WEST SIDE STORY (2021) movie musical review

Excels in technical achievement, staging, and casting; in fact it will transport you to the glory days of the movie musical. Did the Academy Award-winning West Side Story (1961) need a 2021 update? That is the question at the forefront of many minds going into this update to the adaptation. And in terms of the visible mise-en-scene, Spielberg delivers an outstanding update to the original big screen adaptation. From the cinematography to the editing to the choreography, it certainly displays the soul of the original adaptation–all the way down to the film grain that gives it a classical aesthetic. But the full transformative potential of the timeless story suffocates under the theoretical identity politics of Spielberg’s Woke Side Story. While the plot and story remain largely unchanged, there is an attempt to integrate theoretical contemporary social politics, derived from applied postmodernism, into the motivations of the characters. Gone is the theme of mutually assured self-destruction through (in the case of West Side Story) gang violence, in exchange for themes rooted in critical cynical theories that, counterintuitively, ultimately harm everyone on screen and in real life.

Love at first sight strikes when young Tony (Elgort) spots Maria (Zegler) at a high school dance in 1957 New York City. Their burgeoning romance helps to fuel the fire between the warring Jets and Sharks — two rival gangs vying for control of the streets.

While the original film has long-since been criticized negatively (and fairly so) for many of the casting choices and the use of brown face, Spielberg’s film rights the insensitivities of the past in his casting choices that are far more true to the original characters. Perhaps Ansel Elgort’s Tony isn’t particularly memorable, but audiences will be completely elated by Rachel Zegler’s Maria! Her voice and screen presence will capture your imagination! Furthermore, audiences will love seeing the great Rita Moreno (Anita from the 1961 version) on screen as the shoppe keeper and Tony’s mentor. And to top it all off, Moreno is given the honor of singing the titular song Somewhere.

Since the story and plot are largely unchanged, I won’t spend any time analyzing the bones of this iteration of Romeo and Juliet. Personally, I find West Side Story to be the best expression of Shakespeare’s greatest romantic tragedy. When the original stage (quickly turned film) production was released, it was a critique on gang violence and race relations at the time, and to a lesser extent, there was a critique on gentrification as well. And on the surface, that is still in the 2021 adaptation. But the power dynamic between the Jets and Sharks changed from the original. Whereas originally both groups were equal contributors to the gang violence, each despising the other; in this version, it is the Jets that receive the dominant share of the antagonism and prejudice, with the Sharks in a mostly defensive position.

In the mid-20th century, the problems with acceptance of others that deviated from the homogenous world in which one was reared were more organic and needed to be dealt with before mutually assured destruction befell everyone; however, the vast majority of the presently visible evidence of prejudice between groups is manufactured by activist scholars who seek to make everything about “race, gender, and identity–and why this harms everyone” (from Cynical Theories). This update of West Side Story was a golden opportunity to show the world that we aren’t that different from one another, and should work cooperatively in order to avoid violence and death due to perceived existential threats. Instead, this film has the opposite effect of continuing to point blame, theorize, and perpetuate “social diseases” (to quote the film).

This nuanced shift hinders the critique on racial/ethnic prejudice because it perpetuates the contrived cynical theory that white members of society are mostly to blame for the problems in the streets. Instead of the timeless story tackling the root of the problem, which is ultimately a heart issue in everyone, it places most of the blame on the Jets and everything they are shown to represent.

