West Side Story
Steven Spielberg’s new version of the Stephen Sondheim/Leonard Bernstein musical – a Romeo and Juliet story set among the street gangs of 50s Manhattan – isn’t a remake of the Oscar-winning 1961 adaptation but a complete reinvention of the text. Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins may have brought the play to the screen, but Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner bring it to life. Their version – starring Ansel Elgort as Tony and a dazzling Rachel Zegler as Maria – plays like a revelatory new mounting of a classic: it understands the original intention and finds new ways to shake the material to life, moving the musical numbers from soundstage stoops and rooftops to bustling daylit streets, building sites and dance halls. Kushner’s script also hears notes of sadness in the songs that just weren’t there the first time around: as we see in a singularly shattering interpretation of Somewhere, this West Side Story is also about the sadness of understanding you won’t live to see the future you’ve been fighting for. All of this in a picture about people dance-fighting for a few measly blocks that are about to be torn down anyway. Who’d have imagined. 156 minutes. Now playing in theatres everywhere. NNNNN (Norman Wilner)
Don’t Look Up
Two Michigan astronomers (Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet heading straight for Earth. In just over six months, all life on the planet will be wiped out – which would give us plenty of time to save ourselves, except the vapid U.S. president (Meryl Streep) is more concerned with looking strong for the midterms, the quirky tech visionary (Mark Rylance) would rather mine the comet for valuable minerals than blow it up, and the chirpy TV hosts would rather giggle about whose house they hope the comet demolishes for a cheap laugh. McKay and co-writer David Sirota (a journalist and former Bernie Sanders speechwriter) are trying to satirize the way the cultural divide in America has reduced every transaction to a zero-sum game, making it impossible and even undesirable to do anything that helps the entire nation. But in trying to satirize the present moment, they run up against the reality of Trumpism: the caricatures insulting each other here just feel simplistic after everything we’ve endured. Lawrence is great, Cate Blanchett has fun as a morning-show host who takes a shine to DiCaprio’s flustered academic and I share McKay’s despair for a nation that can’t save itself… but at nearly two and a half hours, Don’t Look Up just takes forever to get to its fairly obvious point. 145 min. Now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King West) and available to stream on Netflix Canada December 24. NN (NW)
Saturday Morning All-Star Hits!
SNL star Mooney’s eight-episode series is a texturally perfect replication of 80s and 90s Saturday morning television, from the grainy VHS-tape presentation of cheaply animated shows about skateboarding dinosaurs befriended by teenagers and magical teddy bears who make art out of anything (which annoys their grown-up minder) to the obnoxious twin brother skater-dude hosts Skip and Treybor (both played by Mooney) who scream at the camera, and each other, between commercial breaks. Mooney and his writers tweak their repetitive, derivative concepts with unexpected flashes of melancholy – that dinosaur struggles with alienation and depression, for example – while also using the interstitials with Skip and Treybor to seed a couple of series-long storylines about the “real” world behind the cartoons. Like Mooney’s 2017 oddity Brigsby Bear, this won’t be for everyone… but those who do like it will be talking about it for years. All eight episodes now available to stream on Netflix Canada. NNNN (NW)
If you want to enjoy Landscapers, a four-part HBO/BBC drama – inspired by actual events – which stars Olivia Colman and David Thewlis as Susan and Christopher Edwards, a middle-aged English couple who were arrested in 2013 for murdering Susan’s parents a decade and a half earlier, stop watching after the second episode, which airs Monday (December 13). The back half of this format-breaking drama – written by Colman’s real-life husband Sinclair and directed by Will Sharpe, with whom the Oscar-winner made the deadpan family comedy Flowers – doubles down on increasingly pointless stylistic flourishes, to the point of losing the plot entirely in its final hour. This won’t surprise anyone who saw Sharpe’s insufferably precious Amazon biopic The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain, but I was hoping that working from someone else’s script might keep him on a more even keel. Instead, a striking first hour and intriguing second movement are thrown under a conceptual bus as Sharpe – and Sinclair – overcomplicate the story with laboured Western metaphors, black-and-white sequences and self-conscious staging choices that push us further and further away from Colman and Thewlis’s complex, thoughtful performances. What a crushing disappointment. Mondays at 9 pm through December 27 on Crave. NN (NW)
