Classic Movie Review: West Side Story (1961)


Title: West Side Story
Release Date: October 18, 1961
Director: Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins
Production Company: The Mirisch Company | Seven Arts Productions
Summary/Review:

This iconic movie musical based on a Broadway musical based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet remains a cultural touchstone. I see the songs and the story referenced regularly. Even the New York City subway hums the first three notes of “Somewhere.”  The creators of West Side Story include the powerhouse trio of composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and choreographer/co-director Jerome Robbins.  Co-director Robert Wise may not be as famous as the other three, but also has a jaw-dropping list of accomplishments.

I first saw West Side Story in 7th grade after we’d read the script in class (we’d also read Romeo and Juliet and watched the Franco Zeffirelli film adaptation).  None of us kids could take a street gang seriously when they spent so much time finger-snapping and dancing ballet.  But even then I did like some of the songs and the story.

Later in life I learned that the neighborhood where West Side Story is set was demolished by Robert Moses to build Lincoln Center.  I’ve even heard, but can’t confirm, that already condemned blocks were used as sets for filming the movie.  As much as I like Lincoln Center, it makes me sad that a poor, mostly non-white community was displaced to build it.

Watching the movie as an adult, I realize that it was pretty edgy for a movie made under the Production Code. For example, the mentions of drugs and mental illness in “Gee, Officer Krupke,” or the absolutely horrifying scene where the Jets attempt to rape Anita (Rita Moreno).  While the movie does feel dated, a lot the issues it addresses feel relevant.  The racial prejudice the Jets have against the “immigrants” from Puerto Rico sounds all to similar, and police Lieutenant Schrank (Simon Oakland) is a surprisingly realistic racist/corrupt cop for a film from 1961.

The big flaws with the movie come down to casting as almost every one of the Latin American characters is played by a white person of European heritage, including major rolls like Maria (Natalie Wood) and Bernardo (George Chakiris).  The fact that Puerto Rican-born Rita Moreno is an absolute scene stealer who puts in the best performance in the movie makes it clear that it was possible to find talented Latin American actors, singes, and dancers.  Apart from Natalie Wood, I believe the cast were unknowns at the time as well, so it’s not like the white actors portraying Puerto Ricans gave the film extra star power.

Despite these flaws, this movie is a deserved classic.  The choreography, costuming, cinematography, and editing are beautifully done and the care taken in making this film reward multiple viewings.  Of course, the song and dance numbers are great.  I particularly like “Something’s Coming,” “America,” “Tonight Quintet,” and “Somewhere.”  And the final scene actually improves on Shakespeare by having one of the star-crossed lovers survive. Maria’s line “Well, I can kill now too, because now I have hate!!! How many can I kill Chino? How many — and still have one bullet left for me?” is absolutely chilling.  And anyone who isn’t weeping at “Te adoro Anton”  is made of stronger stuff than me.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Little Mermaid (1989)


Title: The Little Mermaid
Release Date: November 17, 1989
Director: Ron Clements and John Musker
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Feature Animation | Silver Screen Partners IV
Summary/Review:

I don’t know what the experience was for moviegoers who saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the silver screen in 1937, but I can tell you that there was an incredible buzz in 1989 when The Little Mermaid was released.  Disney was back.  Growing up in the 70s and 80s it was hard to see the classic Disney animated features which you might see in a theatrical rerelease, or the Wonderful World of Disney or on the Disney Channel, but generally as a Gen X kid you just kind of knew these movies existed without actually seeing them. By the late 80s, Disney started trickling out VHS releases of classic films, but it was the Millennial kids who’d get to watch them over and over.

As for the movies Disney released during the 70s and 80s, this was a well-documented down period for the animation studio, although The Rescuers was a hit and I have a personal soft spot for The Fox and the Hound. The reputation of Disney movies during this time was that they were “kiddie movies.” Teenagers, and even older grade-school children would turn their noses up at them.  The Little Mermaid was different.  It was a movie audiences of all ages enjoyed.

One thing that set this movie apart is the music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Teenage boys more macho than me at my high school enthusiastically admitted that they loved the songs.  The calypso numbers by Sebastian the crab ( Samuel E. Wright), “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl,” were the gateway, tying into the World Music trend of the late 80s. All of the songs fit into to the story following the Broadway musical model, and the soundtrack proved very popular.

The animation for the film is also excellent, looking better than any Disney movie had for decades.  The aforementioned musical numbers “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl” are particularly spectacular in the use of various marine life and visual gags.  The fluid mermaid movements of Ariel (Jodi Benson) and her hair are also spectacularly brought to life in animation.  While Ariel’s dream of marrying a prince may not be a particularly feminist plot, her characterization is more realistic and relatable than previous Disney portrayals of young women.

I hadn’t watched The Little Mermaid in a long, long time, and I was pleasantly surprised at how fresh and funny and just downright entertaining it remains after all of these years.

Rating: ****1/2

Coming Soon: Classic Movie Project, Part II


Last year, and the beginning of this year, I gave myself the project of watching 93 highly-regarded films that I had never seen before. I had so much fun that like many a great movie, I’m making a sequel.  This time I will be watching a mix of movies I’ve seen and never seen before, but I haven’t reviewed any of the movies on this blog before.

