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: Lady Bird (2017)


Title: Lady Bird
Release Date: November 3, 2017
Director: Greta Gerwig
Production Company: IAC Films | Scott Rudin Productions | Management 360
Summary/Review:

This coming-of-age story focuses on a year-in-the-life of a high school senior, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who chooses to call herself Lady Bird. Like many teenagers, she wants to get out of her hometown of Sacramento, and go to college on the East Coast which she thinks is more cultured. (NOTE: I’ve never been to Sacramento but this movie makes it look like a beautiful place). The main conflict in this film is the tension between Lady Bird and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who tends toward passive-aggressive criticism and worries about the family’s financial struggles.

This conflict though is subtle as plays on through various slice-of-life vignettes in Lady Bird’s life. Over the course of the year she dates two different boys, performs in a musical, turns on her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, playing a character completely opposite of who she plays in Booksmart) in order to hang out with a more popular girl, and conspires with her father Larry (Tracy Letts) to apply to a college in New York City.  Ronan’s acting and Gerwig’s directing do a great job of showing Lady Bird growing and maturing, but in a more nuanced way than the typical Hollywood moment of epiphany.

The movie reminds me a bit of Donnie Darko (without the supernatural elements) with parts of Pretty in Pink, and a strong similarity in the protagonist’s character growth with Frances Ha, a movie Gerwig wrote and starred in. Nevertheless, it is an original and honest portrayal of teenage experience.

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: The Hate U Give (2018)


Title: The Hate U Give
Release Date: October 5, 2018
Director: George Tillman Jr.
Production Company: Fox 2000 Pictures | Temple Hill Entertainment | State Street Pictures
Summary/Review:

This movie, based on a young adult novel by Angie Thomas, addresses the issues of police violence and systemic racism through the story of a 16-year-girl Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg).  Starr lives in the fictional low-income, Black majority neighborhood of Garden Heights (the film never specifically states where it takes place, but is was filmed in the Atlanta area), but attends an elite private school in a nearby town. Starr reflects on the dual identity she feels from having to behave in different ways at home and at school.

While at a party, Starr meets a childhood friend (and sometimes crush) she hasn’t seen in a long time, Khalil (Algee Smith).  Khalil drives her home and on the way they are pulled over by the police.  The situation escalates and the police officer shoots Khalil dead. As the only witness, Starr is faced with speaking out for Khalil at the risk of retribution from the police, the disruption of her school life, and angering the local drug kinpin (Anthony Mackie), for whom Khalil had worked as a dealer.

The familiar story of police violence we’ve seen through all too many news cycles – protests, failure to indict the police, violence – ensues, but told through Starr’s point of view it becomes a deeply personal story.  The movie benefits from Stenberg’s absolutely stellar performance as Starr. It is also is willing to eschew a cut and dry narrative for real-life complications.  For example, Starr’s father, Maverick (Russell Hornsby) is advocates for his children to confront racism head on, teaching them to learn the Black Panther Party Ten-Point Program.  Her mother, Lisa (Regina Hall) wants the children to focus on education and avoid conflict.  Both parents are able to air their views but continue to be a very loving couple. Starr’s Uncle Carlos (Common), a police detective, shows how even Black police officers internalize systemic racism.

The movie also excels in the fact that while Starr is in the middle of this crisis, her ordinary teenage school life goes with things like attending prom.  Starr must contend with her white classmates using a protest for justice for Khalil merely as an excuse to skip class, and the fragmentation of her relationship with her closest white friend, Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter).  Her white boyfriend, Chris (K.J. Apa), initially offers clueless race-blind platitudes, but grows to become a supportive ally.

This is a movie well worth watching, not just because it speaks to our times, but because it offers a very human – and ultimately hopeful – story.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Just Mercy (2019)


Title: Just Mercy
Release Date: December 25, 2019
Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Production Company: Endeavor Content | One Community | Participant Media
Macro Media | Gil Netter Productions | Outlier Society
Summary/Review:

This movie flew under radar when it was released last Christmas, but it was available for free on streaming networks in June, so I thought I’d check it out.  The movie is based on the true story of Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and adapted from his book of the same name.  Stevenson is a Harvard-trained lawyer and as an idealistic young man we see him move to Alabama to begin the Equal Justice Initiative. With the support of local activist Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) he works to represent poor prisoners, including death row inmates, get proper legal representation.

