Movie Review – West Side Story


West Side Story (1961, dir. Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins)


It’s 1957 in the West Side of Manhattan and tensions are brewing between the white American gang The Jets and their Puerto Rican rivals, The Sharks. The local police aren’t much better than the gangs but make a weak effort to stop these young men from becoming violent. In the midst of the brewing gang war are Tony and Maria. Tony is a former member of the Jets and still friends with them while Maria is the little sister of The Sharks’ leader Bernardo. Choreographer Jerome Robbins, Conductor and Musician Leonard Bernstein, Lyricist Stephen Sondheim and writer Arthur Laurents take the classic Shakespeare play Romeo & Juliet and place it in this setting, contemporary to them at the time, to find connections between that iconic play and the violence they saw erupting from urban youth.

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Movie Review – Ouija: Origin of Evil

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016, dir. Mike Flanagan)


It’s 1967, and Alice Zander works her spiritual medium con with help from her daughters, Lina and Doris. Since her husband died, Alice has struggled to make ends meet and manipulating grieving people eager to believe barely helping. Enter the Ouija board that young Doris quickly takes to, communicating with what she believes to be her father’s spirit. Well, as you can expect from a film like this, things get bad, and the entity using Doris becomes increasingly more malevolent as the plot progresses.

I’ve been watching director Mike Flanagan’s films since his 2011 debut Absentia and have always viewed his work as okay. It’s never risen to the top as my favorite horror, though he always has some interesting ideas in his scripts. Ouija is sadly the most generic of his films to date. It comes off as a Blumhouse styled horror film (Insidious, The Conjuring, etc.). And like those films, the horror is incredibly formulaic and predictable. If you have ever seen a horror film from the last decade, then you will be able to see the plot points coming miles away. As a result, Ouija commits the worst sin a horror film can: it’s not scary.

Stylistically it’s admirable that Flanagan attempted to make a pastiche of 1960s horror cinema. The title card, the warped soundtrack, the crackles in the audio track, the “burn marks” on the screen signaling reel changes in the projector room. However, the tone of the horror works in bold contrast to these stylistic flourishes. These are yawn-inducing jump scares that never make you jump. The evil entity becomes way too physically aggressive to be truly scary. I find the horror from Absentia to still linger with me because of its ambiguity and unpredictable nature. The same with the mirror in Oculus, the things it does are much more interesting and skin-crawling than just using invisible force to throw someone across a room.

The acting is fine with the main weight of the story being balanced between Elizabeth Reaser as Alice and Annalise Basso as Lina. They aren’t amazing, but I blame a lot of that on the weakness of the script. Henry Thomas pops up as a faithful Catholic priest who will be the inevitable Exorcist, another plot point you see coming as soon as he’s introduced. Doris is played by Lulu Wilson and does most of the villainous acting. She is painfully an “acting kid, ” and that is seen in the way she delivers her lines. After watching Dafne Keen in Logan show nuance and strength in her mainly silent performance, this is like looking at a Disney kid overemote. On top of that, the computer generated effects they use to make her monstrous end up being comically bad.

Ouija: Origin of Evil seems to be getting praised due to its juxtaposition with the first film in the franchise. I’ve successfully avoided the first picture due to the incredibly negative buzz it’s received. I assume it must be catastrophically bad if this sequel is being considered a magnificent film in comparison. Origin of Evil is not the worst film you could watch, but there are many other you would be better spending your time on.

Director in Focus: Werner Herzog – Signs of Life

Signs of Life (1968)

Before we jump into this first film, some background on Werner Herzog. Werner Stipetic was born in Munich in 1942 in a house that was destroyed by Allied bombing a couple years later. The family migrated to the Alps, where the father left the family, causing 12 year old Werner to take his grandmother’s last name, Herzog. Herzog showed a rebellious streak early on, when asked to sing in front of his class and refused. Till he was 18, as an act of defiance, he never sang, listened to music, or learned to play a single instrument. At the age of 14, Herzog encountered a simple encyclopedia entry on film making that infused the desire in him to create. He stole a 35mm camera from the Munich Film School in act he defends as a necessity for him to continue living. Herzog has been married three times, something you would expect based on his volatile personality. One more interesting note about the director, during a 2006 interview with BBC critic Mark Kermode, Herzog was shot by an unknown person with an air rifle. He seemed to brush it off and attempted to continue with the interview, despite Kermode freaking out over the incident.

