Wednesday, March 9, 2022

The Road to the 2022 Oscars, Part 3: Which Film Will Win Best Picture?

[I review Best Picture nominees "West Side Story," "Belfast," "Nightmare Alley" and "Drive My Car"]

If like me, you participate in Academy Award competitions or you just want to be knowledgable around the proverbial water cooler or at cocktail parties, I feel it is my duty as Rosy the Reviewer, that critic you have come to count on for true, reliable (and often all about me) reviews, to review as many of the Best Picture nominees as possible before the event on March 27. So here we go.

And the nominees are...


Dune

The Power of the Dog

Don't Look Up 

Licorice Pizza

King Richard

CODA


As well as "West Side Story," "Nightmare Alley," "Belfast" and "Drive My Car," which I am reviewing here.

With the four reviews in this post, I have now reviewed all of the nominees (click on the links above for my earlier reviews) except "Dune" and "Licorice Pizza," but that's okay, because they are not going to win anyway (but if I watch them between now and the awards on March 27, I will probably review them, so watch this space, and if you didn't see "The Road to the 2022 Oscars, Pt. 1 and Pt. 2," here they are)

I could go into the whole issue of there being ten Best Picture nominees (which I don't agree with and don't get me started), but I won't so let's get on with it.



West Side Story (2021)


Stephen Spielberg decided he needed to remake "West Side Story."  Oh, no he didn't!

When I first heard that Steven Spielberg was remaking "West Side Story," my first thought was "Whaaaaat?"  Why?  Because number one, I hate remakes of perfectly wonderful films, and number two, you can't remake perfection.  I mean, the 1961 film was directed by Jerome Robbins, a king of Broadway musicals and Robert Wise, Hollywood royalty, and the film won Best Picture along with nine other Oscars. With music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by a very young Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Robbins, it also was the film version of a play that changed the face of musicals. So, I said out loud (I do that sometimes), Mr. Spielberg, don't mess with "West Side Story," and I decided to boycott it, which wasn't difficult since there was that little thing called the pandemic, so going to a movie theatre was no longer my idea of fun.  And it actually looks like the public agreed with me because the box office for this remake was disappointing.  

But then the Academy Award nominations came out and the film was nominated for Best Picture, not to mention nominations in several other categories, and it is also streaming for free on HBO Max and Disney+ so I decided I needed to do my due diligence as a critic. So here I am.  Despite my misgivings, I did go into watching the film with an open mind.  I really wanted it to be good. I really did. It wasn't. 

As a bit of background, back in the 50's, it was Robbins' original idea to make a contemporary musical play about Romeo and Juliet. So Romeo and Juliet became Tony and Maria, and the Capulets and Montagues became two rival gangs - the Sharks (the Puerto Rican gang) and the Jets (the white American gang) - both fighting for turf on the Upper West Side of New York City. The play was a smash on Broadway and the 1961 film adaptation won Best Picture and nine other Oscars, the most ever for a musical. The music, lyrics and choreography were all new and exciting, and it was unusual for a musical to deal with real life issues like race and immigration. This musical heralded the modern world. 

In this version (screenplay by Tony Kushner), Maria (newcomer Rachel Zegler) lives with her brother, Bernardo (David Alvarez) and his girlfriend, Anita (Ariana DeBose, nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress). Tony (Ansel Elgort) is just out of prison and is living in the basement of Doc's general store under the watchful eye of Valentina (Rita Moreno), Doc's widow.  And like the original, Tony and Maria meet at a dance, fall in love and all hell breaks loose from there. But in the meantime, there is that sublime music and fantastic dancing. 

When you try to remake a classic film, you run the risk of the remake being compared to the original, and in this case, since the 1961 film was so iconic, that couldn't be helped.

First of all, I can't quibble with the production values.  As in any Spielberg film, they were wonderful, though I missed some of the set design I have come to associate with the film, such as the underground parking garage.  And the acting was mostly fine, though I think that Elgort was miscast. He underplays too much, and I just didn't feel any passion coming from him. Likewise, there was something about the Riff character (Mike Faist) that didn't do it for me. However, I commend Spielberg for hiring an all hispanic cast to play the Puerto Rican characters, something that was not the case in the original. Also everyone did their own singing, again not the case in the original, but that's about all the props I can give this film that to me was not a satisfying film experience.  