The main plot of the movie relates to the case of Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian (Jamie Foxx), a man convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of white teenage girl  in Monroeville (a town the is shown to be proud of  its connection with Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird). Stevenson sees that Johnny D. was convicted primarily on the testimony of another prisoner, Ralph Myers (Tim Blake Nelson), who received a lighter sentence in exchange, and that witnesses who saw Johnny D at the time of the crime (including a cop) were not called at all.

I expect it is no spoiler to note that Stevenson will get Johnny D.’s conviction overturned, but the procedures and indiginities he has to go through still create a lot of tension. The early 1990s were a time when “tough on crime” was at its post-Jim Crow era peak, so its amazing that Stevenson is able to succeed (compare this movie with When They See Us, the story of the Central Park Five case happening around the same time). There is also a subplot involving another death row inmate, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan), a Vietnam veteran whose mental health was shattered by PTSD and is convicted for planting a bomb that unintentionally kills someone. Some of the most harrowing scenes in the film relate to Richardson’s case.

The movie falls back on some of the cliches of civil rights themed biopics, but it does stand a notch above them.  Jordan and Foxx are absolutely spectacular in acting their roles, and they are a joy to watch.  The movie also foregrounds the Black characters, so it avoids Hollywood’s predilection for “white savior” narratives.  If you haven’t seen this movie, check it out while it’s still free (although it would also be worth paying for).

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Reviews: Mr. Holmes (2015)


Title: Mr. Holmes
Release Date: 19 June 2015
Director: Bill Condon
Production Company: AI Film | BBC Films | FilmNation Entertainment | Archer Gray Productions | See-Saw Films
Summary/Review:

This film is an adaptation of A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin that  stars Ian McKellen as a 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes.  Having retired to a farm decades earlier where he tends to an apiary.  Holmes struggles with losing his brilliant mind to the onset of memory loss due to senile dementia. His only daily contact with other humans is his widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker).

The movie intertwines three stories.  Holmes is working on rewriting an accurate account of his last case, one he considers a failure, and is shown in flashbacks.  Struggling to remember the details, Holmes had recently traveled to Japan, and more flashbacks show him meeting his correspondent, Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), and visiting the ruins of Hiroshima.  There they retrieve prickly ash, a plant that is supposed to have medicinal properties for restoring the mind.  The main plot depicts Holmes bonding with Roger, an intelligent and curious boy, while training him how to care for the bees.

The movie is a good adaptation of the book.  It’s gorgeous film and McKellen is perfect at the elderly Holmes.  I don’t know if he watched Jeremy Brett’s performance as Holmes, but there are times where he seems to be channeling Brett’s physical tics.  The movie is also a moving depiction of Holmes struggling with the most difficult thing to lose, his mind, and the emotional breakthrough he makes with Roger and Mrs. Munro.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Meet John Doe (1941)


Title: Meet John Doe
Release Date: May 3, 1941
Director: Frank Capra
Production Company: Frank Capra Productions
Summary/Review:

Columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is laid off from her job but submits one last column in the form of a fake letter from John Doe, who rails against the ills of society and threatens to commit public suicide on Christmas Eve.  The column causes a sensation, and Ann is rehired to write more John Doe columns.  A homeless former bush league pitcher, Long John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) is recruited to play “John Doe.”

Traveling the country delivering Ann’s speeches, John inspires a John Doe movement where people form clubs and get to know and help out their neighbors.  Millionaire newspaper publisher D. B. Norton (Edward Arnold) funds the John Doe movement with the ulterior motive of using John to convert the third-party Presidential campaign.  Norton believes the country needs an authoritarian leader, and when John attempts to expose the plot at a rally, Norton orders the police to go into the crowd and incite a riot against John Doe. (Watching this movie during the same week when peaceful protests across the country were targeted by police violence, made this scene feel on point).

The movie is typical of Frank Capra common-man stories, although it feels a bit uneven compared to his more famous works.  Stanwyck and Cooper are great in their roles although the romance between them is never developed all too well.  The movie falls apart in the final scene where the melodrama is laid on thick, and Stanwyck rushes through dialogue as if she knew it was cheezy and out-of-character, especially the awkward reference to Jesus Christ.  I read that several endings were filmed for this movie, but I don’t think that they picked the right one.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Antonia’s Line (1995)


Title: Antonia’s Line
Release Date: 21 September 1995
Director: Marleen Gorris
Production Company: Bergen | Prime Time | Bard Entertainments | Nederlandse Programma Stichting (NPS)
Summary/Review:

I’m pretty sure that I’ve never watched a Dutch movie before.  This one is described as a “feminist fairy tale” about several generations of women creating an intentional community of the castoffs and misfits of society in a Dutch farming village.  Recently widowed Antonia (Willeke van Ammelrooy) returns to her childhood home with her nearly adult daughter Danielle (Els Dottermans) just after the liberation of the Netherlands by the Allies.

