Dark Times In Gotham

When I first heard Warner Brothers was making another Batman movie, my reaction was, shall we say, not overwhelmingly positive. The Christopher Nolan trilogy rightly stands as the pinnacle in the super-hero genre, and the recent incarnation of the character by Ben Affleck was less than thrilling. While Robert Pattinson has gotten good reviews for movies like Good Time and The Lighthouse, there’s still the concern that a major special-effects film will bring back the sparkly vampire of his Twilight days. Hearing that the run time for the new film was almost three hours made me wonder how much of it would just be taken up with shots of Pattinson brooding. So I wasn’t chomping at the bit to see The Batman.

Now, having seen it, I have to say I was wrong. I’ll still put the Nolan trilogy as the best adaptation, but The Batman is a very close second. I should have had more trust in director/screenwriter Matt Reeves. I’ve been impressed with his work since Cloverfield burst into movie theaters and rewrote the playbook for movie marketing. He followed that up with Let Me In, the English version of the Swedish horror flick Let The Right One In, where Reeves managed to match the dark intensity of the original. Next came the second and third instalments in the Planet of the Apes remakes that were stunningly powerful. Reeves has made The Batman into an essential entry not just in the super-hero genre, but also neo noir.

It’s the second year that Bruce Wayne (Pattinson) has operated as the vigilante Batman in Gotham City. When GCPD Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) brings him to a crime scene, the resentment of the rank-and-file officers is palpable. But this is no ordinary crime scene. The mayor of Gotham has been brutally murdered by a serial killer who calls himself the Riddler, who has left a card addressed to Batman. When the police commissioner arrives on the scene, he orders Gordon to get Batman off the premises. While leaving, Batman sees the mayor’s son and learns it was the boy who found his father, spurring memories in Bruce of his own parents’ murder years earlier. He returns to his Batcave, where Alfred (Andy Serkis) is waiting to try and get Bruce to engage with the business empire left to him by his father. The commissioner is soon dead himself, the second victim of the Riddler.

Batman and Gordon follow the riddle in the card to discover a thumb drive hidden in one of the mayor’s cars. When they check it, they discover multiple pictures of the mayor with a woman not his wife. For good measure, the Riddler has set the pictures to be emailed to media outlets the moment the drive is accessed. Batman recognizes the location as the Iceberg Club, operated by the Penguin (Colin Farrell) who is second-in-command to the mob boss of Gotham, Falcone (John Turturro). Penguin feigns ignorance when questioned by Batman, but while they’re talking, a waitress comes in to deliver a drink to the Penguin, and Batman realizes she recognizes the mystery woman’s picture. Batman follows the waitress home, learning her name is Selina Kyle (Zoe Kravitz) and the woman in the picture, Anika, is her roommate.

Different from most of the adaptations of Batman, we don’t get to truly meet the Riddler (Paul Dano) until the third act of the film. Instead, Reeves follows the Jaws playbook of having the beast rarely seen as he works his mayhem. The casting of Dano is a wise choice, since he is utterly normal and unassuming to look at, which makes his anarchistic Riddler a perfect metaphor for today, when so much damage is done by little men at their computer keyboards.

Pattinson captures the haunted nature of the Batman. The origin story is merely hinted at rather than retold; since it’s been a part of movie culture for over 30 years, there’s no need to retread that path. As often happens in a superhero flick, one wonders how the hero can recover from major beatings, crashes, and being blown up with no obvious trauma, but overall Pattinson handles the physicality of the character well. There’s no trouble believing Zoe Kravitz as the leather-suited Catwoman, and she gives the most believable interpretation of the character that we’ve seen on film.

If I have any critique of Reeves’ film, it’s that it takes the term Dark Knight and goes heavy on the dark. Everything is either set at night or on rainy, dark days. Even in homes where you’d expect regular lighting, it’s like no one’s paid the power bill in years. Still, that’s a minor quibble. On the other hand, you usually can’t compliment a nearly three-hour film on its tight construction and good pacing.

Everything considered, though, if you like dark films (not just physically but emotionally and psychologically) then The Batman is definitely worth watching.

And The Kitchen Sink

Usually with my reviews, I’ll talk a bit about the background of the movie, do a brief plot summary, and then give my impressions on the actors, director, and any other outstanding feature of the movie. Recently I saw Everything, Everywhere, All The Time, and for this review I thought I’d start with the plot summary.

It can’t be done.

I can give you a brief introduction to set the scene, to tell you where the movie starts. Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) is trying to figure out her taxes before heading to an appointment with the IRS. The auditor there, Dierdra Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis), is about at the end of her patience with Evelyn and her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), and has asked that they bring their daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), to translate. Joy and her girlfriend, Becky (Tallie Medel) come to Evelyn and Waymond’s laundromat, but an argument between mother and daughter leads to Joy and Becky leaving. Evelyn and Waymond set out for the IRS office along with Evelyn’s elderly father Gong Gong (James Hong). When they arrive, they head for the door…

And that’s the end of what can be easily summarized. From that point on, the story is like being in Christopher Nolan’s mind while he’s on an acid trip. Think of a mashup between Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kung Fu Hustle, and Scott Pilgrim vs The World, and then make it about 10 times stranger. The plot revolves around other versions of the characters from parallel dimensions leaping into the bodies of those on Earth, while Evelyn begins leaping into other versions of herself on those parallel worlds: a kung fu master, a singer, a Benihana’s type chef, a successful movie actress, and maybe a couple of dozen more. She’ll need every skill she can glean from her other selves to defeat the big bad – a version of Joy intent on destroying the whole of reality.

Sounds totally weird, doesn’t it, and it is. But even with how weird it is, the movie’s heart is twenty times larger. In the end it’s an incredibly poignant affirmation of the humanity in each of us, whoever we may be, even if you are hiding under (or in) a rock.

I should probably mention the googly eyes – but I won’t.

The writer/director team of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert were known for their work in music videos, where they simply went by the name Daniels, working with Tenacious D, Kimbra, DJ Snake & Lil Jon, among others. Their previous feature, Swiss Army Man, won the award for direction of a drama at Sundance, and it was well received on the festival circuit, though it was a step along the unusual plot path. With Everything, Kwan and Scheinert made a break for the far end of the field, and somehow, they scored a touchdown. It may have helped to have Joe and Anthony Russo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier; Captain America: Civil War; The Avengers: Infinity War; The Avengers: Endgame) serving as producers, since they know about making complex, special-effects-filled movies that still connect with the audience in a deeply personal way.

There may be another actor other than Yeoh who could handle the role of Evelyn, but after seeing the movie I can’t imagine anyone else doing it. Even as the strangeness is dialed up to 12, Yeoh anchors the story in reality and humanity. It’s fun to have James Hong in a meaty role, since he’s one of the great character actors, with over 450 credits on IMDb in a career that’s spanned 65 years. On the other end of the career arc, Stephanie Hsu has been building up a solid resumé, and has had a recurring and growing role on one of my favorite streaming series, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” She’s able to go toe to toe with Yeoh and hold her own, and even though her Joy turns into a heavy character, she retains the sympathy of the audience.

Yes, the movie is strange, and yes, it’s bizarre, but it’s also a heartfelt meditation on family and the choices we make, and you may find yourself tearing up a time or two. I’d suggest you see Everything, Everywhere, All the Time in a theater, just so you can immerse yourself in it. It’s worth taking the dip.  

Valley Redux

Paul Thomas Anderson has consistently been one of the more interesting filmmakers in the past 25+ years, both writing and directing his films. After a strong feature debut with the gambling-themed Hard Eight, he had a major hit with Boogie Nights, looking at the porn industry, based in the San Fernando Valley where Anderson grew up, through the 70s into the 80s. Next, he did Magnolia, also set in LA, that followed multiple stories intersecting in unexpected ways. It gave Tom Cruise one of the best roles of his career. After a strong character study with Punch Drunk Love, with the performance by Adam Sandler that he likely wants to be remembered for, Anderson expanded his vision. He adapted Upton Sinclair 1920’s novel “Oil!” which told of the early years of the American oil industry, and made There Will Be Blood, getting Daniel Day-Lewis his second Oscar. His next film was The Master, a fictionalized look at the early days of Scientology, and he then returned to LA for an adaption of Thomas Pynchon’s mystery Inherent Vice before reunited with Day-Lewis for Phantom Thread, set in 1950’s London.

Along with his feature films, Anderson has done dozens of music videos, starting with Michael Penn (brother of Sean), then working with Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, and Radiohead. In 2017, he directed his first video for the sister group Haim, who also hail from the San Fernando Valley. He’s now done ten of their videos. Anderson had a special contact with Haim, in that their mother was one of Anderson’s teachers when he was in school.

Now he’s returned to the Valley of the 1970s with Licorice Pizza. If you’re wondering about the name, it’s slang for long play vinyl records (LPs for short) and was the name of a record store in the Valley where a scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High was filmed, a movie that influenced Anderson.

Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) is the epitome of the American entrepreneur even before he can drive a car. While waiting to have his school portrait taken, he begins hitting on one of the assistants, Alana Kane (Alana Haim), inviting her out for dinner. Alana knows she’s the proverbial older woman – she’s 25 to Gary’s 15 – but she finds herself intrigue by him and does join him for dinner at the classic valley restaurant Tail O’ The Cock, where Gary’s on a first-name basis with the maître ‘d. When Alana asks how he can afford the evening, Gary explains he was a child actor but now runs a publicity firm which actually employs his mother.

From there, the story twists and turns with Gary and Alana essentially bound together even as they deny they have a relationship. When Gary’s mother Anita (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) is unable to chaperon Gary to a reunion in New York City of the cast for one of his movies, Alana steps in, and ends up becoming interested in one of Gary’s older co-stars, though their nascent relationship doesn’t survive a disastrous supper with Alana’s family. Gary discovers waterbeds and opens his own store, with Alana doing sales while wearing a bikini. Alana, at Gary’s urging, tries to break into the movie business. It leads to a bizarre evening at the Tail O’ The Cock with a Hollywood legend (played by Sean Penn), and even weirder motorcycle stunt. Gary’s waterbed business is ruined by the Arab Oil Embargo, but he does do one final installation for Hollywood producer Jon Peters (Bradley Cooper). And that’s not even all of their misadventures.

The crazy thing is that many of the stories are based on real life. The original inspiration for Anderson was walking past a school and seeing a student try to chat up an older woman. Most of the incidents are based on stories told Anderson by producer and actor Gary Goetzmann, who was a child actor and had a waterbed business while still a teen, along with other things portrayed in the movie. Goetzman is mostly known today for co-founding with Tom Hanks the production company Playtone. He’s produced or executive produced some of the best TV and movies in the last 30 years, including “Band of Brothers,” “The Pacific,” Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and many, many more. The movie Alana reads for was an early Clint Eastwood film called Breezy, that starred William Holden and Kay Lenz; Anderson uses the actual script for the scene.

Of particular fun is that Anderson filled the cast with friends and relatives, and a large number of parents or progeny of famous people in the film business. There’s a couple of Spielberg’s daughters in the film, Tim Conway’s son, and the man who sells Gary on the idea of waterbeds is played by Leonardo DiCaprio’s father. One interesting casting is Cooper as Peters. Anderson had talked to Peters about having him be a character in the film, since Goetzmann had actually installed a waterbed for the producer. Bradley Cooper had wanted to work with Anderson for years, but having him play Peters highlights a connection between the two men. Cooper’s hit version of A Star Is Born counted as a remake of previous films, including the Barbara Streisand/Kris Kristopherson version from the 1970s. Peters had produced that film and owned the rights, so he was given a producer credit on Cooper’s film, though Cooper has said Peters had no actual involvement in the new version.