As you may have heard, the Spanish is not subtitled in this adaptation. And many have praised Spielberg for this decision; however, if you do not speak Spanish, you will be unable to fully understand some of the dialogue. Yes, there are context clues that will aid in deciphering what the characters are saying, but there are plenty of times that non-Spanish-speaking audiences will be unable to know what’s being said and how/why it’s important. In the press conference for this film, Spielberg said, “it was out of respect that we didn’t subtitle any of the Spanish. That language had to exist in equal proportions alongside the English with no help.” He goes on to cite that 19% of the US population reports being hispanic. Furthermore, screenwriter Tony Kushner added at the conference, “We’re a bilingual country,” and in reply Spielberg stated, “We sure are.” It doesn’t take a scholar to see through the virtue signaling to this decision being problematic for the film. (1) the US is not mostly bilingual (2) not everyone takes Spanish in high school or college (3) why would you want more than half the audience to not be able to understand dialogue in the film? (4) are we just going to stereotype and assume that the entirety of the hispanic population is fluent in Spanish??? and (5) it carries with it the notion that if you do not speak Spanish, you are the problem. Subtitling the Spanish would not have detracted by the film; on the contrary, it would have allowed for a greater use of the language by the Puerto Ricans in the film.

I want to end on some positive notes, because there is much to like about the aesthetic of the film. From the first scene to the last, the framing, lighting, and character blocking are outstanding! There is a beautiful classical dimension to this film. I absolutely loved the how every visible or audible element of the mise-en-scene looked! There is a magic the look and feel fo classical musicals that is seldom witnessed today. The last film to find this balance between naturalistic and staged blocking and choreography was La La Land. There are moments in this film that you will feel that you are watching the original, and it’s not simply because there are shot-for-shot sequences, but the lighting, angels, and film grain give 2021’s West Side Story dimension.

Rachel Zegler is the perfect Maria! I love everything about her performance. It’s strong, yet vulnerable, and she is stunning in the trademark white dress with red belt. The naturalism she brings to this character is outstanding. There isn’t one minute that goes by that you doubt she was born to play Maria. And her voice! Her voice is crystal clear and mesmerizing. It was also a real treat to get to see Rita Moreno return to West Wise Story 60 years later. While she may be in a different role (Valentina), she still commands the screen. Spielberg and Kushner deciding to give the titular song Somewhere to Valentina was the best decision in the whole film. It packed a power that it lacks in the placement in the stage and original film versions. While Elgort showed us that he can sing (when given the right song, which is not the case with his first number), but he is ultimately upstaged by Mike Faist who plays Riff.

Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

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NIGHTMARE ALLEY film review

A phantasmagorical cautionary tale on the cruel predictability of the human condition that’s told through a beautifully orchestrated symphony of exploitation, deception, and just desserts, wrapped in a delicious neo-noir film. In the second big screen adaptation on the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, del Toro certainly applies his particular cinema stylo to Nightmare Alley, yet delivers a motion picture that stays true to its roots in film noir. Gresham’s book and Edmund Goulding’s critically acclaimed 1947 adaptation are the perfect source material for del Toro’s penchant for dark fantasies. But what this film allows for del Toro to do, that he hasn’t done before, is direct a neo-noir, complete with all the tropes and stylistic conventions. And he’s recently announced that there is a grayscale version of the film, which I will want to check out soon. Del Toro’s update to the dark dale explores characters that are impacted by vicious business practices built around exploitation and deception. Audiences will simultaneously find the story and performances, by the lead and supporting cast, both alluring and repulsive.

In 1940s New York, down-on-his-luck Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) endears himself to a clairvoyant and her mentalist husband at a traveling carnival. Using newly acquired knowledge, Carlisle crafts a golden ticket to success by swindling the elite and wealthy. Hoping for a big score, he soon hatches a scheme to con a dangerous tycoon with help from the mysterious psychiatrist Lilith (Cate Blanchette) who might be his most formidable opponent yet.

Much like we witness sleight of hand in the carnival acts managed by Willem DaFoe’s carnival barker character, del Toro himself is a master magician. Teaching film history as part of my cinema studies classes reminds me every semester of how the world thought of film as the work of a magician, and I love just how many layers of magic we have within this marvelous motion picture. Just as various characters are playing on the predictability and fears of the audiences within the film, del Toro is toying around with our perceptions of what is really going on. The art of misdirection and illusion is alive and well in Nightmare Alley. Unlike most of del Toro’s previous films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water, there is neither a monster, in the conventional sense, nor mystical or supernatural dimension in this film other than the magic and mentalism of the metaphoric monsters in the film.