Establishing a farm, Antonia refuses to marry widower Farmer Bas (Jan Decleir), but agrees to have a relationship with him.  Meanwhile, Danielle decides she wants to have a baby but no husband, and they visit a city to find a man to impregenate her.  Danielle’s daughter Thérèse (portrayed at various ages by Carolien Spoor, Esther Vriesendorp, and Veerle van Overloop) is a child prodigy in mathematics and composing music who forms a special bond with Crooked Finger (Mil Seghers), the community’s resident nihilistic philosopher. Thérèse’s daughter, Sarah (Thyrza Ravesteijn), narrates the story of four generations of women in her family.

The movie has the feel of many indie movies from the 90s with a mix of comedy and drama and eccentric characters, punctuated by moments of brutality – including rape, murder, and suicide.  The film covers five decades but you have to look at subtle changes in the background to try to pinpoint what year it may be.  The movie pairs well with Like Water for Chocolate in that it focuses on the community of women over an extended period of time, although I feel there’s another movie that is even more similar that I can’t put my finger on it.

Antonia’s world is one where women are liberated, people can pursue their dreams, and all types are welcome.  It’s not perfect, and things do go very wrong, but overall it looks like a good place.  I’m glad I was able to visit it in this lovingly-made film.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Fourteen (2020)


TitleFourteen
Release Date: May 15, 2020
Director: Dan Sallitt
Production Company: Static Productions
Summary/Review:

I watched Fourteen through a virtual screening for the Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge, MA. The movie focuses on two women in their twenties who have been friends since junior high school and retain that friendship as they set out on their individual life paths in Brooklyn.  Mara (Tallie Medel) is a  quietly competent and driven type working as a teacher’s assistant, studying for a graduate degree, and writing a novel in her spare time.  Jo (Norma Kuhling) appears more relaxed, has an acerbic wit, and works as social worker.  It becomes clear early on that Mara is a caretaker, doing things like making sure that Jo isn’t chronically late for work, while Jo makes Mara push her own boundaries.

The movie is impressionist in style, showing short scenes of the two women alone and together over a decade or so.  They cycle through boyfriends, jobs, and apartments with some cathartic moments thrown into the mundanity of everyday life.  Over time, the two women grow apart albeit with no great precipitating event although the challenges to their relationship are evident from the start.  Jo also begins a downward spiral into depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

Fourteen is a very honest and realistic depiction of life and relationships done with excellent writing, direction, editing, and acting.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: The Shawshank Redemption (1994)


Title: The Shawshank Redemption
Release Date: September 23, 1994
Director: Frank Darabont
Production Company: Castle Rock entertainment
Summary/Review:

I’m scratching off another movie from my I’ve Never Watched It List. Based on a Stephen King story, The Shawshank Repemption is the story of two men held in a Maine prison and their friendship that develops over decades.  Morgan Freeman plays Red, a long-time prisoner who is the go-to man for smuggling in contraband for the other prisoners.  Much of the movie is from Red’s point of view with Freeman providing voice-over narration that proves an exception to the rule that voice-overs are bad for movies.

Tim Robbins plays Andy Dufresne, a banker who begins serving a life sentence in 1947 for the murder of his wife and her lover.  Andy prove unexpectedly resilient and is able to gain favor by providing tax and accounting services to the guards and the prisons cruel warden (Bob Gunton). Andy use his advantages to help the other prisoners feel more free and alive by doing things like getting cold beers for men working on tarring a roof and advocating for a full prison library and GED courses.

The movie is beautifully filmed, well-acted with some terrific dialogue, and contains a lot of surprises of what Andy is working on behind the scenes.  I won’t spoil them here if you’re even more behind the times in watching this movie than I am.  The Shawshank Redemption balances the horrific brutality of prison life with the good humor of the camaderie among men. But most of all it is a terrific story of friendship – a love story, really – between Andy and Red.

Rating: ****