The most important casting, though, was Cooper Hoffman and Alana Haim. Cooper is the son of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was close friends with Anderson and appeared in several of his movies. Cooper had no interest in acting until Anderson asked him to do the role of Gary, but he captures the character with all the panache his father demonstrated in his acting career. He’s charming and precocious, as well as frustrating and infuriating – in other words, real. Just as important is Alana Haim, the youngest of the Haim sisters, in her acting debut. She’s totally at ease and natural in front of the camera, and you believe her as the character. One moment that particularly stands out is when she has to pilot an out-of-gas delivery truck backwards down from Peters’ house in the Hollywood Hills. She makes it down safely, but then you see her sitting on the curb, shaking from the rush of adrenalin. Not a word is spoken, but it’s a powerful moment. (It also helps that Anderson cast her sisters and their mother and father as Alana’s family in the film. Strangely enough, Alana had met Cooper when he was 13, when the sisters went over to Anderson’s house while Philip Seymour Hoffman was there as well, and they ended up essentially babysitting Cooper.)

While it was nominated for three Oscars (Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay), Licorice Pizza was shut out at the recent event. You can’t fault the Academy voters for picking CODA, Jane Campion, and Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, each of which was deserving. But I hope with streaming and home video more people will discover the delights of this slice of clear-eyed 1970s nostalgia that ends up having a huge heart for its characters. It will stick with you, like an earworm from a particularly tasty piece of licorice pizza.

Red Ink Blots

I have a partial bone to pick with COVID; it has extensively curtailed my enjoying films on the big screen in a theater. I’ve managed to make it to this point without being infected, but where I used to spend a Saturday at the theater, seeing two or three films, now I’ll usually only go to a single movie that’s been out for a while so the crowds are limited. It’s meant I’ve missed some films I really wanted to see, such as Licorice Pizza, which left the theaters here before I felt safe going out to see it. On the other hand, I’ve streamed a number of films that normally would have taken months to be so released, such as Dune and West Side Story. It’s different sitting two feet from my computer screen to watch a film instead of having the theater experience, but for safety’s sake I’ll live with it.

This has meant that some excellent films, which would have been box office gold in a normal year, have only had a very limited release before heading to streaming services. Probably the greatest impact was on Black Widow, which likely would have reached the box office stratosphere. That also happened with last year’s Oscar winner for Best Animated Film, Pixar’s Soul. And now it’s happening to this year’s Pixar offering, Turning Red.

Red is the first feature directed and co-written by Domee Shi, who is the first woman to solo-direct a Pixar feature. She also was the first woman to direct a Pixar short. Bao was released with Incredibles 2, and is the last short that Pixar put out. It won the 2019 Oscar for Best Animated Short, and it deals (in 7 memorable minutes, without dialogue) with the challenges of taking a child to adulthood, for both the child and the mother. Turning Red paints a similar picture, with a much broader canvas.

Mei (voiced by Rosalie Chiang) is a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian living in Toronto in 2002 who celebrates the independence she feels as she nears full adulthood. She has a close posse of fellow nerds named Miriam, Abby, and Priya (voices of Ava Morse, Hyein Park, and Maytreyi Ramakrishnan, respectively) who love anime, oogling the 16-year-old boy who works at the local convenience store, and are intense fans of the boy band 4*Town. In reality, Mei’s independence is constrained as she’s expected to help with the maintaining of the family’s temple, run by her mother Ming (Sandra Oh) with support from her father, Jin (Orion Lee).

But then one morning Mei wakes up and discovers she’s changed into a huge red panda. She at first hides it from her family and friends – her mother assumes Mei’s periods have started – when she finds if she controls her emotions she reverts to human form. But any intense feelings, and poof – she’s a red panda again. Her mother is the first to discover what’s happening to Mei, which leads to a startling confession: Ming was expecting this to happen, but had missed seeing the signs. She tells Mei the story of their family and a matriarch from long ago. During a time of war when all the men were conscripted into the army, the matriarch had asked the gods for the power of the Red Panda to protect their village. Since that time, all the women of the family have had that gift/curse, though they’re able to lock away the red panda spirit through a incantation performed by a shaman during a red moon. Mei has to make it through a month until the time of the next red moon. But around that same time, 4*Town is scheduled to play the Toronto Skydome, and Mei and her posse are determined to be there for it.

It’s obvious that Turning Red is a parable of puberty, particularly from the female point of view. It helps that, for the first time for a Pixar film, the main creative team – director, screenwriters, producer, director of photography, production design, art direction – is composed completely of women. Domee Shi set the film in 2002, when she was the age of Mei, and the design of the characters is closer to anime than previous Pixar films. It’s a mistake, though, to think of this as a film that’s only speaking to a particular niche. Red’s theme of a child learning to define themselves separate from their parents is universal. The story also flows in surprising ways, with a cockeyed view of the world that’s delightful.

Setting the film in Toronto is natural, since its Domee Shi’s hometown following her parent’s immigration from China, but it’s also a perfect choice since Toronto is one of the most culturally diverse cities in North America. The school Mei attends has a Sikh security guard, which might stand out in other places but would be de rigueur in Toronto. The voice actors are uniformly outstanding, though special mention must be given to both Rosalie Chiang and Sandra Oh. They breathe a depth into their characters that makes them both unique and completely familiar.

