A New Normal

In which Norm gets back to work with Warner's new releases of AMERICAN FICTION and THE BOYS IN THE BOAT.

A New Normal

If you’ve been a Shiny Things subscriber for any length of time, you know we’ve been dealing with some stuff lately. Most of it is over now.

Kate’s mother died on Tuesday, after a fairly long stay in hospital and an even longer illness. Her children were with her and it was as peaceful as it was likely to be. The aftermath wasn’t great, but it wasn’t terrible either – more like a long, slow unclenching from “slowly rolling crisis” into “whatever this is now”.

Yesterday, Kate’s brother – who’d been staying with us for a couple of months – flew back to the UK, so for the first time in almost a decade, Kate and I are responsible for no one but ourselves and the dog. I’m sitting on the couch with Winnie right now, wondering what the rest of our lives might look like. Probably a lot like this, if I’m being honest. We might get a new couch at some point.

It'll be nice to have nothing more pressing to worry about than deadlines and logistics for a bit, I think – a different kind of logistics, anyway. For now, let’s take a deep breath and look at a couple of new releases.

First there’s American Fiction, which came to disc earlier this week. Cord Jefferson’s award-winning adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel Erasure nabbed the People’s Choice Award at TIFF before rolling through the festival circuit, landing at the Oscars with a whole bunch of major nominations. It won just one, for Best Adapted Screenplay; I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had snagged Jeffrey Wright a Best Actor prize, as well.

Wright is note-perfect as Thelonius Ellison – “Monk” to his family and friends, for obvious reasons – a respected but unheralded academic and author struggling to connect with his students and perpetually working on his next book. Back home in Boston to help his sister (Tracee Ellis Ross) care for their aging mother (Leslie Uggams), Monk experiences a string of personal losses and professional setbacks – even as he finds a connection with his mother’s neighbor Coraline (Erika Alexander), a public defender and resolute optimist, despite her career.

Eventually, Monk finds himself in a very dark place, pouring all of his bile (as well as most of the clichés he’s collected over the years) into a fraudulent “urban” story of a cornered gang-banger raging against the world that created him.

It's a hit, of course.

Suddenly Monk – hiding behind what he thought was the fairly obvious pseudonym of Stagg R. Leigh – is a bona fide sensation, flush with cash he doesn’t feel he’s earned and fame he doesn’t think he deserves. Wright has an absolute field day with Monk’s situation, staying grounded in the poor guy’s ever-compounding incredulity and desperation even as the movie around him gets sillier and sillier. But there’s something tragic inside the comedic premise of a man discovering he can sell books by selling out his people along with his principles, and Wright grasps that too.

Monk’s agent (John Ortiz) insists the hoax is too profitable to give up, so Monk can’t really share his success with the people around him – including his newly out, gleefully hedonistic brother Cliff (Sterling K. Brown) – and all of his attempts to derail Stagg’s rise to fame are thwarted by a publishing industry that’s all too eager to lap up whatever patently fraudulent bullshit Monk throws at them. (This part feels pretty authentic, I have to say.)

If I have a complaint about American Fiction, it’s that Jefferson doesn’t spend enough time on Monk’s awful book – we’re shown a couple of glimpses of one scene, a father-son confrontation played out by Okieriete Onaodowan and Keith David – so we never really understand what it is about the novel that grabs people so powerfully. Maybe the joke is that no one actually reads beyond that scene, either.

The Boys in the Boat – which arrives on disc this coming Tuesday – is another story that you don’t need to read all the way to the end, either; it’s the kind of movie that tells you exactly what’s going to happen and then expects you to cheer when it does. And I guess that’s reasonable enough for the sort of narrative George Clooney is crafting here – a steadfast, upright, golden-hued tale of the Greatest Generation before they went to war, tailor-made for home viewing on a summer’s day in the heartland. Just look at this cover treatment:

Here is the story producer-director Clooney and screenwriter Mark L. Smith are telling: In 1936, the junior varsity rowing team from the University of Washington went to the Berlin Olympics and showed Adolf Hitler what American spirit looked like. They had a coach who believed in them, the support of their country and a lot of gumption, and gosh darn it if they didn’t win the gold. Shoot the training montages at magic hour and ask Alexandre Desplat to go heavy on the string section and you pretty much have a movie, right?

There’s nothing really wrong with The Boys in the Boat, but there’s nothing really exceptional about it either; “Nazis Bad, Americans Good” is not a difficult stance to take – though I guess it depends on which Americans we’re talking about nowadays – and after the glum shuffle of The Midnight Sky it’s nice to see Clooney directing in a more robust mode.

But the movie lacks heart, staying so focused on the sports that it never gets to know the sportsmen; sure, Coach Joel Edgerton makes a fine paternal figure to Callum Turner’s hardscrabble hero, but that’s really the extent of the character work in Smith’s script. It’s mostly about who’ll win the big race, and let’s be honest: If it's the Germans, there’s no movie.

The only guy who didn't see the ending coming.

Like all of its Amazon MGM Studios releases, Warner’s Blu-rays of American Fiction and The Boys in the Boat offer their respective features in pristine 1080p transfers with no supplemental material whatsoever. The soundtrack configurations are different, though: The swells and surges of The Boys in the Boat are rendered in Dolby Atmos, while the more grounded American Fiction gets an entirely satisfying 5.1 DTS-HD mix. It's this or streaming. But the bitrate is higher with a disc.

American Fiction is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment; Warner’s Blu-ray of The Boys in the Boat is available Tuesday, June 25th.

Coming up: Arrow soups up American Gigolo and Mute Witness in glorious 4K, and Criterion welcomes Bound to the Collection just in time for Pride. That’s nice.

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