West Side Story (5/12/12)

West Side StoryMovie One Hundred Seventeen

West Side Story is a “modern day” take on Romeo and Juliet using New York City’s racial tension as the backdrop for two ill-fated lovers.

Recently re-released for its 50th anniversary, West Side Story has been hugely popular both on and off Broadway. The film takes a well-known story but throws in an urban setting and deals out the race card and then sets the whole thing to music.

Warring neighborhood gangs the Jets and the Sharks are frequently clashing in turf wars. The Sharks are a gang of Puerto Rican immigrants while the Jets are white. Eventually, one of the leading members of the Jets, Tony (Richard Beymer),  falls in love with the sister, Maria (Natalie Wood), of the leader of the Sharks. Alongside the gang fights, the two groups also have to deal with local law enforcement. As Maria and Tony’s love blossoms, tensions rise between the gangs and the city.

In general, I’m not a fan of musicals. Even the best of musicals cause me to check my watch often. It’s not that I dislike music, I love music, there’s just something about musicals that drains me. West Side Story is no different, and clocking in around 2 1/2 hours, it was a bear to get through. I had actually never seen it before, but I did know some of the songs from the soundtrack. My wife recently purchased the Blu-Ray and when I told her I had never seen it she practically strapped me to the sofa and peeled off my eyelids to watch it (not really).

While the songs and the message have both stood the test of time, some of the racial elements are quite jarring. Even though racism is a key component of the film’s plot, to hear the Sharks being called “spics” made me cringe. Some of the more eccentric parts of the musical numbers also made me roll my eyes, but I suppose the film is supposed to be mostly camp. Overall, West Side Story is likely essential viewing for all fans of musicals. While I was not taken with it on a whole, I can see the significance and merits of West Side Story.

I give it 3 Saturday Night Live spoofs out of 5.

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Days of Heaven (4/14/12)

Days of HeavenMovie Eighty Four

Days of Heaven is one of only a handful of films from director, Terrence Malick, so it’s easy to call it one of his best. Days of Heaven would be one of the best of nearly any other director as well, but it is certifiably a Malick film.

Terrence Malick has a very unique style to his films and his entire process of filming. Days of Heaven was apparently shot without a script for the most part, and the editing process took him over two years to complete. When watching his films, you become aware that you are watching something much richer than what is simply happening on screen. There are shots of scenery, of animals, of the sky, things that have nothing to do with the plot directly, but enhance the beauty of the story being told.

Days of Heaven focuses on a worker named Bill (Richard Gere) that has to flee Chicago for killing his boss. He travels with his girlfiend, Abby (Brooke Adams), and young sister, Linda (Linda Manz). Linda provides the narration for the film. Posing as three siblings, they find work on a farm and Abby is coerced to marry the dying farmer for his money. Things become complicated as the farmer finds out the truth about Bill and Abby, but Abby develops feelings for her new husband.

For a movie without a script, the story is actually quite good, but Malick’s films are primarily visual. The cinematography is, of course, stunning and the film is such a wonder to simply stare at you could easily be distracted by the plot. There is literally no one else quite like Terrence Malick making films today. It’s also worth noting that the Criterion Collection has done an outstanding job with the release of Days of Heaven. Everything is top-notch and there are special features aplenty.

Days of Heaven is a wonderful film and is a film for the sake of beauty. There are moments near the end where my mouth was simply agape in wonderment at the scenes captured on film. Not quite as esoteric as Tree of Life, but a bit dreamier than The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven is a wonderful film and a terrific introduction to Terrence Malick.

I give it 5 locust swarms out of 5.

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