I will be working off the following two lists of “greatest movies of all-time.”

Between the two lists, I have 109 movies to watch and review, so this may take a while.  So grab a bucket of popcorn and meet me at the movies!

Movie Review: The Cocoanuts (1929)


Welcome to Marx Brothers Mondays! I’ll be watching and reviewing the Marxist oeuvre over the next several weeks.

Title: The Cocoanuts
Release Date: August 3, 1929
Director: Robert Florey & Joseph Santley
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Summary/Review:

This the Marx Brothers first talkie and second movie overall after the lost 1921 silent film Humor Risk. Excepting Harpo, I can’t imagine the Marx Brothers in a silent movie since they are so reliant on witty dialogue. The movie is adapted from a stage performance and it doesn’t appear that all too many changes were made to adapt to the new medium.  Performances of dancing girls and musical numbers are awkwardly intercut with sketch-like performances by the Marx brothers and the requisite romantic subplot, but in more of variety show pattern than something that flows from one thing to the next.

Released a few months before the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929, The Cocoanuts is a timely parody of the Florida land boom with Groucho as the unscrupulous hotel owner Mr. Hammer, Zeppo as his lazy assistant, and Chico and Harpo as a pair of crooks and conmen. As noted above the plot is very thin and this is more of an episodic linkage of Marx Brothers zaniness with song and dance.  It’s fun to watch but the Marx Brothers will learn to take better advantage of movies as they gain more experience

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)


Title: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
Release Date: March 11, 1977
Director: John Lounsbery & Wolfgang Reitherman
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions
Summary/Review:

I’m surprised that I’ve never reviewed this movie before because I put it on a lot for the kids when they were little.  Granted, I did often use that time to take a nap on the couch, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love the adventures of Pooh and his friends.  I’m a fan of A.A. Milne’s classic books and the movie is not exactly a great adaptation.  And yet it ends up being great in it’s own way, even with the parts that are “not in the book.’

I love the voice work of Sterling Holloway and Paul Winchell.  I love the songs by the Sherman Brothers. I love the way the characters interact with the pages of the book.  I love the way that Owl’s house sways in the wind.  I love the drug trip of “Heffalumps and Woozles.”  I love the bee that laughs at Pooh.

It’s amazing that one of Disney’s most consistent films is actually an anthology consisting of three shorts made over the course of a decade.

Rating: *****

See also:

 

Movie Review: The Birds (1963)


Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: The Birds
Release Date: March 28, 1963
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions
Summary/Review:

This is the third film that Hitchcock adapted from the writings of Daphne du Maurier after Jamaica Inn  and Rebecca.  I remember reading the du Maurier story as a child and then not being impressed when I watched the film.  Unfortunately, I still have a low opinion of the film on this rewatch.

San Francisco socialite Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hedren) makes a bold decision to follow a man she met in a pet shop to his family home in Bodega Bay, California.  She delivers a pair of lovebirds to Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) so he may give them as a birthday gift to his 11-year-old sister, Cathy (Veronica Cartwright, whose name seemed so familiar until I found that she played Betty Grissom in The Right Stuff).  Before this odd meet-cute can blossom into a full-on romcom for Melanie and Mitch, seagulls, sparrows, crows, and more begin attacking humanity at regular intervals. The rest of the movie features these attacks and the tense moments in between them.

Suzanne Pleshette and Jessica Tandy also put in good performances as a local school teacher, respectively.  The movie is full of iconic shots and is definitely a forerunner to a generation of horror films such as Night of the Living Dead and Jaws. But the movie is also overlong and way to talky.  Hedren is not a compelling enough performer to carry the movie, and mostly seems to be there to fulfill Hitchcock’s sadistic desire to see a blond woman pecked by vicious birds.

Rating: **

Movie Review: North by Northwest (1959)


Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: North by Northwest
Release Date: July 1, 1959
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Summary/Review:

North by Northwest is Hitchcock and his Hitchcockian excess.  In many ways it is a remake of The 39 Steps with an ordinary man getting swept up in the machinations of spies and getting into and out of trouble.  Cary Grant is Roger Thornhill, the “everyday” ad executive mistaken by the bad lads as a fictional spy named George Kaplan. Eva Maria Saint plays Eve Kendall, a woman who helps and seduces Thornhill on a train, who *surprise* is the real good spy.

Along his journey to escape the evil spy Phillip Vandamm (James Mason) and his henchmen, including Leonard (Martin Landau), while trying to prove his innocence Thornhill survives many dramatic set pieces. These include forcibly driving drunk on a cliffside road, a knife murder in the United Nations, getting chased by a crop duster in an Indiana cornfield, and climbing down the presidential heads on Mount Rushmore.

Grant plays Thornhill as a man who is put upon but nevertheless enjoying every minute of his adventure.  I especially like when he acts like a buffoon at an auction in order to get arrested so he won’t be captured by Vandamm and Leonard.  Saint is okay in her role but it is a flaw of 1950s chauvinism that even when she’s supposed to be a master spy she spends most of the movie as a helpless damsel in distress. I enjoyed most of the movie but by the time of the Mount Rushmore set piece, it felt overlong and over-the-top.  Some judicious editing and understatement would’ve improved this movie.

Rating: ***

Movie Reviews: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)


Title: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Release Date: June 11, 1982
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Universal Studios | Amblin Entertainment
Summary/Review:

E.T. was a huge monster hit right at the time when I was the target demographic for this story of an alien botanist stranded on earth and his friendship with a young boy.  And I didn’t really like it.  Watching this movie again for the first time in decades, I found myself far more moved by it than I did when I was 8.

I do remember seeing this in the theater with my family and my sister and I were allowed to go up to the balcony on our own.  Except that I found the movie too scary and forced my sister to go back downstairs to sit with our parents.  Well, it turns out, the first 20 minutes or so of this movie are pretty creepy from John Williams’ music to the slasher film perspective of E.T. running through the woods.  Later in the movie, when a bleached-out E.T. is discovered in a ravine and then the government agents invade the house are also creepy and scary moments.

Of course, the whole movie isn’t creepy.  It’s actually very sweet and a remarkably well-written (by screen written Melissa Mathison) story that balances the humor, drama, and pathos of a realistic childhood friendship (in a Sci-Fi setting, of course). It helps that the movie stars some terrific child actors in Henry Thomas as Elliot and Drew Barrymore as his little sister Gertie. All in all, this movie is much better than I remembered although it does tend to get overly manipulative of the emotions towards the end.  While I wouldn’t put it on my favorite movies of all time list, it is definitely worth watching.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Rear Window (1954)


Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: Rear Window
Release Date: September 1, 1954
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Patron, Inc.
Summary/Review:

If I played Jimmy Stewart’s part in Rear Window:

ME: I’ve been so bored, I’m just looking out the window watching my neighbors.

GRACE KELLY: I love you. I think we should get married.

ME: Wow! Really?  Forget about the window!  Let’s get married

(Roll credits)

Apart from my inability suspend disbelief that L. B. “Jeff” Jefferies (Stewart) is not interested in Lisa Fremont (Kelly), Rear Window is a fascinating motion picture. Built on a remarkable studio set, Jeff’s window looks out on a courtyard surrounded by New York City apartment buildings where his neighbors go about their daily lives.  Many of the actors in this movie only appear in distant shots through windows which requires remarkable skill and timing (and ear pieces so they could get direction from Hitchcock). I’m also amazed by the ambient sound of city life in this movie, and even the soundtrack is built entirely of diegetic music.

The movie cycles through experimental, comical, and thrilling moments, but it is also contains dark undercurrents.  The movie makes the audience conspirators in Jeff’s voyeurism as we look at his neighbors through the movie camera.  It also needs to be said that Jeff is a jerk, and treats Lisa awfully.  It’s no surprise that Hitchcock cast the beloved Jimmy Stewart in the role so we would care about him at all.  While I wonder why Lisa would like Jeff in the first place, I am impressed in the way that Kelly maintains her dignity and demonstrates her value.

This movie confines the story to a single place, much like Lifeboat and Dial M for Murder, and makes that limitation a strength.  There’s so much happening in this movie that will take repeated views to catch.  I think this is among Hitchcock’s best works.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Dial M For Murder (1954)


Hitchcock ThursdaysFollowing up on my Classic Movie Project, I made a list of ten Alfred Hitchcock movies I wanted to watch or rewatch. I’ll be posting reviews on Thursdays throughout the summer.

Title: Dial M For Murder
Release Date: May 29, 1954
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Production Company: Warner Bros
Summary/Review:

I watched this movie when I was younger and remember that it was Hitchcock’s only movie filmed in 3-D with a famous scene of Grace Kelly reaching toward the camera to get a pair of scissors.  That was about all I remember.  Like Rope, Dial M for Murder is set primarily in one apartment although without the tension of taking place in real time. Retired tennis player Tony Wendice (played as a gleeful sociopath by Ray Milland) comes up with an elaborate plan to murder his wife Margot (Kelly) as revenge for her having an affair with crime novelist Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), while also being able to inherit her wealth. Tony comes up with an elaborate plan to blackmail a university acquaintance and low-level criminal, Charles Alexander Swann (Anthony Dawson), into carrying out the murder while he’s at a party with Mark.

Of course, Tony’s plan goes awry, although he is resilient in improvising alternate plots. There are a lot of twists in the story but it also feels overly talky and focused on tiny details. A lot of Hitchcock movie plots don’t make much sense when you think about them after the fact, such as Vertigo, but Dial M for Murder strains its credulity as its playing.  This is especially true in the final act when both Mark and police inspector Hubbard (John Williams) each individually come to realization of what Tony really did and challenge him in his apartment.  The script also doesn’t give Grace Kelly much to do other than react to things happening to her, which seems a big waste of her talent.

Dial M for Murder is mildly entertaining, but by Hitchcock standards it’s a dud.

Rating: **1/2