Drive My Car (*BP22)

Go on, admit it. You never thought I would actually get to the three-hour, sub-titled Japanese film about grief that is a Best Picture nominee before the Sunday deadline.

Me, neither. And yet, here I am to tell you about Drive My Car, not only nominated for one of the ten best films, but also director Ryusuke Hamaguchi for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. And for Best International Feature as well! 

A theatrical director is staging a production of Uncle Vanya two years after his wife has died of a cerebral hemorrhage. The producers have assigned a young woman as his driver, and they spend a great deal of time cruising around Hiroshima in a red Saab listening to a cassette tape that his deceased wife had recorded of the Chekhov play. Repetition is how the director learns the lines, and by the time the film is over, I’m pretty sure that I could play Sonya as well. We hear a LOT of Uncle Vanya.

The movie is a study of people locked inside their emotions. For a film with the verb drive in the title, there is a lot of stillness. Even when they are actually in the car, the camera barely moves. These people are so frozen in their grief that one gets the feeling that if they allow themselves to experience any emotion, something inside will crack right open. Even when they finally get to that point, it still seems like the act of acknowledging their pain is muted by years of silence. The film builds with a slow momentum and tension until you feel like you can barely breathe because of all the intense feelings that are not allowed to escape.

About that slow momentum part . . . Hamaguchi is a master of tiny increments of tension, but the film is three freakin’ hours long. I understand what he was doing with the camerawork—the driving becomes more of a medium shot, then wider, then lots and lots of tunnels that show the director and the driver getting more comfortable with each other—but it just went on forever. I realize it is the director’s prerogative to pace a film the way he wants, but I wonder if audiences who have been seeing mostly Marvel movies would be able to watch this. 

I mention this because every year the Academy shuns popular favorites (like Spider-Man: No Way Home), and then complains because no one watches the Oscars or goes to movies anymore. Of course, the two demographics are completely different and don’t need to have any overlap, but this is the kind of film that critics love and most people won’t watch. That doesn’t mean it should not be showered with awards—this film will deservedly win Best International Feature, and it is a masterclass in silence. And I’m not suggesting that all films be dumbed down to level of the typical movie audience (Jackass Forever made $23 million dollars its opening weekend.) It simply answers the question of why no one is watching the Academy Awards.

The Popcorn Kernels of Truth give this film Three and a Half Kernels. The pace and the length are almost hypnotic, and by the time you get to the end, you feel like the silence these people live with is almost more eloquent than anything they have to say (and they say it in many different languages, too!)

Categories: FlicksThatYouShouldPick, FlicksIWatchedOnNetflix, (I don’t have a category called FlicksIWatchedOnHBOMax, and also it doesn’t rhyme, but the film is NOT streaming on Netflix)

Nightmare Alley (*BP22)

I try not to go into movies with preconceived notions of the subject matter, but when I realized that Guillermo del Toro’s newest film Nightmare Alley was set in a carnival, the first thing that popped into my head was a quote from Austin Powers. “Only two things scare me: Nuclear war . . . and carnies. Circus folk. Nomads, you know. Smell like cabbage. Small hands.” 

I have to agree with Austin, because when there are circus folk around, you just know it’s going to eventually lead to geeks.

Wikipedia describes Nightmare Alley as “a neo-noir psychological thriller,” and it is certainly that. Noir means black and the color palette of the film is so dark that it sometimes reads as black and white, with all the bright tones usually associated with a carnival looking like they have been smeared with grime and filth. The film is a production designer’s dream, from the wonky funhouse angles and jars of fermented babies lining the walls to the electric chair that is designed to up the drama of the woman who is electrocuted nightly. Everything looks damp and a violent storm is always about to erupt. I don’t know if it smells like cabbage, but it sure looks like everything reeks of urine. This is a rough way to make a living, and the desolation of the backstage circus areas is reflected in the faces of the people who inhabit these spaces. 

That includes the geek. Early in the movie, there is a graphic depiction of what it would be like to be a raging, caged alcoholic who is flung live chickens in front of an audience and then bites their heads off. Not a profession one would want to end up in.

Bradley Cooper enters this bizarre world and quickly adapts to a variety of odd jobs. His general prettiness is immediately noticed by a fortune teller, and he starts to learn the secrets of her husband, the mentalist. The film spirals into darkness as he becomes a master at reading people and eventually ends up in a plot with Cate Blanchett to trick people into speaking to their dead. The cast is great and the story gripping, with an ending as horrifying as it is inevitable. 

I was mesmerized by this movie; it did not do well at the box office, but I wish that I had seen it on a big screen simply because the look of it was so spectacular. Of course, that would have made the geek scenes really big, so perhaps HBOMax was the way to go. It does not appear to have much of a chance at Best Picture, having won no other awards this season, which is a shame because I would count it among my top three favorites this year. Maybe just close your eyes when they bring out the chicken.

Side note: Why does Bradley Cooper always take roles where he ends up looking like he’s a complete disaster? The man is very handsome, and just once I would like to see him make it to the end of a film without pissing on himself.

Second Side note: I have been informed by a loyal reader that I neglected to mention that there is a brief flash of Bradley Cooper’s full frontal in this movie. Since I try to give the public what they want, I have added the category FlicksThatHaveADick to this review. Although that was not the original intent of this label, the customer is always right, so here you go. (It’s also been added to The Power of the Dog. Hello, Dr. Strange!)

The Popcorn Kernels of Truth give this film Three and a Half Kernels. It looks amazing, and as much as I am embarrassed to admit this, I simply could not look away from the geek biting the head off the chicken.

Categories: FlicksIWatchedOnNetflix, (I don’t have a category called FlicksIWatchedOnHBOMax, and also it doesn’t rhyme, but the film is NOT streaming on Netflix), FlicksThatYouShouldPick, FlicksIWantToLick, FlicksThatHaveADick