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Awards Radar Community: We Want Your ‘Red Rocket’ and ‘West Side Story’ Thoughts!

Yesterday, two very different films opened up in theaters. One is a potential wide release blockbuster, and a remake, to boot. The other is just in New York and Los Angeles, hoping to launch a platform release that defies the odds. Of course, I’m talking about the big in West Side Story and the small in Red Rocket. Both should generate plenty of discussion. So, it’s only natural that this weekend’s Awards Radar Community question concerns them both. Yes, we’re asking what you thought of the movies. If you’ve seen one or both of them, we want to hear from you now!

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First up is my favorite film of the year in Red Rocket. It’s no secret that I adore this flick, just going by how much coverage it has received. Just this week, there’s been interviews with Sean Baker (here), Chris Bergoch (here), Bree Elrod (here), Simon Rex (here), and Suzanna Son (here), hopefully getting you excited for this demented gem. It truly is unlike anything else out there. You’re really in for a treat, I can assure you of that. In my four star rave review, I had this to say:

I’m so delighted that storytellers like Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch exist. Truly, they’re cinematic savants, able to find brilliant tales set within society’s fringes. If there’s a person who no one else would think of making a film about, Baker and Bergoch are almost guaranteed to find the beauty and the heartbreak in their situation. Red Rocket is yet another example of this. In fact, they’ve found riotous comedy in a situation almost no one else would play for laughs, while retaining all of their trademark heart. Playing at the 59th New York Film Festival, Red Rocket is not just the best of the fest, but one of the crowning achievements of 2021. All hail these slightly demented geniuses.

Red Rocket can certainly be read in a political context, but some of the earliest reviews that presented Simon Rex‘s protagonist as a Donald Trump-like figure are grasping at straws. Sure, this is also a vain huckster, but there’s so much heart and almost child-like innocence to this fictional creation. Watching him be awful is amusing, not enraging. It’s a notable choice that makes the character study not just fascinating, but wildly entertaining as well.

Simon Rex is an absolute force of nature here. He attacks the role of Mikey with a zest that’s so hypnotic, you completely understand how so many could wind up under his spell. Rex’s washed up former porn actor is a complete narcissist and about as oily as it gets, but he’s also almost child-like in his actions. He does terrible things, but you want to believe he’s not an irredeemably bad human being. Rex blew me away with a turn that won’t soon be forgotten about. Also doing excellent work is Suzanna Son, who plays her character as worlds away from a babe in the woods. She’s just as compelling as Rex, suggesting a very bright future. Son is charming, funny, sexy, and smarter than she lets on. It’s a phenomenal turn. Don’t sleep on Bree Elrod, either, as she tells you all you need to know about her past with simple looks. She’s the character your heart most goes out to, even as plenty of her actions leave something to be desired. Other supporting players, like Ethan Darbone, Brenda Deiss, Judy Hill, and Brittney Rodriguez, manage to leave their mark as well.

Sean Baker’s writing (as well as Chris Bergoch’s) and directing is truly on point in Red Rocket. This, more than any of Baker’s work before, could have gone wrong. Their protagonist could have been unwatchable in his awfulness. The sexuality on display could have gone over the edge. It just all could have left a bad taste in your mouth. Instead, it’s Baker and Bergoch’s funniest flick, as well as one of their most touching. The screenplay never spells anything out, but also doesn’t ever leave you behind. Baker’s direction, combined with Drew Daniels’ cinematography, is rightly obsessed with the characters on screen. These creations are the true top success of this wildly successful film.

Ariana DeBose as Anita and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios’ WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

The other big movie being released is, of course, West Side Story. Steven Spielberg‘s remake of the Oscar winning musical is one of the year’s most high profile titles. To be sure, Spielberg is making a big swing here. His first musical, taking on a classic certainly risks being a misfire. However, almost everyone has raved about it so far. Academy Award nominations are almost surely to follow for the flick. My recent review here on the site, which is one of the more restrained takes, includes this bit:

A remake of West Side Story is wholly unnecessary. I firmly believe that. The classic musical is just that, a classic. Now, that’s not me saying don’t do a remake, just that it’s not necessary to the cinematic world. At the same time, since we live in a universe where it was happening, we’re in luck that Steven Spielberg wanted to helm it. Alongside writer Tony Kushner, Spielberg has a take for the film, preventing it from being an abysmal boondoggle. Now, I still think there are flaws to this movie and it pales in comparison to the original, but considering what could have been, it’s damn good.

West Side Story, the 2021 version, is a lot of fun, even if it’s as much an experiment as a nature piece of cinema. Spielberg’s passion to do this the right way shines through, as do some of the cast members. While not the best musical of the year, it’s undoubtedly in the top tier. Delayed by the pandemic, it’s more than worth the wait.

What did you think of Red Rocket and/or West Side Story? Let us know!

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Robert Hamer
9 months ago

I actually think I disagree with Joey’s take on West Side Story, to the extent that Steven Spielberg did find a number of ways to improve on the 1961 original. He certainly improves on the miserable standard set by most studio-produced musicals produced in the last twenty years.

Maybe I’ve unreasonably lowered my standards after years of lead-footed choreography, uninteresting shots, and cutting without a shred of pacing or rhythm from the likes of Rob Marshall, but this felt like a real capital-M Movie Musical.

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Written by Joey Magidson

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