Saturday, February 20, 2016

West Side Story (1961, Movie Review)

     

      Internet trolls now days love to complain about new movies that borrow similar story ideas from other films. When “Avatar” came out in 2009, it didn’t matter that is was a technical achievement, or an original experience, all that mattered was how similar the story was to other films like “Dances with Wolves” ... which it was, but that didn’t make it bad by any means. When “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” came out in 2015, it didn’t matter that it was an entertaining Sci-Fi adventure with outstanding new characters, the only thing those trolls paid attention to was that it borrowed maybe one or two little plot points from the first film. It’s true that some movies can come off as uninspired rehashes of better movies. However, we also tend to forget that some of Hollywood’s most beloved classics have taken huge inspiration and influence from other sources. Case and point, the 1961 musical “West Side Story” is pretty much the strait forward story of “Romeo and Juliet”, just in a different setting, time period, and with musical numbers, yet it stands apart, and in many ways is even superior to what inspired it.



      Not only is “West Side Story” largely considered a classic, but also better than most real versions of “Romeo and Juliet”, and one of the most iconic of Shakespeare’s big screen adaptions. It’s that rare case in which the story isn’t original at all, but the experience, style and direction are as unique and special as they get. It was such a success that over the years, other artist have tried to create their own “West Side Story”, but usually with mixed results. For example, in 1994 Disney animated studio’s aimed to create their own “West Side Story” in the form of a little film titled “Pocahontas”. Seriously, while the setting and time period is different, the story and series of events are eerily similar, right down to some of the song numbers. However, this isn’t a review of “Pocahontas”, so let’s not get side tracked, and focus on “West Side Story”.  



       The time period is mid 1950’s, the place is New York, and the situation revolves around a turf war in the slums of Manhattan. A small group of juvenile young Americans called “The Jet’s” aren’t happy sharing the streets with a second group of juvenile young men from Portuguese called “The Sharks”. Meanwhile, the local authorities want them to chill and learn to get along. Both teams soon find themselves attending a party, in which one of the leaders of the Jets named Tony meets a girl named Maria, who’s the sister of the leader of the Sharks. Without batting an eye, the two fall in love, and are determined to start a new life together. As their relationship grows, conflicts between the two teams get worse, which leads to bloodshed, tragedy, betrayal and two young lovers trying to do all in their power to stop the fighting. All the familiar stamps of “Romeo and Juliet” are very recognizable, from the party, to recreating the balcony scene, to the rumble between the two opposing groups, to the tragic ending, etc. However, director Robert Wise adds his own unique and dazzling style to the experience, which makes the film feel original despite a familiar narrative. One of my favorite scenes is when Maria and Tony first meet at the party, everyone in the background gets distorted while our two lovers are the only ones in focus. Not only does this look great, it also illustrates how the rest of the world is slowly fading away from them now that they’ve found each other. 


   
        Let’s talk about the cast, who all stand bright and tall in this film. Maria is played by Natalie Wood, and she is excellent as always. Ever sense I first saw “Miracle on 34th Street”, the late Natalie Wood has been one of my favorite actresses, and she continued to impress in other films like “The Great Race”. Her role as Maria is just as memorable and charming as her performances get, and she owns every scene she’s in. Another stand out actress is Rita Moreno as Marina’s best friend Anita. This character was actually more compelling and interesting then our two lovers as she’s trying to find her place among her devotion to her best friend or the lead member of the Sharks who she’s in love with. Rita Moreno’s performance was so strong that she won an Oscar for best supporting actress. Another stand out character for me is the Jets leader Riff played by Russ Tamblyn. This guy is chalk full of charisma and it’s just a real joy whenever he’s on screen. The remaining performances are all very good, but the characters fall into the standard “okay” category. The main love interest Tony is fine, and the Sharks leader Bernardo is perfectly functional, but for me they don’t hit quiet the same high notes as the other players.



     
       I really like how both the Jets and the Sharks have their positives and their faults. Neither team is perfect, and neither team is all bad. Despite some small differences they’re both just as rebellious, and that makes it harder for the audience to root for one team over the other. The Jets seem like the team with the most personality and charm, but they strike some low blows that really question their characters. There’s a scene when they gang up on Anita when she’s just trying to help, and while the Jets don’t rape her, it still feels like a disturbing violation, and puts these characters in a bad place. I think it was a very smart idea to make the conflicts revolve around gang violence, because I feel that it has a lot more relevance in this day and age as opposed to the conflicts in the original “Romeo and Juliet” which just involved two homes that didn’t get along. The only thing dated about this is some of the street lingo from the two teams. The way they talk, move and hold themselves while on screen definitely feels like a style of the time period, but it still fits within the tone and contents of the film.  



Of course I can’t review a musical without talking about the musical numbers, which are all classic. If you’re a fan of popular Broadway style music, you may already recognize these songs without even seeing the film. If you were to bring up a random song number like “Maria’s Song”, you could easily follow up with its famous lyrics, which are “Maria … I just met a girl named Maria”. Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics, and he knows how to write memorable songs that stick with you. The set pieces are all great, and the players all become one with their surroundings whenever a dance number begins. Jerome Robbins Exuberant choreography is another one of the films key ingredients that gives this musical character. However, if I had to make one small complaint, it would be that the melody and tempo of these songs are less memorable. The song number “America” for example features one of the films best set pieces and it’s a stand out dance number, but while I remember the scene, I won’t be humming the song after word.


      Don’t get me wrong, Leonard Bernstein’s score is excellent, and it definitely holds your attention while listening or watching this musical. But for me personally, it’s the lyrics and staging that really stick with me as opposed to the melody and rhythm of the songs themselves. Other musicals like “Singing in the Rain” and “Rent” also have memorable songs, but they also have extremely catchy melodies that stick with me long after I’ve watched them. Now there are some select songs in “West Side Story” that have their catchy tunes. The song “Gee, Officer Kruke” stands out with a catchy tempo to go along with the lyrics, which is surprising because it honestly isn’t even one of the better songs in the film. One of the more touching musical numbers which usually gets me in the “feels” is “Somewhere”, which is a duet between Tony and Maria that takes place at the height of all the character conflicts. My favorite song number by far, which captures the music, staging, visuals and melody perfectly is the second version of the song “Today”. With the sunset backdrop, the two teams marching to their biggest brawl, the tension building and the sharp edits between all the different characters, it’s arguably the films stand out moment that always comes to mind first when I think of this musical. This scene was also one of the many influences for Disney’s “Pocahontas”, as that film had a similar song number with two rival groups approaching one another, and sharp edits between all the different characters.

    
      Overall, I’d say “West Side Story” has aged very well, and has earned its status as a classic. I was actually hesitant to even give this film a review because the movie itself says everything while you’re experiencing it. So the heck with my review, just watch the film and trust me when I say, it’s worth seeing whether you’re a fan of musicals or not. I’ll never forget when I was first introduced to this movie in a High school film class. It just captured my imagination, and helped inspire me to both review and analyze the art of film. What else can I say, the songs are timeless, the sets are great, the choreography is tight, and the whole production stands as a testament to old stories brought to life in new and original ways.


                                   I give “West Side Story” 4 stars out of 5.  

My Top 10 Favorite Animated Couples



    It’s the month of Valentines, the season of love, and for today’s list I’m counting down my own personal top 10 favorite couples featured in animated movies or TV shows. From popular Disney couples to anime couples, I’ll do my best to cover a variety, and in the end it’ll all lead to what I honestly consider to be the best couple to ever come from the world of animation.


#10 Bruce Wayne and Andrea Beaumont from “Batman Mask of the Phantasm” (Movie) 


      Relationships with superhero’s are never without an undercurrent of remorse. Well, at least Superman and Spider-Man can still hold onto their trade mark girl friends, despite all the complications. Batman on the other hand isn’t so fortunate. He’s had his on and off again relations, but it’s his first love interest Andrea Beaumont that stands as the most beautiful, yet most tragic of his many relationships. This was the girl who almost pulled Bruce Wayne out of the shadows, his one shot at a normal life, but sadly just couldn’t hold onto ... oh, and I don’t mean she dies, no, something worse actually happens. However, going over it in every detail would take all day, so for simplicity’s sake I'll say this ... Their story adds another layer of depth and intrigue to the legacy of the dark knight, which most people aren’t even aware of. Aside from being a tragic spectacle, they do still have chemistry, their individual scenes are genuinely touching, and they even capture the subtle moments that I wish more live action movie couples could have. The movie “Batman Mask of the Phantasm” is a beautiful, tragic romance story combining the hopes and dreams of a good life with the darkness of reality, and it’s an animated couple that disserves more attention.     


#9 Sakura and Li from “Cardcaptors” (TV Series & Movies) 



     What is it about “Young Love” that just gets me in the “feels”. I don’t know, there’s just something really sweet about a love that starts at a young age. Sakura and Li looked like your average elementary school students, but secretly they were mystical young warriors that protected their home town from magical auditions that had a tendency to spring up, and ruin their regular day. At first they were rivals competing for respected titles, but over time they became partners in saving the world, then became best friends, and by the time the final movie came along to close the series ... their young hearts became one. Now “Cardcaptors” was something special that I personally grew up with, and this list just wouldn’t feel complete for me without including these two. Sakura is about as cute and lovable as young heroines get, which balances off of Li’s stern heroism. They may not be that popular when compared to any of those Disney couples, or as deep as the lovers featured in most of Hayao Miyazaki’s landmark Anime movies, but there warm chemistry, and built up relation made them something special.  
   

#8 Anna and Kristoff from “Frozen” (Disney Movie) 



    Disney couples can be hit or miss, but when they do something really good, it stands out like a jewel among coins. Their most recent couple from Disney’s runaway hit “Frozen” is one of their more unique and enjoyable. While obviously not the first film to create a formula of this sort, it’s still done with good taste, and a lot of charisma. In the beginning our princess Anna is engaged with a prince character, who she’s madly in love with, but then she finds herself going on an adventuring with a stranger named Kristoff, who’s her only companion on the journey. This character becomes the new love interest over the previously established Prince character, and it’s done with a lot of charm. The two naturally develop that same kind of Han Solo and Princess Leia chemistry, where they don’t like each other at first, make sarcastic comments and comebacks to one another, and then over time they start to warm up to each other. Even by the end of the film, there not 100% committed, but they’re still whiling to give their relationship a try, and I love that. Just about every other Disney movie ends with the couple getting married. I really appreciate this little twist where nothing is official, but there’s more than enough potential for things to progress between them. Finally, I also like how they poke at common Disney tropes and clichés ranging from the two people falling in love at first site, to the romantic song number that confirms their an item. It’s funny, it’s charming, its Disney romance at its best.     


#7 Hiccup and Astrid from “How to Train your Dragon” (Movies & TV Show) 



     DreamWorks 2010 animated movie “How to Train your Dragon” is personally one of my favorite movies ... animated or not, and it’s become a terrific long running series of films, short films and TV shows. One of its many great strengths is its cast of characters and their relations. The relation between father and son is great, the relation between pet dragon and rider is excellent, and of course the romance is just great. However, the romance is a small side note of the series that didn’t even need to exist, but it’s done very well. Actually, keeping the romance on the side line really works to its advantage. It allows our two Viking hero’s to just breathe, and have a relationship that develops naturally without any complex drama added in. They may only have a hand full of scenes together, and when they do there really short, but that's why it works. It’s simplistic, it’s touching, and their moments always get me to smile. To put it simply, in a franchise as big and epic as this, a little bit of heart can go a long way.  
     

#6 Marlin and Dory from “Finding Nemo” (Pixar Movie) 



     Now I know what you’re thinking ... these two don’t count, they weren’t actually in love, and there was nothing romantic going on between them. Well, you’re right ... and that’s why I like these two. “Finding Nemo” is a perfect example of how a lead male and lead female character can be a perfect match without being an item. Even though there not lovers, both their partnership and their friendship are as natural as they get. Plus, it’s an honest breath of fresh air. There’s even a set up at the beginning of the film where our main hero’s wife tragically dies, which could have led to such a predictable outcome with Dory being a replacement girl friend. Instead she’s just a close side kick to go along for the adventure, and in this regard I’d say that Marlin and Dory are a perfect pair, even though they’re not a romantic couple.  


#5 Aang and Katara from “Avatar the Last Airbender” (TV Series) 



      Oh boy, here I go again, highlighting two very young lovers that start off with opposite personalities, but after embarking on a grand journey together, a relationship is born, and ... well, I’m just as sucker for this. Aang has the heart of a grown warrior, but the personality of an extremely joyful child. Then by contrast, Katara has the mind-set of a wise adult, but she still has the heart of a young woman. In short, these two complete one another perfectly, have great chemistry, and have some really cute moments. Also, animated or not, I always tend to gravitate to couple’s from TV shows, because I feel like I’m going on the journey with them, experiencing all the highs and lows, and in the end it’s just more gratifying to see them come together. Of course I’m a long time fan of “Avatar the Last Airbender”, so this was one couple I just couldn’t leave off, even if I tried.    
       

#4 Belle and Beast from “Beauty and the Beast” (Disney Movie) 



     Of all the classic Disney couples to make my list, I’ll bet your surprised it’s Belle and the Beast. It’s often regarded as the most romantic animated movie ever made, with the best romantic couple of all time, and it’s well deserving of that reputation. It’s so famous, I don’t even need to talk about it, just listen to that classic “Beauty and the Beast” song and fall in love for this movie and its characters all over again.


#3 Robin and Star Fire from “Teen Titans” (TV Series & Movie) 



      Of the many different superhero couples and relations I’ve watched or grew up with, nothing brought me more joy or held my interest more than these two young Titans. One is an alien princess while the other is a famous side kick to an equally famous super hero, and somehow, despite being polar opposites, they both just work. It’s often said that opposites attract, and here’s why ... they complete each other. Both are heroes, yet they both have their faults. Robin can be a real “hot head” where as Star Fire can be a real “air head”. It’s Robin’s job to be the educator to this alien visitor who’s trying to find her place in the world. Then by contrast, Star Fire serves as Robin’s moral compos, and aims him in the right direction when he’s facing his inner demons. Together they’ve had their cute and funny moments, but they’ve also had their fair share of dark and serious conflicts. In the end, their just an all around awesome superhero couple that have always stood out in my impressionable and nostalgic memory.     
   

#2 Anastasia and Dimitri from “Anastasia” (Don Bluth Movie) 



     One of my favorite set ups for a couple is when they start off as two strangers that find themselves roped into a journey together, and through a series of events they gradually form a relationship ... as opposed to the common falling in love on site cliché. Don Bluth’s “Anastasia” followed this formula down to the letter, and then added an extra ingredient of charm, hummer and charisma into the mix. Both Anastasia and Dimitri exchange sassy remarks with one another, are chalk full of personality, and the voice acting provided by Meg Ryan and John Cusack is pitch perfect. They just have no shortage of witty banter, making them one of the most entertaining and funny animated couples I’ve ever seen. Then when all the wise cracks are said and done, they do ease their way into the more traditional romance we’d expect from a film of this sort. They also play around with conventions, and give us some refreshing surprises. There’s a moment when the two have that classic “misunderstanding” that would normally separate the couple, but one of our two hero’s is committed to resolving it as quickly and as professionally as possible ... which he does. I’ve always hated how in other films the “misunderstanding” is just used as an excuse to separate the characters, which just leads to them moping and doping until the end of the film. “Anastasia” breaks through that convention, and gives it some juice. Finally, there theme song “At The Beginning” is personally one of my favorite romantic songs to come from an animated feature, and it perfectly sums up the journey we embarked on with these two terrific characters.



Before I reveal my #1 favorite, here are my Honorable Mentions ...

Max and Roxanne from “A Goofy Movie

Aladdin and Jasmine from “Aladdin

Mavis and Johnny from “Hotel Transylvania

Satoshi and Serena from “Pokémon XY

Meg and Hercules from “Hercules



#1 Carl and Ellie from “Up” (Pixar Movie)



      No matter how good or how charismatic a movie couple can be, they’ll always be restricted to common conventions and formulaic storytelling. Belle and Beasts relation in “Beauty and the Beast” was done masterfully, but it was still part of fairy-tail formula that isn’t that relatable. By contrast, Carl and Ellie from Pixar’s “Up” is that rare case in which a movie couple is as genuine, as relatable, as emotional and as real as they get. There’s no common formula here, no clichéd misunderstandings, no villain that needs to be defeated ... it’s just the story of life. This couple isn’t even the main focus of the film, it’s only relevant for the first 10 minutes of the movie, but in those precious phew minuets, we see the complete story of their relationship from their child hood, to their adult hood, all the way up to their old age, which is a lot more then what other couples could accomplish in big film franchises. In the beginning, Carl’s a little shy young boy, while Ellie is an over the top energy-holic. Both different, but both have the same burning passion and drive, which keeps them together. It’s just a genuinely emotional experience watching all the different peaks and vales this couple goes through in their life’s journey. We see the positive moments, we see the tragic events they’ve had to endure, we see when they supported one another ... and (Spoiler Alert) even after one of them sadly passes on, we see how the other preserves their memory and keeps them alive. It’s beautiful, it’s sad, it’s touching, it hits every emotional bulls-eye you could possibly hit, and in my opinion, Carl and Ellie are the greatest animated couple I’ve ever seen.   

                The End

My 10 Favorite Romantic scenes from Movie Couples I don’t like


I’ve been around the block with movies for years, have seen a lot of good, a lot of bad and have had mixed emotions. Today’s topic is highlighting positive elements among things that I just don’t like or care for. Sense it’s the Valentines season, I’m going to highlight select moments that I love from movie couples that I either hate or just didn’t care much for. Hey, even something at its worst can have something positive, if only slightly. So here we go, my favorite romantic moments from movie couples I don’t much care for. 


“Freezing the Moment” from “Star Trek Insurrection” 


Unlike his predecessor James Kirk, Star Trek TNG’s Captain Picard really wasn’t much of a ladies man, and in this 9th installment of the film series, we see the captain swept away in one of those “meh” relationships that no one cares for. Within this average romance involving a forgettable love interest, is a very memorable and beautiful moment. The two characters describe having a perfect moment, in which time seems to be standing still. To colorfully illustrate this we have a scene in which the two are bonding, while everything around them is slowing down. It’s a creative and honestly touching concept that’s pulled off with a lot of subtlety. Throughout the scene, the two are only holding hands and never even share a kiss, yet the two are still experiencing something very special with one another. I think a lot of people on some level can relate to having a special moment when everything just slowed down around them, and it was just really cool to see that captured on film.   


“Evening Flight” from “Pearl Harbor


This movie is often regarded as the poor man’s version of “Titanic”, and for obvious reasons. The romance in the movie is about as arbitrary as they get, complete with zero chemistry and awful dialog. BUT, I’ll give them this small bit of credit, the one scene in which the pilot takes his girl friend out for a romantic flight was actually kind of nice. This cinematography was great, the color scheme was beautiful, and that Oscar winning sound track did touch me on some level. On a side note, the theme song titled “There You’ll Be” was also very beautiful, and got me to overlook a clichéd relationship ... if only for a minute.


“Simply Meant to Be” from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” 


Disney couples have never been 100% convincing, but this relationship between the animated characters Jack and Sally is plain non-existent. The movie just never gives these two a chance to establish a relationship, at least until the tail end of the movie, and for whatever it’s worth ... that last scene was fairly good. The final duet between Jack and Sally is short, subtle, beautifully shot and almost works in manipulating the audients to believe that these two had chemistry. 


“Will Ferrell on the Guitar” from “Stranger than Fiction” 


Now here’s a movie couple that really wasn’t terrible, they just weren’t memorable by any means. However, I’ll give credit where it’s due. There’s a scene in which Will Ferrell’s character is out on a date with a woman who’s mostly indifferent to him. As the night goes on, the two very naturally warm up to one another, and its Will Ferrell’s subtle guitar playing that wins her over. This scene has some of the best build up to a kiss that I’ve ever seen, and absolutely nothing came across as manipulative. Every emotion and reaction felt genuine, and when the scene reaches its climax, it’s almost guaranteed to put a big smile on the viewers face.


“Oh Shoot ... he’s actually in my House” from “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” 


I’ve been a long time fan of the Harry Potter series for more years then I can count. I love the magical setting, I love the stories, and naturally I really like the characters. The only thing I never got on board with was Harry Potter’s supposed relation with that one red head girl who had absolutely no chemistry with him. I’ll say this, the first time they meet leads to a subtle and very cute moment. This is a girl who’s apparently been a big fan of the guy, even before she met him, and her reaction to suddenly seeing him in his house one day was just priceless.   


“I Should Tell You” from “Rent” 


Here we go again, nothing can manipulate an audience into excepting a bland movie couple then a genuinely moving musical number. Seriously, the song number “I Should Tell You” from “Rent” is an absolutely beautiful romantic number. I don’t know what the magic ingredient is for this song, but it just gets to me every time I hear it. As firkin clichéd as it is, I really like the setting of a snowy and cold ally, where their love for one another is keeping them warm. Yeah, it’s trite, and the couple isn’t very interesting ... but very good song number.   


“Across the Stars” from “Star Wars 2: Attack of the Clones” 


Okay, I’m kind of cheating on this one because I’m not talking about an actual scene here, it’s more like an artificial element. The romance from “Star Wars 2: Attack of the Clones” is some of the worst I’ve ever seen, and had absolutely no worthwhile scenes. However, their musical ballet composed by John Williams titled “Across the Stars” is absolutely sensational. It has the build, the sensation, and it hits all the right high notes that just give me chills. This doesn’t help the uninteresting couple by any means, but on its own, this music track is great to listen to.     


“Blind Kiss in the Rain” from “Daredevil” 


Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner certainly make for a good looking couple on film, but the 2003 superhero movie “Daredevil” didn’t do them any favors, well, aside from kicking off their actual relationship. In the movie their supposed chemistry was paper thin, and it really just didn’t amount to anything that memorable. I will say that they do share one romantic scene that honestly puts Spider-Man’s popular upside down kiss to absolute shame. Daredevil is a blind superhero, but the vibrating sounds of all the falling rain allow him to see his girl friend Electra in a unique and beautiful way. It’s really cool because we rarely see superhero’s utilize their powers in a romantic setting like this. The pacing, build up and execution of this rooftop scene was also handled very well, with a soothing musical melody adding to the moment. While neither the movie or this couple is all that memorable, this scene definitely stands out as one of the best romantic moments I’ve ever seen in a superhero film.


“A Happy Ending ... at Last” from “Slumdog Millionaire” 


Let me make this as clear as I can ... I like this movie a lot, and I like these characters a lot, at least individually. The critic within me says that the two main characters in this film had no structure for a convincing relationship, but honestly I don’t care. After seeing this guy go through so much crap, this albeit clichéd and implausible happy ending with them reuniting at the train station was still very satisfying and triumphant. It’s what we wanted this character to finally achieve, and that makes this happy reunion perfectly acceptable and obviously quiet touching.  


Before I reveal my favorite romantic scene from a movie couple I didn’t care for, here are some Honorable Mentions ... 


“Can you feel the love Tonight” from “The Lion King

Upside-down kiss in the rain from “Spider-Man

“This is a Dream ... a Good Dream” from “The Lord of the Rings the Two Towers”    




“Reunited in Death” from “Titanic” 


“Gasp!” I didn’t like the couple in “Titanic” ... well, I honestly didn’t hate them, but they certainly didn’t do anything special for me either. That is with the exception of that one scene at the end of the film, in which the old woman dies, finds herself in a room full of all the lost souls that perished when the ship sunk, and finally reuniting with her long lost love. This is probably one of my favorite romantic scenes in motion picture history, even though I didn’t really care about these two characters, this ending still got me all choked up inside. Just the concept of two lost souls being reunited in death, and the souls of everyone applauding around them helps close this movie on a triumphant high note. It’s a beautiful scene, and still stands to this day as one of my all time favorite movie endings.



The End