West Side Story (2021)

Posted on December 9, 2021 at 5:33 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking
Profanity: Strong and racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, references to drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Gang violence, knives, gun, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 10, 2021
Date Released to DVD: March 21, 2022

Why remake a 60-year-old movie that won ten Oscars and is still beloved, even while admitting its shortcomings and its being quaintly out of date on some of the issues it raises? Because Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have taken the best from the original and made the essence of the story even more powerful and meaningful. “West Side Story,” the original itself a remake of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” itself a reworking of an Italian story that had at least three different versions before Romeo compared Juliet to the sun and Juliet asked what there was in a name. The themes of love, loss, fear, and anger will always inspire our stories, and the incomparable music by Leonard Bernstein, with lyrics by then then-25-year-old Stephen Sondheim, are as thrilling as ever in this new version.

Maybe there will be another remake 60 years from now, but it is hard to imagine it being better than this one. Spielberg’s gift for visual story-telling, with brilliant cinematography from Janusz Kaminski, production design from Adam Stockhausen, and editing by Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn match and enhance the muscular electricity of the Bernstein score. There are star-making performances from the entire cast, especially Ariana DeBose as Anita, Mike Faist as Riff, and Rachel Zegler as Maria. Rita Moreno, who won an Oscar for her performance as Anita 60 years ago, all but steals the movie as Valentina, a new role, replacing Doc, the owner of the convenience store. In this version, she is his widow, their own marriage a symbol of what Tony and Maria aspire to.

Copyright 20th Century 2021

Kushner’s changes are subtle and judicious, making the story deeper and more urgent. The opening shots show us that the turf battle has already been lost. The wrecking ball is knocking everything down. The only home the Jets have ever known is being torn down “for slum clearance” to make way for a gentrification project that will include a high-end high-rise and the high-culture Lincoln Center for performing arts. When Anita sings in “America” about some day living in an apartment with a terrace, she is standing near a sign showing the glamorous building that will replace the town-down tenements.

The setting looks like a bombed-out war zone. This makes the the emotion more vivid and the stakes more concrete (in both senses of the word). When “West Side Story” was first written, juvenile delinquents were listed by a majority of Americans as one of their most important concerns, next to atomic weapons. In order to make the concerns of the gangs as visceral today, Kushner shows us why Riff and the Jets feel that everything is being taken from them. The detective tells them that all the white people in the community who were smart enough to get out are gone. They are, he says, “the last of the can’t make it out Caucasians.”

Everything that gave them a sense of power, belonging, and control (“little boy, you’re a man, little man, you’re a king”) is being reduced to rubble and replaced with spaces that would be alien to them even if they could afford them. There is dust everywhere, and everything is washed out, knocked down, and covered with grit. The Jets cannot fight City Hall. All they have left is their fury and what they use to assuage it — the feeling of brotherhood. They sing of the Jets as a family (“you’ve got brothers around; you’re a family man”) while Tony says he envies the Puerto Ricans’ strong, committed biological families. There is no one to take it out on but the newcomers who are even lower on the social hierarchy than they are, the Puerto Ricans. Riff says, “I wake up to everything I knew being sold or wrecked or being taken away by someone I don’t like.”

Their gang, the Sharks, is fueled by resentment at being treated like second-class Americans in their own country. And they, too, are worried about losing their sense of family. They want the opportunities available to white, native English-speaking Americans but they want to remain intact, insular, restricting their associations to those they can trust. Their internal conflict is shown in “America,” where the girls sing of what they can do and buy and the boys jeer at them for ignoring the bigotry they will face — while not being willing to go back to Puerto Rico.

Some changes reflect our more sensitive understanding of the very issues the original depicted. In this version, the Latinx characters are played by Latinx performers of different skin tones and no one wears brownface make-up. All of the performers do their own singing. In addition, the Spanish dialogue is not subtitled. Some gender/sexuality insults remain in the script but the character once derisively called “Anybody’s,” who we might now call non-binary, is portrayed with more depth. The dance numbers are less balletic, more a reflection of the energy of emotions the characters are feeling.

