Spoiler-Free Review: “West Side Story” (2021) starring Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, & Rita Moreno

I’m sure almost ALL of you know the plot, as West Side Story is a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy (Romeo & Juliet) set among gangs on the West Side of Manhattan in the late 1950s. The 2 gangs are the Jets (white ethnics/NYC-born) and the Sharks (Puerto Rican). The 2 teen “star-crossed lovers”- Tony (former leader of the Jets) and Maria (newly arrived to NYC)- meet at a HS dance and fall in love at first sight. Of course, their relationship will have (deadly) consequences!

There are MANY problematic elements in the 1961 movie, though it is also much-loved by audiences of ALL ages all over the world. First of all, Natalie Wood was NOT a Latina or of Puerto Rican heritage. The Sharks were made-up w/ dark foundation, though people from PR have a wide variety of skin tones. This movie was released after lyricist Stephen Sondheim died on November 26, 2021. He did see the final cut of the film and prefers this version to the original 1961 film (as he said on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert).

I have been challenged by what would be the right musical to take on. And I could never forget my childhood. I was 10 years old when I first listened to the West Side Story album, and it never went away. I’ve been able to fulfill that dream and keep that promise that I made to myself: You must make West Side Story. -Steven Spielberg

The screenwriter is Tony Kushner; I think he did a fine job (aside from a couple of lines which came off as a BIT modern). The choreography (originally by Jerome Robbins) was updated by Justin Peck from the New York City Ballet. Director of Photography, Janusz Kaminski (who often collabs w/ Spielberg), went to great lengths to replicate (as much as possible) the lighting/visual style of the1961 film. Look at the way that the camera is swinging around, even from the opening number from the Jets- wow! I liked the (more realistic) sets and (colorful) costumes here. John Williams was brought in as music consultant; he was piano soloist for the 1961 movie. As many critics/viewers have noted, West Side Story has some of the best (and well-known) songs of ALL time! I’m sure a LOT of you were tapping your feet and/or singing along. This film follows the original song order of the stage musical w/ 2 exceptions: “Gee, Officer Krupke” (really liked the choreography) is moved to earlier (as the 1961 movie also did) and “Cool” (NOT impressed by new version) is sung by Tony to Riff (not sung by Riff to the Jets).

Divisions between un-likeminded people is as old as time itself. And the divisions between the Sharks and the Jets in 1957, which inspired the musical, were profound. But not as divided as we find ourselves today. It turned out in the middle of the development of the script, things widened, which I think in a sense, sadly, made the story of those racial divides- not just territorial divides- more relevant to today’s audience than perhaps it even was in 1957. -Spielberg on movie’s relevance today

When casting this version, Spielberg insisted that all Latino characters be portrayed by real Latino actors. Out of the 33 Latino characters onscreen, 20 are of Puerto Rican heritage. There is a good amount of Spanish used in this film; I was glad that I knew the language (though NOT fluent). You don’t need to know Spanish to get what’s up. Almost the entire cast is made up of musical theatre performers; veteran actress Rita Moreno (an EGOT winner; Maria in the 1961 movie) is the most famous. Except for Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler (cast straight out of HS), and Corey Stoll, ALL of the principals are Broadway alums.

Zegler has a V pure/powerful voice; she has received MANY rave reviews for her singing! Elgort (who shot this movie before revelation of SA allegations) is V tall, handsome (in a bland way), and moves gracefully (he studied ballet some). His voice is NOT remarkable in any way and holds little power; this makes “Tonight” NOT as impressive; it also puts a damper on “Maria.” Anita (Ariana DeBose), has the most interesting role; the actress has received a LOT of award season buzz! DeBose is Afro-Latina and worried that she had the “wrong look” for this role; Spielberg told her that she was “perfect.” DeBose and David Alvarez (Bernardo- older bro to Maria) also have good romantic chemistry. Of course, it’s tough to beat the (fiery) chemistry between Moreno and her Bernardo (George Chakiris- who was of Greek heritage). I was V impressed by Riff (Mike Faist); he commands the screen w/ his (amazing) dancing, but it also a fine actor. This Riff is hard-edged/volatile; this is a far cry from the (teddy bear-like) characterization from Russ Tamblyn (1961). You can now watch this movie on HBOMax!

