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.

Continue reading “Movie Review – West Side Story”

Movie Review – One From the Heart

One From the Heart (1982, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)



Ambition in filmmaking is a dangerous tightrope. In the 1970s, there was a cascade of filmmakers who were highly ambitious and succeeded. Many of them (Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese) continued their successes into the 1980s. Others were not so successful. Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude, Shampoo) became increasingly addicted to drugs and faded away. Michael Cimino translated his enormous success with The Deer Hunter into the bloated critical and box office failure of Heaven’s Gate. And there’s Francis Ford Coppola. The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II are held is such high esteem and Apocalypse Now has garnered a similar appreciation in the decades that followed its release. But something happened in the 1980s that caused Coppola’s star to dissipate. One From the Heart is widely considered the moment everything collapsed, but it’s more complicated than just one movie.

Continue reading “Movie Review – One From the Heart”

Movie Review – Sing Street

Sing Street (2016, dir. John Carney)


Conor Lawlor is fifteen years old and, with his two siblings, stuck in the middle of his parents’ deteriorating ends up at Synge Street, a free state school run by the Christian Brothers. The school is managed chaos, full of delinquent young men and priests who brutalize their students. Conor meets Raphina, a girl who lives across the street from the school and after seeing a Duran Duran music video for the first time decides he wants to form a band. The group is assembled from the boys he attends school. At the same time, his older brother begins educating Conor on various bands of the day (The Cure, Spandau Ballet), and slowly Conor develops his own sense of songwriting. The endeavor awakens a love of songwriting in him, and the band becomes more than just something to impress a girl, and their relationship becomes more than merely a crush.

By the mid-1980s due to economic stresses, young Irish were immigrating to London in significant numbers. Early in Sing Street, we see a news report covering this and mentioning the fact that many of this young people arrived with little to no money and quickly ended up on the ferry back to Ireland. Conor’s parents’ problems come from both a marriage that is drained of love and the economics issues that have come up. The Catholic Church also looms as an institution that not only oppresses Conor but even his parents. At one point his older brother says, “Two Catholics in a rented flat with a screaming baby who just got married because they wanted to have sex. They didn’t even love each other.” So while the tone of the film is generally upbeat, there is an honesty in the events unfolding.

The style of humor in Sing Street is a mix of dry and playful. I was reminded of the great recent Irish sitcom Moone Boy during a lot of the interactions between the boys in the band. There’s this sense of heightened wit among the children where they come across as wise beyond their years. Other moments have the feel of a Wes Anderson film like Rushmore or Bottle Rocket, that mix of staged scenes and rough energy. The side characters never overtake the main story but are painted with just the right full broad strokes that we have a definitive sense of who they are without the film having to overtly explain.

The music, written by Gary Clark a veteran of the music industry in the 1980s who still writes and produces has a very genuine feel. Each song is directly mimicking a particular band’s style and reflects exactly how a young songwriter would operate, first simulating the music they like as they develop their own sensibilities. I was born in 1981 so much of the music featured in the film I don’t necessarily look back with nostalgia. I certainly enjoy the lighter pop of that era, despite my dark tastes in nearly all other media, and I found the music well done.

Sing Street is a feel good coming of age movie, and I approach this type of film with a lot of trepidation. So often these films depend on a false sense of emotion. They use lazy shorthand to get across the feelings they want to evoke in the audience. Sing Street always manages to keep itself grounded and never tread into those maudlin spaces. Even the film’s “happy ending” leaves the real conclusion for these characters open. The message is that we don’t know what happens when we risk for those higher aspirations, but the risk itself is a victory.

Movie Review – La La Land

La La Land (2016, dir. Damien Chazelle)


Two aspiring young people in Los Angeles, Mia and Seb pursue their individual dreams and their paths continually cross. Mia (Emma Stone) is an actress who seems to never get a callback to a single audition and when she does she’s dismissed before getting a chance to read. Seb (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who wants to live up to the quality of his idols but ends up playing Christmas carols at a cozy dinner spot in the evenings. The duo isn’t sure if they want to be a couple and the story is rife with an interesting variety of musical styles, many reminiscent of Leonard Bernstein.

La La Land is unashamedly a musical. The opening moments are a sweeping crane shot of a traffic-jammed freeway where the motorists depart their vehicles for a song and dance number that evoke a slick Gap commercial. Eventually, the music settles down when the story of Mia and Seb comes into focus, and we don’t really get a showstopping number for the rest of the pictures. Instead, we have duets that appear to have been filmed in very intimate and loose ways. The piano duet of “City of Stars” has the actors sharing a piano bench and it’s obvious that Gosling flubs a couple lines eliciting a chuckle from Stone.

