Drive My Car
I think this is another case of “it’s good, but not Best-Picture Good”.
There’s a bit of an unusual technique here – the credits don’t start rolling until about a half hour in, turning everything before the credits into a sort of prologue, And it fits – that’s where we see the backstory for our main character, a Japanese actor and director named Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima). His wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) is a screenwriter who uses an unusual storywriting technique – her work is based on the stories she makes up and tells him after they have sex. But hey, it works – they’re both successful and well-respected in their fields. The only problems they have are the death of their four-year-old daughter several years prior….and Oto’s infidelity, which Kafuku has been dealing with by willfully ignoring it. But then one day, just before Kafuku leaves on an errand, Oto asks him if they can “talk” when he gets home, and he agrees, but uneasily postpones his return….and then when he does return, he finds Oto collapsed on the floor, killed by a sudden brain hemorrhage.
Then the credits roll and the main story kicks off. It’s two years later, and Kafuku is beginning a resident artist program at a theater in Hiroshima, where he will direct a production of Uncle Vanya. Kafuku has played the lead in Vanya in the past, so things should go smoothly. However, a couple of early problems crop up – firstly, one of the actors in the cast, Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), happens to have been Oto’s most recent lover at the time she died (and Kafuku knows because he walked in on them once, but they were in flagrante and hadn’t seen him). And secondly – due to some vague insurance issue, Kafuku is not allowed to drive himself to and from the rehearsals. Usually the theater would enlist a full-on chauffeur, but since Kafuku brought his own car, the theater has hired a driver for that car instead – a sullen young woman, Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura).
On paper the rest of the plot seems kind of predictable; Kafuku and Takatsuki gradually open up about their respective relationships to Oto, and Takatsuki and Watari gradually warm to each other as well. But happily the plot didn’t feel predictable as I was watching. Mostly this is because Nishijima and Miura give especially good performances; Nishijima plays Kafuku with a wonderful subtlety, giving him just enough gruffness so you know that he’s still a little wounded by his past but has just gotten good at hiding it. The script also isn’t afraid to have Kafuku be a bit of a jerk in rehearsals. And Miura plays Watari as a weirdo introvert, but in a way that gradually becomes endearing – and yet it never verges into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory. There’s a fantastic scene where the theater’s company manager and his wife invite Kafuku over for dinner, and since Watari is there they also invite her in – and for the bulk of the scene the manager and Kafuku are caught up in a discussion about theater and the current production, and only after several minutes does everyone – even the audience – seem to remember that Watari has been awkwardly and silently sitting at the end of the table as well, picking at her food and occasionally patting the manager’s dog.
So it’s good. But…ultimately, kind of forgettable. I saw it a week ago, and when I sat down to write this…I actually had to think a couple minutes trying to remember anything about it. I’d even forgotten the film’s name. And I’m not sure this bodes well for its Oscar night success.
West Side Story
As things began, I thought this was going to be unusually faithful to the 1961 film – the opening also begins with the sound of the Jets whistling to each other, set over shots of New York streets, and then things move into the Jets gradually gathering for a prowl through their streets, one character or another sometimes busting out a dance move. But then the characters finally start speaking….and I realized that “oh, they’ve added some things.”
Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner dive into the racial tensions fueling the Sharks and the Jets, in ways which the 1961 film only hinted at. During the gangs’ first run-in with Officer Krupke, after he orders the Sharks to leave the scene, Bernardo stares him down a minute – then starts defiantly singing “La Borinqueña”, the Puerto Rican national anthem, with the rest of the Sharks (and a few onlookers) joining in as they turn to go, turning their dismissal into a rallying cry. The whole setting is also moved to the former San Juan Hill neighborhood of New York, right at the time when the city is tearing everything down as a “slum clearance” move so they can build the current Lincoln Center cultural complex.
The Puerto Rican characters also get some development. Maria (Rachel Zegler) is a bit feistier and we see more of the family dynamic between her and brother Bernardo (David Alvarez). Bernardo is also given a career here – he’s not just the leader of the Sharks, he is also an aspiring boxer. And Anita (Ariana DeBose) isn’t just a seamstress, she is saving up to start her own business; and, she’s also Bernardo’s live-in girlfriend. And Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera) isn’t a member of the Sharks – he is a college student.
An even bigger change is that a good deal of the scenes between Maria and Anita and Bernardo and any of the Spanish-speaking characters are all in Spanish – without subtitles. Spielberg has said he did so as a way to sort of de-emphasize the Anglo perspective – and I get it, but as a viewer it was occasionally frustrating. Most of the time I got the general gist of what characters were saying, but once or twice I could tell I was missing some nuances and really wished I weren’t.
Tony’s also been given a little more of a backstory – and that helps, because Ansel Elgort’s Tony otherwise felt a little…bland. He has a sort of reserved and overly-chill manner that works when he’s telling Maria about the year he spent upstate in prison….but doesn’t work when he’s singing “Maria”, and really doesn’t work during the balcony scene. His singing is technically good – and there are some really pretty shots and lighting effects there – but technically good is all it is. I didn’t sense any feeling in it – and for a song that Tony’s supposed be singing because he is head over heels in love, “technically good but no feeling” is just plain wrong. Fortunately his performance picks up a little towards the end when things are all dramatic and tragic, but this initial blandness bugged me.
There were some bits where it worked, though – and that was in his scenes with Rita Moreno. For Spielberg brought Moreno back, casting her as a new character, “Valentina”. In the original show and film, one of the Jets’ hangouts is a malt shop run by a longtime local named “Doc” – but here, the shop is run by Valentina, who is introduced to us as Doc’s widow who’s taken things over. The role is largely the same – the local shopkeeper who deep down believes that these gang members are just kids who are suffering from some hard knocks and deserve understanding, who urges them to straighten up, mourns when they turn bad and celebrates if they turn good. Turning things over to Valentina adds some extra nuance – Valentina alludes to the struggles she and Doc had themselves, and she’s able to warn Tony about that. She also mentions in one scene that the Jets seem to think of her as “a gringa”, but it’s only because of who she married – if she hadn’t married Doc they’d have seen her very differently. There’s even a moment of comedy – Tony has cornered Valentina and is asking her how to say various romantic declarations in Spanish, things like “I love you” and “you are beautiful” and “I want to stay with you forever”. Halfway through the lesson, Valentina quips, “have you thought of starting with something like ‘Do you want to go out for coffee’ instead?”