“America” from “West Side Story” (2021) featuring Ariana DeBose and David Alvarez

“Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013) starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, & Justin Timberlake

Follow a week in the life of a young folk singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. Guitar in tow, huddled against the unforgiving NYC winter, he is struggling to make it as a musician against seemingly insurmountable obstacles — some of them of his own making. -Synopsis

The cat was a nightmare. The trainer warned us and she was right. She said, uh, “Dogs like to please you. The cat only likes to please itself.” A cat basically is impossible to train. We have a lot of footage of cats doing things we don’t want them to do, if anyone’s interested; I don’t know if there’s a market for that. -Ethan Coen

This Coen brothers movie (streaming free on Amazon) is a vehicle for Oscar Isaac, who acts (and sings) in the title role. I saw it for the 1st time last week and liked it a LOT! The Coens are experts at casting, creating different worlds, and setting mood/tone in their movies. Llewyn (handsome/talented) is NOT a V likeable character, which could be hurting his music career and his friendships. He can’t even afford a Winter coat- awww. Recently, he has been sleeping on friends’ couches or in his sister’s humble home. Mitch (Ethan Phillips) and Lillian (Robin Bartlett) Gorfein are an older/academic couple who work at Columbia; their cat follows Llewyn out of their spacious UWS apt. Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan w/ long dark hair) are a married couple/musical duo. A promising young singer in the Army, Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), has taken their couch. Also, Jean is V angry/hostile (she has a reason to be so).

Llewyn Davis: If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.

Joel and Ethan Coen named a character Al Cody (AKA Arthur Milgrom) as an homage to a veteran Minnesota documentary filmmaker- Al Milgrom. The Coens are from the Twin Cities area and looked up to Milgrom, who also founded a film fest. Llewyn (desperate for a break/money) gets a chance to record a song (Please Mr. Kennedy) w/ Jim and Al Cody (Adam Driver in a cowboy hat w/ short hair). Driver’s role is small, BUT it’s memorable. He sings (the funny parts of the song), says “meow” (just like a cat), and gives Llewyn his couch for the night. At an interview for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Isaac said that he watched tapes of actors (when the Coens asked his advice) and liked Driver’s audition. “He owes me his career,” Isaac joked; Driver laughed and replied w/ “thanks.” The actors are friends and attended Julliard, though Isaac graduated before Driver.

Jean: Everything you touch turns to shit, you’re like King Midas’ idiot brother.

Through Al’s friend, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund- w/ James Dean vibes), Llewyn gets a ride to Chicago. In the backseat is an older jazz musician, Roland Turner (John Goodman), who is annoyingly chatty, offensive, yet also funny. Goodman is the type of character actor who always adds to whatever movie he does. Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) is based on Albert Grossman, who ran the Gate of Horn club in Chicago; he also managed Bob Dylan, Peter Paul & Mary, and Janis Joplin). Llewyn sings for Grossman (re: Henry VIII and Jane Seymour); it’s a mournful song. The singing voice of Mike (Llewyn’s former music partner) is Marcus Mumford of the band Mumford & Sons. He’s now married to Mulligan; I wonder IF they met while working on this movie. Mulligan and Hedlund co-starred in Mudbound (2017) where they BOTH do a great job; check that out soon.

[1] The performances are certainly a major plus with Isaac doing a marvelous job in the lead role. I really loved the way he brought this character to life and especially the various moods that he goes through. This includes some very dark moments in the film but also some pretty funny ones where his mouth gets him into trouble.

[2] The ten or so minutes in that car are some of the very best. Goodman taunts and pokes (literally, using a cane) Llewyn, calling him Elwyn. He is absolutely brutal and yet hilarious. 

[3] For lead actor Oscar Isaac, this movie should be a deal-breaker in landing crucial parts in films for many years to come. Of course, he owes so much here not only to his talent, but also to his writer-director duo. The Coens are the absolute masters right now in character creation (and casting the perfect people for those characters)…

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

“Humoresque” (1946) starring John Garfield & Joan Crawford

Sid [to Paul]: You’ll do all right. You have all the characteristics of a successful virtuoso. You’re self-indulgent, self-dedicated, and a hero of all your dreams.

Paul Boray (John Garfield) comes from a working-class background; he and his family live above their humble grocery store in NYC. Paul has been playing the violin since he was 11 y.o. (which his mother supports). Paul’s father has a hint of an European accent; he’s skeptical re: his son’s musical potential. A section of the story is told in flashback; a very young Robert Blake plays Paul. While his older siblings work their retail jobs, as a young adult, Paul lives for his music and wants to become a concert violinist. One of Paul’s classmates at the National Institute of Music, Gina (Joan Chandler- her first role), has strong feelings for him; they have a connection and live in the same neighborhood. Like many young people, Paul is idealistic and feels that talent itself will take him to where he wants to go. Paul has potential, but he doesn’t have the right connections, his best friend/pianist Sid Jeffers (Oscar Levant) explains.

Helen: Bad manners, Mr. Boray, the infallible sign of talent.

At a high society party w/ Sid, Paul meets Helen (Joan Crawford) and Victor (Paul Cavanagh) Wright, the wealthy/influential hosts. Victor (who is older) is perceptive, but also weak man; Helen is strong-minded, yet insecure (and relies on alcohol). Helen becomes Paul’s patroness; she finds him a manager, helps him choose a new suit, and sets up his first public recital. Eventually, Paul embarks on a concert tour and becomes a big success. Paul and Helen also fall in love, but it is a destructive type of love that may risk Paul’s career… and maybe more!

Sid: Tell me, Mrs. Wright, does your husband interfere with your marriage?

“Humoresque” is a must-see for classic film fans, esp. those who like classical music. You hear pieces by Dvorak, Chopin (Etude in G-flat major), Wagner (Tristan and Idolde), Bizet (Carmen), etc. Garfield’s violin “performances” were actually played by two pro violinists standing on either side of him, one moving the bow and one doing the fingering. The music was performed by Isaac Stern; in closeups of the hands alone playing the violin, those are his hands. Levant did all his own piano playing. The screenplay (written by Clifford Odets and Zachary Gold) has great dialogue (w/ memorable lines); the movie is based on a short story by Fanny Hurst.

Helen: I spend my life doing penance for things I never should have done in the first place.

Garfield (then 33), a Method actor, tried to get an emotional bond w/ the character Crawford (42 y.o.) played by looking deeply in her eyes. This unnerved Crawford, who told director Joe Negulesco: “Tell him to stop looking at me!” LOL, but they have some great onscreen chemistry! Garfield had just come off filming The Postman Always Rings Twice (his most well-known role). While working on this movie, Crawford won the Best Actress Oscar for Mildred Pierce. There is some gorgeous B&W photography here, as well as some creatively framed shots. After sparring w/ Paul for the first time, Helen goes to the bar in the next room to make herself a drink; then we see Paul framed as if he’s inside her brandy glass. Looking back, we realize that Paul also became her addiction. Check this film out- you won’t regret it!

[1] As Helen, Joan Crawford gives her greatest performance and she should have been nominated for Best Actress that year. John Garfield is also at top of his form and he certainly is a good match for Miss Crawford. 

[2] A from rags to riches tale with an extra something. The extra something here is Clifford Odetts, the language is as pungent as its pace. The truth in John Garfield’s face rises everything several notches but, perhaps, the biggest surprise… is Joan Crawford’s performance. …she’s rounded and brilliant, torn between who she is and who she would like to be.

[3] ]This film is an outstanding example of the “noir” qualities which were a hallmark of the 30’s to the early 50’s – from the earlier stages of talking pictures, through the depression and post-WW II years. Joan Crawford was one of the two best (along with Bette Davis) at portraying this type of cold, possessive, and thoroughly selfish, powerful female presence.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Hitchcock Takes on Psychoanalysis: “Spellbound” (1945) starring Ingrid Bergman & Gregory Peck

Title Card: The fault… is not in our stars, but in ourselves… – Shakespeare

Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) is a young psychiatrist who has been working for 6 mos. at Green Manors mental institute in Vermont. In between dealing w/ her patients and reading the latest theories, she has to deal w/ a doctor incessantly hitting on her. The director of Green Manors, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll), has just been replaced; his replacement is the young Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck), who has published several books (incl. one focused on “the guilt complex”). Romance quickly develops between Dr. Petersen and Dr. Edwardes, but then he starts to show strange aversions and personality traits. It turns out that he has amnesia! Could he be guilty of a crime, or is it all in his head? What happened to the real Dr. Edwardes?

Dr. Petersen: I think the greatest harm done the human race has been done by the poets. …They keep filling people’s heads with delusions about love… writing about it as if it were a symphony orchestra or a flight of angels.

Suspicion was of the first Hollywood films to deal w/ the (then popular) subject of psychoanalysis; screenwriter Ben Hecht consulted w/ several psychoanalysts of that time. Producer David O. Selznick wanted the movie to be based on his experiences, even bringing in his psychotherapist as a technical advisor. When she argued w/ Sir Alfred Hitchcock on the set, the director replied, “My dear, it’s only a movie.” Later, Hitch summed up the movie as “just another manhunt wrapped up in pseudo-psychoanalysis.” If the psychology angle doesn’t interest you, the love story certainly will! Bergman and Peck have terrific chemistry; as a kid, I wondered if they really were in love. In 1987 (5 yrs after she died), Peck revealed to People magazine that he “had a great love for Bergman.” They had an affair for a few weeks during filming (though both were married)!

Dr. Alex Brulov: Apparently the mind is never too sick to make jokes about psychoanalysis.

The much-discussed dream sequence (designed by painter Salvador Dali) was originally 20 mins long, but ended up being 2 mins. Hitch handed over that segment to director William Cameron Menzies, who is not credited (as he didn’t like the final edit). The music (composed by Miklos Rozsa) is also a prominent aspect enhancing the story. Jerry Goldsmith said he loved the score; it inspired his own music. Some Star Wars fans have pointed out the Anakin and Padme’s love theme (composed by John Williams) sounds similar to the love theme here!

I couldn’t produce the facial expressions that Hitch wanted turned on. I didn’t have that facility. He already had a preconception of what the expression ought to be on your face, he planned that as carefully as the camera angles. Hitchcock was an outside fellow, and I had the Stanislavski training from the Neighborhood Playhouse, which means you work from the inside. –Gregory Peck

[1] Now the best thing about ‘Spellbound’ and what really makes it into a wonderfully entertaining mystery/romance is Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck. These two Golden Age superstars are both absolutely wonderful individually, but together they are magical

[2] The scenes with Bergman, Peck and Chekhov are the highlight of the film, and I have to admit that I’m even kind of fond of the hotel lobby scene, with the appealingly breezy Bill Goodwin (of “Burns and Allen” radio fame) as the house detective. Peck has never been more handsome, in a strangely fragile way.

[3] Most of the picture is thrown Bergman’s way and she is such an accomplished actress and lights up the screen with such a charismatic inner radiance

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

“The Phantom of the Opera at the Royal Albert Hall” (2011)

In 1986, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera arrived on the West End stage. After 25 years, the musical achieved global success, millions of viewers, a film adaptation in 2004 (which I don’t recommend) and a sequel. Filmed at the Royal Albert Hall, this performance (which you can rent on YouTube) brings the show to a bigger stage and celebrates its role as one of the biggest shows in theater history, w/ speeches, performances, and appearances by the original cast (and some notable Phantoms). Starring Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess, POTO tells the story of a deformed musical genius who lives underneath the Paris Opera House. Shunned by society, the Phantom seeks revenge (w/ cruel and violent acts). He’s in love w/ a chorus girl, Christine Daaé, who he has been secretly training to replace the leading lady.

Karimloo (who is Canadian) is engaging and very effective w/ his gorgeous voice and imposing physical presence. One side of his face looks genuinely scary; this was done by the original makeup artist. Boggess (who is American) is charming and her stage presence is as strong as Karimloo’s. Her soprano voice is bright and clear. She esp. does a terrific job w/ Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again. Past of the Point No Return was very compelling; two leads show that they have great chemistry together (even though The Phantom has on a hooded cloak). I learned that Boggess was the original Ariel in Broadway’s The Little Mermaid.

The encore featured 4 different Phantoms from around the world and was the debut for one of them: Peter Jöback from Sweden. He was scheduled to play the Phantom after the concert in London. The other 3 Phantoms who sing are: Colm Wilkinson (who is Irish; the original Canadian Phantom and Jean Valjean in Les Mis in London and NYC), John Owen-Jones (London’s longest running Phantom). and Anthony Warlow (Australia’s most famous Phantom). The original Phantom, Michael Crawford, was also there, as was the incomparable Sarah Brightman (the original Christine; former wife of Webber). I remember buying her CDs in HS.

The camera work allows you to admire the production design and does so unobtrusively, often it has a very cinematic look…

Hadley Fraser has a different take on the childhood sweetheart of Christine. Fraser brings an energy and eagerness to the character. I loved Fraser because he brings a new energy and charisma to the character.

[Karimloo] is both very threatening and very vulnerable. He is both aggressor and victim. He captures the fragility of the Phantom’s mind and the strength of the Phantom’s will.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews