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Reviews for December 10th, 2021

Red Rocket

Directed by Sean Baker




      Mikey Saber (Simon Rex), an ex-porn star, moves back to his small hometown in Texas after living in Los Angeles for a while. His wife, Lexi (Bree Elrod) reluctantly agrees to let him stay with her and her mother, Lil (Brenda Deiss), as long as he pays a portion of the rent. No one wants to hire him in town when he applies for jobs because of his experience in the porn industry. He hopes to make some money through porn once again when he befriends and seduces a 17-year-old girl, Strawberry (Suzanna Son), who works at a donut shop, and tries to convince her to become a porn star.

      Red Rocket works much better as a character study than as a comedy. The screenplay by writer/director Sean Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch does have some humor in it, especially at the beginning when Mikey feels like a fish-out-of-water in his hometown. For the most part, though, it's a tragic story about a man who has a lot of growing up to do and lacks emotional maturity while engaging in toxic relationships. One of those toxic relationships is with Strawberry who's just as emotionally immature as Mikey. They're both emotionally needy people. She's still a child, technically, and he behaves like a child. Their relationship is doomed to fail from the get-go, but Mikey remains too immature to even realize that. Unsurprisingly, Strawberry lacks a father figure in her life which explains why she's into older guys like Mikey. The screenwriters should be commended for being unafraid to make Mikey and Strawberry unlikable characters. They're deeply flawed which makes them all the more human, but they're far from good role models. No one on screen is a good role model, and Red Rocket doesn't offer easy solutions to their problems either.

      A tragic incident involving Mikey and his friend, Lonnie (Ethan Darbone), makes them even more unlikable. The same can be said when Mikey confronts Strawberry's boyfriend to tell her that she's dumping him. Mikey clearly lacks empathy, compassion and boundaries. He's a controlling, lying, selfish narcissist. The filmmakers don't judge him, though, but let you, the audience, judge him if you wish to or to just experience him. Despite his many vices, he's like a whirlwind of energy and, like when seeing an accident, it's hard to look away whenever he's onscreen. There are also a few subtle and not-so-subtle political commentaries, i.e. a sign that reads "Make America Great Again." Mikey is poor, amoral, childish and delusional. Does that make him a microcosm of Trump's America? The answer to that question is also left for the audience to decide on their own. The ending, which won't be spoiled here, leaves room for interpretation, although it has shades of the ending of Sean Baker's The Florida Project.  

      Simon Rex gives a lively, charismatic and invigorating performances as Mikey Saber. He truly sinks his teeth into the role and adds emotional depth occasionally. The character of Mikey feels like nails on a chalkboard sometimes, but Simon Rex's performance makes Mikey a slightly less grating character. Mikey is still over-the-top in some ways, yet he remains grounded for the most part. Bree Elrod and Brenda Deiss anchor the film with understated natural performances which counterbalance the high-energy of Mikey. There are some unflinching sex scenes that leave little to the imagination and give the film its hard R-rating, but this movie isn't fundamentally about sex or porn.  Does Red Rocket need to be over 2 hours? No, it could've used tighter editing to make it a lean 90-minutes movie, and does lose a little dramatic momentum toward the end, but it's still entertaining for the most part. At a running time of 2 hours and 8 minutes, Red Rocket is audacious, provocative and surprisingly heartfelt with a wildly entertaining, charismatic performance by Simon Rex. It also boasts a pretty great soundtrack. 

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by A24.
Opens in select theaters.

West Side Story

Directed by Steven Spielberg




      After a 1-year prison stint, Tony (Ansel Elgort), a former member of the Jets gang, returns to New York City where he gets a job working for Valentina (Rita Moreno) at her drugstore. He meets and falls in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler) at a local dance, but their forbidden love escalates the tensions between the Jets and their rival gang, the Sharks. Maria's brother, Bernardo (David Álvarez) is a member of the Sharks and wants her to date Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera). Riff (Mike Faist), Tony's friend, leads the Jets gang. Ariana DeBose plays Bernardo's girlfriend, Anita.

      West Side Story is not quite as powerful as the original, but it comes close enough. Spielberg deserves a lot of praise for finding the courage to remake such an iconic and beloved all-time classic. The screenplay by Tony Kushner has just the right blend of romance, drama, action, poignancy, joy and tragedy along with exciting musical numbers while avoiding cheesiness and clunkiness. The first few minutes serve as exposition to show the tensions between the Jets and the Sharks gang before they break into song on the streets of New York City, and the conflict between them and Lieutenant Schrank (Corey Stoll). To be fair, the pivotal scene when Tony meets Maria at the dance lacks the emotional punch of the original because it's shot differently with less visual poetry, but at least they develop palpable romantic chemistry after that scene. You can sense that they're in love and pine for one another, especially when Tony climbs up the side of Maria's apartment building to sing at her window. It's a magical scene that works on many levels, but it's especially notable for how sweet and moving it feels without being cloying. There's also just enough comic relief, wit and kernels of wisdom every now and then. Anita has some funny quips while Valentina provides the aphorisms to Tony. She's very much like a mother figure to him. Fortunately, the profound, timely messages about love, tolerance, forgiveness and compassion aren't heavy-handed or preachy. They're universal themes that also make the film relatable and engaging on a human level.

      Finding the right tone like West Side Story successfully accomplishes isn't only because of a well-written screenplay. It's also very dependent on the right casting. Everyone, even those in the smaller roles, are well-cast here and have a chance to shine. They all steal the show concurrently. Ansel Elgort is, surprisingly, pretty good at singing and gives the most heartfelt performance of his career thus far. It's hard to pick just one stand-out though because they're all such a terrific ensemble filled to the brim with charisma. Mike Faist, Rachel Zegler and Ariana DeBose give breakthrough performances while Rita Moreno provides plenty of gravitas in her role as Valentina. They each have memorable musical numbers that feel exhilarating.

      The wonderful choreography, costume designs, lighting, set designs and camerawork also helps to invigorate the musical numbers, particularly the delightful song-and-dance number "America". There's also an amusing dance number, "Gee, Officer Krupke", at a police station. Another unforgettable musical number takes place on a dock by the river and has impressive choreography and editing that must be seen on the big screen. West Side Story has ultimately just the right balance of Truth and Spectacle. It's a dazzling, exhilarating and genuinely heartfelt musical that will make you stand up and cheer. At a running time of 2 hours and 36 minutes, which doesn't feel that long, West Side Story is the best musical film of the year. It blows In the Heights and tick...tick..BOOM! out of the water.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by 20th Century Studios.
Opens nationwide.