With some recent reviews, like 'In the Heights', I've mentioned that musicals seem to be something I've been getting more and more into as time goes on. As a result, I figured I'd check out a version of 'West Side Story' as envisioned by the one and only Steven Spielberg. With that, I should probably mention that 'West Side Story' (aka 'Romeo & Juliet') was never really a favourite story of mine. A classic in it's own right, just not really up my alley.
My hope was to go into this and get something from Spielberg's direction, or some kind of mind-blowing choreography. While these aspects are quite good here, I couldn't help but get the feeling that it's really just... 'West Side Story' again. I know, I know, what exactly do I want, right? I'll be kind enough to give the film some leeway on that. But I think the film's overall biggest strength (at least in my eyes) happens to also be its weakness, and it leaves me not quite knowing how to feel.
The story takes place in 1957 Manhattan, as we immediately see the turf war taking place between the Jets; a gang of white Americans, and the Sharks; a gang of Puerto Ricans. According to officer Krupke (Brian d'Arcy James) and Lt. Schrank (Corey Stoll), who break up a scuffle between the rival gangs, their war is pointless. The whole neighbourhood is about to be demolished in order to make way for the now famous Lincoln Center. However, none of this stops leader of the Jets, Riff (Mike Faist), from proposing a "rumble" to finally settle things.
This brings Riff to his out-on-parole friend, Tony (Ansel Elgort), who wishes to start a new life, living on the straight and narrow. Owner of a Puerto Rican general store, Valentina (Rita Moreno), helps Tony with getting his life back on track, and Tony doesn't find it hard to say "no" to the upcoming fight. Tony soon meets Maria (Rachel Zegler, in her pretty amazing film debut) and falls madly in love with her, but there's a catch - Maria happens to be the sister of the Sharks' leader, Bernardo (David Alvarez). Their forbidden love then leads to a collision course between the two gangs despite the fact that neither Tony nor Maria want any part of this fight.
It's the story of forbidden love we've seen many times before. It's probably safe to say that you get everything you expect from the story if you're at all familiar with either 'Romeo & Juliet' and/or 'West Side Story', which both have a variety of stage renditions as well as screen adaptations. I think that's part of why I didn't see this as anything entirely special as opposed to... basically everyone else. It's just something I've seen before, the songs aren't new or different (and probably shouldn't be, to be fair), and it was never a favourite to begin with.
But having said that, let me point out the good about this movie. I have to say, for as much as I didn't really care, there really was no "bad" to this. Sometimes a story just isn't for me, and that's something I can accept. For those who love the original musical (be it movie or stage), I really think you'll have a great time with this. Spielberg has always done a good job at capturing eras in time, and the 50s is definitely no exception (even if I didn't like 'Crystal Skull', the setting was still well done). It doesn't stop at the clothes or the cars either. There was something about this that made it feel like it's authentically from the 50s.
Going back to what I said about the film's biggest strength also being it's biggest weakness, it's a messed up situation. On one hand, it kind of sucks that there was nothing very new or different about this. But on the other hand, it's authenticity for the era is what gives the film most of it's charm. It is a lot like watching a stage musical as opposed to many other adaptations that go out of the way to make sure you know it's still a movie... like 'Cats'... Anyway, the bottom line is that if you are into this story at all, you should definitely check out Spielberg's rendition. But if you're like me, just know that it's something you've seen before, and try to appreciate the direction more than anything else.
When it comes to my particular taste in entertainment, musicals are fairly recent. It's a genre that I haven't really given a huge chance to, and there are many big titles I haven't seen yet, simply due to lack of interest. I finally started opening my mind up much more to them since 2016's 'LA LA Land' (one of the first movie I reviewed on this site). Since then, I've decided to give musicals a fair shake, and I can't really deny that there's something about them I can get into - perhaps the feel-good fantasy of it all. There really is something incredibly expressive about telling a story through song, and this is certainly no exception.
As the film opens, we meet Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) hanging out on a beach, and telling a group of kids a story about his experiences back home in Washington Heights. He lives with the neighbourhood's mother figure, Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), and owns a bodega where he delights in catering to the good people of the area. We are further introduced to Kevin Rosario (Jimmy Smits) who runs the local taxi dispatch, and is father to recent Stanford drop-out, Nina (Leslie Grace); love interest to one of Kevin's employees, Benny (Corey Hawkins). Meanwhile, side-stories unfold involving Usnavi's little cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), salon ladies, Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), Carla (Stephanie Beatriz) and Cuca (Dascha Polanco) and Vanessa; Usnavi's love interest.