Since its release, Turning Red has engendered many negative comments in some circles, while others who’ve seen it are strongly appreciated of the film’s message. You can count me in the latter group. (Vox has published a wonderful breakdown of why this has happened. Click here to read it.) I actually think Turning Red is a Rorschach test with red ink rather than black. The negative responses tend to say more about the person posting the comment than about the movie. Any movie that can garner responses like that has tapped into a deep psychological vein as well as current events, as some adults try to limit a young person’s world so that it fits within the adult’s prejudices. However, Turning Red’s positive statements about self-acceptance may be the perfect message for this moment. “We’ve all got an inner beast. We’ve all got a messy, loud, weird part of ourselves hidden away. And a lot of us never let it out. But I did. How about you?”

The Long Journey to Overnight Success

I’ll admit, I do love a good sports movie. I’ll watch films like A League of Their Own, Chariots of Fire, Bull Durham, or Field of Dreams anytime they come on TV – and they come on a lot. There is inherent drama in the game, and movies love to capture that drama. Biopics, too, of sport figures can be thrilling when done right. I loved watching Chadwick Boseman’s fierce control as Jackie Robinson in 42, or Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks, forging the 1980 USA Hockey team into Olympic Champions in Miracle, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen The Blind Side. While what happens on the playing field is important, often the story off the field is as or more compelling. Now, one of the greatest sports stories in the last 25 years finally makes it to the screen.

American Underdog tells the story of Kurt Warner and all that he had to endure to fulfill his dream of playing in the NFL. More than that, though, it’s the story of the crucible of adversity refining character. We meet Kurt (Zachary Levi) finally getting a chance to play college football at Northern Iowa State after sitting on the bench for 4 years. He has talent, though its rough and unrefined, and learning is a humbling experience – as well as a painful one with defense players attacking him. While accompanying a friend to a country and western bar, Kurt is captivated by one of the women line-dancing there. He doesn’t like country music, but he learns line-dancing so he can meet her, discovering her name is Brenda (Anna Paquin). When Kurt tries to arrange a date with her, Brenda puts him off, explaining she’s a divorced mother with two children, figuring that will be the end of his interest. Instead, he walks miles from the campus to where Brenda lives with her parents. He ends up bonding with Brenda’s special-needs son Zach (Hayden Zaller), giving Brenda confidence in him.

Between the end of college and joining the Rams, there are five long years of trials. An early chance with the Packers comes to naught, leading Kurt to get a job as a night stocker at a grocery store. When Brenda’s parents move to their retirement home in Arkansas, Kurt takes on the responsibility for Brenda and her kids while she’s studying to be a nurse, though they’re faced with brutal poverty. That’s alleviated a bit by the arrival of Jim Foster (Bruce McGill), the entrepreneur who created the Arena Football League and ran the Iowa Barnstormers. The team’s based in Des Moines, while Brenda’s attending school in Cedar Rapids a couple of hours away, leading to strains that almost destroy their relationship. But when tragedy strikes, it becomes a clarifying moment for Kurt. Even when the Rams recruit him, there’s adversity. Coach Dick

Vermeil (Dennis Quaid) is occupied with the whole team, while Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz (Chance Kelly) is brutal, not believing that an older Arena Football quarterback can master the complicated offense he’s designed. But the five years have made Kurt resilient, and when an injury opens the way for Kurt, he’s ready for his chance.

I lived in St. Louis during the 1999 miracle season when the Rams were the greatest show on turf. This was after they’d been an embarrassment to the town that was use to winning seasons for the baseball Cardinals and hockey Blues. During the year before, when Mark McGwire had his record-setting home run season (and essentially saved baseball after a strike had nearly ruined the league’s fan base), one Sunday afternoon the cheers from the ballpark were so loud they disrupted the Rams game a few blocks away. Against the brilliance of the Rams the next season, Warner’s story was often repeated, usually by color commentators shaking their heads. Yet American Underdog does a good job keeping the story real and grounded.

Much of the credit goes to Zachary Levi, who’s on a bit of a roll right now. I’d been a fan of his since his comedic spy turn on TV in “Chuck” early in his career. So often that can be the highpoint for an actor, but Levi kept working on TV and in pictures until (you could say) lightning struck with Shazam. He followed that up with an excellent supporting role on “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisal,” and IMDb has six projects for Levi listed in pre- or post-production. Anna Paquin had, of course, won an Oscar with her first movie role in The Piano, and there are many careers that have quickly gone downhill from such success. Paquin’s had a strong career, managing to grow from child roles into adulthood with the X-Men series, and taking the lead in HBO’s “True Blood.” She and Levi had good chemistry, as well as a deep feeling for the characters.

Directors Andrew and Jon Erwin have mostly done inspirational films, often tied to Christian recording artists (I Can Only Imagine, I Still Believe). With American Underdog, they go more for a straight bio-pic, and they don’t gloss over the conflicts between Kurt and Brenda that came close to sinking their relationship. In the end, the most overt statement of faith is left to Warner himself, with a clip of his testimony after winning the Super Bowl.

Kurt Warner has been rated at the best undrafted player ever in the history of the NFL. We tend sometimes to just look at the result. American Underdog shows all the grit, determination, pain, and sacrifice that it took to get to that result, which makes the triumph all the sweeter.

Both Sides Now

When “West Side Story” premiered on Broadway in 1957, it was a milestone in several ways. Essentially “Romeo and Juliet” in New York, the presentation of gangs in a musical was groundbreaking. Rebel Without a Cause and The Blackboard Jungle had been released only 2 years earlier. It was conceived by a giant of musical theater, Jerome Robbins, who recruited playwright and screenwriter Arthur Laurents to do his first musical. Laurents later wrote “Gypsy” as well as two major movies of the 1970s, The Turning Point and The Way We Were, among other projects. For the score he brought in Leonard Bernstein, one of the most important conductors and composers of his time, and paired him with a rookie lyricist – Stephen Sondheim, who would become the premier writer/composer of musical theater for the next 50 years. The musical ran for over two years and snagged two Tony awards, including Best Musical.