Kushner’s changes to the script are sometimes subtle but every one adds to the emotion and revelation of character. In this version, Tony has even more reason to be reconsidering his commitment to the Jets, and he has an example in Valentina, his employer and friend, of what is possible. The “Cool” song has much more of an impact here, sung by Tony to Riff when he discovers that Riff has bought a gun. “I Feel Pretty,” instead of a bridal shop, is sung in a department store, where Maria is an after-hours cleaner. The dance through the aspirational scenes of mannequins “enjoying” middle class life parallels the reference to the apartment with a terrace. And Tony takes Maria to see The Cloisters, a beautiful cathedral-like setting for “One Hand, One Heart” that evokes the timelessness of Romeo and Juliet.

This story is very much of its time but its themes, too, are timeless, and with this new version we can experience it with the deeper understanding of its themes, a new generation of performers making it as new to us as it is to them, and one nod to the past with Moreno reminding us that like the late Bernstein and Sondheim, brilliance is always forever renewing itself.

Parents should know that this movie includes strong language with some racist terms, sexual references and a non-explicit situation, drinking, smoking, references to drugs, and gang violence, with knives and a gun. Characters are injured and killed.

Family discussion: If the story took place today, who would be in the gangs and how would it be different? What do we learn from the “Office Krupke” song? Why do Riff and Tony see things differently? What advice would you give to Tony and Maria?

If you like this, try: the original 1961 film, “In the Heights,” the wonderful documentary about Rita Moreno, and “Romeo and Juliet”

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Classic DVD/Blu-Ray movie review Movies -- format Musical Remake Romance Tragedy

Son of Saul

Posted on January 14, 2016 at 5:56 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for disturbing violent content, and some graphic nudity
Profanity: Racist language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and deeply disturbing Holocaust atrocities including shooting, gas chambers, graphic images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 15, 2016
Date Released to DVD: April 25, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01BZBOA30
son of saul
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures Classics

As we move past the time when there are living witnesses to the Holocaust who can tell us their stories, we need more than ever voices like first-time writer/director László Nemes to tell the stories. I know there are those who will shrug sheepishly and say that they just can’t handle another one.  But each story is about a singular individual who had a singular experience.  And this Oscar-winning drama is distinctively different in subject matter and in the form of storytelling. It deserves careful attention.

The Nazis took more than lives in the concentration camps. They took identities and they took souls. Saul (Géza Röhrig), the title character, is a Hungarian Jew in an unnamed extermination camp near the end of the war. Because Hungarian dictator Miklos Horthy cooperated with the Nazis but did not allow them to take the 800,000 Hungarian Jews until he could no longer prevent it in 1944 (see Walking with the Enemy), Saul has only been there a short time. Throughout the movie, the camera is close to his face or at his shoulder as he numbly tries to hold on to his life and to some sense of himself amidst the horrific slaughter and nightmarish chaos all around him. We get only glimpses.

In the very first moments, we see him standing silently as a reassuring German voice tells the new arrivals that there will be jobs and food for them, as soon as they clean off in a shower. They leave everything they brought with them, clothes, jewels, money, photos, in the outer room and then, naked, walk into the gas chamber, where they are killed.

What happens to Saul is worse than death. He is a Sonder-kommando, a prisoner forced to assist in this process, from making the new arrivals feel a little less hopeless to ransacking their belongings and removing the remains, which the Nazis will not dignify with the term “bodies.” They are called “pieces.” And he is forced to be a part of it.

Somehow, a boy, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, survives the gas chamber. He is still breathing. So he is sent to the doctor (another prisoner) to be killed and autopsied, to help make the killing process more efficient.

And that is Saul’s breaking point. He becomes convinced that the boy is his son, though it appears likely he never had a child. This may be manifestation of trauma-induced delusion, or it may be an adaptive mechanism to restore his shattered sense of the world. He knows he cannot save this both in life. But perhaps in death he can do one kindness and provide the boy with a religious burial, away from the discarded “pieces.” Increasingly desperate, contrary to his previous flat affect, Saul seeks a rabbi who can say the mourner’s prayer over the boy. Throughout the film, we see quick glimpses of the ways other prisoners hold on to some tiny element of control. For some, it may be keeping a record. For Saul, who seems to see very little of what is going on around him, it is giving a boy a better death.

