mid90s (2018)

19 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Teenagers can be very obnoxious. (That shouldn’t be news to anybody—we were teens ourselves; we know how we behaved.) With a group of teens, that adds extra layers to the obnoxiousness. We’d say things to our friends that we couldn’t tell anyone else, though honestly, it was usually to try and keep up with our peers who had risqué stories that may or may not be true. (When you had to ask about certain things involving sex, you showed your lack of experience, thus lowering your ranking in the group.) A lot of us have been there, and hopefully, most of us have grown up a lot since then.

Jonah Hill remembers it. But he also remembers why the teenage group was there to begin with: not to one-up each other with debauchery and offensiveness, but to be there for one another when no one else will. He remembers the crudeness of being a teenage boy amongst other teenage boys, but he also remembers the friendship and loyalty that was always underneath the surface of the group. He grew up as a teen in the mid-1990s, but this sort of behavior is present with teenagers in every era. Therefore, it doesn’t matter that his directing debut, the aptly-named “mid90s,” was set in its time because it was made today and it’s about us, whether it’s for looking back on our teenage years (to see if we behaved similarly to the young characters or if we had a teenage life more relaxed and stable than what’s presented here) or even to see how similar today’s teens are compared to those from the mid-90s (technology obviously not being a factor in this argument).

Set in summer-1996 Los Angeles, “mid90s” is the story of a short, skinny, good-natured 13-year-old boy named Stevie (Sunny Suljic), whose home life isn’t very welcoming. His single young mother (Katherine Waterston) is nice and tries to care for him, but she’s somewhat irresponsible and a little too sharing about her romantic interests. Stevie looks up to his 18-year-old older brother Ian (and often sneaks into his bedroom to catch glimpses of pop culture to keep up with what’s “cool”), but Ian (Lucas Hedges) is a bully who pushes around and abuses his little brother every chance he gets. The kid is shy and socially awkward, but when he spots a group of loudmouthed, racially diverse skateboarding teens at the local skate shop, he can’t help but attempt to fit in with them. He buys Ian’s skateboard (for some of Stevie’s Nintendo games, of course—Stevie would never give up his Discman!) and spends more time around the hangout where he eventually gets noticed and (yay!) Is asked to fetch a jug of water for the skateboarders! Now he’s in with this ragtag team of “cool kids”—unofficial ringleader & skilled skater Ray (Na-kel Smith); Fourth Grade (Ryder McLaughlin), dim-witted aspiring filmmaker; F***S*** (Olan Prenatt), the jokester nicknamed for his excited exclamations; and Ruben (Gio Galicia), the younger, more stern one of the group who shows Stevie the ropes. (It’s clear to us that Ruben is the least popular of the group because of his attitude and that he sees himself as someone for Stevie to look up to. Pretty pathetic.) Stevie earns the nickname “Sunburn” (after taking part in one of the group’s most hilarious discussions about whether or not dark-skinned people can get sunburned) and he becomes an amusing asset to the group due to his naïveté and willingness to impress everyone.

It’s the summer that changes everything for this young man, as he smokes his first cigarette, drinks his first beer, barely survives an attempt to pull off a dangerous skateboarding stunt, tries drugs given to him by his friends, has his first sexual encounter with an older girl, and violently stands up to his bully of a brother. In less than 85 minutes, writer/director Jonah Hill is able to fit in as many rites of passage for a boy becoming a man in the ‘90s youth culture, and he doesn’t criticize as much as he observes. (Hill himself was 13 in 1996, so I wonder how much of this material is autobiographical.) But more importantly, he’s also able to fit in as much context for his likable young lead’s development as needed, even as unpleasant as presenting him as masochistic (he hits himself when he’s alone and, after a brutal fight with Ian, nearly asphyxiates himself with a Super Nintendo controller cable). The kid needs help, and whether his friends are the positive outlet for it or not, it’s at least something he can use for now. (Of course, his mother doesn’t see it that way—her son shows up at home intoxicated, she’s there to confront the boys right there in the skate shop despite her son’s protests.)