So what went wrong?  

The opening was not at all inspiring. I know Spielberg was making a point about gentrification as the camera panned over the rubble of reconstruction.  But I missed the ominous whistling in the opening of the original. There was a little of it, but it was really down-played.  I also missed the underground parking garage where the Jets sang "When You're a Jet" with the finger-snapping choreography.  I mean, how many of us haven't copied that hopping and snapping down a deserted street late at night?  Duh-duh-da-da-da, duh-duh-da-da-da...

And what the heck was Rita Moreno doing in this film?  I guess I can answer my own question.  Spielberg created that character for her to play to give this remake an authentic feel.  See?  There she is, the original Anita.  Okay, I get it but when she sang "Somewhere," one of the most beautiful and romantic songs in the film, one that Tony and Maria are supposed to sing together, well, I lost my...well...you know. And to make matters worse, Moreno can't really sing. That beautiful song was just lost. 

Those all might seem like small things but put all together, I just couldn't buy this remake.  It lacked passion and it just didn't come together for me.

Okay, so Spielberg wanted to remake a classic film.  But why? He didn't really do anything new with it. It was fairly faithful to the original.  It was still in the 1950's. Why not update it?  Adapt it for the present day? Make it shorter? He did add some realism, making a stronger case for the immigration and racial issues in the story as well as adding the rise of gentrification, but even with that, the film lacked energy. 

Can you tell I am upset? I just can't fathom why Spielberg would want to take this on and think he could make it better. The only positive I can see in this new version is bringing this wonderful story, music and choreography to a younger generation who might have overlooked the original, but then I would say, "You have to see the original."

I was twelve when I saw the original film.  I was smitten with every moment of it, and I cried my eyes out at the end.  Did I cry at the end of this one?  Well, I did a bit, but it was an emotional response to the music which reminded me that seeing this film back in the early 60's was the beginning of my teen years, a time long gone. I was also reminded that my young daughter starred as Maria in a high school version of the play, another time that is long gone. My daughter is now 37 and lives in another state.  So there is a lot of emotion around this film, a reminder to me that time has moved on. But this story and the music - timeless.  I just wish Spielberg had done a better job with it.

Rosy the Reviewer says...it's not going to win Best Picture so see the original instead.                                                                                      (Streaming on HBO Max and Disney+)



Belfast (2021)

Actor/Writer/Director Kenneth Branagh's coming-of-age tale of his childhood in Belfast in the 1960's.

As the camera pans over a modern day Belfast in living color, it slowly fades to black and white and we find ourselves in 1969 Belfast at the beginning of The Troubles.  

Now if you don't know what The Troubles were you need to bone up, but basically it was a time where Northern Ireland was engulfed in a conflict that appeared to be between the Catholics and the Protestants, though it wasn't really a religious war.  It was a nationalistic conflict between those who wanted Northern Ireland to leave the United Kingdom and those who wanted to stay, and since those who wanted to stay were mostly Protestants and were in the majority and those who wanted out - the Irish Nationalists and Republicans - were mostly Catholic and the minority, the conflict appeared to be a religious war. But it was indeed a war.  The Protestants took advantage of their majority and many made life miserable for the Catholics. Anyway, like I said, you need to bone up on that part, because the film takes place during The Troubles and it is always in the background.  It plays a major role, but the film is not really about that. It's really about family. It's Branagh's personal story of his childhood, a love letter to Belfast and the adult world seen through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy. 

As the film begins, we meet nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), running up the street of his neighborhood, carefree, until a mob appears, reminding us of the time and place he lives in. He lives in Belfast with his mother (Caitriona Balfe) and brother, Will (Lewis McAskie).  His Dad (Jamie Dornan) is also around but works in England, so he is gone for weeks at a time, putting a strain on his parents marriage. They struggle over his Dad's desire to move to England because opportunities are better there and his mother's desire to stay.  But Buddy also has Granny (Judy Dench) and Pop (Ciaran Hinds) who live nearby, and the entire neighborhood is his playground, Protestants and Catholics living peacably together and everyone looking out for everyone else. Buddy plays with his friends, has a crush on a girl, goes to the pictures to see "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," a typical life for a young boy except there is always that ever present war playing out around him. (I couldn't help but wonder if that scene of the family enjoying "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" was the moment Branagh decided to become and actor)!

