THE LOST DAUGHTER (2021)

December 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. There are so many things that go unspoken about parenting, and first time writer-director Maggie Gyllenhaal specifically focuses her lens on the pressures of motherhood, by adapting the 2006 novel from the anonymous and talented and mysterious Italian writer Elena Ferrante. Of course, we are all aware of Ms. Gyllenhaal’s fine work as an actor, yet it’s almost beyond belief that this is her debut as a feature film director. The source material is strong, but Ms. Gyllenhaal, along with a terrific performance from Olivia Colman (Oscar winner, THE FAVOURITE, 2018), turn a coastline vacation into a mesmerizing psychological case study.

Ms. Colman proves yet again what a fine and versatile actor she is. Here she plays Leda, a divorced professor on solo holiday on a picturesque Greek island, staying in a refurbished lighthouse tended by longtime caretaker Lyle (Ed Harris). Leda is packing a satchel full of books and academia work, and is a bit perturbed when her isolated beach time is suddenly interrupted by a large and noisy family of vacationers from Queens. Being an observant loner, Leda eyes young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) who is struggling with her daughter, as well as her husband and other family members. This triggers memories in Leda that are handled via flashbacks with a terrific Jessie Buckley (I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS, 2020) as young Leda, stressed out wife and mother to two daughters. She longs for her own space.

At face value, this appears to be a movie about a woman annoyed that she can’t just enjoy a quiet holiday on the sandy beach as she reads her books. However, there are so many layers to the story and to Leda, that as viewers, we must remain on high alert to pick up all the queues and subtleties. Watching Nina with her daughter and husband sends Leda deep into her past … a past that still haunts her to this day. At the same time, while gazing at Leda, Nina can’t help but wonder if she is looking at her own future self.

Much of what we see (past and present) reinforces the isolation and frustration felt by so many mothers. It has nothing to do with loving one’s kids, but rather maintaining one’s sanity and self-being. There are a few key moments, including one that creates tension between Leda and the vacationing family, and another that immediately connects the two. Leda’s past includes steps that would be considered taboo for any wife and mother, and the symmetry of her past and Nina’s present are striking.

Peter Sarsgaard (director Gyllenhaal’s real life husband) has a supporting role in the flashbacks, while Dagmara Dominczyk plays a critical role as Callie, part of Nina’s large family. Bonus points are won with a Leonard Cohen reference (that may or may not be true), and also playing key roles here are a missing doll (connecting Leda’s past and present) and the proper way to peel an orange. Cinematographer Helene Louvart works wonders balancing the beautiful setting with the not-always-beautiful actions of the characters. Especially potent here is the performance of Olivia Colman, who proves she can play most any role. It’s also remarkable what first time director Maggie Gyllenhaal has accomplished here. This is a multi-layered, nuanced look at how relentless parenting can often feel overwhelming and may even lead to feelings of guilt later in life. It’s rare to see such a raw look at the emotions behind what is often referred to as the joy of motherhood. The film leaves little doubt that the always-dependable actor Maggie Gyllenhaal is now one of the most interesting new filmmakers on the scene.

In select theaters on December 17, 2021 and on Netflix beginning December 31, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


DRIVE MY CAR (2021, Japan)

December 18, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. If you are a fan of little films that seem quiet on the surface but deep down have jarring tremors of emotions, then this 3 hour art-house gem from Japanese writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi is a must-see. The director, along with co-writer Takamasa Oe, adapted the script from the short story by Haruki Murakami, part of his “Men Without Women” collection. The story revolves around Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya”.

In what may be the longest prologue in cinematic history, the opening credits finally roll about 35-40 minutes in. But that first segment is absolutely terrific. Yusuke Kafuku (played by Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a stage actor and director married to playwright and TV series writer Oto (Reika Kirishima). Their long relationship is bound by their love for each other despite the loss of a child many years earlier. Oh yes, there is one thing. Oto’s creative juices flow best during and after sex. The intimate moments are filled with story ideas that she bounces off her partner. These conversations may continue over meals or during a car ride, but they always begin during the throes of passion.

Husband Kafuku has come to accept these terms, and beyond that, he’s learned that Oto’s infidelities are a continuing of her creative process. Because of this, he says nothing when walking in at a most inopportune time – Oto is ‘creating’ while in the arms of rising star Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Kafuku elects to remain silent on the issue and allow Oto to have her way. Just when it seems the married couple might address the unspoken, an unexpected tragedy strikes. Each scene to this point has been meticulously crafted and acted. We know these people and feel the connections.

Flash forward two years, and Kafuku has been contracted by a Hiroshima theater group to direct a production of the ‘Vanya’ play for which he’s well known for his acting. He chooses not to cast himself due to the stress the role puts on him … one that forces the actor to face ‘the real you’ and the missed opportunities in life. Instead he puts together a multi-cultural, multi-language cast, including one actor who speaks only Korean sign language. And yes, the actor he chooses to play his Vanya role is Koji, the same actor he previously witnessed with his wife.

Koji has been a lost soul the past couple of years, and he claims it’s Oto who brought him and Kafuku together. A key element here is that Kafuku’s contract with the theater group requires him to accept Misaki (Toko Miura) as the chauffeur of his beloved, always spotless red Saab. During the hour long drives, Kafuku recites his familiar lines of dialogue in conjunction with a recorded tape of Oto reading opposite. It’s his way of keeping her close, yet this also assists with the warming of the relationship between him and his driver Misaki. Both are stoic individuals who keep their emotions hidden under a mask of self-control. It’s fascinating to see the bond slowly develop.

It’s actually Misaki’s backstory that means the most here. It’s a reminder to Kafuku (and us) that every person’s life has a certain complexity that we likely have no window into. The building of this bond actually begins a mutual healing of personal pain previously held inside. It’s also a stark reminder of the difference between these characters and many Americans who barely delay in laying bare their soul on social media. The play’s cast varies in age and background and language, but their collaboration, as well as the connectivity between Kafuku and Misaki are the central theme here. This may be best exemplified by the large video screen above the stage presentation, where the subtitles are displayed in multiple languages. A brilliant touch to an excellent film.

Currently playing in a limited theatrical release.

WATCH THE TRAILER


NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021)

December 17, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Fans of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro anxiously await his new projects knowing full well that each will have a stylish atmosphere, a certain fantastical creepiness, and characters a bit outside the norm (whatever normal is these days). Beyond that, the mystique derives from whatever new approach the extraordinarily talented filmmaker will surprise us with this time. For his first follow-up to his Oscar winning THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017), del Toro and co-writer Kim Morgan have adapted the 1947 cult noir classic by director Edmund Goulding (starring Tyrone Power), which itself was adapted from William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel.

Bradley Cooper (an 8 time Oscar nominee) stars as Stan Carlisle in what is a terrific opening sequence. We witness Stan leaving his past in ashes, then catching the bus out of town, until he steps off and follows a dwarf into the heart of a carnival where sideshows and freaks are the attraction. Through this progression, Stan utters nary a word for quite an extended period. Soon enough, Stan has become part of the fabric of the carnival, thanks to Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe) giving him a job, and mentalist Zeena (Toni Collette) giving him more than that. Stan is a quick study and takes in Clem’s history of “the geek”, and more importantly, he absorbs all secrets and the code from the telepathy show Zeena and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn) constructed. They not only pass along their trade secrets, but also a warning to avoid “spook shows”, which involves bringing up the dead for audience members.

Stan takes to the con quite naturally, and soon he is teaming with ‘electric girl’ Molly Cahill (Rooney Mara) to fine-tune their own psychic shows. Their relationship grows and within a few years, the two are performing at swanky hotels for high-society audience. It’s at this point where the movie transitions abruptly from the raunchy carnival setting with tattered tent flaps, floors of hay, and freaks and gadgets, to stunningly sleek Art Deco, fancy dress, and fancier words. One evening, Stan battles wits with an audience member, and his life path is altered again. Dr. Lilith Ritter (Oscar winner Cate Blanchett) is a psychologist who stays a step ahead of Stan, though he never realizes she has drawn him into her scheme, leading him to believe they are working together.

For those who have not seen the 1947 film, you won’t know that the central idea that folks need to believe in something is minimized, while Cooper’s differing approach to the role will not matter. However, for fans of the earlier film, it seems clear his intentions are less sinister, and he merely views his new skill as a path to wealth. Additionally, his aversion to alcohol too obviously foretells a role in his ultimate downfall. Ms. Blanchett relishes her role as a most intelligent noir femme fatale, and at times, simply overpowers Cooper in their scenes … although these scenes are gorgeous. This cast is absurdly talented and deep, and also includes Richard Jenkins, (Oscar winner) Mary Steenburgen, Holt McCallany, Clifton Collins Jr, Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Beaver, Mark Povinelli, Ron Perlman, and Peter MacNeil. Mr. Cooper and Ms. Blanchett are the featured performers, although my preference would have been more Dafoe and Collette.