It wasn’t surprising that a movie would follow 4 years later, and the Super Panavision 70 production, co-directed by Robbins and Hollywood veteran Robert Wise, was a smash hit, winning 10 Oscars out of 11 nominations, a record for musicals. The only loser was Ernest Lehman, who adapted the screenplay. Lehman was also nominated for his screenplays for Sabrina, North by Northwest, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Hello, Dolly, but never won, though in 2001 he did receive an honorary Oscar for his body of work. While it was normal for its time, West Side Story suffered from a bad case of whitewashing, with Puerto Rican roles played by Natalie Wood, who was Russian and Ukrainian, and George Chakiris, whose ancestors were Greek. The only principle of Puerto Rican descent was Rita Moreno, who did take home a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, on her way to becoming the first female EGOT. Also, all the singing was dubbed, even for Moreno, with the go-to dubber Marni Nixon doing the singing for Maria.

Laurents was aware of the whitewashing problem with the musical. One of his last projects was to collaborate with Lin Manuel Miranda to replace some of the English dialogue with Spanish for the Latino characters. In 2019 there was a triumphant reimagining of the musical on Broadway, eliminating the anachronistic feeling and breathing fresh life into the music. Unfortunately, the pandemic ended its run early. Now we have a reimagining of the movie version as well, done by the premier director/producer of his generation, Steven Spielberg. To refresh the script, Spielberg brought in Tony and Pulitzer Award winner Tony Kushner, who’d previously worked with Spielberg on Munich and Lincoln.

From the very first shot, Spielberg expands and deepens the story. We first see rubble, broken bricks, fallen metal fire escapes. Then the camera slowly pans up to show a sign saying that condemned, blighted area would soon be replaced with a new complex to be called “The Lincoln Center.” While the Jets and the Sharks compete for control of their neighborhood, in fact they’ve both already lost to the city’s gentrification and urban renewal. The neighborhood in which multiple waves of immigrants had first found a home would soon be no more. Many of the scenes are played out on piles of rubble that use to be apartments.

Our introduction to the Jets with the song “When You’re A Jet,” has them collecting paint cans and heading to a playground where they deface a Puerto Rican Pride mural. The Sharks soon arrive, chasing the Jets through the streets, finally facing off with them in an empty lot, but the arrival of Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll) and Sergeant Krupke (Brian d’Arcy James) stops the rumble before it can truly begin. Riff (Mike Faist), the leader of the Jets, wants to have a major rumble with the Sharks to settle once and for all which gang would have dominance, and decides to set it up with the leader of the Sharks, Bernardo (David Alvarez), during a mixer at the community center that night. However, he wants Tony (Ansel Elgort) with him, as the two had co-founded the Jets and had been best friends since childhood. Tony, though, had recently finished a year-long stretch in Sing Sing because of almost beating another gang member to death in a rumble. He’s now working at Doc’s Pharmacy, helping Doc’s widow, Valentina (Rita Moreno). At first, Tony refuses to attend the dance that night, but then he changes his mind.

Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler), is having a hard time preparing for the dance, but is helped by Anita (Ariana DeBose) to find the proper outfit. Bernardo soon arrives with Chino (Josh Andres Rivera), a studious boy who is Bernardo’s close friend, though he’s prevented Chino from joining the Sharks. The mixer that night is essentially a pre-rumble through dance, but in the course of it, Tony and Maria dance their own pas de deux, setting in motion the love story with its tragic ending.

One major change Spielberg has done with his version is to make New York City a major character in the film. The ’61 version was stuck on soundstages, which made filming easier with the large Super-Panavision cameras. Spielberg has never been constrained in that way. Working with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who’s been with Spielberg since Schindler’s List in ’93 (for which they both earned Oscars), Spielberg found locations throughout the city that breathed life into the music, such as the Jets performing “Cool” in a derelict dock area where they’re dancing over holes in the rotting floor, or “America” moving through the streets with vintage cars passing by.
Having Rita Moreno again involved in the film, this time taking the role of “Doc” from the 1961 version, adds strength to the production. In an interesting change, she performs “Somewhere” instead of Maria and Tony, changing it from an anthem of hope to a world-weary pray for understanding. There’s no dubbing of voices in this version; all the actors do their own singing, and they do it superbly. Besides Moreno, Elgort is the most recognized actor of the cast, having been a teen throb in The Fault in Our Stars and the Divergent series, but he showed his personal chops in Baby Driver. On the other hand, Rachel Zegler is making her movie debut after a casting search that looked at 30,000 actresses. She had performed the role while in school at the Bergen (NJ) Performing Arts Center, but it’s still a tremendous jump from there to a Spielberg fill. She pulls it off flawlessly. The rest of the cast is exceptional, though Arianna DeBose is on another level at Anita, who is the emotional heart of the story. She well deserves her Best Supporting Actress nomination, and it would be wonderful for her to take home the trophy 60 years after Moreno did it for the same role.

It’s hard to remake a movie that won 10 Oscars in its original form, but Spielberg has managed to do it spectacularly.

Dog-gone Powerful

Ever since she burst onto the cinematic scene with The Piano in 1993, Jane Campion has dealt with toxic males and their negative effect on women, though usually with the women finding ways to overcome that toxicity. Ada, the silent mail-order wife in The Piano, may be brutally maimed by her husband before being cast aside, but she still finds a way to rise from those depths. The betrayed protagonist in The Portrait of a Lady manages to extricate herself from those who betrayed her. In the fierce pas de deux, Holy Smoke, a deprogrammer tries to break a young woman whose family believes she’s been caught up in a cult, only to have the woman turn the tables of the deprogrammer. While she’s only done a handful of movies, usually serving as both director and screenwriter, they are all sharply honed and memorable. The break between her last film, Bright Star, and her latest film was 12 long years, though several of those years were taken up producing the powerful mystery series Top of the Lake, filmed in her native New Zealand.

Now Campion is back with The Power of the Dog. Sometimes when there’s a long layoff, the movie delivered may be a pale copy of previous work. Instead, Campion has made the most powerful film of her career, attested to by its receiving 12 Oscar nominations, the most of any film of 2021. She’s also taken aim at a much larger target – the American West mythos of masculinity – and has hit that target dead center.

Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) runs a large ranch in Montana with the help of his brother George (Jessie Plemons). It’s 1925, and George is as likely to travel by Model T Ford as by saddling up a horse. Phil, though, embraces the ethos of the West with a virulence and volatility that overwhelms all in his sphere. Quiet and honorable George is often the target of Phil’s barbs, though from long experience he sloughs them off. While on a stop-off during a cattle drive, George meets Rose Gordon (Kristen Dunst), who runs an inn. Rose is the widow of a doctor who’d committed suicide, and she’s helped at the inn by her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is also studying to become a doctor himself. Peter is a quiet, self-contained young man who appears to be too delicate for the world in which he moves. One of the first things we see him do is create beautiful paper flowers to decorate the inn’s dining tables. Phil uses one to light a cigarette.

George marries Rose and moves her back to the ranch, while Peter is able to attend college to pursue his studies, thanks to George’s money. Phil treats Rose like a foreigner invading his territory, brutally demeaning her in multiple ways. Yet we learn there’s more to Phil, who’d had a classical education back east before he dove fully into his western persona. Phil’s constant belittling leads Rose to drown her feelings in whiskey. When Peter comes to spend the summer at the ranch, Phil finds the perfect way to destroy Rose – take her son away from her and change Peter into a version of himself.

The Power of the Dog is a film that seethes with the intensity of the characters, with underlying tension in every scene. It is a revelatory performance by Cumberbatch, winding through scenes like a rattlesnake ready to strike. Yet Campion also peels back Phil’s exterior, revealing a sensitivity that’s been almost crushed by his choice of personality. Plemons effectively plays the other Western stereotype, the strong, silent type, though he can’t protect Rose as Phil grinds away at her soul. The role gives Dunst a chance to shine in a way she couldn’t for years. (Interestingly, Plemons and Dunst have been in a long-term relationship in real life.) Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Peter is the epitome of the old phrase, “Still waters run deep.” While Phil and the ranch hands laugh at Peter as he walks around in stiff new jeans and a pristine western hat, he has no trouble gently capturing a rabbit, then dissecting it for practice. Smit-McPhee had begun as a child actor, though in roles you wouldn’t expect such as walking The Road with Viggo Mortensen or befriending a child vampire in Let Me In. He continued to work throughout his teens and early twenties, including playing Nightcrawler in the most recent X-Men films. With The Power of the Dog, he’s staked his claim to being a powerful adult actor in the vein of Christian Bale and his costar Cumberbatch.

The title is taken from a Bible verse, Psalms 22:20 in the King James Version: Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog. It’s an open question, though, right up to a devastating final twist, who needs to be saved from the power of the dog. Campion has crafted a harsh, rough film that at first seems to grab you by the throat. But you’ll find that it keeps hold of your soul long after the credits have rolled.

Bringing It Home

I’ll confess to a tinge of worry when I headed out to see Spider-Man: No Way Home, the final installment of the trilogy Tom Holland had committed to make playing the Marvel character. I remember Tobey McGuire’s Spider-Man 3, a movie so bad that the recent animated entry in the canon, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse lampooned its street dancing sequences. Worse, Andrew Garfield’s Amazing Spider-Man was so-so in the first film, not so amazing in the second, and didn’t get a chance at a third entry. Overall, Into the Spider-verse was the best incarnation, and it’s now getting a sequel, but the first two Tom Holland films were close behind. And the end of Far From Home, with Peter Parker’s secret identity exposed while being cast as a villain by Mysterio/Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), set up a huge cliffhanger. That the news was delivered by none other than J.K. Simmons reprising his wonderful J.J. Jameson from the McGuire films gave it a completely gonzo feel. How do you pay that moment off with the third film and not disappoint fans?

One thing Marvel is, well, marvelous at, is paying off those huge moments, and making those moments pay off at the box office. They’ve also showed how wonderful it can be to intertwine characters from different series. It’s hard to remember now that, before Avengers, that had never happened. Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, the X-Men, each had their own world in films, even though in the actual comics they’d been showing up in each other’s narratives for decades. Part of the problem was contractual.  Marvel sold the rights for Spider-Man and the X-Men to Columbia and 20th Century Fox, respectively. Warners had both Batman and Superman, but they were separated by time. The Christopher Reeve films were in the ‘70s and had faded by the time Batman hit the screens in 1989. The Christopher Nolan “Dark Knight” trilogy was out when Warners tried to reintroduce Superman with Brandon Routh, but he wasn’t super enough to fly anywhere near the level Nolan set.

With Marvel Entertainment, though, you didn’t have a separate studio purchasing a character in order to make a film. From the beginning, Marvel used the individual films to build toward The Avengers, teasing it from the very first post-credit scene in Ironman. It also allowed for crossovers in the series, like Black Widow in Captain America: The Winter Soldier or the Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok. Captain America: Civil War was essentially another Avengers film with a full contingent of Marvel superheroes represented. It has made for an incredible string of box office hits and a massive fan base. (DC attempt to creating their own larger film universe, but their attempts have varied wildly in quality and level of success.)