Signs of Life is a war film without war, instead the soldiers are driven to madness through sheer boredom. Set on Crete during World War II, the film finds Strosek and two fellow German officers put in charge of a munitions depot nestled in ancient ruins. The main character here is the most blank canvas, while his compatriots, Becker and Maynard have more fully fleshed personalities. Strosek has ended up engaged to local Greek girl, Nora in a relationship that seems founded in their mutual lack of anything interesting to do. The film is narrated in a stoic, travelogue style that tempers the picture up until its last twenty minutes when Strosek becomes completely unhinged.

Signs of Life is cited as an inspiration for Kubrick’s The Shining, however I saw a lot of similarities with Polanksi’s Knife in the Water. Both films are of the same era and place their characters in a lifeless, desolate landscape where they are psychologically pushed to extremes. As we’ll see with the majority of Herzog’s work, he is incredibly interested in the psyche of men who have a break with reality and the role nature plays in that. Strosek is positioned against his desert setting as minuscule, he is insignificant, hence his position defending a post that is no danger of being attacked. Signs of Life is about humanity’s innate need to believe they are useful. When we feel that our society has no use for us it will inevitable cause a break from the social expectations and mores.

Up next: Even Dwarfs Started Small

Shadows in the Cave: The World of Henry Orient

The World of Henry Orient (1964, dir. George Roy Hill)
Starring Tippy Walker, Merrie Spaeth, Peter Sellers, Angela Lansbury, Tom Bosley

When I see George Roy Hill’s name I think of The Sting or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I never expected this small, delightful film. This is one of those pictures where New York City is a player along with the actors. There’s that sort of innocent magic about the city as seen through the eyes of our adolescent protagonists. And despite Peter Sellers receiving top billing, this is most definitely not his film. While I love Sellers, I would have hated for his character overshadow the performances of the two young women in the leads. He works perfectly as the awkwardly charismatic pianist paranoid over the two young girls he believes are stalking him. And as life imitates art, Sellers was actually dealing with a real life stalker during the filming of Henry Orient.

Marian (Spaeth) meets Val (Walker) one morning on the first day of school at St. Mary’s. The two hit it off splendidly and Marian quickly learns of Val’s highly imaginative nature and penchant to go on adventures in the city. During an excursion in Central Park, they happen across a man and woman in the throes of passion. The man spies them and they run off. Later the same day, they run into the man again and eventually learn this is Henry Orient (Sellers), a well known avant garde pianist. Val becomes obsessed with him and dreams that she will eventually woo the befuddled man. From Henry’s perspective these two little girls are harbingers of doom and possibly spies for the husband of the woman he is seeing. The film perfectly balances the comedic misunderstandings and the coming of age story that centers around Val. Her parents (Lansbury and Bosley) come into town and we immediately see that Val’s mother exhibits a strong coldness around her.

The film lives and dies on the performances of the two female leads, and thankfully they picked two great unknown actress for the roles. There’s some interesting elements, particularly in the third act that feel very much of the time, but I’d like to think director Hill was going against the grain up until that point in the film. The girls are very much kids, while parents pressure them to socialize with boys, they really have no interest. They would rather play and, when Val does develop a “crush” on Henry, its never done with any seriousness. Its simply a continuation of the imagined world she and Marian have invented. You can tell Hill actually cares about these two and shows them as three dimensional, intelligent young women, not yet bogged down by the seriousness of the adults. Its reflected in how scenes featuring adults in the movie are never as interesting as the ones with the kids.

It’s interesting to note that rather than casting “superstars”, Hill opted to go with two unknowns and Sellers who was famous, but not as much as other comedic actors. Originally, it looked like the three roles would go to Hayley Mills, Patty Duke, and Dick Van Dyke, and while they are all great actors, the film would not feel as special. The movie evoked such strong emotions of happiness from me, reminding me of the way it feels when summer starts to turn to fall and how intimate and safe the worlds you imagine as a youth can feel. The film has been retold with a contemporary slant in Ghost World (the film moreso than the comic book) and a poster for Henry Orient even pops up in that picture. The film’s greatest feat is balancing adult themes and ideas while never diminishing the sense of joy and play. A great picture that deserves to be known by a larger audience.

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 3

11) Rhapsody in Blue (Manhattan, 1979, dir. Woody Allen)

New York is one of the great mythical cities, in that there is the New York that is real and there is the New York that is a fantasy of our minds. Allen captures this magical New York perfectly in the opening of Manhattan, using classic black and white photography as well as the signature George Gershwin tune.

