West Side Story (*BP22)

The film starts with the most famous whistle of any musical theater score ever written as the camera pans over heaps of rubble and garbage, the only thing left of the former tenements and neighborhoods of San Juan Hill, an area of urban decay on the Upper West Side that was home to thousands of displaced African Americans and Puerto Ricans. A large sign proclaims the area to be The Future Home of Lincoln Center. Each frame is a master class in chiaroscuro and composition, and you get the feeling that this is not going to be your typical musical comedy. 

This is the 2021 version of West Side Story; a reinterpretation of the 1961 award-winning film, this time with more violence, angst, and appropriate ethnic representation. The names behind this movie are the giants of theater and film; Bernstein, Sondheim, Spielberg, Kushner, Kaminski, Rita freakin’ Moreno. The direction is superb, the camera moving around the streets like it’s one of the dancers in the gorgeous choreography of Justin Peck. Every detail in this film has been authentically researched and the character’s subtext explored just enough to make some of their choices make more sense. It is a classic remake of a classic film, and it is wonderful.

Also, it bombed, quite spectacularly, taking out the box office like the wrecking ball that destroys the slums that the Jets gleefully dance through while snapping their fingers. How can a movie with this much genius behind it so thoroughly miss connecting with an audience? There are a lot of guesses about why people didn’t show up, number one being the fact that we are still in what feels like the 147th surge of the pandemic. And yet there was another movie that opened a week later that broke all box office records (more on that one later), so fear of disease wasn’t necessarily the problem.

West Side Story was supposed to open a year ago but was postponed because of the original pandemic, the one before we started adding Greek letters to the vocabulary. Would audiences have responded differently if we weren’t all worn down completely by the constant torrent of terrible news? Personally, I am finding it hard to focus on anything that is heavier than a Hallmark Christmas movie. West Side Story has gorgeous music, but it is still full of violence, hate, tragedy, and grief. It is definitely not a laff riot, which is really all that I want to watch right now.

I’ve often wondered how actual critics (not the wannabees who are typing in their basements, like me) put aside their own feelings and depression and review a piece of art (film, book, play, whatever) in a neutral way. What if they are in a terrible mood for the same reasons everyone else is these days? What if they hate comic book heroes but are reviewing their 19th Marvel movie?

Since I am a huge fan of all musical theater, I had been waiting to see this film for a long time. And as I watched the Jets and the Sharks try to kill each other but still keep their toes pointed, I couldn’t help but wish I was in the next theater watching Spider-Man.

The Popcorn Kernels of Truth give this film Three Kernels. It is gorgeous and tremendously well-acted, danced, and photographed. It just isn’t a lot of fun.

Categories: FlicksThatYouShouldPick

tick, tick . . . BOOM!

As we try to open up flicksthatmakemesick to more people with the new categories, it is unfortunate that the first movie reviewed will only appeal to a specific group of people. How just like the internet to make a headline clickbait and then give you something completely different.

I am aware that much of the general public doesn’t really like musicals, and although I cannot fathom why, you may want to visit other sites to read recaps of Succession.

tick, tick. . . BOOM! is the latest (off) Broadway musical adapted to film, in a banner year that has already seen Dear Evan Hansen and In the Heights hit the multiplex. I would assume that people would want to watch musicals after the pandemic, because what will cheer you up more than tap dancing chorus boys? Of course, the subject matter of these shows focuses on suicide, poverty and early death, so perhaps these weren’t the best choices for 2021. But West Side Story has also opened, and is supposedly fabulous—except for the poverty, murders and early death. But the music is great!

Although my Broadway soundtrack knowledge has won trivia contests, tick, tick. . . BOOM is a musical I was not familiar with when I watched it on Netflix. The film recounts the early life of composer Jonathan Larson, who would go on to write the score for Rent, a show that would change the sound of musicals and influence countless future composers. One of those composers was Lin Manuel Miranda, who often credits Rent with being the first show he ever saw that showed him musicals didn’t have to sound like Rodgers and Hammerstein. In his film directing debut, Miranda poured all his love and gratitude into this story of believing in yourself even when no one else does. Larson died on the eve of Rent’s opening; although the film only briefly mentions this, his early death looms over the entire film.

I’m always interested in the different ways people react to art. I have several friends who watched this film; most were positive about it, saying they liked the music and especially the performance of Andrew Garfield as Larson. None of them mentioned sobbing hysterically during the swimming sequence where he finally writes a song he has been working on for weeks or feeling bereft during the parts that featured Stephen Sondheim mentoring him.

I watched this film the day after Sondheim died, and his presence dominates greatly. Although Sondheim was a personal hero of mine, I wasn’t aware of his practice of taking young composers under his wing and encouraging the next generation to write. The film takes on a different meaning when seen as an homage to this master, and the Sunday diner number is a love letter to his music. Add into this the depiction of an artist being blocked creatively in a way he never has been before, and anyone who has ever struggled with a new idea or concept can immediately relate and then rejoice when Larson finally breaks through the figurative wall.