A lot of the plot is pretty simplistic, if bittersweet one, having to do with the Washington Heights area of New York City slowly fading away over time. On one hand, the locals are preparing to get out of the area and follow their dreams before they get stuck, broke and without power (a blackout plays a pretty big role here). On the other hand, the same locals see the community as a sort of family, and Washington Heights is plan and simply "home". So in some ways, the film could be seen as a touch contradictory. I sort of found my own meaning to it all though, in that while the grass may be greener on the other side of the fence, there's something about the current situation one may take comfort with. It's the difference between living where you were born, raised and made friends vs what may yet be a better lifestyle.
Getting the weaker points out of the way first, I did find this to be a very simplistic story with not a whole lot of originality. It is another musical about following dreams, it is another musical with a a love story or two, and in some ways, it becomes musical to a fault. What I mean by that is, this is one of those musicals that's almost all singing, very seldom taking any breaks. Even just the causal convo is lyrical, which may be trouble for some to get around. It's also a touch predictable, and once it ends the way it does, you may shrug your shoulders and say "ah, I thought that might happen". I have also heard that there are some pretty big changes going on here that alter the original musical in several ways, so if you've seen and become a fan of the musical, you might be a bit disappointed.
Having said all that, speaking for myself, I find the good certainly outweighs the bad here. I actually really enjoyed the musical numbers here, and was hard-pressed to find one I didn't enjoy. The one that really stands out here for me, 'Paciencia Y Fe', has to do with Abuela reminiscing about her past as an immigrant, and it does tug at the heart strings quite a bit. The other big standouts for me were the 'In the Heights' opening, '96,000'; a song about the possibilities of winning the local lottery, and 'Blackout', which was just a catchy and really well choreographed number that sees a lot happen throughout it. I have to say, the music is ultimately very catchy here, and gives me a whole new reason to finally check out 'Hamilton', as it also involves the multi-talented Lin-Manuel Miranda's lyrics and song writing (among other things... yes, I know, I haven't seen 'Hamilton' yet).
When it was all sang and done, I definitely enjoyed myself. Even though I mention the plot being so simplistic, sometimes that's just what's needed. I think people can get a lot from this (at least if they haven't seen the original play), especially in this day and age. With Covid 19, theaters are just barely opening back up (except for up here in Ontario, Canada) and this is a nice, feel-good, catchy musical that has a lot to do with getting out into the open, and having a community come together in a big way. This could almost be seen as a well-timed celebration of life, if you look at it a certain way. It's fun, it's upbeat, and still had enough heavy moments for it to be appropriately dramatic. So, if you like a good musical that's a bit heavier on the sing-song side that delivers a mostly feel-good story, this is a good one to check out!
Within about the past five years, I'm pretty happy to admit that I can appreciate a good musical, so long as I enjoy the subject matter (so like any other movie, really). But it has been a little while since I've watched one on par with some of those old Disney classics; something to make me feel like a kid again, and just enjoy it for the fun time it is. I got all of that with this movie; a two-hour Christmas musical featuring an all-black cast, and directed by David E. Talbert. Talbert sticks out for me, as he also directed 'Almost Christmas', which was a recent one I thought was pretty underrated.
Things open with a kindly old woman (Phylicia Rashad - who I don't think anyone has seen since 'Cosby'), telling a bedtime story to her two children. The story tells of inventor and toymaker, Jeronicus Jangle (Justin Cornwell/Forest Whitaker) who one day gets his hands on a final component to his latest invention. Said invention is a mechanical matador doll named Don Juan Diego (Ricky Martin), brought to life with this "component". Unfortunately, this sentience also comes with a bad side, as Diego convinces Jangle's apprentice, Gustafson (Miles Barrow/Keegan-Michael Key) to steel Jangle's book of inventions. Over the years, this leads to Gustafson's ultimate success as "Toymaker of the Year" for about 28 years in a row.
Meanwhile, Jangles and Things (Jangle's shop) falls into financial ruin, his wife Joanne (Sharon Rose) passes away, and he grows apart from his daughter, Jessica (Anika Noni Rose), who moves away. Thirty years pass, as Jangle becomes a bit of a hermit, but a kindly one... like Obi-Wan! He's lost his creative spark, and Jangles and Things has turned into a pawn shop. He will lose the shop entirely, however, if he doesn't either pay whatever debts he owes, or come up with some spectacular new invention to show the bank. His savior may very well come in the form of his visiting granddaughter, Journey (Madalen Mills) who shares Jangle's passion for inventing, and is incredibly smart. Can she help her Grandfather get back on his feet, and start competing with Gustafson; a man who doesn't deserve anything he has?