The purchase of Marvel by Disney only increased Marvel’s power, leading to the repatriation of the characters Marvel had sold off when they were in dire financial circumstances. 20th Century was outright bought by Disney, returning the rights for The X-Men and The Fantastic Four to Marvel. Judging by the quality of the recent entries in those series, it happened not a minute too soon. Best though was Columbia deciding to  unite with Marvel for the recent Spider-Man films. Having Tony Stark as a mentor for Peter Parker put Homecoming on a different level, and that continued in Far From Home with Happy Hogan, Nick Fury, and Maria Hill. You could say say, though, that Tony Stark remained a major presence for that film as well as Peter dealt with the loss of his mentor and friend. So for the ending of the series, Marvel decided to go BIG. Spider-Man: No Way Home doesn’t just a wrap-up for the Tom Holland era, but the past 20 years of Spider-Man films.

The movie begins exactly where Far From Home ended with Peter and MJ (Zendaya) watching as Beck frames Peter, with Jameson now cast as a tabloid news show talking head. They rush home to Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) and Happy (Jon Favreau), with Ned (Jacob Batalon) joining them as news choppers and crowds surround the building. Soon they’re taken into custody by the shadowy Department of Damage Control, but are eventually released with the help of a local lawyer, Matt Murdoch (Charlie Cox, in a wonderful shout-out to the Marvel/Netflix series). Still, Peter, MJ, and Ned have to deal with the public, some who support Spider-Man while others view him as a villain. When MJ and Ned suffer consequences because of Peter, he turns for help to Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the Sorcerer Supreme.

At Peter’s request, Doctor Strange attempts a spell that would wipe Peter’s secret identity from the minds of everyone in the world. When he realizes that that would mean MJ, May, and Ned would no longer know him, Peter interferes with the spell, trying to carve out exceptions. Instead of wiping people’s memories, it opens a portal to the Multiverse, drawing to this Peter’s reality the villains who fought the other incarnations of Spider-Man: Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Electro (Jamie Foxx), Sandman (Thomas Hayden Church), and the Lizard (Rhys Ifans). When Peter learns that in their own worlds, each of them had died while fighting their Spider-Man, he refuses to let Strange return them to their fates, seeking instead some way to help them. Then MJ and Ned discover that Strange’s spell has also brought Peter some unexpected assistance.

No Way Home benefits from having the same main creative team as the first two films, with Jon Watts in the directing chair and a script by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers who, along with the Spider-Man films, also wrote Ant-Man and the Wasp and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. One thing that separated the Tom Holland version from the earlier two was a healthy infusion of comedy along with the awkwardness and enthusiasm of a high schooler. While some of that remains, it’s tamped down by the seriousness of the situation. No Way Home does have weaknesses. It goes out of its way to echo a major plot point of the previous two incarnations, and it could have used trimming of some scenes near the end that linger too long, though some fans may appreciate the time given for goodbyes.

But those are minor points in comparison to the feat of assembling all the prior characters, each played by the original actor, and melding them into an effective and compelling story. The bittersweet ending is true to the character, showing the great responsibility that comes with great power. Other than the animated films, it’s unlikely we’ll get another live-action Spider-Man any time in the near future. And that’s all right. The series wound up spectacularly, while still keeping its heart in the right place.

Up In The Air

Good satire takes reality and pushes it slightly over the edge. Push it too far and you wind up with farce, so it’s always a question of balance. But when society itself has lost its balance, satire will always dance along the edge of farce, and a certain portion of the populace will look at it with dull eyes that say, “I don’t get it.” It shouldn’t be a surprise that Don’t Look Up has been acclaimed as brilliant by some and written off as dull by others, since at its heart what it is satirizing is the lack of balance and shared reality that is cleaving apart society today.  

While he’s said he was inspired by the reaction to climate change, writer/director Adam McKay has taken a standard subgenre of apocalyptic films – a celestial body, be it asteroid, comet, or meteor, that impacts the earth – and used it as the canvas on which to paint his story. One of the earliest sci-fi movies, 1916’s The End of the World, revolves around this scenario. George Pal, the producer of many 1950s sci-fi films, made When Worlds Colide in 1951, and the disaster films of the 1970s included Meteor, an all-star extravaganza that featured Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, Henry Fonda, and Trevor Howard that is best forgotten for the benefit of all involved. In the late 1990s, you had the tag team of Deep Impact and Armageddon, while last year saw the release of Greenland, delayed by a year because of another favorite of apocalyptic cinema, the pandemic. (If you haven’t seen them, let me recommend two lesser-known films in this genre: 2012’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and an Australian film from 2013, These Final Hours. They take the idea of worldwide cataclysm but focus on personal stories, making it all the more impacting.) What is universally agreed upon in all these films is that the earth being hit by a celestial object is a bad thing – something we don’t want to happen.

Don’t Look Up begins with University of Michigan graduate student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) discovering a new comet. She presents her findings to her professor, Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio), who calculates its orbital path and realizes the comet, which is the size of Mt. Everest, will impact Earth. They contact Dr. Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan) at the Planetary Defense Coordination Office at NASA, which deals with NEOs (Near Earth Objects). Oglethorpe brings them to Washington to brief President Orlean (Meryl Streep). Rather than recognizing the threat, Orlean and her son who serves as her chief of staff (Jonah Hill) keep the scientists waiting for a day while they deal with problems getting an unqualified nominee onto the Supreme Court. When they do meet, Orlean is dismissive of the astronomers while also classifying their report to keep them quiet.