I found this film to be thrilling and emotionally involving, with the final song “Come to Your Senses” a beautiful reward for having suffered along with Larson as he tried to write it. I was astonished by Andrew Garfield, having mostly thought of him as Spiderman and unaware that he could sing. (I hope he has a musical number in the upcoming Spiderman: No Way Home—oh, wait, he’s not in it. Or is he?!)

I am aware that an obscure musical about the early life of a dead broke composer who dies at thirty-five just before he finds success may not be on everyone’s Must See list. But it moved me in a way that I haven’t felt by a film in some time, and I hope that somewhere, someone in the tiny flicksthatmakemesick universe can share this experience. And if not . . . well, at least you won’t throw up.

The Popcorn Kernels of Truth give this film Three Kernels.

Categories: FlicksIWatchedOnNetflix, FlicksThatYouShouldPick, FlicksIWantToLick

Into the Woods

Into-the-Woods-2014-posterIf you’re a casual movie go-er, you may have noticed that there was a new Disney movie opening on Christmas Day. Probably one of those Princess movies that would force you to listen to another anthemic showstopper for the next six months. But if you are a fan and a freak for a certain Broadway genius whose music can move you to tears within seconds, your hands were sweating and your ticket stub limp as you entered the theatre, anticipation and fear causing you to wish the twenty-five minutes of previews would never end because you weren’t sure you were going to be able to handle what came next.

For Sondheim aficionados, the filming of Into the Woods had us excited, well, excited and scared. This classic piece of theatre opened on Broadway in 1987 and has been considered by many to be Sondheim’s greatest work. When the news came out that Disney was finally making it into a film, it seemed impossible that this could have a happy ending. Into the Woods may be about wishes and princesses, but it gets pretty dark, as fairy tales are wont to do. What if they turned it into Frozen In the Woods?

Everyone can slowly exhale. While the movie is not perfect, it captures most of the essence of the original show and doesn’t try to whitewash the angst that follows the happy ending. I wish some of the reviewers had done their homework and realized that this is a good thing. More on that later.

The cast was uniformly terrific. With the exception of Johnny Depp (who was completely forgettable as The Wolf), every person was perfect for the part and could actually sing. Meryl Streep was a great witch, although it’s hard to listen to those songs and not hear Bernadette Peters from the original cast. One review mentioned that Streep’s voice seemed “a little thin”: he must have been standing in the lobby when she blasted through “The Last Midnight”, because she has a powerful instrument that made the whole thing seem pretty apocalyptic. James Corden and Emily Blunt as The Baker and His Wife were charming together and Little Red Riding Hood practically stole the movie with her eyebrows. The kid playing Jack was way too young but his singing was fine, and I didn’t really care if Chris Pine (Prince Charming) could sing after he ripped open his shirt (turns out he can!).

As I feared, many reviews have mentioned how the first part was wonderful but everything falls apart in the second half and maybe they should have stopped before a major character got squished to death. To which I say: That was the whole point! Happy Ever After comes with consequences! This is a Sondheim show! Aaargh!

For me, the second half was actually better than the first, because the first hour seemed rushed. There are four interwoven stories that have to be introduced so it’s understandable, but the pace to get everything in place didn’t really give you time to savor the lyrics. I was grateful they didn’t try to dumb it down, although making Little Red Riding Hood and Jack younger lost some of the sexual subtext that is implied with the wolf and the giant’s wife. And they cut a few songs, which makes me sad (particularly the “Agony” reprise, which is hilarious). A lot of back story was lost by trying to cram it into two hours, but my guess is they figured fans of the show would already know it and newbies wouldn’t care all that much.

This is not a kid’s movie. There were people in the theatre with children under the age of five and a lot of restlessness in the audience. The two teenage girls in front of me who kept texting throughout the whole movie needed to be slapped up the side of the head like Jack’s mother kept doing in the film. A few people actually got up and left after (SPOILER ALERT!) the Baker’s Wife died. This story has so much going on in it and so many wonderful messages about parenting and life that I wanted to stand up and shout, “Listen to these words!! The man is a genius!”

Anyone who has read this far is probably a Sondheim fan, so let me be self-indulgent and speak to you as a kindred spirit. The man’s music and lyrics move me in ways that I cannot begin to express and I am constantly stunned when I listen to this score. Any parent who has ever sent a child off to camp or college or Brooklyn will immediately weep while listening to “Stay With Me”, a plea that your children never leave you that goes against every rule of good parenting. Or “Children Will Listen”, which is a primer on what you should be doing. Or the reassurance of “No One is Alone”, that no matter how many mistakes you make, you always carry those you’ve lost along the path with you. I can’t wait until the Into the Woods merchandise comes out, because I want a Sondheim doll of my own.

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flicksthatmakemesick.com has been in hibernation lately because winter makes it feel like wearing sweat pants and sleeping on the couch. Also, directors don’t seem to be using hand held cameras anymore so they have pretty much rendered this site obsolete. But occasionally a film comes out that elicits a strong response and requires a review, queasiness be damned. So watch for an occasional post here but don’t set your expectations very high. I’m still wearing sweat pants.

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