David’s Watch Diary: December 2021

Thoughts on West Side Story, The Matrix Resurrections, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Succession, and a metric ton of other stuff as we wind down the year.

West Side Story

The 1961 adaptation of West Side Story is arguably second only to Singin’ in the Rain in the pantheon of Hollywood musicals. Brightly colored and brilliantly choreographed, Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise captured lightning in a bottle and earned 10 Oscars, the most any film would win until 1997’s Titanic. And yet it’s not entirely untouchable, dogged in the intervening years for its use of brownface (even on Rita Moreno!) and vocal replacement (pour one out for Natalie Wood). The question of “Why remake it?”, while posed in good faith, overlooks the obvious: It’s been sixty years, and the original is beloved but imperfect. Provided, of course, the new director and screenwriter had something to say, and weren’t doing it just because they could. Those are guys named Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner. Ever heard of them?

It’s pretty wild in hindsight that Spielberg has never tried to make a musical until now. His affection for the genre is undeniable, and you only have to look at the opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to see a flash of it. But what’s also undeniable is that he is the foremost master of mise-en-scéne — in every film, from the kinetic action of Jurassic Park or Saving Private Ryan to recent chamber dramas like Lincoln or Bridge of Spies, the blocking and camera movement is precise, dynamic, and critical to the storytelling. With West Side Story, the 75(!)-year-old director is just doing what he always does, this time with singing and dancing. The result is Cinema on the grandest scale, a dazzling and rousing experience that pays proper tribute to both the 1961 film and the original Broadway production.

Kushner’s book, meanwhile, simultaneously integrates of-the-moment themes surrounding race, class, gentrification, and political violence that enhances the source material, consistently for the better. Instead of a mindless turf war, the Jets and the Sharks are living in the shadows of Robert Moses’s New York City: entire blocks of tenements are being leveled, and while the immigrant population is willing to work menial jobs to get by in their new country, the angrier and largely fatherless natives are determined to just hold onto what they have at the cost of any semblance of a moral high ground — with the tacit endorsement of the police, of course. The exception is Ansel Elgort’s Tony, who in this telling is on parole after nearly killing a kid in a different gang and is earnestly trying to redeem himself.

Of course, the Elgort of it all has been an albatross around the film’s neck since shortly after the film wrapped, but it’s hard to argue that he’s not a good fit for this more dangerous incarnation of what is traditionally something of a potato role (by extension, the romance with Maria is traditionally less interesting than the desperate posturing of the rest of the ensemble). Conversely, Rachel Zegler’s Maria is simply luminous; her voice is as clear as a bell. (Even “I Feel Pretty,” a number despised by lyricist Stephen Sondheim himself, is completely charming in her hands, though returning it to its original place post-Rumble is a heck of a tonal shift.) Other standouts include Ariana DeBose as the firecracker Anita, and a wiry Mike Faist as Riff; Rita Moreno herself returns in a reimagined Doc role and performs “Somewhere” not as a dewy-eyed romantic ballad, but a despairing song about how this land of opportunity isn’t truly for everyone. The timeless tunes are supported by Janusz Kaminski’s evocative lighting and Justin Peck’s muscular choreography, all under the masterful guidance of one of our greatest living directors. In short: it’s too soon to say whether this new version surpasses the classic, but that it’s even a real debate is a big deal.

The Matrix Resurrections

Inevitably, the IP arms race came for The Matrix. Even the most audacious and revolutionary film of 1999 is just fodder for the studio grist mill; Warner Brothers was going to make a fourth film with or without the Wachowskis. Lilly refused, but Lana eventually (and very reluctantly) agreed — if she could do it her way. The subversive, angry, yet ultimately affirming Matrix Resurrections is the result: a film that knows it should not exist, and rages against that fact in heavily self-referential fashion, before finally buckling down and telling a smaller-scale and deeply personal story that inverts your expectations every step of the way. (See: The Last Jedi. If that’s anathema for you, we are probably not good friends.) It is The Sequel as sentient creation, an epic poem for the Too Online, a far more satisfying coda than the dreary chaos of Revolutions, and — naturally — I loved it.

