Film Review: What to Watch in December (2021)

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I know you are all looking forward to the new Spider-Man and Matrix movies. But like those much sought-after Christmas gifts—the new PS5, anyone?—the holiday movie season brings to our theaters and streaming services the equally sought-after goodies that people are willing to get into fistfights to secure in the style of that Christmas classic, Jingle All the Wayas well as dozens of more humble indie and foreign-language fare.

Pedro Almodóvar’s new and most political film, Parallel Mothers, featuring a stellar performance from Penélope Cruz, is one of those delights that cinephiles will find under not under the tree, but on the marquee. So is Jockey, starring Mexican-American actor Clifton Collins, one of the busiest Latino character actors in the industry—he also makes an appearance in Guillermo del Toro’s new film, Nightmare Alley. And then we have two films about the Latino experience filtered through the gaze of non-Latino writers and directors, one of which is…

 

WEST SIDE STORY (in theaters December 10): When Steven Spielberg announced that his next project would be a new version of Arthur Laurents’, Stephen Sondheim’s, Leonard Bernstein’s and Jerome Robbins’ groundbreaking and problematic musical, red flags flew everywhere, especially among the Puerto Rican cognoscenti who screamed WHY????? (myself included). Could, would Spielberg and his partner-in-crime, the playwright and scriptwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich), update and even reinvent West Side Story for these more divisive, culturally aware times? Spielberg and his production team even visited Puerto Rico, unannounced, to meet with a group of about 60 faculty members and students of the University of Puerto Rico to discuss the film and their concerns.

And the concerns are legit. After all, Puerto Rico is still suffering from the effects of both hurricanes Irma and María, the austere measures implemented by a federally imposed financial junta, and massive blackouts as a result of the privatization of the island’s power grid—to now have to deal with a new version of a musical that has long been seen as offensive.

Well, I have good news: This new version of West Side Story does justice to the Puerto Rican migrant experience, from the way we speak, to the way some of our cultural icons are displayed, to the use of unsubtitled Spanish and hints at the social forces that drove much of the gang violence. It provides new context to such problematic songs as “America” while preserving its Romeo and Juliet-inspired core. In other words, it works.

And its release two weeks after Stephen Sondheim’s sudden death will be bittersweet to many. I will be writing more about it soon. So stay tuned.

 

BEING THE RICARDOS (in theaters December 10; on Amazon Prime Video, December 21): Another film that has sent fans, critics, and entertainment writers howling into the wind, especially after the casting of Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz was announced.

I was not surprised by Kidman’s casting at all; she did put on a fake nose to play Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002). But, come on, Javier Bardem as the most Cuban of Cubans, the artist and entrepreneur who introduced cubanía to millions of Americans in his and Ball’s popular sitcom I Love Lucy?

Look, he may have blown my mind away as gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls (2000), but Desi is a bit larger than life. But I guess you’ll have to wait until my review to find out if his performance works or not. In the meantime, suffice it to say that writer-director Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Trial of the Chicago 7) takes us behind the scenes in a crucial week in the production of the popular ’50s sitcom, after radio personality Walter Winchell off-handedly accuses Lucy of being a communist.

 

BLANCO EN BLANCO/WHITE ON WHITE (0pening December 10 in New York’s Cinema Village and Los Angeles’ Laemmle’s Monica Film Center with more theaters to be added in the following weeks): Winner of the Best Director and FIPRESCI Awards at the 2019 Venice Film Festival and Chile’s Official Selection to the Academy Awards for Best International Feature, Théo Court‘s second film is set at the dawn of the 20th century in Tierra del Fuego where Pedro (Alfredo Castro), a middle-aged photographer, arrives to take wedding portraits of Miss Sara (Esther Vega Pérez Torres), the soon to be child-bride of a powerful landowner. Fascinated by the young girl’s beauty, he betrays the rules and becomes entrapped in the unsettled territory as a complicit witness to the genocide of its indigenous inhabitants.

 

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (in theaters December 17): Guillermo del Toro is back in the director’s chair with this new adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel of the same name, previously brought to the screen in 1947 with Tyrone Power in the lead. Although I have not seen the original, I am looking forward to Guillermo’s version for two reasons: It’s co-written by Kim Morgan, who has authored a wonderful series of essays about noir films as back matter for the single issues of Ed Brubaker’s and Sean Phillips’ Criminal graphic series, and it’s Guillermo getting out of his fantasy/horror/science-fiction comfort zone.

Bradley Cooper plays Stanton Carlisle, a charismatic con-man who befriends a clairvoyant (Toni Collette) and her has-been mentalist husband (David Strathairn) at a traveling carnival, using them to take New York’s hoi-polloi for a ride. But he may have met his match when he joins forces with the ultimate femme fatale, a mysterious psychiatrist  played byCate Blanchett, whom he recruits to con a billionaire.


MADRES PARALELAS/PARALLEL MOTHERS (in theaters December 24): In Pedro Almodóvar’s most political film yet, two soon-to-be single moms meet in a hospital room. Janis (Penélope Cruz), a photographer working alongside forensic anthropologist Arturo in excavating the mass graves left behind by the Spanish Civil War, is looking forward to giving birth to her firstborn, freeing Arturo of all responsibility. On the other hand, teenaged Ana (Milena Smit) is scared at the prospect of being a single mother with scant support from her own mother. A bond develops between the two women and years later they are reunited.

If you know anything about melodramas you might guess what happens next, but that doesn’t take away from Almodóvar’s latest examination of the power of motherhood and female solidarity. In a way, Parallel Mothers is a companion piece to his All About My Mother. What makes his latest film so different, however, is how he ties this story up with larger themes: finding truth, expressing forgiveness, and coming to terms with the past.

 

JOCKEY (in theaters December 29): Mexican-American actor Clifton Collins gives the performance of a lifetime in Clint Bentley’s vérité-like award-winning feature debut. Collins plays an aging Jockey, who hopes to win one last title for his longtime trainer, and who also has to deal with the arrival of a young rookie rider (Moisés Arias) who claims to be his son.

Collins won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for acting at Sundance this year for his beautiful, understated, and level-headed portrait of a man at the end of his career. Keep an eye out for this one, because Jockey is one of those films that could easily fall through the cracks, with all the big end-of-the-year franchise titles screaming for your attention at the local multiplex.

 

Featured image: Penélope Cruz, right, and Milena Smit in ‘Parallel Mothers’ (Sony Pictures Classics)

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Alejandro has been active in Latino media since 1988 when he and a group of 12 independent producers launched Orgullo Latino, a weekly newsmagazine series in the Chicago Access Network. Alejandro joined ¡Exito!, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish-language weekly, as a freelance reporter in 1993, where he wrote about entertainment and culture with the occasional foray into politics. He was also a frequent contributor to the Chicago Tribune’s Tempo, Arts & Entertainment and Friday sections. Part of the transition team that replaced ¡Exito! with Hoy, and in 2004 he became Senior Editor for all three editions of Hoy (New York, Chicago and LA). He currently is a freelance writer, editor and media relations specialist in Chicago.

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