Perhaps the real stars of the film are the technical team members: Production Designer Tamara Deverell, Art Director Brandt Gordon, Set Director Shane Vileau, and Costume Designer Luis Sequeira. In fact, one of Ms. Blanchett’s dresses is designed cleverly for one scene which reveals something from Lilith’s past. It’s rare for a film to offer two such contrasting and brilliant looks as what we see here with the carnival in the first half, and the Art Deco of the second. Nathan Johnson’s music is a good fit, especially for the first half.

Surprisingly, it seems as filmmaker del Toro has softened the edges of the characters and story for a more accessible film, though it still features less-than-admirable human beings. It lacks the final packaging regarding the reason the pieces are all related, and we never experience the nerve-jarring intensity of a true noir, though that final scene with Cooper and Tim Blake Nelson is stellar. The director seems to love the shadowy look and feel of the carnival and characters, and not so much the glossy bits of the second half. Still, how good is a filmmaker when one that is not his best work, is still at a level many filmmakers can only dream of? The letdown is like the “geek” job … it’s only temporary.

Opening in theaters on December 17, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


SWAN SONG (2021)

December 17, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. In a cinematic oddity, this is my second SWAN SONG film to review this year. The first was a SXSW starring vehicle for Udo Kier, and now we have the first feature film from writer-director Benjamin Cleary, who won an Oscar for his 2015 short film STUTTERER. It’s safe to say the two ‘Swan Songs’ share no similarities other than their title. Cleary presents a sci-fi drama that applies moral and ethical questions to advanced medical science, and our inherent desire to protect loved ones.

Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (MOONLIGHT, 2016) stars as Cameron, a graphic design artist recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. Rather than disclose this to his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris, MOONLIGHT) and young son Cory (Dax Rey), Cameron opts for an alternative course of action offered by Dr. Jo Scott (8 time Oscar nominee Glenn Close). It’s an extreme and risky solution to a horrible situation, and Cameron’s only motivation is to shield his family from the pain and grief his death would cause.

Dr. Scott, working with Dalton (Adam Beach), a psychologist, has concocted not just a cloning process right down to a person’s DNA, but also the transfer of memories and subconscious memory storage into said clone. The idea is that loved ones never realize they’ve lost a loved one. Is this morally justifiable? Is it ethical? Is this deceit the right thing to do even if it spares the pain of loss?  As Cameron goes through the process (and meets the new him), we see much of his life in flashback form, and get a feel for the love in his marriage, as well as the struggles incurred. While at the center … a stunning modern facility buried deep in the picturesque forest … Cameron meets another ‘client’ played by Awkwafina (CRAZY RICH ASIANS, 2018), who steers him through the process and the (at times) stifling emotions.

Mr. Ali and Ms. Harris are terrific in their scenes together, and it helps us understand why Cameron agrees to do this for her. Director Cleary never backs away from Cameron’s conflicted thoughts – probably the same most would have – and we comprehend why he’s tortured. However, the film never tackles some of the big picture questions and issues raised by such a proposal. The film is certain to spur plenty of thought and debate. It’s a nice-looking film with strong sound design and terrific performances … leading up to your decision: what would you do?

Available in theaters and on AppleTV+ beginning December 17, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


DON’T LOOK UP (2021)

December 9, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. What happens if Chicken Little was right, and the sky really is falling? Writer-director, and Oscar winner, Adam McKay proved with THE BIG SHORT (2015) and VICE (2018) what occurs when he turns his unique commentary towards a target. Two questions remain. Is political or social satire just too easy these days? Has insanity permeated our globe to the degree that pointing out the lunacy has become ho-hum? McKay wrote the script from journalist David Sirota’s story, and it’s even more extreme than his previous work, and likely meant as a wake-up call to all of us.

Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence stars as Kate Dibiasky, a student (with a Carl Sagan figurine on her desk) who discovers a large comet speeding towards earth. Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio stars as her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy, and we can see on his face what his calculations mean. The two head to Washington DC to inform the President of their findings. President Orlean (a nod for movie buffs) is played by Oscar winner Meryl Streep, and her Chief of Staff is Jonah Hill, who also happens to be her son. President Orlean is too concerned about her slipping rating in popularity polls to pay much heed to the scientists, opening the way for Jonah Hill to be the most Jonah Hill he’s ever been. It’s an outrageous scene … yet … it feels all too possible.

Dibiasky and Mindy are so shocked and frustrated at the blow-off, they decide to take the story to the media. Appearing on the vacuous and highly-rated morning talk show, “The Rip”, they are guided to “Keep it light. Keep it fun” while on the air with the entirely too-upbeat co-hosts played by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry. At this point, Dibiasky is unable to control her frustration. This results in her becoming a social media meme, while Dr. Mindy becomes the “hot” astronomer – labeled an AILF. This is an obvious take on Dr. Fauci’s popularity during the pandemic. Other opportunities for Mindy includes getting closer with Blanchett’s talk show host, despite his wife (Melanie Lynskey) taking care of the home front.

Obviously most of these characters are a bit cartoonish, but that’s the point. Once the media pressures the President into taking action, an ARMAGEDDON type mission is planned, only to be scratched at the last moment and replaced by a more profitable option. Peter Isherwell (Oscar winner Mark Rylance as a blend of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk) is a tech billionaire and President Orlean supporter, and his plan involves mining the meteor for precious metals while also saving the planet.

Although Dibiasky has dropped out of the ‘spread the word’ campaign, she’s still tracking the approaching asteroid via her diet app as she hangs with a philosophical stoner played by Timothy Chalamet. It started as 6 months and 14 days, and we only get periodic updates on how much time remains. Instead, the focus is on the bumbling antics of those involved and the zany reactions of the general public. We even get President Orlean with a speech from the deck of a battleship in yet another dig at past politicians. Pop star Arianna Grande shifts her celebrity support from manatees to a hit duet with Kid Cudi entitled “Just Look Up”, while Himesh Patel plays an opportunistic reporter-boyfriend. Also, Rob Morgan is excellent in his role as supportive scientist Dr. Oglethorpe, and Ron Perelman goes a bit off the rails as the pilot on the first mission.

It’s an incredible cast and what a joy to see DiCaprio in a role so far removed from his usual characters. He even gets a NETWORK scene here, and overall he makes us understand how serious the science is, and how easily someone can go off track. Jennifer Lawrence gets the film’s best recurring gag, while Jonah Hill fits right in as the impetuous benefactor of nepotism. With the abundance of tooth veneers flashed by a multitude of characters, we can assume the film’s dental budget was sky high.

McKay uses the oncoming meteor as a stand-in for the global warming issue, and his tendency to lean heavily left does shine through. However, it’s crucial to note that no one, no thing, no organization, and no affiliation is safe during this one. Whereas ARMAGEDDON took pride and patriotism of blue collar folks and turned them into heroes, McKay examines the other side which is all about feelings, discussions, social media, and popularity. He blends Kubrick’s DR STRANGELOVE with Judge’s IDIOCRACY (which has proven much too accurate), and delivers a disaster movie that uses an asteroid to point out the real danger … which is ourselves. Is it too much? Too silly? Too angry? Too long? Simply playing to the home crowd? It’s likely to be criticized for not being smart enough or clever enough, but seriously, have you looked around at society lately? McKay delivers loads of comedy here, and maybe by laughing at ourselves, we can find a way to improve things. His final scene is more grounded than the rest of the film, and quite touching on its own. Stay tuned for the credit scenes.

Opening in theaters on December 10, 2021 and streaming on Netflix beginning December 24, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


BEING THE RICARDOS (2021)

December 9, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. You don’t have to be one of the 60 million who, between 1951 and 1957, tuned in each week to watch the latest episode of “I Love Lucy” to feel like you know Lucy, Desi, Ethel, and Fred. Most of us have watched the syndicate re-runs over the past 70 years, and that fact added challenges to this project for writer-director Aaron Sorkin – not the least of which was casting the role of Lucille Ball. Everyone had an opinion, and when you go to cast a true icon, it’s a slippery slope.