Taking place in the early 20th century at the time when carnival sideshows, with their seemingly endless variety of oddities (still a fun attraction at modern day fairs and carnivals), dotted the rural landscapes, this film is populated with characters that have in one way or another experienced some form of trauma that has prompted them to find solace or absolution in their (exploitive) work as a sideshow performer. And our central character of Stanton (Bradley Cooper) is of no exception. Following the dumping of a dead body and setting a house in an idyllic setting ablaze, Stanton joins a seedy carnival. Although we are never given explicit details as to why he did what he did, it works perfectly because we don’t always need to know what a character’s motivation is. This unknown makes them more terrifying and unpredictable.

From what I have read, there are a few changes from the book that del Toro made in this adaptation, and for all the better! One of these changes is not spending too much time on Stan’s backstory. We learn and see just enough to keep his history ominous–he keeps this film lean. Far too often, nowadays, writers and directors feel compelled to psychoanalyze and delve into all the reasons for immoral or unethical behavior, and somehow try to rationalize and explain. This explanation removes a significant degree of threat. All we need to know is that a trauma affected Stanton to the degree that he killed the source of the trauma in order to start a new life. And the same could be said for other characters and their respectful traumas. But for all their baggage, this ragtag group of sideshow acts forms a close-knit community.

Without getting into specifics, the story follows the character (negative) growth arc model, which is very much in line with many film noir motion pictures. Furthermore, del Toro includes the iconic femme fatale (in the form of Blanchette’s character) and a villainous mob-like boss that is not to be trifled with. Nightmare Alley embodies a cynical soul, which is often a characteristic of film noir. This cynical nature demonstrates two or more opposing forces that are opposite sides of the same coin, both equally corrupt. As Stan is refining his skill and showmanship for what would become his high society headlining mentalist act, he receives a dire warning not to do the “spook” show because it leads to a dark path, a path on which the actor starts to believe his or her own lies.

Through lead characters Stan and Lilith, we witness two strong-willed, cunning individuals that are equally master manipulators. There are few things more dangerous than a con-artist who believes their own spiel, and del Toro takes that dynamic to its inevitable conclusion. While the level of violence and gore in this film are rather subdued compared to his other work, when the gore hits, it HITS! There is one scene in particular that is reminiscent of the Pale Man scene in Pan’s Labyrinth. When you hits all the tropes necessary for a neo-noir, you can then bend the conventions a little in order to maintain your authorship of cinema. For fans of Sunset Boulevard (my pick for greatest film of all time), you will also love the rich character-driven conflict.

The film can be read as a cautionary tale on various systemic societal constructs and practices that prey on the most vulnerable. And many that ascribe to applied postmodernist worldviews, will find this resonating in the film. However, it can also be read through the lens that individuals may find themselves ripe for the picking to be a carnival’s next “geek” by intentionally making decisions that lead them to the carnival barker’s office. When you are in this weakened state, there are systems that will swallow you whole. So, I feel that it’s the opposite: a cautionary tale on what happens when we lead a humanist or nihilistic life; furthermore, this film is a fantastic metaphor on reaping what you sow. If you sow deception, eventually you will reap deception by (1) being deceived by someone or (2) maybe even deceiving YOURself by beginning to believe your own lies. The systems are a symptom of the broken world in which we live, a broken world whose source is, at the end of the day, a heart problem.

Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

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House of Gucci mini review

“A triumph in mediocrity.” From the brilliance of The Last Duel to the dullness of House of Gucci, director Ridley Scott is all over the cinemascape this year. Rodolfo Gucci, in his deconstruction of Aldo Gucci’s talent for design encapsulates the experience of this film by the summation that it merely exists without having any lasting impact of the soul of design. Phenomenal cast, intriguing historic story, fascinating look into one of the most storied companies of all time, but it’s ultimately all held back by a director phoning in his vision and a screenplay that is about as one-dimensional as the conglomerate that would eventually oust the Gucci family from their own fashion house. Individually, all the actors in the lead and secondary ensemble cast are outstanding. Unfortunately, the screenplay (and director) give them nothing substantive to do. So, there are many scenes in which each is clearly going for their respective Oscar or Golden Globe nomination.

What a disservice to the sensational true story, because there is a great story in this lackluster mess somewhere. Structurally, the first two acts drag on and on and on in a meandering direction that is suppose to point to and setup the third act, which consequently is the best part of the film. Regrettably, the third act is incredibly rushed (plot, murder, conviction, family ousted, all within 10mins it seems). I mean, those are some of the most interesting plot points of the whole story about (to quote the subtitle of the novel on which this is based) “…the sensational story of murder, madness, glamour, and greed.” One screenwriting convention is referred to as saving the best for last, but I don’t think the practice is meant to be taken that literally (it’s actually more or less directed at dialogue ending on a strong note). Perhaps the most intriguing dimension in this film is how it will likely prompt you to read up on the family and company after you get home. Just in terms of reading the Wikipedia entry, there was more intrigue than in the whole of House of Gucci. Which is saying a lot, since this film was pretty much a Wikipedia article.

If you’re a student of history or fashion, then you will likely find the background of interest. While this film is certainly not a runway film, there is commentary on art of versus the commercialization of fashion that exists within the mediocre narrative. Is is bad? No, not inordinately so. Is it good? Not particularly. Unless you want to see the fantastic performances on the big screen, I suggest at-home viewing of this film is sufficient.

Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

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ENCANTO animated film review

Formulaic and predictable. For all its magic, cheerful colors, and spicy music, ENCANTO is a bland animated motion picture that is ironically devoid of Disney magic. While the characters and performative dimension of the mise-en-scene are paint-by-numbers in the Disneysphere, the biggest star of this film is the gorgeous set and production design! On a more philosophical level, Encanto can be read as a post-modern deconstruction of a meritocratic society in exchange for an ideological utopia built upon the foundation of socialism. Accompanied by musical numbers that do little more than service the plot, Encanto reminds me of an animated motion picture better suited for Disney+ than a theatrical run. Even with songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the (billed as) 60th Walt Disney Animation picture fells more like it’s the product of an assembly line operated by a committee of non-player-characters rather than the imaginative culmination of writers whom care. Ironically, it ostensibly becomes the very societal expectations and perfection, which its pedantic and overt message is preaching against. There is little to no gravitas to the conflict, there is lacking a true character of opposition, and the central character is nearly unrelatable because she achieves everything she wants without any measurable loss. Without meaningful conflict, there is no drama.

The Madrigals are an extraordinary family who live hidden in the mountains of Colombia in a charmed place called the Encanto. The magic of the Encanto has blessed every child in the family with a unique gift — every child except Mirabel. However, she soon may be the Madrigals last hope when she discovers that the magic surrounding the Encanto is now in danger.

The central character in Encanto is Mirabel, and in her magical family, she is the only one without a gift. Mirabel’s grandmother Abuela is the formidable matriarch and leader of her influential family in the secluded town of Encanto, where she lives with her family in the magical Madrigal compound named La Casita. La Casita is a house with a mind of its own, right out of the silent French cinema classic The Electric Hotel (1908). After Abuela lost her husband during a pillaging and burning by (what is most likely) colonial soldiers, her great sadness and loss manifested itself into a magical candle that created Encanto and the mountains that shield it from the outside world. And while Mirabel doesn’t have any special gifts, the rest of her siblings and cousins do. And Abuela is immensely proud of each and eery one of her kids, while she tolerates Mirabel. Mirabel’s mother can heal people with her cooking (but why doesn’t she heal Mirabel’s visual acuity???), while her father can (hmm…guess he doesn’t have an ability either, but he’s obviously well-adjusted). Isabella and Louisa, Mirabel’s sisters, have the powers of flower conjuration and super strength respectively. Her aunt is a regular Storm (X-Men) because she can control the weather. One of her (poorly written and under-developed) cousins has super hearing, and another cousin can shape-shift because he is still discovering his identity (eye roll). Family Madrigal is made up of a bunch of self-congratulatory manic overachievers whose supernatural superiority is a neurotic group symptom of general unhappiness.

