West Side Story:L.A.Philharmonic

I’d not intended to write a post n this event, because I did not realize until we got to the venue that they were going to play the entire film. I was under the impression we would be getting a medley type concert, but it turns out this was one of those performances where the music in the film is entirely replaced with the live music in the concert hall. Since it is my policy to post on any film I see in a theater, this roughly qualifies.

“West Side Story” is one of the few movies I remember going to with just my Mother and older brother. It must have been 1968 when I first saw it and it was on a double bill with “In the Heat of the Night” of all films. I don’t know if it was a nationwide match but I do know that the Mirish Company produced both films so a double feature was a probability. So I saw two Best Picture winners on the same night and I was probably just ten years old. I did write about “In the Heat of the Night” earlier this year when it was the opening film at the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival, but as far as I can see, there is not a previous post on “West Side Story”.

I know that the Lambcast this week was going to be a movie musical draft, and I hope this is one of the films that got picked. It has always been a film that moves me. My daughter laughs at me because I tear up at the finale of the film. That’s right, I’m a big wuss. The modern day re-telling of Romeo and Juliet is deeply moving just concerning the story, but when you pile on the fantastic dancing, the dynamic performances and the Leonard Bernstein music, it just knocks me over.

The overture today got my heart racing. As each melody is introduced, I could pick out the instruments in the orchestra that were playing and listen for the personality of each performer. When the lush violins come in for “Tonight” I began to feel the emotion build. The Jet Song gets the plot started and sets up the premise of the rivalry, and then Tony sings “Maria” and I frankly well up with admiration for the delicate poetry of Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics. The whole orchestra bangs into the Dance at the Gym numbers and it was loud and powerful and gets the blood stirring. When people say they don’t like musicals, to me it is almost like saying you don’t like music. How could you not want to follow our lovers, feat for our friends and families and marvel at the dances in this movie?

So much of the credit goes to the original Broadway director/choreographer Jerome Robbins. He managed to make gangs doing ballet moves look like something that would express their feelings and still leave them as dangerous youth. Robert Wise brought cinematic magic to the movie as well. The opening helicopter shots and the quick edits to the locations match up with the Bernstien music and drag us into the context of the film quickly. There are a half dozen transitions that are clearly created by Wise and the color design of the film with the terrific cinematography is definitely more Hollywood than Broadway. Twenty years ago, one of the English Teachers who taught a cinema based class was out for a few weeks. The Dean asked me if I could take over the class and show a film one day and talk about it enough the next class day to help the students with their paper. I was happy to do so and the film that they were showing was “West Side Story”. The Dean knew that I was a film buff and could probably carry it off. Fortunately, I did not have to read the thirty or so papers that were written, but I did get to talk about the film making techniques, and director’s choices made here. It might have been my first attempt at a movie blog, even if it was not published on line.

The emotional peak of the music occurs during the “Tonight” Quintet, as several different voices trade off their stanzas, each one using the same notes but lyrics that are sadly at odds. The heat breaking innocence of Tony and Maria is contrasted with the bitter sniping from Riff and Bernardo and underscored with Anita’s lustful planning. It builds to a crescendo and then it is immediately followed by the haunting silence which is broken by familiar whistles as the two gangs converge for the rumble. The L.A/ Philharmonic stays right in place with the screen and the music works marvelously. Today they were led by David Newman, an Oscar nominated composer and a regular conductor of classical music and film performances. I have seen and heard his conducting work at the Hollywood Bowl on numerous occasions and this day he dis another smashing job bringing the music of the movies to life for an audience.

The experience today was an invigorating end to a long holiday weekend. It was a great surprise and offered me an additional opportunity to write something for you “Tonight”.


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

It might look like a comedy from the trailer, but “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has a subject as unfunny as anything you can probably think of. The fact that Writer/Director Martin McDonagh manages to get us to smile so often is a testament to his writing skills. The death of a child through a brutal crime generally does not set off the chuckle meter for most of us. However, if you have seen his previous films, “In Bruges” or “Seven Psychopaths”, you might not be too surprised. Each of them deals with dark themes with comic overtones and while not always successful in the case of “Seven Psychopaths“, it all clicked in the feature debut “In Bruges”.