Rather than stay silent, Mindy and Dibiasky head for New York. With Oglethorpe’s help, they present their findings (and the administration’s hiding of them) to a newspaper, who also arrange for them to appear on a highly rated national morning show. The appearance is a disaster, with the anchors wanting to keep the story light and fluffy. Their shallowness drives Dibiasky to an angry reality check outburst that is lampooned on social media, leading the paper to drop the story. But then, when her administration is engulfed in a scandal of her own making, Orlean embraces Mindy’s warning and brings him back on board – at least until tech billionaire Peter Isherwood (Mark Rylance) arrives with a “better” idea.

Adam McKay first honed his comedy chops directing Saturday Night Live, then paired with Will Ferrell for his best work (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Stepbrothers). In the early 2010s he did the story for a broad comedy that also had a serious political edge to it, The Campaign, and he followed it with two excellent dramadies, The Big Short and Vice. (Next on his plate is Bad Blood, looking at the Elizabeth Holmes/Theranos scandal, again working with Jennifer Lawrence.) McKay is pitch-perfect with his skewering of shallow public figures who are great examples of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, but he also infuses the story with heartfelt warmth, particularly near the end.

You expect the best from DiCaprio, Lawrence, Streep, Rylance, and Hill, and they do not disappoint. The morning show team is played with brilliant facileness and hollowness by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry, but three lesser roles stand out. Rob Morgan is excellent as an honorable scientist trying to do what’s right in a situation where so many are only thinking of themselves, and Melanie Lynskey brings an iron rod strength to the role of DiCaprio’s wife. As a slacker who befriends Dibiasky, Timothee Chalamet ends up adding a religious grace note to the story. Also, kudos to Ariana Grande for doing a razor-sharp satire of herself, which isn’t an easy thing to do.

In a way, reactions to Don’t Look Up tell you more about the person giving the reaction than the movie itself. That some people don’t “get it” underlines the point of the piece. We live in a time when many discount science out of hand, yet put their faith in things they hear about on the Internet. A comedian as part of his act used to say, “You can’t fix stupid.” That’s doubly true when the stupid is purposefully sought out and embraced. Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted: “Finally saw…Don’t Look Up, a fictional tale of a Nation distracted by pop culture and divided on whether to heed dire warnings of scientists. Everything I know about news cycles, talk shows, & politics tells me the film was instead a documentary.” I’ll give a sad “Amen” to that.

To Stay? To Go?

Apart from being an excellent actor, Kenneth Branagh, behind the camera, has brought some outstanding films to the screen. He made a statement with his first movie where he adapted for the screen, directed, and starred in Henry V. It was a bold move since it invited comparison to the version made by the greatest actor of the mid-20th Century, Lawrence Olivier, and Branagh’s version stood up to that comparison. He followed it up with one of my favorite neo-noir movies, Dead Again. Since then, he’s directed a plethora of genres: fantasy (Sleeping Beauty), superhero (Thor), action (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), mystery (Murder on the Orient Express), along with a half-dozen Shakespeare plays including the unabridged Hamlet that clocked in at a shade over 4 hours. The bulk of his screenwriting credits are the Shakespeare adaptations, while with the other genres he’s let others write the scripts. But throughout 33 years of making films, he’s never made a truly personal film, until Belfast.

The story focuses on Buddy (Jude Hill), the youngest child in a poor working-class Belfast family. We first see him playing with the neighborhood kids, pretending to be a knight with a wooden sword and a trashcan lid for a shield. The idyllic comradery of the families on his street draws you in, but it takes place on the day the Troubles start. Soon Protestant rioters invade the street where Catholic and Protestant have lived peacefully together. In short order the British Army is dispatched to Northern Ireland, supposedly to keep the peace though to the locals they’re an occupying force.

For the most part, the Troubles are around but not central to Buddy’s childhood. He wants to do well in school, since the best students sit closest to the front and he’s sweet on the bright Catherine (Olive Tennant). Mostly, though, his life revolves around his family. Ma (Caitriona Balfe) is the primary parent since Pa (Jamie Dornan) has had to find work in England and only comes home every couple of weeks. Buddy’s older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) is several years his senior and is a bit of a surrogate father in Pa’s absence. There’s also Granny (Judy Dench) and Pop (Ciaran Hinds), Pa’s parents, living with the family. The family is an anchor for its members – an anchor sunk deep into the streets of Belfast. But as the Troubles grow more violent and spawns economic woes for Northern Ireland, Pa and Ma are faced with uprooting the family.

Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, who’s worked with Branagh on most of his recent films, being the film with shots of Belfast today in deep color, then they switch to black and white for 1969. The exception is whenever Buddy and the family see a movie that was in color, like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. (Pa also takes the family to see One Million Years B.C., telling the skeptical Ma that he chose it since it would be “educational” for his boys.) When Granny takes Buddy to a live-theater production of “A Christmas Carol,” it too is in color, which you see reflected in Granny’s glasses.

As Ma, Caitriona Balfe delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. Just as Ma is the glue holding the family together in Pa’s absence, Balfe holds together the movie disparate parts. That’s not to negate Dornan’s performance. While he’s in and out of the story, whenever he’s in he is a striking force. Dench has been a bit of a good-luck charm for Branagh, appearing in quite a few of his films, and she is wonderfully natural as Granny, while Hinds matches her beautifully. Even with all that, the movie belongs to Hill in his first performance. He has one of those faces that is an open book to the camera – you can read everything he’s thinking. One other debut performance is given by Olive Tennant, who’s the daughter of David Tennant and granddaughter of Tom Baker. Perhaps in a couple of decades, we’ll have a 3rd generation perform the iconic role of Doctor Who.  

Branagh captures the small moments that creates a whole fabric of life in Belfast in those days. Yet his deep affection for that time shines through. While it’s not a long film – just a bit over an hour and a half – it is the kind of film that will seep into your heart and your mind and stay there for a long time.