After a crisis besets the family and they lose their powers, it’s up to Mirabel to save the family, which equates to saving Encanto. Mirabel’s quest is to learn the secret of a long-lost cousin’s vision that placed Mirabel in the middle of the prophesied crisis. Skipping to the predictable end, the only way that the crisis can be solved is by completely destroying La Casita and rebuilding with a new foundation, which is philosophically, a manifestation of Encanto and Madrigal traditions, values, and beliefs. And instead of a foundation build upon individual contributions, Family Madrigal is now a community build upon the foundation of familial socialism, in which there are no individuals, just the group. Essentially, the entire structure of La Casita and Family madrigal had to be completely destroyed and rebuilt to accommodate Mirabel’s lack of a gift. Wonder if she even though to learn a new skill? Develop a talent? Which she has, she sings and dances beautifully. Perhaps Mirabel saw her world as unfair, but with a little critical thinking, perhaps she could’ve developed a method that didn’t require the dismantling of her entire world to rebuild it according to her standards. If everyone is the same with no regard for knowledge, skills, or abilities, then where is the incentive to learn, develop, and improve one’s self and society??? In the end, it’s the post-modern theory that favors the loss of the individual in exchange for a group identity that ultimately wins in the town of Encanto.

Flavorless and unsatisfying as this animated movie is, it did manage to execute some things well. Like the production and set design, for examples. The writing may be bland, but the design is spicy! You will be delighted at the bright colors, geometric shapes, and at times fever dream sequences. None of the songs are particularly memorable (hmm, kind of like this movie), but they are fun while they are on screen and the music will undoubtedly put you in the mood to grab a bite to eat at your local Colombian restaurant. Since this is the first Disney animated movie to take place in Columbia, I would’ve appreciated learning more about Colombian culture. Philosophically, this movie is incredibly problematic. But it is colorful and fun for an hour and a half, so you can best enjoy it as background noise while your focus is elsewhere.

Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

Last Night in Soho horror film review

Mesmerizing! Dressed to Kill meets Mulholland Drive meets Suspiria! It’s like Wright channeled the best of Lynch, de Palma, and Argento to craft his spellbinding thriller! One of the best films of the year, and one that commands a rewatch. Other than seeing the trailer a few times in the cinema, I did not spend any time reading up on this film–and I’m glad I didn’t. Just speculating here, but I could definitely see this film as one that cultivates a cult following and is talked about in classrooms much like Mulholland Drive. Quite different from the other films in Wright’s cinematic library, if you’re going into it for a Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, or World’s End, then you may be disappointed. Although they are dissimilar in most respects, the film that this one shares commonality with is Baby Driver. As I am writing this, I’ve only seen it once, but I need to see it again. Not because I didn’t understand it–quite the opposite–the storytelling is top shelf! But I want to pay closer attention to details to gain a greater appreciation for how this kaleidoscope delivered such an immersive cinematic experience. The vibrant 1960s in London some alive in this dream-like psychological horror punctuated with giallo-esque mystery and slasher elements and nostalgic fashion. Told though a Lynchian cinematic framework, the surrealist experience of this film will capture your imagination and beckon you into the seedy underbelly of the iconic Soho district of London. Much like in Suspiria, the idyllic atmosphere and setting descend into madness in a beautiful symphony of terror! Clearly, Last Night in Soho is Wright’s most personal film; we can not only see this passion but feel it in every frame.

An aspiring fashion designer is mysteriously able to enter the 1960s, where she encounters a dazzling wannabe singer. However, the glamour is not all it appears to be, and the dreams of the past start to crack and splinter into something far darker.

Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho reminded me of so many great films! And, in all the best ways possible. Now, I don’t state that to suggest that Wright’s latest offering is derivative. Quite the contrary. It’s a testament to the scope of his career and talent. But when you watch this, and can think of Dressed to Kill, Mulholland Drive, Battleship Potemkin, and Suspiria, then the degree of thoughtfulness is evidence that the filmmaker seeks to channel some of the best cinema of all time whilst delivering a fresh interpretation. Fashion from Dressed to Kill, story structure from Mulholland Drive, cinematography and editing from Suspiria and Battleship Potemkin, and score/soundtrack from Baby Driver.

Often times when a filmmaker attempts to integrate too much from a variety of sources of inspiration, the end result is a cluster that has no identity other than in that which its emulating. But Wright’s Last Night in Soho, delivers an experience that completely envelopes the audience in a fantastical story while audiences vicariously dance through the streets of Soho; streets that, on the surface are paved with an idyllic portrait of Soho in the 1960s, but beneath the pavement, beats the sinister heart of a gritty world of pleasure, pain, and violence. For the non cinephile members of the audience, they may feel an unusual dichotomy of simultaneously being overwhelmed by the technical elements yet underwhelmed by the dizzying narrative of emotional themes, references to past films, and motifs all playing together in a perfect orchestra of cinema.

Phenomenal cast! Thomasin McKenzie’s Ellie will capture your heart with her candid portrayal of the small town girl in the big city for the first time. But if you think you’ve seen this character before, think again. Yes, we’ve all seen this trope before, but she delivers an incredibly raw, unfiltered approach to this character-type. In fact, it’s probably one of the most authentic portrayals of the small town girl in the big city that I’ve seen in a long time. Never feels like a facade or contrived, but rather feels relatable. Playing opposite (or parallel) to McKenzie is Ana Taylor-Joy as Sandy. I’ve been hit or miss with Ana Taylor-Joy in the past, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of her casting in this film prior to seeing it. But I’m pleased to describe her performance as outstanding! She is perfectly cast in this role. I love how she communicates both strength and vulnerability in the promising young star character-type. When life deals her a raw deck, she plays a different game in order to survive the metaphoric prison in which she finds herself.

Comprised ostensibly of two parallel stories that emotionally share the same DNA, the montage (French for assembly) of this film will blow your mind! What Wright and his team have created here is a Battleship Potemkin and Man with a Movie Camera approach to the editing. I reference these tow films because of Soviet Montage. Without going into lots of details best left to a classroom, Soviet Montage (or editing/assembly) occurs when two separate images are assembled together (traditionally by cross-cutting), in which the relationship between the images gives the meaning (not the action OF or IN the images themselves). The audience views these two separate images, and subconsciously give them a collective context. Wright’s utilization of Soviet montage theory allowed him to explore how time and space can be presented and manipulated in Last Night in Soho. Furthermore, this stylistic approach (1) engages the sympathy of the audience and (2) advances the narrative. Where Wright takes the work of Eisenstein and Kuleshov to the next level is by going beyond cross and contrast-cutting to delivering these image juxtapositions within a single frame (or series of frames) by way of non-linear editing. We see both the past and present in the same image, usually by way of a mirror (or other reflection). It’s a technique that isn’t merely stylistic for the sake of being stylized, but allows for the tension to consistently rise without any break in the mode of storytelling. Brilliant!

I highly recommend this film for anyone that enjoys any of the films that I have referenced in this review. It’s been a while since we’ve had a motion picture that is truly inspired by the greats, and this is certainly one that will find itself to be considered a classic in the future.

Ryan teaches American and World Cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with him.

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1