immediately smitten with her forward nature. He soon whisks her away for a trip across Europe, intent on showing her off in high society. However, he soon finds out he's bitten off far more than he can chew.

None of this would work without Stone, who takes on a role that most of her contemporaries would shy away from. Bella's character arc requires the actor to display the traits of an impulsive infant, curious child, petulant teen and well-rounded adult, not simply in her behavior but physically as well. It is truly a remarkable turn, made special due to Stone's ability to convey Bella's feelings and desires in what could have been nothing more than a broad comic performance.

Yet what makes her sympathetic is the innate curiosity she has for the outside world. Bella craves knowledge and is eager to discover all the world holds for her. The curiosity stoked by the atlases in Baxter's home when she's confined gives way to real world experience, her travels giving her an education in human behavior and society that far outweighs anything she could learn in a book.

Poor Things is not for all tastes. Its extreme sex, explicit violence and outré sensibility will be off-putting to some, but if you know Lanthimos' work, this is in keeping with his off-kilter view of the world. Throughout his films, characters are in search of love and acceptance, longing to discover what makes others tick to achieve that goal. This is a mystery Bella undertakes and realizes that coming to know another intimately is impossible. It's only through knowing yourself that happiness can be achieved. In theaters.

Boys in the Boat a by-the-numbers biopic

Published in 2013, Daniel James Brown's The Boys in the Boat recounts the circumstances surrounding the formation of the University of Washington rowing team, the trials they faced while competing in the collegiate arena against more established programs and their ultimate triumph at the 1936 Olympic games. It's the sort of story cynics scott at, despite it being based on fact, while optimists cling to it as proof that hard work, good luck and divine intervention do conspire at times to work miracles.

While Brown spends time delving into the background of each member of the crew, the focal point of the film, directed by George Clooney, is Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a young man who like so many millions like him, was struggling to get through the Great Depression. Abandoned by his family at the age of 14, we see him living in a hollowed-out car in the local Hooverville, while taking classes at the University of Washington in the hopes of bettering himself. However, his tuition is due and there's no way he'll be able to scrape up enough money to continue his education. However, he learns that a rowing team is being assembled on campus and if he were to make it on the team, not only would his tuition be covered but room and board would be provided as well.

That's he's never touched an oar in his life doesn't matter as Rantz undergoes a series of physical and mental tests he never knew he was capable of. Joel Edgerton takes on the role of Coach Al Ulbrickson and it comes as no surprise that a heart of gold beats beneath his gruff exterior. He pushes Rantz and his cohorts but he's no sadist, understanding he simply needs to tap into the desire to succeed that is in each of his young charges.

The cast is capable, everyone hitting their marks and reciting their dialogue as needed while Clooney dutifully follows Mark Smith's script, lensing each scene with a tinge of sanitized nostalgia. The true horror of the Depression is never captured and there's no sense of desperation in the film, just a sense of inevitable triumph. To be sure, if you're looking for a feel-good family film, Boat will check every box to fulfill that need. Unfortunately, I was looking for a bit more heft and ambiguity than Clooney was prepared to provide, leaving me with a ho-hum feeling when I was desperately hoping to be inspired. In theaters.

Lighter approach allows Kingdom to rise

I can't help but think that if Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom had been released when it had been originally scheduled, its fate might have been different. Currently sitting at only a 35% approval rating on the Rotten Tomatoes review site and proving a disappointment at the box office, the film was initially set to arrive during the Christmas 2022 season. However, enough behind-the-scenes drama to fill up a yet-to-be, should-be-written book on the production delayed it for a year, just in time to be released at the height of superhero movie fatigue.

Ironically, Kingdom contains some elements that address many of the complaints fans of the genre have been carping about. It is light-hearted, character-driven rather than special-effects dependent, buoyed by a genuine sense of humor throughout, and has a timely message that, while overstated, remains vital. To be sure, this is far from a classic – it's a bit too long, is brought low by bloated action sequences, and can't shake the third-act tropes that plague films of this sort. Yet, director James Wan makes sure to never take things too seriously, which makes the overly familiar go down a bit easier.

Aquaman (Jason Momoa) has discovered being the King of Atlantis isn't all it's cracked up to be. Stymied by a legislative body that thwarts his every mood, bored by constant ceremonial duties and no good at playing politics, our hero longs to simply raise his young son with his loving wife, Mera (Amber Heard). However, his old nemesis Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Manteen II) attacks his kingdom and goes into hiding after the brazen attack. The only person who may know his whereabouts is his brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), the former king now rotting in prison. In order to find Manta, Aquaman breaks Orm out of prison and what ensues between them is a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid dynamic that brings some much-needed, contentious humor to the script. Momoa and Wilson's interactions benefit greatly from the veteran actors' sharp timing and their playing off their characters' differences. These two help elevate the film, making it more of a lark than a dire, fate-of-the-universe-in-the-balance adventure.

Much has been written about the failure of the DC Comics Extended Universe, the 16-film arc ushered in by Zack Snyders' 2013 Man of Steel. Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom is the final entry in this sometimes brilliant, often frustrating franchise that never found its footing due to a wide variety of reasons. One recurring complaint was the serious tone so many of them took, an approach so intense these movies eventually became parodies of themselves. Having given us a much more self-effacing hero in Momoa's Aquaman, I can't help but wonder what the DCEU might have looked like with Wan calling the shots. In theaters.

Chuck Koplinski

Writing for Illinois Times since 1998, Chuck Koplinski is a member of the Critic's Choice Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association and a contributor to Rotten Tomatoes. He appears on WCIA-TV twice a week to review current releases and, no matter what anyone says, thinks Tom Cruise's version of The Mummy...

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