These mid-90s skater boys talk the way real-life mid-90s skater boys talked. (Often when these kids talked, I was reminded of Larry Clark’s 1995 slice-of-life “Kids.”) They’re crude, vulgar, homophobic, chauvinistic, idiotic, and more. But Hill never apologizes for it.* He just shows it how it was/is (no doubt many of these “deep discussions” are still held by modern teenage boys). And it makes the quieter moments amongst a couple of the kids all the more meaningful and welcome. An example: today, it’s normal for teens to show that they care for one another, but back in the mid-90s, it wasn’t “cool” to care unless you were already “cool” to begin with. Ray is certainly the “cool” one of the group, but he also has a heart, which he shows in a scene in which he consoles Stevie by sharing that the other boys have worse home lives than him (one’s family is poor, one’s mom is a drug addict, one is delving deeper into alcohol and drugs, and Ray lost his younger brother in an accident). Ray and Stevie are alone in this scene, because it’s highly doubtful the others wish for their personal lives to be shared with this kid, but I think it’s fair to assume that if he showed this side of himself otherwise, nobody would mind.

“mid90s” is very well-written and well-directed, with Hill and his crew putting as much detail into the time period as possible without forcing anything. And it’s very well-acted, with everyone from the kids (especially Suljic, Smith, and Hedges) to Katherine Waterston (playing the only key adult in the film) delivering very strong work. And there are little moments here and there that add very little and very much at the same time (Stevie gives his brother a CD he thinks he’ll like, but the brother ignores it; Stevie tries the same skateboard trick over and over again in his driveway; the kids make friendly conversation with a homeless man; among others). What I didn’t like about “mid90s” was the ending. I’m all for ambiguous conclusions, but I don’t think there was a conclusion to be found at all. Without giving it away, something happens to these kids, and we’re given an epilogue in which we’re not sure what to think (or think about). (And I don’t think a particular character reacted accordingly to the incident either.) At the end of “mid90s,” I don’t feel like much was accomplished. But thankfully, that’s not what I’m going to remember for time to come, when I’m thinking of “mid90s.” I’m going to remember the memorable characters, the effective time capsule, and my own teenage memories.

*According to IMDb Trivia, Hill thought the dialogue amongst the boys would get both him and the film in trouble, and so he considered shooting a scene in which the kids debate over whether they should be talking like that. Producer Scott Rudin talked him out of it, asking Hill, “Would you guys have had this conversation back then?”

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Last Flag Flying (2017)

1 Apr

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Directed by Richard Linklater? Starring Bryan Cranston? With Laurence Fishburne and Steve Carell? Based on the sequel novel to the source material behind “The Last Detail,” one of my all-time favorite films? Screenplay co-written by Linklater and the original novel’s author Darryl Ponicsan? It sounds too good to be true, and maybe that’s why I love “Last Flag Flying” as much as I do.

Funny thing is, even though I can see “Last Flag Flying,” based on Ponicsan’s 2005 novel of the same name (which was a sequel to his 1970 novel “The Last Detail,” which was the source material for the 1973 film adaptation), as an “unofficial” sequel to “The Last Detail” (albeit with different characters names & motivations), it still feels like a Richard Linklater film. We still have a small group of characters who are bright and clever enough for the audience to want to follow them around for two hours and listen to what they have to say to each other, which has always been Linklater’s most welcome trademark in his filmography.