For starters, let me just put it out there that this is very much a magical, whimsical adventure that will likely appeal to kids a little more than adults. If musicals, or the whole Broadway thing aren't for you, then this probably won't be. That said, it's a good way to go for something new for the kids to watch and enjoy for Christmas. The two lead kids here are great, starting with Madalen Mills. I'm just gonna go long-story-short here and say she's 100% Oscar-worthy! This girl is 11-years-old, her personality lights up the room, and she's an incredible singer. This would be her first big role, and I'm gonna go so far as to say that she AND her character are a great inspiration to growing children, and I really think and hope she gets nothing but success in the coming years; what an amazing new talent.
That said, there's a lot of great talent here. I haven't even brought up two other main characters who deserve good credit for their roles all the same. First we have Ms. Johnston (Lisa Davina Phillip) who plays a woman, smitten with Jangle, but while Jangle still misses his wife, he's pretty standoffish about it. She's a great character though, and you can tell she's having a lot of fun being a flirt. Secondly, we have Edison Latimer (Kieron L. Dyer), Jangle's young new apprentice who joins Journey in her... well, journey, to help out her grandfather. He's there to play the awkward and nerdy scaredy-cat who has to come into his own. He does a good job of it though, for this being his first and only role. Odds are, he's another one to keep an eye on - I just hope he doesn't get typecast.
This is a Netflix Original, and it seems to be further proof that Netflix Original Christmas movies are nothing to really turn your nose up at. The first 'Christmas Chroincles' is great, 'Klaus' was Oscar-worthy, and I get the feeling this might be able to at the very least get nominated next year for certain songs ('This Day' and 'Square Root of Impossible' probably being the front-runners) along with Mills' outstanding performance. I'm saying it right now, she is almost bound to get SOMETHING for her efforts here, and if she doesn't, I will hereby swear off award shows forever and make up my own awards here... the Take 5 Awards! Heck, maybe I should do that anyway. Nevertheless, only speaking for myself, I'd consider this probably the best Christmas movie I've seen yet this year. It's a big, magical, whimsical production one can lose themselves in, if only they're able to accept their inner child. I am, indeed, feeling generous with this one, as it really did make me feel like a kid again.
We have our first really big hit of 2017! As it stands, 'Beauty and the Beast' holds the #6 spot on the All-Time Box Office Opening Weekend list, topping 'Iron Man 3', but not quite topping 'Civil War'. I have to say, I didn't truly expect it to hit so big. I knew it was gonna do well, but in the Top 10 of all time? Well, kudos, Disney. But how worth it is the film, REALLY? (Oh yeah, I'm going there)
Now, before I get lynched, let me make it clear that the original 'Beauty and the Beast' was always a film I found to be decent. It ultimately earned my respect for trying out newish CG technology to its advantage, and succeeding in such a way that even today, it's regarded as one of the greatest achievements in Disney animation (remember, this was a few years before 'Toy Story'). It was also the first animated film to ever be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. The only other two that have ever made this category were 'Up' and 'Toy Story 3'. So anyway, the point is, even if it wasn't quite for me, I give it credit for being such a landmark.
In the vein of live action Disney remakes, it seems like a logical step to bring such a movie up. And they even got a true beauty to play Belle, Emma Watson. A clever move to not only put butts in seats, but bring her more out into the open in what is probably her first BIG role since she last played Hermione Granger. She does a pretty good job here, too, playing a truly likable character, and we even get to hear her sing... she ain't bad, either!
But here's where I run into my first problem of the film... the songs. Holy good God almighty, what the hell happened? They have pretty much all of the original songs going here, but they have even more than that. They pretty much made it into a musical. And I don't necessarily mind that, but I certainly didn't expect it. If I had fully know that it was gonna go full tilt musical on me, I would have given it a little more wiggle room. But 'Jungle Book' has two songs in it, one of which is just a casual almost drive-by song, and the other, which although unnecessary, was sung by Christopher Walken. This... this was almost a cut and paste job. But therein lies the problem.
To make SUCH a classic among the masses into a live action film, I get the feeling audiences would get pretty upset if they didn't get to hear their favorite songs, etc. In a way, it almost had to do the copy and paste to keep people happy. But don't get the wrong idea, there IS stuff to like about it, still. It, being a musical I didn't expect is hardly a fair reason to complain... but I'm still gonna complain about the AMOUNT of songs.
