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Film Reviews

The Movies: A Boxing Day Round-Up

Published December 25, 2021
West Side Story... Dancing' in the streets

For those not turned feral by the Boxing Day sales, the day after Christmas is the traditional detox after all that festive activity. Yes, it’s supposed to be joyous, but it’s also stressful when one has to work harder at a holiday than at a regular job. Hence the popularity of the Boxing Day test match and the regular roll-call of new movie releases.

Given that we’re still living with a pandemic threatening to find its second or third wind over the summer, there are fewer Hollywood blockbusters on offer this year. If you’ve been waiting to see the new James Bond, the latest Spider Man, Venom, The Eternals, or the rather slow-moving Dune, you should be able to fulfill that mission on Boxing Day. Personally, I’d be more inclined to check out Wes Anderson’s, The French Dispatch, which is even more whimsical and star-studded than his previous efforts.

As for the new releases, there is one clear front-runner,

West Side Story, then it’s down to personal taste. I haven’t seen every one of these movies, but I’ll do my best to provide a guide.

 

West Side Story:

With the possble exception of Singin’ in the Rain (1952), no musical has ever proved more popular than West Side Story. Its first adaptation in 1961, by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, was the highest-grossing film of the year. It was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and won ten of them. Only Ben-Hur(1959), Titanic (1997), and Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King (2003), have gone one better.

It requires somebody named Steven Spielberg to consider making a new version of an indisputable classic. One might imagine it’s hard to improve on a show with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, but Spielberg gives it a go, enlisting award-winning playwright Tony Kushner, to provide some fresh dialogue and novel twists. Rita Moreno, who played Anita, in the 1961 version, is back as a new character named Valentina. It almost works – so long as you manage to forget or ignore the 1961 production.

Spielberg’s West Side Story succeeds as entertainment but its chief innovation may be to use real Latin Americans in the Puerto Rican roles. Natalie Wood, for all her charms was no Latina, but the new María – Rachel Zegler – is at least half Columbian. The rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, are now portrayed as products of slum clearance and gentrification, made angry by watching their neighbourhoods disappear around them. The racial tensions and simmering undercurrents of violence are as relevant today as they were in 1961.

All the elements are in place for success, but Spielberg’s remake has underachieved at the US box office. The best explanation is that younger movie-goers are not turned on by musicals, while older audiences are still marooned at home waiting for the latest wave of the virus to subside. It’s expected that time and good reviews will gradually attract the big numbers. Australia will provide an interesting test case.

The Matrix Resurrections

The Matrix Resurrections

Now in its fourth installment since 1999, the Matrix franchise is more incomprehensible than ever, and unrelievedly self-conscious. This may be just as true of James Bond, Star Wars and Marvel superhero movies, which assume a high level of knowledge from fans, but the Matrix’s complexity is heightened by its philosophical pretensions. Director, Lana Wachowski, keeps hinting at profound metaphors that never quite make it to the surface.

In a mixed-up future a middle-aged Thomas Anderson – played by a middle-aged Keanu Reeves – has been brought back from the dead and is working as a games designer. In another time-space continuum a group of steampunk rebels have other ideas for Tom. The problem for our hero, and the rest of us, is to decide which world is real and which is AI-generated fantasy. Perhaps it’s all fantasy! And what does “reality” mean anyway in a Matrix film? While pondering these enigmas we’re happily distracted by a succession of fight sequences and gun battles, which for many viewers will be the best reason for seeeing this movie.

If you’re hanging out for some trippy, cult action this Christmas, look no further.

 

Licorice Pizza

Licorice Pizza:

I’ve yet to see Licorice Pizza, but anything by American director, Paul Thomas Anderson, is worth a look. Set in California in 1973, it’s the story of a 15-year-old boy who sets out to woo a 25-year-old young woman. It sounds a lot breezier than many of Anderson’s previous films, although there always seems to be some kind of fractured romance involved. The film features the acting debut of Cooper Hoffmann, son of the late Philip Seymour Hoffmann, who starred in one of Anderson’s best efforts, The Master (2012). Cooper’s love interest is Alana Haim, better known as an emerging pop singer. The cast also includes Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper, and a host of cameos.