Taking the place of “Bad Ass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson in “The Last Detail”), “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young), and Meadows (Randy Quaid) are “Sal” Nealon (Bryan Cranston), Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), and Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell). The “Last Flag Flying” characters are more or less the same as their previous “Last Detail” counterparts, despite some altered details here or there. (And don’t worry—I won’t make too many comparisons in this review.) It’s 2003 when Doc visits the bar of Sal, a former Marine he served with in Vietnam. Sal joins Doc on an impromptu drive the following morning to visit a church where another Vietnam buddy, Mueller (formerly known as “Mauler”), is the reverend. But after a pleasant time of catching up, Doc reveals to his old friends that he’s had a rough year—his wife died of breast cancer, and his son has recently been killed in action in Iraq. And he asks Sal and Mueller for help in burying him. After some consideration (and reluctance), the three embark on a road trip; first to Dover Air Force Base to retrieve the flag-covered coffin and then home to Portsmouth to bury the boy next to his mother. Along the way, they talk about the past, stop in New York City and Boston, and confront the demons they’ve faced for years. Sometimes, it’s very funny (such as when they decide to buy new handy devices called “mobile phones”—wow, was 2003 really that long ago?). Otherwise, it’s very bitter. But before the trip is over, they will help one another get over the past because no one else can.

Linklater observes these three characters with respect, sympathy, and affection. And despite the terrible things they mention having done in the past, Linklater doesn’t judge them either—he has them address the issue head-on and talk about how it affected their lives. That’s where the intense drama comes effectively into play, and because all three men are distinct and memorable, the conversations they partake in are always interesting to follow. And that also makes it more fun when the lighter, comedic moments pop in for much-needed levity—my favorite scene is the aforementioned “cellphone” scene, in which they go into a department store and are amazed and delighted that they can carry a little phone with them at all times and call someone with the same mobile plan for no additional charge!! (This was 2003—back when we actually used cellphones to…talk on the phone.) But the film is all about the journey they take together, so there’s room for both comedy and drama, and as is the case for my favorite Linklater films, I would join these characters’ company for another couple hours.

All three actors—Cranston, Fishburne, and Carell—are excellent, but it’s Cranston that steals the show almost too often. It’s one of his very best performances, and his cocky charisma even rivals that of Jack Nicholson’s 1973 counterpart of the character.

Now…let’s address a potential “elephant in the room”: is “Last Flag Flying” an anti-war movie? Probably. Setting it at the beginning of the Iraq War and seeing consequences from the perspectives of Vietnam War veterans, it’s not hard to make that distinction. And there are a lot of cynical and bitter comments about the military and the overall purpose of war that heavily indicate that while opponents and locations have changed, the reasoning never changes. But at the same time, when the three characters (plus a friend of Doc’s son’s, also a young soldier, with whom they make conversation along the way) get down to it, they still remain loyal patriots who were proud to help serve their country. I think it’s more of an area in which they’ll do what they feel is their duty even if they’re not entirely sure why it’s their duty to begin with (i.e. what they were fighting for). It’s smart in the ambiguous way it’s treated, particularly in the tearjerking final scene in which Doc, now all alone, says goodbye to his son.

Sequel to “The Last Detail”? Eh, it’s a stand-alone film, so no matter. One of Linklater’s best? Definitely. One of the best films of 2017? No doubt. “Last Flag Flying” deserves the same amount of respect I’ve given to “The Last Detail,” and that’s a very high regard indeed.

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

29 Mar

 

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Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

One of my favorite filmmakers is Richard Linklater. No one can write dialogue and direct a large group of actors to convey what he’s going for in his screenplays quite like him. (Well…except for perhaps his French New Wave influences, but work with me here.) He gets a group of characters together from his own memory and/or imagination, gives them interesting subjects to talk about, and like his avid fans, I’m interested in what they have to say, when/where they say it. Among his impressive resume, “Dazed and Confused” is a cult classic that followed 1970s high-schoolers on the last day of school, “Boyhood” showed a boy come of age over the course of 12 years, and his “Before…” trilogy (“Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight”) showed the progression of a romantic relationship—all based on mundane material, made interesting by intelligent writing.

And that also goes for “Everybody Wants Some!!,” a film set in Texas over the course of two days leading up to the first day of college for a bunch of baseball jocks (and in 1980). What do they have to talk about? Oh, they have lots. Competition. Subcultures. Cruising chicks. Pickup techniques. Living in the moment. Nostalgia. And occasionally, baseball. (There’s only one scene which features the players on the field, for “voluntary” practice, which is actually mandatory.)