This insistence on a sacred burial at any cost is a direct link to Sophocles’ 442 BC play Antigone, the final chapter in the Oedipus trilogy. Three thousand years of human history later, and someone is still finding meaning by refusing to make one final compromise.

Parents should know that this is a Holocaust movie with scenes of Nazi brutality and disturbing themes and images including gas chambers, shooting, suffocation, and dead bodies, some nude.

Family discussion: How does the style of this film help to convey the experience of the concentration camp? Why was this boy so important to Saul? What were the special issues faced by the Sonder-kommandos and the doctor?

If you like this, try: “Conspiracy,” “Schindler’s List,” and “Labyrinth of Lies”

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Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Tragedy War

The Fault in Our Stars

Posted on June 5, 2014 at 6:00 pm

fault-in-our-stars-poster-largeJohn Green’s best-selling novel, The Fault in Our Stars is the story of kids with cancer, but it is not about dying.  It is about living.  This exquisite adaptation is that rare film based on a beloved novel that does full justice to the source material without being static or talky.  The screenplay is by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who showed exceptional sensitivity in the bittersweet love stories “(500) Days of Summer” and “The Spectacular Now” (also adapted from a beloved YA book and also starring Shailene Woodley), and it was directed by Josh Boone, of the underrated “Stuck in Love” (also starring Nat Wolff, who appears here as a friend of the central couple).  

Remember the hospital scene in “Terms of Endearment?”  This one will make you cry more.  But it is sad, not depressing.

Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, whose lungs have been badly compromised and who cannot breathe without a nasal cannula attached to an oxygen tank.  Pushed by her mother to attend a support group that meets “literally in the heart of Jesus,” with a guitar-strumming leader who is well-intentioned but unwilling to acknowledge the direness of the circumstances, Hazel catches the eye of lanky Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort, and yes, he played her brother in “Divergent”).

She’s the nerdy girl, he’s the basketball-player and cool guy, which is the classic high school movie romantic setup for opposite attraction except in this case what they have in common is more important than what table they would sit at in the school cafeteria.  He is not playing basketball anymore because his leg was amputated due to cancer.  What brings them together is not the cancer but the shared worldview they developed as a result of the cancer, with few illusions but an openness to hope, if not hope for a longer life, at least hope for a better life.  Hazel worries that she is “a grenade,” that the most significant impact her life will have is the devastating grief she leaves behind.

Hazel and Augustus exchange favorite books.  His is a novelization of a video game.  Hers is an ambitious, literary novel by a reclusive author named Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe, superb in a tricky role).  The book ends abruptly, in the middle of a sentence, when its main character dies, and Hazel is overcome with curiosity about what happens to the characters she left behind.  For all they have lost, they still have “cancer perqs,” privileges that come with the combination of pity and guilt felt by people around them.  Augustus takes advantage of his to help Hazel meet Van Houten.  But it is in the other parts of the journey that they find more important answers and better questions as well.

The characters in the movie like to say, “it’s a metaphor,” but their own story is a metaphor about the issues we all grapple with.  Watching people whose biggest problem should be what to wear to the prom confront the problem of making sense of life, finding meaning, risking intimacy is a heightened version for dramatic purposes.  But these are the core challenges for all of us, whether our lives will last for 16 years or 116.  These teenagers just do not have the luxury the rest of us do of being in denial about how little time there is.

Elgort is marvelous, but then he gets to say swoon-worthy lines like “You realize that trying to keep your distance from me will not lessen my affection for you. All efforts to save me from you will fail.”  On the other hand, he has the challenge of grandiloquent lines like. “It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you,” and he says them beautifully.  Woodley is in every way (except literally) the heart of the film, and once again delivers a performance of endless sensitivity, even with a cannula in her nose.  Fans of the book will find key scenes like the egging of a car and the ultimate romantic restaurant date exactly as they envisioned it.  Even the trip to the Anne Frank house, which could have been heavy-handed, is handled well.  Anne Frank is, in a way, the spiritual sister of Hazel and Augustus.  Like them, she had to find meaning in the midst of devastation.  As they walk through the hidden annex where she lived, her words of hope come out of tinny display speakers.  And Hazel’s climb up the steep steps to see it is itself a “shout into the void.”