I usually have an aversion to overly precocious child actors but young Jude Hill is a wonderful young actor and, well, adorable.  I couldn't take my eyes off of his face.  Jamie Dornan has come a long way since he used to tie up Dakota Johnson in the Fifty Shades of Grey films and is a fine actor.  There is one scene in this film where Dornan's character comes to a realization and it plays out slowly on his face, one of those "a picture is worth a thousand words" moments.  Likewise, veteran actors Judy Dench and Ciaran Hinds can always be counted on to bring in wonderful performances and this film is no exception.  It's also refreshing to see actors allowing themselves to age naturally, unlike American actors.  Let's just say we are not supposed to look like Jane Fonda when we are 84.  But the main revelation for me was Caitriona Balfe, who I did not recognize at first, even though I had watched several seasons of "Outlander."  As Claire in "Outlander," I actually thought she wasn't a very good actress.  I found her to be stiff and overly formal, but here she shines as a woman fighting for her marriage, torn between her love of her husband and her desire to stay in Ireland. She is also gorgeous.  Just ask Hubby.

Rosy the Reviewer says...a sweet and poignant little film with a great Van Morrison soundtrack, but not likely to win Best Picture.                              (on DVD and for rent on Apple+, Amazon Prime and Vudu)



Nightmare Alley (2021)

An ambitious con-man running from his past hooks up with an unethical psychologist.

Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a mysterious film noir figure running from what appears to be a murder. In fact, in true film noir fashion, he is a man of few words.  He says nothing for the first 11 minutes of this film. He joins up with a carnival where he meets Clem (Willem Dafoe), whose "act" is a geek show. So what is a geek show, you ask?  Let's just say the "ew factor" is very high.  It's an act in which a man bites the head off of a live chicken and eats it.  Clem seeks out alcoholics with troubled pasts to be his geeks, luring them in with promises of a temporary job, then regularly giving them opium-laced alcohol to keep them in line. So right there, you know this film is going to be dark.  They don't call this genre film noir for nothing. And yes, it shows the guy biting the head off of the chicken.  I just hope there is a disclaimer at the end of the film saying no chickens were hurt during the making of this film.

I can't help but wonder how the word "geek" came to be used for socially inept people when it was originally a guy biting the heads off of chickens. And who are these people who would pay to see such an act? But I digress.

Stan also meets "Madame Zeena (Toni Collette)" and her alcoholic husband, Pete (David Strathairn). Zeena is a so-called clairvoyant who with the help of her husband uses coded language to read the audience. Oh, the tricks of the carny trade that you can learn in this film.  Pete has a whole book with the coded language and he begins teaching tricks to Stan. But Stan is an ambitious guy. He is also a murderer. He kills Pete, steals his book and runs off with Molly (Rooney Mara), another carnival performer he has fallen in love with. 

A couple of years later, Stan is in Buffalo and has reinvented himself as a medium and has a successful nightclub act with the help of Molly, who uses the coded language from Pete's book to feed him clues.  All is going well for Stan until he meets psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), who has figured out his act and is impressed with his skills.  However, she is not what you would call an ethical doctor.  Many of the Buffalo elite have been her patients and she has tapes of all of their sessions. The two join forces to con the rich out of their money.  But Stan is a loser and it doesn't go well for him.

Directed by Guillermo del Toro, who won the 2018 Best Director Oscar for "The Shape of Water  (the film also won Best Picture)," this is a remake of the 1947 film from the book by William Lindsay Gresham (del Toro also wrote the screenplay with Kim Morgan). The film has an all-star cast and breathtaking production design thanks to Tamara Deverell.  It felt like a film noir movie from the Golden Age of Hollywood - think "The Postman Always Rings Twice" or "Double Indemnity," with a little bit of Tod Browning's "Freaks" thrown in -  but at two and a half hours, it's just too long, though I have to say that Hubby stayed awake the entire time which says something about how mesmerizing this film is. And it didn't fall under my usual aversion to remakes since I had not seen the original and, anyway, remaking something after almost 75 years doesn't bother me as much (but don't mess with "West Side Story" - see review above).