There’s no actual sexual contact between the two leads but it sounds as if the story is saturated in sex – in the form of longing, anticipation, thwarted desire, and fast talk. It’s also about Hollywood, and what it takes to succeed in this treacherous milieu where fantasy takes precedence over reality. I’m imagining Badlands crossed with A Star is Born, with a gloss of comedy – starring two innocents striving to appear as worldly as possible. I can hardly wait.

 

The Worst Person in the World

The Worst Person in the World:

You may not be attracted by the idea of a Norwegian romcom, but Joachim Trier’s tale of an intelligent but shiftless girl named Julie, was one of the most admired films in Cannes this year, securing Renate Reinsve the award for Best Actress. It’s a deceptive kind of movie that draws one in by degrees.

We establish right away that Julie is a talented person who can’t stick at anything – whether it be her studies or her relationships. She’s actually a bit of a pain, but we get used to her and grow steadily more sympathetic. It’s not simply that she makes the wrong choices, it’s as if circumstances conspire to make those choices progressively more complicated. There’s a lot of discussion, in which characters say the things that people in relationships tend to say to each other. Such scenes could be rehearsed in any affluent, western society, and it’s obvious many viewers have been able to identify.

The acting is uniformly excellent, and there are a few memorable moments including a bad acid trip, but one shouldn’t go along expecting anything but a skilfully described slice of life. Don’t go pining for car chases and martial arts contests, just sit back and enjoy the subtitles.

 

The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Tragedy of Macbeth:

We all know the story, but Macbeth keeps casting its spell over successive generations of filmmakers. Orson Welles made a version in 1948, as did Roman Polanski in 1971. Akira Kurosawa turned the play into a Japanese costume drama in Throne of Blood (1957). In 2003, Vishal Bhardwaj made an Indian adaptation, called Maqbool. Twelve years later, Australian director, Justin Kurzel, put his own gloomy, grimy, violent stamp on the tale. And that’s just a selection.

Now Joel Coen, in a rare solo project, has made Macbeth again, with Denzel Washington in the lead role, and Frances McDormand playing Lady Macbeth. If you can cope with the idea of Macbeth and Macduff as Afro-Americans, this should be a memorable addition to the ranks. Now that Shakespeare, if not all historical drama, is a completely multicultural affair, it would be pointless to complain there weren’t a lot of black faces among the old Scottish Nobility. The counter-argument is that skilled actors such as Washington shouldn’t be excluded from the big roles in the grounds of ethnicity.

I’m still waiting to see the film, but it has received rave reviews in England and the United States. Experience has taught me not to trust the enthusiasm of the critics, but it would be surprising if a filmmaker as original and accomplished as Joel Coen got it wrong.

 

Swan Song

Swan Song:

Swan Song is a vehicle for Udo Kier (b.1944) a veteran German actor who has appeared in quality movies and in some spectacular schlock. In this film Kier doesn’t have to pretend to be a vampire or a psychopath. Instead, he’s an elderly hairdresser who lives in a retirement home in the small town of Sandusky, Ohio. Lured out of his lair to do the hair and makeup of a loyal, now deceased, client, we follow him as he takes a melancholy ramble down memory lane.

Kier’s character, Mr. Pat, is based on a real person, one Pat Pitsenberger, who is too eccentric to be fictional. This movie may seem to be pitched at a relatively small group of aged, gay viewers, but it’s a charming, poignant portrait of a man coming to terms with his past that should appeal to everyone. Neverethless, I’m not sure it will draw too many fans away from the Boxing Day test.

 

Delicious

Delicious:

Another curious hybrid, Delicious combines an historical tale of the ancien régimewith a culinary motif. Director, Éric Besnard, has created one of those French films that everybody seems to love. It’s visually sumptuous, mouth-watering in its depictions of food, and tells an engaging story set in turbulent times. As France stands poised on the brink of the Revolution, chef, Pierre Manceron, pioneers a revolution in fine dining.

A popular favourite in France, and a success at this year’s French Film Festival,Delicious is a safe bet if you’re looking for a movie that will hit the spot.

Finally, if you’re wondering what to do with the kids, there’s always the big-budget animated musical, Sing 2. It will almost certainly be the box office success of the day.

 

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 22 December, 2021