I like the way they call each other by their full names.  Even though their time is limited, addressing each other with a touch of formality and grandeur is too important for short cuts.  I like the intensity and honesty of their talks; anything less they know they do not have time for.  The title comes from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”  The nobleman Cassius says to Brutus: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”  He is saying that it is we who determine how we live.  But the line that I think of when I see this film is from poet Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote, “The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.”

Parents should know that the theme of the film is teenagers with cancer.  Many characters are very ill and there is a very sad death, as well as brief strong language, sexual references and situation, teen drinking and adult alcohol abuse.

Family discussion: What questions would you like to ask an author about a book you like? How should you choose who will hurt you? What makes some infinities larger than others?

If you like this, try: the book by John Green and the films “Harold and Maude” and “Restless”

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Based on a book Date movie Drama Romance Stories about Teens Tragedy

Pompeii

Posted on February 20, 2014 at 6:00 pm

pompeii posterIn 79 AD Mount Vesuvius erupted, wiping out the city of Pompeii. Director Paul W.S. Anderson, who gave us movie versions of “Resident Evil” and “Mortal Kombat,” presents the story as a video game. If what you are looking for is special effects and well-staged action, or even buff bodies, you’re all set.  But those who are looking for history, meaningful drama, character development, or good dialog — well, they weren’t paying attention a moment ago when I mentioned the director of game console-to-movie theater movies and Paul W.S. Anderson.  It is basically “The Legend of Hercules” with a volcano.

“Game of Thrones'” Kit Harington plays Milo, who as a child saw his entire community brutally slaughtered by the vicious and corrupt Roman soldier Corvus (an imperious Kiefer Sutherland).  Milo escaped by hiding in a pile of dead bodies.  He is later captured and sold into slavery, where his outstanding fighting skills bring him to the attention of a purveyor of gladiator battle-to-the-death entertainment.  He travels to the big city of Pompeii to compete in the arena there.  Along the way, he sees a beautiful young woman named Cassia (Emily Browning) and he impresses her by putting her injured horse out of its misery.  Cassia is returning to her parents (Jared Harris and Carrie-Ann Moss) after a visit to Rome, where she attracted the attention of Corvus, now a high-ranking Senator.  But Milo has attracted her attention.  In an example of dialog that could have come out of a middle school slam book, a character says, “I never saw you look at any man the way you looked at that slave.”

Milo is set to fight the enormous and powerful Atticus (“Thor’s” Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who can earn not just his life but his freedom with one more win in the arena.  They end up forming an alliance like that of Kirk Douglas and Woody Strode in the classic “Spartacus.”  Meanwhile Corvus is attempting to extort Cassia’s hand in marriage from her father, who needs the support of Rome for his building project.

And all of this is about to be trumped by a nearby mountain and some seismic movement of the earth.  There are huge sinkholes and then there is an ocean of burning lava and chokingly thick ash.  Every element of the lives of the Pompeiians is turned upside down as all societal restrictions are removed and all anyone wants to do is stay alive.  Well, you’d think that, but unfortunately the storylines that have already more than overstayed their welcome drag on, interfering with what we really want to see — the special effects — and jettisoning any possible remaining legitimacy of the plot.

Harington is very good as Milo and he and the excellent Akinnuoye-Agbaje make the fight scenes exciting and compelling.  Sutherland has a nice sneer (I could not help remembering his bully in “Stand By Me.”)  The special effects, especially in 3D, are impressive.  But the movie is dragged down by its cheesy storyline.

This is not the first movie version of the story of Pompeii and it will not be the last.  Pliny the Younger’s eyewitness description of what happened when the volcano erupted excerpted in the opening moments of the film, is still more vivid and powerful than any version yet put on screen.

You might hear the Shrieks of Women, the Cries of Children, the Noise of Men: Some called aloud for their Parents, some for their Husbands, and knew them only by their Voices; some bewailed their own Share in the Calamity; and others that of their Neighbours; some wished for Death from the Fear of Dying; many lifted up their Hands to Heaven; a Multitude disbelieved all the Gods, and looked upon the Time to be the last eternal Night, that has been prophesied. Some improved the real Dangers by feigned and imaginary Fears; others gave it out, that this House at Misenum was fallen, that was burnt; both falsely, but they met with Believers. A Glimpse of Light appeared, that did not show us the Return of Day, but the Approach of the Fire that threatened us: The Fire indeed, stood at a Distance; then the Darkness revived, and after that, a plentiful Shower of Ashes and Cinders: We rose up now and then and shook them off, otherwise we should have been covered and oppressed with the Weight of them. I could boast, that neither a Sigh, nor a complaining Expression dropped from me in the midst of these Alarms; but I was supported by this Consolation, not very Reasonable indeed, but natural enough, to think that all the World perished with me. 