Director Chazelle paints his film in Cinemascope, a 2:35:1 aspect ratio that evokes the iconography of 1950s studio cinema. Set pieces embrace artifice with stages covered in grass apparent as the two soft shoe across them. There are fantastic flights of fancy, particularly during a date to the Griffith Observatory, where Mia and Seb end up waltzing across the galaxy. The whole tone of and look of the picture doesn’t so much as resemble Singin’ in the Rain, but rather films like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. It’s a very stylized French palette, especially in the film’s dreamlike final number. In fact, the film feels much more of a tribute to dance once it gets past its opening numbers than old Hollywood Musicals.

The weight of the film rests on the shoulders of Gosling and Stone. There are supporting characters, but the film refrains from developing any b plots. We have Gosling’s sister and just the lightest touch of her engagement and subsequent marriage. There’s Stone’s trio of fellow actress roommates who show up for a bit but then fade from the story. It never feels like sloppy writing, though. The intent that this is Mia and Seb’s story feels tightly focused. The chemistry between the leads is excellent. They seem like a real couple, and a scene that serves as the pivot in the plot shows just how real this relationship can feel. We’re witness to such an intimate, cringing personal argument between the two. The choking back of tears, the narrowing of eyes in anger, words spoken to cut deep then immediately regretted. Painfully real.

What I loved most about La La Land was the theme of compromise threaded throughout. The opening number, “Another Day of Sun” might have the tone of an upbeat, showstopping musical number but a closer listen to the lyrics reveals the central conflict of the film:

I think about that day
I left him at a Greyhound station
West of Santa Fé

We were seventeen, but he was sweet and it was true
Still I did what I had to do
‘Cause I just knew

Summer: Sunday nights
We’d sink into our seats
Right as they dimmed out all the lights
A Technicolor world made out of music and machine
It called me to be on that screen
And live inside each scene

Later we have Seb walking alone along a pier quietly singing “City of Stars” to himself with these darker lyrics standing out:

Is this the start of something wonderful and new?
Or one more dream that I cannot make true?

The entire focus of La La Land is on having big dreams and the compromises and choices involved in making those dreams come true. In a lot of ways, the film is saying “You can’t have it all” so you need to prioritize and figure out what is important to you. It is also speaking out the people with dreams to know that life will be challenging and that finding the core of why you had this dream in the first place is essential to getting through the hard times. La La Land does not have a happy ending. Characters make some of their dreams come true, and they learn something about what’s important. Damien Chazelle has made what I’d dare say is a perfect film, visually rich, sonically beautiful, and a story that acknowledges the romantic nature of dreams and the grounded way we have to live life.


Wild Card Tuesdays – True Stories

True Stories (1986, dir. David Byrne)
Starring David Byrne, John Goodman, Swoosie Kurtz, Spalding Gray

I remember making long trips in the car as a child and feeling a sense of excitement as we pulled onto off ramps, stopping a strange gas stations and towns on our way. The journey and these stops always held much more interest to me than the destination it seems. I can distinctly remember driving through the Smoky Mountains and drinking Faygo Root Beet, a brand I had not had before. True Stories felt, for me, like stopping in of those little towns along the way and staying a bit longer than usual. Virgil, Texas is however a byproduct of the strange mind of David Byrne, lead singer of The Talking Heads. Things are quite off from the real world, but that just makes it all that more interesting.

Byrne is the nameless narrator, decked out in stereotypical Texan gear: Ten gallon hat, western wear, cowboy boots, and driving around a cherry red Cadillac. He delivers exposition with a very monotone demeanor, explaining the underlying psychological aspects of urbanization creeping into Virgil. Among the cast are John Goodman as Louis, a man so desperate to find a mate he has a marquee outside his home reading “Wife Wanted”, Swoosie Kurtz as Miss Rollings, a rich woman so lazy she never leaves her bed, and Spalding Gray as Earl, a man who has not spoken to his wife in 15 years but still seems to have a happy life at home. The stories are all leading towards a town-wide celebration taking place on stage being constructed in the wilderness. The Narrator visits with the characters who seem to have a familiarity with him, and various Talking Heads songs are re purposed to expand upon characters’ motivations.

