West Side Story (1961)

West Side Story – 1961

Director(s) – Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise

Starring – Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, and George Chakiris

So if you’ve read this blog before, you may know just how surprised I was upon seeing Singin’ in the Rain. I mean it was a fantastically really well done movie, with an entertaining story, characters with a very tangible chemistry and, the surprising part, it was a musical! I know. I know. I thought that fact alone would guarantee it to be terrible too, but it didn’t.

Well based on the strength of that film, I approached this “classic” with a bit more spring in my step. I mean, this could actually be pretty fun. The story of Romeo and Juliet mixed with the raw energy and exuberance of Singin’ in the Rain. That sounds like a no lose situation…right? Enter the dance fighting. Exit all hope of this being good.

I’ll repeat that…a movie featuring a tragic love story, gang warfare, and dance fighting.  Not dance fighting like one might see in a movie like “Step Up” or “You Got Served”  where the dancing is the weapon.  No, these guys are fighting with knives, pipes, and broken bottles, they just dance around while they do it.  Removing all the power, intensity, and plausibility of fighting from the situation.

For those who’ve never heard of Romeo and Juliet, or its retarded cousin, West Side Story, here’s the scoop. There are two rival gangs who hate each other because they are trying to occupy the same territory, and because of the folly of youth, but mostly because they are so different that they are essentially the same.  Okay, so we’ve got tension.

Because of their unwillingness to look beyond these minor differences, they are completely unwilling to tolerate co-habitation.  Problems arise when a member of each group falls in love with the other.  Each gang is outraged and willing to go to great lengths to stop the fledgling romance.  There’s the story defining conflict!  This mixture of volatile elements is a recipe for disas…oh wait, no.  Dance-fighting destroys all conflict and tension just by nature of being fucking dance-fighting.  Story ruined.

So all bitterness aside, West Side Story took a rather common hackneyed concept and decided to do absolutely nothing new with it.  Adding mediocre songs to the mix, and half-heartedly choreographing some dancing doesn’t re-invigorate a story that everyone knows, especially when the “new” additions all seem tacked on and disingenuous.

So, you ask, does this spoil my impression of musicals again? Am I back to being a non-believer? Not yet, although it was touch and go there for a while. I can rationally understand that there are duds in every genre, no matter if they’re science fiction (The Core anyone), mystery (anything M. Night Shyamalan did post Sixth Sense), or even, gasp, action (Transformers, GI Joe, etc..).  Unlike what I previously thought, there will be good musicals, but there will be terrible ones too (so really I was half right).

As for the acting, there really seems to be no point in going into it for this film, I wasn’t impressed by any of it.  In general though, one of the actors in particular will manage to redeem himself in my eyes.  Russ Tamblyn, will go on to feature heavily in one of the best television series of all times, Twin Peaks, and will also play a host of memorable small roles in such works as, Drive, The Haunting, Quantum Leap, and The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret.

So is this film worth seeing?  In my opinion, no.  Go see Romeo and Juliet instead (or better yet, go read it too), and save yourself the annoyance. Every once in a while this list of 1001 movies has some black holes of crap tossed in just because.  This is one of them.

“Giving musicals a bad name” – Ashley

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons

Director – Orson Welles

Starring – Joseph Cotton, Delores Costello, Anne Baxter, and Tim Holt

Often compared as a bastard sibling to the widely praised Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons is the second of Orson Welles’ two picture deal with RKO Pictures.  While he was away filming another feature in Brazil, Ambersons was taken away from Welles by the studio who felt the picture was too slow and somber.  RKO cut roughly 50 minutes of footage from the end, and tacked on a happy ending to appease test audiences who, since it was released after the attack at Pearl Harbor wanted something a bit more cheerful, and with laughs.

Ambersons tells the story of a spoiled little rich kid, George Amberson Minaver, played to cruel, selfish perfection by Tim Holt.  George (apparently based on the somewhat spoiled Orson Welles) is so caught up in himself, and his worries, that he doesn’t allow anyone else in his family the opportunity of their own happiness.  Seeing the affection between his mother, Isabel, and Joseph Cotton’s character Eugene Morgan, as a threat, he firmly plants himself in between the pair willing to go to great lengths to keep them apart.  The families reliance on their seemingly endless wealth threatens to teach them some hard life lessons.  From this brief synopsis, you can see where the story is going, but rest assured you won’t see the abbreviated ending coming.

Despite the new happy ending, The Magnificent Ambersons, as it exists today is incomplete.  The editor, Robert Wise, a director in his own right (The Haunting, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music) was put in charge of cutting the film to its current length.  While salvaging as much as he could of the story, the film still seems to end abruptly, destroying the our investment in the characters as well as the weight and importance of the story.  The cut footage was rumored to have been destroyed to prevent Welles from protesting and producing another cut, all though officially it was to clear space in the studio’s vaults.