The latest thriller from Oklahoma DIY filmmaker Mickey Reece (Climate Of The Hunter) starts out as a Catholic horror story about two mismatched Vatican emissaries (Ben Hall, Jake Horowitz) arriving at a convent to determine whether the eponymous nun (Hayley McFarland) is suffering from a natural or supernatural malady. -Reece delivers what the genre demands – the first half of Agnes plays like a mashup of decades of Catholic horror – but it gradually becomes clear his real interest lies with another member of the order, Mary (Molly Quinn), who has some very powerful, very personal reasons for wanting to have her faith rewarded. Shifting its narrative gears until it’s barely recognizable as the same film, Agnes becomes a powerful study of human despair, with Quinn – who also produced – delivering a fully felt performance as a woman searching for meaning in a world she’s no longer equipped to navigate. Apologies for being so vague, but this movie is so much better if you don’t know what’s coming next. 92 min. Now playing in theatres and available on demand. NNNN (NW)
Available on VOD
Hayley McFarland, Molly C. Quinn, Rachel True; directed by Mickey Reece
Erika Alexander, Derek Luke, Sam Trammell; directed by Ali LeRoy
Danny Trejo, Maurice Compte, Maya Stojan; directed by R.J. Collins
The Birthday Cake
Ewan McGregor, Val Kilmer, William Fichtner; directed by Jimmy Giannopoulos
The Hating Game
Lucy Hale, Austin Stowell, Sakina Jaffrey; directed by Peter Hutchings
Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Roman Griffin Davis; directed by Camille Griffin
This Game’s Called Murder
Ron Perlman, Natasha Henstridge, Vanessa Marano; directed by Adam Sherman
Everything coming to streaming platforms this month:
Disc of the week
Columbia Classics Vol. II (Sony, 4K)
Released in October and almost immediately impossible to find, Sony’s latest decades-spanning collection of exclusive 4K upgrades should be back in stock by now, just in time to be added to holiday wishlists or just grabbed on Boxing Day at an appropriate discount.
It’s an intriguing mix of films, spanning more than half a century of Columbia’s vaunted output, though their association with the studio is just about the only thing they have in common: Otto Preminger’s Anatomy Of A Murder, Carol Reed’s Oliver!, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Ivan Reitman’s Stripes, Ang Lee’s Sense And Sensibility and David Fincher’s The Social Network all have very enthusiastic fan bases, but these films seem like very strange bedfellows when you see them boxed up together.
Still, the way Sony’s releasing 4K discs it’s likely that most of them won’t be available individually for quite some time – of the six titles released in Volume 1, only Dr. Strangelove has emerged in a solo edition – so if you like any three of the films contained here, you might as well snap it up. The presentation is great across the board, though Taxi Driver and Sense And Sensibility feel like they benefitted the most from the UHD treatment, the enhanced definition bringing out the desaturated grime in the former and the finer details of costumes and locations in the latter. But all six films look almost as good as new.
Supplements are plentiful for all six features, though most of them are carried over from previous releases of the film, and included on the accompanying Blu-ray discs. New to this edition are a commentary from film historian Foster Hirsch on Anatomy Of A Murder, a commentary from Steven C. Smith on Oliver! and star Jack Wild’s original screen test; a 20th anniversary re-release trailer for Taxi Driver, a half-hour featurette that gets Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Ang Lee and other key cast and crew members back together (via Zoom) to commemorate Sense And Sensibility’s 25th anniversary and three theatrical trailers for The Social Network.
It’s Stripes – which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year – that gets the most new stuff; in addition to both the theatrical and extended cuts of the film and all the existing extras, this new release includes a two-part 45 minute retrospective with Reitman, Bill Murray and director of photography Bill Butler, half an hour of deleted scenes and a third version of the film. It’s the television cut, presented in 4:3, and though watching it has a certain perverse appeal, it’s not exactly essential to an appreciation of the film. (NW)