The Screen Critic: Two uplifting underdog sports yarns, a classic biopic and two controversial comedy specials

Jan 05, 2024
Source: Supplied.

Knowing how we all love a great underdog story, Dame Fortune has seen to it that two terrific tales about struggling against the odds have landed to help us kick off the new year with a positive vibe.

At the multiplex is The Boys in the Boat, a beautifully produced old-school period drama about how the beleaguered University of Washington rowing team fought its way from loser status to competing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Putting on his best American accent, British actor Callum Turner plays Joe Rantz, a financially strapped student who joins the team to earn enough scratch to attend class.

Under the strict but loving instruction of coach Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton, also brandishing his best American drawl), Joe and the crew coalesce into a unified team that thinks and performs as one.

Much like the 1981 classic Chariots of Fire, The Boys in the Boat is an unashamedly patriotic flag waver championing heartland values, such as courage, persistence, love of country and putting co-operation ahead of petty rivalries.

It’s something of a surprise that a film with such a traditional feel would be so well directed by George Clooney, an A-lister well-known as a Hollywood liberal. He appears to have put art ahead of his politics here. Smart move.

Over on the arthouse circuit and on a more modest scale is Next Goal Wins, another sports-based, fact based underdog yarn that shows how dogged persistence can overcome stigma.

Michael Fassbender, best known as a “heavy” dramatic actor, does a swell job as a failing coach who is sent to take charge of a soccer team in American Samoa that has not only never won a game, but never kicked a goal.

Director Taika Waititi, who made Thor 3 & 4, returns to the more intimate tone of his early films (Boy, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Eagle vs Shark) to deliver a warm, uplifting family comedy about acceptance and community. A lovely film.

For a comedy on the light side of crazy, Dream Scenario is an outstanding slice of loopiness as Nicolas Cage plays a middle-aged college professor who begins appearing in the dreams of other people.

Once word gets out he quickly becomes a social media sensation, launching him head-first into a realm of instant celebrity that has more pitfalls than he is prepared for.

If you’re after something different and original, check Dream Scenario out at your nearest arthouse. It’s a hoot.

Adam Driver makes good on the gift given to him by director Michael Mann in Ferrari, a thorny, thoroughly engaging biopic about the man behind one of the most famous car brands in history.

The film is set chiefly in 1957, a critical year in which Enzo Ferrari faced domestic problems and bankruptcy.

Fighting against fierce rivalry from Maserati, the film tracks Ferrari’s dogged determination to establish his company as a maker of premium race cars, despite pressure from his lira-loving associates who wanted him to make cars for consumers.

Supporting Driver’s magnetic central performance are Penélope Cruz (as his wife)and Shailene Woodley (as his mistress), along with a top-shelf production effort that recreates the era so well you can smell the engine oil.

One of America’s best character actors, Paul Giamatti, is surely Oscar-bound for his performance in the leisurely paced comedy- drama The Holdovers.

Set in a snowy 1970, Giamatti plays Paul Hunham, a pleasantly grumpy boarding school teacher who, after failing the son of a major donor, is forced to preside over a group of students who are unable to make it home for Christmas.

Director Alexander Payne – who worked with Giamatti in the 2004 hit Sideways – slowly digs into Hunham’s backstory to reveal the flaws and disappointments upon which his cranky personality is built.

It’s an unhurried and rewarding film designed for a mature audience. Fans of Giamatti and Payne will feel well served. (Opens January 11)

For those who like their stand-up comedy with edge – and, let’s be honest, who doesn’t? – Netflix has dropped two specials that have already drawn plenty of controversy.

In Ricky Gervais: Armageddon the co-creator (with Stephen Merchant) of The Office, Life’s Too Short and Extras (and sole creator of Derek and After Life) presents a blistering take on woke culture by claiming that he has – horror of horrors – turned woke himself.

Though not as sharp or tight as his previous show Supernature – Gervais admits early on he’s trying some material out for the first time – many nails are soundly hit on the head, in particular the lunacy of identity politics and the ever-vexatious issue of illegal immigration.

It’s this latter topic that has landed Gervais in plenty of hot water – not that he or his audience seem to mind given the size of the laughs he gets.

In The Dreamer, Dave Chappelle presents a routine that is so laid back it often feels like a spoken-word performance rather than a comedy set.

Having drawn a thermonuclear amount of heat in his last show The Closer over his comments about the transgender community, Chappelle begins his new show promising to steer well clear of the hot-button topic.

But can you believe him? Sounds a little too out-of-character for such a defiant free thinker, doesn’t it?

Make no mistake: both these comedy specials are not designed to convert critics. Those legions who love Gervais and Chappelle will love them even more; detractors will only find further fodder for their X feeds.

For more visit and @jimschembri on X for updates.

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