I think my favorite topic of conversation arrives as one of the team, freshman pitcher Jake (Blake Jenner), realizes that he and the team have partied in many different local scenes—a discotheque, a cowboy bar, and a punk-rock concert—and thus taken on different identities mainly for the prospect of getting laid. “It’s not phony,” his enthusiastic teammate Finn (Glen Powell), assures Jake. “It’s adaptive.” (And this is before they attend a theatre party on campus.) It is adaptive, just as veteran players adapt to newcomers on the field and 18-19-year-olds adapt to being away from home for the first time.

There are many appealing characters in this ensemble, including—McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin), who treats everything like a competition, even table tennis for which he meets his match with Jake; Willoughby (Wyatt Russell), who lives for the game and especially the team camaraderie; and Billy “Beuter” (Will Brittain), who is an outcast because of his Southern accent. Finn is my favorite character of the bunch—he’s a senior who is the smartest/sharpest and always has a philosophy on hand whenever one or a few of his teammates partakes in something unusual, whether in the fraternity house or out on the town, and he’s happy to share them with the incoming freshman players.

The film is almost entirely focused on this large group of young men, meaning the women they try and pick up are either underdeveloped or objects for them to try and obtain. Thankfully, there is one exception: Beverly (Zoey Deutch), a performing arts major who notices Jake, which in turn gets him to notice her. (That’s a refreshing take—sometimes in life, you simply like the people who like you.) As Jake tracks her down and starts up conversation with her, she’s able to introduce him (and his teammates, who insist on tagging along) to a whole other side of campus. What results is the sweetest part of the film, as Jake and Beverly form a nice, real connection that could lead to a college romance.

By the time the film ends with the first day of history class, with “Frontiers are where you find them” written on the board, the message is very clear to us after two days of partying in a new place with new potential best friends—wherever you go, there’s always room for opportunity. What comes of that opportunity is an interesting adventure (or “frontier,” if you will). Most of us remember our first time at college and will never forget it. With “Everybody Wants Some!!,” Linklater captures the setting, the tone, and the spirit perfectly. And he gave us some appealing characters with interesting things to say as well.

Us (2019)

23 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It’s one thing to encounter a sinister-looking family of four (…whom you first noticed standing in a straight line in your driveway in the shadows at night—the first hint that they’re probably not “friendly”). It’s another thing when after they show their lack of benign nature…hey wait a minute, that one looks like your husband. And those two little ones look like your children. And that one looks like you! “It’s us,” your son whimpers. And these “evil usses” (if I may quote “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” for a moment) are scissors-wielding maniacs who simply want to stalk and kill their counterparts.

That’s the hook for “Us,” writer-director Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his extremely successful hit, “Get Out” (one of my new favorite movies). And where it goes from there…whoa.

Peele has only made two movies (“Us” and “Get Out”), both of which are horror films. And before that, he was best known for sketch comedy (TV’s “Key and Peele”). I think it’s safe to say that Peele has an affinity for storytelling rather than simply create a series of moments he really wants to execute somehow. When people talk about both films, they’re going to remember how well each story worked overall, with not just a short series of moments that caught their attention but a whole bunch of moments and how they helped build and build to something that would keep audiences discussing it for a long time to come. (Meet me in ten years, and we’ll see if that’s true after Peele’s next few films. I sincerely hope so.) That is but one of the reasons Peele’s screenplay for “Get Out” won the Academy Award.

But back to “Us.” The film centers on a family of four—Adelaide (Lupita N’yongo) & Gabe (Winston Duke) and their two kids Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex)—who go on summer vacation at their lake house in Santa Cruz, CA. Overprotective Adelaide wants to relax, but when overexcited Gabe buys a cheap boat and takes the kids on a little day trip to the Santa Cruz beach/boardwalk, it’s not so easy for her. But if she thought that was bad…

Did I mention there was a creepy prologue, set in 1986, involving Adelaide as a young girl who encounters something scary and traumatizing at a boardwalk funhouse with a mirror maze? Do I need to?

