Saturday, 11 December 2021 23:14

Loving is enough – ‘West Side Story’

It takes a special kind of chutzpah to revisit a masterpiece.

Even today, in a world where every other big-ticket film project is either part of a franchise or a remake of some preexisting IP, there are certain movies that you might consider to be beyond reproach. The idea of trying to recreate legitimate movie magic, to somehow improve upon Pantheon-level greatness … let’s just say that few would dare and far fewer would succeed.

And yet, here we are with “West Side Story.”

The 1961 original – based on the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name – was directed by Jerome Robbins (who helped originate the stage musical) and Robert Wise, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It would become one of the most acclaimed films in Hollywood history, winning 10 Oscars and becoming by all accounts the most successful movie musical of all time. So who would have the gall (and the balls) to remake such a consensus cinematic classic?

Steven Spielberg would. And I have to tell you – it’s really good.

Working from a screenplay adapted by the great Tony Kushner, Spielberg has somehow found a happy medium that I for one had doubts even existed. He has treated the original with the deep respect and adulation that such a masterful work warrants while also finding ways in which to place his own stamp on the proceedings. This is the filmmaker at his best, using every tool in his directorial belt to celebrate the brilliance of the original while also taking full advantage of the half-century of technological and aesthetic development since that first incredible film.

It doesn’t hurt that he is working with source material that is inarguably one of the greatest and most influential musicals ever, itself inspired by one of the greatest and most influential romances ever. This “West Side Story” is both subtle and spectacular, a film that takes full advantage of both the material and the medium to create that rarest of rarities – a new take on a classic that might well wind up considered a classic in its own right.

My guess is that most of the people reading this know “West Side Story” – or at least its inspiration “Romeo & Juliet” – so we won’t belabor the synopsizing.

Published in Movies

Few film genres lend themselves as well to binary ideas as the western. There’s a fundamental divide at the heart of most movies like this – black hats/white hats, urban/rural – that allows a lot of room for different sorts of storytelling exploration. And when filmmakers find ways to subvert that shorthand, the possibilities for interesting, dynamic filmmaking expand exponentially.

“The Power of the Dog” is the latest film from writer/director Jane Campion. Based on the 1967 Thomas Savage novel of the same name, the movie delves deep into the internalized toxicity that can spring from tough-guy isolationism. It’s a look at how damage done early on can fester and scar, fracturing our capability to forge genuine human connection and leaving behind little more than a misshapen and often malevolent masculinity.

It is also a beautifully-crafted work, one that evokes the stark beauty that springs from nature’s emptiness. It’s a story of the many forms that love can take, and how not all of those forms are healthy … as well as the consequences that can arise when those incompatible loves come crashing together. And it’s a story of discovery – both internal and external – and what can happen if and when we’re unprepared for the realities therein.

Published in Movies

My feelings about Netflix’s cornering of the romantic comedy market are fairly well-documented at this point. The algorithmically-driven quantity-over-quality vibe to their productions aren’t the most encouraging, even to those who have predetermined affinities for rom-coms.

Look, Netflix throws a lot of stuff against the wall to see what sticks. It’s part of their model and pretty obviously a successful one, even if it means that a lot of not-great works get made. However, by definition this also means that sometimes, something does stick, resulting in a genuinely good movie.

“Single All the Way,” unfortunate title aside, sticks.

The rom-com – directed by Michael Mayer from a script by Chad Hodge – tells the tale of a man living in California returning to his hometown in New Hampshire for the holiday, capturing both the spirit of the season and the charm of romance in a way that is engaging and beautifully inclusive. It’s a story of what it means to search for love and how that search can become entangled with every other aspect of our lives, for better and worse.

It is adorable and funny, the kind of film that manages to be heartwarming without feeling saccharine and/or cheesy (though there are admittedly moments of both, though not to the movie’s detriment). Christmas is in the air, to be sure … but so is love.

Published in Movies

What does it mean to be a pop culture punchline? Specifically, how does an artist deal with the idea that their creative output is sneered at and viewed as somehow lesser by those “in the know” while also being consumed and enjoyed by a significant fandom?

Let’s hear it from a primary source – Kenny G.

“Listening to Kenny G,” a documentary from filmmaker Penny Lane, is the latest installment of HBO’s ongoing “Music Box” series of music-related docs. It’s a surprisingly compelling dive into what it means to be Kenny G, the best-selling instrumental artist of all time and the bane of many a jazzhead’s overwrought aesthetic.

Over the course of 97 minutes, we’re given insight from both sides of the Kenny G debate – a debate that remains surprisingly polarizing considering how long the saxophonist has been part of the pop culture firmament.

Published in Movies

It has been one heck of a movie year.

I always struggle with assembling my best-of list when it comes to a year’s film offerings. There’s the fact that I often haven’t seen some of the most anticipated/acclaimed movies due to their year-end release dates – just off the top of my head, I can name PTA’s “Licorice Pizza,” Steven Spielberg’s upcoming “West Side Story” remake, Guillermo Del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley” and, of course, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” as movies that likely would have a real shot at this list. There’s also plenty of stuff that I simply haven’t seen – there’s a LOT out there.

Even so, I’ve watched and reviewed something like 130 films so far in 2021 – I probably won’t get to 150, but it could be close – so I like to think that this is a decent list. Granted, it’s also a list that could be different depending on the day – I’m leaving off some worthy movies. In addition, this list is simply one person’s opinion. If your favorites don’t appear here, that’s no condemnation of your taste.

Now, if your favorites appear on my worst-of list – don’t worry, it’s coming in the next week or two – then there might be a tiny bit of condemnation.

So here you are – my top 21 films of 2021, listed in more or less alphabetical order. Please note that the total includes my honorable mentions.