It also just came out yesterday, so unlike my Spider-Man review below I’ll endeavor not to reveal too much. Basically, Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) are still alive, somehow, in a new version of the Matrix. One of them must be “freed,” and then seek to free the other, because their fates are forever intertwined with that of the machine world itself. The first hour deliberately echoes the beats of the original film, right down to using isolated shots from it as memory jogs. But Resurrections is also annoyed about that, and wants you to know it: in this iteration, Thomas Anderson is a successful game designer, who has just been told that his masterwork — you guessed it, “The Matrix” — is getting a sequel whether he likes it or not. Neo sits in meeting after meeting where his colleagues talk about what they loved about the original (“we need Bullet Time!”) and what they think it’s about (“it’s a trans allegory!” “It’s anti-capitalist!”), a death loop of banality, but he knows there’s Something More; it’s only a matter of time, and Will, before he encounters the unplugged ship captain Bugs (an extremely cool Jessica Henwick) and… um, Yahya Abdul-Mateen, who isn’t exactly who you think he is (he’s having a great time, though).

That might have been the jumping-off point for the groundbreaking action of the first Matrix, but Resurrections doesn’t really care about that as much. There are cool fight scenes, sure — the aging Reeves may be a little stiffer, but he “still knows kung-fu.” But while the romance between Neo and Trinity was ancillary to the plot of the 1999 film, it’s the main idea here — not defeating the machines or freeing humanity, just trying to give these two characters the ending they’ve always deserved. That warmth — not just in the storytelling, but the performances, and the amber-hued cinematography by Danielle Massaccesi and John Toll, is the most striking (and rewarding) thing about the film. The meta aspects and the nostalgia bath are fleeting pleasures; despite its cyberpunk & leather trappings, The Matrix just wants you to believe in, well, Love. That it’s able to deftly balance both of these ideas — a diatribe against the numbing sameness of our cultural landscape, AND a sweet, heartfelt love story — is a trick only a Wachowski could pull off.

Spider-Man: No Way Home

I’m going to get into major spoilers here, and if you’re reading this I can only assume you’re cool with that. If not, the short version is that No Way Home is a great deal of fun; it did a few things I expected and a few things I didn’t, and generally did it all well. It did right by all of the returning actors and culminated in a bravura final act that hit all of the right emotional beats, even if it logically makes no damn sense at all. A “masterpiece?” Surely not; it’s not even one of the five best MCU films (though I’m considering top 10, at least), but as the grand climax of twenty years of on-screen Spider-Men, paying off a dizzying number of multiverse-spanning character beats with surprising alacrity, the third Tom Holland/Jon Watts effort satisfies like the expertly baked dessert course it was intended to be.

It begins, as most of the great Spider-Man stories do, with Peter Parker miserable. After the events of 2019’s Far From Home, the whole world knows Spidey’s secret identity (thanks to the Alex Jones-esque J. Jonah Jameson, in between hawking dietary supplements) — which upends not just Peter’s life, but MJ’s and Ned’s as well. So, with the wisdom of a teenager, Peter goes to Doctor Strange to fix… everything… somehow. The film’s first hour is the weakest, as Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers’s script has to bend itself into pretzels to justify the film’s main conceit — bad guys from across the Spiderverse! — before we can finally get to the fireworks factory. Why does Peter’s chatter disrupt the magic of Benedict Cumberbatch’s mighty sorcerer? Because it must, and you want to see the return of Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock and Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin as much as I do, so just go with it. (Strange is also integral to the film’s ending, suggesting that the production team knew exactly what they wanted the film to accomplish, but didn’t really care how it got there.)

Once we’re truly underway, though, No Way Home is a blast. Tom Holland has never been better, or asked to carry more dramatic weight on his pasty shoulders. But it’s the swan songs of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield that are worth more than the price of admission; the former as a remarkably chill, middle-aged “cool youth pastor” Peter, and the latter… well, frankly, Garfield nearly runs off with the whole dang movie. His installments may have been the worst, but he’s a sensational actor, and his dewy-eyed earnestness is both a welcome presence and the source of the film’s single greatest moment, a heart-in-throat character beat that effortlessly and poignantly answers for the mess of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. In fact, the best scenes of No Way Home aren’t the action beats at all, but when the three Peters are just kinda hanging around, talking about their problems and how they’ve grown — what it means to wear the mask, or, in Garfield’s case, seemingly processing his real-life breakup with Emma Stone in real time. In most MCU films, these scenes are just filler, and opportunity for contextless banter. Here they carry real emotional weight, and literal decades of audience affection.