Anyway, fast-forward to later that night, as everyone’s about to get ready for bed, when suddenly, THE POWER’S OUT! And as Jason points out to his parents, there’s specifically “a family” in their driveway. And it is a family, it looks like—two adults, two children, all silhouetted in shadow. One of the funnier moments involves Gabe, who behaves as if he’d rather be the star of a lighthearted TV family sitcom than a disturbing horror/thriller, as he tries to challenge the potential intruders off the property. But they don’t take to that very well, and that’s when things go from strange to funny to chilling…and then a little funny again. Funny thing is, even with Gabe’s one-liners to off-set the tension when things go from bad to worse, it still feels like how someone like him would react in such a situation…and that’s before it becomes revealed what these sinister people look like.

We get a wonderfully crafted sequence following the doppelgängers invading the family’s home and revealing themselves to be “the shadows.” They look like the family, even mirror some of their movements, but they’re obviously very different beings. Once they sit them down in the living room, Adelaide’s counterpart, dubbed “Red,” tells them a story (and in a croaky voice, no less) that helps explain that they need to untether themselves from their hosts (hence the pairs of scissors they carry with them). That’s when the chase begins, as it becomes a race to outrun their attackers and survive the night. Jason attempts to outsmart his disfigured double by playing games; Gabe uses his new cheap boat to play against his Frankenstein’s-Monster-like double’s advances; and the two mothers go against each other. And that’s just the beginning…

Oh, and Jason’s opposite (who wears a mask) skitters along the floor on all fours…yikes.

There’s a message in this story about the haves and the have-nots between these comfortably well-off people and their downtrodden doubles, which thus helps go with the underlying commentary about the American Dream. Not particularly subtle, but it helps pave the way for what’s to follow in the next hour or so. And that’s all I’ll say about that here.

The creepiness factor is more than effective; it’s involving. What would we do if we were in that scenario? What would we feel? Thankfully, the characters Peele has given us in his meticulously crafted screenplay are as smart as they come. Yes, there are moments as in a *typical* slasher film when we wish they would “get out,” to coin a phrase, out of a certain situation, but we get why they were in that situation to begin with—many of the things our main characters do are not just to survive but to save each other.

What these doubles truly are, what they represent, whether or not this was an isolated incident, what happens next…I’ll leave for you to discover. As “Us” continues, it grows into a fascinating yet disturbing chiller that says more than we might suspect (which is what the best horror films truly do) and does so with enough twists and turns to keep us invested, enough entertainment value to market it to the mainstream horror audience, an effective style aided by great cinematography (by Mike Gioulakis, who also shot other effective chillers such as “It Follows” and “Split”), and a strong, likable, well-acted cast of characters we can root for. (Oh, and chilling memorable music from Michael Abels…when’s the last time a music composer has been praised for a recent horror film??)

On a personal note, will I watch “Us” as many times as “Get Out,” which I already called one of my new personal faves? “Get Out” certainly had more of the entertainment value to add onto the well-defined characterization, remarkably clever storytelling, and symbolic themes that fit perfectly with clever social commentary (“Get Out” represents just damn good filmmaking, period). “Us” is definitely entertaining, and a good chunk of credit for that goes to the balance of horror and comedy (and of course, Gabe’s behavior helps too), though it does have a touch of the atmospheric bleakness and symbolism of “The Babadook,” “The Witch,” and “Hereditary,” three brutally disturbing horror films that I can only watch once or twice a year because they did their jobs “too” well. (Maybe some day, I’ll write about the “kind” of horror films I “prefer” to watch repeatedly.)

All I know are two things: one is that I will definitely see “Us” again because I want to get everything Jordan Peele threw at me the first time, and the other is I can’t wait to see what Jordan Peele comes up with next.

Ordinary People (1980)

19 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I don’t want to talk about the “controversy” (and by “controversy,” I mean cinephiles complaining too damn much) of Robert Redford’s “Ordinary People” taking home the Best Picture AND Best Director Oscar awards over Martin Scorsese and his masterpiece “Raging Bull.” I just want to talk about “Ordinary People” and its own merits. If you’re looking for the elephant in the room, I’m sure you can find another review post-Oscars-1981. There’s a lot of them.

Truth is, “Ordinary People” is a fine film; a solid, effective, powerfully-acted family drama about three well-defined characters: an upper-middle-class young man coping with survivor’s guilt after the accidental death of his older brother, his conceited mother who can’t think of anything but how her son’s lack of interest in anything affects how people see the family, and his father who just wants peace between the two and within himself.

The son is teenage Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton). His life is a wreck ever since a tragic sailing accident resulting in the drowning of his older brother Bucky, the prince of the family. He survived with utmost guilt and tried to kill himself. Now that he’s out of psychiatric care, he’s back to live with his parents, returns to school, sees a therapist, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), and tries to put his life back on track. That’s easier said than done. He has no interest in former activities, such as swimming for the school team, and his friends aren’t on the same level as him. He wanders through life in a constant state of confusion, anger, and self-hatred. But surely, his parents would be able to help…

Well, his father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), is a sad case. He wants to be there for his son, and he wants to help him, and at least he tries to make an effort to get through to him…which is more than I can say for Conrad’s mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore). How can I put this delicately? She’s very cold, one of the most realistic WASP characters I’ve ever seen in a movie, and utterly detestable. She’s withdrawn and wants to maintain the illusion that she’s the matriarch of a typical all-American suburban household with no issues at all, least of all a son who quits any and all activities and about whom her husband feels fine talking about in regards to his seeing a therapist. One of the most telling scenes is when she snaps at her son, saying how patients may act in psychiatric hospital won’t be tolerated in her household—Conrad snaps back, reminding her that she never visited him in the hospital and she might have visited Buck if he were in psychiatric care: she responds, “Buck never would’ve been in the hospital!” I hate this woman, but it’s interesting to try and understand why she feels this way. It’s like she desperately wants everything to remain status quo, so much so that she either can’t tell when something is more wrong than it seems or she just won’t acknowledge it.

“Ordinary People” is the directing debut from actor Robert Redford, and it’s adapted from by Alvin Sargent from the novel by Judith Guest. Both the novel and the film capture effectively what it’s like for a family in conflict, with compelling characters with different issues to follow—guilt, sorrow, confusion, etc. Communication between director and actor helps, of course. Redford not only captures the feel of what it’s like underneath the image of upper-middle-class suburbia, but he gets outstanding performances from each of his actors.

Speaking of whom, the film belongs to Timothy Hutton, since it’s his character’s story that’s being told. He has the right amount of intensity for a role like this, which earned him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (even though it was hardly a supporting performance—but I won’t get into that either). Mary Tyler Moore, also nominated, helps us to see humanity buried deep within a superficial character—something about the way she tries to maintain control throughout all of this is just fascinating. Donald Sutherland (for some reason, not nominated) plays the kind of guy you just want to reach out and comfort and say everything’s going to be OK sooner or later. And Judd Hirsch, whom Hutton beat for the Oscar in the same category, has a few terrific scenes as the therapist, comedic before taking effective, darker turns. The acting practically makes the film, which otherwise is just a well-made, well-written social drama about a family trying (or not trying) to reconnect.

OK fine, I’ll go into a little bit about why I think “Ordinary People” took home high honors at the Oscars instead of Scorsese’s “Raging Bull”—it came out at just the right time. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, mainstream films were coming around to showing the truer sides of the Dysfunctional American Family and addressing issues that are faced every day. The previous Best Picture winner, “Kramer vs. Kramer,” focused on family coping with divorce, so it made sense that the sentimental Academy decided to give the trophy to a family drama about coping with tragedy. That’s the best explanation I can think of. Yes, obviously, “Raging Bull” is a masterwork from one of our greatest directors, and it didn’t win the Oscar—does that really mean we’re not going to love it any more than we do? “Ordinary People” is a fine film, and I’ll recognize it as a fine film—it’s well-directed, very well-written, and powerfully-acted…but I won’t consider it the best film of 1980.

West Side Story (1961)

18 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ll just say right off the bat that I hardly know anything about the Broadway play Robert Wise’s 1961 cinematic musical “West Side Story” is based on. I can’t speak on behalf of changes that were made to meet movie standards in the 1960s (though I know it was heavily censored). I’m just reviewing it as a movie. As it was meant to be.

“West Side Story” is a musical based on the acclaimed Broadway play of the same name, at the time told as an updated version of William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The story is set in the late 1950s in New York’s Upper West Side and is centered on the feud between two rival gangs: the Jets and the Sharks, standing in for the Monatgues and the Capulets. The Jets are all-American white kids who have nothing better to do with their lives than rule the local playground. The Sharks, Puerto Rican immigrants now living in the United States, are the rivals of the Jets. Standing in for Romeo and Juliet, who each belonged to one of the two rival groups, are Tony and Maria. Tony (Richard Beymer) is the former leader of the Jets and now has a job as a delivery boy. Maria (Natalie Wood, sporting a shaky accent) is the sister of the leader of the Sharks. Tony and Maria spot each other at a public gathering (a dance), share a nice dance together, and fall in love with each other even when they know one represents what the other is told to hate.

In “Romeo and Juliet,” Romeo and Juliet themselves are arguably the least interesting elements of the story. The same goes for Maria and Tony in “West Side Story” (and it doesn’t help that stiffly-accented Natalie Wood and just-plain-stiff Richard Beymer are miscast in the roles*). But the reason both stories (“Romeo and Juliet” and “West Side Story”) are celebrated is not because of the two romantic leads but because of what their tragedy means for the rest of the characters that surround them. The two are from warring factions in a community, and they want what no one else wants: to get to know one another because of their differences rather than in spite of them. Their tragic tale is that they weren’t given the chance to fully develop their relationship, because their families and friends were so blinded by their own prejudices against the other group they saw as not worthy of belonging amongst them. Romeo and Juliet say sweet-nothings to each other, they have nothing particularly interesting to say, and they were denied the opportunity to explore where a possible relationship could go. So is the case with Maria and Tony. (Yeah, I know, spoiler alert, but if you know “Romeo and Juliet,” the story structure shouldn’t surprise anybody. There are no happy endings.)

The supporting players are memorable and well-defined. George Chakiris plays Bernardo, leader of the Sharks. Of course, he’s going to be angered and ticked off about his sister falling for the former leader of the rival gang, but as we see in the “America” musical number (which I’ll get to soon), we understand more of why he feels this certain way. And it’s to Chakiris’ credit as an actor that even when we want him to shut up and see what he doesn’t want to see, he carries the screen with a solid, charismatic presence. (He won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance.) Rita Moreno, who took home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, plays Maria’s personal friend, Anita, and she’s very effective as well. (And as far as I know, she’s one of the few key performers whose singing voice isn’t dubbed**.) Also terrific is Russ Tamblyn, the cocky present leader of the Jets.

I was very surprised, and kind of upset, by just how much “West Side Story” holds up in presenting difficult social issues, such as senselessness of gang conflict and racial prejudice. It is a big, bombastic musical, and there is a lot of singing and dancing (and even prancing), but that doesn’t mean it shies away from these things. (And this is from the ‘60s, so its representation of these issues is somewhat naive by today’s standards, but it still works.) I obviously wasn’t alive at that time, but take out the singing and dancing, and for all I know, it could be how gangs of different races did see each other back then… I don’t know; moving on.