Parents should know that this film has extensive sword and sandal-era violence including the slaughter of a village, a child seeing his parents get killed, a horse put down, and many gladiator fighting scenes with many characters injured and killed. Also, natural disaster violence destroys an entire city with some disturbing images and there is a brief sexual situation (slaves as prostitutes) and reference to a brothel.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Milo want to say his name? What kind of culture finds gladiator fighting entertaining?

If you like this, try: read up on the real history of Pompeii and watch classics like “Gladiator,” “Ben Hur” and “Spartacus”

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3D Action/Adventure Drama Epic/Historical Inspired by a true story Tragedy

Out of the Furnace

Posted on December 5, 2013 at 6:00 pm

out of the furnace“Out of the Furnace” gets no credit for its good intentions because it collapses under the combined weight of pretentiousness and condescension. This is Hollywood’s idea of a searing drama about life in recession-era heartland, as phony as a painted backdrop.  It is clearly intended to be a sympathetic portrait of two brothers betrayed by America. Russell (Christian Bale) lost his job when the steel mill closed down. His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) went into the military and came home shattered by what he saw in four tours in Iraq. With no alternatives, their problems get worse. Rodney makes money in bare-knuckle fights, but keeps getting into trouble because he cannot bring himself to take a dive when told to do so by the fight promoter, Petty (Willem Dafoe). As their situations become more desperate, Rodney insists that Petty introduce him to meth dealer DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), so that he can make more money.

Co-writer/director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) tries to convey a sense of relentless pressure, crumbling infrastructure, and ever-constricting choices that force Russell and Rodney into making decisions with catastrophic consequences. But the film could easily be used to make the opposite points. Over and over, the brothers are told not to do something — like get involved with a murderous meth dealer — and they do it anyway. Russell is losing his job because the economy is bad. But he loses the girl he loves (Zoe Saldana) because he goes to prison. He goes to prison because he goes to a bar, gets drunk, drives, and causes an accident that kills two people. He has a lot of strong feelings and sense of loyalty for his brother and he is very upset about the death of his parents and his girlfriend leaving him for another man. When it comes to the innocent people he killed, he does not seem to have a sense of responsibility. We are supposed to be on his side because he is a decent guy who loves his brother, cares for his dying father, and misses his girlfriend, who married the decent local cop while Russell was in prison. But it is hard to be sympathetic when he — and the film — make no distinction between the limits imposed on him and the bad choices he made. Indeed, the movie ultimately becomes condescending, even contemptuous, in ignoring one of the core principles of narrative, which is respecting just that distinction. We are supposed to be on Rodney’s side because something in him, some core integrity, will not allow him to lose a fight he knows he can win. The metaphor is off-base and heavy-handed.

These are all great actors, and they all work hard to give good performances, but that in itself finally seems distancing. If they understood the essential humanity of the people dealing with these circumstances, the veterans struggling with PTSD, the factory workers whose jobs are gone, they would not distance themselves with such obvious artifice. Harrelson’s over-the-top sociopath seems to be from another movie entirely. Only Dafoe and Forest Whitaker as the sympathetic policeman create characters with any sense of authenticity, with Zoe Saldana relegated to a sad girlfriend role, doubly dreary because it is so tiresomely predictable.  The real Russells and Rodneys deserve better, and so does the audience.

Parents should know that this film has very strong and disturbing violence with graphic images, fatal drunk driving accident, murder, brutal fight scenes, guns, description of wartime violence, constant very strong language, substance abuse, and non-explicit sexual situations.

Family discussion: What does the title refer to? Why do the characters constantly ignore advice that will keep them out of trouble? What does this movie want to say about our economy and political system?

If you like this, try: “Killing Them Softly” and “October Country”

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Crime Drama Tragedy
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