Succession, Season 3 (HBO)

It’s popular (and fun!) to watch this show like a sporting event, with power rankings and assorted analytics (who says the most “uh huhs” this week? Whose wardrobe matches Logan’s?). I enjoyed tracking the rise (and fall, and rise, and fall) of Roman, Kendall, Shiv, Tom, and the whole wretched gang, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t just take a moment to applaud Succession’s artistic brilliance: This was an exceptional season of television, with a writers’ room firing on all cylinders and one of the most locked-in ensembles in recent memory (Emmys for everyone, but especially Matthew Macfadyen!).

Every twisting storyline came together in the season finale, “All the Bells Say”: The on-again, off-again merger with Lukas Mattson’s company; Roman’s fall from — well, not grace, but you know what I mean — after Logan finds out he’s a “sicko”; Kendall finding a new rock bottom somewhere near the Earth’s core (and nearly drowning in a pool, fueling a week of feverish speculation). But the most critical thread was the one that flew under the radar all season: Shiv’s mistreatment of Tom, prompting him to ultimately betray his wife in the season’s final moments (and bring Greg along with him!). These are not good people. In fact, they’re some of the worst humanity has to offer. They’re vulgar and cruel and profoundly broken, proudly responsible for (in the world of the show, anyway) making the country and its politics worse. In varying ways, they’re deeply incompetent as businesspeople and as regular people.

Yet Succession remains extraordinarily compelling viewing — tragedy and comedy intertwined. It’s a series that can give us both Adrian Brody, Layer King, and an astonishing moment like a despondent Kendall sitting in the Tuscan dirt, earning actual empathy from his siblings for the first time as he comes to grips with the weight of his failure. But even united, the younger Roys can only fail harder. That itself may be predictable; it is the manner of that failure that surprises. That’s just great storytelling.

Quick Hits:

  • The Power of the Dog (Netflix) is a film I very much appreciate, but have a hard time loving. Its craft is undeniable: Jane Campion’s bowstring-tight direction; Ari Wegner’s gorgeous cinematography; Jonny Greenwood’s evocative score (probably the years’s best); and all of it anchored by a quartet of impressive performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Jesse Plemons — at least three of which, I expect, will be nominated for Oscars this Spring. The film, based on Thomas Savage’s novel, demands a lot of patience. For the first meandering hour, I really wasn’t sure what it was about or where it was going; we were just watching Cumberbatch tear into the role of Phil Burbank, Evil Cowboy, and the most chilling banjo player since Deliverance. But each choice the film makes is justified in hindsight — a slow burn with a truly shocking climax, a powerful statement about masculinity, and Cumberbatch’s finest performance to date. I kinda have to give it four stars, right? (****)
  • Poor Cowboy Bebop (Netflix). The deck was stacked against it from the beginning, by daring to exist in the shadow of the hallowed anime. It was cast well — John Cho’s Spike, Daniella Pineda’s Faye, Alex Hassell’s Vicious, and (especially) Mustafa Shakir’s Jet Black are all interesting performers who worked hard to put distinctive stamps on their roles. It generally looked cool; the action scenes were decent; they even brought back Yoko Kanno to do the music! Yet it was shrugged at by critics and reviled by fans, and unceremoniously cancelled after one season. I think I liked it more than most, though — more so as the season went on, as it tried to be more than just a slavish recreation of Bebop. The storytelling started to settle into a groove, as did the cast. I would have come back for more. But it was just okay, and that’s not enough. (**1/2)
  • Hawkeye (Disney+) was an amiable mixed bag, recovering from a dull start to become a nice little showcase for Hailee Steinfeld and especially Florence Pugh, the latter of whom swanned into the series at the midway point with effortless charisma. The third episode also had a pretty dope chase sequence. But the finale, while not as dumb as Falcon and Winter Soldier’s, was bafflingly underwhelming; even the return of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin felt like a wasted opportunity. Can Jeremy Renner retire in peace? (***)
  • It seems a foregone conclusion that Will Smith will finally get his Best Actor award for King Richard, and I have deeply mixed feelings about that. For one thing, the film is an appealing if formulaic rags-to-riches sports drama, based on the inspiring true story of Venus and Serena Williams. For another, the film is at its best when it focuses on them, and not the bloviating, fanatical, hardass father in the titular role. Smith’s highly mannered performance (the stooping, the accent, the constantly pursed lips) is hard to take in that big a dose. I do respect that Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film isn’t a hagiography, but I came away from it questioning whether Richard Williams was an actual genius, or just extraordinarily lucky. Saniyya Sydney, Demi Singleton, and Aunjanue Ellis are terrific, though. (***)
  • I have to mention Station Eleven (HBO Max), which we just started as it’s being hailed as one of the best shows of the year. I can’t imagine that many of us have an appetite for yet another pandemic-era series (though like Y: The Last Man and Sweet Tooth, it had been in development long before COVID), but Patrick Somerville’s adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel is deeply humanist, not bleak, and I’m excited to see where it takes us.
  • I also haven’t finished Season 2 of The Witcher (Netflix) yet, but I can say with certainty that is more confident and streamlined than in its scattered-but-eventually-good first season. What makes it stand apart from its genre brethren (looking at you, Wheel of Time) is its lack of self-seriousness; from Anya Chalotra’s amusingly vulgar exasperation to Joey Batey’s flop sweating to Henry Cavill’s steady grumbling in between monster fights, Witcher is as committed to world-building as it is to letting its characters complain about that world’s absurdities. It’s a loose, grotesque good time. That said, a little less serialization would go a long way.
  • Limp, woefully miscast, and exhibiting little affection for the TV history it depicts, Being the Ricardos (Amazon) is a total misfire for Aaron Sorkin. I defended Trial of the Chicago 7, but someone has to beg him to stop directing. (**)
  • The Rescue (now on Disney+) is one of the year’s best documentaries, a white-knuckle account of the 2018 rescue of twelve boys and their soccer coach from a flooded Thailand cave. Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Free Solo) seamlessly mix firsthand footage with reenactments featuring many of the principal figures, but the the filmmaking wisely doesn’t call too much attention to itself; the story is compelling enough. I didn’t know many of the details of the rescue, so my jaw was often on the floor at the ingenuity and bravery on display. More importantly, I will never go cave diving. (***1/2)
  • We’re just two weeks into the final season of The Expanse so I don’t have a handle on it yet, but the choice to spend so much of their limited screen time (only six episodes!) setting up the final three books — which will probably never be filmed — is kinda baffling. The rest of it is still top-notch space action, but I guess I can’t rule on it until its over.
  • On the other hand, The Wheel of Time (Amazon) has just one episode left and I feel pretty comfortable ruling on that: It’s dull as heck, and reinforcing my decision to stop reading after the first book; my wife, who is currently on the 14th and final novel, has gotten increasingly angry with each episode. I’m just bored. (**1/2)
  • Oh, we started The Great (Hulu)! This was before everything came out at the same time, so we need to get back to it once we tie up a few of these other shows, but we’re loving it.
  • How To With John Wilson (HBO) is still a daffy delight, though you can see the seams a little bit more in the storytelling. No one else can do what he does, though.
  • Finally… a network sitcom! Remember those? Abbott Elementary‘s pilot is available to watch on Hulu before the season picks up in January on ABC, and it’s one of the strongest debuts in quite some time. Created by and and starring Quinta Brunson, it’s basically Parks and Rec set in a struggling Philadelphia elementary school — that should be enough to go on, right?

Looking ahead to… Don’t Look Up is Adam McKay’s latest star-studded polemic (12/24, Netflix)… Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza hopefully hits my local theater (12/25)… Disney+ dips back into Star Wars with The Book of Boba Fett (12/29)… household favorite Hilda returns with a feature-length special, Hilda and the Mountain King (12/30, Netflix)… Joel Coen’s sumptuous-looking The Tragedy of Macbeth stars Denzel Washington (1/1)… David Tennant stars in a new adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days (1/2, PBS)… Julian Fellowes does Downton Abbey again with The Gilded Age (1/24, HBO)… Phil Lord & Christopher Miller debut their new comic murder mystery, The Afterparty (1/28, Apple).

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