I’m happy to report (even though it’s not surprising) that Oscar winner Nicole Kidman is truly exceptional as Lucy. Perhaps a better choice could be made if this were a remake of the “I Love Lucy” sitcom, but although the film dips in and out of that show’s production, this is an Aaron Sorkin movie; so the focus is less on comedy and more on the intricacies of social and political issues. Now you might ask, what issues could a beloved star like Lucy have?  How about these: the media is reporting her husband is cheating on her, the sponsors don’t want her appearing on air while pregnant, internal battles over a particular scene with the director and writers, and she’s just been publicly called out for being a communist.

You’ve surely detected by now that this is no comedy about Lucy. Instead, it’s a pretty heavy drama about pressures at the top of a profession, and the eternal difficulties in cultivating a successful marriage. Adding heft is the era in which this occurs. It was rare for a woman to wield Lucy’s power, and the social mores of the time forced big time debate over showing a woman during pregnancy – even if that woman was married! Filmmaker Sorkin utilizes an odd structure for the film. It appears to be happening during the show’s second season, but we are actually looking back years later through the eyes of the show’s writers and producer. And then beyond that, we get flashbacks from the flashbacks to Lucy’s time at RKO, and the early flirtations that led to Lucy and Desi.

Oscar winner Javier Bardem plays Desi Arnaz. Although he bears little physical resemblance to the Cuban bandleader, Bardem expertly captures the essence of Desi as a businessman, actor, musician, lover of Lucy, and lover of life. For me, it was as thrilling to watch Desi’s shrewd negotiations with the network and Philip Morris executives as his energized bongos while performing “Babalu” at Ciro’s. Sorkin makes it clear that both Lucy and Desi were brilliant at what they did. Together they formed Desilu Productions, and he handled much of the business side, while her perfectionism and comedy instincts pushed the show to limits never before reached.

But what would the Ricardos be without their neighbors, landlords, and friends, Fred and Ethel Mertz? Nina Arianda (a Tony winner) plays Ethel/Vivian Vance, while Oscar winner JK Simmons plays Fred/William Frawley. The set is not the warm and fuzzy cocoon one might imagine. Vivian’s well known frustration was with Lucy mandating Ethel’s frumpy and dowdy look, while it’s clear Vivian and Frawley’s bickering carried on after the lights dimmed … due in no small part to Frawley’s alcoholic ways. That said, Ms. Arianda is terrific in the role, and Mr. Simmons epitomizes the grumpy old man we know as Fred.

Due to the flash-forward recollections, we get Tony Hale and John Rubinstein as the younger and older producer Jess Oppenheimer, Jake Lacy and Ronny Cox as the younger and older writer Bob Carroll, while Alia Shawkat and Linda Lavin play the two versions of writer Madelyn Pugh. It’s Ms. Lavin who describes Lucy and Desi’s relationship as, they were either “tearing each other’s heads off, or tearing each other’s clothes off.” It’s debatable whether Sorkin’s choice to structure the multiple time lines adds to the film’s depth, but it does allow for more talking … something Sorkin never shies away from. This is his third directorial effort after MOLLY’S GAME (2017) and THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (2020), and he won his Oscar for the adapted screenplay of THE SOCIAL NETWORK (2010).

Despite all the other aspects, this is the story of Lucy in crisis mode. She is pregnant with the child of a husband who is likely cheating on her. Her show and company are in jeopardy, and because of something she did many years ago, her status as a beloved American icon could be lost. Her show transcended all other forms of entertainment at the time and was must-watch TV when not every home had a TV (much less 3 or 4). The film mostly covers one week in time, though Sorkin does give us a look back at a time when the industry simply didn’t know what to do with her talent. For the fans, we do get a mention of Vitameatavegin, and a wonderful recreation of the infamous stomping of grapes. It’s a delight to see such fine actors fully engaged in roles they know will be picked apart by many. This is not the Lucy movie we would typically expect, but it’s one that pays tribute to the real person and real people and what they accomplished.

In theaters on December 10, 2021 and streaming on Amazon Prime beginning December 21, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


AGNES (2021)

December 9, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. William Friedkin’s 1973 movie THE EXORCIST, adapted from William Peter Blatty’s novel, shook the movie world at the time. It even garnered 10 Oscar nominations, winning two (Best Sound, Best Adapted Screenplay). Over the nearly 50 years since, there have been five sequels in the franchise, and it has inspired countless genre movies, including parodies and knock-offs. Writer-Director Mickey Reece and co-writer and frequent collaborator John Selvidge deliver a set-up that leads us to believe we are in for yet another faith-based horror film focusing on demonic possession. Instead, what follows is more like two distinct stories.