Crime leaves a scar on everyone it touches. The feelings may not be the same from one victim to another, and they certainly do not get expressed the same way, but everyone has a piece of themselves changed by these kinds of events. Mildred Hayes is the mother of a dead teenage daughter. He anger seethes for months and when she reaches a boiling point she is ready to let it out on anyone in the vicinity. Frances McDormand will probably win her second Oscar as the brutally self centered, guilt ridden and thoughtless Mildred. She is pushing for answers but there are none coming her way. Mildred is a character that you can at first feel for, but as we see what her mania is doing to others in the community that would otherwise sympathize with her, we can also hate her a little. She still has one child and he is battered by her pitbull like approach to the problem she sees. The Sheriff in the town is not guilty of negligence, just a lack of evidence to pursue. A man who shows a romantic interest in her and tries to be a friend, is belittled by her blindness to the feelings of others.

This movie never goes where you think it is going to. It feels like a vengeance film and a procedural, wrapped up in small town melodrama, but it never takes a conventional course. There are a number of moments that come out of left field, although they really are significant and related to the characters. The Sheriff’s story turns out to be as sympathetic as Mildred’s. Just when you think the deputy is getting his just desserts, there is a string of information and behavior that changes our attitude towards the character. People in this movie say and do hurtful things to each other, but rarely with the intention of having the kind of effect that occurs. It’s as if each is throwing a temper tantrum and the whole town feels like the bewildered Mother in the grocery store with a ego-centric toddler to deal with.

Woody Harrelson can play both psycho and family man. Here, you will find his performance ultimately heartbreaking. At the same time, he manages, even when off screen to delight us with a sense of humor or a moment of empathy that everyone should appreciate. John Hawkes plays Mildred’s ex-husband, the abusive Charlie. He too can be sympathetic one moment and loathsome the next. Lucas Hedges, who was so effective in “Manchester by the Sea” last year, again plays a teen, trapped by a family drama that he has difficulty coping with. There are a dozen performances by secondary characters that are just spot on: Zeljko Ivanek, Samara WeavingAbbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones and others make this feel like a real place with real people who have real faults and qualities. 


Special attention however must go to a second likely Academy nominee for this film. Sam Rockwell has been a favorite of mine since I first saw “Galaxy Quest“. He was neglected for Awards attention a few years ago for one of my favorite films from 2013,  “The Way, Way Back“.  That injustice is unlikely to be repeated. Rockwell is simultaneously repellent and sympathetic in the part of a Dim Deputy who has anger issues but also a strong need for justice. The less you know about the film and it’s plot twists, the more compelling the performances turn out to be, Dixon is a character in search of a redemptive storyline, and it doesn’t matter that he is sometimes an awful person, he is also a human being. Mildred’s quest for justice for her daughter changes lives in many ways, none of them are predictable, and Rockwell’s Dixon is the least predictable of all. 



Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Elegantly filmed and put together with great craftsmanship, this new version of “Murder on the Orient Express” is fine entertainment for an evening but it lacks the elements that would make it a true classic. Remakes inevitably will suffer by comparison to earlier versions because of changes that might need to be made to the story, the use of technology that distracts from an older version of the same events, or simply nostalgia. We can’t unsee that which we have previously watched, and we can’t unknow that which has been previously unraveled for us. Kenneth Branagh can’t escape comparisons to the Sidney Lumet version from 1974. There is much to be admired here but in the final analysis, this film will live in the shadow of it’s older twin.

There are things to compliment about the film, but let’s save those for the end and start with the disappointments. The first thing that I noticed is that the score of the film is serviceable but not elegant. Patrick Doyle has worked with director Branagh on a number of projects and he has a great track record on many contemporary films. Unfortunately there is nothing that stands out about this music. It sometimes helps build a little tension, but it does not accomplish the same thing that the score from the 1974 movie provided, romance. Listen to the opening musical passage as the train leaves the station, it is light, elegant and decidedly romantic in a traditional sense. It sets the tone for the whole film and that touch provided by the late Richard Rodney Bennett is sorely missing in the new incarnation.