I’ve always enjoyed when musicians set out to make films. They are rarely huge hits and usually end up as cult classic movies. I knew going into this one that Byrne has a very unique sensibility, which I had seen in videos of his concerts, and in particular the Jonathan Demme concert film Stop Making Sense. That sensibility is translated here into a film that is more like a quirky short story collection than anything overly cinematic. And it totally works. Certain songs, like “Dream Organizer”, so perfectly work for the character they are attached to that you have to wonder if this was the character Byrne had in mind when he originally wrote the song. The cinematography is also top notch, I think a lot of that coming from Byrne’s background in art school. The composition of many shots are not what we expect, leaving tons of negative space, and making for something that could be a framed photo on its own.

It’s also interesting to see some actors before they made it big, and one whom I never thought of as a traditional film actor. Spalding Gray was a quite a surprise to see, as I only knew him through his monologues (you should all check out Swimming to Cambodia). He does a decent enough job, though comes off a little stiff. Goodman and Kurtz are definitely the best of the bunch, each hamming it up in a way that totally works with the atmosphere Byrne has created. Jo Harvey Allen was also a standout as a perpetually lying woman who takes credit for “writing half of Billie Jean” as well as being JFK’s lover in Texas, whom he met with before the assassination. The film is definitely a fun, quirky picture that can be incredibly refreshing compared to most Hollywood films.

DocuMondays – The Nomi Song

The Nomi Song (2004, dir. Andrew Horn)

In 1963, author Walter Tevis wrote the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, and 13 years later David Bowie starred in the film adaptation. Little did anyone realize that the premise of the story: an alien being appears out of nowhere and goes on to achieve fame before dying prematurely was to be copied by a fellow Earthling who would lose his identity in the alien persona. Nomi’s story was much like the operas he loved, very beautiful at its heights, but destined to end in tragedy.

Born Klaus Sperber in Bavaria in 1944, the film really only focuses on his days in New York City in the late 1970s when his career as a New Wave artist occurred and ultimately ended in death. There is wonderful archival footage provided, albeit very low quality, but have footage of performances in the East Village at its cultural height is a treat. The Nomi persona came from the mind of Klaus who combined elements of his native German cabaret, classical opera, Japanese kabuki makeup, and retro 50s futurism. This melange of concepts worked together perfectly, and his set lists would consist of 1930s pop songs, 1960s pop, and his own otherworldly inspired tunes. But what truly made him such a unique act was the mastery of his voice, singing in both a tenor and counter-tenor/falsetto.

The man behind the cleverly designed persona was a conflicting mix and seemed to become much colder and distant as he became more popular. Nomi possessed an androgyny that one interviewee describes as more than sexual, but a removal from normal human emotion. He truly behaved like the alien or robot he pretended to be. There are candid moments caught on film when that fades away. On particular scene involves his appearance in a local access music show in NYC where, instead of singing, he showed off his second talent, making cakes and pies. There are also stories from his back up band and friends of how he hungered for fame, at his heart he wanted to be an opera diva.

Nomi also hungered for companionship, but even his persona was viewed as outsider one to the gay community in the late 1970s. They loved what he did but it seemed that his alien nature made it hard for any man to find him sexually attractive. Friends report in the documentary about his proclivity to go “cruising” and they warned him about the potential for disease by doing this. In the early 1980s, after beginning to compromise his work to be able to put out a marketable album, Nomi discovered strange lesions on his arm and was taking an increasing amount of antibiotics to stay healthy. He was eventually diagnosed with what was called at the time “gay cancer”, more commonly known as AIDs. His final months were sad, as he had turned his back on bandmates earlier and sought out any one who would show him compassion.

While the documentary does an excellent job of telling the story of Nomi’s musical career. However, I found myself wanting to know more about Klaus Sperber and how this young man from Germany developed this psychological mindset. What was the appeal of the idea of retreating into the alien persona? It seems that a lack of companionship fueled but how did it begin. This is an excellent documentary and can be viewed for free on Hulu.

The Nomi Song (Hulu)

DocuMondays – Young @ Heart

Young @ Heart (2007, dir.Stephen Walker)

The film opens with a jarring scene: a music video featuring a group of senior citizens performing The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated”. The first reaction is one of amusement, it is “adorable” that these “little old people” are singing a punk rock song. However, once the lyrics sink in, the simple “aw, how cute” fades away and there is a profound expression that is created when these words come from those mouths:

“Twenty-twenty-twenty four hours to go….
Just put me in a wheelchair, get me on a plane
Hurry hurry hurry before I go insane
I can’t control my fingers I can’t control my brain”

There’s something very honest and appropriate about a group of aged faces yelling out these lyrics. It seems more appropriate for them, than a group of young buck musicians. This is what the 2007 documentary Young @ Heart does so well, it balances the “cute, old people” moments with a rich and meaningful exploration of aging and confronting our mortality. 
The heart behind the Young @ Heart Chorus is Bob Cilman, a truly extraordinary person. Bob had dedicated hours of work to help organize and put on performances with the elderly, and he doesn’t coddle them. When his two featured performers have trouble with James Brown’s “I Feel Good”, Bob doesn’t speak to them in hushed tones. He shouts at them, he gets angry and frustrated, and eventually decides to just work on another song. It can appear mean, but Bob has such a high level of respect and such lofty expectations for this group he can’t help but be intense about it. And those expectations pay off a hundredfold.
The performers bring a lot of love into their performances, and the film captures a very tumultuous year for them. Long-time and dedicated performer Bob Salvini takes ill and eventually dies in the middle of the group’s performance season. A profound moment occurs when, during their concert, Fred Knittle performs Coldplay’s “Fix You”, a song he was meant to share with Salvini. The lyrics reflect the feelings of the the performers and Joe’s family who watch in the audience:
“And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can’t replace
When you love someone, but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?

Lights will guide you home
And ignite your bones
And I will try to fix you”

The documentary is deeply moving. In another scene the group performers for prisoners at a correctional facility. The way the camera shoots the faces of the chorus singing “Forever Young”, then cutting to the faces of criminals having to look down or cover their faces because of the tears welling in their eyes makes it impossible for the audience to not experience the same sense of compassion. Don’t discount this film as made for the old, or purely an attempt to exploit the elderly. This is a film made for the young to discover the depth and wisdom of their elders. This is one to be hunted down as soon as possible.

Fred Knittle performs Coldplay’s “Fix You”

The Young @ Heart Chorus performs “Forever Young”

Film 2010 #34 – The Red Shoes

Since 2005 I have kept a list of every new film I have seen. With this film I have hit the 1000 mark. Before long, I’ll probably be hitting 2000.

The Red Shoes (1948, dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)
Starring Anton Walbrook

This was a film long on my list of ones to see and said to have been an inspiration to directors like Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola. That’s not to say its plot or screenplay is similar to their work, rather the way the directors utilize the camera and art direction to create a lush and amazing world. The story comes from the Hans Christian Andersen fable of a young girl who acquires a pair of magical red slippers that cause her to dance and, unable to stop, she begs an executioner to chop of her feet. He does and gives her a pair of wooden feet, yet she is haunted by the disembodied dancing feet.
Powell and Pressburger were a directorial pair in the United Kingdom, as well respected as Hitchcock or David Lean, yet their work has faded from the larger collective memory in the following years. For The Red Shoes, they took the Andersen fable and set it in contemporary (1940s) Europe. Boris Lermontov runs a prestigious ballet company and encounters two young up and coming artists: Victoria Page, a company ballerina and Julian Craster, a budding composer. Lermontov goes on to commission an adaptation of the The Red Shoes. Around the same time, the company’s prima ballerina announces her engagement which infuriates Lermontov who immediately lets her know she is no longer a part of his works. To replace her, he promotes Victoria Page, and this is where the trouble begins.
Lermontov is dangerously obsessed with his ingenues. His original prima announcing her engagement turns him into a petty, spiteful man who takes glee in letting her go. As similar things begin to develop with Victoria, we see Lermontov’s role as a metaphorical evil wizard take hold. He is jealous of any one who might break a dancer’s devotion to his will alone.
The most spectacular piece of the film is the 17 minute long ballet sequence that comes smack dab in the middle. The first half of the film is about the three individual strands of Lermontov, Craster, and Victoria coming together and the second half is about how the lives of these three are eventually torn apart. And what ties it all up is a visually stunning abbreviation of The Red Shoes ballet that will cause the viewer to ask some questions. From the start of the sequence, it is apparent that this is simply a dress rehearsal, yet then it starts incorporating what might be seen as subconscious thoughts of Victoria (the villain of the ballet flashing into Craster and then Lermontov suddenly), as the sequence continues Victoria moves into impossible landscapes that could in no way actually be on stage. And finally, everything pulls back to reveal the actual performance on opening night. This one sequence both serves to expose subconscious ideas and transition our characters through time.