I have never been a big Bradley Cooper fan.  Not sure why, but he is outstanding here.  His Stan is malevolent and self-serving but just sensitive and inept enough for you to care what happens to him.  Blanchett is her throaty-voiced, vampy self whom we have come to expect and Mara Rooney is the one person who seems to have a soul.  Ron PerlmanRichard Jenkins and Mary Steenburgen also make appearances.

I have to say that I knew how it all would end about halfway through the film, because I have this theory that appears to work almost every time.  If there is a plot element that is odd or a character, especially one played by a big name but the character doesn't appear to have much to do, that plot element will figure prominently at some point or that character will be the one who did it.  Anyway, even though I figured it out, that did not dampen my enjoyment of this film, if enjoy is the right word.  The film is very dark and there are not many redeemable characters but it is a satisfying, if too long, movie experience.

Rosy the Reviewer says...film noir at its finest, but again, not likely to win Best Picture.                                                                                            (streaming on HBO, HBO Max, Disney+ and Hulu) 



Drive My Car (2021)


After his wife's unexpected death, a reknowned actor and director travels to Hiroshima to direct a play and discovers not only his wife's secrets but comes to grips with his grief.

When one of the main plot elements is a man's wife dying and she doesn't die until an hour into the film, you know it's going to be a long movie. And this one is at a whopping three hours.

Actor and theater director Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), who is preparing to star in Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," is married to Oto (Reika Kirishima), a screenwriter who seems to have her most creativity right after sex. One day, as Yūsuke is leaving for work, Oto tells him she wants to talk to him later that evening. But Yūsuke returns home late to find Oto dead from a brain hemorrhage. Two years later, Yūsuke has given up acting but accepts a residency in Hiroshima, where he will direct a multilingual adaptation of "Uncle Vanya".  Because of his glaucoma, the theater company requires that Yūsuke not drive but be chauffeured in his own car, his beloved red 1987 Saab 900 Trubo. He objects at first, but relents after meeting young Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), who proves herself to be a good driver. Over the course of the film, secrets are revealed in that car and Yusuke and Misaki bond, him sharing his guilt over his wife's death and she over the guilt she feels about her mother's death and each helps the other with their grief.

After the death of Oto, the car serves as a haven for Yusuke as he drives around listening to a tape of Oto reading him his lines when he was preparing to star in "Uncle Vanya." Later, it's a safe place for Yusuke and Misaki to share their stories.

If you are not a Chekhov fan or someone who enjoys the acting process, this might be a slog for you. The last half of the film consists of rehearsals for the play where not much happens. Even I, who does enjoy Chekhov and have dabbled in acting, found this to be tremendously tedious. 

I know this film, directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi with a screenplay by Hamaguchi and Takamasa Oe (based on a short story by Haruki Murakami), is all about collaboration and the creative process and life and death and the kitchen sink, it just went on so long I had to fast forward through some of it. Why do movies have to be so long to get the point across? Since this was not the only film I have seen recently that exceeds two hours by a mile, I am starting to think that our contemporary directors are having difficulty editing themselves, that every single filmed moment is important to them. They can't stand to let any of it go onto the cutting room floor. But let me say - less is more!

However, I must be alone in my views, because this film is the first Japanese film to ever be nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture, and it has also been nominated for Best International Feature (the category used to be called Best Foreign Film). Only a few films made in other countries have had that distinction, "Parasite," a film from South Korea, was one of them, a surprise win for 2020's Best Picture AND Best International Feature.  I really liked "Parasite."  I did not like this film.

But like "Parasite," will this film also have the distinction of winning Best Picture and Best International Feature?

Rosy the Reviewer says...No.                                                                         (In Japanese with English subtitles now streaming on HBO Max)


My Prediction for the Best Picture Oscar?  

Though it's not my favorite movie of the year nor is it my favorite Jane Campion film, I believe the winner will be:

"The Power of the Dog"

(though "CODA" could be a spoiler)


Thanks for reading!

See you again soon!

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