Another element of the new film that I think is problematic, is the very rapid introduction of characters, many of whom are shown before we even get to Istanbul. There is a very solid attempt to familiarize us with the detective Hercule Poirot at the start of the movie. The eccentricity that Albert Finney brought to the part in manner of dress and personal grooming cannot be matched, so Branagh goes for character in some idiosyncrasies. As he solves a puzzle in Jerusalem that starts off like a bad joke, we get a small taste of the OCD that the character must suffer from. He manages to be cordial however, to even the most tiresome people he encounters. Branagh lets his mustache do a lot of the acting for him. Other than Poirot however, we get very little from the other characters by way of personality. They often feel like pieces on a board game being moved around merely for the benefit of blocking the detective’s progress. That is especially true of the four youngest passengers on the train, the Count and Countess and the Governess and the Doctor.

Now for a few things that work. Johnny Depp has been scorned quite a bit the last few years for his personal life and film selection. In this movie however, he plays an ensemble character very effectively and let’s just say that he gets treated the way a person guilty of his crimes probably deserves. Depp had the right attitude as the gangster Ratchett, he is self confident and sniveling at the same time. The exchange between him and Poirot over a piece of cake was a dlightful sequence of droll put downs by the detective. He also has an effective moment with Michelle Pfeiffer in the hallways of the train. For her part, Pfeiffer started off a little rocky but by the climax of the film, her performance settled into a more intriguing character. The film also features Penelope Cruz, Jason Gad, Derek Jacobi and Judi Dench, none of whom manage to make much of an impression despite all the histrionics involved. The reveal of the plot comes much too rapidly and the flashbacks to the events that launched the whole affair are lifeless.

It’s a good old fashioned plot and the performance of Branagh as the Belgian detective that make this worth seeing. The sets are fine but my memory of the original is that it was more detailed and elegant, even without all the special effects computer graphics. If you are looking for a night out, this is still doing business and you will find that it is entertaining enough. If you are staying home however, watch the ’74 version and appreciate the old time storytelling and performances that make the movie so memorable.


Justice League Lambcast

Justice League Lambcast
KAMAD is featured on another Lambcast in the very next week. Check it out below.




Lambcast 400th Episode

https://podomatic.com/embed/html5/episode/8627029?autoplay=false         Lambcast 400                   KAMAD is included in the epic 400th Episode of the Lambcast.

Click on the link HERE to vote for the 007 Draft, assuming you are going to support my slate of films of course.




Justice League

The DC Universe has been a controversial playground for film fans and comics aficionados. With the exception of this years earlier entry in the collection, “Wonder Woman“, the films have not had a great deal of enthusiastic reception. That has not kept them from being financially successful, but it does leave fans dissatisfied and ready to jump on the next film with every misstep. “Justice League” will probably continue that trend instead of reversing it. Many of the issues that cause hesitation are still present in this entry, but despite the mistakes, this film was satisfactory in accomplishing some of it’s goals but mostly in entertaining the audience. It may not be “Wonder Woman” but it is a step up from the murkiness of the other films that preceded it.


Goal number one, get all of the characters in this Universe introduced and started on their own stories. “Man of Steel” was supposed to do that for Superman, and it did set up a lot of the material that has followed, but it was stodgy and grim and lacked the spark that made the Christopher Reeve films fun. I hope it is not a spoiler to say that Clark Kent/Superman does play a significant role in this movie. More on that later, I’ll put a mild spoiler warning on that section for anyone who wants to go into this blind. Batman got reintroduced in “Batman vs. Superman“, a film that was convoluted but had some great spectacle and the irresistible appeal of the two superheroes dueling.  Ben Affleck’s Batman was more impressive in that film, here he seems to be less engaged. It’s not until near the finale that Affleck starts to give the character the energy we want. Gal Gadot can do no wrong this year. She is the character that we most want to see and she leads the narrative strings around so that everyone else can follow what the heck is going on in the story. I’m not tired of seeing her fight CGI bullies yet, but at least she gets a more complete one to fight here than she did in the stand alone film.

Three new characters get introduced in a more elaborate manner than the brief thirty seconds they were afforded in the prior film. You would think with so much to do that the story lines would begin to feel over stuffed. That’s not the case with these three characters. Judicious editing and story telling give us just enough on each one so that we feel they do really exist in this Universe, but we don’t dwell on their backgrounds more than is necessary. I suspect that Jason Momoa as the Aquaman will be a big hit with the fairer sex. My wife liked him quite well and his belligerent humor was one of the things that helped make this movie a little more fun.  Ray Fisher has to perform under prosthetic metal and through elaborate CGI accoutrements, but he still makes a solid impression. His character has the most detailed backstory and includes actor Joe Morton, a face that should be familiar to fans from his association with another cybernetic character. The breakout character however has to be Ezra Miller’s Flash. Like a yopung Justin Long, Miller comes across with puppy dog enthusiasm and a sense of humor that is sorely needed in this Universe.  There is a mid-credit stinger that you will want to wait for that gives him one more chance to make us laugh.

[Something of a mild spoiler ahead]

The best thing about this film however is the restoration of a sense of humanity to Superman. In the initial stages of his return, we are threatened with a repeat of the grim countenance of Kalel and it looks like “Man of Steel” will repeat. Somewhere after Henry Cavill reunites with Amy Adams as Lois and Diane Lane as his mom, Clark Kent returns and Superman becomes something much closer to the character we love.  When the final battle begins, Superman shows up and it feels like Christopher Reeve is being channeled by Cavill. There is a spot where he gets to smile and suddenly, this feels like the movie I have wanted all along. I don’t mind the series being more serious, but our main characters have to give us something to root for. Finally, I think the series is getting to that point. I like the work of Zack Snyder for the most part, but he does have those crutches he relies on for drama in the fights. He is the credited director although Joss Whedon took over in the last few months when Snyder had to step away from his project for personal reasons. Maybe Whedon lightened things up a bit, but this is definately the film that Snyder has been nurturing to fruition for several years.

The antagonist in this story is another CGI creation, but there is at least some backstory and it does not feel rushed. The transformation of the planet into a world that the character wants is  mechanical in nature, but it was tempered with a little family story to make the stakes more meaningful. If everything is about the end of the world every time, it is going to get a little boring. This brief side trip from time to time reminds us of the human stakes involved. This is the sort of thing that seemed to be missing from the earlier films. The stakes have to be something that we can relate to or else it is just going through the motions.

I enjoyed the film far more than the second wave of negative word would have me expecting. Early reviews were promising, round two was wholly negative, and now I have seen it for myself. They have not solved all of the problems the DC franchises have faced but they did make great strides into turning this into something more than just a money making enterprise. If the new characters are given a chance to shine a bit more and Superman keeps up the more optimistic demeanor, I will be able to look forward to more of these films. It is probably a good idea to allow some other directors a chance to invigorate these stories, but the Snyder lead trilogy has set a better framework than many critics have asserted. Good news for film fans, it is also just two hours.


Only the Brave

Most of us will never have to do anything that is heroic in a death defying manner. We will get chances to take heroic positions or act in a manner that is consistent with our principles, but very few of us will be called on to look death in the face in order to protect others. That is one of the reasons that films like this work for me. I have to live vicariously and deploy my empathy for men and women who put themselves on the line every day. Our military, police, firefighters and other first responders have something in them that makes them step forward and say, “My Turn”. Sometimes the stakes of those voluntary actions are grave and this is one of those stories.

I think people have a general understanding of what firefighters in a structure fire face. Everyone has probably heard the saying about those souls, “When everyone else is running out of the building, they are running in.” The people who fight wildfires are working in a completely different environment. There may be no place to run. They set backfires rather than extinguish fires, and their incident may go on for days not simply hours. “Only the Brave” is a film about these types of heroes and the work and sacrifice they go through. I really enjoy films that show me lifestyles and working conditions that are new to me. The cultures and labor of these people can be fascinating. Military stories based on true events, like “Dunkirk“, “13 Hours” or “Lone Survivor” carry with them the weight of history. Even when a story is fictional, like “Battle L.A.“, with aliens invading the planet, the opportunity to watch dedicated people do the things they are trained for inspires me. “Only the Brave” emulates those films by showing us similar kinds of struggles but in a much less familiar context. There are thousands of war films, but movies about dangerous occupations where you don’t carry a gun are much more scarce. The most comparable film to this that I can think of in the last few years is “Deepwater Horizon“.

Since this movie is also based on a real world event, some of you going in will already know the outcome. I know I largely knew what was coming. My daughter did not so she was unprepared for how overwhelming the events in this story would be. Now obviously, this film is an entertainment so liberties are probably taken in events or dialogue to make things more compelling, but there is nothing in this film that does not feel real to a degree. Even the personal stories, which can sometimes be hyped up to make the background more engaging, still seem like they could be everyday experiences for the kinds of people the story depicts.

Miles Teller is a young actor who is making quite a mark on the film business. He was incredible in my favorite film of 2014, “Whiplash”. He has another film out at this same time “Thank You for Your Service”, which is on my “want to see” list. It looks like he has some turkeys  on his resume, but they are offset but some solid performances in quality films like this. Here he plays Brendan McDonough, a young man floating on the edge of self destruction through drug use. He finds a need to redeem himself and a path to do so in joining the firefighting team of Josh Brolin’s Eric Marsh, the Prescott Arizona supervisor. This municipal unit is attempting to get certified as a “Hotshot” unit, the first line of defense in wildfires. The film has some local politics and extended training sequences and that may feel a little familiar, but it is a legitimate part of the story. The domestic issues that Brolin’s character and his wife, played by Jennifer Connely, have are maybe a little melodramatic but they are not over the top. Teller is a wastrel, trying to change so that he can be a man that his new daughter can depend on. Of course he has a troubled past and the others on the team are suspicious of him, but as in most workplaces, when people come to know each other and especially rely on one another, those relationships develop. Brendan becomes friends with one of his team mates in the unit, another solid turn by actor Taylor Kitch. In a way, Kitch is getting a chance to redeem his career a bit as well. He went from being the next big thing to anonymous very quickly. It is with secondary roles like this and the recent “American Assassin” that he is moving back to a more solid footing as a film performer.


Jeff Bridges plays a senior fire official who is assisting  his friend Marsh in trying to get the team certified. Between Bridges and Brolin, you will want to turn down your sub-woofer for home viewing, because they both have their grumbling low pitched delivery styles going. I like the fact that the towns that these guys help protect appreciate the work the team is doing. The folks at the local store or bar, know what it means to do a job like this. Small town America is full of values where neighbors understand each other more often, even when they are not always agreed on things. Of course an official like Bridges character will have a band that plays at the local rodeo or roadhouse. [Bridges by the way is a talented musician]. People in small towns know each other, they see one another at the grocery store or at the local school. When bad things happen, everyone shares in the misery, and when good things happen, they get to bask in the glory of their home town heroes. Be aware that both of these emotions will be present in this story.

The firefighting sequences in this film are harrowing. We have been prepped to know some of the things that are coming because we saw training exercises that deal with those emergencies. Clearly, the best strategies are not always going to work out in the worst case scenario. As the credits role at the end of the film, we get an even greater sense of the enormity of the sacrifice that families and communities make to help each other out. This movie is an excellent tribute to the spirit of small town folk living big time lives. When a film can be dramatically honest and subtle and it still isn’t over the top but it draws you in and makes you care, then you know it is well done. “Only the Brave” might be seen as a cliche by some, but if it would be seen by anyone, you will have a greater understanding of some of the things that make everyday American exceptional.