Published in Cover Story

I love it when a filmmaker takes a big swing. It’s immensely satisfying to watch and realize in real time that what is happening on the screen is the result of multiple wild decisions, all made with the intent of making the movie in question as much … itself … as possible.

And when you get to see a filmmaker take TWO such swings in the span of just a couple of months, well – I’m here for it.

So it is with Ridley Scott, whose latest is “House of Gucci,” the frankly bonkers dramatization of the somehow-even-MORE-bonkers true story behind the battle for control of the Gucci fashion dynasty. Based on the 2001 book “The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed” by Sarah Gay Forden, it goes deep into the bizarre machinations that led to the dissolution of familial command of the company.

(This follows Scott’s equally ambitious and (almost) equally weird, yet tonally and thematically distinct “The Last Duel,” which came out mere weeks ago following a lengthy COVID delay.)

But where “The Last Duel” was self-serious, “House of Gucci” is high camp, a telenovela run through Google Translate multiple times and ultimately landing in some sort of feverish linguistic no-man’s-land, ostensibly Italian but lacking any sort of consistency from character to character. It is over the top in a bizarre but incredibly watchable way – it’s as though different actors are performing in different movies, only to have the whole thing thrown together.

It is, to be frank, a train wreck. A delightful and oft-mesmerizing train wreck, yes, but very much off the rails.

Published in Movies
Monday, 29 November 2021 15:44

‘Encanto’ offers magical family fun

Sixty films.

That’s the number reached by Disney Animation Studios with the release of their latest film “Encanto.” It’s a staggering figure, even when you take into consideration how long they’ve been in the business of making movies. From 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” until now, Disney has been creating animated wonder.

It’s literally generational – for over eight decades, families have been coming together to experience the magic of Disney animation. Kids who grew up on these movies have in turn shared them with their kids, who in turn would grow up to share them with their kids.

And so it’s appropriate that this latest entry would focus so thoroughly on those notions. Magic and family and the magic of family. That’s “Encanto.”

The film – directed by Jared Bush and Byron Howard from a screenplay co-written by Bush and Charise Castro Smith, with original songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda – is a captivating exploration of what it means to be a family and the importance of maintaining those connections no matter what obstacles might arise, all refracted through a lens of magical realism.

It is charming and sweet; warm, feel-good family fun of the sort that we’ve come to expect from Disney. And while it might be on the slighter side, there’s no denying that viewers young and old will be swept up into this wondrous world – there will be plenty of laughs and yes, perhaps a few tears as well.

Published in Movies

Nostalgia is big business when it comes to entertainment. And perhaps nowhere is that nostalgia as keenly felt as it is within the movie industry. Now more than ever, studios are seeking to cash in on our feelings about what has come before, monetizing our memories and generally profiting on the past.

That’s not to say that it’s always a bad thing. Some perfectly enjoyable works have sprung from that desire, even if those works themselves sprung from the pursuit of profit. It’s not ideal, perhaps, but there’s still joy to be found.

Take “8-Bit Christmas,” a new film currently streaming on HBO Max. Directed by Michael Dowse from a screenplay by Kevin Jakubowski (who adapted his own novel of the same name), it’s the story of a young man in Chicago in the late 1980s and his all-consuming Christmastime quest to get his hands on the one thing that will make his life truly complete:

A Nintendo Entertainment System.

It’s a film that will undeniably ring familiar – you’ve seen just about all of this before, in some way, shape or form – but when you’re talking about this kind of holiday fare, the familiarity is the point. There’s something warm and comforting about these readily recognizable beats – sure, you won’t be surprised, but you’ll probably be charmed.

Published in Tekk
Monday, 29 November 2021 15:39

MMA drama ‘Bruised’ far from a knockout

I’m on record as someone who greatly enjoys an inspirational sports movie. Whether we’re talking about comebacks from adversity or Davids taking on Goliaths or some combination therein, I am here for it. I’ve always found these types of films compelling when they’re done well.

Emphasis on the last part.

The new film “Bruised,” currently streaming on Netflix, doesn’t quite achieve that standard. It’s a muddy, confused sort of film, a movie that never figures out precisely what it is trying to say or what it wants to be. Set in the world of mixed martial arts, it is an undeniably visceral film – both physically and emotionally – but largely lacks the thematic depth that could push it to the next level.

It marks the directorial debut of Halle Berry, who also stars in the film. It’s an odd choice for a debut, a movie that originally had a different director and star attached; one wonders what drew Berry to the project in the first place. While there are some impactful moments, the muddled nature of the film’s tone undercuts them, ultimately resulting in a flawed viewing experience.

Published in Sports

Revisiting the things that we love comes with risk. How do we continue the stories we cherish in a way that is loyal to the original while also adding something meaningful? It’s a delicate tightrope walk, to be sure, a balancing act that far too many creators and artists have failed to execute.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached “Ghostbusters: Afterlife.” After all, I love the Ghostbusters. I love the 1984 original. I love the 1989 sequel. Hell, I’m even in the minority that enjoyed the 2016 reboot, for its flaws. But the idea of making a direct sequel to those films over three decades later seemed … ambitious? Complicated? Risky?

Well, I’m happy to report that my concerns were largely unfounded. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” – directed by Jason Reitman from a script by Reitman and Gil Kenan – is a delightful experience, one that stays true to the spirit (see what I did there?) of the original. It’s a fun and funny and at times surprisingly poignant dip back into this world, a world where the consequences of long-ago actions have rippling consequences to this day.

It’s not perfect – there are those who have argued that the third act leans a little too far into the fan service lane and I don’t think they’re entirely wrong – but the truth is that this film treats the legacy of the franchise with love and respect. No surprise, considering that Reitman’s father Ivan was behind the camera for the original, but it’s worth noting.

Published in Movies
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