12) Please Don’t Tell My Mother (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1969, dir. Milos Forman)

This was one of the first films to showcase the acting chops of Jack Nicholson, but I like this scene because of the performances Louise Fletcher and Brad Dourif bring to the table. It is rare you see a scene so perfectly acted. All of these actors are at the top of their game.

Criterion Fridays – Loves of a Blonde

Loves of a Blonde (1965, dir. Milos Forman)

My familiarity with director Milos Forman comes mainly from his work in English language cinema (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, Man in the Moon), but I have been aware for a long time of the movies he honed his craft with in his native Czechoslovakia. I didn’t know much about them, other than from reviews and criticisms they were akin to the French New Wave youth culture movies, but with a more anti-authoritarian bite. One thing I’ve found in art that is hard to translate between languages and culture is humor. Jokes are a product of the experiences and philosophies of a specific group of people, and the broader the joke (i.e. slapstick comedy) the larger the audience you can appeal to. Humor of language or subtle situations is much harder to get a foreign audience to laugh at. However, Forman conquers that challenge with expertise.

Hana lives and works in a rural Czech village whose economy revolves around a textile factory. The factory employs primarily women so the demographics are 16:1 in favor of women. The factory owner petitions the military to station some soldiers there as a way to provide some relief for the tension building amongst the workers. They get sent a group of thirty-something, slightly balding reservists and most of the girls decide to just go with the flow, despite their disappointment. Hana avoids the leers of these men, most of whom are married already, and ends up in the room of a visiting musician more her age. The problem with Hana is that every week she seems to have a new true love and these dreams and wishes get the best of her.

I found myself laughing many times at Loves, particularly in moments where the dialogue was greatly improvised. A trio of reservists looking to lure in some of the young women reveal themselves as inept buffoons as they waste most of their time debating how many of them should approach the table where their prey is sitting. They send a bottle of wine over, but it gets delivered to the wrong table and they tell it to take it from the women who believe they were picked. Soon after, one of the reservists slips off his wedding ring, its kicked across the dance floor and under the table of the spurned women which he must now crawl under.

It’s rare that I find a film from Europe during this period which doesn’t have sequences that seem to drag and pull me out of the picture. Here I was completely engaged from the start, due in part to some very skillful editing and language-transcendent humor. The circumstances that these characters experience are universal to all people: unwanted affections from suitors, allowing oneself to get caught up in what you think is love, and a general sense of dissatisfaction with mundane and repetitive life. Once again, Forman delivers a highly entertaining film with truly funny comedy.

My 40 Favorite Film Moments – Part 2

6) Waiting For a Train (Once Upon a Time in the West, 1969, dir. Sergio Leone)

Wordless, with a soundtrack provided by found objects in the setting. A squeaky windmill, a dripping water tower, the steady rhythm of a steam engine. It provides the perfect introduction to the film’s protagonist, Harmonica (Charles Bronson).

7) Getting Baptized (Ed Wood, 1994, dir. Tim Burton)

Hack director Wood has gotten financing from an L.A. church. One of the conditions for the money to come through is that the entire cast and crew of Plan Nine from Outer Space will be baptized. The unaffected homosexual producer Bunny Breckenridge (Bill Murray) takes the hefty spiritual ritual with little thought in a cleverly funny moment. This is also Burton’s masterpiece in my opinion.

8) Flowers (Harold and Maude, 1971, dir. Hal Ashby)

Ashby is one of the greats of the 1970s, and this scene featuring Ruth Gordon, Bud Cort, and the music of Cat Stevens is a picture of perfect composition. The transition from the field of flowers to the military cemetery is a very beautiful one.

9) He’ll Keep Calling Me (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1989, dir. John Hughes)

This scene is a perfect summation of the profound indecision and anxiety Cameron suffers from. Throughout the film, he’s a character who is simply pushed around by his off screen father or by Ferris or by authority in general. This is every thing going on in his brain.

10) Make the Sun Rise (Black Orpheus, 1959, dir. Marcel Camus)
Set during Carnival in Brazil, the film retells the mythic story of Orpheus and Eurydice through an Afro-Brazilian guitarist and the woman he loves. In this final scene, we see that the tragic story of these lovers is part of a cycle and this children are beginning to play down a path that is both beautiful, but painful.