Since we will never fully know what this film could have been, it is unfair to say it is as good as Citizen Kane, nor is it fair to put it on the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, especially since it isn’t commercially available on DVD in the United States (I watched a decent quality AVI file that I happened upon).  That being said, what is present in the version that I saw, was a prime example of why Orson Welles was (and still is if you ask me) such a revered filmmaker.  The ensemble acting is the quality you might expect of the Mercury players, everyone does a great job, not only of playing their parts, but also of supporting their fellow actors in their roles.

A class could be taught on the cinematography of this film alone.  Stanley Cortez replaces Gregg Toland as Welles’ cinematographer of choice, but none of the elegance inherent in Citizen Kane was lost.  Unlike a lot of films from this era, Welles isn’t afraid of using shadow to dramatic and atmospheric effect.  Character’s, especially female characters, in most american films seem to always find that same pocket of light that illuminates them in just such a way.  In Ambersons, not only is there plenty of darkness, but it is nearly a character all its own.  One that each other character interacts with, and plays against (both physically with the shadows in a scene, and metaphorically with their own motivations and intentions).

Another interesting element deserving of mention is the mammoth estate in which the Amberson’s dwell.  The sense of foreboding and expectation carried by the physical structure that houses this indomitable family affects the story as much as any other element in the story.  The cavernous stairway is host to as many romantic kisses as it is to malicious eavesdropping and tense stand-offs.

Finally it is important to point out the resonance this film has had with one of my favorite films of all time, The Royal Tenenbaums.  Similar to The Magnificent Ambersons, Tenenbaums deals with the perceived mythology of a family of spectacular characters, and juxtaposing that ideal against the reality of the dysfunction that is inherent in family.  Similarities range from the small (the titles are similarly grand) to the grand (the main conflict in both films comes about when love and relationships are threatened by jealousy and depression).  Wes Anderson, to his credit, has managed to finish what Orson Welles was never able to.  With The Royal Tenenbaums he manages to bring closure to the wonderful story that has had a false happy ending on it for nearly 60 years.

Is The Magnificent Ambersons great?  No, not as a whole, but what it’s made of, what it was going to be, and what it has inspired, is far more than great!  It’s Magnificent!

The Haunting (1963)

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The Haunting – 1963

Director – Robert Wise

Starring – Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn

The Robert Wise production of The Haunting suffers slightly from the fact that I saw the shitty 1999 remake first, and unfortunately it never really recovers.

Based on the short story by Shirley Jackson, the Haunting is a good example of the 1960’s horror film.  It is far enough away from the 50’s to avoid giant monsters, and a cliched premise, but it is still too far from the late 70’s and early 80’s when gore was in vogue.  By comparison, it manages a certain legitimacy that movies in either of the other two camps aren’t afforded.  The scares are based around tension rather than gross-outs or horrible creatures, which makes the film seem all that much more grown up. 

Julie Harris, stars as Eleanor, the troubled, put-upon woman who is perhaps a little sensitive to the paranormal.  She, and a few others, are the guest of Dr. Markway, a scientist interested in the spiritial disturbances that have taken place for decades at Hill House, a mess of corridors and rooms with a lonely and bitter past.  The presence of these newcomers (two of whom are sensitive to the otherworldly happenings), awakens the angry spirits in the house and causes them to run amok.

While the set up of each version of the film (the original and the remake) are the same up to this point, the remake diverges at this point and as the characters start dying.  So, having seen the latter version, I was waiting for the original version to start killing off our main characters.  I was waiting for the caretaker and his wife to turn up dead (like in The Others, another movie with a similar plot), once Markway’s wife showed up, I was waiting for her to die.  The point was, I kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

Despite the fact that I thought the newer version was dumber, with inferior acting, and pacing, I was a little let down by the lack of death, or at least the lack of percieved danger.  This version seemed tame.  Not that tame is bad, but this seemed like it was missing a scene or two, or maybe even a whole act.  The conflict of our main character (her guilt about how her own mother died) is never fully realized, and ultimately doesn’t seem a good enough reason for her to be so introspective, and awkward.  Without the realization of threat of the spirits manipulation of Eleanor’s neediness, and fear, the motivation for what happens is not fully believable, and ultimately rings false.

Despite my disappointment, The Haunting has a number of very effective scenes, the most notable of which is the scene in which Eleanor wakes up to the sound of the ghost stomping around outside her room.  She grabs hold of the hand of who she believes is her roommate (the at times aggrivating, at times compassionate Theo played by Claire Bloom), only to find out after the moment has passed that she was much to far away for it to have been her.  Russ Tamblyn (Dr. Jacoby from Twin Peaks) has a few funny lines and is generally the best character whenever he’s on screen.

One other thing that was a bit of a disappointment to me, was the inside of the house.  It is supposed to be this awesome, fearful place, that is completely it’s own character.  It wasn’t that so much.  All I saw of it was a jumbled grouping of dark walls that didn’t convey a mood or tone.  Also I didn’t really have a sense of where in the house the characters were.  There seemed to be no main room, no kitchen, no logical layout, it was all bedrooms, and stairs.

All in all, a bit of a disappointment.