It is a musical, after all. How’s the music? Wonderful. Many of the songs (including the Jets’ anthem, “Jet Song”; Tony’s premonition song, “Something’s Coming”; the “Tonight Quintet,” in which all key cast members predict something big to come by the climactic finale; and more) are excellent, memorable, well-produced, and well-performed. The most telling song in the film for me is “America,” a song performed by the Puerto Ricans about both the good and the bad of being an immigrant in the United States. (Oh, how far society hasn’t come.) Among the key lyrics—when the optimistic women sing, “Life is all right in America,” the pessimistic men counter it with “If you are white in America.” There are many points and counterpoints in this one song, and overall it delivers great insight into the Puerto Rican women who have great hope for the American Dream and the Puerto Rican men who have been disillusioned by the gang strife and the dead-end jobs, among other aspects of the so-called “American Dream.”

So that’s all well and good on an aural level—what about on a visual level? Outstanding! The choreography with the actors/dancers is amazing—you can tell Wise and his choreographers worked their feet off to create just the right staging for each individual role in the musical numbers, and it shows. In particular, I’ll never forget the lyric-free 10-minute dance number that introduces the feud between the Jets and the Sharks as they walk along the streets of the West Side. It’s wonderfully done. This is everything I look for in a good musical.

Some parts campy, some parts genuine, almost always lively and energetic, “West Side Story” is a lovely cinematic musical that I’ll more than likely revisit many times in the future. Maybe even more than Wise’s subsequent musical, “The Sound of Music.”

*Maybe I’m too harsh on Wood and Beymer. Though I do think they’re miscast, they are trying, at least. And they do have some charming moments, particularly when they’re alone together and contemplate telling their parents about their plans to propose marriage—give that scene credit; it’s probably more interesting than anything Romeo and Juliet ever talked about.

**I was wrong. She was dubbed for one song.

Antoine and Colette (Short Film)

18 Mar

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

One of my favorite films is Francois Truffaut’s 1959 masterpiece, “The 400 Blows,” about a troubled kid named Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, who would appear in more Truffaut films to follow). Even though I knew Truffaut made four follow-ups to the film, showing the boy grow into adulthood, I wasn’t in a huge hurry to seek them out because the ending to “The 400 Blows” practically demanded I decide for myself what the future held for this poor boy who had already ticked off his parents, committed petty crime, and ran away from juvenile hall.

But you can’t blame me for being curious. It’d be like only watching the first entry in Michael Apted’s “7-Up” documentary series and not knowing in the slightest how much Suzy had changed. So, I checked out “Antoine and Colette,” a 29-minute short film Truffaut made just a few years after “The 400 Blows.”

It’s nice to know Antoine is trying to better himself. Now 18 and living a life of (mostly-) solitude,  he supports himself by manufacturing LPs at the Philips factory in Paris. He still has an artistic, poetic edge to himself that was introduced in “The 400 Blows”—he still goes to the movies and he listens to opera and classical music. (He also spends time with Rene, a friend from “The 400 Blows.” We get a flashback to remind us of their friendship.) And Leaud still nails the part wonderfully; it’s like he and Truffaut shared a deep connection in how the character should develop. (I especially like an opening scene in which he wakes up one morning and reaches on his nightstand for a hardly disposed cigarette to smoke.)

One night at a musical concert, Antoine spots Colette (Marie-France Pisier), a slightly-older, beautiful woman, with whom he falls in love. They share a nice friendship, and Antoine is adored by Colette’s parents (who seem much better to be around than Antoine’s own parents, with whom he doesn’t seem to communicate anymore). He even moves into a place across from Colette and her family, to literally get closer to the woman he loves. But does she love him? Like most young loves, it’s hard to tell when emotions are clearly expressed to one another. He can’t take this mind game anymore and lets her know how she feels, and…well, the ending is true, but that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking.

Now that Antoine is older and independent (and alive), he can start going through the emotions that all young adult men face, such as unrequited love. And because the character is so charming, and Truffaut obviously had an affection for him (and people have speculated that Antoine is Truffaut’s alter-ego), I can’t help but hope for the best while also want to let him know somehow that things are going to be OK and it happens to us all.

After this short came three feature films that continued to keep up with Antoine’s life: “Stolen Kisses,” “Bed and Board,” and “Love on the Run.” I may check those out too…maybe.