Anyway, to add to the positive side of things, the movie looked rather amazing. The visuals were really something to write home about, especially when they actually decided to go all out on the 'Be Our Guest' musical number. Hell, they even made the Beast look pretty spot on without making him look too goofy. Even the costume designs were lifted right out of the animated film. So visually, it gets solid marks. It was also acted well, and again for the fans of the original, all your old songs are here again.
I have to appreciate the fact that a bit more of the story focuses on Belle's father, and we do get to find out whatever happened to her mother... even if it is in a sort of crow barred-in scene, the way it's executed is rather touching. But it's otherwise not a hell of a lot more than you'd get from the original, animated movie. This brings me back to that Oscar nomination though. Because the original did so incredibly well for itself, really all this ends up being is a neat new way to see it. You'll pretty much just be watching the same story if you choose to stay home and watch the 1991 classic version.
But for those die-hard fans, either the title 'Beauty and the Beast' is gonna be the draw, or Emma Watson as Belle is gonna be the draw, and in neither case will you truly be disappointed. If you wanna just see a live action version of the animated movie, you will not be disappointed. But I gotta say, if you're looking for a new take on things, you might be disappointed.
By the time this review goes up, there will already be some Oscar buzz about this movie. It's already got big buzz for the Golden Globes, being nominated under such categories as Best Musical or Comedy, Best Lead Actor, Best Lead Actress, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Original Song and Best Original Score... I mean... damn! That's some pretty solid work right there. Let's not forget that this also comes from director Damien Chazelle who also did 'Whiplash' last year; a film that won Oscars for Film Editing, Sound Mixing and Supporting Actor with nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and yes, Best Picture (losing to 'Spotlight'). So yeah, I guess we have our first real Oscar contender on our hands.
'La La Land' is a simple enough story. The plot basically involves a chance encounter between a struggling jazz musician named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and a struggling actress named Mia (Emma Stone). As the story unfolds we watch as they fall in love, but have to do the right things in their own lives for themselves, which may very well put a wrench into the works. I can't really say too much more than that without giving anything away, but let's face it, the plot is rather basic. So what, exactly, makes this movie not only warrant a whopping 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, but ALSO end up as the #27 Top Rated movie on IMDb?
Well for starters, you just have the chemistry between these two that seems to have always sort of been there. No joke, this is a potential celebrity couple I've kinda wanted to see get together since I saw them act side-by-side in 'Crazy, Stupid Love'. The chemistry between the two leads had to be believable, and I always find these two pretty damn believable.
Aside from that, though, the film has this beautiful, flowing look and atmosphere that seems almost surreal. I loved seeing a lot of the LA backdrop through the movie, featuring pink and purple sunsets, street lights and starry skies. When there was a big musical number like 'Another Day of Sun', the colours seemed to pop, and things got pretty fun. A more subtle musical number like the Globe-nominated 'City of Stars' had a sort of deeper and more moody look to it, but still nice. And here's the thing; there actually wasn't a single musical number in this film I didn't enjoy. Most musicals end up having one or two, but this really carried it through.
Often, the film would harken back to the old days of cinema and imitate some of the art that just simply does not exist in film these days. I think my favorite part was after Sebastian and Mia officially meet, they do one called 'A Lovely Night' where it's straight up Fred Astaire-like, in-sync dancing and singing. It would remind one of an older musical from the 40s.
What i thought was probably most impressive, though, was that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone straight up SING in this movie. No dubbing, no voice-overs, no Simba the Lion Cub situation, it's just purely them. Which was great since they can then just add their personalities within the delivery of the song. I mean, Gosling kills it with 'City of Stars', and Stone kills it with 'Audition', giving a performance perhaps just short of Anne Hathaway's 'I Dream a Dream' from 'Les Miserables".
Now, for as much as I praise the film, there are gonna be moments that may bother certian audiences in their decisions of storytellling. And that's totally fair. That said, nothing was ruined for your's truly. I actually thoroughly enjoyed it from beginning to end; an ending that I found NOT predictable for a love story, but it was very moving nonetheless.
If you are a fan of musicals in general, I'd highly recommend going to check it out. This has the potential to be the most awarded musical since 'Chicago', which won 6 Oscars and was nominated for 7 more!... Okay, so maybe they won't be THAT generous, but I bet it'll do pretty well. Much like it's said in one of the drive-by reviews for it you see in the trailer, "they don't make films like this anymore".