Hayley McFarland (THE CONJURING, 2013) plays the titular Sister Agnes, and her outburst during a group meal with her fellow nuns startles us, and leads the Mother Superior (Mary Buss) to request assistance from the Catholic Church to address what appears to be demonic possession of Agnes. Chosen for the mission are a contrasting oddball pair of priests. The young, full of faith, not yet ordained Benjamin (Jake Horowitz, THE VAST OF NIGHT), and the elder, cynical, soon-to-be-banished Father Donaghue (Ben Hall) are sent to administer the exorcism … a process that Father Donaghue views as a convenient “out” for the one suffering.

The priests arrive at the convent, making for an interesting and uncomfortable dynamic. The exorcism takes a nasty turn that stuns Benjamin and the nuns, and leaves Donaghue humiliated and damaged. Desperate for the right step, Father Black (Chris Browning), a celebrity priest, is called in, along with his strange and out-of-place chain-smoking travel partner. This attempt at dispensing the demon goes no better than the first, but it’s here where some will find a touch of dark humor and really get a sense of filmmaker Reece’s unconventional style of storytelling. Reece then shifts our attention and the film’s focus to Mary (Molly C Quinn, “Castle”), Agnes’s best friend in the convent. After the incidents with Agnes, Mary’s faith is shaken. She turns in her habit and heads out into the real world. The entire perspective shifts as we follow Mary’s attempt to find her place … searching for something to believe in while struggling to pay the rent, and fending off unwelcome advances and oddball co-workers.  

Mary’s naivety is not an asset to her in this new life, and she does connect with stand-up comedian Paul (Sean Gunn), who was once in a relationship with Agnes. The character of Paul injects yet another dimension here, but we never lose sight of what Mary is going through. The topics of power and faith stand out most as we work through the film. Those expecting a traditional horror movie may be disappointed after the first act, while those open to some dark humor may be rewarded.

In theaters and VOD beginning December 10, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


WEST SIDE STORY (2021)

December 6, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. My ‘old school’ nature causes me to cringe at the thought of classic films being remade. Why mess with something that’s already beloved? However, since we know this happens (and will continue to happen), let’s at least breathe a sigh of relief that a true lover of cinema and one of our legendary filmmakers, Steven Spielberg, is responsible for this one. Teaming once again with screenwriter Tony Kushner (MUNICH, LINCOLN), the love and admiration of the 1957 stage production, its music, and the 1961 film (by Robert Wise) shine through in this beautiful presentation. It’s Spielberg’s 35th movie, yet it’s his first musical. You will note a few changes from the stage production and 60 year old movie, but the timing of a couple of songs, more realistic brawling, and additional on-location scenes all blend seamlessly into this lovely version.

Kushner’s adaption of Arthur Laurents’ original work contributes to the contemporary, yet nostalgic feeling. It maintains the “Romeo and Juliet” story of star-crossed lovers at the core of a turf battle between the Sharks (Puerto Ricans) and Jets (white immigrants), which is driven by a prejudice stirring the hatred that leads to conflict. Sound familiar? It could be taken from the local news headlines just about any day over the past few years. What also hasn’t changed is that the Sharks and Jets are so blinded by hate and pride that they can’t see how much they have in common, with the same loss looming. In fact, the point is driven home in the film’s opening. Cinematographer and two-time Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski (SCHINDLER’S LIST, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) has his camera soaring and swooping to show us the neighborhood and ongoing demolition before zeroing in on a sign “Property Purchased by New York City for Slum Clearance”. It comes in like a wrecking ball (literally). The two factions are fighting over turf that will soon be transitioned to Lincoln Center and high dollar real estate.

Ansel Elgort stars as Tony, the former leader of the Jets attempting to find a new path for his life after spending a year in prison for nearly killing an Egyptian immigrant in a rumble. Rachel Zegler, in a remarkable silver screen debut, stars as Maria, a bright-eyed Puerto Rican who sees the upside to limitless opportunity. Early on, we get our first conflict between the rival gangs, which introduces us to Riff (a terrific Mike Faist) as the quick-tempered Jets leader so desperate to protect the neighborhood, and Bernardo (a dynamic David Alvarez), Maria’s older brother and proud leader of the Sharks – whose goal is to carve out a place in the new land as equal citizens. That first brawl gives Spielberg a chance to show off the choreography, as well as the new approach to fight scenes, which are less balletic and more bone-crunching. It’s also the first run-in with local cops, Officer Krupke (Brian d’arcy James) and Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll), neither of whom have much empathy or respect for the two gangs.

Tony (Ansel Elgort has a physical resemblance to Richard Beymer from the original film) and Maria get their ‘eyes lock across the gymnasium during the dance’ moment that really lights the candle for the big rumble. Of course, this is one of the most famous musicals of all-time, and the songs have become iconic. Elgort is handsome and has a smooth singing voice, but it’s Ms. Zegler whose voice transcends and sounds heaven sent. If there is a negative, it’s that no one will be able to sing along with her, as she hits notes most can only dream of. Listening to her sing is reward enough. Beyond the singing, it’s the dance choreography that most recall, and although eclipsing what we saw in the original movie is beyond reach, the work of this cast will not likely disappoint anyone. The dance numbers are exhilarating and colorful. It’s energized entertainment with a message.

Ariana DeBose is outstanding as Anita, and takes the lead on “America”, one of the most inspiring and fun musical numbers ever on screen. In addition to her singing and dancing, Ms. DeBose delivers a superb performance in the role that won an historic Oscar for Rita Moreno in the 1961 film. Sixty years later, the now 89 year old Ms. Moreno appears as Valentina, the widow of Doc. She now runs Doc’s Drug Store and is acting as surrogate mother to Tony. It’s certainly no cameo, and though Ms. Moreno doesn’t have a dance number, she does get to sing “Somewhere”, and this time is on the heroic end of the rape scene. She is the connective fiber to the original film and delivers a heart-warming performance, and is a strong presence where needed.

Other key supporting roles are Chino, Maria’s would-be suitor, played by Josh Andres Rivera, and ‘Anybodys’, played by Iris Menas in a non-binary rather than tomboyish portrayal of the one skulking in the shadows. It’s no surprise that Riff and Bernardo and Anita are the heftiest roles, and all three actors nail their parts. The big (and pleasant) surprises are newcomer and future star Rachel Zegler and the return of Ms. Moreno. Zegler sings “I Feel Pretty” while working the cleaning crew at Gimbel’s, and her divine sweetness gets blown away in the finale, exhibiting an acting range that complements that voice.

The always stunning score from composer Leonard Bernstein sounds amazing as performed by the New York Philharmonic, and much of original choreographer Jerome Robbins’ work is reproduced here. It’s unfortunate that renowned lyricist Stephen Sondheim passed away mere days before the premiere, but his work lives on through new voices. “Tonight” and “Cool” both receive fresh treatments and are standouts in this version. The 1961 film won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, and there is little doubt this remake will receive consideration in numerous categories, including Production Design and Costume Design. Spielberg opted to go with a more ethnically appropriate cast (no Natalie Wood-type in heavy make-up), and there is some Spanish dialogue without subtitles (the acting and situation keep us clear). It’s a nostalgic, yet contemporary version that may not have you singing, “Krup You!”, but will have you in awe with the story, dancing, music, acting, and story.

Opening in theaters on December 10, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


THE POWER OF THE DOG (2021)

December 4, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t mess with the smart ones, as brains often outlast brawn. I’m conflicted on how best to describe this film. Perhaps … It’s nuanced storytelling at its finest. Jane Campion won an original screenplay Oscar for THE PIANO (1993), while also becoming only the second woman to receive a nomination as Best Director. This is her 8th feature film to direct, and the first since the underrated BRIGHT STAR (2009). Ms. Campion is such a smooth filmmaker, and her latest is so expertly crafted and so beautifully filmed, that some may find themselves not recognizing the underlying tension between characters. I urge you to remain diligent and take note of the subtle gestures and facial expressions, as the emotions run deep.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank. He runs a successful cattle ranch with his brother George, played by Jesse Plemons. Though they sleep in the same room and have been driving cattle together for 25 years, the brothers couldn’t be less alike. George is a soft-spoken man with few needs or aspirations other than wishing to not grow old alone. He lives in the shadow of his formidable brother, an educated man with a domineering personality. Phil is constantly proving how tough and macho he is by bullying others, even calling his more sensitive brother “Fatso”. That thundering you hear is Phil purposefully slamming his heels into the wood floors so that his spurs never stop jangling.

Phil is playing a game that only he knows the rules to. George bows his head in shame as he hears Phil belittle the frail and effeminate teenage Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is waiting on their table at the Red Mill. Peter’s widowed mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst) owns the place, and after George provides some comfort to her, George and Rose secretly marry. Viewing this as a personal affront, Phil is merciless in his cruelty towards Rose and Peter. It turns out that Phil is masquerading as one thing in order to hide another truth. An intriguing sequence (that is so well acted I could watch it 10 times) leads to a warming of the relationship between Phil and Peter. The two bond over horseback riding, rope-braiding, and stories of Phil’s now-deceased ‘mentor’, Bronco Henry.

This setting is 1925 Montana, though it’s filmed in New Zealand. The majestic mountain range constantly looms on the horizon. Yet despite the beauty, it’s a tough life made tougher by Phil’s menacing behavior – psychological torturing of Rose that leads her to the bottle – something that clearly holds unfavorable memories. The four leads are truly outstanding, and supporting work is provided by Thomasin McKenzie as the young housekeeper, and Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy, Allison Bruce, and Peter Carroll as uncomfortable guests at a dinner party.

Jonny Greenwood provides the music. It’s not so much a score as it is mood-enhancing messaging through guitars, violins, and pianos – each piece delivering just the right note. Cinematographer Ari Wegner (THE TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG, 2019) works seamlessly with director Campion to capture the shifts in tone and the minutiae of the performances. An early shot through the kitchen windows captures Phil strutting through the ranch. The shot is repeated later with a contrasting look. The film is based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, and it includes some of his personal experiences. Nothing haunts us more than the lingering effect of words Peter provides as narration near the film’s opening, when he informs us that a real man must save his mother. Oh yes, this is nuanced storytelling at its finest. By the way, you know how to whistle, don’t you?

Streaming on Netflix

WATCH THE TRAILER


BENEDETTA (2021)

December 3, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Filmmaker Paul Verhoeven has long made his cinematic living on the fringes: the brutality of the Middle Ages in FLESH + BLOOD (1985), the violence and thirst for power through technology in ROBOCOP (1987), the buried dark side (and other uses of ice picks) of our personality in BASIC INSTINCT (1992), more thirst for power combined with a baffling lack of sex appeal in SHOWGIRLS (1995), and the unbridled desire for revenge in ELLE (2016). This latest displays his mastery of ‘nun-on-nun’ eroticism and the duplicity of religious faith. Verhoeven’s usual goal is to provoke, and along with his co-writer David Birke, this ‘based on true events’ story (adapted from the 1986 Judith C Brown book, “Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy”), is a natural fit.

Benedetta Carlini is delivered to the convent at a young age by her well-heeled parents. The girl claims to have a direct line to God, who delivers well-aimed bird droppings when called upon. OK, that’s just the first somewhat comical event in this film that seems less interested in the documented antics of the real Sister Benedetta, than in tantalizing today’s viewers with the behind closed doors sins of the flesh between she and fellow nun, Bartolomea (Daphne Patakia). Portraying Sister Benedetta, Viginie Elfira never shies away from the material, whether it’s the stigmata, bedtime play with a specially carved Virgin Mary statuette, or channeling the voice of God during outbursts claiming blasphemy.

Felicita, the abbess of the convent, is played by the always interesting Charlotte Rampling. Sister Felicita’s real talent seems unrelated to issues of God, and instead lies in matters of money. Because of this, she capitalizes on Benedetta’s visions as a form of fundraising, while turning away (except during moments of voyeurism) from her other activities and claims. Our early caution comes from Benedetta being told upon arrival that, “Your body is your worst enemy”. After more dreams and visions, and a possible miracle or two, we understand that nuns are to believe that suffering is the road to salvation and redemption … a theory that leads to one of the more humorous moments as a sword-wielding Jesus saves Benedetta from a gaggle of attacking serpents.

Is there such thing as erotic religious satire played straight? We must assume that Verhoeven has his tongue planted firmly in cheek for this one, as it goes beyond skepticism of religion and directly to the morally adrift. Whether Benedetta’s claims of visions are/were true or fake, Verhoeven is a filmmaker who takes pleasure in the pleasure of nuns, no matter how prohibited it might be. We can just never be certain whether his objective is to expose religion, or simply expose.

Available in theaters on December 3, 2021 and On Demand beginning December 21, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER